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Horror fans have been thirsting for this box of Fox Horror Classics, as rumors of an imminent release for the Laird Cregar films have been around since at least 2003. The classy Cregar duo show Fox doing their best to trump the upsurge in psychological horror introduced by Val Lewton and Cat People at the start of the war, adding slick 'quality values' associated with upscale titles like MGM's Gaslight, made the same year. These stylishly produced thrillers afforded director John Brahm the opportunity to let loose with a barrage of expressionist lighting effects to emphasize the menace of the troubled star Laird Cregar.
Kudos for Fox for releasing these titles, but who is writing their copy? The box-cover tag line "A TERRIFYING TRILOGY OF TERROR" is a hoot. How about "A Romantic tale of Romance", or "Full of Exciting Excitement"? The proofreaders at Fox Home Video are as poor as the ones here at DVD Savant, as we learn on the back cover of one disc that someone was 'unphased' instead of 'unfazed'. I guess the influence of Star Trek is even greater than I suspected.
The chills actually begin with 1942's The Undying Monster, a muddled werewolf picture surely made to exploit the popularity of Universal's The Wolf Man from the previous year. Director John Brahm was given a no-name cast but the Fox production values are lavish compared to what was being turned out at Universal and RKO. Impressive castle interiors may have been partially recycled from other films, and the impressive stage-constructed exteriors include a massive wave-tossed rocky shoreline.
The film is a werewolf story that plays more like a watered-down version of The Hound of the Baskervilles. Members of the Hammond household have met their doom on the rocky cliffs, and suspicion falls on poachers, greedy relatives and servants. Some of the cast use English accents, and others like James Ellison (The Gang's All Here, I Walked with a Zombie) don't. Anyone aware of The Wolf Man can immediately guess the identity of the killer, and the 'scientific' methods to trace him just cloud the issue. Curiously, (spoiler) although the finale proves the existence of supernatural events, the scientists accept the evidence of shape-shifting lycanthropy like it was no big deal. Incidentally, nobody thinks to even reprimand a doctor who has been covering up the murders of innocent people and allowing the perpetrator to continue his slaughter.
John Howard plays a prime suspect and Bramwell Fletcher (the original victim of Karloff's The Mummy) a brain specialist. Heather Thatcher supplies awkward comedy relief (rabies-laced brownies, anyone?) while James Ellison wonders why the wolf hairs he found magically disappear when placed in his spectograph. A very young Charles McGraw (The Narrow Margin) appears in his first film as a groomsman; a good English accent can't hide his gravely voice!
(spoilers) John Brahm juices up the final appearance of the werewolf with some nice shadow work from ace cameraman Lucien Ballard. The monster's subsequent traipsing around the Hammond estate must have looked too slow, for he's been sped up with step-printing. In one shot the frame rate changes without a cut, which does not work well at all. The downbeat ending is a real disappointment, with the monster eliminated as if it were an irate gopher (some very odd optical work is used).
The weirdest thing about The Undying Monster (in England, The Hammond Mystery) is the script's handling of Heather Angel's character, Helga Hammond. She's the main interest throughout and we keep waiting for a romance to bloom between her and the handsome Scotland Yard scientist. (spoiler) Instead, after being hauled all over the sea cliffs, Helga isn't even given a farewell scene. Was Helga supposed to be killed on the rocks? The movie ends with Ellison and his assistant smugly congratulating each other. Maybe poor Heather Angel got her draft notice, and had to report for induction?
1944's The Lodger is a big step up to 'A' picture status; the only studio doing fancier work at the time was MGM with its Picture of Dorian Gray. Because of the production code the adaptation cannot directly show any of the murders in Marie Belloc Lowndes' novel. As the identity of the killer is revealed almost from the beginning, the emphasis is on the twisted psychology of a mysterious hulking scientific researcher who calls himself Slade (Laird Cregar). We never find out what Slade is working on in his attic lab, but a manic hatred of showgirls inspires him to gut innocent women at the rate of about one every four days. A woman of the stage 'ruined' his brother, so the killings are revenge against the female sex. Slade's landlady and her husband (Sara Allgood & Cedric Hardwicke) worry for over an hour that he might be the Ripper, while Slade makes menacing eyes at their beautiful showgirl daughter, Kitty Langley (Merle Oberon). When Slade meets the honorable Kitty even he is impressed with her character; she seems incapable of the kind of female malice that Slade wants to obliterate.
The film's suspense mechanism is a bit slack but The Lodger gets high marks for style. Once again teamed with cinematographer Lucien Ballard, Brahm's camera cranes over shiny cobble-stoned back lots and isolates characters in dingy rooms. Cregar's alienation and weirdness is accentuated by dramatic accent lighting on his tortured eyes. The special camera treatment balances Cregar's arresting performance. The massive Cregar can't help but draw attention, and has excellent instincts to play strong without going overboard.
Cregar isn't Hollywood's first modern psycho madman, the kind of involuntary menace who knows he's a murdering fiend but cannot stop himself. Val Lewton may have initiated this more realistic attitude toward mad villainy in pictures like The Leopard Man and The Ghost Ship, but actors James Bell and Richard Dix never approach Laird Cregar's intensity, or match his handling of twisted dialogue. Slade hisses to the helpless Kitty that she's vermin that must be destroyed, and articulates his own death wish with talk of the soothing beauty of deep water. Brahm and Ballard make sure that the themes introduced in the dialogue are artfully expressed in the visuals, and give the entire gothic enterprise a Gaslight-like sheen.
George Sanders more or less walks through the film as the detective who can't see the maniac in front of his own eyes, and who pickets Kitty's entire theater but doesn't check her dressing room for uninvited Ripper killers. Helena Pickard has a nice bit as a down-and-out former actress for Kitty to be kind to. The chase finale in a theater purposely re-runs and improves on motifs from The Phantom of the Opera. In comparison, Universal's Phantom remake and its follow-up clone The Climax creak like fossils.
1945's Hangover Square is John Brahm's near-masterpiece, a popular chiller that nevertheless did not attract the attention of more audience-friendly pictures like Robert Siodmak's The Spiral Staircase. This time aided by cameraman Joseph LaShelle, director Brahm runs wild with expressionistic visual effects, as when a madman is cued to kill by the loud noise of some piping falling off a wagon. The story apparently started out in a different direction but was steered by Darryl Zanuck into a "the same, but better" rehash of the basic The Lodger setup. Laird Cregar returns in the starring role, this time playing a sympathetic killer horrified by his own murderous acts, committed while in an amnesiac trance.
Talented composer George Harvey Bone (Cregar) ignores his sweetheart Barbara Chapman (Faye Marlowe) when enticed to write tavern songs for the avaricious and manipulative singer Netta Longdon (Linda Darnell). Fearing that he may be doing terrible things during weird memory blackouts, Bone takes his self-suspicions to Scotland Yard doctor Middleton (George Sanders, again). The tension builds as Bone comes closer to discovering that Netta is two-timing him with Eddie Carstairs (Glenn Langan, The Amazing Colossal Man).
Hangover Square improves greatly on The Lodger. The script allows for more interesting characters and surprisingly original set pieces. Bone disposes of one of his victims on a tall bonfire erected to celebrate Guy Fawkes Day, while hundreds of revelers assume he's placing another effigy of Fawkes on the fire. This time Laird Cregar's performance is more measured, and a terrific Bernard Herrmann score serves to express his inner mania. Herrmann's music animates Bone's trance-like attacks and highlights the aural shocks that touch off his seizures. The film's final reel is devoted to Bone's performance of a 'concerto macabre', a piece that expresses the killer's own madness and causes him to become aware of his crimes. 1
(spoiler) Flashbacks within Brahm's frenetic concert sequence replay the falling pipes that trigger his murder frenzy, and reveal to Bone the image of him trying to kill Barbara, a crime that had happened off-camera. Hangover Square pushes the right buttons to animate its gothic thrills, and is even more satisfying than its predecessor.
Fox's 3-DVD set of Fox Horror Classics are beautifully transferred and come with a number of extras that begin with an insert flyer with publicity notes. Postcard-scaled photos are included for two of the titles, and all of them come with a restoration comparison, ad and still galleries, and an original trailer.
New Wave did a featurette docu for each disc, a piece on director John Brahm, one on the making of The Lodger and one on Laird Cregar's short and mostly unhappy Hollywood career. They suffer from repetitious editing (three spokespeople say the same thing, one after another) and overexposure of capable interviewees like Kim Newman and Steve Haberman. Several of the talking heads are interviewed wearing the same clothing and in the same setups as seen in last month's Vincent Price Collection. All of these spokespeople are qualified and knowledgeable, but by including every statement that praises the films or the actors, the editorial choices oversell the films -- these are good movies, but not monumental landmarks in horror history.
Some statements are just silly, as when one interviewee heralds John Brahm's use of lanterns at a London construction site as a wondrous accomplishment of the art of cinema. Many other bits of information are fascinating. We learn that hard-luck Annie's murder scene in The Lodger was so good, it was shifted to give the film a better opening. The angles used were carefully chosen to hide the fact that the character murdered in the first scene re-enters the film in a later reel!
The two Laird Cregar films are given commentaries. Alain Silver and James Ursini tackle The Lodger, bringing in references to earlier fog-bound gothic horror tales. Hangover Square has two commentary tracks, an okay but slow effort by Richard Schickel and a better one with Steve Haberman hosting actress Faye Marlow. She hasn't much to add to the mystery of Laird Cregar or the controversial behavior of George Sanders, yet remembers that the neckline of one of her dresses had to be raised. Haberman keeps the track interesting at all times but still hasn't learned to lay off the lame voice impressions. His recital of George Sanders' suicide note is in poor taste.
All of the contributors handle Laird Cregar's story with discretion and sympathy. We learn that the big, broad actor lost over 100 pounds in a vain attempt to become a leading man, damaging his health and leading directly to an unnecessary hospital death at age 31. At 200+ pounds in Hangover Square Cregar looks very good, sort of like James Arness' heavier brother. The contributors point to the fact that Vincent Price stepped in to fill Cregar's character roles, but we resist the notion that Price 'inherited' Cregar's career. Price had a unique range and this reviewer can't imagine Cregar taking his place as the urbane menace of films like House of Wax.. Cregar seemed to want to magically transform himself into Clark Gable or Tyrone Power. Had he settled for being a celebrated and respected character actor, I'd think he could have had the kind of career enjoyed by Raymond Burr. Burr started as a hulking heavy in far less promising roles, struggled through early 1950s cheapies and eventually became a major star on television.
The disc set makes the counter-case that somebody thought Vincent Price and Laird Cregar were interchangeable by including radio shows for the two Cregar films. Price takes the Cregar role in each.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Fox Horror Classics rates:
1. It's rather amusing that Bone should be cheated by that no-good Netta, tricked into pouring his musical genius into her cabaret songs. But from the evidence we hear, Netta is a real talent -- she writes catchy lyrics for Bone's tunes. It would be great to have Bone & Netta appear in a parody of MGM musical biographies. They could compose joyful hits on the road to greatness ... while murdering people: Words and Music and Blood? Memories of Melody Morgue?
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