Murder by Invitation (1941)

MURDER BY INVITATION (1941)
Article #1389 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 1-2-2005
Posting Date: 6-1-2005
Directed by Phil Rosen
Featuring Wallace Ford, Marian Marsh, Sarah Padden

After a failed attempt to have her committed, several relatives of a rich aunt are invited to her home so she can decide which one of the relatives is most deserving of inheriting her fortune. Then the murders begin….

Spooky old mansion…eccentric spinster…secret passages…murders…fortune of three million dollars…wisecracking reporter…it shouldn’t take a genius to figure out we’re back in the “Old Dark House” once again. Anybody who thinks the lack of original ideas in Hollywood is a recent development should go back to the twenties, thirties and forties, and take a gander at just how often this type of movie was recycled. Still, this one is rather sly; it knows it’s a rip-off (it name-drops THE CAT AND THE CANARY at one point), jokes about the conventions of this type of movie (a joke is made about how Wallace Ford is actually a “columnist” rather than a reporter) and ends with a joke about the Hays office. All in all, this one is not bad, even if the whole genre was getting really old at this point.

Laugh, Clown, Laugh (1928)

LAUGH, CLOWN, LAUGH (1928)
Article #1388 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 1-1-2005
Posting Date: 5-31-2005
Directed by Herbert Brenon
Featuring Lon Chaney, Bernard Siegel, Loretta Young

A roving clown rescues an abandoned girl and raises her as his own. When she reaches womanhood, he discovers that he’s fallen in love with her, but cannot tell her becuase of his age and his belief that she loves another.

I’ve covered several of Chaney’s extant films for this series, but this one is perhaps the most marginal in terms of its fantastic content. The closest qualifications I could think of are 1) the presence of Chaney himself, who, though not really a horror actor, has been adopted by horror fans as one of their stars, and 2) the Chaney character does go a little mad towards the end of the film. Other factors often found in Chaney films that edge them closer to horror (horrible revenge and physical handicaps) are singularly missing in this one.

However, it is a tremendously moving movie, and it’s one of Chaney’s very best. His ability to project emotion is phenomenal; you feel his joy and pain every second he’s on the screen. The movie is filled with powerful scenes; the scene where Chaney tries his best to get the newly-saved child to laugh; the scene where he discovers that he’s lost the woman he loves to another right after he’s given a bravura performance on stage but right before curtain call, and the scene where the juxtaposition of his tragic life and his stage persona drives him into a fit of madness are all unforgettable. Horror fans will find little here, but Chaney fans will find plenty.

Undersea Kingdom (1936)

UNDERSEA KINGDOM (1936)
(Serial)
Article #1387 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 12-31-2004
Posting Date: 5-30-2005
Directed by B. Reeves Eason and Joseph Kane
Featuring Ray “Crash” Corrigan, Lois Wilde, Monte Blue

Navy hero Crash Corrigan rides with Professor Norton in his new submarine and discovers the underwater kingdom of Atlantis. There they get caught up in the machinations of an evil dictator named Unga Khan, who has designs of conquering not only Atlantis, but the upper world as well.

Some thoughts on this serial:

1) Of all the serials I’ve seen since THE LOST CITY, this is the one that comes closest to capturing that one’s goofy charm. It’s better acted than that one, but actually that lessens the charm; if only Monte Blue could have chewed the scenery with the glee that William “Stage” Boyd had done in the earlier serial.

2) Despite having the technology to produce robots with zap guns, flying bombers, long distance giant-hot-dog launchers, free-floating television viewing, and armored cars with the horns stuck automatically in the “ON” position, they still need one of those humans from the upper world to design rockets to launch them to the surface of the sea.

3) Despite having the technology to produce—(please insert all the stuff that I posted in the above sentence but was too lazy to insert here)—, they still do most of their battling with men riding around on horsies and waving sabres. They also have enough forethought to bring ladders in their sieges of the imperial city.

4) Despite having muscular bad-guy-turned-good-guy John Merton to help him out, Crash Corrigan still keeps embarking on dangerous missions using the little boy as his companion. I know the kid’s a bit annoying, but that’s no reason to keep putting him in danger, is it?

5) One thing the serial does right: after taking the time to establish the comic-relief characters of Salty, Briny and their talking parrot, the serial promptly forgets about their existence. Other than a couple of token appearances in the middle of the serial, the next time we see them is aboard the submarine at the end (and I even missed the sequence where they were rescued). Someone at Republic was being merciful.

6) This is the serial in which Ray “Crash” Corrigan utters that classic phrase, “Go ahead and ram!”, one of the most hilariously silly heroically noble tough-guy quotes ever.

7) Atlantis exists in an air-pocket underneath the sea. The rockets added to Unga Khan’s castle will take it straight up to the ocean surface. Obviously, some barrier up above the castle is keeping the water from coming in. What is this barrier and why does the castle have no problem getting past it? I’d pursue this question, but I’m afraid of embarassing someone.

8) Just for fun, try to figure out how many Atlanteans are alive at the end of the serial.

9) Incidentally, though Salty and Briny appear in the submarine in the final episode, the parrot does not. Did I just miss it? Did it not make the shot? Did the filmmakers not consider him an important character? Or did the parrot suffer the same fate as Gertrude the Duck in JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH? I’d pursue this question further, but I’m afraid someone will look for the missing footage and show it to me. I’m not that curious.

10) Despite having that free-floating television viewer that can spy on the upper world, Unga Khan and his men are still totally caught off guard by the technology of the navy and only have a chance to launch one giant hot dog during their invasion. So we wait for twelve episodes to see the most incompetent invasion of the world I’ve seen since Bela Lugosi tried to take over the world with the help of a few bombs and a bi-plane in THE PHANTOM CREEPS.

So there you have UNDERSEA KINGDOM. Have fun.

The Jade Mask (1945)

THE JADE MASK (1945)
Article #1386 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 12-30-2004
Posting Date: 5-29-2005
Directed by Phil Rosen
Featuring Sidney Toler, Mantan Moreland, Edwin Luke

A scientist who was developing a gas to make wood as hard as steel is murdered, and Charlie Chan is called in to investigate.

It’s another Charlie Chan movie, but this one was made nine years later than CHARLIE CHAN’S SECRET after the title role had changed actors (Warner Oland to Sidney Toler) and the series had moved from 20th Century Fox to Monogram. In terms of its fantastic content, it has a fair amount; the gas in question (though it is never really used as such during the course of the movie), some of the lab scenes, and a trap room all have touches of science fiction to them, and there’s also a spooky feeling to some of the opening scenes. I also like the comic relief, with Edwin Luke as #4 son, and the great Mantan Moreland as the Birmingham the chauffeur. There’s also several interesting characters populating the story. I do have some problems, though. There are a number of unique elements to the story (the gas experiments, the trap room, the disappearing policeman subplot, the mysterious appearance of the body of a man downstairs who had just gone upstairs, a series of masks, a tire pump, a cast of an ear, and a set of ventriloquist dummies), but I don’t think the elements mesh all that well by the end of the movie. My other problem was with Sidney Toler, who for me never served as an adequate replacement for Warner Oland; whereas Oland always seemed totally involved in the story around him, Toler here comes across as distracted and somewhat bored, and he also lacked the authority that Oland brought to the role.

Charlie Chan’s Secret (1936)

CHARLIE CHAN’S SECRET (1936)
Article #1385 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 12-29-2004
Posting Date: 5-28-2005
Directed by Gordon Wiles
Featuring Warner Oland, Rosina Lawrence, Charles Quigley

Charlie Chan investigates the murder of an heir who was killed the minute he returned home after an absence of seven years.

Fantastic content: Much of the mystery takes place in an “old dark house” environment, and psychics and seances both play heavily into the plot to give the movie some horror touches.

Given the recent controversy over attempted airings of the classic Charlie Chan movies, I found myself speculating on what changes would be necessary if the character of Charlie Chan was to be revived for modern audiences. The most obvious change (casting an oriental in the role) would be the easiest. However, you would have to change two qualities of Chan’s character; his unfailing politeness and his aphoristic speech pattern. Both of these qualities have stereotypical qualities to them, and unfortunately they are both essential to Chan’s character. His politeness served to offset the potential intimidating qualities of his keen mind, while his aphorisms displayed his keen mind at work while also showing his witty side. Without these qualities, Chan just wouldn’t be Chan. I suspect a revival of the character is highly unlikely.

For those of us who choose not to be put off from these movies by the stereotypes, they can be a lot of fun. This one isn’t one of the best, but it’s still quite good. it also has a somewhat stronger horror content than some others of the series; in fact, the two biggest scenes (the discovery of the body and the final trap to catch the killer) both involve seances. Herbert Mundin performs comic relief duty as the butler here, and horror fans may recognize Egon Brecher from any number of horror movies, in particular THE BLACK CAT.

Eyes Without a Face (1960)

EYES WITHOUT A FACE (1960)
(a.k.a. LES YEUX SANS VISAGE/
THE HORROR CHAMBER OF DR. FAUSTUS)
Article #1384 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 12-27-2004
Posting Date: 5-26-2005
Directed by Georges Franju
Featuring Pierre Brasseur, Edith Scob, Alida Valli

A scientist is murdering young women in order to restore the beauty of his daughter whose face was mangled in an automobile accident.

Most of the French cinema that I’ve covered for this series has been in the realm of fantasy; French horror and science fiction films are a bit of a rarity. However, this one is a real treat. I usually find French cinema to be somewhat tricky and deceptive; when they take on a genre, they usually transform it into something else. Therefore, one of the biggest surprises I had with this one is that it is exactly what it pretends to be; it’s first and foremost a horror film. In fact, it dredges up one of the most common horror scenarios; that of the scientist who commits murders in order to help a loved one. In short, it has the same basic premise of THE APE or THE CORPSE VANISHES. However, it’s an exquisitely directed and breathtakingly beautiful horror film; Georges Franju has a strong visual sense and he uses it here to good effect. Not only that, but the beautiful visuals never seem forced or artificial. The movie even has a gross-out scene (where the surgically remove a woman’s face) that manages to be somewhat beautiful as well as repulsive. I also love the use of music and sound; the constant sound of barking dogs sticks in the mind. All in all, a very satisfying horror film, and highly recommended.

Legend of Horror (1972)

LEGEND OF HORROR (1972)
Article #1383 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 12-28-2004
Posting Date: 5-27-2005
Directed by Enrique Carreras and Bill Davies
Featuring Karin Field, Fawn Silver, and several uncredited performers

A new prisoner is assigned to share a cell with a mad old man named Sidney, who is in prison for once having killed an old man.

When the Poe anthology movie OBRAS MAESTRAS DEL TERROR was released in this country, it was called MASTER OF HORROR, and had its third story excised. For those who wondered about the fate of that third story, here it is, badly dubbed and expanded into a full length movie. How? They set the movie several years into the future with the murderer now an imprisoned old man who tells the original story in flashback between trying to escape, talking to rat named Tommy, and knifing anyone who gets in his way. It’s pretty bad, but I can’t help but admire a little some of the resourcefulness that went into this. The special effects are unusual; the new gory death scenes are done via stop motion animation, and though it’s far from convincing, it’s novel enough to catch your attention. It also manages to make itself not seem quite as cheap as it was, through the use of borrowed music and footage from some of the AIP Poe movies. What really confuses me is the cast list; IMDB lists only two people in the cast, both of them women – Karin Field and Fawn Silver. However, there’s only one prominent female role in the movie, and I definitely recognize it as Fawn Silver (who I recall from ORGY OF THE DEAD). So who does Karin Field play? I have no idea.

Incidentally, the movie ends with a sign that talks about the imperfection of man. Given how bad this movie is, I can’t help but feel that the movie comes with its own built-in excuse. I’m not sure whether I admire that or not.

Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid (1948)

MR. PEABODY AND THE MERMAID (1948)
Article #1382 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 12-26-2004
Posting Date: 5-25-2005
Directed by Irving Pichel
Featuring William Powell, Ann Blyth, Irene Harvey

A man coming to terms with his having reached the age of fifty catches a mermaid and falls in love with her, to the frustration of his wife.

Most of the movies about mermaids that I’ve seen aspire to be comedies, and I think this is because a mermaid is one of the sillier mythological creatures. If this one is aspiring to be a comedy, it’s not a good one; outside of the usual gags about people talking about mermaids and other people thinking they’re crazy, the only real humor here is a running joke involving a man who has just given up smoking and drinking. Still, I don’t think this is meant to be a comedy but a drama; the problem I have with it is that it is too subdued to be really effective as either one or the other. It does have a definite theme; Mr. Peabody’s attempt to cope with his aging has a fair amount of substance to it. Unfortunately, the movie fails to make this theme very compelling to me, but that may be a matter of age; as the psychiatrist puts it at one point in the movie, it’s useless discussing these issues with someone who is too young, and since I’m still a few years short of fifty, there is a chance that I simply won’t get it for a few years. Right now I find this one rather dullish, but with a few good things about it. Ann Blyth is extremely attractive as one of the two title characters (you decide which one), and the best scene in the movie is her underwater dance after she overhears Mr. Peabody admitting that he loves her. In fact, I like the mermaid special effects throughout the movie. Maybe I’ll watch it again when I hit fifty.

Monsieur Verdoux (1947)

MONSIEUR VERDOUX (1947)
Article #1381 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 12-25-2004
Posting Date: 5-24-2005
Directed by Charles Chaplin
Featuring Charles Chaplin, Mady Correll, Allison Roddan

A former bank clerk tries to support his wife and child by becoming a Bluebeard; he marries and then murders women for their money.

This is only the second time I’ve touched upon Chaplin in my cinematic wanderings through fantastic cinema; the first, a weak caveman comedy (HIS PREHISTORIC PAST) was hardly representative of his work. This one is much better, though the fantastic content (the concept of a serial killer is a common horror theme) is even slighter, and it is also unrepresentative of Chaplin’s work in that it places Chaplin in a role that is so different from his “Little Tramp” character that it’s somewhat jarring. Chaplin is trying to pull off some very difficult tricks here; though he’s a serial killer, Verdoux is not portrayed as unsympathetic. You feel his real love for his family, and you can see that underneath it all there’s a real regret for the circumstances that drove him to his current situation; there’s something very powerful about the scene where he chooses not to test a new poison on a vagrant when he discovers that her life has been very similar to his, but that she has not lapsed into his cynicism. Most of the obvious comedy comes with his scenes with Martha Raye, who plays an incredibly lucky person; not only does she keep winning lotteries, but she manages (through sheer luck) to thwart every attempt that is made on her life.

Despite the comic scenes, the movie is ultimately satirical and has a controversial message. Censors of the time had trouble with the subversive nature of the film, and that is to be expected. This message doesn’t manifest itself until the end of the movie, and it does bear considering even if the very act of doing so leaves you feeling uneasy.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935)

A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM (1935)
Article #1380 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 12-24-2004
Posting Date: 5-23-2005
Directed by William Dieterle and Max Reinhardt
Featuring James Cagney, Joe E. Brown, Dick Powell

Fairies play havoc with the lives of lovers and actors that find themselves in the woods late at night.

Several of Shakespeare’s plays have fantastic elements, though this one (along with THE TEMPEST) probably has the greatest amount. This one sticks fairly close to Shakespeare’s language, and sweetens things with the addition of the music of Felix Mendelssohn and Eric Wolfgang Korngold. There’s also some balletic dance sequences, and a plethora of familiar Hollywood faces and names, almost all of which do a fine job. The cast includes James Cagney, Joe E. Brown, Dick Powell, Mickey Rooney, Victor Jory, Ian Hunter, Olivia de Havilland, Grant Mitchell, Frank McHugh, Hugh Herbert, Arthur Treacher, Billy Barty, Kenneth Anger and Angelo Rossitto, and those are just the names I recognize. Visually, it’s stunning, particularly in the scenes involving the fairies; any fan of fantasy will definitely want to take in some of these moments. It does have some problems; if you throw in the overture and the end music, the movie runs two hours and twenty-two minutes, and it could use some pruning throughout its length, In particular, we do have too many sequences of fairies scampering about to little or no purpose. It’s also easy to get annoyed with Mickey Rooney’s Puck; his laugh (which goes up the musical scale and ends with a screech) is overused, as is his character. On the plus side, the comedy is actually quite funny at times (actually being funny wasn’t one of Shakespeare’s strengths), thanks to some shrewd casting. Any movie which gives you a chance to see James Cagney blow kisses to Joe E. Brown through Hugh Herbert’s parted fingers is worth at least one viewing.