Dr Hermes Reviews - VINTAGE HORROR
(July 19, 2003)
An unpleasant low-budget horror movie from Monogram that`s goofy but not really satisfying. Boris Karloff is not put to good use in a thankless role as mad scientist Dr. Adrian. In a small town out in the old boondocks, Doc Adrian has been dognapping local pooches for experiments in his search for a polio vaccine. Rumors he also did some testing on humans in a recent epidemic have also given him a dubious reputation. (The fact that the townsfolk are presented as narrow-minded slackjawed yahoos doesn`t make them likeable, either.) Adrian is a typical Curt Siodmak scientist who only cares about his experiments, and maybe a little bit about his neighbor, a young woman who is wheelchair-bound because of polio. (His daughter died of polio, another reason why he`s so obsessed.)
Well, the doctor could get somewhere if he only had human spinal fluid to work with, but that`s not something the local drugstore carries. As fortune would have it, a travelling circus burns down and a big ol` gorilla gets loose. He`s not really a gentle, lovable Diane Fossey-type beast, either, because he has been routinely mistreated. (In fact, he killed his current handler`s father two years earlier.) On a killing spree in the boondocks, the ape manages to track down his deceased trainer in Adrian`s own lab. Somewhat surprisingly, the thin, fifty-something doctor is able to dispatch the brute with a bottle of choloroform and knife. Then it occurs to him. He needs more spinal fluid.... and no one knows the gorilla is dead... and if someone who looked like the ape committed a few more murders to get a supply of that spinal fluid...hmmm...
Well, I think fans of classic horror films can make a guess what direction events take. Skinning a four hundred pound gorilla and making a perfect costume of the hide sounds like it might be quite a project (not to mention disposing of that carcass; you don`t think Dr Adrian had strange-tasting suppers for a few weeks, do you?) But sure enough, Karloff is promptly skulking through town in a gorilla suit, his mind occupied with thoughts of his place in medical history rather than criminology texts. (One amusing touch is that Adrian in the ape suit walks in a perfectly normal gait, rather than the crouching lope Emil van Horn used when playing the real beast.) The young woman is starting to see results from the serum and it`s just a question of whether the mad doctor can murder enough of her neighbors to finish the cure before he gets caught.
THE APE is okay, but it`s definitely one of Karloff`s weaker films. It was the last of the cluster of Mad Scientist B pictures he did for Monogram, and it would have benefitted by being a bit more over the top. Adrian is not really a raving lunatic or a sympathetic misunderstood genius. A slack supporting cast and uninspired direction don`t help. And I have to say, the opening credits play to a racuous, hectic carnival music that would be better suited to a Ritz Brothers movie than a horror film.
(Sep 14, 2004)
Released in a fit of post-Pearl Harbor fervor, this low-budget Monogram flick (is that redundant?) is much more fun than I expected. Although it does drag a bit here and there, it has an intriguing opening and a whacky finale that is breathtaking in its over the top premise. (Director William Nigh does a good workmanlike job with little money or time, no reshoots and a script one step ahead of ad-libs.)
PLENTY OF SPOILERS AHEAD
But what the heck.
Okay, we start with what what looks like a boring scene of a bunch of prosperous bankers and industrialists standing around in luxury, smoking cigars and drinking brandy. Then, it starts to sink in that these upright capitalists are congratulating each other on how they are causing strikes, slowing production and generally interfering with the war effort. That's odd, these are the Daddy Warbucks brigade who make fortunes from war industry.
Then Bela Lugosi turns up uninvited (whenever this guy shows, you know things are going to go wrong in a big way). Calling himself Columb, he uses a mysterious injection and close-ups of his baggy eyes to hypnotize one of the big shots into letting him stay at the mansion. In short order, the six pillars of decent society start showing up abruptly dead... their corpses are left on the front steps of the now-closed Japanese embassy, with an Asian style dagger nearby. This is quite a scandal, even for Washington, and the Feds are in an uproar.
So what is going on here anyway? None other than Clayton Moore starts to investigate (not using his deep, authoritative Lone Ranger voice). Moore has a line that would go over swell with today's audiences; he asks the heroine, "Will you marry me? ....So I can beat you up. It's the only way I can get you out of here." (What a smooth talker.)
Eventually, we find out that Columb is actually Dr Melcher, the Nazi's top plastic surgeon. Melcher was commissioned by the Black Dragon Society (a very real and dangerous conspiracy in prewar Japan, though not much like this crew) to operate on six Japanese agents. He turns them into exact duplicates of the six murdered American uber-capitalists, whose places they take to begin their fifth column work. Aha, I get it now.
Being less than trustworthy, the Dragons throw Dr Melcher in a cell as his reward. Slightly offended, he escapes and makes his way to the US where he begins his murder spree. Wait a minute. So this movie is telling us that America's best defense against an insidious espionage ring is an embittered Nazi surgeon?! Guess so. Maybe Spy Smasher was overseas at the time.
The most outrageous moment is worth sitting through the flick for. Melcher is wearing a goatee (anything to look more sinister) when he is thrown into the cell with another prisoner who just happens to look exactly like Bela himself (what are the odds, eh?) Leering ominously, Melcher pulls out his little kit of surgical tools (which doesn`t say much for how thoroughly the Black Dragons frisk their captives) and sets to work. Frankly, although it`s implied he does some impromptu nip and tucks on himself and the other man (with no anesthetic or sutures or clean water), all he really would have to do is shave himself and change clothes with the other Lugosi.
I'm still not fond of Bela as an actor, he just annoys me for some reason (the way you just can`t stand some singers or comedians), but his movies are starting to grow on me.
(Feb 6, 2002)
A stiff, unexciting horror flick from Republic Studios (you'd think THEY could be counted on for some thrills). In 19th Century Paris, a young artist is having frequent blackouts that make him wonder if he might just possibly be the dreaded Catman. No such luck. There's a lot of talking heads and studio props and wardrobe (if you like gowns and architecture, you might enjoy this flick more than I did) before we get to see the brute. Well, at least it's a genuine no-nonsense shape-changing monster and not some elaborate hoax but the Catman will never take a place of honor in the horror hall of fame. And this movie has the lamest chase scene I ever saw, where the girl and the goon seem to be half-heartedly strolling along. There's a reason why this film is obscure.
(Sep 17, 2005)
We could skip explaining the plot of this movie, don't you think?
By this point, I'd say anyone in Western society who is at all interested in horror films or fantastic literature knows perfectly well who Henry Jekyll and Edward Hyde are. Maybe, if you are from another culture and just learning about American and British fiction -- or if you're quite young and just finding out who characters like Frankenstein and Dracula are -- you might be in for a surprise.
Aside from that, I think the story has been retold and reworked in so many dozens of movies and TV shows and pastiches that it has lost most of its visceral impact. (Imagine the stunning thrill that readers first got when reading the Robert Louis Stevenson book way back when, genuinely not knowing what was going to happen; it must have been like getting cold water poured down your back!)
Despite all the over-exposure of the character, watching the 1932 version of DR JEKYLL AND MR HYDE still provides a real jolt. For one thing, the flick is so darn melodramatic in the old-fashioned tradition. Jekyll jabs a finger sharply upward when he makes a point, sinks slowly in despair to the floor, grimaces in apprehension as if being electrocuted. His despair as he tells his fiancee he must give her up as penance for his unforgivable sins is way over the top -- and yet, it works. (Rose Hobart as Muriel is great here, too, matching his intensity.)
Fredric March sure doesn't hold anything back. As Hyde, he's just as theatrical and (if anything) more flamboyant. His Hyde mugs for the camera, leaps around athletically and always shows exactly what's on his mind. Nothing subtle here, this is played as a all-out monster movie.And it's great to have it available on DVD now, with its cut scenes restored, as for decades it was kept out of circulation (so that MGM could promote their tame 1941 snoozer version).
This Mr Hyde is not just the actor with his hair mussed up and a wild gleam in his eyes, either (yes, I mean you, Spencer Tracy). No, this is a scary brute with distinctly apelike characteristics. Darker skin, widely spaced fangs, talons, a pointed conehead... no one would ever recognize Hyde as his former self. (The make-up by Wally Westmore is easily as good as Jack Pierce's and it's too bad this wasn't released by Universal; imagine this Hyde turning up in HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN.) Bad as it is from the start, Hyde's appearance goes sharply downhill each time he appears. He gets more and more degenerate and haggard; by his final scene, he definitely looks much the worse for wear, with awful sagging bags under his eyes and drooping jowls. (Maybe this was meant to symbolize that indulging your lusts as Hyde does can only lead to dissipation and falling apart, I don't know. He reminds me of my Uncle Bernie after a three day bender.)
What's even more striking is that this apeman brute is always running around London in full evening dress, complete with cane, top hat and cloak. The contrast is bizarre and effective.
One thing I noticed right at the start, when Dr Jekyll delivers his revolutionary lecture at the academy, is that he's way off base. He's starting from a false premise. Jekyll believes that the human psyche is actually two opposing forces compelled to co-exist. If he can separate them through his chemical research, the nobler part of the soul will be free to rise to all sorts of high-classic activities like opera, poetry and that stuff there. Meanwhile, the baser animal half will fulfill itself and disappear, to trouble us no more.
Whoa, right there is where you go wrong, doc. Why he thinks the primal animal spirit will go its own way and obligingly vanish is beyond me. As the movie demonstrates (and he learns to great sorrow), the two opposing halves of the soul are more like the traditional Freudian idea of a sophisticated Super-ego sitting on top of a growling jungle Id, trying to keep the lid on. Hyde isn't a separate creature like a werewolf... he IS Jekyll, just acting on all the aggressive impulses that have been kept suppressed all his life. (After the first transformation, Hyde grins at the mirror and exults, "Free! Free at last!" as if he has been sitting inside Jekyll since childhood and just itching to get loose.)
The sad thing is that there is no real need for there even to BE a Hyde. The Victorian upper class shown in this movie is so uptight and prudish that it's infuriating to watch. Jekyll is (understandably) eager to actually enjoy the carnal reward of his lovely fiancee Muriel but they can't even snatch a few kisses in the garden without being interrupted by snooty busybodies. It's obvious why he's frantically urging they get married early but these things just aren't done. Take a cold bath and think clean thoughts, you sinful boy.
Stirring things up even more, Jekyll becomes acquainted with Ivy (Miriam Hopkins, very sympathetic in a difficult role), a saucy dance-hall girl (oh, what the hell... she's a hooker, okay?) who gives him every possible signal he would not regret coming to visit her. Despite all his high-flown rhetoric about the call of advancing scientific knowledge, I suspect Henry Jekyll knows exactly what he's doing. He's letting Mr Hyde off the leash so he can vicariously taste the pleasures forbidden to the repressed doctor.
Although Hyde is usually described as pure Evil, he's not really. He doesn't have a scheme to poison the drinking water of London or to start a war that will kill thousands. No, he's just a hedonist with very few inhibitions. Today, he'd be perfectly at home on an MTV rap video, praising the gangsta life. Hyde is violent and brutal, but he also has a childlike delight in simple pleasures (watch him stretch delightedly and pause to relish the rain pouring on his face when he first appears). He lives on an animal level of instant gratification.
But all he's doing is carrying out the impulses that Jekyll had stored up. If Jekyll had been able to enjoy normal sexual release (and even masturbation was considered both disgraceful and unhealthy back then), Hyde wouldn't have all this lust boiling up. If Jekyll hadn't been so darn stuffy and proper all the time, Hyde wouldn't be rambunctious and aggressive. And it does get out of hand, of course. From a night hanging out in a dance hall, drinking hooch and picking up a floozy (not saintly behaviour but nothing most of us haven't tried a few times), Hyde eventually ends up a murderer and fugitive. His lack of restraint does him in. Hyde without Jekyll is as self-destructive and doomed as Jekyll without Hyde is frustrated and miserable.
Another big clue how Jekyll really feels deep down about this condition is that Hyde starts to manifest himself without the potion, and drinking the antidote gets rid of him for shorter periods. The implication could be either that the Hyde persona is getting stronger or that Jekyll is actually putting up less of a struggle each time (sort of like a guy who ostensibly has to be talked into visiting a bar, when he intended to go there anyway).
This particular version of the story has been covered so extensively in many articles and reference books that it seems unhelpful to once again explain how the transformation scenes were done. I do want to point out how skillful the pacing is. Before he takes the potion for the first time, Jekyll pauses to go lock the lab door. He picks up the steaming beaker, glances at a skeleton hanging nearby, and the reminder that this could be fatal prompts him to stop again and write a farewell note to his fiancee. It's just the right amount of stalling to get the audience stirred up and ready to watch him chug that serum. The movie is full of neat timing, parallel scenes between the prim missy Jekyll intends to marry and the lively dance-hall gal Hyde is carrying on with, and artistic framed shots. But mostly, it's just a decent horror movie.
Dir: Reuben Mamoulian
(March 14, 2005)
This is a lurid, tasteless Grand Guignol-style horror film with a series of brutal strangulation murders, a cast of deformed suspects, implied cannibalism, a lovely young woman strolling about in her nightgown most of the time, and a mad scientist with a gruesome new invention. It has no redeeming social value, but does have almost everything your parents didn't want you to watch as a kid. I loved it.
Based on a play titled THE TERROR (written by Howard W. Comstock and Allen C. Miller Jr) DOCTOR X was directed by Michael Curtiz. This flick introduced both Lionel Atwill and Fay Wray to our pantheon of horror stars, and Curtiz used them both again right away in MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM. This movie was rare and hard to find for many years, so it's not as well known as other movies from that era which hypnotized little Baby Boomers sitting up to watch the Late Late Show for decades. DOCTOR X has historical value as the first horror film shot in two-strip Technicolor, (although today, who except film buffs know what Technicolor was? Or Cinerama, for that matter?).
So, here's what's going on. New York City is being terrorized by a lunatic murderer (what, again?) who strangles a victim every full moon and (even worse) is carefully cutting out parts of the victims and carrying them off. By this time, there have been six murders and the citizens are starting to get nervous. A wisecracking and obnoxious reporter (Lee Tracy) is on the case, loitering around the Mott Street Morgue, pestering people and eavesdropping at windows. He seems to be on the scene mostly to provide some dubious comedy and to romance Fay Wray (what COULD she see in him, what with his nervous chuckle and lame jokes?) but actually, he does come through when it seems this is going to be a movie where the monster wins and kills everyone.
Because the slicing up of the victims was done with a scalpel, the police are focusing their suspicions on a gloomy establishment called the Academy of Surgical Research. The expressionistic joint (packed with huge weird labs and skeletons and stuff) is staffed with five slightly bizarre geniuses. One guy (who is missing his left arm and therefore cannot possibly be the Moon Killer... yeah, right) has a large human heart in a jar which he has kept alive and beating for three years. There's a very touchy and petulant mad scientist in a wheelchair (but he can lurch around on a crutch in extreme situations). One sinister Germanic researcher with a scarred face and a blackened monocle over one eye (ick) explains the full moon might make some people insane murderers but of course, "The lunar rays will never affect you or me, sir, because we are normal people." And then there's the old goat with the goatee who hides rather tame 1932 porn in his textbooks. So he might have some issues revealed by those issues ("FRENCH ART"... whoa).
Presiding over all these kooks is none other than Lionel Atwill himself, as Dr Xavier. But although he is in fact the "Doctor X" of the film's title, don't be too sure he is the mad murderer. Xavier decides to find out if one of his staff is the Moon Killer by taking them to his immense gloomy mansion on a cliffside (just how rich is this doctor, anyway?). Here he straps them in chairs and hooks them up to a prototype lie detector that looks kinda like a gigantic blood pressure gauge. Then he gets his domestic servants (and daughter, Fay again) to act out the murders so that the real killer's physiological reactions will give him away. Unfortunately, the first time Xavier tries this experiment, the lights go out and someone is in fact murdered right there (whoops! great idea, Doc).
Before it's all over, there is plenty of creepy lighting on ominous sets, cryptic dialogue and painful comic relief with a dim maid, and another re-enactment of the crimes at which the Moon Killer himself turns up live and in person. But everyone is chained in their seats, helpless as the monster looms over poor Fay Wray.
The maniac himself himself is one of the more visually gruesome monsters of the early 1930s.
Okay, it turns out he IS one of the suspects (and not one of the cops or the maid or anything like that). Through inspired research and the creativity of a sick mind, he has invented "synthetic flesh", which can be plastered on a person and treated so it becomes like real living muscle and skin. Slapping the stuff all over his head like clay, he becomes a grotesque goon with a pointed head and long clawlike fingers. (A great alibi, too, if he's spotted as eyewitness descriptions are not going to be much help to the police. I do wonder how he gets it off and how much it's got to hurt.)
In the best mad scientist tradition, the Moon Killer had good intentions at the start. With manufactured synthetic flesh, he could replace damaged or missing limbs and scarred faces. "I'll make a crippled world whole again," he says, thinking he can also maybe nab a Nobel Prize for medicine, get rich and snag a trophy wife. Unfortunately, to develop his project, he had to obtain living flesh from human beings and so a few murders were regrettably necessary.
DOCTOR X is a lot of morbid fun, with plenty of atmosphere and mood. It does slack a bit as the reporter tries to be funny and makes passes at Xavier's daughter, but those lapses are brief. And the scenes where the Moon Killer huddles between his bubbling retorts and crackling Jacob's Ladders, grinning wickedly as he smears his synthetic flesh on his puss to become a hideous brute... well, it's a 1930s horror film, nothing like 'em since.