I, MONSTER. Amicus Productions, 1971. Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Mike Raven, Richard Hurndall, Susan Jameson. Director: Stephen Weeks.
There are moments in I, Monster, an Amicus film based on and inspired by Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde where Christopher Lee is at the absolute top of his game.
One early scene in particular comes to mind immediately. It’s when his character, the psychologist Charles Marlowe, scalpel in his hand, cradles one of his lab rats and eerily mimics the rat’s facial expressions. Of course, at that point, Marlowe (Lee) isn’t all Marlowe. He’s also Marlowe’s alter ego, the barbaric Edward Blake.
And that’s by far the best thing that I, Monster has going for it: Lee in a dual role as Marlowe/Blake, wherein the famed British actor gets to demonstrate just how well he can portray screen villains.
Unfortunately, however, this lesser known entry in Lee’s vast filmography suffers from a decidedly mediocre, if not tedious, script that does little to keep the viewer fully engaged with the story.
Even worse, as much as it pains me to say this, Peter Cushing’s presence in the film is just underwhelming. Sure, it’s great to see Lee and Cushing go at each other in the final sequence. But it’s simply not enough to make I, Monster more of a missed opportunity rather than the cult film it might have been.
THE STUDENT OF PRAGUE. Sokal-Film GmbH, Germany, 1926; original title: Der Student von Prag. US title: The Man Who Cheated Life. Conrad Veidt, Werner Krauss, Agnes Estherhazy. Script by Henrik Galeen and Hanns Heinz Ewers, based on the short story “William Wilson” by Edgar Allan Poe (1839). Director: Henrik Galeen. Shown at Cinefest 18, Liverpool NY, March 1998.
A legendary German horror film that lived up to its reputation. Veidt is the student who sells his reflection to Krauss for the love of an heiress and is drawn into a nightmare that culminates In a magnificent sequence in which he confronts his mirror reflection and tries to destroy it.
The haunting cinematography and art direction are by Guenther Krampf and Hermann Warm (art director of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari). A scene in which Krauss stands on a hilltop and orchestrates the elements and the activities of a hunting party reminded me of Veidt’s summoning of the storm in The Thief of Bagdad (Korda) and a long shot, later in the film, in which we see only the elongated shadow of Krauss’ arm and hand as he reaches up toward a garden terrace is equally unforgettable.
Veidt is perfectly cast as the obsessed student and his deterioration is reflected in an extraordinary alteration of his face, which seems to grow thinner and more furrowed in the course of the film. A great film.
CHLOE, LOVE IS CALLING YOU. Pinnacle, 1934. Olive Borden, Red Howes. Georgette Harvey, Philip Ober, Francis Joyner, and The Shreveport Home Wreckers. Written and directed by Marshall Neilan.
An intriguing little B-movie from 1934, with no one you ever heard of, perfunctory screenplay (the characters enter, explicate and move on to the next scene) and rudimentary direction. Needless to say, I found something worthwhile and memorable in it.
The story is something about old black Mandy (Georgette Hervey) returning to her former home in the swamps with her grown-up light-skinned daughter Chloe (played by the lovely and tragic Olive Borden) and Jim Strong, another light-skinned black man, who loves Chloe in vain. Jim is played by Philp Ober, who will always be remembered for his short scene as Lester Townsend in North by Northwest, and who looks about as black as a Vanilla Wafer.
It seems old Mandy has returned to take Voodoo Vengeance for the lynching of her husband, some fifteen years ago, and the opening scenes, as the roving camera tracks her skiff through the bayou are really rather effective. Likewise the notion of retribution for racial injustice is surprisingly daring for films of this era.
Then, alas, we get into the plot, as Ol’ Colonel Watsisfuss sips mint juleps with handsome young Wade Carson and they tell us that Carson has been hired to look into thefts at the Colonel’s Turpentine Plantation or some such.
They also tell us that old Colonel Whatisfuss, had an infant granddaughter who supposedly drowned in the swamp maybe fifteen year back or so.
It takes about five minutes for Wade to meet Chloe while sleuthing in the swamp, and less time than that for them to fall in love, but Chloe knows their love can never be, because she be black.
You have guessed the ending? So did I, but director Marshall Neilan (a rather interesting personality in his own right) walks us through it at his own pace, which could be charitably described as Lame. The acting is hard to judge fairly, given the spartan script fed to the unhappy thespians, but I have to say they handle themselves with a sincerity I found pleasantly disarming, with Chloe and her two suitors at odds while the Turpentine Rustlers and Voodoo Hoodoos hatch their fiendish plans between musical interludes by the Shreveport Home Wreckers, until we reach the ending, when poor distraught Chloe runs off through the swamp and is promptly grabbed by the local Voodooers for their weekly fish fry and human sacrifice.
At which point the movie actually gets pretty good; the scenes of the Voodoo ritual are hauntingly evocative, with, big old Oak trees dripping Spanish Moss behind a huge bonfire, while black silhouettes writhe and dance in the foreground like souls out of Hell. And the images of poor Chloe tied to the sacrificial altar as Wade Carson and Jim Strong battle to her rescue recall the very best pulp-cover art, providing a lurid finish to a distinctly uneven but somehow memorable film.
THE HAUNTED PALACE. American International Pictures, 1963. Long title: Edgar Allan Poe’s The Haunted Palace. Vincent Price, Debra Paget, Lon Chaney, Frank Maxwell, Leo Gordon, Elisha Cook Jr. Screenplay: Charles Beaumont, based on the poem by Edgar Allan Poe and the story “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward” by H.P. Lovecraft. Director: Roger Corman.
Except for the poem that Vincent Price reads off screen at the film’s end, there’s nothing Edgar Allan Poe about Roger Corman’s The Haunted Palace. With a straightforward, although at times disappointingly flaccid, screenplay by Charles Beaumont, this alternatingly captivating, creepy, and quixotic film is actually a cinematic adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s novella, “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward.”
Price is perfectly cast in a dual role as the fiendish warlock, Joseph Curwen and as Curwen’s descendent, the one and only Charles Dexter Ward. Nearly two hundred years prior, an angry mob of New England townsfolk burned Curwen to death as a means of stopping the strange diabolical man from practicing sorcery in a little town called Arkham.
Young girls used to disappear in the middle of the night and end up in Curwen’s castle on the hill. The men of Arkham were going to have none of that. Not on their watch. There was even talk that Curwen was capturing them in order to breed their beautiful girls with a hideous monster, all in order to create a superhuman master race.
Flash forward. Enter Charles Dexter Ward. A man from all appearances a kind and gentle, if somewhat naïve man. He’s got a lovely bride Anne (Debra Paget) and a claim on his ancestor’s forbidding estate. As you might imagine, it’s not too long before the evil forces of the past storm the present and the spirit of Curwen takes possession of Charles Dexter Ward’s body.
What evil schemes does the resurrected spirit of Curwen have in mind? Does he even work for himself or for the old gods, those malevolent spirits of yesterday just waiting to reclaim their earthly inheritance?
The Haunted Palace reminds us that horror need not be gruesome, that it can be done tongue in cheek, with a wink to the audience, all the while raising issues about the ethics of science and, in this case, eugenics. Unlike so many contemporary horror films, this one is steeped in history, atmosphere, and the New England Gothic literary tradition.
Although at times it feels incomplete, with too many strands never fully sewn together, this outing by Price in a dual role as two men overtaken by forces they can’t fully comprehend is definitely worth a look.
THE RETURN OF DRACULA. Gramercy Pictures/United Artists, 1958. Francis Lederer, Norma Eberhardt, Ray Stricklyn, John Wengraf, Virginia Vincent, Gage Clarke. Director: Paul Landres.
This one has been on my radar for sometime, but I never got around to watching it until now. Which is surprising, given my general fondness for the Dracula legend, B-horror films, and the late Francis Lederer as an actor.
I’m glad I finally did. Simply put, The Return of Dracula does low-budget horror right.
Directed by Paul Landres, who also directed a movie with the unelaborate title, The Vampire (1957), the storyline of The Return of Dracula is absurd on its face. The infamous Carpathian count flees Eastern Europe for sunny California in order to reboot his vampire empire. So, if you can suspend even more disbelief than you’re ordinarily expend in watching a vampire movie, you will get the chance to see Dracula (Lederer) as he takes on the identity of a man he kills and shacks up with a California suburban family. All the while pretending to be the family’s exotic cousin. Dracula’s naturally got his eye on his supposed second cousin, the beautiful and innocent Rachel Mayberry (Norman Eberhardt). Well, that’s the case until she decides to start wearing a cross around her neck.
So with a plot like this, what’s there to like? The answer: plenty. What the movie lacks in terms of a compelling storyline, it more than makes up in atmosphere and mood. There are numerous camera shots that aren’t particularly elaborate, but work extraordinarily well in creating a general sense of uneasiness for the viewer, provoking an otherworldly sense that something just isn’t right, of a world off kilter.
The film is likewise well served by a minimal and eerie soundtrack that heightens the tension at the right moments. And while Mayberry may not have been the most skilled of actresses, Lederer, in one of his late film roles, more than holds his own in his portrayal of one of literature’s best-known monster villains.
A CHRISTOPHER LEE TRIBUTE (PART 4 OF 4)
by Jonathan Lewis
THE GORGON. Hammer Films, UK, 1964; Columbia Pictures, US, 1964. Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Richard Pasco, Barbara Shelley, Michael Goodliffe, Patrick Troughton. Director: Terence Fisher.
It seems only fitting to close out my four-part tribute to Christopher Lee with a Hammer film. Even more fitting is a Hammer production in which he co-starred with long time colleague and personal friend, Peter Cushing.
The Gorgon, a quixotic, not fully realized, attempt to transplant the terrifying Greek mythological female creature into a fictional 19-century century German fantasia, fits the bill.
Directed by Terence Fisher (The Mummy, Dracula), the movie features Peter Cushing as Dr. Namaroff, an urbane man of science (naturally!) reluctantly investigating a series of bizarre murders in his a small German town. Reluctantly, because he suspects that his lovely female assistant, with whom he is in love, might be behind the murders. Even worse, he believes that she may be possessed with the spirit of the ancient Greek mythological creature known as the Gorgon. Its power: to turn whomever looks at her into stone!
But the task at stopping the gorgon’s moonlight murder spree can’t be accomplished by the good Dr. Namaroff alone. Enter: the mustachioed Professor Karl Meister of Leipzig (Christopher Lee). He’s brash, forceful, tough as nails, and not willing to take any crap from the local police who’d rather have him abscond back to his university.
And at the end of the day — or rather, night — it’s up to Professor Meister, silver sword in hand to slay the monster. SPOILER ALERT: When the film ends, it’s Lee’s character, the bold tall man with academic knowledge and physical prowess, that’s left standing. It’s a fitting way to end my tribute to some of Lee’s lesser-known films, don’t you think?
A CHRISTOPHER LEE TRIBUTE (PART 2 OF 4)
by Jonathan Lewis
CRYPT OF THE VAMPIRE. E.I. Associates Producers, Italy, 1964. Original title:La cripta e l’incubo. Christopher Lee, Audry Amber, Ursula Davis, José Campos, Vera Valmont, Angel Midlin. Based on the novel Carmilla by Sheridan Le Fanu (uncredited). Director: Camillo Mastrocinque (as Thomas Miller).
Fans of horror B-films from the early sixties, rejoice! This one’s got it all: a superbly Gothic atmosphere, witchcraft and Satanism, a family crypt, mysterious murders in the night, and lesbian vampirism.
Inspired by Sheridan Le Fanu’s vampire story, Carmilla, and directed by Thomas Miller (Camillo Mastrocinque), Crypt of the Vampire features Christopher Lee (billed with the Italian spelling of his name as Cristopher Lee) as a European nobleman living under the shadow of a family curse.
Count Ludwig von Karnstein (Lee) is concerned that his lovely daughter is somehow cursed. These things happen when you’ve got a witch as an ancestor, I suppose. But the good Count’s problems seem to multiply. He’s having a dalliance with his chambermaid, further straining his relationship with his daughter. And after a mysterious young woman shows up at the castle, things get even stranger.
Lee, who did many horror movies in his long and illustrious career, is great in this. His portrayal of the frightened nobleman is spot on, suggesting a man who wants to be in control, but is plunging out of his depth. The camera work, which gives the film an aura of deliberate disorientation, heightens the film’s otherworldly atmosphere.
I watched a copy on DVD, a version from RetroMedia. Although the film is presented in its theatrical aspect ratio of 1:85:1 (and enhanced for 16 x 9), it isn’t always the clearest picture. This is a shame, for Crypt of the Vampire really is a supremely atmospheric Italian thriller, one worth viewing in the best possible format that could be rendered.