Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Halloween 2012: October 9

Werewolf of London (1935)
The main problem with “Werewolf of London” is that Henry Hull is kind of an asshole. The entire movie centers on the fact that he neglects his wife. Even before becoming a werewolf, he’s distant and standoffish. Like “Frankenstein,” there’s an additional love interest waiting in the wings for the wife, when her husband inevitably meets the fate all monsters must meet. Unlike “Frankenstein,” the other love interest is the preferable option. Lisa and Paul have sparks and immediate romantic chemistry, running around and playing games together. Hull spends more time in his laboratory and, when he is with his wife, mostly spends his time talking about how he’d rather be in his laboratory. Or watching jealously as his wife and the man she obviously should have married have more of a connection in five minutes then he does in the entire film.

So that’s a pretty big block to get around. “Werewolf of London” still has some elements that work. The Jack Pierce make-up is highly underrated in my book. It’s not as complicated as the later Lon Chaney make-up. However, it accentuates the natural curves and structures of Henry Hull’s face. The extra hair and slight make-up on the nose and face gives the impression of being wolf-like and inhuman while still obviously being a man. Maybe it’s not as good as a make-up but perhaps it’s actually a scarier make-up. There are a few notable sequences. The first transformation, which has Hull walking down a flight of stairs, passing behind pillars, becoming more inhuman with each step, is a favorite of mine. The entire zoo scene is at least a neat idea, with the woman seeing the werewolf in her compact mirror, or him stalking the background behind the lovers. Either Hull or, more likely, his stunt-double were really game. The werewolf jumps through windows, down from castle towers, shoves his arm through doors, and generally acts as animalistic as the time period would allow.

Its fun to imagine an alternate universe were this movie was successful and influenced the public conception of what a werewolf is, like “The Wolfman” did. No silver bullets and a werewolf that’s more man then wolf. This film owes a lot to the 1931 version of “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” especially the scenes of the human werewolf renting a room from a pair of drunken, fight-prone old ladies. The movie can be incredibly British, especially the dialogue. If hearing the phrase “Sir” or “How do you do?” over and over again makes you sick, I’d recommend avoiding this one. The weird carnivorous plants or the doctor’s “Moon Ray” machine remind me of the odd-ball, arch science fiction ideas you always hear about in the commentaries for the other Universal Monster films that ultimately weren’t use, like a Frankenstein sequel that featured a death-ray. The ending, which has the dying werewolf giving his wife and the man she’s obviously in love with his belabored blessings, followed by an odd scene of the sun rising and planes flying through the sky, is rather melodramatic. It’s impossible to not compare “Werewolf of London” to the later, better wolf films. Though not without merits, the film still doesn’t really work. [6/10]

Dracula’s Daughter (1936)
“Dracula’s Daughter” is an endlessly intriguing film. It is, in many ways, very ahead of its time. The film gets a lot of notice for being the very first lesbian vampire on-screen. It also has got to be one of the earliest sympathetic vampires. Countess Zaleska is the main character of the film. She wants nothing to do with her father’s legacy and instead longs to live a normal life. However, she is uncontrollably driven by her nature to feed on the blood of the living. The entire movie is driven by her struggling with two conflicting desires. The fate of the film lies on wither she chooses to be good or evil. This is thoroughly modern stuff, the kind of thing modern horror novels are built on.

The extremely good cast helps. Gloria Holden has a captivating face, with wide expressive eyes. Her broad voice conveys the proper amount of aristocratic lineage. Her performance is surprisingly subtle. I suspect with an actress of her type, it would have been very easy to go over-the-top so she wisely plays it in the opposite direction. Her performance informs that entire film, which is generally a low-key, character-oriented affair.

If Countess Zaleska is struggling with her nature, Irving Pichel’s Sandor is strictly Mephistophelian figure. Perhaps conceived as a Renfield-like figure, Sandor instead constantly beckons Zaleska to the dark side. This is best illustrated in an early scene where she plays the piano, celebrating her new freedom, while Sandor constantly undermines the good mood with dark reminders of her true purpose. In the last reel, we discover this is strictly because he was promise the gift of eternal life in return for being the vampire’s helper. When she goes back on the deal, he doesn’t take it well.

The movie is primarily a character study but, good as the film is, it still has to find time for the genre conventions of the era. Otto Kruger plays the movie’s leading man, Jeffrey Garth, a psychologist who is positioned at the center of the Countess’ moral battle. It’s not a bad performance, Garth is actually pretty charming, but the love and obsession the vampire develops with him never really carries. The slap-slap-kiss back-and-forth Garth has with his secretary, played by Marguerite Churchill, occupies way too much of the film’s time. The two sell the slap-slap part but not so much the kiss part. They seem to genuinely hate each other. When Churchill is forced into the damsel-in-distress part at the film's climax, it doesn't really work.

The movie functions as a horror film too. The early scene of Holden cremating her father’s corpse and exorcising the demons inside continues the first film’s tradition of English fog and black-and-white atmosphere. The most famous moment in the movie, where a young woman is brought off of the streets to model for the bisexual vampire, slowly becoming aware of the danger she is in, drawls tension out exceedingly well. When the vampire finally strikes, the camera cuts from a woman’s screaming face to an African tribal mask hanging on the wall.

“Dracula’s Daughter” would actually be a good candidate for remaking. A new version of the film could focus squarely on the Countess’ struggle with her own nature, excising all the unnecessary comic relief and romantic subplots. The original is a surprisingly deep, underrated part of the Universal canon. [8/10] 

The Golem (1920)
When it comes to silent Expressionistic German horror, there are three movies people point towards: “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,” “Nosferatu,” and this one. Compare to those two, this can’t help but pale. It doesn’t feature the surreal sets of “Caligari,” nor the heavy shadows of “Nosferatu.” This film’s main contribution to the Expressionism is its design of the Jewish’s ghetto. The buildings rise up into the sky, looking like melted candles.

For the majority of its run-time, it isn’t really a horror film. The Jews of Prague are under prosecution from the emperor because of the same old Anti-Semitic bullshit. In order to protect the ghetto, Rabbi Lew summons Astaroth to provide the word for creating life. The word is written on a piece of paper, shoved in a five-point star, and placed on the clay golem’s chest. The inanimate statue comes to life. How does the Rabbi use the Golem to save his people? Um, by having it chop wood and go to the store. Eventually, the Rabbi and his creation are called to the emperor’s castle, where the Golem saves every body from a contrived disaster. The town is protected but Lew quickly looses control of the Golem. After a short rampage, the creature is defeated when a little child removes the star from its chest.

It’s about a half an hour in before the golem is revived. Before that, the movie mostly occupies itself with a love triangle. The Rabbi’s daughter, despite having a fiancé, attracts the attention of a foppish Christian knight. This storyline takes up a staggeringly amount of the film. Eventually, the two plots collide. Naturally, this doesn’t go well for the lovers. This last act change leads to the film’s best moments, such the Golem dropping a body off a roof, dragging the girl around by her pigtails and holding her in his arms in the classic Touch of the Monster pose.

The Golem is the most interesting character. His big painted face has a lot of expression. The way he slowly develops emotions is fascinating. The scene of him sniffing a flower and smiling is the first sign and, at the end, he picks up and plays with a little girl. You get the idea that he’s just pissed that people keep deactivating him. The movie honestly isn’t as Anti-Semitic as you’d expect, considering it was made in 1920s Germany. The Jews are depicted as magical wizards, doing things like putting out a fire with a spell, but are never evil or stereotypical.

Notoriously, the movie is the third part of a trilogy. It explains the origin of the monster seen in the first film, where the Golem rampaged through then-modern Germany. That movie is lost, though a four-minute clip of its does survive. The second movie, “The Golem and the Dancing Girl,” was apparently a comedic parody and is totally lost. “The Golem” isn’t as essential as some of the other films I mentioned but is definitely of interest to classic horror fans, if just because the obvious debt “Frankenstein” owed to it. [7/10]

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