Posted in 1940s, holidays, Movies

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.

Posted in 1940s, holidays, Movies

A monstrous quintet

Premièring in NYC on 15 December 1944 and in L.A. on 22 December, with a general release on 16 February 1945, The House of Frankenstein was the first multi-monster movie. Prior, only two monsters had appeared together. In early drafts, even more Universal monsters were featured—the Invisible Man, the Ape Woman, the Mummy, the Mad Ghoul. Working titles included The Devil’s Brood and Chamber of Horrors.

This film marked the début of Glenn Strange as Frankenstein’s Monster. His predecessor, Boris Karloff, is said to have coached him on how to play the role. Karloff’s appearance was to be his last in Universal’s classic horror cycle.

A mad scientist, Dr. Gustav Niemann (Boris Karloff), was thrown in prison for robbing graveyards in his quest to replicate Dr. Frankenstein’s work in bringing the dead back to life. His hunchbacked assistant Daniel (J. Carrol Naish) is very eager for this project to take place, since he feels it’ll cure his deformity.

After their break from prison during a lightning storm, they run across the travelling Prof. Lampini (George Zucco) and help to push his circus wagons out of the mud. To repay the favor, Lampini invites them into one of the wagons.

This isn’t exactly the beginning of a beautiful friendship, since Dr. Niemann and Daniel murder Lampini and take over his horror show.

Who should attend the next show but Bürgermeister Hussman (Sig Ruman), the reason Dr. Niemann was thrown in prison! As part of his quest for revenge, Dr. Niemann brings Count Dracula’s skeleton to life and convinces him to do exactly as he’s told.

While Hussman is walking home with his grandson Karl and his new bride Rita (Anne Gwynne), Dracula (John Carradine) pulls up alongside them and offers a ride. The Hussmans also agree to have a drink with him.

It doesn’t take long for Dracula to bring Rita under his spell with a hypnotic ring. That mission accomplished, Dracula assumes his bat form late at night and kills Hussman. It’s too late by the time Karl discovers their guest’s true identity and rushes to his grandfather.

Things go from bad to worse when Rita disappears while Karl is phoning for help. He races after Dracula’s departing carriage, but to not avail. Karl alerts a team of police on horseback, whom he gives chase with.

Rita is recovered after a road accident caused by Daniel throwing Dracula’s coffin into the path of the pursuers. Dracula himself is killed by the sunlight.

Dr. Niemann’s next stop is Castle Frankenstein, which is now in ruins. He and Daniel are ordered by cops to scram, since travelling shows like theirs aren’t allowed.

More trouble immediately follows when Daniel comes to the rescue of a young Romany girl, Ilonka (Elena Verdugo), being whipped and turns the whip on the attacker. Daniel begs Dr. Niemann to take in the injured girl till she recovers. Since the cops also ordered the Romany out, she’s left without any familiar faces.

Ilonka is initially alarmed when she discovers Daniel’s a hunchback, but quickly becomes friendly and accepting again. Daniel’s been kind to her, so it doesn’t matter what he looks like.

While Dr. Niemann and Daniel are prowling around the ruined castle in the middle of the night, Daniel falls through the floor and into a cave. Explorations reveal the frozen bodies of the Wolfman (Lon Chaney, Jr.) and Frankenstein’s Monster (Glenn Strange), preserved inside ice blocks.

Daniel and Dr. Niemann light a fire to unthaw the bodies. First to be freed is the Wolfman, Larry Talbot, who demands to know why he’s being tortured like this. He can’t bear living with the curse of transforming into a wolf at every full moon.

Dr. Niemann promises to free him from the curse if he helps with reanimating the Monster. This promise is short-lived, since despite Larry and Daniel’s begging, Dr. Niemann refuses to work on anything but reviving the Monster and getting revenge on two other people.

Meanwhile, Larry becomes the Wolfman at the next full moon and kills someone. Daniel tries to tell Ilonka about Larry’s true identity, but she’s too in love with Larry to believe it. She screams at Daniel that she hates him and that he’s ugly, and runs away. Awash in anguish and unrequited love, Daniel begins whipping the Monster’s body.

The locals form a search party to find the werewolf after the body of the Wolfman’s latest victim is discovered. During the search, Larry tells Ilonka the truth about himself, and says Dr. Niemann won’t help him.

Larry confronts Dr. Niemann again while the Monster is being reanimated, and once again is rebuffed.

Everything comes to a head at once when Larry transmogrifies into the Wolfman again, the angry villagers converge on Dr. Niemann’s house, and the Monster is reanimated.

Posted in 1930s, holidays, Movies

Arising from the shadows of the past

Released 13 January 1939, Son of Frankenstein marked the final time Boris Karloff played the Monster, the first time Béla Lugosi played Ygor, and the last A production in the Frankenstein franchise. It was a huge shot in the arm to Universal’s declining horror reputation.

On 5 April 1938, an almost-bankrupt L.A. theatre screened Frankenstein, Dracula, and King Kong. It was a major moneymaker and inspired many other successful revivals. Universal, seeing dollar signs, decided to make another Frankenstein sequel.

James Whale, director of Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein, didn’t want to do another horror film. In his place, Universal chose Rowland V. Lee.

Baron Wolf von Frankenstein (Basil Rathbone), Dr. Henry Frankenstein’s son, moves his wife Elsa (Josephine Hutchinson) and their little boy Peter (Donnie Donagan, now 85 years old) to the family castle upon coming into his inheritance.

Wolf’s enthusiasm for this new chapter of his life isn’t shared by his family, nor anyone else. The house gives Elsa and Peter the creeps, and the locals deeply resent their existence. After all, Wolf’s dad created a monster who terrorized them.

Inspector Krogh (Lionel Atwill) visits on the first night to try to warn Wolf away. Krogh’s right arm was torn from the roots by the Monster when he was a boy, something he’s never forgotten. He tells Wolf the Monster may still be at large, committing murders, despite being believed dead for years.

Across from the castle is Henry’s old lab, whose roof was blown off when the Monster was destroyed. Wolf eagerly goes to explore it after breakfast, and encounters Ygor. Earlier, Ygor peered in on Peter while he was sleeping.

Ygor is a body-stealing blacksmith who survived a hanging and now lives in the old lab, away from the eyes of the world. His neck was permanently deformed by the hanging.

Ygor takes Wolf to the family crypt, where his grandfather and father are entombed. Also in the crypt is the Monster’s comatose body.

Ygor says they’re friends, and that the Monster does things for him. The Monster is now comatose because he was struck by lightning under a tree while hunting. He can’t die because Henry made him live for always.

Ygor demands Wolf reanimate the Monster, on condition he not be seen by anyone.

With help from Ygor, Wolf hauls the Monster’s body up into the lab and tethers him to the table he was brought to life upon. Ygor pushes Wolf’s loyal assistant Benson (Edgar Norton) out of the door, but ultimately relents when Wolf explains how valuable Benson is.

Wolf and Benson meticulously examine the Monster every which way to determine what kind of state he’s in. Startling discoveries are two bullets in the lung and very unusual blood.

Ygor is hauled before the court to spill all he knows about Wolf and his experiments. If he doesn’t cooperate, he’ll be hanged again, properly this time. Ygor argues he was legally pronounced dead, and is told to leave and not cause trouble.

After concluding his extensive examinations, Wolf says as a human he should destroy the Monster, but as a scientist, it’s his duty to reanimate his father’s creation.

After Benson turns on the generator, the process initially seems to work very quickly. However, the signs of life fade away, appearing mere reflexes. Wolf declares the Monster is too comatose to reanimate.

While dining with Krogh, it comes out that Henry’s lab was built by the Romans, over a natural sulphur pit used as mineral baths. The sulphur is now over 800 degrees. Krogh doesn’t know how Wolf can bear to work with those sulphur fumes.

Peter’s innocent babble also reveals the Monster indeed reanimated and is on the loose. Full of a foretaste of horror, Wolf rushes off to the lab.

Ygor is nowhere to be found when Wolf arrives, but Wolf does find the Monster. Differing from the previous two Frankenstein films, he now wears a fur vest and can no longer talk.

When Ygor arrives, Wolf insists the Monster can’t leave. No one can know he’s there, despite Ygor’s claim the Monster only does what he tells him. Wolf also says he must continue his experiments. The Monster can walk, but his mind isn’t well yet.

Back at the castle, Wolf tells Benson what happened and swears him to secrecy. Despite his sheer terror, Wolf is determined to finish his work and become the greatest scientist of all time. He trusts the Monster will only do what Ygor bids him.

Trouble begins when Benson disappears. Ygor reports he ran away in fear of the Monster, but Wolf is terrified the worst happened.

And thus begins a new wave of horror as the Monster prowls through the town and the villagers seek blood revenge on Wolf.

Posted in 1930s, holidays, Movies

A honeymoon full of horrors

Premièring 7 May 1934 in the U.S. and going into general release on 18 May, The Black Cat was the first of eight films co-starring horror icons Boris Karloff and Béla Lugosi, and Universal’s biggest hit of the year. Many consider it the granddaddy of psychological horror.

Though the film takes its name from Edgar Allan Poe’s 1843 short story, it has little to do with the purported source material. It also has no relation to the 1941 film (also starring Lugosi) of the same name.

In the U.K., it was titled House of Doom.

Newlyweds Peter and Joan Alison (David Manners and Julie Bishop) experience the ultimate inconvenience on the way to their honeymoon in Budapest—a third passenger joining them in their private cabin. Dr. Vitus Werdegast (Lugosi) says he’s on his way to visit an old friend.

Eighteen years ago, Vitus went to war and experienced every soldier’s ultimate horror when he was captured by the enemy. For the last fifteen years, he was held captive in a brutal Siberian prison camp.

Vitus also joins the newlyweds on the private bus to their hotel, but this continued deprivation of privacy is soon forgotten when Joan is injured in a road accident and they’re all forced to share lodgings in Visograd.

Their host is Hjalmar Poelzig (Karloff), whom Vitus has been longing to get even with since the war. He blames Hjalmar for the murder of 10,000 soldiers and the imprisonment of many others, including himself. After Hjalmar betrayed their country to the enemy and saved his own hide, he stole Vitus’s wife Karen and their daughter.

Now Vitus wants to kill Hjalmar, but very slowly. Immediately killing him wouldn’t be nearly so satisfying.

During the night, Vitus demands again for Hjalmar to take him to his wife. Peter is greatly disturbed when they come into his room by mistake, and after they leave the room, he says next time he’ll go to Niagara Falls.

Hjalmar takes Vitus to Karen’s mummified body standing upright in a glass casket. She died two years after the war, and Hjalmar has kept her beautifully preserved ever since. Hjalmar says their daughter died too.

Vitus is about to shoot Hjlamar in a rage when a black cat wanders by and scares Vitus so much he stumbles against a glass wall which breaks. Earlier, another black cat terrified him so much he killed it, and Hjalmar explained he suffers from one of the more common phobias, ailurophobia.

Hjalmar temporarily talks sense into Vitus, then goes to see Karen, Jr., his stepdaughter turned wife, who’s very much alive and in their bed. He orders her to stay in their room until Vitus is gone, and says no one can take her away from him.

Vitus has no intention of giving up on revenge so easily, and speaks with one of Hjalmar’s servants about a plan to blow up the estate.

At their next meeting, Vitus announces to Hjalmar his desire to let Peter and Joan leave after Joan’s recovery. Towards this end, Vitus agrees to play a game of chess with the newlyweds’ release as winning prize.

They’re interrupted when authorities arrive to get statements about the bus accident, and then again when a servant reports the car is out of commission. Peter is very eager to get out of this creepy estate, but circumstances keep conspiring to keep him and Joan there. Even the phone is dead, so he can’t make arrangements for other transportation.

Peter fetches Joan and says they’re leaving immediately, even if they have to walk and leave their luggage. Another obstacle crops up when Peter discovers someone took his automatic, and then a servant guarding the door knocks him out and carries Joan back to her room.

After Hjalmar locks Joan into the room, Peter is carried away to the cellar and dumped on the floor.

While Hjalmar is playing the organ, Vitus steals a key and creeps off to Joan’s room. He tells her how evil Hjalmar is and that he’ll get his revenge in due time. Vitus also tells Joan to be brave if she wants to get out of there alive.

The horror increases in the wake of a Satanic service Hjalmar hosts.

Will Vitus finally get his well-deserved revenge on the man who ruined his life, and will Peter and Joan ever escape?

Posted in 1920s, holidays, Movies, Silent film

A horror story of illusion and magic tricks

Premièring November 1929 at NYC’s Little Carnegie Theatre, The Last Performancce was Conrad Veidt’s final Hollywood film until WWII. Due to his heavy accent and lack of fluency in English, he had to return to his native Germany. Soon after the Nazis rose to power, he escaped to England with his Jewish wife.

Like many other films of the late silent era, this one too had a hybrid version with sound effects, talking sequences, and a soundtrack.  Today, only the silent version (with Danish intertitles) survives. Very embarrassingly, one of the English translations renders “you’re” as “your.” Nails on a chalkboard! Where was the proofreader!

Magician Erik the Great (Veidt) falls in love with his assistant Julie Fergeron (Mary Philbin), who’s on the cusp of her eighteenth birthday. Julie is stunned to find a love letter backstage, which includes a marriage proposal. (In real life, Conrad was 36 and Mary was 27, though Conrad is made up to look MUCH older.)

Erik is looking forward to an upcoming tour of America, Julie’s birthday, and his wedding, but the happy mood crashes when he discovers a thief, Mark Royce (Fred MacKaye), in his hotel suite. Erik gives him the choice of going with the cops or joining the magic act. Since Mark was “only” helping himself to Erik’s food instead of purloining material possessions, Erik is somewhat sympathetic to him.

At Julie’s insistence, Erik invites Mark to join the act as Buffo’s assistant. Buffo Black (Leslie Fenton) is Erik’s apprentice. Very predictably, Julie and Erik fall in instalove.

Also rather predictably, Buffo has feelings for Julie. He can’t believe Julie and Erik are soon to marry, and thinks Erik is a fool for believing Julie actually loves him. (Since the first two-thirds of the film speed by without much of any character development, it is hard to see why Julie agreed to marry Erik, even reluctantly.)

At Julie’s eighteenth birthday party, Buffo discovers Julie and Mark in an amorous situation and arranges for Erik to catch them in the act. Erik is understandably heartbroken, but puts on a false front of cordiality by announcing Julie and Mark’s engagement in front of all their guests at the banquet.

But if Julie and Mark believe Erik’s graceful reaction to being cuckolded, they’ve soon got another think coming. Erik has macabre revenge in mind, and he’s bound and determined to pin the blame on someone else.

The Last Performance received mixed reviews. Some felt it were over-directed and overacted, with lacklustre camera work, while others praised Veidt’s wonderful acting, the great imagination of director Paul Fejos (né Pál Fejös), Mary Philbin’s charm, great photographic effects, and the narrative development.

The last third of the film has incredible pacing and dramatic tension, which I wish were the case for the preceding two-thirds. I would’ve liked more development of the characters and their respective relationships instead of rushing through them till that pivotal moment when Erik discovers the betrayal. An extra half-hour or so would’ve strengthened the story.

But as always, Conrad’s acting is incredible. He had such an expressive face and eyes, able to say so much without saying a word.