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Showcase Presents the Universal Dracula Legacy

It’s Halloween once again, and the Showcase crew assembles for their (mostly) annual monster movie marathon. This year the gang tackles the six films that make up the legacy of the king of the vampires: Dracula, Dracula’s Daughter, Son of Dracula, House of Frankenstein, House of Dracula, and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.

 

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DRACULA WEEK DAY 1: John Carradine in House of Dracula (1945)

House of DraculaDirector: Erle C. Kenton

Writer: Edward T. Lowe Jr.

Cast: John Carradine, Lon Chaney Jr., Martha O’Driscoll, Lionel Atwill, Onslow Stevens, Jane Adams, Ludwig Stossel, Glenn Strange, Skeleton Knaggs

Plot: Count Dracula (John Carradine) approaches a scientist, Dr. Franz Edelmann (Onslow Stevens), and asks him to discover a cure for his immortal curse. Edelmann and his hunchbacked assistant, Nina (Jane Adams) study Dracula’s blood and discover an unknown parasite. As Edelmann begins his experiments on Dracula a new patient arrives – Lawrence Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.), who seeks a cure for his own curse. When told the doctor is unavailable, an upset Talbot flees to the police station and demands to be locked up. The police summon Edelmann to examine him, and he arrives just in time to witness the rising full moon and Talbot’s transformation into the Wolfman.

Edelmann believes he can cultivate a mold that will allow him to reshape Talbot’s skull, which will relieve the pressure on his cranium and prevent his transformation. (It doesn’t make a lot of sense in the context of the movie either.) Unwilling to wait for enough mold to be cultivated, Talbot flings himself from a nearby cliff. That night, as Edelmann searches for Talbot, the Wolfman attacks him. Talbot changes back before Edelmann can die, and the doctor discovers he’s hiding in a cave perfectly suited to grow the spores he needs. As they search the cavern, they find something totally unexpected: the Frankenstein monster (Glenn Strange). Because what the hell. They bring the monster to the hospital, hook him up to machines that can bring him back to life, then decide not to do it. This should end well.

Dracula, remembering that his name is in the title of the movie, stops by and sees Edelmann’s assistant Miliza (Martha O’Driscoll) playing the piano. For no discernible reason, he uses his power to mesmerize her. Wary, Edelmann tells Dracula he will require another transfusion to test his theory, and Dracula agrees. Edleman falls asleep during the experiment, though, and Dracula reverses the transfusion, placing his own blood into the doctor’s veins before fleeing. Edelmann follows Dracula to his coffin, which he drags into the sunlight and opens, reducing the vampire to a skeleton and laughing at the fact that there’s still a third of the movie left to go.

The transfusion begins to affect Edelmann, darkening his eyes, causing his reflection to vanish. He is becoming a vampire. This conveniently leads to him having a dream sequence largely made up of clips of earlier Frankenstein movies, which tempts him to resurrect the monster. The good in him forces back the evil, and he decides to use the spores to operate on Nina while he’s still himself. She convinces him to use his time to operate on Talbot instead, and he does so, knowing it will not be until the next full moon that they can be certain he was successful.

Edelmann, meanwhile, begins to succumb to the vampire, killing a villager and fleeing the same crowd of angry townspeople who spent most of the 1930s and 40s waiting for Universal to make another monster movie so they could find work. The police come to Edelmann’s hospital, believing Talbot responsible for the murder. Talbot realizes Edelmann is the real killer, and he pledges to help him stay sane long enough to help Nina, then destroy the evil within him. As the next full moon approaches, Talbot is astonished to find he does not transform: the operation was a success. The Wolfman is no more. As Nina tries to tell Edelmann, she finds him resurrecting the Frankenstein Monster, having given in to the evil within him. He kills Nina and has the monster attack the police. Talbot retrieves a police weapon and guns down Edelmann as the mob arrives for their scheduled appointment. The lab catches on fire, because 1945, and the monster is destroyed as the mob, Talbot and Milizia flee.

Thoughts: By 1945 the Universal Monster franchise had largely evolved into a bizarre mishmash where the monsters – particularly the three heavyweights – appeared in each other’s films indiscriminately and with little to no regard to continuity. Just the year before, in House of Frankenstein, audiences saw Dracula, the Wolfman and Frankenstein’s monster each meet their demise, but here they are without any attempt at an explanation. Today we’d just call it a “reboot” and pretend the earlier movies never happened, but nobody wants to ignore the Universal Classics… nobody in their right mind, anyway.

If there’s one thing this movie proves, it’s that trying to come up with a scientific explanation for what has always been supernatural in-canon is usually a bad idea. The parasites in Dracula’s blood are bad enough, but the explanation for Larry Talbot’s transformation Wolfman is close enough to “it’s all in your head” as to almost be insulting to fans of the character. One can easily believe George Lucas watched this movie just before he whipped up the concept of Midi-Chlorians.

The good news is, no matter how crappy the plot of a movie, it was always a treat to watch Lon Chaney Jr. and Glenn Strange in their legendary forms. Chaney’s Wolfman has always been the saddest and most tragic of the Universal monsters, a creature that wishes for nothing but peace but is utterly unable to find it. When Stan Lee created the Hulk, he always credited inspiration coming from Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, but I’ve often thought the sad case of Bruce Banner had more in common with Lawrence Talbot. And with that in mind, it’s nice to see him sort of get a happy ending for a change. Sure, by the time he met Abbott and Costello three years later he was the Wolfman again, but so what? Frankenstein wasn’t burned anymore and Dracula had regenerated from a skeleton back into Bela Lugosi somehow. Who cares? It’s the 40’s! Party!

Anyway, on to Dracula himself. John Carradine as the legendary nosferatu has surprisingly little to do in this movie, even though he’s the title character. (In truth, at this point Universal’s naming convention was practically random: grab the name of any monster that appears in the movie and add a few other words. This film could just as easily have been titled Curse of the Wolfman or Return of Frankenstein or Dr. Edelmann’s Wonder Emporium and it would have been equally – if not more – accurate.) To Carradine’s credit, in the time he’s on screen he puts forth a solid performance. There’s a charm and a menace to him, and one can believe a woman would allow herself to be in his presence long enough to be affected by his hypnotic powers, which is convenient, because that’s exactly what the alleged plot calls for.

That said, the Dracula in this film is written in a terrible fashion. He begins the story by seeking a cure for his vampirism (something he never showed any particular interest in before), then starts going right back to his old “hypnotize ‘em and suck their blood” routine as if he wasn’t tired of that crap at all. He falls for Edelmann’s transfusion trick entirely too easily, then sabotages the very experiment he asked for in the first place. I spent half the film watching Carradine and shouting: “WHY ARE YOU DOING THINGS? STOP. THIS MAKES NO SENSE. YOU DON’T EVEN HAVE A HOUSE.”

The real star of this movie is Onslow Stevens as Dr. Edelmann, who starts out as a well-meaning scientist skeptic before becoming a creature of cartoonish evil. The dream sequence he has is nearly laughable, as his “good” and “evil” selves seem to argue over whether or not to resurrect the Frankenstein Monster… as if there could be any doubt that he would. Stevens does a great job with what he’s given, he’s just not given A material.

This is not a very good movie, to be blunt. But even the worst of the Universal Monster pictures had a strange sort of charm to them… the fun of seeing these characters overcame the cheesy effects or the ludicrous storylines. While this should never be anyone’s first choice of a monster movie to watch, if it’s available or if you’re doing a marathon of the classics, it has its place.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

Sherlock Holmes Week Day 1: Basil Rathbone in The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939)

Hound of the Baskervilles 1939Director: Sidney Lanfield

Writer: Ernest Pascal, based on the novel by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Cast: Basil Rathbone, Richard Greene, Wendy Barrie, Nigel Bruce, Lionel Atwill, John Carradine, Barlowe Borland, Beryl Mercer, Morton Lowry, Ralph Forbes, Mary Gordon

Plot: Dr. James Mortimer (Lionel Atwill) concludes the death of his friend Sir Charles Baskerville was caused by heart failure. Many people in town are outraged by the diagnosis – they believe he was murdered. His young heir Henry (Richard Greene) is summoned to take his place as head of Baskerville Hall. The news reaches the ears of the great detective Sherlock Holmes (Basil Rathbone) and his comrade, Dr. John Watson (Nigel Bruce). Mortimer calls on Holmes and tells him of a legend of a terrible hound that has slaughtered members of the Baskerville family for over 200 years as punishment for the bad behavior of their patriarch, Hugo (Ralph Forbes).

Henry arrives in England, but is threatened within minutes by a note tied to a rock and thrown through his carriage window. Mortimer and Henry go to Holmes for help, and the detective saves them when a man in a hansom cab points a gun at them. They later question the cabby, only to find his passenger used Holmes’s name.

Holmes sends Watson to accompany Henry back to Baskerville Hall, and that night the two of them chase a prowler across the grounds. They begin to suspect the butler, Barryman (John Carradine) of using the hound legend to hide the murder. Watson meets Henry’s neighbor, John Stapleton (Morton Lowry), who warns him about the deadly bogs, which killed a pony just days ago. Henry is saved from falling into the same bog by John’s stepsister, Beryl (Wendy Barrie), and the two grow infatuated with one another. The group has dinner with another neighbor, Frankland (Barlowe Borland), who has a predilection towards bringing lawsuits against his neighbors – and who is planning a body snatching suit against Stapleton for excavating a skeleton that had been there for hundreds of years. Mortimer proposes a séance to contact the late Sir Charles and ask him the truth about his death, but the séance is interrupted by the incessant howling of the “hounds” outside.

The next day, Henry asks Beryl to marry him. The happy moment is broken when first Watson arrives, then a strange old peddler who tries to sell them harmonicas and whistles. Watson is later sent a message, which he traces to the peddler hiding in a cave in the bogs. The peddler turns out to be Holmes in disguise – he wanted to watch the proceedings anonymously. As they walk back to the castle, they see an enormous hound chase a man off a cliff. The dead man turns out to be an escaped murderer wearing Henry’s clothes. Holmes deduces the man was killed because the hound caught Henry’s sent – Henry was the true target. Homes discloses the truth – the convict was Barryman’s brother-in-law, whom his wife had given shelter, food, and Henry’s old clothing. Satisfied that the murderer is gone, Henry is glad to move on with his plans for a wedding celebration.

As Holmes and Watson take a train back to London, Holmes tells Watson he thinks the real killer is still at large, and they will loop back and catch him in the act of attempting to murder Henry. That night, Henry chooses to walk home from the Stapletons’ alone, across the bog, an act that is only forgivable in that it is 1889 and he’s probably never seen a scary movie. As he leaves, Stapleton fetches a shoe stolen from Henry earlier and gives its scent to a hound he’s keeping in the bog. Holmes and Watson chase after the hound’s howls as it attacks Henry. They kill the dog and Watson takes the injured Henry back to the house, while Holmes searches the bog. Stapleton traps Holmes, then returns to the house and tells Watson Holmes is waiting for him. Alone with Henry, he tries to poison him, but Holmes arrives and stops it. He reveals Stapleton is a distant cousin and, if Henry dies, will be heir to Baskerville Hall. Although Henry escapes into the bog, Holmes says he’s placed constables along the roads. Confidant he will be apprehended, Holmes declares the case closed.

Thoughts: Sherlock Holmes has been played by dozens, maybe hundreds of actors over the years. He’s one of the most iconic characters ever created, one of the greatest icons of British literature… hell, his name has become a synonym for a genius. And even in 1939, when this film was released, Basil Rathbone was hardly the first person to play the detective. Yet somehow it’s his performance, in this film and the 13 others he would make, that would cling to the public conscious and shape the perception of Holmes for decades.

The Hound of the Baskervilles was not the first Holmes story written by Doyle, and Ernest Pascal and Sidney Lanfield don’t waste any time pretending it is. From the moment we see Barrymore and Bruce it’s as if we’re looking in on characters we’ve watched dozens of times. There’s a cursory attempt at establishing the characters in the form of Holmes challenging Watson to deduce information about Dr. Mortimer based only on his walking-stick. (Bruce’s Watson bumbles through his deduction – more about that later.) In many films, this would be somewhat annoying, it would feel like an unfair assumption on the part of the filmmakers… but somehow, this movie pulls it off. Trying to establish Sherlock Holmes, especially this Sherlock Holmes, feels utterly unnecessary. Everybody already knows who he is and what he’s like, so giving that establishment a perfunctory moment before moving on with the story feels justifiable. However, that does raise a question: as this is the film that created that iconic vision of Holmes, would it have been acceptable in 1939, before that version was created? Evidently, the audiences of 1939 didn’t seem to mind, as this Holmes was utterly embraced, but looking back on it from my perspective I’m forced to ask if I would have been satisfied with the way Holmes and Watson were introduced if they weren’t already such well-known characters.

At any rate, there’s no denying the iconic nature of Basil Rathbone’s Sherlock Holmes. Although many of the traits he displays were described in the original stories, it’s his iconic image we cling to: the robe-wearing, violin-playing, pipe-smoking figure that paces back and forth in his study while pondering a case. When someone thinks of an iconic Holmes, the image invariably is Basil Rathbone wearing the seersucker hat – which Doyle never included in the original stories. There’s a power to Rathbone’s performance. From the first moments he commands the screen and draws you in, and his masquerade as the peddler is really perfect. The way he dances through his deductions remains the standard for how it is done, and even modern interpretations like the Robert Downey Jr. movies or Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance on television are a reaction to the way Rathbone carried it off. You can’t try to subvert expectations that don’t already exist, after all.

As enamored as I am of Rathbone’s Holmes, I’m less happy with Nigel Bruce’s Watson. Bruce gives a perfectly good performance, mind you, and the role brings some much-needed lightness to the rather serious story, but his Watson is a bit of a goof. Early on, when Holmes establishes his deductive skills by analyzing Mortimer’s cane, he first has Watson take a go at it. Watson, of course, should never be portrayed as being as capable as Holmes (the entire point of the character is for the audience to have a viewpoint that’s closer to their level than Holmes’s nearly-superhuman intellect could provide), but at the same time, he shouldn’t come across as incompetent either. There are times in this movie (and in the later films Rathbone and Bruce made together) where Bruce’s Watson treads dangerously close to or even crosses that line. Comic relief is one thing, but it shouldn’t come at the expense of such a fine character. To be fair, though, Watson does have an immediate distrust of Stapleton, so there’s at least a hint of intuition there.

This was the first time I’ve actually seen this movie, and I’m amazed at how neatly it establishes the whodunit formula that we’ve seen thousands of times since then. We start with an initial crime, then a series of other events that are building to a big one. We meet the characters and encounter several red herrings along the way: Frankland, Barryman, and even Mortimer for a brief moment when Holmes notices a dog’s tooth-marks on his cane. The one thing that goes against formula, and delightfully so, is the end. I’m so used to the Scooby Doo ending, where the criminal is captured and unmasked in full view of everybody, that it’s legitimately surprising when we see Stapleton preparing to kill Henry before that last murder is committed. These days, no doubt, his face would be kept in shadows until the last moment, probably the one where he tries to poison Henry. It’s actually rather refreshing.

The mood and atmosphere of this film is perfect – gloomy, foggy. The dog works well too. I’m not sure exactly how they pulled off the attacks… the first one looks like stop-motion, but the later (even from a distance) looks like Henry is wrestling a real dog. Whatever the case, the visuals are impressive enough and enjoyable even 75 years later.

This is a fun film that’s got me anxious to watch more of Basil Rathbone’s Holmes, but not quite yet. After all, this is an Icons week, and that means tomorrow it’ll be somebody else’s turn.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!