1936 was a rough year for the United States, still in the midst of the Great Depression. Out in Hollywood, the Universal monster movies had to be put on hold. Producer Carl Laemmle’s son Carl Jr. ran the studio, and much like his father, he was a go for broke sort of guy. Junior was happy to spend large budgets on movies that offered no great promise of returns. In March, Senior borrowed against the studio from a place called Standard Capital. When Senior couldn’t pay the loan back, Standard Capital bought the studio. Junior soon resigned. Carl Senior would die three years later, at the age of 72.
One of Junior’s last gasps would be The Invisible Ray, starring Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. Boris is Dr. Rukh, a scientist who discovers the remains of a meteor that struck the Earth. The mineral is ten times stronger than radium, and gives Rukh tremendous power, but also poisons him, and gives him the touch of death. Lugosi is Dr. Benet, whom Rukh asks for help, and Benet creates a chemical that will fight the effects of the mineral, as long as Rukh takes it regularly. Then Benet takes Radium X home, and begins using it to treat the sick.
My immediate problem with this movie is that over half of it takes place in the African jungle. As such, it’s pretty darn racist. Quite a bit of “ooga booga” nonsense. It also spends about 45 minutes setting up the premise. This would be a long time in a movie that lasted two hours, and for a movie that’s only 70 minutes long in the first place, it’s ridiculous. Performance-wise, our heavies do fine. This is one of the few times where I think Bela turns in the better performance, probably one of the last ones he could be proud of. It speaks poorly of the rest of the year that The Invisible Ray ends up being my favorite horror of 1936. Watch it here.
Karloff would return in March of that year, with the presciently named Warners Brothers picture The Walking Dead. Michael Curtiz returns to the director’s chair. Karloff is a newly released convict who falls in with the wrong crowd, and ends up being framed for a mob hit on the judge who sentenced him. He gets sent to the electric chair and executed. In typical Karloff fashion, he is brought back to life, and spends most of the movie glaring and lumbering slowly at people who, rather comically, end up killing themselves. Karloff himself was irritated by how much The Walking Dead resembled Frankenstein, and I share the sentiment. Watch it here.
Dracula’s Daughter, released in May, is the second horror of the year to be directed by Lambert Hillyer. It’s a sequel to Tod Browning’s Dracula, and is set immediately after the events of the first film. A pair of comic relief cops stumble across Dracula’s tomb, find Renfield dead and Dracula with a stake in his heart. They also arrest Abraham Van Helsing, who tells them the truth about his actions, which of course they don’t believe. Enter Gloria Holden as Countess Marya Zaleska, the titular daughter of Dracula and a vampire herself. She spends the first half of the movie trying to cure her vampirism, with the help of Dr. Jeffrey Garth. When that is unsuccessful, she starts killing.
One thing worth noting about Dracula’s Daughter is the heavy homosexual overtones. The Countess, much like her father, prays on young women, and uses similar seductive techniques. When she hires a random girl to pose for her art, that girl immediately strips down to her underwear. One of my least favorite things about this one is the hero, played by Otto Kruger. For lack of a more professional word, Dr. Garth is an asshole. He treats his secretary/love interest Janet terribly, belittling her at every opportunity. It was very reminiscent of the “hero” of the previous year’s Werewolf of London. Watch it here.
Tod Browning returned in July with a strange film called The Devil Doll. Lionel Barrymore plays Paul Levand, an escaped convict, wrongfully accused, and out for revenge against the men who framed him. He gets his revenge with the help of the wife of the mad scientist who helped him escape. Together the couple had created the technology to shrink living creatures down to doll-size, after which they could be controlled telepathically. Levand uses these dolls to infiltrate the homes of the conspirators, and he does all of this while disguised as an old woman. At the same time, he is trying to reconnect with his daughter, who despises him for sullying their reputation and leading to her mother’s suicide.
I’m not going to waste time talking about the problematic aspects of Levand’s deception. What stands out as ridiculous is that his disguise actually works. If someone who had no idea who Levand was met , their immediate thought would be “that is very clearly a man in a dress.” We’re supposed to believe that the three villains, who presumably worked closely with Levand and knew him well, fall for the disguise hook, line, and sinker. They are also extremely receptive to a stranger introducing them to magic right when they should be at their most wary. It’s also more than a little creepy how Levand hangs around his daughter. I’m reminded of Mrs. Doubtfire, and how messed up that movie is at its core. Stranger yet is that when they do meet at the end, when he is wearing normal clothes, she does not recognize him. At all.
Still, you can’t say enough about The Devil Doll’s special effects. When I think of shrunken people, my mind goes to The Incredible Shrinking Man. This film came out 21 years prior, and would probably have been on the shortlist for an Academy Award, if the Visual Effects Oscar had existed at that point (it would debut in 1938). All in all, I find it hard to recommend the film as a whole. Try to find videos of the scenes that show off the effects. Everything else is just melodrama. Watch it here.
If horror films seemed to get more and more derivative in 1936, it’s because horror was definitely going out of style. Adolf Hitler had begun to build armies that would far exceed the numbers set by the Treaty of Versailles. Two years prior, Adolf Hitler had purged the old guard from Germany during the Night of the Long Knives. Both the 1936 Winter and Summer Olympics were held in Germany, so the world was getting a real picture of the horrors of Adolf Hitler. When the Summer Games came to Berlin, he initially prohibited Jewish athletes from participating. The world was getting darker, so Hollywood went lighter, and horror went by the wayside.
So I’m going to have to cheat a little for the next installment, and lump two years together. Next years: 1937-1938.