Horror Express (1972): Cozy Terrors

horror_express_cover_artSo many underrated movies to recommend, so little time!

Lately I’ve been feeling the urge to share my thoughts about films I love without typing out long blog posts.

Since today marks the birthday of the late great Sir Christopher Lee and yesterday was Peter Cushing’s birthday, I want to sing the praises of a delightful, lesser-known film that the legendary pair made together.

A Spanish-British co-production, Eugenio Martin’s Horror Express compensates for its low budget with unfettered plot twists and an eerie, snowbound period atmosphere.

Plus it’s set on a train. If you set a movie on a train, I’m about 300% more likely to enjoy it.

However, what makes the film so charming is Cushing and Lee’s heartfelt chemistry. In this case, they both play good guys—rival paleontologists who reluctantly join forces to battle an ancient evil. The film even throws in the occasional cheeky nod to the actors’ Hammer horror legacy. For instance, when a fellow passenger insinuates that Cushing might actually be the film’s demonic creature, he’s utterly scandalized: “Monsters? We’re British, you know!”

This is basically my idea of a feel-good movie.

Rather than face a blank page, I decided that I’d just record my two cents about Horror Express on my iPhone. Listen here or download the file at the Internet Archive.

Consider this the pilot episode for something that might become regular… if enough people like it! Please let me know if you’d like to hear more of my ramblings.

Since Horror Express is in the public domain, you can watch it in many places around the internet. I’m embedding the best HD version that I’ve found on YouTube. It’s also available in a nice transfer on Fandor.

Brides of Dracula (1960): Dandy of the Damned

bridesofdracula_posterThe elegant man in gray stands on a high stone parapet, poised as if about to take a death leap. Suddenly, from the balcony above, a woman cries out to stop him. “No, don’t do that!”

And so the spirited but naïve Marianne first meets the dashing and dangerous Baron Meinster in Terence Fisher’s Brides of Dracula. Under other circumstances, it might be called a “meet cute.” In this case, it’s more like a meet deadly.

If this scene sounds familiar—even to those who haven’t seen Hammer’s underrated follow-up to Horror of Dracula (1958)—that’s because Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940) brought its hero and heroine together in almost the exact same way. On the cliffs by the Mediterranean, Joan Fontaine’s nameless slip of a girl calls to Maxim de Winter, pulling him away from the edge… and plunging herself into a frightening love affair.

Perhaps this parallel is accidental. Perhaps not. In both films a young woman obsesses over pleasing a mysterious aristocrat and nearly pays with her life. However, whereas Rebecca rewards its self-effacing Cinderella with some semblance of happily ever after, Brides of Dracula drives a stake right through the heart of the Gothic fallacy—the myth of “I alone can save this misunderstood man.”

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I was lucky enough to discover Brides of Dracula in epic fashion: screened from a vivid 35mm print at the Capitol Theater in Rome, New York. The heady, luminous Technicolor cinematography of Jack Asher—awash in ripe burgundies, ominous grays, and borderline cadaverous shades of pastel violet—converted me to the glories of Hammer horror (with which I’d never previously felt much of an affinity).

Just to make sure it wasn’t the big-screen effect getting the better of me, though, I watched Brides on DVD shortly thereafter. Twice. In three days. It really is that good. If the Hammer films were burning and I could save only one, this would be the one.

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A sumptuous cautionary tale, Brides of Dracula seduces then shocks, revealing the rancid dysfunction festering beneath the surface of Gothic romanticism. As the title suggests, the film largely focuses on women, in particular the grave consequences of socially-sanctioned female fantasies. An integral mother-son relationship also gives the plot a Freudian depth of depravity and enhances its subtle critique of women enabling irredeemable, monstrous men.

Instead of simply resurrecting Dracula, this enclosed entry in the Hammer canon creates a daringly different kind of vampire, a disciple of the Count with his own shadowy backstory. As incarnated by David Peel, Baron Meinster is a spoiled, manipulative, sexually ambiguous rakehell who recognizes and ruthlessly exploits the images that women project onto him. He’s the Prince of Darkness in Prince Charming’s clothing.

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The Brides script went through a long and complicated development, yet it manages to clip along at an exciting pace, evoke a sense of familial tragedy, and include several memorably unsettling scenes of the dead rising and attacking. No small feat!

Traveling through the Carpathian Mountains for an appointment as a schoolteacher, lovely Marianne Danielle (Yvonne Monlaur) ends up stranded at Castle Meinster. The sinister Baroness Meinster (Martita Hunt, at her regal and unhinged best) tells the girl about her “mad” son, whom she keeps a virtual prisoner.

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Her Pandora instinct aroused, Marianne frees the apparently sane and and impossibly beautiful Baron Meinster. And, as you might imagine, all hell breaks loose. Fortunately, Doctor Van Helsing (Peter Cushing, one of few actors who can ever make me root for the good guys) happens to be passing through the area to continue his mortal battle against vampirism.

From here on in, there be major spoilers, friends. 

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Newfangled Bad Boy

What could’ve been Brides of Dracula’s greatest weakness—the fact that the iconic vampire mentioned in the title doesn’t show up in the film—turns out to be its greatest asset. (No disrespect to Christopher Lee, whose Dracula performances all stand the test of time and chill me to the bone. I merely appreciate that Hammer took the vampire concept in an unusual direction here.)

The literal and figurative fair-haired boy of his noble family, Baron Meinster departs from the dark and brooding vampire paradigm set up by previous Draculas. On the most basic visual level, David Peel’s classically handsome Anglo-Saxon features and wig of frosted blond locks endow the Baron with an angelic aura.

Meinster lacks Dracula’s grand reach and authority, yet the intimate scope of his agenda and his stealth approach inspire a more relatable fear: mightn’t we all fall for such an ingratiating personification of evil? Beyond his imperative to stay alive, Meinster also displays a refined, psychological strain of sadism. Deceit isn’t a means to an end; it’s part of the thrill for Meinster. And, unlike Dracula, he can muster the disarming façade needed to deceive.

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Christopher Lee played Dracula as “monarch of all vampires,” the title bestowed upon him by Brides’ prologue: somber, domineering, and attractive, certainly, but animalistic. Lugosi accentuated the seductive magnetism of the Count, but nevertheless exuded a debonair creepiness that initially prompts Mina to mock his accent and bearing.

In essence, Dracula is an outsider. You might be drawn to him, but you’d also be on your guard around him. Potential victims don’t tend to suspect that he’s a 500-year-old bloodsucking demon until it’s too late; then again, most don’t wholeheartedly welcome him into their lives either. Dracula makes no pretense of courtship. He simply takes what he wants. The emotions of his prey are as meaningless to him as the squeaks of a field mouse to a hungry hawk.

The Gentle Art of Vampirism

By contrast, the Baron comes across as a dandy in the Baudelairean sense: “These creatures have no state of being other than cultivating the beautiful in their appearance, satisfying their passions, feeling, and thinking.”* Even the costuming choices confirm Meinster’s dandyism. No austere black cape for him—a dove gray cloak is so much more becoming.

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The Baron elevates his search for sustenance to an artistic pursuit, one that he goes about with the dedication of a collector. Referring to Marianne, he comments, “What a pity such beauty must fade… unless we preserve it.”

Meinster clearly derives pleasure from winning his victims’ trust, which makes his hunting technique inherently dandyish. As Baudelaire wrote, “Without ardor or caprice, it becomes a repugnant necessity.” Now, dear Charles was talking about love (and all that love implies), but substitute “blood” in there and you have Baron Meinster’s guiding maxim of vampirism.

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Our vampire dandy also displays a downright artful knack for beguiling any woman who crosses his path. He effortlessly presents himself as a wronged and tortured heir during his first face-to-face encounter with Marianne. The Baron drifts out of the shadows, strategically reveals his Adonis beauty, and sighs, “So, you’ve come to help me, have you? Well, no one can do that, mademoiselle.”

The viewer realizes the truth of his statement—there’s no cure for what Meinster is—but he knows that emphasizing the hopelessness of his case will only intensify Marianne’s desire to save him. Chained to the wall, Meinster draws Marianne nearer and nearer with his words, as the yearning violins of the musical score evoke the mood of a love scene.

By this point in the film, the intoxicating jewel tones of Castle Meinster and the delicate shadings of light and dark have swept the spectator into a mindset close to Marianne’s. Nevertheless, unlike Marianne, we know that we’re watching a vampire movie, so we can fill in the dramatic irony.

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Terence Fisher and company keep up a clever double game of dizzying romanticism and creeping dread. You’ll certainly notice some warning signs. Meinster stares just a few degrees south of Marianne’s face, and a crimson lampshade casts a baleful, blood-red glow on the wall over the Baron’s left shoulder.

However, only after Marianne darts off to rescue the dream boy in the tower do we get a close-up of his smug triumph. The cunning devil has ensnared his own Pandora and seems awfully pleased.

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Once the Baroness discovers that Marianne has stolen the key, the imposing dowager chases her frightened guest into the castle’s main hall. The girl barrels down a flight of stairs and runs straight into the Baron’s arms. The camera whirls into Meinster’s dreamy face with a flourish—portraying him as just the sort of romantic hero he wants Marianne to take him for.

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“There, there, don’t worry,” He coos to the terrified Marianne. “She can’t harm you now. You have nothing to fear.” A noted radio actor, David Peel drawls each line of Meinster’s double-talk as though he were tasting it, rolling it over his palate. I can’t think of any other vampire who would say such a thing, who would savor the irony of reassuring his intended victim.

Power Player

Every significant female character in Brides of Dracula fawns over Meinster. His mother admits that she encouraged “his wildness” and procured girls for him to drain even during his captivity. Meinster’s childhood nurse Greta essentially serves as his Renfield. She crouches over the grave of one of the brides, guiding the vampiress out of the ground like a midwife might coax a newborn out of the womb.

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The concept of vampirism as a kind of rebirth also connects Meinster’s sins with those of his mother. The script explains that the Baron harbored a cruel streak from childhood, indulged by the Baroness and brought to fullness by the wicked circle of friends he sought out. In other words, Meinster emerged from an interplay of nature and nurture. Yet, had his mother stood up to him, the film implies, this horror story would’ve ended in the home long ago.

Meinster perpetuates the vicious cycle of dysfunction that made him a monster (or failed to prevent him from becoming one) by creating new monsters—his children, in a sense. The product of a bad mother, Baron Meinster, in turn, becomes a bad mother… and in more ways than one.

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In addition to triggering misplaced maternal devotion in the Baroness and Greta, Meinster fits into the unhealthiest sort of romantic fantasy. Marianne’s student teacher colleague Gina develops an immediate crush on Meinster—he’s a Baron and he looks like Prince Charming, that’s enough for her. After learning of Marianne’s engagement, Gina envies her friend. All alone, following a congratulatory session of girl talk, she examines her face in a hand mirror and laments, “It should have been me.”

Then she feels a chill in the air and goes over to close the drapes. The icy blue of her peignoir against the orangey floral pattern of the curtains hits the eye like a danger signal. The audience knows that poor Gina is about to have her wish come true in a way she never bargained for.

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The brilliance of Brides lies in such varied examples of how women lose their identities by giving power to a man and making him the focus of their lives and goals. A mother becomes a ghoulish enabler and accomplice, a servant becomes a slave, and a young teacher becomes a mindless conquest. Meinster craves absolute interpersonal control and leaves wrecked people in his wake.

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In King Lear, Shakespeare wrote, “The Prince of Darkness is a gentlemen.” That observation suggests the outward urbanity of wickedness as well as the privileged social position occupied by the devil—both aspects of evil that Baron Meinster knows quite a bit about.

Not only does Meinster seek a degrading abject power over his victims, but he also exercises his drive to dominate in a more conventional class-bound way. When leaving the girls’ school where Marianne teaches, for instance, he can’t resist a threatening jab at the headmaster (a tenant of the Meinster estate), hinting that he had better show respect or he’ll be paying a higher rent.

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The Baron also wields his privileged status as another lure for potential mates. After all, what is the Gothic romance if not the Cinderella fantasy gone very, very wrong? Marianne traveled from Paris for her job as a schoolteacher… yet she’s ready to sacrifice it to become the new Baroness. Sounds shallow doesn’t it? But who among us isn’t swayed, to some degree, by rank and appearance? Especially women brought up on fairy tales featuring an aristocratic stranger who fixes everything and rewards the heroine with the honor of being his wife.

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Close-ups of the Baron, both in and out of vampire mode, abound and seem to magnify his power. He fills the screen, dominates even the camera. It’s as though the cinematography were bowing to his will in the way a 19th century portraitist might have.

For instance, shortly after he “saves” Marianne from the Baroness, he transforms from gallant and sensitive to cruel and incestuous in seconds. We get not one, not two, but three close-ups of Meinster’s beauty—like an exquisite mask with furious eyes burning through the holes—as he beckons the Baroness to her doom. “Come here, mother,” he purrs.

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The first sight of Meinster in full bloodthirsty form strikes the audience as all the more grotesque in comparison to his earlier handsomeness. Framed by a doorway in long shot, he hisses at Van Helsing. A jump cut amps up the horror by jolting us with a ghoulish close-up of the Baron, his cheeks contorted, his eyes bulging.

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Another such close-up signals Meinster’s most disturbing assault on a victim, one I could hardly believe at first. Having strangled Van Helsing unconscious, the Baron pounces on him like a bat, raising his cape over the prostrate man. We don’t see the bite… but Meinster’s head rises from the lower edge of the frame and his fangs glisten with fresh gouts of blood. To borrow Bram Stoker’s words, he wears “a grin of malice which would have held its own in the nethermost hell.”

This savage bite scene left me rattled. Though tame as far as horror gore goes, it strikes at the audience’s deeply-held confidence and investment in Van Helsing. Watching Meinster triumph over the doctor overturns our sense of the genre’s rules and reminds us that, in real life, evil sometimes wins. Bad things aren’t supposed to happen to cherished, recurring movie characters or to people we love, but they do.

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Even Dracula himself never got that far with Van Helsing! And when the Count does come close to biting his nemesis during the Horror of Dracula showdown, he approaches Van Helsing’s neck with a more adversarial intensity, eager to deliver the coup de grâce. Dracula wears the sneer of victorious rival. He doesn’t exalt in the depraved pleasure of violating an enemy, like Meinster does.

Fortunately, Van Helsing knows how to purify himself and, in another stomach-churning turn of events, cauterizes the bite mark with a red-hot branding iron and some holy water. I can’t think of another actor who could make this as convincing (and badass) as Cushing does.

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Killing Van Helsing apparently wasn’t even Meinster’s immediate intent, though. He returns a few minutes later, dragging Marianne in tow, and taunts Van Helsing with the exhibitionistic prospect of forcing the good doctor to watch her “initiation.”

Interestingly enough, the Van Helsing of Brides acquires his own mantle of romanticism. Reading between the lines, one senses a bit more chemistry between the doctor and Marianne than expected from a vampire-hunter and a woman he’s trying to save. If you don’t believe me, watch Cushing’s face when he hears of Marianne’s engagement and asks, “Are you in love with him?”

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In other words, Meinster’s pursuit of Marianne satisfies another facet of his sadism; he’s tormenting Van Helsing through her. The Baron may not be the most ambitious vampire, but when he sets out to do damage, it’s on the most personal and vicious level. His violent attack on Van Helsing strips away the refinement of the Gothic hero, showing us the brute under the ascot. Brides arguably confronts and crushes the oxymoron of a vampire romance before that idea even went mainstream.

Brides of Dracula is a subversive, rewatchable masterpiece of horror wrought from lavish jewel tones and Baroque shadows. (Never mind the plot holes. Or the awkwardly flapping bat. I find them endearing, frankly.) Its complex intermingling of social and sexual signifiers and its sheer amount of striking set pieces ensure that any post about the film has merely scratched the surface. I urge you to seek this movie out, whether you’re a Hammer fan or not—because you will be one by the time the credits roll.

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*Baudelaire, Le Peintre de la vie moderne.

13 Chilling Episodes of “Suspense” Radio to Enjoy for Free

maninblackCall me old-fashioned, but I prefer horrors left to my own imagination. Perhaps that’s why I find old-time radio (OTR, to its fans) so efficiently unsettling. In the right context, a few creaks, groans, and a diabolical laugh can be enough to raise the hair on the back of your neck.

But why is a blogger obsessed with classic movies featuring radio? Well, the golden ages of both Hollywood and American radio drama intertwined considerably. Alfred Hitchcock himself launched Suspense in 1942 with a tense radio adaptation of The Lodger, the same story he’d filmed in 1927.

One of the most prestigious and longest-running classic radio programs, Suspense specialized in—you guessed it—thrillers and potboilers, presenting a guest star each week. The show’s tour-de-force leading roles gave top Hollywood acting talent, radioincluding such major stars as Cary Grant, Joan Crawford, and Myrna Loy, a chance to prove how effectively they could work on the audience’s nerves with their voices alone.

Most Suspense radio plays fall into the vein of crime melodrama. However, when the show went in for horror, whether supernatural or psychological, it plunged into bloody and unnatural deeds with relish.

You can listen to all of these world-class programs for free. I’ve embedded audio for the episodes here.

So, what are you waiting for? Cozy up with a cup of cocoa and turn the lights down low. Fair warning, though: these episodes are well calculated to keep you in… suspense!

1. “The House in Cypress Canyon” (aired 12/5/1946)

robert_taylorAsk any OTR junkie about the creepiest episodes ever to travel the airwaves, and this chiller is bound to come up. An industrial chemist (Robert Taylor) and his wife consider themselves lucky when they buy a quaint new house in Cypress Canyon. Little do they know an insidious force behind the closet door threatens to destroy them.

With a terrifying, ambiguous plotline that the listener could interpret in any number of ways, “Cypress Canyon” will haunt you far beyond its half-hour runtime. Need a starting point for getting into OTR? Look no further!

 

2. “Ghost Hunt” (aired  6/23/1949)

ralph_edwardsA cocky radio host spends the night in a notorious haunted house and takes his microphone with him. He never makes it out, but the recording of his last hours hints at what drove him to a sudden death.

Not only does this creative episode deliver major goosebumps, but it also foreshadows the “found footage” horror subgenre. Plus, if you dislike guest star Ralph Edwards as much as I do for his patronizing treatment of Buster Keaton and Frances Farmer on This Is Your Life, you’ll thoroughly enjoy listening to him descend into madness!

 

3. “Three Skeleton Key” (aired 11/11/56)

vincent_price_radioNot for the squeamish, this episode. On an isolated French island colony, a trio of bickering lighthouse keepers find themselves under siege. A horde of rats arrives on a derelict ship after months at sea—and they’re hungry.

As producer William M. Robson warned listeners, “It is unconditionally guaranteed to chill your blood… unless you love rats.” In my opinion, he wasn’t exaggerating. Guest star Vincent Price could make oatmeal advertisements sound stomach-churningly gruesome, but here he’s working with serious gross-out material at his ghoulish best. Plus, the high-pitched, gibbering squeaks of those ravenous rodents will make your skin crawl.

 

4. “Narrative About Clarence” (aired 3/16/1944)

laird_cregarOne of the creepiest screen villains of the 1940s, Laird Cregar lends his soft, insinuating baritone to this tale of revenge and mesmerism. After studying the secret mystic practices of India, n’er-do-well Clarence returns home to stay with his half-sister, Lillian, and her skeptical husband.

Before you can say “hocus pocus,” the self-proclaimed mental scientist is using his powers to control Lillian’s young daughter. Can Clarence be stopped before he settles a long-festering family grudge in the ugliest way possible?

 

5. “August Heat” (aired 5/31/1945)

ronald_colmanOn a stiflingly hot late summer day, an artist (Ronald Colman) draws a picture of a man he’s never seen—a man he happens to meet that very afternoon. But what does it mean when that man turns out to be a funerary mason who’s made a tombstone for the artist purely by chance?

The text of W. F. Havey’s short story about coincidence and premonitions of death hardly seems meaty or dramatic enough for even a half-hour program. Nevertheless, clever writing, snippets of otherworldly music, and some subtly foreboding sounds at the end make it all work, offering a brilliant example of radio’s singular spell.

 

6. “The Whole Town Sleeping” (aired 6/14/1955)

aggieThere’s nothing supernatural or occult about this gripping episode—just a flesh-and-blood serial killer, stalking women who pass through a ravine on the edge of a little midwestern town. The ultimate radio drama heroine, Agnes Moorehead rips into the material, penned by Ray Bradbury, with her usual tightly-wound élan.

Since much of the story is told in real-time—step-by-step as the protagonist walks home in the dark—the audience powerfully identifies with her fear. This is one of those horrors that frighten us so deeply because they’re not as removed from real life as we’d like to believe.

 

7. “Donovan’s Brain” (5/18 and 5/25/1944)

orson_wellesA scientist recovers the brain of a recently deceased tycoon and decides to use it for his experiments. Soon the brain’s power is reaching out to control the will of the man studying it.

This adaptation of Curt Siodmak’s novel hit the airwaves almost a decade before the story served as the basis for the cult sci-fi film starring Lew Ayres. And the radio play is scarier. Way scarier. Let’s just say the ending isn’t quite as cheery as the film’s.

Orson Welles delivers possibly the finest radio performance of his career, voicing both the calculating, pedantic scientist and the gruff, domineering Donovan. Running a full hour, this two-part episode lets the creepiness linger and build slowly, as the beeping, bubbling sounds of the lab gizmos that keep the brain alive grow utterly oppressive.

 

8. “Fugue in C-Minor” (aired 6/1/1944)

vincent_priceFor a late 19th century lady in search of a husband, Mr. Evans seemed like the perfect catch: a sophisticated, rich widower. Such a shame about his first wife, who died in a carriage accident.

Why, then, do his little children insist that their mother is walled up in vast mechanisms of their father’s pipe organ?

Ida Lupino and Vincent Price strike just the right note of buttoned-up Victorian paranoia in this original play by Lucille Fletcher, who contributed several of Suspense’s most famous episodes. And sepulchral organ music adds a sense of doom and dignity to this bloodcurdling Gothic homage.

This is a recording of a rehearsal; the actual broadcast has been lost, I believe.

 

9. “Flesh Peddler” (aired 8/4/1957)

deforest_kelleyWho doesn’t love a creepy ventriloquist story? A dogged talent agent (DeForest Kelley)—or a “flesh peddler” in carnie parlance—sees Arthur Wilson and his dummy Oliver in a cheap carnival and senses something compelling about their chemistry. Trying to sign the act, the flesh peddler gets a little more than he bargained for…

Despite an implausible ending, the noirish rhythm of the dialogue and the cast of midway “freaks” endow this episode with a sordid, Tod Browning-esque ambiance that’s difficult to wash off afterwards.

 

10. “The Yellow Wallpaper” (aired 7/29/1948) 

aggie_mooreheadEnclosed or limited settings showcased the strengths of radio as a medium, minimizing the complex imagery that cinema often does better in favor of searing character studies. And few tales are more claustrophobic than Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s first-person account of a woman imprisoned in her own home.

Confined by her husband for an unspecified health condition, a doctor’s wife begins to obsess over the ripped yellow wallpaper in her bedroom. At first, she hates its garish pattern, until she thinks she notices a woman trapped behind it… The ever-superb Agnes Moorehead manages to cultivate our sympathy for the narrator’s plight while simultaneously creeping us out with her bizarre, elaborate fantasies.

 

11. “Deep, Deep Is My Love” (aired 4/26/1959)

lloyd_bridgesDon (Lloyd Bridges) loves to skin dive alone, explaining to his wife that he needs some time to himself beneath the waves. He’s lying; he only wants to join the golden woman who beckons to him from an underwater grotto.

The trouble is, Don isn’t sure that the strange woman really exists. Perhaps narcosis—nitrogen intoxication, a side effect of diving—is playing a deadly trick on him.

Vivid descriptions of marine life and seascapes imbue this episode with a lyrical, almost hallucinatory quality. On the other hand, the wheezing respiration of Don’s mask, his oxygen diminishing with each breath, maintains the delicate balance between his seductive dreams and a lethal reality.

 

12. “The Black Door” (aired 11/19/61)

A young archeologist travels to the jungles of Central America to search for “the City of the Fire God.” Teaming up with a local guide, our intrepid hero follows the trail down to a temple in the center of an extinct volcano. What could possibly go wrong?

I tend to find later episodes of Suspense overblown and tacky, but this one proves an exception. The mysterious, exotic score and intense narration recall some of the show’s spookiest fare from the ’40s and ’50s.

 

13. “The Hitch-Hiker” (aired 9/2/1942)

Any list would be incomplete without this ominous classic. A lonely driver (Orson Welles) encounters a phantom hitchhiker who somehow seems to precede his car wherever it goes. Modern listeners aren’t in for any surprises, but this episode’s desolate, somber atmosphere (amplified by music from the great Bernard Herrmann) gets its hooks in you and doesn’t let go. Just don’t listen to it on your next solo road trip…

 

Disclaimer: I am not responsible for any nightmares you may experience after listening to these after dark. But, as Orson Welles says, “Personally, I’ve never met anybody who doesn’t like a good ghost story…”

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Dracula (1931): The Eye of the Storm

drac1Nobody’s been able to kill Tod Browning’s Dracula, but that sure hasn’t stopped critics from beating a dead… um, vampire.

Sadly, it’s become rather fashionable to dismiss the original Dracula as an overrated relic, lauded mostly because of its status as the first sound horror film.

Why, last week even I noted that the camerawork in the Spanish-language Dracula makes Browning’s movie, shot simultaneously, seem anemic by comparison. And I do stand by that statement; Spanish Drácula is a more technically accomplished film.

However, today I come not to drive a stake through Dracula’s heart, but to praise it as a brilliant piece of cinema. It’s time for me to reveal my undying (though not undead) devotion to the Lugosi version.

Are other adaptations of Stoker’s classic more faithful? More dynamic? More emotionally involving? Certainly. But I don’t think Browning wanted to shock us or take us on a thrill ride, although he could have. (Watch The Unknown if you don’t believe me!)

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Dracula may appear primitive, but therein lies its uncanny beauty. Sometimes sophistication isn’t half as convincing as simplicity. Eschewing ostentatious special effects and action sequences, the director chose to chill his audience with the silence and stillness of the grave.

As the documentary Universal Horror pointed out, audiences were accustomed to music during the silent era, so Browning wisely deployed the hissing nothingness of Dracula’s early talkie soundtrack to spook viewers. Similarly, the somnambulistic staging and acting reflect the emptiness of Dracula himself, a walking, talking corpse. Why do we wonder at film’s inertia? Its deadly title character freezes all that surrounds him, transforming every space into a tomb.

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And there’s something elemental and profound about how those famously Gothic visuals unfold. We watch the coffins open, the rodents and insects crawling around them, the dead brides rising. And then, the camera tracks into the Master, slowly, as though our desire to see, our curiosity, were an irresistible gravitational pull.

This iconic scene doesn’t serve character or narrative—we’ve already been told who and what the Count is. The images urge us to feast our eyes on decaying, eerie splendor, the ultimate in decadence. Everything about Dracula’s introduction calls out to us, tempting us just to look and be caught in looking by a creature that controls humans through their eyes.

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By regressing to an archaic, almost presentational style of filmmaking, this adaptation seeks to regress the audience back to the receptivity of childhood or perhaps to the superstitious dread of our ancestors. Dracula is no mere movie. It is a ritual, a summoning, almost a séance.

Lest we forget, in 1931, a movie character who turns out to be a vampire, not a criminal masquerading as one, was a revolutionary—and risky—proposition. The original Dracula trailer marketed the film not so much with promises of shudders, but rather with disturbing questions: “Do vampires really exist? Do they leave their prisons in the dark hours—reaching out for new victims?”

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For over 80 years since, we spectators have been training our suspension of disbelief, but we must remember that Dracula was a key film in setting up our credulity in the face of the impossible. Without Browning and Lugosi’s success in presenting a bloodsucking demon as stark reality, horror as a talkie genre might not have developed to the extent it has… or not at all.

The need to establish credibility explains the film’s apparently unimaginative style. Innovative editing or florid tracking shots might’ve startled us out of the hypnotic spell that Lugosi casts with his penlight-enhanced eyes. We accept the vampire as a threat because he doesn’t seem like a trick of the camera—or a product of hours spent in the makeup chair. His dark glamour locks right into our schema for dangerous melodrama seducers, gaining audiences’ acceptance because he modifies a type of villain they recognize. Lugosi created a vampire that suited Hollywood perfectly, luring victims and viewers alike with his imposing charm.

vlcsnap-2014-10-11-13h43m26s110But, in the end, what makes Lugosi’s performance immortal, frightening, yet charismatic? What pushes his performance over the edge from bad guy to pure, ageless evil?

In my opinion, the throw-away shots of Lugosi—the ones that almost get lost among the jack-o’-lantern close-ups and those erotic bite scenes—often reveal most about his definitive interpretation of the Count.

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For instance, after Dracula leans in to bite Renfield at Castle Dracula, the scene shifts to the Vesta, a ship bound for England. Now the Count’s servant, the maddened, hysterical Renfield wakes the Master up while a tempest pummels the ship.

Once he’s risen from his coffin, Dracula glides above deck. As the camera gently rocks to suggest the shifting of the waves, the Count gazes offscreen with detachment and the sounds of the storm swirl on the soundtrack.

vlcsnap-2014-10-11-13h43m58s172Browning cuts to shots of the ship’s deck, as men in rain slickers desperately struggle against the might of the gale, trying to control the violently thrashing ship. And then he cuts back to the Count, unaffected literally by the storm and figuratively by the misery and imminent doom of the sailors.

This juxtaposition, bordering on a lack of continuity, between the motion of the ship and the comparative stillness of the Count, endows the shots with an unearthly quality. He’s the eye of the storm and everything around him, everything he touches, turns dead calm.

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As I revisited Dracula a few days ago, this overlooked moment reminded me of a passage from Raymond Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely. A bit of a leap, I know, but this is how Marlowe describes the Svengali-esque blackmailer Amthor:

“His eyes were deep… And they were also eyes without expression, without soul, eyes that could watch lions tear a man to pieces and never change, that could watch a man impaled and screaming in the hot sun with his eyelids cut off.”

vlcsnap-2014-10-11-15h06m05s40The allusion to a certain very specific torture leads me to suspect that Chandler had the model for Dracula, Vlad the Impaler, specifically in mind when he wrote that. In any case, what Chandler evokes here, the utter lack of compassion for (or even reaction to) suffering, helped me pinpoint the unique attribute that Lugosi conjured as the Count.

The classically-trained 49-year-old actor—who’d ironically won acclaim as Hungary’s foremost Passion Play Jesus once upon a time—brought a diabolic, remorseless disdain to Dracula that remains unmatched. But he didn’t need to express it or emote it. He projects it even when totally motionless, exuding that disdain from every line of his arrogant, mask-like face, communicating it with his aristocratic, rigid posture. And film’s oddly static style parallels the unholy immutability and the frozen contempt of Dracula.

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Which brings me to the part of Dracula that I find most frightening. I’ve probably seen this film a hundred times since childhood, but the flower girl scene never fails to creep me out. To refresh your memory, on a London street corner, a waif is selling violets for gentlemen’s buttonholes. A new prospective client, seen as the a silhouette of a top hat and a sweeping cloak, towering over the tiny girl, steps out of the mist.

If foreboding were an image, it would look like this.

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Still shown in long shot, the flower girl opens her mouth in amazement. In close-up, Dracula bears down on her, his eyes glowing. The girl stares back in stupefied terror. And then he leans in, as though to kiss her, pushing her back behind a column. Her pathetic shriek pierces the air.

vlcsnap-2014-10-11-13h50m07s29Immediately afterwards, the Count strides along the street in his top hat and cape, satiated and puffed up by his latest meal. A whistle shrieks. Bystanders gather around the column and huddle over the flower girl’s dead body.

Meanwhile, Browning shifts to an establishing shot of the theater where the next important scene will take place. That’s the only real narrative purpose for the image, although Karl Freund embellished it with a subtle crane movement. In a slightly closer shot, Dracula arrives, turning around to survey the people coming and going. If you’re watching closely, you’ll see his lips curl into something like a scornful smile. There it is again—that glimmer of arrogance, that immovable conceit.

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The notion that this monster can look at a human being, a vulnerable girl trying to eke out a living, and think of her as a snack, scares the daylights out of me. It scares me more than all the spilled viscera and jump shocks in horror movies since. That brief episode defines Dracula’s depravity, leaving the viewer surprised and mildly disgusted.

The random ruthlessness of the flower girl scene haunts me most, though, because it punctures the romantic aura of the vampire myth. Dracula resembles a hot-blooded lover in the Valentino mold, but the Count’s sangfroid and his icy contempt put him in a freakish category all his own. And yet, we’re still attracted to him, aren’t we? (Speaking for myself, I’ll come out and say it: yes.)

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Lugosi incarnated what I consider the most seductive portrayal of evil captured on film. As he creeps towards the camera, advancing on the audience as well as Mina, his face contorted into a hungry grimace, we’re repulsed, yet spellbound. I suppose that’s partially what I mean when I say that Dracula is a summoning. It calls up some primal region in the human psyche where predatory impulses, which we rationally reject, become desirable—in spite of ourselves.

Whatever its detractors say, Dracula resonates in its unnerving stillness, compelling us to sit uncomfortably with all of the conflicting human feelings that this inhuman creature stirs up.

In 1950, when asked about his most famous role and its impact, Lugosi replied, “Dracula never ends.” And, you know, he was right.

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Doctor X (1932): The Triumph of the Weird

posterA cannibal serial killer prowls the city streets on full-moon nights. Mad doctors perform sick biological experiments in secret labs. And Fay Wray shrieks in a silky, sheer negligée.

Doctor X really wants to push your buttons… whatever buttons you’ve got.

As the film’s Hungarian-born director Michael Curtiz (famous for his English-language malapropisms) declared, “It’ll make your blood curl!”

After the double box office smash of Dracula and Frankenstein in 1931, Warner Brothers decided to outdo Universal—which started the horror trend—in terms of shock value. Jumping on the craze for scary movies, the Warners shrewdly turned out a gruesome chiller all their own. Even in the context of no-holds-barred pre-Code Hollywood, the word bizarre doesn’t begin to cover Doctor X.

Unsurprisingly, the hardboiled studio of gangster dramas and newspaper comedies brought a radically different, absurd sensibility to the horror genre. Opting against a supernatural thriller or a Gothic adaptation, producers bought a spooky stage play and built an ultra-modern sci-fi whodunit on that framework. Rather than trying to evoke the tenebrous black-and-white poetry of Universal’s chillers, Doctor X attracted viewers in droves with the novelty of bloodcurdling deeds captured in color.

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Yes, that’s right: we’re talking about a feature film from 1932 shot in color. But a very special kind of color.

What we all recognize as glorious Technicolor—exemplified by films like Gone with the Wind and The Red Shoes—is a three-strip process, which combines blue, green, and red to reproduce a complete and vivid range of tones. However, Doctor X is one of comparatively few full-length movies filmed entirely in the earlier two-strip Technicolor process. Expensive and inconvenient, requiring sweltering hot lights, color tests, and special technicians and advisors, two-strip Technicolor still registered colors only as shades or derivatives of red and green.

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 I say, darling, you’re looking rather pink today…

Although two-strip Technicolor couldn’t reproduce the full spectrum of reality, this disadvantage suited the oddball plot of Doctor X perfectly. In the words of an original ad, Doctor X looks “so different it might have been filmed in another world.” Since a major plot point involves (slight spoiler alert!) synthetic flesh, the fact that about half of the colors show up in flesh tones—or else a sickly green—amps up the creep-out factor. When the villain finally does reveal himself, the sequence makes us wonder if we’re hallucinating. Electrodes buzz and blink as the man-made monster smears his face with molten flesh putty, all the more revolting in shades of leprous pink-orange set off by ominous green shadows.

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Curtiz looks on as Wray gets a lipstick touch-up on the set

Director Michael Curtiz (who’d go on to helm The Adventures of Robin Hood and Casablanca) wasn’t anybody’s dream boss, marching around the set begrudging the cast their lunch breaks. As Fay Wray recalled, “It was like he was part of the camera. He was steel.” Nevertheless, his expressionistic flair incorporated the two-strip Technicolor palette to masterful effect. Instead of trying to minimize the strangeness of the color process, Curtiz indulged his preference for silhouettes, showy compositions, and jarring angles. All of these elements, in conjunction with the unnatural hues, contribute to the audience’s sense of nightmarish disorientation.

Years before Douglas Sirk styled his celebrated Technicolor delirium, Curtiz harnessed psychedelic hues of rose and emerald to put the viewer into a kind of trance, mentally preparing us to swallow an implausible storyline.

vlcsnap-2013-09-24-20h12m29s71And what a loony storyline it is… When the police suspect that someone from a prestigious research institute has committed a string of heinous cannibalistic sex crimes and mutilations, Dr. Xavier (Lionel Atwill) makes a deal. If the cops keep the matter quiet for 48 hours, he’ll use cutting-edge technology to find the guilty man among his staff and save his institute’s reputation. It’s ethical to do that, right? Meanwhile, wisecracking reporter Lee Taylor (Lee Tracy) crashes Xavier’s remote lair to get the scoop. In the process, he’ll shake skeletons in the closet (literally!), go head-to-head with the terrifying killer, and romance Xavier’s feisty daughter.

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With its satirical, sinister portrayal of medical researchers, Doctor X betrays an abject disillusionment with—and mistrust of—scientific progress in general and scientists in particular. Only a year before, Colin Clive had portrayed Dr. Frankenstein as a dashing misunderstood genius, a romantic matinee idol Prometheus. By contrast, Dr. Xavier and his colleagues come across as, at best, eccentrics and, at worst, dirty old men who channel repressed sexual impulses into kinky experiments and flashy lab gizmos.

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Curtiz frames the film’s most striking shots with some chemical or electrical apparatus interposing between the viewer and the characters. The bubbling flasks or sparkling electrodes in the foreground loom large and dwarf the scientists, making them seem vaguely ridiculous. Even when the laboratory paraphernalia doesn’t dominate the screen space, it draws the eye, distracting from the scientists themselves. They are not masters of their chosen field, we understand, but slaves to it, consumed by their fetishized equipment and their dangerous projects.

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In its grotesquely comic way, the film suggests that all of Xavier’s colleagues, and even the doctor himself, are likely candidates for serial killers. Frankly, the shock isn’t that one of them is a murderer. It’s that only one of them is a murderer! Consider this exchange between two of the doctors, right as they’re about to submit to Xavier’s physiological examination:

—Were the murdered women… attacked?

—Does your mind never flow into any other channel?

—What do you mean by that?

—I mean that one day your sadistic tendencies may carry you too far, Dr. Haines!

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In case you missed it, “attacked” serves as a not-so-subtle euphemism for “sexually assaulted.” Can I get a great big yuck for that dark little peek into the minds of guys claiming to be mankind’s benefactors?

Without doubt, Doctor X hints that perversity instead of goodwill drives scientists to immerse their lives in study and research. Even Dr. Xavier has to rationalize his comrades’ creepy behavior to the cops by explaining, “Sometimes, in the overdevelopment of one part of the brain, another part is weakened.”

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But even if that’s true, does the doctors’ collective brainpower justify their volatility? Um, no. At least, that’s what the movie seems to conclude.

Ultimately, Xavier’s elaborate experiment—designed to unmask the killer by monitoring fluctuations in his heartbeat as he watches a reenactment of his crime—fails spectacularly. Twice. Xavier’s theories practically have their own body count!

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Whenever I watch Doctor X, the movie’s dim outlook on the scientific perspective reminds me of Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s The Black Swan, a fascinating treatise on the power of rare events. As Taleb explains, “Before Western thinking drowned in its ‘scientific’ mentality, what is arrogantly called the Enlightenment, people prompted their brain to think—not compute.”

Sound familiar? Xavier unquestioningly relies on ice-cold logic. And logic lets him down. Big time. Without giving away too much, let’s just say that what seems like a perfectly reasonable inference almost proves the death of his nearest and dearest… The unforeseen twist or “black swan” that Dr. X implicitly eliminates from his pool of possibilities returns to haunt him with all-too-real consequences.

vlcsnap-2013-09-24-20h11m03s232According to Taleb, academically bright individuals like Xavier and his lab-coat-wearing compadres often succumb to the “ludic fallacy.” That is, they tend to think (erroneously) that we can model life’s uncertainties with straightforward calculations and probabilities. In so doing, however, such traditional thinkers ignore the larger, fuzzy probabilities or “unknown unknowns” that enter into any given situation. Meanwhile, the real risks of life are bizarre and off-model. Freak occurrences shape the course of human history much more than we’d like to believe.

To vastly oversimplify Taleb’s point, we live in a weird world. So, having a weird mind, one prone to farfetched theories instead of rationality, might be a strong edge for survival. And only by scrutinizing weirdness can we ever begin to understand, well, anything at all.

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Which brings us back to Doctor X and its real protagonist. The movie might bear Xavier’s name, but it truly belongs to Lee Tracy as Taylor, the brash, fast-talking newspaperman.

Taylor’s gift for sensational journalism spurs him to speculate wildly and focus on outlier events like the so-called “moon killings.” Taylor doesn’t command society’s respect like Xavier does. However, he saves the day—while all the doctors sit incapacitated by their logic, literally handcuffed by the rules of their experiment.

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When I first watched Doctor X, I felt that Taylor, with his morbid quips and upbeat demeanor, belonged to another movie. Then I realized that he actually reflects the movie’s oddness even better than the nutty doctors.

Despite their own deviant weirdness, the scientists don’t allow for the true enormity of the world’s weirdness in their calculations. Despite Taylor’s outward normalcy, he does. He rolls with the weird and actively seeks it out. His zigzag brain hasn’t closed itself off to black swans and freak occurrences.

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Thanks to Taylor, I have a new theory about life: you need to live it as though you’re in a 1930s horror movie.

No, I’m not suggesting you roam around misty moors at midnight in a lacy nightgown. What I actually mean is, don’t act like most characters in 1930s horror movies—who have no inkling they’re in 1930s horror movies and tend to baulk at the idea of monsters and psycho-killers.

In life as in film, it pays to contemplate the improbable, to steep yourself in it, rather than scoffing at it. And perhaps no movie defines “improbable” for me better than Doctor X.

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Funnily enough, every time I tweet this film with the #TCMParty someone complains, “Ugh. I hate colorized movies,” because he or she has automatically rejected the possibility of a color feature from the early 1930s.

Regardless of whether we think it should or shouldn’t exist, though, it does.

So, in its own way, Doctor X—the first horror film shot entirely in color—is something of a cinematic black swan… a triumph of the weird.

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As of this writing, you can stream Doctor X on Warner Archive Instant (which I totally recommend signing up for). So check it out for Halloween!

 

Night Shift: 6 Reasons to Watch Universal’s Spanish-language Dracula (1931)

villariasThey worked like children of the night, shooting from sundown to sunrise. Directed by a man who didn’t know a word of their language, the Spanish-speaking actors filmed an obscure alternative version of what would become one of the most famous movies of all time.

“Above all,” explains Lupita Tovar, the film’s heroine, “we wanted our version to be the best.” And, in many ways, it is.

For those of us who’ve watched and rewatched the Lugosi version, the simultaneously shot Drácula opens up a mind-boggling parallel universe—one with much improved camerawork and often more convincing acting.

This is a lavish, artful film in its own right, so much more than the “bonus feature” it’s listed as on home releases. If I haven’t hooked you already, here’s why any movie buff or horror fan needs to see Drácula.

 1. You’ll discover a little-known chapter of Hollywood history.

Why did a relatively small American studio make a foreign-language film in the 1930s? The answer, as usual with Hollywood, can be expressed by a single character: $.

With the coming of talkies, the problem of producing films for profitable foreign markets turned into a major headache for Hollywood. Unlike silent films, for which translated intertitles could simply be edited into prints, synchronized sound pictures posed a new obstacle. Dubbing was difficult and felt phony to audiences (like it still does, actually). Eager to keep up business during the early days of the Depression, studios recycled sets, costumes, and sometimes even actors to churn out complete foreign-language versions of some movies.

melfordGeorge Melford directing an early scene in Drácula

Spanish proved the language of choice for these alternate productions, although studios occasionally green-lit German and French versions. At Universal Studios, a Spanish-language version of the now-lost thriller The Cat Creeps offered Lupita Tovar, a beautiful Mexican actress, her first starring film role. Tovar proved so enchanting that Universal executive Paul Kohner not only championed a Spanish-language Dracula, but also fell in love with its star. Fair warning: once you’ve watched Drácula, you will, too.

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2. The flamboyant cinematography makes Browning’s version look positively anemic by comparison.

Most alternate foreign-language versions can’t hold a flickering Gothic candelabra to the English originals. Drácula, helmed by veteran silent director George Melford, is the exception, largely thanks to the fluid camera movements, tracing creepy arabesques around the set.

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You don’t have to wait long for an example of this superb camerawork. Our first glimpse of Dracula in his element practically bursts off the screen. As the sinister count appears on the stairs of his castle, the camera surges up the steps towards him. Universal’s famous crane—constructed for Broadway (1929) and repurposed in any number of films—endows the moment with a startling, supernatural ambiance, delivering a real visual jolt. Similarly, when the Count stands beneath Renfield’s asylum window, the camera tracks in from a long shot to a medium close-up, as though the vampire’s evil will were drawing us to him.

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In 1931, Universal had recently acquired a print of Nosferatu; Murnau’s grim, nightmarish vision, as well as the German expressionist aesthetic in general, clearly influenced Drácula more than its English-language counterpart. For instance, Melford devotes more screen time to the storm scene on the Vesta, piling shock value on a part of the narrative that Browning uses mostly for expositional purposes. Medium close-ups of the dead captain, Renfield’s shrieks in the gale, and Dracula’s rise from the ship’s hold all hit home for maximum scare power. And isn’t that what this is all about?

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3. The luminous Lupita Tovar runs the gamut from adorable to terrifying (even though she’s not called Mina in this version).

Rechristened Eva in Spanish, the Count’s main target undergoes a startling transformation when she comes under his malign influence. Tovar’s Eva shifts from a cheerful, normal girl to a morose, haunted victim. Now, I respect Helen Chandler’s stylized, anhedonic performance as Mina, but she hardly changes throughout the film and thus engages my sympathy far less.

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Tovar says that she put a lot of her own personality into Eva, making her “lively” in the beginning. We see that mischievous side as she insistently teases Lucia about her attraction to Dracula, ducking out from the door she just exited to deliver another friendly jab. Eva’s fearful, depressive state after Dracula’s first attack on her affects viewers all the more since we recognize the frightening trauma that’s overtaken her.

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With the Count’s blood coursing through her veins, however, Eva turns positively maniacal. Though she’s even livelier that she was before, Tovar evokes a vivacity at once seductive and unnatural. Her fiendishly aggressive, erotically charged interpretation of female vampirism was decades ahead of its time. I mean, Ingrid Pitt wasn’t even born yet!

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That said, Tovar did have some help from the costume department… In an interview, she noted, “I remember when I saw the English version later, the wardrobe was different. The dresses that Helen Chandler wore were all covered up. What they gave me were big décolletées, you know, what you’d call sexy. I wasn’t even aware of it!”

Update 11/13/2016: Lupita Tovar has passed away at age 106. May she rest in peace and be always remembered.

4. Pablo Alvárez Rubio delivers one of the most intense performances you’ll ever see on film.

Who would’ve thought anyone could act more strung-out than Dwight Frye, the English version’s giggling Renfield? Well, Spanish-born Pablo Alvárez Rubio reminds me of what Al Pacino would do with the part of Renfield. At one point, he literally chomps the scenery, gnawing on a chair in Dr. Seward’s office!

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Alvárez Rubio slips into hamminess, but it’s an epic kind of hamminess, the kind that assists us in believing the unbelievable. His frenzied, melodramatic acting in mad scenes impacts us because he starts out the story as such a friendly, likable fellow. (I adore Frye, but his subtly chilly quality as an actor puts us off a bit, in contrast with Alvárez Rubio’s easy affability.) Even once Renfield becomes Dracula’s servant, Alvárez Rubio rivals Frye for his ability to convey the tortured character’s fluctuating moods. One moment he seizes a fly with the fury of a wild beast; the next he filters back to his civilized self, apologizing to the doctors for his behavior.

vlcsnap-2014-10-11-10h37m18s50Lupita Tovar remembered that his talent for simulating insanity astounded—and worried—the cast and crew: “We thought he was going to go crazy.” A real pro, though, Alvárez Rubio needed only a single take to harness his morbid pyrotechnics. Treat yourself to his ferociously tormented interpretation of Renfield.

5. It’s significantly longer than the English version.

Yup. That’s right. The Spanish version runs almost a full 30 minutes longer, bringing Drácula to a length that seems more appropriate for a modern feature than an early talkie. The additional length does take a toll on the plot, which seems to wander a bit more than the efficient English Dracula. However, on the positive side, the runtime gave director Melford and his cast breathing room to create more poignant relationships between the characters.

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If I have one issue with the Dracula we all know, it’s that the cast appears only mildly annoyed by the prospect of Mina and Lucy suffering a fate genuinely worse than death. By contrast, the Spanish version explores the pain of watching someone you care about fall apart. After Van Helsing discovers the bite marks on Eva’s throat, her father gives her a hug. His drawn-out, scared, paternal embrace stresses the relatable fear of losing a child. Similarly, Juan and Eva’s romance displays a mixture of tenderness, passion, and even a sparkle of fun that’s missing from the chemistry between Helen Chandler and David Manners.

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Within that extra half-hour, Melford also took the time to show spooky stuff you won’t see in the other version, such as shots of Dracula prowling through moonlit woods. The brief medical examination scene also presents us with one of the most grisly, yet matter-of-fact shots of the 1930s: an extended close-up of the two puncture marks made by a vampire’s fangs!

vlcsnap-2014-10-11-10h31m11s221 6. No, he can’t touch Lugosi, but Carlos Villarías’s interpretation of the Count is certainly interesting to watch.

Sadly, the one aspect of Drácula that indisputably falls short of the English version turned out to be the most essential: the title performance. Film historians tend to blame Spanish-born Villarías for the film’s relative obscurity. And I won’t deny it: Lugosi’s Dracula has more magnetism in his (unseen) fangs than Villarías’s Conde Drácula does in his whole walking cadaver.

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How dare you say that, Nitrate Diva! You’re in for it now!

But holding an actor accountable for playing Dracula and not measuring up to Lugosi just doesn’t strike me as a sporting criticism. Few actors have ever lent their mortal coil to any role so fully as Lugosi did to our favorite bloodsucking fiend. Nobody stacks up to the king of the undead. You set yourself up for disappointment by expecting otherwise.

So, the question to ask—instead of what he lacked—becomes what particular strengths did Villarías bring to the role? In my opinion, the lugubrious heavy served as a kind of missing celluloid link between the pestilential ugliness of Nosferatu and the suaveness of Lugosi. Villarías can believably kiss hands and stride into drawing rooms, but his animalistic nature reveals itself more readily than Lugosi’s.

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Consider his first big scene, on the steps of Castle Dracula: as Renfield struggles with the huge cobweb, Villarías stares down at him, menacing in a low-angle shot, his upper teeth bared and poised on his lip. Throughout the film, the Conde flashes a similar rat-like smile in moments of diabolic delight and visibly gnashes his teeth when cornered. Unlike the did-I-really-just-see-that hint of a smirk that Lugosi uses to suggest malevolence, Villarías’s toothy expressions make Dracula a more traditionally grotesque monster, a fairy tale horror rather than a bedroom villain.

Similarly, in contrast to Lugosi’s balletic predator approach, Villarías attacks the sleeping Lucia by leaning over and eagerly covering her with his cape. As he drapes the cloak over the sleeping victim, he really does resemble a bat, folding his leathery wings.

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Frequent extreme close-ups of Villarías’s glassy, bulbous eyes also heighten the repellent qualities of his interpretation. Given how jarring they are, it’s surprising to note how many of these extreme close-ups the film contains; you begin to feel that they’re almost as frequent as Lugosi’s many matinee idol close-ups in the English version.

vlcsnap-2014-10-10-17h43m37s95These striking shots invade our personal space, as though Villarías as Dracula were bearing down on us, dominating us. And this from a small screen! I can only imagine what they’re like in a movie theater! Reduced to his two glowing peepers, he reminds the viewer of an insect, surveying the world with inhuman, compound eyes. Lugosi deservedly gets the swoons and the shudders, but Villarías deserves some credit for wholeheartedly angling for an “Ewww…” every now and then.

vlcsnap-2014-10-11-12h02m32s244I wrote this post as part of the Hollywood’s Hispanic Heritage Blogathon, hosted by two fantastic bloggers, Aurora of Once Upon a Screen and Kay of Movie Star Makeover. You’re strongly encouraged to check out the other posts!

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The Invisible Ghost (1941): Poverty Row Poetry

belaposterI love Poverty Row horror movies the same way I love cracked teacups and moldy vintage paperbacks. The bleak visuals, the improbable scripts, the down-on-their-luck casts give these crackly terrors the half-pathetic charm of unwanted things.

Films like Dead Men Walk and Voodoo Man are crowned by a halo of unintentional tragedy, since we often sense the pious devotion of martyrs to their art: talented actors and directors coping with bottom-of-the-barrel production values and perhaps mercifully brief shoots.

For those not as dorky as I, Poverty Row is a label for the cluster of small film studios, like Republic, Monogram, and PRC, that churned out B-movies for movie theater double bills. Their product would be rented to exhibitors at a flat rate—which meant that no matter how good or popular a Poverty Row flick might be, it was unlikely to rake in any more dough than stipulated.

However, far from the micromanagement that talent had to put up with at big A studios, those working in Poverty Row benefited from an astonishing amount of creative freedom. (Read: virtual indifference.) If you could turn in a salable film with something resembling a beginning, middle, and end—in two weeks—then the producers didn’t care what you did.

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While plenty of hacks earned their bread by marching actors around recycled sets, the occasional genius mined precious jewels out of the rough. And Joseph H. Lewis was one of them. Forever immortalized by Gun Crazy, his pulpy noir ballad to l’amour fou, Lewis cut his teeth on grimy B-movies, often imbuing the most routine assignments with an off-kilter grandeur.

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Which brings us to The Invisible Ghost, directed by a rising Lewis and starring a fallen Lugosi in one of 9 movies he made for Monogram. Fans of silents and early talkies will also get right into the gloomy mood at the first sight of a totally unrecognizable, catatonic Betty Compson. After starting her own business, Compson would pull herself out of low-budget actor purgatory, but she’d never forget the “hurt I got down there on Poverty Row.”

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Okay, so the movie itself is a little creaky and preposterous (“We’ve killed off the love interest? Better give him a twin brother…”) and I’ve seen pieces of broccoli who can emote more than the romantic lead. But I still urge you to watch it. There’s something borderline Lynchian about this stodgy American household… with a killer for a father and a crazy mother secretly living in the garage.

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Savor Bela’s soulful performance. Enjoy the refreshingly wise, likable, and dignified role of an African American butler, not forced to sully himself for offensive laughs. Keep an eye out for clever directorial touches—like swish pans, racked focus, and stark changes of lighting to signify the unleashing of Bela’s latent urge to kill. Drink in the duality of this surprisingly dark, despairing cheapie about an outwardly decent man split between tenderness and rage, a man who becomes a stranger to himself.

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And just try to tell me that those fugue-state scenes—in which Bela prowls the house for nubile young women to kill in the place of his long-lost cheating wife, as he creeps towards the camera with a wicked grin—don’t raise a few goosebumps…

The Invisible Ghost has slipped into the public domain, so you can watch it for free on YouTube or download it from the Internet Archive.