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.

Thursday, October 15, 2020

The 'Strange Case of Doctor Rx' is worth investigating

The Strange Case of Doctor Rx (1942)
Starring: Patric Knowles, Anne Gwynne, Mantan Moreland, Edmund McDonald, Shemp Howard, Samuel S. Hinds, and Lionel Atwill
Director: William Nigh
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

A successful private detective (Knowles) puts off early retirement at the behest of both a friend in the police department (McDonald) and a high-powered attorney to mob (Hinds) whose clients are being murdered by a seemingly invisible, intangible assassin.

Promotional photo for "The Strange Case of Doctor Rx" (1942)

"The Strange Case of Doctor Rx" is a fast-paced comedy-thriller starring a solid cast of mostly under-appreciated B-movie actors who are working with a script full of snappy dialogue and an intriguing murder mystery that deepens and becomes more convoluted as the film unfolds. In fact, everything about this film becomes more convoluted as it unfolds.

By the time "Strange Case" came to an end, I had the amusing thought that someone had challenged writer Clarence Upton Young to include every single mystery B-movie mainstay into one script... and he accepted. As this film unfolds, we get a charming gentleman detective and his befuddled manservant; a go-to-any-lengths-to-get-the-story lady reporter; cops who are tough but not bright; a rich, possibly crooked lawyer with a possibly even more crooked wife and family; gangsters and a gun moll; a suspicious mystery man who may or may not be the killer; a mad scientist; and a guy in a gorilla suit. In the end, nothing makes a whole lot of sense--and it feels a little like Young was hard-pressed to even formulate a satisfactory resolution to the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink mess he'd created. (I was left with one major question at the end, a question that was obviously left unanswered on purpose as it gave Mantan Moreland an opportunity to give us one final, mildly disturbing laugh.

Speaking of Mantan Moreland, this is another one of those films where he's more of a hero than any of the other characters give him credit for; his character isn't as smart as the one he portrayed in 1941's "King of the Zombies", but he absolutely key to the main hero's success and he makes a great personal sacrifice in the process. So, Moreland is perfectly cast here, as is everyone else. Most of the players in the film are at their best, with Moreland, Anne Gwynne, and Shemp Howard (of Three Stooges fame) are particularly fun to watch, even if Gwynne's performance is undermined a bit by the disjointed manner in which her character drifts through the story. Lionel Atwill plays a small but crucial role in the film, and the presence he lends is more a result of brilliant casting than anything Atwill does on screen. (Although, given his ability to slather on the villanous attitude, perhaps the harmless air he  air he has about him in the few scenes he's in is remarkable. At any rate, Atwill just being there brings with it certain expectations that help drive the story along and make it that much more entertaining.

"The Strange Case of Doctor Rx" is one of five movies included in the "Universal Cult Horror Classics" collection, despite the fact even the most creatve marketing executive or inventive critic could come with a good reason for why it should be considered a horror film. Nonetheless, it's fun flick, and it's presence is one of the many reasons why the set is worth owning if you enjoy old-time B-movies.

Monday, January 27, 2020

'The Mad Ghoul' is worth knowing

The Mad Ghoul (1943)
Starring: George Zucco, David Bruce, Evelyn Ankers, Turhan Bey, and Robert Armstrong
Director: James Hogan
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

College chemistry professor Alfred Morris (Zucco) re-discovers a formula for a gas that ancient Central Americans used turn people into pseudo-living zombies, as well as a means for reversing the transformation. He uses his assistant, Ted (Bruce), as an unwitting human test subject while trying to put the moves on Ted's opera-singing fiance (Ankers)... but when the antidote for the gas turns out to only be temporary, Morris's life and Ted's psuedo-undeath become a lot more complicated.

"The Mad Ghoul" is a horror film from Universal Pictures--the studio that bought the world "The Mummy", "Dracula", and "Frankenstein"--that sounds like a film from Monogram or PRC, with its mad scientist with an even madder scheme, a young couple being threatened by evil, and a crusading reporter who is going to stop the monster the police have been unable to catch.

What the writers and director does with those elements are a great change of, though: The crusading reporter ends up, the young couple's romance is revealed to have been over even before the film starts, and the mad doctor's mad scheme keeps getting more insane, first because he was cocky and had to cover up a failed experiment and then because he wanted to remove all rivals for the woman with whom he believes he shares a mutual attraction. (Some of my favorite parts of the film is when George Zucco and Evelyn Ankers' characters are talking past each other; Zucco thinks they are expressing their love for each other while Ankers thinks she's just unloading her sorrows to a sympathetic ear. These scenes feature some nice acting and even better writing, because they perfectly communicate the notion that Zucco's character later expresses, after he realizes he was mistaken: "Sometimes we see what we want to see.")

The cast of "The Mad Ghoul" all provide good performances. Zucco is in particularly fine form, playing the crazed heavy he specialized in but with a tiny bit of nuances thrown in. Robert Armstrong is also fun as the "I'm smarter than the cops" newsman who populates films of this type, and while I saw his brutal end coming before it actually happened, I was a little sad to see him go. Meanwhile, Ankers and Bey play the kinds of characters they portrayed in many other films, and they do it with their usual skill. Finally, David Bruce, in one of his few starring roles, is good as what initially comes across as the standard, fairly bland romantic lead, but becomes an increasingly interesting and nuanced character as the film unfolds.