Beware, My Lovely (1952)

Beware, My Lovely (1952)


Beware, My Lovely falls into that particular sub-genre of thrillers classified as “house invasion” films: a criminal or gang of criminals manage to break into a family’s home and take it over, transforming the safe suburban landscape into a land of dark shadows and looming threats. The sub-genre was particularly prevalent in post-World War II America as an off-shoot of Cold War paranoia and the increasing sense that the enemy could be the person next door. In Beware, My Lovely, the sub-genre also deals with the incipient sense of inferiority of post-war masculinity.

Beware, My Lovely is set in 1918 and features Ida Lupino as Helen Gordon, a widowed housewife preparing her home for Christmas by a spate of extensive cleaning. Her lodger is leaving for several weeks, and her young niece Ruth is of little assistance, so Helen calls in an itinerant handyman Howard Wilton (Robert Ryan) to help her with the heavy work. As Helen finds herself alone with Howard, it develops that the otherwise friendly worker has a serious psychosis. After a violent outburst, Howard confesses to Helen that he has occasional blackouts where he does things – including murder – that he later cannot remember. Although Helen tries to express sympathy for the damaged man, she soon discovers that Howard has locked them in the house and hidden the keys, prompting a battle of wills as Helen tries to convince the damaged Howard to let her go.

Beware, My Lovely is a chamber-piece of a film noir anchored primarily by Lupino and Ryan, with only a few supporting characters coming in and out. It moves quickly, developing Howard’s psychosis and subsequent possession of the house as something nearly outside of his control. Ryan plays his part with remarkable pathos: Howard isn’t a bad or evil person per se; he’s after nothing more than help and some cure for his loneliness, but is incapable of controlling his blackouts or his behavior within them. Refused entry into the army, Howard’s madness seems to be instigated by a sense that he’s “less of a man,” his violence directed at women that he believes are laughing at him. It’s Helen’s niece who prompts his outburst when she tells him that the housework he’s doing is “woman’s work.” beware-my-lovely

Lupino has a more thankless role. While Helen begins the film with a strong emotional character, her behavior sometimes borders on nonsensical. She never seems to get past her terror and so remains a victim throughout the film – a companion to similar female characters in home invasion films who never manage to get their hands on a coffee pot, a lamp, or a kitchen knife long enough to do something. While the audience shares her terror, her ineptitude becomes increasingly exasperating. This isn’t a slur on Lupino, however, who has one of the strongest screen personas you can ask for in a Classical Hollywood actress. But Lupino’s very strength of character makes Helen’s behavior seem unbelievable; Ida Lupino would never faint the way this woman does.

Despite Helen’s hysteria, there’s much to like in Beware, My Lovely. It maintains a claustrophobic atmosphere that does not let up until the final frame. Most of the film takes place within Helen’s house, juxtaposed occasionally against the world outside that goes along as it always had, developing into a seeming mockery of Helen’s situation. It’s the scenes of near-escape that have the most energy, as do the moments where Helen tries to convince Howard that she’ll help him if he’ll only unlock the front door.

Beware, My Lovely has the hallmarks of a classic, even if it falls somewhat short in the execution. Ryan and Lupino are attractive screen presences, and Ryan in particular uses his looming physicality and sorrowful eyes to excellent effect. If it never quite achieves the level it might, Beware, My Lovely is a diverting piece of thriller cinema.

The Bat (1959)

The Bat (1959)


B-grade mystery movies of the 1950s had a cache all their own. Very often the ghostly or apparently supernatural killer was in it for the money and nothing else, which for me usually takes some of the suspense out of the investigation. I was pleasantly surprised by The Bat, however, which has all the earmarks of a generic thriller and manages to be a bit different. The Bat is a surprisingly clever, funny little film, stocked with some excellent character actors led by Agnes Moorehead and Vincent Price.

The Bat opens with mystery writer Cornelia Van Gorder (Moorehead) leasing an old mansion while the owner is away on an extended hunting trip. The mansion and the small town have a sinister history, though: they were the site of several murders the year before by a character known only as The Bat, a serial killer who preys on women by ripping their throats out with steel claws. Cornelia is thrilled at first, but things start getting ugly when The Bat apparently breaks into her house and releases a rabid bat into her bedroom. These events are wound up in the disappearance of a million dollars in securities from the vault of the local bank. The culprit is the bank’s owner and proprietor of the very mansion where Cornelia and her maid now live; but the bank owner was murdered by his friend Dr. Malcolm Wells (Vincent Price) before revealing the location of the securities (I’d say this was a spoiler, but it happens within the first ten minutes of the film’s run time).


There are actually more than a few twists and turns running through a film that appears quite simple on the face of it. The mansion is treated as an “old dark house,” but some of the suspense is punctured by Cornelia and her maid’s no-nonsense attitude to tales of ghosts and killers. AgnesMoorehead is at the top of her game here, playing Cornelia as an acerbic Agatha Christie who delights in the mayhem going on around her, and is more than capable of taking on several Bats at once.The film makes excellent use of its female characters, each of whom proves to be much tougher than the men that surround them. Female friendship is powerful and long-lasting, while male friendship proves remarkably false. It’s really up to the women to solve the mystery, save the town, and find the loot; the men are too busy killing each other off.

Moorehead has a brilliant counterpart in Vincent Price; their scenes together pop as each tries to out-creep the other. Price’s sinister persona is pitch perfect as always, giving the simplest lines dark and terrible meaning that he obviously delights in. If there’s a flaw in him, it’s that he’s so obviously sinister from the beginning, as the audience is privy to the original murder of the bank owner.

The Bat isn’t a brilliant thriller by any means; one wonders what a Hitchcock or a Lang might have made out of the same cast and script. But it is a diverting little film, enjoyable from beginning to end. Don’t assume that you know the solution as you go into it – it has quite a number of hidden corridors.

Carnival Of Souls (1962)

Carnival of Souls (1962)


American filmmaking went through a period of spectacular growth and increased genre diversity throughout the 1950s and 60s. The Hollywood studio system was slowly collapsing, allowing more space for young directors, writers, and actors to step in and start experimenting. While the low-budget horror film Carnival of Souls didn’t achieve cult status until many years after its release, it has all the hallmarks of early American realism, filtered through a horror story that asks more questions than it tries to answer.

Carnival of Souls tells the story of Mary Henry (Candace Hilligoss), a young woman plagued by hallucinations following a near death experience when her car plunges off a bridge during a drag-race. The other occupants of the vehicle are killed, but Mary emerges from the river three hours later with no memory of what happened or how she escaped. A week afterwards, she takes a job as an organist at a church in a small Utah town, hoping to escape from the trauma of her car wreck. But when she arrives in the town, she begins to hallucinate that a bizarre man is stalking her. This all seems tied to an abandoned carnival on the outskirts of the town, though how or to what purpose remains unclear.


Carnival of Souls relies mostly on the tense, off-kilter atmosphere of the town and its inhabitants, focalized through Mary and her increasing paranoia. The camera work itself feels carnivalesque, managing to instill close-ups and otherwise normal scenes with a sense of foreboding. No one is really normal in this film: Mary’s fellow lodger John Linden is nearly a sexual predator, insinuating himself into Mary’s room and life with self-centered ease; her landlady, the minister for whom she works, and even the kindly doctor who attempts to assist her all seem in collusion with supernatural forces. The film as a whole has a silent-movie aesthetic, especially in the appearance of the devilish ghouls who menace Mary. This element is further punctuated by an eerie organ score that veers between religious and carnival themes. The two overlap as Mary’s hallucinations become more pronounced, and then cut out altogether in key sequences, as though transition from one plane of existence to the next has been imperfectly completed.

Hilligoss’s distanced performance is central to the film’s conceit: Mary is unable to connect to anyone, desperate for human contact one minute and then cold and distant the next. While the other actors vary between amateur theatrics and solid performance, Hilligoss remains both sympathetic and remote; the audience shares her terror, but cannot fully invest in her as a person. Most of the film is told through her eyes, yet there’s a sense of distance even in the most frightening sequences. Like Mary, we are disconnected from this world, and we also feel the terror that goes with that disconnection. It’s an excellent trick that combines cinematography, soundtrack, and the actress’s performance, and lends Carnival of Souls its most basic horror.

Carnival of Souls was made on a budget of $3,000 and has influenced filmmakers like George Romero and David Lynch. Director Herk Harvey never made another feature film, though he was a prolific director of educational and industrial films. It’s a shame Carnival of Souls didn’t do any better at the box office, for it might have encourage Harvey to continue to hone his undoubted abilities in combining the mundane and the supernatural. As it is, the film stands as a cult classic and a deeply influential work that helped shape the future of horror.