A Quickie with The King: Boris Karloff in DIE, MONSTER, DIE! (AIP 1965)

All you Cracked Rear Viewers know by now my affection for the King of Monsters, Boris Karloff . His Universal classics of the 30’s and RKO chillers of the 40’s hold an esteemed place in my personal Horror Valhalla. Karloff did his share of clunkers, too, especially later in his career. DIE, MONSTER, DIE! is one such film, it’s good intentions sunk by bad execution.

It’s the second screen adaptation of a story from the fertile mind of author  H.P. Lovecraft; the first, 1963’s THE HAUNTED PALACE, was a mash-up of Lovecraft and Edgar Allan Poe as part of the Roger Corman/Vincent Price series. Corman’s longtime Art Director Daniel Haller made his directorial debut, and the film certainly looks good. Veteran sci-fi writer Jerry Sohl contributed the screenplay, which was then tinkered with by Haller. Therein lies the problem; Haller’s changes drag down what could have been an exciting little horror tale to junior high level.

 Boris plays Nahum Whitley, a wheelchair bound curmudgeon living in a creepy old mansion in the English town of Arkham. Nick Adams is Stephen Reinhart, summoned by Nahum’s bedridden wife Letitia (Freda Jackson) to take daughter Susan (Suzan Farmer ) away from the strange happenings occurring at the house. Nahum keeps demanding the young man leave., as he’s been experimenting with a weird, radioactive meteor and tampering with forces beyond his control.

This all leads to Steve and Susan sneaking into Nahum’s mysteriously glowing greenhouse, where they discover giant vegetation growing – Susan is even attacked by a strangling plant! The ill Letitia becomes a monster, and attacks the two, then Nahum takes an axe to the meteor, unleashing horrors from the Other Side, and turns into a mutated demon out to kill. He is then killed himself and the movie ends with the obligatory Cormanesque conflagration as the house burns down.

Karloff at age 77 still commands power as Nahum, even though he’s confined to his wheelchair through much of the film. The King was still The King, an actor of great presence dominating every scene he’s in. Unfortunately, he’s not given a lot to do except skulk about and looks mysterious. His mutant monster is actually a stunt double, as arthritis and emphysema had taken their toll on his body, but even without much mobility, Karloff’s the best thing in this one.

Nick Adams was Oscar-nominated just two years before for TWILIGHT OF HONOR, but personal problems had caused his star to swiftly fall; from here, he went on to star in kaiju eiga movies in Japan. Farmer has nothing to do but look pretty and say “Oh, Steve” about ten times too often. DIE, MONSTER, DIE! goes for cheap chills (a tarantula, bats attacking Adams, weird noises) instead of Lovecraftian horrors, and winds up as just another “old, dark house” movie with a radioactive twist, falling far short of its source material. Haller made another Lovecraft-inspired film, 1970’s THE DUNWICH HORROR , before turning to TV; it took twenty years and Stuart Gordon’s RE-ANIMATOR to finally do cinematic justice to H.P. Lovecraft on the screen. For Boris Karloff fans, DIE, MONSTER, DIE! stands as a flawed failure, interesting only because of The King.

 

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Cleaning Out the DVR #19: Things To Watch When You Have Flumonia!

So I’ve been laid up with the flu/early stage pneumonia/whateverthehellitis for the past few days, which seemed like a  good excuse to clean out the DVR by watching a bunch of random movies:

Bette Davis & Jimmy Cagney in “Jimmy the Gent”

JIMMY THE GENT (Warner Brothers 1934; D: Michael Curtiz ) –  Fast paced James Cagney vehicle has Jimmy as the head of a shady “missing heir” racket, with Bette Davis as his ex-girl, now working for his classy (but grabby!) rival Alan Dinehart. Allen Jenkins returns once again as Cagney’s sidekick, and Alice White is a riot as Jenkins’s ditzy dame. Some funny dialog by Bertram Milhauser in this one, coming in at the tail-end of the Pre-Code era. Cagney’s always worth watching, even in minor fare like this one. Fun Fact: Cagney’s battles with boss Jack Warner over better roles were legendary, and the actor went out and got a Teutonic-style haircut right before shooting began, just to piss the boss off!  

Dwight Frye & George Zucco in “Dead Men Walk”

DEAD MEN WALK (PRC 1943; D: Sam Newfield) – Perennial second stringer George Zucco starred in a series of shockers as PRC’s answer to Monogram’s Bela Lugosi series . Here he plays twins, one a good doctor, the other a vampire risen from the grave to enact his gruesome revenge. Despite the ultra-low budget (PRC made Monogram look like MGM!), it’s a surprisingly effective chiller due to some ingenious camerawork from Newfield. Much of the film’s plot elements are borrowed (some would say stolen) from Universal’s DRACULA , including casting Dwight Frye as the vampire’s loyal servant. Fun Fact: Romantic lead Nedrick Young later won a Best Story Oscar for Stanley Kramer’s 1958 THE DEFIANT ONES, which featured another horror icon, Lon Chaney Jr.

LADIES DAY (RKO 1943; D: Leslie Goodwins) – Broad baseball comedy (no pun intended) about star pitcher Eddie Albert , who is easily distracted by pretty women, falling for movie star Lupe Velez . They get hitched, and the other player’s wives band together to kidnap her and keep them apart so Eddie can concentrate on winning the World Series! Silly but enjoyable farce elevated by a cast of comic pros: Patsy Kelly, Iris Adrian , Joan Barclay, Max Baer Sr, Jerome Cowan , Cliff Clark, and Tom Kennedy (Nedrick Young’s in this one, too… a banner year for the actor!). Maybe not a classic, but a whole lot of fun, especially for baseball buffs like me. Fun Fact: Director Goodwins has a cameo as (what else?) a movie director.

MYSTERY STREET (MGM 1950; D: John Sturges ) – Tight little ‘B’ noir as a Boston bar girl’s (Jan Sterling) skeletal remains are discovered on Cape Cod, and police Lt. Ricardo Montalban tries to piece together the murder puzzle with the help of a Harvard forensics professor (Bruce Bennett) and some good old-fashioned detective work. Early effort from Sturges benefits from excellent John Alton photography and a script co-written by Richard Brooks . Elsa Lanchester is a standout as a blackmailing landlady among a strong cast (Betsy Blair, Walter Burke, Sally Forrest, Marshall Thompson, Willard Waterman). Fun Fact: Filmed in Boston, and many of the neighborhood sights are still recognizable almost 70 years later to those familiar with the Olde Towne.

Victor Buono as “The Strangler”

THE STRANGLER (Allied Artists 1964; D: Burt Topper) – Lurid psychological thriller stars Victor Buono in his best screen performance as a sexually repressed, schizoid psycho-killer with a creepy doll fetish. Ellen Corby plays his domineering, invalid mother. Cheap, tawdry, sensationalistic, and definitely worth watching! Fun Fact: Lots of old horror hands worked behind the scenes on this one: DP Jacques Marquette (ATTACK OF THE 50 FOOT WOMAN ), Art Director Eugene Lourie (director of THE GIANT BEHEMOTH and GORGO), Editor Robert Eisen (INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS ), and makeup man Wally Westmore (WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE, WAR OF THE WORLDS).

HYSTERIA (MGM/Hammer 1965; D: Freddie Francis ) – This Hitchcockian homage gives character actor Robert Webber a rare starring role as an amnesia victim embroiled in a GASLIGHT-like murder plot. Director Francis’s keen eye for composition hide the budget restraints, and producer/writer Jimmy Sangster’s script pulls out all the stops, but I couldn’t help but wonder while watching what The Master of Suspense himself could have done with the material. As it is, a fine but minor piece of British noir with horror undertones. Fun Fact: Australian composer Don Banks’s jazzy score aids in setting the overall mood.

BEN (Cinerama 1972; D: Phil Karlson ) – Sequel to the previous year’s horror hit WILLARD is okay, but nowhere near the original. Crazy Bruce Davison is replaced by lonely little Lee Hartcourt Montgomery, an annoying kid (no wonder he’s lonely!) who befriends Ben and his creepy rat posse. The rodents cause havoc at the grocery (“Rats! Millions of ’em! At the supermarket!”) and a health spa in some too-brief scenes, but on the whole this looks and feels like a TV movie, right down to it’s small screen cast (Meredith Baxter, Joseph Campanella, Kaz Garas, Rosemary Murphy, Arthur O’Connell, Norman Alden). We do get genre vet Kenneth Tobey (THE THING ) in a bit as a city engineer, and the climax will remind you of THEM! , but like most sequels, this one fails to satisfy. Stick with the original. Fun Fact: Montgomery would grow out of his annoying stage and become an 80’s heartthrob in GIRLS JUST WANT TO HAVE FUN.

And now, here’s Michael Jackson singing the cloying love theme from BEN at the film’s conclusion. Rats – yuchh!:

Hand-y Man: Peter Lorre in THE BEAST WITH FIVE FINGERS (Warner Brothers 1946)

Warner Brothers was in at the beginning of the first horror cycle with DR. X and MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM , both starring Lionel Atwill. The studio concentrated more on their gangster flicks, Busby Berkeley musicals, swashbuckling epics, and the occasional highbrow films with George Arliss and Paul Muni, but once in a while they’d throw horror buffs a bone: Karloff in 1936’s THE WALKING DEAD, ’39’s THE RETURN OF DR. X (no relation to the original, instead casting Humphrey Bogart as a pasty-faced zombie!), and a pair of scare comedies from ’41, THE SMILING GHOST and THE BODY DISAPPEARS.

Come 1946, Warners took another stab at horror with THE BEAST WITH FIVE FINGERS, a psychological thriller about a dead pianist’s crawling hand out for murderous revenge… well, sort of. The movie was assembled by a host of horror vets, directed by Robert Florey (MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE ), written by Curt Siodmak (the man who brought THE WOLF MAN to life), and headlined by the great Peter Lorre as a pop-eyed astrology nut. It’s even got a score by KING KONG’s Max Steiner, yet despite all this terror talent going for it, THE BEAST WITH FIVE FINGERS isn’t quite the classic it should be. It’s eerie and atmospheric, but the seemingly tacked-on comic ending almost ruined the good will haunting for me.

The story: In a small Italian village, Francis Ingram, a paralyzed concert pianist, assembles his closest acquaintances together to attest to his sanity as they cosign his last will and testament. They include hustling American ex-pat Bruce Conrad, who adapted symphonies to fit Ingram’s one-handed playing, nurse Julie Holden, with whom the elderly musician is in love, sycophant and astrology buff Hillary Cummins, nephew Donald Arlington, and lawyer Duprex. When Hillary informs the old man that Julie is planning to leave him for Bruce, an angered Ingram tries to strangle him. Later, on one of those dark and stormy nights familiar to horror fans, Ingram tumbles down the staircase in his wheelchair to his death.

Local policeman Commissario Castanio investigates and, finding no signs of foul play, declares the death an accident. At the reading of the will, Donald’s stodgy father Raymond shows up, aghast that Julie gets the bulk of the estate. Lawyer Duprex tells the relatives there’s an old will that may supplant the updated one… for a hefty fee, of course! Meanwhile, “there’s a light on in the mausoleum”, and soon piano music is heard, with Ingram’s ring found atop the instrument, and Duprex’s dead body discovered. An investigation finds Ingram’s corpse has had its hand cut off. All signs point to a disembodied hand returned from the grave, and the local villagers believe the villa is now cursed (because that’s what local villagers do in these things!). Nephew Donald attempts to open the safe containing the older will, and another attack is accompanied by the sound of piano music…

The best scene comes when Lorre bugs out upon being visited by the hand, richly enhanced by Steiner’s score. Peter’s at his stark, raving mad best in this movie, his last for Warner Brothers, and though I won’t give away any secrets for those who haven’t seen the film, suffice it to say our boy Lorre does a fantastic job in his role. Robert Alda (Bruce) is glib but good; he’d later have “hand” problems of his own in 1961’s THE DEVIL’S HAND. Andrea King (Julie) was a Warners contract player whose only other genre credit was 1952’s RED PLANET MARS. Victor Francen (Ingram), John Alvin (Donald), Charles Dingle (Raymond), Gino Corrado, Pedro de Cordoba, and Ray Walker also appear.

J. Carrol Naish plays the Commissario, and is the one who gets the dishonor of spoiling the fun with that “comedy” end bit. Naish, a master dialectician and two-time Oscar nominee (SAHARA, A MEDAL FOR BENNY), was no stranger to horror; fans know him as the hunchbacked Daniel in Universal’s all-star HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN . Among his chiller credits are two Lon Chaney Jr/Inner Sanctum entries (CALLING DR. DEATH, STRANGE CONFESSION), DR. RENAULT’S SECRET, THE MONSTER MAKER, and JUNGLE WOMAN. Naish’s final role was in Al Adamson’s DRACULA VS FRANKENSTEIN, reuniting him with old costar Chaney for one last horror hurrah.

Besides my griping about the silly denouement, THE BEAST WITH FIVE FINGERS is worth your time. The good points (direction, music, Lorre’s performance, the cool special effects) far outweigh the one bad. As for Warner Brothers, horror aficionados would have to wait another seven years before they returned to the genre, but it was worth it… Vincent Price in the 3D shocker HOUSE OF WAX!

 

Creature Double Feature 5: THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH (AIP 1964) and THE TOMB OF LIGEIA (AIP 1965)

Boston’s WLVI-TV 56 ran it’s ‘Creature Double Feature’ series from 1972 to 1983. Though fans remember it mostly for those fabulous giant monster movies starring Godzilla and friends, CDF occasionally featured some monsters of a different kind… 

Roger Corman and Vincent Price had teamed to make five successful Edgar Allan Poe adaptations for American-International Pictures, beginning with 1960’s HOUSE OF USHER (there was a sixth, THE PREMATURE BURIAL, that starred Ray Milland rather than Price). Studio execs James Nicholson and Sam Arkoff, always on the lookout for ways to cut costs, joined forces with Britain’s Anglo-Amalgamated Productions (makers of the CARRY ON comedies) and shipped Corman and company to jolly ol’ England for the final two, THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH and THE TOMB OF LIGEIA. Both turned out to be high points in the Corman/Price/Poe series.

1964’s MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH is a sadistic, psychedelic nightmare of a film, with Corman ably assisted by ace cinematographer and future director Nicholas Roeg. Price plays Italian nobleman Prince Prospero, a Satan worshipper and dabbler in the black arts, who locks the lords and ladies of his decadent court in his castle while the plague of the Red Death ravages the villagers. He’s kidnapped local beauty Francesca, her lover Gino, and her father to amuse himself and his guests, trying to force the two men to battle to the death while also attempting to seduce the innocent Francesca. Prospero’s lady Julianna is scheming to make herself the bride of Satan, while guest Alfredo humiliates the diminutive paramour of dwarf Hop-Toad.

Julianna, jealous of Prospero’s fondness for Francesca, gives her the key to the dungeon to free Gino and her dad, only to be stopped by Prospero. This ends badly, as the men are made to slice their arms with daggers, one of which is poisoned, then Father is killed by Prospero’s hand, sending Gino out to face the Red Death. Julianna pays for her treachery against Prospero (following a weird sequence of her in a dreamlike state, surrounded by dancing demons and giving herself to Satan) by being pecked to death by a raven. Hop-Toad gets revenge of his own by giving Alfredo an ape costume to wear to the Masquerade, then tying him to a chandelier, hoisting him up, and burning him alive! The Masquerade itself is a bacchanalian orgy of decadence, interrupted by an uninvited guest… the Red Death personified!

Price is a malevolent force of evil, a sadist who degrades the members of his court and delights in his devilish cruelty. He also gives a powerful soliloquy  on the nature of terror: “Terror? What do you know of Terror, Alfredo?… (a clock ticks in the background) Listen. Is it to awaken and hear the passing of time? Or the footsteps of someone who, just a moment before, was in your room? But let us not dwell on terror. The knowledge of terror is vouchsafed only to the precious few”. Jane Asher (then-girlfriend of Beatle Paul McCartney ) is good as the peasant Francesca, as are horror vets Hazel Court as Julianna and Patrick Magee as Alfredo. The wildly vivid color scheme, shocking debauchery, and pervasive aura of death and decay make THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH a horror classic, and a fan favorite.

THE TOMB OF LIGEIA was the last in the Corman/Price/Poe cycle, and in my opinion the best in the series. It’s a melancholy mood piece with supernatural and psychological overtones, and an overwhelmingly gloomy sense of dread. Beautiful Rowena Trevanian (Elizabeth Shepherd), out on a fox hunt, is thrown off her horse, landing at the gravesite of Ligeia Fell. She’s startled by Ligeia’s widowed husband Verden (Price), a sinister sort decked out in dark glasses (“I live at night, my vision is painfully acute”). He takes her to his neglected, cobwebbed abbey home to nurse her wounds, where his only companion is ancient servant Kendrick (Oliver Johnston) and a mysterious black cat.

Rowena’s boyfriend Christopher (John Westbrook) and father Lord Trevanian (Derek Francis) come calling to retrieve her, but Rowena feels strangely attracted to the sorrowful Fell. The attraction is mutual… Rowena is a dead ringer for the deceased Ligeia. Soon the two are married, the abbey is spruced up, and the happy (?) couple give a dinner party, at which Fell gives a demonstration in hypnotism. The results are terrifying, as Ligeia’s spirit temporarily possesses the body of Rowena. The wedded bliss is short-lived, as Rowena is locked away in her room, and Verden is prone to taking long midnight walks. Rowena confides to Christopher she believes Ligeia is still alive, and he unearths her body, only to discover a wax effigy….

Price is appropriately moody, and his slow descent into madness is glorious to behold.  The ending features a battle between Price and that darn black cat ending in one of Corman’s patented frightening, flaming finales. The Vaseline-lensed, slow-motion nightmare sequence with Rowena chased through the abbey by her feline foe is Roger at his trippiest! The whole production looks more expensive than it was, and takes Poe’s story outdoors for the first time in the series. The screenplay by (all in one breath) future-Oscar-winner-for-CHINATOWN-Robert-Towne is dead on point (no pun intended!), and the movie’s score by Kenneth V. Jones is what I consider the best in the series. After THE TOMB OF LIGEIA, Corman grew tired of the horror genre in general, and the Poe pictures in particular, and moved on to more contemporary films. AIP wasn’t quite ready to give up on their cash cow however, and produced a handful of other, lesser Price/Poe outings. With the exception of THE CONQUEROR WORM (which really has nothing to do with Poe), none of them matched the dark, disturbing tales of terror concocted by Roger Corman from 1960 to 1965. Edgar Allan Poe may not have recognized some of them, but I’m sure America’s original Master of the Macabre would approve.

More “Creature Double Feature” posts –

THE BLACK SCORPION and THE KILLER SHREWS

IT CAME FROM BENEATHE THE SEA and 20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH

THE MONSTER THAT CHALLENGED THE WORLD and THE GIANT CLAW

RODAN and MOTHRA

 

SUNSET BOULEVARD (Paramount 1950): Film Noir or Hollywood Horror Story?

“I AM big. It’s the pictures that got small”

  • -Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond in SUNSET BOULEVARD

I hadn’t seen Billy Wilder’s SUNSET BOULEVARD for quite some time until a recent rewatching. I’ve told you before how much I love a good Hollywood behind-the-scenes movie, and this one is no exception. But as I watched the tale unfold, I began to see the film in a different light. SUNSET BOULEVARD is always called a film noir classic, but this go-round found me viewing it through a lens of horror.

It’s certainly got all the elements of film noir. There’s protagonist William Holden, trapped in a bottomless downward spiral. Gloria Swanson is the femme fatale who ensnares Holden and pulls him into her dark web. The cinematography of John F. Seitz portrays a shadow-world of despair. And we’ve got Billy Wilder directing, the man behind noir masterpiece DOUBLE INDEMNITY, working from his and Charles Brackett’s extremely cynical script. All these ingredients certainly combine for a deliciously dark noir stew, right?

But there are other elements at play, horror tropes just as dark and disturbing. Swanson’s Norma Desmond, the faded silent film star, is obviously insane, driven mad by her tragic descent into obscurity and longing to claw her way back to the top of the Hollywood heap. Norma is the progenitor for all those Grand Guignol Dames to come, from Bette Davis as Baby Jane Hudson to Miriam Hopkins’ delusional Katherine Packard in SAVAGE INTRUDER . The grotesque former star plies the down on his luck screenwriter Joe Gillis (Holden) with money and material things (though the seedy scenarist is at first a willing participant), keeping him a virtual prisoner in her isolated home, shared only by her loyal servant Max, who’s not what he seems and may be a bit loony himself.

Speaking of her home, the gloomy, decrepit mansion is run-down and dusty, cluttered with cobwebs and ancient artifacts from Norma’s past. It could fit right in next door to the Femm’s residence in James Whale’s THE OLD DARK HOUSE , or Castle Dracula itself! The horror in SUNSET BOULEVARD derives not only from that house, but from the actions of its inhabitants: Norma attempts suicide after Joe, repulsed by her demands for affection, rejects her at a New Year’s Eve party for two.  Finally, when Joe finally grows a set and tells her he’s leaving, Norma’s crack-up is complete, and she kills her jilting lover in cold blood. Her grand descent down the staircase and into a madness of no return, carefully choreographed by Max, is chillingly glorious, and worthy of any good horror movie.

Pioneering director Erich Von Stroheim as Max was no stranger to horror, having appeared in both THE CRIME OF DR. CRESPI and THE LADY AND THE MONSTER. Von Stroheim’s career took a nose dive in the talkie era due in large part to his excesses behind the camera; his 1932 QUEEN KELLY is shown during the film as Swanson watches herself, fascinated with her own onscreen image. Another fun part of the movie for me, having nothing to do with the horror aspect, is seeing silent stars of the past in small roles. Norma plays a weekly card game with Buster Keaton , Anna Q. Nilsson, and H.B. Warner, who Joe callously  calls “her waxworks”. And Cecil B. DeMille , who was instrumental in Swanson’s career, plays himself in a poignant scene while filming SAMSON AND DELILAH (Henry Wilcoxon has a cameo).

So is SUNSET BOULEVARD a film noir, a horror movie, or some kind of hybrid? Cameron Crowe, in his book of interviews with director Billy Wilder, asked whether he considered the film a black comedy, to which the maestro replied, “No, just a picture” (1). Anyway you slice it, SUNSET BOULEVARD is a bona fide classic of American cinema, a film that can be viewed on many different levels, and enjoyed on all of them.

“Just us, and the cameras, and those wonderful people out there… in the dark”

-Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond in SUNSET BOULEVARD

(1) from “Conversations With Wilder” by Cameron Crowe (Alfred A. Knopf, 1999)

Bats in the Belfry: MARK OF THE VAMPIRE (MGM 1935)

Tod Browning’s 1931 DRACULA is a masterpiece of terror, the film that launched the Golden Age of Horror and made Bela Lugosi a star. Four years later, Bela and Browning teamed again for MARK OF THE VAMPIRE, loaded with horrific atmosphere but staked through the heart by two fatal blows – too much comic relief and an ending that’s a trick, rather than a treat, for horror buffs.

Lugosi and his “daughter”, Carroll Borland

The shadow of vampirism is terrorizing a small European village, as Sir Karel Borotyn is found murdered, drained of his blood! Inspector Neumann investigates, not believing in such supernatural hokum and suspecting everyone. Lovely young Irena Borotyn, engaged to handsome young Fedor, stands to inherit her father’s estate, with family friend Baron Otto serving as her guardian. When a peasant is found also drained of blood, the villagers suspect the evil Count Mora and his daughter Luna have risen from the dead to conduct a reign of terror.

The Two Lionels (l-r): Barrymore & Atwill

Occult expert Professor Zelen is called in to consult on the matter, and he concludes the vampires are real, despite Neumann’s protestations. Irena and Fedor are attacked by the undead creatures, and an exhumation of Borotyn’s grave finds his coffin empty. Fearing an infestation, Zelen leads the charge after sunrise to find and destroy Mora and his minions. Zelen then hypnotizes Baron Otto to confront the undead Sir Karol, but we find it’s all been an elaborate ruse to unmask Sir Karol’s real killer – Baron Otto!

The Great Bela Lugosi!

That’s right, the “vampires” have been nothing more than actors hired to smoke out the Baron. We do get a treat in Lugosi enacting the part of Count Mora, silently stalking his prey and skulking about among the cobwebbed, vermin-infested castle. Our favorite Hungarian almost gets the last, delicious word as the film ends on a comic note. But the “comedy relief” from Donald Meek as a local doctor and Leila Bennett as Irena’s maid are a bit too much for my dark taste in horror, and the trick ending spoils what could’ve been a horror classic.

Carroll Borland as Luna

Lionel Barrymore  gets top billing as Professor Zelen, working once again with Browning, as he would a year later in THE DEVIL DOLL. It’s always good to see horror regular Lionel Atwill , playing the first of many roles as an Inspector. Jean Hersholt portrays Baron Otto, and Elizabeth Allen makes a fetching Irena, but Henry Wadsworth is a total twit as Fedor. Carroll Borland, who played onstage opposite Lugosi in DRACULA, creates an iconic vampiress in Luna, and an inspiration for future TV horror “g”hostess Vampira. Miss Borland only appeared in a handful of films, but left an indelible mark on the horror genre with her creepy portrayal of Luna.

The gang’s all here!

James Wong Howe’s  photography is eerie enough, and reminiscent of the best of Universal. But the script by Guy Endore and Bernard Schubert is riddled with holes; Endore also wrote the script for THE STORY OF G.I. JOE and the novel The Werewolf of Paris, which was adapted into Hammer’s 1961 CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF, so I’ll give him a pass. MARK OF THE VAMPIRE is a remake of Browning’s lost 1927 silent LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT, but since I (nor anyone currently alive, far as I know) has seen that Lon Chaney frightfest, I can’t compare the two. Perhaps Browning was trying to make up for the stir he caused with 1932’s FREAKS by adding all that extra comedy and false ending; whatever the case, MARK OF THE VAMPIRE is definitely a lesser entry in the classic horror canon. Without Lugosi and Borland, it would be even less, but as it stands, it’s worth at least one viewing.

 

Creepy Crawlies: WILLARD (Cinerama 1971)

Rats are not cute’n’cuddly little creatures. They’re disgusting, disease-infested vermin that should be avoided at all costs. But don’t tell that to WILLARD, title character in this 1971 chiller that started a regular revolution of “animals run amok” horror movies. Bruce Davison, later to become one of his generation’s finest actors (SHORT EYES, THE LATHE OF HEAVEN, LONGTIME COMPANION), is a regular rodent Dr. Doolittle here, not only talking to the animals, but handling them fondly while he trains them to kill his enemies. Rats – yuck!

Willard Stiles is a lonely loser who shares a rambling, decrepit manse with his  domineering mother (Elsa Lanchester) and works for bullying boss Martin (Ernest Borgnine ), who stole the family business from Willard’s late father. Office temp Joan (Sondra Locke) feels sorry for Willard, but the socially awkward nerd is uncomfortable around people, preferring instead to spend time with the rats in his yard, befriending and training them, then letting the varmints move into his cellar. His best furry friends are white rat Socrates and black rat Ben.

When Willard’s mom finally kicks the bucket, a tax lien is put on the house. None of the mother’s elderly friends want to help financially, and mean Mr. Martin wants to buy the property and erect apartment houses. Socrates is killed by Martin when the little bugger is discovered hanging out in the company storeroom (Willard takes he and Ben to work with him!), and Martin decides the only way to get that property is to fire Willard. This pushes young Willard over the edge, and he extracts revenge on Martin in gruesome fashion. Then Willard, realizing he can’t keep his home, drowns his remaining furry partners in crime. But he forgot about Ben, who carries out his own brand of vengeance…

Davison reminds me a bit of Anthony Perkins in PSYCHO; he’s definitely got some of that Norman Bates vibe, and his slow descent into madness is a bloody good time. Borgnine is a real prick as Martin, and his death scene is as creepy as it was when I originally saw this flick in the theater long ago. I’ve sung the praises of Sondra Locke on this blog before; her part is small, but her presence is always welcome, as is that of THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN herself, Elsa Lanchester, as Willard’s mom.

Daniel Mann directed some powerhouse dramas in the 50’s and early 60’s: THE ROSE TATTOO, I’LL CRY TOMORROW, TEAHOUSE OF THE AUGUST MOON. But after 1960’s BUTTERFIELD-8, his career declined, though on WILLARD he does a fine if unspectacular job. No matter; the material could’ve been directed by anybody (or a nobody) and would’ve worked, and it actually holds up rather well. Alex North delivers an eerie score, and the rats were well-trained by Moe DiSesso, a Hollywood animal trainer who worked with the bird in THE RAVEN , the dogs in THE HILLS HAVE EYES , and lovable Sandy in the musical ANNIE. Dogs and birds I don’t mind, but far as I’m concerned DiSesso can keep his nasty, gnawing little rodents. Rats – yuck!