Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Sunday, October 21, 2012

Halloween 2012: October 18

The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942)
With the success of “The Wolf Man,” Lon Chaney Jr. was officially a horror star. Near weeks after that film wrapped, most of the same cast and crew were assembled for “The Ghost of Frankenstein,” the fourth film in the increasingly long in the tooth series. If “The Wolf Man” showed what was possible if Universal put some money behind one of their monster movie, “Ghost of Frankenstein” is a very typical example of the studio’s horror output at the time.

I’ve never much warmed up to Lon Chaney as the monster. He should have been perfect, right? No one could bring pathos to a monster like Chaney and Lenny in “Of Mice and Men” was just a few levels removed from the Monster. And yet Chaney’s Monster is robotic. It seems he found the make-up constraining. Lugosi and Glenn Strange are traditionally credited (Blamed?) for the cliché of the Monster shambling around, arms out, legs stiff. Turns out Chaney did that first. His interpretation of the creature is stiff and blandly murderous. Karloff was right to drop out when he did. The make-up is still good, for what it’s worth, even if Chaney’s round, saggy face is very different then Karloff’s thin, bony structure.

After the events of “Son of Frankenstein” the villagers have had enough. They decide to dynamite what remains of the castle. Despite seemingly dying in the last film, Ygor lives. The explanation for this sudden resurrection?: Ygor dies harder then John McClane. A couple of bullets ain’t taking him down. Silly, but in keeping with what we know about the character. Anyway, there’s a reason the villagers in these old movies aren’t well known for their intelligent decision making. Blowing up the castle releases the Monster from his sulfur prison. The first major continuity error in this series comes when a lightening bolt, what stuck the Monster in a coma in the last movie, recharges his battery here. The duo wander off to Visaria, the village where the rest of the Universal Monsters cannon will largely be set. It’s also the home of Ludwig Frankenstein, Wolf Frankenstein’s previously unmentioned older brother. One of the film’s few legitimately clever aspects is that, in Visaria, the name Frankenstein is associated with a beloved brain surgeon, not a man who made monsters. The monster goes about causing chaos, Ygor generally hangs around threateningly, and Frankenstein’s daughter has some light romantic banter with some guy. Ludwig’s assistant is played by Lionel Atwill whom, I don’t suppose will become increasingly sinister as the story progresses, hmm?

“The Ghost of Frankenstein” is fairly by-the-book, though not totally without its moments. Erle C. Kenton’s direction is quite strong. There are several creative camera angles, such as a little girl’s eye-view of the Monster towering over here or a brain in a jar wheeling directly into the camera. We get a few moments of weighty atmosphere, such as Ygor and the Monster’s face peering into a window at the daughter, lightening casting their shadows on the wall. Similarly, the Monster’s shadow looms huge on the small girl’s bedroom wall. Speaking of which, the movie links with the first film by having a little girl befriend the Monster. She isn’t afraid of him, seems unaware of his murderous steak, but at least knows when to ask to go home. The sets are fantastic. Despite the modern setting, Visaria still has more in common with the village in “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” then actual Germany. The doctor’s laboratory is all domed ceilings and half-moon arches. The Monster’s final, fiery rampage through the lab is satisfying and the shots of his face slowly burning in the flames are cool. Chaney’s ramping physicality is his best contribution.

The movie is also the series’ first slide into silliness. The villagers try to put the creature on trail, which goes about as well as you’d expect. When he breaks his chains, the wittle girl calms him down. The title lending sequence of the ghost of Frankenstein’s father appearing to him, convincing him to carry on the family experiment, is more melodramatic then mythic. Ygor’s voice coming out of the Monster’s mouth at the very end is horribly unconvincing. It’s not the cast’s fault. Cedric Hardwicke does okay as the doctor, Lionel Atwill gets to play a little more then a crazy villain, Evelyn Ackers is awfully pretty, and Lugosi hams it up fantastically as Ygor. “Ghost” is just one of the weaker entries in the series, if you ask me. [6/10]

Night Monster (1942)
Going into “Night Monster,” I was expecting a typical old dark house flick. It certainly has the hallmarks of the genre. You’ve got a group of people gathering in a mansion in a spooky location when a few bodies piled up, with secret passageways naturally being used at one point. At the very least, Ingston Tower has a staff of maids and butlers that keep the place from getting too dusty. While the movie is never hugely surprising, and certainly doesn’t deliver on the monster promised in the title, it at least deviates a bit from the established formula.

The movie’s main problem is that there are a few too many characters. The mansion belongs to a quadriplegic millionaire. He blames his paralysis on the three doctors who botched the surgery. For reasons I can’t remember, the three doctors (Among them Lionel Atwill. Man, that guy didn’t suffer for work in 1942.) along with a female psychologist are invited to stay at his home for the weekend. That would probably be enough for most films, but “Night Monster” also throws in a swami, a love interest for the lady shrink, a bumbling old detective, the millionaire’s mentally ill sister, a high-strung maid, a handsy groundskeeper, and Bela Lugosi in another small butler role. There might be a few more as well. The movie does an okay job of balancing this extended cast. The handsy groundskeeper is at least memorable, Irene Hervey makes a decent heroine, I like the maid and the mentally ill sister, and Lugosi does his best to distinguish what he’s given. The best performance in the film belong to Ralph Morgan as the crippled man. It’s obvious how bitter he is yet he never gets overt, instead letting his resentment and bitterness simmer under a mask of civility.

This poster is mostly unrelated.
The swami and his mysticism provide most of the film’s horror elements. An early scene has him materializing a skeleton and a bleeding ruby into the middle of the room. That was cool. There’s some decent foggy atmosphere in the beginning, though we could have used more. There’s plenty of talk of a monster living in the swamp. The police study the foot prints. In probably the best scene, the sister talks about seeing the creature, the shadows of the fireplace dancing over her face. The three attack scenes are also nicely handle, making further good use of shadow. Whenever the night monster stumbles through, all the frogs in the swamp stop croaking, which helps builds tension very well at the end. The movie reuses both of the opening credits sequence and snippets of the score from “The Wolf Man.’ I suspect “Night Monster” started out as a fairly routine old dark house script when someone decided to spruce it up. Well, congratulations on that. While only partially memorable, “Night Monster” has a few creepy or clever moments. [6.5/10]

The Mad Doctor of Market Street (1942)
After playing so many supporting roles in Universal horror movies, it was nice that Lionel Atwill got to star in one. It’s just a shame that “The Mad Doctor of Market Street” isn’t much better. It’s an odd hybrid of a film. While there’s a mad scientist obsessed with putting people in a state of suspended animation (a horror/sci-fi element) and a group of detectives hot on his trail (a mystery element), the movie is mostly a jungle-adventure flick. So, no, the mad doctor isn’t on Market Street for very long.

Atwill plays Dr. Ralph Benson, one of the more unassuming names you could give a mad scientist. After doing great with the “creating a death-like state” but less well with the “bringing them back to life” part of suspended animation, Benson flees onto a cruise ship headed for the north Pacific. His brilliant disguise involves shaving his beard. After killing one of the cops onboard, Benson causes a fire, somehow wrecks the ship, and gets himself along with a selected group of characters stranded on an island. Once he pulls off his reanimation trick, Dr. Ralph is treated as a god by the hilariously stereotypical island natives, forcing the other white folks to put up with his mildly threatening reign of terror.

There’s a lot of stuff with the island natives, none of whom look particularly ethic and all of them talking in stilted, broken English. In the one of the movie’s best moments of unintentional comedy, Atwill parrots the native’s style of speak. Maybe I’m the only who thought that was funny… What prevents the movie from being a totally snore is the comic relief, Una Merkal as the primary love interest’s wacky aunt. She gets top billing and it’s no surprise since her absent minded aunt character, fond of pokadot dresses and saying the wrong thing at the worst time, proves far more entertainment then anything else in the movie. Claire Dodd is beautiful as the female lead, but doesn’t have much personality. Certainly not enough to justify the cliché of the villain falling in love with her, a subplot that takes up way more time then it should. Even worse is the two-fisted hero, Red Hogan (the kind of name that only exist in 1940s B-movies), who doesn’t do a single interesting thing throughout the whole picture. He doesn’t even save the day at the end. When the Mad Doctor Less of Market Street then Some Random Island doesn’t bring a native girl back to life as promised, the islanders toss the guy (off-screen) on to a bonfire. Which is honestly a pretty gruesome way to off the main baddie, even if it is totally off-screen. For what it’s worth, Atwill is as consistent as ever. Good to know the character actor who does great playing villains even in shitty movies is by no means a modern phenomenon. (There, I just linked Lionel Atwill with Michael Ironsides.) For some reason, I’m get the impression that this movie was done very cheaply to make use of some old jungle movie set and fill the ass-end of a double bill. [4.5/10]

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