Halloween Havoc!: THE BLACK CAT (Universal 1934)

THE BLACK CAT has nothing to do with Edgar Allan Poe , but don’t let that stop you from enjoying this thoroughly dark, twisted film. Not only is it the first teaming of horror icons Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi , it’s their only movie together that plants the two stars on equal ground. It’s also the best film ever made by cult director Edagr G. Ulmer , who’d never again get the opportunity to work at a major studio, or the chance to work with a pair of legends like Boris and Bela in one film.

Bela is Dr. Vitus Verdegast, eminent Hungarian psychiatrist, returning after 15 long years in a Russian prison camp to “visit an old friend” at Marmaros, “the greatest graveyard in the world”, where tens of thousands died during WWI. Vitus is forced by chance to spend the train ride with American honeymooners Peter and Joan Allison, he a “writer of unimportant novels”. They share a cab through rocky terrain during a blinding thunderstorm that causes the car to crash, injuring Joan. Vitus and the couple, along with Wedegast’s manservant Thamal, are forced to seek refuge at the fortress home of Vitus’s “friend”, Engineer Hjalmar Poelzig.

Boris is Poelzig, looking like the devil himself, whip thin and moving as slow as the living dead. The Austrian architect sold out his countrymen during the war, and has returned to the scene of his crimes. Vitus believes Poelzig has his wife and daughter, both named Karen, and has come for revenge, but his deathly fear of black cats paralyzes him. Poelzig is also the High Priest of a Satanic cult, and soon has designs on Joan, leading to a deadly game of chess for her immortal soul…

The Twin Titans of Terror play off each other well, with Bela the Avenging Angel to Boris’s Demonic Deacon. The censors had a fit when they read the script by Peter Ruric, demanding many changes, though Ulmer does gets away with a lot here. Poelzig’s home is a bizarre, Art Deco shrine to decadence, featuring a hall of dead women suspended in glass cases (including Vitus’s wife), a masterpiece of the macabre by Art Director Charles D. Hall and an uncredited Ulmer. The penultimate scene where Vitus, having tied Poelzig to his embalming rack, begins to skin the engineer alive, “slowly, bit by bit”, with a gleefully mad bug-eyed Bela, is shown in shadow, punctuated by Boris’s agonized screams, and is without a doubt one of the most gruesome of the 1930’s horror cycle.

David Manners of DRACULA and THE MUMMY plays Peter, and though many deride him in this I thought he did a fine job. Jacqueline Wells as Joan was a stalwart of Universal ‘B’ films; she did much better when she moved to Warners in 1941 and changed her name to Julie Bishop. Others in the cast are Harry Cording (Thamal), Lucille Lund, Henry Armetta , and Egon Brecher. Familiar Faces in the devil’s cult include King Baggot, Symona Boniface, Lois January, and Michael Mark , as well as a familiar back of the head… that’s Ulmer’s future BLUEBEARD star John Carradine playing the organ!

THE BLACK CAT is the first horror film to feature a continuous music score, as Heinz Roemheld incorporates pieces from Bach, Chopin, Liszt, Schubert, Tchaikovsky, and that old Universal stand-by “Swan Lake”. The music adds to the film’s atmosphere, and though Carl Laemmle hated it, Ulmer insisted upon it, and would utilize classical music throughout his career. But it wasn’t the director’s stubbornness that caused him to be banned from the major studios, nor was it THE BLACK CAT’s graphic for their time scenes of horror, or the perverse nature of the material… it was love. Ulmer met and had an affair with Shirley Kessler Alexander, wife of Laemmle’s nephew Max, and the scandal landed Ulmer on Poverty Row for the rest of his life. Edgar and Shirley married in 1936, and together they collaborated  on all of Ulmer’s films until the end of his days. THE BLACK CAT is a masterpiece of the macabre, and a must for this Halloween season!

 

 

Ulmer Out West: THE NAKED DAWN (Universal-International 1955)

A Technicolor modern-day Western noir directed by legendary low-budget auteur Edgar G. Ulmer ? Count me in! THE NAKED DAWN probably wouldn’t be remembered today if it weren’t for Ulmer, who had a knack for making silk purses out of sow’s ears. Ulmer uses the outdoor locations and his trademark tight shots to disguise the budgetary restrictions, and creates a small gem of a movie. It’s not THE SEARCHERS  or anything, just a compact little drama with a rare starring role for actor Arthur Kennedy .

Kennedy plays Santiago, an ex-revolutionary turned bandito. He’s a drifter, unfettered by societal norms, whose lust for life and freedom are constantly threatened by the powers that be. A metaphor for Ulmer himself, perhaps? Santiago robs a train of some merchandise, and his friend Vicente is killed in the process. Stumbling upon God-fearing Maria and her husband Manuel on their modest farm, Santiago’s roguish charm enchants both. Manuel is struggling to make a go of things; he’s sunk his life savings into the farm. The purchase price included Maria, unhappy with her lot in life and longing to experience the outside world.

Santiago persuades Manuel to drive him to Matamoros to sell his ill-gotten gains, and the crooked customs agent tries to rip him off. But sly Santiago is no easy mark, and he quickly turns the tables, grabbing all the cash and leaving the agent standing on a chair with a noose around his neck! The two men celebrate at a local cantina (where we’re treated to some singing and dancing by the lovely Charlita of BELA LUGOSI MEETS A BROOKLYN GORILLA fame!), getting drunk on tequila and involved in a barroom brawl. Manuel, tired of working like a dog, plots to kill Santiago and take the money for himself. Meanwhile, Maria has grown tired of being slapped around and treated like a servant, and throws herself into the arms of the carefree bandito…

Kennedy was usually relegated to second leads, and takes this opportunity to shine as the lusty Santiago. His Mexican accent may be a bit on the hokey side, but his performance is well nuanced enough to make up for it. There’s no denying Kennedy was a great actor – after all, the man has five Oscar nominations on his resume (though he never won)! Betta St. John (Maria) was a good actress who never quite got that one role that would put her over the top; the closest she came was probably in DREAM WIFE, opposite Cary Grant. She’s better known for her parts in a pair of horror flicks, CORRIDORS OF BLOOD with Boris Karloff and Christopher Lee , and HORROR HOTEL, again with Lee. Eugene Iglesias’ Manuel is written as a coward, and elicits no sympathy whatsoever – at least not from me!

THE NAKED DAWN won’t show up on any “Ten Best” lists, but it did have one very influential fan – French New Wave director Francois Truffaut, who claimed he based his characters in JULES AND JIM on Santiago, Maria, and Manuel. Edgar G. Ulmer may not have had large budgets to work with, but his films were admired by those who know good filmmaking when they see it. Include me among them!

 

Halloween Havoc!: THE AMAZING TRANPARENT MAN (MCP 1960)

Director Edgar G. Ulmer made some astounding contributions to the horror/sci-fi genres: THE BLACK CAT, BLUEBEARD, THE MAN FROM PLANET X . Unfortunately, THE AMAZING TRANSPARENT MAN isn’t among them. The below-low budget movie (shot on location in Dallas simultaneously with BEYOND THE TIME BARRIER) tries to throw too many things at the wall, and nothing really sticks, thanks to a weak script and short 57 minutes running time.

Ulmer does show flourishes of his brilliance in the opening scene, where safecracker Joe Faust breaks out of prison, is chased by hounds through the woods, and is met by a woman who drives him to a deserted looking, isolated farmhouse. But by this time, he had been beaten down from years of Poverty Row work with little to no recognition, and you can tell Ulmer just took the money and ran with this one.

 

The woman is Laura Matson, one of a nest of spies led by ex-Army Major Kremmer. Faust is told “eminent nuclear scientist” Dr. Ulof is experimenting with “fissionable materials” in order to create an “invisible army” and take over the good ol’ USA! Kremmer needs Faust’s expertise to steal the volatile atomic X-13 element. Faust performs the dirty deed, then decides to go into business for himself, and with Laura as his accomplice robs a bank… then suddenly rematerializes in mid-heist!

The scenes where Faust becomes invisible are shot from his POV, and finds the other actors flailing about as if they’re being punched. It’s pretty silly looking, trust me. The transformation special effects by Roger George aren’t half bad as these sort of things go, but the grand finale, with Faust and Kremmer battling in the lab, ends with stock footage of an A-bomb explosion! So is the movie sci-fi, crime, or a thinly disguised anti-nuke screed? Like I said, nothing really sticks.

Character actor Douglas Kennedy (Faust) snarls and growls and basically chews the scenery. Marguerite Chapman (Laura) is best known for the 40’s serial SPY SMASHER. James Griffith (Kremmer) pops up frequently in movie and TV Westerns as a bad guy. Ivan Triesault (Ulof) appeared in CRY OF THE WEREWOLF and THE MUMMY’S GHOST. Pat Cranshaw, who most of you know as the sheriff in the AIR BUD movies and countless sitcom roles as an old codger, makes his debut as a security guard. Veteran Universal make-up genius Jack Pierce gets a credit, but he doesn’t create anything memorable. Like Ulmer, he probably just took the money and ran.

The dialog in Jack Lewis’s script features exchanges like this: Ulof: “Why do you ask these questions?” Faust: “Because I want answers!” Literary gold, this is not! It’s all a mishmash of ideas that never really gels. Ulmer went on to make two more films (1961’s JOURNEY BENEATH THE DESERT and 1964’s THE CAVERN) before his death in 1972. His filmography (especially his noir masterpiece DETOUR ) deserves to be reexamined, but unless you’re a completest, cross THE AMAZING TRANSPARENT MAN off your list.

In Blackest Night: Edgar G. Ulmer’s DETOUR (PRC 1945)

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After hearing about DETOUR for years and reading all the critical acclaim, I finally got the chance to  watch it this year, thanks to TCM and the good ol’ DVR. I wondered if it would live up to all the hype, and I was not disappointed. DETOUR is a textbook example of how to make a great film on a shoestring budget. Indie auteurs today could certainly learn a lot from director Edgar G Ulmer’s inventiveness, as he crafts a film noir gem on a six-day schedule and $20,000 budget. Although reports do vary on shooting length and cost, let’s be honest…this is a PRC film, not an MGM prestige production. “Make em fast, make em cheap” was the studio’s mantra!

DETOUR tells the story of Al Roberts, who we meet in an Arizona diner. Al’s a disheveled looking guy who seems to have a chip on his shoulder bigger than the Grand Canyon. When a trucker plays the tune “I Can’t Believe That You’re in Love With Me” on the jukebox, Al goes nuts, demanding he turn it off. After the proprietor calms him down, Al begins musing (in voiceover) about how he got where he is today…

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Flashback to New York City, where Al’s a small-time piano player in New York whose singer/girlfriend Sue goes to seek fame and fortune in Hollywood. After a call to Sue, who tells him she’s “working as a hash slinger”, Al decides he’s going to hitchhike across country to be with her. He makes it to Arizona, broke and destitute, when he’s picked up by a guy named Haskell. The talkative Haskell tells Al he’s going all the way to LA. Cruising down the highway, Haskell (who’s taking some kind of medications) has some scratches on his hand, and he tells Al about the last hitcher he picked up, “the most dangerous animal in the world..a woman”. Al takes the wheel while Haskell sleeps, and when a rainstorm begins, he pulls over to put the top up. Haskell won’t wake up, and when Al opens the door, the man falls on the pavement, bumping his head on a rock. Al realizes Haskell’s dead, and in a panic, he dumps the body in the brush, taking Haskell’s money, clothes, and ID.

While going through Haskell’s stuff in a hotel room, Al learns the guy was a chiseler. Not feeling so bad now, Al continues his journey to California in the stolen car under the guise of Haskell. He gasses up, and sees a woman hitching who “looks as if she’d just been thrown off the crummiest freight train in the world”. Al offers her a lift, and it’s the worst decision he’ll ever make, for this is Vera, the woman who rode with Haskell and gave him the scratches. Vera knows Al is not Haskell, and threatens to expose Al as a murderer if he doesn’t comply with her demands…

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Tom Neal does good work  as the ill-fated Al, caught in a downhill spiral of his own bad decisions, but Ann Savage sizzles as Vera. Ann certainly lives up to her surname, biting off her dialogue in ratatat fashion, with a kisser that looks like she’s been off her meds for a week and a half. Whether barking at Al or drunkenly trying to seduce him, Savage’s Vera is the femme fatale to end them all. It’s a vicious, unsympathetic, no-holds-barred performance, and Ann Savage nails it. She’s the noir bad girl that bad girls aspire to be, and though her film career was largely forgettable, she’ll always be remembered for this once in a lifetime role.

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Edgar G. Ulmer uses all the tricks up his sleeve to cover up the budget limitations. The film is darkly inked in blacks, aiding the mood tremendously. Using tight shots, close-ups, fog shrouded streets, and outdoor locations, Ulmer paints a picture of a man in turmoil, the bleakness of Al’s situation reflected in the bleakness of the film’s settings. Ulmer’s capably assisted by Benjamin Kline’s cinematography. Kline was a veteran of silents, shorts (with lots of early Three Stooges to his credit), and B’s who knew his way around a camera, and DETOUR is his finest work. The screenplay was written by Martin Goldsmith, based on his 1939 novel (I wonder if there’s a copy on Amazon??) Kudos go to all involved with this film, from Ulmer and his crew of artists to the marvelously malevolent Ann Savage. DETOUR is one B-movie you won’t want to miss!

Halloween Havoc!: THE MAN FROM PLANET X (Mid Century Productions 1951)

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THE MAN FROM PLANET X is low-budget early sci-fi movie about an alien coming to Earth. The mysterious Planet X is drawing close to our world. Discovered by Professor Elliot (Raymond Bond), Planet X will come closest to the foggy coast of Scotland. Intrepid reporter John Lawrence (cult actor Robert Clarke of THE HIDEOUS SUN DEMON) travels there to meet his old friend, and falls in love with the professor’s daughter Enid (Margaret Field, mother of Sally). A spaceship is found with an alien inside. The professor’s assistant Mears (a very young William Schallert) wants to use the alien for his lightweight metal and get rich. But the alien has other plans, capturing Mears and the Professor, along with some townspeople.

The alien is an advance scout for the coming invasion of Planet X. The Scottish town is cut off from contacting the rest of the Earth as the fiend gets ready to summon his forces. Can he be stopped I time? Will Lawrence save the Earth? Or are we doomed to become slaves of THE MAN FROM PLANET X??

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The background to this movie is more interesting than the film itself. The writer/producer tandem of Jack Pollexfen and Aubrey Wisberg founded Mid-Century Productions in 1951. Science-fiction was all the rage at the box office, so they concocted a story called THE MAN FROM PLANET X. Being a small company, they hired Edgar G. Ulmer to direct. Ulmer was a veteran of German cinema who came to America in the late 20’s. He directed the horror classic THE BLACK CAT at Universal in 1934, starring Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. But after a scandal involving an executive’s wife, Ulmer was blacklisted from the major studios. Finding work only at Poverty Row studios like PRC, Ulmer quickly learned to craft diamonds out of the coal he was handed. Films like 1944’s BLUEBEARD with John Carradine and the noir classic DETOUR (1945) are still studied today as examples of making good films with little money.

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THE MAN FROM PLANET X was shot in six days on Hollywood backlots. The moors of Scotland are recreated by fog machines to cover the lack of sets. Backgrounds are obvious matte paintings. What sets there are in the film were leftover from the 1948 JOAN OF ARC starring Ingrid Bergman. Using lighting tricks and camera angels, Ulmer creates a believable world despite the flowery script by Pollexfen and Wisberg. THE MAN FROM PLANET X is one of the earliest “alien invasion” movies, and should be seen by sci-fi/horror enthusiasts at least once. (And trust me, you haven’t heard the last of Ulmer here at Cracked Rear Viewer. His films are worth revisiting.)