12 October 2015

More Karloff, Chaney, and Wolfy

More Karloff, Chaney, and Wolfy!
by Kristin Battestella

Horror fans and lovers of all things October can never have enough mid century Boris Karloff, silent Lon Chaney scares, or early werewolf mayhem now can we? 

The Climax – Susanna Foster (Phantom of the Opera) and Turhan Bey (The Amazing Mr. X) join Boris Karloff – in color! – for this 1944 Universal moody meets musical originally envisaged as a would be sequel to their too successful not to capitalize upon it 1943 Phantom of the Opera. Though the voices are too soft compared to the bombastic notes and the production connections are apparent in the reused stage sets, the grandiose, gilded opera house fits well with the behind the curtain dusty and suspicious as the blurred frame and warped design accent the bittersweet turned deadly flashback from lovelorn theatre physician Karloff. Why, examine the lovely diva's throat, you say? I think not! While few in number, the frilly, slightly overlong and probably unnecessary full song and dance productions won't be for those who dislike operatic vocals nor audiences expecting all horror. Ironically, the score isn't very striking, and if this wasn't going to be Phantom of the Opera Part Deux, the musical elements should have been removed altogether in favor of Karloff's worth seeing creepy. Typical temperamental divas, usurping ingenues in love, an incompetent opera manager, and more plot points are too immediately Phantom obvious. If viewers don't know the aborted sequel history, this all appears like a conspicuous knockoff, and ultimately, the result is a mixed motivated picture that feels like two films squashed into one. The menacing story seems thin, stretched out to avoid interfering with the musical formula, which in turn detracts from the quality Karloff villainy. I like classic musicals, however the macabre start with a brooding Karloff and the ghostly shadows of his prima donna past belie the song segments that sag without him. Big B's alarming obsessions and possessive plans are simply better thanks to extreme up close shots, hypnotic light machines, killer pearls, and damaging vocal tonics. There's a predatory simmer, a subtle, slick calculation, and despite the identity crisis, this tale does go out on a high note. Literally.

The Monster – The silent mayhem in this 1925 horror comedy starts with well done car mishaps, a milkman eloping with another man’s wife, and deducing amateur detectives along with a variety of intertitles, newspapers, book passages, and handwritten notes. Great style, catchy tunes, dance scenes, and period dynamite for the twenties enthusiast will help forgive what may seem like unnecessary to and fro or lighthearted rambling. Intended horror audiences may think this humor takes too long away from the scares, but fortunately, a dark forest, stormy atmosphere, thunderous sound effects, spooky music, and one Lon Chaney drastically change the tone from slapstick to suspense. The tale truly begins with this creepy, trapped in a near-abandoned sanitarium situation, and freaky visuals, eerie figures, excellent shadows, and simmering movements heighten Chaney’s wonderful introduction – complete with a sophisticated, long stem cigarette but sinister, pasty facade. Hidden passages, trap doors, dumbwaiters, and poisoned drinks move the somewhat thin plot from one scare piece to the next twisted experiment without much explanation until the final twenty minutes. At a time when the average film was only an hour, the eighty minutes here may seem overlong and not everyone will enjoy that humorous but misleading start. Thankfully, wild tightrope action and electric chair havoc make for a fine finish, and early horror fans will enjoy spotting our modern horror frameworks and frightful clich├ęs here in their film infancy.

The Strange Door – Charles Laughton (The Private Life of Henry VIII) joins Our Man Boris for this black and white 1951 Universal co-production based upon the ye olde Robert Louis Stevenson source, and the carriages, tricorn hats, French flair, and bawdy pub follow suit in setting the chase. Behind that eponymous one way entry lies a perfectly macabre chateau well designed with shadows and lighting schemes alongside rumors of past torture, gruesome experiments, and the not what he seems servant Karloff spying within the walls and guarding a would be mad brother. The family drama is somewhat slow to start with the names and history not immediately revealed, but the much lauded Laughton does some surprisingly fun scene chewing as this jealous monsieur plots an unhealthy marriage for his niece, smoothly threatens to get his way with a handy hot poker, and carefully crafts an ominous, long brewing approach to his revenge. The captive angst and forced nuptials are not horror per se, but this quality is nonetheless icky, and the gluttonous higher ups give servants the scraps as though they were dogs and use any shared villainy about them in gaining the upper hand. Let's amuse ourselves by visiting the dungeons! Disposed of suitors, young romance, and a subtly implied innuendo don't leave much room for Karloff however, there are enough twists and turnabout deceptions to disrupt the long gestating cruel plans. Whom do you trust in this crazy locked house? At times, the eighty minutes seem uneven or a touch confusing and unsure if this is going to be a purely dramatic tale or full on scary. Thankfully, the fight scenes, daring escapes, and dangerous waterworks create a suspenseful finale to match the performances by the elder statesmen. I love the ladies looks and the pleasant period flavor, and it might be nice to see this story revisited in truly colorful and scary fashion.

Wolf Blood – This 1925 silent hour plus is the earliest remaining onscreen lycanthrope picture, complete with Canadian flavor, old fashioned logging, spooky forestry, railroads, and jealous love triangles to match the desperate titular transfusion and its would be consequences. A befitting green hue graces the outdoor scenes while standard black and white reflects the bleak interiors and golden tints accentuate the high society parties. The focus is blurry at times, the print understandably jumps, and the music is surprisingly loud. However, the rounded iris close ups add a dreamlike quality, and the vintage jazz tunes and period fashions are a real treat. If you're looking for a time capsule logging documentary, this is it! Flirtations, camp injuries, company rivalries, drunken dangers, and medical debates give the first half of the picture a purely dramatic pace, but the wolfy fears, mob mentality, and deadly possibilities build in the latter half. Fantastic medicine, superstitious leaps, dreams of becoming the wolf – this isn't a werewolf film as we know it but the key pieces are here. How fast people turn on you once you have wolf's blood! The wolf footage is also quite nice, with what looks like real mixed wolf or husky dogs. No, there is no werewolf transformation and it's all a bit of a fake out in that regard, but the community fears and early man versus beast melodrama is still fun to see.

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