Monday, October 26, 2009

Secret doors, captive beasts, pulsating heads: Universal Horror Classic Movie Archive

Universal Horror Classic Movie Archive collects five of the studio’s genre pieces spanning the years 1941-43. It’s an interesting transitional period if you consider that Universal’s golden years of monster movies climaxed a decade earlier—Dracula, Frankenstein, The Invisible Man and Bride of Frankenstein all debuted between 1931 and 1935—while what would arguably be the most distinctive horror films of the new decade were emerging from a B-unit at RKO helmed by producer Val Lewton, whose approach to the genre—subtle, neurotic, contemporary, rife with ambiguity, akin to noir—was essentially a complete reversal of the Universal model. The title of this box set is as misleading as it is awkward. There are no classics here, but most are at least pretty fun, while some are genuinely interesting, inventive and pleasingly strange.

The Black Cat (1941) and Horror Island (41) are both pretty slight whodunits in which characters assemble in a single location housing an unidentified killer motivated by some looming treasure. Both are big on broad comedy, the former enlisting an aging Lou Costello type, the latter a lusty sailor with a wooden leg who resembles a rather discreet drag queen. Concerning a family eagerly awaiting the death of its ancient, very wealthy matriarch, The Black Cat claims to be “suggested by” Edgar Allen Poe, though I can only imagine he would have suggested aborting production. However, the film’s atmosphere, with its smoky moonlight outlining a dense garden of trees, benefits tremendously from the work of cinematographer Stanley Cortez, who would go on to shoot The Magnificent Ambersons (42), The Night of the Hunter (55) and The Naked Kiss (64).

Man Made Monster (41), directed by George Waggner, who would also direct The Wolf Man that same year, is more interesting. Like The Wolf Man, it features Lon Chaney Jr. as a protagonist who’s at once victim and monster. You could say the film is secretly about the curse of survival, and traces of its premise can be found in Unbreakable (2000). A bus is hurled into a high power line. Everyone dies—save Chaney’s Dan McCormick, a sideshow performer who does tricks with electricity. Rather than feel wracked with guilt, Dan walks away from the accident cheerful as ever. A sadistic genius electro-biologist lures Dan into his laboratory, intrigued by Dan’s apparent immunity to electricity. He starts pumping Dan with larger and larger doses of electricity until Dan develops a dependency—there’s a pretty chilling addiction subtext here—and finally transforms into an automaton whose flesh pulsates with white heat. Supporting characters tend toward the bland, but there are beguiling montages involving note-taking and lab work, a curious current of mistrust toward psychiatry, and above all a tragic, soulful yet totally weird performance from Chaney. We feel bad for him, but do we ever really know what’s going on inside this guy?

On the surface
Night Monster (42) seems of the same lineage as The Black Cat and Horror Island, replete with an old dark house, abundant secret passages and Bela Lugosi as a servant. Yet this is a creepier, more sinister, more absorbing, set in some swampy Southern town where the nights are draped in fog and local authorities don’t sweat much over the series of strangulation killings occurring near the mansion of a reclusive, quadriplegic millionaire who surrounds himself with his mentally ill sister, Lugosi’s butler, some mystic in a turban, and a chauffer who doubles as a salivating rapist. A trio of doctors converge at the millionaire’s house with their hands out for donations but instead find they’re treated to demonstrations of how matter can be altered by telekinetically adjusting its vibrations. They’re also here to pay penance for their collective failure to save the millionaire from his present condition. I loved the expressionistic fog excess, there’s a really good-looking lady shrink, a haunting night walk sequence where a spunky young woman is sadly killed, and Lugosi is forced to act normal in certain scenes, reminding you what an interesting actor he could be when not always hamming it up.

A sort of girly cousin to Fox’s
Dr. Renault’s Secret (42), the puzzlingly titled Captive Wild Woman (43) was directed by Edward Dmytryk, who’d soon be helming some essential noirs, such as Murder My Sweet (44) and Crossfire (47). It features two prominent male figures, one ostensibly heroic, the other the obvious villain, aligned by their compulsion to throw wild animals into unnatural situations and tame these animals until they do their bidding. The first man is a circus performer, the second a mad scientist obsessed with “racial improvement” who inserts human glands into a gorilla, the result being the beautiful and bizarre Acquanetta, “the Venezuelan Volcano.” (The actress was actually from Wyoming.) Sounds like a successful experiment in forcing the evolution of beasts into hot babes, but of course confusion and disaster await. The wildly improbably story is quite fascinating, the mise en scène an elegant mélange of slow-motion, creeping traveling shots and sudden close-ups, and the scenes in which the circus guy tangles with real tigers and lions are more genuinely nerve-wracking than anything else in the entire box set. See it. And be nice to animals.

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