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Monthly Archives: August 2006

The Wolf Man

From the video case: Lon Chaney, Jr. portrays Larry Talbot, who returns to his father’s (Claude Rains) ancient castle in Wales and meets a beautiful woman (Evelyn Ankers) in the nearby village. One fateful night, Talbot escorts her and her friend Jenny to a local carnival where they meet a mysterious gypsy fortune teller. Soon, Jenny’s fate is revealed when she is attacked by a vicious wolf.

Talbot clubs the wolf to death with his silver-handled cane, but not before he is badly bitten and the curse of the werewolf is upon him.

Foggy atmospheres, elaborate settings and a chilling musical score enhance this haunting classic co-starring Bela Lugosi and Maria Ouspenskaya. (1941, b&w)

Mark says: Even as a kid, I was not so much frightened of the wolf man as I was fascinated by him. Lon Chaney’s (The Alligator People, The Mummy’s Tomb) mannerisms and appearance reminded me of my father, which made the film more personal to me. I’ve had a fondness for werewolves ever since.

I am still drawn to Chaney’s sympathetic portrayal of Larry Talbot, a man haunted by the past and returning to his father’s estate to make good. Of course, Larry Talbot is not completely innocent. After all, he first spies on Gwen (Evelyn Ankers; Son of Dracula, The Ghost of Frankenstein), in her bedroom through a telescope lens, and then continues to woo her even after she makes it clear that she is engaged to be married. Still, Larry is a likable chap, and we don’t wish him any harm.

Claude Rains (The Invisible Man) turns in a fine performance as Larry’s authoritative father. However, I’ve always thought it humorous how Lon Chaney towers above his movie father. There’s not much of a family resemblance, but the two work well together as father and prodigal son.

This film also boasts other screen greats like Bela Lugosi (Dracula, Bride of the Monster), who, in my humble opinion, plays a better gypsy/werewolf than a vampire, and Maria Ouspenskaya, who adds so much to this movie with her portrayal of the gypsy woman, that it would be a crime not to mention her in this review.

The Wolf Man is filled with great Gothic atmosphere, and though the story can drag at times, it manages to hold our interest. Perhaps Chaney’s wolf man is not the most frightening of monsters, but he inspires more dread than the beast in Werewolf of London (Universal’s first werewolf film), who takes the time to put on a coat and hat before going out to kill.

The Wolf Man is produced and directed by George Waggner.

I recommend The Wolf Man Legacy Collection from Universal to those of you interested in this movie.

Scene to watch for: After Larry Talbot and his father, Sir John, agree that there will be “no more reserve” between them, Larry calls his father “sir” and then they share a stiff handshake.

Line to listen for: “The way you walked was thorny through no fault of your own. For as the rain enters the soil, and the river enters the sea, so tears run to their predestined end. Your suffering is over. Now find peace for eternity, my son.”

Trivia: Evelyn Ankers, the alluring female lead in The Wolf Man, later married B-movie favorite, Richard Denning (Creature from the Black Lagoon, Target Earth, The Black Scorpion).

Mark’s Rating: ! ! ! ! out of 5.

IMDB Link

The Ape

From the DVD case: An evil doctor, obsessed with curing a young woman of a dreadful disease, goes around injecting people with spinal fluid. (1940, b&w)

Mark says: I have to begin by apologizing for the DVD description posted above. I’ve seen worse, believe it or not, but this one is truly atrocious. Not only does it sound like it was written by a second grader, but it is inaccurate as well. It comes from one of those “Family Value Collection” DVDs that you find at places like The Dollar Tree around Halloween. Mine came as a second feature combined with Lugosi’s The Ape Man. For 50 cents a picture you really can’t go wrong, but posting such an inane description on my site is a little embarrassing.

Let me give you a more accurate synopsis:

Boris Karloff (Frankenstein, The Body Snatcher) stars as Dr. Bernard Adrian, a dedicated scientist and physician who makes his residence in a tiny town with small-minded people. After losing his wife and daughter to a deadly “paralysis epidemic,” Dr. Adrian is obsessed with finding a cure for the disease (strongly resembling polio, but it is never called by name in the film).

A young woman in the town, Miss Frances Clifford (Maris Wrixon), is wheelchair-bound by the affliction. Dr. Adrian, noting a strong resemblance between Frances and his daughter, dedicates himself to curing the adolescent. However, the townsfolk are suspicious of the physician. Particularly suspicious is Frances’s boyfriend, Danny Foster, played by Gene O’Donnell (The Devil Bat). Danny not only distrusts Dr. Adrian, but he’s annoyed by Frances’s increasing devotion to the man.

By now we’re wondering how an ape is ever going to work its way into this story, but be patient.

Dr. Adrian discovers (through experiments he has performed on local pets) that spinal fluid injected into the afflicted patient will cure the paralysis. The only problem is obtaining human spinal fluid for his human patient.

Nearby, a ferocious gorilla (there he is!) in a traveling circus escapes and attacks his sadistic keeper. Dr. Adrian, realizing the keeper is going to die, taps his spinal fluid. Unfortunately, Dr. Adrian drops the vile rendering the fluid useless.

Meanwhile, the gorilla appears at the good doctor’s house and we witness Dr. Adrian kill the beast. No one but the doctor’s housekeeper (Gertrude Hoffman) is aware that the ape has been killed.

Strangely, the ape still makes appearances in the town and even kills some of the local riff-raff. Simultaneously, Dr. Adrian mysteriously finds a supply of spinal fluid. With each injection, young Frances finds herself getting stronger.

You don’t have to be an astute viewer to realize that Dr. Adrian is using the gorilla’s hide as a disguise to procure victims for his spinal fluid supply. What’s amusing is how the movie treats the de-masking of the ape as some type of epiphany. I doubt anyone shouts out, “Ah-ha!” when they see Karloff’s face revealed. Still, I suppose a little mystery had to be feigned.

The Ape is, for the most part, an unimpressive bit of cinema. Perhaps it was the success of King Kong that inspired filmmakers of the era to include a man in a gorilla suit whenever a picture lacked pizazz. Personally, I find apes (most movie versions, anyway) to be decidedly dull. I would never want to come face to face with such a creature, but compared to what else can be found in the world of horror theater, the ape is fairly humdrum. They also have a way of dating a film.

The Ape, KarloffWhat The Ape does have to offer is Karloff’s portrayal of Dr. Adrian. For such a cheap production, Karloff’s character is wonderfully complex. Initially, we sympathize with Dr. Adrian. He seems misunderstood, and though not socially graceful, he appears to be a good person working for a commendable cause. We find later, though, that Dr. Adrian’s sense of ethics is a bit askew.

It’s interesting to note the slow disintegration of Dr. Adrians moral code. His first “victim” is a sadistic animal keeper who was likely going to die anyway. When the doc needs more spinal fluid, he has to actually murder someone; so he chooses a local scoundrel despised by the community. However, when he gets really desperate, he attacks a random victim who has not done anyone harm. Ultimately, Dr. Adrian’s downfall is caused by a “the end justifies the means” philosophy.

And what of Miss Frances? Does she ever walk again? That’s one mystery I wont reveal.

But I bet you can guess.

Look for Henry Hall (The Flying Serpent, The Mad Monster) as Sheriff Jeff Halliday, and Selmer Jackson (The Atomic Submarine) in the role of Dr. McNulty. That’s famous ape actor, Ray “Crash” Corrigan (The Monster and the Ape, The White Gorilla) in the monkey suit.

The Ape is directed by William Nigh, from a script by Curt Siodmak (Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, I Walked with a Zombie), adapted from the play by Adam Shirk.

Scene to watch for: Dr. Adrian and Danny load Frances and her wheelchair onto the back of truck like a piece of freight.

Line to listen for: “Do apes ever return to the scene of the crime?”

Bonus: Download The Ape for free at the Internet Archive.

Mark’s Rating: ! ! ½ out of 5.

IMDB Link

The Vampire Bat

From the DVD case: Thousands of monstrous bats fill the night sky of a terrified village, while residents are murdered in their beds, drained of all their blood. As the killings increase, rumors of a vampire in their midst send the townspeople into a frenzy of panic, as even the most respected scientist of the community seems convinced by the evidence. Only one investigator refuses to believe the superstitious tales and argues that a maniac must be at the root of the killings. A mob gathers to hunt down the suspected vampire and drive a stake through his heart, yet the exorcism fails to end the horrific slayings. (1933,b&w)

Mark says: This film starts off as a detective mystery, turns into a vampire story, and ultimately ends up as a piece of science fiction. It’s certainly not a horror classic, but it is fine low budget entertainment. Filmed on borrowed sets of Universal horror films (e.g. The Old, Dark House), it boasts a strong cast of Lionel Atwill, Fay Wray, and Dwight Frye.

Poor Dwight Frye (Frankenstein, Dracula) is once again cast as the town loony. His love for bats (he carries them around in his coat and pets them) makes him a prime suspect when the murders begin.

Fay Wray plays the beautiful love interest, Ruth Bertin. This is not a juicy role for her, but her presence onscreen certainly helps the picture. However, it is not a role that will make you forget her as the heroine of King Kong.

Lionel Atwill is the deliciously evil Dr. Otto von Niemann, and Melvyn Douglas plays the skeptical detective, Karl Brettschneider.

The major flaw of this film is the ending, which is disappointing, to say the least. The movie holds together fairly well until Dr. Otto von Niemann’s plot becomes clear. After that, the picture loses so much credibility that you are hardly concerned with the outcome.

Another thing about horror films of this time, is that directors often include some character for comedy relief. In The Vampire Bat, the comedic relief comes in the form of Maude Eburn, as the hypochondriac aunt, Gussie Schnappmann. It’s as if the filmmakers of that era thought the horror was so great that the audience would need some type of tension release to survive the film. Generally, I find this type of characterization, at best, distracting, and at worst, detrimental to the overall atmosphere of the film.

This movie would have rated higher with me if the ending had been stronger. It’s an enjoyable film, but I wouldn’t buy it unless I found it in a bargain bin.

Directed by Frank Strayer.

Special Note: The film transfer on the dvd I own (Alpha Video) is uneven and very dark in places. The sound quality certainly could use some improvement, too.

Scene to watch for: Dwight Frye climbs a lamp post to snatch a bat from its perch. Meanwhile, a mob of townspeople are hiding, just yards away, watching the spectacle as if they can’t be seen.

Line to listen for: “Vampires are at large, I tell you! Vampires!”

Bonus: Watch The Vampire Bat free at the Internet Archive.

Mark’s Rating: ! ! ½ out of 5.

IMDB Link

Frankenstein

From the DVD case: Boris Karloff stars as the screen’s most memorable monster in what many consider to be the greatest horror film ever made. Dr. Frankenstein (Colin Clive) dares to tamper with life and death by creating a human monster (Karloff) out of lifeless body parts. It’s director James Whale’s adaptation of the Mary Shelley novel blended with Karloff’s compassionate portrayal of a creature groping for identity that makes Frankenstein a masterpiece not only of the genre, but for all time. (1931, b&w)

Mark says: This is it, the granddaddy of all monster films. I can’t remember the first time I saw Frankenstein, but I do know it left an indelible mark on me, as it has for countless others.

Director James Whale (Bride of Frankenstein, The Invisible Man) not only gave us a great monster flick, but he gave us a work of art, too. Each time I watch Frankenstein I’m in awe of the sets and the direction. That opening scene at the graveyard has to be one of my favorite opening shots of any horror film.

Colin Clive does a fantastic job as Dr. Henry Frankenstein, a scientist obsessed with his work, and mad with the idea of creating life. Dwight Frye (Dracula, The Vampire Bat) plays the lunatic hunchback, Fritz (I’ll forgive you if you call him Igor, though.) He hobbles around, shimmies up poles, mutters and gives us what has become the archetypal mad scientist’s assistant.

And let’s not forget Mae Clarke as Henry’s fiancée, Elizabeth. She’s graceful, devoted, prophetic, and everything else a man or monster could ask for. Edward Van Sloan plays Henry’s former professor, Dr. Waldman. He is not as powerful in this role as he was as Dr. Van Helsing in Dracula, but he works well as the voice of reason.

Two characters that I find slightly annoying are John Boles as Henry’s friend, Victor Moritz (some friend, he hits on Elizabeth every chance he gets) and Henry’s father, played by Frederick Kerr. Kerr’s character, huffing and growling, is especially abrasive, and obviously used for comedy relief. These two are only minor annoyances and do not significantly disrupt the film.

Of course, it is that big, beautiful monster played by Boris Karloff that makes this movie so wonderful. I was genuinely frightened of Frankenstein’s monster as a kid (I’m told that kids today are not fazed by Karloff’s portrayal), but what was more amazing, was that I felt empathy for this brute.

Here’s this poor creature, slapped together and dragged into the world of the living by no request of his own, tormented endlessly by a wretched little bully, hounded by mobs, and then rejected by his own creator. Maybe that wasn’t exactly my story, but it certainly felt like it at times.

The scene with Little Maria (Marilyn Harris) is particularly heart-wrenching. The monster finally finds an oasis in this hostile world, and then ends up killing her. Talk about King Midas in reverse.

Speaking of Marilyn Harris, she does an excellent job at playing dead. The scene where her father carries her to the burgomeister is decidedly macabre.

There’s nothing I’m going to say about this film that hasn’t been said a thousand times already. I just want it on the record that it means a lot to me, too.

I don’t think anyone will be surprised with my rating.

Scene to watch for: The manner in which Henry Frankenstein lands on that windmill blade doesn’t look too healthy.

Line to listen for: “The neck’s broken. The brain is useless. We must find another brain!”

Note: I recommend the Frankenstein Legacy Collection from Universal to those of you interested in this film.

Supplemental viewing: The 1998 film, Gods and Monsters starring Ian McKellen, explores the latter days of director James Whale.

Mark’s Rating: ! ! ! ! ! out of 5.

IMDB Link

From the DVD case: Although there have been numerous screen versions of Bram Stoker’s classic tale, none is more enduring than the 1931 original. The ominous portrayal of Could Dracula by Bela Lugosi, combined with horror specialist director Tod Browning, help to create the film’s eerie mood. Dracula remains a masterpiece not only of the genre, but for all time. (1931, b&w)

Mark says: The audience that viewed Dracula for the first time in 1931 had some advantages going in that we don’t have the privilege of today. First, they were not yet numb to onscreen blood and violence, and therefore could appreciate the subtlety of the film.

Less importantly, they did not have the foreknowledge of Lugosi’s later films. It is difficult to watch Dracula without thinking of Mr. Lugosi in the roles that would eventually diminish his stature as a serious actor. Dracula isn’t quite so frightening when you’re thinking of him as Dr. Eric Vornoff from Ed Wood’s Bride of the Monster.

But don’t get me wrong, Dracula is a great film. I love the fantastic sets, especially the Transylvania scenes and the shots of Carfax Abbey. The story also remains intriguing even after all these years. The acting seems stagy by today’s standards, but it lends to the ancient atmosphere.

Of interest is the lack of music in Dracula. At some points you perceive an unsettling silence. If you purchase the Dracula Legacy Collection you can listen to the movie with a score composed by Phillip Glass.While the music is beautiful (performed by the Kronos Quartet) it has a tendency to overpower the film.I actually prefer the original score (or lack of score) over the Phillip Glass treatment.

Dwight Fry (Frankenstein, The Vampire Bat) is wonderfully entertaining as Renfield. It’s not easy to forget Renfield’s laugh after hearing it. Mr. Fry portrayed a lunatic so well that he would be typecast as a madman for the remainder of his career.

Edward Van Sloan (Frankenstein, The Mummy) is powerful and wise as Prof. Abraham Van Helsing. I much prefer this 1931 version of Van Helsing over the newer, “hip” version portrayed in Stephen Sommers movie Van Helsing. Of course, I prefer watching reruns of Scooby-Doo over the Stephen Sommers’s film.

Helen Chandler and Frances Dade play Mina Seward and Lucy Weston, respectively. No complaints here, except that some of Mina’s scenes with Jonathan Harker (David Manners) seem awkward, overly-dramatic and at times, comical.

Of course, this is Bela Lugosi’s picture, and he does bring an exotic element to the story. When people do imitations of Dracula, you are far more likely to hear a Lugosi inflection in the voice than a Christopher Lee. Lugosi’s Dracula is certainly the most iconic.

Lugosi can be genuinely eerie, especially when he arrives as the coachman to pick up Renfield at the Borgo Pass. Other times, he is less effective. When Dracula speaks to Dr. Seward (Herbert Bunston) in the balcony, the doctor seems to tower over the Count. Lugosi looks almost ridiculous in comparison.

My least favorite character in the film is Martin the orderly (Charles K. Gerrard)who is used for comedy relief. He might be appropriate for an Abbott and Costello picture, but he is extremely distracting here.

Overall, this is a wonderfully entertaining and atmospheric film, and it gets extra points for its historical significance.

Dracula is directed by Tod Browning (Freaks, Mark of the Vampire).

Scene to watch for: Dracula’s castle seems to have an armadillo problem.

Line to listen for: “Isn’t this a strange conversation, for people who aren’t crazy?”

Special Note: I highly recommend Universal’s Dracula The Legacy Collection.

Mark’s Rating: ! ! ! ! ½ out of 5.

IMDB Link

From the video case: King Kong teems with memorable moments: a movie-making expedition on a fantastic isle filled with dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures; the giant simian’s lovestruck obsession with the film shoot’s blond starlet (Fay Wray); Kong’s capture; his Manhattan rampage; and the fateful finale atop the Empire State Building where Kong cradles his palm-sized beloved and swats at machine-gunning airplanes. “It was beauty killed the beast.” But in these and other great scenes, Kong lives forever. (1933, b&w)

Mark says: For King Kong fans, it is hard to talk about the 1933 original without sounding overly extravagant in our praise. However, this picture is such a ground-breaker, and done so well, that it absolutely deserves the gushing acclamation that is often heaped upon it.

The star of the picture is an 18-inch (or sometimes, 24-inch) puppet, spectacularly animated by stop-motion master Willis O’Brien (The Lost World, The Black Scorpion).Not only does O’Brien bring Kong to life, but he gives the great ape character and pathos. We get caught up in Kong’s plight, and it is not too surprising to find that many of us, upon first viewing, had an emotional reaction to Kong’s tragic fate. I’ll admit that today’s CGI effects can be impressive, but not once have they made me cry.

Of course, Kong’s animation does have its imperfections.The most noticeable is that his fur sometimes moves in an unnatural manner. This was caused by O’Brien’s handling of the puppet.As O’Brien moved Kong one tiny motion at a time, his fingers would leave slight impressions on the fur. This wasn’t apparent during the stop-motion process, but when the footage was assembled as animation, the fur’s motion sometimes looked awkward.Early viewers attributed the strange motion to wind, but modern devotees know better.Still, this imperfection is not overly distracting, and is certainly forgivable considering the movie was released in 1933 and O’Brien was a pioneering talent in the field.

I like what Ray Harryhausen (who directly credits King Kong as his own inspiration for entering a career in stop-motion animation) says concerning the aesthetic charm of Kong.Harryhausen states in the 2005 DVD commentary of the film that Kong’s look is not so real that it compromises the fantasy element of the movie.Even today, nearly 75 years later, Kong is utterly fascinating to watch. A pretty neat trick.

The heroine of the film is Ann Darrow, played beautifully by one of the earliest scream queens, Fay Wray (Doctor X, Mystery of the Wax Museum).Fay keeps the film interesting while we’re waiting for Kong’s arrival. She is so enchanting in the role that we have no problem believing Kong’s fascination with her.

Robert Armstrong (Mighty Joe Young) plays film producer, Carl Denham. Denham is a reckless adventurer who will risk anything to bring back a quality film. I used to think that Armstrong’s portrayal was a little too over-the-top, but after watching a documentary on Merian C. Cooper, who Denham’s character is based on,I now believe Armstrong’s characterization is not far off the mark. Merian C. Cooper is the real life producer, co-writer, and director of King Kong.The documentary of his life is included with the 2005 DVD Special Edition, and is well worth a look. A truly incredible man.

Bruce Cabot is Jack Driscoll, Fay Wray’s love interest. Cabot’s character is based on co-director, Ernest B. Schoedsack. Unfortunately, I find Cabot’s portrayal lacking. A more convincing actor in this role would have improved on an already great film.

Also look for Frank Reicher (House of Frankenstein, The Mummy’s Ghost) in the role of Capt. Englehorn.

Although the acting and dialog can seem dated, it also lends to a documentary feel. I think one of Peter Jackson’s wisest decisions regarding his remake was keeping it a period piece. Kong existing outside of that time period (as Dino De Laurentiis’ 1976 version attests to) just doesn’t seem right.

King Kong also features some fantastic original music by Max Steiner, and breakthrough sound effects by Murray Spivack.

Entire books have been written on this film, and so my little review does not give it or its creators justice.But take my word on this: King Kong is a deeply satisfying movie.It is not only a wonderful film for its genre, but it is a great accomplishment in cinematic history, period.

Scene to watch for: Kong, realizing the woman he has pulled from her bed is not Fay Wray, drops her to her death.

Line to listen for: “Oh no, it wasn’t the airplanes. It was beauty killed the beast.”

Trivia: Directors Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack pilot the plane that sends Kong to his demise.

Mark’s Rating: ! ! ! ! ! out of 5.

IMDB Link

Doctor X Fay Wray

From the video case: When the moon is full, murder stalks the streets in this classic chiller directed by Michael Curtiz (Casablanca). An investigative reporter traces the trail of corpses to the suspicious Dr. Xavier and his medical college, where grisly experiments are being performed. In a tiny laboratory at the college, a one-armed scientist teetering on the brink of madness researches cannibalism and the creation of limbs from synthetic flesh. The result is a man-monster on the prowl for human flesh to use in the scientist’s increasingly bizarre experiments. (1932, color)

Mark says: Doctor X is not the most significant horror/mystery to come out of the 1930s, but it does possess enough interesting facets to make it worth your time.

The most notable feature is the use of the two-strip Techinicolor system. (The Technicolor we came to know was a three-strip system, allowing for a much broader spectrum.) Producers enlisted the talents of Natalie Kalmus to create an incredibly effective muted color scheme, which lends to the mysterious atmosphere of the picture.

Reinforcing the creepy ambiance are the fantastic sets of Anton Grot. It would be hard to over-estimate how much Grot’s elaborate, moody sets add to the distinct flavor of the film. These sets coupled with the color scheme make for some fascinating visuals.

Speaking of fascinating visuals, I would be remiss not to mention make-up artist, Max Factor, for creating a particularly grotesque, “synthetic flesh” monster. Even by today’s standards, I find the creature repulsive.

Doctor X stars Lionel Atwill (Man Made Monster, Mark of the Vampire) and Fay Wray (King Kong, The Vampire Bat) as Dr. Jerry Xavier and his daughter, Joanne Xavier. Both give convincing performances and Fay Wray throws in a few trademark screams to give the picture extra chills.

On the down side, the film’s hero, Lee Tracy (as Daily World Reporter, Lee Taylor), is so clownish that we are constantly distracted by his antics. It wouldn’t be so bad if he wise-cracked now and then, but in every scene he goes for the laugh, which makes him an extremely grating character. (I am often told I suffer from the same characteristic.) A running gag throughout the film is Lee’s use of a simple hand-buzzer. Sometimes he uses it as a practical joke, and sometimes he forgets he’s wearing the thing and shocks someone unintentionally. A real laugh riot, to be sure, but it gets old surprisingly quickly (like after the first time).

The doctors at Xavier’s medical academy are somewhat cartoonish. One of them is a one-armed man (Dr. Wells), another wears an eye monocle (Dr. Rowitz), yet another is confined to a wheelchair (Dr. Duke), and all of them are suspiciously bizarre. The academy even houses a dark and peculiar butler (played by George Rosener). Everyone at the academy is a suspect in the “Moon Killer” murders, including Dr. Xavier himself.

The plot, while full of holes, is entertaining in a comic book sort of way. The theme of cannibalism gives the movie an uneasy edge, which must have been more unnerving in 1932. However, I don’t want to elaborate any more on the story as not to spoil the mystery (the video box description already gives away too much.)

Though Doctor X is disappointing on some levels, its overall eerie feel and strong performances by Fay Wray and Lionel Atwill make it a worthwhile morsel for B film enthusiasts.

Based on a play by Howard W. Comstock and Allen C. Miller.

Directed by Michael Curtiz (Mystery of the Wax Museum).

Scene to watch for: In an uncharacteristically bright setting for the film, Fay Wray and Lee Tracy take time off from their gloomy surroundings to sunbathe.

Line to listen for: “Professor Duke, don’t criticize Joanne for her state of undress.”

Mark’s Rating: ! ! ! out of 5.

IMDB Link

White Zombie

From the DVD case: This genuinely eerie thriller is the ultimate zombie movie. Sinister Lugosi is the master of hordes of walking dead who work a sugar plantation in Haiti. (1932, b&w)

Mark says: If for nothing else, White Zombie deserves your attention for being the first zombie film ever produced (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari doesn’t count; Cesare was a “somnambulist”).

White Zombie was independently produced by two minor silent film makers, Edward and Victor Halperin, with Victor Halperin (Revolt of the Zombies) actually directing the picture.

The Halperins were not fans of “talkies,”and wanted to create a film reminiscent of the silent movies of the previous decade. Using a script by Garnett Weston, the brothers produced a horror movie which relies heavily on strong Expressionistic visuals and stylized acting. The dialog is minimal.

Because of these elements, White Zombie seems older than it actually is, but the overall result is quite effective. If you can get past the dated feel of the film, White Zombie is an eerie bit of work. Much credit is due to the cinematography of Arthur Martinelli, who keeps us captivated visually even during segments where the story lags.

The DVD description featured above does not describe the film’s plot adequately. So let me elaborate further:

White Zombie castRobert Frazer (The Vampire Bat) plays Charles Beaumont, a wealthy traveler who finds himself enamored by the charms of pretty Miss Madeleine Short (Madge Bellamy). Unfortunately, for Mr. Beaumont, Madeleine is already engaged to Neil Parker (John Harron). In a devious plot, Mr. Beaumont offers Madeleine and Neil the use of his plantation on Haiti as a location for their nuptials. To sweeten the deal, Mr. Beaumont makes Neil a lucrative job offer. The couple immediately accepts the generous proposal.

However, Beaumont’s true intention is to lure Madeleine away from Neil. When he can’t accomplish this through smooth talk, he turns to evil zombie master, Murder Legendre (what a great name!) played by horror icon, Bela Lugosi (Dracula, The Devil Bat). Legendre has already incorporated many of the islanders (most of them his enemies) into his zombie brigade of sugar mill workers. He is all too happy to help Beaumont obtain his human prize.

Without me giving too much away, Beaumont finds that a zombie lover is not much fun. He also discovers that Legendre has his own desires regarding Madeleine and is not above using his hypnotic zombie skills to acquire the object of his affections. Beaumont is certainly an unscrupulous fellow, but he is a saint compared to the evil madness of Legendre.

The acting, for the most part, is poor to adequate. Harron’s portrayal of Neil Parker is especially embarrassing to watch. Of all the performances, his seems the most dated. Frazer’s performance is not much better, but he redeems himself during scenes where he suffers an excruciating transformation into one of the living dead.

White Zombie BellamyMadge Bellamy as Madeleine isn’t given a lot to do. She does make for a pretty love interest (in a China doll sort of way) but is less convincing as a zombie. Still, her features are unusual enough to captivate us, and her acting does not distract us from the dreamlike quality of the picture. Madeleine is the “white zombie” to which the film title refers.

But Lugosi is the real star of this movie. Sometimes I am overly harsh in regards to Bela’s performances, but he really shines in this role. He seems to relish his lines, and his delivery is more subtle and sinister than in his later works. Of course, this was still the early 1930s, and he had yet to be beaten down by the long string of terrible roles he would later subject himself to.

Speaking of terrible film roles, Ed Wood would later have Lugosi reprise his zombie-calling, hand-clutching-hand maneuvers in Bride of the Monster. (Also, White Zombie is the film Lugosi and Wood are watching in Tim Burton’s psuedo-biography, Ed Wood.)White Zombie hand trick

If some of the sets look familiar, that’s because many were borrowed from The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), King of Kings (1927), Frankenstein (1931), and Dracula (1931). Universal’s own Jack Pierce served as make-up artist. This all adds to the great appearance and mood of the film.

Long time readers know my pet peeve regarding comedy relief roles in atmospheric horror films. I am overjoyed to report that White Zombie does not feature any such distraction.

Scene to watch for: Legendre (Lugosi) casually carves away at a wax figure as Beaumont (Frazer) agonizingly slips further and further into the zombie state.

Line to listen for: “They are not men, monsieur. They are dead bodies!”

Wikipedia entry: White Zombie

Bonus: Watch White Zombie for free at the Internet Archive.

Mark’s Rating: ! ! ! ½ out of 5.

IMDB Link

Cabinet of Caligari

From the DVD case: This silent masterpiece has been called the first “cult” movie and the first horror film of genuine quality and substance. A young student, Francis (Friedrich Fehér), encounters evil magician, Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauss), at a county fair. Caligari’s act consists of waking a frightening somnambulist, Cesare (Conrad Veidt), from the coffin where, it is claimed, he has lain asleep for years.

When Francis’ best friend is murdered and a killing spree erupts in the small village, he suspects that Caligari is using Cesare to commit the ghastly crimes. When Cesare is sent to murder the student’s fiance, Joan (Lil Dagover), he is so smitten with her beauty that he abducts her instead. Francis tracks Caligari to a nearby insane asylum where he is horrified to learn that the doctor is not an inmate but the director of the institution! The surprise ending is as shocking and perplexing today as it was when originally released.

Set designer Hermann Warm enlisted Walter Reimann and Walter Röhrig, fellow members of Berlin’s expressionist Der Sturm group, to act as art directors. They created the unprecedented look of the sets, costumes and makeup to reflect the mind of a madman. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari demonstrated to all future filmmakers that psychological horror could equal or exceed the effects of physical shocks. (1920, b&w, silent)

Mark says: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Das Kabinett des Doktor Caligari) came about when two Eastern Europeans, Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer, sold their script to producer Erich Pommer, director of the Decla Film Company in Berlin. The script was based on events taken from their own lives. As recounted by Alan Jones in his book, The Rough Guide to Horror Movies:

Strolling down the Reeperbahn in Hamburg in 1913, Janowitz saw a respectable gentleman emerge from behind bushes, adjust his clothes and merge into the evening crowd. The next day, newspapers carried a story about a young girl who had been raped and murdered in exactly the same place. Convinced that he’d seen the murderer, Janowitz attended the girl’s funeral and saw his suspect again. The killer was never apprehended and Janowitz became obsessed by the possibility that casual assassins were freely roaming the streets laughing at authorities.

This incident, and an act they both witnessed at a funfair, along with Mayer’s encounter with an unsympathetic army psychiatrist during military service, was the impetus for The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

Fritz Lang (Metropolis) was originally slated to direct the film, but because of prior obligations, the position went to Robert Wiene. Interestingly enough, Wiene was considered uniquely fit to direct the film because his father, once a famous actor, had gone mad towards the end of his life.

The film itself is an amazing visual treat. The fantastically distorted sets, the bizarre, elongated furniture, and the unnerving make-up effects (especially in regards to the somnambulist) all contribute to the delusional state of a madman.

The story is told in flashback, framed by scenes of the “present.” The original tale was intended as a pacifist parable (Cesare representing the “sleepwalking” people, and Caligari a symbol of the State, clothed in the guise of respectability, but secretly ordering others to kill for him). However, the framing sequences negated the “message” of the film, reportedly enraging Janowitz and Mayer, but also transforming the movie into a timeless masterpiece.

The twist ending is something modern writer/directors like M. Night Shyamalan would be proud of. I am still amazed how, on first viewing, I was drawn into the story only to have the tables completely (and wonderfully!) turned on me. It’s little wonder that The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari has been dubbed the first cult film.

Scene to watch for: Dr. Caligari feeds his somnambulist some din-din.

Quote to watch for: “I must know everything. I must penetrate the heart of his secret! I must become Caligari!”

Bonus: Download The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari at the Internet Archive.

Wikipedia entry: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

Mark’s Rating: ! ! ! ! ! out of 5.

IMDB Link

Nosferatu

From the video case: An unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Nosferatu is a silent classic that reigns as one of the most frightening films to ever cast its shadow upon a silver screen.

Instrumental in the effectiveness of Nosferatu was director F.W. Murnau’s German expressionist approach, a style of filmmaking characterized by shadowy settings and nihilistic themes, exploring the darkened recesses of the human mind with a distinctly imposing visual style.

Rather than depicting Count Dracula as a shape-shifting monster or a debonair gentleman, Murnau’s Graf Orlok (as portrayed by Max Schreck) is a nightmarish, spidery creature of bulbous head and taloned claws, perhaps the most genuinely disturbing incarnation of vampirism the cinema has yet produced. (1922, b&w, silent)

Mark says: I’m doing an injustice to this film by reviewing it on a “B-movie” site, but it certainly qualifies as a horror/cult classic. Let’s be clear from the beginning: Nosferatu is a cinematic work of art, not a drive-in second feature.

So much has been written about Nosferatu and its great direction by F.W. Murnau (Faust, Der Januskopf) that I can do little but echo the applause. It’s place in horror cinema can not be overstated.

Though the acting, by today’s standards, seems marred with the limits of silent film, the overall atmosphere is somber and bleak. Once Max Schreck appears, you are no longer distracted by demonstrative performances.

However, this film is not only a work of German expressionistic art, it’s scary, too.

Take this little test with me. Suppose you are walking down a dark alley, whom would you least like to meet:

a) Bela Lugosi as Dracula?

b) Christopher Lee as Dracula?

c) or, Max Schreck as Count Orlok?

If you’re like me, Bela would make me slightly uneasy, and Mr. Lee may cause me to move to the other side of the alley, but Max Schreck would make me scream and run in the other direction entirely.

Schreck’s portrayal of Orlok is so hideously vile that he invokes disgust even in modern day viewers. Orlok is a monster’s monster, part corpse, part spider, part rat, and completely evil. Even his shadow will give you the creeps. All this without the benefit of sound.

Though Nosferatu is based on Stoker’s Dracula, there are some significant differences. Most strikingly, the use of Christian symbols (primarily the cross) are stripped from Murnau’s film. With the religious overtones removed from the story, it becomes less about a conflict between good and evil, and more about the conflict of human nature.

In Stoker’s novel, Van Helsing plays a tremendously significant role, but in Nosferatu, Bulwer (the Van Helsing equivalent), is reduced to a background player. Bulwer has nothing whatsoever to do with the vampire’s destruction, leaving this responsibility to Ellen.

It’s interesting to note, that Stoker’s widow sued when she saw the obvious similarities to her husband’s story. As a result, all prints of Nosferatu were ordered destroyed. Fortunately for us, prints kept cropping up in other countries, giving us the privilege of enjoying the film in our own homes.

The historic significance of Nosferatu would be enough to give it a top rating, but it’s the artful direction of F.W. Murnau combined with the genuinely chilling performance by Max Schreck that rightfully earns it my highest distinction.

Scene to watch for: Count Orlok wanders the streets toting his coffin.

Quote to watch for: “Not so hasty my young friend! No one escapes his destiny.”

Mark’s Rating: ! ! ! ! ! out of 5.

IMDB Link

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