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Posts Tagged ‘Lon Chaney Jr’

Most people, if shown a movie, could probably take a pretty good stab at guessing when it was produced. Even without the obvious clues – well-known dialogue, famous stars – there are all manner of subtle little technical and stylistic things that can tip one off to the time a film was made. Most of the time the evolution of cinema as a visual art form seems quite gradual, with only tiny incremental changes – but then, to stick with the evolutionary analogy, there are occasional moments of punctuated equilibrium, when things change quickly and drastically: the arrival of sound, and then colour; the introduction of a format like cinemascope; the arrival of the modern blockbuster around the time of a revolution in special effects technology; the rise of CGI.

All of these are obviously huge changes, but sometimes you look back at an old film – or, strictly speaking, a couple of old films – and you are struck by the fact even during those apparently static periods of slow and gradual change, progress was still taking place.

By the time that George Waggner directed The Wolf Man in 1941, Universal Picture’s initial cycle of monster and horror movies had been underway from a decade: as well as the initial versions of Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Mummy, the studio had also made The Invisible Man and various follow-ups like The Bride of Frankenstein, Dracula’s Daughter, Son of Frankenstein and The Mummy’s Hand. They’d also had a go at a werewolf movie, Werewolf of London, without much success (consensus is that it was a bit too similar to a recently-released Jekyll and Hyde movie).

This second take on the theme of lycanthropy is done more in the style of Frankenstein and Dracula, by which I mean it occurs in what feels almost like the borderland between the real world and something out of a fairy tale. This sense is only heightened by the decision to set it in Wales – presumably as distant, exotic and romantic a land as central Europe, as far as most Universal executives were concerned. Certainly, in terms of authentic Welshness, the film is about one percent convincing.

There’s something very odd about the near-total refusal of American horror movies in the first half of the 1940s to engage with real world events of the period, but there we go: it’s practically a genre convention at this point not to mention the war then raging. Certainly nobody mentions it in and around the country estate of Sir John Talbot (Claude Rains), where much of the film takes place. Tragedy has recently struck the family with the death of his eldest son and heir, occasioning the return from America (naturally) of his estranged younger son, Larry (Lon Chaney Jr.). (The age gap between Rains and Chaney is, if we’re going to be exact, about seventeen years, or, to put it another way, not quite big enough to convince). Larry initially seems like an amiable, well-meaning guy, which is what the plot requires, although events soon take a rather odd turn.

Sir John’s pride and joy is a big telescope, which he appears to use to spy on the local village as much as for astronomical research, and Larry avails himself of this too: and soon he is peering at the most beautiful girl in the village (Evelyn Ankers) in her bedroom. What can I say – autres temps, autres moeurs. Soon he is beetling down to the village to chat her up properly, apparently not having clocked that it’s a bad idea to admit to ogling someone through a long lens when asking them out.

Still, it’s Wales, and they do things differently there. Having bought a cane with a silver wolf on its pommel (yes, all kinds of plot is brazenly being laid in here) from young Gwen’s shop, Larry ends up taking her and her friend Jenny to the local gypsy camp for what must constitute some very cheap and not very thrilling thrills. The other two go off for an evening walk while Jenny gets her palm read by a gypsy named Bela (Bela Lugosi). Unfortunately, all Bela can read in her palm is a pentagram, which translates as ‘imminent death’.

Yes, Bela Lugosi is a werewolf in this one, though he is let off having to put on the makeup: he turns into an actual wolf. Bela attacks Jenny and Larry has a go at saving her, bashing Bela on the head with his silver cane and getting nipped in the process. Needless to say this kind of incident causes a stir, even in Wales. The natives get ugly and dark imprecations are muttered, blaming Larry for the whole thing.

Needless to say Larry has problems of his own, as Bela’s mother (Maria Ouspenskaya) fills him in on the details of being a werewolf. (The age gap between Lugosi and Ouspenskaya is only six years, which I suppose makes the Rains-Chaney gap seem a bit more reasonable.) Soon Larry finds his toes getting hairier and hairier, and he is gripped by savage primal urges…

(In an odd deviation from what you might expect, the film never provides the full man-into-monster transformation sequence, beyond a shot of Chaney’s bare feet gradually turning into something more like paws. There’s also obviously something rum about the fact that it seems like the very first thing the wolf man does after changing into a savage, inhuman beast is put his shirt back on – I mean, there were obviously very good reasons for not wanting to have to make up Chaney’s arms and shoulders, it’s just a weird bit of continuity.)

What’s obviously missing from all of this is any real mention of the full moon as the trigger for the wolf man’s appearances, and what’s unexpectedly present is a sort-of association between werewolves and Satanism (the pentagram which both Bela and Talbot are marked with, and see on their victims). So we are still in a kind of half-way house between the folkloric werewolf (very much akin to a vampire) and the Hollywood breed, which this film did the most to inaugurate.

Still, the film’s innovations came to be ‘how werewolves are’, in terms of popular culture, in the same way that the Universal versions of Dracula and Frankenstein likewise define their subjects. Not bad going, considering that Lon Chaney Jr isn’t quite in the same league as Karloff or Lugosi (I always find him to be a stolid, doughy sort of performer), and the wolf man make-up also leaves something to be desired: if the film was called The Boar Man it would probably be better, but I can understand that was never going to fly.

Here we come to an odd thing: for while The Wolf Man is appreciably not up to the same standard as the first Universal monster movies and lacks some of their iconic power, it is – by almost any rubric – an appreciably slicker, more competent, more modern production. Tod Browning’s film in particular betrays its stage origins in countless ways; this is much more genuinely cinematic, and more entertaining as a result. We’re talking increments rather than a quantum leap – both films retain the ‘rude mechanical’ comedy relief characters, in this film a policeman called Twiddle – but the use of a much more modern visual grammar is immediately apparent.

Are we stumbling towards the suggestion that The Wolf Man is in some sense a triumph of style over substance? I’m not sure I would honestly go that far, not least because I would call it a decent example of a foundational horror movie rather than a particularly great film in its own right. But it’s true that the way in which the story is told complements the premise in a way that wasn’t always the case with the earlier films, and this goes a long way towards making up for the fact that the premise itself is only a pretty good one on this occasion. An engaging bit of horror history, anyway.

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You may recall that last week we talked about the Roger Corman-produced movie Humanoids of the Deep, on which occasion I concluded that, despite appearances, the film’s similarities with the Lovecraft short story The Shadow Over Innsmouth were probably just coincidental. I still stand by that, on the whole, but just the other day I saw another old movie which did give me pause and reason to possibly reconsider: 1963’s The Haunted Palace, directed by Corman himself.

The movie opens in the 18th century New England village of Arkham, where rum doings are a-transpiring, as young women are being lured to the palatial residence of wealthy local grandee Joseph Curwen (Vincent Price, naturally). The music is stirring, the production values classy, and the sense that these AIP movies were the closest thing to Hammer horror in American domestic cinema is only intensified when the local villagers grab their blazing torches and decide to pay Curwen a visit, declaring him to be a necromancer and magician. This is bad news for Curwen, and also for the tree that they decide to tie him to before setting fire to him (presumably they didn’t have a stake handy). In true malevolent warlock style, though, Curwen declares that he will have his revenge – if not on the men present there that night, but on their descendants…

Cue fade out and a quick quotation from Edgar Allan Poe; this was (rather spuriously, as we shall see) promoted as being part of the series of Poe adaptations Corman and Price were engaged upon at the time. Before we know it, it is the 1870s, but Arkham is still blighted by its dark past. Clearly unaware of all this is Bostonian gentleman Charles Dexter Ward (Price again) and his wife Anne (Debra Paget). Ward has just inherited his great-great-grandfather’s house in Arkham, and this turns out to be the ‘palace’ that Curwen had imported stone-by-stone from Europe. It almost goes without saying that Price is playing his own descendant, but who exactly he’s inherited the house from is left a little obscure.

The Wards get an unfriendly reception from the Arkhamites, but in this circumstances this is not entirely surprising: since Curwen’s day the town has been plagued by horrific deformities, with some families having to keep their less-human members chained up for the safety of everyone. (There are various people with webbed fingers, missing eyes and homicidal dispositions, but also one man who appears to have been born without a mouth, which does raise some questions). Ward decides it would be best just to stick around long enough to organise the sale of the house – an encounter with the ‘housekeeper’ of the palace, played by Lon Chaney Jr, may contribute to this – but is in much greater peril than he realises. The portrait of Joseph Curwen still hanging in the house exerts a strange influence upon him, and it soon becomes clear that Curwen’s spirit has been hanging around ever since his untimely cremation, waiting for a suitable vessel to occupy.

The local doctor is friendlier than the other villagers and explains some of the back-story to Ward and his wife: Curwen managed to lay his hands on a copy of a dreaded book entitled the Necronomicon and used it to summon dark otherworldly beings, such as Cthulhu and Yog-Sothoth, so they could breed with human women and create a hybrid race which would go on to dominate the world. With Ward increasingly under the possession of Curwen, and his wife not really any the wiser, this project is back on – as soon as Curwen exacts a little revenge on the descendants of his executioners…

As I may have said before, I only really became aware of the Corman-Price-Poe cycle of films when the BBC showed a season of them in 1990 (prime time BBC2, each with a special introduction from Corman himself, how very different the world was then): The Fall of the House of Usher, The Pit and the Pendulum, The Premature Burial, Tales of Terror, The Raven, and (of course) The Masque of the Red Death. The Haunted Palace was notably absent from this run, though – but I can think of a couple of possible reasons why.

Firstly, it may just have been that this was a bit too much for BBC2 at 9pm: it’s not what you’d actually call scary, but it has a profoundly effective brooding and doomy atmosphere, and some of the sequences – particularly those with the mutant, hybrid villagers – are very unsettling even today. There are strange notes being struck here which are not present in any of the other Poe movies Corman was involved with.

Of course, this may be because it’s not actually based on Edgar Allan Poe in any meaningful sense (which is another possible reason why it wasn’t included in a season of Poe movies). The title is Poe, the main ‘based on’ credit goes to Poe, and there are a couple of Poe quotes inserted into the film, but the actual plot is from elsewhere: as the script’s references to Cthulhu, Yog-Sothoth and the Necronomicon suggest, this is really an adaptation of H. P. Lovecraft’s The Case of Charles Dexter Ward (and the first credited Lovecraft-derived movie, which makes this a landmark in horror cinema). But Lovecraft was virtually unheard-of back in the 1960s, and it was Poe’s name that would sell tickets.

Nevertheless, as a modern viewer, used to nudge-wink references to Lovecraft and his mythology in various movies and TV shows, it’s startling to come across a movie from so long ago which so openly makes use of iconic Lovecraftian props and concepts: the only slight disappointment is that we don’t actually get to hear Vincent Price say ‘Cthulhu’, as that dialogue goes to Frank Maxwell’s character. One thing which slightly irritates me is the way that anything which features a slimy tentacle lazily gets described as ‘Lovecraftian’ by default, when the writer really worked from a wider palette. But The Haunted Palace captures much of the essential Lovecraftian feel – the pervasive atmosphere of gloom and despair, the obsession with the influence of the past upon the present, the almost-instinctive revulsion connected to notions of heredity and miscegenation. This may have been one of the first ‘official’ Lovecraft movies, but it remains one of the most authentic.

Even if you’re not particularly bothered either way about the origins of the story, this is still an effectively creepy movie – Price is on top form in what’s effectively a double role, as you’d expect, but there’s also a very good supporting turn from Lon Chaney Jr, as you might not. That said, this is a movie filled with good performances, made with impressive production values and capable direction. Several times during this film I was struck by how much it resembled the kind of Gothic horror which Hammer Films were making in the UK during the same period. The Corman-Price films often had a slightly lighter touch and a little more colour about them, but the best of them are as good as any classic Hammer film, and The Haunted Palace is amongst the best.

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Something curious and historically interesting happened to popular culture in the late 1930s and early 1940s, not that most people would have noticed it at the time: the idea of the shared fictional universe came into existence, where events in one story could have consequences in others that weren’t simply sequels, where characters didn’t just spin off but converged as well. Given that this concept underpins the business plans of a number of major film studios nowadays, we should probably remember that it was rather a derided one for many decades – although even today we’re still talking about the kind of films which aim to make money rather than win awards. The key players, Marvel and DC, are heavily rooted in making superhero movies, although also reputedly having a bash are Universal, with their stable of horror characters.

This seems entirely appropriate given that capes and monsters were where the first fictional universes started to crystallise: the mythos created by Lovecraft, and the DC comics universe kick-started by All Star Comics #3 in 1940, for instance. Both of those were probably happening under most people’s radar – a little more visible, perhaps, was the appearance of Universal’s original shared movie universe, which was inaugurated with Roy William Neill’s Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man, released in 1943.

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This was the fourth sequel to the iconic Karloff-Clive version of Frankenstein, but to begin with it seems much more strongly linked to The Wolf Man, to which it is the first follow-up (apparently writer Curt Siodmak only suggested the movie as a joke, but didn’t object to being paid to produce an actual script). It opens in that notorious hotbed of lycanthropic savagery, the Welsh countryside, where a couple of unwise locals in unfortunate hats break into the family vault of local big-shots the Talbots, intent on plundering the corpse of prematurely-deceased heir Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr).

However, it turns out that all that ‘shot with a silver bullet’ stuff is not strictly accurate, for four years after his interment Talbot is still alive – apparently being a werewolf makes you immortal! The shock of finding himself not dead means that Talbot ends up in hospital in Cardiff, although quite what happens is a little obscure. Here he meets Dr Mannering (Patric Knowles), who eventually proves to be a rather remarkable individual, and local copper Inspector Owen (Dennis Hoey).

Never mind the Universal Monsters shared-world, for a moment it looks as if another crossover is on the cards, as Dennis Hoey is perhaps best known to modern audiences for his role as the impenetrably thick Inspector Lestrade in half a dozen Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes movies, also for Universal. Hoey gives exactly the same performance as Owen as he does as Lestrade, in an identical costume – it’s enough to make you speculate about Lestrade being sent on an undercover mission to the principality, and imagine Rathbone’s Holmes facing off against the various monsters. Not to be, unfortunately.

Anyway, Talbot fangs his way out of his straitjacket and goes on the run in search of a way out of his predicament, eventually catching up with the gypsy Maleva (Maria Ouspenskaya), the mum of the guy who originally bit him. We’re now quite a long way into the movie and I suspect most viewers will be quite relieved when her only suggestion is that they look up a notorious scientist with an unparallelled knowledge of the secrets of life and death, Dr Frankenstein!

Unfortunately, all the various members of the Frankenstein dynasty with medical diplomas have died by the time the duo arrive in Frankenstein’s home village, mostly as a result of the family’s most famous creation going off on one. Talbot and Maleva are thus somewhat stumped, until Talbot stumbles across Frankenstein’s Monster (Bela Lugosi), frozen in ice. This happens quite by chance, by the way: I suppose this is the sort of thing which happens when you are a werewolf who spends most of his time being chased around by mobs of angry villagers.

Once defrosted, the Monster proves extraordinarily helpful in trying to find Frankenstein’s original notes (especially so when you consider that he is supposedly blind at this point and also had his brain replaced in the previous film in the series), but Talbot still has to call upon the help of Frankenstein’s granddaughter (Ilona Massey), a woman who really knows the value of plaits, in order to find what he wants.

At this point Mannering turns up, having tracked Talbot across Europe, and having proven himself to be not just a top doctor but also a remarkable sleuth, reveals he is also a bit of a Frankenstein fanboy. He agrees to rebuild Frankenstein’s lab and use the machinery there to drain the vital energy from both Talbot and the Monster, thus ending the threat of the two monsters forever. What can possibly go wrong…?

You would, I suspect, have to be a particularly sensitive and delicate individual to actually find Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man frightening or horrific by modern standards. Perhaps the most alarming thing in the film is the obligatory musical number (not performed by either of the title characters, alas), which features startling numbers of fiercely cheerful gypsies and villagers in lederhosen going ‘tra la la’ more than you might imagine possible.

Or perhaps not. Actually frightening, this film is not, but it still possesses a weird, morbid atmosphere, primarily because this is really a film about suicide: the chief motor of the plot is Lawrence Talbot’s desire to die. The film in general and Chaney in particular are not remotely subtle enough for this to be quite as affecting as it could be, but a modern film with this kind of theme would have the potentially to be truly disturbing and unusual.

But then this is obviously the product of another era, when a horror film was still second cousin to a fairy tale, mostly set in ruined castles and graveyards in quasi-mythical lands far across the sea, populated by superstitious villagers and enigmatic gypsies. Good and evil are still almost palpably real, in the world of the film at least. The genre has changed so much as to be almost unrecognisable.

Is it really any good, though? Or – was it any good when it was made, by the standards of the 1930s and 1940s? Perhaps I’m not the best person to ask, for I tend to find the original Universal horror movies painfully slow and lacking in incident, certainly compared to those made by Hammer a generation later. Even The Bride of Frankenstein, the film generally held up to be the zenith of the series, seems to me to be awkwardly self-conscious and twee. Well, anyway: the story is odd enough to be watchable, even if the plotting is rather melodramatic and some of the characterisation highly peculiar – Mannering variously functions as an expository tool, the romantic lead, and the de facto villain, depending on what point in the film we have reached. He briefly goes bad simply to facilitate the climactic battle.

Yup, before Batman Vs Superman, before Alien Vs Predator, before Freddy Vs Jason, before King Kong Vs Godzilla, there was the concluding barney of Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man. Again, by modern standards the battle is energetic but ultimately quite tame, and it’s pretty brief too. You can see they’re making kind of an attempt to make the two combatants fight in different ways, but it really just boils down to the kind of rasslin’ you might see outside a pub in the small hours of any weekend night. One of the prime rules of the all-star death match is established even this early on – in that the clash is not fought to its natural conclusion with a real winner emerging. In this case, a convenient collapsing dam washes away the venue of the struggle while events are still in progress, the Baroness and Mannering (back to being a mildly heroic figure at this point) having discreetly scarpered by this point.

Then again, the makers of this kind of series always eventually figure out that by killing your monsters off too permanently you’re only making trouble for yourself when it comes to writing the next movie, so I suppose we can’t be too critical on that score. I find it quite hard to be especially critical of Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man on any grounds – it’s not high art, of course, and it’s just as much a weird collection of disparate bits as Lugosi’s character, but its very oddness gives it a strange charm I find very hard to resist.

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