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 horrific commingling of bats and aftershave

Released 13 December 1940, The Devil Bat was the very first horror film made by then-new Poverty Row studio Producers Releasing Corporation (which went on to make many quality films which earned high praise). This film was also part of Béla Lugosi’s comeback after his career had gone into decline (due to new Universal management and the U.K.’s ban on horror films).

Dr. Paul Carruthers (Lugosi) of Heathville is a beloved citizen and respected research scientist for Heath-Morton Cosmetics, Ltd. Little do the villagers know what dark, twisted secrets are lurking in his hidden lab overlooking Martin Heath’s impressive estate.

Dr. Carruthers is keeping a bat whom he greatly increased in size, and training it to attack anyone wearing his Oriental aftershave.

Dr. Carruthers is invited to a party at the Heath estate, but begs off attending because he’s working so hard on a new formula. Everyone is disappointed he’s a no-show, since they planned to surprise him with a $5,000 bonus check.

Roy Heath visits him to deliver the check in person, and is talked into trying out the new aftershave. Dr. Carruthers tells him goodbye instead of goodnight when he takes his leave.

Instead of seeing that check as a generous gift, Dr. Carruthers feels insulted. He’s worked so hard for that company and helped to make them rich, while they expect him to be grateful with peanuts in return. Enraged, he sends his bat into the night.

The bat swoops from the sky to attack Roy when he arrives home, as his sister Mary (Suzanne Kaaren) and her friend Don Morton (the co-founder’s son) look on in horror. Dr. Carruthers is called to the scene and pronounces it a hopeless case.

The local newspaper immediately jumps on this mysterious unsolved murder, with young reporter Johnny Layton (Dave O’Brien) and cameraman One Shot McGuire (Donald Kerr) leading the investigation. Despite their boss Joe’s natural skepticism, they believe Dr. Carruthers’s theory that the culprit was a bat.

Tommy Heath tests the aftershave next, and once again Dr. Carruthers tells him goodbye instead of goodnight before releasing the giant bat. In full view of a horrified Mary, Johnny, and McGuire, Tommy is attacked and killed.

All of Heathville now lives in terror of the Devil Bat. This fear increases when the bat attacks a third victim, Don Morton.

All three victims had the same aftershave, leading to suspicions that a disgruntled factory employee is the one offing people in the Heath and Morton families.

Johnny and McGuire are fired when it comes out the Devil Bat they photographed was made in Japan, but that doesn’t deter them in the least. They continue the investigation on their own.

Dr. Carruthers cordially cooperates with the police chief and Johnny when they question him about the ingredients of his aftershave and why the three victims were wearing it. The chief begs off trying the aftershave, for fear his wife would suspect another woman, but Johnny takes a sample to use later. Yet again, Dr. Carruthers says goodbye instead of goodnight.

While Johnny and McGuire are waiting for the bat that night, their big chance arrives. They shoot it dead, a  development which is immediately the subject of many news stories.

Not one to be deterred easily, Dr. Carruthers gets another bat. His next victim, co-founder Henry Morton, takes more convincing than the others to put the aftershave on his face then and there instead of waiting till morning.

Dr. Carruthers is enraged when Henry reminds him he sold his first formula for only $10,000 and gave up his partnership stake, while the company has made over a million dollars. He once more says goodbye instead of goodnight.

With the second Devil Bat on the loose, Heathville once again lives in terror. Now Johnny, who’s been rehired, makes his move to prove once and for all who’s really behind these attacks.

Caught in a testament of evil

The eighth screen adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s famous book The Picture of Dorian Gray was the first sound version, and the first time it had been adapted since 1918. It was released 1 June 1945 and earned $1,399,000 in North America ($20,229,540 today) and $1,576,000 in the rest of the world ($22,788,960 today). MGM took a fairly small loss of $26,000 ($375,960 today).

Dorian Gray was nominated for three Academies in 1946, one of which it won (Harry Stradling for Best Cinematography, Black-and-White). This was a rare win for a horror film, a genre which isn’t very respected at the Academies.

Angela Lansbury won a 1946 Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress.

In 1996, the film won a Retro-Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation, and in 2009, it was nominated for a Saturn Award for Best DVD Classic Film Release.

Artist Henrique Medina painted the picture of Dorian seen at the start of the film, Portrait of Hurd Hatfield as Dorian Gray. It sold at auctions in 1970, 1997, and 2015. Today, it’s believed to belong to a private collector.

The grotesquely transformed later portrait, which becomes more and more monstrous as Dorian grows in his evil, was painted by Ivan Le Lorraine Albright, known as “The Master of the Macabre.” The Art Institute of Chicago currently owns it.

Both paintings appear in Technicolor the first time they’re shown.

In 1886 London, young Dorian Gray (Hurd Hatfield) lives in the lap of luxury but doesn’t quite have his head screwed on straight. Like all youth, he thinks he knows so much more than he really does, and overestimates his own maturity.

Lord Henry Wotton (George Sanders) pays a visit while he’s sitting for a painting by Basil Hallward (Lowell Gilmore), and convinces Dorian of the superiority of youth and hedonism. Youth only comes this way once, and then never again, so why not milk it for all it’s worth while it’s with us?

Towards this end, Dorian wishes he could stay frozen in time while only his painting ages. This wish is uttered in the presence of an Ancient Egyptian cat goddess statue who’s also in the painting.

Dorian soon visits a tavern, where he falls in instalove with pretty young singer Sibyl Vane (Angela Lansbury, who just turned 95). Though Sibyl never gets friendly with any of her fans, she’s so taken with Dorian she makes an exception.

They’re soon courting, despite the disapproval of Sibyl’s brother James. Sibyl’s mother meanwhile is thrilled at such a rich suitor.

Henry once again plays the busybody and convinces Dorian to test Sibyl’s worth by asking her to spend the night at his home. Sibyl is initially scandalized by the request and leaves, but quickly returns because she loves Dorian so.

Dorian writes her a cruel letter soon afterwards, claiming she killed his love and that she can never see him again. Sibyl is heartbroken to receive this letter. Insult is added to injury when a compensation check is enclosed.

Dorian notices new, cruel lines in his face in the painting, and is overcome with shame and regret. He immediately sets to work writing a most profuse apology and reconciliation letter.

Soon after Dorian seals and addresses the envelope, Henry visits again with very bad news making the resumption of that relationship impossible. This is all the catalyst Dorian needs to fall deeper and deeper into a cruel, hedonistic lifestyle encouraged by Henry.

Though Dorian is now firmly committed to a selfish, hedonistic lifestyle, he’s so disturbed by the changes in his portrait, he hides it in his old schoolroom on the top floor of his house and covers it with a cloth. Prior, he kept it covered by screens, and refused to let Basil display it with other artwork.

The schoolroom is locked, and only Dorian has a key. No one has a reason to go up there, and he regularly fires and replaces his servants, so he believes his secret is safe.

Every time Dorian steals a look at the hidden painting, he’s more and more horrified. He barely recognizes himself anymore, so monstrous has he become. His hands are also stained with blood.

Then Basil drops by shortly before he’s due to leave on a trip to Paris, and Dorian’s life of evil deeds becomes even more out of control.

As is so often the case, the taste of sin is so sweet in the beginning, but eventually becomes very bitter. One who’s so used to sinning has an uphill battle to defeat that evil inclination.

And to make matters even more complicated, Dorian’s misdeeds start catching up with him in the form of several people seeking revenge.

Quintuple horror in a creepy cottage

Dead of Night, a British anthology film, premièred 9 September 1945 at London’s Gaumont Haymarket theatre, and did very well commercially. Many modern critics continue to praise it as a classic horror film, with special praise for the final story about the ventriloquist.

Though horror films had long been common in the U.S., they weren’t so common in Britain in this era; indeed, they’d been banned during WWII. Dead of Night began to change all that.

The film was made at Ealing Studios in West London, which began business in 1902 and is the world’s oldest continually-operating film production studio.

Walter Craig (Mervyn Johns) arrives at a Tudor-style cottage in the country which seems oddly familiar. His sense of déjà vu increases even more when his host, Eliot Foley (Roland Culver), shows him inside. Though Walter has never met any of the guests, he’s dreamt about them all many times.

Dr. van Straaten (Frederick Valk) has a ready scientific answer for everything, including the stories the other guests tell about eerie events from their own lives, but as the night wears on, his skepticism gradually starts waning.

First up is Hugh Grainger (Antony Baird), who tells the story of how he was almost killed in a racecar accident in “The Hearse Driver.” During the end of his hospital stay, he looks out the window and has a horrifying vision of a horse-drawn hearse. His nurse Joyce thinks he imagined it, but he can’t shake his terror.

Upon his discharge, Grainger goes to catch a bus, but he’s filled with foreboding when the driver looks exactly like the hearse driver and says there’s only room for one. Grainger immediately steps back and lets the bus take off without him.

Almost immediately, the bus goes off the road and crashes down a steep hill. Grainger’s premonition saved his life.

Next up is “The Christmas Party,” the story of teenage Sally O’Hara (Sally Ann Howes, now age 90). While playing hide-and-seek, Sally stumbles upon a hallway leading to a staircase leading to secret passageways and a playroom.

In the playroom, she encounters a little boy, Francis, who says his older sister Constance is very mean to him and wants to kill him. Sally treats him very tenderly and tucks him into bed before being found by her friends.

Sally is freaked out when she learns there are no children spending the night and that Francis is the unfortunate boy her buddy Jimmy told her about when they were hiding together earlier, a boy who was killed by his sister in that house a long time ago.

The middle story is “The Haunted Mirror,” the story that creeped me out most. Joan (Googie Withers) buys her fiancé Peter Cortland (Ralph Michael) a mirror from an antiques store to replace the basic one his uncle bought him awhile ago. Peter is happy with the gift at first, but soon lives in terror of it.

Every time he looks in the mirror, he sees a very Gothic-type room that looks like it’s in a mansion, with a burning fireplace, candles, and a fancy four-poster bed with carved grapes on top. He also can’t see Joyce in the mirror when she stands beside him.

Peter wants to push out their wedding date because he fears he’s losing his mind, but he manages to summon the willpower to see his normal room behind him in the mirror again, and Joyce beside him.

Everything seems to be going most swimmingly after they marry and move into a new house, but then the visions return. Joyce learns the supernatural reason for this when she visits the store where she bought the mirror and sees a bed exactly like the one Peter described.

The mirror, the bed, and several other things in the shop belonged to a man who died in 1836, in a house which was sealed until very recently. The storekeeper tells Joyce the tragic, horrific story of the original owner and his wife, a story Peter begins re-enacting when Joyce comes home.

This intense, creepy mood is lifted by the penultimate story, “The Golfer’s Story,” which is comedy-horror.

Buddies George Parratt (Basil Radford) and Larry Potter (Naunton Wayne) are intense rivals on the golf course, but closer than brothers in all other arenas. That all changes, however, when they meet Mary Lee (Peggy Bryan).

Eventually they hit upon the idea of playing a golf game with Mary’s hand in marriage as the prize. George wades into the lake by the green after losing, and his ghost comes back to haunt Larry.

George tries to make Larry give up both Mary and golf forever, but Larry refuses this deal. He can give up Mary, but he’ll have no reason for living if he never golfs again. George accepts the compromise, and says he must always stay within six feet of Larry.

George’s presence quickly becomes impossible to bear, and George himself agrees this is really awkward. However, he’s unable to go back to the other world, since he came back to Earth without knowing that rather important detail of ghosting. The magic formula keeps eluding him.

Finally, we have “The Ventriloquist’s Dummy,” a story within a story within a story. Dr. van Straaten tells a tale of the time he was called in as a psychoanalyst for Maxwell Frere (Michael Redgrave), who was charged with the attempted murder of fellow ventriloquist Sylvester Kee (Hartley Power).

Maxwell’s dummy, Hugo, becomes more and more out of control, acting as if with a mind of his own instead of controlled by his master. This drives Maxwell into madness.

The last reel reminds me very much of all the twists and turns near the end of Dr. Caligari. It’s hard to tell what is and isn’t reality, since the lines are so blurred.