Friday, May 27, 2016

Condemned to Live, a well-made low-budget vampire film

By Doug Gibson

"Condemned to Live" is one of the scores of poverty-row horror mysteries that were produced in the 1930s. It comes from Invincible Pictures. It has no notable names in its cast, unless you count fifth-billed Mischa Auer.

Nevertheless, it's one of the better poverty-row offerings of that era. It has a lean, non-convoluted plot, passable acting (and a very strong performance from Ralph Morgan, brother of Frank, the wizard in "The Wizard of Oz," in the lead). It's a film that is clearly influenced by Universal horror films of that era. In fact, the film is shot at Universal and aware viewers will spot locations from "Bride of Frankenstein" and even the silent "Hunchback of Notre Dame."

But I haven't got to the plot! In a prologue, a baby is born, in a cave, to a woman bitten by bats. The bite can cause its victims to be sort of vampires, and kill others. As the book "Forgotten Horrors" points out, this is a "daring concept (for its times) of prenatal influence."

We move forward at least 40 years to a village in which a kindly, pious professor, Prof. Paul Kristan lives. He's engaged to a much-younger woman, Marguerite Mane (Maxine Doyle) who seems to respect him more than love him. She's pursued by a man her age, David, (Russell Gleason), who keeps reminding Marguerite she doesn't love her older fiance. Also, Prof. Kristan has a loyal, hunchbacked servant, Zan (Mischa Auer).

The village is roiled by a series of murders by a "monster. In another nod to Universal, there are frequent scenes of villages holding torches and roaming the countryside. This film is not a mystery. We learn fairly soon that Professor Kristan is the "monster." The "venom" of the bat that bit his mother and entered him at birth has finally came full force. Indeed, most villagers believe the monster is a bat. David scoffs at that, accurately believing it's a person.

In a strong scene, we witness the professor's transformation to a vampire-like creature. Morgan, who later starred in "The Monster Maker," has the acting skills to be a killer. What makes the film so fun is he's also very convincing as a kind, loving man. In fact, he's not really aware he's doing the killings. However, his hunchback servant, Zan, is, and has been covering up the crimes and disposing of the bodies.

As film scholar Frank J. Dello Stritto noted in his essay, "The Vampire Strikes Back," "Condemned to Live" is a notable, early post-"Dracula" vampire film. It's also unique in that the vampire is a sympathetic figure, a slave to his curse. Its poverty-row impact didn't influence later vampire films, Dello Stritto notes, but there is a 1945 vampire film that Dello Stritto writes about, from Republic, "The Vampire's Ghost," that has a sympathetic vampire, although he's not nearly as altruistic as Kristan.

Eventually, an older colleague of Kristan's, Dr. Anders Bizet (Pedro de Cordoba), who is privy to the circumstances of Kristan's birth, arrives to investigate. He learns of the murders and accurately suspects the killer is Kristan. He believes stress has released the monstrous instincts in his friend. With the professor realizing he is likely the monster, plans are made to end the engagement, have the professor leave with Bizeand be treated.

However, the transformation strikes again, and there is a climax suitably scary for that era.

I want to add that the film, despite its lean, mean plot (which is a strength) also has a bit of social commentary in it, although I'm not sure it was intended. The torch-wielding villagers are quick to suspect Zan of he murders. It's clearly implied that his being a "hunchback" leads many to suspect him. Zan is "creepy," Zan is "different," he must be up to no good. That feeling eventually leads to mob-like anger. Auer, an extremely versatile actor, conveys his tension -- covering up crimes for a man he literally worships -- well. The rest of the cast is OK.

Director Frank R. Strayer directed many similar low-budget films that were modeled after larger-budget studios' efforts. One is ""The Vampire Bat," another is "The Monster Walks," which owes a lot to Universal's "The Old Dark House." Watch "Condemned to Live" below.

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