10/4/2018 – 1930s: Werewolf of London (1935)
Directed by Stuart Walker
The 1920s transition horror from an experimental into a more narrative driven age, but the 1930s would see an even bigger step. Though early forays into sound film were made as far back as the 1800s, it took until 1923 for the first sound short films to start seeing a commercial release. 1927’s The Jazz Singer would go on to be the first feature length sound film with 1928’s The Terror (now a lost film) representing horror’s first entry into that realm. There was unquestionably issues with the early sound films as actors struggled to adjust and the technology to reach a sufficient level, but the opportunities it offered were boundless and it quickly launched the horror film into prominence.
The big name in the ’30s was Universal Studios. While they had made a number of successful horror classics the previous decade, when people think of Universal Horror or the Universal Monsters, they think back to the era that began (and was in its prime) here. As part of the awkward transition to sound film, a number of them were filmed simultaneously in multiple languages in order to increase the international appeal. While the first Universal horror title done this way was a remake of The Cat and the Canary called The Cat Creeps (La Voluntad del muerto) in 1930, the following year brought a far more famous and influential film.
Tod Browning was an experienced silent film director having helmed dozens of titles (and one in sound) principally with Lon Chaney including the horror movies London After Midnight and The Unknown. The 1931 Bela Legosi starring adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula built on Universal’s earlier Gothic style and the success of it would establish a pattern for the studio. The Spanish version (Drácula) was made by a different crew and with different actors and while Legosi’s Count Dracula was far and away superior, almost every other aspect of the Spanish version was superior. Universal would follow it up with an adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein by director James Whale that year to further cement and refine that style. Not only has it become one of the most iconic films in the genre, becoming the very definition of “horror” in the minds of many, it also holds up as one of the best films of the era.
Universal followed it up in 1932 with a mediocre adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s Murders in the Rue Morgue, before delivering another genre defining work in The Old Dark House (specifically defining the subgenre bearing its name). Their third and final film that year saw Metropolis and Dracula cinematographer Karl Freund create the third major Universal Monster with The Mummy starring Frankenstein’s Boris Karloff, still the definitive Mummy film. The following year brought the lackluster Secret of the Blue Room and James Whale’s very good H.G. Wells adapted The Invisible Man.
A quiet year in 1934’s The Black Cat, 1935 saw Universal start a new era as they started to sequelize their creations. Bride of Frankenstein added some camp to the formula and improved upon its predecessor while the following year’s Dracula’s Daughter would head in a completely different direction to arrive at film of similar if far less influential quality. Frankenstein would get one more sequel this decade (1939’s Son of Frankenstein) which while still great was unable to live up to its lofty predecessors while the studio also released Poe adaptations in the solid The Raven and The Mystery of Edwin Drood, the likewise pretty good The Invisible Ray, and the serial The Phantom Creeps.
Despite all the attention I’ve paid to Universal, they were far from the only game in town. Every studio would turn out their own, though the Gothic horror style was pervasive across the board, enhanced by the black and white cinematography and low budget of these films. Perhaps the most prolific was MGM who released Tod Browning’s great, but controversial and career killing Freaks, The Mask of Fu Manchu, Kongo, Mark of the Vampire, Mad Love, and The Devil-Doll. Mad Love, starring Peter Lorre and directed by Freund is far and away the highlight, though Mark of the Vampire and The Devil-Doll are both decent. Warner Bros turned out a handful of solid titles in the Doctor X films, Mystery of the Wax Museum, and best of all The Walking Dead (as well as Svengali) while Columbia’s titles of Black Moon, The Black Room, and The Man They Could Not Hang ranged from lackluster to enjoyable.
The two best, non-Universal horror films came from another two studios, however. With Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack’s King Kong, RKO helped set the stage for the giant monster movies of years later as well as innovate special effects work. It’s also such a fun movie to watch that holds up even as the effects (which I still enjoy) age. The sequel wasn’t very good and the neither were the other horror titles they released in Thirteen Women and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (in spite of Laughton’s performance). The other classic came from Paramount whose 1932 adaptation of 1932 The Island of Dr. Moreau, Island of Lost Souls, has become a cult item. Other notable American films include the horror-comedy remake The Cat and the Canary, the most acclaimed adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles, as well as a collection of decent titles in The Bat Whispers, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, White Zombie, and The Vampire Bat.
As I hinted at above, the market for foreign (to the U.S.) films dried up significantly. Where in the silent film era a film could inherently traverse boundaries with ease, the sound era would wind up squeezing the smaller film markets whose languages would have required dubbing or subtitles to be shown in each country. The British naturally would have the easiest time but even so, the quality tended to be lacking including the mediocre The Ghoul, as well as The Man Who Changed His Mind, The Dark Eyes of London (the first film be rated “H” for “Horrific”, the most awesome rating).
There were still foreign language horror films, were noting starting with Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr. The follow-up to his silent classic The Passion of Joan of Arc, can be a challenging work but it’s an interesting and experimental one for the genre that came towards the end of the expressionist era. Speaking of German films, Fritz Lang’s sequel The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (also filmed in French as The Last Will of Dr. Mabuse) is a classic crime story with some horror elements while Fährmann Maria has a decent reputation. Finally, we have a rare entry from China in Song at Midnight.
One of the few Universal horror films of the period I hadn’t yet gotten to yet is today’s film, Werewolf of London. Now that Warren Zevon is stuck in your head (whose song was inspired by the title of this film), assuming it wasn’t already, on to the actual movie. Despite the reputation of The Wolf Man, Werewolf of London, predates it by six years and was the first major film to feature werewolves. The makeup here is far less wolf-like than that in the Lon Chaney version as actor Henry Hull complained about the work done by Jack Pierce (the mastermind behind Universal’s classic monster makeup). The reason may have been well-intentioned, since Hull thought it would make more sense for the plot, but it’s also far less interesting and iconic than Pierce’s classic design.
Two explorers go searching in remote Tibet for a rare plant and after finding it, one of them is attacked by a werewolf. Returning to London where he grew up to study the plant, another botanist (played by Warner Oland who as always is in yellowface) approaches him expressing interest in the plant and explaining that it is an antidote (however temporary) to lycanthropy. Unsurprisingly, the explorer doesn’t believe Oland’s warnings and insists on studying the plant in peace even with the warning of impending trouble and that he will go after his loved ones.
All the hallmarks of the Universal film are here from the dark gothic atmosphere to the reliably strong acting. The conflict between the science and the supernatural is an interesting on the surface as the good doctor here is driven primarily by his need to study things from a scientific standpoint and is unwilling to accept things that do not conform. In addition, the film takes a soft science approach to the concept of werewolves instead of the supernatural one of The Wolf Man. SPOILERS1. It keeps the spread by bite and full moon aspects of werewolf lore, but it ties the latter directly to the botany of a specific plant in a way that almost makes that flower seem believable.
The makeup may not be the most interesting, but his transformation in one scene stands out as he passes by a series of columns, each time his body revealing itself to be more transformed. Some of the comic relief doesn’t quite work, specifically one very lengthy scene with two older drunk ladies, but otherwise it’s very much another Universal horror in tone. I mean that as both a complement since this is very much my thing, but also as a way of saying that it doesn’t stand out from the pack.
Bonus Episode #8 – A – 1930s: The Gorilla (1939)
Directed by Allan Dwan
While Abbott and Costello and The East Side Kids/Bowery Boys churned out countless films for decades, they tended to be made cheaply and of fairly middling quality, relying on the appeal of the people involved. What they did do on numerous occasions though, was plonk the characters down in a horror setting and wait for hilarity to occur. While both these groups were far more famous and prolific, they were actually beaten to the bunch by another group, The Ritz Brothers. Harry, Jimmy and Al Ritz made nineteen films from 1934-1943 for Fox and Universal. The Gorilla was both their one horror-comedy and the film that signaled the end of their run at Fox after they staged a walkout to protest the poor quality of the script.
A mysterious criminal named The Gorilla has claimed the lives of five women in Westchester, New York. With the suburb on edge, a man (horror regular Lionel Atwell) receives a threatening note on a gorilla’s paw note, indicating he has 24 hours’ notice before he is killed (though he does smartly send a number of decoys). The film quickly adds to the intrigue as the man owes someone a quarter of a million dollars and announces he has a plan to get out of it. He hires the bumbling Ritz Brothers, here playing PIs, to help investigate The Gorilla and protect him.
Strange events start happening, the radio starts talking to them, and the butler (besides being played by Bela Lugosi which makes him naturally suspicious) starts acting almost supernaturally. The antics of the brothers are trying and while they predate the Bowery Boys, they do feel like lesser version of them. There’s a wisecracking and hysterical maid who has a couple good quips, but they grow stale quick. The best thing that can be said about the movie is that it’s mercifully short.
Bonus Episode #9 – A – 1990s: Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation (1994)
Directed by Kim Henkel
The first Texas Chain Saw Massacre film is hugely influential masterpiece. It’s a raw and brutal proto-slasher and effective largely in the way that it shows far less than it implies. It’s been a long way down since then though. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 returned director Tobe Hooper and instead of trying to match the horror of the first, took the minor darkly comic elements of the fist and took it full tilt. Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III lost Hooper and tried to return the series to pure horror, but it failed by being pure rubbish. Now the other co-writer (besides Hooper) has returned to the series after a twenty-one-year absence to write and direct and it’s his turn to take the piss.
After an opening title card which dismissing the last two films as “minor, yet apparently related incidents” and setting this film in the then future year of 1996 for some unknown reason, we meet up with our protagonists on prom night. After catching her dumbass boyfriend making out with another woman, a girl steals his car (with two people including Renée Zellweger hiding in the backseat) and peels off, the guy running to catch up and join her. After crashing into a random car in the middle of the woods they go for help which arrives in the form of Matthew McConaughey.
The film was finished in 1994, but after being shown and purchased in 1995, it was shelved. In the interim, Zellweger became a star after Jerry Maguire and McConaughey (or his management) became ashamed of the project and tried to have it shelved. As a result, it got a tiny release. Having seen the film, I completely understand why he would want no one to see it, but he has nothing to be ashamed about. He’s the most entertaining part of the movie by far, looking like he’s having a blast as he messes with the teens constantly, runs over a person repeatedly with his car (not that we get to see any of it), makes out with his sister, or merely when he walks with that massive hydraulic, remote control leg brace that is always making mechanical sounds.
Sawyers Slaughters as the family is apparently known here, are pretty lackluster. I’m pretty sure they (and consequently the film) and especially SPOILERS2 are supposed to be funny but I don’t get it at all. Leatherface though… Leatherface has been through a lot of changes over the years, getting more and more ridiculous. This time out tops it all though as the film completely emasculates him. Not only has he become a completely ineffectual villain, but the movie dresses him up in various women’s clothing including that of an an old woman and a middle-aged in a dress who seems to be taking special care to show off breasts. He paints his nails, his face looks heavily made up, and he has long, curly hair. While I stand by it being a mess of an idea, the execution is even worse as he just looks terrible. The drag queen comparison gets thrown around for this iteration a lot, and it gives the design way too much credit for style.
As for the four teens, Zellweger’s fine stuck in a lackluster role and is the best of the lot pretty much by default. The boyfriend is a massive shitheel who repeatedly victim blames his girlfriend for not putting out, blames the girl he was making out with, insults everyone and yet his girlfriend still winds up accepting it too often and I’m not sure if the movie realizes how deeply fucked up it is.
That’s not even getting into the ending which SPOILERS3 In the final moments, the movie starts openly taking the piss out of itself too. It’s if it is trying to say “Ha, look how bad this film is. See, we’re clever and know this series sucks and everything I tried to do here was a giant failure.” You aren’t wrong on the last part, Henkel, but maybe you should have focused on making a better movie instead of just making fun of your lack of ability. Fuck you movie and the Comcast guide which gives it 3 stars. I’ll never forget that you used to give Piranha 3D 1 star.
Next up: We head into the 1980s for our next female directed film with Humanoids from the Deep from Barbara Peeters.