Archive for The Wolfman

Hull-Hound

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on September 8, 2016 by dcairns

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We never get a clear look at Warner Oland’s chubby werewolf, and that has to be a good thing.

It’s taken me this long to watch WEREWOLF OF LONDON, and God knows I’ve tried. As a kid I was no doubt eager to see it, but it never seemed to turn up on UK TV. As an adult, I was excited to finally get my hands on the thing, and then found it impossible to sit through.

This time around — third time’s the charm — it didn’t seem THAT bad — despite several strikes against it, it has a number of appealing images and ideas.

First the bad — Henry Hull is written as a completely unsympathetic boor, and that’s just how he plays it, with an added suggestion of indifference and superiority to the material. In the abstract, it’s kind of interesting the way the character perversely contradicts his own motivations — he’s jealous of his wife but either ignores her or drives her a way, he quickly becomes convinced he is indeed infected with “werewolfery” (or worse, “lycanthrophobia”) but rejects offers of help from the man who infected him. In practice, these traits are frustrating and dramatically self-defeating. “It defeats its own purpose,” as Jake LaMotta would say.

Hull lacks the physical presence and skill to make a convincing transformation, and his werewolf performance consists largely of making a face like he’s going to sneeze.

The comedy relief, zesty and startling in a James Whale film, is lumbering and ugly here. Last time I watched, I got as far as the two drunken landladies (one of them, Ethel Griffies, is the ornithologist from THE BIRDS — not that old, she would live another forty years). The film is full of menopausal women, Fiona pointed out, and they’re all played as clowns. Spring Byington (“So romantic, with the Thames lapping at one’s very threshold”) is the main culprit. Worse is the way the so-called hero’s lunar depredations are followed by jocular scenes at Scotland Yard, with the police chortling away together despite the wave of manglings sweeping the metropolis.

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Good stuff — going all the way to Tibet to get bitten by a werewolf is gloriously excessive.

Gratuitous killer plants! An entirely satisfying horror movie about rival botanists could probably be concocted with no need for werewolfery at all. Although, there’s THE WOMANEATER to prove me wrong.

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Warner Oland in a role maybe planned for Lugosi — now he’s a professor from the University of the Carpathians, with a Japanese name. And he’s a LOVELY werewolf, much nicer than H.H.

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Ah-ah-ah…. CHOO!

But I dig the way Hull remains somewhat compos mentis when wolfing about — he actually turns into a werewolf and then PUTS ON A HAT to go out. And he gets a deathbed speech in werewolf form. Though the principles of Lon Chaney wolfman mythos are being laid down here in an early form, the story is still in large part Jekyll & Hyde.

Also — GREAT first transformation, using foreground columns which occlude the frame, in a relay of shots connected by hidden wipes, so that Hull’s makeup (by Universal monster supremo Jack Pierce) can develop in yak-fur increments.

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The Oblong Box Set

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 9, 2013 by dcairns

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Delving into my Universal Monsters The Essential Collection Blu-rays Christmas pressie — I was drawn to some of the lesser titles, partly so they wouldn’t get neglected, partly so I could save some good ones for last. (All images here are from the lowly DVDs.)

First I ran THE WOLFMAN, which is not a very good film, alas. After THE OLD DARK HOUSE it’s nice to have another Welsh-set Universal horror — a pity they couldn’t have arranged for Melvyn Douglas to drop in as Penderell, or something. They manage to waste Warren William and miscast Ralph Bellamy, who doesn’t get to exploit his uncanny ability to remind one of that fellow in the movies, what’s his name? Ralph Bellamy, that’s it.

Screenwriter Curt Siodmak, idiot brother of the great Robert, knew that Lon Chaney Jnr was ridiculous casting as a nobleman, but doesn’t seem to have reflected too much on the implications of his story, which has a Gypsy tribe importing a contagion into peaceful Anglo-Saxon terrain. It’s a distasteful narrative for a German-Jewish refugee to serve up to American audiences during wartime, the more I consider it.

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As a kid, I was disappointed by the slow pace and lack of screen time awarded to Jack Pierce’s make-up, which I dug. But I was fascinated by Maria Ouspenskaya, who seemed genuinely uncanny.

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THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA seems to have always been a tricky property — it has seminal scenes, the unmasking and the chandelier drop and the general mood of skulking about in shadows in a cape, but nobody seems able to settle on what order they should come in or who the characters ought to be. I think perhaps a failure to realize that Christine is the main point-of-view character lies at the heart of many of the problems — this may be the big thing Andrew Lloyd-Webber got right. But Chaney was the only one to get a good makeup, and played the character without any cast backstory, as a mystery.

The forties Technicolor version that’s in the box set concentrates on singing and romance and comedy as much as melodrama, and top-loads the story with an origin for the Phantom that’s sympathetic but deprives him of mystique — it also leaves no time for his Svengali act, surely the heart of the story. Claude Rains is in good form, though his coaching scenes as a disembodied voice are underexploited — this should have been the perfect companion piece to THE INVISIBLE MAN.

Screenwriter Samuel Hoffenstein is more important here than second-string director Arthur Lubin: he did a great job on Mamoulian’s DR JEKYLL AND MR HYDE, so I don’t know why this is so muted — partly the Production Code, I suppose. His other finest credits are THE WIZARD OF OZ, LAURA and CLUNY BROWN,  and his gift for light comedy is more evident here than his knack for dramatic construction. The rather stunning ending, in which Jeanette MacDonald Susanna Foster chooses her career and her two beaux, Nelson Eddy and Edgar Barrier, go off together arm in arm to dinner, makes the thing worthwhile — they fade to black very fast at that point.

Oh, and the three-strip Technicolor is bee-you-tiful.

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(Screenwriter and memoirist Lenore Coffee quotes a couple nice lines by Hoffenstein, not from his scripts but from his conversation. In response to the Variety headline BABY LEROY’S CONTRACT UP FOR RENEWAL, the Hoff remarked “If they don’t meet his terms he’ll go straight back to the womb… a swell place to negotiate from!” And when the legal department asked for a progress report on his latest script, a slightly tipsy S.H. bellowed “How any department as sterile as a legal department could have the impertinence to inquire into the progress of any writer, however poor… What do you think I do? Drink ink and pee scripts?”)

I believe the scene where Claude Rains strangles Miles Mander had to be taken several times because Mander’s head kept detaching when shaken.

Hume Cronyn has a tiny part and it’s great fun watching him steal his scenes.

Backstory is a problem. I quite enjoyed the intro to Dario Argento’s PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, in which the baby Phantom, cast adrift in the sewers in his cot, is rescued by rats, who presumably raise him as one of their own, like a rodent Tarzan. Tarzan had a fine operatic yodel, of course. But Argento’s Phantom isn’t deformed, he’s Julian Sands, which leaves him no motivation to be masked or live underground or do any of the things the plot requires.

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The Hammer PHANTOM, which I recently watched too, borrows heavily from the 1941 version — impoverished composer, acid scarring, etc. Apparently Cary Grant had expressed an interest in playing the Phantom, but his agent nixed it. I kind of wonder if that’s why the meaningless hunchback character was added, in order to give all the murderous stuff to someone else. It’s completely nonsensical and wrecks the film, which Terence Fisher handles rather nicely. Michael Gough’s slimy Lord Ambrose is a one-note baddie, and Gough hammers that note with relentless enthusiasm. Herbert Lom gets almost nothing to do.

That one was cackhandedly written by Anthony Hinds, a Hammer producer. There are undoubtedly some great producers-turned-writers — Joseph Mankiewicz springs to mind. The trouble in general is that producers can give themselves the job of writing without having any ability at it, as I found when I worked for Tern Television. Both Anthony Carreras and Anthony Hinds at Hammer got a number of writing gigs, without having the slightest sense of story structure, or even apparent awareness of what a story IS.

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Also watched DRACULA PRINCE OF DARKNESS since Fiona’s brother was visiting, which Hinds authored — but his ramshackle narrative was fleshed out by the competent Jimmy Sangster, and then the very droll Francis Matthews acted in it, with delivery that’s as close to Cary Grant as Hammer ever got. A line like “Well I’m sure it would be educational if we knew what was going on,” isn’t necessarily witty in itself, but he gets a laugh with it. And I have to take my hat off to Sangster for the line he awards Dracula’s sepulchral manservant, Klove: “My master died without issue, sir… in the accepted sense of the term.”

The UK release is cheaper than the American, though admittedly it doesn’t come in its own coffin ~

Universal Classic Monsters: The Essential Collection [Blu-ray] [1931][Region Free]

Raymond Burr IS “Barney Chavez”…

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 9, 2008 by dcairns

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…in BRIDE OF THE GORILLA.

Barney is “an animal”, according to those who know and love him, so who better to play him than the Mighty Burr, previously winner of a Shadowplay Award  for services to eating?

My problem with this film is… where is it set? Africa, presumably, since a gorilla features so prominently in the title and the film itself (Hugo Barney is transformed into a man in an ape suit by malicious witch-doctoring). What then, to make of Lon Chaney’s appearance as a “native policeman”? Chaney (seen below right attempting to cram a table up his arse) boldly plays this native without recourse to Al Jolson war-paint.

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Writer-director Curt Siodmak (Idiot Brother* of the distinguished Robert) places his authorial stamp on the material from the off, with a tacky montage of jungle stock footage. “This is the jungle,” slurs Chaney in V.O., immediately establishing himself as A Man You Can Trust. Yes, but which jungle, Lon?

Geographical issues continue to arise: how to explain the vaguely Mexican “natives”, and the presence of California-accented Woody Strode as another native policeman — and Gisela Verbisek as “Al-Long” the witch doctress: a cheap Maria Ouspenskaya knock-off (although she looks more like the elderly Buster Keaton in drag), this blatantly Hungarian woman brings a welcome touch of the Old Country to the Dark Continent, while her hot daughter “Lorena” (Carol Varga), Barney’s lover, wears a Maria Montez type sarong ensemble?

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The film’s true leading lady, Barbara Payton, provides a fantastic go-go vibe, kind of unexpected in what is essentially an exotic rehash of Siodmak’s screenplay for THE WOLFMAN. Payton, a decent actress (everybody in this films is slumming, Tom Conway most of all) had a lively and ultimately tragic life and career. It was she whom Tom Neal and Franchot Tone fought over, with Tone ending up hospitalised and almost dead. Payton married Tone, then ditched him and went back to Neal, leaving him soon enough to avoid getting murdered (Neal shot his third wife in the head) but drifting into homelessness, alcoholism, prostitution — having already drifted into BRIDE OF THE GORILLA, which is bad enough.

Amazingly, Curt Siodmak is a better director than he is a writer, even though he made his living mostly as an author. His name is attached to one true classic, the oneiric calypso tragedy that is I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE, although Val Lewton extensively reworked his script (Siodmak’s original plot had Tom Conway zombifying his wife so he could continue to have sex with her animate corpse, which Lewton nixed on the grounds that, “She would have no vaginal warmth!” A valid objection, though not the first that would cross my mind). Otherwise, he wrote speeches for Bela Lugosi so bad they had to be cut from FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLFMAN, and sci-fi paperbacks full of ludicrous prose: “The moon leaped like a giant in the porthole,” is a surreal favourite of mine. In BRIDE we get monologues like “Out there… in the jungle… out there, everything’s different. My hands, my eyes… I can see further than I’ve ever seen before… I can climb as if I had wings… A thousand smells… flowers, plants, the animals. The jungle is my house!”

But as director he approaches competence. Sometimes he bypasses it and achieves actual STYLE, prowling through the jungle (WHICH jungle? PLEASE!) in subjective shots with big hairy paws in the foreground, even going handheld, like his countryman John Brahm in THE UNDYING MONSTER. And it’s to his credit that he tries to keep the gorilla suit offscreen as much as possible. His dialogues are always played as “flat twos”, it’s true, with an occasional third character standing in the middle, which gets pretty funny during long scenes, where new characters keep coming in and standing where the old ones were a second ago.

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OK, I admit it: the film is clearly identified as being set in the Amazon. There’s no geographical problem, except the gypsy woman and Woody Strode and the fact that IT’S ABOUT A BIG MAGIC GORILLA.

I was also wondering why, asides from the obvious reason of not wanting to terrify the audience TOO much, Barney has his clothes on after he changes back from being the gorilla, who doesn’t have any clothes on. Then I decided that what the film hadn’t told us was that the Amazonian gypsy curse actually causes Barney to go out into the jungle and PUT ON A GORILLA SUIT. Which would explain why the gorilla in this film is obviously a guy in a suit. But then, shouldn’t the film be called THE BRIDE OF RAYMOND BURR IN A GORILLA SUIT?

It should. Because not only is that more accurate, it’s also a far more enticing title.

*I’m fascinated by the phenomenon of the Idiot Brother, maybe because my siblings are both productive members of society, making me one. William Lee Wilder, brother of Billy (their mother REALLY liked that name) is another great I.B. — for every LOST WEEKEND, SOME LIKE IT HOT or THE APARTMENT made by the multi-Oscar winning Billy, W. Lee was ready to respond with a PHANTOM FROM SPACE, a MAN WITHOUT A BODYor a MANFISH, like a one-man campaign to disprove genetics.