April 25, 2011

Horrifying Health Care

Night Monster (1942)

Several weeks ago I was joking with a co-worker that my pets (3 dogs and 3 cats) enjoy far better health care than I do: I can always get them an appointment within a day or two; the office wait time is minimal; and the vets and the techs are always smiling and giving the critters lots of love and attention. I, on the other hand, sometimes wait weeks for an appointment, and when I do get there… well, let's just say I've gained a wealth of knowledge about not-so-current events and sports from thumbing through dog-eared magazines in the waiting (and waiting, and waiting) room.

I sometimes wonder what it would be like to be wealthy enough to afford the kind of lavish attention that my animals get-- cheerful, top-notch professionals who have all the time in the world to listen to your complaints, empathize, and do something about them. Of course, money doesn't always buy happiness, or even competent doctors-- Michael Jackson being a recent spectacular example.

Night Monster's wealthy recluse Kurt Ingston (Ralph Morgan) seems to have been similarly cursed with incompetent medical help, leaving him a bedridden quadriplegic. The film opens on an ominous note, as Ingston's anxious sister Margaret (Fay Helm) confronts the housekeeper (Doris Lloyd) hunched over on the main stairs of the family mansion. It appears-- at least to Margaret-- that the housekeeper is mopping up blood. The housekeeper, whose attempt at a poker face is a clear failure, dismisses the idea as ridiculous, but Margaret is having none of it:  "Blood-- the whole house reeks of it. The air is charged with death and hatred and something that's unclean!"  She knows what she's seen, but the staff of Ingston Towers seem intent on trying to convince her that she's just suffering from nervous exhaustion… or insanity.

If Margaret Ingston is insane, then Milly the maid (Janet Shaw) is too, because she's become so spooked that she's quit her job and tried unsuccessfully to get the local constable to investigate all the "funny business" going on at the Towers. The body of the local doctor has recently been discovered in the nearby slough. The locals (including Milly) are full of stories about a deadly thing that walks the fog-covered grounds at night-- and when it walks, all the frogs in the slough become deathly silent. After having words with the imperious head butler (Bela Lugosi), Milly heads out to the village to find help in moving out. Her big mistake is going back for her things-- trapped in the malignant mansion after dark without a ride, she sets out on foot-- and promptly the frogs stop croaking…

At this point, so many visitors start arriving at the Towers that it's hard to tell all the players apart without a scorecard. Dr. Lynn Harper (Irene Hervey), a psychiatrist summoned by the anxious Margaret, has car trouble just outside the estate and is picked up by Dick Baldwin (Don Porter), a mystery writer and neighbor of the Ingstons.  Meanwhile, three doctors -- King (Lionel Atwill), Phipps (Francis Pierlot) and Timmons (Frank Reicher)  -- arrive at the nearby train station. They presided over the botched operation that left Ingston without functioning arms or legs, but have been invited out to the mansion by the apparently forgiving millionaire, who promises that he will soon make "a major contribution to medical science." King is a puffed-up twit who refuses to admit that they catastrophically failed their wealthy patient; Phipps can talk about nothing but glands-- only Timmons seems truly remorseful and sensitive to the limitations of medical science. That night at dinner, the wheelchair-bound Ingston reassures Timmons and his colleagues that "you did all that medical science could do for me. You know, I don't think you've ever been properly rewarded… but you will be…"

Ingston introduces the doctors and the other guests to Agor Singh (Nils Asther), an eastern mentalist / Yogi who has been living at the Towers for some time. Intelligent, soft-spoken and urbane, Singh is a distinct contrast to the three bickering stooges of the traditional medical establishment.  The impish Ingston seems to positively revel in the doctors' discomfort as he talks about the arcane methods he has learned from Singh to allow a man to grow new tissues at will. The arrogant Dr. King stalks off, muttering that he doesn't have time to watch "the cheap sideshow tricks of a charlatan." But the rest of the dinner party is treated to an amazing demonstration of Singh's power to tap into universal "vibrations" and materialize objects with just the power of his mind. After the spooky demonstration, there is no doubt that the incompetent doctors (even the remorseful Timmons) will soon be getting their just rewards…

As the doctors come to their "rewards" one by one in the gloomy mansion, Dick and Lynn (along with crusty, homespun constable Beggs played by Robert Homans) go into super-sleuth mode, breaking into locked rooms and puzzling over blood spots that don't appear to be from the victims. Late into the proceedings, Margaret insists to Dick and Lynn that her brother Kurt is behind the killings-- he's been brooding over his crippled condition to the point of insanity, and has lured the doctors to the Towers to punish them for their incompetence. Figuring that he's been faking paralysis, Dick convinces the constable to confront the master of the house, only to discover that Ingston has been covering up the fact that he has no legs!  But then, maybe, just maybe, this Eastern-mystic notion of mind over matter isn't so crazy after all.

Bela does his patented arched eyebrow.
Night Monster is a neat little B thriller in the "old dark house" tradition with some memorable twists and a very competent cast. Although Bela Lugosi is top-billed, he's completely wasted as the head butler who has little more to do than knit his brows, roll his eyes, and occasionally stare malevolently at the other players. Ralph Morgan (brother of "Wizard of Oz" Frank Morgan) is by turns ingratiating and sinister as he manipulates the flustered doctors like a cat playing with three cornered mice. Morgan lent his talents to several other mystery-horrors in the '40s, including Weird Woman (1944; with Lon Chaney Jr.), The Monster Maker (1944), and The Monster and the Ape (1945). Lionel Atwill is his usual screen-chewing self as the pompous Dr. King-- unfortunately he gets bumped off early (the screenwriter should have saved the best for last). Fay Helm (Margaret Ingston) had been victimized by The Wolf Man (1941) just a year before Night Monster. She appeared in a couple of dozen more programmers through the mid-1940s, including a Universal Inner Sanctum mystery with Lon Chaney Jr. (Calling Dr. Death, 1943) and the top-notch film noir Phantom Lady (1944). Baby-boomers may recognize Ingston's randy chauffeur played by a very young Leif Erikson. Erikson was a major presence on TV through the 1970s (especially in westerns), appearing in such series as The Virginian (1964-65) and The High Chaparral (1967-71).

Although it drags in places, Night Monster is a very effective and very dark B programmer. Charles Van Enger's superb cinematography and Ford Beebe's assured direction enhance some very chilling moments. Dr. Timmon's demise is particularly notable-- as he cowers in a darkened corner of his massive bedroom, a menacing shadow first covers half of his quivering form, then envelops him completely as the thing casting the shadow runs full speed at him. No less a film titan than Alfred Hitchcock is said to have admired Night Monster. Director Beebe recalled Night Monster with some fondness (quoted in Richard Borjarski's The Complete Films of Bela Lugosi):
Though it was a 'quickie,' I always was kind of proud of it. Hitchcock, who was also making a picture on the lot, screened a rough cut because he was interested in Janet Shaw for a part in his film, and was impressed with Night Monster and seemed to think it was a much more important picture than the studio thought. He couldn't believe the picture was shot in 11 days.
Night Monster is available on DVD as part of the excellent Universal Horror Classic Movie Archive set.

"There's a lot of funny business going on out here that you oughta look into before it's too late!"

April 10, 2011

Slip Slidin' in Time

The Atomic Man (aka Timeslip; 1955)

With the ongoing Japanese nuclear crisis, radioactivity is once again front-and-center in the news and in the public mind throughout the world. We root for the courageous Japanese people and the heroic workers risking their lives to stabilize the crippled reactors, while at the same time wondering, "can it happen here?" And we hope that out of tragedy a new understanding and a healthy prudence emerge concerning technologies that can be very beneficial, yet very dangerous when best laid plans go awry. Such thoughts and anxieties inevitably seep into the broader popular culture.

NPR recently ran a piece about nuclear anxieties as reflected in movies over the decades: "Movie Mutants Give a Face to Our Nuclear Fears." The piece quotes historian Bill Tsutsui as saying that in the wake of the United States' atomic bombings of Japan at the end of WWII and the H-bomb tests in the Pacific in the 1950s, the public at large did not understand nuclear power or radiation: "Radiation needed a face in the 1950s, and the giant ants in Them! and the monster in Godzilla provided a horrible external representation of what that could be."

Another, more modest sci-fi thriller that tried to put a "face" on radiation in the '50s is The Atomic Man, from UK's Merton Park Studios. The film delivers its screwy, nuclear-powered plot inside of a mystery-thriller wrapper. Add to the mix a hard-boiled, wisecracking reporter lifted straight out of a 1930s crime potboiler, and you've got one of the decade's more unusual, if not particularly spectacular, B sci-fi thrillers.

Mike Delaney (Gene Nelson) is a down-on-his-luck reporter (is there any other kind?) who's gotten on his boss' bad side and been assigned to cover the opening of a clinic. Nosing around the magazine offices, he spies a fellow reporter's photo of a mystery man who's been shot and fished out of the harbor more dead than alive. The man in the photo is surrounded by a weird glow, which no one can explain. Naturally, he senses a big story.

On the operating table, the mystery man's heart stops, and the medical team is unable to revive him. As they prepare to clean up, the supposed dead man's eyes open wide, terrifying a nurse. Now, not only is he a mystery, he's a medical miracle as well.

Meanwhile, the ever curious Delaney is sure he's seen the man before. He searches the magazine's photo library and comes up with a dead-on match for the gunshot victim-- a photo of famous nuclear physicist Stephen Rayner (Peter Arne), better known as "the Isotope Man." With his photographer assistant and girlfriend Jill Rabowski (Faith Domergue) in tow, he contacts the police with his find. They agree that the victim is the spitting image of Rayner. There's only one problem-- when the police and Delaney visit the London institute where Rayner is supposed to be working, they find that the scientist is quite well and mystified by his resemblance to the hospitalized man. However, Delaney is still suspicious-- the man claiming to be Rayner has a couple of bandages on his face. His explanation that he was rear-ended in an automobile accident and he went through the windshield doesn't sound quite right…

Even though he's been canned from the magazine, Delaney is convinced he's onto the scoop of the century. The Rayner double recovering in the hospital gives strange, seemingly incoherent answers when the doctors and the reporter try to interview him. Suspecting a brain injury, the doctor orders an X-ray, which is completely clouded, as if another radiation source were interfering with the equipment. Delaney becomes convinced that the man's symptoms and the strange cloudiness of his photos and X-rays point to radioactive contamination. A radioactive man who looks exactly like a world-renowned nuclear physicist can't be a coincidence!

"Pile On!" A technician fires up the nuclear reactor.
Now doubly suspicious of the man claiming to be Rayner, Delaney trips him up with a question about the real Rayner's past. Additional clues gleaned from Rayner's double lead Delaney and Jill to a South American company that supplies a good portion of the world's tungsten and a shadowy man named Vasquo (Vic Perry). Delaney learns that Rayner was working on creating elements (tungsten?) in the lab using atomic power. Putting two and two together, he begins to realize the depths of a conspiracy that not only endangers Rayner's lab and its work, but possibly the whole of London itself!

The clever sci-fi hook in all of this is a side plot involving a very unique form of time travel. It seems that the real Rayner, whom Delaney describes as a "living A-bomb," owes his life to years of exposure to radioactivity (?!) After another fruitless interview at the hospital where Rayner responds to questions with nonsensical answers, Jill observes that "it's as if he's answering our questions before we've even asked them!" Delaney proves that is exactly what is happening by playing back a tape of the conversation and having Jill read the questions exactly 7.5 seconds before they were asked-- the amount of time Rayner was clinically dead on the operating table. Rayner is living 7.5 seconds ahead of the rest of the world!

Delaney manages to consult with top scientists, including a "psycho-neurologist" (Dr. Marks, played by uncredited Carl Jaffe with a heavy accent). The good doctor treats us to one of the more unusual scientific theories expounded in a B movie of the '50s -- something about Rayner's radioactive state keeping his brain alive while his heart stopped, and his brain whipsawing into the future as he was brought back from clinical death (see the clip below).

The crackpot science underlying much of The Atomic Man -- especially the notion of a nuclear scientist being routinely exposed to high doses of radiation in his work and surviving -- is a mark of the naive 1950s. After all, this was a time of open-air H-bomb tests presided over by military brass and scientists who clearly did not yet grasp the extent and the danger of fallout. Come to think of it, maybe naive scientists of that era really did expose themselves to vast amounts of radiation, knowingly or unknowingly!

Several reviewers have faulted Atomic Man for not making more of Rayner's intriguing time-slip. To me, the plot device is a sort of Hitchcockian MacGuffin that baffles the protagonists and ratchets up the suspense, preventing them from discovering the conspiracy until it's almost too late. While certainly not up to the level of even average Hitchcock, Atomic Man is still fast-paced and reasonably well-acted. As for Gene Nelson's anachronistic wisecracking reporter complete with rumpled porkpie hat-- you can either accept it as an homage to a classic 1930s-era character, or let it ruin the movie for you (I recommend the former). For me, Nelson's performance added much needed life and humor to the film.

Nelson began his performing career as a dancer, touring with the Sonja Henie ice show before joining the army in World War II. The peak of his acting career was the role of lasso-twirling cowboy Will Parker in Oklahoma! (1955). After that he concentrated on directing films and TV, working up to the late 1970s on series like Fantasy Island and Quincey, M.E. He died in 1996.

Faith Domergue is well-known to fans for her roles in two sci-fi classics made around the same time as The Atomic Man: This Island Earth (1955) and It Came From Beneath the Sea (1955). Like many actors and actresses of the era who didn't quite make it on the big screen, she went on to guest star in quite a few TV shows in the 1960s. Outside of sci-fi fandom, she's best known for her affair with a much older Howard Hughes, who lured her away from Warner Bros. and signed her to his RKO Studios in the early 1940s. Faith's affair with the multi-millionaire is given a few minutes of screen time in Martin Scorcese's biopic The Aviator (2004; Kelli Garner plays Faith).

All-in-all, The Atomic Man is a neat, noirish thriller with a unique sci-fi subplot. The film can be viewed online at the Internet Archive; a DVD-R copy is available from Sinister Cinema.

Dr. Marks carefully explains how atomic scientist Rayner managed to slip 7.5 seconds ahead in time (take notes-- there will be a quiz later):

April 2, 2011

"Put the Mask on NOW!"

The Mask (1961)

I recently had a spirited discussion with my stepson about Inception (2010). Like many IMDb users, he thought it was the stand-out movie in a fairly mediocre set of best picture Oscar nominees. He was wowed by the special effects and impressed by the story's complexity. While conceding the mastery of its visual design, I told him I was somewhat put-off by the cold, analytical nature of the whole thing. The characters are mostly arrogant, grim, and unlikable. The movie and its protagonists move along like a computer program from one visual set piece to the next with not even a smidgeon of humor or humanity to offset the relentless, oppressive atmosphere. But perhaps the movie's worst failing for me is its treatment of dreams. In Inception's universe, dreams, like real life, obey physical laws that can be managed if you only know the rules. They're just another tool for some "Impossible Dream Missions" team to exploit in a dog-eat-dog world. Yuck! In my universe, dreams are fascinating because they don't follow any discernible rules, and you never know what to expect when your head hits the pillow. And they can't be managed by grim technocrats.  If you want to see the latest tech effects wizardry applied to some imaginative concepts, i.e., the city of Paris folding in on itself, then see Inception. But there are other, older movies out there that do a much better job of capturing the awe and mystery of dreams (and the horror of nightmares) with a fraction of a fraction of Inception's budget.

The Mask, made for around $250,000, does a damn good job of spooking the viewer with visions that seem like a mad blending of Salvador Dali, Poe, and H.P. Lovecraft. One of its alternate titles describes it succinctly: The Spooky Movie Show (I can just imagine an ad man furiously jotting down the reactions of wide-eyed kids as they exited the theater and voila! -- coming up with that gem). The Mask's wild visions/dreams/nightmares definitely do not follow any discernible rules, and they most certainly are beyond any human control. Mask does share one theme with Inception-- it too has a self-confident professional who is fascinated by the power of the dream visions, and who thinks he can ultimately understand and harness them. Predictably, this arrogance and overconfidence very quickly leads to his undoing. There are no dream "architects" here-- just hapless humans in thrall to ancient, evil forces beyond their comprehension.

In good "Screenwriting 101" fashion, the movie starts out with action and suspense -- in the dead of night, a terrified woman is pursued by a pale, hypnotized-looking man. He catches her and starts to strangle her. In the struggle, she rakes the side of his face with her fingernails. Cut to an office in mid-day, where young archaeologist Michael Radin (Martin Lavut), scratches on his face, is trying to tell psychiatrist Allan Barnes (Paul Stevens) that he is trapped in a "living nightmare." He's certain he's being hypnotized by an ancient South American ceremonial mask recently acquired by his museum-- and it's commanding him to do horrible things. Like all good, rational doctors, Barnes tries to calm Michael down, reassuring him that the horrors are not real, but rather creations of his mind. Frustrated that Barnes doesn't believe him and can't possibly help, Michael storms out.

The desperate Michael packs up the evil artifact and mails it to Barnes. Mission accomplished, he shoots himself. The police are called in, and in spite of the obvious physical evidence of suicide, Lt. Martin (Bill Walker) senses something else going on, and sets out to investigate further. He starts at Radin's museum, where the director fills him in on the legend of the ceremonial mask-- how it was connected with human sacrifice, and how it can put its wearer into a trance and get him/her to do unspeakable things. Martin moves on to the psychiatrist, who was one of the last people to see Radin alive. In a nice Hitchcock-like touch, Detective Martin interviews the doctor with the unopened box containing the mask right there in plain view on his desk.

After the interview, Barnes opens the box and stares at the key to his patient's suicide. The package also comes with a letter from Michael --  a disturbing testament to the Mask's evil power, and a kind of mocking challenge to the skeptical doctor to see for himself (see the clip below). Michael's words from beyond the grave turn into a forceful command -- "Put the mask on NOW!"  -- and we realize that it's now the Mask itself that is speaking.  Barnes of course heeds the command, and we're off to the races -- the command is also the audience's cue to put on their 3-D glasses (in my case, a pair of the classic anaglyph red-blue glasses that came with the DVD).

The Mask breathes fire at the viewer.
The nightmarish world that we and Barnes experience is shot in 3-D, while the "real" world is shot in flat, washed-out black and white. The irony -- surely intentional? -- is that the nightmares seem more real (or at least more solid) to the viewer. Disembodied eyeballs fly out of the screen; a giant skull breathes fire into the viewer's face; severed hands clutch at the air -- and meanwhile in the supposedly real world, worried "flat-landers" scurry around, trying to make sense of it all. Interestingly, almost all of  the denizens of the Mask's hellish world themselves wear masks. A mute, youngish (?) man with a Beatles haircut and outfitted with a mask and tattered, shredded clothes wanders through all of the dream sequences, bouncing like a hypnotized ping-pong ball from one horror to another. He seems to represent the ego (or perhaps the subconscious) of the person wearing the mask (Barnes).

Rather than being horrified and repulsed after his initial trip into the Mask's world, a flushed and enthusiastic Barnes declares to his girlfriend Pam (Claudette Nevins) that "there's much to be learned here, of man's most secret mind, of a world that exists even deeper than the subconscious!"  Pam responds: "I only see that it's ugly and cruel." Like a powerful narcotic, the Mask has hooked the overconfident doctor, who, as a trained psychiatrist, thinks he can handle it. Unfortunately for him (but fortunately for the viewer), he's dead wrong, and as a result, an increasingly obsessed, manic Barnes takes repeated trips into the hellish dreamworld. Meanwhile, Pam and Barnes' mentor Prof. Quincey (Norman Ettlinger) become increasingly worried, and take desperate measures to wean him from the evil thing. Also closing in on Barnes is the dogged Lt. Martin, who begins to understand that the young archaeologist's suicide was not the end of the Mask's malign influence. As the film builds to its climax, the nightmare sequences become even more bizarre and horrifying. The burning question: is there enough of Barnes' rational brain left to resist the Mask, or will he too succumb to murder and suicide?

Beware the hypnotic "eyes of light"!
From the user reviews I've read on IMDb and elsewhere, the consensus among the small group of dedicated horror fans who've managed to watch it recently is that while the dream sequences are quirky and interesting, the rest of it is dull, and the acting is average to poor. This seems to me way too harsh, and is probably due to the tendency of many to judge yesterday's films by today's standards. While it may not be a forgotten masterpiece, all aspects of Mask's production are at least competent, and the eerily imaginative dream sequences are as unique as anything I've seen in commercial film (with the exception of Eraserhead). Slavko Vorkapich (gotta love that name!) is credited with the surreal sequences, but the IMDb trivia section for the film quotes an article in Filmfax (#25) as saying that Slavko's concepts were judged too expensive to execute, and that director Julian Roffman did much of the work himself. (Vorkapich's resume includes a number of "montages" and "montage effects" for films in the 1930's and '40s.)

Canadian Julian Roffman directed only one other film, The Bloody Brood (1959), a "juvenile-delinquents-gone-wrong" B movie starring Peter Falk in the early phase of his career. He also wrote and produced; a producer credit that horror buffs might recognize is The Pyx (1973) starring Karen Black and Christopher Plummer. That one is about a detective who uncovers evidence of a murderous devil cult while investigating the death of a prostitute.

Despite the IMDb user consensus, I think the acting ranges from average to quite good. Paul Stevens (Dr. Barnes) is a very recognizable face to anyone who watched a lot of TV (like me) in the 1960s and '70s. He is very good as the overconfident scientist who thinks he can handle and even learn from the evil power of the mask. Claudette Nevins is also quite good as the girlfriend trying to save Barnes from himself and the malevolent artifact. And Norman Ettlinger is very believable as Barnes' mentor Prof. Quincy, who, with Pam, intervenes to try to get Barnes off this otherworldly "drug."

I first saw The Mask in the late 1960s (or thereabouts). A local TV station teamed up with the area's Burger Chef restaurants to distribute 3-D glasses for their upcoming broadcast. While I was disappointed then with the 3-D effects -- as you might expect, cheap glasses combined with an old, slightly fuzzy TV does not work that well --  I was still intrigued by it. Seeing it again recently (this time on DVD, a flat screen TV, and… the same old cheap glasses), I was struck by how well it held up after all that time, even with primitive anaglyph 3-D effects. The Mask is available in a couple of DVD editions. If any of the above sounds interesting, I urge you to see for yourself… and "put the Mask on NOW!"

"Get ready... Steel your nerves... and put the Mask on NOW!"