Dank Satanic Mills #1

It’s the iron maiden again! Screen right, bottom. The same infernal device Conrad Veidt is consigned to in THE MAN WHO LAUGHS (in his first role, as the hero’s father) and which he later admired from the outside in ABOVE SUSPICION. We saw it again later in Corman’s THE RAVEN, the most recent appearance I’ve spotted by the long-serving instrument of torture. One of the most-used props in films. After a turn in it, you could recover by having a lie-down on Gloria Swanson’s swan-boat-bed.

I would like to discover more appearances.

Anyway, I have to say more about THE STRANGE DOOR because Eureka! granted me a review copyof their ace Karloff MANIACAL MADNESS set. Fun movie — future Star Trek director Joseph Pevney is turned loose in a lot of standing sets (a cucalorus in every room) with Charles Laughton and Boris Karloff. Laughton seems like he needs a couple-three more takes of every scene to get the lines down, but, aware of the tight schedule, I guess, he ploughs on until “cut” (rather than breaking the scene whenever he feels himself drying, as he did with Sternberg in all those I, CLAUDIUS outtakes). There’s a lot of mad invention and lipsmacking craziness, but punctuated by uncertain pauses where he has to slow himself down and then ramp up the energy again when he remembers what’s next.

Karloff, very solid, reunited with his OLD DARK HOUSE co-star, did not get on with him, as reported by Kim Newman and Stephen Jones in their lively commentary. The suggestion that Laughton’s style was becoming old-fashioned is one I’d take issue with — I’d say “Have you seen ADVISE AND CONSENT?” Or, indeed, ISLAND OF LOST SOULS, which always struck me as a very modern bit of camp villainy. If Laughton seems out of date in THE STRANGE DOOR it’s because the whole film is, the dead end of the Universal Gothic cycle (along with THE BLACK CASTLE the following year). And the man isn’t on top form, though he’s certainly ENGAGED.

The climax, with our heroes trapped in a cell whose walls are inexorably closing in (powered by the water-mill I alluded to in our title), is gripping. Walls closing in always makes for a good, suspenseful scenario — I don’t know why they don’t trot the idea out more often, unless it’s that one so seldom encounters it in daily life.


3 Responses to “Dank Satanic Mills #1”

  1. bensondonald Says:

    Early in the century, Universal was unloading vintage Bs in generous, no-frills DVD sets. “The Boris Karloff Collection” had five, all described as chrillers (Karloff “ignites the screen” in NIGHT KEY, where he plays a benign old inventor bullied by generic thugs). Two were 30s, one was 1944, and bringing up the rear were STRANGE DOOR and BLACK CASTLE, ’51 and ’52.

    I’d say the last pair was beyond the dead end of the gothic cycle, which Universal had already finished off by turning it over to Abbott and Costello as gag fodder. Given the old films’ success on TV, somebody thought a non-ironic revival might fly.

    Both films are certainly watchable. Trouble is, there’s a deadly middle-class respectability about them, especially in the bland secondary characters. Where are the hams, the eccentrics and creeps? I think it’s in STRANGE DOOR where Laughton taunts a hungry servant with a chicken leg. The scene demands a pathetic Lorre or a canine Chaney Jr drooling and groveling, playing off Laughton’s cruelty. It gets a tidy fellow in a clean costume, underplaying to the point of merely looking offended by his master’s manners.

    BLACK CASTLE lowers the ante. Where STRANGE DOOR’s hero was a criminal on the run, BLACK CASTLE sets up a law-abiding hero seeking to solve a crime with official approval. A sane, orderly world is waiting to get inside.

    Science fiction becomes scarier when you ground it in mundane, relatable reality. But gothic is a world unto itself, where the folk in the village inn should be as odd and potentially dangerous as whatever’s in the abandoned estate.

  2. In The Black Castle, things keep turning out to be less bad than they appeared — the madman in the dunegon isn’t mad, the hero hasn’t really killed a man in a brawl, Karloff is a decent fellow. That may be what makes it feel Gothic but not horror. It has the trappings but not the terror. Exciting climax though.

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