Category Archives: 1940s

The Undying Monster (1942)

Director: John Brahm

So, in 1941, Universal had a hit with The Wolf Man, and the people at 20th Century Fox decided they should do something like that as well. Except that they apparently saw no need to go the whole hog and make it an A production… but the end result still looks like one somehow. Not sure exactly what they did to save money, but The Undying Monster looks extraordinary when it comes to art direction and cinematography (an early job by Lucien Ballard); apparently a blu-ray is forthcoming and it should look amazing in HD given how good it looked in the OK online copy I watched. The film was adapted from a 1922 novel of the same name, but I suspect the aforementioned 1941 film was really more of an influence… from what I can gather, the film slims down the novel considerably though it does seem to retain the general outline. As the title may indicate, there is a monster afoot (and if, like me, you discovered this film via a reference work like Wm. Everson’s Classics of the Horror Film, you’ll know exactly what it is), but the film keeps it off-screen until the last reel; I imagine that even viewers in 1942 who didn’t know what the monster was were wondering long before then when it would finally appear. But the film is so compact (something like 63 minutes—like I said, this is a 1940s B film we’re talking about) that it doesn’t matter that much, and the only foot it really puts wrong is the comic relief detective’s assistant character (Heather Thatcher has some impressive other roles to her credit, but this was not her finest hour, evidently). Otherwise, it’s a fascinating little late-Victorian Gothic tale (dressed up with some of the finest science 1900 could buy), told with fine expressionist visual flair, and it should be better known than it probably is these days.

The Mummy series (1940-1944)

Over the years I’ve watched pretty much all of Universal’s classic horrors from the Good Old Days, plus a few of the lesser ones, and most of their various sequels. One series I’ve missed until now, though, is the Mummy films of the 40s… they’re not really follow-ups to the 1932 Karloff film (indeed, when Hammer did their own Mummy in 1959, these films were their point of departure rather than the earlier one), so they’re not in the same “cinematic universe” to use that godawful term. In this second phase of “Universal Monsters”, of course, the studio didn’t care as much about their horror films as they did in the early 30s and the Mummy films in particular seem to have only ever been intended as a B programmer series. I have a feeling one entry will be sufficient to cover the four of them…

The Mummy’s Hand (Christy Cabanne, 1940): An unpromising start at best for the adventures of Kharis, sloppy enough that even I noticed errors in it (of which the use of stock footage from the 1932 Mummy visibly featuring Boris Karloff is one of the more egregious; in fact, I think I may have spotted a notable continuity error not listed on the film’s IMDB entry). It’s pulp adventure, basically, nothing inherently wrong with that, and it does actually improve somewhat once the actual expedition to uncover the tomb gets underway, but the whole thing is hamstrung by Cabanne’s evident determination to play for laughs, so when the film’s comic relief is actually a main character you’ll be seeing throughout the film rather than just a secondary walk-on… yeah, not good. I’ll give it points for interesting timing, though, being clearly set in Egypt in 1940 but making no reference (at least that I saw) to a certain war going on, and being released in the same month that the Italians invaded Egypt. Just a few months later and they could’ve been in the film…

The Mummy’s Tomb (Harold Young, 1942): Not only were the 40s Mummy films not in the same “cinematic universe” as the 1932 film, they seem to have been in a different universe to each other. Beginning with a recap of the previous film so long I actually didn’t need to watch it after all, we find thirty years have passed, so it should be 1970… but our hero gets orders at one point to report for war service, which means that like the previous film it’s clearly set the year it was made… leaving some 28 years to be accounted for (not to mention that Wallace Ford’s character has a different name for some reason). We’re getting into Velikovsky territory here… But at least the mummy (Lon Chaney Jr) gets to do more than just lumber around like a stroke victim (indeed, he gives one of his victims a stroke), there’s revenge to be taken after the indignities of the previous film. Notwithstanding the clear padding of the opening reel, this was actually pretty good; Ford’s character is minimised and played straight, and director Young generally handles things with more care and seriousness than Cabanne did. An improvement on the first film (though wouldn’t it make more sense to swap the titles round?), much the best of the whole series indeed; and regardless of whenever it’s supposed to take place, a mob of villagers with flaming torches clearly never goes out of date…

The Mummy’s Ghost (Reginald Le Borg, 1944): Now, this was apparently finished by September 1943, but then it sat on Universal’s shelves for nearly a year. And there may be a perfectly good reason for that (cf. Arsenic & Old Lace: filmed in 1941, couldn’t be released until the Broadway production finally ended in 1944), but it usually seems to indicate a lack of faith in the product… Anyway, the cult that looked after Kharis in Egypt has changed its name as well for some reason, but otherwise we seem to be in the same time frame, whatever that was, of the previous film, maybe a couple of years after, so it could be 1943 or about 1975 or when the hell ever; Kharis’ new keeper (John Carradine, whose stick figure physique and voice are probably the film’s highlights) is tasked with returning him and the remains of Princess Ananka. But this gets tricky when it becomes evident that Ananka has finally latched onto the main plot of the 1932 Mummy and reincarnated… It’s adequately well made, I suppose, although the poor day-for-night filming is extremely distracting and the nice romantic couple kind of dull. Still, if most of the film is really only kind of average, the rather brave downbeat ending provides an unusual and dark twist, and at least there’s no stock footage from the earlier films in this one.

The Mummy’s Curse (Leslie Goodwins, 1944): And so it’s now another 25 years after whenever the Mummy’s last adventure was, and the swamp in which he submerges in the previous film has… well, moved from Massachusetts to Louisiana. Universal were clearly very hopeful that their audiences wouldn’t pick up on not insignificant details like this, weren’t they… anyway, in 1944 or 1997 or WHENEVER, an irrigation project to drain a swamp inadvertently brings Kharis back, a little ray of sunshine inadvertently brings Ananka back as well, and she’s not particularly impressed that lover boy is still pursuing her 3000 years later… Not much more than a fairly empty retread, and not much more to be said about it; probably a good thing the series stopped here, cos I can’t see where else it might’ve gone. Though it could very well have gone to California or something, given the geographic wonder of the narrative…

Hellzapoppin’ (1941)

Director: H.C. Potter

I’ve wanted to see this ever since I read about it in my old Illustrated History of Cinema (Robinson & Lloyd) about, what, 25 years ago, which promised an “extraordinarily zany” “anything for a laugh extravaganza”. But actually getting my hands on it has been another matter… there actually was a local DVD release here in the early 00’s, but it was an Avenue One job and I knew that apparently everything they touched turned to shit, so I let it go… But! with the technological miracle of unlimited ADSL and, er, an online source of doubtful legality, I now have Hellzapoppin’ in my virtual hands. And all I’ll say is fucking hell, what was in the water at Universal’s comedy department in 1941? Just a few months earlier they’d unleashed Never Give a Sucker an Even Break, and then this, which impressively out-loons even Mr Fields’ masterwork (to which this actually bears certain similarities).

Hellzapoppin’ the film is kind of about the adaptation of the then-legendary Broadway hit of the same name into a film; crucially, the credits only say that the play “suggested” the film, which, from what I can gather, doesn’t resemble the play that much (it may indeed have even been unfilmable as such). After the jaw-dropping opening in Hell, what ensues is surely one of the strangest “putting on a show” musicals ever made. Stars Olsen & Johnson are tasked with helping a young composer stage a musical revue he wants to launch on Broadway; in the midst of this they also have to help the course of young love run properly, which, after a series of misunderstandings, they eventually decide will actually require them to sabotage the thing instead. Along the way there is a remarkable amount of fourth-wall breaking, reflexivity and all that, and if one of the jokes was lifted from certain Warners cartoons of the late 30s, Chuck Jones would steal one from this film years later in Duck Amuck. It’s ludicrous, surreal, kind of berserk, and if anything the description in the Robinson & Lloyd book almost undersells the thing. Stunning.

The Uninvited (1944)

Director: Lewis Allen

I don’t suppose most horror fans think of the 1940s as an even remotely golden age for the genre. That’s partly because I suspect most horror fans don’t acknowledge the genre even existed before the 1970s, but also because, in real terms, the pickings were pretty slim. What we have here is one of those slim pickings, a great little film from a thin period, that’s always sounded interesting to me since I read about it in Everson, but was inaccessible to me until the Criterion release; happily it was worth the wait. I wrote in one of my Val Lewton reviews that at one point RKO wanted to promote him to produce their A films; although this is a Paramount job rather than an RKO one, I still imagine that this is what a Lewton A-level production might’ve looked like (had he still made horror at that level, of course). I don’t think director Lewis Allen actually cited Lewton as an influence, but he was certainly of a similar mind about keeping visible horrors off-screen; apparently the handful of ghost appearances were a studio imposition, Paramount thinking a ghost story should have visible ghosts. And it is ghosts plural, as we find out in the course of the story unfolding, the ghosts of two women kind of battling each other for the life (or otherwise) of a young girl who is the daughter of one of them. The film actually begins in surprisingly light fashion—Ray Milland as the lead character is a regular font of wisecracking—and takes a while to settle on seriousness; once it does, though, OY. It turns into some quite gothic stuff as it develops and more of the background comes to light, murder, madness and whatnot… the atmosphere tonight being somewhat enhanced, perhaps, by a cracking thunderstorm outside while I was watching (still going on as I write these words), but the film sustains its own power quite nicely and it wisely refuses to cop out with a non-supernatural explanation for its events. An auspicious directorial debut for Lewis Allen (of whose other work I think I’ve only seen the terrific thriller Suddenly), and now one of my favourites from the 40s…

Bedlam (1946)

Director: Mark Robson

So this last part of Val Lewton’s RKO output featured one of his best films (The Body Snatcher), one of his poorest (Isle of the Dead—of which Tom Weaver says on his DVD commentary here that even Lewton called it a mess), and quite possibly his strangest, i.e. Bedlam. By the time he started working on it, the studio executive who’d been his main advocate had died and RKO were left a bit high and dry generally; however, Boris Karloff was still on hand for one last go-round. I hadn’t seen Bedlam before tonight, and will confess to finding it a somewhat odd experience. It has probably the best female role in any of the Lewton horrors (some of which are kind of thankless in that respect); Anna Lee as Nell Bowen is a damned spiky heroine, starting out as the “protegé” of Tory politician Lord Mortimer, becoming one of the inmates of Bedlam when she gets on the wrong side of Bedlam’s manager Sims (Karloff), who imprisons her there when she threatens to get Mortimer’s Whig opposition to instigate reforms at the asylum. What’s curious is the tonal variability of the thing, kind of set even before the film starts—the music under the RKO ident graphic is rather jolly before abruptly changing to something heavier during the credits proper. Similarly, some scenes have a semi-comedic quality (particularly the stuff with Sims’ niece) of the sort Lewton’s films otherwise eschewed, and which sit ill with the much more grim business in Bedlam itself, particularly the “trial” of Sims. And the initial mystery of what exactly was Mortimer’s friend Colby doing in Bedlam (from which he gets killed trying to escape at the film’s start) seems to just get dropped as Mortimer apparently loses interest in it himself. For me at least, it didn’t really hang together as well as some of the other Lewton Nine, and it’s unfortunate that the Production Code wouldn’t let the actual Bedlam scenes be as realistic as they probably could’ve been; but I will say the good things in it do tend to be very good. Richard Fraser’s a bit wet as the Quaker stonemason, but Lee is terrific, Karloff’s obviously relishing the villainy again, and some of the lunatics are pretty good too, making the trial scene the film’s highlight; on the whole, an uneven but not uninteresting (if also sadly premature) way for Lewton to end his RKO tenure (here’s a good article on him).

Isle of the Dead (1945)

Director: Mark Robson

Conversely, this felt like one of the least interesting of the Lewton films; I don’t think I cared for it much when I first saw it however many years ago, and I didn’t care an awful lot for it tonight. This was actually the first film starring Karloff to go into production, but it shut down after just a few days owing to Karloff’s back problems; while he was recuperating, Lewton set up The Body Snatcher instead and returned to Isle once the other film was done. It’s a semi-period film again, being specifically set during the Balkan War of 1912, although that setting is essentially just background; Karloff is General Pherides, one of the leaders of the Greek army fighting for independence from the Ottomans. He, an American journalist covering the conflict, and a group of English travellers become stranded on a tiny island near the conflict when one of the English people is found to be carrying plague. Or is it something far more mythological and sinister? The DVD Verdict review hilariously observes that the film “spent its 72-minute run time looking for something scary to spook us with, and came up with some folderol about a woman in a crypt at about the 168-minute mark”; harsh, but not entirely unfair. Said review also notes that the characters are the film’s real problem, though, which is also about right; Karloff does what he can with his increasingly paranoid general but there’s not much for him to work with, and none of the other actors fare much better (though I did like one scene with Ernst Deutsch as the army doctor who confesses his medical science appears unable to beat the plague). Nothing much else really to say about this one.

The Body Snatcher (1945)

Director: Robert Wise

Back to the Val Lewton films. I did intend to cover all of these chronologically, which I’ve mostly done except, obviously, for Curse, which made sense to consider at the point I did. Where was Lewton by that point, though? Answer: in rather some difficulty. After getting off to a good start at RKO, 1944 was not his most shining year: there was the legal debacle over Ghost Ship, then the budget blowout of Curse and the befuddlement surrounding same, and the box office calamities of two non-horror films Lewton produced. Basically RKO decided he could no longer be trusted with the freedom he once had, so appointed him a new supervisor (formerly from Universal, i.e. the “enemy”) and saddled him with Boris Karloff, who was fleeing Universal as the latter’s horror productions went ever downhill and hoping RKO would do better by him.

Despite Lewton’s initial displeasure, it actually became a happy meeting of minds; Karloff enjoyed the roles he was given at RKO, while Lewton had an actual genre icon to help sell his films. In fact, for The Body Snatcher he had two such icons, the other being Bela Lugosi, and the trailer on the DVD shows how keen RKO were to exploit the combination even if it meant kind of lying about the nature of the film; they’re not actually the team the trailer implies. It’s adapted, a bit liberally, from Stevenson’s story based on the Burke & Hare killings; Karloff is the titular “resurrection man”, hunting up bodies for Henry Daniell’s doctor in 1830s Edinburgh (Lugosi plays the latter’s manservant) for him and his medical students to practise upon, and when it suddenly gets hard to dig up buried bodies, well, he’s just going to have to find some that haven’t been buried yet. Karloff rises brilliantly to the occasion cos he saw Gray as a great acting part rather than just a monster role, and he has very visible fun with it, particularly in the scenes he shares with Daniell (Gray and MacFarlane have a complex history that the two play out well). But the latter is a key figure in the film, too, carefully presenting MacFarlane as flawed rather than evil, and really placed in an impossible position; how can he do his work and teach his students without bodies to work on, and can he make the end justify the means? (One of Gray’s murders ultimately leads to MacFarlane’s eventual success with a new operation.) I found myself liking this more than I remember doing when I last saw it about ten years ago; the film benefits from Lewton’s usual careful “borrowing” of existing sets and so forth to give added production value to these low-budget jobs, particularly useful with a period piece like this, and it now looks like one of the more impressive entries in the Lewton canon.

The Ghost Ship (1943)

Director: Mark Robson

Interesting that this is the only one of the Lewton Nine not on that Top 500 Horror list. I wonder if the decades of enforced obscurity in which it languished had anything to do with that, cos it seems a bit strange that this particular one should be the only one not there. I don’t imagine it was the first film to be a box office success and accordingly attract someone trying to claim it ripped off their idea (hardly the last either, of course; James Cameron only just the other day won a plagiarism claim against Avatar), but it certainly was one of those instances where the studio lost… as such, Ghost Ship was pulled from the theatres where it had been doing quite well and spent the next 50 years going almost entirely unseen. I don’t think it was exactly revealed as a lost masterpiece upon its belated revival; a somewhat gothic tale of madness and power being abused on a cargo ship at sea that’s not actually bad by any means, but, not unlike The Leopard Man, it feels a bit “B” in a way that Seventh Victim managed not to do… Young Tom Merriam sets sail on his first voyage as 3rd officer on a ship where there’s been one odd death before he even boards and another just before he sails (I don’t think these are ever actually explained at any point); gradually he comes to realise the captain he looks up to is, well, losing his shit. Reporting him for murder to the company once on land again does no good, and, unwillingly returned to the ship, he finds himself ostracised by the crew—he really is the titular ghost—and in line to be the captain’s next victim. As I said, not bad at all, but lacking something to quite make it hit… the voiceover internal monologue of the mute Finn is kind of overdone, and the scene where the captain meets an old flame on land and talks about his understandable fear of being overtaken by madness, having seen a former captain of his own go the same way, is obviously meant to humanise him somewhat, yet somehow it didn’t work for me. It’s OK, has a few quite effective things going on, but not much more than that…

The Seventh Victim (1943)

Director: Mark Robson

So the 10th anniversary edition of the 1001 Movies book came out recently, and there were only two Lewton productions on the list; Zombie was one of the older titles knocked off in the reshuffle. This puzzled me, and a couple of other commentators too; how come Zombie got bumped but this didn’t? And, let’s be honest, I stand by that, I think the other film should’ve been retained in place of this if one had to go… but, in saying that, I also must say I liked The Seventh Victim a lot more on this revisit than I think I did when I first (and last) saw it quite a lot of years ago. Rosenbaum called it his favourite horror film, and makes the interesting speculation that the film was something of a victim of classical director-based auteurism, whereby Jacques Tourneur—who RKO had promoted to their A productions—was considered more notable than Mark Robson, who had been the editor on Tourneur’s films and whose directorial career seems to be generally considered minor. (According to the DVD commentary, RKO wanted to promote Lewton to A productions as well as Tourneur, but refused to let him assign the untried Robson to direct them, so he stayed at B level.) Anyway, as noted elsewhere, Lewton was the real auteur of these films in any case, although Robson remembered the lessons he’d learned from cutting Tourneur’s films and he was surrounded by effective help from his cast (which is great) and crew (Nicholas Musuraca behind the camera again, pulling out all the film noir stops), and he succeeds in infusing the whole thing with a quite remarkable air of menace. I’ve seen the film criticised for the weakness of the Palladist cult, that we’re supposed to find them evil just because they are devil-worshippers even though their own avowed rules leave them hamstrung about actually doing anything evil, but the whole business where they try to convince Jacqueline to kill herself (since they can’t kill her themselves) is still kind of weird and disturbing. Lewton and his films often seem to be described as death-obsessed, but The Seventh Victim is *really* haunted by it; it must’ve seemed as strange as hell in 1943. Enjoyed this much more than I expected.

The Leopard Man (1943)

Director: Jacques Tourneur

The third and last film helmed by Jacques Tourneur for Val Lewton… although does anyone actually think of Tourneur as the “auteur” of those films? Whatever. Something about this one feels oddly different to the other two films; all of Lewton’s were B productions, but something about The Leopard Man feels like one in a way the others so far didn’t… doesn’t have the same sort of sheen somehow. Maybe that’s down to the source material, a novel by Cornell Woolrich, who wasn’t exactly known as a writer of supernatural horror, and indeed this one isn’t; the others we’ve seen so far have generally been a bit ambiguous as to the nature of the goings-on in their stories, but that can’t really be said of The Leopard Man… once one of the characters suspects the film’s second killing was conducted by a human rather than the leopard that did the first one, we kind of know that’s what’s going on; there’s no supernatural agency involved. To be honest, I’d actually completely forgotten what The Leopard Man was about until I watched it again… via Wiki I found this article, which makes an interesting case for the film as one of the first serial killer movies (while giving Woolrich credit as the author of the original novel for its consideration of the killer’s victims as people rather than just Expendable Meat) and noting how out there such a thing would’ve appeared to audiences in 1943. And I suppose, however dubious a reason that might be to accord the film a place in history, it’s worth remembering it for that… but, to be honest, even on rewatching I still didn’t find much actually memorable about it; it seemed kind of nondescript to me in a way the other films haven’t so far… I may have found Curse a bit dull, but I still concede it’s a really nice production, whereas this one actually does just look as cheap as all of Lewton’s films were, strangely obvious studio exteriors, kind of ho-hum acting, all that. Not big on this one.

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