Cleansing the Doors of Cinematic Perception, for a better worse

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Old Dark Capsules IV: NIGHT OF TERROR, THE CROOKED CIRCLE, THE UNHOLY NIGHT, THE 13TH CHAIR, A STUDY IN SCARLET


Black and white old dark house films are the perfect balm for miserable rainy days like this, or the advent of spring (pollen/allergies) contesting grey winter's turgid encore as the sky clears. Cobwebs, shadows, candelabras, sudden black-outs, howling winds, shifty-eyed conspirators, pouring rain, sheet metal thunder, suits of armor that fall at odd times, cats, clocks striking midnight, readings of the will punctuated by lightning strikes, daggers in backs, spooky seances, fog-enshrouded stalking, spying through keyholes, secret passages, hidden laboratories, gorilla suits, disembodied death masks floating in the darkness - it's all manna. If you grew up at all in the 60s-70s then you remember too the ghosting of the UHF antenna signal (highly susceptible to cloud cover) when these movies showed on local TV Saturday afternoons; how a spooky old film was almost always, somewhere to be found out in the white noise wilderness, deep in those films that were deep in the white noise wilderness, Bela Lugosi waited like a UHF Kurtz, hamming it up in whatever role he got, be it a brooding vampire or just another enigmatic butler.

Back in the 70s, before the advent of VCR, one's ability to see old movies was tied to the whims of TV programmers and the the cloud systems of a fickle God. With only a circular antennae and rabbit ears to move around in vain, atop the set, every second of one of these films that was visible became a sacred text written on the snapchat wind. At any moment a cloud might pass and wipe out the signal, which had bounced in off a storm cloud from Wilmington Philadelphia or wherever, and leave you stranded, so you basked in the hoary atmosphere while you could, read your Famous Monsters of Filmland like a holy writ, imagining that, one day, you'd be able to watch the movies those photos were from right there on the page of the magazine, as if a screen could one day be as flat and light and book-sized. On long drives I'd tape a picture of Bela Lugosi or Charlie's Angels on the back of my dad's seat so I could stare at it and wish-wish-wish it was a TV screen.

Those days are a memory of course - thanks to iPads, that dark birthday wish come true ( I spent a recent jury duty in the waiting room watching Invisible Ghost, The Ghoul and The Black Raven on my Kindle) and when it's too pollen-saturated or soaking wet and freezing to go outside without sneezing like a machine gun, what can you do now but watch thy old dark house collection from the sanctity of your germ-free bubble, and remember how precious every signal-reception moment used to feel when it was all so ephemeral.

If you don't know what I mean by all that, yet you still love old dark house movies, then you know their narcotizing effect transcends mere pre-sci-fi nostalgia. Nothing makes you gladder to live in a small apartment than the thought of being expected to stay the night in a huge, mysterious, dark house that could be hiding a whole army of killers with ease. Nothing makes you feel dryer than a raging storm onscreen. Nothing makes you happier to be honest and poor than the sight of the murdered rich and evil. And if you're a Lugosi fan, then you know why.

NIGHT OF TERROR 
(1933)
*** / Amaon Prime Image - B

A long-unavailable old dark house swirl of a thriller melding in some pre-slasher movie signatures, the Bela Lugosi-starring NIGHT OF TERROR is violent pre-code melodrama that more than lives up to its lively reputation. Highlighted by an unusually lurid string of murders by a knife-wielding madman, who grins impishly from the bushes in and around a rolling, fog-enshrouded estate, then creeps in on his unsuspecting victims, stabbing them, then leaving his calling card - a headline of one of his killings - pinned to the back of each new body. From the opening scene of him crawling into a lover's lane convertible to stab a pair of necking lovers (top) it's clear this ain't your average 30s old dark house film, more like a 70s-80s slasher movie. Inside, a dotty scientist (George Meeker) plans to test his new 'suspended animation' death-duplicating drug by burying himself alive for two days--mixing Houdini and medical science together under the watchful eye of an eminently murderable board of directors. His fiancee (Sally Blaine) is too 'animus-dominated' to argue with her gullible dad (Tully Marshall) who encourages the marriage and bankrolls the experiments. She's so passive about it, she even tolerates social climbing reporter Wallace Ford's pushy come-ons. She'd probably get into a car with the killer too, if he had a bag of candy. She might even vote Republican.

The dad is, thankfully, murdered. Heirs gather for the reading of the will; the killer offs them by the dozen; Ford and the cops need to figure out if he's working for one of them (the will's split between heirs, so the fewer the inheritors the more $$) or if it's just a mad killer 'coincidence.' A no-good brother and his cash-hungry wife arrive out of nowhere and try to push everyone else out. The mysterious Hindu servant Degar (Lugosi) and his spirit medium-housekeeper wife (Mary Frey) are also in for a share, though the scheming brother and wife don't think belong in the will and plan to contest it - better hurry up, schemers!

Playing the very first of his long line of red herring butlers, Lugosi's role is pretty central to the action (he's more than just a comic relief macabre sidebar) and--considering what a lean year 1933 was for him (in the doghouse at Universal for refusing to do Frankenstein)--he seems glad to be working and manages some real malevolent around-the-corner stares through doorway cracks. Meanwhile the mad killer's body count rises and the black chauffeur (Oscar Smith) alone is smart enough to want to skedaddle. Naturally there's a mysterious climactic seance (always turn out all the lights in a big first floor open window and ajar door-filled room when a maniac who's already killed four people that night is still at large in the house) and a final act escape down a secret panel to a scary basement.

This rare Columbia B-movie gem was one I'd been looking for since forever - so when it recently surfaced online (I think it's on youtube) and on Prime after never being on VHS, DVD or shown on TV. That I'm actually not disappointed after all that expectation (35+ years of waiting) says a lot. What sets this apart from so many other old dark houses is the wild pace and the abundance of little macabre touches. Man, that lunatic really racks 'em up. I think he even makes it to double digits. I love the blackly comic way no one seems able to alter their schedules, beef up security, turn on some lights, or lock their doors even knowing the killer is right in the same block radius - it's the sort of suicidal eloi passivity--that immunity bubble--that causes so many car fatalities due to people's inability to stop texting.


In a very strange cool ending the killer threatens the audience with death upon divulging the trick ending. It's weird how often that must have happened at the time - because we see that same thing at the end of The Bat Whispers, and so many others. SPOILERS - believe it or not, underneath that weird make-up, the killer is gravel-voiced Edwin Maxwell (Dr. Emile Egelhoffer in His Girl Friday). 
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20. A STUDY IN SCARLET
(1933) Dir. Edward Marin
*** / Amazon Image: D

My favorite early 30s Sherlock Holmes (pre-Rathbone) films, this has a lot going for it, including Anna May Wong and plenty of Limehouse fog. Some purists decry Reginald Owen's Holmes as too bulky and slow (he played Watson opposite Collin Clive the year before)-- but he's more forceful and less dotty than, say, Arthur Wotner who played him--rather too self-satisfied and cozily in British films from the same period. Even Rathbone tended to play up Holmes' nervous coke-head feyness, gamboling down the London streets, Watson lagging along behind; here the energy is a bit reversed: Watson is bouncing off the terrarium walls while Holmes sits motionless like a gecko perched above a watchful cricket, and then--- zap! the cricket has disappeared in a slight blur of pink tongue. He's cool rather than fey.  This is Holmes with more than just a keen mind, he has gravitas. 

When, for example, his study of a crime scene leads him from the murdered man's desk out to the front yard, Watson and Lestrade stand there watching him on the sidelines as the scene plays out - they both seem resigned, reverent even - they're not doing the usual dimwitted jumping to conclusions, they aren't about to break his concentration.I like that he doesn't bother to explain all his 'elementary' observations to Watson like the first-grade show-off. When for example, Watson points out the resemblance of Thaddeus Merrydew's shoe size and cigar brand to those of the murderer they're hunting, Holmes just looks at him like a patient teacher guiding a student towards an already established insight: "Is that all you observed?" Holmes points out there were a hundred more details Watson missed, but then doesn't go into them. Still waters run deep with this Holmes and we come to appreciate the carefulness with which Owen keeps the water clear enough to see all the way into his character's purple depths but doesn't reveal the depths until it's time to strike. These give those gecko tongue movements that extra snap, like when he counters Merrydew's feigning of ignorance over the withholding of a widow's trust, with a simple smile: "it won't do" that chills the blood.

Another highlight is a local tavern out in the country, wherein a nice old Col. Blimp-style officer strolls in, buys a bottle, and beguiles the local carriage driver with tons of whiskey before hiring him for a trip out to a for-sale mansion. Owen is so thoroughly buried in his role that we're not quite sure which of the two men is Holmes or if either man is at all, we just enjoy the idea of being kind of hard up and having a friendly stranger come and bring over a whole bottle. We watch in awe as Holmes deftly avoids drinking his share while plying the driver, and how expertly he soon starts searching all over the mansion, locating secret panels, sending the maid out of the room after feigning a heart attack, and so forth. It's genius.


As in all the best Rathbone Holmes' (The Scarlet Claw in particular) there's a rich foggy night atmosphere especially in and outside the gang's Limehouse hideout, where many a chase, spy, shot and a skulking suspicious walk occurs. The always worthwhile Anna May Wong has a small but memorable part one of the inheritors of the bloody tontine (based on some sequestered jointly stolen jewels) along with innocent daughter of a dead conspirator June Clyde and  J.M. Kerrigan (the guy toasting "King Jippo" in The Informant). Alan Mowbray is a tolerant Lestrade; Alan Dinehart the odious Merrydew; Warburton Gamble a stalwart Watson. There are secret passages, killings, and some good tough talk showdowns. An invigorating climax finds Holmes, Lestrade and a gang of detectives show up at the same county pub for a quick one to bolster the blood before trundling off through the moors for the big climax. Hail Britannia! We wouldn't see a 'quick stop at the local before the showdown' scene again until Straw Dogs! 

 Clearly a labor of love for Owen, he produced and co-wrote the script with Robert Florey. It doesn't have anything to do with original Conan Doyle novel of the same name, but that's because Owen had optioned the title only, not the actual story! To be honest, you'd never know it as he did a bang-up job whipping something together that feels proper and correct in its Holmes-ishness and as I say, and Owen makes (in my opinion at least) a vital, grounded Holmes and that British atmosphere is so thick you may be forgiven for presuming it came from Gaumont rather than a long-lost poverty row indie Tiffany.

THE CROOKED CIRCLE
(1932) Dir. H. Bruce Humberstone 
*** / Alpha Image - **

This 'campy mystery' was the first film ever broadcast over TV airwaves, back in 1933, when it was still in theaters and there were only about six TVs in all of Los Angeles, but the ball needed to get rolling and what better choice? Old dark house films sorts of films thrive with a fuzzy picture -- combined with the inherent staginess you may get the delicious impression you're somehow not meant to see it at all- that the atmospheric conditions were good enough you picked up a strange channel from Illuminati-style closed-circut crime organization from far away. Just watching it makes you subject to be next on their tarot card hit list.  Consisting of several men and one woman, they meet wearing black hoods to conceal their identities from each other, and end each meeting with a secret chant, "the traitors to the knife and the knife to the hilt!" The way the circle draws cards to see who does each murder "in a manner already prescribed" evokes Robert Louis Stevenson's "Suicide Club." H. Bruce Humberstone, the man behind all the best Charlie Chan movies, directed it, which may explain why it pops so effectively.

The story centers around 'Melody Manner', an abandoned, creepy split-level haunted-ish mansion inherited by Ben Lyon. Way more developed as a set than most, squatted in by a rogues gallery of kooks, squatters, mysterious violin sounds (gh-gh-gh-ghosts!), and killers hang out amidst its labyrinth of secret passageways, spooky attics, and backyard graveyards with coffin chutes down to basement trap doors.  There are some genius touches of the sort I haven't seen until the more recent Good Time (like a burglar forcing the homeowner he's holding at gunpoint to change clothes with him, before the cops arrive); and t
The Secret Circle don't show up much once the ball is in play (or do they?), we spend a lot of time with their opposing numbers, 'the Crime Club' a band of amateur criminologists who tackle complex crimes for sport. (Never mind the class barrier reinforcement inherent in that arrangement, good sir). Irene Purcell--those bare alabaster Norma Shearer-esque arms as lovely as ever--is the heroine. The eminently forgettable Ben Lyon is her nominal fiancee. Stealing the movie with some elegant 'against-type' aplomb is C. Henry Gordon in a rare good guy turn, sporting a turban as the enigmatic foreign detective Yoganda; as a drinky crow-esque crime clubber, Roscoe Karns nibbles on whatever comedy relief isn't chewed down to the nub by mugging Zasu Pitts as a terrified gal Friday and James Gleeson's rattled traffic cop ("oh, a wise guy, eh?"); Robert Frazer, Christian Rub, and Spencer Charters are various spooky eccentric flittering in and out of frame to menace Purcel. Before you know it, the Crooked Circle are being unmasked and/or killing the lights for the final escape, but hey - do what I do and just press 'play from beginning' at the first sign of credits, because I guarantee you didn't remember a goddamned wonderful word of it even if you watch it twice, back-to-back, in the same evening. It's just that good!


THE THIRTEENTH CHAIR
(1929) Dir. Todd Browning
**1/4 / (TCM image - ***)

Often remade, to no real effect, this is one of those bunco squad seance exposes, that was first--as with so many old dark house vehicles-- a barnstorming stage melodrama. A medium hired for a party amongst British diplomats and swanky ex-pats in India, Madame LaGrange (with her spirit familiar, "Laughing Eyes") demonstrates the secrets all sorts of bizarre seance tricks, like spirit raps and table raising, demystifying the art and bumming everyone out in the service of finding out who killed a friend at a party the previous year. Summoned on the anniversary of the friend's death, Margaret Wycherly cranks up her slow-talking sentimental schtick to the hilt (she played Sgt. York's mom, if the name doesn't ring a bell) while making a half-hearted attempt to access real magic for the climax, making MGM seems less to blame for their veto on fantasy (i.e. the end of Mark of the Vampire - the silent era's fear the public won't 'buy' supernatural explanations) and putting the blame squarely on hardened carnies like director Todd Browning, whose eagerness to expose the seamy underbelly of the seance racket seems mean-spirited (maybe he did it to impress Houdini -dead only three years at the time - or was he?). Until Dracula two years later, Browning shied away from straight-up fantasy thinking the public preferred his sentimental Chaney 'deformed sideshow contortionist loves circus waif' masochism vehicles. So in this case, the old dark moody billing is a cheat as the medium's calling on her fake familiar for real help seems quite absurd and eventually her dated sentimental schtick plus the elaborate disclaimers combine to kind of swamp the picture.

Ah well, you can always fall in love with Leila Hyams in her seductively diaphanous art nouveau Adrian gown, the jagged ruffles of her flapper-y skirt alone are as unforgettable in their way as the windows on the abandoned house in Deep Red. You don't blame mopey Conrad Nagel for mooning over her (though eventually you will want to slap him). The Calcutta setting lets art director Cedric Gibbons enhance the tony parlors with luxurious exotica trimmings and Bela Lugosi is great as the local Indian police inspector, masterfully using his aristocratic bearing to boss around the snotty British, and the big surprise climax is not without its spooky charm.

Nonetheless... as with other mysteries from the period that get too hung up on their big 'twists' (like Secret of the Blue Room), once you know the ending it all seems so hopelessly contrived, and oh man does Wycherly's schtick stick in the craw. It's clear Browning is as taken with her as Hitchcock was with Lila Kedrove in Torn Curtain, or Anderson with Peter Ustinov in Logan's Run. Browning should know: you can't just let old character actors run away with a scene, because they will, and it will be all viewers remember, and we'll never want see it again, anymore than we want to go to the old lady's home and visit granny. She's a swell old girl, but... just the thought kind of gives us a claustrophobic, buried-alive feeling.


On the other hand, twenty years later Wycherly would turn her saintly homespun mom schtick on its head as Cagney's terrifying mother in White Heat, and don't say 1929 mysteries don't age well, because there's one old dark house movie from 1929 with all the same ingredients as this, and it rocks, and it's up next on the hit parade:
THE UNHOLY NIGHT 
(1929) Dir. Lionel Barrymore
**** / unavailable 

This MGM old dark house thriller gets a bad rap for being--like most early sound films--awash in crackles, hisses, stiff acting, and literal and figurative static. That's all actually plusses for an old dark house fan, for it gives the impression the air of the early sound era was something we could hear and see, like a special alternate form of liquid perfect for late night/early morning dipping. And The Unholy Night may offer the coziest example: everything seems to be taking place underwater seen through some magical submarine window as, under the protective anonymity of London fog, a killer is strangling unwary ex-British military officers. They're dropping like flies in a wild opening montage. Lord Montague (Roland Young) is nearly strangled too, but he manages to get rescued and at Scotland Yard proceeds to start pouring the brandy and sodas to steady his nerves, and he doesn't stop 'til the whole mystery's wrapped up (announcing each new glass is "my first, today"). Turns out he and the dead men all served together at Gallipoli in the Great War in the same regiment so Scotland Yard suggests they round them up at Montague's mansion for a an impromptu reunion and their own safety and thus protect them with some plain clothes guards and get to the bottom of things. What with all the drinking and WWI existentialist undercurrents you can bet it was written by Ben Hecht, and there are so many creepy seances, ghosts, mass murder tableaux, walking corpses, and British army buddies singing drinking songs that it becomes the perfect film to watch as the sun comes up after a wild night of revels.

The cast is rich with strange faces: Montague's sister (Natalie Moorhead) goes in for seances in a big way, and seems a harmless enough pastime to her doctor fiancee (Ernest Torrance) but is it? Hardworking character actor George Cooper is Montague's loyal servant from the war - he's sure happy to see the regiment back together for a weekend, happier than he can say, and knows just what kind of drinks to serve and when to bring another round (which is immediately); Boris Karloff is a foreign lawyer with shady motives and a strange will; Polly Moran is kept on a short leash as the maid (she can really ham it up... if... if encouraged); the disfigured Major Mallory from their old regiment dies in the other room while the gang are mixing up "a bowl of wine" - a concoction of everything but wine, let aflame and carried around while singing "drink it down / drink it down."



Things really shift into high gear with the dramatic arrival of the Turkish-British Lady Efra (Dorothy Sebastian -above, center), the daughter of a traitor officer previously drummed the bounder out for cheating at chards, she might be in town because she knows about the will (a tontine-style affair where the fortune is divided up equally amongst "surviving" members of the regiment, set up as some byzantine revenge plot) or she has her own plot in mind probably via 'tricks of the ancient orient' - like hypnosis, sex and suggestion (ala Thirteen Women, another personal favorite). Naturally the news leads to some hammy moments of alibi-challenging, confession of being broke or in debt, and going "crazy" from the strain, but brotherhood prevails and some pretty rounds of "Auld Lange Syne" put it all back in place. The doctor boyfriend slips the nervous Efra some tranquilizers upstairs as asks if she can identify the voice she heard conspiring with Karloff the night before.

Yeah, I love this movie to death. I've only seen it a few dozen times but always late at night, drunk, or sick, all the better to not remember it for the next time. (It is key, really, to enjoying these old murder mysteries over and over again- make sure you forget who the killer is as soon as it's over). I do recall that the men are all stepping over themselves to be the last man mooning over her at her bedroom door, which considering her possible yen for killing them doesn't seem at all wise. And I remember  Karloff's weird mix of abashed lovelorn discomfort and silken sinister motives but not exactly where he fits in to anything (he's not even in the credits). There's a great grisly morning tracking shot past numerous strangled victims, lots of hamming, and my favorite moment--the one I remember most--occurs earlier, when Lord Montague, leading Scotland Yard into his mansion, opens the parlor door to investigate a scream, and finds the lights out and his sister and a gang of folks mid-seance, spooking maid Moran. It's total darkness while the disembodied head of Sôjin Kamiyama whirls around the room, chanting in a hideous deep voice! Oops! Oh well, nothing to worry about. As a viewer it's such a great WTF moment it stays in the unconscious like an eclipse stays on the retina. Well, gentlemen, let's to the study and have another round. Gentlemen, and another regimental drinking song if you please and another brace of brandy and sodas. Our first today! "Well, you know what I mean."


PS - Good luck finding it - it's not on any DVD or VHS.  TCM occasionally shows it - usually very late at night. Could you please demand they make a DVD, maybe part of a pre-code old dark house five movie DVR set? Suggest they add Murder by the ClockNight of Terror, Supernatural, and a decent print of Crooked Circle! I'd appreciate it.

See also:
Old Dark Capsules: THE GHOUL, CAT AND THE CANARY, THE MONSTER WALKS, THE OLD DARK HOUSE, THE BLACK RAVEN


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