Horror movies


THE SKULL. Amicus Productions / Paramount Pictures, 1965. Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Patrick Wymark, Jill Bennett, Nigel Green. Screenplay by Milton Subotsky, also co-producer, based on the short story “The Skull of the Marquis de Sade,” by Robert Bloch (Weird Tales, September 1945). Director: Freddie Francis.

   A reasonably good job was done in adapting Robert Bloch’s short story to the screen, but at 83 minutes long, it’s at least a half hour longer than it needs to be. And for a movie to be scary, it certainly doesn’t bode well when a sizable chunk of it can be cut out with nothing being noticed.

   But it’s always good to see Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee in a movie together, no doubt about that. This time around, Cushing plays a collector of occult and inhuman items who is offered an absolutely unique item, the skull of the notorious Marquis de Sade, while Lee is it’s previous owner — who most definitely does NOT want it back. He is more than happy it was stolen from him.

   Better, though, than either of these two actors in their respective roles is Patrick Wymark as Marco, the unctuous middleman (or thief) in the sale of the skull to Cushing. His death, a dramatic fall down a stairwell through several panes of colored glass, was for me a highlight of the film. That was also the turning point for me. The movie simply ran out of steam from that scene on.

   On hand is plenty of scary music, flashing lights and moonlight, and a skull mysteriously floating in the air, but none of these are of any avail when the story itself doesn’t make sense. Horror is a state of mind, and there have to be rules that have to followed, even in terms of the supernatural, not so?

   Read the story (follow the link provided). It’s only six pages long, and in those six pages it packs up to 20 or 30 times the punch of this highly acclaimed but in the end not entirely convincing horror film.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         


WHITE ZOMBIE. United Artists, 1932. Bela Lugosi, Madge Bellamy, Joseph Cawthorn, Robert Frazer, John Harron, Brandon Hurst, George Burr MacAnnan. Director: Victor Halperin.

   I recently had the opportunity to attend a screening of White Zombie at the Billy Wilder Theater here in Los Angeles. Presented as part of the UCLA Festival of Restoration, the low budget production is a zombie story, a fairy tale, and a fever dream wrapped into one idiosyncratic, but thoroughly watchable, celluloid package.

   Directed by Victor Halperin, White Zombie isn’t nearly as lavish as Dracula, nor is it as philosophically rich as The Wolf Man. But it is a lot better than many of the later Poverty Row productions in which Lugosi starred in the late 1930s and early 1940s.

   Although it was cheaply made with some incredibly clunky moments of both acting and dialogue, the film has its atmospheric charms and benefits from an exquisitely mischievous performance by Lugosi. In this post-Dracula outing, he portrays Murder Legendre, a white Haitian plantation owner and a master of voodoo who puts the enchanting Madeleine Short Parker (Madge Bellamy) under his spell. That is, until her white knight husband storms Legendre’s fortress to rescue his one true love from the evil madman’s clutches!

   It’s silly, magical fun.

Reviewed by DAVID VINEYARD:         


THE MANITOU. AVCO Embassy Pictures, 1978. Tony Curtis, Susan Strasberg, Michael Ansara, Stella Stevens, Jon Cedar, Paul Mantee, Jeanette Nolan, Lurene Tuttle, Ann Sothern, Burgess Meredith. Based on the novel by Graham Masterton. Director: Willlam Girdler.

   First off, the good stuff. Hell of a cast. Good performance by Ansara in a rare good guy role on screen, nice turn by Meredith as a barmy anthropologist, Lurene Tuttle as a little old lady fatally possessed by a Native American medicine man. Some lovely shots of San Francisco. Adequate special effects for the time if nothing special. Interesting concept from the novel by Graham Masterton. No one gives a bad performance.

   The bad stuff? Almost everything else.

   The film opens with Dr. Paul Mantee calling in Surgeon Jon Cedar (who co-wrote the screenplay with director William Girdler) for a patient, Karen Tandy (Susan Strasberg) with a peculiar problem — a tumor on her neck that appears to have the characteristics of a fetus.

   Stop laughing, she has a baby on her neck, that’s the plot, the actual plot. The whole movie turns on the fact she has a fetus on her neck, you can’t make this stuff up. They never do explain how or why, and all things considered I didn’t really want to know. Do you want to know how she got a fetus on the back of her neck? I know it was the Sexual Revolution, but still …

   Think about it. This is a big budget Hollywood movie with actual known stars, and it is about a woman with a fetus on her neck. Most of their careers were still going strong — before this.

   I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall when they sold that story to the studio.

    “You see there is this woman and she has a tumor, but it’s not really a tumor, it’s a fetus, but here’s the kicker, the fetus is on the back of her neck!”

   Poor Karen used to be involved with Tarot reader Harry Erskine (Tony Curtis). With surgery planned the next day she calls up Harry, who is a nice guy despite using his real powers to con little old ladies like Jeanette Nolan and Lurene Tuttle. Karen and Harry used to be a number, and they get together. Harry reads the Tarot trying to reassure her, but that doesn’t help as he can’t ‘force’ a good reading. Of course then he has sex with her, because a bad reading is one thing and he’s a guy, and every woman wants sex the night before surgery on a mysterious tumor on their neck.

   Harry is concerned about the surgery. He may be a con, but his powers are real (you haven’t lived until you see Tony in a fake mustache and a black robe with astrological symbols on it. He looks like Criswell escaped from an Ed Wood movie).

   Harry doesn’t know the half of it. As Karen is going under the knife his client Lurene Tuttle is possessed by a demon chanting some weird words and then floats down the corridor before her body is thrown down the stairs to her death.

   The surgery doesn’t go much better. When surgeon Jon Cedar tries to cut into the tumor he suddenly cuts into his own wrist instead and it takes two men to keep him from crippling himself. Then Strasberg’s vital signs go wild and she nearly dies.

   Don’t mess with the tumor.

   Curtis gets together with Cedar convinced that the tumor is somehow possessing Strasberg.

   Curtis turns to his old friend Stella Stevens (in some sort of weird dark make up that seems designed to turn her into a red haired gypsy but just looks as if she spent too long in the tanning bed) and her husband, together they run an occult shop. She’s out of the business but owes Harry one so she helps him set up a seance with medium Ann Sothern to identify the spirit possessing Strasberg.

   And something attacks during the seance, something powerful.

   Another bad idea, but then this movie is full of them.

   Meanwhile that tumor is the size of what it is, a fetus growing on the back of Strasberg’s neck.

   By now they know one thing, the thing is dangerous. When they try to remove it with a laser the machine goes wild and Strasberg directs it with her glance. It seems the light from all the X-Rays have hurt the thing and it speaks through her. Now Cedar is as convinced as Harry they are in over their head. Not only is the thing possessing her and pissed off, it is also likely deformed by the X-rays (remind me not to go to the dentist if I think I have a fetus on my neck).

   Curtis and Stevens go to barmy anthropologist Burgess Meredith who identifies the words they heard (“pawitchy salaoo”) as Native American, likely a powerful medicine man who can cause a new body to be grown on a host and leave it to die when it is born. He has done it many times before over the centuries growing more powerful each time.

   Their only hope is to find a medicine man powerful enough to battle this ancient being, though Meredith would rather let Strasberg die and talk to the medicine man after. You know scientists.

   That medicine man proves to be John Rocking Horse (Michael Ansara, and no, I’m not kidding, his name is Rocking Horse I guess John Hobby Horse was taken), who reluctantly agrees to help, but when he gets to San Francisco he discovers the being is the powerful Missmequaha — in short they are up a certain smelly creek without a paddle because Ansara is way overmatched. To make it worse Missmequaha wants revenge on the white man and modern society not to mention Native Americans who have strayed along the white man’s path.

   He’s back, he’s bad, he’s mad.

   Missmequaha is born despite Ansara’s best effort, but he is weak, his body misformed by the X-Rays. Ansara can’t defeat him, but maybe white man’s magic can, so they call on the manitou, or spirit, of the hospitals computer system, enough power for a small city, and when Ansara can’t channel it Curtis tries. He fails too, but awakens Strasberg who does channel the power sitting up in bed topless shooting rays of light from her hands (don’t knock it, it’s the best part of the film though it reminded me I would rather it was Stella Stevens) and destroys Missmequaha (or Mixmaster as Curtis calls him) in a mediocre special effects scene that probably seemed much cooler when this was made.

   Big budget horror films don’t get much stupider or more inane than this one that doesn’t even have the heart to make real use of Native American myth and legend but just uses some names and half understood stories.

   I don’t know if it was faithful to the book or not, I never could get past the second chapter of one of Masterton’s high concept (low execution) novels. If this was faithful, God help the readers.

   To give the perfect illustration of just how lame this is, it ends with a note that a Japanese boy was actually born with such a fetus on his body and it killed him. Fact, it proclaims, and I suppose we were to leave the theater with a suitable frisson instead of doubling over in laughter as I wanted to as the credits rolled.

   Manitou. I was disappointed when it didn’t turn out to be Karl May’s Winnetou’s little brother. A German western would have to be better than this lame movie. But it is bad in the way you can enjoy watching it doing your own Mystery Science Theater 3000 take on it. It’s the kind of movie kids used to throw popcorn at, everything going for it but not a brain brought to bear. Some movies are just painful, this one is good stupid fun.

   Rosemary was lucky. At least she didn’t have to carry the devil’s spawn on her forehead.

   A fetus on her neck? What were they smoking when they bought that idea?

   The idea of what the sequel might have been like doesn’t bear thinking about.

   I don’t even want to guess where the next fetus might have been.

Reviewed by DAVID VINEYARD:         


THE UNINVITED. Paramount Pictures, 1944. Ray Milland, Gail Russell (debut), Ruth Hussey, Donald Crisp, Alan Napier, Corneila Otis Skinner, Dorothy Stickney, Barbara Everest. Screenplay by Dodie Smith and Frank Partos, based on the novel Uneasy Freehold by Dorothy Macardle. Music: Victor Young (“Stella by Starlight”). Cinematography Charles Lang. Directed by Lewis Allen.

   First a a huge SPOILER WARNING in flashing red lights if you don’t know the film or the novel. Things are given away here you should see the first time in the film or read in the book.

   The Uninvited is a whodunnit — at least a whohauntedit, a murder mystery.

   Well, partially.

   The Uninvited is a romantic comedy.

   Parts of the beginning certainly and there are light touches throughout.

   The Uninvited is a psychological thriller.

   Getting closer.

   The Uninvited is a modern gothic.

   Almost there.

   The Uninvited is a ghost story.

   No, that’s an understatement, The Uninvited is the film ghost story.

   Robert Osborne, hosting an episode of the Essentials on TCM with Drew Barrymore that featured Robert Wise’s The Haunting, put it best. The Uninvited is the best ghost story ever filmed. It was then, it is now. All the special effects, all the pyrotechnics, all the leap out of your seat and scream movies made before or since pale beside this simple little tale of love, jealousy, and murder beyond the grave — with a human assist.

   Because The Uninvited has something no other ghost story has, something as uncomplicated as this: The Uninvited has absolute unshakable conviction. These are ghosts you will not laugh at. Whatever your beliefs, however rational you are, this movie will do its damnedest to at least convince you for its short running time that Stella Meredith (Gail Russell) is under siege by a spirit beyond the grave eager to take her life in an act of other worldly revenge. And for most people, viewers and critics alike, it succeeds — it more than succeeds.

   Is it Stella’s goddess-like mother, Mary Meredith, or the foreign model, and her father’s mistress, Carmel comforting Stella, threatening Stella? Which spirit weeps for Stella Meredith, and which wants to drive her to suicide? You will care if you watch this one.

   And you will consider sleeping that night with the lights on.

   I suppose this film won’t mean much to the gore and goo fans, there is nothing in it to make you throw up or gag, but its scares are deep and real, the frisson they induce a deep soul chilling hair on the back of the neck crawling kind of fright that for me has only been approached a handful of times on screen — the final moments of Hitchcock’s Psycho, the ending of John Farrow’s Night Has a Thousand Eyes, Robert Wise’s The Haunting, The Innocents, Val Lewton’s best, and too few others; it is the genuine fright and nerve chilling presence of supernatural evil the inexplicable, the hidden, the uninvited. It’s a stunning debut for both Gail Russell and director Lewis Allen.

   It is the best ghost story ever filmed, and that opinion is shared with no few critics. Critics who don’t like anything anyone else praises love this film because it is so unpretentiously and perfectly exactly what it wants to be — a chilly tale of ghosts to follow by a warm fireplace with the lights left on.

   I saw this for the first time at age ten (the same age I saw Ghost Breakers, a good year) on the late movie on a Friday night with my mother after a stormy night had passed and neither of us could sleep. When my father got home the next day he wanted to know why we were sleeping so late and every light in the house was turned on.

   Rick (Ray Milland, Roderick in the book) wants to write music, and with his sister, Pam (Ruth Hussey), and their dog Bobby, he spies an old cliff side house on the rocky moody Devon coast. They could never afford it of course, but it turns out the Commander (Donald Crisp) wants rid of it at a price they can just hope to pay. He’s unfriendly and downright hateful, and apparently a snob as well, for he wants his grand-daughter Stella — a moody fey girl who lies to Milland and Hussey to keep them from buying the house — to have nothing to do with the new tenants — and to stay away from the house at all costs. He is selling it in hopes of keeping her away.

   You know that won’t work. Ray Milland is going to London to arrange the move while Hussey stays behind, and feeling pity for Stella, whom he took an instant dislike to, he tries to cheer her up falling in love with her as he does. He, at least, is haunted by Stella Meredith, no matter who haunts Stella.

   Milland comes back with their housekeeper Lizzie (Barbara Everest), her cat in tow, and there is something Pam has learned she has to tell him.

   The house is haunted. And that night he hears the weeping of the ghost.

   Milland: “Does it come every night?.”

   Hussey: “No, just when you start to think you dreamed it, it comes again.”

   A haunted house, what a lark, but not to Hussey There is something. Maybe that’s why the housekeeper’s cat is freaked out. Maybe that’s why their loyal dog runs away, maybe that’s why the housekeeper won’t stay in the house overnight and frets over the two young people she virtually raised living in such an evil place.

   Or maybe it’s that beautiful room with the north light, Stella’s artist father’s studio, now Milland’s music room, maybe it’s because it gets so cold sometimes, or the way it depresses people and seems to drain them. Neither Milland or Hussey notice the first time they sit in the room that they suddenly become depressed, or the flowers that wilt while they aren’t looking.

   And then it might be the weeping woman who keeps them up all night. Maybe it’s just a depressing old place and that’s why Milland can’t quite finish his opus, “Stella by Starlight,” written for Stella Meredith, but suddenly so sad and so haunting when that wasn’t what he meant at all. Maybe it’s just them.

   Not in this movie. Unlike Robert Wise’s The Haunting, these people aren’t haunting themselves. What walks in this house does not walk alone. There is never the least hesitation about it: ghosts are real, and not merely psychological interpretations of impressionable minds.

   Then there’s that cheap scent, lovely, but nothing the elegant and perfect Mary Meredith would have worn, mimosa …

   Old houses, they have drafts, funny noises, there are cliffs and they are on the sea, winds blow, there are caves, there are stories …

   Commander: “Stella will never enter that house!”

   Milland: “Great Scott, you believe it’s really haunted!”

   And there is Stella, drawn to the old house by forces and needs she can’t explain, but somehow so vulnerable in that old place as if the house itself was both a warm loving mother inviting her and a cold murderous bitch trying to destroy her.

   After they have to send for the local doctor, Alan Napier, when Stella is overcome after running blindly toward the cliff where the old dead tree stands, where her parents both died, they learn Bobby is now living with him, and find a new ally in solving the mystery of the house and Stella Meredith.

   There was a scandal, the doctor explains; Meredith had a model, a fiery foreign type named Carmel, a Spanish gypsy. Carmel died a week after Mary Meredith was killed while trying to prevent her husband’s suicide on the cliff. Meredith was a scoundrel it seems and poor Stella has art in the blood, something she seems relieved about compared to the perfect Mary Meredith.

   Stella: “Between you and me and the grand piano father was a bit of a bad hat.”

   When Stella is better, and against her grand-father’s wishes, they invite her back for a seance. Milland and Napier plan to control the seance and convince Stella there is no spirit. Not as good an idea in practice as it may have sounded in theory. Again they sense the strange scent of mimosa, again Stella feels nurtured and warmed — and again something attacks.

   Whatever, it is clear now, the house is haunted — by two ghosts, one Stella’s loving mother, the other a vengeful spirit who is a real threat to her.

   But when the Commander discovers what they have been up to he decides to send Stella away to a home run by her mother’s closest friend and companion, a formidable and cold woman who worships the ground Mary Meredith’s angelic feet hardly touched, Miss Holloway (Cornelia Otis Skinner who ironically Gail Russell played in the film version of her book Their Hearts Were Young and Gay and its sequel) who created the Mary Meredith Home for Women.

   She worships Mary Meredith a bit too much perhaps because there is a hint of lesbianism you could drive a semi through, never exactly said. They hint the hell out of it though. Big fairly explicit lead booted hints, yet maintaining the perfect balance that is the reason this film is great.

   Miss Holloway: “… her skin was perfect, and her bright bright hair, she was lovely …” Anyone who doesn’t figure out this relationship is painfully naive.

   Just by coincidence the trained nurse caring for Mary Meredith and Stella the night of the tragedy was a certain Miss Holloway.

   Stella hates and fears her.

   Milland and Hussey visit Miss Holloway and hear her version of the story. Carmel tried to kill Stella, Mary Meredith saved her but fell to her death. Meredith killed himself.

   And then in the strangest of coincidences, the wind just happens to blow open the journals of the old doctor Napier replaced to the notes on Mary Meredith and Carmel, a quite different tale than the one they have been led to believe. Mary Meredith was a cold murderous bitch, who the old doctor suspected murdered Carmel by leaving windows open so the pregnant woman caught pneumonia — while she was pregnant with Meredith’s child, Stella.

   Mary Meredith wasn’t murdered by her husband. They fell to their death while he struggled with her to keep her from throwing herself and Stella off the cliff in a fit of vindictive and murderous jealousy. Mary Meredith is a monster of epic proportions. Miss Holloway murdered Carmal as far as the old doctor was concerned.

   Don’t screen this one on Mother’s Day.

   This is the secret the Commander has held all these years. The secret Miss Holloway would kill to protect, the secret of the old house, Mary Meredith’s secret. Stella isn’t really his grand-daughter, and the goddess Mary Meredith was a murderous harridan, but the old man truly loves Stella, he gives his life trying to save her.

   Mary Meredith wants to finish what she started.

   Compel Stella to throw herself from the exact spot where she fell, she has already tried once, the cliff by the dead tree.

   Revenge from beyond the grave.

   Murder from beyond the grave.

   And only Carmel, her real mother, stands between them, and Mary defeated her once already; all she can do is comfort and try to warn her child.

   Not really enough standing against Mary Meredith.

   Thank God Stella is with that monster Miss Holloway. But she’s not. Skinner has gone mad as a hatter and sent Stella home, home to the embrace of Mary Meredith. Mary wants her, and Mary shall have her. And when Stella finds the Commander dying of a stroke at the house, by the sea he tries to tell her, warn her, but too late. Mary Meredith has the hated child within her grasp alone at last, and Stella flees her, running in blind fear towards the very place Mary and Meredith fell to their death.

   Stella: I’m not afraid of anything here.

   Commander: “Then be afraid, be very afraid!”

   Skinner gives a finely tuned performance with an impressive scene of madness. No wonder she was one of the great ladies of the stage and American theater.

   Milland, Hussey, and Napier have gone to take Stella from Miss Holloway. They are rushing back, but can they reach Stella in time?

   The final confrontation with the hated Mary Meredith remains the single best scene of its type ever filmed. Milland, alone on a darkened stairway confronting a murderous spectral form with nothing but a candle for protection, is an image you won’t forget and the final reckoning with Mary Meredith the perfect ending. But don’t be too surprised if your courage cracks a little the way Milland’s voice does. Mary Meredith is something else.

   And, by a narrow squeak, it’s a happy ending. But as Wellington said of Waterloo, a near run thing. As a shaken Milland points out, he might have had Mary Meredith as a mother-in-law. Stella’s relieved too, she’d much rather be the illegitimate daughter of Meredith and his mistress, Carmel, than have Mary Meredith’s cold blood running in her veins. Spanish gypsy beats the cold murderous Mary Meredith by a mile.

   I can’t say as I blame her.

   The title has multiple meanings. Milland and Hussey are uninvited intruders; Stella is uninvited at the house and uninvited into the world; Carmel, the Spanish mistress ,was uninvited,; the Commander is uninvited to the seance and at the end to the house, his death uninvited at that moment; he is clearly uninviting to Milland and Hussey; Milland’s attentions to Stella are uninvited, even their dog shows up uninvited at one point and chases a squirrel who is himself uninvited; the doctor treats Stella and investigates uninvited; Bobby showed up on his doorstep univited; death was uninvited; the spirits dwelling there are uninvited. About the only people actually invited in this film are the viewers.

   If at any moment in this film there had been a single misstep, a single false moment, the whole delicate intricate facade would have collapsed on its own weight, but that mistake is never made. The Uninvited never takes itself too seriously, it never takes itself too lightly. It is never merely heavy, the humor is never just thrown in; it is vitally needed, or this film would be unrelentingly depressing.

   The spirits are just distinct enough to perceive as more than just light and shadow, but never more, they are a presence, but never quite of this world. They have influence over the living, but their power is that of suggestion and mood. At best they can make a rooms atmosphere change, close a door, cry in the night, fill a room with warmth and scent, or with malevolence, turn the page of a vital book at the right time. Even at the end you could just explain them away. Not easily, but if you needed to convince yourself…

   And you might.

   The cast, direction, effects, and script are uniformly perfect with a particular nod to Milland, Hussey, Russell, Crisp, and Skinner who all outdo themselves; especially Milland who does this so effortlessly you may miss how much of this films success depends directly on his performance, his connection with the audience, and his perfectly keyed emotional responses.

   Milland’s timing as light comic actor, his more substantial talents, and his ability to play the hero are all on display. The finale of this film would not work if not for Milland’s ability to effortlessly switch from light comedy to intense fear in the same scene, virtually the same moment — making his defeat of Mary Meredith ironically perfect. Watch also for Dorothy Stickney, one of Miss Holloway’s patients, Miss Bird; it is a great bit part.

   This was a major hit, though a follow up based on another Dorothy Macardle novel, The Unseen with Russell and Joel McCrea, isn’t anywhere near as good despite a Raymond Chandler screenplay, and the same director and production team.

   Do yourself a major favor and find a copy of McArdle’s novel Uneasy Freehold (published in the US as The Uninvited). The film is very close, and the book is also one of the best of its kind ever written. I’ve seen too many ghosts to believe in them, but this movie and the novel always make me think about leaving a nite-lite on. There are more things in heaven and earth than Horatio, or I, care to think about.

   And as frosting on the cake, “Stella by Starlight,” the haunting number Milland’s Rick is working on, was a major hit, much like “Laura” from that film. It is still a beautiful piece, and runs through the movie as a subtle musical cue leading the viewer to that cliff by the house and those final moments on a darkened staircase confronted with pure malevolence.

   Cinematographer Charles Lang won a well deserved Oscar for this. His work is impressive.

   Dracula, the Frankenstein monster, the Wolfman, they have nothing on Mary Meredith. Mary Meredith would unsettle Hannibal Lecter, the demon in The Exorcist would have been possessed by her. Mary Meredith like Du Maurier and Hitchcock’s Rebecca haunts this film even though you never see her save in a cold and forbidding portrait. She is a palpable presence; beside her Norman Bates mother was mother of the year, Joan Crawford was just a little strict, and Medea was having a bad day when she ate her children.

   It is no easy trick to do that with a character who never fully materializes on screen.

   The Uninvited is without question the finest ghost story of its era and for my money the finest ghost story ever filmed.

   This isn’t Stephen King, Clive Barker, Peter Straub, V. C. Andrews, or Anne Rice. There are no vampires, there is no CGI, no fake blood is let on screen, no green pea soup expelled, nothing leaps off the screen at you. The Uninvited, just wraps it’s chilly hand around the base of your spine with frisson after frisson as visceral as a gut punch. Like Mary Meredith herself, once it has you it won’t let go long after the silver shadows on the screen have faded to nothing.

   I have never watched this alone in the house at night. and quite frankly, I don’t intend to.

   If that isn’t a tribute to a ghost story, I don’t know what is.

   And try walking upstairs with only a candle to light your way when you have finished watching it.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         


DR. RENAULT’S SECRET. 20th Century Fox, 1942. J. Carrol Naish, John Shepperd, Lynne Roberts, George Zucco. Director: Harry Lachman.

“THE MASTER PLAN OF DR. FU MANCHU.” An episode of The Adventures of Dr. Fu Manchu. Original air date: 2 June 1956. Glen Gordon (Dr. Fu Manchu), Lester Matthews (Sir Dennis Nayland Smith) Clark Howat (Dr. John Petrie), Carla Balenda, Laurette Luez, John George. Guest Cast: Alan Dexter, Steven Geray (Mr. X). Based on characters created by Sax Rohmer. Director: William Witney.

   One of the most terrifying tasks (in a good way) that a successful horror/thriller director can do is to transport the viewer into a claustrophobic, eerie, and self-enclosed celluloid universe in which evil both lurks in the shadows and hides in plain sight. And you don’t even need an oversized budget to do it and to do it extraordinarily well.

   The trick, it would seem, is to keep the running time short, the atmosphere creepy, and the plot concerned with human physicality gone awry.

   Such is the case for two gems I watched this Halloween week.

   The first, Dr. Renault’s Secret, stars J. Carrol Naish and George Zucco in a cinematic admonition against tampering with the evolutionary demarcation that separates man from ape. Zucco portrays the eponymous Dr. Renault, an egotistical, sadistic, and downright creepy French scientist with a beautiful niece, Madeline (Lynne Roberts).

   Naish, in a chillingly sinister role, portrays Noel, Renault’s simian-like assistant, a man of unbridled rage and murderous intent. From the moment you see him lurk about on the screen, you know there’s something just so terribly not normal about this tragic character. John Sheppard rounds out the main players as Dr. Larry Forbes, Madeline Renault’s American fiancé.

   Directed by Harry Lachman, Dr. Renault’s Secret has that I-know-it-when-I see-it film noir aspect to it. Light and shadow are utilized to convey meaning, there are numerous camera shots from oddly distinct angles, and Noel can certainly be considered to be the film’s doomed protagonist, a man trapped in an out-of-control world.

   Also look for the noir-like mise-en-scene, the numerous staircases, doorways, and pathways that play prominent roles in conveying a story about Renault’s psychological descent into madness and Noel’s descent into savagery.

   In “The Master Plan of Dr. Fu Manchu,” an episode of the television show, The Adventures of Dr. Fu Manchu, a physician is pressured into performing plastic surgery on a man long thought dead but who is very much alive: Adolf Hitler.

   Fu Manchu, Satan incarnate, kidnaps Dr. Harlow Henderson, a friend of Petrie, and under the threat of torture, forces him to change the face of Hitler into the visage of an ordinary looking man, a person of unspeakable evil who could then safely hide in plain sight.

   Directed by William Witney, this thrilling episode has it all: murder by tarantula, Cold War paranoia, Nazis in an underground South Pacific hideaway, and the psychologically discomforting notion that physicians, with the use of surgical implements, could fundamentally re-alter a man’s physical identity.

   The last five minutes or so of this episode showcase Witney’s strength as a director of action sequences. After all, we get the thrill of witnessing Smith shoot and kill Hitler!

Reviewed by DAVID VINEYARD:         


THE GHOST BREAKERS. Paramount Pictures, 1940. Bob Hope, Paulette Goddard, Richard Carlson, Paul Lukas, Anthony Quinn, Willie Best, Virginia Brissac, Noble Johnson, Tom Dugan, Paul Fix, Lloyd Corrigan Screenplay Walter DeLeon, based on a play by Paul Dickey Director: George Marshall.

   If you asked me to list the ten best comedy-mystery films of the Golden Age of Cinema there are certain films that could not be left off the list, The Thin Man, Bulldog Drummond Strikes Back, The Cat and the Canary, My Favorite Blonde … But there is only one film that could be in the number one spot, the perfect blend of comedy, mystery, and scares, The Ghost Breakers.

   It wasn’t a new story then. It had been filmed twice before in the silent era and was based on a play that had also been novelized (it’s available as a free e-book), and it would be filmed again with Martin and Lewis as Scared Stiff (1953), but when you find the perfect cast, directors, and script — helped along to no small extent by Bob Hope’s army of gag writers — familiarity is a small problem.

   Bob Hope is radio star Laurence (Larry) Lawrence in this one. His middle name is Laurence too: “My parents had no imagination.” Larry does a radio show in which he uses his contacts in the underworld, namely Raspy Kelly (Tom Dugan), to get the inside dope on racketeers. When he reveals gangster Frenchie Duval (Paul Fix) is running a diaper service racket and not cutting his men and partners in on it, Frenchie is unhappy and invites Larry over to ‘talk.’

   It’s the night of a spectacular thunder storm (“Basil Rathbone must be having a party.”) that keeps knocking the power out which will further complicate things, but the station assures Bob they have auxiliary power and the show will go on.

       Receptionist to Bob: “You were great tonight, in your own opinion.”

       Bob, taken aback with no comeback: “I’m working on it.”

   Larry was going on vacation after the show, but not as far as he fears Frenchie will send him.

   Staying at the same hotel is Mary Carter (Paulette Goddard), who has inherited an island off Cuba known as Black Island on which stands the old slave castle Castillo Maldito once owned by her ancestor Don Santiago — who doesn’t care to vacate the place it seems. Anyone who goes there save the old black woman caretaker (Virginia Brissac) and her zombie son (Noble Johnson in terrific makeup) dies.

   Paul Lukas is Mr. Parada who wants to buy the place for $50,000, but when Ramon Mederos (Anthony Quinn) calls and warns her against selling she pulls back. She’s sailing for Cuba that night and might as well see what she owns.

   Larry and his man Alex (Willie Best in one of his best roles) show up at the hotel with Larry packing Alex gun, and on the 14th floor Larry, Mederos, and Parada come together. Mederos is killed and Larry thinks he did it so he ducks into Mary’s room and she takes pity on him.

   Larry hides in her trunk and ends up in her stateroom sailing for Cuba when the police search her room and her trunk is loaded to take to the dock.

   There is a classic bit on the dock as Alex hunts among the myriad trunks for the one Larry is in.

       To policeman: “I used to be a porter, I just love trunks.”

   It gets even better when a drunk becomes convinced Alex is a ventriloquist when he hears Larry in the trunk.

   Once on board Alex informs Larry he couldn’t have shot Maderos because the gun is the wrong caliber, but by then Larry notices Goddard is in trouble and despite himself he decides to go to Cuba with her to investigate Black Island; though he might regret that a bit when someone tries to drop a fire bucket full of sand on his head on the foggy deck.

   Ghosts or not, there is a very real killer lurking in the shadows.

   In short order they end up in Cuba where Goddard meets an old friend who lives there, Geoff Montgomery (Richard Carlson), and he joins the quest to help her, but that night when he takes Goddard to a local club she realizes Larry and Alex have gone to the island ahead to protect her. She determines to go too, but before she can leave meets the threatening Francisco Mederos (Quinn playing twins). Once he is gone she decides to swim to the island despite the sharks and see for herself leaving a note for Geoff that Mederos spots and reads as well.

   And once on the island, they are all in for a surprise or two.

   The film moves at a clip, joke on top of scare on top of clever line on top of intriguing mystery. It never stops to breathe or let you, or let you worry if any t’s are left uncrossed and i’s undotted. (Lloyd Corrigan keeps appearing running into Mary but we never find out who he is or what his role was.) Hope and Goddard had previously starred in the hit The Cat and the Canary (another remake) which is why Ghost Breakers got made in the first place.

   A word has to be said about Willie Best in this film, because without him, much of this would not work. I suppose to be politically correct it must be mentioned the role is a common stereotype of the era as is Noble Johnson’s part as the zombie. I can understand why that might interfere with some people’s enjoyment of the film, but beyond that, and making no apologies for the prejudices of the time period, Willie Best, one of the best light support comics of his era, is every bit Bob Hope’s equal in this exchanging quips and punch lines as brightly and cleverly as Bob. He is no more cowardly than Bob, and his reactions are just as funny. Compare this to the more offensive similar role he plays in The Smiling Ghost, and you will see what I mean.

   It really is a pleasure to watch them playing off each other in this. They are much more a team here than the usual black supporting character of the era is in other films. He may play a servant, but he is every bit Bob’s equal in every scene, and the two characters show real affection and respect for each other while exchanging smart lines and gentle barbs. Even the few racial jokes are less offensive than most.

   The scenes at Castillo Maldito are the film’s highlight, and Marshall milks them for all they are worth, with specters, an organ that plays itself, secret passages, cobwebs on cobwebs, and one stunning moment when Goddard descends the staircase dressed in her ancestors black gown to the shock of zombie Johnson. There are some genuine frissons in these scenes of a type that won’t be seen again on screen until The Univited, a serious ghost story.

   You know this will all work out, the mystery of Black Island and Castillo Maldito will be solved and the killer revealed, and as you have to expect from the beginning there is at least one final kicker, but this is easily the best of a great tradition, and one of the rare perfect films ever made. There isn’t a single false step in it. No gag falls flat, no scene plays false including a punny bit where Bob and Goddard are trying to unscare each other with phony British airs while dancing and exchanging awful puns and word play. This would not work at all with almost anyone else, but these two have it down pat, and you can see the mischief in both their eyes. You have to know that scene was broken up numerous times by Bob and Paulette getting more risque than the censors would allow on screen.

   The Ghost Breakers is funny when it is supposed to be funny, and it is scary when it is supposed to be scary, and it sometimes manages to be both at once. There is even a pretty good clue which hadn’t been quite so over used in film then, though it was pretty old hat in books long before that.

   I first saw this around age ten and I recall it was pretty scary then. Less so now of course, but I still appreciate the art that goes into it, and every time I watch it I see something new in the three main characters performances: Hope, Goddard, and Best are the reason to watch this film and the three divide the pleasures surprisingly equally. They are reason enough to watch this one, even if it wasn’t the perfect model of its type.

   But don’t misunderstand, I am saying unequivocally that The Ghost Breakers is the best comedy mystery Hollywood ever made. There is everything else and then there is The Ghost Breakers.

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:         


  OUANGA. George Terwilliger Productions, 1936. Also released as Drums of the Jungle and The Love Wanga. Fredi Washington, Philip Brandon, Marie Paxton, Sheldon Leonard. Written & directed by George Terwilliger.

   Most critics agree that the story behind this movie is more interesting than the film itself, but I found Ouanga possessed of a unique charm that kept me watching and even enjoying it.

   The plot is a simple affair, and writer/director Terwilliger had the sense to keep it that way. Clelie (Fredi Washington) is a Haitian plantation owner of mixed race, in love with the neighboring and very white planter Adam Maynard.

   The script hints that their relationship has been more than neighborly, but as the story starts, Adam is bringing his fiancée to the island and it ain’t Clelie — it’s whey-faced blonde Eve Langley, whom Clelie decides to kill with voodoo magic. And plot-wise that’s really about it, except that Clelie herself is pursued by mixed-race overseer LeStrange (Sheldon Leonard) who has his own murderous way of dealing with unrequited love.

   The story has a spare, allegorical feel to it, even down to the names of the putative hero and heroine (Adam & Eve) and the garden-like setting of the action. There’s also a fine dichotomy between the frank passion of the native peoples and the pallid complacency of their white counterparts. Terwilliger seems to enjoy cutting between vigorous folk ceremonies and tepid garden parties—and the passion in the clinches of Clelie and LeStrange quite overshadows the perfunctory romance of hero and heroine.

   Terwilliger, obviously influenced by William Seabrook’s 1929 book The Magic Island, went to Haiti to film authentic Voodoo ceremonies and did a lot of research for this film, but he got chased out by the local witch doctors, who killed a member of his crew.

   He ended up filming in Jamaica under primitive conditions and the result is terribly crude, but I found it oddly powerful as well — if you can get past the bad script, bad acting and laughable stunt-work. The Voodoo scenes here have a primitive and suitably awed quality to them such as I have seen nowhere else, as if the filmmaker were trying to convey to us something of his own dread and wonderment.

   Ouanga ended up being largely ignored by the public and shunted off by its distributors as an exploitation show, and frankly it deserved no better. But for those who can look past its incredible ineptitude, this in a unique and haunting bit of work.

   As a footnote, writer/producer/director George Terwilliger is something of a mysterious figure in the movies. An authentic pioneer of the cinema, he worked with D.W.Griffith and stayed busy in the silent era, but there’s a ten-year gap between his last silent film in 1926 and the appearance of Ouanga.

   Afterwards, the screenplay of this film was recycled into an all-black movie, The Devil’s Daughter (1939) but Terwilliger himself never made another film. He died in 1970.

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