October 27, 2011

Countdown to Halloween: Girls Just Wanna Have Frightful Fun

HAlloween MoVie rating:
Directed to Older Children &
Nostalgic Adults -
emale Violence
The business of being evil in the movies has always been an equal-opportunity occupation. But being an out-and-out monster-- that's pretty much been a male preserve (at least where the gender of the monster can be determined). Pretty much, but not completely.

Today's female monsters tend to be Ann Rice & Twilight-inspired vampires or bio-engineered sci-fi creatures (e.g., Splice, 2009), with an assortment of anonymous female zombies thrown in for good measure. Yesteryear's feminine monstrosities included vampires (naturally), malevolent ghosts (e.g., The Uninvited, 1944) and the occasional shape shifter (e.g., Simone Simon in Cat People, 1942). They are a small, but interesting group.

Here then, just in time for Halloween, are three vintage films featuring frightful females upending gender roles and generally wreaking havoc:

Count Dracula is dead, dispatched with a stake through the heart by the relentless Prof. Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan). Van Helsing confesses the deed to two bumbling constables who promptly cuff him and haul him off to jail as a murderer. The bodies of the Count and the mad Renfield are stored in the police station pending autopsy. A mysterious woman dressed in black shows up at the station and hypnotizes the officer guarding the bodies. The woman is next seen lighting a body on an immense pyre, exalting that now that Count Dracula is dead, she's "free to take my place in the bright world of the living." Her gaunt, corpse-like assistant Sandor (Irving Pichel) is not so sure.

Meanwhile, Van Helsing is having a hard time convincing Scotland Yard chief inspector Sir Basil Humphrey (Gilbert Emery) and an old friend and former student, psychiatrist Jeffrey Garth (Otto Kruger), that he is sane and vampires are real. If he can't, he'll be convicted of murder and go to the gallows. Medical and law enforcement authorities are still puzzling over victims -- first a man, then a woman -- who have been drained of blood and have curious puncture wounds over their jugular veins. Van Helsing realizes that there is still a vampire loose in London, and his work is not yet done.

Countess Zaleska wonders if she is forever
doomed to be a creature of the night.
Garth is highly skeptical of his mentor's obsession with vampires. He begins to warm up to the idea, however, when he encounters the exotic and beautiful Countess Marya Zaleska (Gloria Holden) at a high society party. She latches onto the idea that the doctor can save her from a very bad condition that she can't reveal in very much detail, but is causing her great emotional pain. Garth's beautiful and lively assistant Janet Blake (Marguerite Churchill) sees the Countess as nothing but bad news, and Garth and Janet almost part ways over the exotic mystery woman.

Garth begins to put two and two together, seeing that the beautiful Countess shuns mirrors, and hearing from Van Helsing that vampires loathe the things. And then there are the victims with bite marks on their necks. Modern psychiatry may not be up to the task of curing what ails the beautiful Countess, but she will go to great lengths to ensure Dr. Garth's cooperation…

Key player: Trained as an interpretive dancer and operetta singer, Gloria Holden reportedly detested the role of the Countess, even though she'd had virtually no movie experience at the time she was hired. Her exotic looks didn't get her very far in Hollywood, as she labored in a number of supporting parts before her last film, Has Anybody Seen My Gal?, in 1952. (Tom Weaver, et. al., Universal Horrors: The Studio's Classic Films, 1931-1946, 2nd. Ed., McFarland, 2007)

Dracula's Daughter is part of the Count's extended family on the Dracula: The Legacy Collection DVD set.

According to an old New Orleans legend, beautiful Marie Latour turned into a werewolf and killed her wealthy husband before disappearing forever. The Latour mansion is now a museum of the occult and headquarters for Dr. Charles Morris (Fritz Leiber), a noted scholar working to uncover the Latour mystery. The elder Morris summons his son, chemist Bob Morris (Stephen Crane), from Washington to share a major break in his research. A janitor working at the museum steals away to a local gypsy camp to tell the gypsy princess (Nina Foch) that Dr. Morris has found the secret grave of Madame Latour and is planning to write a book. The princess vows that he will never reveal the secrets he's discovered.

Dr. Morris discovers a devil doll -- an omen of death -- on his desk, but dismisses its significance. Later that night, he opens a secret door next to the fireplace and disappears into a dark passage. Peter the museum tour guide (John Abbott) hears screams and a wolf's howl coming from behind the fireplace, and races down the passageway to investigate. Later, son Bob and the Doctor's beautiful assistant Elsa (Osa Massen), along with a guard, discover Peter stumbling about the main room, mumbling incoherently, his mind seemingly gone. Elsa notices what looks like the Doctor's manuscript burning in the fireplace-- she saves what she can.

Dr. Morris appears to have been killed by a wild animal. The police are baffled, as they find human fingerprints at the scene, and wolf hairs under the dead man's fingernails. Meanwhile, Bob and Elsa (who are very fond of one another) use their scientific skills to try to preserve and read what they can from the burnt manuscript. The little that they can decipher refers to the burial practices of the local gypsies.

Bob, hoping that this little piece of information will help in solving the mystery of his father's death, visits a local mortician who works with the gypsies in laying their dead to rest. The mortician tells Bob he can't reveal any records of his clients, but while he's distracted, Bob steals into the mortuary basement to see what he can find. The Princess finds out about Bob's interest, and follows him into the basement. The clicking of her high heels suddenly turns into the soft padding of a wild animal's paws…

The Princess will stop at nothing, including using the dark arts of her ancestors, to prevent the Latour secret from being revealed.

Key player: Nina Foch (born Nina Consuelo Maud Fock) secured a Columbia contract at the ripe old age of 19 and debuted in 1944's The Return of the Vampire with Bela Lugosi. Although she spent most of her movie career doing B pictures, she thoroughly loved the craft of acting. She scored glowing reviews on Broadway in the late '40s, and earned an Oscar nomination for her supporting role in the star-studded film Executive Suite (1954). Later, the multi-talented Foch (she was also an accomplished pianist and artist) directed plays and taught acting at USC.

Cry of the Werewolf recently debuted on TCM. It doesn't appear to be available on DVD.

Phyllis Allenby (June Lockhart) lives with her "Aunt" Martha (Sara Haden) and "Cousin" Carol (Jan Wiley) in a mansion in an old residential part of London (she learns later that Martha and Carol aren't relatives at all and that she is the sole heir to the house -- make a note, this could be relevant later on). A series of attacks in a nearby park that seem to be the work of a wild animal have started to infect her mind. She has terrible nightmares, and after each horrible night, she finds that her slippers and nightdress are wet and muddy. Convinced that she's under the spell of an old family curse (of lycanthropy no less!), she breaks off her engagement with earnest barrister Barry Lanfield (Don Porter) and locks herself up in the old house.

A Scotland Yard inspector with a superstitious streak (Lloyd Corrigan) is firmly convinced a werewolf is to blame for the attacks -- in short order he falls victim to the shadowy thing. Level-headed Barry thinks there's a more human agency involved, and investigates on his own. Meanwhile, kindly Martha insists that Phyllis down a nice glass of warm milk before bed each night…

Key player: June Lockhart, born into an acting family, had already appeared in A pictures with Bette Davis (All This, and Heaven Too, 1940) and Gary Cooper (Sergeant York, 1941) before appearing in the quick and dirty B programmer She-Wolf. The very next year she became a huge hit in the Broadway comedy For Love or Money, racking up numerous theatre awards including a Tony. Of course, she's most fondly remembered by baby-boomers as the maternal head of the space-family Robinson on Irwin Allen's Lost in Space TV show.

She-Wolf of London is available on the two-disc The Wolf Man: The Legacy Collection.

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