Forties Frights Again!
By Kristin Battestella
Who’s ready for more mystery, mayhem, scares, and suspense from that silver screen wartime decade?!
The Black Raven – George Zucco (Scared to Death) leads this 1943 crime and creepy hotel hour, and lots of rainy, dreary atmosphere accompanies the shady ensemble of fast talking, cracking wise crooks. We only have 60 minutes and yet the action starts slow as we’re introduced to each of the washed out, stranded cast. It’s nice, but we don’t have enough time for this meet and greet, and ironically, it’s tough to tell who is who once everyone’s done up in their dark rain slickers anyway. The caper colloquialisms may be tough to hear or understand today as well, and the great thundery soundtrack and fright opportunities don’t always come across or get as scary as they could be. Of course, there are some poor production values, and yet, there’s some fun to be had here, too. The fedoras, trench coats, and frocks add a classic mood, and the plot thickens as the big money goes missing and our guests get pushed down the basement steps. It’s all kind of silly, but nonetheless fun to watch on a scary family movie night. Who’s the murder and who’s next? Somebody close the door to those deadly stairs!
The Fall of the House of Usher – There’s not a lot of information available on this elusive 1949 British adaptation of Poe’s famously flawed siblings. The opening here is weird, with Brit pimps in their boys club chatting up their Poe favorites. When the story moves into the tale itself, however, solid dialogue from the book, lovely period décor, and bizarre designs put on the right demented atmosphere. Piano interludes, candlelight, unique photography, and one very creepy crazy mama add to the fun. Yes, today’s audiences may feel the plot meanders a bit with seeming slow or quiet scenes. Fortunately, the fade-in editing, ticking clocks, and slow burning wicks encapsulate the tomb-like mood. This actually does what an adaptation should do- I want to go read the source again! It’s a bit dry, but this one is worth the Poe study or classroom comparison for the scares and macabre it gets right.
The Fatal Hour and Doomed to Die – The fourth and fifth films in the Mr. Wong series starring Boris Karloff aren’t scary or really even horror pictures by any means. So, either any forties murder mystery was considered horrific at the time or his association with fright is just that strong, for these two Wong tales appear in numerous Karloff compilations and free domain horror sets. Fatal starts slow as Wong is officially unofficially on the case while fast talking dames and inept fuzz inhibit his investigation. And let’s not forget those Asian stereotypes! The men somehow all look the same, and it’s tough to tell the cops and robbers apart until Karloff tells it like it is. Wong is actually a very smart detective, and solid music and suspense build nicely as the crime mounts. Though the pace is tight and the drama proceeds accordingly, Die is a run of the mill murder caper further overshadowed by its stereotypical makeup and the series’ inappropriate premise. The scenes without Big Boris are laden with colloquialisms and procedures, and the plot itself isn’t very interesting compared to BK’s classy detective style. Despite the racial errors, Karloff is no less impressive in creating the Wong character and deducing the crime. Like the Fu Manchu pictures, sociologists might enjoy a Wong analysis, and fans of Karloff can delight.
Voodoo Man – A goat tee sporting Bela Lugosi is up to his no good with mad scientist wonders and resurrection debauchery alongside John Carradine and George Zucco in this 1944 touch of zombie tale. It’s a poor print and the sets are somewhat drab, but nice music, candles, and rituals with plenty of shadows and mood lighting accent the ominous detours, kidnappings, and motorist mayhem. The cars are cool, too, and the gals in white make the otherwise laughable voodoo set ups almost beautiful. Despite his Merciless Ming get up, Lugosi’s accent isn’t thick here and he still has the suave to make the dames do his bidding. I dare say his Dr. Marlow is even sympathetic in his quest for his lost wife. There’s some subtle humor to match the surprisingly not dated dialogue as well, although the Hollywood write me a scary story frame is corny thanks to lines like “Get that actor Bela Lugosi, it’s right up his alley!” Yes, this may feel similar to a lot of other Lugosi flicks, but fortunately, the pleasant performances and good hour long pacing keep the clichéd hocus pocus fun.