The Unknown

Ring a Ding Ding

The Unknown (1927)

The Unknown (1927)

Despite how harsh I came down on circus movies in my last post, I recently enjoyed a very old but very good flick that falls in the sometimes successful circus-as-horror category. The Unknown pairs silent screen great Lon Chaney with a woman with a couple dozen silent movies to her credit: Joan Crawford.

The plot is a great one that scares and upsets the viewer with what is ultimately a very sad story. Chaney is Alonzo, the armless man at the circus. His lack of arms does not hinder him, however, because his feet have become substitutes adroit with such everyday activities as lighting a cigarette.

Also working for the circus is Crawford’s Nanon, who is the pretty girl who has knives hurled at her by thrower Malabar (Norman Kerry). The beautiful Nanon, whose father owns the circus, has had a past filled with the groping hands of men. The occurrences were so disturbing to her that she now fears the hands of all men. Although Malabar is in love with the girl, he sends her running in horror every time he touches her.

It’s no wonder then that Nanon is so fond of Alonzo. There is clearly a stark age difference, but the man has been in love with the girl for years. She seems to cling to him as a sort of fatherly figure, however. One night after Malabar has put his hands on Nanon to her dismay, Alonzo leaves his trailer to teach the man a lesson. We have seen him free his hidden arms from a corset device and now is fully equipped to take on any man. But the person who actually discovers his secret is Nanon’s father Zanzi (Nick de Ruiz). Alonzo strangles him to death, revealing to us why he hides his arms–a genetic defect that has given him a double thumb and can tie him to a variety of thefts.

With the circus disbanded, Alonzo takes Nanon away from the life she has known and tries to start his progression towards a relationship. He ultimately learns, however, she will care for no man with hands. This sparks the idea to have his arms surgically removed. In a very creepy, dramatic scene, Alonzo instructs a surgeon –whom he has coerced into the deed– as to where to remove the limbs. Once he has healed, Alonzo returns to find Nanon has warmed to Malabar and no longer fears his hands. The intertitled dialogue only further drives a stake into Alonzo’s heart as he realizes his grave mistake.

The costuming for The Unknown is magnificent and expertly hides Chaney’s arms from sight while the man is clothed. Chaney plays the part wonderfully, making us feel his anger, his dark side and his anguish. The close of the picture features the actor laughing maniacally as he realizes he has removed his arms for nothing and still has been rejected by the girl he loves. His face is so full of emotion that we can understand without hearing it that his laughter is not driven by joy. Chaney accomplished all of the feet-as-hands action with the help of an actual armless man, who lent his legs for the scenes. Chaney nevertheless is perfectly in synch with the movements so that they do not appear to be coming from two separate bodies.

Crawford really proves herself to be a talented actress in this silent flick. You might not recognize her if you weren’t looking for her, but she makes for a very lovely young woman. Crawford’s character is a sympathetic one, so we hold no malice against her when she opts for the other man.

Source: Lon Chaney: A Thousand Faces documentary

Feature: Hitchcock’s Recipe

I discovered this brilliant video on the ModCloth blog. It was apparently created by students at the University of Applied Sciences and Arts in Hannover and is wildly entertaining and insightful, for those who are well versed in the ways of Alfred Hitchcock. Seeing as my blog is named after a technique of the great director, I thought it only fitting to share it with you. It’s certainly worth watching more than once to enjoy all the details contained therein. Enjoy!

Feature: A Movie Through Its Posters — Psycho

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Psycho is one of those movies that is known worldwide and still revered as a great piece of horror history. In no way is that more evident than by the sheer extent of foreign movie posters for the flick.

Hitchcock was the “master of suspense” but his movies did not really fall into the horror category before Psycho. The movie was controversial and met with a lot of pushback from the Hayes Office but Hitchcock managed to make compromises –giving up one scandalous aspect to allow another to stay in. The movie nevertheless is well known for Janet Leigh‘s undergarment outfits at separate instances in the film’s start. This part of the film certainly did not escape notice to those individuals who create movie posters worldwide. Six of the posters above feature the scantily clad Leigh, which probably proved a selling point for the flick.

Also prominent in the posters is the horror-stricken face of Anthony Perkins upon discovering a body in his hotel’s bathroom. The lead-up scene also was a source of controversy with the short takes assembled to give the impression we are seeing nudity. Including Perkins on the posters in this manner certainly would have lulled the audience into believing his character’s innocence, fueling one of the movie’s twists.

My favorite of these posters is the German one. It is simple and striking with its bold teal color and large Perkins facade. I love that shot of Perkins, and I think this poster uses it to its greatest effect. Which do you like best?

The Devil Bat

Dullsville

The Devil Bat (1940)

I have never found bats in themselves to be scary creatures. Their association with vampires drives a certain degree of fright, but you don’t often see movies about the rodent-sized flying creatures attacking people. The solution to the only moderate fear factor associated with bats is to, of course, make the beasts much larger. Thus is the monster in The Devil Bat.

Bela Lugosi plays a scientist whose primary occupation is to create new cosmetic formulas. Dr. Carruthers works for the Heath cosmetic company, owned by a Martin Heath (Edward Mortimer) in the town of Heathville. Martin along with Henry Morton (Guy Usher) built the prosperous company on a cream they bought from the doctor many years earlier, at which point Carruthers could have opted to be a partner in the company. Now he tolls away in his stony lab while the businessmen enjoy their wealth.

After all this time, the doctor opts to get his revenge. He has finally developed a method by which he can make an ordinary bat grow to five times its original size using some sort of electrical stimulation. The scientist has simultaneously created a “shaving lotion” with a strong odor that will attract the bat. To fulfill his plot, Dr. Carruthers one by one entices members of the Health and Morton families to test the new shaving lotion before letting the “devil bat” loose to hunt down the pre-selected prey.

After the first murder –and these are immediately considered murders– an out-of-town reporter Johnny Layton (Dave O’Brien) and a photographer One Shot Maguire (Donald Kerr) move in to not only report on the crime but to apparently solve it as well. Johnny immediately makes pals with the police chief and offers to help track down the truth. Johnny will also develop a crush on the Heath daughter Mary (Suzanne Kaaren), and the two will be the first to witness the murderer, AKA devil bat, but are unable to stop death after death.

Bela Lugosi is obviously the big-name star of the picture, but upon arrival of O’Brien’s Johnny to the scene, The Devil Bat attempts to become a reporter-as-detective drama. O’Brien’s poorly acting cannot, however, compete with the Lugosi’s star power despite the villain’s equally sad performance. O’Brien and Kerr attempt to bring humor to the story via their goofy interactions with each other and their curmudgeon of an editor. Lugosi’s doctor will ultimately die by the hand of his own creature, but the conclusion is far less dramatic or cautionary than your typical creature-turns-on-master ending.

The most notable thing about The Devil Bat are the effects, which are awful. The only real bats we see are those small ones exiting the rooftop window at Dr. Carruthers’ home. The normal-sized bad the scientist lugs from storage to his experiment room hangs stiffly upside down from its perch. Upon contact with the electrical impulses, the creature’s wings move rigidly and various cut-away edits allow it to become gradually larger at each glimpse. Lugosi, meanwhile, stands outside the chamber making expressions of delight at the viewing window. The doctor twice creates a devil bat via these means and the first time a strange use of back projection has the doctor listen to his creature with a stethoscope with the scene and the bat being projections. A later repeat of this scene actually involves the puppet bat.

When the bat takes wing, it “flies” clumsily through the sky and is hurled at victims who simply fall to the ground so we cannot see the lack of dexterity of the creature. It also has an awful caterwaul that is a combination of dog bark-type noises and outright screams.

To say The Devil Bat is humorous, is an understatement. The bat itself is such a pathetic creation that its appearance is substance enough for laughs. Lugosi –and other actors– sadly give uninspired and outright bad performances that will cause you either to cringe or snicker. Lugosi certainly was capable of better.

  • The Devil Bat is set for 4 p.m. ET Oct. 31 on TCM.

The Abominable Dr. Phibes

Gasser

The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971)

The Abominable Dr. Phibes can only receive this mediocre rating if you conclude that you are meant to be laughing at certain points. Like Phantom of the Paradise, it blurs the line between horror and comedy. Although it is about grotesque murders, it also is full of humorous dialogue that one cannot help but conclude is meant to make us laugh. Other instances of absurd plot points and bad acting make us laugh for unintentional reasons.

Vincent Price stars as Dr. Phibes, a man who is thought to have died in a car accident following his wife’s death on the operating table. The man is very much alive, however, though horribly disfigured. He pastes on a false face to hide his scars and is able to talk only via a cord attaching his neck to a speaker. When it comes to eating/drinking, he seems to do that via a hole in the back of his neck (cue laughter).

Dr. Phibes lives in an old mansion with a beautiful young woman  (Virginia North) who also fails to utter a word and whose relationship with the doctor is never explained. The man plays an organ and directs a “mechanical” orchestra while also taking time out to waltz with the woman. It all seems to be part of a ritual that leads up to the duo hitting the road and murdering surgeons.

Investigating the crimes is Inspector Trout (Peter Jeffrey), who is assisted by the head doctor on Mrs. Phibes operation, Dr. Vesalius, played by an older Joseph Cotton. The two discover in their inquiries that the murders –via means such as bats, rats, and bees– are all related to the 10 plagues that preyed upon the Pharaoh of Egypt. The crime-fighters fail to avert any of the deaths, however, until we reach the final plague: death of the first-born. Dr. Vesalius, with a teenage son, is the recipient of that torment. He is forced to operate on the boy to save his life and in a manner that could have inspired the modern Saw movies.

Even the brutal deaths in The Abominable Dr. Phibes seem to employ a degree of comic timing. Having just located one doctor, the authorities lead him out of a building only to have a brass unicorn head catapult through the open door and impale the victim. A concentrated brussel sprout syrup entirely coats the head of a sleeping nurse, whose sleeping pills keep her unconscious during the eating of her face.

Jeffrey, whom I remember as being equally comical in The Return of the Pink Panther, certainly lightens the mood throughout by being fairly incompetent –leaving the critical thinking to Dr. Vesalius– and prattling off humorous lines here and there. Cotton, meanwhile, gives a superbly appropriate performance. A reader commented last week on the post about Cotton’s Walk Softly, Stranger that he has never seen the man give a bad performance. I cannot agree more. Like Bette Davis, Cotton was not immune to appearing in a bad movie, but he always gave a great show, here avoiding the melodrama Price tends to bring to his parts. I think it’s safe to say we expect a certain degree of camp from Price, however, and he certainly delivers that here.

The Devils

Ring a Ding Ding

The Devils (1971)

When the Hollywood decency code lifted and opened way for the rating system we have today, the 70s became flooded with naked flesh. During that time, nudity used in an unsexy or unartful way often was the reason a movie was considered a horror film. The Devils is such a case.

The true story is a drama about the extent the Catholic church under Cardinal Richelieu went to remove a priest who also had control over the one town blocking the cardinal from taking over all of France in the 1630s. The only reason I can see the flick being relegated to the horror genre is because of scenes featuring a large number of nude nuns. The movie was considered, and perhaps still is, highly controversial because it also features the top sister at the church sexually fantasizing about Jesus/the priest.

The Devils is actually a very well made movie with fantastic sets and a wonderful performance by Oliver Reed as the priest, Father Grandier. At the picture’s start one cannot help but loathe his character. Although the head of the church in Loudon, Grandier is depicted as very lustful, with one of the town’s young women pregnant after an affair with him. Grandier dismisses her concerns and tells her to bear her sin with religious fortitude(Georgina Hale).

The man nevertheless finds a plain, pure woman that he marries in lieu of an affair. The girl, Madeline (Gemma Jones), is considering entering the nunhood, but he persuades her otherwise, hoping to find salvation in the love of a good woman. The marriage, however, enrages the head nun, Sister Jeanne (Vanessa Redgrave). This hunchbacked woman is highly sexually repressed and cannot stifle her love and obsession with Grandier.

Her rage leads her to tell authorities that Father Grandier has had a sexual relationship with her in her dreams, which leads to questions of possession of the nun by Satan. With all the women of the church now suspect of possession by the devil, they relish in the opportunity to run about naked, acting crazy and enduring exorcisms. The king calls Grandier to the capitol and is set on destroying him. Grandier became Loudon’s ruler when the governor died and has refused Richelieu’s demands to tear down its walls and forfeit its independence. Having been accused of outrageous crimes, Grandier can nevertheless not prove his innocence and he is put to death for his alleged crimes.

The story is a very frustrating one as Grandier becomes a largely sympathetic protagonist under a system of guilty until proven innocent. It is remarkable, however, that the plot is written to shift our character preferences around. Although at first Sister Jeanne seems like a sad character worth our affection, she soon becomes increasingly sinister while Grandier’s offensive lifestyle is shadowed by the wrongs committed against him.

The Devils is a great movie, but not a terrifying experience like those you might be seeking this time of year. It has its unsettling moments, but it is more a quality drama with a degree of controversial nudity.

White Zombie

Gasser

White Zombie (1932)

Zombies certainly are all the rage these days. Made a weekly activity by “The Walking Dead” and further celebrated through marathon/obstacle course events involving zombie attackers, even I sometimes think ahead to the zombie apocalypse. But before zombies were flesh-eating, contagious, reanimated dead, they were dormant individuals affected by voodoo magic. Movies such as I Walked With a Zombie and The Serpent and the Rainbow classify themselves in the horror genre, but flicks about voodoo zombies don’t bring with them the same gore as our contemporary concept of the living dead.

White Zombie is the same way. Rather than creatures to be feared, the zombies in this picture are made into such creatures to work as indentured servants without causing a fuss. The monster in this movie is Bela Lugosi‘s voodoo priest who threatens to transform you into such a soulless, mindless form.

As with other of these classic zombie concept movies, the setting is Haiti. Here a betrothed couple has newly arrived. They had planned to be married upon leaving the boat, but were persuaded by Charles Beaumont (Robert Frazer) to wait. Beaumont desires the young Madeline (Madge Bellamy) for himself and will go to extreme lengths to secure her.

Madeline and fiance Niel (John Harron) encounter their first set of zombies on the way to the home of Mr. Beaumont. A group of the mindless men march in the darkness having just finished a day’s work at “Murder” Legendre’s (Lugosi) sugar mill. They, along with an encounter with Murder, frighten Madeline, whose scarf is snatched away by the voodoo master.

Neil and Madeline are married in Beaumont’s home, but the girl is given a potion that causes her to seemingly drop dead at dinner. Murder and Beaumont exhume her body and transform her into a zombie. Beaumont does not like the creature Madeline has become, however, and asks Murder to bring her back to life. Murder refuses, having his own ideas for the girl whom he will later command to kill Neil. A battle will ensue among the various parties until we discover the only way to break a zombie trance is to kill the one who holds power over the undead.

In some ways I think the voodoo concept of a zombie is more personally frightening than the undead we see in today’s films. Whereas the contemporary zombie is a person who has died and whose body merely comes back to life with only animalistic instinct remaining, the Haitian approach conveys the torture of losing control of your body via a spell. I think most mythology along these lines suggests the person never really dies but appears to have passed, leading to their burial (In The Serpent and the Rainbow a potion “kills” a person for 12 hours and when he regains his senses is already buried. The lack of oxygen causes brain damage, so when exhumed, the person is quite different.). Madeline retains all her beauty and vibrancy but her eyes are blank of emotion or acknowledgement of those around her.

Whereas the grotesque zombie of today is required to be written off by loved ones as no longer the same person, Neil is ever-more frustrated because his wife looks the same but refuses to acknowledge him. He knows there must be some way to revive her but cannot find the way himself, so the voodoo approach is also much more emotionally draining for loved ones.

  • White Zombie is set for 5:15 p.m. ET Oct. 31 on TCM.

Phantom of the Paradise

Gasser

Phantom of the Paradise (1974)

There is often a fine line between comedy and horror in the movie business. The genres seem like they are on opposite ends of the spectrum, but there’s nothing like a bad horror movie to make you laugh. With Phantom of the Paradise I have a difficult time deciding if it was intentionally humorous.

In reality, the movie does not move into the horror genre until perhaps the last quarter. It makes one laugh not because it is poorly made or the acting terrible, but because of goofy plot devices and character decisions. The story is loosely based on “The Phantom of the Opera” but with a theater named The Paradise instead of an operahouse.

William Finley plays Winslow who will become our phantom. The man is a talented songwriter who has composed a cantata based on “Faust”. Philbin (George Memmoli), the handler for famous record producer Swan (Paul H. Williams), passes the sheet music onto the producer promising Winslow he will hear about it soon. Instead of making Winslow a star, however, Swan steals the music and plans to use it as a musical to open his new theater.

In the process of barring Winslow from the Death Records headquarters, Swan also arranges for the man to be imprisoned. While incarcerated, Swan’s company funds an experiment whereby inmates’ teeth are removed because they are shown to be a source of disease. Winslow’s own set is replaced with a metal version. Winslow will escape the aptly named Sing Sing and storm the Death Records headquarters. There he finds the machine pressing the records made of his music and trips, his head landing in the machine and brutally burned on one side.

By this point, Swan has cast the “Faust” musical. Winslow hides out in the theater, borrowing a cape and bizarre helmet to cover his disfigurement. He assassinates members of the cast, which leads Swan to work with the phantom on the show. Winslow requires a girl, Phoenix played by Jessica Harper, to be the lead. He met the woman early in the story and is in love. Swan confines the phantom to a hidden room in the theater to rewrite all the music for her, but defies the man by hiring a singer named Beef (Gerritt Graham) to star in the Faust musical despite the high octave of the music. Phoenix is relegated to the chorus.

Swan continues to betray Winslow’s trust to extreme extents and the phantom takes his revenge on all around him, minus Phoenix.

Everyone in Phantom of the Paradise is goofy except for Harper, who gives her usual adequate performance. Winslow is your typical naive dork who becomes such a bizarre phantom. With grey metal teeth, a hoarse voice and a metallic helmet that reveals only one eye –surrounded by the same black makeup that covers his lips –he is only mildly frightening.  

Williams as Swan, meanwhile, is unnervingly obnoxious in his omniscient role, always getting his way and never losing his cool. Then there’s Graham as Beef, perhaps the most humorous character. Playing the part in a flamboyantly gay manner, Graham makes the most absurd facial expressions and maintains a painted-on beauty mark that changes shape (sometimes a lightening bolt, sometimes a four-leaf clover). Treat yourself to some Beef:

One cannot really say Phantom of the Paradise is a bad movie because it is so entertaining. It’s literally a laugh-a-minute feature that is beyond absurd. The music is quite good as well, all being written by Williams who wrote music and lyrics for many films. If you’re looking for an obscure movie to laugh at, Phantom of the Paradise is it. It’s what you would get if you made “Phantom of the Opera” into a rock opera AND a horror film. Brilliant.

Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein

Ring a Ding Ding

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)

I made my first forray into the films of Abbott and Costello earlier this week and had the great fortune of doing so in the theater. I would not say I have avoided the comic team’s movies so much as I just have not gotten around to them, instead being focused on the Marx Brothers and Laurel and Hardy. Now that I have entered their world, however, I’ll be making myself at home.

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein was certainly a star-studded way to start my new comedic love as the cast creates a fun romp through the seasonally appropriate adventure. Lon Chaney Jr. recreates his role as the Wolfman here and is the one monster aligned with Abbott’s Wilbur and Costello’s Chick. Bela Lugosi as Dracula and Glenn Strange as Frankenstein’s monster join forces with a lovely lady in a sinister plot against the duo.

Working at a post office, Wilbur and Chick are tasked with transporting two large crates to McDougal’s House of Horrors that contain Dracula’s coffin and Frankenstein’s monster’s body. Wilbur received a phone call from London from Mr. Talbot –aka the wolfman– who advised him not to deliver the crates, but that warning falls on deaf ears.

Once at the House of Horrors, the men unload the crate contents. Every time Chick leaves the room, Wilbur witnesses Dracula’s coffin opening and is the only one to see a dormant monster before Dracula rouses it from its sleep. Chick refuses to believe his pal’s fantastic tales, but when Mr. McDougal (Frank Ferguson) arrives on scene, he demands to know where his specimens have gone. Having thoroughly insured the parcels, the wax museum proprietor sicks the insurance agency on the men.

Having escaped, Dracula and the monster travel to a castle on an island where a pretty young doctor is awaiting them. This woman happens to be Wilbur’s girlfriend. Although the monster is animated, he has little life in him. Dracula and this Dr. Sandra Mornay (Lenore Auburt) plot to revive the creature with a less violent and more obedient, idiotic brain. Sandra has just the one in mind.

The insurance agent, a lovely Joan Raymond (Jane Randolph), meanwhile sees Wilbur as a way to get to the bodies McDougal thinks the men stole. She flirts with him and soon enough Wilbur has two dates for the night’s masquerade. Talbot/the wolfman has by now arrived in America and is trying to convince a reluctant Chick of the plot of which Wilbur is all too aware.

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein relies largely on the traditional now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t gag where one character –Wilbur– witnesses a monster that manages to disappear whenever Chick is paying attention. This device allows Abbott to use his comedic skills to the best as he calls “Oh, Chick!” in fright every time Dracula makes a move. This comedic plot element is used extensively in cartoons going all the way forward to its regular use in “Scooby Doo” episodes. This is worth noting because Abbott had the talent of embodying in live action the sort of zany, jump-out-of-your-skin types of humor that were animated in their cartoonish way.

While Costello plays the necessary straight man, Abbott manages to steal the show not only from his partner but from the big stars playing the monsters. His interaction with the supernatural creates is what gives the movie life and draws laughs in light of the monster performances that are given in line with the horror movies from which they originate. Lugosi and Chaney are not making fun of themselves or their monster characters here, but playing them dramatically and with serious dialogue. Only Abbott breaks down the intense nature of the story to make the movie a comedy.

  • Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein is set for 3:30 p.m. ET Dec. 31 on TCM.

Halloween Countdown

With All Hallows Eve a week away, MacGuffin Movies will feature seven days of horror posts to countdown to the haunting holiday. Most will be movie reviews, with some obscure treats in the mix, but the week will culminate with a poster feature Oct. 31 for one of the most iconic horror movies in cinema history. Check back Thursday through Wednesday for new daily posts fit for frights ahead of Halloween, but to start, would you like to guess what poster is featured in the header especially for this occaison?

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