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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 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., 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.

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

Island of Lost Souls (12/1/32)

Island of Lost Souls (12/1/32) Wrong time, wrong island. Moreau plays Mengele on a bunch of unsuspecting animals, setting himself up as the deity to his beastmen, fire and bloodly climax assured. Experimenting on live unsedated animals was a thing back in the day, and people were outraged at the idea, it’s still a thing today, but fewer people are outraged. Kicking off the British Villain archetype, Laughton pluses it with some satantic facial hair and a stragetically placed pistol. His mad scientist is gleeful at the idea of stretching his animal to man transmogrification hobby to into beastiality territory. In the book it is the screams of suffering animals that drives our hero from the house into the jungle, in the film, it is screams of a suffering manbeast. The 1st of the many moments you can literally hear censors all over the world sharpening their scissors. Paramounts horror films at the time are more sexy and violent than others, instead of hinting at mating human to monster, here they are openly discussing it and planning for it. I am trying to image a 22 minute version with everything outrageous removed.

Westmore’s makeup effects were groundbreaking and much talked about at the time. That and the Panther woman contest added to the the prerelease hype, luring viewers in like the sideshow canvases daring you to come and see the freakshow. The other effects in the film are so subtle in comparison they are practically seamless: as in the rear screen projection of Arlen and Laughton disembarking the schooner in the background to reenter the cave set in the foreground to conclude the scene. Struss’s Cinematography is incomperable, but Dreier’s Art Direction that tickles me the most. Set dressing Moreau’s House of Pain, so that we have trees and vegetation inside the living quarters, eliminating the demarkation between what is civilization and what is jungle. Cutting heavily between set dressed outdoor locations, and soundstages, you feel as trapped as the island denisens.

There was no hiding Bela beneath all that fur, which is strangely lacking from his hands. Most beastmen seem to be reverting from the extremities inward, so that may have been a omission, or perhaps a full fur face get up is quicker to strip off than a more elaborate effect. Kelton was a servicable director, this seems to be his highwater mark, before he comes to Universal for a couple of the Frankenstein sequels. Here he makes some very clever choices, as with Lota’s reveal, when Moreau first speaks to Lota, we never actually SEE her, until she is presented to Parker.

For a while there was a spate of shipwrecked island movies. I suppose that trope had to run its course prewar while there were still undiscovered island and tinpot mad scientists wanting to build a better race on them. The film leaves me wondering about Moreau’s funding…who is PAYING for all this? is there some sort of export product that he was using his workforce to harvest? I think they could do great business spinning yarn.

Mask of Fu Manchu (11/5/32)

Mask of Fu Manchu (11/5/32) or madness takes its toll. There is much to roll your eyes at in this one. NOTE: I have a visceral reaction to actors being made up as other races. Saying Lugosi is Egyptian is one thing, adding a few pounds of makeup to Karloff is another. Nearly all non-white actors are relegated to set dressing or muscle and the only Asian with a speaking role is a stereotypical waiter in the last reel. If this film wasn’t such a train wreck on the racial front, it would be a point worth making, but to get to the good stuff in this film you really do have to swallow a lot of codswallop.

MGM was not to be left on the sideline in this horror movie money grab, adding their typical “if some is good, way too much is better” flair. At minute five a bunch of fellas in zip-up mummy suits kidnap Fu’s first victim and then we are off to the races, he gets tortured over the next five minutes, intercut with a visually familiar tomb excavation. Karloff and Loy swan around in some exceedingly nice dresses, spewing single entendres at everything, and the art director has a field day or perhaps a nervous breakdown. At the midpoint we have another torture scene, followed by some secret passages and snakes…a lot of snakes…and some tarantulas and alligators to make a change. In the last reel we have torture device overkill, do they get these things out of a catalog? Watch for Ken Strickfaden doubling for Karloff when Fu takes Ghengis Khan’s sword on a test drive through one of his Tesla coils..and the death ray makes another appearance. What the hell is up with everyone’s finger nails? what is up with all the men in diapers? what’s with the anything and everything? why am I asking you? It’s a fantasy nightmare suitable to entertain the inner deviant in us all.

It’s a good looking film, and it has been looted and pillaged over the years, with bits of itself showing up in much less offensive films. I don’t watch it often, or ever, I think it would be much improved by the addition of Tom Servo and Crow in the foreground.

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