Tuesday, October 13, 2015

The Wolf Man (1941)

For this year's Countdown to Halloween, it's all-Universal Monsters, all-the-time, from Dracula (1931) to The Creature Walks Among Us (1956).  Join me daily for a fresh perspective on movies you may not have watched in a long time, if ever.  Today, one of the most significant: The Wolf Man!

Until I recently re-watched The Wolf Man (1941), I would have told you it was the best of the Universal Monsters classics.  Now I'm not so sure.  I think I was confusing my memory of a great character with that of a great movie.  Lon Chaney, Jr.'s performance as Larry Talbot gives us the most personal and sympathetic creature in Universal's history and singlehandedly raises the movie itself to something more impactful than it ever should have been.

Chaney is the primary reason this wolf man become a legend when six years earlier, a werewolf of London did not.  But there are others.  Remember that earlier Universal monsters were based on literary works:  The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo, The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux, Dracula by Bram Stoker and Frankenstein by Mary Shelley.  There was no road map for a werewolf.  So it's also Curt Siodmak's original screenplay that not only made The Wolf Man special, but also established a fundamental mythology for the creature.

Also, the wolf man was a home-grown monster.  The Hunchback and Phantom were from Paris, Dracula was from Transylvania, the Mummy was from Egypt.  Yes, he returns to his ancestral home in Wales where the action takes place, but it is after spending much of his adult life in California.  For all intents and purposes, the wolf man is an American monster.  Larry Talbot speaks like an American and, except for his great wealth, is an everyman figure.

Finally, the wolf man was a monster that we could become.  Yes, if Dracula bit you, you'd become a vampire, but you'd still be under his control.  A werewolf is fiercely independent and must live with the consequences of its actions as a human during an average day.  As Larry's father, Sir John (Claude Rains) tells him, a werewolf is a psychological explanation for the dual personalities that live in all of us.  It's the physical expression of good and evil in every man's soul, with evil taking the form of a wolf.

What of the movie itself?  Its structure is pretty typical.  The story has the same love triangle of nearly every other Universal horror.  Here, after Larry has already taken the lovely Gwen Conliffe (Evelyn Ankers) on a moonlight stroll, we learn that she's engaged to Frank Andrews (Patric Knowles).  It's always the odd man out, though.  Gwen's attraction to Larry is obvious and after an unseen quarrel with Frank, we don't see much else of him.

The story also has the same crowd of non-believers, even when faced with overwhelming evidence that the supernatural exists.  Here, it's harder to believe because everyone in town knows werewolf lore and seems to be able to recite the poem:

Even a man who is pure in heart
and says his prayers by night
may become a wolf when the wolf bane blooms
and the autumn moon is bright.

Yet as Larry continues to bring it to their attention, and finally outright declares that it's not a wolf, it's a werewolf, and he is the werewolf, they're more likely to believe he's a victim of some kind of mass-hypnotism.

The Wolf Man has more flaws than I remembered.  For example, if the werewolf that bites Larry takes the form of a real wolf, why does Larry walk upright (and wear clothes)?  Speaking of clothes, before Larry first transforms, he makes a point of taking off his shirt to look at his arms, but afterwards, is wearing more than just his t-shirt.  I'm pretty sure he was wearing different pants, too.  It's probably an exercise in futility to track the continuity mistakes in an early-1940s horror movie; alas, it's what I do.

Thank goodness for Lon Chaney, Jr.  His very countenance embodies a comment that another character makes about him in The Wolf Man, "There's something very tragic about that man."  He's not that happy a guy to start with, but during his ordeal, he becomes consumed with anxiety.  He'd also sound a little paranoid if we didn't know his claims were true, but he's certainly desperate when he cries, "Why does everyone insist that I'm confused?"

The Wolf Man never got a sequel, per se, but Larry Talbot was the human presence around which several other Universal Monsters subsequently revolved.  Lon Chaney, Jr. and this movie created a legacy of horror that affected almost every werewolf movie since then and continues today.  Sitting through its brief 70-minute run time may not be the best experience you've ever had watching a horror movie, but it is one of the most significant.

Tomorrow: Invisible Agent!

Monday, October 12, 2015

The Invisible Woman (1940)

For this year's Countdown to Halloween, it's all-Universal Monsters, all-the-time, from Dracula (1931) to The Creature Walks Among Us (1956).  Join me daily for a fresh perspective on movies you may not have watched in a long time, if ever.  Today, a non-sequel that's more fun that it first seems... The Invisible Woman!

With the exception of the “Abbott & Costello Meet…” movies, I never really expected other comedies to be part of a Universal Classic Monsters DVD box set.  I was quite surprised when I popped The Invisible Woman (1940) into the DVD player and quickly learned it was a romantic screwball comedy.

This angered me at first and I almost stopped watching, not wanting to include it in my Countdown.  Then something odd happened.  When I put my pen down and stopped taking notes, then just sat back and watched, I ended up enjoying the movie, even though I still debate whether or not Kitty Carroll (Virginia Bruce) should be considered one of the Universal Monsters.

The Invisible Woman has absolutely nothing to do with either of the previous two Universal “invisible” movies, The Invisible Man or The Invisible Man Returns.  In fact, it’s not just a potion that turns Carroll invisible.  There’s also a machine that Professor Gibbs (John Barrymore) invented working in conjunction with the formula.

Neither device slowly drives its victim insane.  There’s no race against time to return Carroll to visibility.  Perhaps the point that finally lowered my defenses is that when she gets drunk, it alters her physiology and makes the results unpredictable.  More importantly, this is the first invisible person who knows how to have fun with her affliction.

The first thing she does is to visit her boss and literally give him a swift kick in the rear.  This may be a comedy, but THAT is realistic.  She also has great fun with teasing her unlikely playboy suitor, Richard Russell (John Howard) about what she really looks like.  Proving to him that she’s not fat, she slowly puts on her hose to give form to her lovely legs.

It’s all very light and entertaining, if not extremely old-fashioned.  A subplot about a Mexican mob’s plan to steal the invention is less so.  I’m not much for slapstick, so when the butler tumbles down the stairs and the maid gets locked in the closet, I cringe.  I have a feeling there are better movies similar to The Invisible Woman, so while I enjoyed it, it still made me want to watch something else.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

The Mummy's Hand (1940)

For this year's Countdown to Halloween, it's all-Universal Monsters, all-the-time, from Dracula (1931) to The Creature Walks Among Us (1956).  Join me daily for a fresh perspective on movies you may not have watched in a long time, if ever.  Today, a sequel that may seem more familiar than the original... The Mummy's Hand!

The Mummy’s Hand (1940) is not a sequel to Universal’s 1932 hit, The Mummy; instead, it’s a variation of the tale that introduces some of the stereotypes about the monster that we’ve come to know and love today.  Unfortunately, it’s an inferior product in nearly every way.

Most egregiously, it plays like a test run for future Abbott & Costello movies.  The leads, tall straight man Steve Banning (Dick Foran) and his squat, wisecracking sidekick Babe Jenson (Wallace Ford), yuk it up as “horror” unfolds around them.  They’re as poor substitutes for the real thing as Tom Tyler is for Boris Karloff as the mummy.

When you have a creation as great as Karloff’s mummy, even if visible for only a brief time, it’s criminal to give a cheap knock-off more screen time.  Luckily, The Mummy’s Hand runs only 67 minutes.  Let me tell you, though, it’s an interminable 67 minutes.

The movie opens with a dying High Priest (Eduardo Ciannelli) passing the torch to his predecessor, Professor Andoheb (George Zucco).  He relays the story of Princess Ananka and her lover, Kharis, who broke into her tomb after she died to steal forbidden tana leaves in order to bring her back to life.  For his crime, he was mummified and buried alive.

Well, that does sound pretty similar to The Mummy.  However, it differs in modern day Egypt.  Andoheb is instructed to dissolve three leaves every night of the full moon to keep Kharis alive.  If Ananka’s tomb is desecrated, he’s to use nine leaves to revive him.  He must never use more than nine, though, or it will become a monster.

You know her tomb is going to be desecrated or there wouldn’t be much of a movie; however, it takes more than half the running time to get to that point.  There’s way too much plot about Banning and Jenson hooking up with a magician, The Great Solvani (Cecil Kellaway) and his daughter Marta (Peggy Moran), to finance the archeological dig in the first place.

When Kharis/the mummy is finally shuffling ever so slowly through the desert, you’re cheering for him to kill the entire cast.  The Mummy’s Hand is the first Universal mummy movie to depict the monster carrying a passed-out damsel in his arms.  It’s a shame that great image came from such a slight movie.

Another flaw is that Andoheb is really the bad guy, just ordering the mummy to do his bidding.  As he places Marta on an altar, he tells her, “You’re so beautiful.  I’m going to make you immortal.”  He actually wants to use the tana leaves to make them both immortal.  It’s all rather sudden and has less meaning here when a single character like Imhotep from The Mummy is split into two characters.

Is it entertaining?  Barely.  I have trouble when mixing comedy into horror unless the movie is primarily a comedy.  The characters aren’t comic relief because there’s nothing scary about the movie.  However, I suppose it would be a good one for the kids to watch.  As much as it offends me, it’s really quite harmless.

Tomorrow: The Invisible Woman!

Saturday, October 10, 2015

The Invisible Man Returns (1940)

For this year's Countdown to Halloween, it's all-Universal Monsters, all-the-time, from Dracula (1931) to The Creature Walks Among Us (1956).  Join me daily for a fresh perspective on movies you may not have watched in a long time, if ever.  Today, a sequel that I might like more than the original... The Invisible Man Returns!

The Universal sequel The Invisible Man Returns (1940) was made seven years after The Invisible Man, but takes place nine years after the events of its story, with Dr. Frank Griffin (John Sutton) continuing his brother's experiments in invisibility.  Here, though, he's doing it for the specific purpose of helping his friend, Geoffrey Radcliffe (Vincent Price) escape from prison so he can find the perpetrator of the crime for which he was falsely convicted.

That's already more story than The Invisible Man.  While the style and direction of an end-of-his-career Joe May may not match that of James Whale, I think the screenplay by Lester Cole and Curt Siodmak is better than the one by R.C. Sherriff.  That's perhaps because of the dynamic of an additional villain who is not necessarily Radcliffe, even though there's the ticking time bomb of him being driven crazy unless Griffin can create an antidote.

Radcliffe's love interest, Helen Manson (Nan Grey), is also a larger part of the story than her counterpart in the previous movie.  She's involved in the escape and helps hide Radcliffe when he's on the run.  His potential descent into madness carries more emotional weight because she is present to witness it instead of hanging around at home fretting about him.  The typical Universal triangle in which she's involved is also more effective because it's less overt and more sinister.

The fact that Radcliffe is not already a giggling maniac when the movie begins helps us relate to him better than to Griffin in the first movie.  He knows what's going to happen and sadly asks, "How long do you think I have before I go mad?"  Well, less than 81 minutes, because before too long he's declaring that the nation will tremble before him and wanting Helen to drink to his invincible power.

When he goes on his inevitable rampage, it's more focused.  Having identified the real killer, Radcliffe targets him directly with his deadly pranks and revenge.  In its file on the original Invisible Man, Scotland Yard must have found some clues for dealing with him, because they have become quite clever when tracking him.  This results in some interesting special effects when a not-quite-invisible Radcliffe can be seen in smoke and rain.

The Invisible Man Returns has something big going for it: Vincent Price.  This was only his fifth movie and, unless you count his voice performance in a later movie, his only Universal Monsters horror film.  Of course, we don't really see him until the end, but I sometimes forgot it was he who was playing the title role.  Early in his career, his voice was deeper and not as familiar as it became in his later run of features.

There's a glimpse of the icon Price will become at the very end of The Invisible Man Returns.  Turning visible as the antidote is cleverly and inadvertently discovered, he awakens with a look of despair on his face, then relaxes into a smile when he sees his arm… I mean, actually sees it.  With a sparkle in his eye, the young actor is already terrific.  And he gives the movie something else missing from the original: a happy ending.

Tomorrow: The Mummy's Hand!