Monday, October 4, 2021

No doubt that 'Shadow of a Doubt' is great

Shadow of a Doubt (1943)
Starring: Teresa Wright, Joseph Cotton, Macdonald Carey, Henry Travers, and Patricia Collinge
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Stars: Ten of Ten Stars

Ennui-ridden teenager Charlie (Wright) finds her drab world filled with life and hope of excitement when her legendary, globe-trotting Uncle Charlie, the man she is named for, pays a surprise visit to her and family. But Charlie's delight soon gives way to suspicion, then fear, then terror as she gradually comes to realize that he is hiding a dark secret -- that he is a serial killer on the run.

This is said to be Hitchcock's personal favorite among all the movies he made, and he was well within his rights to be very, very proud of it. With a script that is absolutely perfect in every way, a setting that captures the essence of the idyllic small American town so perfectly that Ray Bradbury would be moved to tears, and a cast that all deliver great performances in parts it seems they were born to play, there simply is not a single sour note in this movie.

It starts with a script that deftly sets up all its characters and manages to draw them as fully realized, three-dimension people within minutes of their first appearances on screen... usually through subtle character actions or exchanges. The most impressive of these is the film's lead character, a typical whiny restless teenager who in a script from lesser writers and interpreted by a lesser director would have been extremely annoying and someone you might wish ill upon. However, the character is so deftly written here and her reactions so believable--a mixture of childishness and adult and perception of what it means to be an adult--that you are rooting for her almost from the moment she is introduced into the story.

The same is true of the opposite side of the coin, the film's other Charlie... a man on the run with a secret, who may or may not be a serial killer. Like Young Charlie, he is deftly established a few touches that are followed up with further development that lends texture and deep character to him.

These two characters, and the oft-referenced "special bond" that exists between them, are the solid center around which story and other characters rotate, each developed as they relate to the two Charlies and each eventually emerging as fully realized as they are. Even the "special bond" ends up taking on personality, evolving from childish imaginings born of coincidences to something more real and that gives sinister weight to either Charlie when the younger of the two promises she will kill the older one if he hurts her mother.

Heck, this script is so perfect that the insta-romance the develops between Young Charlie and one of the detectives who come into town on Uncle Charlie's tail doesn't bother me one bit. Where this has nearly ruined a couple other Hitchcock films for me, here it

Of course, as well-written as these characters are, they would have withered in the hands of the wrong actor. Here, the casting is so absolutely perfect that the actors have an exponential impact when it comes to breathing life into the characters. Casting Joseph Cotton as a serial killer, who up to this point in his career had played nothing but lovable good guys, was a stroke of genius, and petite Teresa Wright nails her teenaged character perfectly despite being 25 at the time this film was made. Even the bit-players--like the small town's librarian and traffic cop--fit their roles perfect and instantly make the audience feel they know the person in question.

The great script and the perfectly cast actors are further supported by a great location and even better sets. A problem I sometimes have with Hitchcock's American films is sometimes jarring and obvious difference between footage made on sets or the studio back lot versus footage made on location. The quality of the environments change so drastically that I am sometimes pushed out of being absorbed in the movie. Not so here. Location and sound stage merge seamlessly and undetectably to form a perfect whole.

If you only watch one Hitchcock film, this is the one to choose.

Sunday, August 8, 2021

'Hold That Ghost' has flaws but Lou Costello makes it lots of fun

Hold That Ghost (1941)
Starring: Lou Costello, Bud Abbott, Joan Davis, Richard Carlson, and Evelyn Ankers
Director: Arthur Lubin
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

Two friends (Abbott and Costello) inherit a derelict roadhouse within which a gangster may have hidden a large fortune. Upon being stranded there one stormy night with several strangers (inlcuding Ankers, Carlson, and Davis), they discover it may be haunted by murderous ghosts as well.

"Hold That Ghost" is a spoof of once popular 'dark old house' thriller genre, which included such great early films as the original "The Cat and the Canary" and the straight-forwardly named "The Old Dark House". It is sort of a precursor to the many horror spoofs Abbott & Costello would make a decade or later involving the various iconic Universal Monsters.

Unfortunately, this film is flawed at its foundation. While all the actors are clearly game and do the best they can with the material, almost every character in this film feels flat and entirely too much of the plot only works because the characters are stupid even by comedy standards, or very forgetful. Even worse, while Abbott's character is often brusque and even mean toward Costello's character, he is often excessively so in this film. I think this may be the first Abbott & Costello film I've seen where I don't understand why the two main characters want anything to do with each other.

On the positive side, the weaknesses mentioned above are largely made up for by Lou Costello giving some really funny performances, especially relating to the running gag that he is almost always the only person who happens to see the mysterious going-ons in the creepy roadhouse the characters are stuck in. He also has a cute dance routine with Joan Davis, who, in an unusual twist for an A&B film, shows romantic interest in Costello without having an ulterior motive. Another positive of the film is the elaborate sets that make up the dilapited roadhouse and the moody lighting within it.

In the final analysis, "Hold That Ghost" isn't be best of Abbott & Costello's films, but it is still well worth your time, especially if you enjoy the creepy house horror/mystery films.

Monday, June 14, 2021

'Weird Woman' has Lon Chaney Jr. at his best

Inner Sanctum: Weird Woman (1944)
Starring: Lon Chaney Jr., Anne Gwynne, Evelyn Ankers, Elizabeth Risdon, and Lois Collier
Director: Reginald Le Borg
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

While studying native rituals and superstitions, an anthroplogy professor (Chaney) falls in love with marries the daughter of an old mentor (Gwynne). Upon his return to the United States, he discoversn that his wife is a fervent believer in the native gods and that she has been practing rituals that she believes will protect him from the evil intentions of one of his colleagues (Ankers). Appalled that his wife believes in such supersitious nonsense, he forces her to destroy all the charms and fetishes she owns... but as soon as he does this, his life and career start falling apart.

"Weird Woman" is a decent adaptation of one of Fritz Leiber's best novels, "Conjure Wife". It features a nice, tight script, great performances by the entire cast, and a surprise ending that at the same time manages to reinforce and cast doubt on the film's central premise--that the "powers of the supernatural" are nothing but supersition and fear causing believers to act in ways that create self-fulling prophecies.

Of particular note in this film is by Lon Chaney Jr., who is seen giving one of the best performances of his entire career. The character he is playing could easily have come across as a self-satisfied jerk in the hands of an lesser actor. His attitude toward his wife and her beliefs is obnoxious in the extreme, and some of his interactions with the staff and students of the college he teaches at borders on high-handed with a wiff of false humility. But Chaney infuses the character with an air of insecurity that makes the viewer accept and even forgive his behavior.

"Weird Woman" is one of the best entires in the "Inner Sanctum" movie series, and it's one of the best films to come out of the Universal Pictures' horror revival in the 1940s. Fans of classic mystery films, the Universal Pictures horror collection, and Lon Chaney Jr. will all find a lot to like in this one.

Monday, March 8, 2021

'The Cat and the Canary' is excellent silent horror

The Cat and the Canary (1927)
Starring: Laura La Plante, Creighton Hale, Martha Mattox, Tully Marshall, Gertrude Astor, Flora Finch, Forrest Stanley, Arthur Edmund Carewe, George Siegmann, and Lucien Littlefield
Director: Paul Leni
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

Twenty years to the hour after the death of millionaire Cyrus West, his relatives gather for the reading of his will; West loathed all of them, and he was determined to make them wait to pick at his dead reamins. His strange will leaves everything to his niece (La Plante) but only if she is certified sane by a doctor before dawn. If she is not declared mentally fit, a back-up heir--supposedly unknown to any living soul as the name is on a paper in a sealed envelope--will receive West's estate. As the relatives spend the night, soon the mansion becomes filled with strange and terrifying events... which may or may nt be in the mind of the young heiress--or perhaps even caused by her! Is she insane, or is someone attempting to drive her insane, so that they might gain the West fortune?

The grand-daddy of all Dark Old House mystery films and a collection of what would become standard fare in 1930s horror flicks and B-thrillers--gnarled grasping hands, masked killers, vanishing bodies, secret doors and passages, stylish damsels in distress, inept leading men, and just about anything else you can think of--this film is great fun and a must-see for anyone with a serious interest in the horror genre as an art form, or just a love for the gothic horror genre.

Your level of enjoyment of the early part of the picture will be dictated by your tolerance for the acting style of silent movies, but once the will has been read things start revving into high gear and the tension and action keeps building until the "big reveal" of the villain at the end. What's more, the bits that were supposed to be suspenseful in 1927 remain so today, and the same goes for the bits that were supposed to be funny.

There are a couple of disconnects story-wise--such as the point where one character talks another out of going for the police by saying that she'll do it and then never goes anywhere--but those are more than made up for by scenes such as the one with the main character fleeing in terror down a curtain-lined hallway, the stylish arrival of the police on the scene, and the action-filled climax that is equal-parts funny and frightening and which cuts back and forth between a milk-cart speeding through the night and a furious battle between the comic relief character who's emerged as the film's hero and the caped, murdering madman.

If you enjoyed just about any old horror film, you should check out this flick, even if you have yourself convinced you "hate silent movies." This film shows that the folks at Universal Pictures knew how to make a good horror film from the beginning.

Monday, January 18, 2021

'The Frozen Ghost' is a nifty chiller

The Frozen Ghost (1945)
Starring: Lon Chaney Jr., Evelyn Ankers, Milburn Stone, Elena Vergougo, Martin Kosleck, and Tala Birell
Director: Harold Young
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

When a heckler dies during one of his performances, a celebrated stage mentalist (Chaney) becomes convinced that he has a genuine ability to kill people with his mind. He retreats from public life and into the refuge of a wax museum run by friend (Vergougo) while his agent (Stone) and fiance (Ankers) try to help him deal with guilt and delusions. But when strange events start occurring at the museum, including the disappearance of its owner, he grows ever more convinced of his supernatural powers... while the police become ever more convinced that he is a murderer.

"The Frozen Ghost" is the fourth entry in Universal's "Inner Sanctum" series starring Lon Chahey Jr. in a different role each time (with frequent co-star Evelyn Ankers similarly showing up in several of them). It's another quirky mystery that walks the line between thriller and horror while delivering a series of twists and turns, some of which will be not be surprising to most modern veiwers both others are as effective now as they were in 1945 when the film was first released.

Lon Chaney Jr. is in fine form as the tortured and perpetually confused Alex Gregor, as he basically spends the film as a sad-sack whose life keeps collapsing in the most nightmarish ways--be it on the professional, romantic, or completely mundane front. Gregor is a character who can't even go for a walk without some horrible development cropping up to make him even more miserable... and to make it even more certain that he is doomed.

On first glance, it might seen a little overkill that have a mentalist with apparently real psychic powers hiding in a creepy wax museum with an even creepier staff who may or may not have sinister motives, and who has friends who may or may not be trying to hide bad intentions behind their helpful smiles, but it works here. The film remains engaging and entertaining from beginning to end. Fans of Chaney and of classic Universal horror and mystery films should check it out.

Wednesday, December 9, 2020

'Secret of the Blue Room' is a lesser effort from the Golden Age of Universal Horror flicks

Secret of the Blue Room (1933)
Starring: Paul Lukas, Gloria Stuart, Lionel Atwilll, Edward Arnold, William Janney, Onslow Stevens, and Robert Barrat
Director: Kurt Neumann
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

On the night Irene (Stuart) turns 21, three men hoping to marry her (Janney, Lukas, and Stevens) agree to prove their bravery and worthiness of her hand by each spending successive nights in the supposedly haunted Blue Room of her castle home. Their actions seem to awaken a deadly curse that has been dormant since shortly after Irene's birth... a curse that has already claimed three lives and will soon claim more.

"Secret of the Blue Room" is a locked room mystery crossed with the "dark old house" sub-genre of thrillers/horror that flourished during the 1930s and into the mid-1940s--and it was filmed on the same sets used for the 1932 film of the same genre "The Old Dark House.". It was made during what was a Golden Age for Universal and horror films, although it is one of the lesser efforts.

While this is a far more workman-like picture than "Frankenstein" or "The Invisible Man" or "Werewolf of London", I have a hard time judging how much of what seems flawed in this picture is a result of the passage of time, and how much is weakness that was present from the beginning. This kind of story has been told and retold so many times since 1933, so it could be that what was effective then is less so now.

From a story perspective, the film suffers from the mystery at its core not being much of  a mystery. I had the broad strokes of the story figured out once the three suitors agreed to prove their courage by braving the possibility of death by sleeping in a cursed room. When Bad Things started happening, I was proven right... and although attempts were made at misdirection--a creepy stranger who is somehow in cahoots with the shady butler; the lord of the manor (played by Lionel Atwill) obviously trying to hide something; and a sleazy chauffeur and the nosy maid who may or may not be up to something--none really presented anything close to an alternate explanation to the mysterious events in the Blue Room. Although everything played out in a predictable fashion, the film at least unfolded at a rapid pace, and features such an excellent cast of actors that it wasn't dull. I felt the climactic chase and running gun-battle in a secret basement under the castle went on a bit too long, but otherwise I felt the pacing was spot on.

When it comes to the films cast, I feel like they all gave excellent performances. I particularly enjoyed Paul Lukas, who at the beginning of the film felt to me like a poor man's Bela Lugosi, but by the end I wanted to see what might be in store next for his character. On the other hand, I enjoyed Gloria Stuart from the beginning, but became disappointed  as the film wore on. It wasn't that she gave a bad performance, she just wasn't as good as she was in "The Old Dark House", where she basically outshone all the other cast members. Here, she has less to do from the outset and she fades into the background as the movie continues. This film is a prime example of why Stuart's film career never really got off the ground; she just didn't get enough interesting roles to play.

Speaking of Paul Lukas and Gloria Stuart, as much as I liked them in the film, their characters have a very creepy relationship. As mentioned above, the film opens on a young lady's 21st birthday... and there are four men in attendance: Her father (Lionel Atwill), a would-be suitor her age, a would-be suitor five or ten years older (Oslow Stevens), and a would-be suitor old enough to be her father (Paul Lukas). It's slightly gross to think of Lukas's character wanting to marry and bed a woman less than half his age... and for her father to be sitting right there and approving of the idea. It tainted the character--who is otherwise honorable and heroic--for me, and the movie in general.

"Secret of the Blue Room" is an adequate picture that I think hasn't weathered the passage of time as well as others in the same genre. If you like "it was a dark and stormy night"-type mysteries, I think you'll enjoy it... but at the same time, you should now there are better entries in the genre out there. 

Sunday, November 29, 2020

'House of Horrors' contains both good and bad

House of Horrors (1946)
Starring: Martin Kosleck, Rondo Hatton, Virginia Grey, Robert Lowery, Bill, Goodwin, Alan Napier, and Joan Fulton
Director: Jean Yarbrough
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

Marcel (Kosleck), a sculptor of meager talent, manipulates a psychopathic killer known as The Creeper (Hatton) into murdering critics he feel ruined his career as an artist.

Rondo Hatten and Martin Kosleck in "House of Horrors" (1946)

"House of Horrors" is a well-acted, fairly well-written film that is elevated by stylish camera-work  stylishly shot with sets and camera angles and lighting that takes full advantage of the black-and-white medium. Like most the Universal horror films from the 1940s and 1950s, it's a film that's worth watching for the quality cinematography alone. It makes this already briskly paced film go by even faster. The chilling scenes where Rondo Hatton's character is preparing to kill Virginia Grey and Joan Fulton respectively are also definite highlights of not only this movie, but horror films of the 1940s in general.

Among other highlights are Alan Napier (perhaps best remembered as Bruce Wayne's butler in the 1960s "Batman" television series) as an art critic you'll want to see murdered; fine performances by Martin Kosleck and Rondo Hatton as a pair of very different maniacs; and Robert Lowery and Virginia Grey who have a sort-of lowkey on-screen chemistry that make them very believable as a couple in a steady relationship.

So why did I only give "House of Horrors" a Six of Ten rating? 

Well, for one, the script moves a little too briskly. While I got that the psychopath was so grateful to the artist for saving his life that OF COURSE he's willing to kill those who have done harm to his new (and only) friend. What I want to know is how did Marcel know that the psychotic killer he fished from the harbor would be willing to kill for him?

Virginia Grey in "House of Horrors" (1946)

Second, while I like the fact the film has a sort of in media res feeling vis-a-vis Rondo Hatton's serial killer character, I still think the film would have stronger if they'd filled in a little more of his backstory. It might have given an opportunity to explain why Marcel knew he would "weaponize" him successfully. (On the other hand, it allowed me to fill in the blanks with something  far more interesting than what the writers probably would have provided. Still, there is such a think as leaving too much to the imagination, and I think this is an example of that.)

Finally, although generally well-written, I found some of the actions taken by the film's heroine, played by Virginia Grey, to be so annoyingly stupid they almost ruined the character entirely. I can't get specific, but they fall squarely in the Stupid Character Syndrome (SCS) that's caused by writers who are either too sloppy or lazy to make their plot flow , so one or more characters has to do monumentally stupid things to make sure the story keeps movie toward the resolution. When Grey's character does the first stupid thing, you may think she's just hungry for a scoop to fill her weekly arts column, but when she does the next stupid thing, you'll see the full-blown case of SCS for what it is. It's a shame more care wasn't spent on those parts of the plot, because it drags the whole movie down. 

Although not perfect, "House of Horrors" is still well worth our time, especially if you're looking for some light viewing to get ready for Halloween.