Wednesday, June 30, 2021

The Manster a horror tale of a split personality

By Steve D. Stones

The Manster (1958) is also known as The Split. On the surface, it is a retelling or homage to Robert Louis Stevenson's classic tale of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde.  The difference here is that Larry, played by Peter Dyneley, is experimented on without his consent or knowledge, which unleashes his evil, Mr. Hyde side.

Larry is an American journalist working in Japan who travels to a mountain top laboratory near a volcano to conduct an interview with Dr. Robert Suzuki, played by Satoshi Nakamura. Larry's newspaper is looking for an exciting news story to increase sales and make the newspaper more interesting. He conducts an interview with Suzuki about his lab experiments, all of which have gone terribly wrong. Larry's real motivation is to get back home to his wife in New York.

After the interview, Larry falls asleep in Suzuki's mountain cabin. Suzuki injects him in the right shoulder with a serum he uses on other lab subjects. He tells his beautiful assistant Tara that his choice to inject Larry is for science and human knowledge, despite her objections.

When Larry returns to Tokyo, his personality starts to change. He begins to drink heavily, mingle with Geisha girls, argue with his boss and cavort with Tara.  An eye starts to grow on his right shoulder and thick hair on his arm, which foreshadows the beast that soon develops in his body.

Eventually, a grotesque head grows out of Larry's right shoulder. He murders a priest at a Buddhist temple. His boss sends a psychiatrist to examine Larry, which he refuses to see. The Tokyo police suspect Larry of many recent murders.

The best scene is saved for the end when Larry returns to Suzuki's mountaintop laboratory to confront him for what he's done.  Suzuki injects him with another serum just before he literally splits in half, releasing his evil self from his good self.  He throws Tara into a volcano before the split.

Not only are there similarities to Stevenson's classic Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, but another obvious similarity is The Wolf Man (1941). In fact, the Wolf Man's real life name is also Larry. Both Larrys are everyday, ordinary men who end up in the wrong place at the wrong time, and later pay a price by becoming evil.  Neither men wants to be evil, but become victims of circumstance. Happy viewing. Watch the infamous eyeball scene below. The entire film is here.

Sunday, June 20, 2021

Lon Chaney Jr. biography has worth but there's room for improvement

By Doug Gibson

Lon Chaney Jr. is an interesting subject for a biography. Most of his career he appeared a tortured man, prematurely aged by severe alcoholism. A good biography, that would ferret out secrets of his personal life, the conflicts that turned an attractive star-to-be to an aging, almost grotesque, physical hulk in only 20 years, would be compelling reading. Unfortunately, we didn't get that type of biography from Don G. Smith, who 17 years ago authored Lon Chaney Jr., Horror Film Star, 1906-1973. (McFarland). (Amazon link here)

Smith's biography reads at times like the longest magazine feature article ever written. It covers Chaney's career in great detail. In fact, at times the reader will grow tired of painstaking precise, in-depth recaps and author analysis of Chaney's many films. While this affects the flow of the biography, Smith does include as much information as he felt necessary about Chaney's career. In fact, the endless details underscore that Chaney had the most diverse screen career of the three most iconic horror film actors, Chaney, Bela Lugosi, and Boris Karloff. This may tick off the legion of genre writers who like to poke fun at Chaney, but the sheer volume of his resume makes him the most versatile actor of the trio, and maybe the best. Cheney's better films were not horror films. They include "Of Mice and Men," "High Noon" and "The Defiant Ones," films in which Chaney provided a bulky screen presence that included inner turmoil within his character.

Unlike Lugosi, who literally had to beg for screen work in his last years, or Karloff, who had the luxury of picking and choosing fat-fee assignments at the end, Lon Chaney Jr. constantly worked on films, staying active, and I presume appropriately paid, throughout his career. He was in many westerns, sometimes cast as an Indian. He played oafs, good-natured or otherwise, in films as diverse as "The Cyclops" and a string of the last B-movie, second-feature westerns produced in the mid 1960s. He worked for directors as diverse as Stanley Kramer and Al Adamson.

Although best known for his tenure as Universal's horror star for a few years in the 1940s, Chaney was, as Smith relates, a reluctant entrant into the acting business. He learned his trade slowly, appearing in a long string of low-budget, mostly forgettable films in the 1930. Playing Lennie in "Of Mice and Men" gained him accolades, but I'd argue that the most critical film of Chaney's early career was his "monster film tryout" with Universal in 1940, a 59-minute programmer called "Man Made Monster," reviewed here.

In this lean, low-budget film, Chaney effectively played a large, easy-going man turned into a reluctant killer, an electronic monster, by a mad scientist, well portrayed by Lionel Atwill. His performance was good enough, and contained enough pathos, to convince Universal to make him the star of "The Wolf Man." And, with that, an iconic horror star was born.

Smith does a capable job of recounting the ups and downs of Chaney's career in films. I particularly like the attention paid to -- as early as 1996 -- to his early 60s film, "Spider Baby," that has turned into a genuine cult classic two generations-plus after it was barely released. That film proves that even a battered, ugly Chaney still contained magic enough to make a film great when he was so motivated. And Lon sings the title song! (Listen)

Where his biography fails, as mentioned, is providing anything above the bare details, or shaky speculation, about the demons that tormented Chaney Jr. and turned him into a textbook, lifetime alcoholic that essentially frittered away a decent star turn with Universal through his alcoholic antics and boorish behavior on the sets. Incredibly, Chaney's early life, his parents' troubled marriage and separation, his being raised by deaf grandparents, and his ambiguity at taking on his late dad's career and becoming an actor, is recapped in roughly 10 pages! That's ridiculous.

Certainly, the relationship that Chaney had with his famous father, Lon Chaney, must have had an impact on his future. Smith acknowledges this, and tries to analyze dad's effect on junior, but he simply doesn't have the sources to have his conclusions taken seriously. In fact, often the main source for the author's many muses is Curt Siodmark, the Universal writer of "Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man" and director of Chaney's film "Bride of the Gorilla." It's nice that Smith had an opportunity to chat with Siodmark before he died, but he shouldn't be a major source for Chaney's private life. This leads to conclusions from Smith, such as that Chaney was a latent homosexual, that may be interesting but certainly lack sufficient sources. At one point, Smith ludicrously attempts to link Chaney's calling Bela Lugosi "Pops," as evidence of Chaney's deep need to connect with a father figure that was supposedly denied him by his dad. Again, this may be proven true if explored in greater detail, but it had nothing to do with Lugosi being called "Pops."

One interesting part of Smith's biography is his dissection of the film, "Son of Dracula," which he describes as Chaney's greatest acting job as a horror star. I had previously thought Chaney's portrayal of "Count Alucard" was weak, agreeing with dismissive reviews that called Chaney's Count a "kept man." However, after reading Smith, I watched the film again, and I have re-evaluated my opinion some. Chaney does effect menace and strength in the film. My mistake is comparing him to Lugosi, my favorite horror actor, and projecting the Lugosi persona in a film where Lugosi's Count would have been miscast.

In "Son of Dracula," Chaney's cultivated menace, that can quickly turn brutish when he feels threatened, fits in with an environment, the 1940s rural South, that would have greeted his appearance with deep suspicion and hostility. There's a touch of desperation to Chaney's Alucard, forced to rely on a local undead confederate, Louise Allbritton (who is brilliant) who, unknown to him, plans to betray him. There must have been something lacking, or falling apart, in his native Hungary, to force Alucard so far away from home. And he reacts accordingly, with intimidation, mixed with a requisite courtliness, to assert himself.

Smith recounts already related tales of Chaney's alcoholism, his feuds with actresses who found him boorish, his uneven "Inner Sanctum" films, his many shenanigans that cost him his esteem with Universal, carousing with like-minded drinking and hunting buddies, and more unpleasant details, such as his domestic abuse and his attempt at suicide when his second marriage, to Patsy Cheney, almost failed. What's infuriating, though, is we don't have any in-depth reporting from Smith that uncovers why Chaney behaved why he did. There are no serious attempts to query the people close to Chaney's life to strip bare his past life and uncover and interpret the problems that wrecked him physically and at times emotionally.

Smith's book is worth a read. It provides information, mostly of his career, that can't obtained as easily and compactly elsewhere. Its main worth is that it exists as a biography of a major cult film star. Hopefully, one day a superior biography, one along the lines of "The Count ...," Arthur Lennig's superb book on Bela Lugosi, will be written about Chaney Jr.

Sunday, June 6, 2021

Dracula: Was the Count resigned to his eventual destruction?


By Doug Gibson

I absolutely love Bela Lugosi’s portrayal of Count Dracula in the 1931 classic. He is pure aristocratic evil, able to put on a facade of gallantry yet betray it in mere seconds with a deadly glare at Van Helsing. Also, even in fine attire, in his own domain, in a dungeon, with rats, bugs, whey-faced brides or a cringing, spider-eating Renfield, he conveys malicious evil deeper than the filth around him. In that deepest part of his existence, his dead heart rots darker.

Why, though, did Lugosi’s Count Dracula ditch his Romanian, Hungarian playfields, where he had his pick of the scared villagers, and easy escape to his coffins filled with native soil, and go to alien England, with a mere few coffins and shovelfuls of native soil? Why choose such a conflicted, weak minion as the anonymous, unloved Renfield as his companion? And why set up shop, in Carfax Abbey, so close to such a deadly rival as Dr. Van Helsing? Why seek the virginal, well-protected Mina, the intended of the feckless Jonathan Harker, but whose back is closely watched by Van Helsing?
I’ve watched Lugosi play Dracula many times. I can knock away the silly claims that Dracula is a stagy film, or slow. Every frame is necessary — with the possible exception of the asylum employees played for laughs — to establish and maintain Lugosi’s Count’s sinister, evil, egotistical persona. But recently, I’ve added this interpretation. Did Count Dracula move to London, with its unknown attractions and more dangerous temptations, with the intention of ending his long, endless existence?
Dracula is a slave to his passion, his thirst for blood. It cannot be satiated, whether the victim is a mere flower girl or society belle Lucy. He knows well he cannot resist tasting his pretty neighbor Mina. He cannot even haul up stakes and flee after Van Helsing exposes him with the mirror parlor trick. In fact, Dracula, although nearly claiming Mina’s life due to his blunt force of personality, is merely pitiable at his end. He lies in his coffin, chased into the bowels of Carfax Abbey after being betrayed by the ill-fated Renfield, and submits to an anticlimactic, off-screen death at the hands of the vampire hunter Van Helsing.
Was the Count so vain as to think that no harm could come to him in his coffin filled with native soil in the basement of a rotting abbey? Van Helsing didn’t even have to break a lock to stab the Count in the heart. I think not. I hypothesize that Dracula himself was tired of living for centuries, that he chose his trip to London, a land of new blood and unseen dangers, as a deliberate step to the end of his existence. Although the script allows no confirmation, I think Lugosi’s Dracula must have known that he was to be the neighbor of his most feared enemy, Van Helsing.
Of course Dracula tried to prevent his death. His natural greed and cold evil did not dissipate in his last adventure, and he nearly succeeded — for a brief moment — in vanquishing Van Helsing. He allowed nature, his generations-old greed and lust for blood, to be his undoing.
The strongest evidence for Dracula’s death wish is found early in Dracula’s journey to London when he encounters Mina, her dad, Lucy, and Jonathan at the opera house. He says, wistfully, “To die, to be really dead, that must be glorious!” Mina Seward replies, “Why, Count Dracula!” and Dracula adds, “There are far worse things awaiting man than death.”
Dracula fights, he makes an effort to save himself, but he will not move from his final home. As a result, he is vanquished, but it is an honorable end for the old fiend.
Horror movie expert Frank J. Dello Stritto, who along with other experts have mulled over Dracula’s motives in his final days, opines that the slow, thousands year-plus lives of Dracula is conveyed by Lugosi’s mannerisms. Dello Stritto says, “He (Lugosi) put into his performance a lot of subtle touches to make Dracula seem from another world: the odd pace of his speech, the use of his cape, his very slow movements compared to the other cast members’ … A lot of actors who play Dracula are ordinary men trying to appear extraordinary, and not quite succeeding. Lugosi’s character is like Dracula himself — an extraordinary being trying to appear ordinary, and again not quite succeeding.”
I once wrote this of Dracula, and I stand by it. “I have seen “Dracula” scores of times, and Lugosi is the key to the film. He is a tall, courtly, menacing figure who promises a fate worse than death. And that is the appeal of these early horror films compared to the sadistic gore-fests of today — a fate worse than death awaits the vampire’s victims. That fate is conveyed to perfection in the scene where Lugosi’s vampire murders actor Dwight Frye’s cringing, pathetic, mad disciple Renfield. Dracula’s exterior is charming. But his filthy interior attracts darkness, fog, storm, chill winds, rodents, flies, spiders, blood and undeath.”
Dracula was a slave of his filthy existence. Pleasure had long been usurped by bloodlust. It was a tremendous feat for the Count to keep it up for centuries. But he was tired, and chose London for his grand finale. He became, finally, really dead.
If you have not seen Bela Lugosi’s Dracula, do yourself a favor and watch it. It can be accessed at Amazon Prime, for a price. Or buy Universal Dracula Collection on Blu Ray.
(This essay originally appeared at StandardBlogs)