Early Mystery and Mayhem Treats
By Kristin Battestella
The 1930s and 40s provide an abundance of quickie B pictures ranging the crime, thriller, mystery, and horror genres. Though often obvious, unintentionally humorous, not that scary, and flawed due to off the time filmmaking and old age wear and tear, these movies are enjoyable little time capsules nonetheless.
Crimes at the Dark House – Inspired by The Woman in White, this 1940 hour has loud, snap, crackle, and pop sound accenting the focus on Tod Slaughter’s (Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street) debauchery and would be fraud. The bludgeonings, theft, and assumed identity happen quickly, but the fortune doesn’t come so easy thanks to the usual stuffy old ladies, scheming lawyers, and blackmailing doctors. Enough carriages, costumes, well-dressed sets, and Victorian flair forgive the anachronistic bobs on some of the damsels, and the instructing the chambermaid in her bedroom duties innuendo is interesting. The ladies here must do as their masters’ wish, and oft Slaughter director George King uses the fast, intense dialogue to keep the illicit relationships, lecherous personality, and plot twists moving. How far is this charade going to go? What’s going to happen next? Perhaps the story is predictable for today’s audiences, but we’re more interested in seeing Slaughter’s Percival succeed in his ruse – more so because his distracters are just as devious. Although there is a rush and quick finish due to the short run time, shadowed, ghostly figures and a scary death or two set off the built-in risk of discovery suspense, and plenty of action throughout makes for an entertaining little piece.
The Drums of Jeopardy – It’s tough to tell who is who amid over the top gesturing actresses, sarcastic dames with guns, and one cranky old lady – not to mention the flat black and white video quality and jumping sound in this 1931hour-plus based upon the novel of the same name. There are difficult to read inter-title styled letters and telegrams, too, but when Warner Orland’s (Charlie Chan) mad and vengeful doctor is bemusingly named ‘Boris Karlov,’ viewers are going to tune in just for the novelty alone. Fun early laboratory designs and effects are also so Art Deco or post-Edwardian that the style almost feels Steampunk when watching today. Goggles, flashing lights, lightning, wind effects, and smoking beakers amid the Victorian suits and décor go a long way when fog and darkness make the primitive train, boat, and fight scenes difficult to see. Early heist and adventure film design also take shape thanks to a Bolshevik Revolution escape, Secret Service intrigue, and the eponymous stolen rubies being used as revenge calling cards. Yes, the required heroic couple and other clichés are goofy now, the inevitable coppers are on the investigation, this isn’t horror by any means, and the entire tale should be better than it is. However, a good looking restored print might do wonders in setting off the revenge, crime, mood as the initial saucy suggestions, budding spooky atmosphere, and suspense in wondering who the crazed doctor is going to get next and how make for an intriguing little mystery.
The Mummy’s Hand – Be he curse protector or resurrection accomplice, George Zucco (Dead Men Walk) is slick as ever in this 67 minute 1940 Universal sort of sequel that’s otherwise lacking in the expected Mummy stars such as Karloff or Lon Chaney, Jr. These different characters create more remake than follow up feelings, and after awhile, these Mummy films do seem somewhat the same anyway. There’s a little too much humor and bumbling rivalries away from the titular action for this installment to be scary, too. Who has the money for the expedition? Who doesn’t want the archaeology to happen? What’s pretty daughter Peggy Moran (King of the Cowboys) doing pointing a gun at folks? Wallace Ford (The Rogue’s Tavern) is also an unnecessarily fast talking swindler sidekick for by the numbers Dick Foran (The Petrified Forest), and the then-modern Cairo pre-war styles and colloquialisms slow the plot down when there’s no time to waste. Fortunately, despite the black and white photography, the opening Egyptian flashback provides the expected regalia and spooky curses. Perhaps this entry is typical or nondescript in itself, but its fun for a classic marathon. When we finally do get to the tomb robbing action and Tom Tyler (The Adventures of Captain Marvel) as the murderously lurking about Kharis, this becomes a pleasant little viewing with a wild finish.
The Shadow – Audiences today may find talk of $200 as outrageous bribery, well, outrageous, but it’s surprising to see such frank depression era financial blackmail, disgraces, and suicide shockers in these 70 minutes from 1933. The blacked out screens and gunshots won’t scare modern audiences, yet the unseen vigilante and the titular fog, effects, and tricks don’t look that bad. Certainly, the haughty RP voice supposedly coming from the silhouette is bemusing, but the simple shadows against the wall and dark figure camera blocking make the viewer pay attention. Of course, the poor print quality doesn’t make it easy to see all the delightful mansion décor and period fashions nor read the newspaper text and the standard spinning headlines. The editing is dull and plodding, too, and otherwise fine suspense music is seemingly misplaced over the wrong empty scenes. Exposition, Scotland Yard idiocy, and time away from The Shadow can be tedious as well. However, there is a reason to the who is who, stiff upper lip men, and tea timing ladies – anyone learning how to do a cliché Brit caricature can get plenty of ideas here! Despite distracting, annoying people, we want to know who’s behind the veil. How will each of our victims fall and why? Though not new, this is an interesting concept, and I wonder if there are modern films that could be so crafty and not show anything but the killer’s fedora. This one will be tough to get thru for hyper audiences, but seeing it to the end for the killer’s reveal is worth the wait. In fact, this one should be watched at least twice just for the Clue-esque clues.
Crimes at the Dark House is also available on Hulu, while The Drums of Jeopardy can be found on Internet Archive, and The Shadow is at Pub D Hub.