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.

 

Horror Film Review: The Ghost of Frankenstein (dir by Erle C. Kenton)


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In 1942, three years after Son of Frankenstein, Universal Pictures continued the story of the Frankenstein family with The Ghost of Frankenstein!

However, The Ghost of Frankenstein was a far different film from the three that came before it.  The budget was lower.  The story was less complicated.  The running time was much shorter.  Whereas the previous films in the franchise clearly took place in Germany, the setting for The Ghost of Frankenstein is less easily defined.  (Considering that the film was made during World War II, this isn’t surprising.)  The biggest change is that, in The Ghost of Frankenstein, the monster is not played by Boris Karloff.  Instead, the role is taken by Lon Chaney, Jr.  Chaney’s hulking frame was perfect for the monster but his face is never as expressive as Karloff’s.  Whereas Karloff turned the monster into as much of a victim as a victimizer, Chaney plays the monster like a … well, a monster.

Returning from Son of Frankenstein, Bela Lugosi is back as Ygor.  At the start of the film, we learn that Ygor actually wasn’t killed at the end of Son of Frankenstein.  Instead, he was just wounded.  He’s spent the last few years hiding out in the old castle, trying to once again revive the monster.  When the villagers attempts to blow up the castle, he and the monster flee.

It turns out that there’s one other Frankenstein son.  His name is Ludwig and he’s played by a very dignified Sir Cedric Hardwicke.  Ludwig, who has been hiding his identity and denying the family legacy, has a successful medical practice in another village.  Working with his assistants, Dr. Kettering (Barton Yarbrough) and the bitterly jealous Dr. Bohmer (Lionel Atwill, who played a far different role in Son of Frankenstein), Ludwig has developed a procedure in which a damaged brain can be removed from the skull, repaired, and then stuck back inside the skull…

Uhmmm … wow, I have no idea what to say about that.  That’s quite a medical breakthrough, though…

When Ygor and the monster show up in the village, searching for Ludwig, the monster ends up getting arrested.  The local prosecutor (played by Ralph Bellamy, Cary Grant’s romantic rival in both The Awful Truth and His Girl Friday) asks Ludwig to examine the prisoner.  Ludwig is shocked to discover that the prisoner is his father’s creation!

Ygor wants Ludwig to perform a brain transplant on the Monster.  At first, Ludwig is hesitant but then he’s visited by Henry Frankenstein’s ghost.  (Since Colin Clive died 5 years before Ghost of Frankenstein went into production, Hardwicke plays both Ludwig and Henry.)  The ghost asks Ludwig to perfect the monster.

Ludwig finally relents and agrees to give the monster a new brain.  Ludwig wants to use the brain of kindly colleague but Ygor has different plans…

The Ghost of Frankenstein is only 67 minutes long but, oddly, it still feels just a little bit draggy.  Director Erle C. Kenton does a workmanlike job but, at no point, does Ghost feature the wit that distinguished James Whale’s films or Rowland V. Lee’s work on Son of Frankenstein.  Chaney is not a particularly interesting monster but Bela Lugosi is a lot of fun as Ygor.  With Chaney showing even less emotion than he usually did and Hardwicke appearing to be occasionally embarrassed by the whole film, it falls to Lugosi to keep the audience awake and he manages to do just that.  Lugosi’s performance may be overly theatrical but that’s exactly what The Ghost of Frankenstein needed.

The Ghost of Frankenstein is occasionally entertaining but ultimately forgettable.  It’ll best be enjoyed by Universal horror completists.

Cleaning Out The DVR #23: The Adventures of Robin Hood (dir by Michael Curtiz)


(For those following at home, Lisa is attempting to clean out her DVR by watching and reviewing 38 films by this Friday.  Will she make it?  Keep following the site to find out!)

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Flamboyant.  Athletic.  Joyous.  Determined.  Handsome.  Outspoken.  Bigger than life.  Revolutionary.  Anarchist.  Sexy.  Libertarian.  Is there any doubt why Errol Flynn remains the definitive Robin Hood?

And. for that matter, is there any doubt why the 1938 film The Adventures of Robin Hood remains not only the definitive Robin Hood film but also one of the most influential action films in history?

The Adventures of Robin Hood tells the story that we’re all familiar with.  The King of England, Richard The Lionhearted (Ian Hunter), is captured while returning from the Crusades.  His brother, King John (Claude Rains, in full autocratic villain mode), usurps the throne while Richard is gone and immediately raises taxes.  He claims that he’s only doing this to raise the money to set Richard free.  Of course, the real reason is that John is a greedy tyrant.

The only nobleman with the courage to openly oppose John is Sir Robin of Locksely (Errol Flynn).  Sir Robin protects his fellow citizens from John’s main henchman, Sir Guy of Gisbourne (Basil Rathbone, also in full autocratic villain mode).  In fact, Robin is so brave that, on multiple occasions, he even enters Sir Guy’s castle so that he can specifically tell King John and Sir Guy that he has no use for their laws.  This, of course, always leads to Robin having to make a dramatic escape while arrows flies and swords are unsheathed all around.

And through it all, Robin Hood keeps smiling and laughing.  He’s a wonderfully cheerful revolutionary.  He may be fighting a war against a ruthless and unstoppable enemy and he may be the most wanted man in England but Robin is determined to have fun.  One need only compare Robin to his humorless foes to see the difference between freedom and bureaucracy.

(We could use Errol Flynn’s Robin Hood today, though I suspect our government would just blow him up with a drone and then issue a statement about how, by stealing money from the rich and giving it to the poor, Robin was keeping the government from being able to rebuild bridges and repair roads.)

When Robin isn’t exposing the foolishness of organized government, he’s hanging out in Sherwood Forest.  He’s recruiting valuable allies like Friar Tuck (Eugene Pallette) and Little John (Alan Hale, Sr.)  He’s playing constant pranks and promoting revolution and, to his credit, he’s a lot more fun to listen to than that guy from V For Vendetta.  He’s also romancing Maid Marian (Olivia de Havilland) and good for him.  Two beautiful people deserve to be together.

Even better, he’s doing it in glorious Technicolor!  There’s a lot of great things about The Adventures of Robin Hood.  The action scenes are exciting.  The music is thrilling.  The film is perfectly cast.  Errol Flynn may not have been a great actor but he was a great Robin Hood.  But what I really love about the film is just the look of it.  We tend to take color for granted so it’s interesting to watch a film like The Adventures of Robin Hood, one that was made at a time when color film was something of a novelty.  For those of us who spend a lot of time talking about how much we love old school black-and-white, The Adventures of Robin Hood is a film that says, “Hey, color can be great too!”

But what I mostly love about The Adventures of Robin Hood is just the pure joy of the film.  Just compare this Robin Hood to the grimly tedious version played by Russell Crowe.

(True, nobody in The Adventures of Robin Hood shouts, “I declare him to be …. AN OUTLAAAAAAAAAAAAWWWWWWWW!”  Actually, now that I think about it, Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood would have worked much better if Oscar Isaac and Russell Crowe had switched roles.)

The Adventures of Robin Hood was nominated for best picture and it probably should have won.  However, the Oscar went to Frank Capra’s You Can’t Take It With You.

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.

Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: Foreign Correspondent (dir by Alfred Hitchcock)


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Before watching a film like 1940’s Foreign Correspondent, it helps to know a little something about history.

Nowadays, when we think about World War II, there’s a tendency to assume that, from the minute that Hitler came to power in Germany and started to invade the rest of Europe, the entire world united against the Nazis.  The truth is actually far more complex.  The world was still recovering from World War I and throughout the 1930s, even as the Axis powers were growing more and more aggressive, respected intellectual leaders and politicians continued to argue that peace must be maintained at all costs.  Pacifism was such a popular concept that otherwise intelligent people were perfectly willing to make excuses for Hitler and Mussolini.  For five years, the UK followed a policy of appeasement towards Nazi Germany.  Even after war broke out between Britain and Germany, the U.S. remained officially neutral.  In the 1940 presidential election, President Franklin D. Roosevelt — running on a platform of neutrality — was overwhelmingly reelected over internationalist Wendell Willkie.

Foreign Correspondent, an American film made by a British director, opens before the start of World War II.  An American newspaper editor, Mr. Powers (Harry Davenport), is frustrated because none of his foreign correspondents seem to be able to understand the truth of the situation in Europe.  They all claim that there is going to be no war in Europe but Mr. Powers feels differently.  He also feels that the newspaper’s most celebrated and respected foreign correspondents are just a bunch of out-of-touch elitists.  Instead of sending another upper class academic, Mr. Powers decides to send a hard-boiled crime reporter to cover the situation in Europe.  Johnny Jones (Joel McCrea) has never been to Europe and that’s exactly why Mr. Powers decides to send him.  In one of the film’s more clever moments, he does, however, insist that Johnny write under the more distinguished sounding name of “Huntley Haverstock.”

(Foreign Correspondent‘s pointed criticism of out-of-touch elitists repeating the establishment line remains just as relevant today as it was in 1940.)

From the minute the brash and tough Johnny arrives in Europe, he finds himself caught up in a huge conspiracy.  He’s been assigned to report on a group known as the Universal Peace Party and, since this film was directed by Alfred Hitchcock, we automatically know that any organization with the word “Peace” in its name has to be up to something shady.  The Universal Peace Party has been founded by Stephen Fisher (Herbert Marshall), who appears to sincere in his desire to avoid war.  Johnny meets and falls in love with Fisher’s daughter, Carol (Laraine Day).

From the minute that Johnny witnesses the assassination of distinguished Dutch diplomat Von Meer (Albert Bassermann), he suspects that things are not how they seem.  Working with Carol and a British journalist named Scott ffolliot* (delightfully played by the great George Sanders), Johnny discovers that Von Meer was not killed at all.  Instead, a double was assassinated and Von Meer was kidnapped by a group of spies.

But who are the spies?  After nearly getting killed by one of Fisher’s bodyguards, Johnny starts to suspect that Stephen Fisher might not be as into world peace as was originally assumed.  Complicating matters, however, is the fact that Johnny is now engaged to marry Carol…

Foreign Correspondent is a wonderfully witty thriller, one that has a very serious message.  While the film is distinguished by Hitchcock’s typically droll sense of humor (eccentric characters abound and the scene where Edmund Gwenn keeps getting interrupted before he can attempt to push Joel McCrea off of a tower is both funny and suspenseful), the film’s message was that America could not afford to stay neutral as war broke out across Europe.  As the all-American Johnny Jones says at the end of the film:

“All that noise you hear isn’t static – it’s death, coming to London. Yes, they’re coming here now. You can hear the bombs falling on the streets and the homes. Don’t tune me out, hang on a while – this is a big story, and you’re part of it. It’s too late to do anything here now except stand in the dark and let them come… as if the lights were all out everywhere, except in America. Keep those lights burning, cover them with steel, ring them with guns, build a canopy of battleships and bombing planes around them. Hello, America, hang on to your lights: they’re the only lights left in the world!”

Foreign Correspondent was nominated for best picture of 1940 but it lost to another far different Hitchcock-directed film, Rebecca.

——

* Yes, that is how he spells his last name.  As he explains, his family dropped the capital name in his surname after an ancestor was executed by Henry II.  Since it was George Sanders doing the explaining, it somehow made perfect sense.

The Fourth Annual Academy Awards: 1917


Lisa and I continue to reimagine the Oscar history, one year at a time. Today, we look at 1917. The U.S. enters World War I, the Pickfords take over Hollywood, and, for the first time, the entire membership of the Academy gets to vote.

Through the Shattered Lens Presents The Oscars

The host of the 4th Annual Academy Awards, Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle The host of the 4th Annual Academy Awards, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle

On March 4th, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson took the oath of office and began his second term of President.  Just a few months earlier, he had run for reelection on a platform of maintaining American neutrality in the war that was ravaging Europe.  His slogan was “He Kept Us Out Of War,” and it was enough to allow him to survive one of the closest elections in U.S. History.

One month later, the U.S. declared war on Germany and entered into what would come to be called World War I.

Whereas the previous year had been dominated by films, like the Award-winning Civilization, that promoted neutrality and world peace, 1917 saw the release of several films that were designed to support the American war effort.  The pacifism of Civilization was forgotten as the box office embraced…

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