Sunday, August 25, 2013

THE DRUMS OF JEOPARDY (1931)


Frequently and probably erroneously categorized as an early horror film, THE DRUMS OF JEOPARDY sticks pretty tightly to the foreign-menace thriller template that people of the pre-50s loved so very much.  All the elements are here: foreigners, menace, old-lady comic relief.  There are no monsters, no ghosts or slashers.  So what about this film leads humanity into such a great labeling mistake?


Oh yeah, this was released in 1931 (like FRANKENSTEIN) and its villain is named BORIS KARLOV!  


As we're introduced, Dr. Karlov admittedly looks pretty terrifying.  Thankfully, he quickly removes the mask so he can read the mail and gloat about how well his daughter is doing in the ballet business.  Less thankfully, she dies!  And one of the rich dicks from the Petrov family is responsible.


These are the suit-wearing, champagne-drinking princes for whom we are supposed to feel sympathy.  Acting ability, like all other ability, is not guaranteed to arise in every member of the aristocracy.  These early scenes and their accompanying stilted conversations are probably the film's roughest, especially a dinner scene which is only slightly less cringeworthy than the one in TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE.  When people talk about old films and bad acting, this is what they're talking about.


This is how someone reacts to being shot.  This is one of the good actors.


Fortunately for us, things pick up as the film proceeds.  Dr. Karlov has merited from the Bolshevik Revolution and uses his newfound power to seek revenge against the Petrovs.  Don't get excited about DRUMS playing up the Red/class enemy thing, as it doesn't figure much into the happenings here.  This is generally just a standard revenge story and revenge is wreaked against the innocent, as usual.  The instrument of revenge also can't just be a gun or knife, it has to be some complicated scenario with escape opportunities, because vigilantes get raises based on style points.


Warner Oland is pretty fun as Boris Karlov (seriously, I would like to know the story behind the name!).  He's pretty charming and jovial for a dead daughter's dad, although he doesn't take it to a Freddy Krueger one-liner extreme.  Like all the "Russians" in this film, he has zero accent, but eh, no big.


Clara Blandick is also a standout as the spinster aunt comedy person, whose antics really do help the film avoid the creakiness into which it sometimes falls.  So two bright spots balance out the wretchedly bad early acting and the rest is basically standard fare.  Let's score it as a middling effort, wrap up 1931, and get ready to talk about sharks all September long.

RATING: 5

BEST OF 1931:
1.  Frankenstein
2.  Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde
3.  Dracula (English version)/Dracula (Spanish version)
4.  Murder by the Clock
5.  The Drums of Jeopardy

Monday, August 19, 2013

MURDER BY THE CLOCK (1931)

[No screenshots since my print was totes murky.  No IMDB keywords, either!]

Oh, those conniving blonde women!  They just get blonder and more conniving as the years pass by.  MURDER BY THE CLOCK proves this theory, as blonde conniver Laura Endicott (Lilyan Tashman) manipulates all the boys in town into murdering for her.  The ultimate goal of all this violence is her in-laws' family fortune, which is up for grabs now that dotty old Aunt Julia has croaked.  And she never even got to use the foghorn she installed in her tomb.  

"Selecting a horrifying bleating sound as your rescue alarm in case of premature burial" is just one fun element and poor decision in this old dark house movie.  "Old dark house" could be considered a kind of subgenre or atrophied limb of horror.  It flourished briefly in the 30s, after studio executives saw the ticket stats for DRACULA and FRANKENSTEIN.  Immediately after, they started pumping more horror content into their stagey mystery-comedies.  And here we are!

Most of these were literally culled from stage plays and not fancy Shakespeare stuff, so the light dinner-theater feel and structure often got ported over into the screen version.  In CLOCK's case, this appears in the ethnic banter of an immigrant policeman and equally immigrant maid.  The Irish cop gets exchanges like...

"Cassidy, you ever have a hunch?"  

"I certainly did.  I was gonna get married once and something told me not to...it was the girl's husband."  

DEAD PEOPLE LAUGH TRACK.  To be fair, most of these scenes are pretty diverting and give us some respite from Laura and her money & credit card-eating vagina, and also from mentally retarded and moderately homicidal cousin Philip (Irving Pichel, in a performance for the ages).  Yes, a retarded person's urge to kill is exploited and, incredibly, PLAYED FOR LAUGHS in this movie.  The 30s were certainly a golden era for sensitivity.

The complexity and plot busyness of old dark house movies are part of the fun.  CLOCK delivers on this front, with its array of killer simpletons, crypt chimes, and (most bafflingly of all) a central subplot which involves resuscitation of a murder victim, with all kinds of wonderful BS science included:

"If you bring him back to life, he'll be able to tell us who killed him!"

...and...

"His mind will begin working at exactly the point where it left off."

Like murder victim brains function the way DVD pause buttons do!  Splendid!  This is a lot of ghastly fun.  It's not horror, per se, but it has horror elements and is a good representation of the ODH genre (which definitely would include some horror-heavy titles).  The cast is pretty spectacular, especially Tashman as the vamp, who deftly balances wanton-woman menace with humor that's darker than black.  As stated, it's primarily entertainment for murdered brains, not a piece of art that aspires to eternity, so I can't give a great rating, but a very respectable devil's number has definitely been earned.

RATING: 6

Saturday, August 17, 2013

FRANKENSTEIN (1931)

IMDB keywords: science runs amok, drowning someone, windmill

I've written about this one at least twice in other places and you are (surely to God) all familiar with it, so let's see if we can dredge up anything new in this hoary old classic.  Science fact: the monster is named "the monster", not fucking Frankenstein, jesus christ already.


FRANKENSTEIN opens with a tuxed Edward Van Sloan on a theatrical stage, saying this: "I think it will thrill you.  It may shock you.  It might even horrify you!  So if any of you feel that you do not care to subject your nerves to such a strain, now's your chance to...well, we've warned you!"  This is the carniest thing ever and pretty much guaranteed that no one in the audience would ask for a refund or think of leaving before watching the entire film.  So well played!  This is also excerpted at the top of every Night of the Living Podcast.


I laughed and cringed that the author of Frankenstein was listed as "Mrs. Percy B. Shelley" in the credits, because it sounds like how lingerie catalogs to Mary Shelley would be addressed.  But, really, it's dispiriting that she'd have to play second fiddle to her husband (I didn't even think "Ozymandias" was that good, tbh).  As the film opens, we see Henry Frankenstein and his assistant Fritz in this position, stealthily watching a funeral.  This film has a lot of homoerotic content that we'll talk about, but I wonder if James Whale blocked this like this on purpose.


This whole scene ain't subtle about what's coming.  Just after the funeral, we get a workmanlike grave digger throwing dirt on the casket and then contemptuously tossing a used match on top.  This is followed by the famous exhumation, in which Frankenstein inadvertently tosses a spadeful of dirt in Death's face.


Edward Van Sloan is a good warner!  He warned us about FRANKENSTEIN and now he debuts as Dr. Waldman, warning a class about the biological differences between a "normal" brain and a "diseased" criminal brain.  Morality and medicine all get smushed together in a big pile.  Fact: when Henry Frankenstein was in school, you only had to take one class and it taught you everything you needed to know about anything.


And that science is applied, in swollen sets which admit of German expressionist sympathies.  The sets and the acting, even pre-monster, work wonders to keep the audience engaged.


Engaged, much like Henry Frankenstein, whose fiancee Elizabeth shows up with Frankenstein's former professor to stop him from hanging out with hunchbacks and doing science.


One reason that I think FRANKENSTEIN has endured is that it's a very literate film, much more so than either DRACULA or other horror films of this era.  Mary Shelley's novel was subtitled The Modern Prometheus and the film definitely plays on that idea with multiple characters.  Frankenstein, obviously, but also the monster.  In the above scene, the monster reaches for the light or the sun to try to capture it.  This scene also keeps the movie's hand motif alive and kicking.


Light and flame are also omnipresent and not always in a good, stretchy way.  The monster fears fire, at least initially, and Frankenstein's hunchback Fritz preys on that fear.  Their interactions bring up a lot of questions about monstrosity and otherness.  Fritz is obviously deformed and outcast (nobody who could get a good job would help Henry cut down hanged corpses), but even he has this compulsion to torment outsiders.  


The monstrosity/other thing arises again, in a subtler way, in Frankenstein himself.  The monster can be viewed as an emblem for whatever perversions are happening in his sciency heart.  We get glimpses of this in the above scene, just after Papa Frankenstein has proposed a toast about a potential grandson.  UHHHHH.  Plus there are all kinds of suggestions in the dialogue, like when a friend warns Henry that his fiancee is almost here and "she can't be allowed to see this!" (in this case, the monster, but it could just as likely be CDRs of a shirtless Ryan Gosling)


When people talk about actors in this film, they rightfully always mention Karloff.  Boris does an amazing, standard-setting job at nailing a largely nonverbal, largely physical role.  So shut up, Ed Wood's Bela Lugosi!  But one could also argue that this is Colin Clive's finest hour.  His Frankenstein is definitive and deftly-executed, from the toast reaction above to his drained/orgasmic joy when the monster comes to life.  And everyone knows, "It's alive!  Alive!", but "In the name of God, now I know what it feels like to BE God!" is woefully underrated.  Edward Van Sloan and Frederick Kerr (Baron Frankenstein) also deliver knockout performances.


James Whale's directorial choices let the actors and action flourish.  We get these fantastic sweeping tracking shots that float seamlessly through walls and some gorgeous design choices in sets and wardrobe.  Whale's probably also responsible for the occasional hint of comedy, which is sometimes dealt in a very understated way (like the three sequential nods in answer to a Frankenstein question).  Thankfully, because he was James Whale and not someone making terrible modern horror/comedy mashups, he never allowed the comedy to overwhelm the primary business.  Really, the only grudge I can cite against the film would be the wisp of a love triangle that appears in Elizabeth's scenes with Frankenstein's friend Victor.  It doesn't lead anywhere and seems superfluous.


Other than that teeny little thing, pure classic.  Watch and worship.

RATING: 9

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

DRACULA (1931, Spanish version)

IMDB keywords: nipples visible through clothing, laughing, hungary

Dracula was such a hot property that Universal decided to double down on it, filming the English-language version during the day and letting director George Melford and his Mexican/Spanish cast utilize the same sets after dark to make this version.  Since then, there's been a schism in the horror community.  Pretty recently, this DRACULA has been heralded as the superior version, although even more recently there's been a predictable backlash.  Check IMDB, it's full of defenders of the Lugosi faith who swear that this edition is just terrible.  Everything is either the Best or the Worst, no in-between!  Let's look at the evidence and judge wisely.


Both films work from the same script, so the problems in the story structure can't be the deciding factor.  Spanish DRACULA certainly starts off with promise, though...we get to see a lot more of those immaculate sets and Melford definitely seems more interested in shooting all of this in an interesting way.  I'm for all that, but another consideration in a DRACULA movie is Dracula.


Oh, dear.  When we first meet Carlos Villarias as El Conde, he tries for creepy fake obsequiousness, but just ends up looking like a tweaker car salesman or something.  Thankfully, things get much better.  I especially dug his initial reactions to Renfield's cross.  Usually, Draculas say, "BLARGGHH!" and turn away rapidly, but this one just looks moderately disgusted.  Wise choice.

"And I'm a Wiccan!"

PS the good will earned by this choice gets revoked later, when a cross turns Dracula into Spanish Nicholas Cage.


However, it's a credit to this movie that it manages to make Dracula creepy even after his unfortunate introduction.  I much prefer the Transylvania scenes here to the Browning film: good use of light and shadow, interesting angles, what's not to love?  The early scenes are easily the best part of the film (again).


The same flaws that flawed English DRACULA plague this version.  Effects are pieces of plastic on draped strings.  I couldn't not laugh when the bat "flew" in, completely stationary, and complete with nonsensical flapping sounds.


And too much of this is still about conversations in rooms.  The DRACULAs really put the "talk" in talkie.  I prefer some of the actors in the Browning version, too.  Post-Dracula Renfield (Pablo Rubio) is far more expressive than Dwight Frye, which some might dig, but he pushes a bit too far into camp territory for me.  At times it gets overwhelming, like a crazy in a Bugs Bunny cartoon.  I guess a defender of the film could say there's evidence it's a put-on and that Renfield snaps back into sanity during certain moments, but eh.  Also not fond of Eduardo Arozamena as Van Helsing.  It's a fine performance, but IMFO Edward Van Sloan's stiff, repressed Van Helsing is the best way to go.


Even so, some of this film's London stuff shows a marked improvement over English DRACULA.  Melford breaks out of the room and takes to the outside with more gusto, giving us some really pretty night-time shots.


Plus I thought Lupita Tovar was way more effective in the Mina role (here rechristened Eva).  She's got more energy (and fewer clothes, as she states in her introduction to the film), her interactions with Dracula have more depth, and she's more convincingly evil when it's time to be evil.   


I think that both films are pretty evenly matched in terms of successes and failures.  Calling one or the other a triumph or a disaster is just partisan poppycock.  Both are worth watching, even if neither really true classics.  So stop fighting and kiss!


RATING: 7

Sunday, August 11, 2013

DRACULA (1931, English version)

IMDB keywords: goth, opera, master vampire, opossum

I have seen DRACULA a bunch, but I never noticed that possums play the giant rats until IMDB pointed it out.


There are also armadillos!  Is Transylvania in Oklahoma or something?


Almost ten years after NOSFERATU worked its unauthorized charms on the world, this iteration of the Stoker story hit the silver screen.  For a while, DRACULA was the crown jewel of the Universal monster pantheon.  Its reputation was basically sterling, exceeding THE WOLF MAN (maybe) and FRANKENSTEIN (lol no) in critical eyes.  That's changed quite a bit as time has gone on and now I think the pendulum has swung a little too far the other way.  People usually dismiss this film as a one-man show, with Bela Lugosi's performance being the only real reason to revisit it.  Not really true or fair, but let's start by admitting the flaws, then moving on to the triumphs.


The effects are bad and the bats look like rubber bats on strings.  Despite this, the movie insists on showing them repeatedly, flopping outside open windows.  DRACULA incorporates the wolf of the Stoker story, but never shows it, basically just letting character reaction sell the concept.  That probably would have been a wiser choice for the bats, given the limitations here.  


This DRACULA owes a lot to the Deane and Balderston-authored stage play and it shows, because things frequently get stagey as fuck.  Long ponderous conversations unfurl and light comic-relief scenes that might be necessary in a theatrical setting get ported into our movie.  Sometimes the film becomes a film about people talking, which is only effective when it's handled carefully.  So, okay, things aren't perfect, but...  


Dodgy effects aside, the camerawork and enveloping sets are glorious.  I know I said that the Transylvania scenes are usually the low point of Dracula movies, but that's not true at all here.  We get monolithic rooms with all the emblems of decay and disrepair and it's just fab as hell.  


These scenes also give us the perfect debut for Lugosi, who plays Dracula with freakishly elongated speech patterns and lunging physicality.  It really helps that his first interactions are with Dwight Frye as Renfield.  Renfield's the sort of "gee, golly!" good guy that ordinarily gives me the hives at this point, but A) he makes a great foil for Dracula and B) his brisk nature gets 180ed into wanton corruption really quickly, establishing Dracula's power.  


Frye is great throughout, especially once he arrives in England as Dracula's pet nutbag.  The other actors are sort of unremarkable (although mostly serviceable).  I'd say that Edward Van Sloan as Van Helsing is another acting highlight, though.  He plays Van Helsing as this stiff martinet and it makes a great contrast to Dracula's (literally) old-world charm.


The direction and editing are sometimes memorable.  Tod Browning had a lengthy career in silent cinema before landing this gig and we get masterful shadowplay, straight out of the expressionist playbook.  There's a scene in which Dracula is announced that could be inserted right into an episode of Archer, too, which proves this film's timeless quality.


So DRACULA.  I wouldn't put it at the tippy-top of the horror ladder and it's certainly got enough issues to keep it from nipping at FRANKENSTEIN's heels.  But, beyond being tremendously successful and setting the template for horror flicks for a long while, it's a good time.  You'll have to overlook some stuff and maybe try to transport yourself into a 1931 mindset, but it's worth the effort.  Lugosi's performance is still compellingly weird and Browning (or Karl Freund) offer some technical ecstasy along the way.  Plus armadillos!


RATING: 7

Saturday, August 10, 2013

DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE (1931)

IMDB keywords: reference to bach, woman naked under covers, period in title

1931 dawns and brings with it a continuation of the technical ambitions we saw in THE BAT WHISPERS.  This version of the Robert Louis Stevenson tale makes a sharp break with 1920's actor-centric edition: this JEKYLL is all about camera tricks, makeup, and general artifice.  A lot of the actors acquit themselves well, but TBH they're like the fourth most important weapon in this film's weapons bag.


In what must have stunned 1931 audiences, we open with first-person perspective.  We're set behind Henry Jekyll's eyes, sharing his tunnel vision as he primps for an evening out.  Mirrors and candlesticks will be important symbolically, so it's good to establish them early on.  These scenes also remind us that V/H/S 2 isn't as goddamn innovative as it thinks it is.  


Jekyll is affianced to Muriel Carew and desperately wants to marry her.  He already gets to see her on the weekend and dance with her, so I'm not sure what the attraction of marri—oh.  Yeah, this film is pretty sly about talking sex with its hand over its mouth.  It's all there, just very disguised.  Her dad's insistence on a decorously long engagement and Jekyll's (rational) rejection of it as just pointless tradition does wonders to establish his character and lead him down the dark road that we will travel.


Jekyll is handsome and decent, despite his tradition-scoffing.  On the way home, he saves some tart (Miriam Hopkins as Ivy Pearson) from a beating.  When she gets a good look at his face, she stops her Cockney caterwauling cold because sploosh.  


Hopkins's Cockney accent did not win my heart.  This probably wouldn't be as noticeable to a non-Southerner, but I kept hearing her slide into her native Georgia tongue and it took me out of the whole "we are in England" thing.  But her nude squirming under white covers was a great way to apologize!  And, in her defense, her lines do seem more natural as the film goes on.


You know what happens now.  Jekyll, like Drs. Frankenstein and Banner and Lecter, takes his curiosity too far and yields monstrous results.  The transformation scenes are solid gold here.  Frederic March one-ups John Barrymore in facial contortions and the gradual accumulation of makeup is still impressive, almost a hundred years later.  March is okay as Jekyll, but he's a holy terror as Hyde, filling his performance with constant motion: leaps, cane swinging, and animalistic jaw movements.  


The intriguing thing about Hyde is that he's not a monster in the crush/kill/destroy sense.  He's definitely not going to shy away from dishing out beatings, but he's really more of a self-obsessed rake than anything, almost a sociopath.  He's the id unleashed, without concern for consequences.  Hyde decides to take Ivy up on the scandalous offer she made to Jekyll.  The scenes between these two are some of the film's best and most intense.  I don't care how poor a girl's accent is, you shouldn't hit her with a whip about it.


Whippings, naked pseudo-Cockneys, volcanic violence...this film's heart is purely pre-Code and, even though concessions clearly had to be made to looming censorship, the subtle workarounds almost make it more perverse.  Everything is hidden in statuary and allegory.


Director Rouben Mamoulian does a great job of crafting sets and stages on which actors and cameras can race.  JEKYLL is appropriately full of doubling, from people posing like their home decor to multiple characters banging on keyboards or crying on their knees.  Even the Jekyll/Hyde dichotomy has its mirror in nice-but-boring Muriel and busty-but-probably-poisoned Ivy.   
  

Even with the accent, you'll probably be pulling for Ivy.  The Jekyll/Muriel love seems mawkish and present only to lead to the climax.  Puns aside, it's the dullest part of JEKYLL, but it thankfully occupies little screen time once we really get going and this certainly boasts many splendors that invite viewing.  The camera work and effects are a grade above anything we saw in the 20s, while we've still got a bit of that 1920s subversion happening at the edges of many scenes.  Remade in 1941 and many times thereafter!


RATING: 7