We’re jumping back into the time machine folks and heading back to the ’40s. The War Years. A decade that gave us the Wolfman, a fight between him and Frankenstein, and some underrated horror gems. So let’s get into it, shall we?
5. Isle of the Dead (1945 – War Years)
On a Greek island during the 1912 war, several people are trapped by quarantine for the plague. If that isn’t enough worry, one of the people, a superstitious old peasant woman, suspects one young girl of being a vampiric kind of demon called a vorvolaka.
Boris Karloff plays a Greek general whose wife’s body has mysteriously vanished from its tomb at the start of Isle of the Dead. He’s naturally suspicious that something more evil than the plague has crept over the island he decides must be quarantined–forbidding anyone from leaving it. Ellen Drew is a young woman he suspects may have something to do with evil spirits–or even vampirism–and Marc Cramer is a young soldier who wants to protect her.
All the ingredients for a good chiller are here, but it’s a story that gets its main strength, not from the plot, but from the sinister, shadowy B&W photography that sets up the moody atmosphere from the start, with an air of dread lingering over every scene. Aiding considerably are strong performances from Katherine Emery as a sick woman who fears being buried alive, and Helen Thimig as a superstitious old woman. In fact, all of the supporting players do well under Mark Robson’s taut direction. The tale itself is not one of my favourites but it’s a credit to all concerned that they do a job of giving it a creepiness that should satisfy even the most jaded of Gothic horror fans. And yet, ultimately, there’s a bit of a let-down as far as the story itself is concerned. The ingredients are all there, but something vital is missing and I’m sorry to say I don’t know exactly what it is. Nevertheless, it holds the interest throughout and that’s what matters.
4. The Black Cat (1941 – War Years)
Elderly Henrietta Winslow lives in an isolated mansion with her housekeeper and beloved cats. As her health fails, her greedy relatives gather in anticipation of her death.
Bela Lugosi at his creepy finest here folks. Greedy family heirs stay at their grandmother’s mansion and wait for her to die, so they can collect her money and estate. They later discover that they cannot collect a dime until all of her pet cats are dead as well. Someone in the mansion then begins to murder them one by one. This film has all of the elements of horror. Although it bears a notch below many of the popular horror films released by Universal Pictures, director Albert Rogall’s The Black Cat has the “haunted” house scene, a rain storm, secret passage ways and plenty of laughs and scares to make it a good horror film.
Basil Rathbone and Broderick Crawford are also both good as the leads, as well as Hugh Herbert providing the laughs. Oscar winner Gale Sondergaard and Bela Lugosi, both playing the servants looked wickedly evil and sinister, and it was my surprise that they were not the murderers when both of their characters were murdered as well. The real killer was a surprise, especially with the premise of the black cat being around at the time of the murders often throws the viewers off. The Black Cat is a good horror classic with intriguing mysteries.
3. Invisible Ghost (1941 – War Years)
The prominent Dr. Charles Kessler lives in a house with his daughter Virginia Kessler and his servants and misses his wife that left him. When there is a murder in his house, Virginia’s fiancée Ralph Dickson is accused of the killing and sentenced to death penalty in the electric chair. Soon his twin brother Paul comes to Dr. Kessler’s house, who invites him to stay in his house. Meanwhile, Mrs. Kessler is alive with neurological disorder after a car accident and hidden in the gardener’s house that is secretly treating her. When she sneaks out of the house and sees Dr. Kessler in the window, he goes into a trance and turns into a killer. Will Dr. Kessler be stopped.
This is one of my favourite of Bela Lugosi’s Monogram potboilers. This film is perfect in black and white because of the use of light and shadow as well as thunder and lightning in a creepy old house that has the feel of an old tomb. Throughout the film, the house setting with its weird shadows and spooky atmosphere sets the tone for the film A series of unsolved murders take place in this old house and the authorities fail to close it up due to legal technicalities. From the beginning, one knows that the guilty party is Bela Lugosi under the bizarre hypnotic influence of his estranged wife. The story rolls on with additional murders and an innocent suitor being sent to the electric chair for a murder he did not commit. After a few more people bite the dust, the real murderer is uncovered in one of the most bizarre climaxes in “B” movie history. A solid 40’s film and yet another featuring the legendary Bela Lugosi. Check it out.
2. Frankenstein meets Wolfman (1943 – War Years)
Larry Talbot finds himself in an asylum, recovering from an operation performed by the kindly Dr. Mannering. Inspector Owen finds him there, too, wanting to question him about a recent spate of murders. Talbot escapes and finds Maleva, the old gypsy woman who knows his secret: when the moon is full, he changes to a werewolf. She travels with him to locate the one man who can help him to die – Dr. Frankenstein. The brilliant doctor proves to be dead himself, but they do find Frankenstein’s daughter. Talbot begs her for her father’s papers containing the secrets of life and death. She doesn’t have them, so he goes to the ruins of the Frankenstein castle to find them himself.
There he finds the Monster, whom he chips out of a block of ice. Dr. Mannering catches up with him only to become tempted to monomania while using Frankenstein’s old equipment.
Of all of the later Frankenstein movies made by Universal, this one seems to be overlooked when compared to the previous “Ghost of Frankenstein” or the campy fun of “House of Frankenstein”. Nevertheless, “Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman” is probably the best of the bunch. This movie is carried by Chaney Jr. who is totally inside the character of the Wolf Man. It is probably Chaney’s best performance as beast, and he steals every scene he is in. As Talbot, he shows the horrible trauma of being an unwilling murderer, giving the character a greater presence that fills the screen with charm.
Bela Lugosi, as the creature, has more troubles to be satisfying, but it is important to note that most of his scenes were changed as the previous subplot of Ygor’s brain was abandoned. Bad choice since the first scenes with the monster show him confused and blind without giving any explanation. The poor editing is responsible of Lugosi’s apparent bad performance. The rest of the cast is surprisingly good, with old friends like Lionel Atwill and Dwight Frye in small supporting roles. Beautiful Ilona Massey plays Elsa Frankenstein who in an odd change appears as a cold smart businesswoman vastly different from the character’s traits in “Ghost of Frankenstein”. Nevertheless, Massey plays the role with grace and her beauty shines in the screen.
1. The Wolfman (1941 – War Years)
Upon the death of his brother, Larry Talbot returns from America to his ancestral home in Wales. He visits a gypsy camp with village girl Jenny Williams, who is attacked by Bela, a gypsy who has turned into a werewolf. Larry kills the werewolf but is bitten during the fight. Bela’s mother tells him that this will cause him to become a werewolf at each full moon. Larry confesses his plight to his unbelieving father, Sir John, who then joins the villagers in a hunt for the wolf. Transformed by the full moon, Larry heads for the forest and a fateful meeting with both Sir John and Gwen Conliffe.
What famous horror classic, panned by reviewers upon its initial release in December of 1941, looks better and better every year? THE WOLF MAN, starring Claude Rains, Ralph Bellamy, Evelyn Ankers, and Lon Chaney Jr. as the hapless Larry Talbot. The story is a familiar one: Larry, the son of esteemed Sir John (Rains) returns home to Wales after many years in America, is bitten by a werewolf (well played by Bela Lugosi), and becomes a werewolf himself. What’s extraordinary is the fact that the film can be so effective today. The biggest reason for this is the acting. Some classic films, pre-Actor’s Studio, look pretty pathetic when it comes to realistic characterization. Not so THE WOLFMAN.
Curt Siodmak’s excellent screenplay (likened to a Greek Tragedy) provides a vehicle for the stars to be at their best, and, boy, do they shine: Rains a tower of strength as the proud father; Ankers hitting just the right note as the torn female lead; Maria Ouspenskaya as the Old Gypsey Woman whose words prefigure Larry’s doom…. But the standout is Lon Chaney Jr. A definite mixed-bag as an actor, he is perfect here–and this is a role calling for the use of all human emotions (unlike later Wolf Man films, where Talbot’s head-pounding becomes monotonous). In fact, seeing THE WOLFMAN recently has convinced me that Chaney would have made the ideal screen Phillip Marlow (and I’m not forgetting Bogie)–big, tough, surly, yet charming when need be (a highlight early in WOLFMAN is Larry’s attempts at flirting with Ankers; Chaney does the surprisingly playful dialogue with just the right touch).
There’s no doubt that his performance would merit accolades even today. This is not to say that there aren’t problems in the film. The continuity is off in a number of places (Chany transforms into the Wolf Man at one point wearing a sleeveless undershirt; in the very next scene, he’s wearing a neatly buttoned Dickey), and there’s a scene or two that’s completely inexplicable (e.g., why DOES the Wolf Man pass out when caught in that trap?)… But overall, the pace, lighting, cinematography, excellent musical score, and strong story propel the film through these rough spots, the 70-minute ride leaving the viewer wanting more. For these reasons, THE WOLFMAN is a classic.