Author Archive | Erasergirl

Death Takes a Holiday (2/23/34)

Death Takes a Holiday (2/23/34) Emo Death is feeling unloved, hangs up his shroud and crashes an affluenza weekend houseparty looking for the meaning of life or maybe get laid, whichever. He takes turns hitting on each girl until he finds the manic depressive who is probably cutting herself in the powder room. Seriously THESE are the people he chooses to visit? We are introduced to these entitled one percenters at a drunken party, on their way back to their baroque castle in a made up country, they nearly kill a poor schmuck of a flower seller and his donkey, but it’s okay because they bought all his flowers. What the hell? who are these people? WHY them? I realized it was an Italian play, and until faily late in the 19thc, the place was carpeted with disenfranchised princelings, but I think we could have been treated to a little Americanization so the audience can identify with SOMEONE. Personally I identified with the flower seller’s donkey.
This is a play. it’s not scary, it’s not funny, and since so much time has passed, it is not even THAT thought provoking. The set decorator should be shot at dawn, unless they shot it in a church or museum, then its the location scout that should be shot. I hadn’t watched this film in a very long time, I remember enjoying it when I was in my Frederick March phase and I was working through a list of Hollywood heaven/hell/afterlife films…I remember liking it, but seriously what was I thinking? There is no one in this film I like. I loathed every character including death. He’s a bully, he’s basically kidnapped a houseful of people to entertain himself and prove a point that he should have dealt with millenia ago, how can we sympathize with him? And the women whom he flirts with are rather useless vapid women, they neither sow nor spin, and the one that ‘loves’ him? and has ALWAYS loved him and always seen him as a large floating shroud? yeah that woman is well passed medication time, her profession of love is a suicide note. Death, dude, only people who have all the money and all the toys are so bored out of their minds that they can afford to be in love with death and not fear it. You want to meet people who LOVE life and would fight for every scrap, go hang around with the Flower Seller and his donkey.

The Ghoul (11/25/1933)

The Ghoul (11/25/1933) The best little horror film Universal never made. Working from a tried and true formula Gaumont gives us a Gothic horror film that could only have been made in England: one lightless, moldering mansion, five sneaky suspects, two naive bickering heirs, one comic relief in need of a slap, one whackjob undead home owner, a dollop of quasi Egyptian mumbo jumbo, and one magic dingus, all wrapped with some creepy atmosphere, and served with London’s visibility limiting smog.

Frosted with decent cinematography and art direction, not to mention Karloff, Thesiger, Hardwicke and Richardson – one would think it would be perfect, but it does have some things working against it. The acting from the juveniles is simply juvenile, what ARE stage actors looking AT when they stare off into the distance emoting? It also overcomes its slightly convoluted plotline where the dead guy isn’t really dead and the dingus tied to his hand has to magically jump into that of the statute, at least I THINK that’s what’s going on. BTW try to follow the magic dingus being punted from servant to lawyer to niece to Egyptian fanatic to spinster to mock vicar and eventually back to the the undead guy. Karloff’s makeup effect although very effective, is utterly unnecessary, as if they needed the poster to telegraph the entire film using only his face. AND for guy who was JUST on death’s door, undead or no, he is shambling around at a pretty fair clip, strangling people and bending security bars like Charles Atlas. Lifting the Egyptian themes from Universal’s Mummy is at once clever, as at the time many an English Gentleman’s home was being redecorated with pilfered grave goods, yet, with Karloff performing another villain trying to appease a long dead god, seems like pilferage of grave goods of a different sort.

On the bright side Karloff’s self mortification scene locks in the first H is for Horror rating ever employed. And reel one gives us a nice little closeup of an absinthe cocktail being prepared. We also get a playful making coffee sado masochistic sex banter, followed eventually by an excellent skewering of the British-fawning-over-any-sort-of-royalty trope and some really great abuse of organized religion which I could watch all day. Whereas US films patronize the woman over and over ‘you should get some rest’, ‘go to bed’, ‘go back to the hotel’, the Brits have no compunctions about patronizing MEN and women, ‘go to the library’ , ‘yes come along.’ and then they go like little public schoolboy sheep. This film is well worth watching if only to give us our second installment in Thesiger’s horror movie hat trick.

The Invisble Man (11/13/33)

The Invisible Man (11/13/33) Reputedly clever man makes a string of bad decisions. If he really wanted to be left alone, he woud have gone to London. Once he chose to go to east bumfuck he became the center of their attention, of COURSE people spied on him, that’s WHAT small towns DO for entertainment. Mind you that wasn’t his first bad decision, experimenting on oneself never ends well; he really should have stuck to lab animals, or maybe he did and he misplaced them all. Griffin and Kemp are supposed to be equals assistants to an older scientist, well Kemp seems to live very well in pretty damn nice house, how come Griffin is so incredibly poor he has gone so completely obsessed for power to impress his girl friend? IF he works all night every night on this for 5 years, WHEN did he had time to romance Stuart? When did THAT happen? I suspect there was something else going on before he starts terrorizing the country side. “We will begin with a reign of terror,” that had to come from a childhood trauma. The book paints him as crazy BEFORE he starts injecting himself with things, the film says it made him crazy, probably because we can’t imagine Gloria Stuart falling for a madman. I can see why the script delayed the production, it does rely on a lot of distration. If you are looking for the plotholes you are missing the big picture. The film isn’t about how he got himself invisible, it’s about the ensuing paranoia, what do you do when there’s an invisible hostile force roaming about? What do you say to a naked man?

This was an ideal project for Whale, a generous dollop of science fiction smeared over a traditional English setting. He got to paint a portrait of people he knew and then set about terrorizing them. Where would the world be without Una’s screaming? Watch for Whalesian details… when Griffin is removing his headbandage in front a mirror using a matte techinique, the matted arm keeps ‘bumping’ the curtain which is on the other image. When he lies down for a goodnight’s rest, the scene cuts to the man he just killed also covered in a blanket but being carted out on a stretcher..morbidly clever. I always laugh when he gobbles up the toast soldier. Love the sly wordplay – like the Little Willy joke about sucking the boy out of a snow bank (Little Willies were the naughty 4 line poems from the 1910s. http://ruthlessrhymes.com/category/little_willies), or when a naked invisible Griffin complains about the cold freezing icicles of an Eskimo..and “Icicles” rhymes with what body part? Dwight Frye, cub reporter repeatedly asking for any ‘special secret plans?’, as IF they were going to tell him. Even visual jokes, like filming Kemp hitting on Flora completely obscured by what would have been a very expensive mid winter floral arrangement. The ladies of the pub all bundled up snug in their Snug. And the not so vielded reference to Chancellor Hitler with the posturing and the Power to Rule speech about conquering the world with invisble armies. The long drawn out stalking and murder of Kemp is pretty damn ghastly, as is the over the top crashing of an entire train load of people; but what reign of terror is complete without a little mass murder?

On the whole this is my second favorite James Whale film. Casting second string Rains was a stroke of genius, granted Karloff’s round tones are by far creepier but in a more subtle way, Rains went from charming subtle threat to over the top mad cackling in heartbeat. One of the few films where the protagonist is represented more often by a special effect than an actor, yet still Rains’ voice over resists taking a back seat to those special effects, which really try to steal every scene…except the ones that Una steals.

Supernatural (5/12/33)

Supernatural (5/12/33) The first reel of this film is jawdroppingly batshit creepy. Multiple murderess is gleefully counting down the days to her own execution…and I MEAN Gleefully. Mad scientist has cockamamie idea of evil spirits escaping the executed body and cons warden into a little gross abuse of a corpse. Which brings us to all the other reels: Socialite Lombard is mourning her dead twin, and starts messing around with fat fake spiritualist who for some reason was banging the murderess and thinks he has a shot with a socialite who keeps a tuxedo clad Randolph Scott around just for arm candy. Lombard stumbles into mad scientists….living room? where he just happens to have the murderesses still bangable body and is zapping it with electricity for kicks.

At minute 46 the murderess body jumps into Lombard, you can tell because she brings a little Max Factor to the party. Lombard makes a beeline to getting her revenge on….I stopped paying attention after that… THIS HAD to be the film, that inspired an young Val Lewton to say “I can do better than that crap.” Seriously this film has half a good idea, and suffers from a really bad script and poor editing. The BEST thing about it is the Poster, which I highly recommend..and Val Lewton..go watch Val Lewton instead.

King Kong (3/2/1933)

King Kong (3/2/1933) In March 1933, Mr. Kong’s home was invaded by pirates from the SS Venture. After a traditional island ceremony performed by the local Chieftan, the pirates succeed in carrying off Mr. Kong’s new mail order bride. Despite defensive actions taken by Mr Kong and his neighbors, wherein 15 of the invading pirates were successfully killed, Mr. Kong was subsequently kidnapped and taken to New York City without his consent. After escaping captivity and scouring Manhattan island, Mr Kong was briefly reunited with his wife. Mr. Kong was then subsequently murdered by US Army Air Corps biplanes. Carl Dedham, the criminal mastermind resposible for the home invasion and kidnappings is still at large, but is expected to be charged with the deaths of one stegosaurus, 15 pirates, 12 Skull Island citizens, 30 New Yorkers and two US army pilots, along with the damages to one Skull Island Village and one historically significant large wooden Wall.

King Kong is the pinnacle of pre-1939 filmmaking, in my opinion it is technically superior to all but a few dozen films ever. Everytime I see it I find something new to tickle me. It is significant that the FIRST frame of the picture is a miniature effects shot. Not only does this film use EVERY type of effect that had been invented, and invented a lot that didn’t exist [insert list of all possible visual effects here,] it compounds them to tell a great but tragic adventure tale. Unfortunately it makes all the films that came after it very unsatisfying to watch. I would have expected it to have cause a tidal surge in the industry across all aspects, but it didn’t, not as much as it should have. Max Steiner’s genius score as story telling element seems to have affected the most change. O’brien’s groundbreaking miniature work was still relegated to genre pictures. Other optical in camera or post producition effects turn up in hundreds of films over the years but very few have ever relied on them to augment the story, as much as this film did. After being seduced by this picture at a young age, I spent the next 40 years of my life trying to get the same satisfaction from other films – you would have to consume at least a DOZEN OTHER adventure films to get what Cooper and Schoedsack managed to squeeze into their 100 minutes. You have to get all the way to James Cameron’s Titanic to see a film that pulls out all the stops and combines every TYPE of visual and special effect in one serving to tell its story. But he has twice as long and got to kill a lot more people.

I would rather watching King Kong 10 times than 10 other non Kong films. I think it was one of the 1st movies on VHS I every bought.

Childhood amnesia

For a long time I never realized that other people remember their childhood, I do not. I guess there are a lot of people who have missing memories, for a lot of reasons.  Since I acquired a new set of parents and a new family last year I have spent a lot more time trying to remember my childhood.  Those memories aren’t coming back. But images pop back now and then, like snapshots, nearly always associated with a thing or a place.

I went down the pinterest rabbit hole, assembling all sorts of images that I remembered from back then.  It was more difficult than I had expected, I remember a lot of things from advertisements, things my cousins owned, things that passed through my hands as an antique dealer and collector – in the end I realized I didn’t own as much crap as I thought I did.  I can remember nearly all the books I owned but very few of the toys or games. My other mother was also not one for having a lot of trendy plastic crap, in retrospect she didn’t have a lot of money but she had better taste and avoided faddy thing.

I could only remember one thing I ever got for christmas, a portable television set, and I can’t even remember what year I got it.  I know I got other crap, other years . . .nowhere near as much as other kids, but enough, usually one big thing a few small things and treats.  That used to be enough for any kid.  But the television, that was the best thing ever. It was like giving me a house key, a bus pass and a library card all at once. Maybe I was trapped in that house with the crazy woman for the two decades but with that thing, I was free to go anywhere it would take me.

Murders in the Zoo (3/31/1933)

Murders in the Zoo (3/31/1933) Randolph Scott herpatologist and boy detective or ‘why do we even HAVE that lever?’ Big game psychopath Atwill, obessively kills any man who he catches talking to his wife, God knows how many maître d’s he’s offed before we catch up with him practicing a little whip stiching in the jungle. Unfortunately his wife is the beautiful Panther woman, Kathleen Burke, in a bit of stunt casting, I mean whom ELSE would you cast? Like many of Atwill’s non-mysterious villains, we already know who done it, we are just waiting around to see how he gets caught doing it. The hook in this film are the animals, and suffering bear cubs and big cat chaos aside, they come off pretty well in this film. THEY aren’t as frightening as Atwill’s casual killer.

Comic relief Ruggles is at his Ruggly best terrified of the animals he’s trying to promote, and scene stealing with abandon. He’s much more of a protagonist than Randolph Scott in this film. Science geek is really not Scott’s milieu, his scientist is so brilliant he dopes out the murder weapon and then invites the villain to come by after dark and talk it over. Randy, get a horse.

Despite having terrible taste in men, Burke’s stalked wife has some grit about her, when she invades her husband’s study to recover the murder weapon, too bad I was starting to like her. No rear screen projection to be found at climactic dinner party IN the carnivore enclosure. A lot of real lions, real pumas, real leopards, but no one told them this was a movie, when they DO get turned loose upon each other, with the aforementioned lever, they seem to be having a very unpleasant time of it. There are two other really great gags in the film, the tossing the woman into the alligator pit stunt is very well done, if it wasn’t for lack of blood curdling screaming it looks quite real. And the constrictor cameo at the end of the film, had a hell of a stunt double and I hope they paid Atwill extra for his contibution.

It’s an adequate little comedy/murder with animals, worthy of any double bill, as long as there’s a newsreel and a short AND a cartoon and I get to take home a piece of sandwich glass. BTY When Gail Patrick is holding two bottles of milk in front of her chest, and says ‘They are nice, aren’t they?’ she’s talking about the orphaned bear cubs chained up the fence right?

Mystery of the Wax Museum (2/17/33)

Mystery of the Wax Museum (2/17/33) Park avenue body snatchers. In Universal’s hands this tale would have been set in some quasi European olde worlde micronation, but dragged kicking and screaming into the two strip technicolor NY noir, it packs a terrific wallop. From the gruesome Grand Guignol fire bombing of the waxworks humans to its giant cauldron of waxy death climax, it’s a delicious shadowy nightmare.

Zanuck turns his mad script doctor Ben Hecht loose on Wax Museum horror story. If you doubt Hecht’s hands were around this story’s throat, just close your eyes, his NY-speed patter will make you reach for the subtitles which aren’t included, so don’t bother. It also shovels in all of the other Warner precode genetic material: tough gum-cracking reporters, city newsrooms, antagonism between the sexes, Irish cops, bootlegging, drug addiction, slum life and raucous off-color dialogue – “Hello Sweetheart, how’s your sex life?”

Despite the presences of …wait let me look them up…nevermind I forgot them already…the hero of this picture is the Glenda Farrell, who along with Frank McHugh take Hildy Johnson/Walter Burns out for a spin, treating us to some of the best Hechtian dialogue ever. Glenda’s Kolchakian bouncy girl reporter manages to knit together the threads between the horror story and the murder mystery: “I’d rather die with an athletic heart from shaking cocktails and bankers than expire in a pan of dirty dishwater.” Alas Fay Wray’s character exists solely to be menaced and scream and look swell against the set design. Atwill, whose name should always follow Karloff and Lugosi’s but somehow does not, turns in another great villain.

Curtiz’s known for his shadowplay, really twists the knife with soundwork here: the air escaping from a corpse, the labored breathing of the hatted and caped ‘monster’, the creak of the rope lowering the body out the window, Glenda getting spooked by hurdy gurdy wires, the squeaky gurney wheels, the creak of the wheelchair, the nails being pulled from a coffin, all ramp up the creepfactor.

But like all genre pictures, you really can’t dissect all the the textural effects: Why is there a fella standing around INSIDE the museum with a hood on? whose eyes are in that mask? is that the equivalent of a painting’s eyes following you for no reason. When did he have time to take Fay’s clothes off? How does this process actually work? Why don’t the bodies rot? What exactly paid for that two-story mad artists wax filled swimming pool set when he didn’t have two sous to rub together at his last museum? Did he go into business making those Mission Impossible quality face masks, cause THAT’s way better than his wax dipped dead folks. Park those questions at the door, buckle up and light a candle to Ben Hecht.

The Vampire Bat (1/10/1933)

The Vampire Bat (1/10/1933) Waste not, want not. Majestic Pictures was pretty clever pushing this piggy back production into theaters at the height of advertising campaigns for similar pictures. By using Lionel Atwill, Fay Wray and Melvyn Douglas, and shooting at night on Universal’s European village and the Old Dark House sets, absent great cinematography this film could have been a legit Universal film.

The script even isn’t half bad, not having an actual monster at its core it relys on people feeding into their own paranoias. Atwill’s arch and peculiar performance telegraphs his villainy: another mad scientist looking for the secret of life and exploting fear, rumor, and mythology to run amuck. I get hypnotizing someone to do your dirty work, but what’s with the cape? Did you convince him he was a Vampire? What’s the deal with the long distance hypnosis? cause that’s a neat trick. Dwight Frye’s obviously rabid bat collector steals this picture shamelessly but without him it just doesn’t work. Douglas’ police inspector, ostensibly the voice of reason, makes a bonehead play sending a screaming mob with torches and dogs after a mentally ill man.

Stagey and creaky, with no special effects, it’s just a tiny picture that nary puts a foot wrong, except by tying Fay Wray to a chair and then GAGGING HER? What are you stupid? Maude Eburne’s hypochondriac comic relief is reason enough to buy the restored version.

the Mummy (12/22/32)

the Mummy (12/22/32) Merry Christmas 1932, Mummy’s home. Paramount brought you beastiality for the holidays, Universal tops it with necrophilia. If you doubt that, just look at the poster. Mummified mummy gets very little screentime but is on all the merchandizing. To his credit, Ardeth Bey didn’t know he was looking for a soul buried in a human, he was just going to conjure up a crumbly girlfriend. Burying magicians alive, never ends well for anyone. I do prefer a creepy mage mummy to a shambling zombie burn victim.

Balderston borrows a lot from his Dracula screenplay including pushing women around, ‘go to bed’, ‘get some rest’, ‘go back to the hotel’ – what the hell? At least Helen tries to push back ‘I’m not a child,’ two seconds before she agrees to go back to the hotel with a fella who has been creeping on her all night. The core of the tale of lovers separated by time and death, is lifted from a short story by the recently deceased and beyond complaining Conan Doyle.

Freund didn’t do much directing, but here it shows that he could have if he had wanted to. The musical motifs push the creep factor in this film, it adds a level of tension to the silent sequences which wouldn’t have been there if they were sound. It is chilling when they play the musical chord that represents him reaching out and touching someone. Universal’s globalization is always a bit of a mishmash, though characters switch fluidly from English to French, the Egyptian is mostly effective gibberish. Though silenced again, Noble Johnson was apparently quite busy in 1932.

This is probably one of the best films that exploits Eastern mythology to scare the pants off a Western audience. Feeding into the myth of the curse of the Pharaohs, it also implies that plunderers for science are still looters, and all must be punished, even Ardeth Bey. For its few faults, it is quite effective and no other Mummy film seems to ‘get’ it, as this one did. BTW the naming of Professors Whemple, knowing of Karloff’s lisp, is just childis

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