I must first open with a regret. As I was building the list for this year, I stumbled across a little seen but highly rated film. Carnival of Sinners is a French film that only has a little over 800 ratings on IMDB. It’s directed by Maurice Tourneur, father of Val Lewton’s associate Jacques Tourneur. I’ve seen the trailer, and it looks like some real spooky, contemplative stuff. Unfortunately, the full movie is nowhere to be found online, and the only copies for sale are a couple of Blu-rays for $60. So if anyone out there has just won the lottery, and wants to give a poor reviewer a chance to see something new, I’ll open up my paypal or something.
Columbia’s Dracula sequel Return of the Vampire brought back Bela Lugosi to play a 200 year old vampire named Armand Tesla. It is essentially the same story, but with a few interesting changes. First, Tesla’s familiar is a werewolf named Andreas, who very much wants to be free of his curse. Second, the Van Helsing role is changed to a female one. Last, and most importantly, the setting of the bulk of the story is in modern day, that is to say WWII-era Britain. Air raids by the German Luftwaffe factor heavily into the advancement of the plot. It’s willingness to portray such recent events helped this one stand out for me. It’s not brilliant, but it’s worlds better than Mark of the Vampire, MGM’s more direct sequel.
The more popular sequel from 1943 was Universal’s Son of Dracula, starring Lon Chaney Jr. It was released only a week before Return. It also marks the first use of the pseudonym Alucard. This story is set in New Orleans, where Alucard has formed a romance with the daughter of a plantation owner. After Alucard secretly kills her father, the estate goes to her. Katherine quickly marries Alucard, but is ultimately killed when her jealous fiance shoots Alucard. The bullets go through him and hit Katherine. So imagine the surprise when Katherine turns up alive that night, then dead the next morning in a coffin. The fiancee gets arrested, and before too long, Katherine materializes in to tell of her plan.
This movie is not so much bad as extremely forgettable. Unfortunately, Chaney doesn’t make much of a Count. He lacks the mysteriousness of Bela or Dracula’s Daughter. He just looks like a man dressed in a vampire costume. There’s a scene where one of Alucard’s victims arrives at the doctor’s office, and the boy had been speaking of a man with a foreign accent. Chaney makes absolutely no attempt to sound foreign. So far as the Dracula sequels from this year, Bela’s presence pushes Return into the top spot.
Earlier in 1943, Chaney had gotten to embarrass himself in Universal’s schlocky Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man. The title is misleading, as it’s a solid 28 minutes before anyone even speaks the word “Frankenstein”. Now, if you’ve been paying attention to these essays, you’d know that Lon Chaney played the monster in Ghost of Frankenstein. But this time, Chaney’s back to playing Larry Talbot, the wolfman. So when he finally does stumble across the recently blinded monster, it’s played by none other than Lugosi, heavily made up to resemble Chaney. This actually makes a twisted sort of sense, as in the last movie, the monster received the brain of Lugosi’s Ygor. And yes, I’m just now realizing how crazy this all is.
What is particularly frustrating is that not once, during the entirety of the movie, does Bela speak, which is doubly odd since the latest operation gave him a full vocabulary in Bela’s voice. And as a man in his sixties, Bela comes across as stiff, even for Frankenstein’s monster. The draw for this movie was likely the fight between the wolfman and the monster, but that comes only in the last five minutes of the film, and is resolved fairly unceremoniously. From this point on, the wolfman and the monster would appear together in ensemble films of dwindling quality.
In August, Universal took a shot at remaking one of their earlier hits. Phantom of the Opera features Nelson Eddy, Susanna Foster, and Claude Rains as the titular Phantom. I couldn’t find a copy of this, so I’m having to review it based on when I last saw it, which was probably in high school. I’m on the record as being a big fan of Claude Rains, and that’s probably one of the reasons that I enjoyed this adaptation. However, the more I look into it, the more it seems like one of the tamest versions ever created. The Phantom’s true face is significantly less dramatic than his predecessor, Lon Chaney, and not as grotesque as Herbert Lom’s would be in the Hammer version.
Next, we have three of the four films that Val Lewton produced in 1943. Hey, I told you he was prolific. In April, he released I Walked With a Zombie, easily the most popular horror from this year. It’s harder to recommend than Cat People, as it’s significantly slower. It is set on a sugar plantation on the fictional Caribbean island of Saint Sebastian. A nurse (Frances Dee) is tasked with taking care of a catatonic woman, regularly referred to as a zombie by the descendants of African slaves who live on the island.
One of the reasons I like this movie so much is how it handles race. Most movies around this era have two uses for black people: the buffoonish sidekick or the dangerous natives. They subvert this second one for the most part, especially since their magic seems to actually work. The closest thing there is to an evil presence is Carrafour who is mostly mindless, if legitimately frightening. One of my favorite lines comes from near the beginning where Nurse Betsy is being escorted to the plantation by a black driver. After he fills her in on the island’s history as a slave colony, Betsy comments “They brought you to a beautiful place, didn’t they?” The driver responds politely but sharply “If you say, Miss. If you say.”
Released in May, The Leopard Man is perhaps more striking. Once again, we’re dropped into a culture probably unfamiliar to the average suburban white audience, this time a Hispanic community. When a dancer feels her celebrity in the club threatened, she scares away the club owner’s leopard, setting off a series of killings. The framing is particularly interesting, as the story twice follows the dancer on her walk home, until she meets a friend. After that, the dancer leaves, and we follow the friend as she unwittingly goes to her doom. All the while, the owner and his girlfriend are trying to track down the leopard, though they’re not entirely sure that the cat is doing all the killing.
I was really surprised by this one. It’s amazing at setting mood, and though it borrows heavily from Cat People, there are moments where I feel it exceeds its predecessor. The use of The Lewton Bus this time is even more effective, and the first girl’s death is particularly grisly. I also can’t say enough about how I appreciate the reverence Lewton and Tourneur pay to the culture in which the film is set. Supposedly this is one of the first portrayals of a serial killer on film. That’s not as much a spoiler as it sounds.
The Seventh Victim came out in August, but I struggle to classify it as horror. It has elements seen in future classics like Psycho and Rosemary’s Baby, but the actual mood of the film is closer to that of a thriller, and a ponderous one at that. This is not necessarily a criticism, though it definitely isn’t for people who like their stories wrapped up nicely. It’s wonderfully subversive, and once again, I’m left wondering how Lewton seems to be the only one willing to take these sort of chances in the 1940’s.
But let’s end on the downbeat. William Beaudine was a ridiculously prolific director for Monogram Pictures. In 1943 alone, he directed seven films, one of which was The Ape Man. Bela Lugosi plays the title character, a man who has turned himself about halfway into an ape, and also has an extremely unconvincing gorilla. His goal is to get turned back fully human, but of course he needs spinal fluid from recently killed people or he reverts back to an ape. This is another one of those that makes me feel bad for Lugosi, and it’s pretty embarrassing watching ape-Bela try to stand up straight from a gorilla position.