Horror

All posts tagged Horror

DAY 16 OF 31: NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968)

Published October 16, 2019 by Philip Ivory

There was a lot going on in 1968. Body bags coming home from Viet Nam. A new generation defying the conventions of the old. Assassinations. Demonstrations for racial equality. Neighborhoods and campuses erupting with the flames of civil unrest.

You can see echoes of all of these things in George Romero’s low-budget but hugely influential 1968 horror, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. Or some of them, or none. Zombies are said to be a ready-made metaphor, adaptable for anything happening in the culture at a particular time.

NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD starts out with a brother teasing his sister at a cemetery. “They’re going to get you, Barbra!”

Judith O’Dea as Barbra.

But he isn’t laughing long. Turns out those shambling, seemingly drunken folks wandering the tombstones in the background are actually zombies, and Barbra’s brother is on the menu.

In terror, Barbra makes her way to an isolated house, where a group of strangers are making their stand against the unexplained mass resurrection of the recent, and hungry, dead.

There she finds Ben, who is resourceful and calm. He will turn out to be our hero, which is unusual for an American film of this time, since he’s played by African-American actor Duane Jones.

Duane Jones as Ben.

It’s hard not to feel race is relevant during a scene in which Ben butts heads with a white man who’s hiding his family in the basement, and thinks he should be calling the shots, not Ben. Director Romero claims, however, that Jones was cast simply because he was the best actor available.

The rest of the film plays out as a survivalist drama. Good decisions are made, as are bad ones. People cooperate, people argue.

What made NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD so shocking was its unrelentingly grim tone and the fact that Romero was willing to “go there” in ways most other horror films hadn’t yet. Some of the zombies are nude. We are not spared gruesome closeup shots of flesh eating. And the creepiest, eeriest scene in the film may be the one in which a little girl becomes one of the undead, brutally attacking and killing her own mother.

And that’s not to mention the downbeat and cynical ending.

Critics were rough on NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD at the time, but now it’s considered a cult classic, a turning point in cinema horror that opened doors to new and more transgressive sights and sounds that spoke to darker aspects of our culture.

What’s most scary about the sad, shambling, poorly dressed zombies in Romero’s film is not just that they represent a horrifying “other.” Clearly, they represent “us,” as well.

One other interesting fact to ponder. While NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD is the granddaddy of modern zombie films, having spawned numerous sequels, parodies and offshoots and been hugely influential on THE WALKING DEAD’s multi-media empire, the word “zombie” is used in the film not once.

 

UP NEXT:

“Holland, where is the baby?”

DAY 15 OF 31: ROSEMARY’S BABY (1968)

Published October 15, 2019 by Philip Ivory

Directed by Roman Polanski and adapted from a novel by Ira Levin, ROSEMARY’S BABY is a sophisticated, urbane horror fable for the modern age.

Dealing with paranoia, urban isolation and the schism between old world beliefs and the skeptical modern age, ROSEMARY’S BABY brought the devil back into horror films in a big way, a trend that would be followed in the 70s by such films as THE EXORCIST and THE OMEN.

By playing up on fears about pregnancy, the film may be the forerunner to the sub-genre known today as “body horror.”

Rosemary Woodhouse (Mia Farrow) is pregnant, but with whose baby?

The story is simple. Struggling actor Guy Woodhouse and his wife, Rosemary, movie into a handsome Gothic edifice on Central Park West, the Bramford. (Manhattan landmark the Dakota, home to such luminaries as Boris Karloff and John Lennon, was used for exterior shots.)

John Cassavetes and Mia Farrow as Guy and Rosemary Woodhouse want to raise a family in their new home in the Bramford.

Some weirdo neighbors, fronted by busy-body Minnie Castavet (Ruth Gordon), befriend the young couple. Turns out Minnie and her husband Roman (Sydney Blackmer), are part of a ring of Satanists, who quickly enlist Guy into their ranks by promising to help with his acting career.

Ruth Gordon as Minnie Castavet wants to come in and give you some chocolate mousse.

The price for this help? Rosemary is drugged one night and seemingly raped by a demonic figure as her husband and his new satanic buddies look on.

Rosemary has suffered the ultimate violation, since even her body is no longer her own.

It’s not hard to figure out who the baby daddy really is. When Rosemary is shown her newborn son, she recoils in horror, saying: “What have you done to its eyes?”

Roman Castavet replies: “He has his father’s eyes.”

“What have you done to its eyes?”

If you’re looking for gore and senseless violence, this film is not for you.

Instead ROSEMARY’S BABY is an elegant horror film, offering sincere performances in a realistic setting, slowly ratcheting up the sense of unease and paranoia as we come to realize Rosemary has been betrayed even by her husband and is trapped in a nightmare with no one to turn to. (Even the earnest young doctor played by Charles Grodin turns out to be no help.)

In the final shot, as Rosemary gazes at the thing she has given birth to, we’re left with the question: Can maternal love overcome moral revulsion? The smile playing on Rosemary’s lips would seem to give us our answer.

 

UP NEXT:

“They’re coming to get you, Barbara!”

 

DAY 14 OF 31: THE HAUNTING (1963)

Published October 14, 2019 by Philip Ivory

Forget the effects laden 1999 monstrosity with Liam Neeson. (I saw it once and have mercifully succeeded in wiping it from my recollection.) Forget also last year’s stylish and promising Netflix version, which started strong but ended up making weak new age pablum of the classic story.

For a first rate, reasonably authentic and genuinely chilling screen telling of Shirley Jackson’s classic horror novel, The Haunting of Hill House, look no further than the 1963 version with the trimmed down title THE HAUNTING,  starring Julie Harris and directed by Robert Wise.

The haunted house, par excellence: Hill House.

As in the novel and many other classic ghost stories, a careful balance is maintained, making us unsure at any point whether the dark forces at work in Hill House are really troublesome spirits or the forces within a disturbed mind.

Julie Harris in THE HAUNTING.

The most likely disturbed mind is that of Eleanor Lance (Vance in the novel), a sensitive with psychic ability who’s a victim of a traumatic past. She’s joined by Professor Markway (Richard Johnson), Theodora, another psychic (Claire Bloom),  and a relative of the house’s owners, Luke (Russ Tamblyn).

Julie Harris in center, flanked by (left to right) Claire Bloom, Russ Tamblyn and Richard Johnson.

THE HAUNTING is another heir to the Val Lewton school of suggested rather than seen horror. In fact, director Robert Wise cut his teeth directing such Lewton-produced chillers as THE BODY SNATCHER and CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE.

An example of the kind of understated horror offered up by THE HAUNTING occurs in a scene in which Eleanor and Theodora, sharing a room, endure a seige of banging and moaning sounds. In the dark, Eleanor feels a comforting hand holding hers, but when the lights come on, she realizes Theodora is on the other side of the room.

“Whose hand was I holding?” Eleanor cries.

Wise masterfully orchestrates the chills, and the black and white cinematography is crisp and gorgeous.

THE HAUNTING lacks the blood and violence horror fans are accustomed to today. Nonetheless, it’s a first class supernatural thriller that delivered real scares to audiences of the time. Not to mention it’s the only film version to do justice to its magnificent source novel.

UP NEXT:

“He has his father’s eyes.”

DAY 13 OF 31: PSYCHO (1960)

Published October 13, 2019 by Philip Ivory

First, a personal remembrance.

When I was in high school, they used to show movies in the auditorium on Friday nights. Once my best friend and I went to see PSYCHO there. I’d seen it before but he hadn’t, and I wanted to vicariously relive the shock and surprise through his viewing experience.

I remember that during the screening we sat behind a wise guy who kept leaning over to his girlfriend and saying: “See, this guy’s really …. blah, blah, blah … and his mother’s really … blah, blah, bah.”

Well, he didn’t really say “blah, blah, blah.” Instead, he gave away all the movie’s secrets, which is something I don’t want to do on this blog even today, on the small chance that someone’s reading this who has never seen PSYCHO and would rather not have one of the greatest films of all time ruined for them.

Don’t let that guy ruin PSYCHO for you.

I pulled my friend away so we could go sit in another row, but the wise guy noticed us, calling after us: “Hey, sorry if I spoiled the movie for ya!”

No, you weren’t sorry, you movie-spoiling jackal.

There’s a special place in movie hell for guys like this, along with a different guy at school who ran up to me before I’d had a chance to see THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK to make sure I knew who Luke’s dad was. That was a surprise stolen from me that I could never get back.

Janet Leigh as Marion Crane is driving toward a world of trouble at the Bates Motel.

So PSYCHO was and is a movie full of surprises. One is that a major character that you assume might survive for the whole movie …. might not. Say no more. And also, that guy living in the house with his mother … hey, I said I wouldn’t spoil it so I won’t.

Even though it came out before I was born, I feel that PSYCHO is the birth of the modern horror film. It might have a toe still in the Gothic traditions of the past. After all, Norman Bates’ spidery mansion is a California cousin to Dracula’s castle. But with its shocking, sudden violence and its moderately frank approach to sexuality, along with its dollop of pathological psychology, it’s clearly taking us somewhere new. And nasty.

Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) is on the run, her purse bulging with funds embezzled from her employer. Staying at a rundown motel on a neglected  stretch of highway, she has a change of heart, planning to return the funds and face the music.

But this is not a movie about embezzling, and the Bates Motel has other plans for her. Soon, Marion is missing, and so is a detective hired to find her. There are two scenes of shocking violence in the film, shocking more from their suddenness and the consummate skill with which they are staged than for their graphic content.

Norman Bates wouldn’t harm a fly, or would he?

At the center of the mystery is mild-mannered though twitchy motel manager Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), and his sickly mother, who is only glimpsed in the bedroom window of the old house up on the hill.

But the person really at the center of this tale of madness is suspense master Alfred Hitchcock, working in black and white and on a TV budget but absolutely and exquisitely playing at the top of his form.

Alfred Hitchcock directs Janet Leigh in the celebrated shower scene.

The celebrated rapid cut shower sequence has been studied and dissected, but there are many other tour de force scenes in PSYCHO that bring us back for repeated viewings, including the detective’s fate as he climbs the staircase (even Hitchcock’s choice of camera shots — switching unexpectedly to an overhead perspective — is startling here.) Even the early scenes in the film, long before we’ve arrived at the Bates Motel, are taut with suspense, such as the sequence in which a suspicious motorcycle cop shadows Marion as she flees her old life.

Post 1960, it’s hard to watch any horror film without acknowledging a debt to Hitchcock’s smashingly innovative thriller. The Bates Motel is worth a revisit any time. Just don’t stay in room Number One.

DIALOGUE

“I couldn’t do that. Who’d look after her? She’d be alone up there. The fire would go out. It’d be cold and damp like a grave. If you love someone, you don’t do that to them – even if you hate them. You understand that I don’t hate her. I hate what she’s become. I hate the illness.” — Norman Bate, asked about leaving his mother

“Let them see what kind of a person I am. I’m not even going to swat that fly. I hope they are watching. They’ll see. They’ll see and they’ll know, and they’ll say, ‘Why, she wouldn’t even harm a fly.'” — Mother

 

UP NEXT:

“It ought to be burned down, and the ground sowed with salt.”

DAY 12 OF 31: CURSE OF THE DEMON (1957)

Published October 12, 2019 by Philip Ivory

Directed by CAT PEOPLE’s Jacques Tourneur, CURSE OF THE DEMON (also known by its original British title, NIGHT OF THE DEMON), seems to be a spiritual descendant of CAT PEOPLE and other 1940s films produced by the Val Lewton unit at RKO. These were films of shadow, suggestion and mood, rather than ones that served up outright boogeymen.

And so CURSE OF THE DEMON was meant to be, until interference by the producer, over objections of Tourneur and others, resulted in tampering that included inserting special effect shots of a fearsome, King Kong-scale demon, an entity whose malevolence was part of the fabric of the story, but only meant to be hinted at, not literally seen.

Horror aficionados will debate until doomsday whether the demon’s visible presence in the opening and closing scenes enhances or diminishes the story. (I’ll admit I think he’s pretty groovy, in a horrible, medieval demon kind of way.)

This occult tale plays out as a contest of wills between Dr. John Holden (Dana Andrews), a professional skeptic from America who doesn’t believe in the supernatural, and Dr. Julian Karswell (Niall MacGinnis), the film’s real villain and a master of evil occult forces, presumably modeled upon famous British occultist Aleister Crowley. (See my essay on 1934’s THE BLACK CAT, which has Boris Karloff playing another Crowley variation. Crowley would also influence 1973’s THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE.)

Niall MacGinnis’s master of black arts, left, is a worthy opponent for the skeptical Dana Andrews in CURSE OF THE DEMON.

Holden, investigating the death of a professor who had been looking into Karswell’s satanic cult, suspects the professor didn’t die a natural death. (In fact, Karswell passed him a cursed parchment, which brought that demon attack seen in the film’s opening.)

Meanwhile, Holden begins to fall for the professor’s niece, Joanna, played by Peggy Cummins.

Dana Andrews and Peggy Cummins.

Let’s just say that Holden will do fine in the romance department, but his long-held skepticism about the occult will take a beating. His open defiance of Karswell will result in the magician slipping Holden one of those demon-summoning parchments. But who will really get gobbled by the demon in the film’s finale?

It’s great to see that the 1950s era of big-bug horrors like THEM and alien invasion frights like IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE could still make room for an elegant, occult throwback with literary antecedents like CURSE OF THE DEMON.

 

UP NEXT:

“We all go a little mad sometimes.”

 

DAY 11 OF 31: DEAD OF NIGHT (1945)

Published October 11, 2019 by Philip Ivory

DR. TERROR’S HOUSE OF HORRORS (1965)… TALES FROM THE CRYPT (1972)… ASYLUM (1972)… CREEPSHOW (1982)…THE ABCs OF DEATH (2012)… V/H/S (2012).

These are all horror anthologies, but they stand in the shadow of the granddaddy of them all, DEAD OF NIGHT, produced by England’s Ealing Studios in 1945.

As with many horror anthologies, DEAD OF NIGHT includes a wraparound story. Walter Craig (Mervyn Johns) arrives at a country house, realizing it is the house he’s been seeing in a recurring nightmare that ends with him strangling someone.

Mervyn Johns, center, visits a country house in which everyone has a scary story to tell.

Craig has a sense of deja vu about the house and its guests and residents, who are amused by Craig’s eerie premonitions and begin to share their own stories of the supernatural.

These include a touchingly eerie ghost sighting at a children’s Christmas party; a marriage troubled by the husband’s obsession with an antique mirror that enthralls him with images of murder; a racing car driver who receives a warning in a dream from an ominous hearse driver (“Just room for one inside, sir.”); and a comic relief ghost tale involving the friendship between two golfers.

“Just room for one inside, sir.”

But the final, standout story involves an unbalanced ventriloquist, Max Frere (Michael Redgrave), who seems to be increasingly psychologically dominated by his dummy, Hugo.

If you’ve ever wondered where the notion came from that ventriloquist dummies are as scary as hell, well then, meet Hugo!

Meet Hugo. Sweet dreams!

Hugo begins to mock and demean Max during their act, resulting in a shocking moment in which Max slaps the dummy in front of his alarmed audience. Hugo even makes overtures to another ventriloquist, expressing his wish to abandon Max.

Is Hugo thinking of abandoning his partner and leaving the act?

Max further unravels, until it’s time for a fatal showdown between the two, which leaves Max in an insane asylum with a fractured psyche controlled by … guess who?

Is this a story of multiple personalities, an ancestor of such upcoming classics as PSYCHO? Or is Hugo truly an independent entity in his own right, a doll possessed by a demon, maybe a great uncle of ANNABELLE?

DEAD OF NIGHT has been underappreciated and seen in inferior prints for decades, but recently received blu ray treatment.

The film ends with a whirring nightmare montage that ties the wraparound story together with all the individual tales, including a jarring temporal loop finale that brings us back to the beginning.

Which is a good place to be if you’ve never had the pleasure of watching DEAD OF NIGHT before.

UP NEXT:

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.

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“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.”