Halloween Havoc!: Bela Lugosi in DRACULA (Universal 1931)

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DRACULA is the film that ushered in The Golden Age of Horror. Sure, there were silent films with elements of the macabre, especially those starring Lon Chaney Sr, and the German expressionist films of Ufa Studios. But this tale of a bloodthirsty vampire on the loose in London struck a collective nerve among filmgoers for two reasons. First was it talked…sound films were barely out of their diapers, and the chilling voice of star Bela Lugosi mesmerized the masses. Second, the country was in the midst of The Great  Depression, and audiences were hungry for escapist fare to take their minds off their troubles. DRACULA took them to another world, a world populated by undead creatures of the night, fiends who were ultimately stopped by the forces of good.

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No need to rehash the plot of DRACULA…if you don’t know the story by now, you’re reading the wrong blog! Instead, I’ll take a look at what works in the film and what doesn’t. Though the movie has lost much of its power in the 84 years since its release, the performance of Bela Lugosi certainly hasn’t. The Hungarian actor originated the role on Broadway, and perfected it to the point where he’s still imitated today. While not as ferocious as Christopher Lee’s interpretation of the Vampire King, Lugosi is in full command here. His slow manner of speaking and impeccable wardrobe make Bela the suavest of ghouls, while those burning eyes let the audience know this isn’t someone to mess with. And those long, splayed fingers reaching to clutch his victim’s throats became a Lugosi trademark, often imitated but never duplicated.

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Tod Browning’s direction is somewhat static, saved by the marvelous camerawork of the great Karl Freund. The eerie sets of Castle Dracula and Carfax Abbey are filled with shadows, cobwebs in every corner, and a variety of vermin. Dwight Frye adds to the atmosphere as Renfield, driven to madness by the Count’s power. Edward Van Sloan as Van Helsing isn’t as athletic as Peter Cushing, but is convicing as the occult expert (as he was in The Mummy). But David Manners and Helen Chandler as the young lovers just don’t cut it for me. Their blandness drags the scenes they’re in down, their acting stiff and wooden. The film is slow paced as it is, and the pair doesn’t help matters. Manners, in his jodhpurs, is particularly annoying, while Chandler just isn’t appealing. Sorry, but I’d rather have Frances Dade (who plays Lucy, one of Drac’s victims).

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Historically important, DRACULA today pales compared to other horror pics of the era. But it was the first, and without it we wouldn’t have those other movies to savor. I usually watch DRACULA every year around Halloween, just to see Bela Lugosi in his most famous (and arguably greatest) role. And despite some of its faults, you should, too. DRACULA has been remade and reworked hundreds of times, but let’s be honest…nobody plays the Count better than Bela. Nobody.

Halloween Havoc!: Boris Karloff in THE MUMMY (Universal 1932)

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Boris Karloff is as slow and still as death itself in THE MUMMY. His performance as Ardeth Bey/Imhoptep conveys the horror of a living dead man with the romance of a love across the ages. This Mummy isn’t just a shuffling instrument of some High Priest; Imhotep was a High Priest himself, brought back to half-life by foreign interlopers and now searching for the woman he lost 3700 years ago. Aided by two of Jack Pirerce’s fantastic make-up jobs, Karloff brought all his sinister power to the role and created yet another masterful characterization that still frightens audiences today.

A British Museum expedition in 1921 digs up the sarcophagus of Imhotep, high priest of Karnak who, according to the hieroglyphics, was buried alive for committing sacrilege. A smaller box comes with an ominous warning: “Death, eternal punishnet, for anyone who opens this casket…Amon-Ra”. While Sir Joseph Whemple and occult expert Dr. Muller discuss the ramifications of the find, impetuous young Ralph Norton opens the box and begins reading from the Scroll of Thoth. As he mouths the ancient incantation, the mummy of Imhotep slowly opens its eyes, its hands sliding down its dusty, gauze-wrapped body. Norton screams as Imhotep grabs a papyrus and slinks out of the tent. Whemple and Muller come running, only to find Norton laughing hysterically. “It decided to take a little walk”, Norton howls, driven mad by the ghastly sight he witnessed.

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We only get a brief glimpse of Karloff as Imhotep in the first mummy make-up by Pierce. Universal reused it for its  40s Mummy series, with Tom Tyler as Kharis in THE MUMMY’S HAND, then Lon Chaney Jr. in three sequels. The rest of THE MUMMY has Karloff as Ardeth Bey dressed in fez and kaftan, coal black eyes shining from his wrinkled face, eyes that have stared into the face of death and know it’s terrible dark secrets.

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Fade in to 1932 and another expedition, this one headed by Whemple’s son, Frank. This is where Ardeth Bey arrives on the scene, telling Frank and Prof. Pearson he knows where to find the tomb of Princess Ankh-es-en-amon. The workers find steps buried in the sands, and the discovery is made. The princess’s coffin and other artifacts go on display at the Cairo Museum, and Bey hides in the shadows afterhours, lighting incense and reading from that ancient papyrus. Across town, Helen Grosvenor, patient of Dr. Muller, is compelled by an unseen force to the museum, banging on the door until fainting.Frank and his father bring the girl to their hotel. Helen mutters a name familiar to the elder Whemple…Imhotep!

Frank is enamored of the enigmatic Helen, who has no recollection fo being at the museum. Bey arrives at the Whemples and Helen is immediately drawn to her (“Haven’t we met before, Miss Grosvenor?”). Bey has come for the Scroll of Thoth, and Muller and Whemple realize he’s Imhotep incarnate. “If I could get my hands on you”, says Muller, “I’d break your dried flesh to pieces”. But Bey’s willpower is too strong, and he leaves after telling Whemple to have his Nubian servant (now under Bey’s control) to bring him the scroll or suffer the consequences.

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Muller urges Whemple to burn the scroll, but when he attempts it, Bey’s mystical powers cause him to have a heart attack. The Nubian retrieves the scroll and delivers it to Bey. Summoning Helen, Bey puts her in a trance and, in his pool, shows her “memories of love and crime and death”. The scene turns to ancient Egypt, where after the death and burial of Ankh-es-en-amon, Imhotep steals the Scroll of Thoth and goes to her forbidden tomb to revive her. Caught in the act, he’s wrapped completely in gauze (except his eyes) and buried alive, the slaves who buried him killed so no one will find his grave. Helen awakes, remembering nothing. Frank and Muller decide the only way to stop Bey is let Helen lead them to her. When next she’s summoned, Bey dresses her in the clothing of Ankh-es-en-amon. She’s now overtaken by the dead princess’s spirit, and Bey tells her she must be sacrificed in order to be resurrected as he was those centuries ago. Frank and Muller arrive but are powerless over Bey, but Helen, now truly Ankh-es-en-amon, prays to the statue of the god Isis for help. The statue’s arm lifts and destroys both Bey and the scroll, freeing Helen and letting the princess’s spirit have its final peace. Ardeth Bey/Imhotep’s flesh turns to dust, with nothing left of him save a skeleton and a pile of rotted rags.

Director Karl Freund’s career has been discussed this month in my look at MAD LOVE, so I’ll just say e does a tremendous job with the supernatural material. The set designs are superb, evoking ancient Egypt, and Pierce’s make-ups are always meticulous in their design. The cast features exotic-looking Zita Johann (Helen), whose screen career was short but was well known on the Broadway stage (and was once married to actor/producer John Houseman). Universal’s resident heartthrob David Manners (Frank) served the same function in horror classic DRACULA and THE BLACK CAT. Then there’s Edward Van Sloan (Muller), the Grand Old Man of Horror. The original Van Helsing to Lugosi’s DRACULA, Van Sloan contributed support to macabre movies like FRANKENSTEIN, DRACULA’S DAUGHTER, THE BLACK ROOM, the serial THE PHANTOM CREEPS, and dozens of other films in his distinguished career. Arthur Bryan, Bramwell Fletcher, Leonard Mudie, and Noble Johnson add strong support in their roles as well. Boris Karloff was a star for almost 40 years, acting right up until his death in 1969. His presence in THE MUMMY and other shockers helped give them the longevity they deserve. Horror movies wouldn’t exist without these early excursions into the fantastic, and I’m grateful to be able to revisit these classics and turn new generations on to Karloff, Lugosi, and all the other pioneers of dark cinema. .

Halloween Havoc!: Peter Lorre in MAD LOVE (MGM 1935)

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I mentioned in my review of Body Parts that it was a variation of THE HANDS OF ORLAC, a 1920 novel by French author Maurice Renard. The book was first adapted to film in a 1920 silent starring Conrad Veidt. The story has been retold many times, in many different ways, but none have surpassed the 1935 adaptation MAD LOVE. This film really doesn’t get its due as one of the top horrors of the 1930s. Director Karl Freund (THE MUMMY) uses his background in German expressionism and, together with cinematographer Gregg Toland, gives us a Grand Guignol thriller that’s hard to resist.

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Peter Lorre makes his American film debut as Dr. Gogol, a brilliant surgeon obsessed with beautiful actress Yvonne Orlac. Yvonne is married to concert pianist Stephen Orlac, and rebuffs the strange looking doctor. Returning to Paris via train, Orlac sees the convicted knife-throwing murderer Rollo board, heading for the guillotine. The train is derailed, and Orlac’s hands are crushed in the wreckage. Yvonne pleads with Gogol to restore her husband’s hands. The doctor says he can do nothing at first, then has an idea. He grafts the hands of killer Rollo onto Orlac. The operation is successful, but Orlac cannot play piano the wat he once did. He has, however, gained a peculiar proficiency in knife throwing.madlove3

American reporter Reagan is trying to get a story about Rollo. Gogol was given the body, but won’t let Reagan or anyone else see it. You see, the doctor hasn’t told Orlac his hands once belonged to Rollo. Gogol then devises as scheme to drive Orlac mad by “power of suggestion”. He kills Orlac’s step-father, then tries to convince the pianist he did the deed himself. Gogol costumes himself as Rollo, telling Orlac his head was grafted back on, like Orlac’s hands. Orlac is arrested, but Reagan suspects Gogol’s up to no good. The ending finds mad Doctor Gogol about to strangle Yvonne when Orlac throws a fateful knife and saves his wife from certain death.

Lorre is wonderful as Gogol. With his shaved head, bulging eyes, and fur collar, Gogol is second only to Hans Beckert in 1931’s M as Lorre’s creepiest character. Whether reading poetry to a wax effigy of Yvonne, or dressing as a man with a head transplant. Lorre gives a rich portrayal of a man driven mad by unrequited love. He’s particularly effective in the end scene, laughing hysterically at his misdeeds, believing Yvonne’s statue has come to life (“My Galatea!”), and finally striking out to kill what he loves most. Out of all Lorre’s long career, Gogol is surely his most frightening portrayal.

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Colin Clive is sympathetic as Orlac. Clive is best known to horror buffs as Dr. Frankenstein in Universal’s classic film and its sequel, THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN. Frances Drake is also familiar to horror fans for her role in THE INVISIBLE RAY, with Karloff and Lugosi. Ted Healey, former Three Stooges boss, is the comic relief as reporter Reagan. Killer Rollo is familiar heavy Edward Brophy. Other supporting stars are Charlie Chan’s Number One Son, Keye Luke, Sara Hayden, Billy Gilbert, and Ian Wolfe.

Freund’s artistry gives MAD LOVE that expressionistic look and feel. Freund was cinematographer on 1920’s THE GOLEM and the Fritz Lang gem METROPOLIS. He was behind the cameras for 1931’s DRACULA and 1932’s MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE. Winning an Oscar for 1937’s THE GOOD EARTH, Freund continued to work his magic on pictures like GOLDEN BOY, UNDERCURRENT, and KEY LARGO. Making the switch to television in its infancy, Freund was a pioneer of the 3-camera set-up, filming most episodes of I LOVE LUCY. Gregg Toland was a fine cinematographer in his own right. Besides MAD LOVE, Toland was behind the camera for such classics as DEAD END, CITIZEN KANE, THE GRAPES OF WRATH, and THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES, winning his own Oscar for 1939’s WUTHERING HEIGHTS. MAD LOVE is a true classic of horror cinema, with a chilling performance by Peter Lorre as the deranged Dr. Gogol. Add this one to your Halloween watch list!

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