THE BLACK CAT
1941 - Universal **1/2
It's confusingly titled since the Ulmer 1934 is the Black Cat as far as every horror fan in the world is concerned, but this name-only version has charms of its own, hampered (unless you've a benign tolerance for idiots) by insurance salesman Broderick Crawford's spazz and bluster and the endless tut-tutting of Hugh Herbert. The climax exemplifies Griffith's dictum re: you don't crosscut from the heroine about to be grilled in a cat crematorium, Perils of Pauline-style, to old Hugh Herbert fiddling around with old lamps and screwdrivers laughing to himself like a simpleton, since it creates a feeling of rage rather than suspense in the viewer (his exact words, I swear!) Another rule: never turn your back on someone after you've accused them of murder, especially when you're alone with them inside a secret, soundproof chamber. Luckily there's the triple threat treat of Basil Rathbone (as a greedy heir), Bela Lugosi (as an enigmatic groundskeeper), Gayle Sondergaard (as a suspicious housekeeper), and the dialogue's so rattattat one gets the whiff of amphetamines in the air. However, unlike Howard Hawk's ingenious use of overlapping dialogue, here they wait for the other person to finish their lines (if you'll forgive the expression) so there's a weird disconnect, as it takes longer to go a shorter distance even while moving twice as fast. As a result, more stuff happens in the first half hour of this film than in six ordinary old dark house films, yet it never really goes... anywhere... at all... 'til the fiery furnace finish.
In addition to Basil Rathbone ("who does he think he is," quips Brod, Sherlock Holmes?") there's a young, surly Alan Ladd in his film debut (would that Veronica Lake was around to chill him) and Brod's schtick grows wearisome fast, there's some satisfaction to be had when he jumps off a second floor balcony and lands face down in the mud in a single wacky take. After flying through the air and tackling an empty suit of armor or the wrong guy five times in a row, though, you'd think he might hesitate the smallest bit with his wild accusations the next time a single whiff of red herring catches his dopey blue-collar nose. Nope. Yeesh. Still, like that Ritz Brothers' Gorilla movie, if your mood is undiscriminating there are worse things and it certainly ladles on the atmosphere. This Cat has even more secret passages and panels than the Ulmer version, the cat sculpture and its surrounding marble mausoleum are gorgeous, and there's two deaths by hanging (they weave around the censors by showing dangling legs reflected in the mirror).
Gale Sondergaard is good as always as the sinister catkeeper (the old rich dead lady wants to keep her house a cat sanctuary after she dies) but poor Bela--though featured prominently in the credits--is literally stuck out in the cold as the shaggy groundskeeper. Clearly they wanted his name on the marquee but didn't want to deal with his ego, except maybe through a second unit. Was it the morphine making him erratic, or just his infamous Hungarian temperament that reduced him to these wasted household servant parts at Universal all through the 40s? I would like to see one movie, just one, where Bela has a girlfriend. Why couldn't he be married to Sondergaard or something? Actually there is one film where a girl likes Bela, Monogram's otherwise unwatchable BLACK DRAGONS. (Rattle metal thunder sheet and flicker the lights)
1941 - Universal - *1/2
There are a lot of things wrong from the start with Horror Island but none more so than the three lead males: squeaky clean Dick Foran in a Popeye-style sailor man suit struggling to pay off his boat; Fuzzy Knight, making Andy Devine seem like like Errol Flynn as the first mate; and Leo Carrillo, shameless hamming it up as a Spanish pirate. They're seeking some gold on a remote island, but need money for the expedition so they market it as an adventure expedition ("twenty million in Spanish gold!"). Signing up is wiseacre heiress Peggy Moran, her drowsy playboy companion, Thurston Coldwater (Lewis Howard), and some other tourists. After some on-deck skullduggery they land on a rocky coasted island and an old mansion and then commences the 'yawn' murder, ghostly howls, and the dusty suits of armor that m-m-m-move by themselves. Simmer for 30 more minutes of tepid candle-lit corridor creeping and, Mister, you got yourself a bland comedy-mystery cliche stew. Worse even, a lot of the spook happenings turn out to be fake, and we never really know which are the real scares until the sound guy gets killed. Needless to say, all concerned seek the hidden treasure, and a sinister shadow in a slouch hat add to the studio enforced and censor-scrubbed 'fun.'
Some like this film though, probably because they saw it as very young kids... it has a chapter in the Guilty Pleasures (Vol. 1 - Midnight Marquee) which I think is out of print so you'll have to take my word for it. For you, it should be enough to know that it's there, in the book, and that some writer likes it. I say if you just relax into the film and take it as a bunch of vaguely connected shots of young men and women in dreary wartime fashions and homogenized pirate costumes skeedaddling in and out of secret panels and conking each other on the back of the head, maybe you can muddle through.
There is one bright spot: Moran's effete rich pal, Thurston, played with great ennui by Howard, who lounges around and makes droll wry comments like an anesthetized Waldo Lydecker. He can do wonders with a line like "Listen, my impetuous young friend," and he has the last joke. Why didn't he star?!?!
PHANTOM OF CRESTWOOD
1932 - RKO ***1/2
It's got everything I love: it occurs over one afternoon and night, ends at dawn, it's got fog, a washed-out road, a wind-blown house, murder suspects, death masks, and two of my favorite actresses: Anita Louise (Titania in the 1935 Reinhardt Midsummer Night's Dream) and Karen Morley (Poppy in Scarface). The latter delivers a scene-swipingly slithery performance as no-bones gold digger 'party girl' Jenny Wren, who's decided to retire and intends blackmailing all her rich ex-lovers in one fell swoop, gathering them for a party at a remote Southern California mansion at midnight, along with their wives, if any. Jenny's retirement is prompted--we learn via then-groundbreaking whirlwind flashbacks--to some naive rich kid baby-faced college boy's leaping off cliff after she dumps him (papa cut him off for seeing her). Then his ghostly face appears unto her on the balcony, and then she's dead. After her murder, gangsters arrive to hold the whole party hostage, and quick solve the murder before the cops come and blame them.
Ricardo Cortez is the slick leader of the gangsters, he'd been hired by an unseen party to retrieve some incriminating love letters from Morley's suitcase. The ending, on a foggy cliff with a single engine police plane coming in overhead and the two guys walking off into the fog, foreshadows Casablanca!! The only difference, the plane is going the opposite direction! The End! The photography is shadowy and intoxicating almost to Von Sternbergian levels, but with (in this case, Spanish-style) old dark house accoutrements -- secret passages, clues, complex motives and sophisticated pre-code banter. And I didn't even mention Hilda Vaughn as Morely's awesome, slightly Sapphic maid! She may be the coolest maid in all pre-code cinema, almost a Leporello-level co-conspirator rather than a mere servant. And if the lesbian currents didn't run deep enough, there's the butch old aunt played by Pauline Frederick who--like Mercedes McCambridge in Giant--is fond of using horse breeding terminology when scrutinizing the lineage and dental work of potential in-laws.
THE ROGUE'S TAVERN
1936 - Puritan Pictures - **
Detective Wallace Ford wants to marry Babara Pepper and quickly so they head to a remote lodge the next state over (where its presumably easier to wed impulsively), there to meet a preacher at a tavern for a quickie service. But man, did Ford ever pick the wrong place! A gaggle of suspicious types mill in the lobby, and then a dog bares his fangs on cue at certain windows and soon, sans preacher, they're all locked in by a mysterious killer. Suspects include a cabal of diamond smugglers, an old coot in a wheelchair and, I forget who elsezzz - I've seen this movie a dozen times and fallen asleep every time, but there are worse films to doze off to than this one, as long as you wake up in time to marvel at the sustained crazy killer monologue finale.
Please note also the big fireplace in the lobby / lounge / tavern, which apparently was a mainstay of RKO-Pathe soundstage, chosen 2-1 by fly-by-nite indie outfits like our film's releasing company, 'Puritan Pictures.' When at RKO-Pathe, make sure to build your set around the big fireplace, if it's available (too big to move off the soundstage). You won't regret it.
Unfortunately, when the fireplace is the film's best asset, it's gonna be a long night; Pepper's character has that post-code nag problem where instead of just telling Ford what she's seen out the window, i.e. fangs, murders, she hems and haws and stammers like Lou Costello while Ford's busy cross-examining the rogues, and he's reluctant to listen to her, thinking she's just making some excuse to monopolize his time. Why doesn't she just tell him right off instead of saying "c-c-c-can you come here a m-m-minute?" Of course he brushes her off and since it's post-code she lingers and whines and schemes to get his mind back on the preacher and the marriage. The DVD is on Alpha and is pretty blurred. But I don't think clarity would help. The fog of booze on the other hand, just might.
ONE FRIGHTENED NIGHT
1935 - Mascot Pictures - **1/2
A dark and stormy night, a crotchety old man (Charley Grapewin) gathering his greedy heirs to read the will, secret passages, a spooky mask, and a long lost blonde granddaughter who shows up last minute to inherit everything, down to the last measly million. What a dumb clause if you want your granddaughter to survive the night!! Luckily an imposter dies first, not unlike what happens in THE MONSTER WALKS (1932 - see Old Dark Capsules 1).
But ONE DARK NIGHT is a little more lively and ape-free than MONSTER WALKS, better even without Mischa Auer but saddled instead with the inescapable Wallace Ford. He plays a Vaudeville magician named 'the Great Lavalle,' whose car conveniently breaks down near the old mansion during the storm. His assistant (Mary Carlisle) just so happens to be the real granddaughter heiress. The old man believes her because she refuses to have anything to do with him or his filthy money. Meanwhile there are poison darts, Hindi sculptures, and a line-up of suspects who all must sooner or later tangle with the usual carload of clueless, gun-jumping cops. Rafaela Ottiano (the human trafficker in SHE DONE HIM WRONG) is the maid; Arthur Hohl and Hedda Hopper (you heard me) are suspects. Ford has no interest in Carlisle except as a pal and assistant, which is unusual, so she upgrades to Regis Toomey, despite the fact he may be the killer.
FRIGHTENED has been a fall-asleep C-level favorite of mine for years in a more truncated version than the somewhat blurry Alpha DVD (I had taped it in the early 80s off the old PBS show Matinee at the Bijou). I even used footage from it in my cynically unclaimed 2009 smashed hit, CURSE OF THE MALE GAZE (Carlisle stands in for Laura Mulvey). What better way, perhaps, to close this capsule collection than to present it now?
See Old Dark Capsules 1 here (with OLD DARK HOUSE, CAT AND THE CANARY, THE GHOUL, THE MONSTER WALKS, THE GHOUL)