6WH: Week 2.5 – Again Universal

Throughout the years, I’ve seen a lot of Universal’s famous monster movies, but not quite all of them. As such, I figured I should devote some time to catching up with more of them, especially given my resolution to watch 50 movies made before 1950 in 2018. Here we tackle two of the less famous, less “monster” focused entries in Universal’s horror canon (and since I had time, a bonus review of one of the more famous flicks):

  • Cats, Witchcraft and the Black Plague (short)
  • The Netherbeast of Berm-Tech Industries, Inc. (Short)
  • The Black Cat (1981) (trailer)
  • The Black Cat – Two American honeymooners, Peter and Joan, get into a bus accident, take refuge at a local home, and get caught up in a dangerous game of cat and also cat as another passenger on their bus, Dr. Werdegast (Bela Lugosi), seeks revenge from their host, famed architect Hjolmar Poelzig (Boris Karloff). This might not sound too much like a Universal Monster movie setup and its lack of anything supernatural might support such an argument, but director Edgar G. Ulmer infuses the narrative and atmosphere with enough menace, especially as the film goes on, that it certainly fits within the oeuvre. Pitting the two titans of horror against one another in a game of vengeance and cruelty is really what sets this movie apart though, and as the circumstances of their relationship become more clear, you could argue that there are, indeed, two monsters at the heart of the movie. Lugosi’s exaggerated theatrics and Karloff’s more cold and calculating performance make for an interesting contrast, and Ulmer accentuates both performances with some visual flourishes (I particularly enjoyed Karloff’s initial, sinister looking reveal).
    Karloff in The Black Cat

    The setting must have seemed a bit outre at the time, but actually feels rather modern, what with its sliding doors and glass partitions (the only real old-timey note is the spiral staircase). The great performances also support a twisted narrative core featuring war crimes, Satanic ceremonies, torture, incest, and other dark themes; they packed a lot into the 63 minute runtime. Unfortunately, the likes of Lugosi and Karloff suck all the air out of the room, leaving little left for our two viewpoint characters, Peter and Joan. They’re good together, but completely overwhelmed by the story they are sucked into, making the film seem a bit more messy than it actually is. Still, a worthy entry into the Universal canon, and one I’m glad I caught up with. **1/2

  • The Cabin in the Woods (trailer)
  • Don’t (fake trailer)
  • The Simpsons: Treehouse of Horror VII: The Thing and I
  • The Old Dark House – Five travelers caught in a devastating rainstorm take refuge in a, yes, old dark house. Owned by the reclusive Femm family, the house holds in store strange secrets… and terror! This starts off on the wrong foot, as we’re immediately thrust into a car with a bickering couple and disinterested passenger, but things liven up once they get to the old dark house. Its inhabitants, the gaunt, anxious man (played by Ernest Thesiger, who would later go on to play Dr. Pretorius in Whale’s The Bride of Frankenstein), his cackling, religious sister, and their mute brute of a butler (played by Boris Karloff, who looks so different that someone felt compelled to begin the film with a disclaimer that this is indeed the same Karloff who played Frankenstein’s monster).
    The Old Dark House

    The unexpected visitors are less colorful, though Charles Laughton stands out, especially given this strange role where he lives and travels with a woman he has no sexual interest in (doubly relevant when you realize that Laughton’s real life sexuality was somewhat in dispute). Each person and the house itself (it’s almost like another character!) lend the production a certain air of dread, even as the banter turns witty and sometimes even approaches humor. Apparently this film was somewhat groundbreaking in mixing humor and horror, though the humor doesn’t quite translate across the decades as well as the horror. Later revelations about the house and the family lead to some interesting moments. I’d call it derivative (as we’ve seen many of these ideas so many times at this point), except that this was probably the trope codifier (if not the ur example) of many famous horror staples. As such, it’s worth checking out for students of the genre, though it might hold less interest with the normals. Following up the classic Frankenstein had to be tough for James Whale, but he acquits himself admirably here, even if he would do better work in future Universal entries. The copy I saw was PAL (i.e. 576i, slightly better than SD) and didn’t have the greatest transfer, which is a bit of a liability in a film this dark (this could really benefit from a 4k restoration with deep blacks and better contrast), but I could certainly appreciate the visuals for what they were. **1/2

  • Hollow Man (trailer)
  • The Invisible Man | Mary Shelley’s Frankenhole (short)
  • Memoirs Of An Invisible Man (trailer)
  • The Invisible Man – A scientist has turned himself invisible and must find a way to become normal again. Unfortunately, the process of turning invisible also drove him insane! The invisible man is played by Claude Rains in a remarkable performance. He is invisible for the grand majority of the film, so you can’t see his face; he must rely on only his voice and physical gesticulations, and he does a great job with it, creating a menacing character with very little.
    The Invisible Man

    Indeed, the character is so menacing that it lacks the sympathetic note that made, for instance, Frankenstein such an iconic character. But then, the look of the invisible man is great, whether bandaged up with goggles or even when he’s invisible. The special effects, mostly simple camera tricks and string-work, actually hold up pretty well to this day, and they really emphasize the invisibility by constantly fidgeting with the sets, moving stuff around, and so on. Director James Whale was certainly hitting on all cylinders here, a slick, polished follow up to Frankenstein and The Old Dark House. While I think Frankenstein and Dracula are still the most iconic of Universal’s oeuvre, this one doesn’t deserve to be overlooked. **1/2

So there you have it, three Universal movies that I hadn’t seen before and since they’re all from the thirties, this counts towards my 50 Under 50 project. Two birds, one stone. Anyway, keep your eyes peeled for Sunday’s update, which will be covering three movies from another physical media purveyor. In the meantime, head on over to Film Thoughts, where Zack has been posting up a storm during these same Six Weeks of Halloween!

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