The Tomb Of Ligeia (1964): Vincent Price in his Gothic element

by Paul Batters

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“Man need not kneel before the angels, nor lie in death forever, but for the weakness of his feeble will.”

Vincent Price holds a warm place in the heart of many classic film fans. Whilst appearing in many films outside the horror genre in a variety of roles, Price is understandably associated with horror films. Without a doubt, Price had one of the most distinguishable voices and an incredible presence on the screen which could never go unnoticed.

My earliest memory of Vincent Price is of his appearance in the last of the Roger Corman films drawn from the tales of Edgar Allan, The Tomb Of Ligeia (1964). Incredibly, my parents allowed me to stay up with them when it was screened on television in the 1970s. At the time, naturally, I failed to grasp the deeper nuances of the film and was more taken by the looming presence of Price when he first appears on the screen. It felt scary at the time but I also recall being a little bored with it too, perhaps in great part because I could not comprehend all that was going on.

Now reviewing the film well over 40 years later, The Tomb Of Ligeia fares better with a more educated understanding of the film. Yet something still seems amiss.

The film opens ominously with a funeral, where Verden Fell (Vincent Price) is placing his apparently dead wide Ligeia in her tomb, amongst the ruins of an abbey. However, she will not be interred in peace as the local religious authorities pour scorn on the burial, claiming that her blasphemies and atheism do not afford her a Christian burial. Fell returns their scorn despite their curses on her but the sudden screeching appearance of a black cat on the coffin seems like an ominous moment, particularly when the eyes of Ligeia flick open. It is a very effective scene, as we are led into the titles and Price is as dominant a figure as ever, in his disdain and spite for those around him.

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Verden Fell appears to be a man haunted by his dead wife and his dark clothes and even darker demeanour suggest he is still in mourning. However, a chance meeting with the fair and lovely Rowena (Elizabeth Shepherd) during a hunting accident will lead to more, as she becomes drawn to him. Likewise, he eventually opens to her and after falling in love, the two marry. For a moment, the morbidity seems to dissipate but for the audience the ever-haunting words from the long-dead but enigmatic Ligeia herself whisper in the background – that she would be Verden’s wife forever. Indeed, even when they return to his home after the marriage, Verden’s happy outlook seems to return to the former haunted morbidity that enveloped him. Is Ligeia’s presence about to announce itself?

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Sure enough, their marriage is soon visited upon by the spirit of Ligeia, particularly in the form of the black cat. A number of times it even attacks Rowena, who also has strange dreams and appears even possessed at times.

The mystery builds as to Ligeia and Rowena’s former beau and fiancé Christopher Gough (John Westbrook) seems determined to discover the truth. The ending, far removed from the original story but very fitting for a Corman film, will see all revealed – Rowena’s horror is all apparent and Verden appears as a broken man given in to the madness which has closed his grip on him almost completely. The audience is left with the supporting cast to explain everything. But of course, the ending will be far more colourful than that. By the way, see if you can pick up some of the stock footage used in the grand finality. If you are familiar with Corman’s approach and his other Poe films, you won’t have to look too hard.

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As with a number of the Corman films, The Tomb Of Ligeia is loosely based on the Poe short story and the very nature of the story meant that screenwriter Robert Towne had to flesh out the story further for a full film production. As a result, there are some other familiar symbols employed, specifically the ‘black cat’ (which feels like more of an annoyance than an object of terror, and could be easily dispatched with by a swift kick).

The film was shot on location in England with exceptional use of the countryside and the ruined abbey. This is perhaps one of the strongest aspects of the film and as Nate Yapp on classic-horror.com points out, releases “Ligeia from the stagy, claustrophobic studio sets that marked the rest of the series”. The subtle use of Dutch angles, colour and beautiful camera work achieves a spooky atmosphere with solid Gothic overtones. with the ruined abbey again beautifully used.

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Corman does build a suspenseful film with the help of Townes’ script but the tension loses its’ way during the second act and the atmosphere needs to be built up again (with a little too much help from the Ligeia-possessed cat and some inexplicable dreams that look parachuted in to help the re-building process. Some of the moments are effective, such as the broken mirror which reveals a doorway and the awful discovery at the tomb itself. However, the film seems to fall into cliché and the usual methods are employed to serve the audience with a climactic ending. Contrary to what some critics have suggested, there are plenty of Gothic elements still employed to hook the audience in – thunder and lightning, tombs, graves, haunted mansions, ruined abbeys and a dark past. Not to mention hints at necrophilia and insanity.

 

Corman would go on to say that he thought The Tomb Of Ligeia was one of his best Poe films. It is beautifully shot and the supporting cast do well. However, with all due respect to a man I greatly admire, I am not sure if audiences would agree. For a film clocking in at 81 minutes, it feels like double that in time. It is also certainly atmospheric with some frightful moments but not ones which will leave the audience reeling in horror. It looks polished but the veneer cannot hide that the film fails to click.

Price is certainly miscast in the role of Verdun Fell, with a younger actor more befitting in the part of the tragic and haunted figure. According to the April 2, 2008 issue of Cinemafantastique, Corman, whilst a huge fan of Price, did not want him in the role but he was at the mercy of AIP’s money. Corman apparently wanted Richard Chamberlain, a far younger and incredibly handsome actor with both characteristics serving the tragedy of the character of Verden Fell even better and making Rowena’s fascination more believable.

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But Price is formidable in the role. He plays the tragedy of Fell to a fault, alternating from the tall-standing, supercilious husband burying his dead wife to the morose man struggling with his existence. The dark glasses are an interesting touch (for 1821!) and he is superb at channelling his pain right up to the finale, which whilst a little silly is still campy and fun.

The Tomb Of Ligeia probably also reveals that the Corman formula had run its’ course. Of all the Corman films based on Poe, this film would make the least at the box office. It may well be the weakest of the eight Poe films by Corman but it is not by any means a non-enjoyable film. It’s still fun to watch and of course the main reason for that is the irrepressible Vincent Price.

A link to the full movie is below:

This article is an entry into the Vincent Price Blogathon kindly hosted by Realweegiemidget. Please don’t forget to click on the link to support this great blogathon and read some fantastic entries from some wonderful writers.

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.

 

Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960): The Essence Of Gothic Horror

by Paul Batters

 

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On those cold nights when the winds howl, the rain is falling and perhaps even the lightning startles the dark sky, who has felt the need to immerse themselves in the deep abyss of a Gothic tale? Whether it be a book or a film, the atmosphere of dread, gloom and fear takes us down dark corridors through ancient mansions and past a myriad of doors behind which are secrets which shock us to the bone. We seem to be drawn to what lurks in the shadows and our curiosities are aroused. The Gothic tale, born in the era of Romanticism, has been interpreted and presented in fascinating ways and its’ themes and tropes are ever-present in popular culture. Whilst initially the classic Gothic tale was bound to its’ British and European origins, it has found life in the ‘New World’, with the term American Gothic also becoming a mainstay in literature (think Edgar Allan Poe!).

But with the birth of film, there was a new way of telling stories and Hollywood was not slow to exploit Gothic literature to not only tell stories but use the visual medium to its’ own advantage and establish a new way of telling stories. From the silent era to the present, Gothic horror has both fascinated and terrified us. Of all the directors who were adroit in bringing Gothic horror to the screen, none were as expert or as influential as Alfred Hitchcock. He was no stranger to Gothic literature, having made Rebecca(1940) and even drew on Gothic tropes when making Notorious (1946); and of course would later re-visit Gothic horror with The Birds (1963).

Hitchcock had long been considered a master of the thriller by the time he made Psycho. Loosely based on the infamous Ed Gein case, the film has oft been considered the beginning of a new wave of horror film and in some regards a precursor to the slasher film that would emerge in the 1970s. Yet it is far more than that and indeed. As Misha Kavka points out in The Cambridge Companion to Gothic Fiction:

“Gothic film brings a set of recognizable elements based in distinct visual codes. Such codes constitute the language, or the sign system, of the Gothic film”

If ever a film had all the hallmarks of a Gothic horror film, then Psycho has them in spades.

(Warning! Be prepared for spoilers!)

The House

The infamous (or famous, depending on your viewpoint) house is perhaps the most powerfully visual and recognisable Gothic element in the film. Once we start to unpack the powerful symbolism of the Victorian mansion, we discover there are incredible depths to what it reveals.

Art historian Rose Heichelbech states that Hitchcock used Edward Hopper’s The House By the Railroad (1925) (below) as the basis for the Bates’ Mansion. But unlike the bright water colours of Hopper’s work, Hitchcock has drained the colour through filming in black and white, leaving a house bathed in greys which give the house an omnipresence which informs the film. Sitting high on the small hill and imposing in its’ nature, its’ looming dominance highlights the relationship between Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) and his mother (which of course taps into another Gothic theme later to be explored). Later when Marion (Janet Leigh) and Norman speak of being unable to escape ‘traps’, the house certainly comes to mind as what Norman finds inescapable.

 

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Not only does the house become a symbol of dominance and a foreboding presence over the characters but it is also a strong symbol of values and morals that belong in another era, in complete contrast to the present which could be represented by the Bates Motel below. Both buildings also represent Norman’s fractured state of mind, which in the end will be challenged to the point of breaking completely. In fact, despite the motel also suggesting a new progressive world on the move and the house representing ‘stability’, both are isolated from that same progress; particularly with the new highway built away from the motel. Like the classic Gothic house in literature, those who live there are thus isolated from society, wallowing in their stagnation and living in seclusion from the changes that are occurring in the larger world. They grasp onto the past with desperation which is also transforms into madness and insanity.

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The house holds a fascination for the audience, especially one so old and steeped in history. What secret does it hold inside? What if those walls could talk?  Indeed, the house remains one of the best advertisements for the film and would feature in trailers at the time. Hitchcock knew that the house had a life and spirit of its’ own – as it always has had in the Gothic tradition.

Dark Secrets

If Psycho holds its’ audience with incredible tension from the opening, it’s through the power of secrets. In Gothic literature, secrets run deep and dark, and their exposure reveals trauma, anxieties and conflict. In Psycho, these are already evident in a sexualised and lascivious way, as we become voyeurs to the illicit affair between Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) and Sam Loomis (John Gavin). But far darker are the secrets that will only slowly be revealed regarding Norman. All appearances will be shattered and the dark secrets within the Bates family exposed.

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Again in terms of the house, the audience is desperate to look inside and see what it is hiding. When that chance arrives, we discover a house filled with antiquity and bejewelled in trinkets and fashion from a different era. Of course, the most shocking and terrible secret will be revealed in the deepest and darkest place in the house – the cellar. As in Gothic literature, the terrifying familial secrets in the Bates family provide the psychological reasoning for Norman’s mental state and perversities.

Corpses and Corruption

By corruption, the Gothic trope of death and decay comes to mind. But what also permeates is the corruption of the mental state and the decay of a family into madness. Strangely enough, corpses are not left to rot per se but are ‘stuffed and mounted’ (through Norman’s ‘hobby’ of taxidermy) and of course, he goes much further than that!

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Norman sustains his insanity via the corpse of his mother and though physically dead, her presence is elaborately constructed and becomes a reality in Normans’ world. Any Freudian can go into great detail about the Oedipal complexities at play.

Madness and Insanity

The incredible twist in the tale hits the audience in the climactic scene in the cellar, where the truth behind Norman is revealed. Initially, the audience believes that Norman is a shy yet pleasant enough young man, who may have some serious mother issues – until his perverse ‘peeping Tom’ moment as Marion gets ready for her shower. The audience is also led down the garden path, when Norman and ‘Mother’ conversations  are heard. Yet even then there is no indication of what will follow.

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When Norman states with a smile ‘She just goes a little mad sometimes’, it becomes the forewarning for what will come – Norman as his own mother committing horrific crimes on his behalf. His personality is constantly at war with himself until the ‘mother’ part of him ‘wins’ the battle.

In Psycho, insanity and madness result in horrific violence and the infamous shower scene (which has been definitively unpacked and analysed a thousand times over) shifts the film’s narrative from the heroine to Norman Bates. The moment still shocks and is much a rape as it is a brutal murder. Again, the climax will reveal the full and terrible truth to Norman’s insanity.

And of course, the split personality is also suggestive of the darkness of secrets, and what is revealed to and hidden from the world.

The Heroine

Marion is the classic Gothic heroine – finding herself in danger and indeed even placing herself there, initially through her own act of stealing the money. Her own conscience pursues her, and she constructs conversations which question what she does. What makes Marion a classic Gothic heroine is that like her predecessors in classic Gothic literature, she’s a breaker of convention and seeks independence to find happiness in her life. The traditional role constructed for her by middle America is not enough.

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Her pulling into the Bates Motel is a fateful one, a trope also present in Gothic fiction, and of course the pouring rain and gloomy atmosphere further adds to the strong Gothic overtones. The stormy night is an ominous sign that something bad will happen and indeed it is a terrible shock to the audience when it does. Marion’s horrific ending in the shower, is a ‘punishment’ for her deeds (as much as a reflection of Hitchcock’s pathology) but it also reflects the physical and emotional pain that the heroine traditionally experiences.

Mood And Atmosphere

From Saul Bass’ opening credits, underpinned by the anxious musical score and split titles, the tension is heightened and the audience knows they are going to be weighted down by it. The audience peering into the window find an attractive couple half-undressed but despite the sexualised scene, their conversation is one of despair and hopelessness, already setting a negative tone.

Marion’s flight from Phoenix with the stolen money thus drives the narrative into one of heightened tension, which is worsened for us by her interactions with the cop and the car salesman. Her nervous and an anxious state therefore becomes ours.

But of course, as Marion drives through the stormy night to find refuge in the Bates Motel, it evokes for the audience the familiar Gothic trope of the traveller lost in the storm and finding themselves in an old isolated house filled with dark secrets and danger (i.e Wuthering Heights, The Old Dark House). Again, the looming shadow of the house with darkened skies above it adds to the gloomy atmosphere.

Of course the audience enters the house itself, it is antiquated and frozen in another time, as well as being terribly silent and filled with shadows.

And of course the decision by Hitchcock to film in monochrome certainly helps shape the Gothic atmosphere!

Psycho would become one of Hitchcock’s most successful and well-known films. It is not only a superb thriller which still never fails to shock; it is also a superb example of the Gothic horror film.

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This article has been proudly submitted for the Gothic Horror Blogathon hosted by Gabriella at Pale Writer . Please click on the link to read other fantastic entries!

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history. 

The Frankenstein Monster: Boris Karloff And His Incredible Portrayal

by Paul Batters

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Of all the monsters in the pantheon of the ‘children of the night’, perhaps none have had such an impact on the sympathies of an audience as the Frankenstein Monster. Many films have been made where Shelly’s Gothic tale is told or at least appropriated. Yet none have ever been able to match Boris Karloff’s performance as Dr. Frankenstein’s near-immortal creation.

This discussion does not aim to focus on the mechanics of the film-making process of the first three films nor their storylines; insomuch that if they are brought up, it’s done so as a reflection of Karloff’s performance. Indeed, a great deal of discussion and discourse has already covered the making of the three films I would like to focus on. If anything, this is a celebration of Karloff’s portrayal.

In popular culture, the Frankenstein Monster has become reduced to a mindless brute – a near-indestructible automaton whose brain can be as interchangeable as a car-battery and is easily identified by his stiff walk and arms stretched out in front of him. With respect to Universal Studios, who played just as important a role as Dr. Frankenstein in bringing him to life, they are greatly responsible in creating this image. Indeed, mention the name ‘Frankenstein’ and the vast majority of people will identify the name as that being of the Monster and not the family name of its’ creator. Even in the Universal world, three other actors other than Karloff (Lon Chaney Jnr, Bela Lugosi and Glenn Strange) all portrayed the Monster to varying degrees of success yet adding to the demotion of the Monster from the brilliant portrayal borne of Karloff to the aforementioned description. If ever a creature from the dark went through a more incredible array of change in character, none were marked than the Frankenstein Monster.

What audiences need to be reminded of is the pathos and touching humanity that truly embodied Frankenstein’s creation, reflected so beautifully by Boris Karloff. As a result, I will speak of the Frankenstein ‘trilogy’ because they feature the great man and are without a doubt the best of the Universal films, after which admittedly they would later denigrate into exploitation, particularly after Karloff left the role.

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Frankenstein (1931) deserves its’ place as one of the most important films in cinema, let alone its’ position as one of the greatest horror films of all time. Unlike its’ equally important predecessor Dracula (1931), it has held up well and has some of the most memorable cinematic moments in film history. As important as James Whales’ direction was, his pick of a 44-year old bit part actor was far more important and fortuitous. Whale could see there was something about Karloff’s face and personality that he couldn’t quite put his finger but knew intuitively would work. If the film and of course the Monster belongs to anyone, it’s Karloff.

The birth of the Monster is without doubt one of the greatest moments in film. The mad machinery will galvanise the Monster, the moving of the hand and the hysterical rantings of Dr. Frankenstein (Colin Clive), who is in the incredible heights of rapture as he ‘knows what it feels like to be God’, all remain as iconic moments in classic horror. Even here, without seeing Karloff’s face, he is able to act with one hand to convey life coming to what had moments before been a dead cadaver.

But out first view of the Monster’s face is that moment when Karloff became the star. Whale built the tension even further by having Karloff walk in backwards to be followed by that slow turn and the close cutting to that horrific face. Lurching forward at his creator, he shuffles forward following Frankenstein’s commands to sit in a chair. The stiffened movements are like that of a child learning to walk but the doctor’s creation is not a child. He’s a reanimated human jigsaw, complete with a ‘criminal brain’ – a plot device non-existent in the novel, which would forever be associated with the Monster. Initially there appears to be no emotion, and Karloff’s heavy-lidded eyes and sunken cheeks evoke in the audience a dread and horror that will soon turn to empathy and understanding. And it’s all a result of Karloff’s mastery. Again, without any words, his pleading eyes and desperate need for warmth and light, breaks the dread  we feel but he is soon faced with not only being ignored but then completely rejected and treated horrifically at the hands of his creator, his former mentor Dr. Waldman (Edward Van Sloan) and his cruel and sadistic assistant Fritz (Dwight Frye). By the time we see the Monster in chains in the bowels of the place where he was born, the audience begins to wonder who the real monsters are, with Karloff beautifully portraying a poor and confused being who did not ask to be born and surrounded by hostility from his first interactions with humans.

But murder will follow; Fritz will pay for torturing the Monster once too often and then Dr Waldman before he is about to dissect and examine the drugged Monster. Karloff portrays the Monster with a hungered and desperate confusion, but he is also far more complex than it may appear; a far cry from the mindless shell that stomps around in later films. Karloff’s Monster is the abandoned child who knows nothing of the world and when he finally does find a human connection with a small child (Mildred Harris), it will end in tragedy. As an aside, the re-edited version that was re-released in 1938 and would show on TV screens for decades, was un-intentionally far more suggestive of the Monster doing something far more horrifc to Maria. 

When both creator and creation finally do face each other again, Karloff exudes menace and anger at the God-parent who has rejected him. Dragging Frankenstein to the top of an old windmill whilst being pursued by the enraged villagers, Karloff’s Monster is again surrounded by hostility and violence. His end comes as he is consumed by the flames that he so fears and does not understand, panicked and screaming in terror (a far cry from the final Universal film of the classic horror monsters which shows him walking stupidly into burning flames). It is a terrible end for a being that did not ask to be created, abandoned to the cruelty of a world he does not understand, all beautifully conveyed by the mastery of Boris Karloff.

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But of course it is not the end. Universal realised that the real star of the film was not Colin Clive but Karloff and the resulting Bride Of Frankenstein (1935), is a far better produced film, with a beautiful musical score by Franz Waxman (which was notably absent from the first film) and far greater liberties taken by Whale as director in terms of themes. The film, thus, is a masterpiece with the story continuing where the last film left off. There are some cast changes and the inclusion of Una O’Connor as Minnie, a servant in the Frankenstein household, reflects Whale’s eccentric humour. (As an aside, I find O’Connor’s screeching an almighty annoyance and her being in the film is superfluous). As the audience discovers, the Monster has survived but burnt and injured, fleeing into the woods for refuge. But not after committing two more murders.

Again, Karloff’s portrayal transcends the make-up and indeed his work from the first film. Wracked with hunger and desperate for basic human connection, his struggles seem to be over when he meets a blind hermit (O.P Heggie). The kindness and genuine humanity of the scenes that follow are touching and beautiful, and Karloff shines as he hears the prayer of gratitude given by the blind hermit, seemingly amazed by the beauty of words he has never heard before. As the hermit cries, a tear also runs down the Monster’s cheek and he comforts the weeping old man. Here Karloff shows that his portrayal is not of a Monster but a lost soul, who seeks only friendship and love. Much has been said and disputed about the scene; regardless it is as the Hermit states ‘two lonely souls who have found each other’.

Another first for the Monster is that he learns to talk. It appears he has been living with the Hermit for some time, as wounds have healed and he has learned to speak. The words, of course, are basic and the word ‘friend’ is closest to the Monster’s heart. Karloff was against the Monster speaking, feeling that it meant something was lost. With the greatest of respect to the man, this reviewer feels it does not detract from the portrayal and indeed holds firm textual integrity with the original novel, where the Monster not only speaks but is articulate. His desperate need for expression starts to grow and after losing his friend and sanctuary in the Hermit, he is again pursued and abused.

Despite being captured and briefly shown in the now famous ‘crucifixion’ pose (hence highlighting his treatment as an outcast and misfit outside the sensibilities of society to be persecuted), he breaks out, using his incredible strength and thus also planting a seed to another important trope. Karloff again shapes a menacing figure as he makes his way through a graveyard, only to enter a crypt and marvel at the face of a corpse. Despite the necrophiliac-like suggestion, the Monster finally has someone who will not reject him. But during this fateful moment, he will meet and make a new ‘friend’ in the form of the notorious Dr. Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger) whom the audience knows is planning to create life from the dead with Frankenstein. It is also an important moment of consciousness for the Monster as he verbally acknowledges that he knows Frankenstein made him from the dead, after which the Monster intones: ‘I like dead’. Pretorious responds, ‘You’re wise in your generation’. But here the Monster will be manipulated (or allow himself to be) in order to achieve his deepest desire, a friend – or more to the point, a ‘wife’.

Karloff presents a cruel side to the Monster as he joins Pretorius in forcing and bullying Frankenstein into creating a friend for him. But his brutal menace melts when he first sees his ‘bride’ (Elsa Lanchester). His happiness turns to depression and resignation, noting that his rejection by the world is now complete. Deciding to end it all, he tells Frankenstein and his wife to ‘Go! You Live!’ but warns Pretorius to stay and as he declares ‘We belong dead’, the lever is pulled and the whole laboratory with the Monster is blown to atoms. Again, we see the Monster shed a tear as he looks longingly at his ‘wife’, still desperate for love.

Karloff’s expression of the Monster transcended the first film, not only because he actually spoke but because Karloff was given greater screen time and there was the recognition that he was the real star. If empathy with the Monster was felt by the audience, it is most evident in Bride Of Frankenstein. The damaged Monster is not only physically hurt but wounded deep within, so much that he wants to end his life. Karloff is superb and whilst the film could not have existed without the first, it is an outstanding film. Again, as he did in the 1931 production, Karloff surpasses the make-up with a powerful range of emotion conveyed through his incredible skills and the intuitive powers he held as an actor.

Bride Of Frankenstein was the high point of chiller genius at Universal, and whilst there were solid and successful films in the horror cycle which followed, it is difficult to place them on the same pedestal. The amount of horror films began to dwindle afterwards and the few that were released did not have the level of quality that had first enthralled audiences. But other changes had occurred as well; the new Breen Code, the banning of horror films in Britain and even changes at Universal Studios itself would all have a major impact. However, in 1938, the double billing of Dracula and Frankensteinwas a huge hit and Universal decided to start a second cycle of horror, starting with the production of Son Of Frankenstein (1939).

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The casting of Basil Rathbone as the late Baron’s son, Wolf, was quite a coup and the focus of the film does move to him. Without the direction of James Whale (who had lost the desire to direct), the appointment was given to Rowland V. Lee, who whilst competent and interesting in his vision, cannot bring to the screen the magic touch of Whale. It also didn’t help that the script was incomplete and changes were consistently coming in each day. More importantly for this discussion, the former looming presence of the Monster was reduced to a haunting spectre at least until later in the film. After the heights of the first two films, Karloff’s portrayal becomes somewhat muted, explained in the plot as the result of the psychological and physical traumas that he has endured. Whilst in the previous films, the Monster was a figure of fear, menace and horror, he would be now reduced to one of curiosity. Indeed when the audience first sees the Monster, he is weak, barely alive and in a coma. But the inherent scientific curiosity of Wolf demands that he bring the Monster back to consciousness. 

The sets are fantastic and Rathbone’s performance is memorable, as well as that of Lionel Atwill as the Police Chief. But ironically, the one man who steals the film from everyone, even Karloff,  is Bela Lugosi as the evil and twisted Ygor. It is perhaps the meatiest and most interesting role since his star turn as Dracula, and if ever there was the ‘sideman’s revenge’ for Lugosi, than this was it.

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There ARE moments where the Monster’s humanity shines through; his anger at seeing himself in the mirror and the depths of his self-consciousness emerging, the relationship with Peter, the Baron’s son and the howl he gives when he find Ygor’s body, perhaps reminiscent of his role in The Old Dark House as Morgan, the brutal butler weeping over the body of Saul. But sadly, there is the foreshadowing of the tropes that will soon take hold in the mind of the public when it comes to the Monster. He follows the commands of Ygor without question, and whilst this emerges to some degree in Bride Of Frankenstein, there is a sinister motive to the Monster’s relationship with Pretorius. Now, he is nothing more than a mindless slave being used for Ygor’s mad schemes. This will be repeated ad nauseum in future films. Gone is the desperate and futile search by the Monster for his sense of self and an answer to his creation. The range of emotions once present are missing and we see a Monster that is flat and limited in scope.

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Additionally, the concept of the Monster being almost ‘super-human’ and indestructible emerges, particularly when Wolf states: Two bullets in his heart but he still lives! And even when he is pushed into a boiling pit of sulphur at the end, the audience has already been trained that it’s not really the end. Karloff is still imposing as the Monster particularly in the final scenes but he could see the writing on the wall. He would never play the Monster again in a major film and lamented the direction in which his beloved Monster was headed. Son Of Frankenstein is still a lot of fun and deserves applause for its’ strong cast and exceptional photography. It’s a tight film and the direction holds it together, with an eerie atmosphere on an outstanding designed set. But something seems to be amiss.

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Karloff would never pour scorn on those actors who followed him in the role, for he was too kind and humble to do so. He did, however, feel that the make-up was doing all the work, even during the filming of Son Of Frankenstein. He felt that the character ‘no longer had any potentialities’ but added that ‘anyone who can take that make-up every morning deserves respect’. Karloff adored the Monster and would forever state that he owed it everything, giving credit to everyone from Whale to make-up artist Jack Pierce, characteristically excluding himself. It must have deeply affected this true gentleman when the Monster became the butt of jokes, which he had always hoped would never happen. When asked to assist in the promotion of Abbot And Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), he reportedly stated that he was happy to do so ‘as long as he didn’t have to see the picture’. Indeed, as much ‘fun’ as the Universal Pictures of the 1940s are, the menace of the Monster from the early 1930s means that the films initially were not meant to be fun and the dark fairy-tale essence of the first horror cycle is missing.

Sadly, to a public long trained to accept popular culture’s depiction of the Monster (now named Frankenstein), the brilliant portrayal of Karloff seems distant. Yet if one truly wishes to discover the origins of the cinematic Monster, they need only need turn to the original trilogy and watch a master at work. Karloff always praised others, such as Jack Pierce for the make-up. But Karloff did what no-one else has been able to do – he transcended the make-up and costume and blended it into his own fascinating and deeply motivated portrayal. Karloff claims he owed his career to the Monster but the Monster owed everything to Karloff as well.

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history. 

Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter (1974): Last of the great Hammer films

by Paul Batters

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“There are as many species of vampire as there are beasts of prey”  – Grost ( John Cater) Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter

Of all the horror films produced by Hammer in the 1970s, Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter perhaps had the greatest potential. Touted to become a new franchise, the studio was in such dire financial straits that no incantations or tana leaves could have revived its’ dying body. And so, any possible future for a series of Kronos fighting all manner of monsters was sadly ended. As a result, there’s only one film as testimony to what Hammer was planning. Yet even as a stand-alone film, Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter, offers a different and fascinating take on the legend of the vampire with an intriguing story.

Directed by Brian Clemens (famed scriptwriter of numerous British TV shows such as The Persuaders, The Avengers and The Professionals), Captain Kronos would introduce a seemingly new yet actually ancient concept of the vampire. This concept also went to the metaphysical depths of vampiric legend that the source of survival was not blood but life itself.  The vampire in Captain Kronos feeds on the life essence and the opening scene of the film, gives us the backdrop to the story in a vivid and terrifying way. Again, there is an evocation of Stoker and vampire folklore as the vibrant youth and beauty of the victims is countered with the decrepit corruption of the monster.

As a counter to the usual narrative, it is day when the first attack happens, whilst two girls who are together in the woods. As one girl runs off to pick flowers, the other sits under a tree and brushes her hair whilst looking into a mirror. The camera acts as the menace, approaching the girl, who discovers the strange figure via its’ reflection in her mirror (going against traditional vampire lore). Initially startled and frightened, she quickly falls under the hypnotic spell of the hooded figure and is drawn into the figure’s embrace, again shown in the reflection of the mirror, after which a few drops of blood fall onto the glass.

Perchance, Dr. Marcus is out riding and notices the second girl looking in in stunned horror. Again, the moment is highly effective in the suggestive gaze of the camera, particularly when Dr. Marcus discovers the victim, who turns to face the camera, horribly aged with blood dripping from her lips. The horror on Dr. Marcus’ face matches that of the audience and the story is set.

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The titles launch, backed by the superb soundtrack of blasting horns and strings of a battle song, with the dashing Captain Kronos (Horst Janson) riding his horse across the green, with his faithful companion Professor Hieronymus Grost (John Cater) following behind. It’s an inspiring moment and the tone of a great hero who is more than a match for any monster is well established.

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Of course, our hero is on his way to the village of Durward, after being called there by his old friend, Dr. Marcus. Kronos’ expertise in fighting and destroying the undead has brought him there. The context of the story is well-established, not only temporally through costume and language but more importantly through the belief system in place. In an age where the power of the Church was unchallenged, the law punishes those who go against Church teachings and dogma. On his way to the village, Kronos discovers a beautiful girl in the stocks, punished for dancing on the Sabbath. The girl, Carla (Caroline Munro) is a gypsy who will stay with Kronos and not only will she become his lover, but Carla will also assist in his search for the vampires.

What will follow makes for an intriguing storyline, with Kronos and his two companions using their knowledge and wisdom to discover the vampires. The methods used are fascinating and well-weaved into the story, with Professor Grost, acting as the classic horror character of the wise and educated elder who educates and familiarises us with vampire lore. Grost’s explanations are fascinating and his methods of discovering vampires, such as placing dead toads in buried boxes, also intriguing.

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The scenes of the mysterious vampire taking down its’ victims are atmospheric and exceptionally done. Again, the flower of youth is accentuated via young, beautiful women with their whole lives in front of them, only to be left as drained husks before dying. Of course, it drives the story forward and the desperate necessity to rid the community of this horrific monster. But there are other horrific ways in which young girls are attacked, evoking classical interpretations of the vampire story.

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Kronos is a fearless hunter of monsters and he also has a powerful intuition and knowledge borne of experience, which will lead him to discover who the vampire is. The hints are already there, after Dr. Marcus has made an earlier visit and of course the usual trope of ‘the noble vampire’ is again employed here. The Durward matriarch seems old and decrepit beyond her years; a result of ‘grief’ from the death of her husband, seven years earlier. Her son Paul (Shane Briant) plays protector to his mother and his beautiful sister Sara (Lois Daine) become suspects to the audience.

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But unlike previous incarnations, there is quite the twist and it takes Kronos’ intuition, mystical powers and vampire knowledge to make the discovery. To draw the vampires out once and for all, he will use Carla as bait, which is beautifully shot and directed. Director Brian Clemens will lead us down the garden path and his screenwriter’s sense of story development makes the final twist all the more exciting.

The final confrontation makes for an exciting finish to the story. Again, Kronos’ brilliance sees him take on the Durward vampires with a mystical sword fashioned from a large crucifix. Its mirrored blade becomes a crucial weapon against Lady Durward (Wanda Ventham), the vampire matriarch.

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What works in Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter is also what lets it down a little. There is plenty of fantastic back-story and plot development that is not exploited enough or rather not enough, to keep us dangling. One wonders if more would have been revealed in future films in the series. Certainly, Captain Kronos himself is a figure with a veiled past, that makes him far more intriguing and fascinating. A veteran of numerous wars (and apparently had served alongside Dr. Marcus in the past), he dismisses questions about his military career, illuminating a cavalier approach that is in keeping with a man with a past who would rather forget it but cannot:

Kerro: Tell me, did you win your battles or lose them?

Kronos: A little of both… and not enough of either.

Obviously, Kronos is a man with incredible abilities, particularly as a swordsman, which has allowed him to survive countless encounters – not only on the battlefield. There is also the suggestion that he is travelled far beyond where most have been and it’s quite interesting that other than the traditional rapier, Kronos also wields a katana. To be in the possession of such a weapon opens up a host of questions – obviously, how did he get it but more to the point, how did he learn to use it? The incorporation of Japanese swordplay also raises another question; where Hammer trying to tap into the explosion of popularity in martial arts movies (This had been attempted, of course, with Legend Of The Seven Golden Vampires).

The scene where Kronos uses the katana is pure gold and evokes countless Westerns, where the underestimated stranger/gunslinger deals with local tough guys or trouble-makers. In the case of Kronos, three men led by Kerro ( a very underused Ian Hendry) are sent to dispatch with the hero, who does the dispatching himself of the three with one super-human stroke of his sword. Impressive? Absolutely and one of the highlights of the film.

What also makes the swordplay work is the quality of the duels, with greater realism in the use of weapons. As already mentioned, the final duel is gruelling and exciting as the two opponents seek to destroy each other through attrition rather than intricate swordplay. Kronos, after all, is a master of war and fighting, not there for the entertainment of others.

There are far more questions than answers, and a number of vague clues leave the audience with even more. At one point, after making love to Carla, Kronos reveals that he lost his family to a vampire, leaving him devastated and empty. He shows Carla two bite mark scars on his neck (given by his vampirised sister). Not having been vampirised himself, does this mean that his ‘near-miss’ has given him wisdom beyond that of mere mortals? Or the mystical and incredible powers that he possesses? What is left, is a man driven to destroy that which destroyed his family and nearly destroyed him. It’s a compelling and fascinating back-story to the character of Captain Kronos that is not developed enough, and this is a certain flaw in the film.

The film certainly needs to be better paced and whilst the slow burn works well in developing a tale, it begs for well-placed flare-ups from time to time to keep the fire going and further drive the story.

Horst Janson has enough charisma and mystery to make for a dashing hero. Whether he could have carried a franchise is impossible to know but this reviewer gets the feeling that he had the goods. Caroline Munro is as stunning and gorgeous as ever, and at least becomes part of the team hunting for vampires, instead of the usual eye candy.

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As a huge fan of Brian Clemens for his work across a number of TV shows, he’s a far better script-writer than director and perhaps a more seasoned director could have been utilised to launch a franchise. After all, this was a last roll of the dice for Hammer. But there are some beautiful touches that Clemens employs; the opening scene is particularly effective, as are the opening titles and overall the film is beautifully shot. Other effective moments are the flowers left blackened after the vampire passes over them. Budget wise, Clemens did not have huge amounts of money to play with, yet he does well with the monetary limitations.

Clemens is on record believing Captain Kronos would have been a perfect franchise, fighting all manner of monster, across all manner of time period (hence the name ‘Kronos’ – Greek for ‘time’). There’s no doubt that there is huge potential for a series. (Perhaps television was an option?)

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In fairness, Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter is a good film made at the wrong time. The audience demand for Hammer-type films was dying off by the mid 1970s, as a whole new approach to horror had emerged, particularly thanks to Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The horrors of Satan and demonic possession far outweighed Gothic horror tales and brought a deeper, more frightening fear out of the depths of an audiences’ psyche. Additionally, the terrifying reality and real fear of serial killers had emerged in the post-war era and the slasher film, with the almost-supernatural relentless killer a la Halloween, would frighten audiences far more than a frilly-shirted vampire from literature. Such horrors were turning up in newspaper headlines and the 6 o’clock news, rather than Gothic literature.

Hammer had gambled on combining genres which were out of fashion; the horror film and the swashbuckling hero. A great idea that did not fit the era and even if a franchise had taken off, it’s a safe bet that it would not have survived to see a third film, given the nature of what audiences wanted.

But there are other factors to consider. The film was made in 1972 but struggled with finding release by 1974, when as already discussed, new forms of the horror film had emerged. Caroline Munro has stated that it barely got released in Britain and she wasn’t even made aware it was being shown. For a Hammer Film, minimal publicity and struggles with getting wide distribution, was an anathema and simply unheard of. But the budget wasn’t there.

Nevertheless, Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter is lots of fun and perhaps one of the better Hammer films of the 1970s. It’s a last great hurrah for the studio which transformed the horror film from the days of silvers and sepia (for better or for worse), into a world of colour, sex and excitement. Captain Kronos won’t disappoint, and the hallmarks of Hammer are all over its production. It deserves to be honoured as a cult classic.

(Note: The film in full is available via Hammer’s You Tube Channel. You can view it via the link below)

This article is an entry into the Great Hammer Amicus Blogathon, kindly hosted by Realweegiemidget Reviews It’s been a great pleasure to take part! Click on the link to read other great articles on classic films from Hammer and Amicus. 

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.

To remake or not to remake? The question on rebooting classic film.

by Paul Batters

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Recently, Harrison Ford made an interesting declaration regarding one of his most iconic characters, which is also part of one cinema’s most financially successful franchises – Indiana Jones. Famously close-mouthed about previous roles, the actor made the comment in anticipation of the Disney announcement that a 5th instalment of the Indiana Jones franchise would be released in July 2021. Basically, Ford claimed the role as permanently his, stating:

‘Nobody else is gonna be Indiana Jones! Don’t you get it? I’m Indiana Jones. When I’m gone, he’s gone…’

Whether this declaration is tongue-in-cheek or serious, I cannot ascertain nor does it particularly matter for the purpose of this article. The vast majority of fans would probably agree with Ford, as Indiana Jones is one of cinema’s most loved action heroes. (If his friend George Lucas is anything to go by, there is little to be held sacred in remaking or re-hashing films. Star Wars, anyone?)

But it does raise an interesting question – are there screen characters which should never be re-visited?

It’s also a polarising question and one which probably raises another more divisive question – should classic films be re-made? Cinema is certainly in a strange place at the moment, and there have been consistent attacks on the state of film-making with criticism aimed at the lack of creativity, the focus on special effects and CGI and particularly the obsession on re-makes. The Marvel and DC domination has been discussed ad nauseam and the recent Godzilla movie speaks to this issue as well. (What’s the current tally of Godzilla movies since the 1954 original?)

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The criticisms are not unfounded, and this reviewer certainly agrees with the aforementioned sentiments regarding cinema’s current sins. However, are these problems simply a contemporary phenomenon? Or has Hollywood been re-making films and re-casting iconic roles since its’ earliest days? 

Indeed, the ‘re-make’ has been a part of entertainment that goes back to ancient times. Initially, the ancient Greeks, who created the concept of drama, would see performances only the once and their plays were unique, one-off experiences. However, over time, those plays were performed again and again, particularly during the Hellenistic period. It was also meant that those plays stayed alive and they are still with us today. Consider the plays of Shakespeare. They have been performed, interpreted and even changed (depending on context) since Elizabethan times. King Lear has been interpreted through a whole range of approaches from a medieval Japan context to one set with 1950s Eastern Bloc /Cold War aesthetics! The richness of these stories in language, theme, character and emotion are still alive because they have been performed for hundreds of years. And of course, the Bard’s stories have been interpreted for the screen. Think Olivier’s 1945 film version of Henry V, which is often considered one of the finest screen interpretations of the play. Does this become the one and only version, never to be remade? What of Baz Lurhman’s Romeo And Juliet (1995)? It is not the first nor will it be the last telling of the tragic story of two star-crossed lovers.

The truth is that some of our most loved, revered and celebrated films are remakes, whether we realise it or not. We often chide Hollywood for remaking films within only a few years of each other but actually it’s been a practice since the silent days. By the time, Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde was made in 1932 at Paramount, the story had been filmed at least 8 times, with three versions being made in one year! (1920 to be precise, two in the U.S and one in Germany).  John Barrymore’s 1920 turn as the infamous dual personality was a benchmark performance but March as the doomed doctor is perhaps the most superb in sound film history, with even the great Spencer Tracy unable to reach audiences in the 1941 version with Ingrid Bergman.

The same is true for quite a number of films based on classic literature such as A Tale Of Two Cities, Treasure Island, The Three Musketeers and A Christmas Carol – all being filmed numerous times. By the 1935 MGM version, David Copperfield had been made 3 times. The story of Oliver Twist was on its’ 8thversion in the loved 1968 musical Oliver!(with the film being made 6 times during the silent era!).  William Wyler’s Ben Hur is often cited as the greatest epic ever made and a standard by which other ‘big films’ are measured. Yet it too is a remake of the 1925 silent epic starring Roman Navarro and Francis X. Bushman. (Ironically, the recent remake of Ben Hur was critically panned and financially an unmitigated disaster).

Interestingly enough, Cecil B. deMille is an example of a director who revisited earlier films he had made and gave them a new perspective. The Squaw Man (1914) would be remade two more times in 1918 and 1931! Of all the films he made, his most celebrated, known and loved is his final film, The Ten Commandments (1956), a far superior remake of his own 1923 silent version. In this case, the original is not the best. The 1956 version is the quintessential epic tale, resplendent in Technicolor, with all the kitsch, pageantry and excitement of Biblical proportions that are synonymous with deMille and the epic film.

But not only have epics and tales from classic literature been remade to great or greater success. Contemporary stories have been revisited as well. In the world of film noir, one film which justifiably makes every top five list was on its third remake when it was redone by John Huston. The Maltese Falcon (1941) remains one of the greatest films ever made, far out-pacing it’s prior two incarnations which would have become little more than a footnote in cinema history. The previous 1931 same-titled version starring Ricardo Cortez and Bebe Daniels is a little stilted, whilst its’ 1936 remake, Satan Met A Lady, starring William Warren and Bette Davis feels more like a typical Warner Bros. programmer and was even considered by critics at the time, such as Bosley Crowther, as ‘inferior to the original’. Neither are remarkable and again, the original is not the best. Huston’s version of the Dashiell Hammett pulp fiction novel, would help to create the tropes and cinematic expression for film noir, and Bogart’s performance as private eye, Sam Spade has become legendary and would make him a star.

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Unfortunately, there is sometimes an element of exploitation that comes with the remake. But Hollywood is a business and driven by profit. If an audience responds, then it the film is deemed a success. The horror genre is one where the remake is a constant, driven by the profit margin rather than artistic merit. That has certainly been the impression felt with Universal’s recent attempt at ‘re-booting’ the classic Universal monsters with disastrous results. (This writer feels that Universal was making an attempt to trash its’ legacy!) The classic monsters were first seen in monochrome but would be remade in the 1950s and 1960s in Britain by Hammer Studios, complete with full-blown colour, gore and sex. Exploitive? Perhaps. Yet audiences saw a new interpretation of the undead Transylvanian count – from a dream-like, hypnotic and slow-speaking Lugosi to an animalistic and vivid Christopher Lee, complete with bloodied fangs. Horror fans often find it difficult to choose, with the character of Dracula ‘belonging’ to both actors. Yet Lee would be less successful with the Frankenstein monster, as would many who preceded and followed Lee, and the monster has been firmly associated with the brilliant performance of Boris Karloff in the original 1932 film and its’ two sequels. Still, the Hammer remakes resonated with audiences, offering something new and exciting.

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Yet there are characters that belong to certain actors and actresses and their ownership of those performances are complete. It is impossible to think of anyone else but Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara or for that matter, Clark Gable as Rhett Butler. And of course, Gone With The Wind is a film that no-one would dare remake. The same could be said for Casablanca,again a film with iconic performances from Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, a song that had stood the test of time in its’ poignant definition of love and of course some of cinema’s most famous lines. How could it be remade? The story of Robin Hood has been told numerous times, with mixed results and mixed reviews. Arguably, the role was firmly identified with Douglas Fairbanks Snr, one of the great silent stars, after his 1922 film was a huge hit; until Warner Bros. remade the film in full colour in 1938, with Errol Flynn. A natural for the role, Flynn has owned the role since, despite numerous A-listers taking on the role over the decades.

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There are countless other roles and films which, if recast or remade, would results in loud cries of protest. And perhaps rightfully so. Could The Wizard Of Oz be remade? (Actually, it, too is a remake!) How about Edward G. Robinson as ‘Little’ Caesar Bandello? Imagine a ‘reboot’ of Chaplin’s work. Or Hitchcock’s films. (It’s been done!) Singin’ In The RainDouble Indemnity? The Godfather? Metropolis? Duck Soup? Some Like It Hot?

In the end, a remake will work or fail if it resonates with the audience. For better or for worse, that’s the lowest common denominator that determines a film’s eventual worth andif it will stand the test of time. For silent films (and indeed even some sound films from the golden years of Hollywood), this has proved difficult. Aside from cinephiles and classic film lovers, silent films find difficulty in gaining traction in a mainstream market and for audiences not exposed to silent film. Additionally, we have audiences trained to expect blockbuster films over-cooked with CGI and action every 30 seconds. A silent film, without sound, colour and very different contexts finds it difficult to gain a foothold.

But all the technological advancements in the world cannot replicate, re-design or replace the impact of story.

It takes a fair amount of courage and risk when a remake is given the green light. It means big shoes to fill and an attempt to draw out a performance from under the giant shadow of its’ predecessor. Cinematic history shows that it does happen. But there are films that are like classic works of art. Can a work by Monet or Dali be redone? Should a piece of music by Mozart or Brahms be re-written? And the importance of textual integrity cannot be over-stated either. The recent tragedy of the near destruction of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, will see deep discussion and debate on how to ‘remake’ what has been lost or damaged. Will it be in keeping with the historic and architectural integrity of the building? Will it be true to the cathedral’s past whilst reflecting the modern era (or does it have to)? And how will people react in the present and in the future to any change or lack of change?

The remaking of classic film shares a similar dilemma.

There are advantages to classic films being remade. It sounds almost unthinkable but Nosferatu (1922) would be successfully remade by Werner Herzog (in an English AND German version!) in 1979 with the famed Klaus Kinski in the title role, to great critical and commercial success. It is an impressive film, with stunning visuals, incredibly deep pathos and emotion, and Kinski is outstanding as the vampire. As a result, it also brought new interest in the original 1922 film. If remakes can arouse interest, educate audiences and broaden the experience of cinema, whilst offering a new and exciting perspective/interpretation, then it serves a great purpose.

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But just because classic films can be remade, does not mean that they shouldbe. As already mentioned, Universal came close to trashing their own legacy with the attempted (and hopefully permanently aborted) reboot of the classic horror monsters, which felt watching someone take fluorescent spray cans to the Sistine Chapel. But as audiences, we do need to set aside prejudged notions and allow for new interpretations of stories. This is what provides a richness to cinema and art. Multiple and contemporary readings offer greater insights and new interpretations offer inclusivity to modern and future audiences – and there is great value in that prospect.

But new is not enough. ‘New’ for the sake of ‘new’ does not do justice to a work of art. Nor does new mean better. What is also important to recognise is that masterpieces do not and cannot be replicated. Nor do they need to be. We can already enjoy what exists, revisit them time and time again and walk away re-spirited, revitalised and emotionally moved.

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.

London After Midnight (1927): The Movie and The Myth

by Paul Batters

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Around mid-February this year, a rumour did the rounds on social media and film-sites that a certain lost classic film had indeed been found. Or to be more correct, the headline was click-bait and the generally short article which followed was a rumour about a rumour that a certain lost classic film had been found. Nothing substantiated and the same oft-repeated story that is recycled every so often spoke about a print in Spain (or was it Cuba?) or a private collector in possession of a print who just before releasing it, decides against it and thus the story leaves a haze of smoke (excuse the poor joke) before we all move on.

There are a number of lost films which gather the excitement of film fans and in some cases the excitement is warranted. A good example is the recently restored version of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), which is considered almost fully restored after a damaged print of Lang’s complete film was found in an Argentinian museum. But versions of the film had been around previously and it was not a totally lost film. A film like Erich von Stroheim’s 1922 epic Greed has become legendary for its’ missing footage which reportedly runs into hours and the final MGM cut was not in line with von Stroheim’s vision. Again, rumours of missing footage surface from time to time – all proving false. There are countless other films, particularly from the silent era, which are considered lost and perhaps, sadly, always will be.

So when the rumour arose earlier this year that Tod Browning’s London After Midnight (1927) had emerged, the ardour of fans was cautioned by the usual disappointment that follows. Like Greed and a number of other lost films, London After Midnight has been dubbed the ‘holy Grail’ of lost films – a term almost clichéd, as I have the distinct feeling that if it is ever discovered, the initial excitement of film fans will soon become muted.

London After Midnight was destroyed, along with hundreds of other films, in the MGM vault fire of 1967. Ironically, MGM was perhaps the only studio that worked to preserve its’ films, using contemporary technology to protect the original nitrates as well as convert them to safer film. Many of the other studios tragically allowed their film stock to crumble and even disposed of them. At any rate, London After Midnight was only one film among many that were destroyed.

This article will not endeavour to outline the plot in detail and nor review the ‘restoration’, which is a 45 minute collection of stills and promotional images. Nevertheless, the film is perhaps more correctly defined as a thriller/mystery, going by contemporary reviews. Lon Chaney Snr plays Inspector Burke of Scotland Yard, who is investigating a death that five years earlier had been designated a suicide. The house in which the victim died has new tenants who are spooked by two eerie and frightening figures, having the appearance of a vampire and his undead companion, Luna (Edna Tichenor). But as the story unfolds, the audience discovers that the spooky goings-on are all part of an elaborate plan to uncover the truth behind the death and the ‘vampire’ is actually Inspector Burke in disguise and Luna is an actress from the theatre. In the end, hypnosis is used to discover the killer by inducing him to re-enact the crime.

If you’re confused by the storyline, you’re not alone and some film historians are even more confused as to why the film is so highly sought after. Yet the news that London After Midnight was lost saw its’ legendary status take root in the imagination of film historians and movie buffs.

So why has it received such legendary status?

The film’s destruction occurred at a time when there had been a resurgence of interest in classic films, with quite a number of films being shown on television for the first time in years. Additionally, classic horror films had regained their popularity, assisted in great part by fanzines and popular monster movie magazines such as ‘Famous Monsters Of Filmland’. The great Lon Chaney Snr was in some ways a star all over again and his ability to play a variety of roles was certainly a point of interest; in this case particularly featuring Chaney in a dual role.

The incredibly striking images of Chaney as a vampire which appeared in such magazines, naturally stirred horror films fans to want to see the legendary Chaney in that very film. Indeed, the make-up used by Chaney is haunting and creepy, and certainly matches his efforts from The Phantom Of The Opera (1925). The rows of sharp teeth, fixed in a permanent smile of death coupled with a pair of dead, drooping eyes staring at the audience, still evokes emotions of dread, terror and repulsion. Stooping and leering at Edna Tichenor in beaver hat, evening dress and bat-winged cape all still remain powerful images for horror film fans and even moreso because they are all we have due to the status of the film as lost.

Along with horror film magazines, the many horror film books also published over the years by authors such as Alan Frank have also discussed the film, further adding to its’ legendary status. With Chaney’s deserved reputation as a legend of film, and his place in horror film history assured, his only film role as a vampire would certainly be fascinating both to horror film buffs and students of classic film. After all, it would be one of the first films after Nosferatu (1922) to depict a vampire in such an explicitly terrifying way (notwithstanding the fact that Chaney is playing someone disguised as a vampire).

Furthermore, those who saw the film upon its’ release have all passed on and any contemporary accounts of the film are left to the reviews from critics. But negative criticisms have tended to be drowned out or muted as the generation that made those critiques and/or originally viewed the film are long since dead. All that is left is the legend and the myth. Added to this is the fact that the generations holding a torch for the film grew up believing in the legend and have thus carried those impressions into the present.

And of course, the primary reason for seeing it would be the star of the film – Lon Chaney Snr. By the time the film was made, he was one of Hollywood’s greatest stars and indeed a name known the world over. It would be a fatal mistake to assume that his stardom was due to his abilities with make-up in creating startling characters. On the contrary, the pathos and emotion of the characters Chaney portrayed on the screen transcended make-up and his screen presence is as potent today as it was during the silent era.

So why would the film disappoint?

By all reports, London After Midnight was a decent earner for MGM in 1927 but it was not a tearaway success and critics at the time were not particularly kind to the film. Soister and Nicolella in American Silent Horror, Science Fiction and Fantasy Feature Films, 1913-1929 (2012) point out that critics saw the story lines as ‘nonsensical’ and Variety did not rate the film highly, calling Chaney ‘just fair’ in the role, adding that it was ‘not much of a drawing card’. The New York Times was lukewarm in its’ appraisal, also calling the storyline ‘incoherent’ and it didn’t seem impressed by Chaney’s ‘uncanny disguise’.

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Film historians such as William K. Everson have shown greater control and offered critical discussion when discussing the film and make the point that it’s reputation had been blown all out of proportion, particularly by horror film publications geared towards mass consumption by the kiddie and teen markets. As a result, London After Midnight is a film that is perhaps more enigmatic than it deserves to be, if we go by contemporary critics. Our own childhood memories of films are sometimes turned sour upon viewing them as adults and the magic seems to have departed. A viewing of London After Midnight could very well have a similar effect.

Additionally, the film is often mentioned in the same breath as The Phantom Of The Opera (1925) and Paul Leni’s The Cat And The Canary (1927) because of their prosaic endings, as pointed out by Olaf Brill in Expressionism in the Cinema. American audiences at the time would simply not accept supernatural films, in the same way that European audiences did. Whilst much is made about Browning’s ‘cheat ending’, in context audiences at the time may not have been so disappointed. When comparing to the Browning remake of 1935’s Mark Of The Vampire with Bela Lugosi, audiences had made that jump into accepting the supernatural primarily because of the Universal horror cycle of the early 1930s –and ironically it was Browning’s 1931 classic Dracula which started it all. It makes sense that a 1935 audience would have felt ‘cheated’ but what does that mean for today’s audience viewing London After Midnight, after decades of conditioning to accept otherwise and then some?

The existing and remaining stills are certainly thrilling and capture our imagination and it is only natural that we want to see more. But what are we seeing? Are we imposing our own predisposed notions upon those stills, fuelled by our long-held desire to see a lost classic? They are images that promise much but can they deliver?

Perhaps most damning of all, according to Jon Mirsalis, is the claim from Everson and fellow film historian David Bradley that they viewed the film in the early 1950s and it was inferior to its’ 1935 remake Mark Of The Vampire. Mirsalis also adds that:

‘the eerie Cedric Gibbons-Arnold Gillespie sets, and Chaney’s stunning vampire make-up, make for intriguing still photographs, but these scenes account for only a small portion of the film, the rest of the footage being devoted to Polly Moran’s comic relief, and talkie passages between detective Chaney and Walthall…’

Such a claim does not inspire confidence!

As much as other classic film fans, I would still be thrilled and terribly excited to see a re-discovered London After Midnight. The prospect of seeing those famous stills come to life after decades of being captivated by them would be too enticing to ignore. But I fear that if it is re-discovered, for all the brilliance of Lon Chaney Snr, it will not be the classic that we are anticipating.

 

This article is a part of the 2018 Lon Chaney Snr Blogathon hosted by Maddy Loves Her Classic Films – https://maddylovesherclassicfilms.wordpress.com/2018/05/05/the-lon-chaney-sr-blogathon-day-one/ and Silver Screenings – https://silverscreenings.org/2018/05/06/the-lon-chaney-sr-blogathon-day-two/. Please click on the links for other great articles on the legendary Lon Chaney Snr. 

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.

The Top Five Great Performances Of Bela Lugosi

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by Paul Batters

‘To die, to be really dead…that must be glorious’ Bela Lugosi Dracula (1931)

Halloween is upon us! And without a doubt, film fans are finalising their viewing lists for the evening. I’m always interested in the carefully chosen lists of film buffs – lists that often stay thematic (or within a sub-genre) or offer a smorgasbord of horror delights or are even look quite eclectic.

For fans of classic film, the horror genre is rich with great films to enjoy, particularly during Halloween. And of course there are countless B-features and horror schlock quickies that are guilty pleasures, as well as the great classic films that broke ground and established two of horror’s greatest stars in the early 1930s – Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi.

Of these two, Karloff’s career was perhaps the more successful and long lasting. While typecast in the horror genre, Karloff was able to eventually embrace it. Lugosi was not so fortunate and perhaps did not manage his career as well as Karloff did. Despite starring in some successful film, Lugosi would sadly find a career relegated to Poverty Row films, which would dwindle in his final years to films remembered for the wrong reasons.

Despite Lugosi’s less than glamorous final years, he is immortal amongst classic horror film fans. Yes there may have been some clunkers in which he starred but Lugosi alone often pulled the film out of the doldrums simply due to his presence.

So when considering your Halloween viewing lists, consider the following performances, which I feel are his best.

Just for the record, the aim here is not to critique the films per se but Lugosi’s performances. Even a bad film can have an interesting and/or fantastic performance.

  1. Murder Legendre – White Zombie (1932)

White Zombie was an independent production by the Halperin brothers, which was not kindly received by critics at the time. Despite harsh criticism of the film’s ‘woeful acting’, most critics were positive about Lugosi’s performance and it is still the best thing about White Zombie. Since its’ initial release, it has seen in a different light and revived to some degree. At best, White Zombie is interesting with its’ creepy atmosphere and strange storyline. If it has any life in it, it’s due to the Bela Lugosi’s commanding charisma.

Looking Satanic in his goatee, with wild eyes and imposing stature, Lugosi plays the master of his domain to the hilt. The camera attempts to exploit Lugosi’s hand gestures, emphasising the use of his power over others with close-ups. Lugosi’s voice is also commanding, delivering with intimidation as his eyes burn into those upon whom he fixes his gaze. Sean Axmaker in his Jan. 2013 review of the Kino Blu-ray release of White Zombie for Parallax View makes the following observation of Lugosi:

‘…a languorous hypnotist and voodoo master who dominates the film with his assured bearing and cruel control. Not just menacing, he is ferociously vindictive, supplying the local mills with an army of zombie laborers and turning his enemies into his personal zombie servants…’

The fact that Kino has gone to the trouble of releasing a Blu-ray version of White Zombie is testament to its’ lasting success as a cult film and the fact that it still stands as one of Lugosi’s best performances.

  1. Armand Tesla – The Return Of The Vampire (1943)

 Directed by Lew Landers and released by Columbia Pictures, The Return Of The Vampire was made during a period where Columbia dabbled in a number of supernatural/horror releases. Most critics make it clear that Lugosi is obviously playing Dracula but for legal reasons (namely Universal owning the rights) the character was re-named Armand Tesla.

The Return Of The Vampire feels stranded between an A and B-feature and it is the last time Lugosi would work in such a quality picture for a major studio, not counting his last turn as Dracula for Universal in 1948’s comedy/horror Abbott And Costello Meet Frankenstein. The plot, set in London, tells of Lady Jane Ainsley (Frieda Inescort), who is being pursued by a vampire named Armand Tesla (Bela Lugosi). After wreaking havoc on her household, he is eventually pursued and a stake driven into his heart by Lady Jane and Professor Walter Saunders (Gilbert Emery). However, during World War Two, the cemetery is disturbed by air raids and gravediggers who have been ordered to re-bury the disturbed bodies find Tesla’s body and remove the stake. Tesla is revived and aided by his werewolf servant Andreas (Matt Willis), seeks out Lady Jane and the daughter of Saunders, Nikki (Nina Foch).

Despite a fairly run of the mill vampire story and, I feel, some unfair criticism, the film has some effective scenes and fairly solid production value. True, Tesla is no Dracula but Lugosi is forever the effective vampire and convincing in the role. Lugosi presents a vampire hell-bent on survival, impatient and raw in emotion, unlike the smooth, measured count of his greatest role. Better dialogue is found wanting but Lugosi makes the most with what he has and gives a strong performance.

Lugosi had always hoped for a follow-up to Dracula. There was disappointment for him with Dracula’s Daughter (1936) and though he played his famous role in Abbott And Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), Lugosi’s best days were behind him. The Return Of The Vampire was the closest he was ever going to get to a follow-up.

The final scene showing Tesla’s final demise exhibits some gruesome horror, befitting the last starring role, which Lugosi would hold for a top line studio.

  1. Dr. Vitus Werdegast – The Black Cat (1934)

When Karloff and Lugosi became stars in the early 1930s, it made sense that Universal would cash in on their success and bring the two stars together. In total, Karloff and Lugosi would work together in seven films. However, the first film they made stands as their best. Both would later add that the film stands as a personal favourite for each man.

The Black Cat (1934) is a masterpiece of the macabre. As a piece of dark poetry, it delves into the realm of perversion far more than the cornerstones of the Universal horror cycle ever did. It descends down a long staircase into the bowels of the bizarre, further darkened by themes which would not be tampered with again for many years in cinema, such as Satanism, torture, human sacrifice and necrophilia (just to name a few).

True, the film has some plot holes an ocean liner could sail through and many critics have stated how little the film resembles Edgar Allen Poe’s original story, despite the advertising using Poe’s name in promotions. But don’t let that distract you. The incredible art deco set alone is an attention-grabber and director Edgar G Ulmer creates an eerie and trance-like atmosphere, in which the young honeymooning couple Peter (David Manners) and Joan Alison (Julie Bishop) find themselves entangled. But they become a plot device for the duel between archenemies Hjalmar Poelzig (Boris Karloff) and Dr. Vitus Werdegast (Bela Lugosi), meeting again after 15 years.

Werdegast (Lugosi) is ostensibly the hero of the film, returning to seek revenge on the diabolical Poelzig (Karloff) for his terrible crimes of the past. What follows becomes a game of chess where the two pit their wits against each other, with a horrific climax to the duel that still shocks today.

Lugosi is commanding, showing the perfect balance between restraint and zeal as the revenge-seeking doctor. His channelling of Wedegast’s inner torment is well balanced by his ability to gain our sympathy, whilst his rage bubbles underneath. His first moments in the film are impressive, as Lugosi carries himself with class and charm as he meets the young couple. Early in the film, Wedegast says little in terms of his experiences as a former P.O.W but the weighting that Lugosi carefully places on each word combined with his anguished eyes is enough for the audience to understand what horrors he has survived. Not long afterwards, as the young couple and Wedegast travel on the bus from the station, the driver tells the story of the place they are heading to:

‘All of this country was one of the greatest battlefields of the war. Tens of thousands of men died here. The ravine down there was piled twelve deep with dead and wounded men. The little river below was swollen red, a raging torrent of blood. And that high hill yonder where Engineer Poelzig now lives, was the site of Fort Marmorus. He built his home on its very foundations. Marmorus, the greatest graveyard in the world!’

As the driver tells his story, Wedegast re-lives the horror of war and the personal tragedies faced, which Lugosi expresses by simply closing his eyes. Wedegast is a man who has suffered terribly and Lugosi brilliantly conveys that anguish, particularly in the final scenes of the film, where his rage bursts through and the time for masks is over. His glee is unconfined and Lugosi holds nothing back. Whilst there are moments that are disturbing, such as his caressing of Jane as she sleeps and of course the film’s climax, the audience cannot help but feel for Wedegast and the horrors he has endured.

Lugosi’s performance was in need of some tempering by Ulmer. Indeed, the moments when Lugosi encounters the black cat are hammy. According to Bret Wood in his review on TCM:

Ulmer cleverly moderated Lugosi’s performance by limiting his screen time, focusing more on reaction shots of other characters. “You had to cut away from Lugosi continuously,” Ulmer said, “to cut him down.”

I would add that if that is the case, it speaks more for Lugosi who gave Ulmer plenty to work with.

  1. Ygor – Son Of Frankenstein (1939)

Son Of Frankenstein (1939) was the last time Karloff would take on the role of the Monster and whilst an interesting and still entertaining film, it does not have the quality of the prior two and pales in comparison to James Whale’s 1935 classic The Bride Of Frankenstein. Whilst there is no doubt of its’ A-film status, there are hints of the B-films to come in the early 1940s, particularly evident in moments which show the Monster as a mindless brute following Ygor’s orders.

But for all intents and purposes, it’s a valued member of the original Frankenstein trilogy. The premise is simple enough. Baron Wolf von Frankenstein (Basil Rathbone), son of Henry Frankenstein returns to his ancestral home with his wife and son and finds the village haunted by the past and still living in fear. The Baron, also a scientist, seeks to rehabilitate his father’s memory and prove his father was correct. Exploring the castle, he discovers the evil Ygor who leads him to the Monster’s body, in a coma in the family crypt. The Baron is ecstatic but as his father before him discovered, things will not go well!

Other than his most iconic role, Lugosi as Ygor is perhaps his best. Lugosi is creepy and unsettling in his portrayal of the demented blacksmith who has survived a hanging. Our first encounter with him eerily playing his flute and then re-telling the story of his escaped execution is thoroughly memorable and off-putting. The audience’s lack of trust in Ygor is confirmed when we finally see his intentions in bringing the Monster back.

Ygor’s plan is to take revenge on those who sentenced him to death by hanging. As demented as Ygor is, he is not foolish enough to execute his plan without careful planning. He bides his time and finds the perfect tool in the Monster. In one particular scene, inflected with a touch of humour, Ygor fakes a coughing fit in order to spit in the eye of one of his accusers. It is an ominous moment, as he will enact revenge on the same man in a far more horrific way.

It is no wonder that Ygor and the Monster form a connection. Both are outcasts and like the Monster, Ygor has cheated death and hates the people of the village. Lugosi’s hideous smile barely hides his evil intentions, leaving the audience feeling uncomfortable. For all the charges made about Lugosi’s heavy accent and lack of versatility, here he uses his voice exceptionally well. Harsh, gruff and menacing in tone, Lugosi makes Ygor a fuller and meatier villain in great part due to the effective use of his voice.

Son Of Frankenstein is a high point in Lugosi’s career and arguably he would never again have such a strong role in an A-film production. J. Hoberman in the Village Voice makes the valid claim that Lugosi ‘steals the movie in his last really juicy role’.

  1. Title Role – Dracula (1931)

Dracula (1931) is the film that truly started it all. Not only would it make Lugosi a star but it would also begin the classic horror cycle and take audiences into the world of the supernatural.

Today, Dracula feels dated and even stagey, due to its’ script being based on the stage version, as well as the clunky directing by Tod Browning. The oft-repeated criticism is that it is crying out for a soundtrack and is often stilted. The climax of the film is particularly disappointing and Browning blew a great opportunity for an exciting finish.

The cast has its’ strengths. Edward Van Sloan projects authority and wisdom as the brilliant Dr Van Helsing and I would challenge anyone to find a more disturbing Renfield than the one created here by Dwight Frye, who is exceptional and haunting as the deranged slave to the vampire.

But the true strength of the film is none other than Bela Lugosi. He is supreme with authority as the commanding vampire and uses his gaze to full effect. The supposed weaknesses of his voice are at full advantage when he speaks, with the deliberation and control of one who need not rush for anyone.

The first scenes of the film are amongst its’ best. From the first appearance of Dracula himself in the decrepit bowels of his castle, as he emerges from his coffin along with his vampire wives, the audience is transported into a dark fairy tale where time seems immaterial. When Renfield arrives, he is met by the aristocratic count descending the broken staircase and speaking the cinematically immortal words, ‘I am Dracula…I bid you welcome’. Measuring Renfield carefully like a ‘spider spinning his web for the unwary fly’, Lugosi exudes menace and power as speaks of the ‘children of the night’. Every phrase spoken by Lugosi is just as measured and though he speaks seldom, Lugosi does so with purpose and he is arresting at every word.

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The film starts to slide away when the setting steps into modern London but Lugosi still dominates and his commanding presence is fitting as a count who has lived through the ages. His psychological dual with Van Helsing still impresses and whilst his seduction of his victims is assuaged to some degree, Lugosi still brings controlled energy to each scene.

The love/hate relationship with the character would remain for Lugosi throughout his life. It would typecast him and yet it gave Lugosi his fame. It launched yet also destroy his career, although Lugosi’s choice of roles would certainly play its’ role in impacting on his career.

As wonderful as Christopher Lee and others have been in playing the infamous vampire, they are always measured against the still-haunting and mesmerising performance of Bela Lugosi.

There are quite a number of B-films, serials and even worse that Lugosi made for Poverty Row studios and independent producers. Many of them lack the production value that Lugosi was more deserving of and in some cases the films are outright terrible. Yet many of them still entertain and deserve a little more respect than what is often afforded them. In all the productions Bela Lugosi was involved with, he was the consummate professional. Most of all, he was the first true horror star, sparking off the classic horror cycle and remaining long after his passing as the Dark Prince haunting the broken battlements of his castle.

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history

Patron Saint Of The Mad Scientist: A Look At ‘The Island of Lost Souls’ (1932)

by Paul Batters

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‘Mr. Parker, do you know what it means to feel like God?’ Dr Moreau

The early 1930s saw the beginnings of the classic horror cycle, spawned by the incredible success of Universal’s two big releases, Dracula (1931) and Frankenstein (1932). Both films would put Universal on the map as the home of horror and other studios also sought to cash in on Universal’s success. Even M.G.M did with Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932). Paramount faired a little better with the brilliant remake of Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde (1932) and in the same year made another film that, like Freaks, would be banned in the U.K. Based on the story ‘The Island Of Dr Moreau’, its’ author H.G Wells would also denounce the film. Despite Paramount’s huge advertising campaign, it was a commercial failure as well.

It would be forgotten until revived when interest in classic horror films grew during the 1960s, thanks to television re-runs and monster movie magazines like Famous Monsters Of Filmland.

As a result, The Island of Lost Souls (1932) has become a curiosity, as much as a deserved addition in the pantheon of the mad scientist genre.

So what makes it interesting?

The story itself has all the hallmarks of the horror film with the mad scientist at its’ core. On an isolated island, Dr Moreau (Charles Laughton) is obsessed with turning different animals into humans, delving into the possibilities of speeding up the process of evolution. This is itself reflects the aberration that other mad scientists find themselves involved with. However, unlike Dr. Frankenstein who seeks to create life from dead human tissue, Moreau aims to transform already living animals into humans. However, the aberration does not end there, as he also aims to mate his ‘creations’. It is into this world that our heroes, Edward Parker (Richard Arlen) and Ruth Thomas (Leila Hyams) are thrown, with Moreau’s intent to make them part of his experiments. At first, Moreau shows them his successes but also his ‘less successful experiments’ with a casual wave. Horrific enough – but there is more horror to come! Needless to say, the reviewer will attempt to avoid any further plot developments in order to spare the reader any spoilers. But of course no guarantees can be given.

Thematically, The Island Of Lost Souls does explore the classic features of the mad scientist. Dr Moreau is a man who has isolated himself from the world in his pursuits and forgone the methodology of his discipline. Like Victor Frankenstein, he sneers at the mainstream scientific world and seeks answers in the same sacrilegious way. But of course such isolation creates a greater disconnect from a moral centre which questions his actions, as well as the fundamental aspect of science – peer assessment and the challenging of theories. Moreau, as a result, becomes a man who sees himself beyond reproach and thus the danger has long set in for Moreau. His sense of himself as a ‘god’ mirrors what Frankenstein initially feels. At one point, Moreau literally plagiarises Frankenstein and states “Do you know what it feels like to be God?’ However, Frankenstein’s ‘God moment’ will not last, as he is repelled by his creation and regrets his mistakes. Moreau, however, is undeterred and like the true mad scientist, continues ‘working ‘, not merely intoxicated by his ‘Godliness’ but is completely immersed in it.

Like Frankenstein, Moreau does not wish to be at the mercy of nature. Indeed, his goal is to control it, again reflecting the perception of himself as God. His desire to mate his creations with the at-first unsuspecting heroes of the story, expands on this desire for control. Yet here runs a deeper thematic concern that Moreau is as much a prisoner of this as are his creations. His desire to be God will be his downfall, as is the lot of any mad scientist. Trapped on his own island, Moreau is also trapped by his obsession and unable to look beyond it. Strangely, the concept of reason, which is a fundamental principle of science, eludes him completely. Admittedly, Parker’s attempt to play wiser head to Moreau is not only poorly done but also futile as well as beyond the reach of Parker. Moreau has developed his own logic to suit his schemes and experiments – as any mad scientist who knows his or her business would do.

Moreau is not ‘mad’ in the deranged sense of the world, nor is he a sadist fulfilled by the infliction of pain. Indeed, he is indifferent to the pain, which he inflicts, especially when examining his creations. The scene where he is examining Lota the Panther woman is particularly horrific, not only because of the pain and disgust that it draws from the audience but more so due to Moreau’s complete disconnection from Lota’s pain and the clinical method in which he examines her. As Randy Rasmussen points out in “Children Of The Night’, Moreau is enraged at Lota’s bestial flesh regaining its’ dominance but rejoices at her tears, as they betray her humanity – the aim of his experiments.

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But Moreau as God cannot only be sustained by his own self-image. It needs to be fed and endorsed by followers – hence the congregation being his own creations. Like any god, Moreau sets the laws to be lived by, partially so that he can control them but also because it feeds his god-like status and illustrated his control over nature. The laws are spoken as ritual by the creatures and they are further controlled by the fear of the House Of Pain, the place of punishment where the breakers of the law are sent. Moreau’s whip and gun are but extensions of his will, both of which represent law and order rather than any sadistic quality.

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The greatest strength of the film is the characterisation of Dr Moreau by the irrepressible Charles Laughton. I would venture to say that his performance is beyond the film and one of the key features that lifts it out of mediocrity. The display of arrogance as an all-knowing scientist with a powerful God complex becomes apparent from the smallest gesture in the way he casually wields his whip to the use of his voice when he commands his creations. The goatee adds a satanic element, contrasting with his white suit, making for a stark appearance. But this is accentuated by the almost relaxed manner in which Laughton strides and the supreme confidence is more than apparent, particularly when he reveals his abhorrent experiments and mad scheme to Parker. Laughton dominates every scene, leaving his fellow cast members looking wooden and staid.

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However, in fairness, there is another performance, which deserves mention. It easy to miss Bela Lugosi in his extremely hirsute role as the Sayer Of The Law. Under the layers of hair, Lugosi emanates the tortured soul of Moreau’s creation, repeating the mantra of his creator’s law, “Are we not men?” It is the question, which reflects one of the great questions regarding what makes us human – is it enough to have that consciousness? For Moreau’s experiments, this is the key aspect to what it means to be human. The very asking of the question suggests that human consciousness is present. The ending of the film will suggest even more, with quite the allegory about who makes laws to govern – God or humans?

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Kathleen Burke as Lota the Panther Woman played a roll which was central to the marketing campaign for the film’s release. Beautiful and sensual, Burke is also effective in the role. Lota is the prize creation for the mad scientist and Burke successfully portrays the duality of the role.

In the end, Moreau will face the terrible and awful dilemma that seems to be the lot of the mad scientist. As tempting as it is, this reviewer will not give away that ending. Needless, to say the audience will recognize the irony for the mad scientist who becomes undone by his own devices. Despite the genius of the mad scientist, being doomed to failure seems to be his or her lot in the genre. Perhaps the mad scientist’s greatest sin is that he commits the greatest sacrilege not necessarily against God but against science itself and the laws of nature.

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The Island Of Lost Souls feels like a journey into darkness – one that is disturbing and at times repellent, particularly in view of the cruelty of the key character. The greatest irony is that the mad scientist, believing they are bringing enlightenment into the world, has created that darkness. Instead of improving the world, the mad scientist has inflicted pain, trauma and death. Moreau is the very symbol of the mad scientist and that ultimately the very person that he has fooled most of all – is himself.

The Island Of Lost Souls is available through the Criterion Collection and is a must for not only fans of horror film but also those who are captivated by the mad dreams of the mad scientist.

This review was part of the 2017 Movie Scientist Blogathon hosted by Christina Wehner – https://christinawehner.wordpress.com/2017/06/17/great-scott-the-movie-scientist-blogathon-is-back/

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.

The dark brilliance of Val Lewton: RKO’s Other Genius

 

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‘There is no beauty here, only death and decay’ – Paul Holland ‘I Walked With A Zombie’ (1943)

So another Halloween has passed by, where people not only decided what to wear at parties (or when trick-or-treating) or what party to go to but also what horror films to watch. TV horror marathons ensued, playing everything from classic Universal to 50s sci-fi to slasher films. It’s always an interesting time from the point of view of film fans, as we get to share with others our favourite classic (and not-so-classic!) horror films. It’s always interesting to read must-see lists and top ten lists of all kinds. At times, we even discover something new – perhaps a gem from the past that we overlooked or a little-known film that finally gets some notice.

I’ve been looking at a number of lists, posts and articles on Halloween horror viewing across a range of FB groups, links and blogs. There were the obligatory Halloween movie marathons across a range of free-to-air and cable stations. There have been some fantastic and interesting opinions and thoughts being shared. However, I couldn’t help noticing that the brilliant work of Val Lewton was often ignored. 

Throughout the 1940s, Lewton’s production unit at RKO was truly a godsend for horror film. The horror genre, long dominated by Universal Studios, had become associated with the B-feature and production values were focused more on profit gain, than creating an art form. Karloff pointed out years later that the big budgets, time and effort afforded the classic horror films of the early to mid 1930s were no longer present by that point. Monster mash-ups became the norm of the 1940s and whilst still fun, certainly did not have the quality of direction, script and setting, depth of performance nor the pathos of the original films of the 1930s. No one seemed to find another angle.

Enter Val Lewton.

Val Lewton came to RKO as head of the new ‘horror unit’ in 1942. After the huge investment and disappointing financial results of Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941), RKO needed to replenish the coffers and saw low-budget horror as a sure-fire success. RKO’s vice-president in charge of production, Charles Koerner set Lewton’s brief: to create films that stayed under a set $150,000 budget with a screen time that stayed under 75 minutes. There was a bonus, however. Lewton did not have his hands tied by material and thematic concerns. As a result, Lewton did have some freedom and had the opportunity to look at what he found interesting. 

By most accounts, Lewton was not a fan of the genre, believing it to be the equivalent of pulp for mass consumption. Yet he was incredibly successful in the genre and created a series of atmospheric, psychological horror films and explicitness through subtlety.

Lewton’s time as head of the unit was relatively brief and the stress took its’ toll on a man whose health was not the best. RKO went through its’ own upheavals in the late 1940s, particularly after the death of Charles Koerner, who was a supporter of Lewton. Sadly, Lewton himself would die in 1951, after having left RKO a few years before.

My intention is not to write a detailed critique of Lewton’s work nor a biography of the man. However, I feel it worthwhile to list and outline a number of reasons why the films he produced should be celebrated – especially at Halloween.

The Directors

Lewton’s unit utilized some outstanding directors, who got past the terrible titles the studio enforced on them. Jacques Tourneur is probably the most celebrated director to work with Lewton and by all reports, the two got along very well. Tourneur would direct the first and most celebrated production from the unit – The Cat People (1942) starring Simone Simon, creating an incredible film, with suggestive horror, revealed through beautiful use of light, shadow and sound. Arguably, Tourneur would direct the best that came from the Lewton’s unit including I Walked With A Zombie and The Leopard Man (both 1943).

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However, Robert Wise (who would find greater fame later in his career) was also a young, talented director, who directed both Karloff and Lugosi in The Body Snatcher (1945). Mark Robson was the most prolific director in the unit. Gunter V Fritsch co-directed with Robert Wise perhaps the most interesting and personal film for Lewton – The Curse Of The Cat People (1944) – with reflections of Lewton’s own lonely childhood in a dream-like world.

All were craftsmen employing technique and sensitivity, working within the studio’s confines to create haunting, atmospheric and thoughtful films. The audience becoming lost in the story and concerned over the plight of the characters is probably the greatest accolade a director can be given.

The Stories

Rarely does a bad title betray a good film. Selznick himself congratulated Lewton after the success of The Cat People, telling him “I know no man in recent years who has made so much out of so little as a first picture.”

We are drawn into the stories, ever so gently by the dream-like state that the directors shaped. The turning points in the stories effectively drive the story, existing for that purpose rather than a cheap moment to frighten us. The horror lies in the constant battle between what we perceive and what might be, with the plot shaped around this premise. The ‘monsters’ in these films were not manifested in creatures or ghouls but in the darker elements of the human soul – an even more terrifying prospect. Unlike the original Dracula and Frankenstein, these are not dark fairy tales but nightmarish dreams, where respite is not easily acquired.

Lewton was able to draw inspiration from a very literary field of art forms. I Walked With A Zombie obviously appropriates the classic novel Jane Eyre and Goya’s The Disasters Of War is certainly an inspiration for Isle Of The Dead. Bedlam would be inspired by the engravings of William Hogarth and The Body Snatcher was based on Robert Louis Stevenson’s short story.

Whilst Lewton may have not been a huge fan of the horror genre and relegated it to mass consumption, he still treated his audiences with respect and intelligence. This is more than evident in the stories that were brought to the screen, within such difficult confines to operate.

Thematic Concerns

The horror is never outwardly explicit or confined to obvious make-up, special effects and automaton-like monsters that had been extended beyond their use-by-date. The ‘monsters’ are within the characters and the ambiguity is never answered directly, allowing us to explore our own human psychology. Whereas Universal’s The Wolfman (1941) sees a complete physical transformation from man to beast, the protagonists in The Cat People and The Leopard Man never seem to explicitly make that change. Any physical transformation is implied through use of light and sound. However, the deeper emotional and psychological impacts of the change are explored and drive the story.

The sheer loneliness and isolation suffered by characters is also a very real concern that is examined. The lack of understanding from others and the inability to transcend the fear become our concerns as well. Each film looks at the darkness of humanity and the difficulties in finding the light again; and the constant battle to determine what is real and what is not, in a skewed world filled with that very darkness. The existence of the supernatural, whilst obvious and overt in the Universal horror films, becomes hidden and the search for answers sends both protagonist and audience into a deeper and darker spiral. The Seventh Victim (1943) is an excellent example of this, where escape from a dark environment becomes fringed with deeper psychological issues. The city itself becomes a strange dream cum nightmare, from which the protagonist tries to emerge with sanity intact, appearing as a dark angel seeking redemption of self.

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Characterisation

Perhaps the greatest strengths of Lewton’s films are the characters. Avoiding the one-dimensional and clichéd norms that audiences may have expected from B-feature horror (or even one might add A-feature productions), Lewton’s characters not only have an incredible depth but delve into areas of the human psyche that were not normally touched on. Even the supporting cast and secondary characters have this incredible depth and back-story that add meaning and context to the greater story and experience of the film.

There are many moments where we find even the smaller roles, seemingly providing nothing more than plot device to drive the story, conveying much more than what we initially assume. Stanford University’s Alexander Nemerov in his aptly named book ‘Icons Of Grief’ expands on this point. He illustrates that Lewton’s films reflect the grief, sadness and anxiety experienced by Americans during World War Two, especially on the home front, in sharp contrast to the propaganda laden films of the major studios which promoted and expected patriotic fervor, staunch optimism and courage. He calls them ‘apparitions of sorrow’ and we see this more than evident in Lewton’s films; the strange woman that calls Irena ‘sister’ in the restaurant reflects this. She seems to be a woman desperately seeking connection. The second time she calls Irena ‘sister’, it sounds more like a plea, a desperate calling to someone in her own dark loneliness. We wonder what trauma the mute sailor in The Ghost Ship has experienced to cause his affliction and if he could speak, what would he tell? Perhaps one of the most chilling is the tall ‘zombie’ guardian in I Walked With A Zombie, a testimony to the horrors of slavery and the very ‘icon of grief’ which Nemerov talks about. Paul Holland (George Sanders) makes this point very clear:

That’s where our people came from. From the misery and pain of slavery. For generations they found life a burden. That’s why they still weep when a child is born and make merry at a burial… I’ve told you, Miss Connell: this is a sad place.

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The Curse Of The Cat People is a terrible title yet Lewton and director Fritsch were able to create a beautiful and haunting tale of child psychology. The ‘curse’ is verbalized by the little girl’s father, concerned that his daughter could have the same inability to distinguish reality from fantasy. He states that he has seen it before during his first marriage to Irena (Simone Simon). Incredibly, his deceased wife has become the magical friend of the little girl. The audience also wonders what is real or not. The tragedy of loneliness and deciding what is real or not, is also evident in the secondary characters. The old woman, who befriends the girl, lives in the past and ignores her own bitter and broken daughter. In some ways, the secondary characters are the most tragic of all.

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Boris Karloff

By the 1940s, Karloff was certainly not struggling to find work. However, the quality of that work was a struggle to find. Despite his incredible stardom of the 1930s (only two stars had only their last names appear on marquees – Karloff and Garbo), Karloff’s films of the 1940s suffered from the world of the repetitive Universal horror cycle, serials and B-features. Karloff would be forever thankful for his performances in three films made with Lewton; The Isle Of The Dead, The Body Snatcher and Bedlam. Karloff was able to extend himself beyond the usual fare that was dished up to him and gave interesting and chilling performances.

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Aside from Karloff’s work with Universal during the 1930s, his three films with Lewton as RKO are among his best and it becomes required to viewing if one wishes to see the master truly at work.

Of particular notice is his role as the war-weary general in Isle Of The Dead. An island populated by ex-soldiers, as well as local superstitious villagers is hit by plague and the general must maintain a quarantine on the island. What causes the deaths becomes conjecture and Karloff plays a role, tired of war and now imprisoned on a place surrounded by death and superstition. The fine line between Karloff’s fatigue and obsession is one of his finer roles.

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Interestingly, Bela Lugosi would also appear with Karloff in The Body Snatcher but Lugosi’s career and personal life had slid into a sad decline by the mid 1940s. 

Cinematic Technique

Within the allotted budget, the Lewton unit was able to flex and expand the tools of their trade to accommodate their objectives, as Minnelli’s brilliant 1952 insight into the industry The Bad And The Beautiful depicted in one particular scene (see below).

The perfect concoction of sound, lighting, camera angle and musical score brought to life the terror and mystery in a way that no horror film had done before. Again, the directors were subtle and even hypnotic in their approach. The very essence of film noir technique is obvious, allowing the ambiguity to come to the fore and perpetuate the sense of mystery. The directors want us unsure of our footing as we journey and thus the shadows envelope our senses, leading us to where we know not. Never is this more than evident in I Walked With A Zombie where Tourneur’s smooth and elegant camera moves through the sugar cane fields, tracking Frances Dee leading the somnambulant wife. Not a word is spoken, heightening the mystery and we cannot help but wonder where they are headed.

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As a result, Lewton’s films are a foray into a mysterious fog, sometimes blown away by a sudden horrific moment from which we struggle to recover, before the shadows claim us again. The suggested violence is often more explicit and horrific than what could have been shown. The first murder of a young girl, Teresa in The Leopard Man (1943) illustrates the point, where the desperate girl banging at the door is mistaken by her mother as over-dramatic and pointless fear, until the banging and screaming stops and bloods pours in from under the door. 

Of course the famous scene from The Cat People showing Jean Randolph ‘menaced’ by what may or may not be a stalking panther, is a film school lesson for how to use lighting and shadow to lead an audience where you want them. It may reflect the resourcefulness of Lewton and the need to stay under budget but it also indicates the insightful eye of director Jacques Tourneur (see below).

 

The ‘stalking scene’ is also a beautiful piece of work – where Turner not only uses outstanding tracking – close-up shots of our heroine walking alone but combines the moment with a clever contrast of sound and silence to heighten the tension (see below). Everything and nothing is suggested and both the characters and the audience are left wondering.

A large number of directors and producers have gone on record lauding the work of the Lewton unit, as being major influences on their careers. It is not difficult to see why.

A New Horror Angle

Lewton knew and understood that audiences wanted thrills and chills but avoided the cheap tactic to scare an audience. The slow burn is an important element to the horror. Monsters aren’t revealed because they prefer the shadows anyway. The pragmatic and economic problem of creating believable monsters allowed Lewton to seek the horror elsewhere. He revealed it in places audiences had not looked into before. To paraphrase George Sanders in I Walked With A Zombie, death is all around – even in what appears as beautiful. The ever presence of death and our futile desire to escape its’ clutches may be the real horror.

Setting

Lewton’s stories are not confined to some fictional place nor the past. He saw the themes he wanted to address present across the human experience. At no point does he lose, however, the lonely, dream-like state that permeates the journey and the atmosphere of despair, fear and terror remains. The Seventh Victim occurs in the big city, yet the streets seem deserted and terrifying because they are empty. The Cat People also occurs in a city yet Irena cannot escape what she perceives as her curse. The horror of isolation in a place surrounded by death creates the morbid setting of Isle Of The Dead. Whether the setting is Haiti, 19th century Scotland, 18th century London or contemporary small-town America, these themes and concerns loom in the mind of Lewton and the settings are shaped appropriately and convincingly. As Holland points out to the naive heroine in I Walked With A Zombie, there is nothing beautiful in the night sky or the sea, it only reflects death. The fields are not places of life and business but silent pathways to darkness. 

The house where the old woman lives in The Curse Of The Cat People, looms over the little girl. Like an old, dark house, it contains the ghosts of the past – memories of an old woman who has become shut off from a changing world. Additionally, the film is set in a real town with its’ own legends and tales – Sleepy Hollow. 

The settings are dark, morbid places where death and sadness have left a permanent mark.

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There may have been a formula to the approach, dictated by the bosses at RKO but Lewton also had freedom in regards to the material. Certainly, if the films had flopped at the box-office, it would have meant an immediate end to his time at RKO. But he made huge profits after filming under-budget and did have a champion in Charles Koerner. Lewton smuggled his material onto the screen and is still an icon to film-makers who want to circumvent the administrators, bean-counters and cynics. 

The RKO publicity machine never really promoted Lewton’s films accurately, as emphasised in the colourful and interesting promotional stunts used by the studio, and to a lesser degree the posters used to advertise the films. But audiences certainly warmed to them and they made big profits for RKO. 

Newton would produce two films which stepped outside the horror them – Mademoiselle Fifi (1944) which failed at the box office and Youth Runs Wild (1944) which Lewton was frustrated by due to the censorship by RKO that marred the film.  Whilst unsuccessful, they offer an interesting insight into Lewton’s sensitivity to themes and the desire for more literary content in his films. 

The Harvard Film Archive provides an astute assessment of Lewton’s productions:

‘…we may still find ourselves caught off guard to discover such precise characterizations and poetic effects waiting behind a title like “The Curse of the Cat People”…’

Precisely the point. Lewton still has us off-guard as we experience and enjoy his films.

Don’t wait till the next Halloween, enjoy them now!

The Films

Cat People (1942) Directed by Jacques Tourneur
I Walked With a Zombie (1943) Directed by Jacques Tourneur
The Leopard Man (1943) Directed by Jacques Tourneur
The Seventh Victim (1943) Directed by Mark Robson
The Ghost Ship (1943) Directed by Mark Robson
The Curse of the Cat People (1944) Directed by Gunther V. Fritsch and Robert Wise
Mademoiselle Fifi (1944) Directed by Robert Wise
Youth Runs Wild (1944) Directed by Mark Robson
The Body Snatcher (1945) Directed by Robert Wise
Isle of the Dead (1945) Directed by Mark Robson
Bedlam (1946) Directed by Mark Robson

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.