Release Date: August 21st, 1943 Directed by: Mark Robson Written by: DeWitt Bodeen, Charles O’Neal Music by: Roy Webb Cast: Tom Conway, Jean Brooks, Isabel Jewell, Kim Hunter
RKO Radio Pictures, 71 Minutes
“No, that room made her happy in some strange way I couldn’t understand. She lived in a world of her own fancy. She didn’t always tell the truth. In fact, I’m afraid she didn’t know what the truth was.” – Gregory Ward
The Seventh Victim is a movie that sort of walks a tightrope between multiple genres while being completely its own thing. It is a mixture of noir, horror, mystery and could mostly be considered a very dramatic thriller. It is also quite short at 71 minutes but it packs a solid punch despite its dainty running time. Tiny and meaty, it is like the filet mignon of early film-noir.
The cool twist of this picture, is that the story revolves around the existence of a Satanic cult in Manhattan. That’s some pretty dark and mysterious stuff for a film from the early 1940s but the movie doesn’t get quite as dark as you might hope, which is really the one thing that worked against it in my opinion. I was hoping for a sort of hybrid between early noir and something in the style of Universal’s horror franchises, at the time. RKO still made a dark and interesting thriller, regardless.
In this film, we meet a young female student who comes to discover that her older sister has been missing. She sets off, leaving her education behind, in an effort to find her missing sister. As the film rolls on, we learn that the older sister has some sort of involvement with a cult that worships the Devil. She exhibits strange behavior and is actually suicidal and wants to die. After betraying her cult, the punishment is death. However, she doesn’t want to die because someone else wills it, she wants to die when she is damned good and ready.
The Satanic sister is played by Jean Brooks and she puts in an enchanting performance. She is like a statuesque phantom in the night, exuding beauty and mystery. The younger sister, played by Kim Hunter, is a perfect contrast to the darkness and brings a bright beacon of light and hope into the story. Tom Conway is the top billed star but this film really stars the two sisters.
Ultimately, the picture is a bit disjointed and lacking the gravitas I had hoped it would have but it is interesting and entertaining. Plus, the performances of the two main actresses is really good. Additionally, few women have been able to exhibit a haunting allure in the way that Jean Brooks does in this picture.
Release Date: May 8th, 1943 Directed by: Jacques Tourneur Written by: Ardel Wray, Edward Dein Based on:Black Alibi by Cornell Woolrich Music by: Roy Webb Cast: Dennis O’Keefe, Jean Brooks, Margo
RKO Radio Pictures, 66 Minutes
“You don’t get the idea, mister. These cops banging those pans, flashing those lights, they’re gonna scare that poor cat of mine. Cats are funny, mister. They don’t want to hurt you, but if you scare them they go crazy. These cops, they don’t know what they’re doing.” – Charlie How-Come
I’ve been working my way through Val Lewton’s horror films for RKO. He produced some of the coolest scary movies of the 1940s and The Leopard Man is a pretty solid film that was directed by one of his best collaborators, Jacques Tourneur. Mark Robson, who would also direct some of Lewton’s productions, worked on this picture as its editor.
The film stars Dennis O’Keefe, who would go on to work in film-noir throughout the decade. He is joined by the mesmerizing Jean Brooks, who completely owned the screen in another Lewton production, the horror film-noir The Seventh Victim. She had a very strong presence in this and an enchanting aura about her. It’s surprising to me, actually, that she never went on to be a megastar in the era of film-noir.
Like Tourneur’s other films under Lewton, this is a picture where the audience has to often times rely on their own imagination. This is a classic suspense horror picture, through and through. It’s the things that aren’t seen that are the most scary. For instance, when the first victim dies, you witness this from the other side of a locked door, hearing her bloodcurdling screams, until they abruptly stop and a pool of blood starts pouring into the house from under the door.
Additionally, when another victim is attacked in a graveyard, much is left to the viewer’s imagination. You see the victim’s reaction and a branch violently shake before the attack. But it is done in a way that is more effective than seeing the monster attack on screen. And for the twist ending of this film, it is actually necessary to obscure the killer and allow the mind to fill in the blanks.
The plot of the film is pretty simple. A showman rents a black leopard to spruce up the act of one of his top ladies. The leopard is frightened and runs off, escaping into the small desert town. Shortly after, a girl is mauled outside the front door to her house, as her mother and little brother listen in horror. Some other killings happen while the police are trying to find the leopard, who is blamed for the deaths. As the story progresses, we learn that it might not be the leopard that is killing these people after all.
The big reveal at the end is pretty predictable but it doesn’t make the film any less effective. Plus, you’re never really sure what’s happening and why. The “why” is as big of a question as the “who”. While the answers might not be totally satisfying, everything leading up to the mystery being solved is pretty well structured and executed.
Tourneur and Lewton made another horror movie in the same visual style as the noir pictures that would come to dominate the 1940s. There’s a bit of a German Expressionist influence in the lighting and the use of shadows for contrast and a chiaroscuro presentation.
The Leopard Man is a much smarter horror picture than what was the norm for the 1940s but this would become Val Lewton’s specialty and even if they weren’t as big as Universal’s horror franchises in terms of popularity, they were better than most of those pictures in quality.
Release Date: April 21st, 1943 (New York City) Directed by: Jacques Tourneur Written by: Curt Siodmak, Ardel Wray Based on:I Walked With A Zombie by Inez Wallace Music by: Roy Webb Cast: James Ellison, Frances Dee, Tom Conway
RKO Radio Pictures, 69 Minutes
“I thought voodoo was something everyone was frightened of?” – Betsy Connell, “I’m afraid it’s not very frightening. They sing and dance and carry on. And then, as I understand it, one of the gods comes down and speaks through one of the people.” – Paul Holland
Hollywood producer Val Lewton had a pretty good stint at RKO, a studio that was instrumental in the development of film-noir. After Citizen Kane proved to be a financial dud for them, at least initially, RKO wanted to have a branch that focused on B-movies in the same way that Universal had done with their hugely successful monster franchises.
In came Lewton, a man that created some great horror pictures for RKO but unlike Universal, Lewton’s were more adult and more serious films. They were initially just viewed as B-horror pictures in the same vein as Universal’s work but over the years, the Lewton produced horror films at RKO started to get the recognition they deserve as something greater than just makeup and fur slapped on Lon Chaney Jr.
I Walked With A Zombie is the film that Lewton supposedly loved the most out of his horror work for RKO. The quality of this picture also has a lot to do with Lewton picking the right men for the job.
Jacques Tourneur was selected as the director and he did a few other pictures with Lewton for RKO: The Cat People and The Leopard Man, both of which were also really solid films. He would go on to do the film-noir classic Out of the Past and get back into horror with the underrated Night of the Demon and a couple Vincent Price pictures in the 1960s for American International.
The script was penned by Curt Siodmak and Ardel Wray. Siodmak had already written a bunch of scripts that got turned into monster movies by Universal. So Lewton grabbing him was probably a good way to try and emulate Universal’s success for RKO. Plus, Siodmak could write more mature horror features that were smarter than his work in the Universal Monsters franchise.
I Walked With A Zombie is a pretty great film for what it is. It has a sort of film-noir visual allure to it while being in a lush Caribbean setting. Also, it is a zombie movie, albeit not of the modern style, this is a subtle suspense thriller that has voodoo zombies (my favorite kind of zombie, actually) and is more of a tale about the religious island culture of the West Indies.
This is a rather short film but that was the norm with these Lewton produced horror flicks. Regardless, the story is solid, well paced and the actors do a good job with the material. Frances Dee feels like a real person in a real situation in a time when acting tended to be overly dramatic, especially in the horror genre.
I like this film a lot and it was cool discovering it now, as I got to see it without nostalgia playing a factor. Lewton, Tourneur and Siodmak turned out a very good picture that unfortunately, not a lot of people know about. But that’s probably because it doesn’t feature famous monsters and it isn’t overtly horror, despite the catchy title.
Release Date: December 24th, 1943 (first chapter) Directed by: B. Reeves Eason Written by: Morgan Cox, Victor McLeod, Leslie Swabacker, Sherman L. Lowe Based on:The Phantom created by Lee Falk, Ray Moore Cast: Tom Tyler, Jeanne Bates, Kenneth MacDonald, Ace the Wonder Dog
Columbia Pictures, 299 Minutes total (15 episodes)
People from my generation may remember the character of the Phantom because of the self-titled film that came out in 1996 with Billy Zane, Treat Williams, Kristy Swanson, Catherine Zeta-Jones and James Remar. While that one didn’t pan out well for the old school comic strip hero, his first foray into live-action, this 1943 serial, is a different story.
In fact, despite that 1996 film being mostly awful and, for a long time, my only live-action experience of the Phantom, I have always thought the character was pretty damn cool.
While I did like the original Batman serial, many critics did not. Being that this followed that one and it was also from Columbia Pictures, many of those critics thought that this was a saving grace for the studio, as it surpassed The Batman in every way possible. Granted, looking back now, I enjoyed The Batman for its tone and visual style. The Phantom is a continuation of that and it is also a step above.
Tom Tyler was a great casting decision when it came to the role of the Phantom and he really made the character his. Jeanne Bates was also a good addition to the cast. Ace the Wonder Dog is cool but it would have been even cooler to have a wolf, like the comics, as opposed to a German Shepherd. But they probably didn’t want a wolf mauling baddies on the set.
The plot introduces us to a professor who plans an expedition to find the mystical Lost City of Zoloz. A villain also wants to find Zoloz and use it for an airbase. The villain kills the original Phantom, only for his son to inherit the identity. The rest of the story focuses on locating all of the seven ivory pieces that tell where to find the Lost City. Also, the Phantom wrestles a friggin’ gorilla!
Critics loved Tyler as the Phantom even if some considered his performance to be wooden. It has since become as beloved as his performance as Captain Marvel a few years earlier.
In 1955, Columbia filmed a sequel with John Hart as the Phantom, as Tom Tyler died in 1954. Due to legal issues with the rights to the character, The Return of the Phantom had to be re-branded as The Adventures of Captain Africa before its release.
Ultimately, the Phantom is the epitome of cool, especially for his time. It’s kind of sad that we’ve never gotten a decent followup or reboot in the decades since its release.
Release Date: July 16th, 1943 (first chapter) Directed by: Lambert Hillyer Written by: Victor McLeod, Leslie Swabacker, Harry L. Fraser Based on:Batman created by Bob Kane Cast: Lewis Wilson, Douglas Croft, J. Carrol Naish, Shirley Patterson
Columbia Pictures, 260 Minutes total (15 episodes)
The first time that Batman hit the big screen wasn’t 1989’s Batman or the 1966 Batman film based on the hit television series. It was actually way back in 1943 when Batman was only four years-old. Batman is a 15 chapter serial produced by Columbia Pictures and it went on to inspire a sequel and paved the way for a ton of future Batman films and television series for generations.
Lewis Wilson has the distinction of being the first live action Batman, while Douglas Croft is the first Robin. The villain was not from the comics however. Instead it was a Japanese secret agent named Dr. Daka and was played by J. Carrol Naish. The cast is rounded out by Golden Age Bruce Wayne love interest Linda Page (played by Shirley Patterson) and the famous Wayne butler Alfred Pennyworth (played by William Austin).
Like pretty much every action adventure serial, it is broken up into several chapters, each featuring a cliffhanger that wouldn’t be resolved until the following episode was released.
The highlight of this serial is the cinematography. It is well shot and really captures the advantages of black and white film. It uses a lot of contrast, shadows and highlights. The opening scene of the first chapter looks fantastic, as Batman sits at a desk in the dark Batcave with the silhouettes of bats flapping around.
The costumes are pretty good for the era. Although, Robin’s mask is a bit too big and Batman’s ears look more like devil horns. Although, it is pretty consistent with the look of early Batman comics. Unfortunately though, there is no Batmobile; our heroes just drive around in a normal car.
Batman and Robin aren’t as good at fighting as they would later become. They have trouble tangling with normal mobsters but in the end, they still win.
Dr. Daka is an okay and passable villain for a serial but he is just a white guy in yellowface. While common for the time, especially being that this was made and released while we were at war with Japan, it just doesn’t play well today. It is really just a reminder of the racism in the entertainment of that era.
All in all, Batman is a fun serial. It is well executed, well shot and pretty artistic in its presentation. It is certainly worth a look for hardcore Batman fans.
I’ve now gotten up to the Wolf Man’s series of films. Only two films here actually feature that character: The Wolf Man and Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man. So in addition to that, I am also reviewing the two other werewolf films put out by Universal during this era. Plus, they are also included in the Wolf Man collection of my Universal Monsters DVD box set.
The Wolf Man character was a late bloomer in the Universal Monsters franchise. Granted, he beat the Gillman of Creature From the Black Lagoon by more than a decade but unlike the Gillman, at least the Wolf Man got to mix it up with Frankenstein’s monster and Dracula a couple of times.
The Wolf Man (1941):
Release Date: December 12th, 1941 Directed by: George Waggner Written by: Curt Siodmak Music by: Charles Previn, Hans J. Salter, Frank Skinner Cast: Lon Chaney Jr., Claude Rains, Bela Lugosi, Ralph Bellamy, Warren William, Patric Knowles, Maria Ouspenskaya, Evelyn Ankers
Universal Pictures, 70 Minutes
In The Wolf Man we are introduced to Larry Talbot, played by the great Lon Chaney Jr. Chaney’s interpretation of this character is almost heartbreaking at times, as he really connects with the audience and conveys real genuine emotion as the tragic title character of this film. In fact, the Wolf Man is probably one of the top five most tragic figures in film history. And without Chaney in the role, chances are that the Wolf Man would’ve been just a pretty one-dimensional monster.
In quality, this film really could rival the James Whale films Bride of Frankenstein, Frankenstein and The Invisible Man, as well as the first Dracula film under the Universal Monsters banner. The Wolf Man like every other first film in each of Universal’s classic horror series was the pinnacle and a great kickoff to what would become a reoccurring character in the larger shared mythos.
This film also gives us two other horror icons: Claude Rains and Bela Lugosi. Rains plays Larry Talbot’s father, Sir John. Bela Lugosi plays the gypsy man who is the werewolf that infects Talbot. Lugosi was awesome in this role and it is my favorite thing that he did for Universal after Dracula.
There isn’t a lot that anyone can criticize this film for. It is a classic horror gem and still plays well today, over 70 years later.
Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943):
Release Date: March 5th, 1943 Directed by: Roy William Neill Written by: Curt Siodmak Based on:Frankenstein by Mary Shelley Music by: Hans J. Salter Cast: Lon Chaney Jr., Ilona Massey, Lionel Atwill, Bela Lugosi, Patric Knowles, Maria Ouspenskaya, Dwight Frye
Universal Pictures, 74 Minutes
This is my favorite of the Universal Monsters team-up or versus movies.
It truly is a Wolf Man movie that Frankenstein’s monster just happens to appear in but isn’t much of a focal point, as Lon Chaney Jr.’s performance as Larry Talbot takes over this film.
The film follows Talbot, who comes to life in his tomb after being disturbed by grave robbers. Coming to the realization that he cannot die, he seeks out the legendary Dr. Frankenstein in hopes that he can find a way to euthanize him by scientific means.
Dwight Frye from Frankenstein and Dracula shows up in this film in a minor role. Bela Lugosi returns again but this time as Frankenstein’s monster.
This film is awesome and it feels like a true sequel to The Wolf Man, as opposed to just a crossover film. It is much less of a sideshow attraction than the films that followed it: House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula.
Werewolf of London (1935):
Release Date: May 13th, 1935 Directed by: Stuart Walker Written by: Robert Harris, John Colton Music by: Karl Hajos Cast: Henry Hull, Warner Oland, Valerie Hobson, Lester Matthews, Spring Byington, Clark Williams, Lawrence Grant
Universal Pictures, 75 Minutes
This is not part of The Wolf Man storyline and is its own film. In fact, it came out before the Lon Chaney Jr. masterpiece. The Wolf Man’s adventures continue in the films House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula, which I already reviewed in my pieces about the Frankenstein and Dracula series of films.
Getting into this film, it is well done and the special effects are great. This was Universal’s first werewolf film and this was a good early version of the effects they would employ in later werewolf films.
This film works all on its own and in fact, is considered a classic in its own right, regardless of The Wolf Man being more popular and launching its own mini-franchise.
I love this movie. It is real good classic Victorian horror and it has a lycanthrope in it. What’s not to love?
She-Wolf of London (1946):
Release Date: May 17th, 1946 Directed by: Jean Yarbrough Written by: George Bricker Music by: William Lava Cast: June Lockhart, Don Porter
Universal Pictures, 61 Minutes
As a stand alone film, this thing is pretty good. As a horror film, it is pretty bad.
The marketing for this film was all wrong. With the title of this film, it was trying to tap into the previously released Werewolf of London. However, don’t watch this expecting some werewolf action. What you get is a mystery film with some suspense and a not so ingenious plot.
The acting of June Lockhart and Don Porter was top notch but it didn’t save this film from being poorly marketed and being represented as something it is not. I say all this so that if someone is to watch it, they don’t go into it expecting the Universal Monster supernatural horror formula.
One more Universal Monsters review is coming. Next up will be the Creature From the Black Lagoon series.
I recently reviewed the classic Frankenstein film series by Universal and am continuing on in my quest to cover all their old school horror franchises. This round, I am reviewing the Dracula series.
Release Date: February 12th, 1931 (New York Premiere) Directed by: Tod Browning, Karl Freund (uncredited) Written by: Garrett Fort Based on:Dracula by Bram Stoker Cast: Bela Lugosi, Helen Chandler, David Manners, Dwight Frye, Edward Van Sloan
Universal Pictures, 85 Minutes
Dracula was released the same year as Frankenstein and both of these films started what became the Universal Monsters franchise, which also encompassed a film series for The Mummy, The Wolf Man, The Invisible Man and The Creature From the Black Lagoon. By the end of the franchise’s run, these monsters started crossing over into each other’s films. In the beginning however, they were focused on one monster and on creating a terrifying piece of film art. Dracula in many ways is a masterpiece.
Starring the iconic and legendary Bela Lugosi as Count Dracula, the first film in the series was eerie, chilling and an incredibly fantastic adaptation for the resources of the time. It was directed by Tod Browning and Karl Freud (who was uncredited). Browning was also known for directing the infamous film Freaks, a year later. Regardless of which director was responsible for what, the end result was a film that still holds a place in the upper echelon of great horror films. Historically, it is still one of the top five Dracula films ever made.
This movie made Bela Lugosi a household name. He is still the most recognized version of Dracula in human history. In fact, just about every Dracula since has tried to emulate what Lugosi did in this film. He made the role his and this is one of the most iconic performances in cinema history.
Apart from the mesmerizing performance of Bela Lugosi, I have to point to Dwight Frye. Frye gave us the best version of Renfield that has ever appeared on film, even to this day – 83 years later.
Additionally, Dracula is gothic horror perfection, visually speaking. There are very few films that have been able to emulate the ambiance of this picture. Although, hundreds have tried.
If you are ever going to give a course on the history of horror movies, this, along with Universal’s Frankenstein, must be showcased.
Dracula – The Spanish Version (1931):
Release Date: March 11th, 1931 (Havana Premiere) Directed by: George Melford Written by: Baltasar Fernández Cué, Hamilton Deane, John L. Balderston Based on: Dracula by Bram Stoker Cast: Carlos Villarías, Lupita Tovar, Barry Norton, Pablo Álvarez Rubio, Eduardo Arozamena
Universal Pictures, 104 Minutes
The Spanish language version of Dracula is pretty unique. It was filmed alongside the Bela Lugosi film using the same sets. The English version filmed during the day and the Spanish version filmed at night. Both movies had two entirely different casts and the Spanish cast and crew had the benefit of watching the English version being made, which gave them an edge when they went on to film the same scenes. The Spanish cast and crew wanted to make the superior version and according to many historians and critics, they did.
Conde Dracula was played by the very talented Carlos Villarías, who may not have been as iconic as Bela Lugosi in the role but wasn’t too far behind him either. Villarías was legitimately scary and acted with his facial expressions much more than Lugosi.
A notable difference with this film is that the girls were able to show a bit more skin. The dresses were different even though the wardrobe for the male stars was generally the same.
Also, some of the scenes played out longer, giving the film a slower pace. Actually, the film is about a half hour longer than the English version.
While I prefer the English version, the Spanish film is a solid piece of work and worth a watch by classic horror aficionados.
Dracula’s Daughter (1936):
Release Date: May 11th, 1936 Directed by: Lambert Hillyer Written by: Garrett Fort Based on: Dracula by Bram Stoker
Music by: Heinz Roemheld Cast: Otto Kruger, Gloria Holden, Marguerite Churchill
Universal Pictures, 71 Minutes
Dracula’s Daughter was the first sequel to the Bela Lugosi classic. Unfortunately, Lugosi would never reprise the role of Dracula (for fear of being typecast) but Universal wanted to capitalize on the character after the success of Bride of Frankenstein.
This film follows a completely new character, Countess Marya Zaleska played by Gloria Holden. Zaleska is the daughter of Dracula and she shows up after her father’s death to properly dispose of his corpse in an effort to free herself from vampiric urges. One thing leads to another and eventually, the urges take over.
Holden’s performance as Zaleska was pretty enthralling and the premise was interesting enough but I feel like this film was a pretty weak sequel, especially after how well Bride of Frankenstein followed Frankenstein.
This film wasn’t as huge of a hit as Dracula but it did go on to spawn more sequels in the franchise.
Son of Dracula (1943):
Release Date: November 5th, 1943 Directed by: Robert Siodmak Written by: Curtis Siodmak, Eric Taylor Based on: Dracula by Bram Stoker
Music by: Hans J. Salter Cast: Lon Chaney Jr., Robert Paige, Louise Allbritton, Evelyn Ankers
Universal Pictures, 80 Minutes
How do you get things rolling again after a seven year hiatus in the Dracula series? Well, you hire Lon Chaney Jr. to play the son of Dracula. In this film, Dracula’s offspring uses the name Count Alucard (Dracula spelled in reverse). While that has been done in other Dracula tales, I believe that this was where it originated.
This chapter is also unique in that it takes place in and around New Orleans, which is a place that would become synonymous with vampire-lore after Anne Rice penned Interview With A Vampire decades later.
I prefer this film to the previous one and it is the best of the Dracula sequels. Chaney does a great job as the antagonist and even if he is villainous, he feels like a tragic character in the same fashion that he does when he plays the Wolf Man.
House of Dracula (1945):
Release Date: December 7th, 1945 Directed by: Erle C. Kenton Written by: Edward T. Lowe Jr., Dwight V. Babcock, George Bricker Based on:Dracula by Bram Stoker, Frankenstein by Mary Shelley Music by: William Lava (uncredited) Cast: Lon Chaney Jr., Martha O’Driscoll, John Carradine, Lionel Atwill, Glenn Strange
Universal Pictures, 67 Minutes
This is the film where all of the classic monsters ended their run. There was one other film that featured them Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein but that was more of a parody than anything.
Like House of Frankenstein, the year before it, this film featured Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster and the Wolf Man. It also had a mad scientist and a hunchback character – this time a female. I’m not quite sure why they never threw the Mummy or the Invisible Man into these crossover pictures and the Gillman from The Creature From the Black Lagoon is excluded because his first film actually came out nine years later.
This film features John Carradine returning as Dracula, Lon Chaney Jr. returning as the Wolf Man and Glenn Strange returning as Frankenstein’s monster. This film would’ve benefited from the inclusion of Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Claude Rains and Basil Rathbone but that much star power may have caused the Earth’s magnetic poles to reverse.
This film is entertaining and it is a proper goodbye to these beloved characters. While I have no problem with Carradine as Dracula and Strange as Frankenstein’s monster, it would have been nice to see these characters go out with the original actors back in these parts. The amazing believably that Lon Chaney Jr. can bring to any role actually propelled this film forward and once again showed how talented he was as he stole the scene every time he walked on screen.
More Universal Monsters reviews are coming as soon as I rewatch them. Next up will be the Mummy series.