Thursday, May 19, 2011

Psychobabble’s 150 Essential Horror Movies Part 3: The 1940s

In this feature, Psychobabble creeps through more than 90 years of horror cinema to assemble a highly personal list of the genre’s 150 most monstrous works, decade by decade.

28. The Mummy’s Hand (1940- dir. Christy Cabanne)
The commercial and creative success of Son of Frankenstein in 1939 revived Universal Horror—and horror as a whole— after a four-year slump. The studio followed with further sequels, beginning with The Invisible Man Returns in the first days of 1940, but hitting a more confident stride the following September with silent-film vet Christy Cabanne’s The Mummy’s Hand. With eight years having elapsed since the last time the bandaged creep walked, this was the widest span between sequels from the golden age of Universal horror. The filmmakers took advantage of that span by doing what Hollywood now calls a “reboot.” Brooding, lovesick Imhotep, once revived by the Scroll of Toth, now gets his pep from tealeaves and goes by the name Kharis. Cowboy star Tom Tyler looks good in the bandages and eerie black contact lenses, but the mummy’s rebirth as a shuffling hulk doesn’t make for a very interesting monster, even if this has become the more enduring mode of mummy than Karloff’s. Fortunately, and for the first time in the history of Universal horror, we have some human characters that are actually more interesting than the monster. Our heroes are archeologist Steve Banning (Dick Foran, who looks like a beefy Jimmy Stewart), the perpetually clowning Brooklyn yahoo Babe Jenson (Wallace Ford), cherubic magician Solvani the Great (Cecil Kellaway), and his daughter Marta (Peggy Moran), a tough, Hawksian heroine (though one that inevitably ends up screaming, getting carried off by the monster, and fainting. Baby steps, feminist horror fans). The most refreshing aspect of The Mummy’s Hand is that all these people really, really love each other, which is quite a contrast to the usual sourpusses who get upstaged by the monsters in Universal’s horror pictures. When we think one of them has been killed by Kharis, we care and hope he pulls through. When these characters return as tragic figures cowering under Kharis’s curse in The Mummy’s Tomb, it is heartbreaking and I instantly lose interest in the Mummy series. As for our mummy, he’s essentially reduced to the role of Cesare the somnambulist in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, taking murderous commands from George Zucco’s string-pulling villain Andoheb. Simplistic as he is, Kharis would become the most well traveled Mummy, appearing in several sequels and getting the Hammer treatment from Christopher Lee in 1959. Marta Solvani’s legacy is less easy to trace, though she certainly seems to be the main inspiration for Marion Ravenwood in Raiders of the Lost Ark

29. The Wolf Man (1941- dir. George Waggner)

While Universal's monsters were getting a second wind from Son of Frankenstein and The Mummy's Hand, horror was splitting into two poles: schlocky poverty row potboilers (The Devil Bat, King of the Zombies) and glitzy prestige productions devoid of the genre’s primal power (MGM’s bland remake of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde). Amidst this mess Universal decided to stop playing it safe with their well-tried Monster stars and take a crack at a totally new series. Actually, The Wolf Man had been lingering for nearly a decade. The studio first began developing a film called The Wolf Man as a vehicle for Boris Karloff in 1932. Three years after that project faltered, the studio made a lycanthropic test-run with Werewolf of London, a limp affair that had Henry Hull playing a petulant botanist who only looks slightly wolfy after exposure to the full moon. Written by Curt Siodmak and directed by George Waggner (who’d go on to helm numerous episodes of “Batman” in the ‘60s), The Wolf Man reinvents the werewolf with a Jack Pierce make-up job only rivaled by his Frankenstein Monster and a fresh mythology. Much of what we now associate with werewolves—their aversion to silver, their association with the pentagram, their kinship with gypsies—leapt from Siodmak’s imagination. He also composed an ace nursery rhyme repeated infinitely throughout The Wolf Man and its sequels (“Even a man who is pure at heart and says his prayers by night / may become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright”). The film’s other great innovation is the introduction of Lon Chaney, Jr., as the next successor in his father’s monster-movie-star legacy. The former Creighton Hull Chaney embodies poor Larry Talbot with a dizzying combination of schlumpy amiability, awkwardness (his method of hitting on pretty Gwen Conliffe by explaining he’s been peeping on her through a telescope is…errr… novel), and frantic anxiety. No previous monster was as tormented as Talbot, and his relationship with his father, played with dignified intensity by Claude Rains, gives the film a Greek-tragedy twist. The Wolf Man was another smash for Universal, and Larry the Lycanthrope was so popular that Chaney resurrected him in a string of sequels throughout the rest of the decade even though he died at the end of each film! Such sloppy plotting was just one of the problems with Universal’s new wave of monster movies, but over at RKO studios, a new producer was gearing up to take horror in an entirely different, and rather cerebral, direction.

30. Cat People (1942- dir. Jacques Tourneur)

The Wolf Man was a big hit, so purveyors of chills decided the new big thing was “people turning into animals” movies. The following year, 20th Century Fox slapped together a schlock-o-la thriller starring J. Carrol Naish as a man-ape called Dr. Renault’s Secret. RKO Pictures had nothing more than a title for their bid in the anthropomorphic onslaught, and that title indicated their film would be no less cheesy. Production vice president Charles Kroener hired a pulp novelist and former story editor for David O. Selznick to produce Cat People. Val Lewton’s treatment of the project was hardly what Kroener expected. Instead of actors capering about in furry makeup, Cat People presented a subtle, moody, complex exploration of the dangers of sexual repression. The film’s “monster” is Irena Dubrovna (Simone Simon), a beautiful Serbian immigrant who is either a murderous she-panther or suffering from superstitious delusions. The film never makes this completely clear, quite unlike the graphically monstrous Wolf Man. Lewton hired a French director with an artistic eye to realize the film, and Jacques Tourneur allows the implied horrors to huddle in inky shadows rather than mug for the camera. The film’s biggest scare, and tastiest joke, is elicited by a bus screeching hydraulic brakes. Amazingly, audiences were most receptive to Lewton’s “terror of the unseen” philosophy, turning Cat People into such a massive hit that it single-handedly rescued RKO from bankruptcy after its major flop of the previous year, Citizen Kane (!). Just as amazingly, Cat People broke from contemporary trends by portraying religious superstitions and a woman’s denial of her sexuality as destructive; compare how Irena fairs in the film to Jane Randolph’s sexually confident Alice Moore. Cat People may be the first progressive horror film. It also turned Val Lewton into RKO’s golden boy. The studio spent the rest of the decade handing the producer goofy film titles (I Walked with a Zombie! The Leopard Man! The Curse of the Cat People!), and Lewton continually drew in audiences by building adult, psychological thrillers around those lurid titles. At times the pace was a bit too slow for the film’s own good, and at times the film strayed too far from horror (which is why the captivating fantasy Curse of the Cat People didn’t make this list), but he always produced intelligent work. More than any filmmaker before him, Val Lewton consistently proved horror could be sophisticated and subtle.

31. Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943- dir. Roy William Neill)

In Universal’s finest opening since the prologue of Bride of Frankenstein, a pair of grave robbers tip toe through a leaf-swept graveyard beneath the full moon. They creep into a crypt and crack open one of the sarcophagi inside. Removing the stalks of wolfsbane is a bad idea. A clawed hand reaches from the sarcophagus. A grave robber drops his lantern and ignites a blaze. Once-dead Larry Talbot is back, and no one is unhappier about that than Larry Talbot. Tormented by the knowledge that his unwilling killing spree has resumed, the Wolf Man (Lon Chaney, Jr.) begins his search for the one, true death that will lead him to the journals of the man who has already discovered life and death’s most awful secrets. Since Dr. Frankenstein is dead (the real kind of dead, not the temporary kind Universal’s other ghouls enjoy), Talbot must call on the talents of budding mad doc Mannering (Patric Knowles) to help him commit suicide. This could make way for a meaningful dialogue on the right to die. Instead, we get the inevitable meeting between the Wolf Man and the Frankenstein Monster. When we last left the Monster in Ghost of Frankenstein, he was blind and motored by the brain of Bela Lugosi’s evil Ygor. In Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, Lugosi finally plays the role he was offered in 1931 but reportedly turned down because he felt nonspeaking roles were beneath him. Sadly, his Monster would be rendered speechless in post-production because, as screenwriter Curt Siodmak was quoted in Philip J. Riley’s book on this movie, Lugosi’s voice “sounded so Hungarian funny that they had to cut it out!” And since his blindness is never mentioned in Meets, anyone who missed Ghost will have no idea why the Monster lumbers about with his arms extended as if feeling around for unseen obstacles. Despite that bungle, Lugosi’s floundering was adopted by Universal’s next Monster, Glenn Strange, and instantly became Frankenstein-shorthand for future generations of charades players. Lugosi was also in poor health during the production, so a stuntman fills the flattop in several shots blatantly. Such clumsiness isn’t easy to ignore. Neither are the intricate sets or Roy William Neill’s mobile camerawork. Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man also boasts Universal’s smoothest use of lap-dissolve transformations and its final appearances by Dwight Frye and Maria Ouspenskaya. The film’s greatest legacy is the strain of similar monster meetings it birthed. The direct-sequel Wolf Man vs. Dracula, which also would have followed up Son of Dracula, didn’t survive beyond Bernard Schubert’s script. Columbia’s The Return of the Vampire, which starred Lugosi as a non-Drac vampire leading his werewolf assistant through the London Blitz, filled that gap fairly well. King Kong vs. Godzilla, Freddy vs. Jason, Alien vs. Predator, and all the other monster tête-à-têtes owe a debt to Siodmak and Neill. As for the Wolf Man and the Frankenstein Monster, they’d return in House of Frankenstein with the unintentional comic undertones Abbott and Costello would make wholly intentional before the decade’s end. Ironically, neither the Wolf Man nor Abbott and Costello would ever actually meet Frankenstein!

32. I Walked with a Zombie (1943- dir. Jacques Tourneur)

Val Lewton’s disdain for the supernatural led him to produce a movie called Cat People that probably doesn’t have any cat people and a movie called I Walked with a Zombie that probably doesn’t have any zombies. Rather, the film is a very loose adaptation of Jane Eyre as a romantic familial mystery set on Saint Sebastian, where for a refreshing change, the well-adjusted black majority condescends to the white family falling to pieces on their old sugar plantation. Jessica Holland (the ethereal and dialogue-less Christine Gordon) is our possible zombie whose sole activity is the catatonic midnight strolls she takes out in the eerie cane fields. Betsy Connell (Frances Dee) is the charming but naïve nurse hired to care for Jessica. When Betsy arrives on the island, she’s so clueless that when her black driver explains how his people were brought to the island in chains at the bottom of a ship, she responds, “But they came to a beautiful place, didn’t they?” Yeesh. She gradually becomes more empathetic to the locals, who invite her to get Jessica treated at one of their nightly voodoo rituals. We are invited along for the film’s most beguiling sequence, in which Tourneur takes full advantage of his mastery of shadow, light, sound, and setting. Although it has a strong reputation among more intellectual Horror fans, I Walked with a Zombie is at its best when enthralling the senses rather than the intellect. Sir Lancelot’s appearances as an ominous, calypso-singing, one-man Greek chorus are far more memorable than the film’s soggy romantic entanglements. Tom Conway as Paul Rand and James Ellison as his half-brother Wesley Rand fail to generate much electricity. Betsy’s interactions with housekeeper Alma, played by the marvelous Theresa Harris, are much more interesting. Some dull stretches undermine the film’s reputation, and in the scheme of Lewton’s classic “horror” films, it isn’t nearly as much of a horror film as Cat People or The Body Snatcher (though it is more of a horror film than Curse of the Cat People, which is the best of them all). Still, I Walk with a Zombie excels in grimness and pessimism, and isn’t that a lot more dread-worthy than mere supernatural horror? 

33. The Uninvited (1944- dir. Lewis Allen)

Good ghost stories were a conspicuous rarity in the early years of horror cinema. Although they made up the bulk of creepy literature primed for adaptation—from Alexander Pushkin to Henry James, Washington Irving to Edith Wharton—spectral tales had yet to really break though on the big screen. In his book American Gothic, Jonathan Rigby implies such idiotic institutions as the Production Code Administration and the Catholic League of Decency were to blame, fearing ghost stories that took their subject matter too seriously might inspire occultism. There was the odd cute romance (Topper) or dopey comedy (The Ghost Breakers), but Hollywood didn’t really give up the ghost until 1943’s delightful The Uninvited. One can sense a genre feeling its way out of the womb while watching Lewis Allen’s film. Is this a romance? A comedy? A full-blooded spooker with chills at the top of its to-do list? The Uninvited is all these things, and one can draw a direct line from it to movies as dissimilar as The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (a marvelous film that didn’t make this list because it could hardly be labeled horror) and The Innocents. Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey are tremendously charismatic as the sibling team who move into a seaside house haunted by a whispering, weeping apparition invoked by some very effective effects. Although this film is rarely seen today, it is well worth hunting down and arguably responsible for the new crop of ghost stories queuing up behind it.

34. House of Frankenstein (1944- dir. Erle C. Kenton)

Universal launched the decade with a brand new monster icon, but there wasn’t much enthusiasm behind expanding their horror franchise further. The departure of Carl Laemmle, Jr., after Bride of Frankenstein left the studio without a horror champion. The new Powers That Be generally regarded the genre as a cheap cash cow, and if one monster could put Levis in the seats and dollars in the coffers, then imagine what a horde of them would do! The new “monster rally” subgenre got off with a tentative but promising start with 1943’s Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man. The following year, the cap really came off the coffin. “FRANKENSTEIN'S MONSTER! WOLF MAN! DRACULA! HUNCHBACK! MAD DOCTOR!... All the Screen's Titans of Terror - Together in the Greatest of All SCREEN SENSATIONS!” House of Frankenstein is the kind of matinee pap one would expect from a movie with such a tagline, but as far as matinee pap goes, it’s gold. Logic, craft, and all pretensions toward thoughtfulness are pitched out the crypt door, leaving nothing more than a gullet-choking feast for monster aficionados. Boris Karloff makes his final appearance in a Universal Frankenstein movie as escaped prisoner/mad scientist Dr. Niemann, who wants to take revenge on those responsible for his incarceration by resurrecting the Big-Three monsters and setting them loose on Germany (take that, Hitler!). Glenn Strange plays Frankenstein’s monster for the first time, but he makes little impression, his performance being strictly of the lumbering robot variety. John Carradine gives his first turn as Dracula, looking a bit more like the count Stoker described, but still making one wish Lugosi was in attendance. The most imaginative stroke is the bizarro love triangle between J. Carroll Naish’s Daniel the Hunchback, Elena Verdugo’s lusty gypsy Ilonka, and Lon Chaney Jr.’s Larry Talbot. If one could detect the last gasps of a once formidable genre in House of Frankenstein, at least the Universal monster movie was going to go out just as it came in: overflowing with fun.

35. The Body Snatcher (1945- dir. Robert Wise)

Less celebrated than Val Lewton’s teaming with Jacques Tourneur is his work with director Robert Wise. Despite making some of the best films of his era, Wise tends to get overlooked because he lacked a signature style. There’s little that links The Day the Earth Stood Still, West Side Story, and The Haunting aside from each film’s position among the best sci-fi flicks, musicals, and horror movies, respectively. Wise’s work was only moderately less atmospheric than Tourneur’s but considerably livelier. His Curse of the Cat People is the most beguiling film Lewton produced; the creepiest must be The Body Snatcher. The film’s horror pedigree is peerless. Along with the Lewton/Wise team is source material from Robert Louis Stevenson (The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) and another memorable meeting of Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. Lugosi’s part is considerably smaller here than it was in previous films that matched him with his more bankable counterpart, but he still does a nice job as the doomed simpleton, Joseph. Karloff gives a career performance as grave-robbing cabman John Gray. Never before had he been allowed so much room to explore a character, and Gray must have been an utter joy to play: completely enamored with his own lack of scruples, utterly charming in spite of his wickedness. Karloff certainly appears to be having a blast, singing lines of dialogue, allowing his richly expressive face to convey Gray’s unspoken plotting, his fears, and his pleasures. At times Karloff’s innate niceness seemed at odds with the nasty characters he portrayed. Sometimes that niceness added extra dimensions to his roles, as it did in the Frankenstein pictures. Sometimes he was just miscast. In The Body Snatcher, Karloff is simply delivering masterful acting. Because he is so electrifying, the film feels a little lifeless when he isn’t on screen, but that’s not really the film’s fault. It’s just that Karloff’s act is such a tough one to follow.

36. Dead of Night (1945- dir. Cavalcanti, Charles Crichton, Basil Dearden, Robert Hamer)

Sustaining a sensation as intense as terror is not easy, which is why brevity is the soul of horror. A skeletal ghost story related by a campfire can be more terrifying than an 800-page Stephen King tome. This is why the portmanteau has flourished with horror so much more than any other genre. Such films are like short story collections, each episode getting to its terrifying conclusion with a minimum of thumb twiddling, then moving on to the next one. Also like short story collections, they are inconsistent. The very first horror portmanteau is often ranked as the best, yet Dead of Night is as inconsistent as any of the ones that would follow. This issue is compounded by the fact that four different directors contributed episodes. Although Dead of Night was probably more of a producer’s film than a director’s, there’s no denying that Charles Crichton’s overlong comic relief “Golfing Story” sits uneasily alongside the film’s serious horrors. Robert Hamer’s “The Haunted Mirror” is a good story, but the image in the mirror is too mundane to create an effectively terrifying atmosphere. Otherwise, Dead of Night is a strong portmanteau that gets better with each viewing. On first viewing, Basil Dearden’s “Hearse Driver” seems too short to register, but its simplicity gives it the staying power of the classic ghost story on which it’s based. The best episodes of this British portmanteau belong to Brazilian filmmaker Alberto Cavalcanti. “Christmas Party” is predictable but beautifully staged and shot, the dreamy visuals complimenting both its period setting and it ghostly themes. Even better is “Ventriloquist’s Dummy”, in which Michael Redgrave comes unhinged when he thinks his dummy is… steel yourself… alive! This theme would become a veritable sub-genre in itself, creeping up in E.C. Comics, “The Twilight Zone” (which would also adapt “Hearse Driver” as an episode called “Twenty Two”), Magic, and elsewhere. These other variations often trumped the one in Dead of Night (Rod Serling’s “The Dummy” is the best), but it has the distinction of being the first to mine ventriloquism for scares, and Redgrave’s crazed expression while speaking in Hugo’s squeaky voice at the piece’s climax is utterly unnerving. However, all of these episodes are sedate compared to Basil Dearden's wraparound story. Compelled by a recurring nightmare, Walter Craig (Mervyn Johns) meets the tellers of these tales at a house party in the English countryside. He listens patiently to each scary story, experiencing uncanny chills through it all. Craig has good reason to feel uneasy, as all of those horror tales reprise in a climactic concerted attack on him. He moves from scene to scene, trapped in his labyrinthine nightmare, until coming face to face with Hugo the Dummy in the most traumatizing flourish. A last minute twist finishes the film in a fog of cyclical dread. Whether or not Dead of Night is the best horror portmanteau may be a matter of debate, but the status of its terrifying wraparound sure isn't. 

37. Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948- dir. Charles Barton)

Here’s where it all ends. A non-stop string of increasingly naff sequels drove the Universal monster movie right into a brick wall. There was only one thing left to do: allow Dracula, the Wolf Man, and the Frankenstein Monster to go out without a strand of dignity, descending into pure parody once and for all. Universal approached Boris Karloff to appear in the film, but he refused. He did agree to do a little promotion for Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein on the condition he didn’t actually have to see the movie. Karloff had no idea what he missed. Abbott and Costello’s best picture is a delight from soup to nuts. The duo gets plenty of opportunities to work their zany shtick in an environment of hidden doorways, secret lairs, and a chamber of horrors in which the wax works ain’t all made of wax. Lou’s child-man energy is infectious. Bud is terrific as his jealous buddy; bewildered by all the attention goofy Lou is getting from a pair of pretty women. Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein also works really well as a genuine monster flick. The creatures leave the larking to Abbott and Costello. Lon Chaney, Jr., is as tortured as ever as Larry Talbot, which sets up a few choice lines from Lou (Larry: “Every night when the moon is full, I turn into a wolf.” Lou: “You and twenty million other guys”). Vincent Price makes a memorable cameo as the Invisible Man. Most importantly, Bela Lugosi is allowed one last opportunity to don the cape that made him a star—his first time since playing the count in the original Dracula. Lugosi is terrific in this film, endearingly fatherly when seducing Lou into his confidence, but delivering the old menace when working his vampiry mojo. Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein was a giant hit and ensured Bud and Lou would have similar meetings with Mr. Hyde, the Invisible Man, and the Mummy in the future, but this would be the last time the holy trinity of creeps appeared in a Universal film. For a lot of kids, it was the first time they met the monsters, and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein has often served as a valuable gateway into less comedic horror classics. It certainly did for this writer.

38. The Queen of Spades (1949- dir. Thorold Dickinson)

As we’ve seen, Hollywood was tiring of supernatural horror in the ‘40s. The once mighty Universal monster movie had grown punchy. The spooks haunting RKO’s popular horrors were more psychological than otherworldly. At the same time, something was stirring across the pond. Produced by Ealing Studios in the U.K., Dead of Night was the first major horror portmanteau and the first horror film of the decade to blend high production values with a serious tone and supernatural scares.  Four years later, Associated British-Pathe produced The Queen of Spades based on a short story by revered Russian writer Alexander Pushkin. Thorold Dickinson’s ghost story is the most frightening film of the ‘40s, taking Val Lewton’s “horror of the unseen” philosophy and placing it in the supernatural realm. An army officer in 19th century Russia is obsessed with becoming an unbeatable card player. When he discovers that an old countess (Edith Evans, who is alternately scary, sad, and insufferable) has struck a demonic bargain to learn the secret of mastering Faro, he seeks to learn it by any means necessary. The flashback depicting the countess’ descent into the hidden basement room where she finalizes her deal cuts off at just the right moment to propel the imagination toward terror. The officer’s encounter with her whispering ghost is more explicit, but subtle enough to elicit chills more effectively than if Dickinson had traveled a more lurid route. The film only contains four or five moments of pure horror, but they are so powerful that they float weighty storm clouds over the costume drama mechanics that comprise the majority of the film. Britain had not conjured a monster to rival The Wolf Man in terms of iconography, but for sheer terror, The Queen of Spades easily trumped any American film of the ‘40s. When the U.S. seemed finished with old-fashioned horror for good in the next decade, the U.K. snatched the baton eagerly and sprinted all the way to Transylvania.

Creep on to the '50s…

Flee back to the ‘30s...
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