Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Monday, October 22, 2012

Halloween 2012: October 21

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.

I’m being pretty down on “The Mad Ghoul,” which isn’t totally fair. Yeah, the script is super hacky. There’s the required speech about how Zucco’s science is meddling in God’s domain. The shambling, monosyllabic Ghoul is decidedly unthreatening and the make-up consist pretty much of a streak of dark face paint. This doesn’t mention a few unintentionally funny moments, like the often referenced Miracle Monkey. Despite that, the film still has a moment or two. The grave robbing scenes, which are what make the Ghoul a Ghoul, are all fairly atmospheric, especially the one heavy on the fog. Shadowy silhouettes are used fairly well throughout. There’s a clever scene were a police officer tries to get the drop on the grave robbers by hiding in a casket. It doesn’t go well for him. The monster is something like a cross between Jekyll/Hyde and Frankenstein, since Ted is a normal guy until his new heart transplant wears off and he becomes a shambling corpse in a suit again. The climax, which has the monster meeting his end on a stage in front of hundreds of people, is at least memorable and the evil professor’s fate has a nicely ironic tone to it. These are probably the reasons why “The Mad Ghoul” has something of a following even if, otherwise, it’s not particularly notable. [6/10]

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.

It’s morally ambiguous lead characters add to the noir tone as well. Robert Paige as Frank Stanley spends most of the movie in a nervous sweat. Nobody believes him when he starts talking about vampires, he is wrongly accused of his girlfriend’s death, and can’t quite believe the situation he’s in himself. Covered in mud and grime, he’s a unique Universal Monster protagonist. Louise Allbritton as Kay is almost a femme fatale herself. She’s not well liked by the other characters in the film for her unhealthy interest in the supernatural. As the film goes on, we find that she’s intentionally manipulating two men. (Including Dracula!) A woman intentionally becoming a vampire for the power it affords wasn’t a common sight in the 1940s. Both actors give good performance too. In the Van Helsing role is J. Edward Bromberg, who with his frizzy hair and distinctive accent, at least cuts a memorable figure.

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.

Speaking of which… While I like the script a lot, the continuity nerd in me can’t help but have some questions for this one. The film says the last Dracula lived in the 12th century and, at one point, a character seems to be reading from the original Bram Stoker novel. That raises some interesting, frankly baffling questions. The film never answers the question of who Chaney’s character is exactly. He is blatantly referred to as Dracula at one point. Is he meant to be the same Dracula Bela Lugosi played? Is he that character’s son, as the title blatantly suggests? Is this film even meant to be a sequel to the Lugosi Dracula? I’m probably thinking about this more then the people who made the movie did. Of course, the movie did contribute the “Alucard = Dracula” trick which has been used 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]

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