Grisly grave-robbing in Edinburgh

Released 25 May 1945, The Body Snatcher was based on Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1884 short story of the same name. It was the first of three films Boris Karloff did with RKO Radio Pictures after leaving Universal, and the final film in which he co-starred with Béla Lugosi.

Though Karloff continued doing horror pictures, he felt the Frankenstein’s Monster franchise had run out of steam, and didn’t want to be involved with it in any capacity any longer, even though he no longer played the Monster in these films. He lauded RKO producer Val Lewton as “the man who rescued him from the living dead and restored, so to speak, his soul.”

In 1831 Edinburgh, cabman John Gray (Karloff) drops Mrs. Marsh (Rita Corday) and her young daughter Georgina (Sharyn Moffett, now 84 years old) off at the home of the esteemed Dr. Wolfe “Toddy” MacFarlane (Henry Daniell). Little Georgina was paralysed after a carriage rolled on top of her, an accident which took the life of her father. She seemed to be recovering at first, but then her condition worsened.

Mrs. Marsh says all the other doctors recommended Dr. MacFarlane very highly, and feels he’s their final hope. The consultation doesn’t seem to be getting anywhere, since Georgina can’t even tell him where exactly it hurts, but everything changes when Dr. MacFarlane’s student Donald Fettes (Russell Wade) comes in.

Georgina immediately warms to him, and lets him pick her up and put her on a table in another room. Without even trying, Fettes gets all the preliminary information needed. He calls Dr. MacFarlane in to take a look at the bony tumour at the base of Georgina’s spine, and surgery is suggested.

Dr. MacFarlane bears no ill will towards the Marshes, but begs off performing surgery. He’s far too busy with his teaching duties, and isn’t sure if he’s still as good of a physician as he is a med school teacher. If he operated on all the desperate people who come to him, he’d have no time to teach.

After the Marshes leave, Fettes announces he’s quitting med school because he hasn’t enough funds. Dr. MacFarlane, loath to lose one of his best students, offers him a paid position as a lab assistant for a very important research project.

At night, Gray arrives with a fresh corpse for Dr. MacFarlane’s anatomy class, and tells Fettes to unlock a desk where the money is kept. His fee for this service is £10. Fettes doesn’t think too much of it until he discovers just where this body came from.

Fettes is horrified to discover the body was the victim of grave robbery, and that the young man’s loyal little dog was murdered while standing watch over his lost master. He understands the importance of human vivisection for teaching med students, but doesn’t feel it’s right to obtain the bodies by robbing graves.

Mrs. Marsh returns to beg Fettes for Dr. MacFarlane to operate on Georgina. Initially Dr. MacFarlane agrees, but soon walks back to his fear of no longer being a good enough surgeon and better-suited to the classroom.

Gray and Fettes manage to convince Dr. MacFarlane to do the operation. Fettes appeals to his humanitarian side, while Gray reminds him there’s a dark secret in his past. It would be a shame if that secret were revealed.

Not realizing what kind of trouble he’s about to wade into, Fettes asks Gray to get another body for anatomy class. He assumes Gray will dig up a grave, but instead is delivered the fresh corpse of someone who was alive and healthy just that night.

When Fettes shares his suspicions with Dr. MacFarlane, he’s told he might be arrested as an accomplice to murder if he reports Gray to the cops.

Georgina’s operation appears to be a success, but she doesn’t think she can stand up and walk. Dr. MacFarlane did everything right, but Georgina insists it’s impossible. As someone who couldn’t walk for eleven months following my car accident, I know all too well that powerful mind-body connection.

Dr. MacFarlane goes to the local tavern to drink away his disappointment, and Gray once again taunts him about that dark secret from his past.

Then Dr. MacFarlane’s servant Joseph (Lugosi) pays a visit to Gray and attempts to blackmail him, which sets in motion a thick and fast parade of horrors.

 

A desperate search for a marauding ape and a cure for polio

Released 30 September 1940, The Ape was Boris Karloff’s final film in his six-picture contract with Poverty Row studio Monogram. Despite the studio’s low-budget profile, this film was one of their “top bracket productions” for the 1940–41 cinematic year.

The Ape was based on Adam Hull Shirk’s play of the same name, which débuted in 1924 in Hollywood. The play earned high praise, and was compared to horror film classics The Bat and The Cat and the Canary, Ralph Spence’s play The Gorilla (which was made into several films), and Rudyard Kipling’s short story “The Mark of the Beast.”

In the source material, there’s a prologue in India, depicting a Hindu priest putting a curse on an Englishman who killed a sacred ape. Thirty years later, the Englishman is sent to L.A. to be taken care of by his family, since he’s such a hot mess.

Monogram filmed the play as House of Mystery in 1934, then remade it in 1940 with barely any similarities.

The Los Angeles Times praised the film as engrossing, and Karloff as “the skilled player of slightly eerie but really kindly character roles for which he is famous.”

In a 2015 essay for the British Film Institute, curator Vic Pratt named The Ape as one of Karloff’s ten essential films.

The circus is coming to the small, insular town of Red Creek, which greatly excites four boys who can’t stay away from trouble. After they watch a circus poster going up and excitedly talk about the coming wonders, they decide to go swimming.

On the way there, they pass Dr. Bernard Adrian’s house and begin throwing rocks at his windows. They succeed in breaking some, which greatly upsets Dr. Adrian when he arrives home on his bike.

Almost no one in town likes or trusts Dr. Adrian, who came there ten years ago during a polio epidemic and now spends his time doing unorthodox experiments. He lost his wife and daughter to the dreaded disease, and has made it his life’s mission to find a cure.

Dr. Adrian’s sole patient is Francis Clifford (Maris Wrixon), a young woman who was stricken by polio during the epidemic and now lives in a wheelchair. He feels a special connection to Frances because he lost his own daughter to polio, and doesn’t want anyone in the world to ever suffer such a dreaded disease again.

Though Francis and her mother have faith in Dr. Adrian’s promises of walking again, Francis’s beau Danny is very suspicious. He outright admits he doesn’t like or trust what he doesn’t understand.

That evening, Francis and Danny go to the circus. Though Francis wants Dr. Adrian to come too, he begs off and says his experiments to find a cure are too important to ignore.

Francis is captivated by a female aerialist, and dreams of someday being that mobile and coordinated.

After the circus adjourns, ape Nabu (an obvious person in a gorilla suit) turns on his cruel trainer, whose brother he killed prior. One of the other circus employees rightly points out to the indignant trainer that apes, or any animals, only become so vicious in response to repeated abuse. He wouldn’t act like that if he were treated kindly.

Nabu breaks out of his cage and attacks the trainer when they’re alone, and starts a fire with the trainer’s cigar. During the ensuing panic and commotion, Nabu flees.

The injured trainer is taken to Dr. Adrian, who’s unable to save him. However, the trainer proves very useful to Dr. Adrian’s experiments. Never before has he had spinal fluid from a human subject, something he believes is the key to curing polio.

Dr. Adrian begins giving Francis the injections the very next day, and they seem to have immediate effect. Though Francis has great pains in her legs and finds them like lead weights, this is huge progress. For someone who had no feeling in her legs for ten years, any sensation is positive.

That night, Nabu breaks into Dr. Adrian’s house and attacks him, and here the plot thickens. As the search for Nabu continues, suspicions begin piling up that he’s near Dr. Adrian’s house. More spinal serum is also desperately needed after Nabu destroyed the originals, and another tube accidentally rolled onto the floor and broke.

But no matter what happens, Dr. Adrian is bound and determined to fully cure Francis, both mind and body.

A mad surgeon seeks revenge

Released 8 July 1935, The Raven is, as might be expected from the title, inspired by Edgar Allan Poe’s famous poem. But just as with the previous year’s The Black Cat, it has very little to do with the source material. TPTB also once again insulted Béla Lugosi by billing him second to Boris Karloff, despite being the main character. To make it even worse, Lugosi only earned $5,000 for the film vs. Karloff’s $10,000.

At least seven people worked on the script from August 1934–March 1935. To avoid “running the risk of excessive horror,” the Production Code Administration forbade Universal from showing operation scenes, as well as much more horrific makeup for Karloff’s character.

The Netherlands, Ontario, British Columbia, and China were among the places which banned the film. The Raven was the final horror film approved by the British Board of Film Censors.

The Raven was also the last film in Universal’s trilogy of Poe-inspired films, the others being Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932) and The Black Cat.

Young dancer Jean Thatcher (Irene Ware) is injured in a horrible car accident, and all her doctors pronounce her too far gone to save. Her dad, Judge Thatcher (Samuel Hinds), and her fiancé Jerry Halden (Lester Matthews), however, refuse to abandon hope, and beg retired Dr. Richard Vollin (Lugosi) to operate.

Dr. Vollin has many reservations, and doesn’t think they should fear the natural, inevitable process of death, but finally is compelled into operating.

Jean and Dr. Vollin become close friends after the surgery, and Jean sees him as more of a god than a man. In the course of their friendship, Dr. Vollin tells Jean about his love of Edgar Allan Poe and shows her his macabre collection of torture devices. They’ve become so attached to one another, they want to marry.

Judge Thatcher is none too pleased to learn of their plans, particularly since Jean’s already engaged to another man. Dr. Vollin exchanges harsh words with Judge Thatcher before taking his leave in a huff.

Dr. Vollin sees a perfect window of opportunity for twisted revenge when a fugitive, Edmond Bateman (Karloff), comes to him and begs for surgery to disguise his appearance. No one will nab him for murder, bank robbery, and escaping prison if he looks nothing like his old self.

Dr. Vollin says he’s not a plastic surgeon, but asks Bateman for help in getting revenge on the Thatchers. Bateman refuses, saying he believes his anti-social behaviour is the result of being called ugly his entire life. A brand-new face is the perfect chance to turn over a new leaf.

Sorry about the obnoxious watermark on a public domain image!

Bateman is horrified to see the results of his surgery. The left side of his face is normal, but the right side is utterly deformed. Dr. Vollin cackles maniacally, from his observation post just above the operating room, as Bateman shoots at all the mirrors which emerge from behind curtains. Bateman tries to shoot Dr. Vollin next, but is out of ammo.

Having little choice, Bateman agrees to help Dr. Vollin in getting revenge. Dr. Vollin promises to fix his face if he does this.

Jean, Jerry, and Judge Thatcher are among the guests at a dinner party Dr. Vollin presently throws. When Jean goes to her guestroom to fix her hair, she sees Bateman standing behind her and is terrified. She rushes back downstairs, where Dr. Vollin calmly explains Bateman is his servant, and makes up a story about how his face came to be mutilated. Dr. Vollin also claims it’s natural for doctors to love death and torture.

Judge Thatcher has serious reservations about spending the night in Dr. Vollin’s house, but Jean and Jerry laugh off his fears.

With all the guests retired for the night, Dr. Vollin shows Bateman his dungeon, full of torture instruments from Poe’s work. While Dr. Vollin is lying on a torture slab from “The Pit and the Pendulum” to demonstrate how it works, Bateman throws the switch to manacle his hands and feet and start the swinging pendulum.

Dr. Vollin persuades Bateman to release him by saying Bateman’s face will remain disfigured if he dies.

As a thunderstorm rages, Dr. Vollin intensifies his Poeian plan for revenge, which grows more and more deranged by the minute.

Making a macabre mate for a monster

Bride of Frankenstein, the first sequel to the 1931 classic Frankenstein, premièred 19 April 1935 in Chicago and went into general release the next day. Universal’s horror franchise was at its peak during the 1930s, with big budgets and strong scripts guaranteeing A pictures.

A sequel was in the works since the very successful preview screenings of the 1931 film, though director James Whale was very reticent to revisit the story. When he was finally convinced to take the job, he rejected several scripts from different writers. Finally, the work of William J. Hurlbut and Edmund Pearson was accepted and submitted to the infamous Hays Office for approval in November 1934.

Filming began 2 January 1935, with a budget almost equal to that of the original, $293,750 ($5.48 million in 2020). Shooting was projected to take 36 days, but went ten days over, wrapping on 7 March. Director Whale shut down production for ten days because O.P. Heggie wasn’t available to play the Hermit on schedule.

The final cost was $397,023 ($9.27 million today), over $100,000 ($1.86 million today) over budget. The final edit was finished just days before the première.

BOF earned $2 million by 1943 ($29.6 million now), with a profit margin of $950,000 ($14 million today). By and large, critics highly praised it, a reputation which has remained consistent over the last 85 years.

In 1988, BOF was added to the U.S. National Film Registry for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant,” and it routinely appears on those incessant best-of lists.

Mary Shelley, her husband Percy Bysshe Shelley, and their buddy Lord Byron are hanging out on a dark and stormy night. When the fellows praise Mary for her novel Frankenstein, she stresses her intention was to impart a moral lesson, not merely to entertain. She also says there’s more of the story yet to be told, since neither monster nor creator perished.

We then shift to the end of the 1931 film, when it looked as though the Monster was burnt alive in a windmill as a mob of angry villagers cheered. This euphoria is quickly dashed when they realise Dr. Henry Frankenstein is also probably burnt to a crisp along with his creation.

Hans, father of Maria (the little girl the Monster accidentally drowned in the first film), wants to see the remains to prove this menace is gone. Towards this end, and against his wife’s wishes and the Burgomeister’s orders, he makes his way to the still-burning windmill.

Curiosity kills the cat when Hans falls through a hole leading to a flooded cavern under the windmill, where the Monster lurks. Both Hans and his wife are killed. The Frankensteins’ servant Minnie (the hilarious Una O’Connor) comes upon the scene next, and flees in terror.

No one believes Minnie when she says the Monster is still very much alive.

Henry (Colin Clive) is taken home, where his fiancée Elizabeth (Valerie Hobson) realises he’s not dead, just wounded and shocked. After Elizabeth lovingly nurses him back to health, Henry tries to settle down to a quiet, peaceful life, but you know what they say about the best-laid plans of mice and men.

Dr. Septimus Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger), Henry’s old mentor, visits and suggests Henry continue his experiments with reanimating the dead. Elizabeth has a very bad feeling about this.

Pretorius shows Henry a bunch of miniature people in jars—a king and queen, a ballerina, an archbishop, a mermaid, a devil. There’s a bit of humor when the king escapes his jar to be with the queen, resulting in Pretorius picking him up with tweezers and putting him back in his jar.

Creating a life-sized human is the ultimate goal, and Pretorius suggests they make a mate for the Monster. Pretorius will create the brain, and Henry will collect body parts.

Meanwhile, the Monster saves a shepherdess (Anne Darling) from drowning, and has his kindness repaid by screams. After two hunters wound the Monster, they alert the villagers, and presently an angry mob captures the Monster, takes him to a dungeon, and chains him up.

The Monster manages to escape and flees into the forest, as the mob continues hunting him. At night, he enters the cabin of a blind old hermit playing the violin, and for the very first time makes a friend. For so long, the hermit has been praying for a friend to take away his loneliness. The hermit also teaches him to speak.

Their newfound mutual happiness is short-lived, as very soon two lost hunters arrive and recognise the Monster. They can’t see the pure, kind-hearted creature the hermit does, and provoke him into accidentally burning down the cabin.

While hiding in a crypt, the Monster spies Pretorius and two other guys grave-robbing. After the other two leave, Pretorius tells the Monster about the plan to create a wife.

But will Henry hold up his end of the bargain in bringing this creature to life, and will the two monsters live happily ever after?

A hypnotic murder mystery

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948) was so popular, a second Meet film was created for them. Originally, Meet the Killer was entitled Easy Does It and intended for Bob Hope, but Universal bought the rights and reworked it. A&C’s prior two films, Mexican Hayride and Africa Screams, weren’t exactly their strongest work, and they needed another hit.

Boris Karloff’s character was initially a woman named Madame Switzer, and the film was called Meet the Killers. Five days before shooting began, Karloff was hired, and the character became a swami.

In New Zealand and Australia, censors removed every scene with a corpse. Denmark banned the film because of a scene where corpses play cards.

Meet the Killer was filmed from 10 February–26 March 1949 and released on 22 August 1949. Sadly, Lou was stricken by a relapse of rheumatic fever after filming wrapped and bedridden for several months. That November, he had to have an operation on his gangrenous gallbladder. Because of his illness, the next A&C film didn’t begin production till 28 April 1950.

Freddie Phillips (Lou) and Casey Edwards (Bud), a bellboy and detective, respectively, at the Lost Caverns Resort Hotel, are swept up in a lot of trouble when famous, short-tempered criminal lawyer Amos Strickland checks in. Shortly after he has Freddie fired for his hilarious incompetence, Freddie goes to his hotel room to apologise.

Freddie doesn’t realise Strickland is a corpse, nor does he see a mysterious hand in a black glove reaching under the curtains. When it finally gets through to him, Freddie races to the lobby in terror.

Suspicion is cast on Freddie when guest Mike Relia reports someone broke into his room and stole his gun. Bellboys have keys to all the rooms, and he also yelled at Strickland and was fired shortly before the murder.

The missing gun turns up in Freddie’s room, which makes him look even worse. Casey believes his innocence, and goes with him to Relia’s room to return the gun. While in the room, they discover a damning telegram.

Freddie opens the door to check if the coast is clear while Casey plants the gun in a suit pocket, and up comes a swami who hynotises Freddie.

Inspector Wellman (James Flavin) and Sgt. Stone (Mikel Conrad) order Freddie kept in custody as a guest of the state in his hotel room until his name is cleared. This is hardly a punishment, as Freddie lives it up with room service and beautiful female employees giving him beauty treatments.

Freddie’s luck becomes even worse when his date Angela compels him to write and sign a confession, pretending the real killer will confess when he sees it.

Casey sends Relia’s fingerprints to HQ and reports he has a criminal history, with Strickland serving as his lawyer. The investigators don’t think this is damning evidence, since his criminal past is common knowledge and ancient history, and six of Strickland’s other past clients are also at the hotel and received the same telegram.

Angela falls under suspicion too when she’s accused of mixing a poisonous champagne cocktail.

The swami creeps into Freddie’s room that night and hypnotises him again. His orders entice Freddie into putting a noose around his neck, but Freddie is cowardly even under hypnosis, and falls backwards instead of jumping.

Not deterred, the swami asks Freddie to kill himself with a gun. This also fails, and the swami asks how he’d prefer to die. Freddie wisely answers “Old age.”

The swami asks him to jump out of a window next, but Freddie jumps backwards into the room. All these refusals make the swami angry, and he goes after Freddie with a knife, ordering him to plunge it into his heart.

Freddie still refuses to kill himself.

The swami thinks he’s finally found success when he asks Freddie if he’d plunge the knife into the heart of the man in the mirror, and Freddie says yes. Things don’t go as planned when Freddie tries to stab the swami, believing that was the man in the mirror.

Casey comes to the rescue after the swami scrams.

And then the bodies start turning up in Freddie’s closet. Even more damning, he comes into possession of a bloody handkerchief.

Several attempts are made on Freddie’s life, culminating in a mysterious voice ordering him to bring the handkerchief to the Lost Cavern.