October 20, 2011

Countdown to Halloween: 13 Classic Fright Flicks

Have you noticed that big box retailers don't even wait for the end of October to start stocking Christmas goodies? One aisle over from the fake headstones, foam rubber bats and plastic skeletons at my local Target store is an advance guard of Christmas lights, ornaments and wreaths, waiting to take over and shove the Halloween stuff into the sale bins the moment the clock strikes midnight, November 1.

As much as I appreciate the winter holidays, they need to wait their turn. This is the season of big ol' full moons, howling dogs, leaves blowing in the wind, Halloween, and of course, horror movies. If Christmas can have twelve days, then I think it's only right that Halloween gets thirteen frightful nights. And what better way to celebrate than with a nice, cozy horror film each night?

So, for the next thirteen nights, I'll be using this blog to let you know what I'm watching. We all have our favorites that we like to dust off and pop in the DVD player this time of year -- use the comment box or send me a note about what you prefer to watch as the night wind whistles through the eaves and the dogs howl outside.

HAlloween MoVie rating:
Perfectly Ghoulish
In 1921 London, brilliant sculptor and wax museum proprietor Ivan Igor (Lionel Atwill) learns to his delight that his wax figures of Joan of Arc and Marie Antoinette have so impressed an influential art critic, that the critic intends to submit Igor's work to the Royal Academy of Art. His dreams are short-lived, however, as that very night his disgruntled business backer tells him that they're completely broke -- the public seems to prefer the morbid exhibits of Jack the Ripper and other notorious murderers at a rival museum. He tells the startled artist that the only way they can recover the money they've lost is to burn the museum down and claim the insurance. Igor tries to stop the desperate businessman from lighting the place up, but after a bitter struggle, he ends up dazed, watching his beloved figures melt in the conflagration.

Flash ahead 12 years, to 1933 New York. In the midst of a raucous New Year's celebration, the body of socialite model Joan Gale (Monica Bannister) is carted off to the morgue, an apparent suicide. Wisecracking, fast talking female reporter Florence Dempsey (Glenda Farrell) is desperate for a story, as her editor (Frank McHugh) keeps threatening to fire her if she doesn't come up with something newsworthy. On a visit to police headquarters, she gets a tip that Gale may have been murdered by her wealthy playboy boyfriend George Winton (Gavin Gordon). Things really look suspicious when Gale's body is reported missing by the morgue attendants. Florence has her scoop. Visiting Winton in lock-up, she begins to believe he's innocent. Then there's the fact that 8 other bodies have gone missing in the city in the last 18 months.

Winton is released for lack of evidence. In the meantime, Florence accompanies her roommate Charlotte (Fay Wray) to the new "London Wax Museum," where her fiance Ralph works as a sculptor. The museum is being readied for its grand opening. Nosy Florence slips into the building as Charlotte and Ralph talk. She takes a long look at the main attraction, an amazingly lifelike Joan of Arc, who also happens to look amazingly like the recently deceased Joan Gale. The museum is run by Igor, now bound to a wheelchair, with horribly burned hands and legs. He employs the bedraggled, drug-addicted Professor Darcy (Arthur Edmund Carewe), and Hugo, a sinister deaf-mute (Matthew Betz).

As Igor confronts Florence and shows her the door, he spots roommate Charlotte, who is the very embodiment of the cherished Marie Antoinette figure he lost in the London fire. Entranced with Charlotte, Igor is oblivious to Florence, who does some more snooping. She discovers Joan Gale's morgue tag near the Joan of Arc figure. As she grabs Charlotte to leave the museum, she blithely tells Igor, "So long Pops, see you in jail!"

Later that night at the museum opening, Florence enlists Winton to help her follow Darcy, who she suspects is somehow tied in with the morgue theft. Following him into a dark building, she finds a long box -- just the size to contain a body -- down in the cellar. She hides as a hideously scarred man in black comes down the cellar steps and starts dragging the box. The man hears footsteps and quickly steals away. She summons the police, some of whom take off after Darcy as he tries to run away, with the others accompanying Florence to the cellar to examine the contents of the box. They discover that it's filled with illegal liquor-- the building is home to a bootlegging operation, run by none other than Igor's old nefarious business partner. The police capture Darcy who apparently works for both the museum and the bootlegger.

As the police search and interrogate Darcy, they find the engraved watch of judge who had gone missing some time before. Florence has yet another scoop as Darcy, and his employer Igor, are now connected with a second disappearance. Desperate for a fix, Darcy gives it up, telling the police that the new wax museum is in reality a morgue itself, with the wax-covered bodies of Joan Gale, the judge, and others serving as "lifelike" attractions.

The crazed Igor promises Charlotte immortality.
Meanwhile, Charlotte, looking for fiance Ralph at the museum, instead finds creepy Igor. The old man, entranced with his "Marie Antoinette," gets up out of his wheelchair-- obviously not quite as crippled as he let on. He stalks her, then corners her, promising her immortality as an exhibit in his museum…

Directed by Warner Bros. master craftsman Michael Curtiz (who would later win an Oscar for Casablanca), Mystery of the Wax Museum is a lively, if somewhat jarring, mix of wise-cracking reporters, spooky wax figures (some portrayed by live, but very still, actors), and shadowy, expressionistic sets. Employing top talent in every department, it's a true mystery-thriller-horror classic of the 1930s.

Key player: Lionel Atwill, playing a literal two-faced villain in Mystery, fancied himself a sort of Jekyll and Hyde type. In a 1933 interview with Motion Picture magazine, he had this to say about his dual nature: "See, one side of my face is gentle and kind, incapable of anything but love of my fellow man. The other side, the other profile, is cruel and predatory and evil, incapable of anything but the lusts and dark passions. It all depends on which side of my face is turned toward you -- or the camera. It all depends on which side faces the moon at the ebb of the tide." (Paul Meehan, Horror Noir: Where Cinema's Dark Sisters Meet, McFarland, 2011)

Frightful Factoid #1: Mystery was the last major studio movie to be released in the two-color Technicolor process (red and green dyes were combined to produce a limited color spectrum). Three-color Technicolor had already been introduced in 1932, and audiences were clearly not enamored with the more primitive technology. (Wikipedia, Mystery of the Wax Museum)

Frightful Factoid #2: After two-color Technicolor became defunct, many studios threw away the negatives of the obsolete films. Mystery was thought to be a casualty of this policy and a lost film until 1970, when a good 35mm print was found in Jack Warner's personal vault on the Warner Bros. lot. (Wikipedia)

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