Posts Tagged ‘Bela Lugosi’

The Death Kiss (1932)

*available to stream on Shudder

the-death-kiss-1

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.

black cat bottom

I’m back! I know you’ve been waiting with bated breath, but I had … important … things to … stuff.

The Black Cat! How can you go wrong with Karloff and Lugosi? The answer is that you cannot, but there are times when filmmakers do try.   The Black Cat is supposedly based on Edgar Allan Poe’s short story of the same title, but the only resemblance is just that: the title. There is a black cat that shows up at regular intervals – supposedly a representative of undying evil – but that piece of the plot drifts away and never comes back.  So the only thing going for it are the presences of Karloff and Lugosi, and the might of Universal horror in the early 1930s.

Which, let’s face it, is all this film really needs. Lugosi is Dr. Vitus Werdegast, recently released from a prison he languished in for 15 years as a prisoner or war and returning home to find out what has become of the wife and daughter he left behind.  He’s joined by sweet honeymooning couple the Alisons (David Manners and Julie Bishop), the two most boring and useless people on the planet.  The fun starts, though, when circumstances land them all at the high modern home of Hjalmar Poelzig (Karloff), Werdegast’s sworn enemy, a murderer, sadist and Satanist.  Let the games begin!

boris-karloff

This film is simply delicious.  From the instant that Lugosi asks to share the Alisons’ train compartment, you want to start screaming “Holy God, no!”  But for once, Bela is not the one we need to be worried about.  He actually plays Werdegast with great subtlety, as a man possessed by revenge but likewise desperate to pick up his life where he left off.  All he really wants are his wife and daughter back.  One has the impression that he would leave vengeance behind.

The film exploits horror’s roots in German Expressionism, particularly through Poelzig, a villain made up of sinister angles.  Karloff imbues The Black Cat with its menace.  His costuming and style match the high modern house that has become a tomb for past horrors.  He’s a war criminal who escaped judgement, causing the deaths of thousands, and then returning to build his home on their graveyard.  But of course he has not stopped there – the ground below the house is the site of Satanist rituals, and the place where Poelzig keeps his female victims preserved for all eternity; including, of course, Werdegast’s wife.  If all that wasn’t enough to convince you that this guy is seriously fucked up, try this: after marrying Werdegast’s wife, Poelzig went on to marry her daughter too.  Ew.

I will avoid spoiling the ending, except to say that it’s shockingly violent for the time period.  It’s also rushed, which is the biggest problem with The Black Cat.  The film sets up a number of plot threads and conflicts, then speeds through resolving them.  Blink and you’ll miss salient plot points.  Let your attention wander for an instant and characters are suddenly dead.  If it were not for Lugosi and Karloff anchoring the film, it would float off into space.

Both Karloff and Lugosi made better films, but perhaps none pitted them so marvelously against each other as The Black Cat.  Despite dropping some of the more interesting elements – the backdrop of World War I, Satanism and possession – the film succeeds in what it sets out to do.  It wants to give us an hour of two of cinema’s greatest monsters glaring at each other across a chess board, framed in a doorway, or cackling in each other’s faces.  Lugosi and Karloff are possessed of two of the most wonderful voices in early cinema and they dwell on every word of their dialogue, vying for screen-time.  Pleasure in cinema can be found in the weirdest places, and The Black Cat remains one of the more pleasurable experiences for this horror fan.

Add me to the long, long list of annoyed geeky bloggers with a serious chip on her shoulder over the Twilight franchise.  Add me also to the long, long list of hipsters who, like, totally was into vampires before vampires were cool.  And I’m talking PROPER vampires.  The ones with fangs and bloodlust; not the sparkling vegetarian high school ones (what the fuck is a vegetarian vampire, after all?)

Back in the long, long ago, vampires were scary as well as sexy.  Apparently True Blood is attempting to fill that void, as it were, but even those Bayou vamps are more the descendants of Anne Rice’s sexually confused dandies than Bram Stoker’s creation of pure evil.  And you gotta admit, Bram Stoker gave us the world’s greatest vampire, the King of Vampires,  evil incarnate.  Stoker’s Dracula was not sexy; he was not tortured over his vampire-ishness.  Despite a fairly pronounced death drive, what he really wanted to do was drain everyone’s blood and create an empire of the undead.  You know, a good, old fashioned  take over the world kind of villain.  He had fangs.  He turned into a bat and a wolf and assaulted Victorian womanhood, manhood and childhood.  He brought out the evil in the staunch Victorian middle-classes, making them turn on each other, forcing them into deeper and deeper depravity in their attempts to annihilate him.  He was one evil sonofabitch.

Vampire

Dracula has been a lot of things over the years, and has been progressively defanged since Browning’s 1931 film made him into  a foreign gentleman.  Time passed, Christopher Lee gave us a sexier Dracula, then a Dracula who rides the number 7 bus.  Finally, Frank Langella gave us disco Dracula.  And that was sort of the stake through the heart for ol’Drac.  Gerard Butler in Dracula 2000 proposed that Dracula was actually Judas (!); Gary Oldman in Coppolla’s inappropriately named Bram Stoker’s Dracula definitely had the tortured romantic thing going on, but then he also did some raping and pillaging.  At least Dracula never really lost his fangs, or the whole ‘I want to suck your blood’ mentality.  Until now.

Vampires have typically represented the sexual confusion and mores of their time periods.  It’s no accident that the most memorable vampire showed up nearing the end of the Victorian era, a time characterized by excessive sexual repression, two very ugly occurrences involving sexuality (Jack the Ripper and the trial of Oscar Wilde) and the escalating debate over the rights of women.  That Dracula transformed over time into a tortured lover, a gentleman, a man not quite as evil as he initially seemed, seems to reflect the changing desires of the culture he comes out of.  Dracula began to stop being scary when sex stopped being as scary.  But today, something very weird has happened.

Not a vampire. Get it?

Twilight has enacted a sort of double repression.  The vampire, rather than being an eruption of the chaos world, an embodiment of the darkness at the heart of middle class society, becomes instead fully integrated into that society.  A misunderstood, not terribly dangerous celibate, continuously repressing natural desires (in the case of a vampire, blood and sex) in favor of asceticism: being a ‘good’ vampire.  Sex is not to be indulged until marriage, at which point it becomes violent and bruising, resulting in a rather Cronenbergian pregnancy and C-section.  And that’s romantic.  The books and films present Edward as the ultimate romantic lover, but the entire romantic relationship is a reinforcement of the very patriarchal norms (men are animals, sex is evil and painful, etc.) that the vampire was originally a reaction against.  By making the vampire the hero, the Twilight franchise has managed to invert the purpose of the monster (the return of the repressed) and make the monster himself into a romantic symbol that reinforces that repression.  The Victorians couldn’t have accomplished it better.  Vampires have ceased to be scary.  They’re now pale young Englishmen with sparkling skin who resist the passions of the flesh … until, of course, they beat the hell out of their partners in the marriage bed.  How romantic.

It saddens me to see Drac and his brethren fall so far from grace.  I hope that we someday regain some of the kinkiness that has always characterized vampire lore (True Blood is the one hope for the future of the bloodsuckers).  I don’t know what Edward Cullen and the rest of those sparkly Mormons are, but they sure as hell aren’t vampires.

You call that a vampire? THIS is a vampire: