“I saw what I saw when I saw it!”

Released 15 June 1948, A&C Meet Frankenstein was the first of the duo’s seven A&C Meet… pictures. It made over $3 million at the box office, and remains one of their best-known and most popular films.

In London, Lawrence Talbot (Lon Chaney, Jr.) places an urgent call to a Florida railway station’s baggage department, where Wilbur Gray (Lou) and Chick Young (Bud) work. He asks if there are two crates addressed to McDougal House of Horrors, and says under no circumstances are the crates to be delivered until he arrives.

During this phonecall, Talbot transforms into the Wolfman, and rips up his room. Wilbur thinks he’s put his dog on the line, and hangs up in disgust.

McDougal then arrives, demanding his crates. Wilbur doesn’t want to obey him, but McDougal insists. While Wilbur and Chick fetch the crates, he tells Wilbur’s girlfriend Sandra the crates contain Count Dracula and Frankenstein’s monster. They’ve been insured for $20,000.

McDougal is furious at Wilbur’s mishandling of the crates, and orders him to take them to his House of Horrors so an insurance agent can inspect them. If Wilbur damages them, he intends to collect that $20,000.

While Wilbur opens the first crate, Chick answers a call from McDougal and assures him everything’s alright. Chick is quite bemused by Wilbur’s fear of the creatures in the House of Horrors, and even more so by Wilbur’s belief that the coffin inside the crate contains the real Dracula.

While Wilbur is reading a card about the legend of Dracula, he hears odd noises. The next time Chick is out, Wilbur sees the coffin opening. Chick thinks Wilbur is being ridiculous and wasting time, since these creepy goings-on only happen when Chick isn’t there.

Conveniently, Dracula (Béla Lugosi) has left his coffin and is lurking in the shadows by the time Chick investigates. Chick laughs while reading the card for the next crate, about Frankenstein’s monster, but Wilbur takes it very seriously.

While they’re opening this crate, Dracula gets back into his coffin. Wilbur is so freaked out to see Frankenstein’s monster (Glenn Strange), he bumps into a guillotine and causes a dummy to get beheaded.

The next time Chick is out, Dracula puts Wilbur under his spell, and then brings Frankenstein’s monster to life. By the time McDougal arrives with the insurance man, both monsters are gone. McDougal has Wilbur and Chick arrested.

Dracula compels Frankenstein’s monster to his castle, where we learn Sandra is in cahoots with him. He insists she call him Dr. Lajos, to avoid suspicion.

Dracula doesn’t want to repeat Dr. Frankenstein’s mistake by giving the monster a bad brain. He wants the monster to have no intellect or will of his own, so he’ll bend to his master’s will. Sandra has just the brain in mind—Wilbur’s.

Talbot comes to see Wilbur and Chick, who’ve been bailed out of jail. He’s horrorstruck the crates were delivered before he arrived, and says he’s been tracking Dracula from Europe. Talbot believes Dracula wants to bring Frankenstein’s monster to life.

Talbot demands Wilbur lock him into his room, and not let him out no matter what, since the Moon will soon be full. Of course, Talbot has forgotten his suitcase, and Wilbur helpfully delivers it. He’s changed into the Wolfman by the time Wilbur gets there, but avoids detection the entire time.

In the morning, Wilbur and Chick meet undercover investigator Joan Raymond, who reveals she, not Sandra, paid their bail. Wilbur asks her to be his date to that night’s masquerade ball, to which he’s also taking Sandra.

When Wilbur and Chick unlock Talbot, they find him in a very disheveled state. They laugh off his story about being bitten by a werewolf, but he insists he’s completely serious, and that they have to find the missing monsters.

Sandra is upset Wilbur has come to Dracula’s castle with Chick and Joan, since she wanted him to come alone. While the ladies are changing into their costumes, Talbot calls and warns Wilbur he may be in the house of Dracula. Talbot also wants them to search the place.

Their search yields a lot of extremely creepy, unexpected things, among them the monsters. Yet again, only Wilbur encounters them, and Chick is convinced he’s making things up.

The plot thickens when Dracula meets Wilbur, and Sandra discovers Joan is from the insurance company.

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“He was a king and a god in the world he knew”

Released 2 March 1933, King Kong was a huge box office success. It made almost $3 million worldwide from 1933–52, and $90,000 alone from its opening weekend. After its 1952 rerelease, it made almost $4 million from the U.S. and Canada alone.

Surprisingly, King Kong received no Academy Award nominations, though producer and RKO head David O. Selznick wanted to nominate stop motion animator Willis O’Brien and his crew for a special award in visual effects. That award wasn’t created till 1938.

Filmmaker Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) is famous for his exotic, risk-taking ventures. Everyone thinks his latest trip is insane, esp. since he plans to take a woman along for an element of romance.

Towards this end, Carl makes the acquaintance of Ann Darrow (Fay Wray), who’s down on her luck. She initially misunderstands his intentions, but after Carl explains he’s the famous filmmaker and is on the level, Ann agrees to take part in this adventure.

Predictably, the ship’s first mate, Jack Driscoll (Bruce Cabot), falls in instalove with Ann.

Carl reveals the destination is Skull Island, a place so remote it’s not on any map. He intends to find and photograph legendary creature Kong.

Jack is very against Ann going ashore, but she and Carl brush off his concerns. Carl is thrilled to come upon a native ceremony, and begins filming.

Carl and his crew don’t go unnoticed for long. When the skipper talks to the natives in their own language, things get very tense, and everyone retreats back to the boat. Carl plans to try again tomorrow.

That night, natives kidnap Ann.

By the time Ann is discovered missing, it’s too late. She’s already being led to an altar, where she’s chained up and offered as the bride of Kong.

And then the screaming begins.

Carl, Jack, and some of their crew come ashore in search of Ann. Their first obstacle is a Stegosaurus, followed by a Brontosaurus.

The worst horrors of all come when the search party encounters Kong. Jack and Carl are the only survivors of his murderous rampage.

The dinosaurs come after Kong too.

Jack refuses to follow Carl back to the ship for more bombs and men, wanting to stay on Kong’s trail while it’s still hot.

Back on the ship, Carl learns the natives have been subdued and terrified by gunpowder, which they’ve never encountered before.

Ann’s terrors increase in Kong’s lair, where more dinosaurs come on the attack. One of them, a Pteranodon, tries to fly away with her.

Jack rescues Ann while Kong is fighting this latest dinosaur, but Kong notices them climbing down a vine and tries to pull them back up. They jump into a lagoon and make their way back to safety.

Carl isn’t satisfied with Ann’s safe return. He’s determined to capture Kong alive and bring him back as an exhibit.

Kong is rampaging, looking for Ann. Despite the efforts of both villagers and explorers, Kong breaks through the gates and marauds through the village.

Carl knocks Kong out with a gas bomb and chains him up. Kong is displayed on Broadway as the Eighth Wonder of the World, and breaks loose after the press photographs him.

Everyone flees in terror, and Jack takes Ann to a hotel room on a high floor for safety.

Kong scales the building and abducts Ann again. The entire city is locked in terror during Kong’s latest rampage, which culminates in the famous stand-off at the top of the Empire State Building.

I really enjoyed this film, and would highly recommend it.

Meddling in things best left alone

Released 13 November 1933, TIM was the American screen début of Claude Rains. The film was directed by James Whale, who’d done Frankenstein two years earlier.

A snowstorm grips the village of Iping the night a mysterious stranger appears at the Lion’s Head Inn. His head is wrapped in bandages, and his eyes are covered by dark goggles. He demands a room, which Mr. and Mrs. Hall grant only very reluctantly.

The stranger demands complete privacy, and is outraged when Mrs. Hall interrupts his dinner to bring him mustard. He covers the lower half of his face, horrified to be walked in on. Mrs. Hall reports to her husband and the patrons that half of his face is missing.

We now discover the stranger is Dr. Jack Griffin, who’s been missing for almost a month while working on a secret experiment, and hasn’t communicated with anyone since. His fiancée Flora, daughter of his employer Dr. Cranley, is beside herself with worry.

When Mrs. Hall comes to bring Jack dinner, she discovers a full chemistry lab. Jack demands she scram. Livid at being interrupted and having a whole day’s work destroyed, he throws a vial on the floor and retreats to his desk.

Mr. Hall comes to evict him for being a week behind on rent and driving away customers. Jack begs Mr. Hall to let him stay, saying he’s been disfigured by a horrible accident, and that he’ll have the money in a week. It’s a matter of life and death that he be left alone to conduct his experiment.

When Mr. Hall refuses to relent, Jack attacks him and throws him down the stairs in a rage. The locals run to get a constable.

Jack talks back to the constable and resists arrest. When the constable and angry locals refuse to leave him alone, he finally reveals himself as invisible. Naturally, this scares the daylights out of everyone, and they flee.

When they return, he’s stripped down to just a shirt. He has some fun teasing everyone with his invisibility, attacks the constable and several locals, and slips away to play practical jokes.

The constable calls the chief detective, who thinks this was brought on by too much drinking.

Dr. Cranley and his other assistant, Dr. Kemp, search Jack’s lab and find a note with a list of chemicals. Last on the list is monocane, which Cranley explains is very dangerous. A German experiment turned a dog mad.

He suspects Jack used monocane without knowing it causes madness, since he himself only learnt of the German experiment in an old book by chance. The English books only describe the bleaching power, and came out before the incident with the dog.

Cranley asks Kemp not to tell anyone about the monocane when they call the cops.

That night, a radio broadcast breaks the news of the goings-on in Iping. Kemp freaks out when the radio suddenly shuts off, and Jack’s voice enters the room, followed presently by objects moving around. Jack orders him to get clothes, bandages, and dark glasses.

Jack also orders Kemp not to tell anyone he’s there.

Once he’s covered, Jack returns to Kemp, and lays out his plans for a scheme to take over the world. He wants Kemp to be his partner in crime. Jack explains how he went to Iping to finish his experiment and find the antidote, but those fools wouldn’t let him work in peace.

The chief detective has just declared this Invisible Man is a hoax when Jack springs into action and attacks him. Everyone runs screaming, and soon the entire country is living in terror.

Kemp calls the cops while Jack is asleep, and then calls Dr. Cranley. Not long afterwards, Jack wakes up and goes to find Kemp. He’s very suspicious about why Kemp locked the door, and even more so when he sees a car driving up.

Jack believes Kemp was frightened and unable to sleep, and is overjoyed when he learns Flora is there. He reiterates his plan to take over the world with the power of invisibility.

Then the cops arrive, and Jack removes his clothes. Things go from bad to worse when he tells Kemp he’ll kill him at 10 PM.

How much more terror will Jack wreak before he’s caught, and will he ever become visible again?

TIM was Universal’s most successful horror film since Frankenstein, and critics loved it. H.G. Wells also enjoyed it, though didn’t like how Jack was turned into a raving lunatic. In the book, Jack is already insane and amoral before becoming invisible.

In 2008, the Library of Congress selected TIM for preservation in the U.S. National Film Registry.

I really enjoyed this film, and would highly recommend it.

The Fall of the House of Usher times two

1928 saw the release of two film adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe’s classic 1839 story “The Fall of the House of Usher.” One was a French feature; the other was an American short. Poe’s story is told by an unnamed narrator who arrives at his friend Roderick Usher’s house, after getting a letter mentioning illness and asking for help.

Roderick is suffering from what we now call hyperesthesia (hypersensitivity to light, smells, sounds, textures, and tastes), severe anxiety, and hypochondria. His twin sister Madeline is ill too, and frequently falls into death-like trances. The twins are the only surviving members of their family line.

The narrator loves Roderick’s paintings, and agrees to listen to his impromptu musical compositions for the guitar. The narrator also reads with Roderick. After Roderick sings “The Haunted Palace,” a 48-line poem, he says he believes the house is alive, and that his fate is connected to the house.

Roderick later says Madeline is dead, and insists she can’t be buried until she’s been in the family tomb in the house for two weeks. The narrator notices her rosy cheeks as they’re putting her in the tomb. During the following week, both of them become very agitated for no apparent reason.

When a storm strikes, Roderick enters the narrator’s bedroom, right above Madeline’s tomb, and opens the window. The lake around the house glows in the dark, just as it does in Roderick’s paintings.

The narrator tries to calm Roderick by reading The Mad Trist, a novel about a knight named Ethelred, also set during a storm. When Ethelred breaks into a hermit’s home, he finds a piece of gold guarded by a dragon.

Cracking and ripping sounds are heard as the narrator reads about Ethelred breaking and entering. When he describes the dragon’s shrieks, a real shriek is heard in the house. Finally, when the narrator reads about a shield falling off the wall, a hollow, metallic reverberation is heard.

Roderick becomes more and more hysterical, and claims Madeline is still alive. Even more horrors follow, as the promise of the title becomes reality.

The American film (which I can’t find the release date for) runs 13 minutes, and was directed by James Sibley Watson, Jr. and Melville Folsom Webber. It stars Webber (the narrator), Hildegarde Watson (Madeline), and Herbert Stern (Roderick). In 1959, composer Alec Wilder (a friend of Watson and Webber) wrote a soundtrack.

The film was shot in a very avant-garde style, with its lighting, shadows, reflections through prisms, movement of objects, and letters and words floating across the screen. There are no intertitles. As someone who’s seen a lot of silent avant-garde films, I know this is an acquired taste for most people.

In 2000, the Library of Congress deemed it a “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant film,” and preserved it in the National Film Registry.

The French version, released 5 October 1928, was directed by Jean Epstein, and stars Marguerite Gance, Jean Debucourt (Roderick), and Charles Lamy (Allan). The screenplay was co-written by Epstein and Luis Buñuel. Like the American film, it’s very avant-garde.

Allan gets a letter from Roderick, urging him to come to the House of Usher. Allan’s companions are horrified when he asks if anyone can give him a ride, but he eventually gets a volunteer.

Allan’s driver refuses to take him all the way to the door, so terrified by the spectre of the gloomy, horrific house.

In the film, Madeline is Roderick’s wife. He’s holding her in the house in a derelict manner, dominated by his tyrannical nervousness. Scientists and doctors are baffled by her illness, and Roderick is driven to painting her portrait.

Allan notices Roderick has a fever, which Roderick brushes off. Roderick plays his guitar for awhile, until he’s absorbed once again by the thought of painting Madeline, and how to dismiss Allan. He tells Allan he’s touched by his concern, but begs Allan not to trouble himself. Roderick suggests he take a walk before retiring.

Like a magic wand, Roderick’s paintbrush makes Madeline’s image grow ever more vivid, while she herself grows weaker. The portrait draws from her vitality.

Roderick is stunned and in disbelief when Madeline expires. He insists she not leave the house, and forbids his servants to nail the coffin shut, but his orders aren’t obeyed.

Days and weeks pass in monotony, as Roderick waits, on-edge, for any little sign, exacerbating his nervous condition.

Then the night storm hits.

The Joker’s genesis

The Man Who Laughs, released 27 April 1928, was the third Hollywood film for both German director Paul Leni and wonderful actor Conrad Veidt. Universal Pictures gave Lon Chaney, Sr., a contract to play the lead role of Gwynplaine, but failed to acquire film rights to Victor’s Hugo’s least-successful novel from Sociéte Générale des Films. Lon’s contract was amended to release him from this obligation, and let him name its replacement (1925’s The Phantom of the Opera).

By the time studio boss Carl Laemmle returned to The Man Who Laughs, Lon was under contract to MGM.

Lord Clancharlie is sentenced to death in an iron maiden by King James II in January 1690, and his son Gwynplaine has a permanent grin carved into his face by a Comprachico surgeon. Shortly afterwards, all Comprachicos are banished from England for trading in stolen children and performing unlawful surgeries transforming children into monsters.

Gwynplaine, who’s been with them since his capture, is ordered left behind. Dr. Hardquanonne, who performed the macabre surgery, demands he come with them, but another Comprachico says they want no victims to convict them of their trade. Dr. Hardquanonne says Gwynplaine is theirs by the King’s orders, and means money to them, but his pleas fall on deaf ears.

While Gwynplaine, his grin covered by a scarf, is wandering in the snow afterwards, he finds a woman frozen to death and saves her baby. Gwynplaine stumbles across Ursus, a philosopher, and his trained wolf with the unfortunate name Homo (dog Zimbo). Ursus is annoyed to be disturbed, but ultimately invites Gwynplaine into his little green van.

Ursus is stunned anew to discover there are two of them, and quickly determines the baby is blind. He thinks Gwynplaine is laughing about this, but soon realises this was done by Comprachicos.

Many years pass, and Gwynplaine is now a successful travelling performer, The Laughing Man. Who should Ursus meet during one of these stops but Dr. Hardquanonne!

Also rather predictably, Gwynplaine and the blind Dea (Mary Philbin) have fallen in love.

Dr. Hardquanonne has a message delivered to Duchess Josiana (Olga Baclanova, who played the two-faced Cleopatra in Freaks). It first gets to Barkilphedro, the jester who kidnapped Gwynplaine and had him mutilated all those years ago. He shows it to Queen Anne.

After Josiana attends Gwynplaine’s show, she has a message delivered to him, saying she was the one who wasn’t laughing, and that her page will come for him at midnight. Gwynplaine is thrilled, and tells Ursus if a sighted woman might love him, he may now have the right to marry Dea. He’s always felt unworthy of her love.

Josiana puts the moves on Gwynplaine, which thrills him. During their meeting, Josiana reads a letter from the Queen, saying Lord Clancharlie’s heir, whose estates she now enjoys, has been found and identified as Gwynplaine. Her betrothal is thus annulled, and she must marry Gwynplaine, who’ll be restored to his heritage. Josiana breaks out laughing.

Gwynplaine returns home to find Dea asleep outside the wagon, where she was waiting up for him. The letter from Josiana is in her hands, which Gwynplaine rips up. He now realises Dea truly loves him, since she’s never laughed at him and accepts him just as he is.

Gwynplaine is arrested in the morning, and Ursus follows him. Ursus is told not to wait, since those who enter Chatham Prison never return, but he’s undeterred.

The Queen tells Barkilphedro Dr. Hardquanonne died in Chatham Prison, and his confession proved beyond a shadow of a doubt Gwynplaine is indeed Lord Clancharlie’s son. It grieves her to know Josiana must marry a clown, but after Gwynplaine is released, he’ll be made a Peer in the House of Lords.

Ursus tells all the other performers Dea must not know, and that the show must go on. More trouble comes when Barkilphedro interrupts the show to inform Ursus he’s banished from England, and lies Gwynplaine is dead.

Will Gwynplaine escape marrying Josiana and find Dea and Ursus in time?

This film had a budget of over $1,000,000, and was a huge success. Opening night proceeds went to American Friends of Blérancourt. Many critics, however, panned it, finding the subject matter too dark and depressing, and feeling the German Expressionistic style didn’t evoke 17th and 18th century England. As recently as the Seventies, many critics still hated it, but today it’s rightly recognised as a beautiful masterpiece.

Like many films of the late silent era, TMWL is a hybrid, with a synchronised sountrack, sound effects (including crowd noises and the calling of Gwynplaine’s name), and a song, “When Love Comes Stealing.”

The themes, style, and set designs were major influences on Universal’s classic horror movies of the Thirties.

And, of course, Gwynplaine’s exaggerated grin was The Joker’s genesis.