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Monthly Archives: August 2006

Unknown World PosterFrom the video box: With the threat of nuclear annihilation by the major world powers, a group of scientists build a fantastic burrowing machine to journey to the center of the Earth in search of a safe haven from the deadly radiation that would make life on the surface impossible. At Earth’s core they find a spectacular cavern system that can support human life, but giant volcanic eruptions, weird subterranean lightning storms and other perils threaten the expedition. Can they hope to survive? (1951, b&w)

Mark says: Just thinking about this movie makes me yawn.

Unknown World is basically Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth minus any excitement. Even special effects by producers Jack Rabin and Irving Block (Kronos, Cat-Women of the Moon) can’t make this an interesting flick. Though the burrowing machine (“Cyclotram”) seems to promise some thrills, it ultimately fails to pay off.

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From the DVD case: Four men and a girl blast-off on mankind’s first expedition to the moon, but due to a cataclysmic cosmic event are sent hurtling out of control to Mars. Once on the red planet, the crew discover an atomic war-ravaged world inhabited by mutants! (1950, b&w)

Mark says: Rocketship X-M was rushed into production after George Pal announced his production of Destination Moon. The idea was to capitalize on Pal’s announcement and beat him to the box office. This little bit of underhandedness has earned Rocketship X-M the distinction of being “the first space exploration film of the Atomic Age.”

In terms of production and science, Destination Moon beats Rocketship X-M hands down. But R-XM ultimately proves to be the more interesting film because of its focus on the human element.

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The Monster Maker Glenn Strange

From the DVD case: George Zucco portrays Dr. Lorenzo Cameron, a discredited mad doctor who believes that injecting wolf blood into humans will create an invincible army of werewolves to defeat the Axis. But instead of unleashing his monster on the Nazis, he turns his creation against the scientists who had engineered his professional downfall. Despite his liberal use of a whip, Cameron finds himself unable to control his creature as it escapes on a murderous rampage. (1942, b&w)

Mark says: If The Mad Monster actually used the premise of “an invincible army of werewolves to defeat the Axis,” it may have been an interesting film. Unfortunately, this is just another PRC Poverty Row production and it struggles to hold our interest. The Mad Monster was obviously produced to cash in on the success of Universal’s The Wolf Man, released just the year before.

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Bluebeard 1944

From the DVD case: In the famous art district of Paris, a new evil has taken up residence. A troubled and intense artist seeks out various portrait models to aid in his work. But when the paintings are finished, he strangles his models. Can the authorities catch him before he strikes again? (1944, b&w)

Mark says: I never expect much from a PRC film, so I was pleasantly surprised with the quality of Bluebeard.

PRC (Producers Releasing Corporation) is one of the Poverty Row studios (Monogram and Republic studios are two other examples). The look and feel of PRC films are usually as cheap as the term “poverty row” suggests. However, with Bluebeard, we notice some striking differences.

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From the DVD case: Literary classics become screen horror classics when given the Lewton touch. Take the gothic romance of Jane Eyre, reset it in the West Indies, add the direction of Jacques Tourneur (Cat People) and the overriding terror of the living dead and you have I Walked with a Zombie. Frances Dee plays the nurse who witnesses the strange power of voodoo. (1943, b&w)

Mark says: Poor Val Lewton. First RKO sticks him with an appalling pre-tested film title like Cat People. When he reinvents the horror genre with an intelligent, engrossing, and successful film, they stick him with another lurid title: I Walked with a Zombie.

For a sensitive and serious producer, Lewton must have cringed at his new assignment. Luckily, he was able to recruit director Jacques Tourneur (Curse of the Demon), a man of similar sensibilities, for the project. Tourneur and Lewton had worked together on Cat People, and would later share the same producer/director relationship on 1943’s The Leopard Man.

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Cat People 1942From the DVD case: The studio gave Val Lewton small budgets and lurid pre-tested film titles. Lewton, working with rising filmmakers and emphasizing fear of the unseen, turned meager resources into momentous works of psychological terror. Directed by Jacques Tourneur, Cat People is the trailblazing first of Lewton’s nine horror classics. Simone Simon portrays a bride who fears an ancient hex will turn her into a deadly panther when she’s in passion’s grip. (1942,b&w)

Mark says: Cat People is such an intelligently crafted film that it is easy to forget its low budget origins. RKO, in an attempt to recoup its losses from the highly regarded, but financially disappointing, Orson Welles masterpiece, Citizen Cane, hired Val Lewton (The Leopard Man, Isle of the Dead) to produce cheap films with exploitative titles. With Cat People, Lewton not only delivered a money-making hit, but redefined the horror film genre in the process.

Simone Simon (The Devil and Daniel Webster, Curse of the Cat People) plays Irena Dubrovna, an enigmatic young dress designer obsessed with the legends of Cat People from her Serbian past. Irena believes she is a descendant of a tribe cursed to become ferocious cat-beasts when in the throes of passion, ultimately killing their lovers. This is disturbing news for her new American boyfriend, Oliver Reed, a young ship designer played by Kent Smith (The Night Stalker, Die Sister, Die!).

Oliver quickly dismisses the stories of the Cat People as fairy tales, and convinces Irena to marry him. However, Oliver learns that Irena still harbors her fears when she refuses to consummate the marriage. Eventually, he suspects Irena suffers from a psychological disorder and sends her to a psychiatrist, Dr. Louis Judd (Tom Conway, The Atomic Submarine). Dr. Judd proves to be a rather unscrupulous fellow and constantly attempts to woo Irena during his “treatment” of her.

Meanwhile, Oliver, disillusioned by his sexless marriage, takes comfort in his co-worker, Alice Moore (Jane Randolph, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein). When Irena finally decides it is safe to consummate her marriage, Oliver states that it is too late; he is in love with Alice. Irena, now bitterly jealous and angry, begins to stalk Alice. This is where the real fun begins.

What is so striking about Cat People (and other Val Lewton’s films) is how ambiguity is used to create suspense. There are no overt transformation scenes in Cat People; we’re not even sure if Irena’s fears are justified as genuine supernatural phenomenon or simply a psychological impairment derived from her own sexual hang-ups. The stalking scenes are just as ambiguous. We are never absolutely sure if Irena is tracking Alice in the form of a panther or a human. In fact, at times, we’re not sure if Alice is being stalked at all.

Lewton’s approach to the stalking scenes was certainly innovative for the time. As described in VideoHound’s Cult Flicks & Trash Pics, edited by Carol Schwartz:

While using many conventions of the form, Lewton is credited with creating (or at least defining) at least two new ones with this film: “The Walk,” in which a protagonist walks down a dark alley/hallway/path, while something may or may not be stalking in the shadows; and “The Bus,” a false scare which often acts in combination with “The Walk,” named for the loudly hissing blast from a bus’s air brakes that startles Jane Randolph (and audiences for over 50 years).

All of the primary characters are equivocal. Oliver, though seemingly true blue, is willing to take Alice as a lover when his wife’s problems become too much for him. Alice, in the guise of a good friend, announces her love for Oliver while he is in an obviously vulnerable state. Likewise, Dr. Judd is more than willing to take advantage of his position of trust to satisfy his own lascivious desires. Irena is not only a sensitive, lonely woman, but possibly a raging, homicidal beast. These complexities of plot and character only add to the tense and dark atmosphere.

On re-watching Cat People recently, I was struck by the overt sexual themes of the film. For 1942, such themes must have been regarded as risque. Sexual problems within marriage, adultery, and even the use of psychiatry certainly were not subjects encountered often in films of the era. There is little doubt that these issues enhanced the already uneasy, almost subliminal, undertones of the movie.

My favorite scene is when Alice takes a swim in a basement pool. As Alice swims (ironically, dog-paddling) we get a sense of foreboding. The water’s reflection from the pool is cast eerily on the walls and ceiling, which are already richly bathed in shadows. We hear a vague growling, and glimpse a feline shadow descending the staircase. As the tension mounts, Alice lets out one of the most sincere and truly frightening screams I have ever heard in a film. Suddenly, a light is flicked on, and there stands Irena, in her fur coat, looking innocent and asking what could be the matter. Truly a cinematic work of art.

Cat People reminds us that low budget films don’t have to mean shoddy workmanship. Using leftover sets and a belief that what is left unseen is more frightening than what is seen, Producer Val Lewton and Director Jacques Tourneur (Curse of the Demon, I Walked with a Zombie) were able to deliver a film that not only won audience approval and critical acclaim, but changed the way horror films were approached for years to come.

Look for Elizabeth Russell (Bedlam, The Corpse Vanishes) as the Cat Woman at the restaurant, and Alan Napier (more readily known to my generation as Alfred the butler from the old Batman TV series) as Doc Carver.

Scene to watch for: In a tense moment, Irena catches Oliver sharing details of their marriage with Alice. Oliver explains that Alice is a “good egg” and can understand anything. Irena responds, “There are some things a woman doesn’t want other women to understand,” and tersely walks off.

Line to listen for: “Oliver’s bride seems to be a very nice girl, and a very pretty one too. Carver tells me she’s a bit odd.”

Trivia: It is said that Val Lewton had two phobias: the fear of being touched (he even dreaded handshakes) and a fear of cats. Both phobias were utilized in the plot of Cat People.

Mark’s Rating: ! ! ! ! ½ out of 5.


Dead of Night

From the video case: Sir Michael Redgrave stars as the host of a chilling gathering in a remote country house. His guests are strangers, people of whom he has dreamed, people whose lives are intricately bound by forces no one can understand. It’s an unusual and wonderfully frightening tale that cleverly intertwines logical tricks of magic with inexplicable acts from unseen powers.

Mark says: As more often than not, the video case description is not entirely accurate. Eliot Foley (Roland Culver) is the actual host of the gathering (not Redgrave), and it is the guest, Mervyn Johns (The Day of the Triffids) as architect Walter Craig who has dreamed of all the other characters.

Dead of Night is actually an anthology of six stories rolled into one. First is the overall tale which serves as the linking narrative. Within this tale are five other tales told by the various guests. The sequences are based on stories by renowned British authors such as H. G. Wells and E. F. Benson. Each tale has its own director.

I’ll briefly discuss each of the six stories below:

The Overall Story (linking narrative): Architect Walter Craig (Mervyn Johns) is baffled to find himself among a group of strangers who have been starring in his recurring nightmares. The guests respond to Mr. Craig’s story by relating their own extraordinary experiences.

Frederick Valk plays the skeptic, Dr. Van Straaten, who counters each seemingly paranormal story with a logical explanation. Ironically, it is Dr. Van Straaten who tells the most chilling tale.

Hearse Driver: A wonderful little tale of premonition as told by Mr.Grainger (Anthony Baird). Fits in well with the overall atmosphere and theme of the movie.

Christmas Party: A rather mediocre ghost story as told by the guest Sally O’Hara (Sally Ann Howes). Sally recalls a Christmas party where she encountered the ghost of a young boy. It’s quite predictable, and of all the stories, seems the most dated.

The Haunted Mirror: Ralph Michael (Children of the Damned) plays Peter Cortland, a man who comes to possess a haunted mirror. Eventually, the history of the mirror takes possession of him. Googie Withers plays his wife, Joan. I have to admit, this story spooked me upon first viewing.

Golfing Story: A silly bit of tripe about two friends who play a game of golf to win the hand of a woman they both love. The loser decides to kill himself, but returns to haunt his partner when it is discovered that he cheated. This sequence is used to break the tension, I suppose, but I think the movie would be better without it. Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne star as the golfers, and Peggy Bryan plays Mary, the object of their affections.

The Ventriloquist’s Dummy: This is by far the most interesting and chilling tale of the lot. Michael Redgrave (The Innocents) is Maxwell Frere, a ventriloquist tormented by his own dummy. The plot seems familiar today (thanks to a famous Twilight Zone episode, and the Child’s Play movies) but was certainly ahead of its time in 1945. Great direction by Alberto Cavalcanti and an astonishing performance by Mr. Redgrave propel this tale head and shoulders above the rest. Does anyone else notice a similarity between Maxwell Frere and and Psycho‘s Norman Bates?

The movie’s finale is a bizarre collage of all the tales mixed together in a nightmarish fashion, as Mr. Craig races helter-skelter to his destiny. Quite avant-garde for the time and genre.

Dead of Night would rank even higher with me except two of the tales (“Christmas Party” and “Golfing Story”) drag the average down a notch. Still, this movie deserves its classic status, and Michael Redgrave’s performance alone makes it worth your time.

Directed by Alberto Cavalcanti (“Christmas Party” and “The Ventriloquist’s Dummy”), Charles Crichton (“Golfing Story”), Basil Dearden (“Hearse Driver” and “Linking Narrative”), and Robert Hamer (“The Haunted Mirror”).

Scene to watch for: Maxwell Frere (Michael Redgrave) sits in his cell and works a puppet that’s not there. Very creepy.

Line to listen for: “Just room for one inside, sir.”

Mark’s Rating: ! ! ! ! out of 5.


The Monster Maker 1944

From the DVD case: Mad scientist Dr. Igor Markoff (played with malicious delight by J. Carroll Naish) finds his romantic advances are scorned by a beautiful young woman who bears a striking resemblance to his dead wife. In a fury of jealous vengeance, Markoff exacts a gruesome, hideous retribution upon the young woman and her family. The Monster Maker features excellent special effects and co-stars the renowned Glenn Strange, who went on to portray the Frankenstein monster in several classic films. (1944, b&w)

Mark says: I picked up this little gem (coupled with Dead Men Walk) for a buck. I did not expect much for 4 bits a movie, but I must say I rather enjoyed this picture.

The Monster Maker is low-budget, to be sure, but the special effects are more than adequate for a film of this era and cost. Though the storyline is a bit convoluted, and often preposterous, it is entertaining enough to keep our attention.

Essentially, evil Dr. Markoff infects concert pianist Anthony Lawrence with acromegaly (a real, but rare disease) and won’t administer the cure unless Mr. Lawrence consents to letting Dr. Markoff marry his daughter, Patricia (played by Wanda McKay). Acromegaly is marked by grotesque deformities to the head, feet, and hands, thus giving Mr. Lawrence a “monstrous” appearance. There are a lot of other plot twists, but you get the gist of it.

You may recognize some of the character actors featured in this film: J. Carrol Naish from House of Frankenstein; Ralph Morgan from Night Monster; Tala Birell from The Frozen Ghost; Terry Frost of Mysterious Island, and of course, Glenn Strange who plays the Frankenstein monster in House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula.

The acting is by no means superb, but at least par for the genre. Tala Birell’s character (Maxine, Dr. Markoff’s assistant) is my favorite to watch, but mostly because her expressions strike me as humorous.

I’m not going to say this is a great film, but I will say it is an enjoyable 62 minutes, and certainly worth the 50 cents I paid for admission.

Directed by Sam Newfield (Dead Men Walk, The Flying Serpent).

Scene to watch for: Like all mad scientists, Dr. Markoff keeps a gorilla caged in his laboratory.

Line to listen for: “That cock and bull story was old in César’s time!”

Note of interest: The acromegaly motif is later used in the 1955 sci-fi classic, Tarantula (referred to as acromegalia).

Mark’s rating: ! ! ! out of 5.


Cry of the Werewolf

From the video case: The queen of a gypsy tribe, Celeste (Nina Foch), learns that the director of a New Orleans museum has evidence proving her mother was a werewolf. She goes to the museum and the next day the museum head is found dead, killed by a wolf. His son Bob (Stephen Crane) and assistant Elsa (Osa Massen) begin investigating his death, and Bob narrowly escapes being killed. Elsa finally confesses that she is the murderess, but Celeste, turning into a wolf, tries to kill both Elsa and Bob. A bullet, however, ends the animal’s life, and dying, the wolf assumes the form of Celeste. (1944, b&w)

Mark says: Nothing like a video box description that gives away the ending of the movie. Oh well.

Cry of the Werewolf is not a bad little story, though it often struggles to keep our attention. Most of the werewolf transformation scenes occur off screen, and even when we do get a glimpse of the transformation, it’s just a sudden flash from human to dog. We never see a full-fledged werewolf, only the gypsy princess in the form of a regular wolf.

What this movie has going for it are two pretty lead actresses in Nina Foch (The Return of the Vampire) and Osa Massen (Rocketship X-M). Nina is the gypsy princess/werewolf, Celeste LaTour, and Osa plays the Transylvanian love interest, Elsa Chauvet. The other actors in this film are unspectacular.

I like that the werewolf is a woman, but that fact alone can not save this film. If more time was spent on the werewolf aspect, rather than the detective work, it could have been a much better picture. Unfortunately, this film takes interesting themes like voodooism and werewolfism and makes them rather dull.

Cry of the Werewolf (aka Daughter of the Werewolf) is directed by Henry Levin, who went on to direct Journey to the Center of the Earth.

Scene to watch for: Princess Celeste’s feet (in high-heel shoes) turn into doggie paws quite suddenly.

Line to listen for: “That wolf used to be a beautiful gypsy girl, a princess who worshiped evil. You can tell your grandchildren about it, Ed.”

Mark’s Rating: ! ! ½ out of 5.


The Devil Bat

From the video case: Bela Lugosi plays Dr. Carruthers, a small-town chemist who has been cheated by his former business partners and decides to get revenge. Rather than shoot his victims, Carruthers concocts an elaborate plan, by which he takes normal-sized bats and subjects them to an electrical device that makes them grow to monstrous proportions. Having devised a special shaving lotion that the killer bats are attracted to, the mad scientist then presents the lotion to his victims as a gift, urging them to try some on in his presence. He then leaves and waits for the bats to do their work. (1940, b&w)

Mark says: The Devil Bat gives us a glimpse into what Lugosi’s career would be reduced to in future decades. This is an extremely low budget movie, with even lower production values. I wouldn’t doubt that Ed Wood, Jr. found great inspiration in this film.

The major redeeming quality of this picture is Bela Lugosi’s (Dracula, Bride of the Monster) portrayal of the mad scientist. He hams it up to the hilt, and delivers some of the hokiest lines uttered in the history of cinema. He is especially enjoyable while wearing his goofy goggles (see image above).

The “special effects” are atrocious, and include one of the phoniest bats I have ever seen in any B-movie. Ironically, the “hoax bat” (conjured up by an ambitious photographer in the film) looks decidedly more real.

Though this movie isn’t spectacular on any level, it does hold some camp value. I would definitely recommend it to Lugosi fans, and it is worth at least one viewing for others even casually interested in the genre.

The Devil Bat is directed by Jean Yarbrough.

Scene to watch for: Lugosi listens intently for a heartbeat from a ridiculously fake bat.

Line to listen for: “Imbecile! Bombastic ignoramus!”

Trivia: You may recognize the male lead of Devil Bat (Dave O’Brien) as Ralph Wiley from the cult classic, Reefer Madness.

Mark’s Rating: ! ! ½


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