Horror movies


INVISIBLE GHOST. Monogram, 1941. Bela Lugosi, Polly Ann Young, John McGuire, Clarence Muse, and Betty Compson. Written by Helen Martin and Al Martin. Directed by Joseph H. Lewis.

   Not a good movie by any means, but a better one than you might expect, thanks to some subtle work at the margins by Director Lewis and writer Helen Martin.

   Reviewers who tackle this one describe the plot as indescribable, then go on and try to describe it, so instead of that, I’ll just give a quick description:

   As the story opens, Middle-aged Charles Kessler (The writers seem not to have noticed that Lugosi was Hungarian.) sits in his big lonely mansion, still pining for his absent wife (Compson) who ran off years ago with his best friend. It turns out though that she didn’t run very far; Bela’s bosom buddy was killed in a car crash that gave his wife (Betty Compson) amnesia, and for years she has secretly lived somewhere about the grounds, hidden and cared for by the gardener (?!) lo these many years.

   It also seems that from time to time the Mad Missus gets out of the cellar to go lurking around the yard, and whenever Kessler sees her, it puts him in a hypnotic trance and he gotta go out and kill somebody.

   Got that?

   Okay, so like I say, as the story starts there have been maybe a half-dozen murders in and around the Kessler Manse, and we get another one pretty quick – a maid who was once involved with Ralph (John McGuire), the boyfriend of Kessler’s daughter; surprisingly, the writers hint very subtly that she may have been pregnant with his child.

   At any rate, Kessler strangles her, Ralph gets convicted of her murder (Déjà-vu for McGuire, who suffered a similar fate in Stranger on the 3rd Floor the previous year.) and is executed, whereupon his twin brother (also McGuire) turns up chez Kessler to find out whodunit.

   At this point the writers have strained logic and credulity well beyond the breaking point, so I won’t detail any more plot, but I will say that there are glimmers of real creativity in this mess.

   Joseph H. Lewis was a director who could be counted on to add style to anything he worked on, from The Singing Outlaw (1937) to the legendary Gun Crazy (1950), and while he can’t do anything with the leaden illogic of the story, he throws in some flashy camera angles and lighting effects, and actually gets a very naturalistic performance out of Lugosi when he’s not killing anyone — I like Bela, but underplaying was never his forte.

   Even more remarkably marginal is the butler Evans, played by Clarence Muse. Muse was one of the few black actors of his time who brought dignity to every role he had, and he delivers it here with assurance. Whether chiding the (white) maid for gossiping about their employers, or just shooting a knowing look when the cops start interrogating him, he projects an intelligence far above the plot at hand.

   Part of this may have been the co-writing of Helen Martin. I haven’t been able to corroborate this, but IMDB identifies her as the same Helen Martin who helped found the American Negro Theater and appeared on Orson Welles’ stage production of Native Son before going on to a lengthy career as a character actress in films and television.

   This would fit. Clarence Muse himself was a Black Activist and helped found the Harlem Lafayette Theater about the same time Martin was working with Welles. And the writing and playing of his Black Servant part is far more intelligent and subtle than any other comparable part in the movies of its time.

   To see what I mean, you have only to consider the scene where he encounters John McGuire as the dead man’s twin and speculate on how skilled comic performers like Mantan Moreland or Willie Best would have handled it. Then look at how Muse does it: a subtle double-take, then he calmly announces the visitor, walks calmly to the kitchen and quietly asks the cook, ”Do I look pale?”

   Moments like this aren’t enough to keep Invisible Ghost from being a very bad film indeed, but they help make it a very memorable one anyway.



WITCHCRAFT. Lippert Films, 1964. Lon Chaney Jr., Jack Hedley, Jill Dixon, Viola Keats, Marie Ney. Director: Don Sharp.

   Although the plot is highly derivative – there are really no thematic elements you haven’t seen before in a Gothic horror film – Witchcraft is actually a strongly effective horror movie. Filmed in crisp black and white, the movie makes ample use of limited settings. In terms of its ability to delivery a general feeling of supernatural otherworldliness throughout the proceedings, this Lippert Films production certainly punches well above its weight.


   In his final proper film role, Lon Chaney Jr. portrays Morgan Whitlock, patriarch of the enigmatic Whitlock clan. Rumor is that the Whitlocks are involved in witchcraft and have been for generations. Furthermore, legend has it that in the seventeenth-century, one of the Whitlock women was accused of being a witch and was subsequently buried alive. The main beneficiary of this act was the Lanier family that has since owned much of the Whitlock family estate.


   So when, in the current era, Bill Lanier (Jack Hedley) begins plans to build a modern development on the Whitlock lands, it’s only a matter of time before the tension between the two families comes to a head. Unfortunately, Bill Lanier wasn’t careful enough in his instructions to the construction crew who, unbeknownst to him, bulldoze the Whitlock graveyard. That sounds bad in and of itself. It’s far worse when that act of recklessness frees Vanessa Whitlock (Yvette Rees), the accused witch from centuries ago, from her living tomb!

   Although the acting in Witchcraft is pretty much average with no standout performances, the cinematography is excellent. There’s also a pervasive feeling of weirdness that permeates the film, giving it an otherworldly quality. Much of this, I think, is probably due to Don Sharp’s direction. Although not widely known outside of horror film circles, Sharp was a director who made the most of what he had to work with.


THE MAN WHO COULD CHEAT DEATH. Hammer Films, UK, 195(. Anton Diffring, Hazel Court, Christopher Lee, Francis de Wolff and Arnold Marle. Screenplay by Jimmy Sangster, based on the play The Man in Half Moon Street, by Barre Lyndon. Directed by Terence Fisher.

   The Hammer team at the top of their form, with a superior effort mostly overlooked these days.

   The tale is a familiar one by now, with Anton Diffring as the mysterious doctor who never ages – as long as he can get a gland transplant every ten years. The complications are predictable, but scenarist Sangster runs through them at a brisk trot, and Director Fisher works particularly well here with the photographer and set designer to evoke an atmosphere of lavish horror: all twisting stairways and foggy streets, imparting an air of mystery to Sangster’s straightforward script.

   Anton Diffring anchors the film firmly in Dorian Gray territory with a Hurd-Hatfield-like performance of restrained emotion and glassy countenance. Hazel Court projects sexy intelligence, and Christopher Lee and Francis De Wolff do well in less colorful parts. But the acting honors here go to a lesser-known actor: Arnold Marle, who plays Dr. Ludwig Weiss, the old guy who has been been keeping Anton alive all these years, but is no longer up to the task.

   This character speaks as the conscience of the piece, and Marle does a helluva job. He was an actor in German Cinema from its early days, fled the Nazis as so many did, and carved out a long career on the stage, with frequent jumps to movies & TV. Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but when Dr. Weiss speaks wearily about the folly of sacrificing individuals for an idea, you can feel Marle’s life talking to you.

   It’s a performance and a role that adds depth to a good-looking film, and it lifts The Man Who Could Cheat Death an important notch above the other fine Hammer movies of its time. This is one worth seeing.

THE DEVIL-DOLL. MGM, 1936. Lionel Barrymore, Maureen O’Sullivan, Frank Lawton. Based on the novel Burn Witch Burn by Abraham Merritt. Director: Tod Browning.

   After serving 17 years in a French prison for a crime he didn’t commit, a former banker escapes. With him is a scientist who has a formula for shrinking everything, including living creatures, to a sixth of their size.

   There is a small problem, however. Brain matter in humans is reduced as well, and anyone shrunken in size by the formula becomes a slave to the mental powers of those using it. This, of course, is a fine way to extract revenge upon those who have done you wrong.

   The special effects are spectacular, but in truth all they can do is make this old-fashioned melodrama just barely digestible.

— Reprinted and slightly revised from Movie.File.8, January 1990.


HILLBILLYS IN A HAUNTED HOUSE. Woolner Brothers Pictures, 1967. Ferlin Husky, Joi Lansing, Don Bowman, Merle Haggard, Linda Ho, Basil Rathbone, John Carradine, Lon Chaney Jr. and George Barrows as the Gorilla. Written by Duke Yelton. Directed by Jean Yarbrough.

   I followed up SLEEP. MY LOVE [reviewed here] by watching HILLBILLYS (sic) IN A HAUNTED HOUSE something in the manner of a man putting a gun to his head, hoping the culture shock wouldn’t kill me. Indeed, if I may compare-and-contrast, where SLEEP tends to be elegant and thoughtful, HILLBILLYS (sic) is nasty, brutish and short: eighty-eight minutes of forgettable songs, indifferent acting and a script for which the author must surely burn in Hell.

   I liked it quite a lot, actually. Sometimes it’s fun to turn off the Brains, and watching this is as close as one can come without the use of firearms or illegal substances. It was kind of fun, in a depressing way, to see Basil Rathbone, John Carradine and Lon Chaney Jr. all spooking like troupers, playing bad guys in a monster movie one more time, buckling on their sneers, leers and menacing looks for one last waltz with a guy in a gorilla suit — something like the aging lawmen in RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY trying to summon up a strength they no longer have, getting by on the vestiges of their legends. Or maybe just three actors in search of a paycheck.

   This was doggedly directed by Jean Yarborough, his last film and a fitting coda for an artist who, in his day, worked with all the big names in bad movies: Abbott & Costello, the Bowery Boys, Rondo Hatton, Bela Lugosi… he even did an unacknowledged mini-adventure series with Mantan Moreland fighting Nazis in the tropics. Check out LAW OF THE JUNGLE or KING OF THE ZOMBIES. Both were directed — along with THE BRUTE MAN, THE DEVIL BAT and others too feeble to mention — by Jean Yarborough.

   Even in his hey-day, Yarborough’s style was nothing very remarkable, and HILLBILLYS (sic) is no better than the indifferent rest of his work, except in the ironic fact of its existence. It’s as if the gods of the B-movies had settled on this as this as the curtain line of a forgotten play, the destiny to which a plodding director must wander, Bogart-like, to his own personal Casablanca. Poetic justice, perhaps. Or maybe just doggerel.


ISLAND OF LOST SOULS. Paramount Pictures, 1932. Charles Laughton (Dr. Moreau), Richard Arlen, Leila Hyams, Bela Lugosi, Kathleen Burke, Arthur Hohl, Stanley Fields. Screenplay by Waldemar Young & Philip Wylie, based on the novel The Island of Dr. Moreau by H. G. Wells. Director: Erle C. Kenton.

   Gawd, what a great film! Stunning sets, great acting, and a really well-constructed script. The part where Richard Arlen first lands on the Island and Charles Laughton keeps cracking his whip at half-seen things evokes shivers in even the most sophisticated horror-film addicts precisely because it plays on sophistication: the suspicion that someday this obese gargoyle will be without his whip, and the question of what will happen then.

   When the answer to that question comes, it lives right up to every expectation. On reflection, and considering that Erle C. Kenton, who directed this, also helmed House of Frankenstein / Dracula and Salome, Where She Danced, maybe it’s time to re-evaluate him as a potential auteur.

— Reprinted from A Shropshire Sleuth #45, July 1990.

DRACULA’S DAUGHTER. Universal Pictures, 1936. Otto Kruger, Gloria Holden (Dracula’s Daughter), Marguerite Churchill, Edward Van Sloan (Professor Von Helsing), Gilbert Emery, Irving Pichel. Loosely based on the story “Dracula’s Guest” by Bram Stoker. Director: Lambert Hillyer.

   Not all sequels begin right where the previous one ended, but Dracula’s Daughter is one that does, with Dracula dead, with a wooden stake through his heart, and Professor Von Helsing is custody as the man responsible.

   Rather than hire an attorney, Von Helsing chooses a former student, now a well-known psychiatrist, Dr. Jeffrey Garth (Otto Kruger). As for Dracula’s body, it disappears from the Scotland Yard morgue and is burned by his daughter Countess Marya Zaleska (Gloria Holden) in an attempt on her part to rid herself of her father’s curse.

   And who does she turn to? The same very earnest Dr. Garth, but as you can imagine, if ou haven’t seen the movie before, her attempts to save herself prove to be utterly in vain. No pun intended.

   The casting is well nigh perfect, the production and photography are both top notch, given the limited budget this film most likely had. The combination of stoic weariness and fear that Gloria Holden put into her role was exactly what the movie needed. I don’t think it gave her career much of a boost, though. She made a couple dozen films in her day, but I doubt that anyone remembers her for any of them but this one.

   The movie is in some circle widely regarded for its overt suggestions of lesbianism, summed up in a scene where Countess Zaleska, on the pretext of needing a female model to pose for her, requests the young girl to remove her blouse, and she does.


DOCTOR OF DOOM. Cinematográfica Calderón S.A., Mexico, 1963. Originally released as Las luchadoras contra el médico asesino. Young America Productions Inc., US, English dubbed version. Lorena Velazquez, Armando Silvestre, Elizabeth Campbell, Roberto Canedo, Chucho Salinas, Chabela Romero — and Gerardo Zepeda as “Gomar.” Written by Alfredo Salazar. Directed by Rene Cardona. American version produced by K. Gordon Murray.

   A film of surreal badness and genuine delight, this one has it all: wrestling women, mad scientist, ape-man, gangsters….. everything but cowboys, and I suspect they may have been in the original Mexican version.

   In fact, it may be impossible to fully appreciate the vision of Luchadoras/Asesino from what “Mexploitation” producer K. Gordon Murray turned into Doctor of Doom, but enough survives to boggle the mind.

   The plot is admirably straightforward: A mad doctor (imaginatively dubbed “The Mad Doctor”) has been kidnapping women off the street and removing their brains. We know, but the police don’t, that the flakey physician has been trying to transplant the brain of a gorilla into their skulls — always a project of dubious medical value, but there you are — but they tend to die once their brains are removed; thoughtless of them.

   (See what I did there? “Thoughtless?”) Anyway, I should add here for the sake of clarity that we don’t see The batty bone-setter’s face, but he’s aided by a cringing medical assistant, a bunch of small-time hoods, and a half-man/half-ape named Gomar, who has super strength and can be fitted with a bullet-proof suit when the heat is on.

   So right away we have the quintessential elements of old horror films and serials. The Police (Canedo & Salinas) are puzzled, in the time-honored tradition of monster-movie cops, but things take a turn when the demented doctor snatches the sister of pro-wrestler Gloria Venus (Lorena Velazquez, who looks unsettlingly like young Mary Tyler Moore) who also happens to be Canedo’s girlfriend. Joined by Golden Rubi (Campbell) the cops and the grapplers set out to get the bad guys.

   Which doesn’t involve a lot of detective work, because the screwy scientist has decided that what he needs for his project is a female wrestler (only logical when you stop to think about it) and while Venus and Rubi are after him, his hoods and Gomar are after them.

   Hang on a minute. I need to say here that because of legal restrictions south of the border in those days, this was made (ostensibly) as three short episodes which were then combined into a single feature film. Go figure. Anyway, the goons out after the girls kidnap the cops instead (!?) who are then rescued by the wrestling women, and everything ends happily except that the cracked quack has escaped with Gomar.

   Part two is more of the same, this time with an emphasis on discovering the real identity of the potty professor. Since there’s a character who’s been hanging around since chapter one trying to be helpful and pleasant, well… draw your own conclusions. Suffice it to say that we get more kidnappings, a fracas in the same Mad Lab that got busted up previously, and a fire that leaves the daffy doctor disfigured and thirsty for revenge.

   All this, though, was just a set-up for the Big Finish, as the paranoid practitioner captures another wrestling woman, plants Gomar’s brain in her skull, thus giving her super-strength (!?!) and sets her up as a masked rival wrestler to kill Gloria Venus in the ring, in a baroque vengeance worthy of Fu Manchu or a Sergio Leone Western, the whole thing wrapping up like a bizarre mix of Rocky and White Heat.

   What Doctor of Doom lacks in finesse — and it lacks a lot — it makes up in exuberance and a not-quite innocent charm, like an old Mascot serial or a horror flick from PRC. Director Rene Cardona, who launched wrestling super-star Santo into a cinematic career, handles it with just the right slap-dash energy and enough inattention to detail to keep things in constant motion.

   I’ll only add for you trivia completists out there that Doctor of Doom launched Lorena Velazquez into a short-lived series (see Wrestling Women vs. the Aztec Mummy) and even Gerardo Zepeda returned as Gomar in a semi-remake that surfaced here as Night of the Bloody Apes.


RATTLERS. Boxoffice International Pictures, 1976. Sam Chew, Elisabeth Chauvet, Dan Priest, Ron Gold, Al Dunlap, Dan Balentine. Director: John McCauley.

   Schlock and awe is the name of the game in Rattlers, a low budget when-animals-attack movie from the 1970s. And yes, it’s a very 1970s movie. There’s a subplot about feminism and equal rights and some absolutely beautiful shots of vintage (from today’s perspective, that is) cop cars being driven around the California desert. And then there are the snakes. Although there’s nothing particularly 70s about them. To be honest, not all of them are rattlesnakes and it’s not even clear how close the actors got to them.

   But that doesn’t really matter. What matters is that, despite its obviously low budget nature, the film doesn’t come off as an amateur production. I know now it’s trendy to poke fun at these types of films and, on some level, I get it. There are some unintentionally comedic moments to be found in Rattlers. But it’s not aiming to be high art either. It’s meant as escapist entertainment and was part of the zeitgeist. How many when- animals-attack films were there in the mid- to late 1970s? How many were inspired by the success of Spielberg’s Jaws (1975)?

   Sam Chew, who went on to become the narrator of Discovery Channel’s Shark Week, portrays University of California herpetologist Dr. Tom Parkinson. He’s asked by a sheriff in the Mojave Desert to investigate a string of bizarre deaths. This is not the work of a serial killer, however. The culprits in this case couldn’t hold a knife to save their ophidian lives.

   Parkinson teams up with the very single and very feminist war photographer Ann Bradley (Elisabeth Chauvet) to investigate what is causing these snakes to attack humans in such a brutal manner. This leads them both to a local military facility where a megalomaniac officer is conducting illegal research on nerve agents. I think you can put two and two together.

   Laugh at Rattlers if you must, but unlike a lot of contemporary quickie low budget horror films that are little more than joyless gore fests, this one was actually attempting to be socially conscious and to say something.


THE MONSTER AND THE GIRL. Paramount, 1941. Ellen Drew, Philip Terry, George Zucco and Rod Cameron. Written by Stuart Anthony. Directed by Stuart Heisler.

   A unique mix of True Confession, Gangster Film and Monster Movie, done with a patina of Paramount gloss — perhaps too much so.

   Ellen Drew starts off the story telling us how she was lured into a life of shame, and how her brother (Philip Terry) got framed for murder trying to redeem her honor. There’s a bit too much of this, including a lengthy flashback to wholesome brother-and-sister life back in Grover’s Corners or wherever, where he’s the Church Organist and she’s eager to go out and make it in the Big City.

   Eventually Ellen heads for the bright lights, and we get a bit more romantic drama as she meets a nice young man (Robert Paige), falls in love, and marries him. And about the time an astute viewer starts asking “Where the hell’s the monster?” there’s a nice bit where the kindly old man who marries them shows a shoulder holster.

   At which point we segue into Gangster Film territory. It seems this romance has all been part of elaborate and somewhat unlikely scheme to lure our Ellen into prostitution –only hinted at here, but very broadly hinted.

   Well we’ve all; had relationships like that, haven’t we? Anyhow, her brother Phillip Terry (remember him?) gets wind of the whole shameful thing, quits pounding the organ and comes after the rat who done her wrong.

   But he’s up against a cold deck because the gang here includes Paul Lukas, Joseph Calleia, Marc Lawrence and Gerald Mohr, and the astute viewer (remember him?) won’t be surprised to see them quickly rub out a gangland rival, callously pin the crime on Phil, and swiftly get him railroaded to the Chair by DA-for-hire Onslow Stevens.

   That’s when George Zucco comes on — and high time, too — as a benign (for him) Mad Doctor who wants to advance Science by transplanting a human brain into a gorilla. Okay, if that’s what the kids are doing these days, that’s fine. There’s a nice brain-transplant scene, and finally we get to the Monster Movie as the gorilla-with-Phil’s-brain escapes to wreak vengeance on the bad guys.

   Any Monster-Lover who has lasted this long should enjoy a last twenty minutes or so of creepy menace and building tension as the bad guys get their brutal comeuppance. To his credit, director Stuart Heisler gets a lot of visual interest out of the ape prowling about the city rooftops and fire escapes, and it never looks as silly as it should. Then too, George Barrows’ gorilla mask seems unusually expressive here, evincing sorrow, alarm and rage from appropriate camera angles.

   But basically what you get here is about a third of a monster movie, and a long wait for it. The Monster parts make satisfying viewing, but what it takes to get there…. Well maybe that’s why God gave us Fast-Forward.

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