Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Horror Explorer (Sneak Peak): 1932

The Monster Walks premiered on February 7, 1932, the work of writer Robert Ellis (later the screenwriter of many Charlie Chan films) and director Frank R. Strayer (who would go on to direct twelve of the comic strip-inspired Blondie films between the years of 1938 and 1942).  It's another Old Dark House film, in which a family visits the estate of a deceased relative for the reading of the will, the house full of strange and eccentric characters, secret passages, and in this case, a possibly-murderous monkey. 

Freaks released on February 20, 1932, to immediate controversy.  Based on "Spurs", a short story by Tod Robbins, director Tod Browning cast genuine sideshow performers in this story of a love triangle amidst circus folk that turns murderous.  Often viewed as sheer exploitation, in actuality, Browning portrays the so-called "freaks" in a sympathetic light for the vast majority of the film, only casting them as beings of vengeance at the finale.  Browning himself had spent a deal of time with the circus prior becoming a director, and this experience obviously influenced his oeuvre.  Whether or not these performers were being exploited probably depends more on how they were treated by Browning and his crew rather than how the audience perceived them, and I suspect that the director's own circus career had brought him a sympathy that most outsiders could not, at the time, understand.  Regardless of the filmmakers intents, Freaks is full of unforgettable moments and some of the most chilling scenes ever captured on film--the sideshow assault during the rainstorm being one that viewers will forever be hard pressed to forget.

Universal released their Murders in the Rue Morgue on February 21, 1932, apparently as a sort of goodwill offering to Bela Lugosi and director Robert Flory, both of whom are said were initially slated to take part in the studio's 1931 adaptation of Frankenstein.  Based loosely on the Edgar Allan Poe story of the same name, Lugosi stars as the mad Dr. Mirakle who performs bizarre and outlandish experiments revolving around the mixing of human and ape blood.

German director Carl Theodore Dreyer released his Vampyr - Der Traum des Allan Grey (Vampyr) on May 6, 1932 to mostly negative reviews, although many have come to respect it in more recent years.  The movie follows traveler Allan Grey who is lead to a mysterious old house where he witnesses a number of strange sights and discovers that the place is populated by demons known as Vampyrs.  The film stands out in its sheer strangeness, full of surrealistic touches, nightmare invoking imagery, and a non-linear narrative.  Beyond that, although it was a sound film (Dreyer's first), there is not a lot of spoken dialogue and much of the narration is delivered through silent-style intertitles.  It was based loosely on Sheridan Le Fanu's lesbian vampire short story "Carmilla".

The Bela Lugosi vehicle White Zombie released on August 4, 1932, possibly the earliest example of zombies onscreen.  Written by Garnett Weston and directed by Victor Halperin (the two would next collaborate in 1933's Supernatural), this United Artists Corp. release follows a young American couple visiting Haiti.  The beautiful Madeline (Madge Bellamy) strikes the fancy of a wealthy local who hires sugar cane plantation owner and supernatural practitioner Murder Legendre (Lugosi) to steal her away from her fiance Neil (John Harron).

According to Zombie Movies: The Ultimate Guide, this film was based on a stage play entitled Zombie, although the author of that book, Glenn Kay, readily admits that very little is known about this supposed source material, beyond the fact that it opened and closed in only 21 days.  Halperin crafted a sequel of sorts four years later entitled Revolt of the Zombies, that unfortunately did not feature the talents of Mr. Lugosi.

First National/Warner Brothers' Doctor X  was released on August 27, 1932, another example of a stage play (this time by Howard Warren Comstock and Allen C. Miller) being brought to the screen.  Scripted by Robert Tasker and Earl Baldwin, and directed by Michael Curtiz, this was a pre-code production and so carried a number of risque themes that would have been cut were it made a few short years later.  A reporter (Lee Tracy) investigates a string of murders committed under the light of a full moon in which the victim's bodies have been sliced up with a scalpel and cannibalized!  Suspects include the titular Dr. X (Lionel Atwill, soon to appear in a number of genre films), an amputee named Dr. Wells (Preston Foster), the voyeuristic Dr. Haines (John Wray), the crippled Dr. Duke (Harry Beresford) and Dr. Rowitz (Arthur Edmund Carewe) who has been conducting research into the power of the full moon.  Rounding out the cast is Fay Wray as Dr. X's beautiful daughter, still a year away from her most famous role in King Kong.  Interestingly, the film features a 'synthetic flesh' construct, an idea would be used many years later in the Darkman series.

Doctor X was filmed in both a black and white version and a version using the Two-Strip Technicolor process, meaning that it was colorized using various tones of green and orange.  According to some sources, there are differences between the two versions, but are so subtle as to be generally unnoticeable.  Very few Technicolor prints were made, and they were thought lost for many years, until an original print was located and restored by the UCLA Film and Television Archive.

In 1939, Warner Brothers released a "sequel" to this film entitled The Return of Doctor X, which in an unlikely casting choice starred Humphrey Bogart in the title role.  Despite the title, and the name of the lead character, the two films had nothing in common. 

September 7, 1932 marked the release of Unheimliche Geschichten, a German horror-comedy film directed by Richard Oswald.  It follows a mad doctor (Paul Wegener) who murders his wife, entombs her alive in a wall, and the flees the scene of the crime.  Pursued by the police and a dogged reporter (Harald Paulsen), he is eventually caught and institutionalized, but later takes over the asylum.  It was inspired by short stories written by Robert Louis Stephenson ("The Suicide Club") and Edgar Allan Poe ("The Black Cat" and "The System of Dr. Tarr and Professor Fether"), seemingly all blended together into one coherent narrative.  Footage from this film was later edited into another feature, 1943's Dr. Terror's House of Horrors

Interestingly, Oswald had released a film of the same name in 1919.  The original version was an anthology film, featuring tales based on the aforementioned stories along with two others.

An adaptation of the 1924 short story by Richard Connell, RKO's The Most Dangerous Game was released on September 16, 1932.  It was the first of many film adaptations of the story and seemingly the only one to utilize the original characters.  In an inversion of the big game hunting safaris that were in vogue among the wealthy at the time, one such hunter Bob Rainsford (Joel McCrea) finds himself stranded on a desert island following a shipwreck, and becomes the guest of the strange Russian Count Zaroff (Leslie Banks, of 1934's The Man Who Knew Too Much and 1939's Jamaica Inn, both by Alfred Hitchcock).  Zaroff makes mention that he, too, is something of a hunter, but he had grown bored with it until discovering 'the most dangerous game'.  Said game is, of course, human and Bob finds himself hunted like a wild animal by the Russian Count.

Released just six months before RKO's biggest hit King Kong, these two films have more in common that one would at first expect.  Beyond being produced by the same studio, both films feature Fay Wray and Robert Armstrong in strong roles, and Noble Johnson and Steve Clemente in smaller ones; both were, at least partially, scripted by James Ashmore Creelman and directed by Ernest B. Schoedsack.  And finally, although Dutch Henrian didn't appear in King Kong, he did appear in 1933's Son of Kong.

Kongo (no relation to King Kong) was released on October 1, 1932.  This remake of 1928's West of Zanzibar replaces Lon Chaney with Walter Huston, and seems to follow much of the same plot, although ratcheting up the sleaze to massive proportions: drug addiction, rape, incest, prostitution, nudity and violent revenge all figure into the storyline--even more so than in the original. 

October 20, 1932 was the release date of the James Whale-directed The Old Dark House.  The generic-sounding title is actually rather fitting for this film, as it features all the staples of the Old Dark House thriller: a spooky gothic-styled household, stormy weather, kooky and eccentric characters, etc.  Here, a number of travelers are forced to spend the night in the titular old dark house to escape a terrible storm, and the expected antics occur.  The highlight is Boris Karloff as the mute butler Morgan, but even the notion of Karloff and Whale reuniting after the box office hit of Frankenstein wasn't enough to draw Americans to the theater.  It was, however, a big hit in Whale's homeland of England, where the audience perhaps better understood his sarcastic sense of humor and directorial style.

The Old Dark House was based on the novel Benighted by J.B. Priestly.  Although the novel was a sly take on class warfare, little of that subtext translated to the silver screen.  Whale may have enjoyed the source material, but couldn't bring himself to take his work so seriously.

Closing out the year was Universal's The Mummy, which released on December 22.  Archaeologists accidentally revives the mummy of ancient Egyptian priest Imhotep (Boris Karloff), who then wanders through Cairo in search of the reincarnated form of his past love.  He finds it in Helen Grosvenor (Zita Johann), who has no memory of her former life, and intends to mummify her so that they can spend eternity together.  The rotting, bandage-wrapped mummy is what most people remember from this film, but he takes that form only briefly here (although later sequels and remakes make more use of the image).  The third in the cycle of classic Universal monster movies (following Dracula and Frankenstein), The Mummy was written by John L. Balderston and directed by Karl Freund.  Freund was the cinematographer of over 100 films, including The Golem (1920) and Metropolis (1927) (not to mention the television series I Love Lucy), but this was one of only ten films that he would direct.

2 comments:

  1. These are all pretty cool selections....
    The only one I've haven't seen is Unheimliche Geschichten.

    Murders in the Rue Morgue is a favorite. I'm a big Lugosi fan.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Freaks still shocks. It's amazing this movie ever made it to the screen at the time it did. A creepy, upsetting movie.

    ReplyDelete

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