Tag Archives: Boris Karloff

HOW THE GRINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS (1966) AND A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS (1965)

Chuck Jones’ 1966 adaptation of ‘ “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” is a rarity: a film that both surpasses the source material and is itself flawless—which is why the 2000 live-action remake was a pre-certified disaster.

Chuck Jones made his name with “Looney Tunes” and although he had a lot of competition (Tex Avery foremost), Jones, with his modernist sensibilities, was the best of the lot. Wisely, Jones filters Dr. Seuss’ seditious surrealism through his own pop aesthetics, bringing to the tale superior narrative pacing (it moves like quicksilver), wry wit, expertly judged tension, a gift for expressiveness, and the narration of , voice acting of June Foray, and raspy singing of Thurl Ravenscroft.

The story is a variation of Charles Dickens’ “Christmas Carol,” but  that’s just a springboard for Seuss, Jones, and company.  With his melodious British lisp and résumé in Gothic fairy tales, Karloff is a masterful storyteller, perhaps the best in animation since Bing Crosby narrated “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” (1949). Voicing the Grinch, Karloff snarls delightfully, and as the narrator he is an impeccable bedtime story host. Balancing those two makes for his last great role, one that ranks with the Monster, ImhotepHjalmar Poelzig, and Cabman Gray.

Still from How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966)Casting Karloff was an intuitive coup. Jones, like and , was astutely aware of the connection between Christmas and Halloween. Both come from the Church; one uses the “seen” symbolism of horror as a counter to “unseen” divinity of the second. And of course, both involve children. June Foray is a delight in her small role as Cindy Lou, who could be no more than two. Her sense of wonder is authentic—never saccharine—staring right through the Grinch’s nastiness with big anime eyes (that predate anime). She actually has us rooting for her, as opposed to child stars who we might have been tempted to wish death on (e.g., the tyke in Son of Frankenstein). Ravenscroft makes an art out of insulting the title character in song—which must have been a first—and his work steered the short into a rightly deserved Grammy win for best soundtrack.

Although secular, its anti-consumerism message is as subtle as the Grinch himself—and is still needed today, before we have yet another Black Friday trampling death at Walmart.

Charles Schulz fully embraces the religious tradition in tackling the same anti-consumerism message in “A Charlie Brown Christmas” from the preceding year. There’s little doubt that Schulz’ “Peanuts” series eventually became tiresome and repetitive (remember, “It’s Arbor Day, Charlie Brown”?) but, with the perfection of this and “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown,” perhaps the great comic strip artist deserved to be allowed to coast. Again, it’s no surprise that these parallel holidays brought out the best in Schulz. The bald-headed, existential Charlie Brown waxes angstfully over the hypocrisy of false Christmas Capitalism, until blanket-toting Linus takes on the role of a Lukian sage to set Charlie, Lucy, Schroeder, and Snoopy right. Curiously, Linus later mixes up that “unseen” of Christmas with the “seen” of Halloween by waiting for a Great Pumpkin that never arrives, but that’s part of the the sublime, idiosyncratic beauty of Schulz’ best characterizations. The Peanuts gang are children, yes, but they have adult-like complexities and inconstancies, too.

Still from A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)Smartly, director Bill Melendez chose actual children to voice the Peanuts gang and deliver that Gospel of Luke message. What  could have been rendered agonizingly pretentious or overbearing proselytization is instead filled-to-the-brim with simplistic, joyous charm. There’s nothing at all contrived or bullying about the message which seeks (it doesn’t demand) a Christmas that isn’t shorn of a Christ child.

The musical ribbon that ties it all together is supplied by that tragically short-lived jazz miniaturist Vince Guaraldi who, like Haydn before him, finds a wealth of exhilarating fun in sanctity.

THE GOLEM (1920) AND FRANKENSTEIN (1931)

Paul Wegener’s The Golem (1920) is not as broadly known today as its German Expressionist peers, Nosferatu (1922) and Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), despite having been a considerable influence on ‘s Frankenstein (1931). The reasons are apparent. Wegener’s later propaganda films for the Nazis certainly hurt the reputation of both director and film. And the Golem itself, with his oversized fright wig, looks more comically surreal than horrific; it was undeniably surpassed by Frankenstein.

Still, The Golem deserves to be better known. It was Wegener’s third “Golem” film1 based on the story by Gustav Meyrink, itself based on Jewish folklore. Wegener stars, co-wrote (with Henrik Galeen), and co-directed (here with Carl Boese) each of them. The cinematography by and set design by Hans Poelzig2 and his assistant considerably enhance its stunning visuals.

Still from The Golem (1920)The Golem opens in a 16th century Jewish ghetto in Prague with Rabbi Loew (Albert Steinruck) foretelling disaster for the Jewish community. Shortly after that bit of soothsaying, the Kaiser (Otto Gebuhr) orders the Jews banned. Loew creates a stone figure, the Golem, to protect his people, investing life into it through the demon Astaroth. The scene is impressively shot, with the rabbi encircling the Golem with fire (influenced by the “Magic Fire” of Richard Wagner’s “Die Walkure”), climaxing with a smoky demonic face issuing forth a scroll. Taking the now-animated Golem to the court of the Kaiser, Loew impresses when his creation saves the assembly from a falling roof in a epically staged scene that must have made quite an impression to 1920 audiences. It certainly impresses (or, rather frightens) the Kaiser enough to get the deportation order reversed. Astaroth possesses the Golem shortly afterwards, however, and like  the monster in Mary Shelly’s “Frankenstein,” the Golem runs amok, destroying all in its path. It even turns on his creator, setting fire to Loew’s home and carting off his daughter, Miriam (played by Wegener’s wife, Lyda Salmanova). The scenes of the monster rampaging through the city, with its angular sets and idiosyncratic cinematography, is a testament to the work of both Poelzig and Freund. Anyone who has seen Frankenstein will immediately recognize much of its source. As accomplished as Wegener is as a writer and director, he is even better as an actor, giving an expressive, animated performance and eliciting empathy with his eyes.

The film ends with a group of blonde Aryan girls saving the day, which may be one of the reasons the film wasn’t destroyed by the Continue reading THE GOLEM (1920) AND FRANKENSTEIN (1931)

KARLOFF 1958: THE HAUNTED STRANGLER, CORRIDORS OF BLOOD, AND FRANKENSTEIN 1970

In 1958, producer Richard Gordon offered a two-picture deal with director Robert Day. The dual productions, The Haunted Strangler and Corridors of Blood, would be A (or A-) budget productions, providing the actor a starring role and a salary to match. Karloff jumped at the offer. It had been twelve years since his last star-quality vehicle, the -produced Bedlam (directed by ). Since then, Karloff had been stuck in character parts (1951’s The Strange Door, 1952’s The Black Castle), playing opposite Abbott and Costello (1949’s Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer), or crap (1954’s The Island Monster and 1957’s Voodoo Island). He had fared better in television (as one of the few big screen stars of the time who had no qualms jumping to the small screen).

The Haunted Strangler is often assessed as the lesser of the two Day/Karloff films, with the actor at his hammiest since 1934’s The Lost Patrol (directed by John Ford and featuring Karloff’s worst performance). Much of the film’s considerable budget went into expensive sets and into securing its lead actor, which unfortunately short-shifted the makeup department: Karloff’s Hyde-like transformation is reduced to the actor tilting his head, mussing up hair, twisting his hand into a claw, and biting lower lip. It is distracting as hell, and critics have been divided on assessing his performance as a whole. Another oft-cited critique is the predictable storyline. In its defense, classic horror fans usually rely on the overused virtues of atmosphere. There are also lurid elements of exploitation (champagne-soaked cleavage, -inspired can-can crotch shots, gruesome murders of women, floggings, bedlam abuses, broken glass to the face, etc) to keep up the interest.

Still from The Haunted Strangler (1958)A film is more than a plot or good makeup effects, however, and Day counts on the actor to carry this character-driven opus. Karloff plays a writer named Rankin, seeking justice for a man whom he believes was wrongly executed as the Haymarket Strangler. Rankin believes the true serial killer is still at large, and through his investigation we are transported through a series of impressive set pieces, from a dilapidated asylum to a gravesite ripe for defiling, a prison, and a sleazy cabaret. The narrative “twist” is transparent almost from the opening, and witnessing Karloff’s B-film descent into hysterical lunacy makes for a beguiling contrast with the A-quality art production. Given the flimsy plotting, a more subdued performance would have rendered the enterprise vapid. Despite the film’s obvious flaws, blatant titillation, and dated makeup, Karloff bounces through a project that is tailor-made for him.

Corridors of Blood is a different animal, with nary a monster in sight—at least not the genre expectations of a supernatural ogre. Rather, it is the monster of ignorance that rears its head here, and despite the Continue reading KARLOFF 1958: THE HAUNTED STRANGLER, CORRIDORS OF BLOOD, AND FRANKENSTEIN 1970

1965 EXPLOITATION TRIPLE FEATURE: DIE MONSTER DIE, MONSTER A GO-GO, AND INCUBUS

After the bonanzas of 1963 and 1964, 1965 was a comparatively lackluster year for horror and exploitation flicks, with a few exceptions at both ends of the spectrum. , Nick Adams, Suzan Farmer, and Freda Jackson starred in Die, Monster, Die, directed by Daniel Haller, which was one of the first big screen attempts at an adaptation. Released by AIP for the drive-in double feature circuit along with ‘s cult fave, Planet of the VampiresDie, Monster, Die has more kinship to that studio’s product than to Lovecraft. It also has a distant relationship to : Jackson previously appeared in Brides of Dracula, and Farmer went on to do both Dracula, Prince of Darkness and Rasputin, the Mad Monk for the studio the following year. Additionally, elements of Die, Monster Die are clearly related to Universal’s Man-Made Monster (1941) and Columbia’s mad doctor series. With Universal horror icon Karloff and Rebel Without a Cause heartthrob Adams as the two leading men, Die, Monster, Die feels like a queer hybrid. The aged Karloff, suffering the effects of emphysema, is wheelchair bound (and will be for the rest of his career and life), but he evokes formidable English mystery from his blanket and chair. In sharp contrast is all that pent-up, pushy, youthful American angst from Adams, who is aptly vulgar and a standout in his Jersey accent.

Still from Die, Monster, Die (1965)Stephen Reinhart  goes to visit Susan Witley at her parents’ home in the English village of Arkham. Stephen had met Susan at the college they attended together in the States, but when he stops at a local pub, he discovers the entire village paralyzed with fear in regards to the Witley estate (calling to mind ‘s daffily delivered dialogue from 1955’s Bride of the Monster, “stay away from the old Willow’s place!”) Poor Stephen can’t get anyone to give him transportation and is forced to walk. Upon finally arriving at the Witley estate, he discovers that the surrounding plant life has all mysteriously died. He is greeted with hostility by Susan’s crippled father, Nahum (Karloff), who demands that Stephen leave at once. Nahum is interrupted by a beaming Susan and introduced to her mother, Letitia (Jackson), who is bedridden and hidden behind a veil. Letitia intercedes for Stephen and asks him to take Susan away from this charnel house. A short while later, Nahum’s servant, Merwyn (Terence De Marney) collapses and dies. After Merwyn’s late night burial, followed by a phantom-like figure appearing at the window, Stephen and Susan make their way into Nahum’s greenhouse and discover abnormally enlarged plant life and mutated critters. “It looks like a zoo on hell,” declares Stephen. After some Sherlock Holmes/Watson sleuthing, he and Susan unlock the dreadful secret: Nahum has been “experimenting” with radioactivity from a meteorite. Hoping to undo an ancestor’s evil deeds (whatever those were) Nahum plans to help feed the world with mutated plant life! Of course, things go awry and everyone who worked in the greenhouse has been either mutated or killed. The phantom figure turns Continue reading 1965 EXPLOITATION TRIPLE FEATURE: DIE MONSTER DIE, MONSTER A GO-GO, AND INCUBUS

DIRECTOR RETROSPECTIVE: MARIO BAVA, PART ONE

An eclectic study of cinema should include the oeuvre of . He was overlooked by serious critics for decades. It was genre fans who kept whispering Bava’s name until it reached an echo and reverberated in critical circles. Called The Father of Italian Giallo Cinema, he influenced the likes of , ,  and (among others). Predictably, Bava’s fan base is given to religious zeal, but his body of work merits immersion in spite of his fanatical cult.

It should come as no surprise that Mario Bava’s original ambition was to become a painter. The son of sculptor and cinematographer Eugenio Bava, Mario found painting a less-than-profitable life goal and followed his father’s footsteps. Landing a job in Mussolini’s film factory, Bava’s apprentice work included lensing numerous films, beginning in 1939. It wasn’t until 1957 that Bava (uncredited) co-directed his first feature with Riccardo Freda: Lust of the Vampire (I Vampiri).

Still from Lust of the Vampire (I Vampiri) (1957)Although neither a great horror film nor a great film, Lust of the Vampire (not to be confused with the later Hammer film, which makes this one look like a masterpiece) is historically important for being the first Italian horror film. There are no vampires to speak of. The victims are the result of surgical horrors, and there’s little doubt that this film was a considerable influence on s Eyes Without a FaceAlthough crisply paced in its 78 minute running time, it’s saddled with dull, verbose characters. Lust of the Vampire teeters toward full-blown Goth cinema, but it also has scenes that hearken back to the mad scientist films of the 1940s; one has to look twice to make sure we’re not witnessing and up to no good in their labs. Visually, it has wonderful set pieces and almost surreal matte-work standing in for Paris. A portentous spiraling stairwell, shadow-doused laboratories, decaying beds, skulls falling to the floor, nooses inexplicably dangling from the ceiling, a mist-laden forest, an ornamental tomb façade, secret chambers, and beautiful women injected with serum transforming into withered drama queens all add up to an evocative early Italian horror. Gianna Maria Canale has the standout performance as Giselle du Grand, smoking cigarettes in front of mirrors. There’s a lot of debate as to how much Bava directed. The film has elements that could be attributed to the styles of both artists. Although Bava is clearly the superior director, Freda (who co-wrote the script) went on to make the effective Terror of Dr. Hitchcock (1962) and it’s sequel The Ghost (1963), both with . Freda walked out mid-production Continue reading DIRECTOR RETROSPECTIVE: MARIO BAVA, PART ONE

BORIS KARLOFF’S THRILLER (1960-1962): EPISODE GUIDE AND REVIEWS, PART FIVE

Part I of “Boris Karloff’s Thriller” episode guide is here, part II is here, part III is here, and part IV is here.

How could “Waxworks” (directed by Herschel Daugherty and written by Robert Bloch) go wrong with this subject matter—wax museums are usually rich fodder for the horror genre—and this writer? Unfortunately, a promising opening teeters into an elongated dull stretch, partially redeemed by its stylish “twist” ending. The flaws here seem more to be in the direction than in the writing as the story was filmed again, to better effect, in the 1971 Amicus production The House That Dripped Blood (starring the best and most underrated of Hammer actors, ). Colonel Andre Bertroux (Martin Kosleck) believes the wax figures of Pierre Jacqueline’s Waxworks Museum have committed a series of murders. Antoinette Bower gives a good performance as Annette Jacquelin, and she’s the center of that twist, which reveals a unimaginable truth.

Still from "La Strega" from "Thriller"“La Strega”(directed by and written by Alan Caillou) is “Thriller” (and Lupino) at its near-best. In 19th century Italy, a young girl named Luana (Ursula Andress) is nearly drowned by the village idiots, who believe her to be La Strega (“the witch”). She is rescued by artist Tonio (Alejandro Rey). Tonio takes Luana in, protects her, and eventually becomes her lover. Soon, he encounters Luana’s grandmother (Jeanette Nolan) who is the actual La Strega. When Tonio refuses to divulge Luana’s whereabouts, the grandmother places a curse upon him. Toni turns to Maestro Giuliano (Ramon Novarro) for help, but Giuliano is soon murdered. Tonio’s only recourse is to beg for release from the curse, which leads to a downright grim finale. Nolan is superb as La Strega and Novarro (from the silent Ben-Hur) makes a rare and effective television appearance—chilling in hindsight, given that he is a mere six years away from becoming the victim of one of Hollywood’s most brutal murders. Later in the year, Andrews would become the first and most famous of the Bond girls in Dr. No. This episode moves like quicksilver and is almost flawlessly written and directed.

“The Storm” (directed by Herschel Daugherty and written by William D. Gordon) also deals with superstition, albeit in a more privatized setting. Newlywed Janet (Nancy Kelly, best known for The Bad Seed) is unsettled by an eccentric taxi driver, but goes home to await the arrival of husband (David McLean). When the power goes out in the middle of a storm, Janet envisions herself subjected to virtually every known horror cliche, until an authentic threat and another impending storm make for a jolting climax. The pacing is not as Continue reading BORIS KARLOFF’S THRILLER (1960-1962): EPISODE GUIDE AND REVIEWS, PART FIVE

BORIS KARLOFF’S THRILLER (1960-1962): EPISODE GUIDE AND REVIEWS, PART FOUR

Part I of “Boris Karloff’s Thriller” episode guide is here, part II is here, and part III is here.

“God Grante That She Lye Stille” (directed by Herschel Daugherty and written by Robert Hardy Andrews) has series composer Jerry Goldsmith matching a rousing score to a well-worn plot about a wicked witch named Elspeth Clewer (Sarah Marshall) who is burned at the stake and places a curse upon her lineage, vowing to come back in another Clewer. 300 years later Margaret Clewer (Marshall)  apparently has just the right curves and… no prizes for guessing this plot, which is reminiscent of ‘s Black Sunday (1960). Marshall is physically reminiscent of Barbara Steele, but stamps the role with her own charisma. Henry Daniell gives a typically steely performance as the local vicar and Victor Buono, per the norm, invests his cameo with gusto. It’s well-lit with impressive ghost FX and sets, which makes for quite the grand guignol episode, despite its conventional narrative.

“Masquerade” (directed by Herschel Daugherty and written by Donald S. Sanford) has familiar actors Elizabeth  Montgomery and John Carradine in another Old Dark House thriller that begins on a dark and stormy night. Charlie (Tom Poston) and Rosamond  (Montgomery) Denham, celebrating their second honeymoon, depart their southern trailer park (!), get lost in the rain, and come upon the old Carta place. Carta patriarch Jed (Carradine) gives them shelter and… well, the old Carta place just happens to have bats flying around, the corpse of a hog hanging upside down (with a bucket collecting its blood), bars on the windows, secret passages, a rather large number of stuffed birds, and the psychotic old woman Ruthie (Dorothy Neumann) chained to a wall. She begs the honeymooning couple to free her, which they of course do. Ruthie’s first victim is Jed’s eccentric grandson Lem (Jack Lambert), which leads to the discovery that the Carta clan are cannibalistic vampires. “Masquerade” recalls elements of Terence Fisher‘s Brides Of Dracula and ‘s Psycho, and may be something of a precursor to 1967’s Spider Baby.  “Masquerade” is not as good as any of those, however. Although the plot is now overly familiar, it revels in black comedy, and is bookended by an over the top intro by Karloff and a daffy “twist” ending. Another plus is the acerbic Montgomery and a scene stealing, creepy Carradine giving charmingly riotous performances.

Still from "Boris Karloff's Thriller," "The Last of the Sommervilles"“The Last of the Sommervilles” (directed by , written by Ida and Richard Lupino) is elevated by Karloff’s supporting performance as the amorous Dr. Farnham, who looks like a forgotten cousin of the Three Stooges and steals every scene he is Continue reading BORIS KARLOFF’S THRILLER (1960-1962): EPISODE GUIDE AND REVIEWS, PART FOUR