Island of Lost Souls (1932)

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Synopsis: When wayward seafarer Edward Parker (Richard Arlen) is picked up by a freighter after being stranded by a shipwreck, he and the frequently-soused captain don’t see eye to eye. Instead of transporting him to the Samoan capital of Apia, where his fiancée Ruth (Leila Hyams) is eagerly awaiting her beau, the nasty captain drops Parker onto the boat of manservant Montgomery (Arthur Hohl) and his mysterious boss Dr. Moreau (Charles Laughton), who are receiving a large shipment of wild animals to take back to their private island. Parker is naturally upset, but Moreau promises to give him a ship to sail to Apia in the morning. When they arrive on the island, Parker is treated to dinner, drinks, and the delightful company of the exotic and friendly Lota (Kathleen Burke). She warms to Parker quickly, and soon informs him that the charming Dr. Moreau isn’t what he seems. In actuality, he’s a scientist on a devilish mission to control the process of evolution – transforming animals into men.

This scifi/horror gem by director Erle C. Kenton was the first in a long line of cinematic adaptations of H.G. Wells’ 1896 novel The Island of Dr. Moreau. Its status as a pre-Code talky is evidenced by the repeated references to rape and bestiality, as well as Moreau’s own explicit blasphemy. The film was banned in the United Kingdom for over twenty-five years – though interestingly it was the scenes of vivisection, prohibited by the Cinematograph Films (Animals) Act of the 1930s, which kept it under wraps for so long. Furthermore, H.G. Wells himself was outspoken in his dislike of the way the movie overshadowed his more serious philosophical ponderings with overt horror elements. I must admit that I haven’t yet read Dr. Moreau, although Wells is one of my favorite authors. I hope his spirit won’t be too angry at me for saying this – who knows, he could be out and about, what with it being Halloween season and all – but I, for one, thoroughly enjoyed this film.

“This is Ms. Panther; she’ll be cleaning your teeth this morning.”

The picture features some striking cinematography and an excellent use of shadows, as well as employing its tropical jungle setting (which was really just Catalina Island) to appropriately spooky effect. The story itself is intriguing, but it’s the performance of Charles Laughton as Moreau which really makes this movie worth seeing. Laughton is at once smooth, calm, and dangerous; he wields terrifying power over his subjects and all that goes on on his island. Perhaps I’m reading too much into his portrayal, but I found something slightly sissified about Moreau, imbuing him with a “menacing queerness” that adds a whole new dimension to his obsession with creating life in a non-procreative manner. In the same way that critics have read homosexual undertones into the mad scientist character of Dr. Pretorius in 1935’s Bride of Frankenstein, I feel there’s definitely a little more lurking beneath the surface of Dr. Moreau than what we’re explicitly told. Whether this was an intentional move by the filmmakers or by Laughton (who himself was homosexual), or whether it’s just me choosing to see what I want to see, I don’t know, but I stand by my hypothesis.

Another performance I enjoyed was that by Kathleen Burke as Lota the Panther Woman, who I think portrayed a perfect blend of naïvete, awkwardness, and sexual curiosity in her film debut. A dental assistant working in Chicago, Burke began acting after winning a beauty contest sponsored by Paramount Studios; she went on to appear in over twenty films before retiring from the profession in 1938 at the age of 25. However, besides Laughton and Burke, there’s not really much worth noting about the other actors, with leading man Richard Arlen being particularly hammy and terrible. Bela Lugosi also has a very very small role as the Sayer of the Law, the animal-human hybrid who recites the rules as dictated by Moreau. I found it to be a pretty big waste of Lugosi’s talent – but then again, Lugosi specialized in that. Overall this is a truly creepy yet beautiful film with a completely stellar performance by Laughton that really brings the whole thing up a notch from B-grade scifi/horror to a Grade-A classic. Definitely perfect for Halloween, or, hell, any time of the year – you never need an excuse to watch a movie as neat as this one.

Island of Lost Souls (1932) – 4/5 stars

The Unknown (1927)

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Synopsis: Alonzo the Armless (Lon Chaney) is a knife-thrower in love with the circus master’s beautiful daughter Nanon (Joan Crawford), who happens to have a pathological fear of men’s hands. Sounds like a match made in heaven, right? There’s one catch: Alonzo isn’t really armless. He’s a fugitive with a distinctive double thumb on one hand that would instantly identify him to the police if revealed. Alonzo becomes Nanon’s confidant and commiserates with her over the forcefulness of Malabar the Mighty (Norman Kerry), also devoted to Nanon but shunned by her due to his frightfully strong grip. After the circus master discovers his secret late one night, Alonzo uses his hands to strangle his boss to death, accidentally revealing his deformed thumb – but not his face – to Nanon. Knowing that she could never love him if she knew that he was the man who murdered her father, Alonzo realizes that if he ever wants to win Nanon’s heart, his arms have to go.

Tod Browning (who also made 1931’s Dracula and 1932’s Freaks) is my favorite director, and in my opinion The Unknown is his best film. I recently had the opportunity to see it on the big screen at the American Cinematheque’s all-too-brief Browning retrospective and was dazzled anew at just how stunning a picture it is. The sixth of ten collaborations between Browning and Chaney before the latter’s untimely death at the age of 47 from lung cancer, The Unknown epitomizes the style of film the duo were known for, the style they created: the horror film that tells the story of a deformed, mutilated, or otherwise physically disfigured character, which seeks to probe the darkest corners of the human psyche, and to push the boundaries of what movie audiences and critics alike can stomach. At the same time that Chaney’s remarkable abilities to twist and transform his visage are on display, his incredible range as an actor also shines through brilliantly; despite the shock of the horrific and outlandish character that he plays, it is this aspect of Chaney which ultimately leaves the most lasting impression in The Unknown.

Is he amused? Devastated? Enraged? All three!

I have to admit that I’m a big fan of “weird” movies, and The Unknown definitely fits the bill in that respect. But I’m convinced that there’s really something for everyone here, because it’s a film that’s not just weird, it’s good. Tod Browning never was the most subtle of directors, but he’s at his most effective here, mostly letting his incredibly talented cast do the work. If you’ve never seen Joan Crawford in her flapper days, you’re missing out on a huge part of her pre-1940s career. She’s fabulous here, plus she has been quoted as saying that Chaney was the one person most responsible for teaching her what it means to be an actor. But it is of course Chaney who’s the star of the show. He covers the gamut from creepy, to pathetic, to sympathetic, to downright evil, all in one 73-minute film. Many have said (though it’s Burt Lancaster who’s always credited as the first) that Chaney’s portrayal here is one of the most compelling acting performances ever captured on celluloid. The greatest screen performance by one of the most talented performers the screen has ever seen – how can you possibly pass that up?

The Unknown is one of my favorite horror movies, if only because it’s something so outrageous that only a team like Browning and Chaney could pull it off. This is always the film I steer people toward if they are of the belief that all silents are “boring.” The Unknown is anything but, and while it may not horrify you, it is guaranteed to make you drop your jaw and look at the possibilities of silent film in an entirely new way.

The Unknown (1927) – 4.5/5 stars

Diabolique (1955)

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Synopsis: Christina Delassalle (Véra Clouzot) and Nicole Horner (Simone Signoret) used to have the same problem: they were in love with the same man. Now they have a different problem: they both loathe the same man. With Christina as his sickly wife and Nicole as his strong-willed mistress, Michel Delassalle (Paul Meurisse) uses physical force to keep both women under his thumb. Finally, Nicole proposes the only remaining solution to Christina: they should murder Delassalle. Christina reluctantly and fearfully goes through with the plan, and they dump the body in the swimming pool. But when the pool is drained the next day, the body is nowhere to be found. Soon, eerie signs of Delassalle start popping up everywhere, from the suit he died in coming back from the cleaners to a foggy visage of his face appearing in the background of a photograph. Could the evil man possibly have survived their foolproof plan – or is he tormenting them from beyond the grave?

I went into this film knowing only two things about it: 1. It starred Simone Signoret, who I’ve wanted to see more of ever since her captivating performance in Ship of Fools (1965). 2. It was part of the Criterion Collection expiring from Netflix Instant on July 22, presumably to move over to Hulu Plus, where Criterion is cloistering away all its best films, never again to be seen by me (in streaming form, anyway). I’m so glad I got to see this film before it escaped my grasp. Directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot in 1955 under the original French title Les diaboliques (The Devils), something about Diabolique makes it feel older than its 56 years. In its use of black and white, its noirish nuances, it definitely feels more ’40s than ’50s, especially when you compare it to the sprawling Cinemascope epics being produced in the United States around the same time. This is, of course, in no way a jab at the film, merely an observation. Who needs blaring Technicolor and sweeping landscapes when you’ve got a perfectly spooky little French ghost story to draw you in? (more…)

Queen of Blood (1966)

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Poltergeist (1982)

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