Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception since 2006, or earlater

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 before then, 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- They're lovely - like totally different movies, 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, which if you've seen most of these over and over so many damn times as an alienated monster enthusiast all your life, then theis nepenthe quaff memory wipe of uber-HD Blu-ray, cleaned and enhanced to the point of 3D, 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 is in color, but I refuse to play it). One thing the clean-up HD illuminates in the silvery celluloid are the brush strokes: they're there in the painted rocks of Henry Frankenstein's crumbling phallic tower interior,tge 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 with Whale's camera as it slithers up and down the winding staircase and through a 3-D expressionistic vertical maze of expressionist rocks. There are also weird new developments: In Dracula, the clarity of HD Bela Lugosi--once in London--seems shorter, his hair oilier, his complexion steamed from the klieg lights, as if he needed the mirakle of celluloid grain, the early sound ether, even the UHF ghosting, in which to materialize his full unearthly measure of malevolence (and obscure his demure physicality). In the earlier scenes in Transylvania there's now a strange sense of Natural History Museum diorama interiority, as if the village where Renfield is told not to venture on to Borgo Pass has no more depth than the carriage; the black and white of Freund's camera 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. The special magical alchemy of the restored HD image on these gems should rightfully go to the lesser- known but just as delirious and 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 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 whole show as Dr. Vollin, a totally insane Poe devotee who's actually built some of the torture devices described in Poe's stories. Afforded a rare chance to be the whole show in a big studio project, Bela does not waste a single syllable. Starting the film retired brain surgeon and contented genius, obsessed with the Divine Edgar and indifferent to matters of saving lives, Vollin is coerced into saving modern dance artist Jean Thatcher (Irene Ware) after she has a bad car accident. To show her gratitude, the recovered Jean lounges by his fire and sends him copious mixed signals while he serenades her with, what else, that eerie Toccata fugue by Bach (Karloff played the same tune in the previous year's The Black Cat).

Suddenly Poe isn't enough for him.

He misreads her coyness, or rather he doesn't --she's being a tease. And well I know the weird obsessive shame and confusion when a girl pulls that nonsense. You know what I mean: moving from being flirty and all over you, all but throwing herself into your arms only to rear back startled when you try to kiss her! Why, she's engaged to young Jerry (Lester Matthews, a constant at Scotland Yard and legions of 30s-40s Universal horrors), didn't he know! But now Vollin's blood is up. If he can't have her, can't relieve his torture, he must torture her. There's no other option.

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 rocking a drowsy endearing upper crust Brit accent. His response when learning Bela's sweet on his lady is, "Well, what of it?" We like him, and wonder what he has that Bela doesn't, youth aside, that makes her father think marrying him would be worse than death. Rich and cultured, Lugosi's Dr. Vollin saved her life, so who cares if he's older? He's a catch, especially if you're into the macabre and want to dance for a 'living' rather than work. Damn it! Bela never gets the girl, except in Return of Chandu and Black Dragons... but those don't even count.

Maybe it's because Lugosi doesn't know how to be romantic, only tortured for the equivalent of the lost Lenore. It's all right if he had a wife, who's dead before the film starts.... To have one now is... what, somehow not scary?

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 to each other, 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 with their distorted reflections, and are often shown as a double feature. Consider: in Raven, Karloff plays a sympathetic prison escapee who redeems himself by killing evil Lugosi; in Cat, Lugosi is a former POW who gets revenge and redeems himself by killing Karloff. Either way, they are well-matched and both die, the evil one subjected to a bizarre torture by the other after he makes his coded move against the girl, whose 'normie' husband is way-too over-civilized and young to not seem buffeted by the wind of Karloff and Lugosi's combined malevolence. 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 these strange mansions then these two devilish titans wouldn't be able to take such a free hand.

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) lacks; and with the romantic motifs in the score playing seemingly at random throughout it's more proof horror never works well in the morning. That's 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. Part of The Raven's appeal lies in that sense of the coming night, of momentum, which I think 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' while our parents played bridge and wife-swapped below before 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 parties. There's even an electric pony race track! It's like air hockey or 'Pong' was in the 70s. Dr. Thatcher is 'the one adult' and Vollin waits til he's asleep to begin the real party, the sneaking downstairs to explore forbidden basements, as it were. In Cat, Peter Allison becomes the de facto adult - they 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.

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 I 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, he 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 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 gay bars are hidden or 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 very of the sort; you can easily imagine him as your botany class professor, nervously wasting time thumbing through his texts for theorems, his sleeves ink-stained and frayed, 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 all ready, and that's the genius of this particular wolf make-up as opposed to the 1941 Wolf Man's pouffy hair and doggie 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 it three times and assure you it's seldom been captured so well on film, except maybe in Corman's The Trip or Mike Nichols' Closer. The way the first person she hooks up with after you're gone is invariably everything you're not, as if she's trying to find ballast for her heaving ship, or the way the drug's not a cure but a temporary relief from the looming withdrawal, good only for a single night. 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 it, your Lenore, your Jean, your Paula, fades from view... until she's just a gray splotch, with some dude on her arm.

In case we need more clues, Hull gets quite irate when his wife shines a light in his eyes - another junkie thing. Hanging out in his robe all day puttering around his collections and experiments - another junkie/alcoholic thing. 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 and turn things around, and how this wish only enhances his clumsiness at it, and ultimately his obsession with his ailment taking precedence. He doesn't want to lose her but is powerless over her, 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 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.

Adding to the Whale effect: some great comic relief with the tipsy 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 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 him upstairs to a room for let in the shady side of town, after cold-cocking another old bat to get his business (the two 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 women characters usually just tossed away as filler between murders.

Lastly - a great reason all these old gems need Blu-ray upgrades: they're hitherto available only jammed onto discs (Raven is with The Black Cat and Murders in the Rue Morgue on one side of a double-sided Bela Lugosi Collection disc, though they all look great anyway- though they're all avail. separately as DVRs) and Werewolf of London is only on a double-sided disc on the old OOP Wolfman Legacy Collection. At any rate they deserve love and care, certainly more than old Phantom of the Opera does. Never did like Phantom of the Opera or understand why they pushed it on kids as part of the 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 mid-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 make this collection, or my brother and I will kill David Manners... and even the phone:

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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