The Walking Dead (1936)

he Walking Dead (1936) movie poster

director Michael Curtiz
viewed: 10/18/2018

Michael Curtiz’s stylish and capable direction and Boris Karloff’s powerful presence can’t quite elevate the 1936 Warner Brothers horror picture, The Walking Dead, from mediocrity.

A rather cornball script with an over convoluted plot weakens the whole.

A Melancholy and tragic Karloff plays a patsy who gets convicted of a murder he didn’t commit. Too late, literally in the electric chair, he is exonerated. And a well-meaning scientist brings him back to life.

Deus ex machina rules the logic of the film. Curtiz certainly makes it as interesting as he can but it ultimately is what it is.

The Devil Commands (1941)

The Devil Commands (1941) movie poster

director Edward Dmytryk
viewed:  09/25/2018

Edward Dmytryk’s The Devil Commands is a Columbia Pictures adaptation of William Sloane’s 1939 cosmic horror novel, The Edge of Running Water. Which is indeed interesting if you’ve read The Edge of Running Water, which I did just last year. Alongside Sloane’s only other novel of cosmic horror, 1937’s To Walk the Night (these were recently republished by NYRB, my favorite book publisher.)

Going into The Devil Commands, I hadn’t made this connection, though the rough plot outline sounded of similar stuff, it didn’t take long to realize that this terse flick was one and the same (though also heavily modified).

It stars Boris Karloff as a scientist who goes mad at the sudden tragic death of his wife, and he hooks up with a medium and an insane contraption harnessing electricity and radio waves to breach the realm beyond death.

At 65 minutes, Dmytryk and his writers rearrange things to keep the story moving, a significant shift from the novel’s slow, mysterious narrative. As a result, the action hums along though the existential dread and horror don’t get as much build-up.

In the end, it’s a decent picture, but I recommend Sloane’s novels more.

Die, Monster, Die! (1965)

Die, Monster, Die! (1965) movie poster

director  Daniel Haller
viewed: 02/09/2016

Okay, so it’s reasonable to be disappointed when looking for signs of H.P. Lovecraft in Daniel Haller’s 1965 “adaptation” of “The Colour Out of Space” as it was transformed into Die, Monster, Die! (a misleading but cool title nonetheless), but once you acknowledge that, what’s left is a stylish, interesting, occasionally quite cool horror film.  Haller had been a production designer and art director on some Roger Corman films before taking the helm of director, as he does here for the first time, and it shows in some of the film’s best moments.

For its lack of adherence to Lovecraft, it does offer a few fascinating images, my favorite of which is the matte painting (by gum, I love matte paintings like this) of the giant crevasse in the burned-out woods leading to the Witley estate, a sign of some massive cataclysm, and quite spooky.  You also have a glimpse of Witley’s menagerie from hell, the strange monsters in the hot house, irradiated by shards of a strange stone.

All this cool design gets a bit upstaged by the ending, in which Boris Karloff’s Nathum Witley becomes super-irradiated himself, a glowing silvery, shining thing that made me think of Karloff in The Invisible Ray (1936) some 30 years before (I wonder if Karloff considered that connection at the time).  By upstaged, I mean upstaged by something considerably less cool-looking.

I quite liked it, to be honest.

Interesting to note that Karloff and star Nick Adams would both be dead within four years of this film.  Karloff at age 81 from pneumonia and Adams at age 36 via suicide.

The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932)

The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932) movie poster

director Charles Brabin
viewed: 10/28/2014

The B-side to the DVD of Mark of the Vampire (1935) was the 1932 piece of political incorrectness called The Mask of Fu Manchu.  It stars the inimitable Boris Karloff as the fiendish Chinese supervillain.  The “Mask” in question is the death mask of Genghis Khan, of whom Fu Manchu believes himself the living reincarnation.  Oh yeah, and he was to start a race war to bring down the white man.

Dr. Fu Manchu is a character created by Sax Rohmer in 1913.  He holds numerous doctorate degrees and speaks a multitude of different languages.  He’s of course the most over-the-top Chinese super-stereotype villain of all time but it’s rather imaginable that he could be reclaimed by someone in modern times to capitalize on utter reinvention.  You just take the “evil” out of “evil genius” and maybe you don’t have a Chinese Hitler but rather a superhero who fights against oppressive Imperialism.

But, you know.  This movie is pretty “wow”.  The kind of wow of racial stereotyping that was very commonplace up until a certain point in time.

Now, that said, Karloff played Fu Manchu once.   Werner Oland, the man who would go on to play Charlie Chan in dozens of movies, played Fu Manchu three times before Karloff.  But more amazingly, Christopher Lee played him five times in the 1960’s!  So, so much for cultural evolution over decades.

My “research” such as it is for writing this, my thoughts on The Mask of Fu Manchu isn’t going to reach far enough to even satisfy my piqued curiosity.  I can easily speculate on film studies or cultural studies that have delved deeply into the topic of Dr. Fu Manchu, and frankly, I’m quite curious to delve more deeply.

I recall, as a kid, when I first encountered Charlie Chan, that I was interested, even liked it.  And I’ll be honest, I appreciate outdated, un-PC things from the more untamed cultural Id of pop culture before the righting of political correctness.  Still, this is some pretty amazingly out-there pre-code stuff.

The Haunted Strangler (1957)

The Haunted Strangler (1957) movie poster

director Robert Day
viewed: 05/18/2014

At some point in the day, I came to realize that I was on a serious movie marathon.  My third slot went to an odd Boris Karloff movie.  It’s one of a series of British horror films that the Criterion Collection compiled.

The Haunted Strangler starts out with Karloff as a retiree of sorts who is looking to absolve a man who was hanged for a series of murders of young women in London 20 years prior.  It’s kind of a cold case files sort of thing but he is somewhat of a reformer who wants to show that a lot of people were convicted of crimes on dubious information with bad legal representation.

Then the film goes kinda kooky weird.  It turns out that Karloff was the killer all along in one of those kinds of twists that really doesn’t make any sense at all if you think about it.  It is kind of cool/creepy the way Karloff contorts his face when he transforms into the killer.  It’s actually a pretty athletic performance for a 70 year old actor.

Interesting for sure.  Not sure why Criterion selected it but it’s cool.

The Invisible Ray (1936)

The Invisible Ray (1936) movie poster

director Lambert Hillyer
viewed: 10/05/2013

After watching the very short, weird and wacky The Black Cat (1934) with Béla Lugosi and Boris Karloff, I directed Clara and I to their 1936 collaboration, The Invisible Ray, in part because I thought it looked a little easier to follow.

I’m pretty sure that I had seen this before as a kid though not one bit of it jangled any memories.

In this one, Karloff is a mad, loner scientist who has found a way to peer into the past by following some form of atomic rays from ancient stars and then “looking back at Earth”.  Really wonderful weird science that.  He notices that this asteroid hit Earth somewhere in Africa some millennia ago and heads off with Lugosi and some other interested parties to locate the space fragment.  His “Uranium X” as he calls it turns out to be super powerful but super deadly.  It imbues him with the power to glow in the dark and to kill anything he touches.  Also, having harnessed the ore, he has a deadly ray that he can use to destroy whatever he likes.

But the radiation is killing him and driving him mad.

He shares his discovery with Lugosi, here playing the good doctor to Karloff’s mad villain, and Karloff becomes incensed when his wife leaves him and others begin tapping into his discoveries to use to help others.  He winds up seeking revenge on all of those who went on the African trip together.

The “glowing” is the film’s main effect, and it’s kind of cheap but effective.  The story is a lot more linear than that or The Black Cat, so in a ways less interesting, but a decent yarn for sure.   I thought it was pretty good.  Lugosi and Karloff sport odd facial hair in this one, with Karloff also wearing a weird dark, curly wig.  I’m still curious to know how much the kids picked up from this and if they could pick either man out of a line-up yet.  (Felix slept through it so I doubt he would.)

The Black Cat (1934)

The Black Cat (1934) movie poster

director Edgar G. Ulmer
viewed: 10/05/2013

Sort of like I did with Vincent Price, I decided it was a good time to familiarize the kids with Béla Lugosi and by proxy Boris Karloff as well.  I’d actually queued up this disc for this film, The Black Cat, in particular because it is also an Edgar G. Ulmer movie.  It was Ulmer’s biggest budget production and biggest commercial success.  It was also Lugosi’s biggest post-Dracula (1931) commercial success.

It’s quite the cult film too.  Featuring all sorts of “out there” elements including “necrophilia, ailurophobia, drugs, a deadly game of chess, torture, flaying, and a black mass with a human sacrifice.” (per critic Philip French)  It’s pretty far out, perhaps far outre.

It’s also a rambled, jambling mess.  I mean, I’m a fully cognizant adult and I felt like the story just kept turning, each step of the way, like it was making it up as it was going along.

Lugosi shows up as Dr. Vitus Werdegast, a vengeful doctor, fresh from fifteen years in a cruel prison, seeking the man who ran the prison and stole his wife and daughter.  He runs into a honeymooning couple on a train, but with whom he survives a motorcar crash and winds up on his nemesis’, Hjalmar Poelzig’s (Karloff), doorstep.  Poelzig had indeed run off with Werdegast’s wife, but then she died so he’s had her frozen in time in a glass case.  And then married her look-alike daughter.  And then runs a Satanic community.  In the location of the former prison, which is built on a pile of dynamite.

The weirdest aspect of the film is the only nod the film gives to its utterly non sequitur title.  Though one would assume that this was adapted from the Edgar Allen Poe story, the only thing that a black cat has to do with this film is that Werdegast is inexplicably mortally afraid of black cats and tries to kill them or has a nervous breakdown when they show up.

It’s all weird and convoluted and still quite campily charming.

For the kids, though, it was probably just confusing.  Felix actually fell asleep.  Clara had a myriad of questions, some of which I could answer, others of which I could not.

The Mummy

The Mummy (1932) movie poster

(1932) director Karl Freund
viewed: 10/14/2011

October being Halloween month, and hoping that some older horror films would be less frightening for the kids after Poltergeist (1982), we revisited the classics of Universal Pictures’ horror brigade.  A couple years ago, we watched a number of Universal’s “monster movies”  such as The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942), Son of Frankenstein (1939), Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943), The Wolf Man (1941), Bride of Frankenstein (1935), Frankenstein (1931), but we hadn’t ever gotten to The Mummy (1932).

Directed by noted cinematographer Karl Freund, the film has lots of interesting camera movement and features a number of striking shots, probably none more iconic than the camera’s lingering stare upon the mummy’s face or the modern day mummy, Ardath Bey (both actually the inimitable Boris Karloff in amazing make-up),  But the story of Imhotep, a priest who was buried alive from attempting to raise his beautiful princess from the dead, brought back to life by the same magic in modern times isn’t quite as compelling as Frankenstein or Dracula (1931) or perhaps even The Wolf Man.  Though they did go on to make four sequels.

Zita Johann is quite compelling as the half-Egyptian daughter of a local mayor, the living embodiment of the dead princess.  And Karloff, he always makes things groovy.  But the mummy, wrapped in all its shroud, appears onscreen for only a moment (apparently the make-up was both painful and extremely time-consuming to put on), and so the lesser figure of Karloff as Ardath Bey is the primary “monster” through most of the film,  He may be undead, but he doesn’t cut quite the figure of the entombed version of himself.

The kids were pretty spooked by the atmosphere of the early part of the film, probably its strongest segment.  This is the part in which the curse is read, “death to whoever opens this casket” and yet shrugged off breaking the seal and awakening the corpse of Imhotep.  The subtle moments, awaiting the creeping terror are by far more frightening than what the film has in store at the end.

The funny thing was that the kids had recently seen the 1999 re-make of the film, which through digital effects and a bit of Indiana Jones into the picture.  Rather different things, indeed.

Black Sabbath

Black Sabbath (1963) movie poster

(1963) director Mario Bava
viewed: 10/31/10

The title of Mario Bava’s Black Sabbath, as it is known in its English language release, served as a good inspiration for Ozzy Osborne to re-name his rock band, but the film’s original Italian title I Tre volti della paura, more literally The Three Faces of Fear in English, is perhaps a little more apt.  The film is a compendium of three short films, horror or thrillers, and there isn’t a witch’s meeting among them.

A few years back I watched Bava’s Black Sunday (The Mask of Satan) (1960), which had really impressed me.  But for whatever reason, it took me this long to get around to watching another of Bava’s horror films.  As it turned out, this was my Halloween night feature.

The first segment, “The Telephone”, is more of a thriller.  Shot in bright colors, it has a different feeling from the other two segments.  It’s setting and story are more modern, whereas the latter two stories are more gothic and classically in the horror style and genre.

Like Black Sunday, the second segment, “The Wurdalak”, is adapted from a story by Nikolai Gogol.  This segment stars the near-ubiquitous Boris Karloff, who also introduces and closes the film.  It’s a Russian vampire of sorts, and is probably the most effective of the sequences.

The final segment, “The Drop of Water” evoked Rod Serling’s Night Gallery perhaps (or perhaps vice versa).  Actually, the whole film had a little of Night Gallery about it.

I have the vaguest memory of having seen this film as a kid, but with no real memories, per se.  I recall not really enjoying it, which kind of makes sense.  It’s a more sustained and adult sort of film, with the horror more suggested and cumulative (and with the segments being short), the stories fly by a little quickly and don’t have the impact that they might in a fuller build and duration.

What’s interesting, though I don’t have much to derive from it, is the final shot, showing Karloff bidding the audience adieu as they head out into the spooky night.  He does this while “riding” a galloping horse, which the shot, as the camera pulls back, it’s revealed that the horse is not at all real, nor are the background.  The shot reveals the whole artifice of the cinema, and with the set decorators rotating as they hold branches of trees, it has a distinctly Fellini-esque sensibility to it.  It’s funny and playful, but it’s significance is hard to fully apply.

Still, some pretty good fun.

Bedlam

Bedlam (1946) movie poster

(1946) dir. Mark Robson
viewed: 06/07/10

Closing out my Val Lewton series (actually one more to go of currently available titles on Netflix), my latest venture into the great RKO B-picture horror film was Bedlam, another of Lewton’s films to star legend Boris Karloff.  Actually, these are all good Karloff films, including Isle of the Dead (1945) and The Body Snatcher (1945), not just the campy, occasionally dialed-in performances by a man who the studio system of Hollywood like to typecast beyond typecast, not merely as a villain but as the Frankenstein (1931) monster or other.

In all three films, Lewton gave Karloff a lot more with which to work.  In Isle of the Dead, he’s a tough, potentially cruel Greek general given to superstition but motivated to save lives of his soldiers.  In The Body Snatcher, he’s a ghoul of sorts but also feeding knowledge and science.  And in Bedlam, well, though they try to redeem him to an extent at the end, he’s a cruel supervisor of a “mental hospital” more along the lines of a prison or freakshow, whose social-climbing and attempts to make good with a wealthy aristocrat lead him to further crimes of imprisoning a “sane” woman who he has reason to dislike.

Bedlam, interestingly, is “inspired” by a series of popular engravings by William Hogarth, a series titled The Rake’s Progress, which in many ways was a sort of pulp fiction of its time, depicting the notorious St. Mary’s of Bethlehem Asylum, which came to be known as “Bedlam” and is at the core of the term’s definition, that of pure insane chaos.  And this Bedlam is the setting for the story, an early version of the “insane asylum” or mental institution movie that I noted in recently watching The Snake Pit (1948), which in an interesting aside was a moniker given to writer/producer Val Lewton’s writing team at RKO.

So far, I have to say, which I still stick to, that Robson’s work, while probably stronger here than in his other pictures for Lewton, still pales in comparison to Jacques Tourneur, Lewton’s other director of note in his days at RKO.  Perhaps such an opinion as that is simply that, an opinion, but I raise it because many historians and critics note that Robson was most-attuned to Lewton’s vision and Lewton’s favorite collaborator.  While I have one movie left in my Lewton/RKO DVD catalog, and with a couple of notable other Lewton films unavailable on DVD through Netflix, I also have a couple of documentaries on Lewton to round out my long-delayed investigation into his canon.  More to come…