The Devil-Doll (1936)

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The Devil-Doll (1936)

The Devil-Doll (1936). 79 minutes. Directed by Tod Browning. Starring Lionel Barrymore (as Paul Lavond), Maureen O’Sullivan (as Lorraine Lavond), Frank Lauton (as Toto), Rafaela Ottiano (as Malita), Robert Greig (as Emil Coulvet), Lucy Beaumont (as Madame Lavond), Henry B. Walthall (as Marcel), Grace Ford (as Lachna), Pedro de Cordoba (as Charles Matin), Arthur Hohl (as Victor Radin), Juanita Quigley (as Marguerite Coulvet), Claire Du Brey (as Madame Coulvet), and Rollo Lloyd (as Detective Maurice).

The Devil-Doll is a horror movie written and directed by Tod Browning, who brought us Freaks (1932), the controversial pre-Code film that effectively triggered the beginning of the end of his career. Thus one reason to view The Devil-Doll is to see Browning’s penchant for lurid plots in its final throes. In some regards, Freaks and The Devil-Doll share much in common, including depictions of deformity, little people (broadly defined), and a revenge plot: the 1936 movie offers us miniature human killers, hypnotically controlled … Read the rest

Maniac (1934)

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Maniac (1934)

Maniac (1934). 51 minutes. Directed by Dwain Esper. Starring Bill Woods (as Don Maxwell), Horace B. Carpenter (as Dr. Meirschultz), Ted Edwards (as Buckley), Phyllis Diller (as Mrs. Buckley), Thea Ramsey (as Alice Maxwell), Jenny Dark (as Maizie), Marvel Andre (as Marvel), Celia McCann (as Jo), and John P. Wade (as embalmer).

Maniac is spectacularly bad—pretentious, gross, offensive, and unbearably confusing. I became aware of it because of Michael Adams’s book Showgirls, Teen Wolves, and Astrozombies, in which he details how he spent a year watching the worst movies ever made. To Adams, Maniac is one of the very worst that he screened and by far the worst film director Dwain Esper ever was involved in, even worse than his Reefer Madness (1936). Compared to Reefer Madness, which is a propaganda film, Maniac is not obviously on a mission to persuade us politically through preposterous means, and accordingly, it actually made my head hurt less. But at … Read the rest

I Walked with a Zombie (1943)

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I Walked with a Zombie (1943)

I Walked with a Zombie (1943). 69 minutes. Directed by Jacques Tourneur. Starring Frances Dee (as Betsy Connell), Tom Conway (as Paul Holland), James Ellison (as Wesley Rand), Edith Barrett (as Mrs. Rand), James Bell (as Dr. Maxwell), Christine Gordon (as Jessica Holland), Theresa Harris (as Alma), Darby Jones (as Carrefour), and Sir Lancelot (as calypso singer). Produced by Val Lewton.

I Walked with a Zombie has a sensationalistic title, but don’t let that fool you—this is not a 1950s atom bomb movie about flesh-eating ghouls. The story follows a strange woman living on a balmy island who wanders around in a kind of trance, whether due to tropical fever or vengeance or voodoo (or all three). The true nature of her condition is never made entirely clear, and rather than prove to us definitively that the woman is a zombie, the movie instead cultivates a moody atmosphere where much is unsaid, sorrow pervades, and we are left to draw … Read the rest

Nosferatu (1922)

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Nosferatu (1922)

Nosferatu (1922). 94 minutes. Directed by F. W. Murnau. Starring Max Schreck (as Count Orlok), Gustav von Wangenheim (as Thomas Hutter), Greta Schröder (as Ellen Hutter), Alexander Granach (as Knock), John Gottowt (as Professor Bulwer), and Georg H. Schnell (as Harding). Based on the novel Dracula by Bram Stoker.

We are fortunate to have F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu in any form at all. The movie is based on Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula (1897), but Murnau never obtained permission from the Stoker estate to film his adaptation. Although the names and places were changed in the film from the original novel (this was done as a precaution), Nosferatu was still essentially Dracula. When Stoker’s widow determined that Murnau had made a film of her husband’s novel without her approval, she sued for breach of copyright in Germany and won. A judge ordered all existing copies of the film destroyed. Fortunately, Nosferatu had already been imported to France, and it is … Read the rest

King Kong (1933)

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"King Kong" (1933) featured image

King Kong (1933). Directed by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack. Starring Fay Wray (as Ann Darrow), Robert Armstrong (as Carl Denham), and Bruce Cabot (as Jack Driscoll). Special effects by Willis O’Brien. Musical score by Max Steiner.

King Kong is an adventure film about a director (Carl Denham) who enlists a down-and-out actress (Ann Darrow) to join a crew of men and sail to a mysterious island location, where he plans to make a film.  He eventually tells his crew that the people who live on Skull Island, his destination, confine themselves to one part of the island, separated from the remaining territory by a large and ancient wall.  It is not immediately clear what lives beyond the wall, but Denham plans to film it.  We soon learn that the natives use the wall to enclose a monstrous, eighteen-foot-tall gorilla, whom they call Kong.

Early on in the film, Denham and his crew observe that the ancient forefathers … Read the rest

Cat People (1942)

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Cat People featured image. Detail from original movie poster.

Cat People (1942). 73 minutes.  Directed by Jacques Tourneur.  Starring Simone Simon (as Irena Dubrovna Reed), Kent Smith (as Oliver Reed), Jane Randolph (as Alice Moore), and Tom Conway (as Dr. Louis Judd).  Produced by Val Lewton.

For a B-grade horror movie about a woman who can transform into an animal, Cat People is a surprisingly sensitive and human story.  This film achieves much more than we would expect from a typical B picture.  In fact, it offers a mixture of subtlety, sophistication, and inventiveness that would be difficult for any movie to achieve.  All throughout we hear the mysterious, part-feline protagonist Irena Dubrovna Reed articulate her loneliness, her need for warmth, and her fear that something evil resides within her.  As she puzzles over her true nature, we watch her marriage to her newlywed husband Oliver deteriorate and see how its demise fuels her longing and isolation.  It would appear that her relationship with Oliver is the only substantial … Read the rest

Freaks (1932)

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Freaks (1932). Detail from movie poster.

Freaks (1932). 62 minutes.  Directed by Tod Browning.  Starring Harry Earles (as Hans), Daisy Earles (as Frieda), Olga Baclanova (as Cleopatra), Henry Victor (as Hercules), Wallace Ford (as Phroso), and Leila Hyams (as Venus).

It is hard to know what exactly to say about Tod Browning’s Freaks.  Some people have called it an early exploitation film, and others have called it a horror film.  Perhaps the New York Times reviewer who wrote about the movie in 1932 put it best when he said, “The only thing that can be said definitely for ‘Freaks’ is that it is not for children. Bad dreams lie that way.”

The movie is about a circus and in particular its freak show, but until the final moments of the film, we never see anyone actually perform.  The cast is divided into freaks and non-freaks (and I use those terms, which I realize may be offensive to some, only because they are the language of … Read the rest