Friday, October 24, 2008

Forgotten horror: Werewolf of London

The Werewolf of London

by Doug Gibson

Werewolf of London, 1935, 75 minutes, Universal, black and white. Directed by Stuart Walker. Starring Henry Hull as Dr. Wilfred Glendon, Warner Oland as Dr. Yogami, Valerie Hobson as Mrs. Lisa Glendon, Lester Matthews as Capt. Paul Ames, and Lawrence Grant as Sir. Thomas Forsythe, Scotland Yard chief. Schlock-Meter rating: 8 stars out of 10.

The Werewolf of London, which pre-dates Lon Chaney Jr.'s The Wolfman by several years, drips in atmosphere. There's foggy London nights, remote Tibetan valleys and sinister chilly nights in deserted country homes. It's the tale of a London botanist (Hull) who travels to Tibet to find a rare flower which blooms when the moon shines. Also, legend has it that it serves as an antidote to lycanthropy, or literally, becoming a werewolf. In Tibet, Hull is attacked by a werewolf, and while fighting him off, is bitten on the arm. He returns to London with the flower.

Once in London, the workaholic Hull is visited by an Oriental colleague (Oland) who asks for the flower to help patients, or so he claims. Oland, who carries a charmingly sinister persona, hints that he was the werewolf Hull fought off in Tibet. Meanwhile, Hull's Dr. Glendon, much to his surprise and horror, become a werewolf. The transformation leaves him evil, and he kills several women when the moon is full. An old beau (Matthews) of Glendon's neglected wife Lisa (Hobson), visits the community and begins to suspect Hull.

This film is not too scary, but it's still very well made and very entertaining. Hull is a bit too skinny to inspire much fear and his werewolf is not too threatening or awful in appearance. In fact, the werewolves in this film aren't much stronger than the women they attack. Nevertheless, Hull's feelings of horror and helplessness at what has happened to him create strong pathos. In a particularly emotional scene Hull, desperately prays to God to spare him the werewolf curse. Then, he adds a final prayer, asking that at least he be spared of killing his wife if he be so cursed.

There are a few silly scenes of stereotypical neighbors and party guests who distract from the plot, and another subplot where the hero Matthews makes a play for Hull's wife, Lisa. But star Hull, despite his physical limitations, does a better-than-average job, and Oland also contributes to the fun. The music is splendid, and was copied in many other horror films of that era. The method of Hull's "werewolfism" is a flower plant. That was certainly changed by the time Chaney Jr. became the wolfman. Werewolf of London was a box-office flop for Universal, and that ended Hull's bid for horror star status. Still, the film holds up well today. Catch it when you can on Turner Classic Movies.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

All about Manos: The Hands of Fate

By Steve D. Stones

Anyone who proclaims Plan 9 From Outer Space or The Creeping Terror to be one the "worst movies of all time" obviously has never seen this film. In fact, it’s a film that is rarely even discussed in many film encyclopedias, including the Medved brothers’ "The Golden Turkey Awards." That may be because the film is just now surfacing as a cult item in recent years due to it being spoofed on the Mystery Science Theater 3000 television show in the early 1990s. The show has given Manos a whole new generation of cult fans.

An El Paso fertilizer salesman named Harold Warren directed Manos: The Hands of Fate. Warren also served as producer and screenwriter of the film, and cast himself in the role of the husband and father named Mike. Not surprisingly, Warren never went on to make or act in another full-length feature film. His role in Manos seems a bit out of place because the woman who plays his wife in the film, Diane Mahree, looks old enough to be his daughter.

The film opens with Warren and family sitting in a convertible on the side of the road contemplating where to go. They are on a family vacation and lost somewhere in the Texas countryside. To alleviate the stress of being lost, they begin to sing: "Row, row, row your boat, gently down the stream . . ." This reminds me of the times I’ve been to Disneyland with my family and they force me to ride the "It’s a small world" ride. By the time I get off the ride, I want to pull out all my hair from being knocked over the head so many times with the "It’s a small world" song heard in several different languages. A root canal procedure from my dentist would be less painful.

If you haven’t lost interest in the film by now, you may very soon as the opening sequence continues with long and boring panning shots of the family driving in the countryside in all directions. The camera never shows the moving car itself, just shots of the moving countryside. The cinematographer should have been shot for these sequences. After driving all over the place, the family decides to stop at an old worn down shack to ask for directions to the nearest motel. They are greeted by Torgo, played by John Reynolds, who walks funny, carries a charred stick, and looks as if pillows are stuffed in the knees of his pants. Torgo insists, "The Master wouldn’t approve" of the family staying overnight in the shack. He repeats this line over and over again.

We soon discover whom "The Master" is that Torgo keeps referring to as the couple becomes intrigued with a sinister looking painting hanging on the wall near the fireplace. The painting depicts The Master in a black and red robe and an evil looking dog beside him. The family becomes frightened as they hear the sound of howling wolves and barking dogs outside. They soon notice their family poodle is missing. Mike, the father, steps outside to find the poodle, where he finds him lying dead on the ground. Mike picks him up, and the dog is already as rigid as a piece of plywood. Although it may have been unintentional, I found this scene to be very funny. Why an animal would be stiff with rigor mortis so quickly seems very odd to me.

The most effective sequences in the film show The Master and his voluptuous maidens in a Pagan cult ritual. The maidens are said to be the wives of The Master, and they are dressed in see through white gowns that reveal their sexy, curvaceous bodies. Apparently the maidens shop at Victoria’s Secret for their undergarments.

The Master, who looks like singer Freddie Mercury of the British rock group Queen, commands the maidens to sacrifice Debbie, the young child of the family. The maidens cannot agree on this, so they wrestle and fight each other on the desert sand, while slapping and pulling each other’s hair.

When Torgo is placed on the altar of sacrifice to be killed for his disobedience, the camera shows an interesting close up of the maiden’s hands reaching in towards him. The Master forces Torgo’s hand into the ritualistic fire where it severs from his arm as a burning effigy.

Like so many cult films, Manos: The Hands of Fate actually does improve with each viewing, believe it or not. As with other cult films, you may find yourself wanting to take Manos home with you like an ugly lost puppy and nurse it back to health, even if your friends tell you to kick it out into the street and let it die a slow death.

The cult of Manos has been a long time coming, but fans are now beginning to open up to the film and appreciate it for what it is. This sick puppy may take lots of nursing to get it back to health, but if you keep an open mind to it, you may actually find yourself enjoying the film after several viewings, if you first don’t pull out all your hair!!!

Saturday, October 11, 2008

An homage to the drive-in theater

This essay originally appeared in the Oct. 31, 2007, Standard-Examiner newspaper.

By Doug Gibson

This month Turner Classic Movies has been offering Halloween-appropriate films that used to chill our parents and even our grandparents. From Ed Wood to William Castle to Roger Corman, "Bride of the Monster," "Homicidal," "The Tingler," "A Bucket of Blood," "Pit and the Pendulum," "The Terror" and other fright films flickered on TV screens this month.

I love those old movies, with Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, Vincent Price and even a very young Jack Nicholson working to induce frights and chills. If I had a time machine, I would head back to these films' release dates, pay four bits or a dollar, and enjoy a Castle, Corman or a Wood first release.

Chances are I'd have headed to a drive-in theater to see the film. Today, drive-ins are scarce, and moonlight as swap meets. There was a time, though, when drive-in theaters were ubiquitous.

Drive-ins played most film genres, but specialties were the horror or exploitation film. When Ed Wood made his cheapie, "Jail Bait," the negative and prints headed straight to the deep South, distributed by a film company that owned 50 or so cow pastures-turned drive-in theaters.
Of course, the Corman, Castle and Hitchcock films were often shown indoors, but business was always big on the weekend, when harried parents would hustle sleepy kids into the station wagon, park it, stick the speaker into the car and wait for the kids to fall asleep.

Steve Stones, a Weber State University art professor and cult film collector, remembers when the drive-in competed with the multiplex. "It was appealing to me when I did go because there was something out of the ordinary in being able to sit on the bumper or tail gate of your vehicle and see a movie with the stars and night sky above," he recalls.

I read a book, "Cinema Under the Stars: America's Love Affair with the Drive-In Movie Theater." It's a bittersweet read. The 1950s were the heyday of drive-ins. There were more than 4,600 then. There are only several hundred left. Only one remains in the Ogden area.
"Cinema Under the Stars" is full of photographs and drawings of old drive-ins and the screen ads — trailers, local business, public service announcements and concessions — that were part of the drive-in experience. The ads were so much fun you can buy them on DVD now: dancing snacks, Bernz-O-Matic In-Car Heaters or Drizzle Guards to put on your windshield ... all on sale at the snack bar!

What separates the drive-in from today's indoor theater is the drive-in was a community experience. Talk at the multiplex and you get shushed. But at the old drive-in there were playgrounds, bleachers, truck beds and privacy when the car door closed. The film was talked about as much as it was seen.

Stones recalls, "the sound coming out of those bulky grey speakers ... was not so great, but I think most people really didn't care because they were either going to make out in their car with their date that night, or discuss the movie as it was playing on the screen with their friends."
Drive-ins were where the blood 'n' gore craze began. Herschell Gordon Lewis' "Blood Feast" was a huge hit down South in 1963. In the late '60s and early '70s, as drive-ins started their slow decline, exploitation films became steady grossers. Ultra-low budget fare such as "Dracula vs. Frankenstein," "Brides of Blood," "Cain's Cutthroats," "Horrors of the Blood Planet," "A Taste of Blood," "Satan's Sadists," "Blood of Ghastly Horror" and "Don't Go in the Woods ... Alone" (filmed near Ogden) were standard drive-in offerings across America.

Purists still loved these films, cult items today, but, not surprisingly, many couples who parked to see "Blood of Ghastly Horror" found each other more interesting than the film on the screen. Many of today's Gen-Xers were conceived after mom and dad turned the sound off at the drive-in movie.

The drive-in theater turned 74 this year. Those films that made the drive-in so popular are preserved on cable channels and DVDs. A few drive-ins are still around, but evidence of their waning status is seen today, on Halloween, when the films that once shined outdoors are now only viewed within walls.