Psychedelic Film Criticism for the Already Deranged

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 which, as a few of the other entries here make clear, is not as easy it seems. Karloff gets almost no lines as 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, writing notes, making peace with angry cousins, being strangled by Karloff (back from the dead and in search of his expensive emerald) or having sadomasochistic fantasies (how very British!)

The grand guignol moment is when Boris carves a bloody ankh symbol on his bony chest, cut from many prints, and for that and other things THE GHOUL would make a fine, weird double bill with the original MUMMY (1932), and possibly even stole its props. 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. It's pure 30s horror mood, with enough of that James Whale vibe to carry it through if you lose track of who has the jewel, or where it's hid, or where the door is.

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. It only came onto DVD recently, and was rarely seen since so if you don't remember it, there's a reason. There's no reason now, though. 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, double takes, and 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, and way too sane to believably be out of her mind, as her relatives would like to believe the night of the will reading in the old dark house on the bayou. She's the sole heiress to her eccentric Uncle Cyrus Norman's estate, where an escaped maniac who calls himself 'The Cat' is prowling for victims, and where the disparate relatives are gathered.

So much that could go wrong goes right: Director Elliot Nugent keeps a creepy wind accompanying the fine Enrst Toch score (which never gets cutesy just creepy), and the outdoors around the house is a big swampy fog-bound 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; 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; and nobody sings or spazzes. Thanks for that, Nugent! It was so good Hope reunited with Sondergaard and Zucco when they played his Nazi pursuers three years later in My Favorite Blonde and one year later with Goddard in The Ghost Breakers which has more supernatural elements than Cat and is generally considered the better film, but man, I'll take this for mine. 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? Check. 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, and that's not what old dark house films should be. Willie Best furthers the social injustice angle as the shuffling, uber-cowardly stereotype chauffeur 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 - ****

The great 'lost' Universal horror of 1932. I longed to see it ever since I was a kid reading about it in my Creature Features guide, but the only edition available was nth generational mess. Then Kino came to the rescue via a restored, lone surviving print (discovered through the perseverance of the great Curtis Harrington), and co-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! Old Dark House is not really a horror movie or a comedy, but a combination of many elements that don't come together until numerous viewings over decades help the death and age elements kick in -- the way the 'that's fine stuff' rant by Rebecca Femm (Eva Moore) to Gloria Stuart leads to her reflection like that of a skull in the mirror; the general nicety and British crust of Horace Femm (Ernest Thesiger) and the honest romance between lost generation lad Melvyn Dougas and Bill's (Charles Laughton) traveling companion Perkins (Lillian Bond); the arrival of during dinner like a daft breath of fresh working class air to lighten the rich yobbo dryness against which the merry Melvyn Douglas hurls himself like a kid fighting waves on the beach; Karloff as the mute butler portrays the end point of madness and the beginning point of savagery;  Laughton becomes the backbone of Britain; the late inning introduction of Roderick Femm, played by the elderly real life old lady of the stage Elspeth Dudgeon, provides a welcome bit of contextualization, change of scene and foreshadowing. And then, in a rage Morgan releases Saul from his locked bedroom at the top of the stairs.... See it 30 times, 300, it's still not enough... my friend.

1943 - ****

When I'm having a travel-induced panic attack, THE BLACK RAVEN is my go-to source of solace. I really respond to the cozy fireplaces, howling wind, torrential rain, muffled dialogue, and the sense of conspiratorial cool amongst the more criminal guests (they all sign the register as 'John Smith'). 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 in their rain slashed cars and ending when the rain stops at dawn. Padding around the waterlogged cardboard sets in his robe and slippers, Zucco's great as the enigmatic retired criminal who now runs a small inn (named the Black Raven) which he uses as a front for an operation that smuggles criminals over the Canadian border. No actual ravens appear in this film--too rainy--but Glenn Strange is the idiot manservant and the wondrously dour Charles "Ming" Middleton is the clueless sheriff. A suitcase of embezzled cash results in murder; 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 great, incoherent Black Dragons is the best so far, and highly recommended). Your mileage may vary, but for my dark and stormy night PRC 40s money, it's Black Raven all the way.

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?


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