Halloween Havoc!: BLACK FRIDAY (Universal 1940)

The Twin Titans of Terror, Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, reteamed for their fifth film together in 1940’s BLACK FRIDAY. Horror fans must’ve been salivating at the chance to see the duo reunited after the success of the previous year’s SON OF FRANKENSTEIN, but left the theaters let down upon discovering Boris and Bela share no scenes together, and the bulk of the action is carried by character actor Stanley Ridges in a dual role.

The movie’s a variation on the old Jekyll & Hyde theme, with a twist: instead of a secret formula, the change occurs via brain transplantation! The preposterous premise finds Karloff on death row as Dr. Ernst Sovac, walking that last mile to his fate in the electric chair. Sovac hands his notes and records to a sympathetic newspaper reporter, and our film begins in earnest. Flashbacks relate the tale of kindly old English literature Professor George Kingsley, struck down by a car driven by gangster Red Cannon, who is trying to escape a hit by his former gang. Both men are badly hurt in the crash, with Kingsley being mortally wounded and Red paralyzed. To save his friend Kingsley’s life, Sovac transplants part of Red’s brain in Kingsley’s head (which of course kills the gangster).

While Kingsley convalesces, Sovac learns Red has a half million dollars in ill-gotten loot stashed away in New York City. The doctor brings his friend to The Big Apple under the pretense of “a change will do you good”, hoping to jog the Red Cannon part of his brain into revealing the money’s whereabouts, so he can fund more brain transplanting research. This works all too well, as the familiar surroundings cause the Red Cannon part of Kingsley’s brain to slowly take over, especially after seeing his former moll, nightclub canary Sunny Rogers. Aware that he’s unrecognizable in his new body, Red goes on a killing spree against the four mobsters that tried to rub him out…

The script by Curt Siodmak and Eric Taylor seems tailored for Lugosi to play the mad Dr. Sovac and Karloff as Kingsley/Red, right down to the character names and some of the dialog. But for whatever reason (reports vary), Karloff insisted on taking the Sovac part. It’s not like he’d never played a gangster before (see THE CRIMINAL CODE or SCARFACE for examples), but Karloff got his way. Bela wound up being wasted in the part of crook Eric Marnay (and though he’s quite good, it’s a minor role), and Ridges (who was probably slated to play Marnay) got the juicy role of Kingsley/Red. Ridges is effective, but it would have been a much better film if the original casting had stood.

Director Arthur Lubin adds a nice touch using the old “spinning newspaper effect” with Sovac’s notebook to transition scenes, with Karloff adding narration. DP Elwood “Woody” Bredell does a good job painting with shadows and light, warming up for future jobs on PHANTOM LADY , CHRISTMAS HOLIDAY, and THE KILLERS . The supporting cast features Familiar Faces Murry Alper, Raymond Bailey , Virginia Brissac, James Craig (the sympathetic reporter), Paul Fix, Anne Gwynne, and Anne Nagel, but on the whole this is the weakest of the Karloff/Lugosi pairings (except for maybe RKO’s YOU’LL FIND OUT, with Peter Lorre and Kay Kyser and His Kollege of Musical Knowledge). *sigh* If only they’d stuck to the original casting…

Halloween Havoc!: MAN MADE MONSTER (Universal 1941)

Lon Chaney Jr.  made his first foray into Universal Horror with MAN MADE MONSTER, the movie that led to his studio contract and immortality with THE WOLF MAN . Both films were directed by George Waggner, who also wrote the script here under the pseudonym Joseph West. Lon’s large and in charge as the electrical monster, but top billing and acting honors go to Hollywood’s maddest of mad doctors, the great Lionel Atwill .

A bus crashes into high tension wires on a rain slicked highway, leaving all aboard dead save one. He’s Dan McCormick, a carny performer known as ‘Dynamo Dan, The Electric Man’. His seeming imperviousness to electricity piques the interest of scientist Professor Lawrence, who invites the jovial Dan to stay with him and his young niece June. Lawrence wants to run some experimental tests on Dan, but when he leaves for a medical convention his assistant Dr. Rigas takes control.

Using Dan as a guinea pig to prove his theories, Rigas gives Dan massive doses of electricity, causing him to become dependent on the daily jolts. Rigas’s final treatment gives Dan an eerie (superimposed) glow, as well as superhuman strength, forcing him to don a rubber suit to contain the electric power coursing through his veins. Lawrence returns to this, and the mad Dr. Rigas rails about creating “the worker of the future”, an army of electric zombies that will do his bidding, and proves his point as he commands Dan to kill the scirentist.

June and Mark return to the house to find her uncle dead, with Dan only able to repeat “I.. killed.. him”. McCormick is put on trial and found guilty of murder, and sentenced to… the electric chair! This has the reverse effect on Dan, as the voltage revives his superstrength, and he escapes prison and runs rampant, causing havoc and destruction as he makes his way back to Dr. Rigas and a date with destiny…

Lon is full of piss and vinegar in the early scenes, just a big, good natured lug who likes nothing more than horsing around with the Lawrence’s dog Corky. Chaney, who was a well-known dog lover in real life, has fun in the part (as, I assume, did Corky!). After getting zapped into zombiehood, ‘Dynamo Dan’ becomes just another mindless monster, showing no emotion thanks to the devious Dr. Rigas. But the role secured his spot at Universal, and Chaney became the studio’s top horror star of the 40’s, playing all the Universal Monsters at one point or another – that is, except for The Invisible Man and the Bride of Frankenstein!

Lionel Atwill steals the show as Rigas, chewing the scenery with gusto, his eyes popping from behind those crazy goggles. When Lawrence states he thinks Rigas is mad, Atwill gleefully replies, “I am! So was Archemedes, Gallileo, Newton, Pasteur, Lister, all the others who dared to dream!”. Lionel Atwill, who could give Bela Lugosi a run for his money in the mad doctor department, elevates this programmer to lofty horror heights, and woukd team with Chaney again for GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN, FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN, HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN , and HOUSE OF DRACULA.

A Universal cast is worth repeating, and here we have his grey eminence Samuel S. Hinds as kindly Prof. Lawrence, Anne Nagel as June, and Frank Albertson as the reporter. And of course, Corky, whose other films include MY FAVORITE WIFE, IT HAPPENED ON 5TH AVENUE , and CRISS CROSS . Much ado was made about the movie being filmed on the same set as Lon Chaney Sr.’s silent classic PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, with Junior ready to take the mantle of his famous father. It didn’t quite turn out that way, but young Lon did enjoy a long career in both the horror and Western fields, despite his alcoholism. MAN MADE MONSTER is definitely lesser Universal Horror, but worth checking out for Chaney’s initial horror role and the bravura stylings of mad doctor Lionel Atwill. Oh, and Corky’s pretty good, too!

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