The Mad Ghoul (1943)
How did screenwriters back in the forties pick their sci-fi/horror film MacGuffins? “The Mad Ghoul” is about an evil chemistry professor who discovers the poison gas that the ancient Aztecs used to create zombies that feed on human hearts. Naturally, he immediately uses it on of his students, a medicine major. As far as ways to create heart eating zombies go, poison gas seems a smidge impractical. Was electricity and black magic both old hat by 1943? It’s a good thing the atomic bomb would drop in a few years and B-movie screenwriters the world over could just use that as an excuse for anything.
Anyway, the character dynamics in “The Mad Ghoul” are so simple you could figure them out with the sound off. Evelyn Ankers plays the fiancé of Ted, the protagonist and titular ghoul of questionable sanity. It’s fairly obvious that the evil professor desires her, which is why he picks on poor Ted, and that her pianist (She’s an obviously dubbed stage singer, by the way) is her back-up love interest, the guy who is going to be there for after her boyfriend-turned-monster bites it in the last reel. All of this is okay though, since Ankers is totally over Ted. The cast is full of Universal Monster veterans. Aside from Ankers, you’ve got George Zucco as the evil professor, Turhan Bey as the back-up love interest, and Rose Hobert from “Tower of London” and “Jekyll and Hyde” ’31 in a bit part. A cast like that still can’t make-up for leading man David Bruce, who is incredibly stiff, and not just when playing an undead ghoul. For a fact, he’s a far better undead ghoul then he is a normal person.
Phantom of the Opera (1943)
A lot of opera in this. That might be a retarded statement but… Damn. Andrew Lloyd Weber wasn’t the first guy to shanghai this gothic horror story for romance and gaudy spectacle. It’s a big budget affair, in color, with huge sets, elaborate costumes, and a rich score. The studio was looking less for chills and more for Oscars, two of which it got. Considering the previous version was silent, and this is a story about music, that makes sense. But this film sets up the future adaptations that downplay horror in favor of elements friendlier to housewives.
The story is jiggered around with. Characters have names changed. The Phantom is given a tragic back-story. He doesn’t start out as a murdering, obsessive psychopath. Instead, he’s a kindly, aging violinist. When he, rather abruptly, comes to believe that his music has been stolen, he flies into a homicidal rage. A splash of acid and a trip down the sewers later, the Phantom as we know him takes shape. The Phantom is still obsessed with Christine but, probably owing to the age difference between Rains and Sussanna Foster, isn’t grooming her as a lover or a singer. Instead, the movie implies subtly that the Phantom might actually be her long-lost father. Because the year was 1943 and this was a crowd-pleasing film, a love triangle is still necessary. Raoul, reimagined as a Paris police detective, now has competition for Christine’s hand from the Opera Company’s baritone, Anatole.
The focus is definitely heavy on music and comedy. There are lengthy opera sequences, all presented in their original language, with quite a bit of fancy costumes and choreography thrown in. The movie comes close to being a musical, especially once the characters sing even when they aren’t on stage. Raoul and Anatole’s vying for Christine results in the two saying words at the same times or trying to go out a door at the same time. That element is kind of funny, especially during the tacked-on happy ending where Christine picks the adoring crowd over either man’s affection. A clownish opera attendant is more forced comic relief. Having the Phantom start out as good instead of insane is another softening element. There’s less in the way of murder and madness.
Claude Rains is excellent. There are problems with the character as written. His transition from gentle old man to homicidal maniac is out of nowhere, especially since Erique seems less passionate about his music. Once Rains gets his scratchy voice behind the mask, the movie and character improve. He certainly cuts a sinister figure. The scarred face, though technically closer to what an acid-burn might look like, is underwhelming. The chandelier drop is a standout and an improvement over ’25. The film threatens to undermine the sequence when it takes so long to saw through the chain. Once it comes down, it’s shot in exciting, multi-angle quick cuts.
The film was a big success and a sequel was greenlit. The ending delicately sets up the possibility, with something rustling under the climatic pile of rubble. After Rains backed out due to scheduling conflicts, the sequel, “The Climax,” was filmed as a stand alone film with Boris Karloff in the vaguely-Phantom-like part. I gotta say this version of “Phantom” isn’t as exciting or interesting as the previous adaptation or a few of the future ones. [5/10]
Son of Dracula (1943)
“Son of Dracula” has a couple of things going for it. First and foremost is the direction from Robert Siodmak, Curt’s brother. Robert would become better known later for directing noirs like “The Spiral Staircase” and “The Dark Mirror.” He brings that same handle of atmosphere to this flick. This could easily be classified as a horror-noir. The New Orleans setting emphasizes this even more. The swamp gas, old houses, dark basements, and tree branches makes this, visually, quite a dark trip. There are several really clever shots too, like a close-up of a bat cutting to a close-up on the back of Dracula’s cape. The scene I always remember from this film is when a vampire’s casket is in a police station and mist begins to rise from under the lid.
What the movie gets criticized the most for is Lon Chaney’s performance as Dracula. It’s true that Chaney’s blue collar American voice, style, and build didn’t make him an ideal Dracula but let’s give the guy some credit. Chaney was good at using his size and presence for intimidation. When convincing Dr. Brewster that he’s just a normal guy, or when he finally reveals himself as a vampire, are Chaney’s best moment. The sequence of someone shooting a gun directly through the vampire and into the person behind him is a classic, for sure. This is the first movie to show a vampire transforming into a bat, which it actually does quite subtly, mostly in long shots. I’m a bigger fan of Lon Jr. then most. Perhaps that’s why I like his Count Alucard more then most do.
numerous times since then. While I can understand why this movie isn’t well liked by everyone, I’ve got to say I’m a “Son of Dracula” fan. [7/10]