Halloween Havoc! Extra: THE VAMPIRE BAT (Majestic 1933) Complete Horror Movie!

1933’s THE VAMPIRE BAT isn’t a Universal Horror movie, but it sure comes damn close! This independent feature from Majestic Pictures contains a number of Universal Horror stars, including Lionel Atwill , Melvyn Douglas (THE OLD DARK HOUSE ), Lionel Belmore (FRANKENSTEIN ), and a positively Renfield-like performance from the great Dwight Frye – not to mention KING KONG’s main squeeze Fay Wray as our heroine! Majestic also rented some of the standing sets from FRANKENSTEIN and THE OLD DARK HOUSE to film on, giving the film a real Universal feel.

The screenplay by Edward T. Lowe (who wrote Lon Chaney’s 1923 HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME, and the later horror entry HOUSE OF DRACULA) concerns the village of Kleinschloss up in arms over a series of gruesome murders that point to the presence of a vampire in their midst, with Frye’s simple-minded Herman the chief suspect. Turns out the killings are not really supernatural but that old devil, mad science, with Atwill’s Dr. von Neimann needing human blood for his deranged experiments! Directed by Frank L. Strayer (1932’s THE MONSTER WALKS), enjoy today’s classic fright fest, THE VAMPIRE BAT!:

Halloween Havoc!: BLACK MOON (Columbia 1934)

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I thought I’d seen, or at least heard of, all the horror films made during the 1930’s. I was wrong. BLACK MOON was new to me when I viewed it recently as part of TCM’S Summer Under the Stars salute to KING KONG’s  main squeeze, Fay Wray. It’s a voodoo tale also starring square-jawed Jack Holt and Pre-Code favorite Dorothy Burgess . The director is Roy William Neill, who would later work with genre giants Karloff (THE BLACK ROOM), Lugosi and Chaney (FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN), and helm eleven of the Universal Sherlock Holmes films with Basil Rathbone.

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The film open with the pounding of jungle drums, and we see Nita Lane (Burgess) is the one pounding them in her luxurious home. Nita grew up on the Caribbean isle of San Christopher, where her parents were murdered during a native uprising. Hubby Stephen (Holt) is against Nita returning to the island, but can’t dissuade her, so he asks his secretary Gail (Wray) to accompany his wife and young daughter Nancy (Cora Sue Collins).

Nita is visited by a man named Macklin (Lumsden Hare), sent by Nita’s Uncle Raymond to keep his niece away from San Christopher. The blood sacrifices have returned to the island, and Nita is warned to steer clear. “You can’t stop me”, is her reply, “I’ll come and go when and where I please”. Unable to reason with her, Macklin goes to Stephen’s office, and has a knife thrown in his back by a native assassin for his troubles. Meanwhile, Nita hears the steady beating of the voodoo drums in her head.

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Nita is treated like royalty by the natives upon her return to San Christopher. Uncle Raymond tries to persuade her to leave, but there’s no talking to her. Gail is worried about Nita’s bizarre behavior, and wires Stephen to come to the island. The telegrapher is found hanging, and soon Nancy’s nurse is found dead. Nita replaces the nurse with her  former nanny Ruva (Madame Sul-Te-Wan), and becomes more ominous looking by the minute.

Stephen charters a schooner from ‘Lunch’ McLaren (Clarence Muse), who fears his girlfriend is about to be sacrificed by the voodoo cult. The two men sneak into the jungle and observe the weird ceremony, with frenzied drumming and feverish dancing… and Nita presiding over it as the White Priestess! The High Priest is about to chop off ‘Lunch’s’ girls head when Stephen shoots him. The two run away in fear, not witnessing Nita finish the bloody job!

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Uncle Raymond tells Stephen the truth about Nita- after her parents were killed, she was watched over by Ruva, and initiated into the voodoo cult as their priestess, taking part in their murderous sacrificing rituals. Raymond sent her away when he found out, and thought being married and having a child had cured her of her bloodlust. Later, Nancy has a nightmare and Stephen gives her some water, not knowing it’s been loaded with a voodoo drug by Nita, meant for him. The child survives, but soon the natives trap Stephen and company in the estate. They manage to escape, and now the cult demands retribution in the form of a new sacrifice… Nita’s own daughter Nancy!

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Dorothy Burgess excels in the role of Nita, with her ominous looks and wild-eyed dancing. Neill and cinematographer Joseph August bring a great sense of dread to the proceedings, and the shadowy camerawork is film noirish in its execution (pardon the pun). BLACK MOON isn’t particularly scary, but has enough good moments to qualify as horror. It’s an obscure title that’s rarely seen today, and is worth going out of your way to find, especially for Golden Age horror completests.

 

 

Halloween Havoc!: KING KONG (RKO 1933)

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No matter how many times it’s remade, no matter what new technology’s available, the original 1933 KING KONG will never be topped. The story’s familiar to horror lovers: Showman Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) charters the ship Venture to take him to the unchartered Skull Island. He scours New York to find a “love interest” for his next picture. Finding down on her luck gal Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) trying to steal an apple, he offers her a chance for “money and adventure and fame….the thrill of a lifetime”. Denham’s brainstorm is to travel to the island to capture pictures of Kong, a beast that Captain Englehorn (Frank Reicher) thinks is just “some native superstition”. First Mate Driscoll (Bruce Cabot) is reluctant to have a woman on board, but soon warms up to her. They arrive at the island to observe the natives performing a strange ritual. A young native girl is being adorned with flowers. When they spy the white Ann, the chieftan (Noble Johnson) offers to buy her. The crew refuses, but the natives sneak onboard in the dead of night and capture Ann.

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When Charlie the cook (Victor Wong) finds a native bracelet on deck, Denham and the crew go ashore. Ann’s been tied to an altar behind the massive locked gate. The natives climb up the wall to wait for the arrival of…KONG! A giant ape appears and grabs Ann into the jungle. Denham, Driscoll, and some crew members go in hot pursuit, encountering monsterous dinosaurs along the way. Kong ends up killing all save for Driscoll and Denham. The mighty beast is downed by “gas bombs”, and carted away to New York.

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Denham stages a Broadway showing of “King Kong, The Eighth Wonder of the World”. The theater’s jam packed with curiosity seekers. The press is on hand, eager to see the beast. Kong is presented onstage in chains, in what reminds one of a crucifixion pose. When the photographers take picture, their flashbulbs disturb the ape and he breaks free. Pandemonium erupts as King Kong is loose in New York City. Snatching Ann through a window, Kong climbs to the top of the Empire State Building. Airplanes are sent to strafe Kong, machine guns a-blazing, and the great ape topples to his doom. Carl Denham gets the last words, sorrowfully stating, “It was beauty killed the beast”.

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Co-directors Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack keep the story moving along at a fine clip, aided immensely by Max Steiner’s score. Willis O’Brien’s stop-motion special effects hold up very well, and the matching shots of Kong with the actors are well integrated. Kudos should also go to Murray Spivak and the sound department, which adds to the excitement. Eagle-eyed film fans will be able to spot James Flavin, Roscoe Ates, Dick Curtis, Charlie Hall, Syd Saylor, and Sam Levine in small roles. Cooper and Schoedsack even have cameos as the pilot and gunner who take down Kong. KING KONG has stood the test of time, and is a bonafide classic that never fails to thrill viewers of all ages. A perfect way to spend a Halloween evening.

Remembering Lionel Atwill: DOCTOR X (1932) and MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM (1933)

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When film fans think of their Mount Rushmore of horror stars, a few names immediately come to mind. Boris Karloff. Bela Lugosi. Lon Chaney (Sr & Jr). Vincent Price, Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee. One name usually omitted is Lionel Atwill. Which is a shame, because the actor was front and center at the beginning of the horror cycle of the 1930s. While hard-core horror buffs certainly know his work, Atwill is best remembered today for his supporting role as the wooden-armed Inspector Krough in 1939’s SON OF FRANKENSTEIN. But at the dawn of the Golden Age of Horror, Lionel Atwill starred in two of the earliest fright classics, both produced by Warner Brothers: DOCTOR X and MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM.

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DOCTOR X is more along the lines of an “old dark house” mystery, with dashes of the new horror genre added for extra spice. Dr. Xavier (Atwill) is called in by the police in the matter of the “Moon Killer” murders, involving a cannibalistic madman. The cops say these murders could only be caused by a special scalpel used at Xavier’s academy. The doctor, worried about bringing bad publicity to his research, asks for 48 hours to investigate on his own. Meanwhile, nosy reporter Lee Taylor (Lee Tracy) is snooping around trying to get a sensationalistic scoop. We’re introduced to Xavier’s faculty, and they’re an odd lot indeed: one-handed Dr. Wells (Preston Foster) is an expert on cannibalism, Dr. Haines (John Wray) a brain surgeon once shipwrecked in Tahiti under mysterious circumstances, and Drs. Duke and Rowitz (Harry Beresford, Arthur Edmund Carewe), studiers of astronomy. Taylor goes to Xavier’s estate to dig up some info, where he’s thrown out by Xavier’s lovely daughter Joanne (scream queen Fay Wray). He manages to find out Xavier is bringing his faculty out to Cliff Shoales manor, and follows along.

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