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DAY 10 OF 31: THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY (1945)

Published October 10, 2019 by Philip Ivory

Produced by MGM, THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY is a first-class, hauntingly effective adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s 1890 novel.

Dorian, played by Hurd Hatfield, is young man possessed of many gifts. Cultured, wealthy, and almost supernaturally handsome, he falls under the sway of the amoral Lord Henry Wotton (George Sanders), who convinces Dorian that beauty and pleasure are the only things worth living for.

While having his portrait painted by his friend Basil Hallward (Lowell Gilmore), Dorian makes a wish, one that is granted, perhaps with the help of Dorian’s  Egyptian cat statue that may have exotic powers. What does Dorian wish for? That no matter what experiences he undergoes, no matter how much time passes, Dorian’s face will remain unchanged. Only the painting will be altered.

The picture of Dorian Gray in its original state, seen in a color shot inserted into the black and white film.

The implacably handsome Hatfield is a compelling choice as Dorian, a man torn between his desire for a virtuous life rewarded with love, and the hedonistic lifestyle championed by Lord Henry. Dorian chooses the darker path, and his friends and acquaintances pay the price.

An impossibly young Angela Lansbury plays Sybil Vane, the trusting singer Dorian falls for before cruelly casting her aside and crushing her spirit, leading to her suicide.

Dorian’s path to ruin starts with driving singer Sybil Vane (Angela Lansbury) to suicide.

As time goes on, Dorian remains unchanged, outwardly. But there are whispers of scandals and lives ruined.

When Basil becomes suspicious and wants to see his portrait, the one that has been hidden away because it bears the evidence of Dorian’s sins, Dorian murders him.

The film is black and white, but includes color insert shots to show the painting at various stages, culminating in a hideous visage of a human monster.

The most infamous “after” picture ever seen.

In the end, Dorian is so shocked by the image and by how far he has fallen that he’s finally driven to destroy the painting, inadvertently destroying himself.

THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY remains an elegant, underrated masterpiece.

DIALOGUE

“I like persons better than principles and persons with no principles better than anything at all.” — Lord Henry Wotton

“If only it was the picture who was to grow old, and I remain young. There’s nothing in the world I wouldn’t give for that. Yes, I would give even my soul for it. ” — Dorian Gray

“There’s only one way to get rid of temptation, and that’s to yield to it. ” — Lord Henry Wotton

 

 UP NEXT:

“Just room for one inside, sir.”

 

DAY 9 OF 31: CAT PEOPLE (1942)

Published October 9, 2019 by Philip Ivory

RKO studios had had a huge hit with KING KONG in 1933, but had otherwise mostly left the monster business to other studios.

Then, in the early 1940s, RKO writer-producer Val Lewton was charged with giving Universal some competition by producing a series of modestly budgeted chillers, with fairly sensational audience-tested titles like CAT PEOPLE and I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE.

But Lewton, who set about polishing scripts and hiring directors, was a man of taste and deep literary sensibility. His RKO horrors have earned a special place in the history of the genre. Lurid titles aside, the films deal with sophisticated, real-world characters with real-world emotional problems, whose lives are touched by the dark and fantastic.

Horror expert Greg Mank quotes one of Lewton’s directors, Mark Robson, as likening Universal’s more full-blooded horror aesthetic to the image of “a werewolf chasing a girl in a nightgown up a tree.”

In contrast, Lewton wanted to produce films in which the monsters seldom showed themselves. Shadow and suggestion would prevail, along with a kind of moody fatalism, which seem to put Lewton’s films in company with film noir. Literate dialogue would abound.

CAT PEOPLE, directed with great mood and sensitivity by Jacques Tourneur, was Lewton’s first chiller and possibly his best. It starts off as a touching Manhattan romance between shy Serbian artist Irena (Simone Simone) and architect Oliver (Kent Smith).

Is it neurosis or an ancient Serbian curse separating Irena from her husband in CAT PEOPLE?

The two fall in love and marry, but something prevents Irena from consummating their relationship. She’s haunted by dark myths from her native land, fearing that an ancestral curse will unleash something lethal in her if she allows her passions to be aroused.

Despite the fairy tale trappings, we’re presented with a rather adult subject for a 40s horror film, as much about failed trust and communication in a troubled marriage as it is about monsters. Oliver tries to be patient, but soon turns for solace to his coworker, Alice (Jane Randolph), who can’t hide the fact that she loves him.

Irena becomes jealous, and her unspoken desire to rid herself of her romantic rival leads to the film’s most chilling scenes, in which an unseen predator stalks Alice. Director Tourneur uses modern settings to stage his eerie scenes. In one famous sequence, Alice takes refuge in a swimming pool, as we sense and hear a feline menace lurking in the shadows, waiting to pounce.

Jane Randolph is stalked by something unseen in CAT PEOPLE.

Perhaps we’re meant to make up our own minds as to whether Irena actually transforms into a cat creature, or whether her trouble is all in her mind, although a few literal shots of a prowling panther seem to support the former hypothesis.

Irena is a sad and touching figure, and her story ends tragically, as do so many horror tales, but Oliver and Alice survive to remember her.

Melancholy as the ending is, the film was a huge success for RKO. Val Lewton and his imaginative team would continue to turn out subtly gripping shockers for the next few years. “Lewtonesque” remains a term used by cinema enthusiasts to describe any film or scene that achieves a frightening effect via shadow, mood and suggestion.

DIALOGUE

“Now, you’ve told me something of the past, about King John and the witches in the village and the Cat People who descended from them. They’re fairy tales, Irena, fairy tales heard in your childhood, nothing more than that. They have nothing to do with you, really. You’re Irena, you’re here in America. You’re so normal you’re even in love with me, Oliver Reed, a good plain Americano. You’re so normal you’re gonna marry me, and those fairy-tales, you can tell ’em to our children. They’ll love ’em.” — Oliver

“She never lied to us.” — Oliver’s mournful elegy for Irena

 INTERESTING FACTS

  • Director Jacque Tourneur would go on to direct the noir classic, OUT OF THE PAST, as well as the 50s supernatural thriller, CURSE OF THE DEMON.
  • Today’s “jump scares” in horror films may be said to descend from a scene in CAT PEOPLE in which Alice is startled by the hiss of a bus’s brakes. This sudden scare technique was long known as a “bus” in tribute to CAT PEOPLE.
  • In the poetic but less frightening follow up, 1944’s CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE, Irena appears either as a ghost or the imaginary friend of Amy, the little girl who’s the daughter of Oliver and Alice, who ended up getting married.

UP NEXT:

“If only it was the picture who was to grow old, and I remain young. There’s nothing in the world I wouldn’t give for that. Yes, I would give even my soul for it.”

DAY 8 OF 31: THE WOLF MAN (1941)

Published October 8, 2019 by Philip Ivory

Universal made an early attempt at a werewolf film in 1935, with WEREWOLF OF LONDON starring Henry Hull. The film didn’t quite hit the mark, seeming more like a Jekyll and Hyde variation than a full-blooded supernatural horror. Hull’s werewolf was a semi-civilized monster, who donned a sporty looking cap before going out for a night’s stalking. Something stronger was needed.

Their second attempt, 1941’s THE WOLFMAN, which gave us the ever tormented Lawrence Talbot, remains for many the definitive werewolf film. Not drawing upon any literary source, screenwriter Curt Siodmak basically invented his own mythology, including the famous poem:

Even a man who is pure in heart 

And says his prayers by night

May become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms

And the autumn moon is bright.

Stars such as Lugosi and Karloff had dominated horror during the 30s, but it was a new decade and time for new blood. Universal recruited Lon Chaney Jr., son of the legendary silent star known as “The Man of  a Thousand Faces,” to play Talbot. Chaney, fresh off a triumphant turn as the intellectually challenged but physically powerful Lennie in 1939’s classic OF MICE AND MEN, was groomed by Universal as a new horror attraction and his father’s successor.

Lon Chaney Jr. as the doomed Lawrence Talbot.

Lawrence Talbot, returning to his ancestral Welsh estate after 18 years of (largely unexplained) exile in America, is a role neither Lugosi or Karloff could have played. In fact, the part seems tailor made for Chaney. Talbot, as the story begins, is an amiable, American-bred galoot, unsophisticated and humble but ready to help his father, Sir John Talbot (Claude Rains of INVISIBLE MAN fame), manage the estate after the tragic death of an older brother.

There’s some kind of unresolved tension between the reserved and proper Sir John and the much more down to earth Larry, and that tension will provide a dramatic spark for the tragedy that’s about to unfold.

Larry tried to fit into village life by taking a pretty local girl, Gwen Conliffe (Evelyn Ankers), out for an evening stroll to have her fortune read at a gypsy camp.

Shopkeeper’s daughter and the object of Lawrence Talbot’s affection, Gwen Conliffe (Evelyn Ankers), threatened by a looming lupine apparition.

As fate would have it, fortune teller Bela, played by Bela Lugosi, is a werewolf who transforms and attacks Larry, biting but not killing him. Larry kill his attacker with a silver tipped cane, but is shocked to be told next morning that no dead wolf was found at the scene, only the dead gypsy.

Soon Larry is transforming into a full-blown wolf creature himself, in fearsome makeup devised by the great Jack Pierce. Unlike Henry Hull’s character, Talbot loses all semblance of humanity in his lupine guise. It’s an utterly bestial performance, benefiting from Chaney’s imposing size and the great relish he seems to bring to his performance as a remorseless predator.

Siodmak claimed he was following the lead of Greek tragedians in imposing a dire fate upon a man who neither asked for nor deserved it. At any rate, our hearts go out to Larry, who begs for anyone, including his stiff-necked dad and the local medical man, to believe that something supernatural is going on. All he gets in return are some half-baked Freudian homilies and lectures about the responsibility of being a Talbot.

It turns out that Talbot’s two important relationships in the film — his budding romance with Gwen and his desire to reconnect with this father — are both thwarted by his werewolf curse.

Only Maleva (Maria Ouspenskaya), the wise gypsy woman and mother to the late Bela, understands what’s happening to Larry, but she can offer little help.

Claude Rains as Sir John Talbot discovers he has killed his own son, not a wolf.

Larry finds peace, but only through death, via a beating from his own silver-tipped cane, now wielded by this father, who is devastated to find he has not killed a wolf but his own son. (Rains’ look of shocked horror elevates the tragedy of the scene.)

It was to be a short rest, for THE WOLFMAN, issued within days of the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, was a huge success. Lawrence Talbot would be resurrected four times, first in 1943’s FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLFMAN, and finally in the 1948 monster romp, ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN.

DIALOGUE

“The way you walked was thorny, through no fault of your own, but as the rain enters the soil, the river enters the sea, so tears run to a predestined end. Your suffering is over, Bela my son. Now you will find peace.” — Maleva

 

UP NEXT:

“A Kiss Could Change Her Into A Monstrous Fang-and-Claw Killer!”

DAY 7 OF 31: THE BLACK CAT (1934)

Published October 7, 2019 by Philip Ivory

Murder. Betrayal. Necrophilia. Satanism. A man being skinned alive!

Okay, you won’t actually see all of these things happening in Universal’s 1934 horror entry, THE BLACK CAT. But some of those things happen on screen, while some are more or less referred to. It’s a heady dark goulash, but with only a tangential relation to Edgar Allan Poe, whose story “The Black Cat” is the putative source. As with many, many Poe adaptations, little of the original story remains, and the master’s name is being used for his macabre marquee value.

Two other names helped sell THE BLACK CAT to a public still willing to lap up elegantly produced horrors in the midst of the Great Depression. Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi were Universal’s poster boys of horror in the 30s. Here they are teamed together for the first, and probably the best, of the chillers they costarred in during the 30s and 40s. (If we leave their iconic costarring performances in SON OF FRANKENSTEIN out of the equation.) In their other pairings, one or the other tends to dominate the proceedings, but here they are on equal footing throughout.

“We shall play a little game, Vitus. A game of death, if you like.” — Hjalmar Poelzig (Boris Karloff)

The horrors of World War I hover in the background of THE BLACK CAT.  Lugosi for once gets to play a heroic if flawed figure, Dr. Vitus Werdegast. Since the war, he’s been unjustly locked in a ghastly prison, but has emerged to confront his old “friend,” architect Hjalmar Poelzig, played by Karloff, for crimes against Werdegast and humanity.

Karloff as Poelzig, in sinister widow’s peak makeup, is a bad guy writ large. He betrayed thousands during the war, and now resides in an art deco masterpiece constructed upon their graves. Which some might deem a tacky move on his part. Plus he keeps the corpse of Werdegast’s wife in a glass case, for reasons not fully explained, but probably not good ones. Oh, and did I mention he conducts black masses in his spare time?

Dr. Werdegast (Bela Lugosi) is none too pleased with his wife’s treatment by his “friend,” Hjalmar Poelzig (Boris Karloff).

Other ingredients include an innocent pair of stranded newlyweds, Peter and Joan Alison, who get more than they bargained for at chez Poelzig. They’re played by Universal’s obligatory romantic lead David Manners and Julie Bishop.

Werdegast and Poelzig trade elegantly crafted barbs and play chess. We learn that Werdegast’s daughter is also on the premises, alive until Poelzig decides it’s glass case time for her, too.

It all culminates in a zestily macabre climax in which Werdegast, edged over to the loony side by all the goings on and who can blame him, pins his rival to a rack and proceeds to skin him like an animal, offscreen. Then the heavily mined fortress is blown to smithereens, killing them both. Needless to say, the two young lovers escape unscathed, enjoying a jokey fadeout.

An example of the art deco stylings of THE BLACK CAT.

Moodily directed by Edgar G. Ulmer and with striking modernist art design, THE BLACK CAT is marred by some plot holes (what does Werdegast’s fear of cats really have to do with anything, other than throwing a lifeline to Poe?) and some dated comic relief. Sometimes it seems more like a collection of interesting incidents — what does the chess game really accomplish? — than a coherent story.

Nonetheless, taken as a whole, THE BLACK CAT remains a feast of the bizarre and a prime showcase for Universal’s two greatest horror stars at the height of their powers.

DIALOGUE

“It all sounds like a lot of supernatural baloney to me.” — Peter Allison
“Supernatural, perhaps. Baloney, perhaps not. There are many things under the sun.” — Dr. VItus Werdegast

“Come, Vitus, are we men or are we children? Of what use are all these melodramatic gestures? You say your soul was killed and that you have been dead all these years. And what of me? Did we not both die here in Marmorus fifteen years ago? Are we any the less victims of the war than those whose bodies were torn asunder? Are we not both the living dead? And now you come to me, playing at being an avenging angel – childishly thirsty for my blood. We understand each other too well. We know too much of life.” — Hjalmar Poelzig

 INTERESTING FACTS

  • The modernist architecture makes THE BLACK CAT stand out from other Gothic horrors of the period.
  • English occultist Aleister Crowley seems to have been the inspiration for Poelzig’s satanist architect.
  • The film was Universal’s biggest hit of 1934. The following year, Universal would reteam Karloff and Lugosi in THE RAVEN, another chiller loosely inspired by Poe.

UP NEXT:

“Even a man who is pure in heart and says his prayers by night may become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright.”

DAY 6 OF 31: THE INVISIBLE MAN (1933)

Published October 6, 2019 by Philip Ivory

Yesterday we looked at ISLAND OF LOST SOULS. Now we turn to another adaptation of an H.G. Wells novel, one that was greeted more warmly by the public and the author himself.

Universal, continuing its roll of superior horror productions in the early 30s, released THE INVISIBLE MAN in 1933. It starred Claude Rains as scientist Jack Griffin, who, dreaming of doing something no man has ever done, injects himself with a drug of his own creation that turns him invisible. All this he does to impress his lady love, Flora, played by Gloria Stuart.

At the beginning of the film, Griffin has secreted himself away in a country inn, hoping to reverse his invisibility so he can return to Flora. Wrapped in bandages, prone to temperamental fits, he brings disaster upon himself by throwing the innkeeper down a flight of stairs.

In a famous scene, Griffin, confronted by a gawking band of locals including a thick-headed constable, raves as he unwraps his bandages, bewildering his onlookers as he reveals himself to be invisible. Then he goes on a murderous rampage. You see, a side effect of the drug — one Griffin is unaware of — is madness.

“You’ve driven me near madness with your peering through the keyholes and gaping through the curtains, and now you’ll suffer for it! You’re crazy to know who I am, aren’t you?! All right! I’ll show you!!”

James Whale, director of FRANKENSTEIN, brings his usual romantic panache for the love scenes and touches of dark wit. Witness the scene in which horrified villagers run from a bicycle that rides itself through the village square, or the vignette in which a seemingly empty pair of trousers skips along a country lane as Griffin sings “Here we go gathering nuts in May.”

But the touches of humor are balanced by sheer terror. Under Flora’s influence, Griffin can recover some semblance of his humanity. He is gentle and loving in his scenes with her. But out of her influence, he is a maniac, bashing policeman to death and derailing trains, causing hundreds of deaths. (He may be the most prolific murder among the classic monsters.)

Claude Rains’ face remains unseen until the final moments, when Griffin becomes visible, proclaiming his famous final line before dying: “I meddled in things that man must leave alone.” Rains’ wonderful vocal tones and rich, theatrical delivery of the excellent dialogue, as well as his powerful use of hand gestures, result in an unforgettable portrayal.

DIALOGUE

“We’ll begin with a reign of terror. A few murders here and there. Murders of great men, murders of little men, just to show we make no distinction. We might even wreck a train or two – just these fingers around the signalman’s throat, that’s all…”

“There is a way back, Flora! And then I shall come to you. I shall offer my secret to the world, with all its terrible power! The nations of the world will bid for it – thousands, millions! The nation that wins my secret can sweep the world with invisible armies!”

“Power, I said! Power to walk into the gold vaults of the nations, into the secrets of kings, into the Holy of Holies. Power to make multitudes run squealing in terror at the touch of my little invisible finger. Even the moon’s frightened of me! Frightened to death! The whole world’s frightened to death!

 INTERESTING FACTS

  • The special effects, which included such techniques as dressing Rains all in black against a black backdrop before combining that footage with the scene’s actual background, were groundbreaking for the time and much praised by critics.
  • The film spawned a number of sequels, all missing Claude Rains and the Jack Griffin character, although sometimes a Griffin relative would show up to resurrect the invisibility formula. A few of the sequels got pretty far from the source, including INVISIBLE WOMAN and INVISIBLE AGENT, a wartime story showing an invisible patriot parachuting into Germany to play havoc with the Third Reich.
  • Gloria Stuart almost disappeared from film screens starting in the 1940s, but made a memorable return decades later as the older version of Kate Winslet’s character in 1997’s TITANIC.

UP NEXT:

“You must be indulgent of Dr. Werdegast’s weakness. He is the unfortunate victim of one of the commoner phobias, but in an extreme form. He has an intense and all-consuming horror of cats!”

DAY 5 OF 31: ISLAND OF LOST SOULS (1932)

Published October 5, 2019 by Philip Ivory

Based on H.G. Wells’ 1896 novel, The Island of Dr. Moreau, ISLAND OF LOST SOULS is about a mad scientists who performs horrifying surgical experiments to transform animals into man-like creatures, with varying degrees of success.

Moreau is played by Charles Laughton with a wicked gleam in his eye, like a devilish schoolboy who can’t hide his pleasure at his own cruelty. There’s something unwholesome and transgressive about Laughton’s Moreau, setting him apart from other mad doctor portrayals.

The Paramount release, a gruesome challange to Universal’s more tasteful horrors, becomes increasingly disturbing as we are afforded glimpses of the pathetic pseudo humans created in Moreau’s “House of Pain” who lurk in the jungle foliage.

Bela Lugosi, heavily made-up and relegated to a supporting role so soon after his starring turn in DRACULA, plays the Sayer of the Law, who leads the other manbeasts in answering the Godlike Moreau as they recite the credo he has taught them.

Island-Of-Lost-Souls-Lugosi_1337938856_crop_550x409

MOREAU: What is the Law?

SAYER: Not to run on all fours. That is the law. Are we not men?

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MOREAU: What is the Law?

SAYER: Not to spill blood. That is the law. Are we not men?

A horrified visitor to the island, played by Richard Arlen, falls in love with Lota, the Panther Woman, played by Kathleen Burke. She may be Moreau’s most successful experiment, but the romance is doomed nonetheless.

When Moreau defies his own law by killing one of the man beasts, he is set upon by those he has tortured and maimed. In a climax as horrifying as the one in Todd Browning’s FREAKS, the pathetic creatures drag him into the House of Pain for off-screen poetic justice via impromptu surgery.

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ISLAND OF LOST SOULS was too grim for most viewers, and banned outright in the UK for decades. It stands today as the finest adaptation of Wells’ novel, although Wells himself was horrified at the time of its release and disowned the film. There’s a Criterion Collection Blu Ray/DVD that’s well worth checking out.

UP NEXT:

“Look! He’s all eaten away!”

DAY 4 OF 31: THE MUMMY (1932)

Published October 4, 2019 by Philip Ivory

 

Modern viewers might be surprised by THE MUMMY’s slow pace and the fact that the titular character, played by Boris Karloff, only appears in his familiar shambling, bandaged guise for one scene, before reappearing for the bulk of the film as a sinister, wizened Egyptian scholar. But THE MUMMY, directed by Karl Freund, offers many rewards, achieving a tone of moody, poetic horror that has seldom been matched.

The opening sequence is unforgettable. An enthusiastic young archeologist, played by Bramwell Fletcher, accidentally brings an unearthed mummy, Imhotep, to life by reading aloud a forbidden incantation from an ancient parchment. As the scholar pores over the text, mumbling and deciphering, we get tiny glimpses of the figure in the sarcophagus. A bandaged hand that starts to descend from the chest. An almost imperceptible glint of light in one eye. Freund frames the action carefully so that we see very little and imagine much.

We get a closeup of a dusty, withered hand seizing the parchment as the scholar wheels in horror. His colleagues return to find the mummy and parchment gone and the scholar having gone stark, raving mad, laughing uncontrollably. “He went for a little walk! You should have seen his face!” Outside of Dwight Frye’s Renfield, it’s the most frightening depiction of madness in classic horror.

Cut to years later, and the mummy has reinvented himself as the mysterious Ardath Bey, a strange man who is obsessed with a new expedition to recover the mummy of an ancient Egyptian princess, Ankh-es-en-amon, once the beloved of Imhotep. Bey is astonished to meet Helen Grosvenor, played by Zita Johann, who he believes to be the modern reincarnation of Ankh-es-en-amon. She in turn feels mysteriously drawn to Bey, who has designs to make her an immortal mummy like himself, a process that will required that she submit to a forbidden ritual that will culminate in her death.

Boris Karloff as Ardath Bey/Imhotep, with Zita Johann.

Somewhat cut in the mold of Lugosi’s Dracula, Karloff’s Imhotep is a demonic figure who can wield dark Egyptian spells to kill his enemies from afar. What makes him interesting is that he is also a forlorn lover, who has endured great horrors, including burial alive, in the name of his devotion to his long-lost princess. A wonderfully eerie flashback sequence to ancient Egypt shows us the tragic love story, unfolding like a mesmerizing dream from another time.

DIALOGUE

“Anck-es-en-Amon, my love has lasted longer than the temples of our gods. No man ever suffered as I did for you.”

“You will not remember what I show you now, and yet I shall awaken memories of love… and crime… and death…”

INTERESTING FACTS

  • The story line was inspired not by a classic novel but by a contemporary craze for all things Egyptian, sparked by the discovery of King Tutankhamen’s tomb in 1922.
  • Universal produced a series of sequels, discarding the mood and poetry and the Ardath Bey character, opting for straight forward scares with a full-fledged bandaged and mute mummy (renamed Kharis) stalking victims throughout. Despite these changes, THE MUMMY’s flashback sequence to ancient Egypt would be extensively reused in the sequels.
  • In addition to some story elements, THE MUMMY inherited from DRACULA two of its principal actors, Edward Van Sloan and David Manners in similar roles as, respectively, the wise mentor figure and the heroine’s devoted boyfriend.

UP NEXT:

“Are we not men?”

 

DAY 3 OF 31: DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE (1931)

Published October 3, 2019 by Philip Ivory

 

One of the most frequently filmed of all stories, Robert Louis Stevenson’s novella The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was one of a number of Victorian tales dealing with man’s dual nature (Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray is another.)

Stevenson’s story of a scientist who concocts a drug that unleashes an evil alter ego version of himself found its greatest cinematic expression in the 1931 Paramount version directed by Rouben Mamoulian and starring Fredric March in the dual role.

Mamoulian adds some arty touches that might have seemed a little too high brow at Universal, where most of the monster classics were being churned out in the early 30s. DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE begins with a subjective camera sequence that makes us feel we are Dr. Jekyll, and includes symbolic shots of various statues, as well as closeups of roiling flames, which either suggest man’s primitive urgings or the fate awaiting Jekyll’s soul for his trespasses against God — take your pick.

The director changed the emphasis from a conflict between good and evil to a conflict between civilized man and man in his primitive state, explaining Hyde’s vaguely Neanderthal appearance.

Much of the film plays upon civilized man’s repressed sexuality. Jekyll, passionately in love with Muriel played by Rose Hobart, argues with her father who stands in the way of their marriage. In the following scene, Jekyll pays a house call on a bar singer named Ivy, played by Miriam Hopkins. (The film suggests, without saying outright, that she is also a prostitute.) He seems to be tormented by her overt sexuality, and in a famous scene she sways her gartered leg back and forth while calling on Jekyll to come back to her, an image that will play itself over in his mind.

Is it any wonder that in the following scene, Jekyll takes the potion that for the first time transforms him into Hyde, a figure who’s free to pursue the pleasures that the upright Jekyll denies himself?  “Free at last!” Hyde proclaims, staring at his grotesque visage in the mirror.

HIGH POINTS

The film utilizes a plot device, not present in the book, of having Jekyll cross the paths of a so-called virtuous woman (Muriel) and a “bad girl” (Ivy).  It’s a structural element that would be repeated in subsequent versions.

Hopkins as Ivy simmers with Pre Code sexuality, adding a real edge to the film. She draws Jekyll’s lust. Tragically, she also attracts Hyde’s abuse. March is at his most terrifying as he torments Ivy, psychologically and physically. In desperation, she seeks out the good Dr. Jekyll for help who promises, in vain, that Hyde will not return. Of course Hyde does. Enraged at her for going to Jekyll, he murders Ivy, asking as he strangles her: “Isn’t Hyde a lover after your own heart?”

Fredric March’s Hyde torments Miriam Hopkins as Ivy.

Miriam Hopkins’ performance is unabashedly sexual and heartbreakingly real. Film historian Greg Mank argues that, alongside March, she deserved an Oscar for her work on the film.

The transformations scenes are remarkable, surpassing the much cruder scenes later used by Universal for its Wolfman films. In addition to lap dissolve and other techniques, Mamoulian’s film employs the gradual removal of colored filters to reveal layers of makeup, achieving an organic metamorphosis that happens within a continuous shot. How this was achieved was kept secret by Mamoulian for decades after the film’s release.

March gives an outstanding performance. His Hyde is so bestial, so different from the civilized Jekyll, that we almost forget both parts are played by the same actor. (something that almost never happens in other film versions.)

DIALOGUE

HYDE: “Do you want to be left as you are, or do you want your eyes and your soul to be blasted by a sight that would stagger the devil himself?”

HYDE: “If you do one thing I don’t approve of while I’m gone, the LEAST little thing, mind you… I’ll show you what horror means”

 INTERESTING FACTS

  • This classic film was almost lost forever. A decade after its release, MGM remade the story with Spencer Tracy, suppressing the earlier version and destroying prints so as to allow the new version to stand alone. Luckily, prints showed up years later and the film was saved from obscurity.
  • Fredric March won an Oscar for his performance, the first monster performer ever to do so. (And the last, unless you count Anthony Hopkins’ turn as Hannibal Lector in SILENCE OF THE LAMBS. )
  • The Hyde makeup becomes progressively more savage as the story unfolds, perhaps an idea inspired by Wilde’s Dorian Gray, in which Gray’s’ brutal actions manifest themselves over time in the face in his portrait. Historian Mank reports that the final makeup was so punishing that March spent several weeks in the hospital after the film finished and there were fears, fortunately unfounded, that March would be permanently disfigured.

UP NEXT:

“He went for a little walk! You should have seen his face!”

 

 

DAY 2 OF 31: FRANKENSTEIN (1931)

Published October 2, 2019 by Philip Ivory

 

After Universal Studio’s success with DRACULA in early 1931, what could be more natural for a followup than to turn to Mary Shelley’s 1818 classic? 

The novel is about a young Swiss scientist who bestows life upon a body he created by appropriating parts from rifled graves and other sources, only to have his creation turn against him and destroy all the scientist holds dear. A couple of silent film adaptations had been done, most notably one produced by Thomas Edison in 1910.

That Universal’s blood and thunder sound version of ’31 was released in November of seems appropriate, since that is the month of the monster’s creation in the novel:

“It was  on a dreary night of November that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils. With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony, collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet. It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs.”

But what would the filmic monster look like? How would he be brought to life? (Shelley’s narrative provides few details on the procedure.) Director James Whale and electrical effects artist Kenneth Strickfaden contrived to stage an exciting creation sequence, with the table-bound monster being raised to the roof to receive the lightning’s gift of the mysterious life-giving ray that the scientist has discovered. The sequence is a cinematic triumph, its dazzling pyrotechnics effectively “selling” us on the unholy miracle of the monster’s birth.

Meanwhile, makeup artist Jack Pierce, also in consultation with director Whale, created a monster visage that audiences would fear and pity for generations to come. The genius of the makeup was to allow as much as possible for an actor’s expressive face to remain exposed. Struggling actor Boris Karloff won the role of the monster, partly on the basis of the unusual bone structure in his face and his large liquid eyes.

“Karloff’s eyes mirrored the suffering we needed,” said Universal exec Carl Laemmle.

Colin Clive, an actor who specialized in sensitive, high-strung roles, was a perfect fit for the scientist, Henry Frankenstein. (The name is inexplicably changed from the novel’s “Victor.”) His frenzied performance in the creation scene, accompanied by terrifying peals of thunder and an orgy of electrical sparks and buzzes, is unforgettable. (Note: as in DRACULA and other examples of early sound cinema, there is no musical score. These films breathe with eerie stretches of silence, helped by sound effects.)

“It’s moving! It’s alive!”

HIGH POINTS

The creation scene remains a knockout to this day, as does the haunting vignette in which Karloff’s newly born creation reaches above his head for the light descending  from a skylight as if he could grip it in his hands.

Karloff’s monster, quick, agile, clearly not sound of mind, immensely strong and unpredictable, with heavily lidded dead man’s eyes, is instantly frightening, making us feel we are looking upon a thing that should not be alive, but unaccountably is.

And yet the creature is immensely sympathetic, an unwanted child abandoned by his only parent, hated and feared by everyone else based on his grotesque appearance. In his ill fitting black, funereal suit , he carries with him the aura of the grave, evoking a universal dread. With his spasmodic movements, shuffling gate and pathetic, pleading hand gestures, he is one of horror’s supreme characterizations, simultaneously frightening and poignant. Other actors, including Christopher Lee, Michael Sarrazin, and Robert DeNiro have made sincere attempts to portray the monster. With respect, no one even comes close.

The film is a tragedy. Frankenstein, reduced to a nervous wreck by the shattering of his great dream, becomes  a shell of the confident visionary we see in the early scenes. The monster is hounded to a horrifying death, caught in the inferno of a blazing mill.

Clive and Karloff are ably assisted by two holdovers from DRACULA, Edward Van Sloan as Professor Waldman and Dwight Frye as Frankenstein’s hunchback assistant, Fritz. Also helping out are Mae Clarke as Frankenstein’s fiance, Elizabeth, John Boles as his friend, Victor, and Frederick Kerr as his father, the harrumphing old Baron.

The monster of course remains mute throughout the film. Most of the best dialogue belongs to the scientist:

(caressing the coffin of a stolen body) “He’s Just Resting, Waiting For A New Life To Come.”

“The brain you stole, Fritz. Think of it. The brain of a dead man waiting to live again in a body I made with my own hands!”

“Have you never wanted to do anything that was dangerous? Where should we be if no one tried to find out what lies beyond? Have your never wanted to look beyond the clouds and the stars, or to know what causes the trees to bud? And what changes the darkness into light? But if you talk like that, people call you crazy. Well, if I could discover just one of these things, what eternity is, for example, I wouldn’t care if they did think I was crazy.

DEFICITS

FRANKENSTEIN might not seem shocking today. Its monster makeup and Gothic trappings have been absorbed into the culture, its iconography made comfortable by parodies, pop songs and use in Saturday morning cartoons and breakfast cereals. But Whale’s Gothic extravaganza was considered unfamiliar, strong meat when first issued, with its corpse like monster, graveyard scenes, multiple murders and grim, fairy tale like setting.

Some cuts made at the preview stage, designed to protect delicate sensibilities, hurt the film for decades. For many of us who grew up watching it on television, the fabulous creation scene was marred by a jump cut at its climax, where a crucial but potentially blasphemous bit of the scientist’s dialogue — “Oh, in the name of God, now I know what it feels like to be God!” — was crudely excised. (Hey, it only expressed a major theme of the film.)

Similarly, the famous (or infamous) scene in which Karloff’s monster befriends a little girl, but ends up unintentionally drowning her, was truncated, cutting abruptly as Karloff reaches for her, which allowed for even worse implications than what was intended.  The scene, fully restored a few decades ago along with Clive’s censored line and a few other bits and pieces, remains a touching, heartbreaking episode in the monster’s lonely existence, one tranquil moment of friendship and peace before tragedy and horror reassert themselves.

Despite one or two stuffy performances, including some weak comic relief from the Baron, and a few bits of unexplained plot construction (How does the monster know where Frankenstein lives?), the film remains a powerful experience, maybe not as shocking as it once was, but largely undiminished in its impact.

INTERESTING FACTS

  • Karloff suffered severe back pains the rest of his life that may have resulted from the rigors of his performance, particularly the scenes in which he has to carry Clive on his back through the mountainous countryside.
  • DRACULA star Bela Lugosi was originally assigned the monster role, even trying out his own makeup, before Karloff was (wisely) brought in.
  • Karloff, protective of the monster, played him in two sequels but stopped when he thought the character was being cheapened. He called the monster “my best friend.”

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“My analysis of this soul , the human psyche, leads me to believe that man is not truly one – but, truly two. One of him strives for the nobilities of life. This we call his good self. The other, seeks an expression of impulses that bind him to some dim animal relation with the earth.”

 

DAY 1 OF 31: DRACULA (1931)

Published October 1, 2019 by Philip Ivory

 

The first supernatural drama of the sound era, DRACULA was unleashed by Universal on Valentine’s Day 1931 with the tag line “The Strangest Love Story Ever Told,” perhaps signalling the studio’s unease at peddling such a bloodcurdling tale to a nation in the grips of the great depression. They need not have worried. The film provided a kind of rich Gothic escapism, paving the way for a whole cycle of 30s atmospheric chillers made with artistry and care that drew healthy box office and crowned Universal the king of horror. 

An adaptation of Bram Stoker’s 1887 classic, DRACULA also had its roots in a successful stage version, from which the play’s star, Bela Lugosi, was recruited to play the lead. The familiar tale tells of the vampire king’s migration from his native Transylvania … an exotic locale seen to great effect in one of the most eerie opening sequences of any horror film … to London’s teeming metropolis.

The cast of DRACULA: Bela Lugosi, David Manners, Dwight Frye, Edward Van Sloan and Helen Chandler.

The Count insinuates himself into the company of a group of unsuspecting Londoners, including the wise and virtuous Mina and her perhaps less wise best friend Lucy, who thrills to Dracula’s grand manner and exotic accent.

Lucy is attacked, dies and is resurrected as a vampire herself only to end up on the fatal end of a stake driven into her heart by intrepid and learned expert on the supernatural, Dr. Van Helsing, in a sequence that should have been a horror highlight but takes place off screen. (The film is too reticent in many places, conveying important plot points second hand through dialogue, when we would much rather have seen them directly.) 

Dracula sets his sites on Mina, who is defended by her boyish fiance, Jonathan, sanitarium director Dr. Seward, and Van Helsing, who warns his friends, “The strength of the vampire is that people will not believe in him.” In the end, Van Helsing and Co. track Dracula to his London hideout and good prevails.

HIGH POINTS

The film offers a classic performance by Lugosi himself, whose authentic accent, strange bearing and bizarre, halting cadences (“I never drink … wine.”) contribute to an unforgettable portrait of evil. I remember being particularly perturbed at the disembodied way Dracula drifts through a London street scene, before settling on a poor flower girl for an evening bite. He conveys the aspect of someone controlled from afar, perhaps an expression of how Dracula is held in thrall to a greater infernal power.  I’ve never seen any other actor in the part hint at this particularly eerie quality.

And while no more than a drop of blood is scene in the film, Lugosi achieves a heightened sense of horror through body language — he’s like a stylized vulture in a bedroom scene as he descends upon his victim –and facial expression. His striking mix of bestial hunger and a kind of pained self-revulsion while in the predatory moment is unforgettable.

Also memorable are Van Sloan as the anti vampire crusader Van Helsing, and Dwight Frye (like Lugosi and Van Sloan, repeating his performance from the stage) as the pathetic fly-eating mental patient who has fallen under Dracula’s sway. Frye in particular has some wonderful moments, including his eerie demented laughter issuing from the hold of a deathship full of Dracula’s victims, and his “Rats, rats, rats” monologue in which he describes the vision of teeming life offered to him in return for faithful service to his master.

“A red mist spread over the lawn, coming on like a flame of fire … Rat, rats, rats. Thousand of them. Millions of them. All red blood.”

DRACULA is memorable for its elegant dialogue, these three tidbits all coming from the Count himself:

(hearing the howling of wolves) “Listen to them. The children of the night. What music they make.”

“I never drink … wine.”

“To die, to be really dead. That must be glorious … There are far worse things awaiting man than death.”

DEFICITS

The film is justly slated for being stagey, not taking advantage of the adventurous sweep of Stoker’s saga, which ends in a desperate race back to Dracula’s castle, a sequence which held great filmic possibilities but wasn’t used. And while I think Helen Chandler is fine as Mina, particularly in a scene in which her eyes light up with bloodlust as she battles to restrain herself from attacking her fiance’s handsome throat, I think David Manners is stiff and awkward as her reliable lover. Comic relief provided by a cockney sanitarium attendant mostly falls flat today.

Director Todd Browning seems a bit sloppy in places, as when those little spotlights for Lugosi’s eyes don’t quite find their mark:

And if you’re really into the minutiae of classic films, check out this ten minute youtube exploration of why an ugly, jagged piece of cardboard can repeatedly be spotted in some of the bedroom scenes:

Caveats and technical deficiencies aside, DRACULA still has wonderful moments of poetic dread and horror, and remains a classic and standard bearer for all monster movies that followed in its wake.

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“You have created a monster, and it will destroy you!”