Aunt Julia Vs the Scriptwriter

In MURDER BY THE CLOCK, Aunt Julia (Blanche Friderici) is a nasty old woman with a morbid fear of premature burial. Taking a leaf from Poe, she’s installed the family crypt with a kind of horror horn, which she can sound off should she awaken unexpectedly entombed. Meanwhile she’s changed her will, various grasping relatives are plotting her assassination, and her “idiot” son Philip (Irving Pichel) has an unhealthy obsession with murder: when she asks him what he’d like to do in life, he replies “Kill!”

I was seeing this movie as part of my ongoing odyssey to view every movie depicted within the quaint and curious A Pictorial History of Horror Movies by Denis Gifford, and it just happened to tie into Poe Week, via the premature burial theme, so it serves as a suitable aftershock of that festivity. It’s not great, but it’s from 1931 so it’s a fascinating historical artifact, showing how the fear film hadn’t yet gotten to grips with the supernatural can of worms opened by DRACULA. Here we’re in CAT AND THE CANARY terrain, with every creepy event solidly rooted in the criminal psychology of melodrama.

Apart from Mr. Pichel (above, right), who would go on to direct SHE and co-direct THE HOUNDS OF ZAROFF, we have clown-faced Regis Toomey, stalwart William “Stage” Boyd, and sultry Lilyan Tashman (above, left), who seduces three men into killing for her. Her husband is particularly unfortunate: strangled by Tashman’s lover, he’s revived by an adrenalin shot to the heart, Uma Thurman-style, then nearly stabbed to death by the lover, and finally scared to death by the spectre of his resuscitated aunt, before he can name the man who originally throttled him. Unlucky stiff.

With its witless comedy and on-the-nose dialogue, this creaker is no classic — it makes James Whale’s often rigid FRANKENSTEIN look fluent and pacy, and lacks that movie’s moments of the sublime. But it is extremely handsome, photographed by Karl Struss in the Paramount soft-focus style, which makes for an unusual-looking horror film. Director Edward Sloman sure lives up to his surname, but obtains good perfs, especially from the sly Tashman and amiable maniac Pichel.

Seeing as how most talkies by 1931 had shed the stumbles, cracklings pauses and enunciation of the early sound misfires, I guess it was deliberate policy to play horror movies slower, for creepy atmos and suspense. Makes sense. But when it doesn’t quite work, it feels like the movie’s slipped back to 1929…

9 Responses to “Aunt Julia Vs the Scriptwriter”

  1. I was interested in seeing this by virtue of its mention in the book Sin In Soft Focus. I suppose its lackluster qualities are the reason why more people haven’t seen it, but Struss’s camerawork always makes worthwhile something that otherwise isn’t.

  2. If you watched it without sound it’d probably be more compelling (although some of the dialogue IS enjoyable). Played more as a noir-before-the-fact, it could have worked much better — Scooby Doo mysteries never really do it for me.

  3. Ah yes — The Ice Follies version! I can just imagine Pichel’s character from Murder by the Clock directing this. “Lights! Camera! Kill! Kill!”

  4. I HATE Scooby Doo cartoons, their existence represents the absolute nadir in the history of animation. Mediocrity at its most blatant.

  5. Apparently Barbera, or maybe it was Hanna, was himself mystified by their popularity with the network. “Why do they want more? They’re all the same!”

    Even as a kid, I wondered why they couldn’t at least meet a real ghost for once. That would automatically be MORE INTERESTING!

  6. Totally agree. I hate movies that pull the same crap.

  7. Not to suggest an equivalency here – THE ADDAMS FAMILY was much better than SCOOBY-DOO – but it bugged me that THE ADDAMS FAMILY would have the same plot almost every week – some “normal” types would visit the Addams house and get freaked out.

    Irving Pichel also directed DESTINATION MOON.

  8. Maybe a long-running series needs more than one basic plot? Stepford and Son lasted for millennia with, mainly, two: Harold tries to get away, or Harold tries to get a woman. Dad mucks it up, in both cases. Being able to alternate kept it fresh. That and the brilliant, brilliant writing.

    As a kid, I greatly preferred The Munsters, not knowing that it was the derivative one, because it had lots of real, proper monsters. The subtleties of Gomez didn’t reach my vestigial brain.

    I guess Scooby Doo, Addams and Munsters all represented US TV’s desire to use this material somehow, without scaring anybody. Exploit the valuable mental real estate without referring to what it’s FOR.

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