A while back I bagged myself a copy of the Legends of Hollywood Horror Collection from Warner Archive. It’s an interesting little set, with six 1930s horror films from Warner Brothers and MGM. That was a period when Universal had more or less cornered the market in terms of Hollywood horror, and it’s interesting to see what the studio’s rivals were up to.
The set has six films: Doctor X, The Return of Doctor X, Mark of the Vampire, The Mask of Fu Manchu, Mad Love and The Devil-Doll. Aside from The Devil-Doll, which I wrote quite a bit about here, I hadn’t previously seen any of those films. I knew of them — the vintage books on horror films I read as a teenager lent me a degree of familiarity — but until now, I haven’t had the chance to see those films. So, I’ve spent the past week-and-a-bit filling in some gaps in my knowledge of old-school horror.
Here’s what I thought…
Doctor X (1932)
Bathed in the hues of peach and green courtesy of primitive Technicolor, Doctor X is a comedic romp in which a screwball newspaper reporter investigates a series of murders occurring in the vicinity of a medical academy. The title alone makes it clear that the culprit is a mad scientist – the only question is which mad scientist, as the academy contains a selection of eccentric professors.
Things are complicated when the murderer appears onscreen and turns out to be a grotesque monster with no resemblance to any of the scientists. The fact of the matter is that the culprit has developed a synthetic flesh which he can use to alter his appearance (and repeatedly says “synthetic flesh” to himself as he does so, just to clarify matters for the audience).
The plot probably meanders a bit too much for modern tastes, and the villain’s motivation was apparently scrawled on a napkin (he’s not killing people to further his experiments, he just… happens to like killing people), but on the whole this is a watchable slice of vintage comedy-horror. The best bits are the colourful cast (including a pre-Kong Fay Wray), expressionistic lighting effects, and some nicely bonkers sequences. Like when Lionel Atwill tries to expose the killer by hooking the suspects up to an elaborate lie detector and showing them wax replicas of the murder victims.
The Return of Doctor X (1939)
Another reporter stumbles upon another round of mad science in this slightly straighter-faced sequel – only this time, instead of synthetic flesh, it’s synthetic blood! Medical genius Flegg has used artificial blood to resurrect his late associate, Dr Xavier, who was sent to the chair after one of his experiments cost the life of an infant. The one downside is that the resurrected Dr X can live for only a short amount of time, and to prolong his life he must obtain genuine blood.
While not as enjoyably daft as its predecessor, The Return of Doctor X has some nice touches. The presence of Humphrey Bogart of all people as the cadaverous Dr X is the main attraction, of course…
The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932)
This was Boris Karloff’s first speaking role as a horror star, and truth be told, it’s one of his more regrettable parts. He spends the film under some particularly naff yellowface that makes him look like some sort of Muppet, and plays a cackling, gloating villain rather than the sombre, melancholy characters that were his forte.
The plot sees Fu Manchu trying to get his hands on the sword and mask of Genghis Khan, so that he can inspire a pan-Asian uprising against the white race (this makes as much sense as Osama Bin Laden getting the entire Islamic world on his side by cosplaying as Saladin, but there we go). The racial paranoia is palpable; the climax, where Fu Manchu tells an assembled crowd of cross-continental Asians to murder white men and rape white women, prompted a formal complaint from the Chinese embassy.
Redeeming factors? Well, the film is pretty stylish, with such oddball scenes as Fu Manchu’s expressionist operating theatre (inexplicably staffed by muscular black men in their underpants). There’s also plenty of camp to go round, like the scene where Fu finally gets the sword and promptly waves it in the air like He-Man.
Speaking personally, I found The Mask of Fu Manchu interesting for the ways it prefigures Karloff’s next film, The Mummy, which came out a few months later. An early scene has Fu Manchu’s henchman, disguised as mummies, jumping out of sarcophagi in a museum. The sequence with the discovery of Genghis Khan’s tomb – sealed, full of treasures, and containing a curse engraved on the wall – is obviously inspired by the Tutankhamun sensation, and hits the same beats as the tomb-discovery sequences in countless mummy films. The film’s climax features its one moment of supernatural fantasy, with Genghis Khan’s statue coming to life and moving its arm; similar imagery would turn up in The Mummy, which ends with a statue of Isis raising its arm to slay the villain.
Oddly, one of the film’s posters shows the ends of Fu Manchu’s iconic moustache meeting together and forming a hoop below his chin, presumably to serve as a swign for his gerbil or something.
The Mark of the Vampire (1935)
This one’s earned both iconic status and infamy. It’s the film that reunited Dracula director Told Browning with Bela Lugosi, and also teams them up with Carroll Borland, arguably the definitive vampiress of the era (later parodies, like Lily Munster, seem to owe more to her than to any of the vampire ladies in Dracula). But then it blows everything with a silly twist ending where the vampires turn out to be circus performers hired to scare confessions out of the real murderer. That was the kind of thing you could have gotten away with in the silent period (and Browning did, as Mark of the Vampire owes a lot to his silent film London After Midnight) but was out o -touch in the post-Dracula era.
Having finally managed to watch the thing, I’m going to have to say that Mark of the Vampire is something of a curate’s egg. In some ways it’s ahead of its time: while Dracula never showed a vampire turn into a bat or vice versa, Mark of the Vampire manages two such sequences. The first is rather hokey – well, the characters are supposed to be using circus tricks – but the second is quite effective, with Carroll Borland’s vampiress wafting around on bat wings formed from her arms and cloak. It’s one of those “did I just see that?” moments you occasionally get in horror films of this period.
But then we have the ending, which really does screw things up. Not only are the vampires frauds, they are failures: their attempts to make the murderer confess achieve nowt, so in the film’s last ten minutes their employer resorts to a back-up plan that turns out to be even more ridiculous. He hypnotises the murderer and prompts him into re-enacting the murder, with the aid of a guy who – coincidentally enough – looks exactly like the victim.
Now, okay, Mark of the Vampire is in large part a comedy, but even this isn’t enough to excuse the botched climax. James Whale might have created a worthy campfest from this material, but Tod Browning didn’t seem to know what he was doing.
Mad Love (1935)
Finally we have this adaptation of Maurice Renard’s Les Mains d’Orlac, directed with expressionistic flair by Karl Freund. Peter Lorre stars as Dr Gogol, a genius surgeon who has a weird fixation upon the actress Madame Orlac. He is distraught when he finds that she is already married – but senses an opportunity when her pianist husband loses his hands in a train accident. Gogol gives Orlac the hands of an executed murderer, causing him to lose his talent as a pianist and instead develop a propensity for throwing knives at people.
The story isn’t an easy one to pull off, as it relies on selling the audience both the larger-than-life figure of Dr Gogol and the fantasy concept of Orlac inheriting his hand-donor’s murderous instincts, but Mad Love justifies its weird concept by being unapologetically weird throughout.
The film is a study of ghoulishness. Madame Orlac works at a Grand Guignol-esque theatre, and her farewell party upon leaving includes a cake with an icing model of herself in a guillotine. While the convicted murderer is en route to his death, an excited admirer begs him for an autograph. A character gives an excited speech on the best kind of alcohol to drink while watching an execution. And so on, and so on.
Peter Lorre was not as closely involved with the horror genre as people tend to assume (I have the pet theory that the public imagination has conflated him with Dwight Frye) but Mad Love alone is enough to justify his status as horror icon. Performing throughout the film with a cleanly shaved head (which has the odd effect of making him look androgynous) Lorre offers one of the most convincing portrayals of an unhinged genius in the genre.
The story manages to keep on getting stranger and stranger as it progresses. One delightful scene has Gogol try to convince Orlac that he has resurrected the guillotined murderer; he does so by masquerading as the executed man, wearing an elaborate neck-brace-to give the impression that his head has been reattached, along with gloves to suggest repkacement metal hands and a hat-and-shades combo to hide his own identity. Shortly afterwards, he confesses all to Madame Orlac… because he’s confused her with a wax model. So she has to stay totally still.
Great stuff, and easily the strongest film in the set.
While Mad Love is the only slam-dunk in the set, all of the films are worth a look if you’re a fan of the period. The set as a whole is well put-together, with good quality prints (The Mask of Fu Manchu uses a recently-discovered uncut version) and commentary tracks for every film save for The Devil-Doll; The Return of Dr X actually has a director’s commentary, which is a rare treat for a film from the 1930s.
My verdict: heartily recommended to all classic horror buffs.