Posts Tagged ‘John Carradine’

Complaining that some of the final films of the great old horror legends are a bit unworthy of their presence almost feels like missing the point, given that (arguably) one of the reasons these actors are so celebrated is because they were performers of genuine charisma, talent, and technical virtuosity, who happily put all that to work in the service of rather variable, usually low-budget genre movies. Nevertheless, of all these performers – and I am thinking, of course, of Peter Cushing, Vincent Price, Christopher Lee, and perhaps Donald Pleasence – only Lee lived long enough to see many directors who grew up on his films become successful figures, and reaped the benefit of numerous great roles in his final years as a result.

Nevertheless, when it comes to a movie like House of the Long Shadows, your expectations understandably become higher, as soon as you see the poster (or failing that the credits). Pete Walker’s film achieves the notable coup of assembling Cushing, Price and Lee, together with John Carradine. All the lines on the map of classic horror movie acting converge here, one way or another – the only other film to come close is Scream and Scream Again, which had Price, Lee, and Cushing in it, albeit never all in the same scene.

However, it soon becomes clear that the great men are all playing character roles: the lead character, Ken Magee, is played by Desi Arnaz Jr. Magee is an American novelist visiting London to see his publisher (another veteran actor, Richard Todd). After a disagreement over the value and quality of some of the great old classic novels, particularly Wuthering Heights, Magee and his publisher make a bet – if Magee can produce the completed manuscript of a publishable gothic novel in twenty-four hours, he’ll win $20,000. So he can work undisturbed, and perhaps soak up a little atmosphere, the publisher offers him the chance to work at a remote country house in Wales known as Baldpate Manor (the actual name being in Welsh and thus unpronounceable by anyone else). So off he trots.

(Quite apart from anything else, I feel obliged to raise an eyebrow over the whole writing-a-novel-in-24-hours stunt. How long’s a novel? NaNoWriMo suggest 50,000 words is a reasonable word-count, which is still on the short side compared to the average book. Now, on the most productive day of my life, I managed to write roughly 15,000 words in about ten hours. So the idea of writing a whole novel, of any real quality, in twenty-four-hours, is surely bunkum. But there’s a sense in which this is amongst the least of House of the Long Shadows‘ problems.)

Magee arrives at Baldpate and soon discovers he is not alone: there are a couple of creepy old caretakers (played by Carradine and Sheila Keith) and an attractive young woman (Julie Peasgood) who says she’s been sent to warn him he’s in danger and should leave. (Who is Sheila Keith, you ask, and how has she blagged a way into the distinguished company of the other character performers in this film? Well, apart from appearing in Crossroads and various comedy shows, she was a regular in Pete Walker’s other horror movies: House of Whipcord, Frightmare, and so on.) Magee rightly twigs that at least some of this is a distraction organised by his publisher to ensure he loses the bet.

But soon, and many would say none too soon, other eccentric characters start showing up at the manor: Cushing arrives, supposedly as a lost motorist, while Price makes a grand entrance as the heir to the property and Carradine’s son (the dates don’t really work, but go with it). Price manages to deliver a fairly indifferent first line – ‘I have returned’ – so it’s genuinely very funny, and suddenly the whole film seems to be lifted onto a higher level for a moment. Finally, Christopher Lee arrives as someone thinking of buying the house.

It turns out that Magee has arrived in time for the reunion of the Grisbane family, for the first time since 1939 – Cushing turns out to be Price’s younger brother. But it is a not entirely joyous occasion: the family have reassembled to release the youngest Grisbane brother, who has been locked up in the attic for forty-odd years since committing a terrible murder as a teenager. However, it seems that he has already escaped, and is on the loose in the vicinity, intent on vengeance against his brothers and father…

Well, quite apart from all the gothic tropes – which are quite cleverly woven into the script – House of the Long Shadows contains no fewer than three significant twists, of which two are infuriatingly risible and one is so obvious you will see it coming a mile off. This film has a terrible ending. In fact, it has several terrible endings in quick succession. But in a weird way, the rotten ending isn’t as much of a joy-killer as it could have been, because the rest of the film is pretty dreadful too.

I would have been prepared to suggest that the whole script was assembled just as a vehicle to get this particular group of actors together – but oddly enough that isn’t the case. This is just the most recent of many adaptations of the 1913 novel Seven Keys to Baldpate, which may explain why the film feels so old-fashioned and chintzy in its plot and structure. As we have already noted, the premise is hard to take seriously, and it doesn’t get any more plausible as it continues. It’s just possible that the film might have worked better if it had really tried to emphasise the campness and archness of the story; the big-name quartet certainly have the talent. But maybe the constraints of the film – it’s clearly been made on a very low budget, with a tiny cast – precluded even that.

There is undeniably some pleasure to be had in seeing Lee, Cushing and Price together on screen – but these are essentially supporting roles, in the end, and too much of the film is given to Arnaz Jr and Peasgood to carry. Occasional diversions into the gory territory of early-80s horror effects are also a bit of an issue. The film is ultimately depressing rather than funny or scary – there have been many disappointing low-budget horror movies, but few which have made such little use of such tremendous potential.

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Following my success, if that’s the right word, in finally tracking down a copy of Queen Kong on the internet, I decided to see what other vintage movies I have long had a hankering to watch could be found on well-known video-sharing sites. Possibly my first choice was influenced by the dim memory of first becoming aware of Queen Kong while flicking through, if memory serves, The Illustrated Dinosaur Movie Guide, edited by Stephen Jones. One of the other movies in that volume which snagged my attention was 1943’s Captive Wild Woman, an unrepentant B-movie directed by a (fairly) young Edward Dmytryk. And, lo and behold, this movie is also available to watch. (There are no dinosaurs in Captive Wild Woman, before you ask, but the Jones book includes all manner of ape-related movies, too.)

The year may have been 1943 but you will search Captive Wild Woman in vain for any acknowledgement of the wider world situation at the time it was made. The film has bigger and more urgent concerns, and depicts a world in which Americans can still go travelling abroad whenever they feel like it. As the story gets underway, Fred Mason (Milburn Stone) is returning from an animal-trapping expedition somewhere abroad. Exactly where he has been is a little unclear as he has managed to come back with both lions and tigers, which of course aren’t usually found in close proximity to each other (maybe he’s just been buying second-hand from zoos). Also amongst his acquisitions is Cheela, a large and unusually intelligent female gorilla.

On his return, Mason is greeted by his devoted fiancée Beth (Evelyn Ankers), who is naturally delighted to see him again, even though she is concerned about her sister Dorothy’s ‘glandular condition’. The exact nature of this is kept tastefully vague, and all we learn is that Dorothy has been losing weight. This is still enough for Beth to take her off to the not-at-all sinister Crestview Sanatorium, run by Dr Walters (John Carradine), who is one of the world’s leading experts on glands (this is not a film to watch if you don’t like gland-related dialogue), and has possibly the most reflective hair in cinema history.

Beth and Dr Walters have been getting on famously (mainly because the plot demands it) and Walters turns up at the circus where Mason is working as an animal trainer (of the old-school whip-and-chair variety). You can see the gland expert’s eyes light up at the sight of Cheela the gorilla, although the reason why is not immediately clear. Soon enough he has arranged with a disgruntled ex-employee of the zoo to steal the ape, and when his accomplice asks to be paid casually pushes him into Cheela’s murderous grip (yes, of course he’s a mad scientist, what else were you expecting).

Walters is convinced that glands hold the secret of life and by manipulating them you can achieve just about anything (I’ve manipulated a few glands myself in my time, but I must confess I never thought about it in such a lofty way). His scheme is to transplant Dorothy’s glandular material (there’s a passing reference to this being sex hormones) into Cheela the ape, which transforms the gorilla into an exotically lovely young woman (Acquanetta), which modern science suggests is entirely plausible.

Walters’ nurse has ethical objections to this (better late than never, I guess) and does the classic thing of telling the mad scientist she’s going to the cops while they’re alone together in his secret underground laboratory. Walters puts himself out of the running for Employer of the Year 1943 by murdering the nurse and transplanting her brain into Acquanetta (as you would). He decides to pass the ape-girl off as one Paula Dupree and takes her to the zoo to see if it stirs any memories of the simian phase of her existence (which seems unlikely, given the brain transplant, but it’s probably best not to think too systematically about the plot here).

Well, it turns out that Paula has uncanny powers to influence the behaviour of wild animals, which comes in handy when Fred Mason’s animal training practice goes unexpectedly south while she’s there. She gets offered a job at the circus as Mason’s assistant, and soon finds herself bearing a bit of a torch for him. When he remains totally devoted to Beth, however, this stirs up powerful feelings of resentment and jealousy, which (according to Captive Wild Woman) is bad for any transplanted glands you may have in your body. Paula finds herself beginning to revert to an ape-woman form even as her homicidal feelings towards Beth increase…

Yes, yes, I know what you’re thinking – this is schlocky horror and a bad movie, no matter how you cut it. It’s certainly one of the minor entries in the famous Universal monsters sequence (although it still managed to spawn two sequels) – I doubt we’ll be seeing a remake with a Russell Crowe cameo any time soon. That said, there are many films made nowadays which arguably have equally silly and improbable premises, especially in the horror-fantasy genre, so I’m inclined to be generous towards the whole ape-woman plotline, especially as it’s executed so full-bloodedly, with Carradine clearly having a lot of fun as the mad doctor. The film is so short that it doesn’t really get properly developed, unfortunately – any pathos the Paula character might generate doesn’t really register, as she is such a minor character in many ways – the film is much more about Beth and Fred, who are wholesome but dull.

It’s the other elements of the film which are more likely to genuinely disturb a modern viewer, anyway: Captive Wild Woman makes such extensive use of stock footage from the 1933 circus-themed film The Big Tent that Milburn Stone appears in the lead role solely because of his resemblance to someone in the earlier film. The ape-woman mad-science plot feels like its sharing the film with some gosh-wow-look-at-this stuff about wild animals at the circus and the spectacle of brave animal trainers (there are some sequences of Mason fending off a lion with only a chair which are a bit hair-raising even today). Accompanying this are quite a few scenes depicting behind-the-scenes at the circus, and it’s these which many may find a bit queasy – the treatment of the big cats is crude, at best, and at one point a fight between a lion and a tiger is shown, which appears to have been entirely genuine and most likely contrived by the film-makers.

But, as I was saying, this is a film of its era and if nothing else we should be grateful for how far we have come, in the field of animal welfare if not glandular transplantation. This is a compact, fairly enjoyable film, perhaps somewhat let down by a rather frantic ending which doesn’t quite come together in the way you hope it will. More of Acquanetta and Carradine would probably have improved it, but for the most part this is the good kind of bad movie.

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