Sunday, 6 November 2011

Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1931)

Directed by: Rouben Mamoulian
Starring: Fredric March
             Miriam Hopkins
             Rose Hobart
Run time: 98 mins
Studio: Paramount
Black & White

Rouben Mamoulian’s Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde is regarded by many as the best movie version of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic tale, and it’s not hard to see why. Quite apart from its lavish production values, its attention to detail, its magnificent central performance (which earned Fredric March a well-deserved Academy Award - a rare distinction for a horror film) and its famous special effects, the film benefits enormously from having been made before the full enforcement of the censorious Motion Picture Production Code (popularly known as the Hays Code, after Hollywood’s chief censor Will H. Hays), allowing Mamoulian to explore his subject matter with considerably more frankness and honesty than he might have been able to had the film been made a few years later. Basically, anyone who’s ever suspected that Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is really the story of one man’s repressed sexuality erupting to the surface need look no further than Mamoulian’s film for confirmation of their suspicions.

That the film is to be an exploration of one man's psyche is established from the outset, with Mamoulian using subjective camera lensing in the opening scene to place the audience directly inside Jekyll’s head. The man we encounter there is a cultured and seemingly untroubled individual, used to the luxuries of life and happy to spend his time reciting Bach amid the opulent surroundings of his London home (and gently rebuking his manservant Poole (Edgar Norton) for failing to be moved by the music) rather than attending the local doctors’ symposium, where he is due to give a lecture that evening. Jekyll’s lectures, we are told, are popular and always sensational. He is quite the celebrity and clearly one of the leading intellectuals of his day; but Mamoulian’s use of the subjective camera alerts us to the fact that with this success has come an unhealthy degree of self-absorption, possibly bordering on narcissism, a point that is underscored by the fact that our first sight of Jekyll (while we are still viewing the world through is eyes) is his reflection in a hall mirror as he is preparing to leave the house.

Jekyll, we quickly learn, sees himself as a visionary who recognises no limits to scientific enquiry, unlike his learned colleagues.  During his lecture at the symposium he chides them for allowing the London fog to penetrate their minds and cloud their reason. He informs them that he has analysed the human soul and has come to believe that man is not truly one. Part of man strives for nobility (the good side) while the bad side seeks an expression of impulses that ‘bind him to some dim animal relation’ of the earth. The two sides are chained together but carry out a struggle – repression to the evil, remorse to the good. Jekyll believes that if he splits the two sides then the good will reach greater heights and the bad will be able to fulfil itself and leave us alone. To this end, he has begun experimenting with certain chemicals.

Monday, 1 August 2011

Dracula (1931)

Directed by: Tod Browning
Starring:   Bela Lugosi
               Helen Chandler              
               David Manners
               Dwight Fry
               Edward Van Sloan
Running time: 75 mins
Studio: Universal
Black & White

Dracula is a frustrating film to watch. It is undoubtedly of historical importance (in the year 2000 it was selected for inclusion in the USA's National Film Registry), it made a star of its leading man, Bela Lugosi, and its huge box-office success helped usher in the Golden Age of Hollywood horror. Unfortunately, however, I don't think it's terribly good. "Blasphemy!" I hear you cry? Well, maybe - but as a film by Tod Browning, who was still one of the leading Hollywood directors of his day, Dracula is a long way from representing his best work. Indeed, some sources suggest that Browning had very little interest in the material and left much of the shoot up to his cinematographer, Karl Freund. There are several reasons why this might have been the case. For a start, Dracula was originally envisaged by Universal as a major spectacle along the lines of The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Phantom of the Opera, but the Great Depression put paid to that idea. Also, the screenplay was based not on the original novel but on the heavily abridged stage version that had been running very successfully on Broadway, giving Browning no opportunity to reimagine the material for himself. Finally, and probably most importantly, the original plan had been to cast Browning's long-time friend and collaborator Lon Chaney in the lead role, but Chaney died in 1930 after contracting lung cancer and suffering a throat haemorrhage. Apparently, Lugosi only got the part (which he had played in the Broadway production) because he effectively pestered the studio to give it to him and agreed to a substantial cut in his salary. All in all, it was a very inauspicious start.

Dracula is very much a film of two halves: the first twenty minutes, and the rest of the film. It begins promisingly: A carriage rattles along through a lonely Transylvanian mountain pass – on board a group of travellers including English solicitor, Renfield (Dwight Frye) are thrown from side to side while one of their number reads aloud from a guide book warning of the many evils abroad in this remote part of the world. Arriving at one of those Transylvanian villages that were to become a staple of horror movies for decades to come, the travellers alight; but Mr Renfield is travelling on to Borgo Pass to meet another carriage at midnight. The news invokes terror among the peasants. Where is he going? To Castle Dracula, he informs them. But he cannot! Dracula and his wives live there and they are shape-shifting, coffin-dwelling bloodsuckers! He must stay, especially now that the sun is setting. Renfield protests –he has no choice: it’s a matter of business and he is obliged to go. The peasants hurry away inside, but not before one of them has given Renfield a crucifix for his protection. Puzzled but not especially concerned by the peasants’ warnings, Renfield boards the coach again and disappears off into the sunset.

Monday, 11 July 2011

The Last Warning (1929)

Directed by: Paul Leni
Starring: Laura LaPlante
              Montagu Love
              Roy D'Arcy
              John Boyles
Run time: 88 mins
Studio:    Universal
Black & White

The Last Warning was Universal Studio’s unsubtle but entirely understandable attempt to cash in on the huge success of 1927’s The Cat and the Canary. Unfortunately, however, as a follow-up to the earlier film, The Last Warning can only really be regarded as a qualified success. Indeed, if truth be told, it’s something of a disappointment. This is doubly sad when you consider that it was director Paul Leni’s last film (tragically, he died of blood poisoning not long after it was made). I should make it clear from the outset, however, that the disappointment doesn't stem from any lack of ability on Leni's part - he remained to the end one of early Hollywood's most inventive directors. No, the problem lies entirely with the script (and yes, you guessed it - it's another stage play adaptation!).

The film opens with a dizzying montage sequence depicting 1920s Broadway - the so-called “electric highway of happiness” - with its bright lights, limousines, dancing girls and blackface minstrels. We arrive at the Woodford Theatre (in reality the re-used Paris Opera House set from Phantom of the Opera) on the opening night of a play called The Snare; but there is panic in the stalls -  John Woodford (D'Arcy Corrigan), leading light of the Broadway stage, has been murdered during a mysterious blackout in the play's first scene (the obvious joke about actors dying on stage is mercifully resisted) and his fellow actors are in the process of being questioned backstage by the police. The theatre's owners, Josiah and Robert Bunce (Burr McIntosh and Mack Swain), brothers who speak in unison, are also in attendance. During the questioning, Irish stage manager Mike Brady (Bert Roach) reveals how he overheard a terrible argument between the play's director, Richard Quayle (John Boles) and Woodford coming from the leading lady's dressing room the night before. It turns out that the leading lady, Miss Doris Terry (Laura La Plante) is a very popular young lady indeed - not only is her dressing room filled with ostentatious floral bouquets from John Woodford (who apparently considered Terry the love of his life), but there are roses from Richard Quayle, too. In addition, there is a framed photograph of caddish-looking fellow actor Harvey Carleton (Reg D'Arcy) inscribed with Carleton's own message of adoration.  The film is barely fifteen minutes old and already the suspects are lining up. Things become even more suspicious when the Coroner (Harry Northrup) arrives and discovers that while everyone has been talking, Woodford's body has mysteriously disappeared. So far, so good - it looks as if we might have a decent mystery on our hands.

Sunday, 26 June 2011

West of Zanzibar (1928)

Directed by Tod Browning
Starring: Lon Chaney          
              Lionel Barrymore
              Mary Nolan
              Warner Baxter
Run time: 65 mins
Studio: MGM
Black & White

West of Zanzibar was the penultimate collaboration between director Tod Browning and actor Lon Chaney (the following year's Where East is East was the last) and explores familiar territory, with Chaney cast as yet another down-at-heel showman grievously wronged in love and out for revenge. But whereas 1927's The Unknown, morbid though it is, had an almost fairy-tale quality to it (owing to its circus setting and central love story) West of Zanzibar has no such redeeming feature; it’s a nasty, grubby little film, and quite possibly the most morally depraved of its era. That sounds as if I’m getting ready to knock it, but nothing could be further from the truth: although critical opinion generally favours The Unknown, I actually prefer West of Zanzibar. Indeed, it's one of my favourite films from the 1920s.

Browning wastes no time in laying his cards on the table: the film begins with a quote from the Anglican burial service - “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” – before cutting to a shot of a bleached skeleton propped in an upright coffin. Having symbolically established that death is going to be a prominent feature of the film, Browning then reveals that the coffin is part of a cheap trick being performed by a downmarket stage magician named Phroso (Lon Chaney), in which the skeleton is transformed into the beautiful form of Phroso’s wife, Anna (Jacqueline Gadsden).

Anna, we quickly learn, is a very unhappy woman. Leered at by the unsavoury-looking audience, she smiles and goes through the motions of putting on a show; but behind the scenes she is wracked by guilt and self-doubt as she contemplates leaving her husband and running away to Africa with a businessman named Crane (Lionel Barrymore) who is hoping to establish himself in the Congo region as an ivory merchant. We are given to distrust Crane from the start: when we first meet him he is lurking in the corner behind the dressing room door, waiting like some predatory animal for Anna's return. Realising that Anna's guilt is preventing her from telling Phroso about their affair, Crane offers to do the job for her and confronts Phroso in the theatre flies. As might be expected, Phroso is devastated on hearing the news, and the situation is only made worse by Crane's manifest delight at the sight of the magician's heartbreak and despair. Since there is no evidence of any history between the two men, or that Phroso has ever treated Anna badly, one can only assume that Crane's unfeeling behaviour stems from him simply being a sadistic bastard rather than from anything Phroso might have done to deserve such cruelty. Unfortunately, the confrontation turns physical and ends with Phroso falling from the balcony and breaking his spine on the stage below.

Thursday, 9 June 2011

The Bat (1926)

Directed by Roland West
Starring: Jewel Carmen
               Jack Pickford
               Emily Fitzroy
               Tullio Carminali
Run time: 88 mins
Studio: United Artists
Black & White

Whoops. My plan to review the horror films of the 1920s in chronological order has come unstuck. Somehow I managed to forget about The Bat, even while I was writing my review of West's The Monster (1925). It was only while searching for the next film to review (another Lon Chaney) that I discovered the The Bat wedged between Roger Corman's The Terror and Tobe Hooper's Texas Chainsaw Massacre (I really need to organise my DVDs better!). As I fed the disc into the player I did worry that maybe I'd forgotten about The Bat because I didn't like it or because it wasn't very good; but happily I can report that although my personal preference is for The Monster, The Bat is in fact a better film and further proof that West deserves to be better remembered than he is.

The Bat is yet another old dark house thriller based on yet another successful Broadway stage play (although, in fact, it began life as a novel) and, like The Monster, its storyline has more holes in it than a Swiss cheese; but West's frenetic direction doesn't allow us much time to ponder them - as with The Monster, the action in The Bat moves at a furious pace. Characters don't just creep around the old dark houses in West's films - they race through them, run up and down the stairs, leap over furniture, and swing through windows. The Bat is essentially a farce, characterized as it is by an elaborate and improbable plot, multiple chase scenes, and a generous helping of verbal and physical humour.

The Bat of the title is a master criminal (and, incidentally, an acknowledged inspiration for Bob Kane's Batman) who has been running rings around the police for some time. Something of a celebrity, whose escapades are reported regularly in the papers, the Bat is famous for the sinister costume he wears to mask his real identity. Though he is known primarily as a thief, the Bat has a darker side to his nature, as revealed in the opening scene in which he breaks into the penthouse of a jewel collector named Gideon Bell (George Beranger) and murders him for the sake of stealing just one of the "fabulous Favre emeralds" (in fairness to the Bat, however, it should be noted that he does give Bell advance warning of his intention to rob him, so maybe Bell should have heeded the warning and cleared out of the apartment instead of waiting with a gun to catch the thief in the act). Escaping through the window and across the rooftops, the Bat leaves behind a bat-shaped calling card informing the police that he is going to take a short break in the countryside.

This trip to the countryside turns out to be a trip to Oakdale County, where it transpires that the Bat intends to rob the county bank. Unfortunately, however, someone has beaten him to it. As the Bat watches through the skylight, a mysterious Man in a Black Mask (Charles Hertzinger) opens the safe and removes a large sum of money. Scurrying away from the bank with the cash in a bag, the Man in the Black Mask gets into a car and speeds off into the night. Disconcerted and annoyed, the Bat decides to follow in his own prototype batmobile. The Man in the Black Mask leads him to a lonely, moonlit mansion built and designed, we are told, by a certain Courtleigh Fleming, recently deceased president of the Oakdale Bank. The Bat watches from the trees as the Man in the Black Mask breaks into the house through a basement window.

Tuesday, 31 May 2011

The Unknown (1927)

Directed by Tod Browning
Starring: Lon Chaney
              Joan Crawford
              Norman Kerry
Run time: 49 mins (originally 63)
Studio: MGM
Black & White

The Unknown is an example of a certain kind of horror movie that flourished in the 1910s and ‘20s, one that dealt with deformity and mutilation and fixated on the idea of the ugly as monstrous. The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Phantom of the Opera are two obvious examples, but there were many others. It has been suggested (in the documentary film Universal Horror, for instance) that one of the reasons people responded to these films may have been because of the unprecedented numbers of maimed and mutilated soldiers that were returning from the Great War; soldiers who in previous conflicts would have died from their injuries but who now acted as unwelcome reminders of mankind's capacity for senseless cruelty and violence. It was the horror film as catharsis.

The director most associated with this kind of film is Tod Browning, and together with actor Lon Chaney he produced a string of films during this period in which Chaney played a variety of violent and murderous cripples. Browning, who at the age of sixteen had run away to join the circus, was able to draw inspiration for several of these films from his experiences as a traveller with various carnivals, where he had mixed with the extraordinary individuals who made up the freak shows that were popular in their day. Thus he was able to bring to his work a very personal perspective on the theme of physical deformity. Browning certainly acknowledged the horror that his audiences felt at the sight of disfigurement, but he refused to let them have it all their own way - in his most famous film, 1932's Freaks, he subverted expectations by presenting the sideshow freaks as basically honourable and decent people, while it was the 'normal' characters who were evil and monstrous, exploiting the freaks for personal gain. While it was quite possibly an expression of natural sympathy on the director's part, this theme of exploitation might also have been Browning's indictment on a society that came to his films in the hope of justifying its prejudices and assuaging its guilt. The theme of exploitation is also present in The Unknown, where the central character, an evil amputee, isn't quite what he at first appears to be.

The film opens with crowds arriving at Antonio Zanzi's gypsy circus, where Alonzo the Armless (Chaney), "sensation of sensations...wonder of wonders", is about to perform his death-defying knife act with Zanzi's daughter, the beautiful Nanon (Joan Crawford). Using his feet in lieu of arms, Alonzo fires bullets and hurls knives at the moving target against which Nanon is standing. On hand to assist with placing the weapons between Alonzo's feet is the dwarf Cojo, dressed as the Devil. The act is a great success and is followed by another of the circus's highlights: Malbar the Mighty (Norman Kerry), who performs incredible feats of strength.

Malbar, it transpires, is in love with Nanon, a fact that doesn't sit well with Alonzo, who harbours his own infatuation for the young woman. Nanon tries to reassure Alonzo that he has nothing to worry about - brute strength just doesn't interest her - but her eyes tell a different story: she is clearly attracted to the strongman despite her claim that she has had enough of being 'pawed' by men, whom she regards as 'beasts'. Alonzo offers his sympathies - "Always fear them," he tells her. "Always hate them." - while in secret confessing to Cojo that he intends to have Nanon all to himself. It might be easier if Malbar were the kind of brutish male that Nanon professes to hate, but in reality he is a thoroughly decent chap, and Alonzo knows it. Declaring his love, Malbar offers Nanon hands to caress her and strength to protect her; but, drawn to him though she is, she still flinches from his touch.