Lon Chaney Jr.

Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943, Roy William Neill)

Of all the Universal monster movies, The Wolf Man “deserved” a real sequel most. With Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, Lon Chaney Jr.’s abilities to essay the Larry Talbot role really shine through. I’ve read (and maybe even repeated here) Chaney never gets credit for playing such a physical role while being a bigger man.

Here he actually starts showing off a lot of acting chops, as his character becomes, essentially, a suicidal lunatic. Being able to elicit sympathy with such a character is no easy task and Chaney does it. It helps having Maria Ouspenskaya around doesn’t hurt. In maybe three minutes, she and Chaney establish this surrogate mother and son relationship and whenever he talks about killing himself, they cut to her quietly sad expression.

Of course, the film’s got a lot of editing troubles of that nature (Bela Lugosi’s Frankenstein monster originally talked, making the film a direct sequel to the previous Ghost of Frankenstein, but they cut those scenes out) and there’s Patric Knowles’s way too rapid switch from caring doctor to mad scientist.

Knowles is fine at the beginning, when the film’s just a Wolf Man sequel, but gets silly when he returns. Ilona Massey is also a weak female lead.

The supporting cast is strong–Lionel Atwill, Dennis Hoey, Dwight Frye are all good. Rex Evans is a great villain, but never gets his comeuppance.

And Neill’s a solid director, even if he doesn’t top his opening shot.

Decent enough, could’ve been better.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Roy William Neill; written by Curt Siodmak; director of photography, George Robinson; edited by Edward Curtiss; music by Hans J. Salter; produced by George Waggner; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Lon Chaney Jr. (Lawrence Talbot), Patric Knowles (Dr. Frank Mannering), Ilona Massey (Baroness Elsa Frankenstein), Maria Ouspenskaya (Maleva), Lionel Atwill (Mayor of Vasaria), Bela Lugosi (Frankenstein Monster), Dennis Hoey (Inspector Owen), Rex Evans (Vazec) and Dwight Frye (Rudi).


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THIS POST IS PART OF THE DYNAMIC DUOS IN CLASSIC FILM BLOGATHON HOSTED BY ANNMARIE OF CLASSIC MOVIE HUB and AURORA OF ONCE UPON A SCREEN.


The Mummy’s Tomb (1942, Harold Young)

The Mummy’s Tomb is better than its predecessor, without a doubt. Harold Young’s direction is strong. It’s not quite scary, but he’s at least going for scary.

It’s sort of like an episode of “Cheers;” it takes place in small town Massachusetts and there’s a mummy roaming the streets. You can see the “Cheers” gang, having headed out of town for a weekend getaway, where there’s a mummy terrorizing their weekend.

It’s a sixty minute movie–which is some of the reason I watched it–I figured I could handle it. I didn’t account for ten minutes being from The Mummy’s Hand. The most interesting thing about the film is how it takes two of the first film’s principals–Dick Foran, Wallace Ford–and puts them in old age makeup two years after the last film–just to kill them off.

The leading man, John Hubbard, gets third billing (but deserves sixth). Elyse Knox is a decent damsel in distress. Turhan Bey, who barely has anything to do as the bad guy, is at least amusing. His character replays Zucco’s character from in the first film, only in New England instead of Egypt. There’s this secret society of high priests who can get one a job as graveyard caretaker anywhere in the world.

Unfortunately, Lon Chaney Jr. isn’t much of a mummy. Apparently, he didn’t like the character, didn’t like the makeup. It shows.

At least it’s only sixty minutes and there is a great crane shot at the end.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Harold Young; screenplay by Griffin Jay and Henry Sucher, based on a story by Neil P. Varnick; director of photography, George Robinson; edited by Milton Carruth; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Lon Chaney Jr. (Kharis, the Mummy), Dick Foran (Stephen Banning), John Hubbard (Dr. John Banning), Elyse Knox (Isobel Evans), George Zucco (Andoheb), Wallace Ford (‘Babe’ Hanson), Turhan Bey (Mehemet Bey), Virginia Brissac (Mrs. Ella Evans), Cliff Clark (Sheriff), Mary Gordon (Jane Banning), Paul E. Burns (Jim, the caretaker), Frank Reicher (Prof. Matthew Norman) and Emmett Vogan (Coroner).


Calling Dr. Death (1943, Reginald Le Borg)

Reusing music in b movies isn’t uncommon, but to reuse music from a movie with the same star? It kind of gets distracting.

Almost everything about Calling Dr. Death is distracting, actually.

The movie opens with a head in a glass sphere ominously describing the film’s setting (Dr. Death is a filmic episode of Inner Sanctum Mysteries–a radio program). It’s nowhere near as distracting, however, as what the first scene reveals… the hair-styling.

Lon Chaney’s hair is absolutely amazing, perfectly molded in each shot, even when it’s supposed to be messy. It’s a styled, gelled (or whatever) messy.

Then there’s his voiceover narration. Chaney’s neurosurgeon psychotherapist–I really don’t think screenwriter Edward Dein knew what a neurosurgeon did, he just liked the sound of it–describes all his thoughts. There’s a long section of it at the beginning, almost five minutes of it, with Chaney walking around his office talking to himself about himself, then more later, just in smaller doses.

Chaney’s actually pretty good in his role. He seems out of place in the apartment scenes–he’s a neurosurgeon with a butler and a high rise apartment with an ornate dining room–but he does well as the doctor, which kind of surprised me. He doesn’t exactly get any help from the supporting cast.

Neither of his female costars is effective. Ramsay Ames is hilariously bad, but Patricia Morison is lousy too. Ames is–taking screen time into account–better, just because her role is smaller. It isn’t simply a matter of lack of chemistry, it’s how amateurish their performances come off opposite Chaney. He might have be in a crappy b movie without a single competently written moment, but he’s still a professional. Ames and Morison look like deer caught in headlines whenever it’s time for them to deliver lines. You can even watch Ames do something with her hand, flexing it or something, to aid in her delivery.

It doesn’t really help director Reginald Le Borg is mind-numbingly boring. He’s got a couple bad shots, but nothing atrocious. Nothing good either. There’s a well-produced montage (unfortunately uncredited). It’s fairly well-lighted, with Virgil Miller bringing small points of light into previously dark shots. The costumes–Vera West did the gowns, which look competent, but I’m not talking about those–are hilarious. Chaney’s running around his apartment in a silly, sort of flower-patterned set of pajamas for a while. It’s something to see.

The problem’s the script. Not just the mechanical failure of the narration, but the lack of compelling situation. Why should we care if Ames is lousy to Chaney, because he can narrate a voiceover explaining it? Calling Dr. Death opened in December, which means moviegoers weren’t in search of air conditioning. Heat, perhaps?

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Reginald Le Borg; written by Edward Dein; director of photography, Virgil Miller; edited by Norman A. Cerf; music by Paul Sawtell; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Lon Chaney Jr. (Dr. Mark Steel), Patricia Morison (Stella Madden), J. Carrol Naish (Inspector Gregg), David Bruce (Bob Duval), Ramsay Ames (Maria Steele), Fay Helm (Mrs. Duval), Holmes Herbert (Bryant, the Butler), Alec Craig (Bill, the Watchman), Frederick Giermann (Marion’s Father), Lisa Golm (Marion’s Mother), Charles Wagenheim (Coroner), Mary Hale (Marion), George Eldredge (District Attorney) and John Elliott (Priest).


Spider Baby or, The Maddest Story Ever Told (1968, Jack Hill)

Spider Baby might not be “the maddest story ever told,” but it comes somewhat close.

The film’s a strange mix of haunted house, 1950s sci-fi and cartoon humor–I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a live action cartoon; it’s like “Scooby Doo” on expired sleeping pills. It opens with that 1950s sci-fi introduction, the erudite gentlemen addressing the camera. Here it’s Quinn K. Redeker, who maybe doesn’t do the erudite well, but is a solid and likable leading man for the picture.

Immediately following–oh, I forgot the amazing opening titles, which are animated and set to song (with Lon Chaney Jr. singing no less)–Spider Baby hits a snag. The introduction to the characters is awkward, following a disposable character instead of Chaney. In fact, opening it with Chaney’s arrival and skipping the awkwardness would have worked a lot better. For the first three-quarters of the film, Chaney is the film’s glue. He never lets his performance go, engaging the viewer enough there’s no need to examine anything too close. Even as he guards and enables a bunch of mutant cannibals, Chaney still brings an intense likability to his role.

The script is really pretty good. Jack Hill knows how to shoot on a limited budget (haunted house pictures don’t have to cost much and there aren’t really any special effects), but he knows more how to write for one. That awkward opening, which is a lot bigger than the rest of the film, might have been to disguise the film’s eventual small scale. It certainly seems like a much different picture after the opening, but one of the film’s constant joys is its continual reinvention.

As a horror film, even a comedic one, it has to fire the pistol on the wall eventually, but the way Hill paces things, it’s as though the viewer is willing all the elements to come together, not the filmmaker forcing them. It’s a nice mix of expectation and organic development.

But it’s too bad Chaney falls off in the last act. His character arc is just too much for him and he can’t reign it in. The other acting in this section–particularly from his three cannibals-to-be wards, Beverly Washburn, Jill Banner and Sid Haig–is some of the strongest in the film. It’s also the section where Mary Mitchel and Redeker have their requisite love interest scenes together and they’re both good in them. Mitchel spends most of the movie in the background, so it’s nice when she gets some attention.

In the two flashiest roles, Washburn and Banner oscillate a little too much, but both deliver when it’s important. Washburn’s got some sturdier scenes than Banner… but Banner’s got the more salient character.

Carol Ohmart, as one of the squares, eventually has some really good moments. Actually, the only bad performance is from Karl Schanzer; his fearless and annoying lawyer (with a toothbrush mustache, something I really wasn’t expecting to see) makes many jokes fall flat. His delivery’s poor and the film, for a while, rests a lot on him and he fails.

The film has some real high points, but as the end starts to become clear, it’s also clear Hill hasn’t got his bookends to work right. There’s some off about them and when the end bookend turns into a real scene, Hill’s only moments away from making the film’s final mistake.

But even with a cheap ending, there’s a funny “The End” card and that attention to absurdity makes the film succeed. Also important are cinematographer Alfred Taylor, who does a great job–there’s quite a bit of good, black and white day for night here. Ronald Stein’s music is also important for keeping that playful but still dreadful tone.

I only heard about Spider Baby last month. I’m surprised it doesn’t have more of a vocal following.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Written, edited and directed by Jack Hill; director of photography, Alfred Taylor; music by Ronald Stein; produced by Gil Lasky and Paul Monka; released by American General Pictures.

Starring Lon Chaney Jr. (Bruno), Carol Ohmart (Emily Howe), Quinn K. Redeker (Peter Howe), Beverly Washburn (Elizabeth), Jill Banner (Virginia), Sid Haig (Ralph), Mary Mitchel (Ann Morris), Karl Schanzer (Schlocker) and Mantan Moreland (Messenger).


Son of Dracula (1943, Robert Siodmak)

Son of Dracula doesn’t open well. The first scene’s all right, but once Louise Allbritton shows up–in the second scene–things start to go downhill. Allbritton’s one of the film’s constant problems. She’s a terrible actress and, in a film in desperate need of all the acting help it can get, it’s a significant defect. The second major problem pops up during the third scene (Allbritton’s in it too). It’s the music. Hans J. Salter’s music probably ruins Son of Dracula. The iffy performances hurt it, but the music just trashes the film’s potential. It works in direct opposition to Robert Siodmak’s direction (and one has to assume Siodmak had some say in the kind of score the film would use) and makes what should be sublime scenes loud and obnoxious.

Siodmak is a something of a bad fit for this film. His direction, for the most part, is fantastic. He brings noir composition to a horror film, which should work–in the Gothic sense–but it doesn’t. Some of it has to do with the music (most of it), but there’s also the special effects. With the exception of the vampires turning into vapor, which is awesome, the special effects are bad. I suppose the animated transition from bat to human form is fine, but the constant flying rubber bats is awful. Siodmak might use the bat in a different way, more of an active “character” in the film than most vampire pictures had done to this point, but it looks dreadful… and it looked dreadful back then too. What Siodmak does well is the non-special effects, but camera effects work. He’s got a beautiful scene of Lon Chaney floating across the water. Absolutely fantastic. It shows real innovation. But the film itself bucks such innovation….

The plot, eventually, reveals itself to be interesting. Except not with Chaney’s pseudo-Dracula running around. I say pseudo because a) it’s unclear if the character is Dracula or not and b) because Chaney’s performance is awful. His Dracula appears to be frequently confused and kind of weak. But he’s in it so little–if they used guest-starring credits in the forties, Chaney would have gotten one–it doesn’t really matter.

Most of the film follows Frank Craven on his hunt for the truth. A lot of it is fine, different old horror movie material. Son of Dracula frequently surprises. The story unfolds in interesting directions… except that music constantly brings it down. And the film also plays loose with its characters. Once J. Edward Bromberg arrives, Evelyn Ankers disappears. Bromberg’s performance is mediocre, but Ankers had some good material–and would have had even more had her character stuck around to see how the story unfolded.

Leading man Robert Paige is fine. The end isn’t quite sure how to use him, but Siodmak ends the film on a (somewhat) subtle note. Certainly one raising more questions than it answers and it’s fine; it doesn’t make up for the rest and the rest is a mess. The direction does, however. Siodmak’s approach makes Son of Dracula something to behold.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Robert Siodmak; screenplay by Eric Taylor, based on a story by Curt Siodmak; director of photography, George Robinson; edited by Saul A. Goodkind; music by Hans J. Salter; produced by Ford Beebe; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Robert Paige (Frank Stanley), Louise Allbritton (Katherine Caldwell), Evelyn Ankers (Claire Caldwell), Frank Craven (Doctor Brewster), J. Edward Bromberg (Professor Lazlo), Samuel S. Hinds (Judge Simmons), Adeline De Walt Reynolds (Madame Zimba), Pat Moriarity (Sheriff Dawes), Etta McDaniel (Sarah), George Irving (Colonel Caldwell) and Lon Chaney Jr. (Count Dracula).


The Wolf Man (1941, George Waggner)

The Wolf Man‘s most lasting influence–beyond the advantages of using Larry Talbot as a synonym (Pynchon did it in Vineland) and the endlessly suffering protagonist–has to be the music. I noticed parts both John Williams (for The Empire Strikes Back) and Danny Elfman (for Batman Returns) lifted. The music is an essential part of the film, as many of Lon Chaney Jr.’s scenes are almost silent film style solo ones, where Chaney visualizes his internal turmoil.

Director Waggner’s style works for the film and against. There’s little attempt to create any sense of the uncanny. Between the booming music and Waggner’s fast-paced chase scenes, the film rushes toward its conclusion. All subtlety is lost in the last act, which is unfortunate, since the film started with so much.

Behind the film’s big story and special effects is the quiet one between Chaney–as returning, long absent son–and Claude Rains–top-billed as the father (and seventeen years older than Chaney). Rains has some lengthy monologues, which he’s good at delivering, and some other scenes involving Chaney, but at the end, when the two of them finally have a talk, The Wolf Man reveals itself. Rains then gets another nice scene on the same subject, only without Chaney. Had the film followed Rains, through his conflict over his son returning to his concern for the son’s sanity, to the fear the son might be right, The Wolf Man would have been high psychological drama.

Similarly, had it followed just Chaney, it would have been a stranger entering stranger and stranger lands.

As a mix of the two, it’s awkward. The big script holes don’t help either. There’s no consistency on how to prevent werewolf transformations or how often they occur. The film’s in a hurry to get done and it plays way too loose with the time it covers.

The other primary aspect of the film–the romance between Chaney and Evelyn Ankers–actually gets enough attention. Though Chaney and Ankers infamously did not get along, they appear to have lots of chemistry in the film, to the point Ankers’s absolute devotion (in the third act, after being off-screen for a while) makes perfect sense. Chaney’s transition through the film from utterly assured to abjectly despondent is one of the more fluid character progressions I can remember. Ankers helps out quite a bit.

Curt Siodmak’s script is best during those scenes with Ankers or Rains. The overuse of the gypsies is questionable as is the wasted supporting cast. The film’s filled with characters–Universal apparently needed roles for Ralph Bellamy, Warren William and Patric Knowles–and it doesn’t have room for them. While Bellamy’s got a great, unintentionally absurd line, the film never–after mentioning it–discusses he and Chaney being childhood friends. William’s a superfluous doctor and Knowles should form a third side in a love triangle (for Ankers’s affection) but strangely does not.

There are a lot of ideas in The Wolf Man, but few of them are explored. Even the ending is strangely undercooked. The film stops rather than ends, but as it’s more in the hands of non-characters Bellamy and William, there’s really nothing else it can do.

Waggner’s got a gimmick he uses–blocking some of the frame with a lamp base or a tree–and, though it gets obvious, he uses it to great effect occasionally. The sight of Rains striking the unknown, even though the music is too bombastic, is haunting.

I was going to end there, but realized I haven’t really lauded Chaney enough. From his first moment on film, there’s nothing he can’t do here–and the script asks for a lot. He’s got to have all that turmoil in the middle and the end, but the beginning requires him to be completely different. Chaney does it all–and those silent-but-for-music scenes, as he discovers his feet getting furry or the wolf tracks in his bedroom, are amazing. He’s under-appreciated.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by George Waggner; written by Curt Siodmak; director of photography, Joseph A. Valentine; edited by Ted J. Kent; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Claude Rains (Sir John Talbot), Warren William (Dr. Lloyd), Ralph Bellamy (Col. Montford), Patric Knowles (Frank Andrews), Bela Lugosi (Bela), Maria Ouspenskaya (Maleva), Evelyn Ankers (Gwen Conliffe), J.M. Kerrigan (Charles Conliffe), Fay Helm (Jenny Williams), Forrester Harvey (Twiddle) and Lon Chaney Jr. (The Wolf Man).


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