Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Halloween Essential: THE BOOGIE MAN WILL GET YOU (1942)



An attempt by Columbia to recreate the success of Frank Capra's Broadway play Arsenic and Old Lace, THE BOOGEYMAN WILL GET YOU would be pedestrian fluff except the script rocks and  Boris Karloff and Peter Lorre play together with much comic energy and we're meant to share their bemused disdain for Bill, the high-strung little pisher of a romantic lead, Larry (AL JOLSON STORY) Parks. He's shipping out to war but first has to square up with flighty ex-wife, Winnie ("Miss Jeff" Donnell). Ever-angered at his own co-dependent need to save her (he thinks she's gullible), it's clear she does need saving (heavy clocks and sideboards nearly fall on her quite often) but she doesn't think so. She starts the film out buying a crumbling old inn in some sunny hamlet, where mortgage-strapped Karloff is brewing atomic supermen in the basement and two old character actors round things out as the resident 'cook' and 'pigkeeper.' Visitors to the inn include two doubtful state troopers, a crazy 'human bomb' escaped Italian soldier, and the always delightful Max Rosenblum as a powder puff salesman ("like what ya dab on ya kissa"). Lorre is the town magistrate, sheriff, and the notary public who arranges the deed to be signed over. Parks and Winnie set about the renovations, and hunting for possible shadiness and it's all so good, so right, you get the vibe you might remember from when dad's away for the weekend on business and mom lets you stay up extra late, and when the cops come she's just as nervous and full of jive excuses as you are.


If you've seen ARSENIC, the film version being made two years after BOOGEYMAN, you know that Parks' equivalent would Cary Grant's Mortimer Brewster. He uses the same high voiced morality and protectiveness as an excuse for avoiding sex. Recall how Grant keeps his bride waiting at the cab while he tries to quickly send his homicidal aunts off to Bellevue, like they are the ones who need it. Parks at least seems to want to have sex at some point, and is willing to do the Bed, Bath, and Beyond route to get there. Winnie has his number ("Bill," she asks romantically, "don't you ever get tired of yourself?") and it's all understandable because young men were hard to find back in 1942. If they weren't in uniform they better look 4-F. 

The catch here is that, just like we root for Grant's crazy aunts in LACE, we root for Karloff and Lorre as a team BOOGEYMAN: first they spar with each other and then form a bond with Lorre helping Karloff turn passing salesmen into electro-powered supermen: "He will destroy Berlin! He will throttle Tokyo!" Meanwhile, the ghost of Unkus ("The last of the Mohicans!") keeps emitting unearthly yowls in the day-for-night exteriors, and a portly 'balletmaster' snoops around, deflecting knife attacks with his whalebone corset.

The dialogue is deliciously archaic throughout, as if a drunken Vincent Price was mocking passages in some old Victorian novel. Someone had a good time writing this, and the actors ride that spirit. Lorre gets a great glint of mischief in his eyes. Karloff riffs on his zillion past mad scientists.


There's lots of great little bits: Lorre's magistrate character has a kitten he carries in his coat ("she has an amazing affinity for crime and corruption!") and has an easygoing way with doing all the jobs required in this strange 'historic' town that seems to consist of the colonial hotel Winnie buys, and Lorre's house, and the strange Americana aspect helps add a patina of political allegory, reflecting the way social order and governmental fixedness dissolve on the homefront when the bulk of the brains and brawn are occupied elsewhere. 

Karloff of course is more than the perfect match for Lorre; these guys played off each other well by that time, having worked together on Broadway in ARSENIC AND OLD LACE's original Broadway run, so BOOGEY benefits from LACE in more ways than one. One of the big tragedies of cinema is that Karloff wasn't released from his Broadway contract in time to do Capra's film version, though the rest of the cast all got to (west, that is). Karloff instead made this once the show was over, and Raymond Massey stepped in on ARSENIC, making all the jokes about "He he looks just like Karloff!" completely confusing. That said, I actually prefer BOOGEY to ARSENIC. There's a lot less repetition and whinnying sexual anxiety and a lot more Lorre and Karloff. That means, in other words, more Halloween perfection, despite the relative sunniness (Capra got to use real night, and you can feel the difference). And it's short. Put it on a double bill with Roger Corman's THE RAVEN and your Halloween shall not be mirthless!

1 comment:

  1. I really wish Karloff could have been in the movie version of "Arsenic and Old Lace." Having another actor play the part negates the in-joke ("He said I looked like Boris Karloff!") A made-for-TV version in the late 1960s featured Fred Gwynne as Jonathan, and they wisely changed "Boris Karloff" to "Frankenstein's monster." It would have been funnier if he had said, "Herman Munster," but maybe that would have violated a copyright or something. Anyway, I always thought "Boogie Man" was funny, and Karloff and Lorre looked like they were having fun with the self-parody (as they did in "The Raven" and "The Comedy of Terrors"). The similarity to "Arsenic" was obvious, although I never knew before how much of it was intentional.

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