Friday, 6 December 2013
An Anglo-American space mission is about to blast off, its destination the newly discovered 13th moon of Jupiter, believed to be the only place in the solar system capable of supporting life as we know it. The mission is led by American scientist Luther Blair (Anthony Dexter) and British scientist Dr Higgins (Sydney Tafler).
After surviving the inevitable meteor storm the spacecraft reaches the 13th moon. There is obviously life here since our astronauts are given landing instructions. Luckily the inhabitants of this distant satellite speak perfect English. Even more luckily this moon turn out to have an atmosphere identical to Earth’s. It is also covered in vegetation that is indistinguishable from that found in the part of England where the outdoor scenes were shot, thus saving the producers from having to spend any money at all on special effects.
After landing the astronauts save an attractive young woman (we learn later that her name is Hestia) from the attentions of a fearsome monster. This monster has been terrorising the inhabitants of the planet.
But who are the inhabitants of the 13th moon of Jupiter? It transpires that they are the last survivors of Atlantis. When it became obvious that Atlantis was about to sink beneath the waves the Atlanteans did the obvious thing and hopped aboard their spaceship (which they just happened to have) and headed for Jupiter.
There aren’t very many of them. There is one old man named Prasus (Owen Berry) and about a dozen young women. Prasus refers to them as his daughters but this is true only in a figurative sense. As the father of his country he regards all Atlanteans as his children.
Since there are only a dozen or so women on the moon, and only one elderly man, it’s not surprising that the women become completely man-crazy when they meet our astronauts. The Earth astronauts will have to fend off the advances of the man-hungry Atlantean girls while finding a way to deal with the monster, not to mention the rather deranged Prasus.
Naturally there is a romance sub-plot as Luther Blair and Hestia fall for each other, only to attract the jealous spite of Duessa who feel that as the oldest of the girls she should have first pick of any available men. Her jealousy may cause poor Hestia to be sacrificed to the gods.
It’s all rather less interesting than it sounds. There’s enough plot for a half-hour film so the 73-minute running time is padded out with a lot of aimless running about and some extended sequences in which the fire maidens (we never find out why they are supposed to be fire maidens) dance interminably.
The acting is as Z-grade as everything else. Susan Shaw’s performance as Hestia is do extraordinarily blank that it provides much of the movie’s unintended humour.
We are told that the monster is a kind of Neanderthal. Which leads us to wonder why, if he is so primitive, he is wearing clothes. The answer is of course obvious. The producers were not willing to spend the money (in fact they probably didn’t have the money) on a rubber monster suit. So they made do with some less than impressive facial makeup. Whenever the monster appears on camera our view of him is obscured as much as possible, an understandable enough ploy since this is not a monster that will stand close scrutiny.
This is clearly a movie made on the proverbial shoestring budget and one can’t help admiring Cy Roth’s gall and the shameless way in which he cuts every possible corner. Such special effects as this movie boasts look like they involved the expenditure of a few shillings at the nearest Woolworths. The only real expense would seem to have been providing the Atlantean girls with their rather short tunics. Roth doesn’t even bother offering a pseudoscientific explanation for the fact that the spacecraft has gravity when it shouldn’t. One suspects he just didn’t care.
The basic idea of astronauts reaching another planet only to find it inhabited by man-hungry women inspired many sc-fi films in the 50s, some of them rather entertaining (the gloriously camp Queen of Outer Space being the best). Fire Maidens of Outer Space is the most feeble of them all.
Olive Films have decided that this movie is so significant that they have not only released it on DVD but on Blu-Ray as well. The DVD, which is the version reviewed here, is entirely bereft of extras. The transfer is passable.
Fire Maidens of Outer Space may provide some enjoyment in a so-bad-it’s-good way but I would strongly urge prospective purchasers to rent it first before risking their money. The movie’s limited camp appeal is its only asset and there are plenty of other similar movies that do this sort of thing in an infinitely more enjoyable way.
Tuesday, 3 December 2013
This underrated Stoker novel would be adapted by Hammer Films the following year as Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb.
A prominent Egyptologist named Trelawny (Graham Crowden) is found in his house in a state of collapse. He appears to be clinging to life by the slenderest of threads. Curiously enough he has left strict and detailed instructions to be followed in the event of just such an attack.
Dr Malcolm Ross (Patrick Mower) and Sergeant Daw (Murray Hayne) are persuaded by Trelawny’s daughter Margaret (Isobel Black), somewhat against their better judgments, to comply with Trelawny’s instructions.
Trelawny has an extensive collection of ancient Egyptian artifacts, including a mummy which he believes to be that of the notorious Egyptian Queen Tera, a queen with a reputation for practising black magic. Margaret Trelawny bears a striking resemblance to the dead queen.
It transpires that Trelawny has hopes of restoring Queen Tera to life, a plan that may have consequences that the Egyptologist has not foreseen.
Thames obviously could not spend anywhere near as much as Hammer would spend on their feature film version but they did a reasonably good job. It does have a very studio-bound feel but that in some ways works in its favour, creating a sense of claustrophobic menace. The episode was shot in colour and looks quite handsome.
John Russell Taylor’s script sticks fairly close to the novel. The episode benefits from some fine acting. Isobel Black looks suitably exotic and does very well in her dual role (events from Queen Tera’s life being told in flashback). The underrated Patrick Mower is effective as the courageous doctor who finds himself falling under Margaret Trelawny’s spell. Or is he falling under Queen Tera’s spell? Graham Crowden overacts, as he always did, and does so to fine effect.
Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb was one of Hammer’s best gothic horror movies. While Curse of the Mummy isn’t in the same league it still stands up quite well and is most certainly worth a look. Recommended.
Sunday, 1 December 2013
Sir Ronald Burton (Richard Greene) is an 18th century British adventurer. In Africa he had foiled the plans of the power-mad Count Karl von Bruno (Stephen McNally). Now two of Burton’s friends who had been with him in Africa have disappeared. They were last seen in the vicinity of the Count’s castle in Germany and Burton suspects the Count has imprisoned or (more likely) murdered them in revenge. Burton sets off for von Bruno’s castle to discover the fate of his friends.
He soon makes the acquaintance of some of von Bruno’s friends. And a vicious and unsavoury lot they are, particularly the smooth but sinister Count Ernst von Melcher (Michael Pate). On reaching the castle he initially finds no evidence of his friends but his suspicions grow even stronger. The wife of von Bruno, Countess Elga von Bruno (Rita Corday), is obviously a very unhappy woman and Burton finds himself drawn to her, a fact that rather unfortunately soon becomes known to the Count. Burton will eventually discover more from the rather disreputable Dr Meissen (Boris Karloff). But can he trust the doctor?
Burton’s major problem is that while he is finding out more about von Bruno’s sinister activities the Count is finding out more about him. If the Count makes the connection between his unhappy experiences in Africa and Burton then the Englishman’s life is going to be in serious jeopardy, to say the least. Burton is brave and resourceful but his only real allies are Countess Elga (who is likely to land him in a great deal of trouble since he is most probably going to have to do something to save her) and Dr Meissen, whose motivations are highly ambiguous.
The Black Castle is never in danger of getting bogged down. The story moves along briskly and is liberally peppered with action, narrow escapes, thrills, and some genuine chills as well.
The general feel of this movie is very close that of The Strange Door, made a year earlier by Universal. That’s not surprising since both movies were scripted (and very competently scripted) by Jerry Sackheim and photographed by Irving Glassberg. One thing that this movies makes very clear is that Universal had not lost their touch when it came to creating gothic atmosphere on celluloid. Glassberg’s black-and-white cinematography is superb. The costumes are as lush as you’d expect in a picture (even a low-budget picture) from a major studio picture and the sets pile on the gothic atmosphere even thicker. In one or two scenes the sets look slightly familiar, suggesting they were left over and reworked from The Strange Door.
Nathan Juran’s success as a B-movie director was based on his ability to get the job done on time and on budget but he manages to do it with a certain flair here.
Horror fans will be disappointed to find that Boris Karloff is relegated to a supporting role. The good news is that when he finally gets a chance to do something he does it well. Lon Chaney Jr’s career followed the same sort of trajectory as Bela Lugosi’s a decade earlier - stardom coming suddenly and spectacularly followed by a precipitous and never-ending decline. Chaney has little to do here but look menacing, which he does well enough.
There’s no subtlety to Stephen McNally’s performance as the villain. Nor should there be. This is pure adventure and McNally quite rightly goes all out to make von Bruno a classic and rather scary and formidable and totally diabolical villain. Evil sadistic henchman roles were meat and drink to Australian character actor Michael Pate and this time he’s landed a substantial part and he’s in great form, even managing to match Stephen McNally in the maniacal laughter department.
It’s Richard Greene who is the star here. English-born Greene’s film career never amounted to much although he was destined for major fame (and riches) on television back in Britain as Robin Hood. Swashbuckling roles were what he did best and he makes a fine hero in this outing.
Rita Corday (billed here as Paula Corday) is the heroine and turns in a solid performance.
Both this movie and The Strange Door are actually rather better than most of Universal’s 1940s horror/thriller movies. It may not have been a big production but it’s obvious that everyone involved put as much as they could into it. Every actor is perfectly cast and there are no weak links. In fact there are really no weaknesses at all to this movie - it all comes together in a very satisfactory and entertaining manner. And to make things even better there’s no tedious comic relief!
Despite Karloff’s relegation to a supporting role Universal decided to include this movie in their excellent Boris Karloff Collection DVD set. It was not only a shrewd move by Universal, it’s also one for which they are to be commended. If the Karloff name was the selling point they needed to justify releasing this movie on DVD then I have no problems with that - this is a terrific movie that thoroughly deserves to be available on DVD. The transfer is superb as well.
The Black Castle is a stylish, extremely well-made and exceptionally enjoyable gothic adventure movie laced with some genuine horror moments and I have no hesitation in recommending it very highly indeed.
Wednesday, 27 November 2013
By the mid-60s it was becoming obvious that the Hollywood Production Code was no longer viable and it was replaced by a ratings system. As an afterthought the Motion Picture Association of America added an additional rating, the “X” rating. For various reasons (possibly to do with their reluctance to be seen as active censors) the “X” rating was unofficial and left to the discretion of distributors.
At the same time it was becoming obvious that sooner or later sex was going to break out into mainstream movies. Plenty of movies had dealt with sex obliquely or peripherally but eventually it was going to be dealt with directly. Sex is too interesting a part of the human experience to be shunted off to one side indefinitely.
Although it was most certainly not their intention, in retrospect it is clear that the MPAA’s “X” rating had finally opened the door. In 1968 two American sexploitation movies would begin the process of kicking that door wide open - Russ Meyer’s Vixen and Joe Sarno’s Inga.
Something that wasn’t clear at the time was that if a film-maker was going to tackle sex directly and intelligently that film-maker was more likely to come from the shadowy world of the grindhouses rather than from the mainstream. In general mainstream movie-makers, both then and now, had the unfortunate tendency to take sex much too seriously and try to make it much too arty. They also were never going to be able to realise that if you want to make a movie about sex it has to be genuinely erotic. A movie about sex that lacks an erotic charge is like a movie about romance that isn’t romantic, or a suspense movie that isn’t suspenseful. Inga in fact provides the basic template for all future serious movies about sex - it has a strong narrative structure (a feature that always distinguished Sarno’s exploitation movies), it’s very character-driven, the emphasis is on sex as an emotional experience and it’s sexy without being tacky. And, not surprisingly, it made a great deal of money.
The setup is typically Sarno. We have an emotional/sexual situation that seems stable but is in reality a ticking bomb, and then someone comes along and lights the fuse.
Greta (Monica Strömmerstedt) is a 33-year-old widow who has been having a somewhat one-sided relationship with a much younger man named Karl (Casten Lassen). Karl is an aspiring writer. He is selfish, self-centred and shallow but he is also young and very good-looking. Greta is hopelessly in love with him. Karl is very fond of Greta’s money. Unfortunately Greta is nowhere near as wealthy as she would like Karl to think. In fact she is partly dependent financially on her late husband’s friends Einar Nilsson (Thomas Ungewitter) and Einar’s sister Sigrid (Sissi Kaiser). Karl is a very expensive boy-toy to maintain and Greta is starting to feel the strain. She is also keenly and painfully aware that although she is still a beautiful woman she is in her mid-thirties and the clock is ticking.
Sigrid has a problem as well. The problem of what to do about her brother Einar. Einar is a wealthy, successful and highly respected editor who is very much at home in the very cultured and rather artistic circles in which he and Sigrid move. He is in early middle age but is still a rather handsome man. But Einar has a taste for young girlfriends. Very young girlfriends. Not young enough to cause any legal problems or scandals but young enough to cause plenty of other headaches. Teenage girls soon become bored with middle-aged lovers and Einar always gets hurt. And humiliated. And made to look a fool. Even worse he has very poor judgment in the girls he chooses and their behaviour causes constant embarrassment and anxiety to Sigrid.
Sigrid is the elder sibling and she is fiercely protective of her brother. She now comes up with a plan. Einar generally has no interest in women of Greta’s age but he has always had a bit of a thing for her, and she is still an extremely attractive woman. Most importantly Greta is the sort of woman who could move comfortably in Einar’s world. Greta is unimpressed by Sigrid’s idea until Sigrid lays her cards on the table. Greta needs the financial support she gets from Sigrid and that money could disappear if Greta refuses. On the other hand if Greta does agree to manoeuvre herself into being Einar’s concubine the financial support could become rather more lucrative.
Greta’s life is complicated enough but it’s going to get very much more complicated when she finds herself having to act as substitute mother for her 17-year-old niece Inga (Marie Liljedahl). Inga is not your average 17-year-old girl. She is a quiet, studious, serious-minded girl with a taste for the classics and a passion for opera. She is intelligent, well-educated and highly cultured. Her idea of a good time is to curl up with a volume of Strindberg’s plays. Greta was initially less than enthusiastic about having Inga come to live with her but now she’s starting to see a way in which Inga could solve her problems for her. The key to her plan is that Inga combines her serious nature and highbrow tastes with the body of a 17-year-old sexbomb. Wouldn’t that make her the ideal mistress for Einar? Sigrid would be delighted by Inga’s intelligence and civilised behaviour. This is a girl who would not cause any embarrassments at dinner parties. Einar would have himself a stunning little nymphet as a bed partner. Greta’s services as Einar’s official mistress would no longer be required so she could concentrate on her boy-toy. Everyone would be happy. And for creating such universal happiness surely Sigrid would be more than willing to pay Greta generously for her services as procuress. Sigrid sees the logic in Greta’s scheme and the deal is cut. There’s just one tiny detail Greta has overlooked. She hasn’t thought it necessary to consult Inga about her feelings in regard to this splendid plan. And a beautiful teenage girl just starting to discover her sexuality is just the very thing to light the fuse to explode that ticking bomb I mentioned earlier.
While the awakening of a teenage girl’s sexuality is clearly going to be potential commercial dynamite it’s subject matter liberally littered with extremely dangerous pitfalls if you happen to be a writer-director who wants to make a serious and intelligent movie that will be artistically successful without being sleazy. Sarno happened to be that kind of writer-director, and with this movie he was making a bold move to capture both the exploitation markets and the European art-house markets.
The chief danger of course is that if you veer too much one way you will end up with a movie that is tacky and exploitative while if you try too hard to be serious and tasteful you can end up diluting the erotic charge. And given that the central theme is the emotionally and sexually explosive effects of Inga’s awakening the erotic charge has to be there, otherwise there’s absolutely no point to the movie. In fact there was never any serious cause for concern. Sarno was always able to get that kind of balance right. And he was always able to ratchet up the eroticism without ever losing sight of his main preoccupation - that sex always has emotional consequences. Greta loses sight of that truth while Inga must learn it quickly.
There is also the very real danger of drifting into Lolita territory and if that happens shipwreck is almost inevitable. Inga navigates these waters quite safely, keeping well away from those dangerous reefs. Lolita was a child. Inga, for all her youth and innocence, is unquestionably a woman. That’s really the whole point. Greta’s miscalculation is based on her failure to appreciate that fact.
Sarno, as usual, manages to deal with serious issues without losing his lightness of touch. While serious European art-house directors were remarkably successful at making erotic movies that are mind-numbingly dull and miserable Sarno was unlikely ever to commit such an error. Sarno was unafraid of the darker sides and consequences of sexuality but he had a certain fundamental optimism. People make mistakes but sometimes they do learn from them. Sex is powerful because it’s both dangerous and joyous.
Sarno gets fine performances from a cast composed of a mixture of stage actors, film actors and complete newcomers. But then he always had the ability to get the emotional intensity he wanted from his casts. As in most of his movies the women get the more complex and demanding rôles. Monica Strömmerstedt is wonderfully edgy as Greta. She always seems on the verge of psychological disintegration, which of course she is. Despite the appallingly manipulative and destructive (and self-destructive) behaviours in which she indulges we can never quite bring ourselves to despise her. Sarno had little interest in straightforward heroes or villains. He wanted characters who made disastrous mistakes not because they were evil but because they succumbed to very human weaknesses. Strömmerstedt captures Greta’s desperation exceptionally well.
Marie Liljedahl is the crucial ingredient. She had to be both innocent enough and sexual enough to be convincing without crossing over into disturbing territory and she strikes the perfect balance.
Visually the movie looks like what it is - a blending of European and American sensibilities. It was shot in black-and-white, always Sarno’s preferred medium. The danger was that the Swedish locations might have looked too bleak in black-and-white but the movie manages to be both stark and beautiful. The budget was considerably larger than usual for a Sarno film and the extra production values are apparent.
The sex scenes were shot the way Sarno always shot them, with the emphasis on emotions rather than body parts. While the actual sexual content is tame by later standards the intensity that Sarno always strived for makes this movie far more erotic than what passes for erotica these days. This being 1967 it goes without saying that the women look like women rather than pornstars. The nudity is far from explicit but Marie Liljedahl certainly sizzles.
Retro-Seduction Cinema have done their usual splendid job with the DVD, with an excellent transfer offering both the original Swedish version and the English dubbed version. The extras include a commentary track featuring both Joe Sarno and his wife and perennial collaborator Peggy. One of the more interesting, and startling, revelations on this commentary track is that the sex scenes were real rather than simulated. Even Marie Liljedahl’s solo performance was apparently quite real. This would have been quite unusual even in fully-fledged early 70s soft porn; for a film shot in 1967 it’s extraordinarily bold.
Inga tries to be both an art movie and a sex movie and in general the results are remarkably successful. Highly recommended.
Sunday, 24 November 2013
I’ve always thought that The Mummy can be best appreciated by being seen as both a horror movie and a tragic love story. It was slightly unusual among Universal’s early horror offerings in not being based on a classic of gothic literature, although Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s short stories Lot 249 and The Ring of Thoth were certainly influences. Interest in ancient Egypt was already high when the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamen by a British archaeological expedition in 1922 ignited a full-blown craze. Nina Wilcox Putnam’s original screenplay was drastically rewritten by John L. Balderston. The movie was originally going to be about Cagliostro but it eventually evolved into a story much more closely focused on ancient Egypt.
The movie opens with a superbly mounted suspense set-piece as an assistant to Sir Joseph Whemple’s 1921 dig unwittingly restores to life the mummy of the high priest Imhotep. The mummy then disappears. A decade later a mysterious Egyptian named Ardeth Bey (Boris Karloff) leads another expedition to an extraordinary find, the tomb of the Princess Ankh-es-en-amon. The audience already knows that Ardeth Bey is in fact Imhotep.
As the story unfolds we learn of the tragic love of Imhotep and Ankh-es-en-amon. Imhotep believes that a young half-American half-Egyptian woman named Helen Grosvener (Zita Johann) is Ankh-es-en-amon reincarnated and he is determined that this time their love will endure.
While Imhotep/Ardeth Bey is certainly ruthless and is certainly a danger to anyone who gets in his way he is never a true monster. He has no interest in killing random strangers or in destroying civilisation or in ushering in a reign of evil. All he wants is to have Ankh-es-en-amon restored to him and for the two lovers to be united forever. He is thus, even by comparison with some of the rather sympathetic Universal monsters, a very sympathetic monster indeed. Karloff doesn’t just make him sympathetic; he gives the character a great deal of weight and dignity. If it’s not Karloff’s greatest performance it’s certainly among his very best.
This movie also benefits from having one of the best female leads of any of the Universal horror pictures. Zita Johann was known mostly as a stage actor and although her performance is a little stagey that actually suits both the movie and her role perfectly. Most importantly she looks convincingly exotic without coming across as a femme fatale.
This was Karl Freund’s first movie as a director and he not only brought the film in on time and on budget, he also added the kind of visual flair and sophistication you would expect from a man who was one of the greatest of all cinematographers. Despite the potentially lurid subject matter Freund avoids sensationalism. He clearly wants to entertain but he also wants us to take the love story seriously, and he succeeds on both counts. And the movie delivers the chills that a horror movie requires.
Universal had not been making horror movies for very long when this one was made but they were already very very good at the technical side. Jack Pierce’s makeup for Karloff is perfect, striking the right balance. It is creepy but it still gives Karloff’s character the dignity that the story requires. The sets are wonderful and in general this is one of the handsomest horror films ever made.
What matters though is that The Mummy is one of the greatest of all horror movies and it looks magnificent on Blu-Ray.
Wednesday, 20 November 2013
The movie was produced by Ivan Tors who would go on to earn his greatest fame with the wildly successful 1960s TV series Flipper . Tors shares the screenwriting credit with Curt Siodmak, a name associated with a variety of science fiction movies most of which are at the very least interesting. Siodmak also gets the directing credit here.
The movie adopts a pseudo-documentary style with star Richard Carlson acting as narrator. We learn of the A-Men (or Atom Men), scientists working for a US government agency tasked with investigating anything odd and/or threatening that might have a scientific basis. In this instance the case seems initially to fall into the odd rather than threatening category. Strange magnetic phenomena have been reported. Dr Jeffrey Stewart (Richard Carlson) and his A-Man colleague Dr Dan Forbes (King Donovan) are called to a hardware store where every metal object has suddenly become magnetised. Dr Stewart is mildly concerned that they may be dealing with a uni-polar magnetic field, which is apparently one of the things that worries men like Dr Stewart. The high radiation levels in the store also worry out two intrepid scientist-investigators. Searching for the source of the magnetic field they discover a corpse - dead of radiation sickness.
Now comes my favourite part of the movie. Dr Stewart calls in the local police and orders them to shoot to kill! Of course at this stage they have identified no villain and have not even identified the source of the strange magnetic field. One has to wonder exactly whom he expects the police to shoot to kill?
The A-Men press on and the trail leads to an elderly and rather kindly physicist whose experiment had gotten slightly out of control, with slightly out of control being very definitely an understatement. He had been bombarding a particle of an unknown element with alpha-rays. This had changed the particle’s nature in a very surprising, an very frightening, way. The particle started to grow, absorbing energy and converting it into mass. And in the words of the elderly physicist, now it’s hungry. Very hungry.
Dr Stewart now realises they are dealing with a threat that could well mean The End Of Civilisation As We Know it. In fact it may mean the End Of Everything.
The fundamental weakness of this movie is that we still have no actual monster, merely a microscopic particle with menacing potential. While this is unquestionably a weakness the movie does manage to turn it into a strength as well. Such an abstract threat can be more terrifying is the subject is deal with skillfully, and this does deal with it fairly skillfully. After all any monster can be killed if you have enough firepower but how do you kill a non-living particle?
Of course there’s also the advantage that an unseen menace saves lots of money on social effects! Given the very low-budget nature of this movie one suspects that may have been the main attraction. There are some very cheap special effects representing the particle viewed through a special gizmo and while they’re less than spectacular they do create the right kind of gee-whizz science feel.
The movie’s other strategy for dealing with the no-monster problem is to introduce a race against time element, always a plus in a movie of this type. Unfortunately, while the idea of using stock footage of jet fighters that are supposed to be transporting the killer particle to a secret underground laboratory in Canada might have seemed like a good idea, it is a pity that the fighter on the ground is about as dissimilar in appearance from the same fighter supposedly in the air that rather than adding excitement it just adds a jarring moment.
Richard Carlson is solid enough as the top A-Man scientist who would really rather be home with his wife than being a hero but hero is the role he gets forced into. The supporting cast is about what you expect in a low-budget movie not made by a major studio - barely passable but at least not actively irritating.
If you’re a diehard 50s sci-fi fan what you want is lots of outrageous technobabble, and this movie delivers the goods on that count. It’s the sort of screenplay you’d expect to be written by someone who has read an article on Einstein’s theories in a popular magazine but has (quite correctly) decided that to do any serious research on the subject would just spoil the fun.
The movie relies a bit too heavily on stock footage and poorly integrated element from older movies but since the producers clearly had very little money to spend there’s probably no real way they could have avoided this.
MGM put this one out in their DVD-made-on-demand Limited Edition Collection. The transfer is adequate but with no extras at all the price is perhaps a little on the high side.
The Magnetic Monster, despite its cheapness and its potential weaknesses, actually works quite well. It manages to generate a fair degree of excitement and urgency and it takes itself just seriously enough. Definitely worth a rental.
Friday, 15 November 2013
Supposed adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe’s works generally have little actual Poe in them and this movie is no exception. Poe is however a influence on one of the major characters so I guess Universal felt they were entitled to claim it as a Poe adaptation.
Jean Thatcher (Irene Ware) is gravely injured in an automobile accident. The doctors fear that little can be done to save her. Her one chance would be if Dr Vollin could somehow be persuaded to take on her case.
Dr Richard Vollin (Bela Lugosi) is a great surgeon now retired from practice and devoting himself to his obsession with Edgar Allan Poe. With great difficulty Judge Thatcher, Jean’s father, persuades Vollin to save his daughter. Jean is soon fully recovered. She is seeing quite a bit of Dr Vollin. He’s a rather fascinating man and he did save her life and it doesn’t occur to Jean that seeing so much of him might not be entirely appropriate. Her motives seem innocent enough. She is intrigued by his devotion to Poe and even choreographs a dance routine inspired by Poe (she is a professional dancer). Her dance routine is actually a key scene (and is quite effective), marking the point at which Vollin’s fantasies take over from reality in his mind.
While Jean may think her friendship with Vollin is harmless her father does not share her views. He fears that she will become infatuated with the doctor. In fact, as he discovers when he broaches the subject with Vollin, it is the doctor who has become infatuated with the young woman.
Vollin seems to relate Poe’s obsession with the lost Lenore in his poems to some event in his own life. In any case he has clearly started to see Jean as some kind of embodiment of Poe’s Lenore. Vollin has no intention of giving her up and then fate offers him a means of overcoming her father’s objections, in a permanent and fatal way. As we will discover Dr Vollin likes permanent and fatal solutions, especially if they’re slow and painful. An escaped killer, Edward Bateman (Boris Karloff), shows up on his doorstep. He believes that his life of violence and crime is a result of his ugliness. He has been told that Dr Vollin has the skill to alter a person’s face, to make an ugly person attractive. This is what he wishes Vollin to do for him. But Vollin has his own plans for Bateman.
This is one Karloff-Lugosi pairing in which Lugosi gets a role just as meaty, and in fact in this case much more so, as Karloff’s. Dr Vollin is of course a dangerous madman but he’s a cultured and sophisticated madman as well. This is the kind of part Lugosi relished and he makes the most of it. Karloff got top billing and was paid twice as much as Lugosi for this film. While this shameful treatment by Universal must have rankled at least this time Lugosi could console himself with the knowledge that he’d landed the plum role, and the biggest role as well.
Karloff is overshadowed but he is not entirely left out in the cold. Bateman is as mad and as dangerous as Vollin but he’s a somewhat tragic figure. Tragic monsters were meat and drink to Karloff and as always he extracts just the right amount of pathos without veering into excessive sentimentality or self-parody. The problem is that Karloff never could play American mobsters convincingly. Initially he seems ill at ease and seriously miscast but once Vollin transforms Bateman into a monster the problem becomes relatively unimportant. Karloff couldn’t play American mobsters but he could certainly play monsters.
This movie is also a joy to fans of the two great horror icons because not only are they both present, they have plenty of scenes together. The manipulative and grotesque relationship between these two very different madmen is the key to the film and it plays out quite effectively.
Irene Ware gets to do a great deal of screaming. She’s perfectly adequate in her role. A weekend house party hosted by Dr Vollin, a party that will end as the kind of party Poe would have imagined in his nightmares, gives an array of character actors the opportunity to practise their over-acting skills. They’re there to provide the totally unnecessary and inappropriate comic relief. Fortunately screenplay David Boehm and director Lew Landers (billed under his original name Louis Friedlander) keep the focus on Lugosi and Karloff as much as possible.
One of the great strengths of Universal’s horror movies of this era was the studio’s ability to provide such movies with exactly the right kind of sets and to make them convincing and interesting. The Raven doesn’t boast the glorious visual excesses of The Black Cat or even Son of Frankenstein but it still looks great and Dr Vollin’s Poe-inspired chamber of tortures should be enough to keep fans happy. The Pit and the Pendulum device is a particular highlight.
Lew Landers was a competent journeyman director. His most valuable contribution to this film is that he keeps things moving along at a very brisk pace.
This movie had popped up on DVD before but the transfer on the disc included in their Bela Lugosi Collection is a significant improvement. There’s some grain but if anything it adds to the atmosphere. More importantly the contrast is excellent. Sound is very good as well and overall Universal have done a fine job. The set itself (comprising five movies on a doubled-sided DVD) is an absolute must-have for any self-respecting fan of these two great horror actors or of the Universal horror movies in general.
This movie’s biggest problem has always been that it was a Poe adaptation that appeared a year after an earlier Universal Poe movie, The Black Cat, a movie that was in every way bigger, more ambitious, more spectacular and more successful (and was a box-office smash hit). In fact The Black Cat is one of the all-time great horror movies. The Raven can’t compete with that. What you need to do is to to forget the comparisons. The Raven is a much more modest effort but it’s great fun and it features one of Lugosi’s most enjoyably outrageous performances. Highly recommended.