Film Review: The Body Snatcher (1945)

Release Date: February 16th, 1945 (St. Louis premiere)
Directed by: Robert Wise
Written by: Philip MacDonald, Val Lewton
Based on: a story by Robert Louis Stevenson
Music by: Roy Webb
Cast: Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Henry Daniell, Edith Atwater

RKO Radio Pictures, 77 Minutes

Review:

“He taught me the mathematics of anatomy but he couldn’t teach me the poetry of medicine.” – Donald Fettes

I’m a big fan of the horror films that Val Lewton produced while at RKO Radio Pictures in the 1940s. This one brings in Robert Wise, one of his top directors, as well as horror icons Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. It’s kind of like a perfect storm of talent. Not to mention that this is also an adaptation of a Robert Louis Stevenson story.

The main plot has to deal with a doctor that is also a professor and how the corpses he uses to dissect in his classes are actually stolen from graves by Boris Karloff’s John Gray. Gray blackmails the doctor, named MacFarlane, into performing an operation on a young paraplegic girl that he initially refused to do.

Fettes, a young assistant to the doctor, asks Gray for another corpse to help with the preparation of the operation. When the corpse arrives, Fettes is surprised to see that the corpse looks just like a street singer he saw near Gray’s place.

One thing leads to another and bad things justifiably happen to bad people. But, at least the little paraplegic girl is able to walk again by the end of the movie.

Like all the other RKO horror pictures of the 1940s, this one was very strong on atmosphere. I really think that RKO had the best cinematographers and lighting staff under their employ. Between the Val Lewton produced horror films and their masterfully crafted film-noirs, RKO just had very pristine looking movies that understood ambiance and tone.

Now The Body Snatcher looks great, is well acted and Robert Wise did a good job of giving life to a Robert Louis Stevenson adaptation. But it’s not terribly exciting. It’d a bit dry and while it seems like a lot happens within the film, it felt like it was moving too slow while I watched it.

Additionally, Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi only share two fairly quick scenes. One of them is very good but Bela felt like an after though in this and I assume he was just used because of his name value.

Still, for classic horror aficionados, this is worth a look.

Rating: 6.75/10
Pairs well with: other Val Lewton produced horror films for RKO: Cat People, The Curse of the Cat People, The Leopard Man, I Walked With a Zombie and The Seventh Victim, which is actually much more noir than horror but it is still dark.

Film Review: The Raven (1963)

Release Date: January 25th, 1963
Directed by: Roger Corman
Written by: Richard Matheson
Based on: The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe
Music by: Les Baxter
Cast: Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, Boris Karloff, Hazel Court, Olive Sturgess, Jack Nicholson

American International Pictures, 86 Minutes

Review:

“You’ll need something to protect you from the cold. [Dr. Bedlo reaches for a glass of wine] No, I meant clothes!” – Dr. Craven

Following the success of a couple Edgar Allan Poe adaptations between producer/director Roger Corman and his star Vincent Price, the men re-teamed again but this time, they made a comedy.

They also added more star power to this film with legends Peter Lorre and Boris Karloff. Add in future legend Jack Nicholson and Hammer Horror scream queen Hazel Court and you’ve got one hell of a cast.

I’m not sure what audiences in the ’60s felt about this film going into it, as the other Poe films by this team were very dark and brooding. This one certainly has the same sort of visual tone but the lighthearted camp of the material definitely tones down the dread.

To be frank, I love this movie but I love all of these Poe films made by Corman and Price. But this one is in the upper echelon for me.

The Raven hits the right notes and the chemistry between Price and Lorre was absolute perfection. They would also bring their solid camaraderie to the film The Comedy of Terrors, a year later. But this also wasn’t their first outing together, as they stared in “The Black Cat” segment of Tales of Terror. That short tale in the larger anthology was also pretty funny.

The film also benefits from having great chemistry between Lorre and Nicholson, who played his son. Karloff also meshed well with the cast.

The highlight of this film is the wizard battle at the end. It is over the top and hokey but it’s the sort of fun cheese that I love. Limited by a scant budget and the special effects of the era, the battle between the two powerful magicians has a sort of charm to it. It’s hard not to smile and enjoy the proceedings. Vincent Price also looked like he was enjoying himself immensely in this scene.

Unlike other Poe films by Corman, this one ends on a happy note and surprisingly, none of the key players die.

This is a really unique film that works for both the horror and comedy genres of its time. It looks good when seen alongside the other Poe films and it also pairs greatly with The Comedy of Terrors, which shares a lot of the same actors and adds in Basil Rathbone.

Rating: 9.25/10
Pairs well with: the other Roger Corman directed Edgar Allan Poe adaptations for American International Pictures, as well as The Comedy of Terrors for its tone and cast.

Documentary Review: Val Lewton: The Man In the Shadows (2007)

Release Date: September 2nd, 2007
Directed by: Kent Jones
Narrated by: Martin Scorsese, Elias Koteas

Turner Classic Movies (TCM), Turner Entertainment, Sikelia Productions, 77 Minutes

Review:

I remember seeing this on television a decade ago and it is where I really discovered who Val Lewton is and why his contribution to the film industry was so important.

When I was a kid, I discovered classic film early, as my mother and grandmother were both avid watchers of AMC, which at the time still stood for American Movie Classics. I also watched a lot of TCM, or Turner Classic Movies, when that cable network debuted. I got pulled in to old school horror, as I loved the Universal Monsters movies, Vincent Price’s Edgar Allan Poe pictures and the movies put out by Hammer with Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. I didn’t quite experience Val Lewton’s body of work though, until years later.

My appreciation for all that other stuff, really gave me the foundation to appreciate and understand what Lewton was trying to do for RKO Radio Pictures. His mission was to run the B-movie unit for the studio, where he and the artists he brought in, would create films to rival what Universal was doing with all their successful Monster franchises.

I’m glad that I found this on television a decade ago and it was really fantastic revisiting it now, as it is streaming on FilmStruck.

It is produced and narrated by Martin Scorsese with Elias Koteas jumping in to narrate Val Lewton’s actual words.

It is a nice and quick documentary that covers a lot of ground and gives a good amount of time to each of Lewton’s pictures. It also gets into how his collaborations with Boris Karloff came to be and how Lewton initially didn’t want to work with Karloff but quickly grew to love the man’s work, as he helped contribute to these films, which were much more psychological and intelligent than the majority of Universal’s horror pictures.

Lewton created horror movies that had a noir style about them. In fact, his films sort of built a bridge between German Expressionist horror movies like Nosferatu and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and the film-noir movement of the 1940s.

If you love classic horror or film-noir and haven’t seen Lewton’s films, you need to. You should also check out this documentary, which is a great primer on the man and his work.

Rating: 8.75/10

Film Review: Lured (1947)

Also known as: Personal Column (UK)
Release Date: September 5th, 1947
Directed by: Douglas Sirk
Written by: Leo Rosten, Jacques Companéez, Simon Gantillon, Ernest Neuville
Music by: Michel Michelet
Cast: George Sanders, Lucille Ball, Charles Coburn, Boris Karloff, Sir Cedric Hardwicke, Alan Napier

Hunt Stromberg Productions, United Artists, 102 Minutes

Review:

“There’s a homicidal maniac loose somewhere in the vast honeycomb of London. A maniac with a weakness for young, pretty girls and not a thing we’ve done has brought us one inch nearer his apprehension.” – Inspector Harley Temple

To be honest, I have never really seen Lucille Ball outside of “I Love Lucy” and her other comedy shows. It was pretty eye-opening and refreshing to see her in this, something much more dramatic and serious. And even though she isn’t the top billed star, she is the central focus of this film.

The film also stars George Sanders, Charles Coburn, Sir Cedric Hardwicke, Alan Napier and a fantastic and wacky performance by horror legend Boris Karloff. There’s a whole lot of male energy present in this movie but Ball outshines them all. Well, except for maybe Karloff, simply because this was a unique character for him and he nailed it.

In this picture, we meet Lucille Ball’s Sandra Carpenter, an American girl in London. Her best friend is murdered and the police convince Sandra to go undercover and be the bait needed to lure out the killer. She agrees, as she wants justice for her friend. However, even though this isn’t a comedy film, we see Ball have to play off of several strange characters. She does amuse the audience in this film but not in the same way that one is used to seeing. She never sabotages the tone of the plot by being in this. She shows her wit and charisma but does the material justice and never crosses the line in a comedic sense.

Lured was also an early film of Douglas Sirk’s but here, he already shows how skilled a craftsman he is. It has a clean, big budget, pristine look. This wasn’t a low budget film per se but it just looks wonderful. The cinematography was handled by William H. Daniels, a veteran when he did this. Daniels would follow this up with the absolutely stunning looking noir films Brute Force and The Naked City.

It is also worth mentioning that this was a remake of a French film Pièges. That was a Robert Siodmak picture. What’s interesting about that, is that he would also become a well accomplished noir director with classic like The KillersPhantom LadyThe Spiral StaircaseThe Dark Mirror and Criss Cross.

Lured is highly entertaining, highly energetic, witty and a testament to the many layers of Lucille Ball’s talent. Plus, if you are a Boris Karloff fan, you really need to see him in this.

Rating: 8/10

Film Review: Corridors of Blood (1958)

Also known as: Doctor From Seven Dials (working title)
Release Date: December, 1958 (UK limited)
Directed by: Robert Day
Written by: Jean Scott Rogers
Music by: Buxton Orr
Cast: Boris Karloff, Christopher Lee, Betta St. John, Finlay Currie, Francis Matthews, Adrienne Corri, Nigel Green

Amalgamated Productions, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 86 Minutes

Review:

“You can’t stop me. Operations without pain are possible, and I’ll not rest until I’ve proved it to you!” – Dr. Bolton

Despite the catchy title, Corridors of Blood really isn’t a horror film in the way that you’d expect. Sure, it stars Boris Karloff and Christopher Lee, both horror legends, but it plays more like a dark crime drama.

Set in London in 1840, the film follows Dr. Bolton (Karloff), a surgeon that is trying to develop a breakthrough in how surgery is done. Bolton is looking for a way to perform surgery without the patient feeling any pain. He thinks he has figured it out but when he gives a demonstration to a room full of his peers, he fails miserably and is publicly disgraced. Bolton becomes his own guinea pig, as he continually tests his anesthetic on himself. Ultimately, Bolton becomes addicted and becomes a junkie. He then gets pulled into a criminal gang through a blackmail scheme, which leads to Bolton playing a part in the gang’s murderous ways.

To my surprise, I discovered that this was a film that has been added to the Criterion Collection. I actually watched this on the Criterion Channel through FilmStruck. While films like this aren’t normally added to the Collection, I can see why it deserves the recognition and respect.

Mainly, it is one of the best things that Boris Karloff has done in his incredible career. This film really showcases Karloff the actor, as opposed to Karloff the monster. Also, Lee’s performance is one of his most chilling. Plus, anytime you have two legends come together, it is worth a watch.

The film also has a few other notable actors from the era and the horror genre. Francis Matthews, who did some work for Hammer, has a role as a young doctor. We also get to see a very young Adrienne Corri, who starred in Hammer’s fantastic Vampire Circus (one of my favorites), and Nigel Green, who popped up in a lot of stuff, most notably Zulu.

Corridors of Blood sounds like a later Hammer film, when they got more into exploitation, gore and violence. There certainly weren’t corridors of actual blood throughout this movie. The title is quite misleading.

The cinematography looks more like something that is film-noir than just classic horror. I guess that would make it more like the Val Lewton RKO horror pictures than the more commercial and better known Universal Monsters franchise.

Corridors of Blood is a nice surprise if you stumble across it looking for a standard British horror picture from their best horror era. It’s a film with a bad title that doesn’t do it justice and probably deterred a lot of people from giving it a real chance.

Film Review: Curse of the Crimson Altar (1968)

Also known as: The Crimson Cult (US)
Release Date: December, 1968 (UK)
Directed by: Vernon Sewell
Written by: Mervyn Haisman, Henry Lincoln
Music by: Peter Knight
Cast: Christopher Lee, Boris Karloff, Barbara Steele, Mark Eden, Michael Gough, Rupert Davies

Tigon Films, American International Pictures, 89 Minutes

Review:

“It’s like a house from one of those old horror films.” – Eve Morley, “It’s like Boris Karloff is going to pop up at any moment.” – Robert Manning

The only thing that this movie really has going for it is its great cast of horror legends. It boasts the talents of Christopher Lee, Boris Karloff and Barbara Steele. It also features Michael Gough, most famous to American audiences as Alfred from the Tim Burton Batman films. Rupert Davies even pops up in a small role.

I also have to give props to John Coquillon’s cinematography. His use of vivid and colorful lighting was effective, as were the sets and the colorful costumes he captured and brought to life. The film, in its best visual parts, looks like living art.

Unfortunately, the story is weak and there isn’t much of anything that is surprising. Barbara Steele often times distracts from the frail and inadequate script with her alluring beauty and her piercing gaze but even with the help from Karloff and Lee, the film is still pretty flat and uninteresting.

However, anytime that you can see legends like this come together, it is an affair worth checking out. I always like seeing Michael Gough in old British horror flicks too, considering how good he was for Hammer Studios in Horror of Dracula and The Phantom of the Opera.

Karloff and Lee look like they were having fun working together but neither of them gave anything close to their greatest performances. Barbara Steele was really good but she just didn’t have a lot to do and her character was fairly one dimensional. She looked stunning in her body paint and costume and really embodied the part of the demigod witch that she was supposed to be.

The main characters of the film were Mark Eden and Virginia Wetherell but they were completely overshadowed by the legends packed into this picture. They still did decent with the material. Wetherell was very pretty and had a great body, which is obviously why she was selected to play the Stage Actress in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange.

Curse of the Crimson Altar is just average. It’s not good, it’s not bad, it just exists. The positives are cancelled out by the negatives but at least the stars make it a worthwhile experience for those who are fans of their work.

Film Review: The Black Cat (1934)

Also known as: The Vanishing Body
Release Date: May 7th, 1934
Directed by: Edgar G. Ulmer
Written by: Peter Ruric, Edgar G. Ulmer
Based on: The Black Cat by Edgar Allan Poe
Music by: Heinz Eric Roemheld
Cast: Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, John Carradine (uncredited)

Universal Pictures, 65 Minutes

Review:

“You must be indulgent of Dr. Verdegast’s weakness. He is the unfortunate victim of one of the commoner phobias, but in an extreme form. He has an intense and all-consuming horror of cats.” – Hjalmar Poelzig

The Black Cat is a film that fits under the Universal Monsters banner, even if it was a one-off and not apart of their bigger series like Dracula and Frankenstein. But it does feature the stars of both those franchises: Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff.

The film was also directed by Edgar G. Ulmer, a guy who wouldn’t reach superstardom in Hollywood but would direct some pretty notable pictures and make a few worthwhile film-noirs.

The best part about this film is it puts Lugosi and Karloff together and not as creatures or men in heavy makeup or prosthetics. They actually get to play off of each other as humans, Karloff being the mad man and Lugosi being a heroic doctor that still exudes his Count Dracula vibe.

The name of the film comes from an Edgar Allan Poe short story. Within the film, it is a reference to Lugosi’s character and his abnormal fear of cats.

Karloff plays Hjalmar Poelzig, a difficult name to pronounce. He is an Austrian architect. Once our heroes, a newlywed couple and Lugosi’s Dr. Werdegast meet on a train, they are stuck together for the rest of the film, most of which takes place at Poelzig’s lavish and futuristic looking home. In fact, the interiors resemble a film-noir set from the late 1940s. The cinematography is also similar and maybe this is what led to Ulmer directing film-noir a decade later.

The Black Cat isn’t a great film but it is a better than decent 1930s horror flick that stars the two biggest horror icons of the time. It is a pretty significant picture for films of the genre and the era.