Why no one has ever produced a cinematic biopic treatment of the Chaney boys ( Lon Sr. and Lon Jr.) is baffling. Bela Lugosi was given quite a spotlight in Ed Wood (1994), and Boris Karloff was a supporting character in Gods and Monsters (1998). Off-screen, Karloff might have made for a nice neighbor, but being the workaholic he was, his biography is dull going. Of course, Lugosi had elements of drug addiction, pathos, and parody late in life working for him. While the Chaneys lacked the European mystery of Karloff and Lugosi, there’s an aptness in these American-bred father and son icons because, as the past year has revealed, Europe has doodly-squat on ‘Murica when it comes to the banality of authentic horror.
From the slivers of information that we have received over the years through peer recollections and various articles, the Chaneys would make for one helluva psycho drama, preferably directed by someone with the sensibilities of a David Cronenberg. No definitive biography has been written about either, and cinematically there’s only a ludicrously whitewashed biopic Man of a Thousand Faces (1957) starring James Cagney as daddy Chaney. Part of the reason for lack of a substantial biography could be the almost obsessive protectiveness of the Chaney estate, who seem to have made things consistently difficult for potential biographers. However, it is also telling that the estate has, as far I know, never disputed the more colorful biographical tidbits that have been given about their silver screen patriarchs.
There must have been something of the masochist in the elder Chaney, who went though much self-inflicted suffering for his art, including looping wires around his eye sockets and wearing false teeth so tight that shots had to be completed quickly before he started bleeding. For Quasimodo, he wore a back prosthetic so heavy that (coupled with instructions to an extra to not spare the whip in the famous beating scene) it sent Lon Sr. to the hospital for an extended stay. Apparently, he was also quite a sadist, and would lock Creighton (Lon Jr.’s birth name) in a closet after razor strap beatings for punishment. (Senior was also psychologically abusive, as when he told Junior that mommy was dead, when in fact she was quite alive).
Such heredity and abuse certainly was instrumental in composing Lon Chaney Jr. as something of a real life lycanthrope with horrific daddy issues. In assessing Jr. as a pale copy of his father, the popular and critical consensus is spot on (for once). In addition to obsessively (and vainly) trying to outdo daddy, Jr. was also a raging alcoholic, had drug problems, and was prone to a violent temper; which, according to some (including writer Curt Siodmak) sprang from guilt over latent homosexuality. However, when actually being directed, instead of just being told to do Lennie from Of Mice and Men again, Chaney, Jr., if not a great actor per se, was memorable in numerous character parts (few of which are in the horror genre).
In 1958, producer Richard Gordon offered Boris Karloff a two-picture deal with director Robert Day. The dual productions, The Haunted Strangler and Corridors of Blood, would be A (or A-) budget productions, providing the actor a starring role and a salary to match. Karloff jumped at the offer. It had been twelve years since his last star-quality vehicle, the Val Lewton-produced Bedlam (directed by Mark Robson). Since then, Karloff had been stuck in character parts (1951’s The Strange Door, 1952’s The Black Castle), playing opposite Abbott and Costello (1949’s Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer), or crap (1954’s The Island Monster and 1957’s Voodoo Island). He had fared better in television (as one of the few big screen stars of the time who had no qualms jumping to the small screen).
The Haunted Strangler is often assessed as the lesser of the two Day/Karloff films, with the actor at his hammiest since 1934’s The Lost Patrol (directed by John Ford and featuring Karloff’s worst performance). Much of the film’s considerable budget went into expensive sets and into securing its lead actor, which unfortunately short-shifted the makeup department: Karloff’s Hyde-like transformation is reduced to the actor tilting his head, mussing up hair, twisting his hand into a claw, and biting lower lip. It is distracting as hell, and critics have been divided on assessing his performance as a whole. Another oft-cited critique is the predictable storyline. In its defense, classic horror fans usually rely on the overused virtues of atmosphere. There are also lurid elements of exploitation (champagne-soaked cleavage, Busby Berkeley-inspired can-can crotch shots, gruesome murders of women, floggings, bedlam abuses, broken glass to the face, etc) to keep up the interest.
After the bonanzas of 1963 and 1964, 1965 was a comparatively lackluster year for horror and exploitation flicks, with a few exceptions at both ends of the spectrum. Boris Karloff, Nick Adams, Suzan Farmer, and Freda Jackson starred in Die, Monster, Die, directed by Daniel Haller, which was one of the first big screen attempts at an H.P. Lovecraft adaptation. Released by AIP for the drive-in double feature circuit along with Mario Bava’s cult fave, Planet Of The Vampires, Die, Monster, Die has more kinship to that studio’s Poe product than to Lovecraft. It also has a distant relationship to Hammer HorrorJackson previously appeared in Brides Of Dracula, and Farmer went on to do both Dracula, Prince Of Darkness and Rasputin, the Mad Monk for the studio the following year. Additionally, elements of Die, Monster Die are clearly related to Universal’s Man-Made Monster(1941) and Columbia’s mad doctor series.
With Universal horror icon Karloff and Rebel Without a Cause heartthrob Adams as the two leading men, Die, Monster, Die feels like a queer hybrid. The aged Karloff, suffering the effects of emphysema, is wheelchair bound (and will be for the rest of his career and life), but he evokes formidable English mystery from his blanket and chair. In sharp contrast is all that pent-up, pushy, youthful American angst from Adams, who is aptly vulgar and a standout in his Jersey accent.
Stephen Reinhart goes to visit Susan Witley at her parents’ home in the English village of Arkham. Stephen had met Susan at the college they attended together in the States, but when he stops at a local pub, he discovers the entire village paralyzed with fear in regards to the Witley estate (calling to mind Ed Wood’s daffily delivered dialogue from 1955’s Bride Of The Monster, “stay away from the old Willow’s place!”) Poor Stephen can’t get anyone to give him transportation and is forced to walk. Upon finally arriving at the Witley estate, he discovers that the surrounding plant life has all mysteriously died. He is greeted with hostility by Susan’s crippled father, Nahum (Karloff), who demands that Stephen leave at once. Nahum is interrupted by a beaming Susan and introduced to her mother, Letitia (Jackson), who is bedridden and hidden behind a veil. Letitia intercedes for Stephen and asks him to take Susan away from this charnel house. A short while later, Nahum’s servant, Merwyn (Terence De Marney) collapses and dies. After Merwyn’s late night burial, followed by a phantom-like figure appearing at the window, Stephen and Susan make their way into Nahum’s greenhouse and discover abnormally enlarged plant life and mutated critters. “It looks like a zoo on hell,” declares Stephen. After some Sherlock Holmes/Watson sleuthing, he and Susan unlock the dreadful secret: Nahum has been “experimenting” with radioactivity from a meteorite. Hoping to undo an ancestor’s evil deeds (whatever those were) Nahum plans to help feed the world with mutated plant life! Of course, things go awry and everyone who worked in the greenhouse has been either mutated or killed. The phantom figure turns out to be a former maid, now a butcher knife-wielding mutant. Both Letitia and Merwyn were victims, and now it’s Nahum’s turn as he transforms into a green thing with an axe, leading to a fiery climax.
The opening plot sounds like a number of the Vincent Proice/Roger Corman screen treatments of Edgar Alan Poe. Despite the ho-hum overfamiliarity, Die, Monster Die has rich cinematography (by Paul Beeson), delightfully dated FX (including Karloff’s green thing stand-in), a vibrant score (from Don Banks), and a crackerjack performance from Karloff. Performances like this explain how an almost eighty-year-old, handicapped actor kept getting parts personally tailored to him up until his death four years later. Even Adams is pretty good (much better than his other ’65 performance—see below). With a zippy pace and Gothic sci-fi milieu, Monster is perfect drive-in fodder and must have made a helluva cinema-under-the-stars bargain when paired with Planet of the Vampires. First released for home video as part of MGM’s Midnight Movies series (coupled with 1970’s Dunwich Horror, also directed by Haller), it has been upgraded to Blu-ray in a gorgeous transfer from Scream Factory and looks better than ever. Primarily criticized on its release for straying too far from it’s source story, “The Colour out of Space,” it has since has garnered a cult reputation as a fun mix of nostalgic Gothic horror and science fiction.
An eclectic study of cinema should include the oeuvre of Mario Bava. He was overlooked by serious critics for decades. It was genre fans who kept whispering Bava’s name until it reached an echo and reverberated in critical circles. Called The Father of Italian Giallo Cinema, he influenced the likes of Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci, and Quentin Tarantino (among others). Predictably, Bava’s fan base is given to religious zeal, but his body of work merits immersion in spite of his fanatical cult.
It should come as no surprise that Mario Bava’s original ambition was to become a painter. The son of sculptor and cinematographer Eugenio Bava, Mario found painting a less-than-profitable life goal and followed his father’s footsteps. Landing a job in Mussolini’s film factory, Bava’s apprentice work included lensing numerous films, beginning in 1939. It wasn’t until 1957 that Bava (uncredited) co-directed his first feature with Riccardo Freda: Lust of the Vampire (I Vampiri).
Although neither a great horror film nor a great film, Lust of the Vampire (not to be confused with the later Hammer film, which makes this one look like a masterpiece) is historically important for being the first Italian horror film. There are no vampires to speak of. The victims are the result of surgical horrors, and there’s little doubt that this film was a considerable influence on Georges Franjou’s Eyes Without A Face. Although crisply paced in its 78 minute running time, it’s saddled with dull, verbose characters. Lust of the Vampire teeters toward full-blown Goth cinema, but it also has scenes that hearken back to the mad scientist films of the 1940s; one has to look twice to make sure we’re not witnessing Boris Karloff and Lionel Atwill up to no good in their labs. Visually, it has wonderful set pieces and almost surreal matte-work standing in for Paris. A portentous spiraling stairwell, shadow-doused laboratories, decaying beds, skulls falling to the floor, nooses inexplicably dangling from the ceiling, a mist-laden forest, an ornamental tomb façade, secret chambers, and beautiful women injected with serum transforming into withered drama queens all add up to an evocative early Italian horror. Gianna Maria Canale has the standout performance as Giselle du Grand, smoking cigarettes in front of mirrors. There’s a lot of debate as to how much Bava directed. The film has elements that could be attributed to the styles of both artists. Although Bava is clearly the superior director, Freda (who co-wrote the script) went on to make the effective Terror of Dr. Hitchcock (1962) and it’s sequel The Ghost(1963), both with Barbara Steele. Freda walked out mid-production (for unclear reasons), leaving cinematographer Bava to finish the directorial duties for the remaining shooting schedule. Reportedly, the film was heavily censored by Italian “moralists,” which resulted in scant showings and rendered it a financial loss. Image Entertainment released a superlative DVD of I Vampiri, but it’s currently out of print.
Freda and Bava re-teamed as co-directors for 1959’s Caltiki, the Immortal Monster, which lays claim to being one of the earliest Italian science fiction films (Bava had served as a cinematographer for the very first Italian sci-fi, The Day The Sky Exploded, in 1958 and, according to some sources, co-directed it as well).
Apparently inspired by The Blob(1958), Caltiki far surpasses its source material (which isn’t hard to do). Set in Mexico City, the opening narration gives a brief synopsis of the ancient Mayan civilization, the mystery of its demise, and warns of an evil Mayan deity, known as Caltiki, the Immortal Monster. The opening is unabashed Bava: an archeologist runs, terrified, through an eerily lit jungle as a volcano erupts in the distance. He makes it to his campsite and leads the group back to the Mayan ruins he had stumbled upon. Finding a long-lost temple, the archeologists succumb to avarice, which leads to the unearthing of Caltiki; a Blob of a god who melts away skin and mental faculties. The FX are grisly for the time period, but shock value always dates, and it’s the Bava touches (excellent matte work and cinematography) that still seem fresh. Although well-paced, the writing is a pastiche filled with cardboard characters.
Bava co-directed 1959 The Giant of Marathon with Jacques Tourneur (!), which would be a typical Steve Reeves sword and sandal opus, were it not for Bava’s camera work on some of the elaborate (and bloody) battle scenes (including an underwater confrontation). Of course, it has lots of cleavage—from both sexes. It’s hokey as hell, and while it hardly represents the directing craftsmanship of Tourneur, it does highlight Bava’s superb camera work.
With the box office success of Marathon, Bava was finally given his own film to direct solo, and the result was Black Sunday. This horror classic remains Bava’s most famous film and is covered here in greater detail.
The reputation of Boris Karloff’s “Thriller,” which ran from 1960-1962, is such that it was one of the most highly anticipated DVDs until its 2010 release. Despite its somewhat hefty price tag, it became a best seller (and was followed by a ‘greatest hits’ top ten release in 2012). Author Steven King’s proclaiming it the “best horror series of all time” (in his 1981 book, ‘Danse Macabre’) certainly enhanced its eminence. Of course, a statement that absolute is going to be argued, and it was (with naysayers pointing to the earliest crime oriented episodes as evidence against King’s boast). Naturally, like all series, “Thriller” is uneven. Still, the positives outweigh the negatives enough to justify its cult status.
Karloff hosted each episode, and acted in a few. This was his second horror anthology series. His first, the ten episode “The Veil,” from 1958, never actually aired; after its DVD release in 2001, it was dubbed by some critics as “the best television series never seen.” A later DVD release, under the title of Tales Of The Unexplained From The Veil,” featured two additional “lost” episodes. “The Veil” has also been referred to as a precursor to “Thriller,” although it’s not quite as good and the flavor is different. Hopefully, we’ll get around to reviewing the earlier series by next Halloween.
“Thriller” premiered on September 13th, 1960 with the episode “The Twisted Image” (directed by Arthur Hiller), which starred Leslie Nielsen and Natalie Trundy. “Her possessive eyes… Alan Patterson was aware of her eyes at the newsstand, at the lunch counter, in the elevator. He was aware of them for almost a month and they were to lead him into guilt, and terror, and murder as sure as my name is Boris Karloff. ”
As we watch, Karloff informs us that this a tale of watching and being watched, assuring that a shattering effect lies within the “Twisted Image.” Nielsen, as Patterson, a married, successful business man, is watched by four psychotic eyes belonging to Lily (Trundy) and Merle (George Gizzard). Lily lusts after him and, at least on the surface, Merle is insanely jealous. Although director Hiller denied it, as it was written (by James P. Cavanagh adapting William O’ Farrell’s novel) and played by Grizzard, there is sexual longing in Merle’s voyeurism as well. Still, we’re not entirely convinced he deserves all the attention, as the very young Nielsen has none of his later charisma. Grizzard walks away with the episode playing a scheming, destructive looney tune coworker. Competent, but unimaginative with no surprises, this debut waddles its way to a lackluster finale.
“Child’s Play” (also directed by Hiller and written by Robert Dozier): With marital discord between his parents (Frank Overton and Bethel Leslie), young Hank (Tommy Nolan) is overdosing on B-Westerns and William Tell while vacationing at a cabin. The potentially darker side of the imagination is explored, with young Hank transforming into a symbol for gun control. A slight improvement over the pilot episode, it’s surprisingly a stationary affair that could have used a dose of fantasizing.
“Worse Than Murder” (directed by Mitchell Leisen and written by Mel Goldberg) takes a turn for the worse. If television viewers of 1960 relied solely on first impressions, it’s relatively easy to see why “Thriller” failed to find its audience. This one’s about a murder motivated by love of dyed green paper. Constance Ford kicks into high gear as a scheming gold digger, but her acting is the only thing that thrills here. Otherwise, it’s pedestrian in both writing and direction.
While the first three episodes are dull and conventional, “Mark Of The Hand” (directed by Paul Henried, Laszlo of Casablanca fame, and written by Eric Peters) may be the series at its lowest ebb. An eight year old (Terry Turnham) may or may not be guilty of murder. While that premise might have potential in better hands, this is a mystery devoid of mystery: predictable, campy, and a sluggish affair.
“Rose’s Last Summer” (directed by Hiller and written by Marie Baumer) could be easily dismissed as a small screen ripoff of Sunset Boulevard (1950) or a lame warmup to Whatever Happened To Baby Jane (1962). It’s about the murder of an aging actress, which remarkably fails to generate even the slightest interest, despite starring one time Oscar winner Mary Astor.
“The Guilty Men” (directed by Jules Bricken and written by John Vlahos) is a run of the mill crime melodrama starring Frank Silvera as a mobster who is trying to go clean and… yawn. On the plus side, Silvera’s campy acting is a hoot.
With “The Purple Room” (written and directed by Douglas Heyes) starring Rip Torn and the house from Psycho (1960), we finally have a genuine “Thriller.” It’s hardly original, having an old dark house plot, but there’s some fun to be had in the send-up of genre traditions and stereotypes. Karloff never resented being stereotyped, believing that it gifted him a career niche. Additionally, unlike many actors of his period Karloff, had no qualms embracing the small screen medium, and with new producer William Fry, the series takes advantage of its host’s screen persona none too soon.
Duncan (Rip Torn) has inherited his sibling’s Bayou mansion, with the condition that he must live there for a year. However, as lawyer Ridgewater (Alan Napier, best known as Alfred from TVs “Batman”) informs Duncan that, if he fails to do so, the mansion falls to scheming cousins Rachel and Oliver (Patricia Barry and Richard Anderson, who would later be known for rebuilding the Six Million Dollar Man ). Naturally, as host Karloff warns us in the intro, the mansion has a little problem with ghosts. Being a pragmatist, Duncan isn’t worried in the least, and to prove it, he will spend the night in the Purple Room, where a murder took place one hundred years before. Shot in crisp black and white, this episode almost makes up for a lack of originality and uneven acting with atmosphere.
“The Watcher” (directed by Jon Brahm and written by Donald Sanford) is serial killer Freitag (Martin Gabel) who is so good at dispensing with his victims and playing the role of religious zealot that local law enforcement (Alan Baxter) believes the deaths to be unrelated suicides. Freitas sets his sights on sinful lovers Larry and Beth (a pre-“Doctor Kildare” Richard Chamberlain and Olive Sturges) and attempts to convert them before he judges them. There’s a latent bit of same sex lusting in Freitag, but despite the peanut butter and jelly theme of religious hypocrisy, this somewhat grisly episode is an also-ran in the “Thriller” canon.
“Girl With A Secret” (directed by Mitchell Leisen and written by Charles Beaumont) missteps back into the crime melodramas of the first six episodes, courtesy of producer Fletcher Markle. Newlywed Alice (Myrna Fahey) discovers that her husband Anthony (Rhodes Reason) is not who he says he is. The same goes for his “family.” It takes a deft hand to sell this kid of espionage nonsense, and Markle is no Hitchcock. Also starring Victor Buono.
“The Prediction” (directed by Brahm and written by Sanford) stars Karloff himself as a phony psychic who begins to have death visions for real. A first season “ Adventures Of Superman” episode covered related ground, and did it in a more entertaining way. Karloff wrings pathos out of his role, which almost makes up for the contrived plot.
“The Fatal Impulse” (directed by Gerald Mayer and written by Phillip MacDonald) features a superb cast, which includes Robert Lansing, Conrad Nagel, Elisha Cook Jr. and, briefly, a young Mary Tyler Moore. It’s another preposterous melodrama about a loony named Harry (Cook) who gets caught in an attempt to kill Mayor Wylie (Nagel). Not one to concede defeat, Harry plants incriminating evidence—a bomb–in the purse of an office worker, which brings in a bleak Lt. Rome (Lansing). This crime caper has a different producer in Maxwell Shane, and it helps considerably. There’s tension aplenty as Rome races to find the bomb before it is set to go off. The flavoring of this episode supersedes awkward writing. Mary plays a librarian named Mary.
“The Big Blackout” (directed by Maurice Geraghty and written by Don Tracy) is an anonymous, dull episode about an alcoholic amnesiac named Burt (Jack Carson) who belatedly discovers he was involved in some shady business.
“Knock Three One-Two” (directed by Herman Hoffman and written by John Kneubuhl) stars Beverly Garland as Ruth, the put-upon wife of gambling addict Ray (Joe Maross). Ray, having cried wolf one time too many, is not going to be bailed out this time by his wife, which inspires him to hire killer Benny (Warren Oates) to make him a widower. Garland steals the show, although there’s not much to steal in this episode of contrived irony.
“Man In The Middle” (directed by Fletcher Markle and written by Howard Rodman) miscasts comedian Mort Sahl in the dramatic role of Sam, who overhears Mr. Clark (Werner Klemperer—son of conductor Otto and star of “Hogan’s Heroes”) plotting a murder. Reluctantly, Sam decides to try and thwart the thug’s evil plan. If the plot sounds hackneyed, that’s because it is. Series Producer Markle is also out of his element and bowed out for good after this entry.
“The Cheaters” (directed by Brahm and scripted by Sanford from a story by Robert Bloch) is the first authentically “classic” episode, one worthy of the series’s cult reputation. It kicks off in an entirely different mood: rather than the usual Pete Rugolo jazz opening, producer William Frye brings in composer Jerry Goldsmith, who expertly shrieks and enhances the drama about to unfold. Former Karloff co-star Henry Daniell (from Val Lewton’s The Body Snatcher) briefly appears as an inventor who puts on a pair of queer “cheaters” (sunglasses) and has a vision that leads him to hang himself before dawn. His failure to destroy the lethal eyewear proves unfortunate for the victims ahead, who include “A little old fashioned lady named Miriam Alcott played by Miss Mildred Dunnock, a nephew named Percy Dean played by Mr. Jack Weston, and finally a man who discovered the real purpose of the spectacles, Sebastien Grimm played by Mr. Harry Townes. What they saw through those yellow gold lenses they never forgot, and neither will you, my friends, because as sure as my name is Boris Karloff, this is a thrillah.”
This time, Karloff’s lisp lingers, convincing us of goosebumps ahead. Inscribed in the “cheaters” is the name Veritas, the Roman goddess of Truth and, like Dorian Gray’s portrait, the spectacles reveal the soul, shorn of pretense. In a cast of superlative performances, Paul Newlan is a standout as the junk dealer Joe Henshaw. Most fans and critics rank “The Cheaters” in the top five episodes and, for once, the consensus is spot on.
Boris Karloff (Nov 23rd, 1887-Feb 2, 1969)
Life Magazine cover
Celebrating Boris Karloff’s Birthday on set of “Son Of Frankenstein” with Basil Rathbone and Bela Lugosi
Celebrating Boris Karloff’s Birthday on set of “Son Of Frankenstein” with Basil Rathbone and Bela Lugosi
Celebrating Boris Karloff’s Birthday on set of “Son Of Frankenstein” with Basil Rathbone and Bela Lugosi
The first Vincent Price Blue-ray collection has already gone out of print and now requires sacrificing a mortgage payment to purchase a used copy. So, if the second collection is a must buy to you, snatch it up quick in time for Halloween.
For many genre fans,Vincent Price is the epitome of classic horror star. That is partly because he is more contemporary than his predecessors and many of his films are in color. While undoubtedly a genre great, Price’s performances often fall into the whiny, overtly fruity category, and we see a lot of them in “The Vincent Price Collection 2.” Price was best when he did not succumb to self-parody. Of course, all the genre stars had their share of clunkers and if Price’s screen persona seems somewhat derivative of Karloff, or if he lacked the edgy screen persona of Lugosi, he still made a few good, near classic films and managed his career well enough to become an authentic horror icon. While this collection includes welcome additions to the Blu-ray format, it does not necessarily represent Vincent Price at his best.
House On Haunted Hill (1959) has become a cult favorite. Directed by, it is a campy example of the “old dark house” genre. Jokes are balanced with the usual Castle gimmickry, including Price’s pitch-perfect performance as the ringmaster of the carnival-like milieu, gleefully at odds with wife Carol Ohmart (Spider Baby). Castle’s pacing may seem dated to modern audiences, but it is much preferable to the 1999 remake.
The Return Of The Fly (1959) is a pedestrian rehash of the 1958 original (see below). More crime thriller than sci-fi, Return‘s sole saving grace is black humor supplied by Edward L. Bernds (a veteran of multiple Three Stooges shorts). Price collects a check here and nothing more.
The Comedy Of Terrors (1963) is part of AIP’s popular (1942), I Walked With A Zombie (1943), Out of the Past (1947), and Curse of the Demon (1957), The Comedy of Terrors was initially seen as a disappointment and argued to be more the work and style of producer Corman. Regardless, it has since been reassessed in some quarters and has developed a minor cult reputation. Co-stars Peter Lorre, Basil Rathbone, and easily outclass Price. Joyce Jameson is even given something to do other than brandishing her cleavage (although she does plenty of that as well)./ cycle. Unlike the majority of those, this was not directed by Corman, but rather by Val Lewton/RKO star director Jacques Tourneur. Written by Richard Matheson (“The Incredible Shrinking Man,” “I Am Legend,” “Duel,” “The Night Stalker,” “The Legend Of Hell House”) and helmed by the director of Cat People
The Mask Of Fu Manchu (1932) is a pre-Code pulp serial dressed up as a feature. It is grounded in its period, which includes a considerable amount of racist baggage. If you can get past that aspect, The Mask Of Fu Manchu is a pleasantly dumb, super-sized bag of heavily salted, heavily buttered theater popcorn.
At the movie’s center is‘s crisply malicious performance as Manchu, which should go down as one of the most memorable examples of ham acting, on a level with Ricardo Montalbaln inThe Wrath Of Kahn. The Caucasian-as-Oriental was a 30s and 40s casting fad (Peter Lorre, , Myrna Loy, and Karloff were frequent favorites in this department). revived the trend in the 60s when cast as Fu Manchu in a series of films. In contrast to Lee’s laconic portrayal of the Asian super villain, Karloff plays it to the hilt; his body language—from a condescending, sadistic grin to the prickly use of his hands—is electric.
Manchu is clearly bisexual, and Karloff invests the character with a debauchery that rivals his Hjalmar Poelzig. He introduces Fah Lo See (Loy) to his subjects with these lines: “I am the most unfortunate of men. I have no son to follow me. Therefore, in shame I ask you to receive a message from my ugly and insignificant daughter.” Fu Manchu backs up his disdain for his offspring with an offer to pimp her out, which fails to earn much compassion from us for the poor girl, since Loy goes the distance in portraying Asian women unsympathetically. Loy’s performance is wildly uneven: bouts of lethargy are followed by orgasmic fiendishness (at its most fully-baked when she plays voyeur to a white man being horse whipped by two Africans). Half of her performance admirably competes with Karloff.
According to Bela Lugosi‘s official bio, before coming to America he had been a star on the Hungarian stage, appearing in major Shakespeare productions. However, several biographers have disputed Lugosi’s “star” ranking during that period. It seems most of his roles had actually been small ones. Regardless, Lugosi enlisted in the Hungarian army during the First World War, was wounded several times, and later had to flee Hungary during a tumultuous political climate which was unfriendly to his leftist leanings. After a stay in Germany, Lugosi arrived penniless in the States. Eventually, he made his way to the New York stage and began appearing in plays and silent films. In 1927, Lugosi was cast in the role of Dracula in Hamilton Dean’s famous stage play. With that, Lugosi became a major star of the stage, and stardom brought him numerous female fans, including Clara Bow, with whom he had a brief affair.
In 1929, director Tod Browning, shopping around for the lead of the film version of Dracula, cast Lugosi as a vampire-like inspector in The Thirteenth Chair (1929). Although Lugosi was not a great actor in the conventional sense, he did have an undeniably magnetic screen presence and brought an air of European mystery to the most rudimentary melodramas. Browning capitalized on this as few directors could and it worked, leading to Lugosi landing the career-making role of Bram Stoker’s Count in Browning’s 1931 film, Dracula. The 49 year old Lugosi was perfect for the part. His idiosyncratic mannerisms, unique mangling of the English language (which, despite rumor, he did not deliver phonetically), and otherworldly persona made for a compelling figure, a point made all the more obvious when compared to Carlos Villarias’ laughable performance in the Spanish language version of Dracula (shot at the same time on the same sets as Browning’s classic). Years later, Lugosi bitterly complained about the typecasting which resulted from the film, but realistically, Dracula was the best thing that happened to the actor. With his limited acting skills and heavy accent, Lugosi never could have been successful in the romantic matinee roles he desired.
The Mad Genius (1931), Doctor X (1932) and Mystery Of The Wax Museum (1933) are three atypicalfilms from Hungarian-American director Michael Curtiz. Better known for such classics asAdventures of Robin Hood (1938), Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942),Casablanca (1942), and Mildred Pierce (1945), Curtiz was adept at practically every genre, including horror; although he only ventured there with this trio of pre-Coders and 1936’s Walking Dead (1936), starring .
The Mad Genius stars “the Great Profile,” John Barrymore, and features a pre-Frankenstein (1931) Karloff in an uncredited bit part as an abusive Cossack father. It is a reworking of George du Marurier’s “Trilby” and the second 1931 Warner Brothers’ film featuring Barrymore as the mesmerist Svengali (the first was the more famous and successful Svengali, directed by Archie Mayo).
Here, Barrymore goes by the name Tsarakov, but he plays the same control freak, and gives a narcissistic performance. He is a blatantly promiscuous puppeteer, awash in Freudian issues (transferring hatred of the ballerina mother who abandoned him to women dispatched by his weapon of choice: the casting couch).
When Hammer Horror offered its premier director,, his own franchise, he chose to work with the Frankenstein character rather than Dracula. Fisher was astute enough to realize that Mary Shelly’s saga had more potential for expansion and innovation. Even so, Fisher was hampered Universal Studio’s preexisting model of dos and don’ts. Once forever removed Jack Pierce’s iconic makeup, the Monster became a lumbering bore played by lesser actors ( , Bela Lugosi, Glenn Strange) and directed by hacks.
For his part, Karloff, in a variety of films, essentially took on the role of Dr. Frankenstein (in all but name). His Dr. Niemann was certainly the most colorful highlight in the assembly line monster mash House of Frankenstein (1944). Most regrettably, Niemann himself did not dispose of the whiny hunchback (J. Carrol Naish), Wolf Man (Chaney Jr.), or the irritatingly bland protagonists. While John Carradine’s Transylvanian count at least had a degree of personality, his screen time was brief. Briefer still was the monster (Strange) seen in a lethargic, somnolent state. When he finally awoke, his only threat was curing us of insomnia. This left Karloff to salvage what was left of the movie, and he did just that in a most entertaining way (unfortunately, the sequel, 1945’s House of Dracula, only had Carradine to attempt a rescue, which he failed to do). Of course, the doctor was infinitely more interesting than the monster here because he was played by the vastly superior, original monster. Fisher obviously realized this shift, paving the path for his Frankenstein series, which was actually about Frankenstein (the doctor, not the monster).
Karloff’s run as a mad doctor actually got its start in 1936, one year after his role in Bride Of Frankenstein. The Man Who Changed His Mind (aka The Man Who Lived Again) was made for a UK Production company and directed by Robert Stevenson. The formulaic script is aided considerably by witty dialogue from the scriptwriters (including John L. Balderston, who penned Universal’s Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, and Bride of Frankenstein); ripe, eccentric performances; and Stevenson’s fast-clipped pacing.
Journey’s End (1930) marked several firsts. It was the first film directed by James Whale, and it was the screen debut for actors Colin Clive and David Manners (actually Manners did have one previous credit, albeit uncredited). Journey’s End is a World War I film based on a popular play by R.C. Sherriff. Whale had previously directed the stage play, also starring Clive. The film version for Universal is a typical example of early sound film that’s overly stage-bound. However, the literate adaptation, bleak ending, Clive’s canny, ulcerous performance, Benjamin Kline’s cinematography, and Whale’s own wartime experiences (as an officer in the trenches) gave a feeling of authenticity to studio heads and 1930 audiences. Luckily for all concerned, it was a tremendous success.
Whale followed with a second, superior war drama, Waterloo Bridge (1931). Starring Mae Clark (possibly in the best role of her career) the film was based on Robert E. Sherwood’s play. Clark’s portrayal of a prostitute in war torn London offended the Catholic Legion of Decency (who voiced no objections to the depiction of war and mass killing). This resulted in the film being unavailable for years. Legion of Decency condemnation or no, Whale’s film was a critical and box office hit upon its release, far superior to both the play itself and the watered down 1940 MGM remake. In the little space of a year, Whale’s style improved dramatically. Gone are all the stagey vestiges of his theater origins. Whale injects a feeling of authenticity and empathy with an outcast character, which led to his securing the prestigious assignment to adapt Frankenstein (1931).
“With a few exceptions, The Bride of Frankenstein represented the last gasp of the horror film as a serious genre,” claimed Andrew Sarris. The late critic had a point. By now, Whale’s blackened horror comedy sequel to Frankenstein (1931) has become so legendary, it is almost too easy to forget how much Bride of Frankenstein (1935) is a standalone film, possessing a texture unlike anything before or since. Genre classifications be damned.
Director James WhaleContinue reading “BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935) ON BLU-RAY”had vehemently and repeatedly refused Universal Studio’s pleas for a sequel to his runaway 1931 hit, but when they promised him carte blanche, his enthusiasm was inspired. Whale set to work on a high camp satire, playing havoc with Western family values. Our contemporary idea of a Gothic celluloid baseball bat taken to the bourgeoisie might be Barry Sonnenfeld’s Addams Family Values (1993). Compared to Whale’s authentic island of misfits, the creepy, kooky klan are comparatively status quo.
Although Targets (1968) is not quite the masterpiece debut film of Peter Bogdanovich, as some have claimed, it is a compelling, near-valedictory film for star Boris Karloff. Being an almost autobiographical story, it should have served as a near-perfect coda for the actor. Instead, Karloff wanted to die acting, and for the first time in his career since 1931’s Frankenstein, he did not have a plethora of offers. Producers knew that the horror icon was almost literally on his last leg, and the cost of insuring him was undoubtedly a problematic casting factor. The final offers came from Jack Hill to make a series of low budget Mexican horrors, but it is best to conveniently imagine those under the rug.
Targets serves more as a last, satisfactory glimpse at the Karloff screen persona, as opposed to being a successful film on its own terms. It also is the film debut of director Peter Bogdanovich, who miscast himself in the film in order to save money. In part, this was due to having Roger Corman as his tight-fisted producer. Pragmatic in his business approach as usual, Corman wanted to use clips from his previous film with Karloff, The Terror (1963) as filler, and granted Targets a twenty-three day shooting schedule and $125,000 budget. From this simple instruction, Bogdanovich crafted a surprising, awkwardly innovative narrative, which the artist in Corman responded to, advising Bogdanovich: “Shoot it like Hitchcock.” Continue reading “TARGETS (1968)”
The Raven (1935) marks the second teaming of Universal’s dual horror stars: Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. It is also downright mortifying in its pedestrianism. Director Lew Landers simply did not have the sense of style or vision with which Edgar G. Ulmer imbued The Black Cat (1934) .
Worse, Landers lacked the foresight or directorial strength to shape or reign in Lugosi’s performance. Lugosi’s overacting is both the key to that which remains most fascinating about The Raven and, paradoxically, sinks the film into abject parody. It was Lugosi’s deliriously sadistic antics here which inspired the two-year UK ban on horror films. The ban significantly hurt Lugosi, causing his salary stock, never good to begin, to plummet. Seeing The Raven today through a decidedly more jaded contemporary lens, one wonders what all the fuss was about. Still, one can easily imagine why 1935 audiences were nonplussed regarding the Hungarian ham.
As the Edgar Allan Poe-obsessed, stark staring mad Dr. Vollin, Lugosi melodramatically throws up his arms, laughs maniacally, and screams: “Poe, you are avenged!” It plays like a scene out of a wretched comic book, with a Transylvanian Marx Brother in the lead role. The reason for Vollin’s madness is his unrequited love of the prettified Jean Thatcher (Irene Ware), which never seems feasible. In gratitude for Vollin saving her life, Jean does a Poe-inspired ballet for him, but the dance is as dull as she is. Earlier, Vollin compares himself to a god, and that is ultimately the nagging problem with Lugosi’s screen persona. Karloff inspires us to identify with his suffering and outsider status: Lugosi, with few exceptions, distances himself from his audience. Continue reading “THE RAVEN (1935)”
Arthur Rankin and Jules Bass may just be the weirdest animation team in history. Most of their stop-motion Christmas toons have become perennial classics, despite such bizarre characters as a carrot-topped roly poly dancing demon in hell; a misfit-among-misfits Arctic explorer; a dentist elf; a flying lion; a bitchy, bigoted Saint Nicholas; a winter warlock; a toothless, abominable Bumble; and a Charlie-in-the-Box. One wonders if the duo realized how off-kilter their formula was. When it came to their Halloween special, Rankin and Bass used the 1940s’ studio bound monster-mashes as their blueprint. Oddly, their Mad Monster Party (1967) was considerably better than those late, fatigued Universal extravaganzas. Helping tremendously was the voice work of Boris Karloff as Baron Frankenstein and Allen Swift as Felix Flankin, the Monster, Dracula, Dr. Jekyll, and the Invisible Man.
Harvey Kurtzman of “Mad Magazine” and Forrest J. Ackerman, the celebrated founder and editor of “Famous Monsters of Filmland,” worked (uncredited) on the script. It shows. Mad Monster Party is a loving homage to Gothic cinema, replete with trademark campy puns, which equally inspire nostalgic smiles and pained groans. The special serves as a precursor of sorts to Henry Selick‘s Nightmare Before Christmas (1993). Rankin and Bass approach their theme with far less originality than Selick, but the earlier film does have a pronounced sense of adolescent charm. Continue reading “MAD MONSTER PARTY (1967) ON BLU-RAY”
“When I first met Karloff, I felt this incredible wave of sadness. His eyes were like shattered mirrors. Whatever his pain was, it was very deep and very much a part of his soul. I never intruded and he was always a perfect gentleman.” Zita Johann on Boris Karloff.
After the death of the silent star, Lon Chaney, The King of Horror crown was up for grabs. It was Universal Studios contract actor Boris Karloff who inherited Chaney’s mantle, and reigned supreme as horror’s newly christened patriarch.
Karloff was not the studio’s first pretender to Chaney’s throne. Bela Lugosi starred as the screen’s most iconic vampire in Tod Browning‘s Dracula, released at the beginning of 1931, nearly a year before Karloff’s star-making performance in James Whale‘s Frankenstein (also 1931). With the premiere of Karloff’s monster, Lugosi and his vampire alter-ego were usurped.
Lugosi often told the tale of how he turned down the role of the monster, thus gifting Karloff his career-making role. Lugosi’s version of the casting switch has made the rounds, becoming part of Hollywood folklore, but, as is often the case, it is pure myth. Lugosi was wanted by neither the new director (James Whale, replacing Robert Florey) or producer (Carl Laemmle, Jr.). Lugosi’s career and life quickly deteriorated, catapulting the Hungarian actor into parody, abject poverty, drug addiction, and pathos. In 1956 Lugosi was buried in his vampire’s cloak, forever merging actor and role. On the face of it, Lugosi should have reigned supreme in the genre. He seemed to really believe in all that malevolent nonsense. However, he lacked Chaney’s sense of humanism, thus paving the path for a better actor.
In sharp contrast to Lugosi, Karloff celebrated unabated success until his death in 1969. Since Karloff’s passing, Lugosi has exacted posthumous revenge on the thespian who stole his crown. Lugosi’s cult status has risen considerably, far surpassing that of Karloff. This turnabout is, in part, due to the increasing faddish (and increasingly dull) obsession with vampires, and with Lugosi’s more colorful biography compared to the workaholic Karloff. Justice, it would seem, has been served, except that the revisionist take is dead wrong. Karloff’s genteel nature and cultured leaning rendered him a vastly superior artist. The studio heads were correct in preferring Karloff to Lugosi: Bela was not in Boris’ league. Karloff triumphed because he approached his craft with an intelligence and insight that Lugosi simply did not possess. Karloff was also more pragmatic, calling the monster: “The best friend I ever had.” Lugosi, oddly, resented his genre typecasting. Karloff embraced it, knowing it won him hard earned security. Astutely, Karloff referred to his film work as “fairy tales,” as opposed to “horror.” Continue reading “A BORIS KARLOFF RETROSPECTIVE”
Roger Corman’s The Terror has been in public domain for half of forever. The result, predictably, has been a plethora of DVD prints, ranging from wretched to execrable. It is a legendary film that has its equal share of fans and detractors. The Terror marks the only time Boris Karloff actually “starred” in a film directed by Corman (The Raven-1963, does not really count, as Karloff was secondary to Vincent Price). How much of the movie Corman directed is debatable. Francis Ford Coppola, Monte Hellman, Jack Hill, Jack Nicholson, and Dick Miller are all reported to have directed parts of The Terror, although only Corman is credited.
Although Cauldron of Blood (1970), Isle of the Snake People (1971) and Alien Terror were all released later, Curse of the Crimson Altar (1968) was actually Boris Karloff`s last completed film. At 82, he caught pneumonia (reportedly as a result of his work in the damp manor scenes) and succumbed to it a few weeks after filming.
Alas, Karloff’s swan song is not an ideal exit, even if he is the most redeemable element of Curse. That assessment is completely without nostalgic sentiment. Karloff heads a genre dream cast: Christopher Lee, Barbara Steele and Michael Gough. Stills from the film suggest a potential weird movie lover’s delight, but that potential is squandered through direction and writing that is too pedestrian to even be unintentionally bizarre.