Through the Fears – 1944

In 1944, Universal Pictures went on a real sequel rampage. First, The Invisible Man received its fourth and final sequel in The Invisible Man’s Revenge, starring Jon Hall as Robert Griffin. Griffin is a mad murderer who falls in with Dr. Drury, a doctor played by John Carradine. When Drury makes Griffin invisible, Griffin immediately goes after revenge on former friends who left him for dead in Africa. It’s not terrible, but it is ultimately inferior to the previous movies, which gave The Invisible Man some ounce of humanity that he lacks here.

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The Mummy was next on Universal’s hit list, and before the year was out, it would have two new sequels, both featuring Lon Chaney Jr. as the monster Kharis. The first of these is The Mummy’s Ghost, which also features Carradine as Yousef Bey. The plot is negligible, and is only worth mentioning at all for an uncharacteristic downer ending, Image result for kharis mummywith Kharis descending into a Massachusetts swamp with a speedily-aging leading lady.

In the sequel The Mummy’s Curse, released at the end of the year, they turn up in Louisiana for a reason that’s never explained. Through some miracle of nature, this plot is even thinner and less engaging than the previous one. The entire film is this pattern, ad infinitum: Kharis goes after girl, someone gets in between him and the girl, that person gets murdered, and the girl gets away. These movies make me really question Lon Chaney Jr’s place on the Universal pantheon, when sometimes it seems that his greatest contribution was his willingness to get covered in makeup.

Universal had already begun to shift from regular sequels to ensemble films, starting with the previous year’s Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man. At the end of 1944, they released House of Frankenstein, which boasted FIVE monsters: Frankenstein’s monster (Glenn Strange), the Wolf Man (Chaney), Dracula (Carradine), the Hunchback (J. Carrol Naish), and the Mad Doctor. The Mad Doctor was played by a 57 year old Boris Karloff. The big problem with this one is that you’ve got 5 monsters and 71 minutes to tell a story, which means that it’s cartoonishly contrived. The creatures are connected by the barest of the threads, ultimately turning it into more of an anthology than anything else.

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John Carradine was a real busy guy in 1944. In addition to the three Universal films mentioned above, he also helmed a PRC film-noir called Bluebeard. Despite the title, Carradine’s Gaston Morrell doesn’t actually marry any of his victims. Instead, he’s an artist who paints women and then murders the models. It’s competent, especially for a Poverty Row pic, and Morrell actually comes across as an interesting character, not so much a cold-blooded murderer as an intensely damaged individual. I’ve always liked Carradine, particularly due to his fantastic performance as former preacher Jim Casey in The Grapes of Wrath.

One film that I tried to find was The Tower of the Seven Hunchbacks. It’s a Spanish film which, despite being well-rated on IMDB, appears to have been seen by a very small number of people. It doesn’t appear to have ever been released in English-speaking countries.

I was almost altogether ignorant of The Lodger, a remake of a 1927 silent. I had never heard of director John Brahm, who unsurprisingly ended up becoming a prolific director on The Twilight Zone. I had also never heard of Laird Cregar, the actor who played John Slade. In fact, the only thing I did recognize was George Sanders, smooth as ever, in the role of a somewhat competent London police Inspector. As a result, I ended up completely Image result for laird cregar the lodgercaught off guard for how good this movie actually is.

It’s basically an alternate telling of Jack the Ripper, where they not only find out the Ripper’s identity, but his motives are revealed. But this is no whodunit. The creepy man who appears out of nowhere, peeks around corners, and acts like he’s probably a murderer, spoiler alert, he is. I kept waiting to find out that the father was the killer, thinking this was a misdirect. And while I was a little disappointed by how unconcerned the writers were with concealing his identity, they did explore his motivations, which gave Cregar a chance to deliver some disconcerting speeches, which incidentally never seem to phase the clear target of his murderous rage.

“All women are evil, and the evil must be cut out!”
“You’re quite the philosopher, aren’t you, Mr. Slade!”

Adding to this film’s spookiness is that it essentially killed its main actor. Laird Cregar was a large man, often weighing over 300 lbs, but he wanted to give John Slade a “romantic veneer”, so he went on a crash diet which included amphetamines. The diet gave him abdominal problems for which he had surgery, but a few days later he had a heart attack. He died at the young age of 31. His eulogy was delivered by Vincent Price.

I’d been wanting to see The Uninvited for some time. It’s considered a classic by many, and was a precursor to other haunted house classics like The Haunting, The Legend of Hill House, and The Changeling. It could easily write itself off as a fantasy for the first hour. Perhaps it’s a British affectation, but no one seems particularly frightened by the otherworldly presence in Windwood. Mild concern is more like it. It is quite good, however.

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The film is very good at building mood, even if there’s very little in the way of straightforward scares. The best scene is definitely the seance, which utilizes a homemade and elegant version of the Ouija board trope. The special effects, simple as they are, are effective, and were at least frightening enough in 1944 to get censored from the British release. Even more interesting is that the tune Rick plays, is in fact an original song written for the film, and “Stella by Starlight” has since become a jazz standard.

For the opposite end of the spectrum, I watched a PRC Studios film called The Monster Maker. The director is Sam Newfield, who was also behind my pick for worst film of 1942, Mad Monster. It stars J. Carrol Naish as Dr. Igor Markoff, a mad scientist who, of course, has a man in a bad ape costume locked in a cage. Naish was no lightweight. In both the year prior and the next, Naish would receive nominations for Academy Awards for Best Supporting Actor. I’d really like to hear his reasoning for taking this absolutely terrible role.

Markoff becomes obsessed with a pianist’s daughter, and when the pianist tells him to stop sending her flowers and notes, Markoff knocks him out before injecting him with fluid from a bottle labelled “acromegaly.” The pianist becomes a monster and Markoff tries to use this to manipulate him into forcing his daughter to marry him. This is probably the most inept villain I’ve ever seen. He has all these half-baked plans that fall apart under the slightest resistance. The whole movie is a big nothing.

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