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Tag Archives: Horror

Devil Bat’s Daughter (April 15, 1946)

Frank Wisbar’s Devil Bat’s Daughter is a film that follows the template created by Dracula’s Daughter (1936), but doesn’t quite get it right.

Like Dracula’s Daughter, Devil Bat’s Daughter is a sequel to a Bela Lugosi horror film — in this case, The Devil Bat (1940) — that does not feature Lugosi. Instead, the protagonist is … you guessed it, his character’s daughter. But while Dracula’s Daughter was a slick, good-looking Universal horror picture that featured a haunting lead performance by Gloria Holden, Devil Bat’s Daughter is a run-of-the-mill Poverty Row mystery thriller whose connection to its predecessor feels forced.

I haven’t seen The Devil Bat, but based on plot synopses, there seem to be several inconsistencies with how its treated in its sequel. Nina MacCarron (Rosemary La Planche), is the daughter of Dr. Paul Carruthers (Lugosi), of The Devil Bat, but she uses her mother’s maiden name. Returning in a stupor to her father’s home in Wardsley, New York (Heathville, Illinois, in the original), she collapses while searching the basement where he conducted his experiments (the basement was also apparently not present in the first film). She is taken in by the physician Dr. Elliot (Nolan Leary), who cares for her while she lies in a catatonic state. After she escapes from the hospital, Dr. Elliot has her transferred to the care of a psychiatrist, Dr. Clifton Morris (Michael Hale), who treats her while she lives in his home with him and his wife, Ellen Masters Morris (Molly Lamont). With Dr. Morris’s treatments, she slowly returns to normal, but she is plagued by terrifying visions (rippled footage from The Devil Bat).

Intrigue abounds. We learn early on that Dr. Morris has a mistress, Myra Arnold (Monica Mars), who is pressuring him to divorce his wife, whom he only married for her money. When Ted Masters (John James), Mrs. Morris’s son from her first marriage, returns home, he and Nina start to fall for each other, but a series of murders throws Nina’s sanity into question. The film seems confused about what type of picture it wants to be. There’s plenty of talk of vampires (Lugosi was inextricable from his most famous role), but it doesn’t come to anything, and this isn’t really a horror picture.

Devil Bat’s Daughter is modestly entertaining, but I was hoping for more. Director Wisbar was a German émigré, and his previous film, Strangler of the Swamp, was a great-looking, creepy little horror picture. Like Devil Bat’s Daughter, it also starred Rosemary La Planche, Miss America 1941. It’s too bad for genre film fans that La Planche wasn’t in more movies, especially horror movies. She could have been one of the great scream queens. She’s uniquely pretty, with thick eyebrows, big eyes, bow lips, a very straight nose, and mountains of wavy hair. Her face retains its attractiveness even when she’s screaming, and she sure can take a fall while running.

The Spiral Staircase (Feb. 6, 1946)

Robert Siodmak’s The Spiral Staircase was made in 1945, and released into some theaters in December. The earliest confirmed day of release I could find, however, was February 6, 1946, in New York City, so I’m reviewing it here.

Based on Ethel Lina White’s 1933 novel Some Must Watch, The Spiral Staircase is a slick, good-looking thriller with some striking visual choices. White’s novel took place in contemporary England, but the film is set in early 20th century Massachusetts. Some sources I’ve found claim it takes place circa 1916, but the silent film an audience in a movie house is watching in the first scene of the film is D.W. Griffith’s 1912 short The Sands of Dee, and one of the characters has just returned from Paris, about which he waxes rhapsodic, speaking wistfully of all the beautiful women. So it seems to me that the action of the film must take place before the First World War.

The Spiral Staircase doesn’t take long to deliver its terrifying goods. In one of the rooms above the silent movie house, we see a young woman (Myrna Dell) getting undressed. She walks with a slight limp. When the camera moves into her closet as she hangs up her dress, there is a pause, then the camera moves into the thicket of hanging clothes. They part slightly, and suddenly we see an enormous, maniacal eye fill the screen. We then see the girl reflected in the eye, her lower half blurred (why this is will be explained later).

Alfred Hitchcock used a closeup of Anthony Perkin’s eye to great effect in Psycho (1960). And one of the earliest indelible images in the history of cinema was an eyeball being slit open by a straight razor in Luis Buñuel’s short film Un chien andalou (1929). But a close shot of an eye used in the same way as a violin stab on the soundtrack, or a shadow quickly passing across the frame, to make the audience jump out of their seats, is relatively rare. I thought Bob Clark’s Black Christmas (1974) was the first film to do this — when the killer is shockingly revealed as an eyeball peering out from between an open door and a door jamb — but apparently it wasn’t.

Among the patrons of the movie house, none of whom is questioned by the incompetent local constable (James Bell) after the murder, is a mute woman named Helen Capel (Dorothy McGuire). Her friend, the handsome young Dr. Parry (Kent Smith), gives her a ride home, and tells her that he believes her muteness can be overcome. She silently demurs, and goes home to the creepy old mansion where she is employed as a servant to the bedridden but mentally sharp Mrs. Warren (Ethel Barrymore). Also present in the house are the other domestics, Mr. and Mrs. Oates (Rhys Williams and Elsa Lanchester, who looks a lot frumpier than when she played The Bride of Frankenstein in 1935), Mrs. Warren’s two stepsons, Prof. Albert Warren (George Brent) and ne’er-do-well Steve Warren (Gordon Oliver), the professor’s pretty assistant Blanche (Rhonda Fleming), and Mrs. Warren’s crotchety old nurse (Sarah Allgood).

Once the action settles down and focuses on the Warren estate, The Spiral Staircase becomes a more predictable game of whodunnit, as well as a frustrating game of “when will she find the strength to scream for help, already?”

The film is never boring, however, due in no small part to the brilliant cinematography of Nicholas Musuraca. The Spiral Staircase is all shadows and gaslight, which — along with one of the longest thunderstorms on film — hearkens back to spooky haunted house pictures like James Whale’s The Old Dark House (1932).

The Spiral Staircase is not quite a masterpiece, and it never aspires to be more than a pulse-quickening thriller, but it is exceptionally well-made entertainment.

The Flying Serpent (Feb. 1, 1946)

George Zucco was born in 1886 in Manchester, England. He appeared in nearly 100 movies during his 20-year career. He was a fine actor, but he appeared in a lot of bad movies. Case in point: The Flying Serpent, which was directed by prolific schlockmeister Sam Newfield under the pseudonym “Sherman Scott.”

Like White Pongo (1945) — the last steaming pile of celluloid by Newfield that I saw — The Flying Serpent begins with an onscreen prologue that raises more questions than it answers. The viewer is told that the “wiley [sic] Emperor Montezuma,” in order to outsmart Cortez, hid his treasure somewhere far to the north of San Juan, New Mexico, where the Aztec ruins are located, and implored his guards to protect it.

I’m pretty sure none of that is true. And I’m pretty sure the filmmakers are confusing San Juan County in New Mexico, where the Aztec Ruins National Monument is located, with the town of San Juan, which is in a neighboring county. I’m also pretty sure they either didn’t know or didn’t care that the name of this national monument is a misnomer, since the ruins are actually ancestral Pueblo structures, and have nothing to do with the Aztecs. But I digress.

Before you can ask how anyone sent by Montezuma to protect treasure 500 years ago could still be around to fulfill his duty, enter Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent. First seen in the shadows (or possibly just the murk of the lousy print used for the public domain DVD I watched), Quetzalcoatl is a puppet of indeterminate size locked safely behind iron bars in a secret mountain lair attended to by the archaeologist Dr. Andrew Forbes (Zucco). When Dr. Forbes pulls a lever, the stone roof of the cage opens, and the flying serpent takes wing. In flight, with nothing to give the puppet a sense of scale, it looks a little like the giant flying monster in the Japanese film Rodan (1956).

The only other appearance of Quetzalcoatl on film I can think of right now is Larry Cohen’s B movie classic Q (1982), in which the enormous Mesoamerican deity terrorizes Manhattan. Unlike Rodan or Q, however, the monster in The Flying Serpent turns out to be ridiculously small once it appears in the same frame as a human. When it lands on its first victim, Dr. John Lambert (James Metcalf), it looks as if he’s being attacked by a feathered Labrador Retriever with wings.

The Flying Serpent isn’t nearly as bad a film as White Pongo, but it never quite reaches the level of craziness I demand from an entertaining bad B movie. Zucco is always entertaining to watch, though, no matter how far down in the gutter he’s slumming.

Shock (Jan. 10, 1946)

Alfred L. Werker’s thriller Shock, which had its premiere on January 10, 1946, and went into wide release on February 1st, stars Vincent Price as the murderous Dr. Richard Cross and Lynn Bari as his manipulative assistant and lover, Nurse Elaine Jordan. If you were to play a drinking game in which you took a shot of whiskey every time one of the characters in the film said the word “shock,” you would likely require medical attention after the first 20 minutes.

Price wasn’t always a horror icon. In Tower of London (1939), which was as much a costume drama about Richard III as it was a horror picture, he was a supporting player. In Brigham Young (1940), he played the founder of Mormonism, Joseph Smith. In Hudson’s Bay (1941), he played King Charles II. In Laura (1944) and Leave Her to Heaven (1945), he was the aggrieved “other man.” A tall, stately man born in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1911, Price was educated at Yale, where he studied art history and fine art. He radiated charm and erudition. He was a fine actor, and probably could have distinguished himself in any genre. As chance or fate would have it, however, his vocal delivery and arch facial expressions were perfectly suited to the ironic cinematic world of the macabre, and he is best remembered for his roles in horror pictures such as House of Wax (1953), The Fly (1958), House on Haunted Hill (1959), The Tingler (1959), and the innumerable Roger Corman-produced, Poe-influenced horror pictures that he appeared in throughout the 1960s.

While Shock is not a horror film, it has elements of one, and it’s the earliest role I’ve seen Price play in which he demonstrates some of the ghoulish mannerisms that would later make him famous. He doesn’t come close to the histrionics of some of his later horror roles, but there are some glimmerings.

The film opens in San Francisco, where a young woman named Janet (played by the somewhat sickly looking ingénue Anabel Shaw), is checking into a hotel, where she is to meet her husband, Lt. Paul Stewart (Frank Latimore), a former P.O.W. who is finally returning from World War II. Lt. Stewart doesn’t show up when he is supposed to, however, and as his emotionally fragile wife frets alone in her hotel room, she witnesses a murder. From her balcony, she can see through the window of an adjacent room. A man and a woman are arguing, and eventually the man settles the argument with a heavy candlestick.

Witnessing a murder drives Janet into a state of catatonic shock. When her husband finally arrives, she is unresponsive. When world-renowned psychiatrist Dr. Cross is brought in to consult in the case, Janet doesn’t recognize him, but Dr. Cross immediately realizes that the cause of Janet’s state of shock is the murder she witnessed him committing.

Janet is placed in Dr. Cross’s care, and he ignores the Hippocratic oath in order to save his own skin, giving Janet insulin treatments she doesn’t need, as well as using other unethical methods of driving her deeper into a state of shock so she will never be able to identify him. Cross isn’t portrayed as a total monster, however. That role is reserved for his lover, Nurse Jordan, a Lady Macbeth type who goads him on when his resolve to be wicked falters.

Shock is a programmer, to be sure, but it’s a well-made one, and kept me enthralled for all of its 70 minutes.

Strangler of the Swamp (Jan. 2, 1946)

Frank Wisbar’s Strangler of the Swamp is a surprisingly good little ghost story. I don’t use the term “little” pejoratively, but as a term of affection, and in recognition of the film’s modest budget and one-hour running time. What Strangler of the Swamp lacks in lavish sets and big stars it makes up for with atmosphere, story, and pacing. Plenty of movies distributed by the Poverty Row studio P.R.C. (Producers Releasing Corporation) ranged from forgettable to completely stinko, but some were genuinely well-made films, and this is one of them.

Director Wisbar was born in 1899 in Tilsit, East Prussia, Germany (now part of Russia). After making nine films in Germany between 1932 to 1938, Wisbar emigrated to England, where he directed a television adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s story “The Telltale Heart” for the BBC in 1939, when TV was still in its infancy. In 1945, he directed his first American feature, the P.R.C. potboiler Secrets of a Sorority Girl. Strangler of the Swamp was his second film for P.R.C., and was a remake of one of his earlier films, Fährmann Maria (Ferryman Maria), from 1936.

Strangler of the Swamp takes place in a bayou, presumably somewhere in the American South, but, like a lot of horror movies from the ’40s, regional accents are nowhere in evidence, and geographical authenticity is an afterthought.

Old ferryman Joseph Hart (Frank Conlan) lives in a rude shack by a crossing, and ferries the townsfolk back and forth across a narrow strip of water by hauling his little craft hand over hand along a rope stretched between two trees. His passengers speak in hushed tones of the men they know who have recently died by strangulation. The denizens of the swamp believe that the previous ferryman, Douglas, was hanged for a crime he didn’t commit. They believe that his ghost haunts the swamp, strangling all the male descendants of the men responsible for putting him to death.

Ferryman Joseph does finds an actual noose hanging from a branch as a spectral warning, but most of the strangling in the film occurs in that neat ghost-story fashion in which it could just be a series of freak accidents. The spirit of ferryman Douglas (Charles Middleton) appears to ferryman Joseph with his head wreathed in clouds of dry ice, but Joseph meets his end when he panics and gets tangled up in some branches. The title of this film is the most gruesome thing about it.

After the death of ferryman Joseph, his granddaughter, Maria Hart (Rosemary La Planche), arrives in the swamp to claim her birthright. Fed up with urban isolation and happy to have a place to call her own, she takes up residence in Joseph’s shack and takes over his job shuttling people back and forth. Even though all the billowing clouds of dry ice cover up the set’s limitations, after the fifth or sixth ferry ride, even the least astute viewers will probably notice that there’s no water under the barge.

Blond, fresh-faced, and lithe, La Planche makes an appealing heroine. Her love interest, Chris Sanders, is played by the handsome but wooden actor Blake Edwards, who would end up being much more famous for his work as a director, writer, and producer (of, among other things, The Days of Wine and Roses, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, numerous Pink Panther films, and the Peter Gunn TV series).

Prior to appearing in this film, California native La Planche had lots of bit parts and uncredited roles. She was six years old when she made her first appearance on film (in the Louise Fazenda comedy short The Bearded Lady in 1930), but she never became a child star. Once in her teens, she appeared in a flurry of tiny roles and as a dance extra in many films, and was even crowned Miss America in 1941. (She was Miss California in both 1940 and 1941. The pageant rules later changed to only allow contestants to compete at the national level once.) As Miss America, she traveled extensively with the USO, and once helped sell $50,000 in war bonds in a single day. When Wisbar cast her in Strangler of the Swamp, it was her first starring role.

Wisbar brings a dreamy, European sensibility to the proceedings that sets Strangler of the Swamp apart from most of its B-movie brethren. The conclusion, in particular, didn’t fall into the ’40s cliché that anything supernatural had to eventually be explained away.

House of Dracula (Dec. 7, 1945)

House of Dracula followed in the footsteps of Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943) and House of Frankenstein (1944), Universal Studios’ earlier “monster mash” movies. It would be a few years before the genre descended into outright self parody, but House of Dracula is still campy and fun compared with the more serious scares of Universal classics like Dracula (1931) and The Wolf Man (1941).

The macabre goofiness begins with the opening credits, which drip down like blood dumped on the roof of an A-frame house, coalescing over a shot of a creepy old manse, high atop the cliffs on the shores of what looks suspiciously like the Pacific Ocean. Like most Universal horror movies, House of Dracula seems to takes place in “Europe,” but the details are vague, and everyone speaks English, even though the characters have names like Holtz (Lionel Atwill), Siegfried (Ludwig Stössel), and Dr. Franz Edlemann (Onslow Stevens).

The last time we saw John Carradine as a tall, white-haired, and mustachioed Count Dracula, he was burned up in the sun halfway through the running time of House of Frankenstein. How he came back to life is never explained. How he manages to walk into Dr. Edlemann’s castle without being invited in is also a mystery. But walk in he does, through an unlatched back door, and presents himself to Dr. Edlemann as “Baron Latos.” Dr. Edlemann is a scientific genius with a hunchbacked assistant named Nina (Jane Adams) and a basement full of crazy doodads and contraptions. He is also an expert on the affliction of vampirism. Dracula wants to be cured, and Dr. Edlemann agrees to help him.

The plot thickens when, one evening shortly after sundown but before the rise of the full moon, Dracula is receiving a blood transfusion from Dr. Edlemann in his basement laboratory. A nervous man named Lawrence Talbot (Lon Chaney, Jr.) appears in Dr. Edlemann’s waiting room. Like Dracula, he is looking for a cure. Dr. Edlemann’s pretty nurse, Miliza Morrelle (Martha O’Driscoll), tells Talbot he’ll have to be patient, but he refuses to wait. “There isn’t time!” he shouts, and runs out of the castle, directly to the nearest police station, where he convinces them to lock him up. He transforms into the dreaded Wolf Man while behind bars, which convinces Dr. Edlemann to take him on as a patient.

Luckily for Talbot, the doctor is also an expert on lycanthropy, and he has a pseudoscientific explanation for Talbot’s condition. Pressure upon certain parts of the brain, coupled with Talbot’s firmly held belief that the full moon can cause a change in his body, brings on self-hypnosis, and the glands that govern his metabolism get out of control. Surgery to enlarge the cranial cavity would be a long and dangerous process. Dr. Edlemann has a more sensible solution. He, Nina, and Miliza are growing a hybrid tropical plant that produces a mold that can soften substances composed of calcium salts, like bone, which will allow Dr. Edlemann to enlarge Talbot’s cranium without surgery. (It will also allow him to dissolve Nina’s hump, which he promises her he will do once Talbot is cured.)

Miliza refers to Talbot as a “young man,” and Dr. Edlemann calls him “my boy,” which are both strange appellations for a tired-looking 39-year-old alcoholic with slicked-back hair and a mustache. His behavior is also strange, but that’s standard operating practice for the Wolf Man’s human alter ego in a Universal horror movie.

After a setback, the impatient Talbot unsuccessfully attempts to commit suicide by jumping from the cliffs. The doctor follows him down to one of the seaside caves, where he tells him the conditions are perfect for growing his mold spores, and not to despair. While in the caves, the plot thickens once again when Talbot and Dr. Edlemann find Frankenstein’s monster (Glenn Strange), buried in mud along with the skeleton of Dr. Niemann, who revitalized him back in House of Frankenstein. The villagers chased them into a pit of quicksand, and the mud flow brought them to the caves below Dr. Edlemann’s castle.

The altruistic Dr. Edlemann belts the monster down on an operating table, and wires him for revival, but his reasons for doing this are less clear than his reasons for helping Dracula and the Wolf Man. He says that to not do so would be murder, since the monster is man’s responsibility. (Presumably, if he could speak, the monster would say, “Please bring me back to life so I can destroy you, your laboratory, your home, and everything you’ve worked for.”) Nina and Talbot eventually manage to dissuade Dr. Edlemann from bringing the monster back to life. However, the monster is still hooked up and ready to be reactivated, like a loaded gun carelessly left lying on the floor of a mental institution.

Things start to go south at the halfway mark of House of Dracula, as they tend to when monsters mash. Dr. Edlemann doubles up on the transfusions he’s giving to Dracula, which leads to a fateful accident. Meanwhile, the irrepressible Count casts his hypnotic spell over Miliza, with whom he has a past.

I thought that House of Dracula was a more satisfying picture than House of Frankenstein. The way each monster is introduced is clumsy, but other than that the plot flows smoothly from beginning to end. It’s a spooky good time that doesn’t strain to fit all of its ghoulish pieces into its 67-minute running time.

Strange Confession (Oct. 5, 1945)

StrangeConfessionApparently populist rage against pharmaceutical giants is nothing new. In Strange Confession, the fifth of six “Inner Sanctum Mysteries” produced by Universal Pictures and released from 1943 to 1945, Lon Chaney, Jr. plays a brilliant chemist named Jeff Carter whose life goes from bad to worse when he twice accepts employment from the unscrupulous owner of the largest medical distributing company in an unnamed American city.

Strange Confession is more of a straight drama than the other films in the Inner Sanctum series. Except for its gruesome finale, it’s free of the Gothic overtones and murderous double-crosses found in the rest of the series. The opening few minutes are gripping, with Jeff clutching a bag in his hand and skulking through the shadowy nighttime city streets, deliberately avoiding a police officer. It’s a very noir beginning, right down to the story structure. Jeff arrives at the home of an old school chum named Mr. Brandon (Wilton Graff) and sits down to confess something horrible. He opens the bag and shows Brandon what’s inside. Brandon recoils, but the camera doesn’t reveal the bag’s contents.

Jeff recalls better days. He once had a well-paying job, a pretty wife named Mary (Brenda Joyce), and a baby boy named Tommy (Gregory Muradian). Unfortunately, his employer, Mr. Graham (J. Carrol Naish) exploited his talents and treated him poorly. He even had Jeff hard at work on Christmas Eve, composing an acceptance speech for him in which he took full credit for Jeff’s accomplishments in the lab. Jeff quit his job and worked for a small pharmacy, forced to labor on his chemistry experiments after hours in his bathroom. He was poor, but happy. But this wasn’t enough for his wife, who wanted better things in life, so a year later, Jeff went back to work for Mr. Graham. Jeff, his wife, and little Tommy started living the good life, with a house in the suburbs and an Irish housekeeper named Mrs. O’Connor (Mary Gordon).

Unfortunately, Graham, in addition to being a bad boss, was a cad. He had designs on Mary, and sent Jeff and his affable assistant Dave (Lloyd Bridges) deep into South America to work on a flu cure called “Zymurgine.” While Jeff and Dave were hard at work testing and perfecting the formula for the drug, Graham romanced Mary, who naïvely saw him as just a friend, taking her out to dinners and shows. Worse, he rushed Zymurgine into the market before Jeff’s fully tested formula was even ready to be shipped back to the United States. In a prescient moment, Graham tells his coterie of underlings, “You can sell almost anything if you advertise it enough.”

Ill-gotten profits trump integrity, and the whole thing comes full circle, personally affecting the principal characters and leading to a bloody conclusion. Strange Confession is quite a good one-hour B picture. Chaney’s performance is better than usual, and Naish is a smooth, oily antagonist. He’s well cast, too. With his hangdog features, black hair, and pencil-thin mustache he looks like a shorter version of Chaney, making him the perfect doppelgänger villain.

Dead of Night (Sept. 4, 1945)

DeadOfNightDead of Night is a British anthology of horror stories with many layers and a cyclical story structure. The five segments are based on stories by H.G. Wells, E.F. Benson, John Baines, and Angus MacPhail. Each is great, but the way the stories are told and the way they are linked together is the most interesting thing about the film.

When Dead of Night begins, an architect named Walter Craig (Mervyn Johns) is driven to an English country estate, where he has been hired for a reconstruction project. Once he arrives, and is introduced to the group of people in the living room, he experiences déjà vu. He claims to have dreamed the room and the people in it many times. He is able to predict certain things before they happen in the narrative. A psychiatrist named Dr. Van Straaten (Frederick Valk) refuses to believe any of it, but Craig claims that he is being treated by the doctor, and works hard to dispel the doctor’s doubts. In between the stories that people tell, Craig presages disaster. Horrific events will come to pass, he keeps telling his fellow house guests.

Antony Baird tells the first tale. His character is a race car driver named Hugh Grainger who survives a smash-up on the track, but soon after has disturbing visions of a hearse driver who appears in different guises, but always at a quarter after four, and always speaking the words, “Just room for one inside, sir.” This story provides the template that was followed by every Final Destination film, and it does so in less than seven minutes.

The second story is about a young woman named Sally O’Hara (Sally Ann Howes) who attends a Christmas party. While playing hide-and-seek with the other young people, she is found by a young man who hides with her, and claims that there was a murder committed in the house in 1860 by a mad young woman. Going off on her own, she discovers a passage into a child’s bedroom, where a little boy sits, weeping. He tells her about his older sister. She puts him to bed and sings to him. When she rejoins the party, she learns that the name the little boy gave her was the name of the boy who was murdered by his sister.

In the third story, a woman named Joan Cortland (Googie Withers) recalls buying a birthday present for her fiancé, Peter Cortland (Ralph Michael), a large mirror. He starts seeing strange things in the mirror, such as a room completely different from the one in which he is standing. Increasingly disturbed by her husband’s claims and his strange behavior, Mrs. Cortland tracks down the history of the mirror, and learns that its former owner was a wealthy gentleman who groundlessly accused his wife of infidelity. He murdered his wife, and then sat down in front of the mirror and cut his own throat. Will history repeat itself?

In the fourth story, the owner of the house, and the host of the party, Eliot Foley (Roland Culver), tells a comical ghost story about his two good friends, George Parratt (Basil Radford) and Larry Potter (Naunton Wayne), who were both avid golfers. Bitter rivals on the links, they were the best of friends at all other times, until they both fell in love with the same woman, Mary Lee (Peggy Bryan). They decide to settle things with an unfriendly game of golf. When the game is finished, one of them quite unexpectedly walks into a lake and drowns himself. The winner marries Mary, but is haunted by the voice of his late friend, destroying his golf game for good. (Radford and Wayne played comically sport-obsessed British gentleman in a number of films, including Alfred Hitchcock’s 1938 film The Lady Vanishes. Their alliterative pair of names changed from picture to picture, but the schtick was the same.)

In the final story, Dr. Van Straaten tells his own tale. He was once called to examine a ventriloquist named Maxwell Frere (Michael Redgrave) who was accused of the attempted murder of an American ventriloquist, Sylvester Kee (Hartley Power). Frere’s dummy, Hugo, seemed to have a mind of its own, and threatened to leave Frere for a new owner, Kee. Dummies in horror movies had been done before, (e.g., The Unholy Three), but Dead of Night created a template that many films have used since.

Dead of Night was released on September 4, 1945 in London, and a little less than a year later in the United States, on June 28, 1946, in an edited version. Apparently the U.S. distributors felt that the film’s running time (103 minutes) was too long, so they cut out the golfing story and the Christmas ghost story, leaving only three stories. I can’t imagine seeing this film without them. The structure of the film is deliberate, and all the segments are tied together in a brilliant and surreal climax.

Isle of the Dead (Sept. 1, 1945)

IsleOfTheDead
Isle of the Dead (1945)
Directed by Mark Robson
RKO Radio Pictures

Director Mark Robson’s Isle of the Dead, which was produced by legendary horror filmmaker Val Lewton, takes place in Greece in 1912, during the First Balkan War. In it, Boris Karloff plays a cold and brutal general in the Greek army named Nikolas Pherides. Known as “The Watchdog,” Gen. Pherides is the kind of man who, when faced with an officer who has failed to complete an objective, hands the man a revolver with a single bullet in it and orders him to shoot himself.

When Gen. Pherides and some of his troops are garrisoned in a house on an island, the serving girl, Thea (Ellen Drew), refuses to pour him wine, because he once gunned down people in her district who refused to pay taxes. He confronts her in private. She denounces him for murdering people who were rebelling against unjust taxation. “Who is against the law of Greece is not a Greek,” he says. Not only is he a rigid interpreter of the law, he seems to take pleasure in wielding power. After his encounter with the girl, he tells another man, “When I went up there she wasn’t quite so impudent. She was frightened.” He says it with grim pleasure.

The next day, however, the island is faced with an outbreak of septicemic plague, and Gen. Pherides promises that the quarantine on the island will observed. Having the military, under the command of someone like him, available to enforce order falls under the category, “Be Careful What You Wish For,” and not surprisingly, there are complications. A woman named Mary St. Aubyn (Katherine Emery), who is staying on the island with her husband (Alan Napier), suffers from attacks of catalepsy. Unable to refill her medication on the mainland, she falls into a catatonic state, is presumed dead, and is buried alive.

Compounding this horrific event is a superstitious old woman named Madame Kyra (Helen Thimig), who has the general’s ear. She convinces him that Thea, the young serving girl, is a vorvolaka, a harmful undead creatures from Greek folklore, roughly equivalent to the vampires feared in neighboring Slavic countries, although blood drinking is not something they seem to engage in. In the world of the film, the vorvolakas are sent by the gods to punish humans who offend them. The combination of the plague and the apparent death of Mrs. St. Aubyn gives Kyra’s mad proclamations a certain believability, and Gen. Pherides becomes convinced that Thea was responsible for Mrs. St. Aubyn’s “death.”

After Lewton’s phenomenal success with Cat People in 1942, RKO would give Lewton a title, a maximum running time, and a budget. Most everything else was up to him. He could have been handed a script called Zombie Gut Munchers and ended up making an eerie film about the Silesian weavers’ revolt of 1844 in Prussia that was more about poverty and oppression than it was about the living dead. Starting in 1945, however, the studio also forced Karloff on Lewton, a move he reportedly wasn’t immediately happy about, since Karloff was emblematic of the Gothic and increasingly corny Universal Pictures approach to horror films that Lewton actively resisted. Karloff was an exceedingly good actor, however, and his performances for Lewton are some of the strongest of his career. (Isle of the Dead was the first to start production, but shooting was suspended when Karloff needed to take time off for back surgery, and The Body Snatcher ended up being their first collaboration to be released into theaters.)

Like The Ghost Ship (1943), which was also directed by Robson and produced by Lewton, Isle of the Dead is a meditation on the abuse of power. Unlike The Ghost Ship, however, Isle of the Dead is not just a metaphorical title, and the film delivers some truly stunning and horrific scenes in its final reel. In fine Lewton fashion, Mrs. St. Aubyn is never shown inside her coffin, desperately clawing at the wood that imprisons her. A shot of the coffin sitting on a stone bier accompanied by her screams suffices. Later, the coffin is shown again, with water dripping on it. There is no other sound. The viewer is left to wonder whether or not the woman inside is still alive, being driven mad by the sound of the water.

There is a theory that some people who were buried alive in less scientifically enlightened times may have clawed their way out of their graves and shown up in town filthy and quite possibly raving mad, and that this phenomenon is what led to folk tales and legends about vampires and their ilk. Whether or not this ever actually happened, Robson and Lewton take full advantage of the concept to fashion a denouement that is not supernatural but that still ranks among the most horrifying depictions of a person rising from the grave ever depicted on film.

What leads up to it is sometimes stilted and slow-moving, although a second viewing reveals a lot of well-done foreshadowing. Like a lot of Lewton’s films, the symbolism in this film is overt. Gen. Pherides is known as “The Watchdog.” Several times in the film there are shots of a statue of Cerberus, the three-headed dog who stopped the souls of the dead from escaping Hades back across the River Styx. Which is exactly what the general does. There are many shots of water, and of decaying marble columns and balconies that hearken back to a more enlightened time in Greece.

At the end of the film, someone says of the general, “Back of his madness there was something simple, good. He wanted to protect us.” This is a charitable description that is not entirely supported by what comes before. Karloff’s portrayal of the general is not as overtly malevolent as other roles he has played, such as Cabman John Gray in The Body Snatcher, but he has few redeeming characteristics.

The Frozen Ghost (June 1, 1945)

FrozenGhostMedia tie-ins are nothing new. Radio’s Boston Blackie, a long-running syndicated show about a (mostly) reformed jewel thief and amateur sleuth, got its start as a series of short stories, then silent films, then talkies, before being adapted for radio. And big-screen adaptations of radio series were commonplace. The Whistler, The Great Gildersleeve, Fibber McGee & Molly, The Green Hornet, The Lone Ranger, and I Love a Mystery all led to multiple film adaptations, not to mention the many radio series that were adapted from other media, like dime novels or the daily comic strips, that went on to be films.

The radio drama Inner Sanctum Mysteries, which was produced by Himan Brown, premiered in 1941 and ran for more than 10 years. An anthology thriller program, its scripts weren’t quite as clever as The Whistler, and it didn’t regularly feature A-list Hollywood talent like Suspense, but it was an effective show. While rarely out-and-out supernatural, it tended more toward the macabre than other programs of its type. Its jealous husbands, scheming wives, and escaped lunatics were flesh and blood, but its settings — crumbling churchyards, decrepit mansions, and dark and stormy nights — could have done double duty in horror stories.

One of the things that made the show stand out was its host, Raymond Edward Johnson (who simply went by the name “Raymond” on the show), and the memorable sound effect of a creaking door that opened each program. Raymond prefigured TV horror hosts like Zacherley, Elvira, and Ghoulardi with his macabre, tongue-in-cheek humor. A typical program began like this:

“Good evening, friends. This is your host, Raymond. Welcome to the inner sanctum. Come in, won’t you? What are you staring at? The walls? Well, you know that old saying about walls having ears? Well, these walls have eyes, and a nice assortment of fingers and hands. One of them has a heart, but you can’t beat that. Don’t mind me, friends, in my old age I’m getting to be a bit of a gore.”

Raymond’s mocking delivery made it clear that none of it was meant to be taken seriously. Part of the pleasure of listening to the programs in 1945 and 1946, when Lipton Tea was the sponsor, was listening to the host’s exchanges with Mary, the Lipton Tea and Lipton Soup girl, whose sunny disposition he frequently ridiculed, and who in turn expressed shock and dismay at the gloomy goings-on the show dramatized. (When Raymond left the show in May 1945 to serve in the Army, he was replaced with Paul McGrath, who never stated his name. The format of the show and his relationship with Mary, however, were pretty much the same as Raymond’s.)

From 1943 to 1945, Universal Pictures released six “Inner Sanctum Mysteries.” They were all low-budget B pictures starring Lon Chaney, Jr., all clocking in at under 70 minutes, each designed to be the second half of a double bill. Calling Dr. Death (1943) was followed by Weird Woman (1944), Dead Man’s Eyes (1944), and The Frozen Ghost. All of these films are entertaining (especially Weird Woman), but compared with the radio show, they’re missing some of the ghoulish fun. They’re always introduced the same way … not by Raymond or someone like him, but by a head floating in a crystal ball that speaks as though its owner is on a heavy dose of Thorazine.

The Frozen Ghost features Chaney as a famous mentalist who watches a man die during his act. He believes he caused the man’s death with his hypnotic gaze, and goes into seclusion to a wax museum, of all places. When a woman dies after a hypnosis session there, he’s convinced he’s a psychic killer, but then her body disappears. What gives? Unlike the first three films in the Inner Sanctum series, The Frozen Ghost is a bit of a mess, but scream queen Evelyn Ankers is always a welcome sight, and at one hour and one minute, the picture doesn’t really overstay its welcome.

Chaney was born Creighton Chaney, but started being billed as “Lon Chaney, Jr.” in 1935. As an actor, he is the antithesis of his father, who was one of the most brilliant chameleons in film history, and one of the finest actors of the silent era. Chaney, Jr., on the other hand, acted exactly the same in every movie, like a hulking man-child who appeared to be staggeringly hungover in every scene. I enjoy plenty of films he appears in, but he’s not a great actor. To its credit, the Inner Sanctum series makes good use of him. In the four films I’ve seen so far, he always plays a character who is at the mercy of forces outside of his control, which requires him to appear bewildered, upset, and terrified, which he’s pretty good at doing.