Friday, 4 October 2013

The Monkey's Paw (1948)

The Monkey's Paw is a classic short story by W. W. Jacobs that will be familiar  to anyone with even a passing interest in horror stories. The 1948 British movie of the same name changes most of the details but it retains the essential core of the story. While it’s deservedly a classic story there are very sound reasons why the movie adaptation was a bad idea from the start. We’ll get to those reasons later.

The story is very simple. The monkey’s paw is a talisman capable of granting three wishes, but if you do make a wish you’ll live to regret it. Or possibly you won’t live. It’s the old “be careful what you wish for” idea.

A dealer in antiques and curios (played by Sydney Taffler) comes across the monkey’s paw in an antique shop. The owner of the shop is reluctant to sell this item, explaining that it can bring only disaster. But the dealer is determined to have it, reasoning that curios with grim stories attached to them will fetch high prices from a certain type of collector.

The monkey’s paw is eventually purchased by Mr Trelawne (Milton Rosmer), a respectable middle-aged shop owner in Cornwall. He has his strong suspicious that making use of the three wishes might be a very unwise thing to do. When he finds himself heavily in debt to his bookmaker he gives in to the temptation to use the paw to get him out of this difficulty. The result of this first wish will lead Trelawne inevitably to the second and truly fateful wish.

Before this happens we see the consequences for a previous possessor of the paw. Kelly, a loquacious but good-natured Irishman and a crony of Trelawne’s, has had some previous connection to the monkey’s paw and knows something of its history.

This unnecessary subplot brings us to the crux of the problem. It’s in the nature of this story that it has to be kept short. It cannot be successfully padded out and any attempt to do so will merely dissipate the impact of the ending. That’s exactly what happens here, and even at a very modest 64 minutes this movie seems rambling and very slow.

A further problem is that the climactic moment of horror is not shown. The makers of the film had their reasons for this. The script (by Norman Lee and Barbara Toy) tries to add its own twist to Jacobs’ twist and this requires the audience not to see the moment of horror. Ordinarily I’m a strong believer in the principle that the most effective horror is the horror we don’t see but merely imagine for ourselves but in this case since the movie relies entirely on the shock ending the viewer is likely to feel a bit cheated.

Norman Lee directed the movie as well as collaborating on the screenplay. Lee made a fairly significant number of second-string movies and does a competent job although this movie really would have benefited from a bit more effort being put into building the atmosphere and the suspense. When you’ve only got one real shock moment in a horror movie you need to build up the audience’s expectations and create the right mood of unease and this movie fails to do these things successfully. As a result it falls rather flat.

Milton Rosmer and Megs Jenkins as Mr and Mrs Trelawne are quite adequate, as is Eric Micklewood as their son Tom. Michael Martin Harvey landed the most colourful role as Kelly who acts as both comic relief and as the crucial character who knows what the outcome will be and predicts it but no-one will listen.

Renown have released this movie on DVD in Region 2 as half of a one-disc two-movie pack, paired with The House in Marsh Road (which is a considerably better movie). The transfers are adequate given the relative obscurity of these movies and it’s a fairly reasonable value-for-money deal.

The Monkey's Paw would have worked a lot better as a half-hour television episode or as a segment of an anthology movie (and it was in fact done fairly well in one of Amicus’s horror anthology movies). There’s just not enough genuine content to make for a successful feature film. It would not be worth buying on its own but since it’s worth buying the DVD to see The House in Marsh Road it’s possibly worth a look on a night when there’s absolutely nothing on the telly and you’re really desperate for entertainment. Generally speaking a rather disappointing British horror movie.

No comments: