Wednesday, October 12, 2011
CLASSIC HORROR / HALLOWEEN TREATS
This is my favorite season… Something about it always makes me feel alive. Maybe it’s the inherent threat of death that exists in the chilly air and changing leaves (... though there’s much less of this autumn weather in southern California than there was in the mountains of Virginia where I grew up). Every year, I ritualistically celebrate October by watching my favorite horror movies… and a few new ones.
This year, I find myself gravitating toward the classic Universal monsters. Those old black and white myths have never been my favorite part of the horror genre, but I find that I appreciate them more with each passing year – because they are such a striking contrast with the comparatively un-philosophical horror films of today. I appreciate their emphasis on pervasive, carefully-crafted atmosphere over simplistic jump scenes, mythic storytelling over naturalism, black and white chiaroscuro over the arbitrary use of color.
In his book Horrors! (The awful truth about the monsters, vampires, werewolves, zombies phantoms, mummies, and ghouls of literature – and how they went Hollywood), Drake Douglas explains the appeal of those old Gothic yarns: “The [current] films have lost the dark creeping spirit of true horror, dealing as they do with shock and sensationalism rather than with the more cerebral and human aspects of the classics.” Jeremy Dyson, author of Bright Darkness: The Lost Art of the Supernatural Horror Film, adds: “At its best the supernatural horror film is capable of exploring and illuminating the interior conflicts of the psyche – repression, the denial of strong emotion, a fear of madness and the disintegration of the personality – elements that we have seen were present in embryonic form in Whale’s FRANKENSTEIN and its sequels, and them more clearly developed in THE WOLF MAN, CAT PEOPLE, I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE and DEAD OF NIGHT. These films […] articulate something of what it is to exist in a mysterious and opaque universe, reminding us that mankind is not the be all and end all, and that there is something larger than ourselves, be it as plainly evident as KING KONG or as intangible as the forces that are able to keep the desiccated remains of a wayward Egyptian priest alive.”
With this last phrase, Dyson is making reference to CAGLIOSTRO – a script by Richard Schayer and Nina Wilcox Putnam that eventually morphed into the classic Boris Karloff vehicle THE MUMMY (after an extensive rewrite by John Balderston, based on his own experiences as a reporter at the opening of King Tut’s tomb in 1922). Dyson describes CALIGIOSTRO as a story about “a 3000-year-old Egyptian magician who has kept himself alive using scientific rather than supernatural means,” utilizing “radio waves to murder his victims.” When I read this description, I thought it made CAGLIOSTRO sound more like some of Karloff’s later “mad scientist” films than THE MUMMY. Thanks to author Philip J. Riley, I had a chance to find out for myself by reading the original script.
Riley is a serious fan of classic horror – so serious that he has written a book on Lon Chaney and edited a comprehensive set of Universal Horror film scripts. More recently, he unearthed some unproduced scripts from Universal’s heyday and published them through Bear Manor Media. The resulting series – “An Alternate History for Classic Film Monsters” – is a treasure trove for horror fans. In addition to CAGLIOSTRO: THE GREAT IMPOSTER, there are four titles:
DRACULA STARRING LON CHANEY features a detailed treatment by Louis Bromfield. The treatment was intended to entice actor Lon Chaney to tackle the title role. Riley says that the producers “knew that Chaney was always more involved when the screenplay was close to the original novels.” Accordingly, the treatment closely follows Bram Stoker's novel, featuring many of the more effective scenarios that were left out of Tod Browning’s 1931 film with Bela Lugosi (e.g. warnings at the inn; the vampire brides seducing Jonathan, Dracula climbing the castle wall like a spider; Mina at Lucy’s window; the extermination of Lucy; the climactic race to Castle Dracula). All things considered, Bromfield’s vision is quite a bit bolder that the Browning's film. Also included in this publication are the first few pages of the script by Bromfield and Dudley Murphy, a work in progress that was cut short by the death of Lon Chaney. In lieu of a full script, Riley’s book offers subtitle transcripts for F.W. Murnau’s NOSFERATU (1921) and Browning’s DRACULA (1931), as well as Lon Chaney’s only known attempt at autobiography. Bottom line: this is a collection that any serious horror fan should own.
ROBERT FLOREY’S FRANKENSTEIN is a more threadbare publication - serving mainly as proof that the irreverent tone of the 1931 FRANKENSTEIN film didn’t come entirely from director James Whale. Most of the iconic scenes and lines (including “Now I know what it feels like to be God!”) are present in this early script by Florey (who was originally slated to direct the film… as well as a prospective sequel in which Henry and Elizabeth join a traveling circus!) and Garrett Fort (who received the main writing credit on DRACULA’S DAUGHTER).
JAMES WHALE’S DRACULA’S DAUGHTER presents a story that is very different from the filmed sequel to DRACULA. The treatment by John Balderston, who had earlier adapted Stoker’s novel for Broadway, parallels the action in Stoker’s novel. It begins and ends at Castle Dracula (Van Helsing goes to finish off Dracula’s wives… and, later, his daughter), while the central action is set in London. Balderston’s stated goal was a faster tempo, and increased excitement and tension. “In the three horror pictures with which I was associated as original playwright or scenarist,” he says, referring to DRACULA, FRANKENSTEIN and THE MUMMY, “the last one third of each dropped badly.” He maintains that the third act of DRACULA’S DAUGHTER “must top everything,” and he proposes that this film, by using a female vampire, can do so by “playing up SEX and CRUELTY legitimately.” The result is an excellent example of how to take a successful formula and amp up the horror so that a followup is less repetition than reimagination. The ensuing script by R.C. Sherriff, which Whale “camped up” with elements of S&M and homoeroticism, begins as a prequel: a brutal origin story for Dracula and his adopted daughter, with plenty of opportunities for Bela Lugosi to chew the scenery. It progresses slowly into a battle between Van Helsing and Countess Szelenski – who, in this version, is a far more delicious, far less pitiable villain.
THE WOLF MAN VS. DRACULA is perhaps the least worthy entry the Alternate History series. It comes from a later period in the Universal horror cycle, when the classic movie monsters were being transformed into kiddie fare. This script by Bernard Schubert, apparently set sometime after FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN (1943) and HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1944), was designed to match Lugosi’s Dracula against Chaney’s Wolf Man by utilizing pre-existing sets from earlier films, and a very minimal supporting cast. Long story short: Dracula and Lawrence Talbot cross paths in familiar territory from the earlier monster mashes, and end up lusting after the same hangman’s daughter. Unfortunately, the hangman's daughter is a thinly developed character and the dialogue written for the monsters is uniformly unimaginative. All in all, it’s a depressing outing for characters that should be larger than life. Be glad this one never got made.
Not satisfied to simply read about classic horror movies, I’ve also been watching a few. Until this week, I wasn’t aware that two of Boris Karloff’s best films of the 1930s were made for Columbia. Sony’s “Icons of Horror” collection features the Gothic gem THE BLACK ROOM (1935) and the quirky sci-fi quickie THE MAN THEY COULD NOT HANG (1939). In THE BLACK ROOM, Karloff plays aristocrat twins – the gentle Anton and the sadistic Gregor – who are tormented by a family curse that pits them against each other. It’s a story as old as Cain and Abel, but bolstered by some surprising plot twists, plenty of atmosphere, and solid evidence of Karloff’s range as an actor. In contrast, THE MAN THEY COULD NOT HANG has very little atmosphere to speak of. It’s a straight-ahead, modern-day morality play that will be familiar to anyone who’s seen FRANKENSTEIN. Nevertheless, it’s worth watching the film for Karloff’s performance in the third act – a scenario similar to Vincent Price’s routine in HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL (1958), with just as much gleeful sadism. The characterization of this not-so-mad scientist may be a little hard to swallow, but the actor manages to maintain his dignity and likability throughout the show.
Also on my playlist this week: THE MUMMY’S HAND (1940) and THE MUMMY’S TOMB (1942). These first two films in Universal’s “Kharis series” are not as well known as the 1932 MUMMY film starring Karloff, but they have a very devoted following. In fact, I think it’s safe to say that the plotline of the Kharis series is more resonant than THE MUMMY.
THE MUMMY’S HAND begins with the backstory of an Egyptian prince named Kharis, who steals the secret of eternal life (a secret involving forbidden tana leaves) to resurrect his lover Ananka. He is buried alive as punishment, but only after he has been granted eternal life. For centuries, Kharis’s tomb is protected by the priests of Karnac. Only they know the secret: three tana leaves will make Kharis walk again, and kill anyone who dares to enter the tomb of his beloved; more than three tana leaves will turn him into an uncontrollable “monster.” Leave it up to a few clueless American archeologists to wander into “the most dangerous region in the whole of Egypt” and test the legend…
Dick Foran plays Steve Banning, the hero of THE MUMMY’S HAND. I don’t see how anyone could possibly watch the Kharis series today and not see him as the forerunner of Indiana Jones. Perhaps that’s why Universal’s 1999 remake of THE MUMMY has more in common with Spielberg’s adventure series than with the Karloff monster movie. The finale of THE MUMMY’S HAND is pretty lackluster (not to mention Tom Tyler’s performance as Kharis), but the film on the whole boasts some amusing characterizations, a good sense of mystery, and a laudable respect for the main theme of classic Gothic fiction: “There are some things in science which should be brought to light; there are others which should be left alone.”
THE MUMMY’S TOMB is not as dynamic, despite a slightly better mummy (Lon Chaney Jr. made up by Jack Pierce). The sequel takes place 30 years later, and the action is transplanted from Egypt to small-town Massachusetts, where the next generation of Bannings falls victim to the Mummy’s curse. The plotline is an unimaginative redux of THE MUMMY'S HAND, but that’s what makes the film so intriguing to me. Watching THE MUMMY’S TOMB, I felt like I was discovering an early template for the boilerplate slasher sequels of the 1980s. The Mummy kills with Jason Voorhees-like crudeness, visiting the sins of the father on the children with Michael Myers-like regularity. Unfortunately, this by-the-numbers plot merely leads to another lame finale. The angry mob from FRANKENSTEIN descends on modern-day Massachusetts, and the Mummy tries to escape by fumbling up a rose trellis. After this, I couldn’t bare to go on and watch THE MUMMY’S GHOST (1944) and THE MUMMY’S CURSE (1944).
It’s worth adding that the definitive Boris Karloff biography was released earlier this year. I haven’t had the time to start this impressive 568-page tome yet, but it’s waiting on my bookshelf. I’ve also pre-ordered the Criterion Collection’s release of the original ISLAND OF LOST SOULS. This one has been a long time coming! ISLAND is one of the very best classic horror films and the whole horror-loving world should be thrilled that Criterion, a distributor that is always devoted to excellence, has pulled this one off. The street date is October 25, by which time I also hope to have my copy of John Kenneth Muir’s new book, Horror Films of the 1990s, a film-by-film examination of the decade of darkness that I grew up in.
More to come…
Labels: classic horror