Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Thursday, October 18, 2012

Halloween 2012: October 16

The Black Cat (1941)
It’s odd that Universal, not even ten years later, would make another movie named “The Black Cat.” Maybe the 1933 film was too spicy for the Production Code Era? If 1941’s “The Black Cat” was an adaptation of Edgar Allen Poe’s original story, that would at least be understandable. But, nope, this “Black Cat” is a straight-up old dark house flick. (The film still credits Poe, despite having nothing to do with him.) A group of relatives gather in a mansion for the reading of a will. Murders begin. There are several secret passageways and wacky comic relief. “The Cat and the Canary” was a while ago and people are still ripping it off.

1941’s “The Black Cat” mixes the formula up at least a little bit. The old woman with the fortune actually starts the movie alive. It’s only after she herself reads the list that she is murdered. Rich Old Aunt is obsessed with cats, the crazy cat lady of the time, and her mansion is full of felines, including a title-lending ominous black cat whose presence foretells death. The movie has a few interesting sets, like a crematorium for cats, giant feline statues looking down on the people, while the mansion itself at least looks cool from the outside. There’s a little foggy atmosphere. The cast is above average but the ensemble doesn’t allow anyone to rise above. Basil Rathbone shows up even if he doesn’t get to do much. Bela Lugosi is once again wasted in a supporting role, this time playing a Mexican gardener. He spends most of the movie lurking around, being a red herring. Gale Sondergaard has the best part as the spicy landowner of the mansion, looking beautiful and acting icy. Alan Ladd is here too. Broderick Crawford plays the protagonist, a palooka real estate agent. He’s not your typical movie detective and, even if he’s never wholly convincing, he’s at least different.

The worst part of the movie is the comic relief, an antiques expert played by Hugh Herbert. Herbet has a verbal tick of airy Tigger-like chuckle that ends most sentences with. He stumbles around, failing to fix furniture. In a bizarre scene, he drinks a batch of tea Sondergaard has made, causing him to disappear in a poof of smoke? He is seriously annoying. It won’t kill you to watch “The Black Cat.” If you’re an aficionado of old dark house movies, you’ll probably like it. I found it to be pretty bland. [5/10]

Man Made Monster (1941)
“Man Made Monster” is something of a test run for “The Wolf Man.” It was Lon Chaney Jr.’s first horror movie, both directed by George Waggner. The film is a relatively typical mad scientist movie. However, a couple of elements elevate the material, at least a little bit.

The movie gets right to the story. Chaney plays Dynamo Dan, the Electric Man, a side show performer whose schtick is surviving electric jolts. He survives a bus collision with a phone line, an exciting action sequence to open the film with, that kills everyone else on board. Dan becomes something of a local celebrity and is quickly asked to be studied by science. The jolly, energetic Dan is more then willing and takes it all in stride. He makes friends with Dr. Lawrence’s daughter and even gets close to the family dog. Soon, he attracts the attention of Lawrence’s evil, power mad assistant, another deliciously villainous Lionel Atwill performance. Atwill’s experiments subject Dan to intense electric charges. This saps his pep and personality, turning him into a subservient zombie, while providing him destructive electric powers. The first to go is Dr. Lawrence, of course, which lands Atwill with a laboratory and Dan in jail. He is convicted with murder and sentenced to death. Turns out sending a guy famous for surviving electric shocks to the electric chair wasn’t a great idea. Dynamo Dan, decked out in a frankly silly looking rubber suit, escapes and goes on something resembling a rampage across the countryside.

“Man Made Monster’ is unambitious stuff but a seasoned monster kid like me found a lot to like. Chaney gives a very good performance. As in “The Wolf Man,” his character starts out as a light-hearted, happy guy. Larry Talbot is overwhelmed with guilt. Dynamo Dan is reduced by repeated electric shocks to an emotionless slug. Lon has no problem playing both types. In Chaney’s best moment, a court shrink reduces him to agonized yelling and tears. Atwill is at his evil best, most notably in the scene where he corners damsel in distress Anne Nagel, tells her his evil plan for no reason, before threatening her life. A silly rubber suit and a glow in the dark effect had to be one of the easier monster make-ups of Chaney’s career. Dynamo Dan is a monster in the distinctly tragic mode. Once he meets his inevitable, accidental end, his beloved dog rests a paw and a head on his chest. Awww. As a test run for an iconic horror classic, “Man Made Monster” certainly proved Chaney and Waggner could be a winning team, even if their next film was head and shoulders above this one, a toasty piece of horror comfort food. [7/10]

Horror Island (1941)
Oh look, an old dark house movie… On an island! Considering “Horror Island” is an hour-long studio programmer, it spends an awful lot of time setting up its premise. It’s a farce and almost a full-on comedy. Dick Foran and his stuttering, comic relief sidekick Fuzzy Knight team up with Leo Carrillo, a French sailor with a peg leg and an obsession with treasure. The trio set up a scam trip to a near-by island castle, which they are pretending to be haunted, pulling a whole gang of people along with them. Naturally, a real villain, decked out in a fedora, black cape, and pencil moustache of course, follows them and starts trouble. Among the tourists are a feisty love interest, on-the-run bank robber, his moll, a bumbling lawyer, a sleep-walking professor, and two indistinguishable handsome guys. There are secret passageways, trap doors and trick crossbows, a real hidden treasure, and a few murders which the character react to fairly nonchalantly.

Not a whole lot to report here. “Horror Island” has one or two fun moment, like the villains shadow cast on the wall, fingers spider-ing about. There’s a quick fight scene late in, with smashing chairs and people running through walls. The cast is surprisingly likable considering how thin the characters are written. Fuzzy Knight’s schtick is fairly amusing. It’s a shame the castle is an uninspired set. So, you know, there’s another one off the list. [5.5/10]

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