Halloween Havoc!: HORROR ISLAND (Universal 1941)

Universal Pictures kept cranking out the horrors, but HORROR ISLAND isn’t one of them. It’s as misleading a title as Hollywood ever produced, more of a comedy/mystery with some “old dark house” elements thrown in for good measure. This little ‘B’ was released as a double feature with MAN MADE MONSTER, and while its good for what it is, it ain’t horror!

Atmospherically directed by George Waggner and shot by Universal workhorse Woody Bredell , HORROR ISLAND  begins spookily enough with a peg-legged sailor trodding the docks attacked by the mysterious Phantom. Rescued from the briny water by hard-pressed for cash entrepreneur Bill Martin and his pal Stuff Oliver, we learn the sailor is Tobias Clump, a Spaniard who claims he has half a map of Sir Henry Morgan’s buried treasure – and The Phantom just stole the other half! Bill happens to have inherited Morgan’s Island, where twenty million dollars worth of pirate gold and jewels are hidden. They take the map piece to an expert, who claims it’s a fake, so Bill gets an idea to exploit the legend by starting a new business promoting excursions to Morgan’s Island and setting up suckers on a bogus treasure hunt.

After “meeting cute” with rich Wendy Creighton (and her jaded boyfriend with the preposterous name of Thurman Coldwater), Bill, Stuff, and Tobias set sail with their first guests: Wendy and Thurman, Bill’s cousin George (who wants to buy the island for himself), nosy cop Sgt. McGoon, meek Professor Quinley, and shady couple Rod and Arleen Grady. Bill and Stuff have tricked out the island’s castle (yes, there’s a castle) to frighten the customers, but there’s more unexplainable doings than they planned, and the customers get more than they bargained for as they get picked off one by one by The Phantom…

The cast is stocked with Universal contract players, all of whom are good at what they do. Dick Foran and Peggy Moran (stars of THE MUMMY’S HAND ) make likeable leads and carry the picture along with comic actors Leo Carrillo (Tobias), Fuzzy Knight (Stuff), Walter Catlett (McGoon), and Iris Adrian (Arleen). Everything is wrapped up neatly in just over an hour, and if you like movies with secret passageways, mysterious phantoms, and things that go “boo” in the night, you’ll enjoy HORROR ISLAND… but it ain’t horror!

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!

Halloween Havoc!: THE WOLF MAN (Universal 1941)

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We’re heading down the Halloween Havoc! homestretch and for the last week of October I’ll be dusting of my Universal Classic Horror tapes (yes I still have a VHS player…doesn’t everybody?) From watching them on late night TV to reading about them in “Famous Monsters of Filmland” and “Castle of Frankenstein” magazines, these are the films that got me started as a life-long lover of macabre movies. So let’s take a trip down Monster Memory Lane with one of my personal favorites, THE WOLF MAN.

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Prodigal son Larry Talbot returns to his Welsh home of Llanwelly after spending 18 years in America. Father Sir John Talbot is an astronomer, and through the telescope Larry spies beautiful village girl Gwen Conliffe. Fun loving Larry is captivated by her, so he heads to her father’s antique shop to work his charm on the lass. Larry flirts away,  and on impulse buys a cane with a silver wolf’s head attached. This is where we hear that famous poem for the first time: “Even a man who is pure at heart and says his prayers by night/ May become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms and the Autumn moon is bright”. (I tried to find a YouTube clip but no dice! Sorry!)

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Gwen agrees to go to the gypsy camp to have their fortunes read, dragging along her friend Jenny Williams. When Bela the gypsy reads Jenny’s palm, he sees doom in her future. She’s attacked by a wolf and Larry bashes its head in with his silver cane, getting bit in the process. Gwen and Maleva, gypsy mother of Bela, bring Larry home, but the next day Bela’s dead body is discovered in the wolf’s stead. Larry’s wound is mysteriously gone, in its place a pentagram…the sign of the werewolf!

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Lon Chaney Jr always said Larry Talbot was his “baby”, and the role made him a star at Universal. The transformation from happy-go-lucky Larry to conflicted, morose victim of lycanthropy earned Chaney the title of “The Screen’s Master Character Creator” in Universal’s advertising hype. Chaney is the only actor to portray all the studio’s major monsters: Frankenstein’s Monster, Dracula, and The Mummy, as well as appearing as The Wolf Man in four sequels. His roles in mainstream films like OF MICE AND MEN, HIGH NOON, and THE DEFIANT ONES brought critical acclaim, but Chaney’s lifelong battle with the bottle saw him ending his career in B-Westerns and Al Adamson schlockers. Larry Talbot was his signature role, and his contributions to cinematic horror will not be soon forgotten.

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“A Universal Cast is Worth Repeating” and nowhere is that truer than in THE WOLF MAN. Scream Queen Evelyn Ankers was Universal’s go-to girl when it came to horror, and she’s at her best in this one. Bela the gypsy is of course horror icon Bela Lugosi. Lugosi only gets about two minutes of screen time as the doomed gypsy, but he makes the most of it, playing the part with an understated melancholy. The Invisible Man himself, Claude Rains lends dignity to Sir John, who refuses to believe his son is a werewolf. Also giving a dignified performance is diminutive Russian actress Maria Ouspenskaya as Maleva. The twice Oscar nominated Ouspenskaya returned to the role in the sequel, FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN. Warren William, Patric Knowles, and Fay Helm (the unfortunate Jenny) lend good support, but Ralph Bellamy is annoying as the local constable.

Curt Siodmak wrote the intelligent script. The German immigrant never achieved the success of his brother, director Robert (THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE, THE KILLERS, CRISS CROSS), but was a major figure in the horror genre. His novel Donovan’s Brain is a classic, and his screenplays for THE INVISIBLE MAN RETURNS, I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE, and THE BEAST WITH FIVE FINGERS hold up well. As for his directorial career…well, he was a good writer! George Waggner directed this one, and while his screen career is undistinguished, he found his niche working on television shows like 77 SUNSET STRIP, THE MAN FROM UNCLE, and BATMAN. Makeup artist Jack Pierce created one of his masterpieces for Chaney, and the Wolf Man’s visage still  manages to frighten. THE WOLF MAN ranks with the best of Universal’s 30s classics, and while the recent remake wasn’t all that bad, it was missing one key element. Sorry Benicio Del Toro, but you’re just no Lon Chaney Jr!

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