Friday, 13 April 2018

Pre-War Thrills:
Doctor X
(Michael Curtiz, 1932)

“It’s peculiar that the left deltoid muscle should be missing. […] Gentlemen, it wasn’t torn out - this is cannibalism!”

Well, that sure put the cat among the pigeons. The speaker is Dr Jerry Xavier (Lionel Atwill), and he has has just thrown back the sheet covering a murder victim in old New York’s delightfully shabby Mott Street Morgue. We’re less than five minutes into ‘Doctor X’, Warner Bros’ first stab at a full-blooded horror movie, and one of the first out of the gates from any of the major studios following Universal’s runaway success with ‘Dracula’ and ‘Frankenstein’ in 1931. (1)

Quite why the doctor is so confident of his assertion that cannibalism has taken place is never really made clear (I mean, were there teeth marks or something..?), but regardless - this is certainly a hair-raising way to begin a movie in 1932. Could it be an indication that the hard-boiled, straight-talking approach that had recently proved so successful in Warners’ game-changing gangster pictures was about to cross over into their nascent horror efforts..? Well, kind of, but we’ll get onto that later.

For now though - apparently the cops who have called Dr. Xavier out in the dead of night to examine the body are equally as suspicious of his diagnosis as we are. When Atwill says his good nights and turns to leave (“I have a very important experiment in progress, which demands my attention..”), they spring a bit of a surprise on him, blocking the doorway and informing him that they are aware of a few other matters that demand an equal claim to his attentions.

You see, the stiff on the slab is the sixth victim of a fiend the press have dubbed “The Moon Killer” as a result of his penchant for committing his crimes by the light of the full moon. And, the police have determined that all six murders were committed with the aid of a specific kind of European scalpel – an implement so high-end that the only place in the USA known to have imported any is, uh, Doctor Xavier’s medical academy - an institution which furthermore happens to be a mere stone’s throw from the locale in which all of the bodies have been discovered.

“Well… shit,” the doctor may have thrown in for a cheap laugh at this point had ‘Doctor X’ been made half a century later, but as it is, Atwill maintains his cool, and Dr. X instead denies all knowledge of the crimes, demonstrating his desire to cooperate by inviting the two detectives back for a late night tour of his laboratory complex.

What follows is a delightful sequence that is probably my favourite part of ‘Doctor X’, as the detectives are introduced one by one to Dr Xavier’s “research associates”, each of whom has them exchanging glances that say “ok, we’ve found our man”, only for them to then be ushered into the next room to meet somebody EVEN MORE eminently suspicious.

It’s as if, in the wake of ‘Frankenstein’, Warner Bros were telling their audience, “So you like mad scientists, huh? Well boy have we ever got some mad scientists for you!” Frankly, I’m surprised The National Academy of Sciences didn’t attempt to sue the studio for bringing their members into disrepute.

Professor Wells (Preston Foster, looking somewhat like Dean Stockwell in The Dunwich Horror) is “a student of cannibalism” (ya don’t say), who can barely hold back his cackles as he ogles the jar of crimson fluid in which he keeps a human heart he claims he has kept alive for three years using electrolysis. (He also has a pair of mud-caked boots drying on the radiator in his lab, and claims he was out on the waterfront “for a breath of fresh air” at around the time the latest murder was committed – but, wait, he’s also missing a hand, which would seem to rule him out, given the murderer’s penchant for strangulation – OR WOULD IT?)

Professor Haynes (John Wray) meanwhile was shipwrecked off Tahiti several years past, and when he and a companion were rescued after an arduous time adrift, the third occupant of their lifeboat had mysteriously vanished, if you get my drift. When he is first introduced in silhouette, his tufty beard and unruly forelock make him look like a pantomime devil. In the medical world, his speciality is “brain grafting”, apparently. He gets jittery in the presence of the police and also keeps saucy French magazines hidden around his lab.

Next up, Dr Rowitz (played by the wonderful Arthur Edmund Carewe) was Professor Haynes’ companion in that lifeboat, believe it or not. A cadaverous fellow with a smoked glass monocle covering his empty left eye socket, he speaks with an Germanic accent faintly reminiscent of Peter Sellers’ Dr Strangelove and takes “ interest in the light qualities of the moon”. “If you suffer sunstroke, might you not suffer some similar EVIL from the rays of the moon?” he asks pointedly, before throwing in a flippant comment about a murdered ‘scrub woman’ (that being the agreed upon description of the killer’s most recent victim). Strangely, given that his private research seems to primarily consist of observing the heavens, Dr Rowitz also has some grisly looking gore splattered all over his lab coat. Dr Rowitz is a sensitive soul, and the author of several volumes of poetry, Dr Xavier points out when leaping to his colleague’s defence.

Professor Duke (Harry Beresford) is a cankerous old bugger in a wheelchair, who, it must be said, is somewhat less suspicious than his fellows (not that that’s saying much), but he makes up the numbers, as indeed does Dr Xavier’s genre mandated leering, cadaverous man-servant Otto (George Rosener).

Now, clearly if Detective O'Halloran and Police Commissioner Stevens (thanks, IMDB) really were the hard-boiled Warner Bros cops they appear to be, they’d slap the cuffs on this whole crew of nuts and sort out what’s what once they were safely behind bars down at the station. But, as you may have gathered by this point, gritty realism is not really the priority of Robert Tasker & Earl Baldwin’s screenplay, despite their studio’s trademark aesthetic. (2)

Instead then, the cops prove surprisingly receptive to Dr Xavier’s pleadings against negative publicity, and to his claim that he can use state-of-the-art scientific methodology to identify the killer in his midst. As such, they promise to leave him and his associates unmolested for forty eight hours. Which is nice of them.

Whilst all this has been going on meanwhile, we have – to the chagrin of every horror fan who has ever written about this film since being a “horror fan” first became a thing – spent an equal amount of time in the company of wise-cracking newspaper reporter Lee Taylor (Lee Tracy). He has one of those joke hand buzzer thingys, an exploding cigar in his pocket, and a habit of saying “wayda minute, WAYDA MINUTE” whilst waving his arms around. Oh boy.

In truth, Tracy isn’t all that bad as far as comic relief goes. Basically doing a Bush League Bob Hope impersonation, he’s likeable enough and good for a few chuckles. The problem is rather that he is on the screen all the damn time, filling up a fairly hefty chunk of ‘Doctor X’s seventy five minute run time with his antics, when we would far rather be learning more about the film’s world-beating retinue of mad scientists (none of whose quirks are ever really explored in much detail, unfortunately), or indeed checking in on the depredations of The Moon Killer. (3)

This whole ‘comic reporter’ angle was reportedly absent from the film’s source play, and is said to have been largely mandated by Warners' Head of Production Darryl F Zanuck, whose fears of potential censorship led him to try to steer the picture away from all-out horror and more toward the ‘comedy chiller’ template established by the countless ‘mystery play’ adaptations that followed in the wake of 1927’s ‘The Cat & The Canary’.

Bolstered by the fact that Warners had recently been enjoying big success with a handful of other "wise-cracking newspaperman" type movies, Zanuck thus determined to exercise the long-standing prerogative of studio bosses to fuck up perfectly good pictures whenever they feel like it, and ‘Doctor X’s potential future status as a stone-cold classic of taboo-busting weirdo horror cinema duly found itself badly compromised.

In addition to comedy, Zanuck also prescribed a heavy dose of romance to try to widen the film’s appeal, and as such, Tracy’s presence becomes particularly irksome during the scenes he shares with the film’s obligatory leading lady, Fay Wray (no relation to John, as far as I know).

Appearing here as Dr. Xavier’s daughter, about a year before she was achieved immortality via ‘King Kong’, Wray herself is great in ‘Doctor X’. She has a brassy, no-bullshit attitude, she looks amazing, and her very presence adds a great deal to the film. Unfortunately however, she is given absolutely nothing to work with in a role that basically amounts to little more than a token pretty girl parachuted into a cast that otherwise consists almost entirely of middle-aged male weirdoes.

Despite Zanuck’s edict that Tracy and Wray’s characters should take centre stage as much as possible, screenwriters Tasker & Baldwin clearly had no idea what to do with them, and thus we find them running through an unedifying “big-mouthed goon charms the lady” rom-com routine that must have seemed hackneyed even in 1932. This basically involves Tracy winning Wray’s heart by the tried-and-tested means of bothering and harassing her until she eventually succumbs to his unctuous advances, and as a result is liable to strike modern viewers as more ghoulish and unconvincing than anything in the film’s horror storyline.

Had those horror elements been rendered in less convincing fashion, Zanuck’s meddling might well have torpedoed ‘Doctor X’ entirely, but thankfully, there was enough talent both in front of and behind the camera to ensure the film’s “good bits” remain so remarkable that we can excuse any amount of clowning around in the interim.

For a start, the resources allotted to ‘Doctor X’ seem to have been surprisingly elaborate for a ‘horror subject’, and the filmmakers make excellent use of them. Sets were created (or redressed from earlier productions) by splendidly named production designer Anton Grot (a much celebrated figure whose impressive resumé can be perused here), and without exception they look absolutely wonderful, from the shabby, dockside street scene that opens the film to the shadow-haunted, bubbling test-tube filled interiors of Dr X’s academy. (Even the academy’s vast hall of records – used solely for a fairly mundane dialogue scene in which Wray is introduced as Atwill’s daughter – is a knock-out.)

Grot and his collaborators further up their game when the action switches to Dr Xavier’s cliff top gothic mansion (of course he has a cliff top gothic mansion), supposedly located in Long Island. Introduced via a wonderfully foreboding painted establishing shot that pre-empts the ones used decades later in AIP and Hammer gothic horrors, this decidedly unreal location highlights the uniquely uneasy relationship between hard-boiled realism and utter fantasy that runs throughout ‘Doctor X’… with the latter very much predominating at the mansion, as you might well imagine.

At one point, we even see Tracy’s character arriving at the house in a horse-drawn carriage, complete with a coachman in a top hat and inverness cape. Perhaps intended as a nudge-wink reference to the opening of Browning’s ‘Dracula’, this shot looks as if it could have been pulled directly from an early ‘60s period gothic, and seems a bizarre addition to a film supposedly set in 1930s New York, joining the howling winds on the soundtrack and the house’s faux-medieval exteriors in signalling that, as modern parlance would have it, we’re now off on some other shit entirely.

Suffice to say, Dr. X has called everyone to the mansion so as to isolate his ‘suspects’ whilst he uses allegedly fool-proof scientific methods to try to establish which of them is the unhinged cannibal killer. In short, this goes about as well as you’d imagine it might in a dark, old house full of suspicious characters, hidden stairwells, closets inexplicably filled with skeletons and prominently displayed fuse boxes operated by big levers.

Before all the fun gets underway however, we at least have enough time to appreciate the magnificence of the mansion’s central laboratory set, which comprises a cornucopia of vertiginous art deco glass tubing fronds, fog-spewing beakers and bell-jars, spinning hypno-wheels, giant, gleaming steel valves, massive halcyon lighting rigs and assorted Frankensteinian electronic equipment of unimaginable purpose.

Enhanced by the extraordinary morass of techno-babble that Lionel Atwill gamely intones as he straps his assembled suspects into barbers chairs to test their physiological reactions to re-enactments of The Moon Killer’s crimes (“..the rotor of the electro-static machine is connected in multiple series with a bank of glass plate condensers and the discharge causes irradiations to the thermal tubes which in turn indicate your increased pulse rate and nerve reactions..”), Grot’s ingenious creations ensure that, for connoisseurs of vintage mad scientist gear, ‘Doctor X’ is up there with ‘Bride of Frankenstein’ as the gold standard for this sort of thing. It’s amazing.

Mirroring Grot’s achievements meanwhile, Curtiz’s direction proves that, despite his reputation as an unpredictable tyrant on set, he was already an accomplished visual stylist a full decade before his breakthrough with ‘Casablanca’, employing disorientating dutch angles and vertiginous overhead shots wherever possible, and cluttering his foreground with jagged assemblies of weird-looking props.

As you will no doubt have noted from the screen shots posted above, ‘Doctor X’ also enjoys the distinction of being shot using two-strip Technicolor, securing its place in genre history as the first – and for several decades, practically the only – colour horror film. (4)

Though the idea of a colour film from the 1930s may seem novel to us today, the primitive two-strip process employed here had actually been used extensively in Hollywood during 1929-30, with Warner Bros leading the charge. In fact, with a return to black & white mandated both by the legendary intransigence and dictatorial tendencies of Technicolor and an increasing public perception that two-strip colour was little more than an unconvincing gimmick, ‘Doctor X’ was actually one of the *last* entries in this early colour boom, and was reportedly only filmed in colour to help fulfil Warners’ remaining contractual obligations to Technicolor. (5)

Nonetheless though, the limitations of the two strip process (which as I understand it involved layering up two of the three primary colours whilst leaving the third entirely absent) suits the fantastical nature of ‘Doctor X’ extremely well, and Technicolor cameraman Ray Rennahan does an extremely good job of imbuing the film with a uniquely weird look, with whites and blues entirely excised in favour of a murky, almost sepia-tinted palette of brown, beige and cream tones, fuzzy pools of bottomless inky black and sickly blasts of bright green, red and pink used to liven up the mad science scenes.

Though this look was likely more the result of circumstance and technical limitations than anything else, it again seems to pre-empt the expressionistic colour schemes that would eventually be incorporated into the horror genre once directors like Bava, Freda and Corman first got their hands on a bunch of gel filters in the ‘60s.

Yet another thing that helps make ‘Doctor X’ so noteworthy is The Moon killer himself. Though we don't see much of him for most of the film, he already looks pretty striking in his brief appearances, with a melty-looking rubber face-mask, grasping, monster hands and what looks to be some kind of ritualistic robe.

This is small beer though in comparison to the movie’s final ace-in-the-hole for horror fans – an incredible sequence in which we are allowed to witness the villain’s complete transformation into his ‘Moon Killer’ alter-ego, plastering his face in the synthetic flesh (or seeeenthetic flerrsh as he prefers to pronounce it in none-more-creepy fashion) that has apparently been his life’s work – living, breathing tissue that he moulds like putty onto his own features in advance of each crime in order to turn himself – for some reason - into a monstrous, flesh-eating galoot.

Effectively pre-empting the “body horror” pioneered by directors like David Cronenberg by nearly a full half-century, the innovative use of gooey special effects (rubber masks provided by Max Factor, no less) and Grot’s weird, pseudo-scientific set dressing make this sequence feels startlingly modern – more akin to the kind of FX showcase sequences that took centre stage in so many ‘80/’90s horror movies than anything you’d associate with the ‘30s.

Quite how the killer’s ‘synthetic flesh’ angle tallies up with his cannibalism, his full moon fixation, his Jack The Ripper-like surgical excavations and the clearly stated implication that he has raped his victims(!), lord only knows, but as an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink mutated maniac, he is certainly a pretty extraordinary figure to find rampaging through a movie of this vintage.

Enlivened by a pungent whiff of Freudian weirdness, the film’s finale, during which our lingerie-clad heroine, laying on what may as well be a sacrificial slab on a makeshift stage, is menaced by the creature’s hairy hands whilst her father looks on from the ‘audience’, strapped to a chair and unable to help, achieves a truly nightmarish intensity.

As you will have noted if you’ve followed this review up to this point, the logic of just about every aspect of ‘Doctor X’ is just a little bit skewed. In fact, as an early exemplar of the ever-popular “what were they smoking when they came up with this?” approach to horror movie scripting, it’s practically flawless.

I mean, aside from anything else, why is Professor Wells excused from Dr. X’s physiological tests on the basis that his missing hand disqualifies him as a murder suspect, even though Professor Duke – who is confined to a wheelchair – must submit them? And, whilst we’re on the subject, how did the killer apparently manage to incorporate a whole network of secret passages and his own crazy, electricity-draining lab set-up into someone else’s house, to which he’d been invited with less than twenty four hours’ notice? I’d go on, but you get the idea.

Of all the many things that allow us to celebrate ‘Doctor X’ for being ahead of its time, I think that, ironically, these frequent forays into absurdity may actually be the most significant.

Whilst the tradition of sloppy scripting that crept into American horror movies of the ‘40s and ‘50s (and that was inherited by the exploitation and ‘grindhouse’ product of the ‘60s and ‘70s) was primarily rooted in a patronising disdain for the films’ presumed audience (the “why bother getting all the details lined up when yr making pictures for children and imbeciles?” defence), the unhinged plotting of ‘Doctor X’ seems to be coming from somewhere else entirely.

Less the result of mere laziness, it feels more like an errant explosion of crazy ideas piled up with such haphazard enthusiasm that it almost collapses under its own weight – a wonderful, irrational nightmare zone that American audiences and filmmakers have only intermittently been able to access over the years, but that a subsequent generation of European genre directors would soon take to heart in a big way.

Even as the goon-ish comic relief reporter tries in vain to drag ‘Doctor X’ back to a world in which grown-ups were incapable of treating supernatural subjects with anything other than mockery, the film’s demonstration of the fact that a script consisting largely of thrown together, abject nonsense can still be transformed into a feast of visually intoxicating, thematically provocative, jaw-droppingly weird entertainment points the way forward toward all of the maniacal triumphs that the more outré proponents of the horror genre achieved in the latter half of the 20th century.


(1) Ok, I know that TECHNICALLY, ‘Doctor X’ was a ‘First National Pictures’ production, distributed by Warner Bros, but First National was basically a subsidiary of Warners by this point, having been bought out by the larger studio in 1929, after which they continued to intermittently use First National branding on their pictures before formally dissolving the company in 1936. More info here for anyone who cares.

(2) Credit where it’s due department: ‘Doctor X’ was adapted for the screen from a Broadway play of the same name – authored by Howard W. Comstock & Allen C. Miller - which ran for eighty performances in 1930-31.

(3) Fun Fact: Lee Tracy lost his contract with MGM after the studio had to smuggle him out of Mexico following an incident that saw him urinating on a military parade from a hotel balcony whilst filming ‘Viva Villa!’ in 1934. Given the “you’ll never work in this town again” treatment, he served out most of the rest of his career on stage and TV, much to the delight no doubt of the countless thousands of fans and critics who have given him shit over the years for ruining ‘Doctor X’.

(4) Contrary to Technicolor’s strict demands to the contrary, ‘Doctor X’ was actually shot simultaneously in colour and black & white, with prints from two separate negatives being prepared and distributed simultaneously, leading to no end of confusion. The B&W version, which apparently features many different takes and shot compositions, was the only version of the film in circulation until the chance rediscovery of the colour version – which is generally held to be superior – in the 1980s. Both versions are still widely available however, thus furthering the aforementioned confusion.

(5) The prominence of colour films in the early sound era is often overlooked today as a result of the fact that the cumbersome and fragile nature of the era’s colour prints led to most of the relevant film elements being unceremoniously destroyed in subsequent decades, leaving the films in question either reduced to alternate B&W prints, or lost entirely. In case you were wondering.

Wednesday, 11 April 2018

About that name by the way...

...I'm going to change it to "Pre War Thrills". No particular reason - just sounds cooler and broadens the scope a bit. Hope nobody minds.

Wednesday, 4 April 2018

Pre-War Thrills:
The Unknown
(Tod Browning, 1927)

A title card at the very start of Tod Browning’s ‘The Unknown’ informs us that, “this is a story they tell in Madrid… it’s a story they say is true”. I have no idea whether or not the genesis of ‘The Unknown’ actually lay in such folkloric roots (somehow I doubt it), but it wouldn’t seem an unreasonable assumption, given that, over ninety years later, the story Browning and Waldemar Young concocted here remains one of the most extraordinary tales ever put on screen. (1)

This is the kind of perfectly formed yarn – rich in unfeasibly circular dramatic ironies and almost unbearably bleak melodrama - that one could easily imagine enthralling audiences in pretty much any era or context, whether presented through the lips of some soused storyteller in a disreputable Castilian bar, dramatised for the Elizabethan stage… or indeed adapted into a motion picture.

Even if you’ve never seen ‘The Unknown’, if you’ve been reading around the subject of old movies or horror films for a few years, you probably will have encountered some writer or other gleefully summarising the film’s storyline, and thought to yourself, “wow, that sounds like one crazy movie, I should definitely track it down”, or words to that effect.

Indeed, such is the ingenuity of ‘The Unknown’s scenario that it is practically impossible to write about the film without immediately lapsing into ‘plot synopsis’ mode. Whilst I normally try to avoid this in my reviews, hearing the story of this one recounted never fails to make me happy, so in this case I’m more than happy to follow suit. (Perhaps I should have added “some chancer writing about movies on the internet” to my list above?)

So, settle in folks - it’s story time. (If you’d rather not have the plot details of a near century old movie spoiled for you, please skip to the end of the italics below.)

Alonzo (Lon Chaney Sr.) is an armless gypsy knife thrower employed by Zanzi’s Travelling Circus. As part of his act – memorably portrayed in the film’s opening scene – Alonzo uses his feet to hurl knives and fire bullets at the circus owner’s beautiful daughter Nanon (a twenty-one year old Joan Crawford). As is traditional, Nanon is tied to a wooden wheel for this performance, and Alonzo lets his projectiles pass so close to her body that that her dress is cut off, leaving her exposed in a delightful flapper-era bathing costume.

As it transpires, Alonzo is desperately in love with Nanon, making his feelings so plain that her father, Zanzi, is inspired to viciously beat him, insisting that he does not wish to see his daughter subject to the amorous intentions of a ‘freak’.

Nanon herself however sees things a little differently. Opening her heart to Alonzo, she confesses that, “..all my life men have tried to put their beastly hands on me... to paw over me. I have grown so that I shrink with fear when any man even touches me.”

As a result of this implied abuse in early life, Nanon has developed a pathological fear of men’s arms, and as such feels herself condemned to a life of loneliness. When Malabar (Norman Kerry), the circus’s lovably hapless strongman, tries to woo her (encouraged by Alonzo’s duplicitous, faux-brotherly advice), she flees from his muscular embrace as if he were a grotesque monster, subsequently weeping for her inability to accept his love.

“You are the only man I can come to without fear,” Nanon tells Alonzo, and, armed with this knowledge, you’d think our hero’s chances for romance would be looking pretty good… but unfortunately it’s not quite as simple as that.

You see, Alonzo does actually still have his arms, and furthermore, they’re still attached to him too. He keeps them hidden, tied across his torso in a constrictive leather corset - a deception he has devised in order to distract attention from his former (or perhaps continuing?) life as a thief, gangster and (so it is implied) a serial strangler. (2)

Alonzo’s only genuine physical deformity in fact is a vestigial second thumb on his left hand – an additional digit that would no doubt have brought a swift end to his strangling career, were it not for his armless disguise.

As Alonzo’s loyal dwarf servant Cojo (John George) points out to his master, the moment Nanon embraces him, she will feel the shape of his arms and learn his dark secret – a possibility rendered all the more disastrous by the fact that Alonzo has by this point throttled her father to death in order to stop him standing between them. (3)

As a result of this rash action, the circus has been forced to shut down by its deceased owner’s creditors, and, more pertinently, the police are leaving no stone unturned in their hunt for the mysterious killer with an extra thumb. (To add an extra frisson to the murder scene, poor Nanon actually sees the mutated fingers that put an end to her father through a caravan window, missing a fatal glimpse of Alonzo’s face by mere seconds.)

So, it’s quite a pickle for old Alonzo. He determines however that, whatever happens, he cannot live without Nanon’s love, and so resolves to take drastic action. Never a man to do things by half measures, he tracks down a crooked surgeon whom he had previously met through his contacts in the criminal underworld. By threatening to expose the doctor’s nefarious activities, Alonzo persuades him to carry out a fairly extreme form of elective surgery, the nature of which you can probably guess.

Whilst Alonzo is busy recuperating from this (no doubt pretty traumatic) operation however, Nanon and Malabor are left kicking their heels in the town in which the circus made its last stop, where the strongman is making plans for a spectacular new stage act.

In Alonzo’s absence, Nanon feels herself increasingly drawn to the blandly good-natured Malabar, to the extent that she eventually overcomes her revulsion toward his arms and succumbs to his naively chivalrous advances.

Falling head over heels, the couple vow to marry as soon as possible, but agree to put off the big day until their good friend Alonzo – whom they respectively regard as a protector and a kind of benevolent uncle figure, unaware of his inner torment – has returned from wherever he’s gone to, in order that he may share their happiness by witnessing their union.

[Dramatic pause.]

So yes -- you’d perhaps be forgiven for not feeling much sympathy for Alonzo up to this point, but… Jesus Christ, surely no one deserves a fate like this, even if it’s largely the result of his own cracked decision-making and generally nefarious behaviour. How many characters can you think of - outside perhaps of the realm of some particularly obscure and blood-thirsty ancient mythology – who have been driven to cut off their arms in the name of love, only to find themselves cuckolded?

As you might well have expected, the reunion between Alonzo and his friends is far from a happy one, and the lengths Browning goes to to draw out his protagonist’s gradual realisation of the awful truth still stands as one of cinema’s most excruciating demonstrations of emotional sadism.

But, I’ll leave my plot synopsising there for the moment, merely noting that, in case you were wondering how a story like this could possibly end, well… as it happens, Malabor’s new stage act involves him testing his strength by harnessing his arms to two horses galloping in opposite directions on mechanical treadmills. What would happen if something went wrong with the treadmills, Alonzo asks him. Why, my arms would be torn from their sockets, he cheerily responds. It’s all just too beautiful.

For those who have taken the time to approach Tod Browning’s work from an auteurist perspective, ‘The Unknown’ can’t help but stand out as something of a Rosetta Stone in his surviving catalogue, despite the truncated fifty minute run time of the surviving print.

With its lovingly realised circus milieu, its fascination with physical deformity, its bottomless reserves of melodramatic perversity and its deployment of enough overlapping layers of castration anxiety to give a convention of Freudians a collective migraine, this is about as thorough an exploration of what are generally considered the director’s ‘key themes’ as could possibly be wished for. (4)

Browning may never have been much celebrated as a cinematic stylist, but the surviving cut of ‘The Unknown’ is nonetheless a model of narrative efficiency, hitting each and every beat it needs to to tell this story well, with the director’s talent for ensuring his imagery hits hard when it needs to in full effect throughout.

As you’d expect given his background and recurrent interest in such subject matter, Browning has a wonderful feel for the romanticism of the gypsy travelling show setting (in particular, the male characters all look really f-ing cool in their wardrobe of paisley bandanas, gaucho riding gear, hoop earrings and wide black hats), and the mixture of set and matte painting that creates the opening establishing shot of the circus exterior is a very impressive bit of work (blink and you’ll miss it).

Elsewhere, the extremely high ceilinged, brightly lit operating theatre set makes for a striking contrast to the sawdust-floored rural environs of the rest of the picture, momentarily recalling the kind of sinister, modernist interiors filmmakers like Fritz Lang were cooking up on the other side of the Atlantic, and the staging of Malabar's big stage act during the finale is absolutely extraordinary.

Complete with the sight of a scantily-clad Crawford standing atop a podium, gleefully whipping the seemingly gigantic white horses (directly recalling Alonzo's earlier confession that “it was just something in [my heart] that stung like the lash of a whip” as he struggles to explain his extreme reaction to discovering she and Malabar are lovers), I think this would remain unrivalled as a deranged spectacle of implied S&M until Alejandro Jodorowsky took elements of this story to even wilder extremes in ‘Santa Sangre’ (1989).

There are a few eccentric stylistic choices elsewhere (the curious decision to shoot several scenes through what looks like sackcloth is often mentioned), but for the most part, the remainder of the film is very plainly presented. I’m pretty sure the camera remains static throughout, and likewise, the editing of the narrative is strictly linear in its presentation, with master shots, two shots, shot/reverse shots etc all handled strictly by the book.

Nonetheless though, this grounded/fixed perspective allows Browning’s close ups and tableaux to achieve an intensely vivid pictorial quality that is often captivating. Like good paintings, these shots carry within them a depth of feeling that heightens the film's emotional power immensely.

Such is the ingenuity of the story Browning and his collaborators have devised here, I’m tempted to say it would have been difficult for them to go wrong however they chose to frame the action, but perhaps even more crucial to the success ‘The Unknown’ is its casting.

Had merely adequate performers been cast in its central roles, it is likely ‘The Unknown’ would never have risen above the level of a particularly bizarre theatrical melodrama, forgotten by all but a handful of silent/pre-code era archivists and fanatics. With Lon Chaney and Joan Crawford on hand however, it’s a whole different story… and not merely on account of their (contemporary or subsequent) fame either.

Crawford’s performance, it must be said, is excellent. Such is the strength of her presence on screen that it feel entirely believable that a man of Alonzo’s wide and bitter experience should become obsessed with Nanon, even as her damaged, brittle mannerisms simultaneously provide a surprisingly raw portrayal of an abused/victimised woman for this era of cinema; “Men! The beasts! God would show wisdom if he took the hands from all of them!” she exclaims in impotent fury after Malabar initially tries to embrace her.

And, speaking of Malabar, even Norman Kerry acquits himself well here, despite initially seeming lined up to be a complete waste of space. Blank-eyed, empty-headed and perpetually grinning, he provides a complete contrast to the ancient, deep red claret of Alonzo’s uniquely troubled character, making us feel our anti-hero’s humiliation all the more keenly once he discovers he has lost out in love to the human equivalent of an unflavoured biscuit.

Mainly though, we need to talk about Lon Chaney.

It may have become a bit of a truism to point out that silent film acting is a different beast from sound acting, but rarely has that point been more clearly demonstrated than by Chaney’s performance in ‘The Unknown’.

In a sound context, his facial gymnastics and heavily made up features would have been regarded as intolerably OTT, but, denied a voice, it is through these kind of gestures that silent characters gain live – and all the more so when they’re even denied the use of their arms for most of the picture. The way that Chaney methodically builds Alonzo up as a character, entirely through his facial tics and eye movements, his mode of dress, his sudden shivers and lunges, is absolutely remarkable. (5)

The figure of the “sympathetic monster” would of course go on to become a cornerstone of American horror cinema as it developed through the rest of the 20th century, but in ‘The Unknown’ Chaney delivers a very different, and considerably more challenging, recipient of our sympathies from the kind of sad-eyed, agency-fee automatons derived from the lineage of Conrad Veidt’s Cesare, Paul Wegener’s Golem and, eventually, Karloff’s monster and it’s descendants.

Unlike those critters, Alonzo is unambiguously a villain – one who neither seeks nor receives any pardon for his maleficence. A criminal, liar and murderer, he cheats, deceives and manipulates everyone he meets through the course of the film, including the woman he professes to love. He upturns the foundations of the essentially benign world in which the drama begins, brings doom upon his own head with admirable efficiency, and basically behaves in the most tyrannical manner imaginable. And yet…

Scanning reviews online, I have often seen ‘The Unknown’ described as a “classical tragedy”, but in reality Alonzo represents something closer to the opposite of a conventional tragic hero. Rather than noble character with one fatal flaw, Chaney presents Alonzo as a tangled mass of flaws and neuroses, from behind which a redeeming spirit of nobility somehow still shines, daring us, for want of a better word, to feel love for him, as well as pity.

It is possible that Vincent Van Gogh’s infamous sacrifice of his ear may to some extent have distantly inspired the story of ‘The Unknown’, and I would go so far as to say that Chaney imbues Alonzo with what I can only describe as an ‘artistic’ sensibility. We don’t doubt for a second the sincerity of Alonzo’s love for Nanon, even as we recognise that his ability to differentiate reality from fantasy hangs by the very thinnest of threads.

Rather than just an intimidating heavy, he serves as a rich, over-powering presence in the lives of the younger characters, giving generously of himself, in spite of the self-interested machinations cloud his honesty. He may, we swiftly learn, be more or less insane, but his is not the kind of insanity that can easily be written off, and his companionship with both Nanon and Cojo (even with Malabar) is seen to be real and compassionate, even as his conduct is shaded by a strain of misanthropy that we feel is birthed more from bitter experience than from mere ingrained nastiness. (“You are wise, Nanon”, he says early on the film when Crawford confesses her hatred of men’s touch, “always fear them, always hate them.”)

Chaney’s big moment of course is Alonzo’s post-amputation reunion with Nanon and Malabar. This takes place - where else - on the stage of a theatre, and, as noted, is handled by Browning as a scene of excruciating emotional torture, extended well beyond the point of audience discomfort.

Shock, frustration, sorrow, rage, menace, terror, hysteria, despair, self-hatred and all-out howling madness - all of these are powerfully felt as they shift, meld and mutate across Alonzo’s visage in what amounts to a harrowing tour de force of silent emotional devastation. It may seem melodramatic to speak of seeing a man's heart smashed into a million pieces live on screen, but you'll feel pretty sure you know what that looks like after watching Chaney here.

In fact, the only rationale I can think of for this film being named ‘The Unknown’ relates to the unimaginable combinations of errant emotions that Chaney manages to dredge up here, verging into states of being that remain entirely nameless, and concluding only when he works himself up to the point of seizure.

“I'm all right now,” an inter-title assigned to Alonzo reads just a few a few moments later, as he regains his composure, his mask back in place and his plan of vengeance already taking shape.

Before watching ‘The Unknown’, I’d always assumed Chaney’s “man of a thousand faces” legend was coined in reference to the effects he achieved with his famous make up box, but, from watching his performance here, it’s clear he could cycle through those faces live in front of the camera with the ease of a martial arts star demonstrating his/her training moves. It is an incredible sight to behold – perhaps the very zenith of a form of acting that would be rendered obsolete mere months after this film’s release.

I had been all set to herald Alonzo as the progenitor of his own lineage of doomed, sociopathic anti-heroes within horror cinema, but, to be honest, I can think of very few characters within the genre who actually lived up to the example Chaney sets here. Peter Lorre’s Dr Gogol in Mad Love perhaps comes closest, with Karloff’s Imhotep in ‘The Mummy’, Price’s Phibes and Usher, and perhaps an unusually affecting mad scientist turn here and there all lurking distantly in the background – but really, Alonzo the Armless stands alone.

We will never really know how Chaney might have adapted to the coming of sound, but, as far as America’s silent cinema goes, he remains a performer without peer, and ‘The Unknown’ is perhaps his strongest surviving vehicle. An unforgettable viewing experience, it is not so much ‘haunting’ in the genteel sense of the ghosts more commonly encountered in the era’s mystery stories, but a raw, emotional wound of a picture that lodges itself in your mind and refuses to leave you be, like a scab you just can’t help but scratch.


(1) Browning and Young respectively take credit for “story” and “scenario”, whatever that’s supposed to mean, in addition to which we should also mention Joseph Farnham, whose work on the text for film’s inter-titles is wonderful. We should note at this point that various online sources claim that ‘The Unknown’ was adapted without credit from Mary Roberts Rinehart’s 1915 novel ‘K’. As I can’t find a detailed plot synopsis of the novel though, and certainly can’t be bothered to track down a copy and read it, I’ll have to refrain from further comment on this for the time being.

(2)If the precise details of Alonzo’s criminal career remain frustratingly vague, this seems to be due to the fact that no less than fourteen minutes of footage, reportedly dealing largely with this subject, have been excised from all surviving prints of ‘The Unknown’, and are now – tragically - assumed lost.)

(3) Browning’s notorious ‘Freaks’ (1932) - which, as you will have surmised, directly rehashes a few key plot elements from ‘The Unknown’ – may be similarly personal, and similarly memorable, but for my money the earlier film is by far the greater achievement. (More on this perhaps when I get around to reviewing ‘Freaks at some point in the future.)

(4) If you’re thinking that actor John George looks a bit familiar, that’s probably due to the fact that he appeared in upwards of two hundred Hollywood productions prior to his death in 1968, and, as was so sadly often the case for dwarf actors, suffered the indignity of going uncredited in almost all of them. Such is the range of his filmography, chances are you must have seen him in something over the years, although oddly enough he apparently didn’t appear in ‘Freaks’, which you’d think would have been a shoe-in given his work for Browning here.

(5) I was originally going to take some time here to lavish further praise upon Chaney for his astonishing dedication to this role vis-a-vis learning to drink wine, smoke cigarettes, wipe his eyes with a handkerchief and throw knives, all using his feet. I have read elsewhere however that at least some of these accomplishments were doubled for Chaney by Paul Desmuke – a genuine armless man apparently famed for his performances on the violin.

Although we ostensibly see Chaney perform out these actions in single shots with his face clearly visible, after watching the film again I can’t rule out the possibility that some of them may have been cleverly faked – eg, with Desmuke concealed beneath a table, or just out of frame, extending his legs upward toward Chaney’s face.

Given that there is almost certainly no one left alive who can give us a definitive answer either way though, I didn’t want to clog up the main text of the review with such conjecture. Naturally I’d love to believe that it was Chaney himself getting busy with his feet (as if the performance he gives with the rest of his body wasn’t impressive enough), but… who knows.

Sunday, 1 April 2018

Pre-War Horror:
Series Introduction.

Update 12/4/18: New name decided upon.

I’ll admit, I’ve been at a loss when it comes to trying to find a good name for the new review strand I’m currently itching to instigate.

‘Pre-Code Horror’ was my initial concept, and it certainly matches what I’m going for in spirit, but unfortunately it’s also a bit of a misnomer given that I intend to include some films that sit both before and after the generally agreed upon boundaries of Hollywood’s ‘pre-code’ era (which is usually assumed to begin shortly after the widespread introduction of sounds in 1928-29, and to end with an audible screech of the brakes on July 1st 1935, when the Production Code Administration (PCA) was first established to enforce the Hays Code initially proposed (but largely ignored) in 1930).

In practice, it seems to me that the Hollywood studios produced a number of proto-horror films in the late silent era that are easily lurid and outrageous enough to earn ‘pre-code’ status, and that they continued to drag their feet vis-à-vis enforcing the code significantly after the July 1st cut-off point, releasing such notably edgy items as Mad Love (which sneaked out less than two weeks later, on July 11th) and ‘Dracula’s Daughter’ (1936) after the PCA’s Year Zero for screen morality, perhaps taking advantage of the below-the-radar / not-worthy-of-consideration status enjoyed by horror films even this early in the genre’s development.

BUT – I don’t want to tempt passing classic movie buffs to write in in order to patiently explain to me why half the films I’m talking about are NOT STRICTLY PRE-CODE, and as an obsessive genre cataloguer myself, I know how such well-intentioned errors can irk, so I’ll reluctantly put the ‘pre-code’ thing aside.

As an alternative, ‘Pre-War Horror’ is far from perfect, I’ll grant you. For one thing, the Second World War started in a different year depending on which continent you happen to be sitting in, and for another, this title seems to draw attention to the (admittedly considerable) effect that both memories of the First World War and the grim preparations for its sequel exerted upon the development of horror cinema in the inter-war years. Whilst these themes will inevitably factor into my reviews to a certain extent, they are generally not going to be, y’know, the main point of the enterprise.

So what is the main point of the enterprise, you ask? Well, as I touched upon in my write-up of Werewolf of London last year, I feel that genre fans all too often forget that what we tend to think of as “the golden age of (Hollywood) horror” - beginning when supernatural horror first became a certifiable box office draw (and thus, acceptable subject matter for motion pictures) in the wake of the success of ‘Dracula’ and ‘Frankenstein’ in 1931 - in fact consists of two highly distinct phases, the details of which have often been confusingly mixed up or amalgamated by more casual historians.

When many viewers think of black & white/pre-1950 horror, they tend to think of a set of clichés that were actually only established after Universal had effectively ‘re-launched’ gothic horror as a more formalised genre category following the success of Rowland V. Lee’s ‘Son of Frankenstein’ in 1939.

We think of the Wolfman and the Frankenstein monster running around (or Kharis the Mummy pointedly NOT running around), of set-bound castles, gypsy caravans and that ever-present village square, of Lugosi and/or Karloff turning up to show younger hands like Lon Chaney Jr and John Carradine how it’s done, and of the inevitable torch-wielding mob (probably led by Lionel Atwill) mobilising in the local hostelry to put an end to their depredations.

We think of spooky stuff with howling winds and lightning flashes, of scary monsters stalking through the fog with their arms out-stretched, and of subject matter that’s perhaps *a little bit* gruesome, but basically family friendly, give or take – mild thrills for brave kids on Halloween.

Some of the movies made during this period were great, don’t get me wrong, but the more ‘30s American horror I watch, the clearer it becomes that the films made *before* the genre took an extended break from the screen in ’36-’39 are actually an altogether different kettle of fish.

In the past, I’ve tended to celebrate incredible films like Edgar G. Ulmer’s ‘The Black Cat’ (1934), Erle C. Kenton’s ‘Island of Lost Souls’ (1932) and Karl Freund’s aforementioned ‘Mad Love’ as wild aberrations from the norm – uniquely twisted visions that must have left contemporary audiences aghast.

That they may well have done, but, uniquely, the film industry seemed to recognise in the early 1930s that it was the duty of horror films to leave people aghast. No rules for the form had really yet been established, and, the deeper I delve into the period, the clearer it becomes that the more extreme elements of the films I’ve listed above were not so unique after all – in fact they were closer to being the norm for any macabre/mystery film that sought to break away from the increasingly ossified Old Dark House/’Cat & The Canary’ template during this era, insofar as there could be said to be any norms at all for these movies.

Certainly, with filmmakers as idiosyncratic as James Whale and Tod Browning leading the charge, it is perhaps unsurprising that even some of the less celebrated second and third tier Hollywood horrors from the ‘30s can remain pretty hair-raising viewing.

At their best, these films can take the baroque melodrama of the popular theatre from which ‘horror’ themes in the movies first originated and fuse it with subject matter and emotional conflict that often feels surprisingly sophisticated and unsettling, incorporating ideas that seem to have trickled down from contemporary innovations in art, literature, science and psychology. The results are then framed within the bold new filmmaking language that was beginning to move sound-era movies back toward the visual splendour of their silent predecessors, splitting the difference between the European expressionism of the 1920s and the murky shadows of what would subsequently become known as ‘noir’, and, well… basically it all makes for a surprisingly heady brew even 80+ years down the line, and I’m looking forward to telling you all about it.

(We’ll chiefly be looking at American films here, because I think it’s probably safe to say this is where the action was horror-wise from dawn of the '30s onwards, but I certainly won’t rule out the idea of looking at European – or, hey, even Asian – examples of the form should the opportunity arise.)

If anyone can think of a catchier name than “Pre-War Horror” though, please let me know, because I need one.