Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... for a better now

Saturday, October 27, 2012

You're Eatin' Hearts: Universal Cult Horror (TCM DVD Set review)

1943 - **1/2

"With me it's ghoul trouble, baby," laments Carl Denham, i.e. Robert Armstrong, to a little honey of a fellow reporter who appears and exeunts with little fuss in one of the few horror movies made in 1943, THE MAD GHOUL. Excuse its impoverished gloss as half the studio workforce was busy fighting in WW2, back when we weren't yet sure we'd win. Universal wasn't sure horror movies were what the public wanted in such uncertain times. Son of Frankenstein proved 'em wrong. But by '43 they were issuing half-awake surplus like this.

See, censors are flighty things. Despite the horror overseas, here at Universal the censors won't allow us to learn what the ghoul (David Bruce) does with dead bodies he exhumes. We guess he eats the hearts, since the hearts are missing from the coffins and dug up graves, but then the cops change the subject, perhaps realizing that the level of villainy to be found in the idea of some half-dead sod rifling through the contents of already dead people is pretty low to nil, all things considered. Rather than evil, he's like a poor hippie, dumpster diving while following the (in this case literal) Dead on tour. To pacify the bourgeois, the tour instead features tedious light opera, lip-synced by Evelyn Ankers, and conducted by urbane composer-pianist Turhan Bey. He sweeps Evelyn off her feet when Bruce is off eating other people's hearts (supposedly), a little lovestruck CHUD, turned ghoulish via an ancient zombie gas formula by yet another romantic rival, his chemistry thesis advisor George Zucco.

But again, the threat angle is dubious. The worst the cops and press can do is concern themselves with his effect on the bereaved ("He always chooses a new corpse"). Though the ghoul doesn't kill, merely raids the funeral home larder (like an unscrupulous med student or Dr. Frankenstein would), he's still a menace... for some reason! Catching him "may be the means of saving the deceased from a horrible mutilation!" (I'm sure that will be a big relief to them).

It all seems especially gross since the censor won't let us learn the details: why Bruce would need to eat hearts in the first place, as opposed to normal meals (is he getting high on embalming fluid?), or why we should care if an already dead person is used for something other than feeding worms or crematory ovens. Is it really so important these recently deceased hearts stay un-masticated? Whatever the reasons, it's certainly not worth risking your life to stop him! Relative to what the Nazis were doing to Poland, and the Japanese to China, corpse eating is hardly even a ticketable offense, especially since emaciated civilians were probably doing the same thing in besieged Leningrad the same year this came out, just to survive the winter. Calling it monstrous is shaming to our temporary allies!

Zucco has fun with all this grisly business, as much as he can, but the plot is the same as all the Universal 'non-big 4' (Dracula, Frankenstein, Wolfman, mummy) monster B-pics of the time: an exploited killer and his evil mastermind handler take their frustrations out their bitchy critics or romantic rivals while a snappy reporter goes undercover to catch them. In this case, it's Armstrong posing as a funeral home cadaver to catch his "man." "Whatever you do, don't mar this coffin!" exclaims the undertaker. 

Anyway, the make-up is interesting, the shambling effective, the suspense music fine; the heart-eating thing uncanny chiefly for its glaring elephant-in-the-room vagueness. The lighting is competent but needs more shadows and darkness. Hasn't anyone ever heard of expressionism? Where are all the German immigrants? A dark set could save on electricity! I guess the censors wanted to make sure no phantoms were having sex in the corners or eating things they shouldn't.
I''ll say it again: THE MAD GHOUL is the best PRC horror movie that Universal ever made. It's every bit as strange and oddly engaging as any Poverty Row monster movie of the 1940s that you can name, but it's got all the brand-name (B-unit) trappings of Universal Studios to give it that little bit extra and deliver a lasting, satisfying, and fun film. Although it was probably pretty forgettable as the second-banana feature in the cinemas in 1943 to SON OF DRACULA --- Shock Cinema
Rose Hobart is in it, somewhere. I didn't see her though. There's not even eight people in the whole cast, aside from some disheartened gravediggers. Hang in there, boys!


1933 - ***1/2

Somehow this Paramount film wound up in the Universal Cult Horror collection, to all our benefit. The beautiful Kathleen Burke (the Panther Woman from Paramount's same year ISLAND OF LOST SOULS) is to kill for. It's the old familiar cycle of betrayal, love, revenge, and maniacal jealousy between an older powerful man and his hot bored young wife, but this is pre-code so the lurid come-ons of cuckolded husband Eric (Lionel Atwill) are truly perverse. "Yes, Eric, I know," Burke says, voice trilling with anticipatory sexual panic, after he kills her latest lover with a mamba bite, "now you're going to make love to me." There are lots of cutaways from the human actors to pent-up animals in cages, all the better to symbolize a panorama of human emotions with. Atwill sits with a chimp in his lap and looks quite comfortable. So few evil husbands could do anything but brood in their rocking chair listening to "In the Gloaming" once the code kicks in, that here it's worth pausing to cherish his pulp cover malice.

Unfortunately there's too much comic relief in Charlie Ruggles as the zoo's dipsomaniac PR agent. He hems and cowardly haws for whole bathroom break-long stretches at the thought of l-l-lions and t-t-t-igers! and there's boring straight man stuff from Randolph Scott as a herpetologist, a straight arrow who's so smart he accuses the killer to his face, while they're alone in a room filled with venomous snakes, and then turns his back on him to leave, all before bothering to phone the cops or tell anyone else. Hahaha! Eric is not one to squander such a moment. Luckily--even with her terrible hair--his toxicologically-savvy assistant (Gail Patrick) isn't as much of an idiot, and saves the day. Other bummers are the subtextual animal cruelty, such as turning a lot of big cats loose in a cramped room and letting them maul each other --and just the sights of these poor beasts locked in their tiny cells is heart-wrenching and makes serve as brutal reminders that zoos and circuses are inhumane torture shows. Meanwhile, Burke is so lovely, alien-looking and haunted that her oppression leaves an even queasier taste; her misery with Eric has put her in a state of somnambulistic terror so irresistible you too will want to risk having your mouth sewn shut in Malaysia just to 'save' her. Too bad for you, then! 

1944 - ***

Two disparate artists - one of murder, one of sculpture -- are brought together by fate to rage against the bile of snooty art critics determined to rob them of revenue in this unofficial BRUTE MAN sequel. (real-life German political refugee) Martin Kolseck plays a poverty-stricken mad sculptor and his model, the (real life) acromelagy-ridden Creeper, Rondo Hatton is his muse and friend. Rondo was in a string of Bs (including the Sherlock Holmes film PEARL OF DEATH). He died and his career is very sad, but his name lives on in the Rondo awards. I was once nominated for one once! It all fits together.

The editor gets the connection between Kolseck's tortured sculptor and a bland hero photographer, who takes pretty girl's pictures for ads. Thre's a great dissolve between the hero's hot vacant bikini model and Kolseck's Rondo.  Beautiful and complicated Rondo vs. bland blonde!  Kolseck rants "now I have a feeling of power! Limitless power..."

As someone who labors greatly for this little site, I'm always having mental dialogues where my innate grandiosity is tempered with rage at a lack of public recognition, followed by dejection, humility, redemption, and finally artistic inspiration fueled by grace, which quickly becomes overstuffed with grandiosity and the cycle clicks a spoke anew. Sometimes I take this journey in a single breath! Limitless power and unbridled creative flow, and its twin flip-side, blocked insecure anemia. Thus I appreciate the frustrations of Martin Kosleck as the moody sculptor. An anti-Nazi German who fled his homeland one jump ahead of the Gestapo, Martin would spend years in Hollywood playing the very Nazis he fled from, as well as various low vermin-style European gangsters and informants. Here he's clearly relishing a chance to embody a more tragic, three-dimensional figure (ala Conrad Veidt in A WOMAN'S FACE -my 2008 Bright Lights appreciation here)

The Rondo award prototype is complete!
I like this from Memphis gadabout John Beifuss: "Those who do not appreciate true art will probably call it ugly," rationalizes the film's mad sculptor about his work -- a useful comment that could function as an inadvertent slogan for all the undervalued directors laboring in the sometimes disreputable horror genre." I like that Burns and Allen's regular third wheel and announcer, Bill Goodwin, is a cop, for no earthly reason. And there's a great existential sadness that hangs over it all, which Beifuss again nails:
"House of Horrors" is little more than efficient in terms of its staging and camerawork. But it's utterly absorbing in its alternately dismissive and sympathetic attitudes toward art and abnormality; as the story volleys between the healthy Steven and the weird Marcel, between the vibrant Joan and the grotesque Creeper, it functions almost as a dialogue. On the surface, Yarbrough seems to encourage the conflicted viewer to embrace the film's rote 1940s endorsement of wholesomeness; yet it's the almost Steinbeckian duo of Marcel and the Creeper that engages our identification.
The clarity of the DVD image bears this out, exposing the relative poverty of the bland 'good guy' sets vs. the attention to moody shadows and alive flickering in Marcel's studio. Rondo's reputation as the Creeper is well established by his supernatural ability to slip silently around brightly-lit empty corridors; and sneak up right behind people before strangling them and breaking their spines with only his tall twisted shadow to give him away. The film is a sort-of sequel to THE BRUTE MAN, which ends (I dimly remember) with the Creeper being shot and disappearing into the river, which is where our sculptor fishes him out this edition, so see that first if you can find it. And remember this word to the wise: if you want to kill a bunch of enemies, just be kind to a single hulking monster! The war was in fullest flower in 1944, and it's to the film's credit that it understands the need for being kind to that which horrifies us for ultimately higher ends, i.e. allying with the thuggish Stalin against a certain Austrian hack painter. 

1942 - *

This is the one where the guy kills all the people who were exonerated for crimes with which they were clearly guilty. I say, good work, Dr. Rx! Mantan Moreland is 'great' as a sassy butler, jiving with delivery folks and generally deserving to be fired. He does have one good moment when he's supposed to pick up his blandsome hero boss from the airport in the morning, but sleeps through his alarm instead. Finally in the afternoon, Mantan wakes up to said hero, who had to take a cab and is now at his bedside, strangling him: "Why didn't we meet me at the airport?" the hero snaps.

"Boss!" blurts Manton, "I'm on my way right now!"

Similarly there's only one tiny little dark patch of horror in the film (pictured above) worth your time,  wherein we see Dr. Rx pulling a mindfreak-out gaslight routine on our hero via a gorilla suit, but it's just one small heavy metal oasis in a desert of tedious post-code banality that only gets worse with the arrival of a feminism-sabotaging first amendment-violating hack reporter who tries to gaslight her detective husband out of the crime-solving racket. Yecchh. 

1942 - *

I started watching this in good faith but its tale of a mad scientist working on early forms of cryogenics--and leaving a trail of bodies wherever he goes--is so dull and flat it only made me mad I'd ever even bought this set. I began to long for the comparatively ingenious touch of PRC or Monogram. This one stars Lionel Atwill as the titular doctor, marooned with some dislikable specimens on a tropical island; one night he saves the chief's wife with an adrenalin shot (not into the heart, I guess to not shock those heart-phobic censors) and from then on he's got the tribe in his hand, which means experimenting on the natives and then, when he wants to work on 'higher' forms of life (censors don't mind racism), the white castaways. Now he's gone too far!
The Mad Doctor of Market Street presents us with such lousy specimens of the human animal I am tempted to think that Martin's script was trying to sneak in an existentialist subtext. Certainly, life couldn't seem more absurd or meaningless than it does at the end of The Mad Doctor of Market Street. Only Martin's colossal incompetence at every other facet of screenwriting keep me from taking such an idea seriously. - Horror Inc.
I actually stopped watching about halfway through in disgust. I paid real money for this set, after eyeing it now for a few years on TCM's site, thinking the price would go down or I could get them to send me a review copy. For $44 or whatever the list is they should endeavor to give us at least four decent films instead of only three. These last two 'doctor' films are appallingly bad. We all know 1942 was a grim period for the horror film but Jeeze! I don't mind ineptitude but I hate anemic triteness.

Maybe it was the war. Nothing could compare with the Nazis and Japanese as far as horrors. (By 1944 it was okay since we realized we would probably win, eventually). At any rate it does make one wonder if anyone at TCM even saw these films, or were just scrolling the available titles in the Universal roster and picked anything with 'Mad', 'Strange' or 'Horror' in the title. A pox on them (but not too bad a one, don't want to spook the censor), when there are so many other worthy titles they could have included. In closing, if you're wondering whether this set is worth the money, here's my breakdown:

Mad Doctor of Market Street - value - $0.00
Strange Case of Dr. Rx - value $0.00
The Mad Ghoul - value: $3.50
House of Horrors - value: $15.00
Murders at the Zoo - value: $19.99

Maybe you can find the last two separately? (POST-SCRIPT: Now you can!)

In the future, TCM, here's my recommendation for a great five film horror set, PRE-CODE JUNGLE HORRORS:

KONGO - 1932

Yr welcome! 

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