19 November 2013

Another Early Horror Helping!

More Early Horror Thrillers and Mayhem!
By Kristin Battestella

Monsters, mystery, and macabre strike again in this quick helping of yesteryear stars and scares from those wartime decades!

Fear in the Night – It’s Bones himself!  A very young Deforest Kelley (Star Trek) stars in this 1947 mind bending film noir about a man who’s murderous dream seem to imitate real life. Adapted from the story “Nightmare” by Cornell Woolrich, great, moody suspense music, bizarre dream-esque effects, symbolism, mirrors, and camera tricks match the blurred mind versus reality plots and investigations. This doesn’t feel low budget so much as old – which is fine – although the internal monologue narration is indeed dated. It’s surprising to see some of the heavy topics discussed here, including suicide and infidelity, considering they don’t dare use the word pregnant! Thankfully, classic trench coats, fedoras, period styles, cars, cigarettes, and one stormy night cap off the budding suspense. Kelley’s desperation keeps the 70 minutes fast moving. His Vince has the required everyman likability, but there’s doubt and unreliability for good measure. The support, however – especially the ladies – is a bit typical and largely unaware or unsympathetic of his plight – it’s just stress! The atmosphere here feels very Twilight Zone, but the 1956 remake Nightmare starring Edward G. Robinson doesn’t seem available on DVD. Pity.  

Ghost of Frankenstein – Lon Chaney, Jr. (The Wolf Man) dons the bolts instead of Karloff for this 1942 fourth entry in the Universal franchise and thanks to strategic make up and minimal up close shots, Chaney’s Monster looks pretty darn good. His sympathetic yet violent morality or immorality and misunderstandings versus the high cost of science keeps the film’s focus on thoughts more than scares, but Bela Lugosi’s (Dracula) Ygor is still up to his villainous tricks as he takes his taking advantage of the Monster on the road. Of course, the timeline and series connections here are all over the place – Ygor has miraculously survived the events of Son of Frankenstein, and yet another son Cedric Hardwicke (The Ten Commandments) is playing fast and loose with the family mayhem. When did the original Dr. Frankenstein have time to have all these as needed sons anyway?  Lionel Atwill also returns (and will subsequently appear three more times in the series) and I’d like to think Evelyn Ankers’ (also of The Wolf Man) Elsa is named in homage to Elsa Lanchester, but these repeated plots, clips from the previous films, and the reused cast expose the step down in production values along with the cool but cheap and out of place Art Deco sets. Fortunately, this great, multi faceted cast makes for a tense hour of legacy, betrayal, medical twists, and murder, and if nothing else, this quick little episode is worth a look if only to see Chaney tackle this iconic Karloff role. But what is it with these torch carrying angry mobs?   

Juggernaut – No less suave Karloff’s running out of time but plenty good and angry about his research funds being cut off in this 1936 hour. Of course, the print quality and sound are poor, but sinister music and silent styled orchestrations set the mad scientist mood. Though the ladies’ vocal deliveries are of the time nasal and uppity annoying, the opening Morocco scenes are not stereotypical – I think I saw a real camel in there! The fancy interwar French Riviera casino designs, dancing, elegance, and furs are neat to see against the evil doctoring, too. Granted, the similarities to other laboratory tales are apparent, the people and locales are confusing to start, and scenes away from Big K are standard. This is not the horror or wild, fantastic science of the day, but rather melodramatic suspense over wills, trophy wives, and a missing syringe. Once the poison plots and pay offs happen, however, tension and twists mount for a surprising for the era finish. It’s over the top and ill paced, but it’s easy to indulge this quick hour just for Karloff. 

The Seventh Victim – The adorable Kim Hunter (Planet of the Apes, A Streetcar Named Desire) debuts in this 1943 satanic noir from producer Val Lewton (Cat People) and keeps the mystery vulnerable and personal as she searches for her troubled sister Jean Brooks (The Leopard Man). Great fashions, hats, mid century mannerisms, and old time coppers further set the mood – along with gentlemen in tuxedoes and top hats bringing dead bodies onto the otherwise clean and pleasant subway! Editor turned director Mark Robson (Peyton Place) accents every painting-like frame with excellent black and white photography, shadows, and lighting schemes. Early religious chorales and period singing add a sense of homely and spiritual comfort before the chilling conversations through blurred shower curtains rebuff the Hayes Code. It is tough to tell who is who sometimes and political hints are apparent in some scenes more than others, but the hour and ten here moves swiftly as the investigation mounts. Suspense builds thanks to ticking clocks, sinister piano sounds, and mysterious locked rooms – this satanic cult is so fashionable and soft spoken that it makes their high rise meetings and deadly threats all the more creepy. Though it does seem as if some plots are quickly told or left on the cutting room floor, the unknown to the audience layering ups the simmering atmosphere and makes room for the twists. Most of the picture keeps the outright occult material under wraps, too; however, the search, mystery, scary symbols, and ahead of their time revelations provide intense entertainment here. 

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