Cleaning Out the DVR #21: Halloween Leftovers 3

Time to reach deep inside that trick-or-treat bag and take a look at what’s stuck deep in the corners. Just when you thought it was safe, here’s five more thrilling tales of terror:

YOU’LL FIND OUT (RKO 1940; D: David Butler) – Kay Kyser and his College of Musical Knowledge, for those of you unfamiliar…

…were a Swing Era band of the 30’s & 40’s who combined music with cornball humor on their popular weekly radio program. RKO signed them to a movie contract and gave them this silly but entertaining “old dark house” comedy, teaming Kay and the band (featuring Ginny Simms, Harry Babbitt, Sully Mason, and the immortal Ish Kabibble!) with horror greats Boris Karloff , Bela Lugosi , and Peter Lorre . It’s got all the prerequisites: secret passageways, a creepy séance, and of course that old stand-by, the dark and stormy night! The plot has Kyser’s band hired for Helen Parrish’s 21st birthday party at said spooky mansion, with band manager Dennis O’Keefe as her love interest. Bela gets the juiciest part as flamboyant phony medium Prince Saliano, Boris is a shady family friend, and Lorre his usual sinister self. Alma Kruger plays Helen’s aunt who’s into spiritualism, which sets things in motion, and bumbling Kay gets to solve the mystery. Nothing earth-shaking going on here, but fun for fans of the Terror Trio. Fun Fact: The film received an Oscar nomination for Best Song, “I’d Know You Anywhere”, written by Jimmy McHugh and Johnny Mercer, and sweetly sung onscreen by Ginny Simms, who had a brief film career of her own after leaving the band in 1941.

THE LEOPARD MAN (RKO 1943; D: Jacques Tourneur) – One of producer Val Lewton’s most unheralded films, chock full of his trademark use of sound and shadows. A black leopard gets loose from nightclub performer Jean Brooks’ act, and a series of gruesome murders follow in a small New Mexico town. This tense, gripping ‘B’ is loaded with eerie scenes; I especially liked the one in which a young girl gets locked in a cemetery and stalked by the killer cat (or is it a human – the movie will keep you guessing!). Dennis O’Keefe is Jean’s publicity agent whose stunt goes awry, Margo (later married to Eddie Albert) a castanet-clicking dancer/victim, and Isabel Jewell shines as a Gypsy card reader. Mark Robson’s marvelous editing job on this and Lewton’s CAT PEOPLE got him promoted to the director’s chair for THE SEVENTH VICTIM later that year. This chilling horror-noir doesn’t get the attention of other Lewton films, but deserves a much larger audience. Fun Fact: Based on the novel “Black Alibi” by prolific pulp author Cornell Woolrich, whose many books and short stories were made into film noir classics.

THE DISEMBODIED (Allied Artists 1957; D: Walter Grauman) – Ice Princess of Horror Allison Hayes IS Tonda, jungle voodoo queen in this low-budget shocker that wasn’t as bad as I expected, far as jungle voodoo epics go. Paul Burke costars as a filmmaker who brings his wounded friend to Allison’s doctor husband John Weingraf’s jungle compound, but let’s face it – the main reason to watch this is Allison Hayes, thoroughly evil and sexy as hell! And that memorably sensuous voodoo dance she performs…

Hot Damn! She’s the whole show in this minor chiller directed by Walter Grauman, who later helmed 1964’s LADY IN A CAGE and tons of TV (including 53 episodes of MURDER, SHE WROTE). Fun Fact: Weingraf gets off the best line when he tells Allison, “There are only two places where you belong. The jungle – and the place where I first found you!”. Burn!!!  

BEAST FROM HAUNTED CAVE (Filmgroup 1959; D: Monte Hellman) – An uneven blend of the horror and crime genres courtesy of the Corman Brothers finds crook Frank Wolff and his gang (including his perpetually soused moll Sheila Caroll) plotting a gold bar heist using an explosion at a mine as a diversion. Wolff and his cohorts (perennial Corman actor Wally Campo and Frank Sinatra’s cousin Richard!) use good-looking ski lodge instructor Michael Forest to lead them on a cross-country ski trip to make their getaway, but the blast awakens a not-so hideous monster from its slumber that tracks them down! First film for director Hellman has its moments, but the rock-bottom budget defeats him. Filmed on location in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Fun Fact: The unscary monster was designed and played by actor Chris Robinson, the original “I’m not a doctor, but I play one on TV” commercial ad guy!

HORROR HOTEL (Vulcan/Trans-Lux 1960; D: John Llewellyn Moxey) – Also known as CITY OF THE DEAD. New England 1692: accused witch Elizabeth Selwyn curses the town of Whitewood, MA as she’s burned at the stake. Present Day: college student Nan Barlow wants to do her term paper on witchcraft and devil worship, and is directed by her history professor Alan Driscoll to travel to his hometown of Whitewood for research. He even recommends she stay at The Raven’s Inn, run by Mrs. Newless (who bears a striking resemblance to Elizabeth!).

Nan immediately notices strange things about Whitewood: the fog-shrouded town doesn’t look like it’s changed in 200+ years, the townsfolk aren’t very friendly, the old reverend warns her “Leave Whitewood”, and weird noises emanate from the cellar. The only person who welcomes her is the reverend’s granddaughter Patricia, newly arrived herself and running an antique bookstore. Curiosity gets the best of her and… DON’T GO IN THAT BASEMENT, NAN!!

When Nan doesn’t return home after two weeks, her brother Ronald and boyfriend Bill become worried. Patricia, too, is worried, and pays a call on both Ronald and Prof. Driscoll. The men decide separately to go to Whitewood and investigate, and that’s when the fun really begins! This is probably Moxey’s best feature film, though he does have some good TV Movies on his resume (THE NIGHT STALKER, HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS, NIGHTMARE IN BADHAM COUNTY). Christopher Lee is dark and ominous as Driscoll, but it’s Patricia Jessel (A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM ) who stands out in a truly bloodcurdling performance as Elizabeth Selwyn/Mrs. Newless. The rest of the cast (Betta St. John, Valentine Dyall, Venitia Stevenson, Dennis Lotis) is equally good, and the British actors do a fine job maintaining their American accents. This incredibly creepy nightmare of a movie is an old favorite of mine, and highly recommended! Fun Fact: This was a Vulcan Production from Max Rosenberg and Milton Subotsky, who soon changed their company’s name to Amicus , premiere makers of horror anthologies in the 60’s & 70’s.

Halloween Havoc!: I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE (RKO 1943)

Val Lewton’s  I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE is, despite the exploitative title, one of the most moody and atmospheric horror films of the 40’s. This was Lewton’s follow up to the highly successful CAT PEOPLE (1942), with Jacques Tourneur again in the director’s chair. Though screenwriters Curt Siodmak and Ardel Wray based their script on a story by Inez Wallace, producer Lewton had them add elements of Charlotte Bronte’s JANE EYRE, making this a  Gothic zombie movie!

Nurse Betsy Connell (Frances Dee) is summoned to the West Indies isle of St. Sebastian to look after Paul Holland’s (Tom Conway ) catatonic wife Jessica. The cynical Holland has an air of melancholy about him (“There’s no beauty here”, he states on the sea trip to the island, “only decay and death”). Upon arrival, Betsy meets Holland’s stepbrother Wesley Reed (James Ellison), a jovial sort until he gets in the presence of Holland. Reed runs the family sugar mill, from which eminate the almost constant “mysterious, eerie” beat of the islander’s jungle drums.

That night Betsy hearing weeping and moaning, and follows the sound to Fort Holland’s tower, where she observes Jessica, dressed in a flowing white shroud, looking like the Angel of Death herself, walking, silent, as if impelled by a force beyond her control. Servant Alma (Theresa Harris ) explains Jessica’s condition: “She was very sick, and then she went mindless”. Jessica’s doctor (James Bell) ascribes her condition to a spinal cord injury that left her with no will of her own. But the island natives have another word for Jessica… zombie!

There’s much more to the story, but I won’t spoil it for those who haven’t seen this classic horror tale. Tourneur keeps the pace deliberately slow, layering the film with a sense of dread rather than shock after shock. The use of sound and silence, a familiar element in Lewton’s horrors, plays a large part in establishing the mood, especially during the scene with Betsy and Jessica walking through the cane fields in the eerie moonlight. DP Roy Hunt works wonders with shadows and light, Roy Webb’s score hits all the right notes, and Mark Robson’s superb editing helped him earn his spot in the director’s chair a year later with THE SEVENTH VICTIM .

The cast is a cut above your typical 40’s ‘B’ horror players. Frances Dee was a star at Paramount during the 30’s who was seriously curtailing her career at the time to raise her sons with husband Joel McCrea. Tom Conway, like his brother George Sanders, always projected a melancholy, cynical figure onscreen (and off). James Ellison never quite cracked the A-list, but  was always a dependable actor. Theresa Harris shined in every role afforded to her, from BABY FACE to OUT OF THE PAST. Edith Barrett plays the pivotal part of Mrs. Rand, mother to both Conway and Ellison. Calypso singer Sir Lancelot brings his talents to the table, and Darby Jones makes a terrifying zombie.

Lancelot and Jones reprised their roles when RKO returned to Saint Sebastian for ZOMBIES ON BROADWAY , a sort-of sequel/spoof starring Bela Lugosi and the comedy team of Brown & Carney. But forget about that piece of nonsense, I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE is the film you want to see this Halloween season, the perfect Lewton “quiet horror” tor satisfy your taste for the macabre.

Cleaning Out the DVR Pt 10: Halloween Leftovers

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Halloween has come and gone, though most people have plenty of leftovers on hand, including your Cracked Rear Viewer. Here are some treats (and a few tricks) that didn’t quite make the cut this year:

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ISLE OF THE DEAD (RKO 1945, D: Mark Robson)

Typically atmospheric Val Lewton production stars Boris Karloff as a Greek general trapped on a plague-ridden island along with a young girl (Ellen Drew) who may or may not be a vorvolaka (vampire-like spirit). This film features one of Lewton’s patented tropes, as Drew wanders through the woods alone, with the howling wind and ominous sounds of the creatures of the night. Very creepy, with another excellent Karloff performance and strong support from Lewton regulars Alan Napier, Jason Robards Sr, and Skelton Knaggs. Fun Fact: Like BEDLAM , this was inspired by a painting, Arnold Bocklin’s “Isle of the Dead”.

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THE BOWERY BOYS MEET THE MONSTERS (Allied Artists 1954, D: Edward Bernds)

Leo Gorcey, Huntz Hall, and the gang  get mixed up with the creepy Gravesend family in a spooky old mansion, complete with mad scientists, vampires, a man-eating tree, a robot, and of course a killer gorilla in this above-average series entry. Sure it’s low budget and derivative as hell, but it’s also a lot of fun, with a better than usual supporting cast that includes John Dehner, Lloyd Corrigan, and Ellen Corby. Director Bernds and his co-screenwriter Ellwood Ullman put their Three Stooges experience to good use, and the result is a silly scare farce that even non-Bowery Boys fans will probably enjoy. Fun Fact: Ex-bartender Steve Calvert bought Ray “Crash” Corrigan’s old gorilla suit and appeared in JUNGLE JIM, THE BRIDE AND THE BEAST (written by Ed Wood), and the awful BELA LUGOSI MEETS A BROOKLYN GORILLA .

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THE OBLONG BOX (AIP 1969, D:Gordon Hessler)

AIP tried to continue their successful Edgar Allan Poe series with this film. Roger Corman was long gone, so Gordon Hessler took over the director’s chair. Vincent Price is still around though, as the brother of a voodoo victim who was prematurely buried, then dug up by graverobbers to seek revenge. Christopher Lee has “Special Guest Star” status, but isn’t given much to do as a Knox-like doctor using bodies in the name of science. The movie seemed a lot scarier when I saw it as a youth; unfortunately, it doesn’t hold up very well. The 24 year old Hillary Dwyer is much too young to play 58 year old Price’s fiancé. Fun Fact: Michael Reeves (THE SORCERERS , WITCHFINDER GENERAL) was scheduled to direct before his untimely death; this probably would’ve been a better film with him at the helm.

HAMMER FILM PRODUCTIONS 'HANDS OF THE RIPPER' (1971) STARRING ERIC PORTER, JANE MERROE AND ANGHARAD REES. Dir: PETER SASDY ABOUT TO BE RELEASED ON BLU RAY. THEBLACKBOXCLUB.COM

HANDS OF THE RIPPER (Hammer 1971, D: Peter Sasdy)

Minor but effective Hammer chiller about the daughter of Jack the Ripper (Angharad Rees) who’s possessed by daddy’s evil spirit, and the psychologist (Eric Porter) who tries to help her by using the then-new Freudian therapy techniques. It’s science vs the supernatural, with some good moments of gore, but the slow pace makes it definitely lesser Hammer. I must admit I loved the ending, though. Fun Fact: Director Sasdy filmed several Hammer horrors in the early 70’s, including TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA and COUNTESS DRACULA. He also was responsible for the Pia Zadora vehicle THE LONELY LADY, winning himself the prestigious Razzie Award in 1983!

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BURNT OFFERINGS (United Artists 1976, D: Dan Curtis)

A family rents an eerie old country home for the summer, and are soon pitted against an evil force. With all that talent in front of (Bette Davis , Karen Black, Oliver Reed, Burgess Meredith, Eileen Heckert) and behind (producer/director/writer Curtis , co-writer William F. Nolan, DP Jacques Marquette) the camera, I expected a much better film. Even the great Miss Davis can’t help this obvious haunted house story to rise above the level of a made-for-TV potboiler. Disappointing to say the least. Fun Fact: Production designer Eugene Lourie directed the sci-fi flicks THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS, THE GIANT BEHEMOTH , and GORGO.     

Halloween Havoc!: GHOST SHIP (RKO 1943)

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Val Lewton produced some of the most memorable horror films of the 1940’s, moody, atmospheric set pieces noted for their intelligent scripts, chiaroscuro lighting, and eerie use of sound. CAT PEOPLE, THE BODY SNATCHER,  and THE SEVENTH VICTIM  are just three that spring to mind when I think of Lewton movies. GHOST SHIP is one of his lesser known films, a psychological thriller about a sea captain obsessed with authority who goes off the deep end, and while it’s not supernatural as the title implies, it’s a good film worth rediscovering.

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A blind street singer on a fog-shrouded corner gives an ominous warning to 3rd Officer Tom Merriam, about to embark on his first voyage aboard the S.S. Altair, captained by veteran sailor Will Stone. Stone is stern but friendly, eager to teach Tom the ways of the sea, and implement his view’s of the captain’s authority. A crewman dies just before they’re about to set sail, victim of an apparent heart attack, and Stone, claiming “he was an old man”, launches without a replacement. A freshly painted grappling hook is left unsecured by the captain’s orders, despite Tom’s protestations. When the Altair hits rough seas, the crew risk their lives to secure it, and Tom learns his first lesson about questioning the captain’s authority.

When another sailor has an appendicitis attack, radioman Sparks puts in a ship-to-shore call to a doctor. Stone is unable to perform the delicate operation, and has Tom take over. Loyal officer Tom gives Stone the credit, as the captain explain he has the power if life and death over his men. We can see the cracks in Stone’s armor are beginning to show.

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Crewman Louie (an uncredited Lawrence Tierney ) dares to question Stone’s authority when he complains about being down two crewmen now. Stone once again offers an explaination for his actions, telling Louie before he leaves, ” There are some captain’s who’d hold this against you”. Later, Louie is down in the hold as the crew drop a massive chain down, and Stone locks him in, causing the sailor to be crushed to death. Tom sees him below, and accuses him of deliberately killing Louie. An inquest is held at the port of San Sebastian, and the sailors all side with the captain, even ‘The Greek’ who praises Stone for saving his life during his medical crisis. Tom is crestfallen and plans on leaving the Altair and settling up in San Sebastian.

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But Tom is knocked unconscious while break up a fight with the sailors in front of a bar, and shanghaied back to the Altair. Stone offers him the ship’s  hospitality, but reminds his former 3rd officer, “There are some captain’s who’d hold this against you”. The crewmen all give Tom the cold shoulder, even his friend Sparks. Tom returns to his quarters to find his door lock’s been tampered with, as well as his porthole. A wire comes through asking if Tom’s aboard, and when Stone tells Sparks to reply “no”, his supicions are aroused. Tom heads to the gun cabinet only to find Stone waiting for him. “Authority cannot be questioned”, says the unhinged captain. A wire comes through asking if Tom’s aboard, and when tone tells Sparks to reply “no”, the radioman’s suspicions are aroused. Sparks goes to Tom and says he’ll help him, but he’s intercepted by Stone. The captain then asks Tom to help send a wire, informing the shore that Sparks has gone overboard. The two men fight and the crew breaks it up, with orders from the captain to restrain and sedate Tom. The mute seaman Finn (whose inner thoughts we hear throughout the film) finds the wire and shows it to his mates. Stone overhears the men talking about the situation, and he completely snaps, hearing voices in his head saying “Maybe the boy is right”. He grabs a cutlass and heads to Tom’s cabin, murder in his eyes…

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The horror is strictly psychological here, there are no demons, zombies, or cat people, only the psychotic Captain Stone. Veteran actor Richard Dix (the Academy Award winning CIMARRON, THE WHISTLER series) gives a Queeg-like performance as the sea captain slowly descending into madness. Russell Wade(THE BODY SNATCHER) is fine as Tom, and Lewton regulars Edith Barrett (the only female in the cast), Ben Bard, Dewey Robinson, and calypso singer Sir Lancelot are also in the cast.

This is the American debut of actor Skelton Knaggs, playing the mute Finn. Knaggs had the creepiest looking face this side of Rondo Hatton, resembling a living skeleton, and has a long list of small but pivotal roles in horror films: THE INVISIBLE MAN’S REVENGE, THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY, ISLE OF THE DEAD, HOUSE OF DRACULA, TERROR BY NIGHT, and BEDLAM, usually uncredited. He’s one of those actors whose name you may not recognize, but that face is unforgettable:

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Nicholas Musuraca’s cinematography is outstanding as always, and Mark Robson’s direction keeps this GHOST SHIP taut with suspense. Most readers are familiar with Lewton’s greatest hits, but this quiet, gripping little film is worth seeking out. While GHOST SHIP isn’t out-and-out horror, I think you’ll find it quite a treat for your Halloween movie basket.

Master of Horror: Boris Karloff in BEDLAM (RKO 1946)

 

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(This post is part of the TCM SUMMER UNDER THE STARS blogathon hosted by Kristen at JOURNEYS IN CLASSIC FILM! )

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Boris Karloff made a trio of films for producer Val Lewton in the mid-40’s: THE BODY SNATCHER , ISLE OF THE DEAD, and BEDLAM. The Old Master of Terror was given the opportunity to show off his acting prowess in these dark, psychological horrors. Freed from the restraint of playing yet another mad scientist or creature, Karloff excels in the roles of murderous Cabman Grey, plague-ridden General Pherides, and here as the cruel martinet of Bedlam, Master George Sims.

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Lewton cowrote the script with director Mark Robson  , “suggested by” William Hogarth’s 8th painting in the series “A Rake’s Progress”. There are a lot of sly references to Hogarth in BEDLAM, and the artist even gets a screenwriting credit. It’s 1761 London, and the class struggle between rich and poor rages (the more things change… ). One of the inmates of St. Mary’s of Bethlehem Asylum (known to the locals as Bedlam) attempts to escape via the rooftop, but a guard stomps on his fingers, plunging him to his doom. Corpulent Lord Mortimer (Billy House) calls Master Sims, the “apothecary general of St. Mary’s” and noted poet, on the carpet for the death. The unctuous Sims, who’ll do anything to keep his position, offers to amuse Mortimer by having his “loonies” put on a performance for the Lord and his upper crust cronies. Mortimer’s “protégé” Nell Bowen (Anna Lee) is appalled when one of the inmates, a young boy gilded in gold paint, dies while doing a recital.

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Nell tours the asylum, and is further dismayed at the squalid, deplorable conditions the inmates are forced to live in, and at Sims’ cruelty, referring to them as animals and even keeping some in cages. “They’re all in themselves and by themselves”, she says, and gets Mortimer to agree to make changes. But the wily Sims appeals to Mortimer’s pocket book, and Nell leaves the Lord in a fit of pique. Sims and Mortimer conspire to have Nell committed to Bedlam, and she lives in fear for her life as she becomes a prisoner of Sims’ house of horrors.

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BEDLAM is more costumed drama than out-and-out horror, though there are more than enough shocks to satisfy genre fans. Director Robson made his first five films under Lewton’s aegis, and along with cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca, conveys a sense of dread throughout the film. Of course, the fact they had horror’s King Karloff as Sims didn’t hurt. Boris gives us a restrained depiction of evil as the master of Bedlam, his purring voice belying the corruption that lies within. He’s subservient to Lord Mortimer, his rich and powerful benefactor, and takes out his self-loathing on those less fortunate, the “loonies” in his charge. Sims will do anything to retain his minute amount of power, and gets no sympathy when he gets his comeuppance at the film’s powerful conclusion. It’s a bravura performance, and alongside Grey in THE BODY SNATCHER, Boris’ best of the 40’s.

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Anna Lee had played opposite Boris before, in the 1936 British horror THE MAN WHO LIVED AGAIN. She became a favorite of John Ford , and was featured in seven of his films, including HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY, FORT APACHE, and THE LAST HURRAH. Miss Lee was also in the horror classic WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE, and known to millions as Lila Quartermaine on the long-running soap GENERAL HOSPITAL. She goes toe-to-toe with Boris here, and her transformation from silly plaything for the rich to enlightened woman is a good job of acting itself.

Billy House (Lord Mortimer) was an old burlesque comic who transitioned into a fine character actor, particularly in Orson Welles’ THE STRANGER. The rest of the cast isn’t well-known, but Richard Fraser does well as a Quaker who aids Nell. More Familiar Faces to film buffs include Ian Wolfe (a standout as a former lawyer, now an inmate of Bedlam), Jason Robards Sr, Elizabeth Russell, Skelton Knaggs, Ellen Corby, Tommy Noonan,  and future horror/sci-fi star Robert Clarke.

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This was the last of the Lewton/RKO entries, sending the series of intelligent psychological horror films out on a strong note. Karloff lovers won’t want to miss this one, as Boris adds another fine portrait to his Rogue’s Gallery. He wouldn’t get as good a role as Master Sims until the monster revival in the 60’s, and it’s his last great film of the classic horror era. BEDLAM does with its modest budget what many bigger films fail to do, sending a potent message while entertaining the audience at the same time.

Long Live The King!: Boris Karloff in THE BODY SNATCHER (RKO 1945)

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William Henry Pratt, known to horror lovers as Boris Karloff, was born on November 23, 1887. He toiled for years on stage and in small film roles until being cast as The Monster in 1931’s FRANKENSTEIN. Karloff became an overnight success at age 44, and starred in some of the era’s most memorable fright films (The Mummy, THE BLACK CAT, BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN). After conquering Broadway in ARSENIC AND OLD LACE (in a role tailor made for him), he triumphantly returned to Hollywood and signed a three-picture deal with producer Val Lewton at RKO. Lewton was making intelligent, subtle horror films and Karloff had taken notice. Their first together, THE BODY SNATCHER, was not only their best, but one of the genre’s best, a masterpiece’s of Lewton’s brand of quiet terror.

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Based on a short story by Robert Louis Stevenson, THE BODY SNATCHER is set in 1831 Edinburgh, Scotland. Karloff plays Cabman Gray, who drives a carriage by day and robs graves by night, selling the bodies to anatomist Dr. MacFarlane. The two are old acquaintances, and Gray holds a dark secret over the doctor. He delights in torturing MacFarlane verbally, calling him by the nickname ‘Toddy’, mocking him at every turn, claiming “You’ll never be rid of me”. When we first meet Gray, he’s dropping off a crippled young girl and her mother to MacFarlane’s home. The cabman is sweet and kind to the poor child, but then we see him at night in the graveyard, smashing a barking dog’s head in as he digs up a fresh body to sell. Gray is in turn charming and chilling, not above committing murder to provide ‘specimens’ to MacFarlane, against the doctor’s wishes. This dichotomy is what sets Gray from being just a stereotypical boogeyman. It’s a fascinating performance, and of all Karloff’s roles, I think this is his best.

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MacFarlane is a brilliant doctor, but cold as a mackerel. The crippled girl could be cured by an operation, but MacFarlane refuses, saying his duties at his medical school are more important. It’s only when Gray goads him into performing the operation that he consents. It’s hard to feel any sympathy for the doctor, especially after we learn he was assistant to the notorious Dr. Knox, who worked with the murderous ‘resurrectionists’  Burke and Hare. Gray once took the rap for MacFarlane, and won’t for a second let him forget it. MacFarlane has an assistant of his own, the student Fettes, who’s uncomfortable with accepting bodies from the odious Gray. When a blind street singer’s body is brought in, Fettes realizes she was murdered by Gray. But Fettes signed for the body, and could now be considered an accomplice to the gruesome scheme.

THE BODY SNATCHER is also memorable as the last pairing of Karloff and fellow horror icon Bela Lugosi. While Boris became the toast of Broadway, Bela had fallen on hard times, appearing in a series of no-budget shockers at Poverty Row Monogram Studios. His role as the blackmailing Joseph was small but pivotal to the film. Gray smiles while paying the dimwitted Joseph off, then proposes they become partners in crime. My words can’t possibly do the scene justice, so here’s the last shared screen time of Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi:

When MacFarlane discovers Joseph’s body in a vat of brine, he’s finally had enough. Confronting Gray at his home, the two engage in a fight in which the doctor kills the cabman. He then brings the body home and dissects it for the student’s use. He travels to another town to sell Gray’s horse and carriage, thus believing he’s finally rid of the sadistic graverobber. Fettes comes into the tavern and tells MacFarlane the little girl is now walking. The two then do their own graverobbing, and return to Edinburgh in a blinding rainstorm. But MacFarlane keeps hearing Gray’s voice mockingly calling, “Toddy….Toddy”. He hears Gray’s voice in rhythm with the clip-clop of the hoofs, :Ne-ver get rid-of me, ne-ver get rid-of me”.  He stops the carriage and has Fettes get out to light a lamp. MacFarlane takes a look at the corpse and sees Gray. His scream causes the horse to  wildly take off, Gray’s corpse bobbing alongside the doctor. The carriage goes off a cliff, killing MacFarlane. Fettes looks at the corpse, but sees only a dead woman. It was all in MacFarlane’s mind, Gray haunting him til the end.

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THE BODY SNATCHER is an early directorial effort from Robert Wise, who went on to helm blockbusters like WEST SIDE STORY and THE SOUND OF MUSIC. Wise never forgot his horror roots though, with the ghost stories THE HAUNTING and AUDREY ROSE also on his resume. The art and set direction evoke the time period, and Robert DeGrasse’s cinematography is dark and moody as the best noir. Roy Webb adds a haunting score peppered with Scottish folk songs. The entire crew deserves a round of applause for contributing to this eerie film.

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Dr. MacFarlane is played by Henry Daniell, one of the screen’s greatest villains in films like CAMILLE, THE GREAT DICTATOR, THE SEA HAWK, and JANE EYRE. Daniell even played Professor Moriarty, matching wits with Sherlock Holmes in THE WOMAN IN GREEN. The only weak link is Russell Wade as Fettes, as bland an actor as there was.  But it’s King Karloff’s performance as Gray that makes the movie, a showcase role proving he was not just another scary face, but a great actor as well. Cabman Gray stands tall in Karloff’s Rouge’s Gallery, and THE BODY SNATCHER is a film that frightens to this day. Happy  birthday, Boris!

 

sound + vision: THE SEVENTH VICTIM (RKO 1943)

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Producer Val Lewton revitalized the horror film during his tenure at RKO Studios in the 1940s. Working with a miniscule budget, Lewton used the power of suggestion rather than monsters to create a body of work that’s still influential on filmmakers today. Studio execs came up with the sensationalistic titles (CAT PEOPLE, I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE) and gave the producer free rein to tell the stories. Using shadows, light, and sound, Lewton’s quiet, intelligent approach to terror was miles ahead of the juvenile (but fun) stuff cranked out at Universal and Monogram.

THE SEVENTH VICTIM could be considered lesser Lewton. It’s  not seen as often some of his other classics, and that’s a pity, because it’s superior to many of the better known horror movies of the era. This quiet psychological thriller with its civilized satanic cult was a rarity for its time. Only Edgar G Ulmer’s 1934 THE BLACK CAT dared to tackle this kind of material before. In fact, I’m surprised the Production Code didn’t cut this one to shreds, with its devil worshippers and barely concealed lesbian subplot.

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