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.

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.

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.

Top 25 Films Starring Boris Karloff

I’ve done a list like this for horror legends Vincent Price, Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Basil Rathbone and Bela Lugosi. So why not Boris Karloff?

Karloff was most famous for playing the monsters in several of Universal’s old horror pictures from the 1930s-1940s. He also went on to star in a slew of other classic horror films.

He was one of the most talented actors of the genre and went on to inspire a lot of actors – Jack Nicholson, for instance.

Boris Karloff was an amazing talent and his ability to chill audiences to the bone was what made him a legend.

These are his twenty-five best films.

1. Bride of Frankenstein
2. Frankenstein
3. The Raven (1963)
4. The Mummy
5. The Mask of Fu Manchu
6. Comedy of Terrors
7. The Terror
8. Black Sabbath
9. Son of Frankenstein
10. The Old Dark House
11. House of Frankenstein
12. Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff
13. The Raven (1935)
14. The Black Room
15. The Invisible Ray
16. The Black Cat
17. Die, Monster, Die!
18. The Walking Dead
19. Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
20. Corridors of Blood
21. The Ghoul
22. Black Friday
23. The Devil Commands
24. The Black Castle
25. Curse of the Crimson Altar

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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