September 30, 2008

The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932)

Created by British author Sax Rohmer, the evil Dr. Fu Manchu appeared for the first time in 1912, in a story serialized in one of the many pulp magazines of those years. While originally a personification of the racism present during the time of its creation (the infamous "Yellow Peril"), Fu Manchu has become one of the most famous characters in science fiction, serving as model to other villainous character as one of the earliest examples of the Supervillain archetype. The fascinating evil genius (and his nemesis, Sir Denis Nayland Smith) appeared in so many successful novels that of course, film adaptations became the next step, resulting in many different versions of the stories made since the first British film serial in 1923. Many talented actors like Harry Agar Lyons, Warner Oland and Christopher Lee have played the famous criminal, but the most famous interpretation of Fu Manchu is definitely the one done by horror legend Boris Karloff in the 1932 film, "The Mask of Fu Manchu".

Based on Rohmer's story of the same name, "The Mask of Fu Manchu" is the story of the discovery of Ghengis Khan's tomb, where his legendary Mask and Sword are supposed to be hidden. British archaeologist Sir Lionel Barton (Lawrence Grant) has discovered the exact location, but he is kidnapped by Dr. Fu Manchu's (Boris Karloff) criminal gang, in order to proclaim himself Kahn's heir and lead the Asian nations to a war against the British empire. Knowing this, Sir Nayland Smith (Lewis Stone) takes his own group of archaeologists and, along with Barton's only daughter Sheila (Karen Morley) and her fiancée Terry (Charles Starrett), attempt to find Kahn's tomb before Fu Manchu, hoping to rescue Sir Lionel Barton in the process. However, Dr. Fu Manchu and his daughter Fah Lo See (Myrna Loy) will prove to be terrible enemies for the British agent and his team.

Written by the prolific writer Edgar Allan Woolf (with Irene Kuhn and John Willard as collaborators), the film is as faithful as possible to its pulp novel origins, keeping the essence of the Rohmer's series of books in both style and substance. As in the novels, the story flows at a fast pace, mixing horror and science fiction as the adventurers must face the criminal mastermind, who here is presented as a fascinating and very powerful adversary of Smith and his team. In fact, it could be said that the writers seemed more interested in the villains than in the heroes, as Fu Manchu and his daughter are easily the most developed characters. The treatment of Fah Lo See is really interesting, as the script (written in the years before the Hays Code) allows her to be a very sexual predator, and as wicked as her father.

"The Mask of Fu Manchu" was directed by Charles Brabin, a very experienced director of silents who after the introduction of sound, directed several "talkies" before retiring. Brabin's experience in Silent films may be the reason behind the very visual flare of the movie, as he gives an amazing use to Tony Gaudio's cinematography to create one of the most stunningly looking pieces of science fiction of the 30s, truly capturing the "feeling" of the pulp novels where the story had its origins. As the writers, Brabin seems to fall in love with his villains, and injects them the haunting mix of sadistic eroticism that previous incarnations of Fu Manchu lacked. Interestingly, this movie, Brabin's 8th film with sound, was also the first "talkie" directed by Charles Vidor, who here received his first chance as an assistant in a big studio movie.

As written above, it's the villains what make "The Mask of Fu Manchu" special, and fortunately, the cast portraying them was the most perfect one for the job. Myrna Loy is simply gorgeous as Fah Lo See, and while her role doesn't have too much screen time, she makes every scene memorable as Manchu's daughter. Legendary horror icon Boris Karloff makes wonders in the role of Fu Manchu, as he takes the character of the evil genius to higher levels of monstrosity. While the make-up (by Cecil Holland) is not as effective as the ones by Jack Pierce at Universal, Karloff manages to be a very convincing Fu Manchu in probably the best representation of the character. As Fu Machu's nemesis, Lewis Stone shows the necessary dignity and wit of the British gentleman he is portraying, but sadly his screen time is very limited and instead we get more of the mediocre performances by Karen Morley and Charles Starrett, who look very weak as the romantic couple.

It seems like time hasn't been nice to this film when compared to other films inspired by pulp novels, and not only because of it's constant racism towards the Asians (like with the novels, the "Yellow Peril" stereotype is quite notorious), but mainly because it uses devises so typical of adventure films today, that it make the film look dated and clichéd; however, taking into account the times when this movie was made, one can see it as the possible source of those clichés. On a different subject matter, the movie indeed suffers from the bad performances of those put on the main spotlight, as like many directors that started in silent films, Brabin struggles with the most dialog-based scenes. Still, Karloff, Loy and Stone shine despite Brabin's own problems and the lack of talent of the two lead actors.

True, "The Mask of Fu Manchu" looks campy and terribly dated by today standards, but it certainly has many characteristics that make it worthy of the title of "classic". It's horror elements are few, but it's an enormously influential film for the action and adventure genres (an influence that can be traced even to the "Indiana Jones" series). While not exactly a perfect movie, "The Mask of Fu Manchu" delivers a nice pack of thrills and fun, and one of Karloff's finest performances.


Buy "The Mask of Fu Manchu" (1932)

September 26, 2008

The Howling (1981)

Shapeshifters, the mythical creatures able to transform their bodies from human to the one of an animal, have been an important part of the world's folklore since the origin of mankind. Among those legendary creatures, werewolves have always been very popular, evolving to the point of being nowadays an icon of horror fiction thanks to the movies made about them. George Waggner's "The Wolf Man", starring Lon Chaney was probably the most influential of all, as almost single-handedly it created the basis for the modern werewolf's myths; however, in 1981 three movies appeared that revolutionized the werewolf in film, giving the creature a brand new set of fangs: Michael Wadleigh's "Wolfen", John Landis' "An American Werewolf in London", and this movie: Joe Dante's "The Howling". The fresh and original spin that these three movies gave to the werewolf's myths has proved to be enormously influential, and it's safe to say that 1981 was the year of the wolf.

Dee Wallace plays Karen White, a journalist who has become the new target of infamous serial killer named "Eddie" (Robert Picardo). Working with the police in the case, she gets traumatized after a near fatal encounter with the killer (which ends with the police killing Eddie), so she is ordered to take a vacation in order to recover from the shock. In Dr. Waggner's (Patrick Macnee) colony, she finds some tranquility and relaxation, however, she also finds that something is wrong with the other inhabitants of the resort. Unfortunately, she can't count with her husband Bill (Christopher Stone), as he as been seduced by one of them (Elisabeth Brooks), breaking their marriage; however, this will be the lesser of her problems as she unveils the secret behind the Colony's existence and the true nature of its inhabitants.

While the movie is based on Gary Brandner's novel of the same name, it has to be said that most of the film's charm comes actually from writer John Sayles (Dante's regular collaborator), who took on Terence H. Winkless's early screenplay and gave it his very own touch, adding a subtle spice of black comedy and nice tributes to the history of werewolves in film. However, not everything was changed from the novel, as Brandner's erotic and brutal re-imagining of the werewolf is still overtly present in the story, giving the film its characteristic sleaze. The plot is very well developed, playing with the natural mystery and suspense of Bradner's story, although it's safe to say that it lacks good development of several supporting characters. Still, it can be said that while different, John Sayles's version of "The Howling" is a nice adaptation of the now classic horror novel.

Right after directing three of Roger Corman's better known cult classics from the 70s, director Joe Dante arrived to the project with his very own idea of what he wanted for the movie. Dante shows in "The Howling" a big talent for creating haunting atmospheres, as well as a complete understanding of the satirical tone of Sayles' (another of Corman's former protegés) script. Cleverly using a wide variety of special effects (from Rob Bottin's awesome make-up to different kinds of animation), Dante makes a wonderfully film that certainly looks better than movies with bigger budgets. However, in a film not everything is about good special effects, and Dante knows it, so he keeps his monsters hidden during most of the film's runtime, in order to effectively showing them up in a couple of remarkable climatic scenes.

While nothing surprising, the cast as a whole is very effective and truly better than the average for horror movies. As Karen White, Dee Wallace delivers a very good performance and carries the film with dignity. Christopher Stone is one of the bad seeds in the cast, as his performance is probably the weakest of the movie, and actually hurts the film. Dennis Dugan and Belinda Balaski play Karen's friends, and both are excellent in their roles, specially Balaski. Among the supporting cast we find excellent performances by Patrick Macnee, Elisabeth Brooks and Don McLeod. Legendary actors John Carradine and Slim Pickens appear in small but memorable roles that like most characters are named after horror legends. Overall, one could say that despite some exceptions, the cast is quite good and manage to shine despite some poor development of minor characters.

Like the ones used in Landis' film, the special effects of "The Howling" are without a doubt some of the most celebrated works in this filed, and certainly one of the highlights of the movie. While a bit too dark (and oddly with that glossy, shiny look so typical of the 80s films), cinematography by John Hora is appropriate, as it gives the story a nightmarish surreal look, similar to the one given to 1941's classic "The Wolf Man". Pino Donaggio's original score for the movie is good, although sometimes too eclectic, with some parts working perfectly while others feeling definitely out of place in the story. Sadly, even when "The Howling" is definitely an almost flawless film, it has earned a terrible reputation due to the awful quality of its sequels, which have gone downhill ever since "The Howling II" was released.

Among horror fans there is always the question about which of the three werewolf movies of 1981 is the truly best, and while personally I feel inclined to say that "An American Werewolf in London" is the one, Joe Dante's "The Howling" is, in my opinion, a very underrated classic that despite the constant release of bad sequels, has kept its magic intact all those years. This film is really top-notch horror, and a movie worth to check out, not only for horror fans.


Buy "The Howling" (1981)

September 22, 2008

An American Werewolf in London (1981)

1981 was a great year for Horror, as three excellent movies about werewolves were released that same year in a "once in a blue moon" event: "Wolfen", "The Howling", and "An American Werewolf in London". Of the three, John Landis' "An American Werewolf in London" is probably the most famous, but not without a reason, as it's more than a brilliant horror movie, it's simply one of the best movies ever made. Being only 31 years old and right after the hit comedies "Animal House" and "The Blues Brothers", Landis found himself able to finally make his dream project, a story he had conceived when he was just 19: the story of a young American who finds himself transformed into a werewolf while on a trip through England. Like the classics "The Curse of the Werewolf" and "The Wolf Man" did before, "An American Werewolf in London" would redefine the werewolf myth and bring it to a whole new audience.

David (David Naughton) and Jack (Griffin Dunne) are two American tourists backpacking through the United Kingdom. One night while traveling across the Yorkshire moors, they are attacked by a strange beast that savagely kills Jack but is killed by the townspeople before it kills David. Weeks later, David wakes up in a London hospital, where he receives the tragic news of his best friend's death; however, this is not the worse that will happen to him, as Jack appears to him as ghost and tells him that what killed him was a werewolf and he can't rest in peace. But the worse part is that now David is a werewolf too, and cursed to become a savage beast under the full moon. Thinking it's all a hallucination caused by the shock, David refuses to believe this, but he begins to have weird visions as the full moon gets closer.

Written by Landis himself, the movie is a delightful mixture of black comedy with classic horror that works perfectly together in the film. While the comedy is certainly one of the film's strongest points, Landis follows the pattern set by Universal's "The Wolf Man", and keeps the tragedy of the werewolf's curse as the main theme. As in Curt Siodmak's classic story, romance plays a big part of the story in the shape of Alex Price (Jenny Agutter), a nurse who becomes David's lover, and the one in charge of stopping the beast. The story unfolds nicely, and focuses on the suspense of the events before the unavoidable transformation, giving the movie a sense of impeding doom that fits nicely with the cynicism and tragedy of Landis' version of the werewolf myth. Robert Paynter's cinematography was the perfect complement to the story by capturing all the British landscapes (both urban and countryside) with a surreal beauty.

The direction of the film is simply flawless, with Landis skill as storyteller shining as he makes his story come alive. As written above, most of the movie focuses on the fear and paranoia that David feels before his transformation, showing him in the state of disbelief when confronted by the ghost of his friend; however, this is not to say that the actual action of the movie is downplayed, as when the climatic scene of the metamorphosis arrives, it doesn't disappoint. Landis proves with this movie that he can direct scenes with heavy use of special effects with the same care as the normal character driven scenes. The film moves at a nice pace, never becoming boring or tiresome, and the use of classic songs with "moon" in the title is just another of the small details that makes Landis' masterpiece an unforgettable film.

John Landis direction and Rick Baker's awesome make-up effects tend to downplay the work by the cast in the film, but this doesn't mean there are bad performances. David Naughton tends to be the focus of the criticism, and it is easy to see why, as not only he certainly is the weakest link in the cast, his character is not really a likable one at first. As a tourist, he starts as an arrogant brat, and his disdain for Jack's petition makes him less sympathetic; but this just increases the power of the climatic transformation. Jerry Agutter is very effective as Alex, and makes an excellent counterpart to Naughton. However, the supporting roles are the ones who shine the most, as Griffin Dunne and John Woodvine steal every scene they are, the first one as David's friend Jack, and the second one as Dr. Hirsch, the only man who tries to help David.

Unlike most movies from the same era, it doesn't feel dated and still looks very fresh today. The mix of black humor and tragic horror works nicely against all odds and is the trademark of the movie. Baker's remarkable work in the make-up department is now a classic work in the history of the genre, and helped him to take his career to new heights after the slight downfall he had after "King Kong". The transformation scene is definitely now an iconic scene in the genre, pretty much in the same way as Jack Pierce's make-up for "The Wolf Man". Still, this film is much more than impressive effects, it's a tale of fantasy and horror told in a very classy and entertaining way. With all respect to Waggner and Fisher's movies, Landis' spin on the werewolf's myth is personally, the best rendition of a werewolves' story ever put on film.

Definitely 1981 was the year of the wolf in cinema, as together with "Wolfen" and "The Howling", this movie gave new life to the legendary beasts that roam by night. It's really a shame that Landis's career became so troubled by the late 80s, as he has an enormous talent for directing. True, ever since the beginning of cinema many movies have portrayed werewolves in many different stories, but in my humble opinion, this brilliant film tops them all.


Buy "An American Werewolf in London" (1981)

September 16, 2008

Dickson Greeting (1891)

When during an afternoon in Leeds, England, french inventor Louis Le Prince tested his latest invention and shot the first movie in the world, he didn't realize the magnitude of what was just starting that long lost day of 1888. Sadly, Le Prince would not live to see the results of his experiments, and it would be other people would be the ones in charge to improve on his idea and create what we now know as cinema. One of those who would become the first filmmakers would be the Scottish inventor William K.L. Dickson, who while working in America along Thomas Alva Edison invented the Kinetoscope in 1890. The Kinetoscope was a device that showed short movies individually through the window of a cabinet housing its components, in a manner that would earn it the nickname of "peepshow machine". However, the birth of Kinetoscope wasn't easy, and many experiments had to be done before its public release in 1893.

The first experiments were of course the famous "Monkeyshines" films, three movies where the camera captures (or tries to capture) the images of Edison's workers as they move in front of it. While not exactly successful (image looks pretty bad), those movies were the very first films shot in America and showed Edison the enormous potential of Dickson's invention. After many experiments, Dickson achieved the quality he desired and made the movie that would be shown to the press and 150 members of the National Federation of Women's Clubs in a private demonstration of the invention that took place on May 20, 1891. The first movie shown was this one, nowadays aptly titled "Dickson Greeting" because it consisted of a short 3 seconds scene where William K.L. Dickson appeared bowing and smiling, as if he was indeed greeting the first audience of his Kinetoscope. There were rumours that this film was also the very first movie with sound, with Dickson saluting his employer as he greeted him, but those rumours were probably created by Edison to increase the attention (not the first time he would use this tactic), and because Dickson was really working in making "talkies" (and he would be close to really make it, I must say).

Watching how Dickson's work improved from the "Monkeyshines" experiments to this movie is an amazing experience, as the quality of his movies improved drastically from bizarre images without any shape that appeared in his first three films to the high quality of his image moving gracefully in "Dickson Greeting". The fact that all this improvements took him less than a year is certainly a testament of the enormous genius of this man, who singlehandedly put Edison's company on the race towards motion pictures. On that day of May, this along with two other Kinetoscope movies (probably the two shorts about boxing) were shown to an audience for the first time, in what would mark the birth of the first device invented to watch movies. Kinetoscope, cinema's "granddaddy" had just been born.


Buy "Dickson Greeting" (1981) and the rest of Edison's early films

September 08, 2008

The Return of Doctor X (1939)

Legendary actor Humphrey Bogart is probably one of the most important figures in the history of American cinema, thanks to his unforgettable performances during the 1940s and 1950s in classics like "Casablanca" (1942), "The Maltese Falcon" (1941) and "The African Queen" (1951), movies that took him to the level of superstar as well as transforming him into an icon of the Film Noir genre of those years. However, success wasn't easy for Bogie, as he spent almost the first decade of his film career playing gangsters and cowboys in low-budget movies. As another of Warner Brothers' stock actors, Bogart had to play whatever the studio wanted him to play, and it was in this way when one of the most interesting oddities in Bogart career happened: he was hired to play a villain in a horror movie, "The Return of Doctor X", a b-movie slated as a sequel to 1932 hit "Doctor X".

In this movie, Wayne Morris plays Walter "Wichita" Garrett, a young reporter recently arrived to New York, who is of course looking for the big note that will make him a regular in the newspaper where he works. Finally he gets an interview with the famous theater actress Angela Merrova (Lya Lys), but when he goes to he apartment in order to interview her, he finds her dead. Strange things begin to happen as the corpse disappears before the cops arrive, and even weirder: Angela Merrova appears alive, making Garrett look like a madman. Without a job, Garrett decides to investigate how is possible that Merrova is still alive, and makes a visit to his friend Dr. Rhodes (Dennis Morgan) looking for answers. Together, Rhodes and Garrett will discover the terrible secret behind Merrova's apparent resurrection and the identity of the man behind it.

While it was presented as a sequel, "The Return of Doctor X" is a completely different story that has absolutely nothing to do with the firs movie, as it is in fact, based on William J. Makin's novel "The Doctor's Secret". Written by Lee Katz, the story has the same pattern typical of mystery and horror films of the 30s (which incidentally, "Doctor X" follows too to a certain extent), with a wisecracking reporter trying to solve a case of serial murders; however, in this film the horror elements are toned down in favor of the mystery. The film flows in a very straight forward way, and while there are some interesting additions (the ending has a slight Noir touch), it doesn't move too far away from the typical formula. However, this is the lesser of the script's problems, but more on that later.

Another oddity of this film is that it was the modest debut as a director of Vincent Sherman, who would become a respected director of melodramas in the 40s, and TV series during the 70s. In this his first film, Sherman's skill to direct actors is already evident, although still in a raw form. An actor himself, Sherman is naturally able to bring the best from his cast, and seems specially keen to allow actors Humphrey Bogart and John Litel to show off their talents in the movie. Of course, this is not a masterpiece and Sherman basically makes his movie a tale of murder and mystery by the book; however, it is notable how entertaining the final result is, specially considering the really flawed script he had to work with.

As written above, the acting is very good for a b-movie of its time, with Wayne Morris delivering a very effective performance as "Wichita" Garrett. His very natural presence allows him to make the character work, even at the sillier parts of the script. Dennis Morgan is also quite good, although a bit too melodramatic for his own good. Rosemary Lane plays Dr. Rhodes' love interest, although her character doesn't really have a lot to do in the story. John Litel delivers a wonderful performance as Dr. Flegg, and along Bogart, is one of the highlights of the movie. Finally, it is legendary how Bogie hated to play Dr. Marshall Quesne in this film, but despite he badmouthing this movie, his performance is truly remarkable. This quirky, wicked and bizarre character manage to become very real thanks to Bogart's professional acting.

Sadly, this is not one of the best examples of this style of horror movies, and not because the mystery is easy to figure out (a common trait in films like this), but because the plot's beginning is so poorly constructed that it requires a bit more than the usual amount of suspension of disbelief to accept the event that starts the film (the disappearance of the corpse being unnoticed is a major plot hole). I don't know if this problem was present in the original novel, but it really damages the development of the script. Still, to Kantz' credit, I must say that he manages to make the story work after this awful start and by the ending it really has turned into something better.

Of course, the main attraction of "The Return of Doctor X" is still to see Humphrey Bogart in a rare role as a horror movie villain, however, and despite the many problems with the script, I think that the film has more to its favor than just an against type performance by Bogie. I feel it truly captures the essence of pulp novels of its time, and works almost as a bridge between the 30s Gothic horror and the 40s era of Film Noir. It is not a very good movie, but fans of Bogie won't like to miss it.


Buy "The Return of Doctor X" (1939)

September 06, 2008

Doctor X (1932)

By the late 20s, Warner Brothers had already become a major studio thanks to the enormous success of their revolutionary "talking pictures", finally delivering fully synchronized sound and dialogs that could be heard. Soon after this, Warner moved to color as their new novelty, and using the advanced Technicolor Process 3 (which allowed a better use of their two color technology), the studio released a wide variety of films that looked better than the previous Technicolor films, creating a new revolution of almost the same impact as the creation of the "talkies". Among those films was the 1932 tale of horror and mystery, "Doctor X", directed by Michael Curtiz, who in those years was still one of the many studio directors at Warner. Mainly known for his effective (always on time and under budget) and versatile work, this would become the film that proved that this Hungarian immigrant had a style of his own and was able to make films of great success.

There is a serial killer on the loose in New York, committing his cannibalistic murders using a scalpel with surgical precision, and always under the light of the full moon, earning the moniker of "The Moon Killer". While the police still has no idea of who the killer is, they know one important thing about him: the killer works as a scientist at the Academy of Surgical Research. The Academy's director, Dr. Jerry Xavier (Lionel Atwill), decides that in order to avoid any bad reputation for the Academy, he must find who the killer is among the suspects, and asks the Police Commisoner for time to carry on an experiment. Gathering his four comrades in his old mansion, Xavier will try to discover the identity of the killer, as anyone could be the murderer, including himself. At the same time, a wisecracking reporter named Lee (Lee Tracy) finds himself trying to discover what's the mystery at Xavier's Mansion.

The screenplay for "Doctor X" was written by Robert Tasker and Earl Baldwin as an adaptation of a moderately successful three-act play by Howard W. Comstock and Allen C. Miller. The story remained faithful to the mix of mystery, comedy and horror that was popular in that kind of plays, but Tasker and Baldwin enhanced the horror elements of the story, clearly in an attempt to equal the success of Universal's horror movies. While the plot is indeed more focused on horror (including detailed, although not graphic, descriptions of rape and cannibalism), the story remains true to its origins as a play with the inclusion of lighthearted comedy in the shape of Lee, the wisecracking reporter, whose comedic exploits serve to break the tension at several points of the film. While nothing really amazing by today's standards, the story still works very well, with some cleverly written twists and unexpected surprises that spice up the plot.

While the plot sounds definitely like another of those "old dark house" thrillers that were so popular in the 30s, the execution of the film is what truly sets it apart from the rest. For starters, Warner Bros' decision of making "Doctor X" part of their series of Technicolor films allowed director Curtiz to be able to work with the now legendary cinematographer Ray Rennahan, and together they crafted very atmospheric images of haunting beauty. Rennahan's skills with color cinematography works perfectly together with Curtiz' expressionist background in the making of a fast-packed, yet beautifully looking story. As a director, Curtiz was still far from becoming the master who directed "Casablanca", but his classy style can already be seen raw in this movie.

Another of the high points in the film is the casting, starting with Lionel Atwill as Dr. Xavier. Atwill delivers a terrific performance, completely owning his character and giving it a subtle feeling of impeding doom, adding a lot of emotion to the film. Fay Wray is also very good, although like Lee Taylor, doesn't really have anything to do besides playing a stereotype. Preston Foster, John Wray, Harry Beresford and Edmund Carewe are pleasant surprises, each giving their own quirky character a distinct look, and like Atwill, make very believable suspects of the heinous crimes. Finally, George Rosener and Leila Bennett have small, yet very funny scenes that add a lot to the black comedy aspect of the film, and personally, I found them infinitely better than Fay Wray and Lee Tracy.

"Doctor X" is a film that has aged badly, showing a style of mystery stories that is not popular anymore after countless of imitations and variations on the same subject. Lee Tracy's comedic performance is also another of the film's details that nowadays look silly and out of place ( Glenda Farrell would do a better work in a similar role in "Mystery of the Wax Museum", the following year), although then again, this kind of over-the-top performances were the standard of comedy/horrors of those years. It is clear that "Doctor X" is definitely not a classic of the genre in the sense of being innovative or groundbreaking, however, I think that the superb execution of the whole film really sets it apart from the rest, and gives it a special charm that it's hard to ignore.

It's safe to say that this movie pales in comparison to some of the best Universal's horrors of those years, and that the cast and crew of this film surpassed themselves the following year with "Mystery of the Wax Museum", completely overshadowing this film; however, "Doctor X" is an enjoyable movie that shows the days of experimentation with color, and the style of horror of the years prior to the Hays Code. While not a life changing experience, "Doctor X" is a perfect film for a dark atmospheric night, where its haunting colors can shine the most.


Buy "Doctor X" (1932)

September 01, 2008

The Mummy (1932)

1931 was truly a significant year for the horror genre, as the release of Universal Studios' classics "Dracula" and "Frankenstein" marked the genre's triumphant entrance to the sound era, and the birth of modern American Horror cinema. While those movies weren't the first American horror "talkies" (Universal's own "The Cat Creeps" was released on 1930), they were the ones that started the "horror boom" of the decade and what's known today as the "Golden Age of Horror". On the wake of this tremendous success, and inspired by the rumors of a supposed "Curse" that surrounded the discovery of Tutankhamun's tomb (in 1922), producer Carl Laemmle Jr. decided to make Universal's next horror hit an Egyptian-themed one. Such was the genesis of 1932's "The Mummy", film that not only would continue Universal's string of horror classics, but also finish to establish Boris Karloff's name as a horror icon and mark the debut as a director of legendary cinematographer Karl Freund.

"The Mummy" begins in 1921 with the discovery of an ancient tomb by an archaeological expedition led by Sir Joseph Whemple (Arthur Byron). In the tomb, they find the mummy of a powerful priest, Imhotep (Boris Karloff), as well as a mysterious scroll. Unaware that the scroll contains an ancient spell able to resurrect the dead, young archaeologist Ralph Norton (Bramwell Fletcher) reads the scroll, bringing the powerful Imhotep back to life, an event that drives Norton insane. Ten years later, Sir Joseph Whemple and his son Frank (David Manners) return to Egypt, hoping to find the tomb of Princess Anck-es-en-Amon this time. With the help of a mysterious man named Ardath Bey, the archaeologists find the tomb, but Bey is actually Imhotep, whose interest in helping the Whemples came from his desire to find his forbidden long lost love, the Princess. However, the revived priest will be surprised when he meets Helen Grosvenor (Zita Johann), a young woman who seems to be tied to Anck-es-en-Amon in some form.

Writers Richard Shayer and Nina Wilox Putnam had the mission of developing the Egyptan-themed horror film, however, their inspiration came not from Egypt, but from the rumors and tales about occultist Alessandro Cagliostro, from which they developed the film's story. John L. Baldeston, who wrote the screenplay, would be the one whom added the Egyptian theme Laemmle desired. "The Mummy" rehashes several key themes of Browning's "Dracula" (also written by Baldeston), mainly the romantic triangle between a young couple and an ancient supernatural figure, however, this theme receives a considerably different focus by the amount of humanity present in the character of Imhotep (when compared to the predatory Transilvanian count), making him a complex, almost tragic figure in spite of being a powerful villain. This complexity, together with the way the Mummy is developed as an ever present supernatural force of evil (unlike the shambling, silent undead servant of posterior Mummy films) makes Imhotep one of the best written villains in 30s horror cinema.

Despite being hired to direct the film only two days before filming started (and also being his first job as a director), Karl Freund makes a more than competent job in putting the whole thing together, bringing the story to life with a powerful, visually stunning style very much in tone with the atmospheric touch of mysticism the story exudes. Being a cinematographer himself (in classics such as "Der Letzte Mann", "Metropolis" and "Dracula"), it's not a surprise that Freund had put to excellent use the work of cinematographer Charles J. Stumar, giving "The Mummy" a highly atmospheric look that brings back memories of the German Expressonist movement of the 20s (in which Freund played a big role). However, this look is not only played for an atmosphere of dread, but also to enhance the surreal dark fantasy elements of mysticism that are at hand in the story, completing the feeling of constant menace that Karloff's Imhotep brings to the screen. While Freund's personality clashed with his cast, it's commendable the fact that he managed to bring great performances out of them.

The acting through the film is for the most part of great quality, with the cast doing a very effective job in their respective roles. Horror icon Boris Karloff is simply outstanding as the ancient Imhotep, a role that finally allowed him to showcase his talent for horror in a speaking role (his previous characters in the genre had been silent). Filling the screen with a powerful commanding presence, Karloff is frighteningly believable as the 3700 years old mummy, willing to do whatever is necessary to be reunited with the love of his life. If Lugosi's eyes in "Dracula" are the ones of a primal, animal-like evil force of nature, Karloff's eyes transmit the sharp intelligence of a centuries old evil mastermind. Opposing Imhotep is Edward Van Sloan as Doctor Muller, who comes to aide the Whemples in their fight against Imhotep. Van Sloan is truly in his environment, once again playing the wise man of science determined to face the occult without skepticism. The beautiful Zita Johann is wonderful as Helen Grosvenor, and makes her character to be more than a mere damsel in distress.

In fact, the only weak link in the cast comes in David Manners' somewhat bland performance as Frank Whemple, as Manners is not only easily overshadowed by his fellow cast-mates, but also at times his character's personality becomes a tad annoying, showcasing an attitude that seems out of place in the film (although this last thing may also be the writers' fault). Still, the film's only real problem is, in my personal opinion, the way the last half of the movie becomes too close to be a complete rehash of Browning's "Dracula" for its own good. While "The Mummy" offers a completely different kind of mystique, a more surreal mood and a humanity not seen in Browning's film, the twists and turns the plot has in its final part feel almost like a carbon copy, making the film lose some steam by the time it reaches its climax. The fact that Van Sloan and Manners play essentially the same characters they did in the 1931's classic do nothing but to enhance this feeling of watching a remake of "Dracula" with an Egyptian setting.

But still, that's just probably a minor complain, as while both films are indeed very similar in their plots (and cast), they are also very different in terms of how the concept is developed, and truly the enormous differences between Lugosi's Dracula and Karloff's Imhotep (I wouldn't say one is better than the other, let's leave it at "different") are more than enough to make those movies completely different experiences. Director Karl Freund wouldn't enjoy a long career as a director, not because a lack of talent, but because cinematography seemed to be his true love (and he developed huge improvements in that department). Fortunately, before retiring he managed to deliver another masterpiece of horror: 1935's "Mad Love". While probably of lesser impact than Tod Browning's "Dracula" and James Whale's "Frankenstein, Karl Freund's film is definitely in the same league as those two classics of the genre.


Buy "The Mummy" (1932)