Film Review: Doctor X (1932)

Release Date: August 3rd, 1932 (New York City premiere)
Directed by: Michael Curtiz
Written by: Robert Tasker, Earl Baldwin
Based on: Terror, 1928 play by Howard W. Comstock, Allen C. Miller
Music by: Leo F. Forbstein, Bernard Kaun
Cast: Lionel Atwill, Fay Wray, Lee Tracy, Preston Foster

First National Pictures, 76 Minutes

Review:

“Were the murdered women… attacked?” – Dr. Haines, Academy of Surgical Research

I don’t know if this is the first horror/comedy ever made but it’s gotta be pretty close. However, it also blends together several genres in what’s a really unique experience for a motion picture from 1932.

This is directed by Michael Curtiz, who would go on to direct several film-noir pictures, as well as big budget swashbuckling blockbusters starring the legendary Errol Flynn. Curtiz was a pretty versatile and now celebrated director but this may be his most unusual film.

So the version of this that I watched was actually the one restored by George Lucas’ people, which was also in Technicolor, as opposed to the traditional black and white.

However, I really liked the Technicolor work in this film and it made it feel gritty and real and also somewhat haunting and majestic. The use of green accents enhanced it in a unique way and while I typically prefer to see films, as they were intended, this almost makes a good argument for the use of colorization just by how it was employed here.

I thought that the film was amusing, I liked the comedy and it still works for those few of us that still enjoy pictures from this era.

I also enjoyed the performances by Lionel Atwill, a guy that was featured in a slew of classic Universal Monsters films, as well as Fay Wray, who will always be remembered for her iconic part in the original King Kong.

While this is sort of your typical mad scientist tale, it’s genre bending narrative comes across as fresh and unique when compared to similar movies of the time.

Rating: 7/10

Film Review: Island of Lost Souls (1932)

Also known as: The Island of Dr. Moreau (working title), H.G. Wells’ Island of Lost Souls (poster title)
Release Date: December 26th, 1932 (Scranton, PA)
Directed by: Erle C. Kenton
Written by: Philip Wylie, Waldemar Young
Based on: The Island of Doctor Moreau by H. G. Wells
Music by: Arthur Johnston, Sigmund Krumgold
Cast: Charles Laughton, Richard Arlen, Leila Hyams, Bela Lugosi, Kathleen Burke

Paramount Pictures, 70 Minutes

Review:

“Have you forgotten the house of pain?” – Dr. Moreau, “You! You made us in the house of pain! You made us… things! Not men! Not beasts! Part man… part beast! Things!” – Sayer of the Law

For several years now, the name “Dr. Moreau” has been immediately associated with the 1996 film The Island of Dr. Moreau, which was plagued with incredible production issues that were so legendary that there’s a feature length documentary about it (I reviewed it here).

However, that 1996 movie wasn’t the first Dr. Moreau film and in fact, the first sound era adaptation was this film, which was released way back in 1932 and featured the talents of Charles Laughton and Bela Lugosi, who had just come off of Dracula.

For the most part, this was a decent adaptation of the ideas, concepts and general story of the original 1896 novel by H. G. Wells. Sure, there are certainly some differences and the movie is also limited by what was possible in 1932.

However, in spite of those limitations, this movie makes the best with what it is able to do and honestly, this was a hell of an achievement for its era. The special effects, especially in regards to makeup and the creatures, was top notch stuff. Being that this was the first time that I had seen this film, I found most of it to be visually impressive and really cool.

Now the acting was a mixed bag but Laughton gave a solid performance as Dr. Moreau and Lugosi was as enjoyable, as always. Lugosi just makes a great monster and in this, he was much better than what any other actor probably could’ve done, except for maybe Boris Karloff.

Additionally, Kathleen Burke was really impressive as Lota, the Panther Woman. I liked her look, she was incredibly expressive like she was playing in a silent picture and she really made a hell of an impact alongside talents like Laughton and Lugosi.

I was also impressed by the sets from the compound, the lab and the island itself, which was haunting, lush and tropical.

I honestly wasn’t sure what to expect from this in the quality department, as I hadn’t seen it since I was a kid. I’m glad to say that I was really satisfied with it, overall, and wish it was as revered as some of the more famous horror pictures of its time.

Rating: 7.25/10

Film Review: White Zombie (1932)

Release Date: July 28th, 1932 (New York City premiere)
Directed by: Victor Halperin
Written by: Garnett Weston
Based on: The Magic Island by William Seabrook
Music by: Guy Bevier Williams, Hugo Riesenfeld, Xavier Cugat, Nathaniel Dett, Gaston Borch, Leo Kempenski, Hen Herkan, H. Maurice Jacquet
Cast: Bela Lugosi, Madge Bellamy

Victor & Edward Halperin Productions, United Artists, 69 Minutes

Review:

“I thought that beauty alone would satisfy. But the soul is gone. I can’t bear those empty, staring eyes.” – Charles Beaumont

Bela Lugosi is mainly known for his role as Dracula in the 1931 classic film by Universal. He’s also known for his work with schlock director Ed Wood and for generally being an old school icon of horror. I feel like many people don’t know about this movie, which is, in my opinion, one of his best.

White Zombie came out on the heels of Dracula and was immediately effected by distribution issues. It initially went through multiple studios before United Artists acquired it and got it out to the public in a wider release.

Critics, at the time, took issue with the ridiculous, over-the-top scenarios and the acting style that was more akin to silent films than the new talkies. Looking at it now, I just find it interesting, as it shows Hollywood productions trying to find their footing at the beginning of the sound era when they had been making silent pictures for so long. Also, the silent shooting style was still visually effective and the use of that style in this picture, created some of its more iconic moments.

This is a short but viscerally effective movie. It’s also damn cool and I love that even though the film has sound, music and dialogue it still resembles a silent picture in how it’s shot and how the actors react to the horror before them.

Speaking of the music, I love this film’s score from the voodoo chanting during the opening credits to the classical tune that makes Lugosi’s hand magic tricks work with added intensity and mysteriousness.

The acting itself is pretty middle of the road when looking at the entire cast’s performance, as a whole. However, Lugosi takes that same onscreen magic that he employed in Dracula and makes it work just as well, here.

White Zombie is a better old school horror film than the critics of its era would want you to believe. Frankly, I think it’s one of Lugosi’s best performances and one of his better films, overall. 

Rating: 7.75/10

Film Review: Freaks (1932)

Also known as: The Monster Show (working title), Forbidden Love, Nature’s Mistakes (informal titles)
Release Date: February 12th, 1932 (Los Angeles premiere)
Directed by: Tod Browning
Written by: Willis Goldbeck, Leon Gordon
Based on: Spurs by Tod Robbins
Cast: Wallace Ford, Leila Hyams, Olga Baclanova, Roscoe Ates

Loew’s Inc., Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 64 Minutes

Review:

“We accept you, one of us! Gooble Gobble!” – Freaks

Freaks was a pretty controversial film when it came out, even though by today’s standards, it’s incredibly tame. But the movie features a cast of actual carnival “freaks” and people with other handicaps and deformities. It was even outright banned in the UK for decades.

I like this movie quite a bit, though. It’s something that I watched with my granmum as a kid, as she was pretty into old school horror. I think this film also sort of developed my love of carnivals and “freak shows” when I was still a kid.

For being a movie with a lot of mostly inexperienced non-actors, this is surprisingly well acted for the era. The regular actors are all pretty decent but the “freaks” themselves really stepped up to the plate and gave genuine feeling performances too.

The story is about a gold digger, who tries to trick a rich dwarf into marriage so that she can kill him and take his money. Over the course of the film, the “freaks” decide to accept her and the situation, however, she loses her shit when they are celebrating their acceptance of her.

Ultimately, she’s got a big f’n mouth and the “freaks” become privy to her sinister plot, which ends very, very poorly for her. So poorly, in fact, that I’m not going to spoil the shock ending for those who haven’t seen this.

This is a really short film at just 64 minutes but it also tells a perfectly paced story that didn’t need more time and used the time it did have very effectively.

The director, Tod Browning, had worked in horror before and actually did multiple movies with silent horror master Lon Chaney, Sr. He transitioned well into a “talkie” picture and also made something that was as visually compelling as his previous gems.

Freaks is a much better movie than people might expect. I mean, it’s barely horror, compared to what we consider horror today, but it still has one really terrifying and disturbing moment that makes up for what some might consider a lack of horror.

Rating: 7/10

Film Review: Vampyr (1932)

Also known as: Adventures of David Gray (alternate original title), Castle of Doom (US dubbed version), Not Against the Flesh (US), The Strange Adventure of David Gray (Brazil English title), The Vampire (US copyright title)
Release Date: May 6th, 1932 (Germany)
Directed by: Carl Theodore Dreyer
Written by: Christen Jul, Carl Theodore Dreyer
Based on: In a Glass Darkly by Sheridan Le Fanu
Music by: Wolfgang Zeller
Cast: Julian West, Maurice Schutz, Rena Mandel, Jan Hieronimko, Sybille Schmitz, Henriette Gerard

Carl Theodore Dreyer-Filmproduktion, Tobis-Filmkunst, Vereinigte Star-Film GmbH, 73 Minutes

Review:

“Why does the doctor always come at night?” – Gisèle

Just as Nosferatu was the quintessential vampire movie of the silent German Expressionist era, Vampyr is probably the quintessential vampire movie of German Expressionism once it moved into sound.

This film has aged incredibly well for what it is. It is still quite terrifying, at its core, and it has an ambiance that is chilling and rich with dark folklore.

It’s unsettling as it rolls on and the plot develops. It’s well written and strange, as it doesn’t necessarily follow the typical vampire fiction template. It feels as if it were ripped from old folk tales, as opposed to taking its cues from Bram Stoker’s Dracula like nearly all vampire fiction.

I thought the performances were very dramatic and very reminiscent of the silent era but they were all pretty good. This feels like a stage show put to celluloid, as things feel very confined like the walls are always closing in. I’m not sure if that was the intent of the filmmakers but the scale of the film works to serve the main character’s story, as he keeps falling deeper and deeper into the darkness.

While German Expressionism isn’t really associated with films after the silent era, the style is alive and well here or at least the spirit of it is, as it has evolved. But this does, in my opinion, fit well with the more famous silent horror films that Germany was pumping out in the 1920s.

Vampyr is definitely worth your time if you like films like the original Nosferatu and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

Rating: 8.25/10
Pairs well with: NosferatuThe Cabinet of Dr. CaligariThe Golem and the Swedish film The Phantom Carriage.

Film Review: Universal Monsters, Part III – The Mummy Series (1932-1944)

Continuing on with my quest to rewatch and review all the classic Universal Monsters franchises, I have now gotten to the Mummy series.

The Mummy (1932):

Release Date: December 22nd, 1932
Directed by: Karl Freund
Written by: John L. Balderston, Nina Wilcox Putnam, Richard Schayer
Music by: James Dietrich
Cast: Boris Karloff, Zita Johann, David Manners, Edward van Sloan, Arthur Byron

Universal Pictures, 73 Minutes 

the_mummy_1932Review:

Immediately following the success of 1931’s Dracula and Frankenstein films, Universal went with the next monster needing to scare the crap out of theatergoers: the Mummy. And who did they get to portray the now iconic character of Imhotep a.k.a the Mummy? Well, they went to Frankenstein’s monster himself, Boris Karloff.

This film was directed by Karl Freund and it was his official directorial debut. For a rookie director behind the camera, Freund had a great eye for capturing intense dread and a very visual gothic style of storytelling. The film was consistent with the vibe of Universal’s other early monster films. While not exactly on the level of what James Whale created in the first two Frankenstein films, this movie does deserve to be applauded as a feat of cinematography and lighting.

Karloff was as amazing as he always is and that should be no surprise. He gave us a much more organic Imhotep than what was given to audiences in the bad 1999 remake of this film. Karloff’s face, especially his eyes, during the waking of Imhotep from his 2,000 year slumber was pretty enchanting and frightening.

I think that this film is overlooked in comparison to the other franchises under the Universal Monsters banner and looking back at it now, I am not sure as to why. It is just as chilling and just as effective as their other early films.

Rating: 8/10

The Mummy’s Hand (1940):

Release Date: September 20th, 1940
Directed by: Christy Cabanne
Written by: Griffin Jay, Maxwell Shane
Cast: Dick Foran, Peggy Moran, Wallace Ford, Cecil Kellaway, Eduardo Ciannelli, George Zucco, Tom Tyler

Universal Pictures, 67 Minutes 

the_mummys_handReview:

After an eight year hiatus, the Mummy returned! Except this mummy was a new character.

The mummy in this film is named Kharis and although his origin story is very similar to Imhotep in the first film, there are some differences. Additionally, this is almost the start of a new series itself, as Kharis continues on as the series antagonist leaving Imhotep behind. In this film, Kharis is played by Tom Tyler, who was best known for starring in low-budget westerns and as Captain Marvel in the serial Adventures of Captain Marvel.

This film uses some pretty awesome sets and that was the biggest takeaway for me in the realm of design and art direction.

This film also introduces the concept of the mummy needing tanna leaves to survive and to be controlled. It is a fictitious plant, so there is no need to worry about people actually using tanna leaves to animate mummified corpses.

This film is generally forgettable and the weakest in the series other than its set design.

Rating: 4/10

The Mummy’s Tomb (1942):

Release Date: October 23rd, 1942
Directed by: Harold Young
Written by: Neil P. Varnick
Cast: Lon Chaney Jr., Dick Foran, John Hubbard

Universal Pictures, 61 Minutes 

the_mummys_tombReview:

In this film, we get Lon Chaney Jr. playing Kharis the mummy. This is actually the first of three films where Chaney takes over as the undead monster. So Chaney has played the Mummy, Dracula, the Wolf Man and Frankenstein’s monster. He’s been four out of the six monsters from the Universal Monsters franchises. If only he were the Gillman and the Invisible Man and he would’ve done a clean sweep.

I liked this film better than the previous one. Chaney brought a level of credibility and emotion to Kharis and he made him more relatable.

The problem with this and this branch of the Universal Monsters’ tree is that these films almost blend together too much. There isn’t a lot that sets each one apart and they feel like a retelling over and over again. It is hard to make the Mummy character as compelling as the other Monsters as it is really just a slow moving guy in bandages that wobbles around and moans. Yes, it is a scary concept, especially at the time it came out but it is the most one-dimensional of the Universal Monsters.

Lon Chaney Jr. did a good job and he owned the role probably more so than Boris Karloff did. Besides, Karloff was barely in bandages and spent most of his film playing an Egyptian dude in disguise.

Rating: 6/10

The Mummy’s Ghost (1944):

Release Date: July 7th, 1944
Directed by: Reginald Le Borg
Written by: Griffin Jay, Henry Sucher
Music by: Frank Skinner
Cast: Lon Chaney Jr., John Carradine, Robert Lowery, Ramsay Ames

Universal Pictures, 61 Minutes 

mummysghostReview:

Here we go again, another Mummy film.

At this point, I am growing tired of the formula and I am a pretty big old school horror aficionado. This is where I realized, that this is probably the weakest of the Universal Monsters sub-franchises.

Lon Chaney Jr. returns but even he can’t make this as interesting as I hoped it would be. I also don’t understand why Universal made the poor mummy walk up and down a steep sloped roller coaster track that led to his hideout. Why wouldn’t the evil jerk who is controlling the mummy pick easier terrain for his tortoise-like assassin?

But at least when it comes to style and cinematography, it is consistent.

Rating: 5/10

The Mummy’s Curse (1944):

Release Date: December 22nd, 1944
Directed by: Leslie Goodwins
Written by: Leon Abrams, Dwight V. Babcock
Music by: William Lava, Paul Sawtell
Cast: Lon Chaney Jr., Peter Coe, Virginia Christine

Universal Pictures, 62 Minutes 

themummyscurseReview:

Two Mummy films in the same year? Man, wasn’t Universal getting burnt out on the most mediocre of their Monsters series? And wasn’t Lon Chaney Jr. in desperate need of a break between these movies and all the others he was pumping out?

The mummy wants his bride and that is the plot of this one. Well, that and the fact that some bad guy has nine tanna leaves once again and can therefore control Kharis to do his evil bidding.

At five deep, these films just keep blending together more and more. There is nothing to really set this film apart. Plus, these movies are so short, that it was like watching five different pilots for the same show.

But, the series is over.

Rating: 4/10

More Universal Monsters reviews are coming as soon as I rewatch them. Next up will be the Invisible Man series.