Saturday, June 30, 2012

The First Werewolf Movie?

Wolf Blood: A Tale Of The Forest(1925)
Director: George Chesebro and Bruce Mitchell
Cast: George Chesebro, Marguerite Clayton, Raymond Hanford

Most film historians declare that Universal Studios created the first official werewolf film with the release of 1935's Werewolf of London, part of the initial horror phase started by Dracula and Frankenstein in 1931. Seven years later the studio would add immeasurably to the myth with the most influential werewolf film, The Wolf Man, which also made Lon Chaney Jr. a horror star.
However, research shows that there were earlier takes on the werewolf on film. This is not surprising considering the age of the legend, which goes back to recorded time, though the argument can be made that it's not so peculiar, when one realizes the lack of classic werewolf literature.
The first werewolf film was entitled simply, The Werewolf(1913), which was based on Native American legend. Unfortunately, it's also considered a lost film and no stills exist, sadly.
One film that does survive and may show the earliest link to the legend is an obscure(and bizarre) 1925 drama with the title, Wolf Blood. This film contains several elements that would turn up in later genre pictures, while also remaining unique and fairly original, especially in it's depiction of a more psychological horror, a term I dislike, since all good horror springs from within the conscious and subconscious, but the view is taken primarily from that of mental derangement and illness, which actually is more akin to real life lycanthropy and remains a rather bold concept.

The film tells the story of rival logging companies, the Ford Logging Company and the Consolidated Lumber Company, which have waged war on each other. Consolidated even resorting to sending men out to shoot and maim the competition, so to keep them out of work. This becomes too much to handle, especially since they are cut off from civilization and the field hospital is filling up with wounded. Dick Bannister(George Chesebro) is the new field boss of the Ford company and is trying to keep the peace, but to no avail. He sends for the boss, Miss Edith Ford(Marguerite Clayton) who arrives with her fiance surgeon, Eugene(Raymond Hanford) and as soon as they arrive, Bannister is severely injured in a fight and thrown off a cliff. He has a severed artery, so the surgeon must operate quickly. Desperate to find a blood transfusion, he substitutes a wolf and everything seems alright for awhile, until reports of grisly murders are reported and Bannister gets ideas that he may be infected with the blood, after all. Portions of the Indian legend are inserted and Bannister believes himself to be part of the "phantom pack" a ghostly group of wolves that roam the forest and soon he runs off into the night, howling at the moon. Edith has fallen for him and Eugene feels guilty, trying to explain that the wolf blood is harmless, however Bannister has gone mad and is blamed for the murder of chief rival, Roy Watson, who was killed by wolves. Running to the side of a mountain, Bannister is ready to leap to his death, but is stopped by Edith and taken to safety. Later, it is discovered that Watson was indeed murdered by wolves after falling from a cliff. What a way to go.

Wolf Blood is obviously not a werewolf movie, but it has enough elements to warrant attention. For one thing, it's use of the protagonist and the psychological edge would later turn up in future werewolf movies including The Wolf Man. The difference is that Bannister suffers from an actual psychological malady and never shows any physical characteristics of the wolf, which is curious, considering that was screenwriter Curt Siodmak's approach when first writing The Wolf Man. This reminds me of several proto-horror films of the period, like Rex Ingram's The Monster(1925), which influenced several later Frankenstein films, without actually containing a monster. In many ways, Wolf Blood is a similar experience.
It's an odd film for sure, playing more like a melodrama than a true horror film, a trait befalling many wannabe genre films of the period. The 20s saw the release of some of the most oddball plots ever seen, I mean, look at some of those Lon Chaney films, and Wolf Blood is no different. Yet, the inclusion of a slightly supernatural edge keeps it ahead of the pack, if you permit the pun.
The direction is typically stilted, as many were at the time, but benefits from beautiful natural locations, especially towards the end and the use of atmospherics, clearly inspired by the Germans, are really, very good. The image of the spectral wolves gliding through the forest are really eerie and I suspect had this film been more well known, could easily have become a classic horror image.
Most of the acting is average, another reason for the film's obscurity. None of the performers are as adept as later interpretations of the story would be and Chesebro has none of the pathos to make his plight work entirely. Still, the film is interesting, despite all this and manages to survive today.
Wolf Blood is not a great film, but as a curio-piece, it's a must-see for the horror historian and especially werewolf fans who plan on doing a little genealogy, trying to piece together what brought us our favorite creatures of the night. It's nothing to howl about, but it's a decent look into early American horror.

"Without Doubt, The Murderer’s Insane. The Picture Tells Us That."

Invisible Ghost(1941)
Director: Joseph H. Lewis
Cast: Bela Lugosi, Polly Ann Young, John McGuire

Bela Lugosi made several silly movies throughout the 1940s, mostly for Monogram Studios, which became like his second home from 1941-1945. He made nine movies for the studio, all of which have become cult classics in one way or the other. Several of them have been reviewed on this very blog, but the best of them is reviewed here, and that's Invisible Ghost. Now, these films were light years away from the work he made at Universal Studios, but they were entertaining, and while most of the plots left something to be desired, the films were still made enjoyable by Lugosi's presence, as he went through his familiar bag of tricks and was surrounded by the most eccentric plots and characters, until his late in life encounter with Ed Wood.

This bizarre film begins with the seemingly normal and respectable, Mr. Kessler(Bela Lugosi) dining with his wife...except she's not there, because she died ten years ago that very night. His faithful servant, Evans(Clarence Muse, who is excellent here) waits on him, er, them, while his distressed daughter, Virginia(Polly Ann Young) and her suitor, Ralph(John McGuire) look on. They are sympathetic to Kessler and it's nice to see Lugosi in what appears to be, a slightly crazy, but not villainous part. Trouble arrives, however, in the form of a blonde maid(Terry Walker) who has a past relationship with Ralph. She threatens to blackmail him for ditching her years ago, but does not get very far, as she is murdered that night by Mr. Kessler. Why? Well, Mr. Kessler goes insane every time he sees his wife, which his gardener, Jules(Ernie Adams) has thoughtfully kept locked away for reasons unknown. She gets out every night, looking like a ghost and drives the poor man crazy, again, for reasons unknown.
When the woman is found murdered the next day, Ralph is the suspect, even though murders were reported around the estate for years. Clarence Muse being a sneak, listened in on the argument the night before, and that evidence finds Ralph guilty and he is quite improbably, executed for his crimes!

The film's logic stretches to the breaking point, when Ralph's identical twin(also McGuire) arrives from South America to investigate his brother's death. He is warmly welcomed into the family, but is suspicious of the whole thing, for good reason. A stereotypical, cigar-munching detective arrives(George Pembroke) along with comedy regular, Fred Kelsey, who probably played a detective more than any other actor in cinema and they investigate. Kessler sees his dead wife again and murders Kelsey, who proceeds to fall from behind a curtain, and this time has defaced the portrait of his wife as well. The next evening, he strangles the duumb gardener, as well, who wakes up at the morgue and dies again upon seeing Kessler.
The confusing plot continues onward with the detective convinced that it must be Evans, the butler portrayed by Clarence Muse, but the sudden discovery of Mrs. Kessler eating out of the icebox, causes Mr. Kessler to go bonkers again and he tries to strangle the detective. However, the Mrs. passes away and Kessler is left out of his trance and ready to pay for his crimes, devastated when he discovers that he was indeed, the murderer.

Invisible Ghost is a very strange and silly movie, but unlike other Monograms, it's actually well acted and compelling, despite it's many plot discrepancies. Director Lewis really is able to get a decent amount of moodiness out of the picture, relying on heavy shadow and atmosphere and in some instances, reminds us why we found Lugosi so frightening in the first place. When Lugosi preys on Terry Walker, the camera is from her point of view, the image of Lugosi creeping in closer to her, to us really, evokes images from Tod Browning's Dracula(1931). While the creepy lighting formed over Lugosi's face when he goes mad, illustrates a sinister quality that is still effective.
Lugosi has a half-way sympathetic part here and plays it well. He really does seem like a decent man, though his dilemma is one that has yet to appear in the guide of any respected psychiatrist. It's poor science, for sure, but works for a film like this and Lugosi makes the most of it, even adding a tinge of humor, at least for me. When Bela speaks of his joy eating apple pie, it's hard to suppress a smile.
Clarence Muse brings dignity and authority to the role of Evans the butler, a part that could have easily have been caricatured and demeaning, but actually comes off as intelligent and multi-dimensional. He makes Evans sympathetic and take charge, elements missing in most other parts written for African Americans at that time. Muse was an able character actor, appearing in dozens of Hollywood films for decades, emerging as a true film pioneer. He also made his mark on an earlier Lugosi film, as the cabdriver in the classic, White Zombie(1932).
Polly Ann Young is better than her material and above average for the types that these films generally attracted, and is probably the best leading lady Monogram had, besides, Louise Currie. She brings sympathy to her role of the understanding daughter, and likewise she is supported by John McGuire who does an adequate job in the dual role of the two brothers.
While, Invisible Ghost is enjoyable for Lugosi fans, the film suffers from a truly nonsensical plot. Besides, the reasons for Lugosi becoming a killer, there's also the disappearance of his wife, which comes off as equally ludicrous. If one is perceived as missing, why assume she is dead? If one was grieving over such a loss, why keep it a secret, as the gardener did, well aware of all that was going on in the house? These stick out like a sore thumb, even if they are accepted by the audience.
Plus, why exactly is Mrs. Kessler insane? Was it because of the "accident", and if so, why was proper aid not given her and how is no one aware that she has been on the grounds? Wouldn't anybody suspect the missing food? No question, Invisible Ghost can be a headache if you think about it too much.

For some reason, this is one of the Lugosi films I watch the most often. Perhaps it's because of the short running time(barely over an hour) or the opportunity  to see the star in a sympathetic light. It's certainly an entertaining film in Lugosi's era of decline and one that still manages to rise above it's material, proving the parts are greater than the whole. It's not as goofy as The Devil Bat(1940) or The Ape Man(1942), but it does contain a good Lugosi performance and solid direction, and frankly for most classic horror fans, that's plenty of reason to give this one a glance.
Invisible Ghost may never rise to the ranks of classics, but considering the amount of formulaic horror pictures produced today, it's actually a pretty harmless bit of fun that has aged better because of that fact. Who would ever thought seventy years ago that anyone would be watching, let alone, enjoying this wonderful piece of fluff, today?

Just When You Thought It Was Safe To Go Back To Camp...

Friday The 13th Part 2(1981)
Director: Steve Miner
Cast: Amy Steel,John Furey, Kirsten Baker

Slasher films were the most popular horror genre of the 1980s, for better or for worse. They helped keep the genre popular with moviegoers, but also threatened to destroy it with largely poor, formulaic pictures that robbed the genre of much of it's mystery and suspense. The most popular franchise in this genre was begun in 1980. Designed as an imitation of Halloween(1978) by one of the filmmakers of The Last House on the Left(1972), Sean Cunningham's Friday the 13th became a box-office hit that would lead to nearly a dozen sequels over the next twenty years, seven of which were produced in the 1980s.
The first sequel is a landmark film, at least for the fact that it introduces the character of Jason, however improbably. You see, he survived the supposed drowning in the 50s and has been living like a hermit ever since in the woods and now wants to take revenge for his mother's death, no matter that it contradicts much of the plot of the first film, since Jason was firmly an urban legend or a figment of a twisted imagination. It also seems odd that there was any revenge in the first place, since he survived the ordeal in the 50s, but oh well. It's foolish to look for logic in these things, anyway.

This film takes place right after the first film, with the dull heroine of the last film, Alice(Adrienne King) alone at home, where she conveniently has flashbacks about her ordeal, gore intact. She has awful taste in clothes, wearing some green jumper and bitches and complains to her mom on the phone, not to worry. Of course, her mother should, because a silent killer is walking up the street and it's Jason, because the producers needed more money. Alice gets scared by a cat, which only happens in horror movies, because they are usually comical creatures in real life and opens the fridge, where she discovers the decapitated head of Mrs. Voorhees, you know, the one she lopped off in the first film? Well, Jason brought it with him for some reason, and proceeds to drive a screwdriver into her skull. Now after that charming opening, we proceed five years later to a new group of counselors ready to make acquaintance with death.
Much of it plays out like the first film, including having a horny couple with a truck, complete with a prankster/nerd who tells some of the "best" jokes, most involving fecal matter. Even Crazy Raplh(Walt Gorney), everyone's favorite doomsayer from the original is back to warn the kids about(what else?) impending doom!
Best of all, the director has the wonderfully good taste to set his camera on the lower backside of the sexiest of the counselors, Terry(Kirsten Baker) an outrageously hot babe who has brilliant taste in wardrobe, choosing only to wear the tightest and skimpiest clothing possible(I love that Mickey Mouse shirt) and gets a rock from a slingshot shot at her butt from a wise man(Russell Todd) who performs several such shenanigans throughout, because wouldn't you? I mean look below, fellows, look below.

After that brilliant interlude, we are introduced to the main characters, including what may be the favorite among Friday the 13th heroines, Amy Steel, as Ginny, a far more lively and likable character than Adrienne King's catatonic like performance from the first film. She stars with a crappy Volkswagon, which predictably, keeps conking out and has to get her mechanically inclined boyfriend, Paul(John Furey) to help her. They make a good couple and have decent banter, better than is usually found in these films. Before long, with everyone settled, including Terry(aka. SuperBabe) and her little dog, "Muffin"(this is not innuendo: there really is a little dog named Muffin), Paul proceeds to tell the story of Jason around a campfire, which reminds one of the same year's The Burning. He warns everyone not to go to Camp Crystal Lake, which is next door to their own camp. Of course, the next day, that young couple from the truck decide to do just that but are nabbed by the typical hick Deputy, who gives them a warning and than drives away, but not before getting into a pointless chase through the woods after Jason, where he gets a claw hammer in the back of his head for his troubles. Ouch. Later, Crazy Ralph even bites it, getting garroted with a piece of barbed wire. Double ouch.
That night, most of the counselors, including Ginny and Paul, decide to go in town and get wasted, leaving a skeleton crew behind including the truck couple, Jeff and Sandra(Bill Randolph and Marta Kober) Mark, a fellow in a wheelchair(Tom Mcbride) and nice girl, Vickie(Lauren-Marie Taylor) who wants to jump Mark's bones, even if he is paralyzed. There's also Scott, the non-character who only exists to do what any sane heterosexual male would do and that is hit on the smoking hot, Terry, who also stays behind, emphasis on the behind. I mean, sooner than you can say, "da-yum!", she decides to take a completely, gratuitous nude swim, going full frontal and proving that she's this series biggest babe. It's hands down the most spellbinding moment in the film.

Now the fun has begun and Jason decides to get busy, as everyone else is. When in Rome, I guess. Scott has a brainstorm and decides to steal Terry's clothes, because, why not? She gets sorta-pissed and chases after him, before he gets stuck in a trap. She agrees to set him free, though i'm sure the women in the audience are crying blood at this point. Scott hangs around for a bit, before Jason offers his assistance, but having awful sight, accidentally cuts his throat. Mega-Babe returns with her Swiss-Army knife and screams and we are spared her death by a merciful editor. Meanwhile, Vickie and Mark decide to do it, so nice girl goes to get ready, though it's for naught, because Mark gets a machete tossed in his head and her pals, Jeff and Sandra get a spear shoved right through them mid-coitus. If anyone ever argues the impact that Mario Bava's Bay of Blood(1971) had on this, remind them that both this exact death and the proceeding skinny-dipping/voyeur scene was in that earlier movie. Bava's camerawork is copied here, effectively.
Vicki returns and discovers the couple dead and dies a cruel death at the hands of Mr. Personality himself, Jason, who we discover is dressed just like the killer in The Town That Dreaded Sundown(1976).
Back at the bar, Ginny begins talking about Jason, not gossip or anything, but that she believes he may be alive. She's pretty sincere here, i'll give her that, but this little epiphany seems rather forced and construed, causing the guys around to chuckle and laugh, which is actually logical. Since when does she feel a rapport with Jason? It must be those brilliant screenwriters at work again!
Well, whatever, her and Paul return to camp and find it for alot of blood and a few corpses. Soon, they fight off the maniac killer and predictably, it's Ginny on the run, because slasher movies hate men as much as they hate women(everybody?) and Ginny goes through some ordeal. Remember the crappy Volkswagon? Yeah, it doesn't start up, as expected and she is forced to run away, even pissing herself when a rat runs by(I gotta confess, rodents never gave me an ounce of fear. What's up with people getting all freaked out by them?) and she ends up at Jason's pad, where she discovers a shrine to his late mother, decorated with her severed head and the bodies of his latest kills. It's a charming decoration, but before she can admire it, Jason arrives back home and she dons his mother's sweater and pretends to be her, echoing images for me of Psycho(1960). 
Our psycho, actually falls for it, the big dummy and it almost works, until Jason sees the severed head of his mother and remembers that Mom is dead. Duh! He fights Ginny and Paul shows up and they fight some more, before Ginny drives Jason's machete into his shoulder. Why not the head, you ask? That's a mystery only money-hungry producers can answer, my friend, for you know the big old boy ain't dead, so before you can be faked out, expect him to tear through a window and grab Ginny leading to one of the worst endings on record.
I'll be honest, though. The build-up to the final appearance of Jason is actually quite suspenseful and Amy Steel is very good here, looking appropriately terrified and on edge. Jason arrives, sans mask, and looks like a hairier version of himself from the first film's flashbacks, or like Sloth from The Goonies(1985). 
Anyway, the ending makes no sense at all. Ginny is being whisked away to the hospital, even though it was she that we last saw being taken by Jason, and not Paul, who is presumed dead. All of the other counselors who were in town, are not present, not even Terry's Muffin, who decided to grace us with her presence at the conclusion. Was it a dream? If so, what actually happened? This lack of logic certainly goes hand in hand with the nature of the film as a whole, but it does not excuse it, because it's still a weak cop-out and every time I've seen this film, since I was a kid, I have always thought this was a bad ending and still do.

Friday the 13th Part 2 is exactly what you would expect from an 80s slasher movie. It's short on logic and characterization, and high on gore and contrivance. In many ways, it's no better or worse than the original film, though it's difficult to replicate the same kind of gritty, grimy feeling of dread that was felt throughout the first film. Not that i'm recommending Friday the 13th, but it has an undeniably disturbing  feel to it, nonetheless.
This sequel is more familiar to how future slasher films would behave with a stalking madman and creative deaths, largely enacted on horny teens in the woods. Jason is not much of a character, though and I have never really fully understood the fascination behind him, besides that cathartic effect that audiences may get at his nefarious deeds. In this film, he has yet to sport his famous hockey mask, opting instead for a potato sack, clearly reminiscent of The Town That Dreaded Sundown. His murders are quite gory, though apparently much was still cut to appease the MPAA, including most of the spear through the couple scene, which is the most famous death in the movie. Not that it detracts, because the restraint actually probably enhances any atmosphere, however meager, that Steve Miner was able to conjure up.
The screenwriters missed a huge opportunity by not having the kids explore the ruins of Camp Crystal Lake, which would have allowed for some haunted house scares, instead of the one room-bargain-basement we get with Jason's shack, a place that seems to have been ripped from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre(1974). Along with the various nods(or steals) from the work of Mario Bava and John Carpenter, it's hard to congratulate this film on originality.
Like the first film, most of the cast are adequate, hardly the faceless cattle that would populate the later films. These kids have some personality, including the odd addition of a wheelchair bound counselor, who receives an unkind cut, one which plays fast and loose with the whole mentality of Jason, who only exists to kill because he's not much of a character. Ted(Stu Charno) is the "comic" relief, filling in for "Ned" from the first film, except this guy doesn't get killed or is involved in the end action. Instead, he relates one bathroom joke after another. For example:What's brown and sits on a piano? Give up? Beethoven's last movement! Ho, ho! That guy slays me, just too bad Jason didn't slay him.
At the risk of falling to the cathartic whole, it seems that as these films progressed the idea was to make these people as insipid and unlikable as possible, hoping that the audience would want them killed. There's something very disturbing in that, even if I confess, I felt it myself.
The girls in this one are prettier and nicer than the last film, led by Amy Steel, who brings more conviction to her part than was warranted. Her sense of humor and intelligence made her stand above other, "we are the survivors because it's ironic, yet expected" types that were so prevalent in these things. Her character actually has real reactions and does not just become an unrealistic warrior. She's scared, and rightly so, making her empathetic and credible.
It's a shame to see some of the other girls get it, because they are not just beautiful, but fairly nice. I mean, Lauren-Marie Taylor's character has clearly romantic designs set for Tom McBride's wheelchair bound, Mark and the fact that she's giving that guy a chance, makes her seem pretty sweet. Plus, her death is made more cruel, because she actually faces Jason head on and pleads for her life. It's not one of the film's best moments.
Of course, when a film is as mediocre as this, the best moments are usually the most exploitative and certainly for male audiences, the most remembered scenes are those involving the gorgeous, Kirsten Baker. The odds on favorite for sexiest Friday the 13th babe, and possibly in the slasher canon. It was important to attract young(typically male) audiences by promising female flesh and certainly this delivers. Her wardrobe is incredible, the kind seldom seen outside of the Playboy mansion(including the greatest booty shorts of all-time), and considering the camera focuses a solid 12 seconds on her butt alone, I think it's safe to say, this woman is in a league of her own. The skinny-dipping scene is completely pointless, except to titillate the audience, which succeeds at admirably and certainly helped keep this viewer awake through the long stretches of tedium that proceeded it. What can I say? It's what I remember most about this movie, and I guess that says a lot!

This is certainly no classic movie. In fact, it's quite the opposite. Friday the 13th Part 2 is just as hare-brained as it's predecessor, with it's inane plotting and one-dimensional characterization(even though some try) and it's not close to being a good horror film with virtually no scares, gore proving to never be an adequate replacement for true atmosphere and suspense. However, it may be the more entertaining movie, offering more exploitation than the previous film, including more gore and nudity and unintentional humor to keep guys like me awake through it all. Slasher fans will likely regard this as a must-see and certainly it is a must-see among the boozehound/frat-boy elites as it caters well to this most undiscerning crowd. B-movie fans and certainly, girl oglers of any age can appreciate some of this film. Friday the 13th Part 2 is sort of fun in the most empty-headed way imaginable, but at least that's a distinction.