Halloween Havoc!: HOUSE OF HORRORS (Universal 1946)


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Rondo Hatton (1894-1946) was dubbed by “The Ugliest Man in Hollywood” by Universal for his repulsive visage. Originally a Tampa-based sportswriter, Hatton began developing the disease acromegaly as a young adult, a form of gigantism which distorts the facial features and bone structure (wrestler Andre the Giant suffered from this). Rondo moved to Hollywood and got work as a film extra and some bit parts (he can be spotted in SAFE IN HELL , IN OLD CHICAGO, THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME (’39 version), and THE OX BOW INCIDENT, among others).

1944’s “The Pearl of Death”

Hatton played “The Hoxton Creeper” in the 1944 Sherlock Holmes entry THE PEARL OF DEATH (with Universal Scream Queen Evelyn Ankers as a villainess, for a change), then proceeded to scare the daylights out of audiences in JUNGLE CAPTIVE and THE SPIDER WOMAN STRIKES BACK. While not a trained actor, his unique looks made…

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Horror on TV: Thriller 1.7 “The Purple Room” (dir by Douglas Heyes)


For tonight’s televised horror, we have The Purple Room, an episode of Thriller!  This was an anthology series, which was hosted by Boris Karloff.  Admittedly, Thriller was not always a horror show.  Several of the episodes were crime stories that had a diabolical twist.  But anything hosted by Boris Karloff is perfect for October viewing.

The Purple Room is the story of what happens when a skeptic (played by a young Rip Torn) learns that he must spend a year living in a house that may or may not be haunted.  This episode is enjoyably creepy and, of course, it has a twist.

This episode originally aired on October 25th, 1960.

A Bout De Souffle: Robert Siodmak’s CRISS CROSS (Universal-International 1949)


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CRISS CROSS hits you like a sucker punch to the gut, delivered hard and swift, followed by a non-stop pummeling that doesn’t let up until the final, fatal shot. Things kick right in as we find clandestine lovers Steve Thompson and Anna Dundee going at it hot’n’heavy in a nightclub parking lot. They go inside, and Steve gets into it with Anna’s husband, the gangster Slim Dundee, who pulls a knife, but the fight’s interrupted by Lt. Pete Rameriz, Steve’s boyhood pal. What Pete doesn’t know is the fight was staged for his benefit: Steve is the inside man on a planned armored car heist Dundee’s gang is pulling off.

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Flashbacks tell us how Steve got here: he was once married to Anna, and after the volatile couple divorced left L.A., drifting across country picking up odd jobs along the way. Returning to the City of Angels, he finds himself…

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Horror Film Review: The Uninvited (dir by Lewis Allen)


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If you want to see a really good haunted house movie, allow me to recommend that you track down the 1944 film, The Uninvited.  The Uninvited may not have been the first movie about a haunted house but it’s definitely one the best and one of the most influential.  None other than Guillermo Del Toro has regularly cited The Uninvited as an inspiration and, as I watched the film last night, I could definitely see where the film had influence Del Toro’s Crimson Peak.

The Uninvited tells the story of Rick Fitzgerland (Ray Milland) and his sister, Pamela (Ruth Hussey).  They’ve just purchased a long-empty seaside house and, incredibly, they were able to get it at an amazingly low cost!  The house’s owner, the frail Commander Beech (Donald Crisp, alternating between being menacing and sympathetic), was apparently desperate to get rid of it.

Far less happy about the selling of the house is Beech’s granddaughter, the mysterious Stella (Gail Russell).  As Stella explains it, she grew up in the house, her mother died in the house, and Stella is still attached to the house.  Beech has ordered Stella to stay away from the house but, with Rick falling in love with her, Stella is soon visiting on a regular basis.

Of course, Stella isn’t the only unexpected visitor that the Fitzgeralds get to know.  It quickly becomes obvious that there’s something strange about the house.  Rick and Pamela discover an artist’s studio that is always cold.  They both hear the sound of a woman crying.  Beech claims that it’s nothing to worry about.  Old house make weird noises, he informs them.  However, Rick and Pamela start to become convinced that the house is haunted.

Stella not only agrees that the house is haunted but she also informs them that she knows the identity of the ghost.  It’s Stella’s mother!  But if that’s true, why does the ghost constantly seem to be encouraging Stella to put her life at risk?  Why does Stella go into a trance and, much as her mother did 16 years earlier, attempt to jump over the side of a cliff?

Is Stella’s mother trying to manipulate her daughter into joining her in death?  Or is there something even more sinister happening?

Well-acted and perfectly paced, The Uninvited is an effectively creepy film, one that remains memorable even 72 years after it was initially released.  Visually, The Uninvited resembles a film noir and, if not for a brief scene towards the end of the film, viewers would be justified in wondering if the house really is haunted or if everyone in the film is just letting the isolation and the shadowy atmosphere get to them.  It’s that hint of ambiguity that elevates The Uninvited and makes it a truly thought-provoking haunted house story.

 

The Fabulous Forties #11: The Strange Woman (dir Edgar G. Ulmer)


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The eleventh film in Mill Creek’s Fabulous Forties box set was 1946’s The Strange Woman.  The Strange Woman is one of those film noir/small town melodrama hybrids that seem to have been something of a cinematic mainstay in the mid to late 40s.

The Strange Woman of the title is Jenny Hager (Hedy Lamarr) and she’s not just strange because she’s got an Eastern European accent despite having grown up in Bangor, Maine.  The film opens in 1824 and we watch as tween Jenny pushes one her classmates into a river, despite the fact that he can’t swim.  At first, she seems content to let him drown.  However, once she realizes that an adult is watching, Jenny jumps into the river and saves his life.

Ten years later, Jenny has grown up to be the most beautiful woman in Maine.  However, her father is abusive and regularly whips her as punishment for being too flirtatious.  Jenny has plans, though.  She wants to marry the richest man in town, a store owner and civic leader named Isaiah Poster (Gene Lockahrt).  Isaiah also happens to be the father of Ephraim (Louis Hayward), the young woman who Jenny tried drown at the beginning of the film.

And eventually, Jenny’s dream does come true.  She marries Isaiah, even though she doesn’t love him.  She just wants his money and is frustrated when the sickly Isaiah keeps recovering from his frequent illnesses.  She starts to flirt with the weak-willed Ephraim, trying to manipulate him into killing his father.

Of course, even as she’s manipulating Ephraim, she’s also flirting with John Everd (George Sanders), despite the fact that John is already engaged to the daughter of the local judge.  Though Everd is a good and decent guy, he still finds himself tempted by Jenny.

What makes all of this interesting is that Jenny isn’t just a heartless femme fatale.  Throughout the film, there are several instances when she wants to do good but can’t overcome her essentially heartless nature.  She gives money to charity and, whenever she listens to one of the local fire-and-brimstone preachers, she finds herself tempted to give up her manipulative ways.

The Strange Woman was directed by Edgar G. Ulmer, who is probably best known for directing the ultimate indie film noir, Detour.  He was a childhood friend of Hedy Lamarr’s and she specifically asked that he direct her in The Strange Woman.  As a result, this film represents one of the few times that Ulmer was given a budget that was equal to his talents.  What makes The Strange Woman stand out from other 40s melodramas — like Guest In The House, for example — is that, even with the larger budget, Ulmer’s direction retains the same deep cynicism and dream-like intensity that distinguished his work in Detour.  The film remains sympathetic to Jenny, even as she often suffers the punishments that were demanded by the production code.

In the role of Jenny , Hedy Lamarr is a force of a nature.  She is so intense and determined that watching her as Jenny is a bit like seeing what Gone With The Wind would have been like if Scarlet O’Hara had been a total sociopath.  Even the fact that Lamarr’s accent is definitely not a Maine accent seems appropriate.  It sets Jenny apart from the boring people around her.

It reminds us that, even if she is “strange,” there is no one else like Jenny Hager.

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Cleaning Out The DVR #16: Johnny Belinda (dir by Jean Negulesco)


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Continuing my effort to watch 38 films in 10 days (and, as of today, I only have 6 days left!), I spent part of last night watching the 1948 film Johnny Belinda.

Johnny Belinda takes place in Canada, on Cape Breton Island.  The residents of the island are a hearty, no-nonsense group of people.  They work hard, they don’t play hard because they never play, they farm, and they don’t have much use for outsiders.  When a new doctor, Robert Richardson (Lew Ayres), arrives on the island, he has to work hard to earn their trust.

Dr. Richardson is fascinated by Belinda McDonald (Jane Wyman), a young woman who is deaf and mute.  Belinda lives on a farm with her father (Charles Bickford) and her aunt (Agnes Moorehead).  Everyone in the community assumes that Belinda is a simple-minded and, because her mother died giving birth to her, she is resented by her father.  Only Dr. Richardson believes that Belinda is in any way intelligent and, over her father’s objections, he teaches Belinda sign language.

Dr. Richardson’s secretary, Stella (Jan Sterling), falls in love with him and grows angry when it becomes apparent that he’s more interested in taking care of Belinda than pursuing an adulterous romance with Stella.  Meanwhile, Stella’s husband, a viscous alcoholic named Locky (Stephen McNally), gets drunk and rapes Belinda.  9 months later, when Belinda gives birth to a boy that she names Johnny, everyone assumes that Dr. Richardson is the father.  Soon, both Richardson and the McDonald family are being shunned by the judgmental community.

Locky, meanwhile, is determined to keep anyone from finding out about his crime, to the extent that he’s willing to commit murder.  Both Locky and Stella are determined to take Johnny away from Belinda and it all eventually leads to further tragedy and, somewhat inevitably, a dramatic murder trial.

Much like Random Harvest, Johnny Belinda is another film that I could imagine being remade for Lifetime.  It’s a well-made melodrama that appeals to all of the emotions and features a cast of talented actors doing good work playing characters that are probably just a bit too familiar.  In fact, there’s really not a single moment of Johnny Belinda that will take you by surprise but, despite that, the film still works.  Jane Wyman does such a good job playing the silent Belinda that it makes the entire movie worth watching.  (It’s interesting to contrast Wyman’s innocent, vulnerable, and sympathetic performance here with her far more severe work in The Yearling.)  Reportedly, Wyman devoted so much time and effort to her performance that it was cited as a reason for her divorce from future President Ronald Reagan.  For Johnny Belinda, Wyman lost the chance to be first lady but she did win an Oscar.

(And, for the record, Wyman voted for Reagan in 1980 and 1984, saying that it wasn’t often that you got to vote for your ex-husband.)

Johnny Belinda was nominated for best picture of the year and, with 10 nominations, it was the most nominated film of 1947.  Though it won an Osar for Wyman, it lost best picture to Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet.

Cleaning Out The DVR #15: Random Harvest (dir by Mervyn LeRoy)


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This morning, as a part of my continuing effort to watch 38 films by Friday and clean out the DVR, I watched Random Harvest, a romantic melodrama from 1942.

And when I say that Random Harvest is a melodrama, I’m not exaggerating.  During the first hour of the film, I found myself thinking that if Random Harvest were made today, it would probably be a Lifetime movie.  By the time the second hour started, I realized that it would actually probably be one of those heavily hyped miniseries that ends up being broadcast on A&E, Bravo, and Lifetime at the same time.  This is one of those big, epic stories where, every few minutes, a new plot twist emerges.

When the film opens during the first World War, John Smith (Ronald Colman) is a patient at a British asylum.  He knows that he was once a soldier.  He knows that he was gassed during a battle.  He knows that he’s recovering from extreme shell shock and it’s still a struggle for him to relate to other human beings. He knows that he will probably spend the rest of his life as a patient at the asylum.  He also knows that his name is not John Smith.  He’s not sure what his real name is because he suffers from amnesia.

One night, a message comes to the asylum.  The war has ended!  All of the doctor and orderlies go out to celebrate, leaving Smith unguarded.  Smith simply walks out of the asylum and eventually makes his way to a nearby town.  It’s there that he meets Paula (Greer Garson), a kind-hearted singer who invites Smith to join her traveling theatrical troupe.

Paula and Smith fall in love, end up getting married, and have a child together.  Paula encourages Smith to become a writer and eventually, a publisher in Liverpool asks to meet with him.  However, when Smith goes to Liverpool, he ends up getting hit by a car.  When he regains consciousness, he suddenly knows that his name is Charles Rainier and that he’s rich!  However, he no longer remembers that he was once named John Smith, that he’s married to Paula, or that he has a child.

The years pass.  Charles returns to his old life of servants, money, and political ambition.  His stepniece, Kitty (Susan Peters), falls in love with him but Charles, for his part, cannot stop wondering about what happened between getting gassed in World War I and getting hit by that car in Liverpool.

Meanwhile, Paula refuses to believe that Smith had abandoned her.  Even after she has him legally declared dead, she continue to believe that he’s out there.  And then one day, she sees a picture of Charles Rainier.  She also learns that Rainier needs an executive secretary, which just happens to be what Paula does when she’s not singing…

Just from reading that plot, you probably think that Random Harvest is an incredibly silly film, that type that, if it were made today, would star Katharine Heigl and maybe a British guy who had a minor role on Game of Thrones.  But, dammit, Random Harvest works!  Filmmakers in the 30s and 40s knew how to make this type of melodrama totally compelling and believable.  There’s not a hint of snarkiness or cynicism to be found in Random Harvest and, as a result, it feels almost churlish to criticize the plot for being implausible.  Sincerity saves this film.

Random Harvest was nominated for Best Picture but it lost to another film starring Greer Garson, Mrs. Miniver.  However, Garson gave a far better performance in Random Harvest than she did in Miniver.  When you watch most of her film today, Greer Garson always comes across as talented but a little boring and obvious in her technique.  (She was the Meryl Streep of her day.)  In Random Harvest, Garson actually gets to sing and danger and laugh and behave like a human being.  After seeing her in Blossoms In The Dust, Mrs. Miniver, and Sunrise at Campobello, watching her performance in Random Harvest is akin to an acting revelation.

Meanwhile, Ronald Colman also does a great work at both Smith and Charles (and they really are two separate characters).  Admittedly, Colman does come across as being a little bit too old for the role (and the age difference between him and Susan Peters does add a certain odd subtext to the scenes between Charles and Kitty) but, otherwise, he’s totally and completely credible as the character.  When he’s Smith, he speaks in a halting, uncertain tone and he walks like he’s still learning how to put one foot in front of the other.  When he becomes Charles, he’s definitely more confident but he still moves like a man who feels as if it’s his duty to carry the weight of the world on his shoulders.

(I have to admit that I’ve always found it strange that Margaret Mitchell apparently wanted Ronald Colman to play Rhett Butler in Gone With The Wind.  Watching his performance here, I still could not see Colman as Rhett but he would have made a great Ashley Wilkes.)

The beautiful Susan Peters was nominated for best supporting actress for her performance as Kitty.  Random Harvest was her first major role and she gives such a great and likable performance that it makes it all the more tragic that her career was cut short.  Just three years after appearing in Random Harvest, Susan was accidentally shot by her husband.  Though she survived, she would never walk again.  When she died, at the age of 31 in 1952, the official cause was pneumonia but it was also said that she had stopped eating and drinking and had literally lost the will to live.  Whether you love Random Harvest or you think it’s just a silly melodrama, you should watch it just to see Susan Peters’s great performance and to consider what could have been.