The Poppies of Terra #16 - Happy Ninety
By Alvaro Zinos-Amaro
Two columns ago, at the start of October, I talked about seven disquieting recent releases. Halloween may now be departed, but its spirit lingers. Unburned autumn candles mock us gently with their wilting wicks, leftover candies in the pantry meekly whimper for attention in the night, crispness bites the evening air, and afternoon shadows lengthen ever sooner in the wake of our recently fallen-back timepieces. And so to honor the everlasting reach of the deceased into the living, I’d like to turn back the clock of another type and revisit horror movies that haunt the very origins of the genre. Today, we’re going to look at five spooky pictures produced only a few decades after the very first spectral images flickered cinema into birth.
We’re going back to 1933.
Which is to say, these movies are ninety years old. How remarkable, not only that they have endured, but that we have access, in most cases, to recent restorations that make them look more alive than ever.
The year produced two stone cold classics of fantastic cinema: King Kong and The Invisible Man. Much has been written and said about these two compelling exemplars of storytelling, and if you haven’t seen either of them, I’d recommend you do so before they turn a hundred! Then again, they’re probably not going anywhere.
Rather than focusing on these well-known masterpieces, I’ve chosen five lesser-known ventures into horror that nevertheless have much to commend about them.
Our first stop is the Mystery of the Wax Museum, a two-strip Technicolor film that charms and disturbs with its zeal and psychosis. The director is none other than Michael Curtiz (The Sea Wolf, Casablanca, Mildred Pierce), who with this stylized outing into the macabre made Warner's highest-grossing picture of the year. Lionel Atwill, who was starring in theatrical releases almost at a monthly rate back then, plays a genius sculptor whose astonishing creations are ruthlessly burned down by a scheming agent in a glorious Prologue set in London 1921. After that, he goes a little mad sometimes. Named Ivan Igor, he was perhaps fated for less than a serene third act. The movie’s opening shot is dazzling, and when the narrative jumps to 1933 New York, the striking color composition and the scale of scenes, often featuring dozens of extras, only deepen, but now imbued with moments of comedic relief. Enter the vivacious, wisecracking reporter Florence, played by Glenda Farrell, and her investigation into bodies disappearing from the local morgue. This being 1933, we’re looking at pre-Code material, which becomes apparent very quickly, with Florence casually telling a policeman, "Happy New Year, sweetheart. How's your sex life?" Soon thereafter there’s a reference to frequent narcotics usage, and so on. Perhaps my favorite Florence line is when she says,"He made Frankenstein look like a lily!" I’ll leave you the joy of discovering the precise context of these words, along with the grim climactic revelation of Igor’s true nature. “Immortality,” Igor declaims near the frenzied finale, “has been the dream, the inspiration of our kind, and I am going to give you the only guarantee of immortality you have ever had.” Put these lines into Curtiz’s lips addressing Mystery of the Wax Museum’s cast and crew, and you’re onto something.
As with many quality productions of the day, this would spawn two remakes: House of Wax (1953) and the loosely inspired House of Wax (2005). It probably won’t be long before wax starts melting again.
Next up is the bestial Murders in the Zoo, a Paramount outing of a very different flavor, directed by A. Edward Sutherland. Co-written by Philip Wylie (When Worlds Collide) and Seton Miller (Scarface; future Oscar winner with Sidney Buchman for the screenplay of 1941’s Here Comes Mr. Jordan), this low-budget affair begins with an unexpectedly ghastly opening scene. Lionel Atwill, this time playing insanely jealous husband and animal collector Eric Gorman, is performing an unseen procedure on a man in the jungle, which after Gorman’s departure is revealed to have been the use of a needle and thread to sew the man’s mouth closed. Gasp.
The film’s original marketing campaign boasted, “He killed for love…and loved to kill!”, and the grisly ways that Gorman dispatches rivals for his wife’s attentions, and finally the wife herself, certainly underscore the latter part of the tagline. Beyond the movie’s fictive nastiness, it is somewhat notorious on other grounds, and was in fact banned in Germany, Sweden, and Latvia. I’ll leave it to Gregory William Mank, author of The Very Witching Time of Night: Dark Alleys of Classic Horror Cinema, and many other film history volumes, to explain: “The most shocking feature of Murders in the Zoo is its climactic animal blood-fest—a free-for-all battle of lions, pumas and panthers, all unleashed by Paramount à la the Roman Coliseum and primed to tear each other to shreds. Indeed, the studio actually invited the press and its own contract stars to the filming of this barbaric spectacle to behold what became actual carnage, requiring the mercy killing of a puma. It survives in the film as one of the most excessive, irresponsible, and truly horrifying episodes Hollywood ever offered.” The film seems to be aware of the nastiness up its sleeve and tries to defuse it with the slapstick antics of its boozer character Peter Yates, played by Charles Ruggles, who when being interviewed for a job, says “I haven't tasted a single drop for… Well, a considerable time. A long time. Two days and three weeks, to be exact.” Fear of bloodthirsty animals has informed hundreds of horror films since, and even the brazen mix of humor and horror continues in movies as recent as this year’s Cocaine Bear.
The Secret of the Blue Room is a Universal Pictures production directed by Kurt Neumann (The Fly, a movie that would larvae its own sequels and remake and remake sequel). Who stars in this one, you ask? Why, of course, Lionel Atwill!—along with Gloria Stuart and Paul Lukas. Of my five choices, this one leans most heavily into Golden Age mystery, with a group of people assembled in a supposedly haunted house ready to test themselves against its power. Three fellows, specifically, take it upon themselves to spend a night in the titular blue room, whose history is steeped in murder, in order to prove their courage and win the affection of the enchanting Irene von Helldorf. After a distracting but mercifully brief musical performance, the film gets down to business. “That wind, it makes me shiver,” says one of the men. “Just the sort of night to tell good goose-fleshy stories.” As the conversation develops, the rules of engagement are made more explicit: “There's one point we'll have to agree to. If something should happen to one of us, it mustn’t prevent the next one from spending the following night in the Blue Room in spite of what may have occurred.” Twenty minutes in, Tommy, played by William Janney, is the first to enter the blue room, and the suspense grows quickly from there. In the end, there’s a solid but unspectacular resolution to the central locked-room mystery, and any insinuations of the supernatural are put to bed. The basic story seems to have served as a template for countless haunted house movies, including the Stephen King film adaptation 1408, which spins the material in a different direction. This English-language movie is in fact a remake of the German film Geheimnis Des Blauen Zimmers from the preceding year–and in turn would be remade twice more, in 1938 and 1944. Incidentally, I was recently reading Karl Edward Wagner’s novella “Blue Lady, Come Back,” and was amused to find within it a reference to this movie.
Victor Halperin, who had made the successful White Zombie, directed our next visitation, Supernatural, which stars Carole Lombard in a role refreshingly different from her habitual screwball comedies. We waste no time in meeting killer Ruth Rogen, who has been apprehended for her violent murders and is sentenced to death. Dr. Carl Houston casually announces to one of the authority figures at death row, “I've been experimenting lately with mitogenic rays,” and we know we’re in for a wild ride. Houston believes that after Rogen is executed her spirit may inhabit other bodies, sparking further crimes, and with his method–which later involves a very Frankensteinean attempt to revive Rogen’s body with electricity–he believes he can prevent such a transmigration of souls. Ensue several well-staged seances by wily scoundrel Paul Bavian (Alan Dinehart) and Rogen’s eventual takeover of rich heiress Roma Courtney (Lombard). Forty-six minutes in, when the possession takes place, we’re treated to a magnificent change by Lombard, whose transformation of body language, tone of voice, cadence and overall demeanor is enthralling. Supernatural’s plot is crafty and tension-filled. When Rogen/Roma is alone with Bavian in the final act, there’s a wonderful beat where she says admiringly of a portrait of Rogen, “Isn't she beautiful?” To which he replies: “Yes, but repulsive.” Overall, the movie is somewhat over-scored, but the direction, editing and screenplay remain top notch. The final strangulation attempt by Rogen/Roma is intercut with fantastic extreme close-ups of eyes, and there’s a concluding touch of benevolent supernaturalism that would later infuse films like 1947’s The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. Seances and spiritualism continue to captivate audiences to this day, with for instance the Conjuring-verse movies starting in 2013 (eight and counting). In fact, we’re going to movie-hop from one possession to another as we look at our final pick.
La Llorona (The Crying Woman), directed by Ramón Peón, is the first Mexican horror film with sound, and is really the first substantial Mexican horror film. The use of sound is especially important, given the wailing of the movie’s legendary character. Though you may think you know the the myth of la llorona, the film’s elaborate narrative structure is sure to offer some surprises and details with which you were unfamiliar. We open on a man who hears the movie’s recurring plaintive lamentation and dies from a heart attack. Dr. Ricardo de Acuña, conducting the examination of the body, glibly dismisses his student’s claims of ghosts or supernatural entities. Later, after his son turns four, Ricardo’s father pulls him into their home library and tells him about what he believes is their family curse. The film travels back in time to tell the story of Viceroy Rodrigo de Cortés and Ana Xiconténcatl, enacting what Ricardo is hearing. This extended flashback contains a certain flair, but drags. While the history lesson lends weight to the contemporary story, it ultimately consumes such a big chunk of the runtime that its thematic enhancements come at the cost of character development for our modern-day principals. After returning to the present and discovering that Ricardo’s son is indeed in danger, we’re treated to a second flashback sequence, this time involving Doña Marina, or La Malinche, and Hernán Cortés. Throughout, the musical score tends to accentuate melodrama, and provides a funereal ambiance. Though the hooded, ghost-like child-kidnapper is revealed to be made of flesh and bone–making this an early slasher mystery–the question of possession remains open. Besides its evident excursion into mythology, La Llorona proves to be an astute meta-commentary on the importance of storytelling traditions. “Love and innocence,” muses Ricardo’s father, “should be eternal.” Falling short of that, perhaps we can find some satisfaction in the continuity of culture through the generations. The story of la llorona continues to be mined by horror filmmakers. I’ll name just three subsequent explorations: René Cardona’s La Llorona (1960), Rafael Baledón’s The Curse of the Crying Woman (1963), and Michael Chaves’ The Curse of La Llorona (2019).
Dismissing his father’s worries, Dr. Ricardo says: “The past almost never returns.” By the end of the film he understands the error of this presumption. What chilled us in 1933 still frightens us today. These splendid specimens of a bygone era of filmmaking, each of which will consume little more than an hour, are well worth your time, if only to better appreciate, when you check out next week’s horror movie, that the past almost never leaves.