Monday, June 29, 2009

'The Ghoul' is an obscure Karloff classic

The Ghoul (1933)
Starring: Boris Karloff, Dorothy Hyson, Anthony Bushell, Ernest Thesiger, Cedric Hardwicke, Kathleen Harrison, Harold Hugh and Ralph Richardson
Director: T. Hayes Hunter
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

An eccentric Egyptologist, Professor Morlent (Karloff), insists that he is buried with the ancient artifact he spent his fortune on acquiring, in an Egyptian-style tomb on his estate so that Anubis may come and bring him to eternity in the afterlife. He vows to return from the grave and kill anyone who doesn't follow his wishes or who steals from him tomb. Naturally, his manservant (Thesiger) keeps the priceless artifact. Naturally, Morlent emerges from his tomb to punish the thief, and anyone else he happens across, on the very night his young cousins (Bushell and Hyson) are meeting in the main house with a solicitor (Hardwicke) about their inheritance.

"The Ghoul" is a rarely seen early horror talkie that features a fast-moving, finely tuned script, an appealing and talented cast, a number of truly unnerving scenes, but also manages to deliver comic relief that will still be funny to modern audiences.

While Boris Karloff receives top billing--and gives an excellent performance as a fanatic neo-worshipper of the Egyptian pantheon returned from the grave and now rushing about strangling people in best mummy fashion--the real stars of the film are actually Dorothy Hyson and Anthony Bushell. They protray a pair of distant relatives who start the film disliking each other due to an old family feude but who eventually bury the hatchet. Hyson is very attractive and a good actress and Bushell manages to transform a character who is an unsympathetic jerk at the beginning of the film into a likable hero figure by the end.

Another remarkable performance is given by the film's comic relief, which are made up of a Lucy Arnez/Carol Burnett-type character played by Kathleen Harrison, and a mysterious Egyptian played by Harold Hugh. The Egyptian is actually the films main heavy (aside from the monstrous Dr. Morlent), but he becomes drawn into the comic relief when he becomes th object of fantasy of a woman whose read too many romance novels and seen too many silent movies about the dashing beduine princes of Arabia and their white stallions, abducted maidens, and vast harems.

Often in these old movies, the comic aspects have not stood the passage of time, but that is not the case here. The genre being lampooned may have fallen out of favor, but the basic situation remains funny and the bubble-headed woman who lives vicariously through trashy romance novels remains a constant through the ages. The action is funny, the characters are funny, and the jokes are hilarious.

The only midly annoying thing about the film is the Scooby-Doo like ending where everything with an apparent supernatural cause is explained away either by some weird circumstance or by someone wearing a cleaver disguise and using elaborate tricks. However, the ending is very dramatic--with the climax reaching its thrilling heights with our young heroic couple on the verge of being burned alive and the comic relief character about to shot by the villains--and so action-packed that you will hardly notice the "oh, there was never any spooky Egyptian gods and curses going on here" line when it's delivered.

"The Ghoul" is a great film from the formative days of the horror genre. It's both an example of the "dark old house" mystery movies that gave way to it, as well as a clear evolutionary step toward what we think of as horror movies today. It's definately worth seeing by anyone who enjoys films from that time. Even better, the DVD release was made from such a prestine print that you'll be watching the film looking almost like it did when audiences sat shivering in their seats in 1933.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

'Love From a Stranger' is a gripping thriller

Love From a Stranger (aka "A Night of Terror") (1937)
Starring: Ann Harding and Basil Rathbone
Director: Rowland V. Lee
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

Carol (Harding) wins the lottery and marries the perfect man (Rathbone) all within the space of a few months. The honeymoon's barely over, however, before she realizes he is not be what he seems. Carol soon finds herself in a contest of will and wits where her very life may be at stake.

"Love From a Stranger" is a remarkable thriller based on a story by Agatha Christie. It's a bit too slow in the build-up, but once it gets going, it's tense, exciting, and lots of fun. It's definitely a movie you want to stay with, because you'll be greatly rewarded for your patience. The final scenes of this movie are perhaps the best featured in any Christie adaptation, but it's only the greatest of many fantastic moments in the film.

Part of what makes this film great is the fact that it dates from a time when filmmakers had mastered the use of light and shadow in the black-and-white media to heighten suspense and tension. This may not be a "film noir" movie, but several of the scenes are lit and filmed with such style that film noir masters hopefully studied them. (The final scene is a particularly excellent example of this.)

The film's success is really due to the spectacular performances of Ann Harding and Basil Rathbone. It's the sort of a caliber that we don't see nearly enough of in modern films.

Particularly remarkable are the moments where Harding realizes she is married to a lunatic, and later, where it dawns her her that her very life depends on the next thing that comes out of her mouth. It both these scenes, Harding conveys more with her facial expressions than pages of dialogue would be able to do.

Similarly, Rathbone displays an amazing range in his performance here. He starts out as the ultimately gentleman, moves slowly into arrogance, barely concealed menace, and ultimately into fullblown insanity. The extended, crazy rant he delivers during this film is so over-the-top and so intense that even Jack Nicholson can only reach such heights in his dreams. (If you've only seen Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes, you've only seen a tiny fraction of what he is capable of on screen.)

"Love From a Stranger" is one of those films that has slipped through the cracks of cinema and into undeserved obscurity. If you like psychological thrillers, or if you're a fan of Basil Rathbone or Ann Harding, you need to see this movie.

(And here's a bit of trivia for Christie Completists: Joan Hickson, who at the end of her career would play spinster detective Miss Marple on British and American TV during the 1980s and 1990s, has a small role in this film at the beginning of her career, appearing as Emmy.)

Karloff and Lorre carry this mild comedy

The Boogie Man Will Get You (1942)
Starring: Boris Karloff, Peter Lorre, Jeff Donnell, Larry Parks and Max Rosenbloom
Director: Lew Landers
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

With true never-say-die spirit, Dr. Billings (Karloff) continues to work on creating super-soldiers that will help win the war against the Axis. However, the never-say-die spirit doesn't extend to his test subjects who are stacking up like cordwood in the basement. But will the new influx of visitors to his home--that is being converted to a bed-and-breakfast by an adventurous divorcee (Donnell)--bring more test subjects or the revelation of his failures?

"The Boogie Man Will Get You" is a dark comedy with screwball overtones. The script is so-so, and it unfolds along predictable lines until a series of amusing twists at the end. However, the comic antics of Boris Karloff--as a senile mad doctor--and Peter Lorre--as a corrupt small town mayor/doctor/animal control officer/sheriff/whathaveyou--are entertaining enough to carry viewers through.

If you've only seen Karloff do drama or horror, this film is well worth checking out. In it, he shows himself more than capable of doing comedy... and he and Lorre make a great comedic duo. The film isn't the best, but Karloff excels, with he and Lorre making a fabulous comedic duo.

The film is one of four included in the Boris Karloff entry for Columbia's "Icons of Horror" DVD multipack series. As such, it serves as harmless filler, supplementing the three far better films in the set.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Raymond Burr is a lawyer duped
in 'Please Murder Me'

Please Murder Me (1954)
Starring: Raymond Burr, Angela Lansbury, Lamont Johnson and John Dehner
Director: Peter Godfrey
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

When idealistic attorney Craig Carlson (Burr) realizes that he was manipulated into assuring the acquittal of a murderess (Lansbury), he sets about making sure that she is brought to justice, even if if costs him his own life.

"Please Murder Me" has a plot that's reminicent of a "Columbo" episode, with the main character basically harrassing the perpetrator of a near-perfect crime into revealing their guilt to the law. Craig Carlson, however, goes much further than Columbo ever did!

Part courtroom drama, part film-noir thriller, fans of crime movies will enjoy the fact that this movie keeps to a very unexpected course. (You may think you know where things or going, or that a twist is about to put upon a twist, but you will in all likelihood be guessing wrong.) It's a well-acted movie with a creative script that's all the more fun to watch due to Raymond Burr playing the role of a grandstanding lawyer. While the Carlson character is far more faithful and loyal to the letter and spirit of the law than Burr's more famous Perry Mason character ever was, "Please Murder Me" still feels like what could have been an episode titled "Perry Mason and the Final Curtain."

Friday, June 12, 2009

A young couple learns that a life of crime
is "The Wrong Road'

The Wrong Road (1937)
Starring: Richard Cromwell, Helen Mack, Lionel Atwill, and Horace MacMohan
Director: James Cruze
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

Jimmy and Ruth, a young, down-on-their-luck couple (Cromwell and Mack) steal $100,000 from Jimmy's employer that they intend to live off it once they get out of prison. A private detective charged with recovering the loot (Atwill) believes they are just a pair of desperate kids deserving of a second chance, and he arranges their early parole. As he encourages them to give back the money, a coldhearted, murderous criminal (MacMohan) is stalking them in the hopes of getting the loot for himself.

"The Wrong Road" is so heavy-handed in delivering its "crime doesn't pay" and "it's never to late to reform and become a law-abiding citizen again" messages that it borders on the goofy educational films that were so popular in the 1950s and 1960s (and even into the 1970s, because I remember watching a few...). However, a cast far classier and talented than is usually found in that sort of films, and a fast-moving story that actually has some tension to it makes it better than the educational shorts and film-strips it resembles.

The best part of the film is Atwill's character. Private detective Mike Roberts is almost a proto-Colombo, with his ability to pop up in Jimmy and Ruth's path at just the right (or wrong, depending on your point of view) moment, and his technique of annoying the criminals into coming clean.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Hedy Lemarr makes this film as 'The Strange Woman'

The Strange Woman (1946)
Starring: Hedy Lamarr, George Sanders, Louis Hayward, Gene Lockhart, and Hillary Brooke
Director: Edgar G. Ulmer
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

Beautiful sociopath Jenny Hager (Lamarr) vamps her way through early 19th century Bangor, spreading heartbreak, mayhem and murder.

"The Strange Woman" is a predictable period drama that is elevated by its superior cast, and a multi-faceted performance of star Hedy Lemarr. Although Jenny Hager is a textbook sociopath and thoroughly evil, Lamarr manages to make the character sympathetic. Unlike most femme fatale characters as self-centered and manipulative as Jenny, the viewer can't help but feel a little sorry for her when her life starts to unravel when her weaknesses catch up with her.

Another impressive aspect of the film is is musical score. It serves as more than just a mood-heightener, it helps move the story forward by using well-known bits of music (such as the Wedding March or a Christmas song) to show the passage of time. It's a very effective technique that makes sure the film never loses momentum.

If you're a fan of Hedy Lemarr or a great lover of gothic romances, I think you'll get a kick out of this movie.

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