More Forties Mystery and Mayhem!
By Kristin Battestella
Science run amok, family monsters, mistaken identity, mystery, and murder abounds in these wartime tales inspired by classic literatures and period macabre.
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde – Spencer Tracy (Boys Town), Ingrid Bergman (Casablanca), and Lana Turner (Peyton Place) star in this loose 1941 Robert Louis Stevenson adaptation from director Victor Fleming (Gone with the Wind), itself a remake of the 1931 Fredric March award winner. Though available on DVD sets with its predecessor, the heavy-handed religion good and science bad Hayes Code restrictions here hamper the supposedly scandalous talk of whether the soul is in the realm of science or spirit. The slow, talkative start, dated abstract ideals, and dramatic pacing tell the audience about these radical experiments rather than showing the medical dangers. The design also isn’t as impressive as we might expect, for black and white photography and small set pieces don’t illume all the possible Victorian grandeur. Quick animal testings and laboratory montages represent the science fiction while the up close transformations and intimate camerawork remains on the earnest but out of place Tracy– he ironically looks kind of goofy and doesn’t seem all that different as Hyde. Bergman adds some much needed sassy intrigue, and it’s pleasing to see one normally so demure go from saucy and streetwise to submissive and scared thanks to Hyde. Unfortunately, Turner doesn’t have much to do as the suffering fiancée, and her charming society chaste counter balance isn’t well developed. Escalating violence and bemusing dream sequences of the two women, lotus flowers rising, whipping racing horses, and bottle corks popping do much better with the innuendo. We never get the horror depravity one hopes with this tale thanks to the straightforward presentation and fade to black tame, but it’s nonetheless fun to see just for the classic stars going freaky.
The Invisible Man Returns – Smoky atmosphere, great décor, execution tensions, and reprieve desperation start this 1940 sequel featuring a young Vincent Price as the eponymously afflicted. There’s some confusion in how this plot ties in with the 1933 film but the familial connections are explained soon enough. Objects move by themselves thanks to the invisible tricks and the neat see through effects hold up well along with Scotland Yard investigations, a fun laboratory, innocent romance, and elaborate plans. Animal experiment scenes, however, are bittersweet, and Price’s voice is a bit muffled when under wraps for the fainting ladies. His voice isn’t the raspy smooth, mature sound we love, either, but the invisible science debates and ethical questions amid the escalating violence are intriguing. Why look for a cure when the madness is so much fun? A touch of social commentary, a wronged man, an 80-minute built in ticking clock, and a race for an antidote forgive some bumbling cop work and the cliché, hammy colloquialisms, and there’s a wild, dirty, factory finish. But I’m not going to tell you if we see the young, debonair Vincent, hah!
The Undying Monster – Great ominous music sets the mood along with family curses, stately but sinister seaside locales, tolling bells, barking dogs, and turn of the 19th century styles for this 1942 hour. Gas lamps, old time phones, and period laboratories accent the conversational delivery – which isn’t your typical monster exposition. Foreboding uses of shadows and light, up close camera attacks, and wolf howls keep the action moving while a comical older lady, on the case Scotland Yard, and meddling help are smartly utilized. Beware, there is one scene of canine faint, but this leads to intriguing self-aware discussions on the supernatural versus science and ancestral indiscretions like selling one’s soul to the devil. No one wants to believe what’s happening, and as such, the pleasant horror tone takes a backseat to a proactive who done the violence mystery. The ensemble, however, adds well done banter, antagonism, agendas, and evidence. The scares are wisely used as needed, and the time here doesn’t seem so short thanks to a fun action pursuit finish. This is a well put together little eerie, and I sincerely wonder why contemporary horror films just can’t take everything done right here and maximize all the gothic atmosphere and glory.
The Woman in White –The late Eleanor Parker (The Sound of Music) shines amidst the top hats, frilly collars, carriages, white capes, flowing skirts, and asylum escapes in this spooky but alluring 1948 adaptation of the Wilkie Collins novel. Lovely interiors, telescopic effects, camera tricks, black and white photography, and shadowy lighting designs accentuate the titular figure whilst moving candlelight and brimming fog layer the cemeteries and outdoor scenery. The opening and closing narration and tacked on whimsy feel amiss, and there are some hammy characters and melodramatic over acting. However, Parker is doubly charming, and the ill at ease, mistaken identity and family secrets blend well with the budding romantic triangles. A perfectly scheming Sydney Greenstreet (The Maltese Falcon) adds to the suspicions and Agnes Moorehead (Bewitched) drops an intriguing tidbit or two. Granted, several dated plot points may be amusing – a 2-year engagement is considered urgent? A distant relative institutionalized is scandalous? Fortunately, plot twists increase as the mystery, tension, secret passages, and creepy escalates. The audience is forced to pay attention and seek out the subtleties – even if you’re familiar with the story; this version remains fun to watch as all the switcharoos unfold.
One to Skip
The Invisible Woman – Following The Invisible Man Returns, this 1940 double bill is slow to start with anonymous humor and lighthearted talk of money and loveable, hair brained professors. Let’s put an ad in the paper seeking someone who wants to become invisible! The get back at her nasty boss reason for our supposedly so ballsy and beautiful lady applicant – a model aptly named Kitty – is weak, and the invisibility making machine instead of the previous potions is mostly an unexplained MacGuffin. Beyond Wicked Witch of the West Margaret Hamilton and Stooge Shemp Howard, the sassy house staff is annoying and the numerous coming and going people all look the same. Fun laboratories and experiment effects are pleasing along with the softer, melodic scoring. However, the feminine spins seem wasted on scaring off jerks and clothes off or on innuendo. Crooks are after the invisibility machine, there’s somebody named Foghorn, bad Mexican jokes, and the slapstick – eh, I stopped caring and went to clean my tub drain instead. This is harmless fun and dated girl power if you like forties comedy, but it unfortunately doesn’t match the fantastic dilemmas of its predecessors and replaces them with 70 minutes of overlong and loosely tied platitudes.