Dr. X (8/27/32)

Dr. X (8/27/32) Wanting a bite of the Dracula/Frankenstein apple, Warner tries to out Universal Universal. Serving up an inherently B list picture with A list trimmings, Michael Curtiz’s direction, Anton Grot’s set designed, and Max Factor’s makeup (yes, he was a real guy like Jack Pierce) and cutting edge two strip technicolor, they do manage to polish it up a bit, but it’s still a trashy horror film underneath. Very few people do pseudoscience gibberish like Lionel Atwill; surround him with lots of scary looking fake science equipment and a creepy butler who has probably killed a few people and top it off with Fay Wray, and you really can’t go wrong.

Warner takes the horror film out of the 19th century European foothills and brings it home to New York where it belongs. It resembles their specialty, the crime drama with corpses, cops and a crime reporter, it even sounds like one, I can hear Ben Hecht’s script patter whenever it shows up…until half way through when the action withdraws to the strangest damn house on Long Island: Part mad science laboratory, part funhouse, part gothic castle, part bondage room, comes completely furnished along with crazy cannibal lab assistant and screaming mimi maid. I confess a fondness for two strip technicolor, it just tries so earnestly to be modern, and it just manages to look like a vintage handcolored post card.

Another way I know when Ben Hecht has had his hands on a script is when the reporter IS the hero and gets the girl. In later years the reporter becomes the comic relief and a dull as dishwater leading man is brought in to wrestle the villain in the last reel. But the reporter character will still get all the best lines.

White Zombie (8/4/32)

White Zombie (8/4/32) There is much to like in White Zombie, but you have to wade through the other dreck to get to it. I haven’t seen the restored version but I would like to. I really like the way they reuse Universal’s redressed sets and props, I hardly find myself pointing at something in recognition. I WOULD like to SEE more of the sugar mill set which I still can’t place. Much of the acting is poverty row level, but it’s a zombie movie fer crying out loud, great acting has never been part of that criteria. For a movie set in Haiti, many of the Zombies in the film are white. It really only has one African American speaking role, Clarence Muse’s coach driver, who issues the obligatory unheeded warnings.

Bela is pretty good, though he gets upstaged by own eyebrows, without them the film doesn’t work at all. His witchdoctor/voodoo guy combines magical hand motions and intensive stares, with plain old chemically induced mind control. Managing a captive and compliant work force by using intoxicants has been done for thousands of years, and zombifying a woman into giving a flawless concert on the piano seems a rather arrogant exercise in comparison, but every man needs a hobby.

The real stars of White Zombie, besides Jack Pierce’s hair & makeup on Bela, are Conrad Tritschler’s matte paintings, they really do class up the joint. Giving this tiny shot after dark film a much larger scale than it deserves. The vulture, sometimes mechanical, sometimes played a hawk, is a nice touch, you need something to do the screaming when you don’t have a Fay Wray. And I really like a self cleaning zombie picture, where all the bad guys, zombies and non-zombie alike are washed away into the sea. One can only hope that all the native zombie worker bees are released from mind control with the death of their master.

As a horror film, its small band of assorted zombie men are pretty scary, especially if you want to get rid of a troublesome butler or boyfriend. Especially the one that looks like he wandered in from a Bergman picture. And as zombies go, these are are probably the scariest yet most pliable ones on film, until of course Francois Edmonds. If I saw this in a dark cinema they would probably have given me nightmares, well, if not them, then those eyebrows

Murders in the Rue Morgue (2/21/1932)

Murders in the Rue Morgue (2/21/1932) Lugosi & Florey’s consolation prize for not being chosen for Team Frankenstein and it may contain one of Bela’s best performances…I think it’s better than his Dracula. Beyond the expressionistic set design, great scenery chewing and Grand Guignol voyerism….at it’s heart, it is torture porn with a beastiality chaser or just another madman using hokum science as an excuse to torture young women to death. I am sensing a theme here. Seriously the CSI voodoo science makes absolutely no sense, so don’t dwell on it. If you are working in a sideshow, I seriously doubt you have a medical degree…just saying.
 

The structure is unusual, we are given the movie’s horror scene pretty quickly instead of building up to it. And considering the outrage that we just witnessed, putting the mother’s violent murder and the abduction behind closed doors seems backwards. There is also some sort of coded commentary on the perfect blood of the sweet young thing versus the unclean blood of the streetwalker. It’s never quite clear why Erik the ape strangles his owner, perhaps he didn’t want her transformed her into ape, he wanted to whisk her off and mate with her just as she was. Oh ain’t that sweet?
 
The plot maybe nonsense but there is no arguing the film is beautiful, the expressionist set design makes one want to freeze frame just to look at it. Even the costumes and hair are way over the top for a Universal Horror movie. This one never makes you think it is set in Universal’s quasi-bavarian monsterland. I just wish they had put all this effort into a better story.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (12/31/1931)

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (12/31/1931) After seeing Design for Living, I developed a mad passion for Fred March and hunted up a LOT of his films. He was always terrific and deserved all his accolades. This was the youngest and prettiest I had ever seen him. The ridiculously good hypocrite Henry Jekyll who makes the lame walk and farts sunbeams -seriously his ‘love sceen’ in reel one is so saccharine I wanted to vomit, is really just another scientist who uses his obsession to indulge his inner desire to be naughty, lucky for us this is precode gives us the delicious tumble Miriam Hopkins for him to be naughty with. He just needs to brew up an excuse to absolve him of all the sins he wants to commit. Stevenson may have wanted to explore the duality of man, and expose some Victorian hypocrisies, but personally I have always considered it an allegorical story that most people who live with a substance abuser know all too well, you never know who is gonna come through the door.

Mamoulian likes his toys, we have lots of lovely camera work and transformations to admire. Personlly I think Westmore’s makeup is pushed too far into neanderthal territory, cause unless Hyde is wearing a suit made of money, I can’t imagine him being taken seriously as a rich guy wen he looks like a sideshow act who rolled a rich guy for his clothes. (BTW In the movies, anytime you meet a fella in a top hat and cape RUN for your life.) It is a reverse Beauty and the Beast, where the more he is indulged the worse of an abomination he becomes; literally saying “forgive me my dear, I hurt you because I love you.” Miriam may be a cheap trollop, but doesn’t deserve this, cause everyone knows he’s GOING TO KILL HER, even she knows it. He could easily be saying “don’t make me angry, you wouldn’t like me when I’m angry”

Personally I think the film is 20 minutes too long. In Universals hands this film would have been a tight 90 minutes and Miriam’s death would have been closer to the end, making it his ultimate act of debauchery. Cutting out some of Fred’s self mortification and at least one of the transformations probably wouldn’t have affected much, and snipping a lot of the ‘what’s to be done with Henry?’ moments would have improved it greatly. The last reel of the film is straight out of the Universal playbook, coppers chasing around a homicidal villain in formal wear before he comes to a sticky end. Whenever I watch it, I just watch the transformations and Miriam Hopkins…but that’s cause I don’t need an excuse to be naughty.

Frankenstein (11/21/31)

Frankenstein (11/21/31) If some is good, more is better. This picture is pretty lavish for a horror movie. The 30s seems be the only decade where Horror movies were given the same consideration as A pictures, I don’t think we see that again until the 70s. It is easy to fall into the trap of watching Frankenstein ’31 and not really SEEING IT, relegating it to comfort food. I haven’t watched it in about a year. There are like SIX other people besides Whale who tinkered with Shelley’s original story. So instead of being a mess of a script, it seems to have been stripped down to bare essentials to make the MOVIE, not film the play or adapt the novel. I find it much less stagey as Dracula.

The first pan at the graveyard has always bothered me, it pans over all the weeping mourners, then the Grim Reaper and it should have continued ending at the faces of our ghouls, Fritz and Henry as the punchline, but it cuts away to a closeup of the two, we lose the elegance of a terrific Whalesian joke. There must have been something wrong with that take and he has to use another. (see the line of skulls at the university pan to Igor in Young Frankenstein) I can see why Whales insisted on this project, the film is just one long blasphemy. When our ghoulish protagonist Henry says ‘we must find another brain’ that’s pretty freaking funny since their life choices have brought them to grave robbing, they are basically doomed by their own hand. Fritz’s hunchback can’t even be called a fiend…he’s a cowardly parasite who would be just as happy robbing drunks in an alley, but we are going to give him something to torture that’s gonna bite him back.

Someone’s commentary on Bride points out the irony of two men trying to make life, that will always color my view of the entire Frankenstein oeuvre. Here’s a guy who wants to make life, and he just keeps putting off his wedding night, where he would have gotten the chance to do JUST THAT. I get the feeling the Doctor is a virgin and this whole story line could have easily been avoided. I had forgotten he had an audience in the tower when he animates The Monster, if you just watch the It’s Alive clip of the lightening storm you don’t see them, his audience is out of frame, they are seated on a raised platform, he is on stage below them putting on life making as performance art (yes, kids there IS a sex joke in there – Henry even gets to make his “O” face after he declares “it’s alive!”)…they are us, BUT they are locked in with this maniac and his monster, so if it all goes sideways they are pretty well toast. The Baron has half a clue…he knows it’s another woman that obsesses his son…he just does’t know the She’s a He.

The next time we see Henry he’s kicking back musing on his achievement, the most relaxed we have seen him, enjoying a post coital cigar. When we get to see Karloff’s patchwork ‘monster’ he seems stiff and placid, it just wants the sun on his face…but.what do Henry and Fritz do? They start pushing him back into the dark, back into the box…many parents wish they could do that with their children…it never works out. In the book, the monster goes off to live alone in the woods observing other people, contemplating existence, building up enmity towards his creator, vowing to confront him and find out why he was made and why he was made wrong…typical teenager stuff. In the movie, the monster kills one of his oppressors in self defense, finally escapes his other oppressors and goes off in search of more sunlight. His bad luck is he finds the ONE KID living next to a lake whose parents didn’t teach her how to swim…now THAT’s on THEM.

Logic tells us that there’s a bunch of script missing between the tower escape his appearance in her bedroom. Two hundred eighty page book to 71 minutes(pages) you are had to make choices…maybe he has a really good sense of smell, maybe the Doctors address is in the phone book.who cares? Henry’s past misdeeds literally threatening his future happiness, with good reason. You need to ramp up to the angry villagers with torches, sadly they are chasing the wrong monster. Unless the Monster is growling down the duct work, I swear he was just hearing the monster in his head when they go tearing around the house in search of him. They really should have dragged Henry off to a padded room. The villagers don’t know that the kindly doctor leading the chase actually MADE the monster they are chasing…..he’s trying to use them to erase his mistake. You really do need to clean up your own mess Henry, unless of course you have created an immortal monster who is REALLY hard to kill. Even immolating an entire windmill can’t do it…they should have used a chainsaw.

Seriously I would have liked it better if Henry had been killed by his monster, I am sure Whale would have liked it better too. From the moment he starts digging up bodies he dug his own grave, I find the ending very dissatisfying. I prefer to think of the Monster plodding away up in the arctic.

Dracula-SP (4/24/1931)

Dracula-SP (4/24/1931) Debating which version is technically superior is like Han-Shot first, a circular exercise in rhetoric. Before it was included in the Legacy set, none of us had seen it and had no reason to compare the two simulateous versions. Pardon my usual catch phrase, apples and oranges. I have only watched this version a few times, I like a lot of the details that were added and wish I could merge them into the English version.

The cellar/coffin scene in the Spanish version is a bit of a funhouse with lots of coffins and lots of wives, but we do get to see him emerge, like three times in the film….which is excessive. (why does he need THREE boxes of earth?), they make the Dracula passing through the cobweb gag much more obvious, Reinfield stops for a what-the-hell-moment when his bags turn up in his room when we know Dracula has no servants…maybe he has a dumb waiter, the Spanish brides are way scarier and pounce on Reinfield while Dracula abstains from drinking from a guy….must be a machismo thing. When Lugosi smiles creepily he looks like he is grimacing in pain, when Villarías does it, it looks very creepy, I have decided that he is trying to make his guest comfortable but he hasn’t smiled it in such a long time he has forgotten how. I personally don’t know the ins and outs of the script alterations…I prefer Reinfield cutting himself on the breadknife than the papercut, and Villarías’ reaction to the cross is more offended than frightened which made me laugh. Reinfield’s hysterical laughter on the ship while Dracula menaces the crew who are frozen to their posts is way creepier…do you stay or do you jump off into the sea?…not great choices. You get to see a lot of Villarías teeth when he sneers and menaces people…the push-in to Lugosi’s face you just see a blacked hole for a mouth which reminds me of the Japanese Ohaguro custom of teeth blackening….Maybe Villarías just had better teeth. But both fellas had a great stare and you can believe they are both mesmerizing people, and we see a lot more mind control in the Spanish version, which reminded me of the stage hypnotists that have been popular since the 1890s.

We still don’t find out why he emmigrates but we do get the Lucy resolution which was apparently cut from the English version for costs and time. The Spanish version is longer, my theory is if you only paid a nickel wouldn’t you want MORE movie for your money? Perhaps they didn’t have the same time constraints when running films in Spanish cinemas, perhaps they wanted a lot more melodrama so they can sell more popcorn and have more pee breaks. Reinfield certainly gets a lot more screen time to chew the scenery and give prophetic warnings that no one listens to. I suppose letting him roam around is cheaper than hiring an exterminator. The women are much more sexy in the Spanish version, Lupita’s introduction points out the costume differences, sheer nighties and decolletage all on display. Villarías is certainly over-posturing when he’s in her bedroom….I mean dude…she’s asleep, you’re alone, get ON with it. But the men still push Mina around like a prop china doll no matter which version you are watching. Is it just me? full opera cloak and top hat outfit in a graveyard? seems way overdressed, I can’t see him in that outfit without thinking of Fred March’s Mr Hyde outfit…..does he keep a shoe shine kit in his coffin? and a clothing brush? brylcreem, perhaps this stuff is packed in his other boxes of dirt.

Dracula (2/12/31)

Dracula (2/12/31) I confess for a long time this was my least favorite Universal Monster film, it probably still is. I always compared it to films that came AFTER, instead of comparing it to films that went BEFORE. My dislike of Dracula stemmed from not really seeing it until after I had been exposed to a lot of his progeny. I bet my first vampire was either Barnabus Collins or Drac from Groovie Ghoulies, and I didn’t see a truly scary vampire until Janos Skorzny. Seeing Lugosi’s Dracula for the 1st time seemed boring….why is he just walking around and staring at necks?

In Feb 1931 is was pretty cutting edge for horror films, the villains Universal had been featuring up until then were always human, damaged perhaps by birth or accident but always humans. Here’s a villain who is not human, or hasn’t been one for a very long time. I am not sure how popular the novel was before the film, but if it is anything like now, most of the people watching the film in 1931 hadn’t read the book nor seen the stageplay, and would have no preconceived ideas about vampires, probably no knowledge at all of their mythology, so everything they learn and see is for the first time. When you meet him, he’s just archanely elegant and exceedingly creepy, it is not until we get small doses of exposition do we find out what he actually does to the women and what his powers are. It would be goosebumps galore in the dark cinema. We don’t know how he got to be this way, we don’t even know what happened to his wives after he abandoned them in Carpathia…WHY did he emigrate to England, perhaps because he has three wives and the pickings are getting slim in the Borgo Pass?

The lack of music is indeed disturbing, they just came out of the silent era…why is there no music?… because it’s creepier that way stupid. You hear every footfall, every squeak and creak and usually you hear nothing. And why is he just walking around stalking people? cause he’s old, immortal and not in a rush. What happened to Lucy? What happened to his wives? did he bite Reinfield a lot or just a little? Why did he come to England? What are there armadillos and oppossums in Hungary? Who feeds his horses if he has to drive his own carriage? It always brings me back to the terrific speach in Shadow of the Vampire “It made me sad. Because Dracula had no servants.”

Despite great production values…love the storm tossed ship for all of the 5 seconds it was on the screen, and the Dracula’s castle set doesn’t really get shown off considering the time and expense. It is still a very stagey production, with absolutely NO THIRD ACT. I am sorry, the movie is flipping called DRACULA and he’s basically killed OFF SCREEN, by an old man with a stick and a rock…that’s not very dramatic. Once they follow him to the abbey and he throws Renfield down the stairs the movie is over. There should have AT least been a struggle and racing the sun to the coffin. These of course arevalid points that will be addressed in all the subsequent versions.

Seriously for me all the fun is in the first half of the film, I don’t need to hang around for the end. After he smashes the cigarette box I kinda tune out. And usually rewind to the beginning.

the Last Performance (11/1/1929)

Last Performance (1929) Conrad Veidt as a man in formal wear who uses his eyes to mezmerize people. Interesting little melodrama three men all vying for the attention of the pretty girl. Veidt plays a sauve stage magician (watch for Universal’s Phantom of the Opera stage again) who is in love with his female assistant… Philbin plays his assistant who is in like with her boss, there is also one male stage assistant (who has male stage assistants in circus tights?) who is our Iago character who isn’t as much in love with the female stage assistant as he just wants to make everyone unhappy. Then there is another male stage assistant who is introduced as a noble Jean ValJean/beggarmanthief who breaks in to steal a meal..Veidt’s character is actually not a bad guy (nor bad looking) he invites the thief to take his meal sitting down and then takes him on as another assistant which he really doesn’t need. Philbin on the other hand seems to be playing the field, while she is engaged to the famous rich guy, she starts swooning around with the good looking newcomber… this will NOT end well for anyone. Long story short using a magic trick with a trunk and way way too many swords the trouble maker assistant winds up dead and the boyfriend winds up on trial. Not to spoil a 90 year old film but it’s all her fault.

Paul Fejos is a fascinating director I had never heard of, he does some great work in this and his other films Lonesome and Broadway, watch for a terrific camera zoom over a very long table with candelabras, brought to mind Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast especially with the face mask dressing room wall art. This is another one of those films which suffered from being released on the sound cusp. The silent version is happily watchable for the closeups of stage magic, and I really enjoyed the way he put the camera upstage center with the magicians sandwiched between it and the audience.

Though supposedly written for Lon Chaney, it is not horrific in anyway, just a bit of a love triangle murder mystery. If Chaney had done it, no doubt he would have been a much more a Svengali type who was manipulating the girl for his own ends and she was right to play around on him. But Veidts magician seems to be wounded by her bad manners and it’s ALL HER FAULT. I had wanted to find and see this Universal release before I moved into talkies outright, I thought it would have more of a suspenseful supernatural vibe to it. Veidts mesmerism skills never gets addressed properly in the script, if he was that good and apparently he IS, he could have been using it on her this whole time, and he didn’t…like I said. It’s all her fault.

The Bat Whispers (11/13/30) & the Bat (6/16/26)

The Bat Whispers (1930) & the Bat (1926) cliche ridden staple of 1920s Broadway is frozen in time for our viewing pleasure by Roland West. West may have come from the theatre but he must have seen what was coming out of German cinema, because his playful visual style is still a joy to behold. Except for the actual bat costume cause that’s just stupid, except if you are Bruce Wayne. Whatever you call Rineharts play, it is ‘old dark house’ full of silly people, at least one villain and somewhere is a missing treasure, which is apparently why the silly people STAY IN THE HOUSE with the villain! In the 10 or 15 times I have watched it, I still can’t keep the motives of all the people straight. But at least in the 1930s production there is an added twist to the twist, which I thought was a good decision. and seriously burglar’s rarely cap their marks, so that part is just completely unbelievable. What is also unbelievable is that this play ran 900 times and people still went to see it on film, TWICE. oh the days before television…..
 

It is not the least bit scary, nor even THAT funny, once you get past the hysterical maid, who I would just sock in the jaw. Roland West’s visual style is the reason to blow the dust off this disc now and then. The restoration of the 1930 was money well spent, instead of pointing at what the Germans were doing, we can point to what WE were doing in the cinema. This last time through I REALLY watched the overly theatrical blocking and scene work, I think he was actually trying to recreate the theater experience for the viewer…doubling down in the last scene of the picture when actual curtains close and the lead addresses the audience…reminds one of the opening of Frankenstein. I am sure it wasn’t the first fourth wall break in a movie, but I think considering the picture as if it were a live theater production actually improves it. Otherwise there is absodamntively no reason for a guy dressed in a cape and cowl to creep around in a room where he is totally alone….that’s just weird. I wish someone would do a restoration on the goofier 1926 version. West does some very interesting work with miniatures that should be appreciated. He does some great work in Alibi and Corsair too if you can find them.

The Last Warning (1/6/29)

Last Warning (1929) Paul Leni & Laura La Plante take their Cat and the Canary shtick to Stage 28’s Phantom of the Opera set, wackiness ensues. A solid ‘Old Dark House’ murder mystery-slash-comedy? but lacking in the snappy dialogue that will eventually become part of the playbook. Instead we get a lot of comic relief characters rolling their eyes to indicate fear, I blame the script writer. There’s a murder, time passes, they finally want to reopen the ‘haunted’ theather and solve the case, they recruit the original suspects – seriously dude you can’t let a theater that size sit closed for 5 years, that’s just not economical.

Leni shows off a lot of artsy lighting and set design while we watch wacky characters wander around backstage waiting to get spooked by the ghost they ALL believe exists. But things really don’t get exciting, both visually and plotwise until the last reel; where after a very theatrical denoument and reveal the villain, in a cape and mask no less, leads the police on a mad chase through the opera house, reminiscent of both Phantom of the Opera and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. (Leni puts the camera on a trapeze this time)

If I were catching it in 1929, it would be definitely worth seeing for nickle or about .75 in todays money I think. But unless you really have the hots for LaPlante or are hunting down all Paul Leni films, you may want to FFWD through this one, but don’t miss the last reel. Apparently there is a recent restoration but as yet it is not on disc: it does look pretty spiffy. The best copy I can find is on Archive.org, it made me throw out my old very bad dvdR. [BTW the New York Police Department’s Women Bureau was created in 1924, you’re gonna need that piece of information for the last shot in the film. ]

 

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