Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception since 1967

Friday, October 28, 2011


Secret panels, stormy nights, dying heirs, hairy hands, Karloff, candles, lawyers; priceless mcguffins stolen from a dead man's watch pocket; maybe a coroner, woken up at this ungodly hour of the night; guys in ape suits for the medium shots, stock footage of a monkey for the close-ups; Bela Lugosi stuck playing a butler with barely any lines because the producers are worried about his morphine addiction; shrieking maids; bats; black cats; skulls on desks; conniving trophy wives everyone wants dead. What could be more Halloween-ish? It's the Old Dark House genre, basically forgotten today because there are no more old dark houses. Now they're either 'haunted' or long-since converted to apartments.

But if you've ever spent a weekend at a rich friend's mansion then you know how weird it can get: a late night trip to the bathroom after everyone else has gone to bed can be a terrifying, surreal nocturnal journey ala THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER river trip. The walls are so thick that if someone were screaming for help downstairs in the study you'd never even hear them, or be able to find them.

And no longer can eccentric millionaire uncles just caper down to Egypt and help themselves to whatever cursed, ancient artifacts they care to dig for. The colonialist yard sale is closed! But the films, thank Ra, remain open! Here's five I know like the back of m'hand: 

1933 - ***
British studio Gaumont's attempt to make a 1930s Universal horror reveals just how great Universal horrors were by contrast. At any rate, GHOUL's foggy and cozy as a cup of Earl Grey at a midnight graveyard picnic. Karloff is an eccentric Egyptologist who spends 75,000 pounds on an emerald he thinks will bring him back from the dead. He dies soon after and is entombed to the strains of Wagner's immortal "Sigfried's Funeral March" but apparently without the gem. Soon thereafter a cast of skulking emerald seekers materialize out of the fog including Ernest Thesiger (Dr. Pretorious!) and a grumpy Dickensian lawyer who employs rather elaborate strings of words like "I intend to grant myself the pleasure of calling on her this evening." They're all either looking for the emerald, stealing it from someone else, having sadomasochistic fantasies (how very British!), writing notes, making peace with angry cousins, or being strangled by a Karloff back from the dead!

The grand guignol moment is when Boris carves a bloody ankh symbol on his bony chest, cut from many prints. Overall THE GHOUL would make a fine, weird double bill with the original MUMMY (1932), and possibly even stole its props, but alas, like so many British-Egyptian Museum horrors of the era all the supernatural elements must be conveniently explained away by film's end. One mustn't leave the queen's subjects thinking such things are true, you know... a gullible lot they are, I'm afraid, sir. That's not to say this jewel still isn't a little loose in its setting, if you know what I mean, guv. Say no more...

1939 - ****
My favorite Bob Hope movie! I've seen it 1,000 times! Dragging my canoe behind me! I taped it off 'Spotlight' in 1980 and, in some ways, I'm still watching it. Bob Hope is the perfect mix of romantic hero and scared goofball quipper as Wally Campbell, it was his first big role and his comedic timing is so sharp he actually heightens the suspense with his whistling in the dark style quips and double takes; he kind of feints back and forth between courageous pose and truthful reveal of (understandable) fear. He's also drawn a great very modern leading lady in Paulette Godard, though it's clear that in the original she's a bit more frail and old-school kindness-of-strangers-dependent (Goddard seems way too modern to faint or drop a gun). She becomes the focus of a lot of attention when it turns out to be the sole heiress to her eccentric Uncle Cyrus Norman's estate, which is an old house way out on the bayou, where an escaped maniac who calls himself 'The Cat' is prowling for victims, and where the disparate relatives are gathered.

Director Elliot Nugent keeps a creepy wind on the soundtrack, and the outdoors around the house is a big swampy soundstage rather than bringing the mood down with drab outdoor footage, and the secret panel-to-the-small-garden-hut climax conjures the expressionist shadows of Cabinet of Caligari, replete with the maniac's dramatic posturing. And the rest of the cast is sublime for fans of the genre: George Zucco reads the will and is the first to get murdered; Gale Sondergaard is the housekeeper in tune with the mysterious chimes and 'murmurs' of the old house; Hope reunited with them both when they played his Nazi pursuers three years later in My Favorite Blonde. Cat and the Canary was a big enough hit that Goddard reunited with Hope in The Ghost Breakers which has more supernatural elements than their original pairing and is generally considered the better film, but man, there's something about the Cat. Hope doesn't know yet just how great he is, but Nugent does, and the atmosphere is electric.

1932 - *1/2
An old creep in a wheelchair living alone aside from servants in a big old dark house? Check. Ape in a cage in the basement? Affirmative. Mischa Auer as the illegitimate son of the old creep in the wheelchair and the maid, angry he's denied any of the family fortune after all the hours he's slaved for that old man? Man, that's depressing in its offhand illumination of social injustice, even if Auer's supposed to be the main red herring. Willie Best furthers the social injustice angle as the shuffling, uber-cowardly stereotype chauffer to the bland honky hero. Ape man hands coming out of the wall to strangle blonde poseur to the fortune put the 'ugh' back in enough.

I know the Leonard Maltin review by heart: "Willie bests Mischa for laughs, but it's a close race." Lenny, you're my wheelchair-bound true father who taught me to write like a subliminal weisenheimer. Still, the stormy night-rattling-sheet metal makes it nice to fall asleep to as the sun comes up on another frosty November 1st, your blood levels of alcohol, ecstasy, nicotine, and sugar now dwindled to an early morning frost on the window shudder no amount of hot coffee can allay.

1932 - ****
I had such high hopes for this film, the 'lost' Universal horror of 1932. For decades it was a holy grail for Universal horror nuts like me. Old VHS copies were nth generation dupes, horrifically murky. Then Kino came to the rescue via a restored, lone surviving print (discovered through the perseverance of the great Curtis Harrington), and its star Gloria Stuart even did an audio commentary for the laserdisc! I never had a laserdisc player, but James Cameron did, loved the commentary and that's how she came to narrate Titanic! It's awesome to play the DVD commentary now and hear this no-nonsense 1932 starlet tell you about shooting in the rain with James Whale and Boris Karloff and putting up with a cast of intellectual thespian Brit eccentrics and their clique-ish tea rituals, as meanwhile the shots all go down smooth as a Knobb Creek skinny dip...

The stranded travelers include: Charles Laughton as a blustery captain of industry; Lillian Bond as his chorus girl traveling 'ahem' companion; Melvyn Douglas the cheerful forgotten man; Stuart and her taciturn husband Raymond Massey as Mel's sophisticated, supportive friends. The old dark's residents include: Ernest Thesiger ("Dr. Pretorious again, sir!") as the brother of the bitchy no-nonsense, no-teeth old pious Christian woman Rebecca Fem (Eva Moore), who shouts "No beds! They can't have beds!" Decent old Thesiger lets them park it by the fire anyway, and even busts out his secret stash of gin - much to his pious sister's disapproval. Karloff is a bit underused as the  violent, scarred, mute, horny, and exceedingly drunken butler ("a night like this could set him off!"), he'd have been great as Saul... not that... oops, four o-clock! Break for tea, everyone!  Sorry Gloria,  intellectual thespian Brit eccentrics only... there's a dear.

1943 - ***1/2
When I'm having a travel-induced panic attack this is my go-to source of solace. I really respond to George Zucco's sense of nonjudgmental bemusement as the titular Black Raven, and the killer's climactic dawn rant against garlic-eating working class bus commuters is a breath of fresh air. Before then it's a nonstop fest of wind, rain, muffled dialogue, and George Zucco padding around his hotel, nodding with a conspiratorial cool to his array of criminal guests by the roaring fireside. It all takes place--like the best old dark house films--over one 'dark and stormy' night, beginning as guests learn the bridge is washed out and ending as the sun comes up. Moving around the waterlogged cardboard sets in his robe and slippers, Zucco's great as the retired ex-criminal who now runs a small inn (named the Black Raven) which he uses as a front for an operation that ferries criminals over the Canadian border. No actual ravens appear in this film--too rainy--but Glenn Strange is the idiot manservant and Charles "Ming" Middleton is the dour idiot sheriff. An assortment of would-be border-jumpers check in because the bridge is washed out; a suitcase of embezzled cash results in murders and theft, a corrupt politico tries to break up his daughter's newlywed marriage. Make sure to get the best available edition as there's lots of crappy public domain editions wherein everything is too dark and muffled. (Roan Group's 'Black and Blue' set that includes Ulmer's Bluebeard and Bela's ever-incoherent Black Dragons is the best so far, and cheaper than the crappy Alpha, and highly recommended).

Special shout-out to Verdoux! - it seems to contain the same eerie alchemical magick as celluloid itself!

1 comment:

  1. The only one I've these I've seen is The Old Dark House, rather recently, but I loved it (and just wrote it up last week:

    What's your take on the silent Cat and Canary vs. this version?