Saturday, October 28, 2006

The Spooky And The Goofy

Glad I never got braces...
Like Agatha Christie, I disappear and return with no reason or excuse. Well, maybe a small one: the usual ennui. BUT, I return to bring you DVD recommendations for the Halloween season.

Like a lot of my film bretheren and sisteren (cistern?), I'll be viewing horror films sporadically in the days to come, to top it off with a marathon (how long remains to be seen - it depends on how well I can pretend not to be home Halloween night). With me, it's Classic Horrors all the way. Aside from The Count, The Monster and Hairy Talbot, I enjoy other not-so-well-known frights. With that in mind, I stocked up this year on such fare. My recent aquisitions being Universal's The Boris Karloff Collection (a bit thin - I bought it because it included Tower of London, one of my favorites, but managed to find another good one, The Strange Door), Icons of Horror Collection: Boris Karloff (four Columbia pictures he did in the day - faves out of that set: The Black Room and Karloff and Peter Lorre in a great Arsenic and Old Lace variant The Boogie Man Will Get You). More on them another time. The best buy (which, ironically enough, I got at Best Buy) was Warner's Hollywood Legends of Horror Collection. Four MGM and two Warners fright-fests which run the gamut from inspired to silly, all with at least a slight air of preposterousness. But that's part of the fun. Allow me to walk (shuffle, shamble, ooze, whatever floats yer boat) you through the set:

Mark Of The Vampire - The set kicks off with one of the best of Tod Browning's efforts, a great satire on 30's horror movies in general and his own Dracula in particular. Bela Lugosi's back in the cape to threaten Elizabeth Allen, Lionel Atwill, Jean Hersholt (he of the Humanitarian Award) and Loinel Barrymore (pre-wheelchair, one-upping Edward Van Sloan in the Van Helsing department). Is the nearby abbey infested with vampires and did one of them kill Sir Karell Borotyn and turn him into a vampire? A bit implausable, but a lot of fun.

The Devil-Doll - Speaking of Barrymore, he's back here (again before he was debilitated) as Paul Lamond, a convicted French banker, framed and sent to Devil's Island, now escaped and wanting revenge. He finds the means through his partner-in-escape and his wife, who have been working on minitiurizing animals and people. After Dr. and Mrs. Cyclops show their handiwork to him, the male half of the team drops dead. Now he moves to Paris with the crippled Mrs. Shrinker and sets up in a toy shop, disguised as an old woman. While dodging police and exacting his revenge, Lamond tries to reach out to his estranged daughter (Maureen O' Sullivan, one of the Most Irritating Heroines In Film History). Works out as more melodrama than fright (whaddya expect, it's MGM) and probably the weakest of the bunch. Still it's interesting watching Barrymore drag it up and seeing Rafaelo Ottiano as the Most Demented Female Mad Scientist In Film. Tod Browning directs again.

The Mask Of Fu Manchu - Rohmer and Karloff - how can ya lose? Straight outta Frankenstein and The Old Dark House, Boris dons the Occidental duds as the Big Ol' Yellow Peril. This time, he's after the mask and sword of Genghis Kahn. Ol' Fu is convinced he's the next in line and, with these artifacts he can (dare he say it?) Rule The World!! Needless to say it's up to Nayland Smith (Judge Hard- eh, Lewis Stone) to stop him. He'd better hurry: Fu has already tortured Nayland's friend, noted archeologist Sir Lionel Barton (Lawrence Grant) to death (tortured by bell - what a novel concept). Sir Lionel's daughter Sheila (Karen Morley) has something to worry about, too: Fu's seductive and somewhat kinky daughter Fah Lo See (Myrna Loy) who has her sights set on Shiela's beau Terrence (Charles Starrett). This one's good in an Saturday Serial/Indiana Jones way. The makeup department laid it on a bit heavy on Karloff (looks like they plastered over his eyes) but he relishes every minute of screen time in this, his first speaking role. The man is totally evil. In all, pure 30's excitement, with a Parade of Deathtraps you'll really get a kick out of.

Doctor X - Here's something different, a film in two-strip Technicolor (wich means everything tends to be on the red/green side) directed by no less than Michael Curtiz. Lionel Atwill stars (no, that's not him in the picture) as the crusading Doctor Xavier, trying to find out who's the serial killer plaguing New York. Pre-Kong Fay Wray is his daughter and Lee Tracy is the annoying reporter who falls for her (this is the first time I've seen the male ingenue double as the "comic relief"). If you dig scientific equipment, you be agog at Dr. X's "lie detector". The damn thing takes up a whole room and has enough buzzing, sparking and gurgling stuff to make Dr. Frankenstein jealous. No wonder lie detector tests aren't admissable in court. By the time the killer shows up, all semblence of reality is thrown out the window and you disbelief will be suspended to the breaking point. But you won't care. And I bet if you watch this with friends or loved ones you'll come away with a great "inside joke" that will last a looooong time. Just remember: synthetic flesh...SYNTHETIC FLESH....

The Return Of Dr. X - Okay, let me clear this up right now: this is no more a sequel than Star Wars is to The Sound Of Music. The only thing in common with the previous film is the title. Here we're dealing with a scientific vampire story. Doctor Xavier (Humprey Bogart) was convicted and hung quite a while ago for experimenting on young kids. So how come Dr. Flegg (John Litel) has a doctor assisting him who's a dead ringer for the late Dr. X (except he's real pale and has a shock of white hair)? Well, Dr. Dennis Morgan and reporter Wayne Morris is gonna get to the bottom of it. Yes, this is the infamous horror film that Bogie made before he hit it big (he's really more of a supporting player here). Aside from that, he does the creepy bit well (his part was written for Karloff and the Flegg character for Lugosi, neither of which Jack Warner was able to get) and the picture comes off more as a buddy picture with horror overtones. Still, some good snappy dialogue and Bogie Taking One For The Team makes it a real jaunt.

Mad Love - Ah, the jewel of the collection. Karl Freund directs a tale of Stephen Orlac (Colin Clive), famous pianist and husband of singer Yvonne (Francis Drake), who suffers a terrible accident which permanently damages his hands. Enter brilliant (and obsessive) surgeon Dr. Gogol (Peter Lorre) who, in an effort to find favor with Yvonne (whom is object of said obsession), grafts the hands of a knife-thrower recently hung for murder onto Stephen's stumps. While the operation is a success, no dice with the wife, Doc. But maybe he can convince Stephen that his new hands are possessing him and causing him to commit murder...
Say what you want about M (and practically all of it is justified), this is the film that cemented Peter Lorre in the Crazed Homicidal Manic pantheon, and he delivers in spades. Even before he goes completely off the deep end in the final reel, his intensity and subtlety combine to give the audience a bad case of the jibblies. Even some misplaced comedy relief (mostly supplied by Ted Healy as a - what else - wisecracking reporter) can't hurt this film. Plus, there's Dr. Frankenstein himself doing his tourtured scientist/artist bit, a small part by Ed Brophy as the condemmed man and a cameo by Billy Gilbert. Watch it - you won't be sorry.

Okay, this set runs about 40 bucks American, which works out to about 6.75 per film, so it's not a bad bargain. Go forth and enjoy. Me, I'm gonna hole up in my living room, ignore the front door and try to get that phrase out of my head...synthetic flesh...

It's gonna be a long week.