Thursday, August 27, 2009

Karloff has small but crucial role in 'The Black Castle'

The Black Castle (1952)
Starring: Richard Green, Stephen McNally, Rita Corday, Boris Karloff, Tudor Owen, John Hoyt, Michael Pate, Lon Chaney Jr, and Henry Corden
Director: Nathan Juran
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

In the early 18th century, an English spy (Green) travels to Austria's Black Forest to determine the fates of two of his best friends and fellow operatives. They were last heard from as guests of an eccentric count (McNally) whom they had opposed in Africa. While trying to ferret out the count's secrets, our hero decides to rescue his innocent young wife from his clutches (Corday).

"The Black Castle" is an excellent and suspense-filled period drama that, although it's being told in flashback and you know that the hero and his love interest won't come to the dire end that they seem destined for, remains unpredictable until the very end. It's a film that builds steadily toward its final twist, a twist that few will see coming but that is nonetheless set up by everything that went before. It doesn't say anything good about modern screenwriters when, in a time where twist endings on suspense and horror films are all the rage, that a B-movie writer can do something far, far better than they come up with on their best days, in a time when they weren't common.

Aside from a well-done script, the film is further augmented by excellent sets and excellent cinematography and some fine performances by the entire cast. Of particular note is Stephen McNally, who, although he plays the ultimate Snidley Whiplash-type character who is dwells in the ultimate melodramatic gothic villian's lair--an isolated castle with secret corridors, torture chambers, burial vaults and a pit full of crocodiles, still manages to bring a little depth to the character. He injects just enough charm into this thoroughly evil character that I couldn't help but root for him ever-so-slightly in his effort to outwit the one-dimensional, more-righteous-than-righteous British agent.

Also of note are the performances by the two horror cinema great Boris Karloff. His role is small, but, like McNally he manages to bring infuse some depth into a character who might otherwise come across as just a sniveling slimeball. (Lon Chaney Jr is also seen, once again playing one of those menacing simpletons that he seemed to have been relegated to at this stage in his career... he does what he can with a fairly empty part.)

"The Black Castle" is a film that should appeal to lovers of classic movies, especially if they like their gothic romances with a side of twisted vengence. Although made in the mid-1950s, the film feels more like something from the 1930s or 1940s.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Isle of the Dead is among Karloff's weaker films

Isle of the Dead (1945)
Starring: Boris Karloff, Ellen Drew, Marc Cramer, Helene Thimig and Katherine Emery
Director: Mark Robson
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

A diverse group of people quarantine themselves on a small Greek island to prevent a suspected plague from spreading to the army camped nearby on the mainland. As they wait for the disease to run its course, a hardbitten general (Karloff) comes to believe the superstitious ramblings of an old woman (Thimig) that the young maid (Drew) is an undead monster who is preying on their life force.

"Isle of the Dead" is one of the last in a string of legendary horror films that producer Val Lewton made for RKO. It is also one of the weakest, with an uneven script and a cast with acting styles that conflict; Emery and Thimig are chewing up the scenery in old-fashioned monster-movie style, while Drew gives a subtle performance that belongs in a romance film, while Cramer is just bland.

Karloff gives a mostly disappointing performance, seeming as if he is sleepwalking through the picture. The only time he comes alive is when his character makes a failed attempt at self-reflection. He manages to bring a little bit of menace to his role, but that's mostly attributable to the fact that the other actors in the picture have so little presence

Worst of all, the film has a terrible script. For most of its running time, the movie simply unspools in a dull fashion. The characters are on a supposedly plague-infested island, yet their behavior feels more like they are on just another vacation. This lack of tension is augmented by one of the worst insta-romances ever put on screen when the Greek maid inexplicably falls in love with the square-jawed and utterly bland American war correspondent (Cramer)over the space of a day they hardly see each other.

However, if you stay with the film, things start to get a lot more interesting in the last 20 minutes. From the kindhearted maid being tormented by the old crone through a closed door, to a mad killer stalking (and skewering) the surviving inhabitants of the island, we finally get to experience some of the dread and darkness that should have been present in at least a small degree from the very beginning of the film.

"Isle of the Dead" is contained in the Val Lewton Horror Collection along with the eight other films that Lewton produced for RKO and a documentary on his career. Karloff appeared in two other Lewton films, and I'll be writing about them in this space shortly.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Karloff in two Mr. Wong adventures

When small, impoverished studio Monogram landed Boris Karloff to star in a series of B-movies about brilliant Chinese detective Mr. Wong, they not only got a big headliner but they ended up with a string of the best movies they would release. Mostly.

I already commmented on the three Karloff films in the "Mr. Wong" series that as I think are the best in the series. Click here to read those reviews. That leaves "Mr. Wong in Chinatown" and "Doomed to Die."

Mr. Wong in Chinatown (1939)
Starring: Boris Karloff, Marjorie Reynolds and Grant Withers
Director: William Nigh
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

The famous private detective James Lee Wong (Karloff) takes it personally when a Chinese princess (Lotus Long in her second appearance as a murder victim in the series) is killed with a poison dart in his own home. He sets out to find her killer, with help from reporter Bobbie Logan (Reynolds), the latest bad-choice-of-dates for Wong's friend, Captain Street of Homicide (Withers). The trail leades to international arms-smugglers, shady bankers, con-artists, mute midgets, and tea-sipping Tong leaders, any of whom may have done in the princess.

"Mr. Wong in Chinatown", the third "Mr. Wong" mystery, is a step down from the previous two entries in the series. The plot is not as engaging as the other films, Street's new love interest/Wong's co-detective is more annoying than charming or funny, and Street himself seems to have devolved from a by-the-book detective who simply lacks Wong's ability to see clues in a different light into a typical, incompetent comedy relief detective. That's too bad, because it makes the friendship between Wong and Street seem phony--why would someone as smart as Wong want to spend time with someone as dumb as Street appears to be in this film?

There's also problems with the performances of every lead in the film. The unflappable Wong is almost too calm and detached throughout, and Karloff almost seems to be sleepwalking at times. Reynolds is gorgeous as always, but her character of Bobbie Logan is too shrill in most scenes. Withers does an okay job as Street, but the character is poorly written in this installment, and he really has very little to do.

An unengaging plot, badly handled characters, and subpar performances from the film's leads add up to making this a weak entry in the "Mr. Wong" series. Things start to pick up in the final 15 minutes or so of the movie, and these manage to keep it on the high side of average... but only barely. It still remains a dissapointment when compared to the first two movies and the "Phantom of Chinatown" prequel.

Doomed to Die (aka "The Mystery of Wentworth Castle") (1940)
Starring: Boris Karloff, Marjorie Reynolds, Grant Withers, William Stelling, and Catherine Craig
Director: William Nigh
Rating: Four of Five Stars

When shipping magnate Cyrus Wentworth is murdered, Captain Street (Withers) immediately arrests the only possible suspect: The disgruntled fiance of his daughter (Stelling), the only person in the room with him when he died. Street's girlfriend, reporter Bobbie Logan (Reynolds), is convinced the case is not as simple as Street believes, and she hires San Francisco's leading private detective James Lee Wong (Karloff) to clear the young man and Cyrus's daughter (Craig) of any suspicion, and to find the true killer. Complications soon emerge, as evidence of connections between Wentworth, Tong criminal activity, and the mass-murder of 400 passengers onboard one of Wentworth's ships are revealed... and Mr. Wong himself comes under fire from gangsters and killers.

"Doomed to Die" is the weakest of the Mr. Wong features. It's sloppily written, featuring a badly structured story that's moves slowly through muddled twists and turns to a fairly predictable conclusion. Street is written like an utter moron, and Wong solves the case more through luck than intelligent investigation. (He also seems to have developed a mysterious ability to show up anywhere and everywhere the plot requires him to be, even if there's no particular reason for him to be there other than plot dictates.)

An effect of the bad script is that Withers is mostly wasted here. His character is relegated to the role of buffoon. Karloff turns in another decent portrayal of Mr. Wong, but the bad script gives rise to many unintentional comedic moments, all relating to his uncanny ability to appear at windows and on fire escapes.

One upside is that the Bobbie Logan character is a little less annoying in this installment than she was in her first appearance (in "Mr. Wong in Chinatown"), and Reynolds' performance is thus a real bright spot in the film... although her good looks certainly help to enliven all the Wong features she appears in! The supporting cast is also decent enough.

Out of all the "Mr. Wong" features, this is one that interested viewers might safely take a pass on.