The Death Kiss (1932)

*available to stream on Shudder

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The horror streaming service Shudder has a few high-quality public domain films available for streaming which, if you’re a stickler for quality like me, is very welcome. The Death Kiss, a pre-Code thriller from 1932 and restored by Kino in this edition, is one of the most surprisingly entertaining little dramas that I’ve seen in a long while.

The Death Kiss opens on the making of the film The Death Kiss, as actor Miles Brent (Edmund Burns) walks onscreen for his cinematic death scene…and winds up actually being shot. Almost everyone on set is pretty sanguine about Brent’s death: his ex-wife and leading lady Marcia (Adrienne Ames) can’t stand him, his director Tom Avery (Edward Sloan) and studio manager Joseph Steiner (Bela Lugosi) are more worried about finishing the film than the loss of their leading man, and the head of studio Leon A. Grossmith (Alexander Carr) is counting the money that he’s going to lose by delaying production for such a small thing as a murder. The police arrive, and so does a young scenario writer and would-be detective Franklyn Drew (David Manners), who also happens to be Marcia’s lover. But while no one really cares who killed Brent, when the police set their sights on Marcia, Drew decides he has to act on his own. What follows is a snappy little whodunnit with some silly set-pieces, crackling dialogue, and lots of Hollywood self-effacement.

The Death Kiss is immediately notable for bringing back together three of the main actors from the 1931 Dracula in the persons of Manners, Sloan, and Lugosi. But each are also playing noticeably against type: Sloan is far from the grandfatherly Van Helsing, and Lugosi actually gets more than a few laughs in as the slightly diabolical studio manager. Most notable, however, is David Manners, who was wooden as Jonathan Harker and here actually proves he carry off comedy and dashing wit without creasing his necktie. Because the film is so short, coming in at just over an hour, the plot moves along at a good clip, getting in little digs at Hollywood and movie-making while managing to conjure up a decent plot that had me guessing right to the end. Director Edwin L. Marin would go on to make a series of whodunnits throughout the 1930s, including several Philo Vance detective films and a version of A Study in Scarlet.

An odd little sidenote to The Death Kiss is the use of tinting in several key scenes, which have been properly restored in this print. The little shocks of color are bizarre but quite effective, and it’s lovely to see them in a film this small and quirky. The film is plagued by some sound troubles, probably owing to a poor source print, but these do not disrupt the production as a whole. It’s actually quite an irreverent and energetic little movie, replete with quirky side characters and distractions enough to keep things moving.

While The Death Kiss wins no awards for innovation, it’s an enjoyable film, quick-witted and fast-paced and just a little racy (pre-Code films need to be appreciated more, my friends). Though I wouldn’t quite call it a horror film (despite Lugosi), it’s streaming on Shudder now, so you have no excuse.

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