Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Halloween 2012: October 22

The Climax (1944)
Well, that was kind of a drag. As I previously mentioned, “The Climax” was originally intended as a sequel to the Claude Rains’ “Phantom of the Opera.” With Rains’ exit, the film was retrofitted into a stand-alone film, keeping Susanna Foster and the opera setting. Instead of a phantom terrorizing the opera, Boris Karloff plays a doctor obsessed with a certain singer. So obsessed that he strangles her to death. Years later, a girl that is the spitting image of the dead singer shows up at the opera company. Karloff stalks the girl, hypnotizes her to loose her voice. Oh no, an opera won’t be performed! As far as stakes go, those are fairly low. It doesn’t help that, like ‘43’s “Phantom,” this is primarily focused on music, dancing, and romance.

The Technicolor sets certainly are beautiful. I’m sure fans of opera and ballet will find plenty to enjoy here. As for the rest of us? Man, this one drags. Susanna Foster isn’t a bad actress but she spends most of the movie fretting and fussing, sitting around in her dressing room, anxious. Turhan Bay has yet to impress in any of this films and the script doesn’t give his romantic lead much to do. Foster and Bay are mostly defined by their mutual love for one another. Gale Sondergaard is wasted in a supporting role as Karloff's maid. When music and romance aren’t the focus, the movie is about the drama behind the scenes at the opera. June Vincent pretty much reprises her Carlotta role in “Phantom” and the opera runners and owners are constantly clashing with her. The boredom peaks when Bay and some other guy convince the king of a command performance. And, Christ, there’s a lot of opera in the movie.

About the only time the film works is when Karloff is on-screen. He’s always done well in roles that allow him to play both a sweet old man and a wicked murderer. He looms over Foster, his intimidation seeming quite genuine. The hypnotism provides more “Mummy”-style close-ups of his eyes. The conclusion reveals that Karloff’s villainous doctor has being keeping his beloved soprano’s body in a secret room in the opera house. The last scene of him clutching the body as the room goes up in flame is the film’s sole stirring, poetic moment. It’s a shame that Karloff’s first color feature had to be such a bore, especially since it was clearly a big budget affair. [5/10]

Weird Woman (1944)
The Inner Sanctum movies are proving surprisingly consistent. “Weird Woman” has more overt horror themes then “Calling Dr. Death.” The story revolves around a college professor of folklore who, on an expedition to a village of voodoo practitioners, falls in love with a girl and brings her back to America. Being a believer in logic and reason, the professor convinces his wife to cut it out with all the voodoo and white magic business. This turns out to be a bad idea. Rumors swirl around him. A colleague kills himself, the dead man’s wife casting blame on Chaney. Upon rejecting a young girl’s romantic advances, her boyfriend attempts to murder him.

Like “Calling Dr. Death,” “Weird Woman” gets a lot of mileage out of close-ups on Lon Chaney’s face while, in voice-over, he talks ominously about his situation. Here, the monologue revolve around wither or not he can believe if something supernatural is at play. This proves to be surprisingly entertaining. Maybe it’s just me. “Weird Woman” does have a dynamite cast. In one of its best casting choices, Evelyn Ankers for once plays a villainous woman, the femme fatale actually responsible for much of Chaney’s lousy luck. Ankers supposedly wasn’t real fond of Lon in real life and you can’t help but wonder if some real life animosity added to her fantastically mean-spirited character. The film’s climax shows the supernatural bad vibes being turned against Ankers, generating some actual suspense, and her character has a fantastic exit from the film. Anne Gwynne and Lois Collier as the two wives are also very good and Elisabeth Risdon is nicely feisty in a supporting role. While the camera angles aren’t as clever as the first in the series, I really like the scene where Chaney working a sandbag in the gym slowly becomes the beating of tribal drums.

One of the oddest bits in the film is that Lon Chaney Jr. is supposed to be such a lady man. Most of the plot revolves around him spurning the advances of two young women. Potential female readers, is this guy handsome? When a curse starts hanging over Anker’s head, she sees numbers counting down to her doom everywhere. This is both hilariously melodramatic but also kind of brilliant, since she is applying her own paranoia to normal, everyday things around her. Most of the movie walks this fine line, generally effectively in my opinion.

“Weird Woman” is an adaptation of the novel “Conjure Woman” by Fritz Leiber, which has proven a surprisingly popular source material. It was adapted as “Burn Witch Burn” in 1962 and “Witches’ Brew” in 1980, with a new version in development. If the Inner Sanctum series was meant as Universal’s answer to the popularity of Val Lewton’s films, I have to say this one, at least, stands up to Lewton. [7/10]

House of Frankenstein (1944)
The first proper Monster Mash movie. You get the impression that Universal lost confidence that any of the monsters could stand on their own. Or maybe once Frankenstein met the Wolfman, adding Dracula, a mad scientist, and a hunchback to the mix was just the next natural move. There’s some fun ideas and good performances to be had in “House of Frankenstein” though I wish the screenplay was better constructed.

My biggest issue with all the Universal Monster rallies is that none of the creatures interact much, if at all. I mean, “Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman” eventually got the two big guys fighting, at the very least. “House of Frankenstein” confines each of the major monsters to basically ten minute (or less) vignettes, using traveling mad surgeon Dr. Niemann and his hunchback pal as the linking element. This probably made the story easy to assemble but I can’t help but think budgetary reasons was the real motivator. Dracula, who I needn’t remind you is just a dude in a suit and cape, takes up the most screen-time, while the Wolf Man only gets two brief sequences and Frankenstein, as was sadly the status quo by 1944, spends almost the entire movie tied to slab before finally getting a little action at the very end. Even as I kid, that bummed me out.

Watching this movie now, all the continuity errors had me spergin’ out. In the beginning, Dr. Niemann claims that his assistant was the brother to Frankenstein’s assistant. Okay, which assistant? Henry’s? Wolf’s? Ludwig’s? Did Fritz or Carl have a brother? Or was this guy the brother of Lionel Atwill’s character in “Ghost?” The story thread that holds the movie together is, after Niemann shanghai a traveling company of horrors, they go on a tour of Universal’s Monsters’ Europe. They stop by the village of Frankenstein… Which is home to the castle from “Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman.” Uh, wait a minute movie, “Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman” took place in Visaria. It’s not that the movie is retconning Visaria and the village of Frankenstein as the same place, because the last act of the movie is set in Visaria. And it is absolutely the same castle as the one from the last movie because there’s two fresh monster-sicles in the basement, Lon Chaney and Glenn Strange waiting for their cues. At first I figure maybe the movie had placed Ludwig Frankenstein’s asylum (and the castle/dam combo it magically became in the next movie) on the borders between the two towns. This would make sense, since Ygor and the Monster walked there on foot in “Ghost.” But, nope, the motley cast of characters spent three days traveling from Frankenstein to Visaria via horse-drawn carriage. If all of this wasn’t driving me nuts, Larry Talbot uncovers Frankenstein’s journal for Niemann and it says Henry Frankenstein on the cover. Despite the last three movies going out of there way to retcon the Frankenstein Colin Clive played in the first movie as Heinrich Frankenstein. Was Henry a nickname? A middle name? In the last movie, Visaria had a mayor. Now it has a burgomaster again. Maybe all the monsters caused a backslide in local politics.

Then there’s the whole issue of who the hell John Carradine’s Dracula is meant to be. The movie claims he’s the original Dracula, straight from the Carpathian Mountains, right with the stake in his heart. But Dracula’s staked body was burn to ashes in “Dracula’s Daughter!” And in England! And where the hell does Count Alucard/Son of Dracula/actually Dracula(?) fit into all of this? In order to maintain my own nerd sanity, I pretend that Chaney’s Alucard and Carradine’s Baron Latos are just vampires pretending to be Dracula or a relative of Dracula’s. I mean, in the vampire world, every vampire probably claims to be related to Dracula. Just like how everyone from Virginia had ancestors on the Mayflower, right? All of this ignores the real reason: In a pre-VHS world, there weren’t any way for writers to double-check this stuff. Or, more likely, they just didn’t give that much of a shit. But I do. I give a shit.

This is a convoluted way of saying the entire film is kind of hastily assembled. The pacing is all over the place. Niemann resurrects the fake Dracula and sets him out to murder the former burgomaster that convicted him. The movie, for the next twelve minutes, becomes a Dracula movie. Latos does murder the guy he was sent for but, mostly, he’s preoccupied with seducing his granddaughter-in-law. Which he mostly accomplishes with a magic ring, an interesting touch. Niemann screws over the vampire before finding out if he followed through on his end of the deal. No mention of Latos regenerating his tux and cape when resurrected. Once in Visaria, Niemann abducts his assistant that ratted on him and some other guy. He threatens to put their brains in the Wolf Man’s and Frankenstein Monster’s bodies. Once the brains are extracted, these two guys are totally forgotten about, with Niemann deciding he’s putting Larry Talbot’s brain in the Monster’s body. Why does Talbot agree to help Niemann and stick around with him when it’s apparent very soon that he has no interest in actually helping him? In Frankenstein (the village), our traveling band picks up a gypsy girl because Daniel the Hunchback has a crush on her. She immediately falls in love with Larry Talbot upon meeting him and, at the end, sacrifices her life to put the bad dog down. All of this for a guy she’s known for exactly three days. A sad hunchback being infatuated with her immediately at least makes sense. At the very end, the obligatory pitchfork/torches crowd notice lights in Niemann’s old lab and decide this is reason enough to investigate. These crowd of characters are horribly underdeveloped. The movie actually has too many characters, way more then was necessary. You can’t tell me getting all the ingredients together required that much work.

All of that wracks my brain. Yet I still can’t dislike the movie, totally. I don’t know if Universal was intentionally assembling a cast full of horror veterans or if everyone one just happened to be on contract at the time. Either way, “House of Frankenstein” is front-loaded with established horror players. Boris Karloff is a professional, like always, playing Dr. Niemann as a cold, calculated villain, well aware of what he wants and willing to do anything to get it. I’m actually a fan of John Carradine’s Dracula. His seduction of Anne Gwynne, herself a vet of the studio’s B-horror pictures, is actually surprisingly sexy. Carradine wasn’t Lugosi but he brought style and intimidation to the part. J. Carrol Naish, previously seen in “Calling Dr. Death,” actually gives the movie’s best performance as the hunchback Daniel. He’s certainly a pathetic figure, as sad but full of rage as Frankenstein’s monster should be. Lionel Atwill plays a role very similar to Inspector Krogh from “Son of Frankenstein,” minus the wooden arm. George Zucco stops by for a brief part as the barker for the traveling house of horrors. Glen Strange’s Monster is never well respect but he gives it a good try. There’s a lot of face-acting and emotion in his eyes. If nothing else, he’s less stiff then Lugosi and Chaney’s take on the character. Speaking of which, I wish Chaney had a little more to do here. Isn’t it weird that Larry Talbot never does anything to restrain himself when he knows he’s going to transform? We only get one proper Wolfman transformation scene too. The first one happens off-screen. He does remember to walk on his tippy-toes as a werewolf though. Generally speaking, there’s very little Wolfman action in this one. Last, Elena Verdugo as the gypsy girl isn’t great. Her cutie-pie voice is even a little annoying. But she certainly looks good, especially when dancing around.

I guess that’s my main issue with “House of Frankenstein.” It promises so much but delivers so little. The Dracula chase scene is exciting. I like the violence-filled ending a lot. There’s some clever elements to the direction. Plenty of shadows. There’s just not enough monsters. Even then, this movie is a classic of the Friday night creature feature. I remember staying up to watch it with a bowl of cheesy salsa and nachos. [6/10]

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