Number Seventeen (1932)

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  • directed by Alfred Hitchcock
  • starring Leon M. Lion, Anne Grey, John Stuart, Donald Calthrop, Barry Jones, Ann Casson, Henry Caine, Garry Marsh
  • A gang of thieves gather at a safe house following a robbery, but a detective is on their trail.

“Ya don’t have to do nothin’ in this ‘ere house—ya stand still and things happen!”

Several factors, chief among them an incredibly boomy audio track on my DVD and no available subtitles, reduced my experience with this early Hitchcock film to essentially sitting back and looking at it for its 65-minute runtime. I then read about its subpar legacy, the fact that Hitchcock hated the film looking back on it and never wanted to make it in the first place, and I realize that absorbing the atmosphere and taking note of some of the experimentation and craft involved is really the best one can do with Number Seventeen. Hitchcock once said, “if it’s a good movie, the sound could go off and the audience would still have a perfectly clear idea of what was going on.” With this film that logic does hold up.

It became clear that actually hearing the dialogue wouldn’t have aided in my comprehension of such a nonsensical story. Even further, there would be no difference if a few of the missing links in the plot had been better connected, or at all. There was no foundation for emotional investment. It was an exercise in lighting and editing full of people, not characters, and a messy pile of moments standing in for a narrative. In that way it reminds me of another blemish on Hitchcock’s early years, Jamaica Inn, but at least that one had Charles Laughton memorably and ruthlessly devouring the scenery. I am astonished to find that of the 62 films of the 1930s that I’ve watched for the blog to date, two Hitchcock films are neck and neck for dead last.

I won’t attempt to go over the story in great detail. There are two sections to the film, that much I know. We begin in a very dark and shadow-laden house where a band of thieves and a detective kind of circle in and out with concerns about a missing necklace. Eventually a latch is opened which reveals an expressionistic staircase that leads to a train yard. Maybe it was an intentional choice, but because of darkness and unintelligible visual storytelling, the nature of this house as it pertains to physical space is something that never becomes clear. The second half of the film is a frantic, near-chaotic chase between bus and runaway train. Anyway, I am barely more capable of summing this up than someone who’s never heard of it before.

As I sat there passively looking, though, a few things did stand out. There were some truly funny moments particularly from Leon M. Lion as Ben. Thankfully Hitchcock wasn’t taking any of this too seriously. Additionally it was interesting to see shadows so prominent that at times they completely swallowed a scene’s main action. Hitchcock’s camera was always close, acting as a member of a group as opposed to pulling back to capture everything, and the house scenes were DARK, with any sources of light pulsing and shadows dancing across the background begging for attention. This would have been good atmosphere in a better film, but instead it amounted to inundated confusion.

I’m happy to sit through works like this and Jamaica Inn because it makes me think about the nature of genius in regards to filmmaking. The highs of Hitchcock are so well known that it is somewhat startling to realize that he also made a few truly abysmal films. There are countless “legendary” directors that made it through an entire career without an undebatably terrible film, albeit not with 60 credits to their name. Maybe it was just Hitchcock being young and green. When he achieves great success, his pacing and audience manipulation strikes me more than anything as resembling a virtuosic performance of music; to pay just as much attention to the whole journey as the smaller moments, to know precisely when to turn it up or not at all. A skill in that sense would certainly require years of practice, something which we may have seen in bits and pieces on screen through the 1920s and 30s. Maybe the missteps get chalked up to unproductive studio relationships or him not caring about the material. As we now know of his later work, the very best tend to feature a director that cares so deeply that he terrorizes everyone involved, including himself and loved ones.

On the upside, things greatly improved in Hitchcock’s career soon after his next film, the musical Waltzes From Vienna, which he would later look back on as something of a rock bottom. He would finish the decade with the Gaumont British Picture Corporation and gather momentum with films like The Man Who Knew Too Much, The 39 Steps, and The Lady Vanishes, then take a step back again with Jamaica Inn before achieving decades of brilliance in Hollywood.

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Vampyr (1932)

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  • directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer
  • starring Nicolas de Gunzburg, Rena Mandel, Sybille Schmitz, Jan Hieronimko, Maurice Schutz
  • A traveler obsessed with the supernatural visits an old inn and finds evidence of vampires.

“Dust thou art. And unto dust shalt thou return.”

Of the films I’ve been working through for Halloween, Vampyr struck me as having the most in common with the horror genre of modern times in terms of its slow-burning pace and sophisticated approach to terror. That isn’t to say there is much specific horror to speak of though. My personal interpretation of the film is that somehow Dreyer had accomplished the ultimate trick. Through endless suggestions of bizarre or terrifying situations and the thick obscurity of fog, I ended up feeling like I had seen so much more action and blatant acts than I actually did. In other words, the foreboding was so expertly handled, that it never needed to amount to anything for me to be enthralled in the nightmarish mood of it all.

This was the first sound film by Dreyer and, despite a few eerie tricks played with echoes, it appears that he remained more interested in images, mood, lighting, and effects than he did exploring the new opportunities ushered in by the innovation of sound. His characters rarely talk in conversations. Instead they utter the slightest amount of dialogue that would have up to that point been shown on title cards, although Dreyer did end up using a ton of those too. This coupled with Dreyer’s approach to casting–most of the cast was made up of non-actors, including de Gunzburg who requested the lead role after agreeing to finance the film—signals that his main priority with Vampyr was not letting much of anything get in the way of the unsettling story and the gorgeous, haunting imagery.

Freaks (1932)

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  • directed by Tod Browning
  • starring Leila Hyams, Olga Baclanova, Henry Victor, Roscoe Ates, Harry Earles, Daisy Earles
  • The physically deformed “freaks” are honorable and trusting people, while the real monsters are two of the “normal” members of the circus who conspire to murder one of performers to obtain his large inheritance.

“We accept you, one of us. Gobble Gobble!”

The entirety of Freaks, outside of the main story of Cleopatra’s betrayal of Hans, is a quiet portrait of sideshow freaks as they deal with relationship troubles or just simply hang out. It is endlessly captivating and there needn’t have been a plot at all. Among the real life characters featured as freaks were: the human skeleton Peter Robinson; the bearded lady Olga Roderick; the armless wonders Frances O’Connor and Martha Morris; conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton; microcephalics Elvira, Jenny Lee Snow, and Simon Metz; half man half woman Josephine Joseph; the legless Johhny Eck; the limbless Prince Randian; Elizabeth Green the Stork Woman; and Koo Koo the Bird Girl.

Each of these characters showed a ton of warmth and personality that makes you really wonder about the nature of the sideshow business and how they feel about being put on display. That isn’t the side of the circus that Tod Browning is interested in showing us, however, instead we see things like the bearded lady giving birth to her daughter, one half of the conjoined twins arguing with her sister’s husband as if by being there all the time grants her some kind of claim to their relationship, the limbless Prince Randian rolling a cigarette and lighting it with a match all with his mouth, one of the armless girls drinks and eats with her feet, and so on and on. We don’t see them perform for a rude, heckling audience, but each gets the chance to showcase their talents behind the scenes for us.

It’s a tight knit community of friends, but their dark sides are awakened when one of their own, Hans, is discovered to have been poisoned. The stormy wagon fight at the end, in which Hercules is unable to walk, putting him on their level and under attack by a crawling, weapon-wielding mob is a crazy scene, but apparently it was the G-rated version. Browning’s original cut, which featured Hercules being forecefully castrated, was even more harsh. We see the end result of what they did to Cleopatra—limbs burned into something resembling duck feet and permanent tarring and feathering on her torso—but the surviving cut of the movie also keeps that attack hidden. It would have been interesting to see more of the scarred yet lovable friends we’re introduced to transforming into such vengeful and dangerous creatures, but damn, from the description of the footage, Browning, whose career was completely derailed after the release of Freaks, really went out in a blaze of glory.

What we’re left with is a cursory look at the sideshow phenomenon. We never get into the heads of why they do what do or how it makes them feel, but Browning did a great job at toying with our perceptions of who, in the end, are freaks after all. Is it the child born with a deformity, the adult who grows to turn that deformity into a skill, or the “normal” folks who pay money to harass and belittle.

White Zombie (1932)

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  • directed by Victor Halperin
  • starring Bela Lugosi, Madge Bellamy, Joseph Cawthorn, John Harron, Robert Frazer, Brandon Hurst
  • A man turns to a witch doctor to lure the woman he loves away from her fiancé, but instead turns her into a zombie slave.

“Before we get through with this thing we may uncover sins that even the devil would be ashamed of.”

Fortunately after spending a couple weeks in this era and genre, I now know what to expect out of these types of “horror” movies. I admit it probably took me too long to realize that I shouldn’t expect to be frightened in the least, but thanks to this film I now see that their importance lies in not just their influence over time, but the atmosphere created and disturbing imagery that lingers around in the head long after they end.

And so it was with White Zombie, a film that provided a great template for future iterations that deal with the terrifying sort of zombies instead of what they were here, which were basically slaves that do the bidding of Bela Lugosi’s Murder Legendre (great character name alert). These are not the zombies of George Romero or the brain-hungry ones from any other modern day depiction, instead Legendre’s got them all blue-collar style working at a sugar factory for a lot of the film and they don’t really pose a threat unless he tells them to. There’s a lot of voodoo at work so I just assumed he could instruct them to be Madeline’s innocent bridesmaids and they’d do that just the same. It’s not until Madeline joins his troop that we’re actually invested in his evil brand of magic.

But by the end of the film, I was completely swept up in the eerie Caribbean plantation setting and the haunting images that Halperin captured of Madge Bellamy as the zoned out zombie bride. There was also a great sequence after the failed wedding in which a tortured Neil drowns his sorrows at a shadow-laden bar and then tramples through a cemetery in quest of his lost bride. Add all that up with a solid Lugosi performance and an exciting climax, which was rare in that I wasn’t able to predict exactly where they were going with it, and White Zombie may actually edge out some of the by-the-numbers Universal horror titles of the time.

The Mummy (1932)

  • directed by Karl Freund
  • starring Boris Karloff, Zita Johann, David Manners, Leonard Mudie, Edward Van Sloan, Arthur Byron
  • The mummy of a high priest, Im-ho-tep, comes to life and walks away in search of his long lost love.

“It was not only this body I loved, it was thy soul.”

This film had a noticeable lack of scares and was essentially a love story, featuring great performances from Boris Karloff and Zita Johann. The makeup, the ruthless stare, and how Imhotep stopped at nothing to reclaim his lost connection with Anck-es-en-Amon helped inch it towards the horror column, and I’m sure it played that way at the time, but it did feel watered down because the worst of his actions occur off-screen only. Where Dracula had the audacity to take his horror campaign to his victims bedrooms and clearly had not a single positive value to him, Imhotep at times came off as aloof, disinterested, and not very dangerous. He also came off as lovesick, and it’s never a scary experience when you find yourself here and there rooting for the guy to achieve what he’s after. But it was Johann’s deeply troubled yet graceful and exotic performance as the generation-spanning Anck-es-en-Amon and Helen Grosvenor that helped tip the scales back to a more traditional “monster must die” emotion while watching. She was a definite highlight and it’s a shame she took on just a few roles after this one.

I haven’t seen Frankenstein yet, so I’m very curious where that fits in because what stood out most of all to me was how closely the structure of The Mummy was to that of Universal’s other horror classic, Dracula. There were many bits of Egyptian lore that the producers were able to use but no actual story, like those other films had with Bram Stoker’s or Mary Shelley’s, from which to draw. Instead director Karl Freund, who was the cinematographer on Dracula, clearly took a page or two from his previous work–the film begins with an establishing scene similar in tone and in what it sets up; the main character then takes up business with those that are investigating him and is hidden in plain sight; there is the scene where he’s interrogated and revealed; another professorial role for Edward Van Sloan; and at the core of everything is a woman, the major pawn in the game who has suitors on both sides. Helen ultimately ends up as the bait on the hook as well, all while she tries to complete the picture of who she was in her previous life. It was an interesting movie in terms of its time jumping and identity struggles, and I really loved the style choice of reverting to classic silent era staging and cinematography in the scene where Imhotep recalls the events leading up to his mummification. It actually amplified the many other aspects of the film that were obviously inspired by the silent film style not just on the production side, but the acting side as well. I have many positive marks for The Mummy, just maybe not on the horror scale.

The Old Dark House (1932)

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  • directed by James Whale
  • starring Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas, Raymond Massey, Charles Laughton, Boris Karloff, Lilian Bond, Ernest Thesiger, Eva Moore, Brember Wills, Elspeth Dudgeon
  • Seeking shelter from a storm, five travelers are admitted to a gloomy, foreboding mansion belonging to the bizarre Femm family.

“We make our own electric light here, and we are not very good at it. Pray, don’t be alarmed if they go out altogether.”

Not being familiar with J.B. Priestly’s novel, Benighted, I was not prepared for how much of a funny edge this film was going to have. Yet, for all the sharp quips and lighthearted conversations, it was all brilliantly balanced with some very dark imagery and situations. Somehow, James Whale succeeded in presenting a film that almost lampoons the horror genre, all while the genre itself was starting to grow rapidly and come into its own on the screen. The storm raging outside, the absence of light, religious elements, long dark hallways by candlelight, secret family member trapped in the attic, and questionable decisions by our protagonists are just some of the horror staples that were employed here. The most amazing thing is that overall there is, thanks to great performances by everyone involved, a completely non-horror movie somewhere in the middle of it all—the characters have depth and motivations aside from simply surviving the night; there’s a love connection; and a great fireside scene in which the characters talked and showed their individual views of life before the severity of their situation was revealed.

The namesake property of The Old Dark House is a place with a lot of big secrets and the horror element rears its head and the clues begin unfolding every time one of the five stranded travelers ends up isolated from the others. It’s funny to realize that though there seemed to be ghosts and monsters lurking behind every corner, there are actually rational, non-supernatural reasons for everything that had gone on. For example, Boris Karloff does his best to display the qualities of a terrifying supernatural movie monster in the tradition of his own Frankenstein creation, but at the end of the day he was just a drunk, brutish servant. In a cast full of heavyweight scene-stealers, it was Horace and Rebecca that stood out the most, with Ernest Thesiger and Eva Moore putting in excellent, multi-faceted portrayals of the siblings that hold the key to keeping the balance between the order and chaos of not just the house, but the entire film itself.

Island of Lost Souls (1932)

  • directed by Erle C. Kenton
  • starring Charles Laughton, Richard Arlen, Kathleen Burke, Bela Lugosi, Leila Hyams, Arthur Hohl
  • An obsessed scientist conducts profane experiments in evolution, eventually establishing himself as the self-styled demigod to a race of mutated, half-human abominations.

“Mr. Parker, do you know what it means to feel like God?”

Remade in 1977 with Burt Lancaster and in 1996 with Marlon Brando, Island of Lost Souls is the definitive adaptation of the classic H.G. Wells story, The Island of Dr. Moreau.

Chief among the themes of Wells’ story is the thin line that separates humans and animals. I’m not going to try to get into the head of the master of storytelling, but it seems that one of the main points at work here is now that we’re familiar with the concept of evolution and how it went down, what ultimately is stopping the human race from one day degrading back to its most primitive, power-hungry, and uncontrollable instincts? Wells’ own test subject on which he experimented, Dr. Moreau, ended up having very little scientific motivation behind what he was doing. Although science is a strong undercurrent, the main driver is complete dominance over the world that nature (or God) has afforded him.

The scariest part for me was how he kept so calm and confident throughout the entire film, leading me to believe that over time he has accounted for all the things that could potentially go wrong living in the middle of a laboratory of genetic manipulation. It was a very tense watching experience from the first glimpse at M’ling on the Covena all the way to the final act because in an environment filled with such ambiguous creatures, all rules are out the window. There are hundreds of things that could go wrong according to what we’ve seen established on the island and in what seemed like every shot Kenton had one creature or another in the background, whether up in the trees or just ominously standing and watching. There’s a serene air about Moreau, however, as he thinks he can, with a suggestive smirk on his face, discipline all the elements at play into submission.

I loved the film for its tight, methodical script, its gorgeous cinematography, which contributed to an isolated feel, and its flawless make-up for the mutants that was a how-to manual for the many monster movies that would follow. It also had great performances all around, especially from Charles Laughton, in his first major U.S. film, and newcomer Kathleen Burke as Lota, the Panther Woman.

Hey, this is pretty funny: To create the language of the mutants sound-man Loren L. Ryder recorded a mixture of animal sounds and foreign languages, then played them backwards at alternating speeds. The sound induced nausea and caused some audience members to vomit in theaters.