In the following year to Universal’s The Strange Door, the production house would release the last real gothic horror story in their canon, The Black Castle. It would pull out all the stops in another melodramatic tale, harbouring the talents of Boris Karloff and Lon Chaney Jr to steer the film both from a financial and credibility perspective.
The movie didn’t come without its problems however with original director Joseph Pevney stepping aside due his lack of faith in the script to make way for art director Nathan Juran to take the helm for what would be his first time in the director’s chair. Juran would go on to direct The Deadly Mantis; Attack of the 50ft Woman; and The 7th Voyage of Sinbad among his credits. For his initial feature though, he would openly admit that he was guided by the on screen talent to provide their valuable knowledge in the films making.
The plot for The Black Castle is admittedly minimalistic and in that sense, one can understand Pevney’s reservations. It also has similar themes to The Strange Door around imprisonment and escape from an evil antagonist, this time in the guise of Count Von Bruno (Stephen McNally).
The movie has been treated kindly by notable reviewers retrospectively, most notably because of its high quality in most of the production elements, and the cast are strong enough to ground the film. For me, the film doesn’t hold enough appeal to make it an iconic one. Cinephiles will appreciate it for its cinematic value at the decline of Universal horror which is warranted, but others may struggle to connect to the films narrative.
As Universal creaked into the early 50s, they were taking giant strides towards a new sub-genre sparked by the space race that was capturing the Nation’s zeitgeist. The creatures that the production house had built its name upon had now shifted into more comedic terrain with Abbott and Costello. There was still some room for gothic horror though and The Strange Door based on Robert Louis Stevenson’s short novel, The Sire de Maletroit’s Door would pit veterans Charles Laughton and Boris Karloff alongside one another in a last ditch effort to draw the crowds.
The premise is a slight tale about revenge, mischaracterisation and ultimately love in the face of adversity and is presented more as a melodrama than horror. Laughton also does his best to chew up the scenery and lapping up every moment as Alain de Maletroit, s msn consumed by grief and jealousy over the death of his brother Edmund’s wife. Alain imprisons Edmund (Paul Cavanagh) and raises his niece, Bianche (Sally Forrest) as though she were his child. This is through some warped connection to his sister-in -law that he longs to hold onto.
Everything is a whim or a game for Alain though, spoilt by his riches and living the life of a megalomaniac, content in ruining the lives of others to please his cruel desires.
Part of his trickery involves ensnaring a wayward thief, Denis (Richard Stapley) and convince him to marry Bianche, and then arrange for him to be murdered on the eve of their wdding night. True to the machiavellian style that the film is modelled on however, Alain doesn’t account for Denis and Bianche to actually fall in love. Nor does he foresee that his longtime dogsbody Voltan (Karloff) would have a change of heart and join focus with the lovebound duo in freeing the imprisoned Edmond and foil Alain’s plans.
While The Strange Door was well received at the time, upon recent viewing, you can’t help but notice that it is missing that special je ne sais quoi that was reminiscent in their earlier movies despite having stellar performers in Laughton and Karloff in the cast.
Despite some reluctance from the stars, Bud Abbott and Lou Costello’s light was starting to wane in the public eye, and along with their contract through Universal were tied to another outing; one that would preserve their initial encounter with the Production house’ monsters into the National Film Registry for its historical significance. That film would be…
Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)
Here would mark a turning point for Universal, who had made a great deal of success through the 1930s for their Gothic line of Universal films. This notable change would occur at a time when the inkwell was running dry, and the Production house would be looking for alternate ways to capitalise on their winning formula by subverting the genre from horror to comedy. This transposition would not be treated in kind, especially from Lon Chaney Jr, who would proclaim “Abbott and Costello ruined the horror films: they made buffoons out of the monsters…” His words would hold deeper meaning for the future of Universal’s horror genre, which by the end of the 50s would be all but non-existent. Despite this and during the time of its release, the film would go on to be one of the most successful of the Frankenstein franchise.
In Meet Frankenstein, the comedy duo would be pitted against The Wolf Man (Lon Chaney Jr), Dracula (Bela Lugosi – who would actually speak favourably of the depiction of his most known character), and The Monster (Glenn Strange) to keep alive the buzz generated from their monster universe. It even boasts a cameo from The Invisible Man in the film’s climax, voiced by Vincent Price.
A lot of the movie revolves around pantomime tricks and scares but brought to life by the comic timing of Costello who falls prey to the “cry wolf” syndrome, despite his cries being genuine, combined with Abbott’s straight man routine. Despite my ambivalence towards the movie, as in heart I echoed Chaney Jr’s sentiments, the film would still holds a strong position. The looks to camera breaking the fourth wall was a joy to watch, and the formula would generate s further four movies for Abbott and Costello in the Universal Monsters universe. The first of these would be…
Abbott and Costello Meet The Killer, Boris Karloff (1949)
Rounding out the 40s, Boris Karloff was the only notable star absent from the previous movie, although he was paid to promote it, and was also reluctant to watch it. Karloff was hired only five days before shooting began, the role originally a female called Madame Switzer, and would play that of a swami with mysterious intent. I thoroughly enjoyed this movie, a whodunnit where Costello’s bellboy Freddie becomes the prime suspect in a murder. And when the body count starts to pile up, he can’t seem to get rid of the corpses to clear his name. This would lead to a hilarious scene where Costello and Abbott (supporting him to prove his innocence as detective Casey) play a game of cards with some of the cadavers.
Lenore Aubert is also brought in to support, as the femme fatale Angela Gordon. This continues a theme from Meet Frankenstein where the female costar attempts to seduce Costello, much to Abbott’s chagrin.
Abbott and Costello Meet The Invisible Man (1951)
Having dangled the imperceptible carrot in Meet Frankenstein it was inevitable that Abbott and Costello would come face to face with the Invisible Man. This time our anti-hero is played by Athur Franz as Tommy Nelson, a boxer who is framed for the murder of his manager after refusing to throw a fight. Out to prove his innocence, Tommy steals the invisible formula from scientist Dr. Gray (Gavin Muir) who warns him of the dangers of the serum and the effects that brought about the ruin of Jack Griffin.
Abbott and Costello enter the scene as private detectives by Tommy during the investigation and become embroiled in the mystery leading Costello’s Lou Francis to go undercover as an underdog in the boxing scene aided by the invisible Tommy to help him win the fights.
Sandwiched between this feature and the next Universal confrontation would be Abbott and Costello Go To Mars, another indication of Universal’s departure from the horror scene and into the world of science fiction, which would be in tune with the popular zeitgeist of the time.
Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1953)
Abbott and Costello’s fourth outing in the Universal Monster scene drawing inspiration from the Robert Louis Stevenson novel and are cast as American detectives in Edwardian London following the pursuit of some murders that have taken place, allegedly by Dr. Jekyll, played by Boris Karloff. The Hyde counterpart would be portrayed by stuntman Eddie Parker.
Interestingly, there would be no transformation scenes, instead depicting both Jekyll and Hyde individually, and fuelling the idea that there is no good at all in Dr. Jekyll, who yearns for the misdeeds performed by his alter-ego.
The film itself would also show the cracks beginning to form in Universal’s marriage with the comic duo, with signs that the humour was running dry, resorting to slapstick performances. There would however, be one more feature before Abbott and Costello would bow out of the comedy / horror scene…
Abbott and Costello Meet The Mummy (1955)
28 movies into their working partnership for Universal-International, Abbott and Costello would play against the last of the production house monster’s, the mummified Klaris (Eddie Parker). The comedy duo find themselves in the midst of an archaeological feud between Semu (Richard Deacon) and Madame Rontru (Marie Windsor) for the treasures of Princess Ara and control over Klaris.
Abbott and Costello would continue their usual comedy schtick but here it sits well as they bumble around Cairo. It is somewhat fitting that they could lay their comedy horror routine to rest amongst the Egyptian tombs. Their routine by this time is becoming stale and trying. They would eventually part ways in 1957 albeit amicably.
The Brute Man would mark Rondo Hatton’s final film credit having tragically passed away due to heart problems. Cast in a number of films due to his physical presence which would make him an ideal on screen villain, which started out as supporting roles for a few crime, mob-related features. By the 1940s, Hatton would see his star elevated to leading roles for movies such as The Pillow of Death and House of Horrors, the latter of which alongside this movie would see him as the iconic Creeper character. This character would be so embedded in Universal’s golden era that it would be homaged in the 1980s feature film, The Rocketeer played by Tiny Ron.
Here, Hatton’s Creeper is out for revenge for those he believes disfigured him, starting with Professor Cushman (John Hamilton). Among those whom he pursues is a couple, Clifford (Tom Neal) and Virginia (Jan Wiley), who form part of a love/hate quadrangle with the Creeper who shows a heart of gold when trying to help Helen (Jane Adams), a blind pianist. This last part of the shaped motif is a little nod to Frankenstein’s monster who also befriends the blind flutist in James Whale’s 1931 version.
Despite these attempts to pay homage to the past and create terror in the cinema again, writer George Bricker (a gun for hire to create Production companies, B-features) would struggle to strike fear in the hearts of the audience. Likewise, director Jean Yarbrough would find it hard to break the mold of the low budget horror features that he had been accustomed to. So paltry was the final product that audiences responded negatively to it, and the film is now more closely associated with being the target for grilling in Mystery Science Theater 3000.
It would be a significant turning point for Universal, who were starting to see the effects of their golden years ebbing away and losing the magic touch it once laid claim to in the field of horror. Throughout the 50s their journey would take them in a completely different direction, but that will be for another series of articles.
Billed as a horror whodunnit, The Cat Creeps was released at a time when the magic from classic genre themed movies that Universal built its name upon was beginning to wear off. Not to be confused with the 1930s feature bearing the same name, the feature would also struggle without any of the big name stars such as Bela Lugosi or Boris Karloff to carry the horror torch into another generation of scares. Forming part of a double feature alongside She-Wolf of London, The Cat Creeps would also herald the last of the horror features for the film production giant for the 1940s.
Retrospectively watching the movie today, you can sense the lack of sparkle in the films narrative, centred around a black cat that is suspected of being possessed by an elderly lady who was murdered possibly for inheritance.
Character actor, Noah Beery Jr., does his best to fill the screen with presence and humour; an early indicator that serves the same comical tone that Abbott and Costello would bring to their movies through the late 40s and early 50s for Universal. The issue here though is that Beery Jr grates more than pleases in his role of Pidge “Flash” Laurie, forcing a disconnect from a modern audience. The film canters along with this black humour pace without much care to the end of the film slowly bumping off the usual suspects along the way until the real villain of the piece is revealed.
If you like a half-decent murder mystery, there’s plenty on show, but the predictability is too great with an old formula being utilised to capitalise on former success. Unfortunately, there it lacks in appeal with nothing new to show, emphasising the stale end that the decade would bring for the company.
Less She-Wolf of London and more She-Wolf in Sheep’s clothing as this 1946 feature from Universal Pictures attempts to pull the wool over their audience’s eyes.
The ruse is well implanted in the psyche by the antagonist, leading our heroine and us down a mythological lie born out of the fear and paranoia that the Allenby family has werewolf blood in its veins.
It may have served better to have called the film, The Curse of the Allenbys, (which is actually the title given to the feature for its UK release), but then this would not have put as many bums on seats and capitalised on the Universal backlot of Werewolf movies that starred Lon Chaney. It would also have been cool to have used the same plot but leveraged from the 1936 vehicle starring Henry Hull as Dr. Wilfred Glendon. Instead of using the Allenby family name, if they had used their bluff around Dr. Glendon, then there would have been more merit to the gaslighting component.
All this may sound a little harsh, because in truth, the film is incredibly strong in its delivery and using greed and power as its core theme for the subterfuge. Our lead character, Phyllis (June Lockhart) stands to come into the Allenby fortune, but standing in her way is either her Aunt Martha (Sara Haden) or her cousin Carol (Jan Wiley) who have lived in the mansion all their lives and could lose it all.
The fact that there has also been a series of murders near the estate and reported sightings of a she-wolf only adds fuel to Phyliss’ fears, forced to her bed and away from society in case she is the one responsible.
She-Wolf of London struggles to find an identity of its own as it attempts to prize itself free from the coat-tails of yester-year movies produced by Universal, but inevitably the film is slow and cumbersome with barely a ripple of fear to be seen.
This is the movie where Rondo Hatton’s (The Spider Woman Strikes Back) shambling frame comes to the fore and I personally think that it works in this instance. There are some critics that felt at the time and retrospectively feel otherwise, and that the giant killer concept is awkward and laughable.
For me, there is a similarity to Of Mice And Men with the Lenny and and George characters, two misfits in society, outcasts if you will. The Lenny character in this case aligned with Hatton’s character, The Creeper, instead of a good heart, misguided by those around him, he’s a malicious cold blooded killer seeking to please he’s supposed friend, Marcel De Lange (Martin Kosleck – The Mummy’s Curse, The Frozen Ghost).
Marcel is an art sculptor and the subject of ridicule among his community. Tired of being savaged by critics, he seeks his vengeance and just when all seems lost he has a chance encounter and saves The Creeper from drowning.
Now Marcel has a human killing machine at his beckoning call, to carry out his demands on those who’ve wronged him.
The only person who could potentially stand in his way is a female reporter, Joan (Virginia Grey) who Marcel is also infatuated with.
But will love or vengeance lead to ruin for the scared artist?
Once again, Universal were trying to champion a new horror series in The Creeper, but after receiving fairly low reviews, unlike it’s antagonist failed to unleash the horror into the world and the third strike out would leave them stumbling towards the end of the decade.
Not to be confused with some kind of Marvel spin off, or even a follow up to the Sherlock Holmes feature some years before, The Spider Woman Strikes Back is a stand alone feature from the Universal vault that starred Gale Sondergaard, who also featured in the afore-mentioned Holmes film, The Spider Woman.
Sondergaard is given reign to flex her acting muscles and prowess as the local town’s wealthiest person Zenobia Dollard, and with that she carries a huge amount of privilege and entitlement of the land and those in her community.
Zenobia also hides behind her supposed blindness to get people to think she is a weak and ailing old woman, when she is anything but.
Our lead protagonist is Jean (Brenda Joyce), a young woman new to the town to become Zenovia’s personal assistant. It’s not long before Jean suspects that all is not well in the household, and that something sinister has occurred to her predecessors. Just as she starts to uncover Zenovia’s sinister plan, she finds herself ensnared with her life in danger. Her only hope may lie in her only contact in town, Hal (Kirby Grant) to discover the death serum, concocted by spider venom and Jean’s blood.
Rondo Hatton is on hand to provide the lumbering muscle to protect and do Zenovia’s bidding, but he doesn’t offer much beyond this stereotype that he was now attached to.
Universal had grand plans to start a new series involving The Spider Woman, but much like The Jungle Woman, which was launched in a similar timeframe, it never registered well with the audience. This may have something to do with the lack of enthusiasm from director Arthur Lubin, who strongly opposed the idea of directing a horror feature, but was forced to do so by Universal or else lose his contract.
Mostly though, The Spider Woman Strikes Back suffers from a convoluted script and little substance.
It’s a shame though as I could sense from watching the film that Sondergaard would have relished the opportunity to revisit the role.
As such, it has slipped into obscurity a little and Universal were beginning to suffer from trying to climb out of the shadows of Dracula, Frankenstein, etc. to make a mark on the horror genre further.
The third and final outing for Paula Dupree aka The Ape Woman for Universal would revert back to the mad doctor scenario.
This time the twirling moustache award goes to Mr. Stendahl (Otto Kruger) who successfully pulls a rabbit out of the afterlife, resurrected its once lifeless form. Riding on the euphoria of his achievements, Stendhal then trudges off to be the next Dr. Frankenstein to reanimate the corpse of Paula Dupree.
To do his dirty work however, Stendahl calls upon his lumbering assistant Moloch (Rondo Hatton) to snatch the body from the city morgue, but in his efforts kills the attendant on duty.
Now, not only has a murder occurred, and a body stolen, but Inspector Harrigan (Jerome Cowan) suspects another doctor, Don Young when he discovers a medical smock belonging to the young practitioner at the morgue.
All does not bode well for Don when it is discovered that his fiance, Ann (Amelita Ward) has provided a false alibi.
When Ann suddenly disappears, Don must now prove his innocence, find his gal, and the true murderer.
It is little wonder that this film would inevitably fall flat on its face and kill off any hopes for any further misdeeds from the Ape Woman.
Whilst Kruger puts forward a strong performance as the dastardly doctor, Universal produced another misfire, which never manages to muster up any hopes of creating a monster to be feared from the Ape Woman. There are too many leaps in the script to ignite any identity of its own, and too often tries to ride on the shoulders of previous incarnations in Frankenstein’s Monster or The Wolf Man. This is even more stifled in the third outing by not only losing its initial lead in Acquanetta, and even losing its first choice replacement in Betty Bryant, who was dropped two days into the shoot, but mainly due to subjecting the creature into the background, thrusting the maniacal doctor front and centre and in doing so, casts the Ape Woman into the shadows.
Following on from the relative hit of Captive Wild Woman the year before, Universal felt strongly that they had a potential hit series on their hands, especially with “exotic beauty” Acquanetta in their stable to recreate her character of Paula Dupree aka The Ape Woman.
Universal later revealed that Jungle Woman was an ashamed attempt to rewrite Cat People with a woman transforming into an ape instead of a leopard. Naturally this would be difficult to translate as the sexual feline factor is lost and as such, rewrites were put in place to make the transition psychological instead.
J. Carrol Naish plays a more than accomplished role as Dr. Carl Fletcher, whose character is in stark contrast to John Carradine’s warped and twisted Dr. Sigmund Walters from the previous film. This is a deliberate ploy on the part of the screenwriters, Bernard L. Schubert, Henry Sucher and Edward Dein as they present Dr Fletcher on trial for the murder of Paula Dupree at the start of the film, leaving the audience to question how genuine his plee of innocence claims to be. This is weighted even more so when he professes his guilt until he is then forced to tell the true story through a feature length flashback.
The trouble is that the plot is essentially an incredibly weak one and doesn’t offer a lot in expanding the universe or subjecting any real terror on the audience.
The film finds Paula Dupree in an insane asylum having been taken under Dr. Fletcher’s wing after he witnesses the climax of the last film. Dr. Fletcher is fascinated by this animal magnetism that Paula presents, but fails to realise the true threat that she possesses, especially as her jealousy is fuelled once more when she falls for Bob (Douglass Dumbrille).
Unfortunately, Bob only has eyes for Joan (Lois Collier), Dr Fletcher’s daughter and with it our love triangle is formed.
The beats are all too familiar and the film shuffles along without any real purpose or direction, so when the inevitable conclusion does arise, we’re left a little bereft of satisfaction.
Jungle Woman does benefit from some early cameos though from Evelyn Ankers (who continues to impress on my journey through the Universal vault) and Milburn Stone who both return to reprise their roles and present the case for Dr. Fletcher’s defence.
The film would ultimately be the last for Acquanetta and Universal as the model felt that she was being used and thus refused to renew her contract, despite the production company having bold plans for her to return again.