Thursday 29 August 2013

The Student of Prague (1926)

The 1926 German silent horror film The Student of Prague was a remake of the 1913 version. The basic story remains the same but cinema technique had advanced considerably in the interim, and modern audiences will find the 1926 film more accessible.

This version was written and directed by Henrik Galeen and had the considerable additional advantage of having in its cast two of German silent cinema’s great stars, Conrad Veidt and Werner Krauss.

Balduin (Conrad Veidt) is a pleasure-loving student who happens to be the finest fencer in Prague. Unhappily he now finds himself penniless. A rather odd character named Scapinelli appears on the scene and tells Balduin that his problems can be solved quite easily. It is merely a matter of signing a simple agreement. Once the document is signed Balduin will find himself exceedingly rich, to the tune of 600,000 gold pieces. And in return all he has to do is to allow Scapinelli to take one item from his room. Balduin eagerly agrees but is somewhat disconcerted when Scapinelli elects to take Balduin’s reflection as his payment.

Balduin is now so rich that he can afford to support a hundred other students. He is soon even more popular than he was before. The only cloud on the horizon is his discovery that his reflection has now taken on a life of its own and this double keeps turning up, causing Balduin both annoyance and a certain growing dread.

A chance encounter with the Countess Margit will have momentous consequences. Balduin saves her life, and then falls in love with her. The countess is betrothed to her cousin Baron Waldis-Schwarzenberg. Inevitably a quarrel ensues between the baron and Balduin, a quarrel that can only be settled by a duel. The baron has no chance whatsoever of surviving an encounter with Balduin. The Countess Margit’s father begs Balduin not to kill the baron. Balduin, being fundamentally a decent fellow agrees, but on the following morning he discovers to his horror that his reflection/double has killed the baron.

Balduin is now on the road to ruin. The countess will not see him, he is expelled from the university and he resorts more and more to drink and gambling. These distractions do not help him. A final encounter with his double will settle his fate one way or the other.

While there was absolutely nothing wrong with Paul Wegener’s performance as Balduin in the 1913 version it has to be admitted that Conrad Veidt’s performance surpasses it. Veidt makes Balduin a truly tragic figure, a man who was basically kind and decent but of course you can’t make a bargain with Satan and expect to get way with it. Werner Krauss is a delightfully plausible yet sinister tempter. It’s the performances of these two actors that make this second film version of the story the superior version. The acting is also on the whole more naturalistic in this 1926 film than in the earlier version.

The most noticeable technical advance in this version is in the much more modern editing. Galeen was a fine director and this 1926 version offers some memorable and nicely chilling imagery.

Alpha Video’s DVD release is one of their better efforts. The picture quality is certainly not fantastic but taking the age of the movie into account it’s acceptable.

Both silent versions of The Student of Prague are excellent in their own ways and horror fans will really want to see both versions. Alpha Video offer a two-movie set including both versions and it’s a very worthwhile buy. Both films demonstrate the artistry of German silent horror films. Highly recommended.

Monday 26 August 2013

The Student of Prague (1913)

The Student of Prague, made in Germany in 1913, may well have been the very first horror movie ever made. Even if it wasn’t the first it must surely be the oldest horror movie still in existence.

Another silent version of this story was made in Germany in 1926. I haven’t watched that one yet but I intend to do so in the next couple of days.

When viewing a movie from such a very early period in cinema history one is inclined to make allowances. Such early movies usually suffered from very static camera setups and can be inclined to be a bit creaky. In this case however no such allowances need to be made. This is a very fine movie and it compares quite favourably with movies of the later silent era.

Of course it is a silent film and silent films are very very different from sound films. Making movies without dialogue required a particular technique, the use of a purely visual language. Silent films do take a bit of getting used to. It’s worth the effort though, and this is especially so if you’re a fan of horror movies since the silent era produced some of the greatest horror movies  ever made.

The Student of Prague was inspired partly by Edgar Allan Poe’s short story William Wilson although it also draws upon the story of Faust. The movie was written by Hanns Heinz Ewers, a writer who produced a number of bona fide classic horror stories. Paul Wegener, an important figure in the early German film industry, produced and starred in the movie and shared directing credit with Stellan Rye, another important early German film-maker who unfortunately was killed in the First World War.

Balduin (Paul Wegener) is renowned as the finest swordsman and the wildest student in Prague. The setting would appear to be the early or mid-19th century. Balduin is facing financial ruin when he encounters a rather mysterious, slightly sinister and somewhat eccentric-appearing character named Scapinelli (John Gottowt). Unbeknownst to Balduin Scapinelli is a sorcerer and, as we later discover, an agent of Satan. Scapinelli offers Balduin a deal. He will give the penniless student a hundred thousand gold pieces if Balduin will allow him to take one item from his room. The item Scapinelli selects is Balduin’s reflection.

This transaction is a little disturbing but Balduin is glad of the money. He is in love with the Countess Margit Schwarzenberg. She is betrothed to a cousin, the Baron Waldis-Schwarzenberg. As you might expect this situation can have only one outcome - Balduin and the Baron will fight a duel. The countess’s father begs Balduin not to kill the Baron, the Baron being the last of his line. Balduin agrees but the Baron is killed anyway. Not by Balduin, but by Balduin’s reflection.

His reflection has taken on a life of its own and it has been dogging the young student for some time. It is his double, his doppelganger, but it represents the darker side of Balduin’s nature. Balduin, not surprisingly, becomes increasingly agitated and depressed. He tries to distract himself with dancing, drinking and gaming but it is of course no use. His reflection continues to dog his footsteps and it seems that the future for Balduin must hold either madness or destruction.

The movie makes use of surprisingly successful split-screen techniques to allow both Balduin and his evil double to be onscreen at the same time.

The technique of using close-ups and breaking up a scene by cutting to different angles had not yet been developed, and camera setups were static and were confined almost entirely to medium-long shots. This tended to make things rather boring visually. Wegener and Rye deal with these problems very effectively. They do everything they possibly can to maintain the visual interest of the viewer. They use deep compositions with action in both the foreground and the background, they shoot through gateways and doorways, they have actors entering scenes from doors in the background. The end result is that the film does not feel static or dull. In fact, quite the reverse, it’s visually quite impressive.

Expressionism would not appear in German cinema for several years yet but it is clear that German film-makers were already intensely aware of the importance of the visual impact of movies. They were already aware that movies should not look like filmed plays.

This movie is certainly not studio-bound. There is quite a lot of what is clearly location shooting and this again helps to make the movie feel dynamic and fast-paced.

The Alpha Video release appears to be the only DVD release of this movie currently available. With a 41-minute running time the print used was obviously incomplete. A much longer restored version apparently exists but I have been unable to find it on DVD. As you would expect from Alpha the picture quality is pretty rough. I have no idea what the score is like since I find it impossible to endure the scores customarily used on DVD releases of silent movies these days. I simply turn the volume down to zero and concentrate on the images.

The Student of Prague obviously has immense historical interest but it’s also an entertaining and effective horror movie and it’s most certainly worth seeing.

Friday 23 August 2013

The Conquest of Space (1955)

The Conquest of Space is one of producer George Pal’s lesser-known movies.  Made for Paramount in 1955 it’s an interesting attempt to do a realistic space travel movie.

Colonel Samuel Merritt (Walter Brooke) has always been obsessed with the idea of space travel. Now his dreams are coming true - a giant space station (known as The Wheel due to its circular shape) designed by him orbits the Earth and a spacecraft, also designed by him, is about to undertake the first manned voyage to the Moon. This voyage is intended to be a test mission, with the ultimate objective being to go to Mars.

Six hand-picked astronauts have been training and preparing for the mission for a year. The spacecraft is designed for a crew of five. Since the Colonel will be leading the mission and since he has made sure of a place in the crew for his son Captain Barney Merritt that means that only three of the six astronauts will be chosen to undertake the momentous journey.

At the last moment the multi-national space agency decides on a dramatic change of plans. The test mission to the Moon is cancelled. The spaceship will be going to Mars instead. The new orders also include a promotion for the mission commander. He is now General Merritt.

After blasting off a surprising discovery is made - the General’s old pal Sergeant Mahoney has stowed away. He has followed the general in every previous posting and he has no intention of not following him to Mars.

The ship will encounter a number of obstacles, most of which (such as meteors) had been anticipated. What no-one had expected was that the commander of the mission would suddenly develop religious scruples about it. This plot twist is more than a little problematical. It comes entirely out of left field and it is difficult to comprehend exactly why General Merritt has suddenly decided that space travel is blasphemy.

The ship reaches Mars but that’s when things start to go wrong. It soon becomes obvious that the whole mission was badly thought out. The astronauts have no idea what they’re supposed to do now that they’re reached the Red Planet.

The other weakness of the mission is that the crew members turn out to be an assortment of misfits who perform badly under pressure and seem to know remarkably little about either space travel or the planet Mars. In fact the mission is the sort of shambles you’d expect from a multi-national agency; it appears to be little more than a massive PR exercise. The only positive thing the astronauts do on Mars is to plant a few flowers, and that’s only because Sergeant Imoto (Benson Fong) decided on his own initiative to bring some along with him. How he expects them to grow in soil that contains no organic matter is never explained.

The major problem with trying to make a science fiction movie about space travel that does not include monsters or aliens or any of the usual features of such films is that you are likely to end up with a movie that resembles a boring documentary. The writers obviously had to come up with some dramas to keep things interesting and they made the decision to have the dramas come from the mounting tensions among the crew. That’s a valid approach but to make it work you really need better actors than this movie boasts. The acting is of fair-to-middling B-movie standard but not of a high enough standard to make us care very much about the fates of the characters, a problem exacerbated by the fact that the script doesn’t make any of them any more than two-dimensional stereotypes.

This movie performed indifferently at the box office. It is likely that the main reason for this is its very slow pacing. We’re forty minutes into the film before the voyage to Mars begins, and that forty minutes feels like a great deal of unnecessary padding.

The title may have had an unfortunate effect on the box office as well, making the movie sound like a documentary.

There’s also some comic relief that really should have ended up on the cutting room floor.

While this movie has more than its fair share of flaws it also has a few major pluses. The biggest of these is the special effects. With George Pal producing you’d expect the movie at least to be visually impressive and it is. The miniatures shots are done well and both the space station and the Mars spacecraft look much more convincing and much more interesting than anything you’ll see in most 1950s sci-fi flicks. The special effects were outstanding by the standards of 1955 and they still hold up surprisingly well.

There are fewer than average glaring scientific blunders as well. The makers of the film remembered that the astronauts would be weightless for most of the voyage. There are a few scenes of weightlessness but keeping that up through the entire movie would have been a chore, but at least explanations are offered for the fact that the crew members aren’t floating about the cabin - they have magnetic shoes, and the space station spins to produce simulated gravity.

Paramount’s DVD release is 16:9 enhanced and looks magnificent. The movie looks like it was made yesterday rather than the best part of six decades ago.

The Conquest of Space doesn’t have much in the way of thrills to recommend it and it takes itself too seriously to appeal to viewers looking for camp appeal. It’s a movie that is possibly worth a rental if you’re very much of a hardcore fan of 1950s science fiction movies.

Tuesday 20 August 2013

Curse of the Crimson Altar (1968)

There have been quite a few movie adaptations of the works of H. P. Lovecraft, and the one thing they all have in common is that they have all left Lovecraft’s fans dissatisfied. Tigon’s 1968 Curse of the Crimson Altar is no exception to this rule.

Antiques dealer Robert Manning (Mark Eden) is looking for his missing brother, Peter Manning. He received a letter from Peter some days earlier. The letter is on the notepaper of Craxted Lodge in the village of Greymarsh so Robert sets off for Greymarsh to see what he can find out.

Craxted Lodge belongs to a man named Morley (Christopher Lee). Morley denies having ever set eyes on Peter Manning but he invites Robert to stay at the house. He explains that there’s no chance of getting a room at the pub because the villagers are celebrating the Witch’s Night. Back in the days when witch-burning was a popular spectator sport a witch named Lavinia was burnt in the village. This witch was an ancestress of Mr Morley. Before she died Lavinia cursed the villagers and all their descendants (that being the sort of thing that was expected of a witch in such circumstances and Lavinia being the sort who likes to play by the rules). Considering the curse you might wonder why the anniversary would be such a cause for celebration but I suppose people have commemorated stranger things.

While staying at Craxted Lodge Robert has strange dreams in which he sees his brother being tortured in an attempt to persuade him to sign a certain paper. The viewer already knows this because this is the scene that opened the movie. In charge of these torturings is Lavinia (played by Barbara Steele in spectacular makeup), now transformed into some kind of Queen of Hell. Later Robert will have dreams in which he is the one being tortured.

Morley’s decrepit butler Elder (Michael Gough) warns Robert to get away while he can. Robert has no intention of leaving, partly because he is convinced that he is now hot on brother Peter’s trail and partly because he thinks he has a pretty good chance of getting Morley’s bodacious blonde niece into bed.

Of course we know by now that Robert is in great danger and Robert has a pretty fair idea that something unpleasant is in the offing, especially when Professor Marsh’s chauffeur takes a potshot at him with a shotgun. Professor Marsh (Boris Karloff) is Morley’s houseguest and is an expert on witchcraft. The plot then follows a fairly predictable course, with Lavinia determined to recruit Robert into the ranks of the damned. There’s the obligatory Black Mass kind of ceremony with the obligatory naked young woman about to be sacrificed.

Superficially the plot is clearly going to put most viewers in mind of The Wicker Man, The Night of the Eagle and Eye of the Devil, all movies dealing with the survival of witchcraft in the modern world. The movie also has a certain amount in common with Hammer’s Dracula AD 1972, with the collision between evil supernatural forces and 1960s/early 1970s youth culture. It also resembles Dracula AD 1972 in obviously having been made by people of the previous generation who view the whole youth culture thing as presaging the end of civilisation as we know it, which it sort of was.

The biggest attraction here is the stellar cast. Boris Karloff, Christopher Lee, Barbara Stele and Michael Gough! All in the one movie! With that sort of cast the movie has to be worth seeing, doesn’t it? Actually the movie is worth seeing, although possibly not for the reasons the film-makers had in mind.

Boris Karloff was incapable of a bad performance. Christopher Lee is pretty good as well, in a part very similar to the one he would play a few years later in the aforementioned The Wicker Man. It’s the sort of role he did well - amusingly pompous with a slightly obsessive and ever so slightly unhinged quality lurking just beneath the surface. Michael Gough gets insufficient screen time and is largely wasted although he does manage to convince us that he’s totally bonkers. Barbara Steele doesn’t get to do much acting but she does get to look wonderfully perverse in some very extravagant makeup and costumes.

There are some major problems with this movie. The script is more than a little on the incoherent side, the pacing gets a bit sluggish at times and the viewer can’t help forming the impression that no-one involved with this production was entirely certain what it was they were trying to achieve. These are all valid criticisms and they’ve contributed to this movie’s reputation as being a bit of a turkey. If you’re going to approach this as a serious horror film then this reputation is perhaps deserved but to view the movie that way is to miss all the fun.

This movie is very much a product of its time, with its puzzled and rather hostile view of youth culture, its confused attempt to be in tune with the times (with drug references and some gloriously silly psychedelic special effects), its embarrassed attempt to be daring by throwing in a bit of totally gratuitous nudity, and its generally shambolic air. That’s what makes it so much fun. Plus the stars were obviously not taking all this very seriously and were instead intent on having a bit of fun. Except for Christopher Lee who naturally takes it all very seriously, which makes it even more fun.

Apart from the fun angle it does have some real virtues. It looks absolutely splendid, in an outrageous late 60s way.

The German DVD release from e-m-s claims to be uncut, although I must say I’m somewhat dubious about that claim. It’s a reasonably good anamorphic transfer. It includes the original English soundtrack with German subtitles that are unfortunately non-removable (or if there is a way to remove them I couldn’t find it). It seems to be the only DVD release currently available at an affordable price.

Curse of the Crimson Altar manages to be entertaining in spite of itself and I couldn’t help enjoying myself. Recommended if you promise not to take it seriously.

Sunday 18 August 2013

the double in horror movies

The double has been a perennial theme in horror. It probably started with Poe (most things seemed to start with Poe) and of course is seen most spectacularly in Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. The William Wilson segment of Spirits of the Dead, directed by Louis Malle and based on Poe’s story, is a notable cinematic treatment of the theme.

When it comes to horror movies weird sisters have been a major obsession, usually with the sisters being reverse images of each other - one good and bad. Brian de Palma’s Sisters and of course Hammer’s Twins of Evil being examples. Twins or sisters with some odd link appear in most of Jean Rollin’s movies. Jess Franco’s Doriana Grey is another example.

The doubles theme is at the heart of the very underrated 1972 The Other. Another movie with this theme is Goodbye Gemini.

Doubled sisters also crop up in several movies that are not quite horror but have some affinities with the genre, Bette Davis in A Stolen Life and Olivia de Havilland in The Dark Mirror being particularly noteworthy.

Saturday 17 August 2013

Black Friday (1940)

Black Friday was the last of Universal’s horror movie pairings of Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi (although the two iconic horror stars would appear together again in a couple of movies at other studios). This 1940 production has rather a poor reputation, which is in come ways understandable and in other ways a trifle unfair.

As a Karloff-Lugosi pairing it’s a complete washout. They don’t appear in a single scene together and Lugosi is relegated not only to a supporting role but a very unrewarding one. And while Karloff gets top billing he does not get the best and most important role.  On the other hand if you’re prepared to accept the idea of a movie that combines the horror film with the gangster film, and if you’re also prepared to judge it on its merits, you may be pleasantly surprised.

Karloff is renowned surgeon Dr Ernest Sovac and he is about to be executed. He hands his notes to a journalist and Sovac’s story is then told in flashback. Sovac’s closest friend is George Kingsley (Stanley Ridges), a professor of English literature at a university in a quiet and very peaceful town. Professor Kingsley is much loved by his students. The peace is suddenly broken by the appearance of two speeding cars the occupants of which are exchanging gunfire. One of the cars swerves out of control and runs down Professor Kingsley.

Kingsley is rushed to hospital but there is little hope for him. He has suffered massive brain injuries. The driver of the car that hit him, notorious gangster Red Cannon, is not in good shape either. His back is broken, he is paralysed and the best he can hope for is life as a helpless cripple. Dr Sovac then decides to take a chance. He has been experimenting with brain transplants in animals and believes that some day human brain transplants will be possible. He secretly carries out a complex operation, transplanting part of Red Cannon’s brain into Professor Kingsley’s head to replace the damaged parts of Kingsley’s brain.

Dr Sovac is no doubt motivated by the desire to save his friend’s life and by scientific curiosity but he has another less pure motivation. The stricken gangster has $500,000 hidden away somewhere. If he could get his hands on that money Sovac could build a fine modern laboratory in which to continue his work, thus benefiting all of mankind (and benefiting his own career). Sovac believes the operation may offer him the opportunity to get that money.

Professor Kingsley makes an unexpected but apparently very successful recovery. The only cloud on the horizon is that he doesn’t seem to be quite himself. If he knew that he had part of another man’s brain in his head he would find this to be hardly surprising. Before long Sovac sees signs that indicates that part of the gangster’s personality has survived. If he can find a way to get into contact with Red Cannon’s brain he will know where the money is hidden.

Professor Kingsley starts to oscillate between his own personality and that of Red Cannon. At times the gangster’s personality takes over completely. This will cause Dr Sovac some problems since not only is it difficult to control a gangster but the gangster is also determined to wreak vengeance on the members of his gang who tried to kill him. Sovac has to get the information he needs before Red Cannon’s activities attract the attention of the police. Everyone thinks Red Cannon is dead but if he goes on creating mayhem he is certainly going to get noticed, or possibly even killed. And the surviving members of his gang, led by Eric Marnay (Bela Lugosi) are also looking for the hidden half a million dollars.

Karloff gets to play another mad scientist whose motivations are a combination of good and evil. By 1940 he could have played such roles in his sleep. He’s very good, but Dr Sovac is neither the most interesting nor the most important character in this story.

Bela Lugosi’s role is very minor and he is disastrously miscast, resulting in a performance that even his most ardent fans are likely to be disappointed by.

Stanley Ridges has the plum part, playing the dual roles of Professor Kingsley and Red Cannon. He has to switch between these two very different parts and he has to make both roles convincing and he has to make his transformations believable. He rises to the challenge magnificently, not only doing a superb job but also overshadowing even Karloff.

Curt Siodmak was responsible for the screenplay. He was always fascinated by brain transplants and related ideas and the story he came up with here was a good one. Arthur Lubin directed in an uninspiring but workmanlike fashion.

The original plan had been for Karloff to play the dual roles as Kingsley/Red Cannon while Lugosi would play Dr Sovac. Karloff apparently felt (quite correctly) that although he’d played gangsters before they weren’t exactly his forte. He persuaded the studio to let him play Dr Sovac instead. It all worked out very well for everyone but Bela Lugosi who was stuck with a very minor part for which he was hopelessly unsuited anyway. No wonder he felt that after this anything was better than staying at Universal.

This movie forms part of Universal’s Bela Lugosi Collection. All four films in the set feature Karloff as well as Lugosi. There are no extras but the transfers are excellent and the price is very reasonable indeed making this set a must-buy for all self-respecting horror fans.

Black Friday is generally a very successful experiment in combining the horror and gangster movies. The central idea might be outlandish but it’s handled with a surprising degree of intelligence and subtlety. Stanley Ridges is superb and Karloff is very good. It all adds up to a movie that is much more entertaining and rewarding than its reputation would suggest. In fact it’s one of Universal’s best 1940s horror efforts and it’s a rather good movie. Highly recommended.

Tuesday 13 August 2013

The Man Who Haunted Himself (1970)

The Man Who Haunted Himself is a horror movie starring Roger Moore, and that in itself makes this an unusual movie. Purists might prefer this one to be described as a psychological thriller but I think it can pass muster as a genuine horror movie.

This much neglected 1970 British movie is also notable for having offered Roger Moore one of his most rewarding roles. The performance he delivers may well be the best of his career.

Roger Moore plays businessman Harold Pelham. By the standards of 1970 Pelham is a rather old-fashioned sort of chap. He dresses very conservatively, even down to the bowler hat. He is married and has two sons. Everything about him marks him as a creature of habit with fundamentally conservative instincts. When he crashes his luxury (but rather staid) Wolseley car he replaces it with another one exactly like it. That’s the sort of person he is.

For all his old-fashioned style he’s no fool. He is a partner in a successful marine engineering company. When a merger is proposed with a rival firm he is the only member of the board to recognise it for what it is, a takeover, and he’s the only one prepared to stand firm.

The car crash mentioned earlier opens the movie and it’s the key to what follows. Pelham is rushed to hospital but dies on the operating table. Luckily for him (or so it seems at the time) the doctors are able to get his heart started again and he subsequently makes a rapid recovery.

He is soon back at the office and everything seems normal, except for a few odd incidents that start to happen. It seems that he’s been doing things that he doesn’t remember afterwards. The thing is that he’s absolutely convinced that he hasn’t done these things. And some of these odd things he seems to have been doing are very much out of character. Harold Pelham is not the sort of man to chase young women or to frequent the gaming tables. But people distinctly remember his doing these very things.

Pelham’s marriage was having a few problems. He and his wife Eve (Hildegard Neil) have drifted apart just a little. Eve seems to be just a little bored with her husband’s very serious attitude towards life, and they are having a few sexual problems. They’re really no more serious than the problems every marriage encounters from time to time and in the normal course of events they’d no doubt work themselves out. But these odd things Harold Pelham seems to be doing naturally add to the tensions.

At times Pelham suspects that somebody is impersonating him. At other times he thinks perhaps there’s something wrong with him. He even consults a psychiatrist, Dr Harris (Freddie Jones). He’s starting to get quite concerned and it’s getting him down a bit. Then he finds himself accused of unethical business practices. He, Harold Pelham, of all people. He is the last man to indulge in any kind of underhanded dealing.

All this is bad enough, but worse is to follow. Those odd incidents that he has no memory of are getting more serious. He is fast approaching a crisis in both his professional and his private life. When the crisis does come it’s stranger than anything he had imagined, it’s worse than even his worst fears.

Anthony Armstrong’s story had first seen the light of day as an episode of the Alfred Hitchcock Presents television series in the 1950s. Screenwriters Basil Dearden (who also directed), Michael Relph and an uncredited Bryan Forbes expanded the story to feature-film length, and fairly successfully. Basil Dearden had a distinguished career as a director and he had done both thrillers and horror before this so he was a good choice to bring this story to the big screen.

This is a role that requires Roger Moore to do some serious acting and he rises to the challenge superbly. Anyone inclined to dismiss Moore as a lightweight actor will find this performance to be a very pleasant surprise. This is a very different Roger Moore from his more familiar roles as Simon Templar and James Bond. He really is excellent. He gets good support from Hildegard Neil. The supporting cast includes a number of faces that will be very familiar to horror fans. Thorley Waters is Pelham’s bumptious acquaintance Frank Bellamy, while Freddie Jones is a delight as the rather dotty psychiatrist.

This is strictly low-key horror and it’s all the more effective for that. Until very late in the movie we can’t really be sure what is happening to Harold Pelham. The final revelation harks back to the car crash at the beginning of the film and it provides a tense and exciting finish.

The Region 4 DVD release offers a good anamorphic transfer but sadly no extras. The movie has also been released in Region 1 and Region 2 and on Blu-Ray. These versions apparently include an excellent commentary track featuring Roger Moore.

The Man Who Haunted Himself is a very unjustly neglected movie. It’s very well-crafted and well-acted and is highly recommended.

Saturday 10 August 2013

The Black Cat (1934)

The Black Cat is one of the most highly regarded of Universal’s 1930s horror movies (there are many who rate it as the best of them) and it’s a movie that lives up to its reputation.

Director Edgar G. Ulmer didn’t know it then but this would be the first and last time in his career that he would have a generous budget and the resources of a major studio behind him. His affair with, and subsequent marriage to, the wife of Universal boss Carl Laemmle’s nephew would see him banished to the world of the Poverty Row studios. In fact he ended up at PRC, the absolute bottom of the rung. Ulmer later became the darling of the auteur theorists and his low-budget movies are today taken very seriously indeed.

The Black Cat was an idea that had been kicking around Universal for quite a while. Finally Ulmer and Peter Ruric came up with a screenplay that was deemed to be acceptable and the green light was given. The movie was released in mid-1934. It received venomous reviews from critics but the public didn’t care and they made it Universal’s biggest hit of 1934.

The budget was modest compared to some of Universal’s other early horror movies but Ulmer was always a fast and efficient worker and he got the maximum benefit out of the budget.

Edgar Allan Poe’s name was given prominence in the publicity for the film but the story as filmed has no connection with anything ever written by Poe (although it does capture some of Poe’s spirit).

A young American couple, Peter Alison (David Manners) and his new wife Joan (Julie Bishop), are travelling through central Europe on the Orient Express when they meet a distinguished Hungarian psychiatrist, Dr Vitus Werdegast (Bela Lugosi). Dr Werdegast is returning home after an absence of many years. During the First World War he had become a Russian prisoner after the Austro-Hungarian fortress of Marmorus had been betrayed to the enemy, a betrayal that cost the lives of thousands of men. Dr Werdegast believes that the man who sold out the fortress was his old friend Hjalmar Poelzig (Boris Karloff). He also blames Poelzig for the deaths of his wife and daughter. Dr Werdegast is returning to take his revenge.

Poelzig is now a renowned architect. His ultra-modernist home was built on the ruins of the  Marmorus fortress. The charabanc in which Peter and Joan Alison and Dr Werdegast are travelling crashes on a mountain road in driving rain. The driver is killed but the passengers survive, although Joan is slightly injured. They make their way on foot to Hjalmar Poelzig’s house. Dr Werdegast and Poelzig will become involved in a dangerous game, with Joan as the stake.

That’s really all there is to the plot. This thin story was one of the faults for which the movie was lambasted at the time of its release but it proves to be an unimportant weakness. This is a movie that relies on atmosphere, stunning visuals and bravura acting and these elements are present in such quantity that no-one is likely to notice the threadbare nature of the script.

The Black Cat was the first movie to pair Universal’s two horror icons, Karloff and Lugosi. Karloff landed the more interesting and colourful role but Lugosi gives such a superb and subtle performance that he is no danger of being overwhelmed by Karloff. The performances of these two great stars complement each other perfectly. The other players are of no importance, and in fact it’s hard to think of a movie in which David Manners was important. Lucille Lund as Karen looks suitably mysterious while Julie Bishop (known at the time as Jacqueline Wells) manages to scream on cue.

Ulmer started his film career as an art director and it’s the brilliance and decadent extravagance of the visuals that makes this one of the great horror landmarks. This movie abandoned the gothic imagery of earlier Universal horror films. That decision turned out to be a masterstroke. The extreme modernist look of the house and of the interiors proves to be far more alienating, weird and threatening than tired gothic visual clichés.

The striking images provide the perfect accompaniment to the outrageously decadent and bizarre themes with which the screenplay is packed. Pretty much every evil and every perversion and every form of madness that the screenwriters (and the audience) could imagine will be found here, from necrophilia to Satanism. Hjalmar Poelzig has a room in which he keeps his collection of perfectly preserved corpses, including that of Dr Werdegast’s wife. It’s a shocking idea made even more eerie by the visual presentation of it. This blending of bizarre ideas with bizarre images continues throughout the movie. Every other element of the movie, from the acting to the music, is exquisitely and artfully blended to absolute perfection.

This is one of the five movies in Universal’s Bela Lugosi Collection DVD boxed set. I’d seen this movie a few years ago in a terrible print on a budget DVD. The difference between that awful print and the excellent print included in this boxed set is striking to say the least.

The Black Cat is one of the masterpieces of the horror genre. A movie every horror fan must see.

Wednesday 7 August 2013

The Invisible Ray (1936)

In 1935 Universal was in deep trouble and by the end of the year had changed hands. High hopes were held out for The Invisible Ray which would feature both of Universal’s top horror stars, Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. The picture was released in 1936 and was an interesting departure for the studio, being more science fiction than gothic horror. The result is a very entertaining movie.

Stuart Walker had been assigned to direct but when he asked for three more days to get the script into final shape he was dumped and replaced by Lambert Hillyer. The studio was worried that Walker would fall behind schedule and with the studio in big financial trouble they felt they could not take the risk. Ironically Hillyer ended up well over schedule and well over budget.

The movie was budgeted as a B-picture but at the upper end of B-picture budgets.

Karloff is Dr Janos Rukh and Dr Rukh is of course a mad scientist. He’s an astronomer who has made some extraordinary claims. Sir Francis Stevens and Rukh’s old rival Dr Felix Benet (Bela Lugosi) have been sent to Rukh’s observatory in the Carpathians to check out those claims. They are extremely sceptical but they soon discover that Rukh really is on to something.

At this point the movie gets into some wonderfully silly pseudoscientific territory. Dr Rukh has discovered an invisible ray (from the Andromeda galaxy) that enables him to not only see the past but project it onto a screen in his laboratory. At what the invisible ray discloses is a gigantic meteor hitting the Earth millions of years ago. The meteor came down in Africa and Dr Rukh is convinced it was composed of an element that can unleash even more power than radium. He calls this element Radium-X and sets off for Africa with his no longer sceptical scientific colleagues to find it.

Dr Rukh finds Radium-X but pays a heavy price for his discovery. He is transformed into the dreaded Luminous Man (as the movie’s publicity described him). He glows in the dark and his touch means instant death. Luckily Dr Benet knows how to produce an antidote to Radium-X but he warns Dr Rukh that his brain may be affected. What really affects Dr Rukh’s brain is his later discovery that Dr Benet has achieved fame and wealth by using Radium-X in medicine (Dr Rukh is by this time incorrectly presumed to be dead). A showdown between the two scientists seems inevitable.

There is a romantic sub-plot involving Dr Rukh’s beautiful young wife Diane (Frances Drake) and a rather irritating young explorer.

It’s sad to see that by 1936 Universal had already lost faith in Lugosi. Karloff gets top billing and he gets the plum role of the mad scientist. He plays the role exceptionally well - he was always terrific as a villain who was as much a victim as a true villain. Lugosi gets the relatively thankless supporting role but turns in a fine and quite subtle performance. Whatever doubts Universal may have had of him Lugosi was always a fine actor when given the opportunity. Frances Drake makes a fairly glamorous heroine.

John Colton’s screenplay makes no sense at all but it has enough outrageous ideas to keep things consistently entertaining. Lambert Hillyer was not really a top-flight horror director but he was responsible for some good movies in the genre, including another notable 1936 Universal release, Dracula's Daughter.

Visually this movie is very strong. There are some well-crafted special effects (by John P. Fulton) and some nice gadgets. Dr Rukh’s observatory is an impressive set as his laboratory. The overall effect is a perfect blending of gothic and futuristic elements. The vision revealed by the invisible ray produces the right kind of science fictional awe.

A very wise decision was made not to throw in large amounts of stock footage for the African scenes. Equally wisely the comic relief was kept to an absolute minimum.

This movie is one of five in Universal’s Bela Lugosi Collection DVD boxed set, a set that includes most of the memorable pairings of Lugosi and Boris Karloff (so perhaps it should have been called the Karloff-Lugosi Collection). Either way it’s a superb transfer.

The Invisible Ray is enormous fun and is highly recommended.

Monday 5 August 2013

The House in Marsh Road (1960)

The House in Marsh Road, a ghost story of sorts, was made at Britain’s Merton Park Studios in 1960.

David Linton (Tony Wright) and his wife Jean (Patricia Dainton) live their whole lives one step ahead of their creditors. They are constantly on the move in order to avoid paying their debts. Them they have a stroke of luck, or at least what appears to be a stroke of luck. Jean inherits a house from a long-lost aunt.

The house, Four Winds, is a rather old-fashioned cottage in a quiet village. Its main distinguishing feature is that it includes a ghost. Apparently it’s a fairly friendly ghost. Well, it’s been a fairly friendly ghost up to now.

David is a novelist. Or rather he’s a would-be novelist. He certainly has all the right qualifications - he’s an obnoxious self-pitying drunk so he’s halfway there already. David is keen to sell the house. He claims he can’t work there. Of course the truth is that David wouldn’t work anywhere. His idea of hard work is propping up the bar at the local pub.

David’s excuse for his drinking is that he needs to meet people, otherwise he won’t have any material. Apparently writers get all their best material in pubs. It sure beats working anyway.

To help him with the literary masterpiece he’s currently working on (when he isn’t boozing) he hires a local woman from the village to type up his deathless prose. The fact that this woman, Mrs Valerie Stockley (Sandra Dorne), happens to be an attractive young blonde suggests that David isn’t really interested in her typing skills.

Relations between David and Jean become increasingly strained. He’d always lived off her but now that she owns a house his dependence on her is even more obvious, and he becomes more and more resentful. Soon he’s telling Valerie Stockley that his wife doesn’t understand him. David’s actual problem is that Jean understands him only too well. Mrs Stockley is sympathetic to David’s whining, mostly because she thinks the house belongs to him. She’s not the sort of woman who falls in love with penniless failed writers. David convinces himself that if he was married to Valerie Stockley he’d be happy and he’d be able to write lots of successful novels. If only there was some way he could marry Valerie. If only his wife were to meet with an unfortunate accident everything would be peachy. You know where this is going of course.

Meanwhile the ghost is getting more restive. The ghost seem to be well disposed to Jean and she is quite happy to have him haunting the house as long as he doesn’t cause any trouble. And he doesn’t cause any trouble, except to David. This ghost seems to dislike David. Jean’s aunt had told her that the ghost would not harm any member of her family. It seems that the ghost (who is invariably known as Patrick) does not really consider David to be family.

As the plot moves to its inevitable conclusion Patrick the ghost takes an increasingly active role, a role that will become eventually become crucial.

The acting is adequate without being particularly outstanding although Tony Wright as David certainly makes a memorable heel. Wright is merciless in exposing his character’s delusions and his basic weakness.

Montgomery Tully had a prolific career as a director of British B-movies, especially crime movies. He was perfectly competent without reaching any great heights but he could be relied upon to turn out acceptable results on limited budgets. Writer-producer Maurice J. Wilson’s career followed a similar trajectory, and his screenplay is similarly competent. The short 70-minute running time helps to keep the pacing taut which is just as well since there really isn’t a lot of plot to develop.

The ghost remains invisible which neatly obviates the need for any special effects. In most cases the less you see of a ghost the more effective it is so that is no disadvantage.

This movie is paired with another forgotten British horror movie, The Monkey’s Paw, on a single disc from Renown Pictures. This British DVD release is region-free. Both movies are presented in their original 4:3 aspect ratio. The transfers are excellent. It’s worth pointing out also that the price is quite reasonable.

The House in Marsh Road does a reasonable job of combining a mystery thriller with an old-fashioned (if slightly offbeat) ghost story. The plot is a little threadbare but there are some nice moments when the ghost decides to take a hand in events. This is an old-fashioned movie but it’s old-fashioned in a good way and it’s perfectly decent if not terribly demanding entertainment. Recommended.

Thursday 1 August 2013

The Vampire (1957)

In the mid-1950s, until England’s Hammer Studios revived it in a big way, it might have seemed that the gothic horror movie (as distinct from the science fiction monster movie) was all but dead. But the genre never quite died.

The genre did however borrow quite heavily from science fiction and 1950s horror tended to present gothic horror themes such as vampires in a rather science fictional way.

The low-budget 1957 American horror flick The Vampire (renamed The Mark of the Vampire for later television release) is a good illustration of this. It does have vampires but rather than being supernatural creatures they’re explained as being the result of a scientific experiment gone wrong, which the makes this movie a cross between a vampire movie and a mad scientist movie.

Of course one of the attractions of bringing in a science fictional explanation is that it lends itself to a contemporary setting, and for the low-budget film-maker a contemporary setting  had the very big advantage of keeping costs down.

The Vampire starts off with a mad scientist. Dr Matt Campbell lives alone in an old and very gothic-looking house. He’s working on some mysterious experiment. No-one actually dislikes him but he is regarded as being perhaps a bit odd and too solitary.

At the point where he believes he has achieved success at last he dies from a sudden heart attack. Just before he dies he tells his friend Dr Paul Beecher (John Beal) that he has finally succeeded and that the results are in a jar of pills that he hands him.

But just what had Dr Campbell succeeded in doing? And what do these pills contain? Dr Beaumont (Dabbs Greer) and his strangely monosyllabic assistant Henry (James Griffith) are not sure. Dr Beaumont is head of the psychology department at the university that was funding Dr Campbell’s research but he knows little of what Dr Campbell was actually doing. Now he and Henry must try to discover exactly what Dr Campbell had succeeded in doing.

This becomes more urgent when a series of mysterious deaths starts to occur. An odd feature of these deaths is that the victims have two small wounds on their necks, which are naturally enough presumed to be insect bites.

Meanwhile Dr Beecher is beginning to get some idea of what those tablets mean. The first thing he learns is that once you’ve taken one you have to go on taking them. Within 24 hours the craving for the pills starts to become unbearable. He also starts having strange disturbing dreams. He wakes up in the morning tired and more than usually disheveled, and with one very stark image - the image of a face. It’s a different face each time. When he discovers that these faces are the faces of the people who were killed the previous night he begins to realise the full horror of what’s happened to him. He begins to fear both the pills and himself, and to fear for his young daughter.

In a mad scientist movie you expect the mad scientist to pay the price of his forbidden and horrible experiments. It’s a clever touch that in this movie it’s not the mad scientist who pays, it’s a man who is really no more than an innocent bystander. Another nice touch is the sinister assistant Henry who turns out to be completely harmless.

John Beal’s performance as Dr Beecher is rather better than you expect from this type of bargain basement feature. He manages to convey the terror of the doctor’s predicament quite convincingly.

The makeup effects are cheap but while they do look a little like Halloween masks they work quite well, largely due to Beal’s competent acting.

Director Paul Landres made a few low-budget movies but spent most of his career in television. Considering the budgetary constraints under which he was operating here he does a competent enough job. The movie is well-paced which is always a major asset in a low-budget movie.

This movie comes as part of one of MGM’s Midnite Movies DVD series (paired with The Return of Dracula) in a beautiful widescreen anamorphic transfer. As always with these Midnite Movies the low price tag is a major inducement.

The Vampire presents a few interesting twists on both the vampire and mad scientist themes. It’s hardly a horror classic (and is perhaps in some ways closer to being one of the science fiction monster movies mentioned earlier) but it’s entertaining viewing and is certainly worth a look, especially given the bargain price of the DVD.