LON CHANEY, JR.

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).

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KARLOFF 1958: THE HAUNTED STRANGLER, CORRIDORS OF BLOOD, AND FRANKENSTEIN 1970

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.

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BORIS KARLOFF’S THRILLER (1960-1962): EPISODE GUIDE AND REVIEWS

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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.

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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.

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“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. ”

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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.

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“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.

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“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.

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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.

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“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.

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“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.

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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.

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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.

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“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.

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“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.

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“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.

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“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.

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“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.

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“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.

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“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.

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“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.”

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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.

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PRE-CODE HORROR: MASK OF FU MANCHU (1932) AND MURDERS IN THE ZOO (1933)

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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.

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At the movie’s center is Boris Karloff‘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, Bela Lugosi, Myrna Loy, and Karloff were frequent favorites in this department). Christopher Lee 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.

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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.

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A BELA LUGOSI RETROSPECTIVE

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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.

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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.

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A KARLOFFIAN SIX PACK OF LOONEY TUNE DOCTORS

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When Hammer Horror offered its premier director, Terence Fisher, 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 Boris Karloff forever removed Jack Pierce’s iconic makeup, the Monster became a lumbering bore played by lesser actors (Lon Chany, Jr., Bela Lugosi, Glenn Strange) and directed by hacks.

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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).

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Karloff’s run as a mad doctor actually got its start in 1936, one year after his role in Bride Of FrankensteinThe 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.

The Man Who Lived Again (aka The Man Who Changed His Mind) lobby card (Boris Karloff)

 

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