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Thursday, October 30, 2014

Some Halloweenies From Universal-On-Demand

More Halloween Harvest, and It's From Universal Vault

Universal's Vault Series has turned Halloween into Christmas with a Santa bag of chiller DVD's the fan-base has waited years for, all released on the quiet and within a last couple weeks. Five are new-arrived, all in good quality: Secret Of The Blue Room and Supernatural (both 1933), Mystery Of Edwin Drood (1935), Mystery Of Marie Roget (1942), and Jungle Woman (1944). Each bear the Uni logo but for Supernatural, a Paramount creeper. Again we suspend critic standards, these running scale from OK to wretched for folks half-way discriminating, but since when did me or "Shock!" followers pick/choose among offerings from that late show lot? We watched way back when even owls slept and gladly took U's with faintest genre aroma. How else do you define these that barely smacked of horror? They were crow-barred into Screen Gems, and later MCA, packages that needed volume to fill TV scheduling. Frankenstein, Dracula, and Mummies were well and fine, but there weren't enough of them, even with all of sequels. It took magic number of 52 to fill a first syndicated bag in 1958, one a week that would last stations a year, or permit double featuring with single repeat, like a typical series of that tube era. But for syndicated groups of yore, would we care less about these minor morsels?

I watched triad of Blue Room/Supernatural/Drood and was over/out in barely over three hours. Now there's a quick triple bill. Nice aspect of these and other Uni thrillers was fact you could see one (heck, close to two) starting at 11:30 and be in bed by 1:00. My late show life only got complicated when I began sitting up for likes of The Caine Mutiny and On The Waterfront. Seemed like "came the dawn" before such as these ended. I'd wake up more than once on the floor with an Indian head test pattern flickering before me. Even horror host jabbering and glut of commercials couldn't bloat Universals by much --- they were all short, if not sweet. Nice thing about plain-wrap thrillers, that is, ones minus a name monster, was faces we knew from so much of horror. Secret Of The Blue Room commands attention from a start for Lionel Atwill as headliner. He's owner of gothic housing where anyone who sleeps in a particular room dies before morning. It's just a fact of life he accepts, lives with, and propagates by letting family membership and guests use the space to satisfy whatever whim or suicidal impulse guides them. We'd like there to be spook basis for Blue Room mayhem, knowing all a while that human agency is responsible and will be unmasked, the "Secret" killer patently obvious from opener reel. Still there is Atwill, beauteous Gloria Stuart, and buckets of stormy atmosphere the bliss of Universal viewing, all done at stunningly low negative cost of $68,847.

Supernatural is the Paramount ringer. Many have wanted this for being one of few horror pics the company made during early 30's scare-rush. The Halperin brothers of White Zombie fame were handed reins, a major studio stopover they'd not make before/again. The Halperins getting this job makes us realize what a sock White Zombie was in its day. These guys had made a really good chiller on the cheap and it did business. Could Para slip a collar on them and have equal success? Turns out no, Supernatural a more or less cock-up barely worthy of its title despite individual scenes that unsettle. Star Carole Lombard figured Supernatural a worse stinker of her career, understandable as she'd soon be way past programmers like this, but when else did the actress get to play love scenes so intense as here, where the spirit of an executed murderess guides CL to wreak vengeance on bad egg Alan Dinehart? That scene alone covers cost of an hour watching, Supernatural a curiosity and rare as any vintage chiller up to now. Vault's transfer is fine too, if not pristine. This is the kind of stuff we forever hope will be released on DVD, but too seldom is.

Mystery Of Edwin Drood is a Charles Dickens adaptation of his final and unfinished novel. There's horror people in it (Claude Rains, David Manners), though it's not a horror movie --- but hold on, there are catacombs, a murder, and secret burial within those catacombs, which look like underground Boris Karloff would retreat to in same year's (1935) Bride Of Frankenstein --- plus you've got C. Rains in mad mode as he obsesses over beyond romantic reach Heather Angel. Mystery Of Edwin Drood is classy and most enjoyable. Universal spent past what they would on horror subjects (neg cost:$253,631), Drood for carriage trade in "A" houses. I liked seeing portly and majestic Francis L. Sullivan getting his start on Dickens before heading home to England and definitive interp of CD characters in Great Expectations and Oliver Twist. You'd think big studios like MGM took dibs on Dickens and classic authors of sprawling saga, but Universal had their own Great Expectations even as Metro did David Copperfield in 1934, and with Mystery Of Edwin Drood, they'd challenge Leo's Tale Of Two Cities from a same season. We think of Universal as home to B's and fiends, but they swung for fences too, Edwin Drood a game and pleasing try for wider audiences in better theatres.

Buried Beneath Live Acts The Oft-Fate of Jungle Woman at Urban Sites

Jungle Woman --- well, that was something else. Made for $105,612, it plays even cheaper than that. You'd think personnel from PRC somehow got through the doors and did Jungle Woman on the sneak at Universal. There are things from Monogram that look like Intolerance beside it. One can't come to a Paula the Ape Girl pic with expectation, although her first (of three), Captive Wild Woman, was, as snide critic Steven H. Scheuer used to say of better U's, "way above average for this kind of trash." To be fair, and not snide myself, I'd guess Jungle Woman was so denuded by censors as to demoralize its makers and leave no choice but to sweep clean what horrific potential there was in sizzler Acquanetta turning into a gorilla, then back again ... and again. Trouble is, we're not shown any of that, for PCA reasons I'll wager. Was it whiff of bestiality that made Code enforcers blanch? Universal must have been a pushover for these watchdogs. Who'd fight for integrity of a cheap monster movie? Jungle Woman was simply merchandise to back up lurid posters and skin art of Acquanetta that utterly fails to represent what we see of her in the film. Did anyone complain over such a tease? Arthur Mayer's Rialto mob surely cried foul --- I would have.

Of great authors consulted for movies, Edgar Allan Poe came handiest. And he was a bargain --- as in free --- thanks to Public Domain status of all works. That free part was what commended Poe most to Hollywood, plus fact there was cache to the name for schools teaching him and most at least knowing his stuff was morbid, if not a little mad. That last was what made Poe a saleable deceased commodity, sort of like what Alfred Hitchcock is today. Both were "Masters Of The Macabre," and nothing so attracted as a tag like that. Universal had exploited Poe for titles, if not content, of his writings. Their Murders In The Rue Morgue was basis for a Bela Lugosi vehicle in 1932, as would be The Black Cat and The Raven a few seasons later. All were said to capture the "spirit" of Poe, and so could be forgiven for otherwise betraying their literary source. By 1942 and Mystery Of Marie Roget, Poe was better spelled Anything Go, for now he was grist for developing starlet Maria Montez, here given early opportunity at leading woman for a not-quite chiller turned on attempted kidnap/murder on her part, Montez understood early on to be too exotic for demure roles. Call her a hotcha Bette Davis at screen conniving, at least for title role as Marie Roget, but MM would be better used as costume temptress in a brace of Technicolor kid-pleasers, these her legacy, if indeed she has one. Universal looks to have spent a tad freer for Mystery Of Marie Roget as plush pillow for Montez, at least plush as U could manage. It's fun in terms of backlot familiarity and degrees of separation its cast has from horrors done fore and aft. This and others are just the kind of things we'd like to see more of in Universal's Vault line. Five is a good start, but I'm a pig. Bring on balance of those "Shock!" packages!


Blogger Michael said...

The one i'd love to see get released is Among the Living, which is a very effective horror-noir atmosphere piece with Albert Dekker, set in a Louisiana sanitarium. Director Stuart Heisler's The Monster and the Girl has been released on VHS by Universal, but this one, much better, has not.

12:33 PM  
Blogger Jan Willis said...

A strong second to Michael's wish for Among the Living to get a legit DVD release. Boy does it deserve rediscovering. And The Monster and the Girl is now on DVD, thanks to the same Universal Vault Series.

11:41 PM  
Blogger CanadianKen said...

From what I recall, I'd say Paramount's "Among the Living" was a lot more "noir" than "horror". But it IS a dandy film, atmospheric and haunting. I think Susan Hayward did some of her most effective work in the early 40's ("I Married a Witch", "Sis Hopkins", "The Hairy Ape"). And she certainly acquits herself with honor in "Among the Living".
A largely forgotten Paramount actress called Jean Phillips (who was very briefly promoted as a Ginger Rogers look-alike) has a stark, but wonderful little sequence in the film. Reminds me of one of those poetically tragic vignettes Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur created in "The Leopard Man", the kind that gave otherwise obscure young starlets their own very worthy little corner in film history. The much-touted Frances Farmer is also in the picture - but Hayward and Phillips definitely outshine her.

3:39 AM  

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