Monday, December 12, 2011

He Haunts My Thoughts Like A Dreadful Ghost!

Mystery of Edwin Drood(1935)
Director: Stuart Walker
Cast: Claude Rains, David Manners, Douglass Montgomery

Charles Dicken's final story written was The Mystery of Edwin Drood, which was never given a proper ending, allowing generations of writers to concoct there own. Various interpretations have emerged throughout the years, including this film version from Universal's golden age of horror. A relatively obscure and forgotten film, this was one of the only Universal thrillers of the period that I didn't see. TCM has been playing adaptions of Dicken's work all this month, and lo and behold, they played Mystery of Edwin Drood!
Far from being a horror film, as many including the authors of Universal Horrors have labelled it, Mystery of Edwin Drood is an intriguing thriller worthy of analysis.

The film begins with Claude Rains(in a role originally intended for Boris Karloff) awakening in an opium den, where he has a fever dream. He rushes from this nightmarish place to perform in a church choir! It's a wonderful opening and kind of sets up what the rest of this film is gonna be like. Rains is clearly a pretty tormented guy. He's considered a pillar of society, respectable and such, but also is a wild opium addict, a daring ploy in pre-code Hollywood. He also has a secret lust for his nephew's fiance(Heather Angel), whom are both part of an arranged marriage. Neither of the two young people love each other, and eventually decide to forgoe the marriage. However, madness slowly seeps into Rain's mind, and when a hot tempered young man(Douglass Montgomery) arrives in town and falls for the girl, Rains devises a plot to murder his nephew(David Manners) and blame it on the young man. Luckily, the young man escapes and wears a disguise of an old man, where he is able to track Rains and eventually make him reveal the crime. When Rains' character is found out, he jumps to his death from atop a steeple.

Mystery of Edwin Drood is a slight disapointment for the horror fan expecting more chilling action, but has enough macabre elements to sustain interest. Rains is excellent as John Jasper, the brooding uncle who hides some really twisted secrets. Rains was virtually always excellent, and is perfectly at home in Dicken's London. The supporting cast are delightful, but the film belongs to Rains.
David Manners, who had appeared in Dracula(1931), The Mummy(1932) and The Black Cat(1934), is better than usual as the doomed young man of the title, providing more diversity in his portrayal than his other horror vehicles allowed for. Zeffie Tilbury is a delight as the mysterious opium woman, who knows more than she should and eventually gets snuffed out by Rains' character. Douglass Montgomery is likewise adequate as the young man, wrongfully accused of the murder.
Heather Angel is merely decorative as the leading lady and object of multiple affections, while Valerie Hobson, as Montgomery's sister, is likewise in the same position. Both are very lovely, but hardly escape they're wallflower roles.
Stuart Walker directs the film efficiently, particularly in an excellent, moody Christmas Eve storm, that manages to generate some genuine chills. His use of shadows and atmosphere, especially evident in the crypt segments where Edwin Drood rests, and which are straight from Dracula(and possibly The Bride of Frankenstein(1935) are also creepy and effective. The director later made Werewolf of London(1935), but seemed more at home in this gothic territory and it would have been nice had he explored this area further.

This was initially released as part of the Universal Horror Classics collection on VHS, which probably confused quite a few horror fans, expecting something a tad more sinister. It's at best a curio-piece, offering some macabre elements, a few genre stars and sets borrowed from familiar horror classics. Mystery of Edwin Drood may be of interest to Dickens fans and literary aficionados, though it's doubtful that many readers of Dicken's work will enjoy the ending. Existing notes and original titles, like the The Flight of Edwin Drood, suggest that the young man actually escapes death, rather than falling prey to it. Nonetheless, this is a film beautifully evocative of the period, with some interesting performances, and is fairly enjoyable on the whole, even if some may be thrown off by it's faux-horror reputation.

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