The Black Cat (1941)

Last week, I promised that this week would feature a Sherlock Holmes tie-in. Unfortunately, the intended film, Sherlock, Jr. (1924) starring Buster Keaton, turned out to be of much poorer technical quality than I remembered, so I have decided to give it a pass.

Instead, I will recommend a film that I discovered recently quite by accident. I was looking for the film The Black Cat from 1934, but by mistake I downloaded The Black Cat from 1941 instead. An easy mistake to make, considering that Bela Lugosi acts in both films. That mistaken download turned out to be a stroke of luck, since the 1941 film is really nice. It is also an example of a pretty unusual genre crossing, being perhaps best classified as a mansion mystery horror comedy.

Gail Sondergaard and Basil Rathbone in The Black Cat (1941)

Finding the right pictures to go with these blog reviews can sometimes be a lot of trouble. In this case, the problem is the opposite one: How can one choose between so many good options? Each scene is so well composed that there is almost always a frame that can be used for a good illustration. These exquisite compositions contribute to the many good qualities of the film.

Nominally, the protagonists of this tale are Gilmore Smith (Broderick Crawford), a real estate broker who tries to solve the mystery of a murdered old lady, and his comic relief Mr. Penny (Hugh Herbert). But the real stars are Basil Rathbone and Bela Lugosi. Now, I cannot say that either of them makes his best on-screen performance. Rathbone, in fact, looks distinctly uncomfortable and appears to not want to be in this picture at all. He may have already got stuck in the Sherlock Holmes typecasting and perhaps thought he deserved better than this. (In a sense, he did.) Bela Lugosi, on the other hand, is excellent as the Hispanic gardener, but he is given far too little screen time.

This film is best enjoyed when you need some light entertainment and do not want to think too much. The mystery story is pretty thin and will not stand for any deeper analysis, and it must be admitted that some of the humour has not really stood the test of time. But the dark mood, the attention to detail in the imaging, and the many crazy characters (several of them really well played) combine to make this film well worth a watch.

The Black Cat (1941)

The Black Cat
Download link
Year: 1941
Running time: 1 h 10 min
Directors: Albert S. Rogell
Stars: Basil Rathbone, Bela Lugosi
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (640×490)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: MPEG4 (418 M)

Vampyr (1932)

I think it is a fair statement that the modern horror genre was born out of a marriage between the German Expressionism's easthetics and Hollywood’s big-budget, mainstream storytelling tradition. For good or bad, that combination has dominated horror film world-wide ever since.

But there were certainly other directions it could have taken. And did, in some cases. Carl Theodor Dreyer showed us a glimpse of one possible influence of avant-garde thinking in the horror genre in his first sound film, Vampyr.

Nicolas de Gunzburg (Julian West) in Carl Theodor Dreyer's Vampyr (1932)

In spite of the German language of this particular print, the film was produced in France. Like most French films from around this period, it has problems with the soundtrack, which is somewhat inexpertly dubbed afterwards. Look, for example, at Zéro de conduite (1933), which is even worse, and then compare with the Hollywood film White Zombie (1932). Even though the American film suffers from inferior recording equipment (compared with what would be the norm just a few years later), it sports sound recorded on location, perfectly synchronized with the images.

But that “perfect” sound comes at a prize. Another interesting comparison is how much more elegantly Dreyer was able to work with the light silent-era cameras that I assume he was still using. White Zombie, in comparison, is much more static and conventional in its imagery, and that is partly because they had to use heavier, sound-proofed cameras.

Dreyer sometimes inserts surrealistic elements, and even though the basic plot is fairly simple, he makes jumps that stretches the story’s credibility. The plot can therefore at times be difficult to follow, but that is a problem only if you expect a traditional story structure. This kind of avant-garde film is not one where comprehending is always the most important thing. Here, everything is designed to make you feel, rather than analyze. So let go your conscious mind, and allow your subconscious to guide the experience.

This film is best enjoyed for two reasons, both contributing to the tense atmosphere that is felt throughout. The first reason is Dreyer’s excellent use of camera, lighting and angles. The second is Wolfgang Zeller’s amazing score, in itself reason enough to watch the film.

Rena Mandel and Jane Mora in Carl Theodor Dreyer's Vampyr (1932)

Vampyr
Download link
Year: 1932
Language: German (English subtitles)
Running time: 1 h 13 min
Director: Carl Theodor Dreyer
Stars: Nicolas de Gunzburg (Julian West)
Image quality: Acceptable (poor in some scenes)
Resolution: Medium (574×434; not counting black border)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: MPEG4 (1,018 M)

The Bat (1959)

Between 1922 and 1960, the play The Bat was filmed at least five times. I have previously written about the 1960 TV version, and in that post I also told a bit about how the story is connected with Batman. Now the turn has come to what is perhaps the most well-known version, the 1959 film The Bat, starring Vincent Price and Agnes Moorehead.

Agnes Moorehead and Lenita Lane in The Bat (1959)

In this version, Moorehead plays a mystery writer who has rented a mansion over the summer, but the place scares her hired staff, and things do not exactly improve when rumours of the masked murderer “The Bat” start to go around. The Bat is soon drawn to the mansion for some reason, and so are several other persons, including Lieutenant Anderson, who tries to capture The Bat, and Dr. Wells (Price), a man with some pretty shady background.

Of all the versions, this is perhaps the one that is furthest removed from the original play. While that helps to give it more cineastic integrity (in terms of not feeling quite so much like a filmed play), it also works to the film’s disadvantage to some extent. The play has a really tight and well worked out plot, and though the film retains the major plot elements, it feels somewhat less intense and dramatic. The horror aspects that have been added do not feel all that terrifying fifty-plus years later.

Still, it is a cozy piece of a mystery, one to cuddle up in front of on a dark and stormy night. In addition, of the three versions available from the Internet Archive, it is most definitely the one with the best sound and image quality.

This film is best enjoyed if you are a fan if Vincent Price. He is, as always, excellent, though the other actors deserve praise, too. Oh, and Crane Wilbur’s directing is also very solid.

The Bat's steel clawed glove in The Bat (1959)

The Bat
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Year: 1959
Running time: 1 h 20 min
Director: Crane Wilbur
Stars: Agnes Moorehead, Vincent Price
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (720×480)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: MPEG2 (2.1 G)

The Hands of Orlac (1924)

The classic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), which I wrote about last week, was to my knowledge the first cooperation between director Robert Wiene and actor Conrad Veidt. Four years later, they were to repeat the success in The Hands of Orlac (originally titled Orlacs Hände).

Conrad Veidt in The Hands of Orlac / Orlacs Hände (1924)

Even though both films are firmly rooted in the German Expressionism, The Hands of Orlac, when compared with the earlier film, is in many ways very different. Take Veidt’s role for starters. He is the protagonist, and he is a good person at heart. But he is also somewhat weak, perhaps even cowardly. When he loses both his hands in an accident, and his career as a concert pianist is threatened, his doctor decides to graft a new pair of hands, a pair that previously belonged to a convicted murderer. When confronted with this, Orlac fears that the evil in these hands will take over his mind. This fear, that body parts from another entity will infect the new host with the mind of the old one, is a theme that can be seen in many later films, such as Wolf Blood (1925) and Frankenstein (1931).

The scenography is also very different when compared with The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. In the earlier film, the surroundings were nightmarish, bent and twisted, filled with dramatic shadows. Here, the nightmare and the shadows remain, but the rooms are gigantic, with straight, looming walls and pillars, and with very few decorations. This creates an image of small and powerless characters, desperately trying to grasp control from a relentless world. So again, Wiene has created a dramatic masterpiece, but the drama is achieved with different means.

This film is best enjoyed when you want to explore the themes that lead up to the great Hollywood horror films of the early 1930s. It is definitely an important part of that legacy.

Conrad Veidt in The Hands of Orlac / Orlacs Hände (1924)

The Hands of Orlac
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Year: 1924
Running time: 1 h 53 min
Language: English
Director: Robert Wiene
Stars: Conrad Veidt
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (608×464)
Soundtrack: Good; synchronized with the images
Sound quality: Excellent
Best file format: Cinepack (1.1 G) or Matroska (1.1 G)

Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (1920)

If you investigate the history of the horror movie, you will find that sooner or later the tracks lead back to Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari, or as it is known in English, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

Werner Krauß and Conrad Veidt in Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari / The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari is one of the defining works of the German Expressionism, and it is also one of the most thoroughly expressionistic films ever. The sets are twisted, looming, threatening, and induces a dream-like, or perhaps rather nightmarish, feeling into the film. The acting, by several great actors of the time, is on par, as is the plot.

I will not spoil your experience by telling you much about that plot. Suffice it to say that it deals with a somnambulist who is on display as a fair showcase, a mad doctor, and several gruesome murders. Also, things are rarely what they seem.

While not generally considered the first film in the German Expressionism, the film nevertheless had a tremendous impact on the genre, an impact that directly and indirectly carries on to other genres, not least the modern horror genre.

The copy I otherwise link to in this post is the best I have found at the Internet Archive. However, it is a German version with no subtitles. Another good version with English title cards is available, in case your German is out of practice.

This film is best enjoyed with a good musical score. With poor or random music, or no music at all, much of the nerve and intensity of the film will be lost. Fortunately, both the versions I link to are good in this respect. It is much easier to oversee with some defects in the visual quality.

Elsa Wagner and Friedrich Feher in Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari / The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari
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Year: 1920
Running time: 1 h 14 min
Language: German (no subtitles)
Director: Robert Wiene
Stars: Werner Krauß, Conrad Veidt
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (576×432)
Soundtrack: Excellent; synchronized with the images
Sound quality: Excellent
Best file format: Matroska (673 M)

The Ape Man (1943)

It is a shame that Bela Lugosi never got to act in a serious drama for a top director. I think he would have made a glorious performance. Instead, he was typecast as the monster or mad scientist in cheap B movies. Sometimes he was both, as in The Ape Man.

Bela Lugosi as the mad scientist in The Ape Man (1943)

The story of The Ape Man is absolutely ludicrous. Dr. Brewster’s experiments on a caged gorilla that he keeps in a secret room in his basement have gone all wrong. As a result he is turning into a gorilla himself, and the only way he can save himself is to tap people’s spinal fluid. The problem is that the procedure tends to kill the victims. Two newspaper reporters have a hunch that something is wrong and try to get a scoop, and at the same time the police are investigating the killings, as well as the disappearance of the Doctor.

This would seem to be a certain recipe for a disastrous movie, and it is if you try to take it seriously. Well, don’t. Let loose a bit and I think you will find this to be a little gem of a movie. The actors are actually quite good, not least Lugosi who is not so much threatening as he is tragic; hence my comment about serious drama in the beginning. Louise Curry and Wallace Ford (otherwise unknown names to me) also perform nicely as the two reporters.

The movie has several other qualities as well. The dialogue is good, not as stilted as it sometimes tends to be in similar movies, and the film’s duration of only slightly above an hour makes sure that you do not have time to become bored. The only major problem is sound quality, which is terrible on the copy I found. So bad, in fact, that it was sometimes hard to make out the dialogue, even though the actors spoke clearly enough.

Now, if you thoroughly enjoyed this film and want more of the same, try The Ape (1940) with Boris Karloff as the mad scientist who goes ape. Not quite as enjoyable as The Ape Man, but clearly a child of the same spirit. There is also The Gorilla (1939), which I have not seen, but wherein you will find both Bela Lugosi and yet another gorilla suit.

This film is best enjoyed all the way through to the end. There is a marvellous meta twist that puts everything on end and shows exactly how serious the producer and writer were about the story.

Ralph Littlefield as Zippo in The Ape Man (1943)

The Ape Man
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Year: 1943
Running time: 1 h 4 min
Director: William Beaudine
Stars: Bela Lugosi
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (720×480)
Sound quality: Poor
Best file format: DivX (694 M)

Teenagers from Outer Space (1959)

There are so many bad science fiction films at the Internet Archive that I am sure I could easily fill a year’s worth of blog posts with them alone. Just a few examples at random: Assignment: Outer Space; The Wizard of Mars; Unknown World; The Phantom Planet; War of the Planets; Cat Women of the Moon. The list could go on.

There is no reason to write in detail about all of them, but watching one every once in a while, just for fun, will do no harm. I have therefore chosen my favourite of the lot, Teenangers from Outer Space. A thoroughly bad movie in every imaginable way.

Harvey B. Dunn and Bryan Grant in Teenagers from Outer Space (1959)

And yet, there is something enjoyable and charming about this turkey. It is hard to put a finger on it, but behind the corny plot about a renegade alien who tries to rescue humanity, behind the bad dialogue and worse acting, behind all the absurd props and the worst special effects I have ever seen, behind all that there is something genuinely warm and endearing about it. And of course, it is vastly entertaining. Mostly because it is so unspeakably bad, but partly because, for some reason, you actually care about the characters.

The film is about an alien called Derek, who speaks and reads perfect English even though he had no idea that humans existed on earth before he escaped from his kindred who came to wipe out earthly life in order to use our planet as pasture for monster crabs that can grow to gigantic proportions. Oh, and of course there is the girl that he falls in love with. And some absolutely wonderful pieces of 1950s small-town America. And Thor, his companion who is sent out to bring him back to justice.

You can see the communist fear that drives the plot of the film. The fear that someone cold and calculating, someone utterly alien, would come along and take away all the middle-class houses and home baked pies. But also the hope that some of the invaders would be human and turn against their comrades.

On top of all the other rot, the title is one of the most ridiculous I have ever encountered. I doubt if there is a single genuine teenager in the entire film.

This film is best enjoyed late at night with snacks, drinks and the company of good friends.

Dawn Anderson and David Love in Teenagers from Outer Space (1959)

Teenagers from Outer Space
Download link
Year: 1959
Running time: 1 h 25 min
Director: Tom Graeff
Stars: There are no stars in this film
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (720×480)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: MPEG2 (1.9 G)