Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Monday, October 22, 2012

Halloween 2012: October 20

Calling Dr. Death (1943)
So here’s the introduction to one of the more atypical series to be slapped with the Universal Horror label. The Inner Sanctum radio series, with its famous guest stars, campy comedic host, and horror-heavy stories, was something like the “Tales from the Crypt” of its day. The series was popular enough to spawn a film series. Six movies were made, all starring Lon Chaney. While none of the films are monster movies, rewatching this one, it’s surprising just how much of a horror picture this is.

Chaney plays a neurologist and a hypnotist, Dr. Mark Steel. Dr. Steel has got some problems. His wife is cheating on him, and he’s stressed out about it. He’s in love with the nurse at his office but can’t bring himself to make a move, which causes a lot of guilt. Things get worse for him when he goes on a weekend drive, blacks out, and wakes up to the news of his wife brutal murder. Evidence piles up, like his missing coat button being at the crime scene. Despite one detective being convinced Chaney is the culprit (and badgering him constantly over it), his wife’s boyfriend is pinned with the crime and put on death row. This causes Dr. Steel even more guilt. That he is now free to pursue a relationship with his nurse causes him guilt. Generally speaking, he’s a super guilty guy, even if he truthfully can’t remember what he did that weekend.

This is a good example of psychological horror. There’s a heavy noir atmosphere. The movie goes out of its way to put the audience in Chaney’s heads. Whispery voice-overs are frequent throughout the early half of the movie, vividly describing Dr. Steel’s constant of mental anguish. There are several eye-view shots from Chaney’s perspective, further cementing our need to relate with him. It’s actually a really good performance from Chaney. Why “The Wolf Man” proved that nobody does guilt and anguish better then him, the professional and educated Dr. Steel is a very different character then Larry Talbot. The noir tone is furthered by the shadow, dark visual style. There’s never much doubt that the doctor is innocent but his constant threatening is highly involving and entertaining.

The supporting cast is solid too, most notably Patricia Morison as the object of Chaney’s desire and J. Carrol Nash as the overbearing detective. The film is definitely a mystery and you are kept guessing over who is actually responsible for the crime. The overly grisly nature of the murder, which involves a bashed-in head and a splash of acid, adds to the horror elements. When the perpetrator of the crime is revealed at the end, it’s done through a hypnotism sequence. The flashbacks are overlaid at the entranced person’s dozing face, another example of the movie’s clever visual style. The film wraps up on an odd note, the detective talking about how there are always more crimes to investigate and then straightening the plaque of the Hippocratic Oath on the wall. I suppose those expecting a traditional Universal Monster movie would be disappointed in this one, but I actually found it fairly fascinating and rewarding. [7/10]

Captive Wild Woman (1943)
Frankenstein, Dracula, the Wolf Man, the Gill-Man: These are the legends. The Mummy, the Invisible Man, the Phantom of the Opera: Not as well known but still influential and iconic. Paula the Ape Woman? Not Universal’s most famous character, to be kind. The studio would crank out three movies featuring the character, two of them starring exotic Acquanetta, all of them strictly on the B-movie level.

Anyway, “Captive Wild Woman.” The premise is purely ridiculous. An animal tamer brings a batch of new animals to his circus after a trip around the world, among them a huge female gorilla named Cheela. His girlfriend has a sister who is currently being treated for some glandular condition that isn’t named or elaborated on. Bad luck for her that mad scientist John Carradine is the one of the case. He steals the gorilla, pumps her full of the girl’s blood and, in the process, creates a beautiful ape woman named Paula. Paula soon finds work at the circus and, despite never speaking and having an uncanny sway over the rest of the animals, nobody stops to question just who the hell this girl is. Predictably, Paula develops an attachment to the animal tamer and doesn’t appreciate him continuing to love his girlfriend. This mad scientist/gorilla movie officially becomes a monster flick when Paula, in her rage, transforms into a were-gorilla of some type, briefly.

The most uncomfortable thing about “Captive Wild Woman” is all the animal footage. Large portions of the film are built around real life animal tamer Clyde Beatty dealing with lions and tigers. Beatty is thanked in the opening credits and it’s really obvious whenever he swaps out for leading man Milburn Stone. Because this was 1943, there’s no doubt that when you see lions and tigers wrestling, biting, and clawing the hell out of each other, those animals were really hurting each other. Naturally, in all of the animal tamer footage, you get the uncomfortable impression that you’re minute away from seeing a guy mauled to death by a wild animal. And no wonder the big cats are so pissed off. They are stuck in tiny, cramped cages. Stuff like this usually doesn’t bother me much but it’s impossible not to notice here.

The cast is the main reason to stick around. Carradine effortlessly plays the mad scientist with glee. Evelyn Ankers seems happy not to be working opposite Lon Chaney for once. You can’t get much of an impression of Acquanetta’s acting ability, but her intense stare is certainly captivating  and she looks great in the revealing circus outfit they stick her in. The brief were-ape make-up is actually excellent and I wish it wasn’t confined to one sequence. Gorilla suit aficionados will probably enjoy Ray Corrigan’s performance as Cheela. The plot is totally ridiculous and the ending hugely anti-climatic. After that disappointing conclusion, the movie caps it off with a utterly ridiculous voice-over message talking about how the scientist, more or less, “meddle in God’s domain.” I’m really surprise this movie didn’t end up on “Mystery Science Theater 3000” during the Sci-Fi era. It would have fit in perfectly on that show. [5/10]

Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943)
At the time, “Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man” was a hugely novel idea. Now, any setting with at least one of the classic monster inevitably becomes a monster mash. In 1943, suggesting that all these characters shared a universe probably blew a few minds. While obviously on the B-movie level most of the Universal Monster films were at this time, there’s still a lot to enjoy about this one.

“The Wolf Man” didn’t actually feature a shot of the full moon nor did it discuss the moon’s sway over the werewolf much. This one makes up for that. The first shot in the film is of the full moon. The first scene of the grave robbers breaking into the Talbot tomb, which makes use of a beautiful graveyard set, is fantastically creepy. Larry’s body reviving in the rays of the moon is a bit of a cheat but it’s as good an explanation as any. At least the film doesn’t explain away his head wound from the end of the first movie. Resurrection doesn’t make Larry real happy and he starts out on a (fruitless) suicide quest. After an energetic Wolf Man scene that sees him jumping around boxes, acting very lupine, Larry travels across Europe seeking Maleva the gypsy. She recommends Dr. Frankenstein, and we’re off.

The film goes a long ways towards establishing a timeline and location. It’s been four years since the first “Wolf Man” and Sir John has died of grief. The setting is established as Wales while Vasira, the primary setting in the latter half of the film, is now on the mainland, obviously somewhere near Germany. The film honestly avoids too many continuity errors from the last two flicks. Maleva remembers Dr. Frankenstein, the one played by Cedric Hardwicke, as a great doctor famous for helping sick minds. The villagers are less kind, remembering him as a creator of monsters. (Even though Ludwig Frankenstein never created any monsters.) Its never explain how the Monster got from the burning asylum at the end of “Ghost of Frankenstein” to frozen in a block of ice in this one. The layout of Ludwig Frankenstein’s laboratory is totally different, now next to a dam with electric turbines underneath. Still, considering how fast and loose the continuity would be in later sequels, it’s nice to see that someone was still paying attention at this point.

Universal assembled a horror all-star cast for this big crossover movie. Lon Chaney’s characterization as a death obsessed sad sack started here. The guy is super serious the whole time. He’s still fantastic as the Wolf Man and, heck, Larry Talbot is still lovable. Bela Lugosi steps into the Frankenstein Monster’s make-up. I really don’t think Lugosi was a good choice for the Monster. His face is all wrong for the part and he is incredibly stiff. It doesn’t help that this film starts the sad trend of the Monster spending most of the movie tied to a slab, motionless. Thank God they edited out the Monster talking with Ygor’s voice. That would have been ridiculous. (You really don’t notice it unless you’re looking for it, either.) Ilona Massey steps in for Evelyn Ackers in the role of Elsa Frankenstein and I, honestly, think she’s an improvement. Massey is utterly gorgeous, of course, and seems appropriately conflicted about her dad’s legacy. (Though, once again, it’s really her grandfather’s legacy, isn’t it?) Lionel Atwill plays Vasira’s mayor. I guess by 1943, not even a village in the middle of no where didn’t have Burgomasters anymore. It’s a rare good guy part for Atwill, since he is the one holding the villagers back from rioting. (And not really succeeding either.) Patric Knowles plays a different part from his “Wolf Man” character a rationalist doctor who, when confronted with the inert Frankenstein Monster, can’t help but revive the creature. This is something else the further sequels would pick up on. I wish Maria Ouspenskaya was given more to do. Once she is reunited with Larry, a funny, touching scene, she is mostly resigned to sitting around and looking nervous, disappearing somewhere before the end. And, hey, the movie even throws Dwight Frye into a small role. Good to see him again.

Of course, the main attraction here is seeing the Wolf Man and the Monster tussle. Naturally, this doesn’t happen until the very end. The movie is mostly focused on Larry’s quest to cure himself, the Monster just kind of lumbering around, being an asshole. The film is mostly a Wolf Man sequel, which is okay since he never got a stand-alone sequel of his own. When the fight finally happens at the end, it’s fairly brief. Which isn’t to say it isn’t totally awesome. The Wolf Man and Frankenstein are natural enemies for the same reasons Freddy and Jason are. One is big, tall, and lumbering. The other might be smaller but he is agile and quick. The fight scene exploits this dynamic fully. Of course I wish it was longer, and I wish the movie didn’t cop out and declared a proper winner. But what do you want from a nearly seventy year old movie? As far as classic monster bashes go, this one is irresistible and the best of the creature feature mash-ups Universal would make. [7/10]

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