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.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

One Shivery Night, Columbia comedy with Herbert and Dickerson

By Doug Gibson

Watch "One Shivery Night" above, do it even if it's in place of reading this review. To Plan9Crunch, it's important to let cult film fans know that there are more to the Columbia Comedy Shorts than just The Three Stooges, as great as they are. "One Shivery Night" stars Hugh Herbert, who made close to two dozen Columbia shorts; "One Shivery Night" is one of his funniest, and later Columbia shorts.

Directed by Del Lord, who made it for Hugh McCollum's team at Columbia, it was released July 13, 1950, about two years before Herbert's death. His co-star in the film is the African-American comedian Dudley Dickerson, a familiar face in Columbia shorts, including with the Stooges. Dickerson made several shorts with Herbert and the pair had a good rapport, treating each other as equals. (Another frequent co-star of Herbert's was blonde Christine McIntyre. They made domestic comedy shorts. McIntyre is one of the few supporting players in Stooges' shorts who achieved icon status. Vernon Dent and maybe Emile Sitka are others. But these players were in many non-Stooges shorts and just as good in those as the ones we see on TV.

Back to "One Shivery Night": Herbert runs a construction company with Dickerson as his sole employee. The business is tottering, literally, and Dickerson hasn't been paid, the power is out as well as the phone. A potential customer enters, played by Vernon Dent. He wants the pair to demolish and renovate an old mansion. Rumor has it that a fortune was left there and it may be haunted, but Vernon tells them both that's nonsense.

This opening scene is very funny with witty banter by both Herbert and Dickerson and Dent being a perfect foil for the hijinks. To try to impress him, Herbert has an alarm clock serve as a ringer for a phone, only to have the alarm go off again when Herbert's on the phone. A mousetrap pinches Herbert's fingers, and Dent's nose.

So, the pair head off late at night to the mansion. There's a nice matte, or stock shot, of a creepy looking mansion. Before the boys get there we discover two fortune hunters (Philip Van Zandt and Robert Williams) searching for the alleged fortune. They are determined to get Hugh and Dudley out of there, so they claim to be electricians.

What follow are Stooges-type slapstick situations that are very funny, helped considerably by the tight, focused plot, the banter of the stars as well as their comic timing. In one scene Herbert is more or less locked into a wall and Dickerson tries to free him using a pick that comes dangerously close to Herbert's skull. Later there's an amusing scene where a portrait of a bare knuckle-era boxer moves from the wall revealing a hole in which a boxing glove smacks Dickerson.

I won't give away the ending; in any event it's one of this "let's end the short" skits that are common in Columbia comedy shorts, with no real resolution.

The non-Stooges Columbia shorts are a mixed bag; there are clinkers. But this is a very strong 1950s offering. It's mostly slapstick comedy but there are sequences of snappy dialogue, particularly in the first half. Greg Hilbrich, who runs the indispensable Columbia Shorts Department website, is a big fan of "One Shivery Night" and he's the reason we can watch it on the Net.

Herbert was a pretty fair-sized star for much of the 30s and 40s. Some films he was in include "Hollywood Hotel," 1937, the pre-code "She Had to Say Yes," 1933, with a gorgeous Loretta Young, and the 1941 Universal horror comedy "The Black Cat." His Columbia era was on the downside of his career, and he apparently clashed with director Edward Bernds, who claimed he was surly and lazy on the set. In any event, the two were separated from each other and both continued toiling on various shorts. Herbert, had he lived, could have done a passable job as Fred Mertz in "I Love Lucy" in my opinion. He had a looser version of William Frawley humor.

Dickerson was in dozens of shorts and, as mentioned, had great comic timing. Most of his non-Columbia work were bit parts but he did have a prominent role in the "Amos and Andy Show" of  the 1950s. In style, Dickerson reminds me of Mantan Moreland, who was a busy actor at Monogram, including a series with Frankie Darro,

We've devoted a small part of 2016 to featuring non-Stooges Columbia shorts and I think our next one, in a month or so, will be a Glove Singers short. Below is a still from the short with Herbert and Dickerson.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

'Growing Up With Manos' - By Jackey Neyman Jones and Laura Mazzuca Toops

By Steve D. Stones

We have Mystery Science Theater 3000 to thank for the growing popularity of "Manos - The Hands of Fate." Manos was featured on the TV program on January 30th, 1993. The film was thought to be lost for nearly thirty years. Manos is said to be Mystery Science Theater's most popular episode to date.

In her book "Growing Up With Manos The Hands of Fate," published by BearManor Media, Jackey Neyman Jones chronicle's her life story in revealing how she came to be cast as seven year old Debbie in the film. Jones' father, Tom Neyman, was an eccentric, artistic man who was drawn to a local playhouse in El Paso, Texas. Neyman was later cast as "the master" in Manos.

The story of Manos started out at the Festival Theatre in El Paso in the mid-1960s. Director Hal Warren was cast as Pietro Belcredi in Henry IV. Neyman was also cast in the play. Other actors cast in the play who would go on to star in Manos were William Bryan Jennings, John Reynolds and Bob Guidry. Jennings played a sheriff in Manos and Reynolds was cast in the most famous role as Torgo.

Warren's original script for Manos was titled Lodge of Sins and later changed to Fingers of Fate before it finally became Manos - The Hands of Fate. The Manos title was a result of a burned hand sculpture created by Neyman. Jones points out in the book that the Manos story was very similar to the pilot episode of Route 66. Warren had walk on roles in the TV show.

To save on costs, Warren employed many Festival Theatre cast members and help from friends and family. Not only was Neyman cast as the master of the cult of Manos, but his paintings, sculptures, and even his dog - Shanka was used in the film.

At the time Warren was working at the Festival Theatre and became interested in making Manos, he was also an insurance and fertilizer salesman. Jones remembers him as being a very enthusiastic man who believed he could achieve anything, including making a low budget film. He even made a bet with TV producer Stirling Silliphant that "anyone can make a movie." His sales pitch for selling insurance and fertilizer carried over into his motivation for making a movie. Although the results were disastrous, Warren's enthusiasm made up for a flawed film.

Jones also points out that the Torgo character was originally supposed to be a Satyr. This may explain why the legs of his trousers were stuffed with a wire sculpture and why actor John Reynolds walks with a strange waddle. Cast member suspected Reynolds of taking drugs during the filming of Manos. This explains his strange acting in the film. Sadly, Reynolds committed suicide just a few days before the premiere of the film in Texas in November of 1966.

Jones remembers the night of the premiere in sitting in the audience and being shocked at hearing a much older voice dubbed over her lines. She also remembers audience members laughing during scenes that were not meant to be funny. People sitting in the theater began to whisper back and forth to each other. It was obvious that the film was a dud

The book concludes with Jones speaking of her bitter struggles in getting involved in a sequel to the film, "Search For Valley Lodge," and the struggle for marketing control of the 2011 remastered print of Manos by young cinematographer Ben Solovey. Hal Warren's son, Joe, tried desperately to stop all merchandising and promotion of the remastered print. Things got really nasty and bitter between Joe Warren and Jones. Warren became greedy for a cut of all money flowing into the Manos cult.

As Jones states towards the ending of her book, viewers love and appreciate Manos the same way they might appreciate an Ed Wood movie, or a child's scribble drawing tacked up on the kitchen fridge door. It may not be high art, or even great art, but it's still fun to watch.

Manos is a masterpiece of bad cinema. I recommend that you see the remastered print put out on DVD and Blu-Ray by Synapse Films in 2015, then get a copy of Jones' book and read it carefully. Don't forget to view the extras of interviews with Jones, Neyman and Solovey. Happy viewing and happy reading!

Friday, May 13, 2016

Harry Langdon in 'To Heir is Human,' a Columbia comedy short

By Doug Gibson

"To Heir is Human" (imdb page is here) is one of comic legend Harry Langdon's more energetic late comedy shorts for Columbia, which featured other comic stars besides the Three Stooges. Released in early 1944, it stars Harry as window washer Harry Fenner, who is improbably located by telephone book deliverer Una, played by Una Merkel. It seems a sinister looking fellow asked Una to find Harry and deliver him to a forbidding domain where he'll inherit a fortune.The man, A Raven Sparrow, will give Una $1,000 to find Harry. Una drags a semi-reluctant Harry to the house, where naturally, a trio comprised of relatives and a thuggish handyman want to knock off Harry -- and Una -- and get all the inherited cash for themselves.

Although he's looking very old -- Langdon would die in December 1944 -- Harry is in excellent form the low-budget short, produced in Hugh McCollum's wing of Columbia's shorts studio. "The Elf" is in form in a few scenes, particularly during his initial refusal of Una's efforts to locate him, and more prominently in a later scene with his Vampish "kissing cousin," Velma, played by Christine McIntyre, who later gained iconic status as a Three Stooges regular. Langdon is hilarious with his mild surprise and resistance as Velma, one of the baddies, tries to provide him poisoned drinks. A Raven Sparrow, by the way, is played by Lew Kelly, who looked like a creepy cross between an aged Boris Karloff and John Carradine. The handyman is played by Bud Gribbon. His best scene is where he lowers a noose over Harry's head, who mistakes it for a tie. There are effective scenes in the house, particularly a room with an electric. Both A. Sparrow Raven and Una receive unpleasant but funny jolts as a result.

Now, I have not mentioned Una Merkel's contribution yet, because I've been saving it for her own paragraph or too. She absolutely marvelous in her role as dogged working girl Una. Merkel, who later gained a measure of consistent fame, had enjoyed a measure of stardom in the 1930s. However, by 1943 she was in a slump, and doing low-budget shorts. Nevertheless, her career slump doesn't show in this film.

Merkel has a tremendous eye for comedy, particularly slapstick, and she shows a lot of that in the film. She's literally manhandled in this film, getting thrown out of offices, having telephone directories thrown at her, being pulled by a thug who wants to kill her, fainting, and being electrocuted. Nevertheless, she never stops protecting her charge Harry, even if her main motivation for the $1,000 is to improve her appearance. Una Merkel reminds me of a slightly more intelligent version of Patsy Kelley in her shorts with Thelma Todd. Her pairing with the lower key Langdon works well. ... By the way, frequent Langdon co-star Vernon Dent has a cameo as a board chairman of a business. The scene is while Una is chasing Harry, and Langdon is funny as he intrudes into the speech.

This is an obscure film. A Langdon fan and film collector originally provided me a copy of the film, Look for it at Turner Classic Movies on the odd chance it will get on as an "extra." It is now on YouTube, however.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

'Secret of the Blue Room' a fun locked-room Universal chiller

By Doug Gibson

Secret of the Blue Room, 1933, 66 minutes, black and white. Universal. Directed by Kurt Neumann. Starring Lionel Atwill as Robert von Helldorf, Gloria Stuart as Irene von Helldorf, Paul Lukas as Captain Walter Brink, Edward Arnold as Commissioner Forster, Onslow Stevens as Frank Faber and William Janney as Thomas Brandt. Schlock-Meter rating: 8 stars out of 10.

The “stars” of the Universal horror films of the 1930s and 1940s are “Frankenstein,” “Dracula,” “The Wolf Man,” “The Mummy,” “The Invisible Man” and so on. But dozens of horror mysteries were churned out by the studio over 15 years, and some are gems have been mostly forgotten. “Secret of the Blue Room,” a $69,000 programmer, a locked-room mystery thriller, is one forgotten gem. 

The tight-as-a-drum plot involves five persons gathered together in a Hungarian castle. They are wealthy castle owner Robert von Helldorf (Atwill), his daughter, Irene (Stuart), and her three suitors, Captain Walter Brink (Lukas), reporter Frank Faber (Stevens), and younger Thomas Brandt (Janney), who is most emotional about his love for Irene. He rashly proposes to her, an offer she kindly deflects. The conversation leads to the castle’s “Blue Room,” a locked bedroom where three murders occurred 20 years earlier. Apparently, anyone who stays in the room dies. 

The three suitors, egged on by Brandt, agree to spend nights in the Blue Room as a means of proving their love to Irene. Naturally, a disappearance and murder mystery develops. Besides the main plot, there is a mysterious stranger who one of the castle’s servants sometimes shelters. Veteran character actor Arnold (“You Can’t Take It With You,” “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”), provides an excellent supporting role as a police commissioner who investigates the crimes in the Blue Room.

The film doesn’t have an ounce of fat to it and moves quickly. The plot twists and eventual resolution are very well-paced. Atwill, who had yet to bloat up, is at his best in this low-budget offering. Perhaps understanding it is more mystery than horror, he underplays his role, rather than be a ham (which he could be). Stuart’s Irene is yes, the same Gloria Stuart who would play the elderly Rose in “Titanic” 64 years later. Hungarian Paul Lukas is superb with his continental manners as dashing Irene suitor Captain Brink with a hint of mystery. It’s a role that also could have been handled by Universal star Bela Lugosi, but the small budget likely provided the opportunity for Lukas. 

“Secret of the Blue Room” has a lot of old-castle, stormy, windy weather atmosphere. It was made a little while after “The Old Dark House,” a high-budget Universal horror/comedy directed by James Whale. It looks as if some of the sets from “Old Dark House” were used in this film. Director Kurt Neumann is no Whale but he is smart enough to keep the pace fast, allow the plot twists to move smoothly, and keep the cast under control. This film can be watched via YouTube and it’s a perfect late-night cinema treat on a cold night with a hot beverage.