Thursday, October 01, 2015

Quaff this kind Nepenthe: THE RAVEN, WEREWOLF OF LONDON

October is here so I may as well confess that even though I have them all on DVD in one form or another (and on VHS from the 80s), I recently got the Universal Horror Classics Blu-ray box: Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, Bride of Frankenstein, The Invisible Man, The Wolf Man, Creature from the Black Lagoon, Phantom of the Opera, thus, effectively, triple-dipping. Well, I'm glad I tid. They're lovely - like totally different movies. It's like seeing them all over again for the first time, as if I've quaffed the kind nepenthe Poe craves in his poem "The Raven," so that he might forget his lost Lenore. If you've seen most of these over and over to the point of memorization as an alienated child-to-teenager monster enthusiast, this nepenthian memory wipe of uber-HD Blu-ray--cleaned and enhanced to the point of 3D clarity and luminous silver glisten--is a welcome plunge once more into the narcotic abyss of ecstasy that only comes with a really good black and white Universal monster movie. (Phantom of the Opera aside).

One thing the clean-up HD illuminates in the silvery celluloid are the brush strokes of the set painting and make-up. They're visible there in the painted rocks of Henry Frankenstein's crumbling phallic tower interior, Jack Pierce's painterly make-up on Hull and Karloff. We see now too the reflection of black greasepaint under the eyes of Frye and the spidery shimmer on Mae Clarke's wedding dress; we feel like we're right there inside the welcome invisibility of the camera eye as it slithers up and down the winding staircase, a 3-D expressionistic vertical maze of black and white rocks. In Dracula, the clarity of HD makes Bela Lugosi seem shorter, his hair oilier, his complexion steamed from the klieg lights as if he needed the mirakle of celluloid grain to hide his humanity. The way the crudeness of early recording technology for movies in the 1929-31 era resulted in a lot of... measured... talking... for clarity, giving the sense of everyone swimming in ether. Would Dracula speak the same way if the film was made even a year later? Bela needed perhaps even the UHF ghosting, in which to materialize his full unearthly measure of malevolence (and obscure his fragile human physicality). But so much more eerie stillness is now present in Browning's mise en scene. The first scenes in the coach and outside the inn at the foot of the Carpathian mountain leading to Borgo Pass now has strange sense of interiority, as if the village where Renfield is told not to venture out after dark has no more depth than the carriage; the black and white of Freund's camera is like an alien technology window into some human third eye fever dream dimension, a Natural History diorama from the grave.

"whom d'angels name Lanorre

Not all of the eight films belong in the set: Phantom of the Opera is just a lavish, well-made 40s musical-romance with a disappointing unmasking (more like a localized skin rash than a hideous countenance to glut one's senses upon). As with Creature from the Black Lagoon (great, but belonging to a whole different period/genre than the others --it would go well with It Came From Outer Space, Tarantula, Incredible Shrinking Man... etc.) seem included purely for their name recognition. But the rest of the films hum with expressionistic atmosphere and delirious alchemy of light and shadow. Instead of Creature and Phantom, the special magical alchemy of the restored HD image on these gems should rightfully go to the lesser-known but essential alchemical black-and-white 30s Universal gems, The Raven, The Black Cat, Murders in the Rue Morgue and Werewolf of London and The Old Dark House. So consider this humble post my arc of triumphant piss against the wind of Universal big wig "it didn't get on a postage stamp it don't get a Blu-ray" indifference. For the purposes of this post, though, I'll focus on two from 1935, The Raven and Werewolf of London (which I prefer... heresy I know... to the Wolf Man).

In THE RAVEN (1935), 'Karloff' gets top billing even though Lugosi's really the main attraction as Dr. Vollin, a totally insane Poe devotee who's "actually built, you know, some of the torture devices described in Poe's stories" and just hoping for the right snooty family to use them on. Afforded a rare chance to run amok in a big studio project, all the brakes removed, pointed downhill and given a whack on the back and sent freewheeling, Bela does not waste a single syllable of this grand opportunity. Starting the film as a retired brain surgeon and contented genius, obsessed with "the divine Edgar" and indifferent to matters of saving lives, Dr. Vollin is coerced into saving modern dance artist Jean Thatcher (Irene Ware) by her father after she has a bad car accident with her fiancee. To show her gratitude, the recovered Jean lounges and luxuriates by the roaring fire in his 'chambers', sending him mixed signals while he serenades her with, what else, J.S's eerie Toccata fugue (Karloff played the same tune in the previous year's The Black Cat).

Suddenly Poe, and Bach, aren't enough for Vollin. He's attracted. He feels the signals rushing at him - he misinterprets (well, actually she leads him on, it's about 50/50). Either way, when the vibe gets too heavy she mentions Jerry, her fiancee, and eases up off the couch.  Why, didn't Vollin know she's engaged to young Jerry (Lester Matthews, a constant at Scotland Yard and legions of 30s-40s Universal horrors)? But now Vollin's blood is up

His brain must be clear and Jean torments him!

She's being a tease; he has every right to think she's coming onto him by the way she gazes enraptured into his fire while he blasts away on the organ. She seems mere inches away from becoming the Morticia to his lonesome Gomez. Well I know the weird obsessive shame and confusion when a girl pulls that kind of nonsense, treating you like an exotic antique, attractive but ultimately too outside her comfort zone; so she chooses the bland safety of her summer house Lite Beer and cologne coterie, almost just to make the knife sting extra hard, like Morticia blew off Gomez to marry Dick York in Bewitched. But soon we know she made the right choice. His idea that it he can't have her, can't relieve his torture, he must torture her, that no other option exists, is the height of madness. And Bela does it so so sooo well.

But unlike the bulk of Bela's 'normal' rivals in Universal horrors, played by David Manners or John Boles, Jerry's a bit of all right, a regular chap newly-minted doctor rocking a drowsy endearing upper crust Brit accent. His response when learning Vollin is a little sweet on his lady is, "Well, what of it?" Unlike fey and uppity Manners of Dracula and The Mummy, we like him, and wonder what he has that Bela doesn't, youth aside, that makes her father think marrying Vollin instead would be worse than death. Rich and cultured, Lugosi's Dr. Vollin saved her life, so who cares if he's a few years older? He's a catch, especially if you're into the macabre and want to dance for a 'living.' Damn it! Bela never gets the girl, except in Return of Chandu and Black Dragons... but those don't even count, hardly. In one he just shrugs her off, in the other, she's always too endangered. The closest he comes is in Dracula he leaves his three brides behind (I dream one day a 1932 Brides of Dracula will resurface set back in Transylvania starring those three) and never quite gets a love scene with anyone conscious. In those Monogram horrors his wife is either sulky and disfigured, or dead and re-animated only when he de-animates an unlucky bride, or apparently dead but lurking outside his window, inciting him wordlessly to murder. He kind of gets a bride in Plan Nine and Mark of the Vampire but only in the abstract.

Maybe it's because Lugosi doesn't know how to be romantic in a real-life one-on-one clinch, only tortured for the equivalent of the lost Lenore. Once Jean is dead, he can mope out the window and ponder, weak and weary over his forgotten lore.

The previous year's big Karloff-Lugosi-Poe duel The Black Cat is more widely hailed by fans and critics due to the poetic hand of that other divine Edgar, G. Ulmer, but the two films are like mirrored bookends, and of the two, Raven sends me into movie heaven while Black Cat is more hilarious and artsy but too strange to get me up and cheering. Either way, they need each other's distorted reflections, and are often shown as a double feature, the same way Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein often are.

Consider: in Raven, Karloff plays a prison escapee who redeems himself by killing evil Lugosi as he tries to kill a young bride-to-be; in Cat, Lugosi is a former POW who gets revenge and redeems himself by killing Karloff as he tries to sacrifice a young newlywed.  In each film, the more evil of the pair is subjected to a bizarre torture by the other after he makes his coded move against the girl; in each the 'normie' husband is way-too over-civilized and young to not seem buffeted by the wind of Karloff and Lugosi's combined malevolence (they're basically useless). In each, the woman they covet is endangered mainly by moral codes: if she and her chosen young man were allowed to sleep in the same room when staying over at the strange mansions of these two devilish titans, they wouldn't be able to take such a free hand. Both Karloff and Lugosi die at the end of each, of course - and we conclude with the couple in transit, unscarred by their diverting detour into the lurid and macabre.

But, with its weird policeman on bicycle next morning comedy, a weird deathly pall settles over the middle section of Black Cat that The Raven (which never really reaches the next day) never sits still long enough for. The romantic motifs in the Cat score--playing seemingly at random throughout the next morning--provide more proof horror never works well in the AM, explaining too why Dracula goes to sleep at dawn (and in the summer, so do I). There's a grim kind of claustrophobia in Karloff's keeping his young wife in bed all day long, unable to leave their room, killed for no real reason, that leaves me feeling slightly suffocated by The Black Cat. Part of my preference for The Raven lies in the well-ventilated sense of the coming (dark and stormy) night, the sort of giddy rapture I've always equated with very cool slumber parties I attended in the 70s, watching late night UHF horror movies while playing Ouija and 'stiff as a board' and trying to move a piece of paper with our combined ESP, while parents played bridge and wife-swapped below, and then we all watched the sun come up together. Vollin's party--with Dr. Thatcher as the sensible adult, trying to warn Jerry and Jean to go home--is very like those giddy parties. There's even an electric pony race track! It's like air hockey or 'Pong' was to me. And there's the ridiculous bedtime (it's a party and they're all in bed by 10:30) more suitable to children than adults. Dr. Thatcher is 'the one adult' present and Vollin waits until he's asleep to begin the real party, the sneaking downstairs to explore forbidden basements, as we used to do. In Cat on the other hand, only Peter Allison becomes the de facto adult--Boris and Bela wait until he's asleep to resume their struggles, a struggle neither is in such a hurry to accelerate, having no real plan beyond killing their enemy before that enemy can kill them, so wanting to stretch it out and, as it were, parry.

I love both films to death, can quote them endlessly, but what makes The Raven so much more enjoyable in a totally new and unusual way (especially for 1935 when the code was in effect) is that it isn't mired by any extraneous comic relief, or at least not any 'stand alone' bits ala the two bicycle riding local cops (Italian-esque for some reason) competing over praise for their hometowns: "gaiety if you want a-gaiety!" Instead the comedy comes from the relish with which Lugosi lets loose. He's so over the top it's like he smashes the roof of the sky through the sheer oversize scenery chewing grandeur of his crazy Poe sadism. It's my favorite Lugosi performance ever, this oversize Poe-loving maniac is Lugosi's Oscar Jaffe in Twentieth Century. Which in case you don't know it is the highest compliment this blog can give.

WEREWOLF OF LONDON (1935) follows the Frankenstein via Whale aesthetic and subtextual template with an added layer of drug addiction: The only cure for botanist Henry Hull's lycanthropy is to stick the stem of this special eastern "orchid" into his vein. It blooms only under a full moon and there's only one other guy in London with his special "problem," the guy who gave it to him, like Hep C from a dirty orchid stem or.... other.  When Hull's wife gives a tea party in his greenhouse, Hull, and the other werewolf (who gave him the disease) Warner Oland, share some conspiratorial alienation that in our more enlightened age is clearly a coded reference to what the gay subculture must have been like in those dim times when homosexuality was deep underground, probably with a whole array of secret meetings and codes And the heroin addiction analogy works just as well: with a whole flower needed per wolf per night of the full moon, there's just not enough to go around, so the two men shake and sweat and howl while drooling and fighting over each bud like fiends in the grip of a very hairy opiate withdrawal.

As Hull's wife, Valerie Hobson (Henry's wife in Bride of Frankenstein the same year) sports blonde hair and bewildered concern; she never sees her husband except to hear his excuses and promises. He's too busy tinkering with his pansies and bestiality to dote on her and pretend to be interested in anything of the heterosexual pair-bonding variety. Lester Matthews plays Paul (he has the same name and basic role as in The Raven), an 'old friend' of Valerie's, filling in for the ever-absent Hull, as sad-eyed dudes will when a hottie doesn't get her gay or drug addicted husband's affection (as in Dragonwyck). As with his role in Raven, Matthews rocks a genial mix of jolly old England esprit de corp and tall person clumsiness, a stout front struggling under his own inertia and heavy British fog. And then there's Oland, touching Henry on the arm where he bit him while they were both in Tibet, exuding a very gay junkie vibe, begging for a hit from the precious white flower, and/or letting Hull know there's another guy with his 'problem' in London --who maybe knows where the special bars or dens are hidden, and maybe where to score buds on the DL.

But the real reason it all works so well is Henry Hull. The most believable of all the Universal scientists, Hull's buttoned-up angular Britishness --his clothes are too small, he's visibly uncomfortable in his gawky body--is a very realistic science geek. You can easily imagine him as your botany class professor, nervously wasting time thumbing through his texts for theorems, his worn sleeves ink-and-pollen stained, his eyes darting and beady. His slavish devotion to science makes his obligations to conform to British upper class decorum a challenge he is just not up to. His face, all angles and eyebrows, looks half-wolf to begin with, and that's the genius of this particular wolf make-up as opposed to the 1941 Wolf Man's pouffy hairdo and poodle nose. The script for Wolf Man is all about whether Lon's imagining his affliction or not, and the subtext reflects America's anxiety about getting sucked back into another European conflict it doesn't quite understand. Werewolf of London on the other hand is about science and drug addiction, the pain (I can vouch for the latter) of watching powerless from deep within the prison of your addiction as your beautiful, warm sweet wife settles for her consolation prize of a doting ever-present, ever-consoling 'family friend.' I've been through that particular triangle three times and can vouch that it's seldom been captured so well on film, except maybe in Corman's The Trip or Mike Nichols' Closer. The pain it causes you when you notice the first person she hooks up with after you're gone is invariably everything you're not, his strengths illuminating your tragic flaws in ways you resent being made to see; or the horrifying realization that the drug's not a cure for your pain but only a temporary relief from the ever deepening and intensifying withdrawal, good only for a single night, with the double the dose needed tomorrow. Oh yeah, I know how that feels. Between the pills and powders, booze and spliffs, a single night's surcease of sorrow can crest the triple digits. You need more and more nepenthe to forget how much nepenthe you need. And as you chase your pain's surceasing, your Lenore, your Jean, your Paula, fades from view... until she's just a gray splotch, with some dude on her arm who's afraid to look you in the eye.

In case we need more clues, Hull gets quite irate when his wife shines a light in his eyes - another junkie thing, as is his habit of hanging out in his robe all day puttering around his collections and experiments (the way I would my classic horror video tapes and poetry notebooks). And sleeping with (or in this case murdering) girls who resemble the one he truly loves - a psychopath thing. I identify with his wish to keep his wife handy, and to turn things around to please her, and how this wish only enhances his clumsiness at fulfilling it, and ultimately his obsession with his ailment taking precedence as putting out the fire of burning bed takes precedence over going to sleep. He doesn't want to lose her but is powerless to change, unable to ease his heart except to kill her, if not by fangs and claws then via the slow soul death that is being married to an addict. What can you do when the drug you need to not go rabid just disappears from the market, when another mule is kicking in your stall, another scientist plucking your rare flower? You can only have a tantrum and claw the turf as withdrawal and heartbreak turns you into a howling fiend. Chaney's wolf man doesn't have a personality beyond unconscious random malice, a big hairy pouffy fro, animal cunning and aggression, wantonly killing anything in his path, mainly gravediggers burying the previous night's victims. Hull's werewolf isn't as hairy and is twice as scary for seeming so human at the same time, closer to Mr. Hyde vis-a-vis Frederic March, after specific targets, namely objects of his desire, poor Miriam Hopkins.

Adding to the Whale effect: some great comic relief with Hull's tipsy dowager aunt, who has a strange come-on moment with Oland at her party; the way she wafts around in a continual flowing monologue is so expert you need a full lifetime of repeat viewing to appreciate it. There's also a great bumbling Brit cop lamenting his fallen arches; an imitation Una O'Connor delivering a great single breath monologue while leading Hull upstairs to a rented room in the shady side of town, after cold-cocking another old bat to get the business (the two old dames continually hide gin bottles from each other--Whale couldn't have done it any better). John Colton, one of the screenwriters, wrote Shanghai Gesture! Maybe that explains the attention to detail in the dialogue of these older women characters, the sort of thing just usually just tossed away as filler between murders by lazier writers.

Lastly - a great reason all these old gems need Blu-ray upgrades: they're hitherto available only jammed onto other discs and collections in normal--albeit lovely--DVDs. At any rate they deserve love and care, certainly more than old Phantom of the Opera does. Never did like that version of Phantom of the Opera, nor did I ever understand why they pushed it on kids as part of the monster pantheon right down to having an Aurora monster model of it (which I admit I got, mainly for the prisoner down in the sewer). I mean, kids HATE opera.  Whatever. Even my brother loved The Raven and Werewolf of London, back when we'd watch old weird movies I'd taped over and over after the parents went to sleep in the early-80s. Times never change... for me anyway. I'm losing track of my point because I have an October cold, but oh yeah, get it together, Universal and give us:

Universal Horror Blu-Ray Collection Vol. II

1. Old Dark House (1932)
2. Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932)
3. The Black Cat (1934)
4. The Raven (1935)
5. Werewolf of London (1935)
6. Son of Frankenstein (1936)
7. Dracula's Daughter (1935)
8. The Invisible Ray (1936)

1 comment:

  1. Good lord, this is a most illuminating play-off between The Raven and The Black Cat. Having watched them both recently for the first time, this article sums up all the things I wish I'd thought.


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