Thursday, October 01, 2015

Quaff this kind Nepenthe: THE RAVEN, WEREWOLF OF LONDON

top: Jean Poe-teases Vollin - The Raven; below: milking the mugwump, so to speak. in 
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 anyway: Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, Bride of Frankenstein, The Invisible Man, The Wolf Man, Creature from the Black Lagoon, Phantom of the Opera, they're all there, again. Well, I'm glad I did. 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 a luminous silver nitrate 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.

One thing the clean-up HD illuminates, that we were no doubt never meant to see, 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 brush strokes on the faces of Hull and Karloff. We see now too the reflection of black greasepaint under the eyes of Dwight Frye and the spidery shimmer on Mae Clarke's wedding dress. We feel like we're right there in that phallic dream tower, safe 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. 

Not every filmic aspect perhaps benefits from this sharpening. 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 base humanity. The film needs the limits of its era, 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 that some of us find intoxicating in a kind of dreamy ethereal surrealist way. Now, for the first time, questions arise: would Lugosi speak the same... slow... halting way if the film was made even a year later, when sound recording--and Lugosi's familiarity with English--had improved by leaps and bounds? Magic sometimes results from hiding weakness. For me, who fell in love with the character and actor catching him on old phantom UHF TV broadcasts as a child in the early-70s, analog ghosting and static crackle help materialize his full unearthly measure of malevolence (and obscure his fragile human physicality). 

Yet on the good side, so much more eerie stillness is now present in Browning's mise en scene, revealing a whole new intoxicating artificiality aligned with the 2-D nature of dreams. 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 dimension, The Transylvanian village, the last stop of normality, has no more depth than a Natural History diorama or an animatronic Disney ride tableaux. 

"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 lovely Technicolor finally restored, but with the most disappointing unmasking in all the film's many versions (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, making me, for one, wish they chose the films by date and mood rather than fame. 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, (screened and broadcast so often together they're like one long two-part movie) Murders in the Rue Morgue, 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 to style over brand recognition. 

For the purposes of this post, though, I'll focus on two films from the Universal pantheon that remain much less examined, from 1935, The Raven and Werewolf of London (which I prefer... heresy I know... to the Wolf Man).


In THE RAVEN (1935), we start with a meta slap in the face: though Lugosi's really the whole show, 'Karloff' gets top billing. An outrage! 

Lugosi plays Dr. Vollin, a totally insane Poe devotee who's "actually built, you know, some of the torture devices described in Poe's stories" and is patiently waiting for just 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 into gravity's loving arms, 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," indifferent to matters of saving lives, once Dr. Vollin is coerced into saving the life of modern dance artist and bourgeois heiress Jean Thatcher (Irene Ware), the ideal torture choice has been made. To show her gratitude, the recovered Jean cockteases our Vollin mercilessly. She lounges and luxuriates by the roaring fire in his 'chambers' while he serenades her with big ominous chords on his organ, from, what else, JS Bach's eerie 'Toccata' fugue (Karloff played the same tune in The Raven's dark twin, the previous year's The Black Cat). 

She leads him on, flirting and flirting, gazing into the fire and talking about how he's like "a god", but 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)? But now Vollin's blood is up. She leaves, as these types of girls do, and he's left high and dry, too proud, perhaps, to ease his... passion.... the usual way. 

His brain must be clear and Jean torments him! He has every right to think she's coming onto him by the way she gazes enraptured into his fire while he thrusts his fingers down on the organ. She seems mere inches away from becoming the Morticia to his lonesome Gomez.  I sympathize. I, too, 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; acting like she's going to buy you, then leaving you on the shelf at the last minute and exiting with a quick "I'll have to think about it," to the sales clerk. She chooses instead the bland safety of her bland social coterie. It's like if Morticia blew off Gomez to marry Dick York in Bewitched

But soon we know she made the right choice. His idea is that (I think decoding the probably many times changed to pass the censor dialogue) her father should send her to him for sexual copulation to ease his torture. For, if he can't relieve his torture, he must torture her, and her father, and her fiancee--that no other option exists (I'm sure the censor has nixed the options and consolations most of us take in these circumstances). It's 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, Jean's fiancee Jerry's a bit of all right, a regular chap, a newly-minted doctor rocking a drowsy endearing upper crust Brit accent. His response when learning Vollin is a little sweet on Jean, "Well, what of it?" Unlike fey David Manners of Dracula and The Mummy, we like him and his lack of patronizing bossiness. 

On the other hand, Jean's father comes to him noting Jean is sweet on him and he shouldn't lead her on as she's engaged. Rich and cultured, Lugosi's Dr. Vollin saved her life, 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.' The father acts like Bela is, you know, precluded from ordinary love affairs due to his.... otherness. That Vollin should understand that. We do, but only because of Bela's body of work and status as a horror star. It's like his meta credentials keep his character automatically off the desirability market

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, he has to renounce her love to save her life, so he does. 

Maybe he deserves it. In Dracula he leaves his three brides back in Transylvania--never to be seen again (I dream one day a 1932 Brides of Dracula will resurface, a long-buried by the censors pre-code Universal horror laying forgotten in the vaults all these years).  Dracula never quite gets a love scene with anyone conscious. In those Monogram horrors his wife is either sulky and disfigured, 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. 

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. So if he can't have her live, let him her have her dead - there's nothing anyone can do to stop him pining for a ghost. OOps - I'm way off topic!

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. 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, the "phone is dead" comment aside. Either way, they are both very short and benefit from each other's distorted reflections, and are often shown as a double feature, the same way Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein often are.

Consider the similarities: in Raven, Karloff plays a prison escapee who redeems himself by killing evil Lugosi, who is trying to make him complicit in the murder of a young bride-to-be who is spending the night at his spooky mansion during a storm; in Cat, Lugosi is a former POW who gets revenge by killing evil Karloff as he tries to make him complicit in the sacrifice a young newlywed spending the night at his spooky mansion during a storm. 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, young, and ineffectual to not seem merely a useless pawn, buffeted by the wind of Karloff and Lugosi's combined malevolence. In each, the woman they covet is endangered mainly by the era's strict moral codes: if the endangered girl 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, said titans wouldn't be able to take such a free hand. 

Lastly, both Karloff and Lugosi die at the end of each, of course - and we conclude with the couple in transit, back in the consensual reality of the humdrum 1930s world, unscarred by their diverting detour into the lurid and macabre.

But, with its weird policeman on bicycle next morning comedy, a weird deathly Sunday afternoon-style hungover ennui settles over the middle section of Black Cat that The Raven (which never really reaches the next day) never sits still long enough to get stuck in The sweeping romantic motifs in the Cat score--playing seemingly at random throughout the next morning--provide more proof horror never works well in the AM. Further, there's a grim kind of art deco claustrophobia in Karloff's keeping his young wife in bed all day long, unable to leave their room, then killing for no real reason, that leaves me feeling slightly suffocated by the mid-section 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 as a kid, 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 drunkenly wife-swapped below, and then we all watched the sun come up together with a dozen Dunkin Donuts and coffee. Vollin's sleepover in The Raven--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, mirroring those old 'Electric Football' games we used to try and play in the era before the electronic handheld version swept the schoolyard. And there's the ridiculous early 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 when the adults were all snoring away. 

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 one of them is in 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, party, knowing there's no one else who understands their ancient European post-war pain, but each other.

Lastly, 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. There's no bumbling cops like the two bicycle riding locals (Italian-esque for some reason) competing over praise for their seperate hometowns ("Gaiety if you want a-gaiety! Sport if you want a-sport!)" In The Raven, there's no cops, and no afternoon, only stormy nights. The comedy comes from the relish with which Lugosi lets loose, dropping every sandbag over the side and smashing through the roof of the sky, intoxicated by the 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 template--oodles of cozy Victorian atmosphere; metaphoric subtext exploring the ostracized pain of closeted homosexuality-- but 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! Too bad for him, and all like him, the flower blooms only under a full moon and there's only one other guy in London with his special "problem," the guy who gave the disease to him in the first place, like Hep C or AIDS from an infected 'stem.'  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 had to deep, deep underground, visions of the imprisoned Wilde dancing in their heads, a hole array of secret meetings and codes ensuring newcomers had a rough time finding out where to go 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 tasty 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 so banal as an upper crust heterosexual pair-bond. 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 to tote her around to enough parties. 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 before he goes into convulsions, 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 catering to these illegal lifestyles, and maybe where to score more 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; visibly uncomfortable in his gawky body--makes for a very believable obsessive scientist. 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 social 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 much more highly praised 1941 Wolf Man, which I've never really liked (that pouffy hairdo, like he just visited an Italian barber; hat poodle nose; the way he walks on his tippy-toes). The script for Wolf Man is all about whether Lon's imagining his affliction or not, if his unconscious has got the better of him, reflecting no doubt writer (and German √©migr√©) Siodmak's conception of young America's anxiety about getting sucked back into another ancient European conflict it doesn't quite understand, but being unable to stop itself. 

Werewolf of London, on the other hand, is about science and drug addiction, the pain (I can vouch for the latter) of watching powerlessly, 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, very sober '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 now intrinsically woven into the fabric of your soul. Every bottle, bag, or shot 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 as he slinks by you in the street, his eyes already wide with the constant jealous worry that comes part and parcel with dating a hottie. 

In case we need more clues: Hull gets quite irate when his wife shines a light in his eyes (another junkie thing as their pupils often pinpoint tellingly); he hangs out in his robe all day puttering around his collections and experiments (the way I would my classic horror video tapes and poetry notebooks during my own 'adventures' and still do even sober); sleeping with (or in this case murdering) girls in a vain attempt to hide the one-two punch of addiction and homosexuality; trying to keep his beard/wife around even while having only the foggiest notion how to fulfill her needs (quitting is not an option); his obsession with his ailment taking precedence, as addiction always does. 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 with withdrawal foam at the fang madness 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, every nerve dilated and on fire. 

Chaney's later, more-famous wolf man is who everyone thinks of when they think of Universal's werewolf, but he doesn't have much of 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; and then trying to die the rest of the time, never bothering to actually cut his head off, burn himself alive, or any of the other countless ways (he's one of those people always talking about it but never doing it). Hull's werewolf isn't as random or as hairy and is twice as scary for seeming so human at the same time, Hull's angular features enhanced to make him seem closer to Mr. Hyde vis-a-vis Frederic March, zoning in after specific targets rather than random post-code (i.e. sexual connotation-free) murderingg.

Adding to the Whale effect: some great comic relief with Hull's tipsy dowager aunt Ettie (Spring Byington), who valiantly tries to hit on Oland at her tea party.  Wafting around the gathered chatterers, Wildean pronouncements flowing out of her in an airy train-of-thought monologue you need a full lifetime of repeat viewing to appreciate, one wants to just hang out with her and maybe turn her onto some laudanum (you know she'd be game) rather than mope over lotus blooms with the dour Hull. There's also a great bumbling Brit cop lamenting his fallen arches; an imitation Una O'Connor delivering a great single breath monologue as a low rent landlady leading Hull upstairs to a rented room. She cold-cocks another old bat to get the business and the watching these two continually hide gin bottles from each other while partying on the steps is termite gold. John Colton, one of the screenwriters, wrote Shanghai Gesture! Maybe that explains the strong older female characterization going on, 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, on 6-hour tapes I'd made, after the parents went to sleep in the early-80s. Times never change... for me anyway. Access to these gems leaves me stuck in a blissful October haze. I'm losing track of my point because that haze includes a delirious DXM-addled 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)

3 comments:

  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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  2. Anonymous13 June, 2023

    What a marvelous appreciation of "Werewolf Of London", and it's very lucid perceptions of it's hidden sexual/narcotic subtexts in relation to its coded 1930's-era England "dim times" critique. I've always thought of the link to the classic Warren Zevon song, in terms of it's own relation to the songs deceptively light-hearted lyrics and their subtext, containing dark clues to his own personally tormented drug addiction and it's coded critique of his own "dim times" in 1970's era Hollywood, knowingly matching "secret messages" between film and pop song.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Thanks! I never considered the "dim times" parallel to the song and I was a huge Zevon fan in high school, especially the Excitable Boy album, and I've had dinner at Lee Ho Fooks while in London (they post the lyrics on their window; they're very proud of the mention).

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