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Sunday, October 24, 2010

Halloween Harvest For 2010 --- Part One

Universal’s Cult Horror Film Collection missed last year's Harvest, only just, but I didn't want to overlook it for 2010's edition, so here's better late than never praise for five off lower shelves of that companies' thriller inventory. Maybe waiting forty years to see these again was a good idea. For much of that interim, I’d been reminded (over and again) what lousy B’s they were, so pleasure was compounded for their turning out to be such fun. Could this be reward for lowered expectation? I’d not call them good by any standards, but Universal monster fans seldom apply those in any case. Buyers of this set are driven by sentiment for midnights past when black-and-white horrors choked airwaves and ghouls, be they mad or tepid, more than satisfied. To wit, there is The Mad Ghoul at long last among pics included. I can recite when, where, and on what TV station I first saw it. Could I tolerate those stately 65 minutes otherwise? Elder status gives me newfound respect for shows that get on and off in a hurry. None of ones here last much past an hour, being filmic equivalents of fun-sized Baby Ruths for sweet sampling of what pleased in our youth. Being made cheap doesn’t mean low-budgeters have to look that way. House Of Horrors is rendered beautifully with quality leagues beyond what 16mm delivered on syndicated broadcasts of yore, and hanged if I don’t admire what production value Universal got out of a mere $135,412 spent on the negative. That one’s title notwithstanding, you could argue that none of these are horror films at all. Civilians would surely question chiller classification of the lot, excepting maybe parts (small ones) of Murders In The Zoo, The Mad Ghoul, and aforementioned House Of Horrors. Most off-putting to current thrill seekers is preponderance of comic relief snatching rugs from under moments approaching terror. That is something we hardcores long ago accepted, having spent lives culling wheat from chaff and giving thanks for what goose-bumps could be derived from movies seemingly bent on withholding them.

Universal originally made its second cycle chillers (from late 30's on) for general audiences skewed toward youth. Nobody wanted them too scary. Kitchen sinks and more were deployed into shows seeking something for everyone. The Strange Case Of Doctor RX was but momentarily a chiller, detouring there with a caged gorilla and threatened brain transplants. Otherwise we're in trying company of a hopeful Mr. and Mrs. Thin Man not unlike counterfeits Hollywood regularly offered up as means toward scoring cash generators like MGM had with its Bill Powell/Myrna Loy series. Patric Knowles and Anne Gwynne are penthouse pretenders getting by on situations and dialogue drained of wit that popularized the Metro template, yet theirs is a game try, and I liked RX just for being less familiar than overexposed Thin Men long available on DVD. Therein lies much of the appeal of this set. Who ever thought such minor leaguers would be so lovingly disc-presented? Pleasant surprises are in abundance. Everyone says Rondo Hatton was pathetic as an actor (on top of more pathetic acromegaly) in House Of Horrors, but for me his halting way with dialogue rang winningly true, as did quieter exchanges between he and uber-intense Martin Kosleck, another performance till now unappreciated (we know enough of offscreen Hatton and Kosleck to better appreciate different drums they marched to). Much villainy within Universal’s box is practiced by Lionel Atwill, a maestro of menace who could have entranced reading labels off tin cans had he been so disposed. Atwill doubtless felt he’d be better served doing just that rather than engaging The Mad Doctor Of Market Street's dialogue, another hybrid of mad science, jungle frolicking, and dumbbell comedy designed to support higher-profile horrors on 1942 bills. You keep waiting here for Abbott and Costello to come along and tip the whole thing, as they essentially did in that year's thematically similar Pardon My Sarong. I point up such absurdities with utmost love in my heart for programmers once a mainstay of late night broadcasting, before chillers of later vintage eased them off airwaves. Quality like that maintained in the 30's was near beyond retrieval when Universal did these. Why not joke things up now that adults had quit auditoriums? The company sold watered down frights knowing its public was wise, for who'd see The Mad Ghoul other than to laugh at it? I’m frankly glad to have graduated past lofty ideas of what classic horrors should achieve and just happy to embrace what they do offer. Universal’s Cult Collection delivers splendidly on desire to drag the river of titles from a “Shock” group revered in days of narrower viewing choice, and I hope excavation will continue until all of them are restored to us.

Universal's identification with horror goes way back, certainly beyond any fan's lifetime, but what I've wondered is ... when did they first recognize it? At what point did marketers declare Universal home base of horror? I might have suggested 1943, based on a pressbook I came across for The Mad Ghoul featuring a “Graveyard Panorama” to encompass fiends dating to Chaney, Sr., proof that Hollywood's most famous monsters bunked at Universal. Note inclusion here of 1923's Hunchback Of Notre Dame, a then-twenty year ago face incorporated with others into the company's chamber of horrors. So how long had this been going on? Based on what ads and publicity I've found, it would seem Universal staked their brand as early as 1931 and publicity for Frankenstein, for which they called up memories, then fresh, of Chaney's Quasimodo and the Phantom Of The Opera, as well as Bela Lugosi's Dracula. Why not use familiar images to welcome new membership into fright's fraternal order? Universal embraced a winning franchise early on and, based on this Frankenstein ad at least, seemed to have made the most of it. And they continue doing so, of course, with successful modern remakes of The Mummy and The Wolf Man, plus theme park and DVD re-packaging of vintage incarnations.


Anonymous Scoundrel said...

The Universal ads toting their monster heritage are cute but yet again Bela Lugosi gets short shrift as the photo representing Dracula is Lon Chaney Jr.

9:53 AM  
Blogger Dugan said...

"The Cat Creeps", run time 58 minutes, directed by Erle Kenton.

"We're safe as long as the crickets keep chirping." Or something like that, what a classic that was.

2:33 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Donald Benson reflects on Universal horror and re-visits some familiar titles ...

Universal was to horror what Disney was to cartoons and MGM was to gloss. It
helped that the familiar backlot and contract players made it seem that all
the monsters -- and Sherlock Holmes, for that matter -- lived in the same
neighborhood, no matter where or when the story was officially set.

This weekend I dug out some of the not-quite classics:

Horror Island, a good-natured mess that doesn't worry about logic or much
else while filling an hour. Love that the villain is dispatched by a
hilariously obvious booby trap -- coin-operated, which just adds insult to

The Black Cat, a passable mystery comedy with "Brod" Crawford as a
blue-collar Bob Hope, Hugh Herbert impersonating Hugh Herbert, Bela Lugosi
wasted as a red herring, and an interesting set of suspects including Basil
Rathbone ("He thinks he's Sherlock Holmes!"), Gladys Cooper and a growly
Alan Ladd.

The Invisible Ray, an early Karloff-Lugosi teaming. It begins in a
Dracula-type castle, introduces wild science fiction, goes on safari in
Africa with a collection of British types and a stiff-upper-lipped forbidden
love, and ends in Paris with a glow-in-the-dark strangler. It's amusing, but
never quite lives up to the genre-hopping madness of its story.

4:43 PM  
Blogger Christopher said...

Ever wonder what the history of horror would be like without the MONSTERS to fill in a big void..Only Universal had 'em...Without them we'd be stuck with more old dark house thrillers(how many red herrings could they squeeze out of those that would be memorable?)and Gorilla suits!.Dracula in particular opened up a huge door for ideas with the Vampire genre..

1:07 AM  
Anonymous Kevin K. said...

When did keeping an ape in the basement become de rigeur for mad scientists? And more importantly, why?

1:11 PM  
Blogger Tbone Mankini said...

Interesting point about the short running times....ironically,back in the days when pretty much EVERY TV station had at least a couple of 90 min film slots,it was probable that these would be pretty much uncut while the more "worthy" offerings were chopped to incoherence to allow the required amount of advertising.

3:49 AM  

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