October 27, 2012

Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered

Now Playing: Tormented (1960)

Pros: A very quirky, offbeat story for the time period and genre; Stolid B movie leading man Richard Carlson plays against type; A surprisingly good child actress
Cons: Uneven and misused special effects serve to dissipate the spooky atmosphere and tension

A little while back a friend and I were speculating on what new social media application(s) young people will turn to now that their parents and grandparents have invaded Facebook and ruined it for them.  Facebook investors take note: I've been on it for a year or so now, and the surest sign of the decline and fall of a service like this is when old people like me start grudgingly using it.

The mass exodus of the young from Facebook is just another, though potent, indicator of the widening generation gap. (No doubt my use of an old term like "generation gap" only serves to further that gap-- my apologies to anyone under 30 who might have somehow stumbled upon this post!) Obviously, tensions between the young and the old are part of being human, but from my grumpy old man perspective, the divisions have gotten a lot worse.

Those of you who've lived more than a couple of decades may be thinking, how could the generation gap be any wider than it was in the late '60s and early '70s, with hippies and yippies howling at their scowling elders, burning draft cards and bras, turning on to drugs, tuning in, and dropping out?  In contrast to the Vietnam-era generation, today's youth are generally reserved, rule governed, conformist, and materialistic. In 21st century America, what's not to like about that?

Just this: rebellion is still a form, albeit a crude one, of engaging with your perceived adversary. With engagement, there's hope for resolution or at least an uneasy truce. Some rebellion is a good, healthy thing-- testing boundaries is an essential part of the maturing process. But it seems to me that young people today don't rebel in healthy ways. They simply ignore anything and everything that is not an immediate part of their social circle. Nothing interesting happened or was created before they were born. Nothing interesting or creative will happen after they're gone. It's as if we've unleashed an entire generation of mutant Anthony Fremonts who have banished anything that's not all about them -- their age, their interests, their culture -- to the "cornfields" of their minds (The Twilight Zone's "It's a Good Life").

Richard Carlson is a haunted man in Tormented (1960)
Tom Stewart (Richard Carlson) is bewitched,
bothered and tormented.
But don't take my word for it. The people who create products and services for teens and twenty-somethings know them very well. Take movies (my favorite subject) for example. Have you noticed how adults, not to mention old people, have essentially been banished from most contemporary sci-fi, fantasy and horror films? From Harry Potter to Transformers to Twilight, films aimed at the youth market have either eliminated adult protagonists altogether, or reduced them to the equivalent of the invisible, unintelligible adults who blah, blah, blah with trombone voices in the Charlie Brown animated specials.

It wasn't always so. For every Invasion of the Saucer Men or Giant Gila Monster featuring teen protagonist-heroes, there were at least 2 or 3 sci-fi/fantasy flicks of the '50s and '60s that featured honest-to-goodness adult protagonists, some well into middle age and beyond. Kids flocked to drive-ins and hometown theaters to see these films, and apparently had no problem with significant adult characters.

One very significant adult "character" from 1950s sci-fi was stolid B movie leading man Richard Carlson. He was already in his 40s when he made his first B sci-fi movie, The Magnetic Monster, in 1953 (see the post on this and other Fantastic Faceless Foes of '50s Sci-fi elsewhere on this blog). The classics for which he's known today, It Came From Outer Space and Creature From the Black Lagoon, followed quickly after that (1953 and 1954 respectively). He even found time during that period to direct a sci-fi movie (Riders to the Stars, 1954) and a western (Four Guns to the Border, 1954). Later in the '50s he turned almost exclusively to television, writing and directing as well as acting.

Like his B movie cohorts John Agar and Robert Hutton, Carlson projected a straight-arrow, Dudley Do-Right image in most of his films. He was that square-jawed, intelligent, levelheaded guy you wanted on your side when the chips were down. Almost always. In Tormented, he's a regular, very flawed human being who pays dearly for his indiscretions.

Juli Reding and Richard Carlson
Vi Mason (Juli Reding) confronts her old flame at
the abandoned lighthouse. Watch that handrail!
Carlson plays Tom Stewart, a successful jazz pianist who seems to have it made-- he lives a plush life on a sunny island, and he's about to marry an attractive girl (Meg Hubbard, played by Lugene Sanders) who also happens to come from a wealthy family. There's just one hitch. One of his past flings, the beautiful and buxom Vi Mason (Juli Reding), has tracked him down and wants to resume where they left off. Tom, not wanting to attract the wrong kind of attention, takes Vi to the island's abandoned lighthouse to try to reason with her. Vi's got it bad for Tom-- when he tells her he's getting married, she threatens to send some steamy letters to the bride-to-be. For whatever reason, they've decided to climb all the way to the top of the lighthouse to talk, where Tom catches a "lucky" break. The angry ex-girlfriend leans against an old rusted railing that gives way. As she holds on for dear life to another part of the railing, she pleads for Tom to save her. He leans over, ready to grab her hand, then thinks better of it. Her strength gives out and she falls to her death. Whew, problem solved!!

Well, not quite-- Tom's problems have only just begun. Like the self-obsessed cad he is, Tom tries to tell himself that Vi's death wasn't his fault. But Vi's very active ghost begs to differ. When she told Tom "I'll never leave you, I'll always be with you," she really meant it. Just like a Master Card from Hell, her vengeful spirit starts turning up everywhere Tom wants to be. Walking on the beach, Tom spies her body floating in the surf, picks her up, and carries her onto the beach. As he looks on in horror, the body suddenly morphs into a stinking human-sized pile of seaweed. Later, as Tom and his fiance stroll leisurely along the beach, footprints from an invisible being follow closely behind.

Juli Reding as Vi Mason's ghost
Vi seems to have lost her head over the
suave jazz pianist Tom Stewart.
Tom starts to doubt his sanity as the phantom Vi turns up the heat. As Tom embraces Meg, the smell of Vi's perfume fills the room. Tom's record player starts up all by itself and plays a record of Vi's (she was a singer), even after it's been unplugged. Vi's watch and necklace suddenly show up in the oddest places, while a disembodied hand steals the ring Tom bought for the wedding. Vi's disembodied head floats over the engaged couple in a Polaroid taken at a pre-wedding party.

But Tom's problems aren't all other-worldly. A very corporeal threat in the form of a tugboat captain (Joe Turkel) turns up just before the wedding. Seems he'd been promised money by a beautiful blonde to ferry her over to the island for a visit with a well-known jazz musician. But she hadn't kept her appointment to go back to the mainland, and the boatman knows she didn't take the regular ferry. He puts two and two together, and decides he can make a lot more than just the price of a boat ride off the harried Tom. Big mistake. Tom decides to deal with the blackmailer in the same unsafe lighthouse that took Vi's life, but he just digs a deeper hole for himself. His fiance's little 9 year-old sister Sandy (Susan Gordon) adores Tom, but is concerned about him as he starts losing it from the stress of the hauntings and the blackmail. She follows him to the lighthouse, and sees something she shouldn't… Now Tom's really up the proverbial creek without a paddle. What to do… what to do?!

Susan Gordon as Sandy Hubbard
Susan Gordon as little Sandy is surprisingly good.
Richard Carlson gets big points for playing against the stolid hero type. His role in Tormented is richer and more textured than the characters he played in Creature from the Black Lagoon and It Came from Outer Space. He's a skunk and a murderer, but he also clearly loves his fiance and little Sandy, and is desperate to preserve his future with them. Susan Gordon (daughter of producer-writer-director Bert I. Gordon) is also a delightful surprise-- unlike most child actors of the period, she is natural and engaging, and a real asset to the film. (Sadly, Gordon died of cancer at the age of 62 in December of last year.)

Bert I. Gordon (or Mr. B.I.G.) also gets points for originality. Bert was known for his fixation with all things gigantic (e.g., The Amazing Colossal Man, 1957), so a ghost story was quite a departure for him. In addition to writing, directing and producing, Bert also supervised the special effects for his films. Unfortunately, his penchant for effects serves to subvert the tense, spooky atmosphere of Tormented. Ghosts in the movies are the opposite of children -- they're best heard, not seen (for an absolutely masterful example of how to scare with just sound and suggestion, see Robert Wise's The Haunting, 1963). Vi's ghost is bold, brassy and in-your-face… but not very scary. Bert seems to mistake quantity for quality. He throws every ghostly cliché at the screen -- footprints from an invisible being, disembodied hands and heads, flowers wilting in the ghost's presence, etc., etc. By the time poor Tom holds up Vi's disembodied head as it yells "Tom Stewart killed me!" over and over, we've given up being scared and at best, are mildly curious about what effects stunt Mr. B.I.G. will pull next. (See more about Mr. B.I.G. in my post on The Cyclops.)

Still, what's Halloween without ghosts, however cheesy they may be? Tormented would be a fun, kitschy addition to a ghostly movie marathon with say, The Haunting and The Woman in Black to provide authentic scares. Tormented is available in its entirely on YouTube and the Internet Archive, as well as on DVD from Alpha Video.

"You belong to me Tom... you belong to a ghost!"

October 15, 2012

Of Maya and Madmen

Poster for The Mad Ghoul (1943)
Now Playing: The Mad Ghoul (1943)

Pros: One of George Zucco's better villainous performances; An interesting, varied cast
Cons: A mundane monster; Slow pacing and little suspense

How about them Mayans? (Or rather, how about them Maya people?) More than a thousand years after the collapse of their civilization, they're back in the news with that damned calendar of theirs. If there's anything to this end-of-the-world stuff, then life as we know it (and more importantly, this blog) only has a couple more months left-- until December 21st to be exact. Let's hope there's nothing to it, because I want to reach 500 Facebook friends before I die.

It's a damned shame that a civilization that made so many tremendous advances in architecture, mathematics and astronomy is today known only for that stupid calendar and their bloody human sacrifices (thanks a lot Mel Gibson!).  At least this calendar business has led to a greater understanding of our own culture, namely, that so-called educational television like the Discovery channel will pander to the lowest common denominator to sell eyeballs to advertisers. That is good to know. (Maybe, just maybe, the most important issue this election season really is about saving PBS from the chopping block-- I know Big Bird wouldn't try to sell me an apocalyptic bill of goods about the Mayan calendar!)

A slide from Prof. Morris' lecture on Mayan poison gas
A Mayan high priest administers poison gas to a group of
"forty-seven-percenters" who didn't pay any income tax.
So, what then does all this have to do with The Mad Ghoul? Simply this: the film's resident mad scientist, Dr. Alfred Morris (George Zucco), offers an intriguing alternative hypothesis about why the Maya cut the still-beating hearts out of their sacrificial victims… and it's a doozy. The film starts with a very average-looking (for the 1940s) group of college students listening with rapt attention to a not-so-average chemistry lecture delivered by Prof. Morris. Morris shows the class a slide of an ancient Mayan rendering of a masked priest blowing something at a group of peasants, who appear to be writhing on the ground. Morris explains that, according to his research, the Maya discovered a form of poisonous gas that, rather than killing outright, brought "death in life, or if you prefer, life in death!" He also promises to reveal a connection between the poison gas and the elaborate surgical removal of the heart in Mayan ritual sacrifices… next semester (the professor seems to have learned a lot from the cliffhanger serials of the '40s).

After class, he tells star medical student Ted Allison (David Bruce) that he's much farther along in his research than he confided to the class-- that he's discovered how to synthesize the Mayan poison gas, but there's more work to be done before he can make his findings public. Ted eagerly agrees to assist him with his experiments over the summer holiday. Pretty soon, we know why Ted was recruited from among all the other eager-beaver students to assist the great chemistry professor-- he knows his way around a scalpel, a very good skill to have if you're going to be cutting the heart out of assorted living things.

Morris shows Ted a Capuchin monkey that has all the appearances of being dead. When Ted examines him with a stethoscope, he's amazed to discover that the little beast shows vital signs -- outwardly dead, but somehow alive. Morris reveals that the Maya had discovered an antidote for their "death in life" gas by combining the contents of a "fresh" heart from the recently dead with certain herbs and administering the serum to the gassed victim. "I have the herbs… and there's the heart," Morris states coldly, pointing to another cute little monkey in a cage. Ted looks doubtful, but goes ahead with the cardiectomy like a good trooper. Later, as Morris injects the antidote into the first monkey, we get to the blackened heart and soul of all B movie mad scientists:
Ted: I can't help feeling a sense of evil in all this…
Morris: Moral concepts! I am a scientist! To me there is no good or evil, only true or false. I work with one, discard the other.
Prof. Morris (George Zucco) makes a play for Isabel (Evelyn Ankers)
The randy old professor (George Zucco) is ready to teach
Isabel (Evelyn Ankers) how to read the 'book of life.'
The experiment in reviving the zombie monkey is a success, and before you can say "ritual cardiectomy," we get to see just what a mad scientist with no moral center is capable of. Ted makes the fatal mistake of bringing his glamorous fiance Isabel Lewis (Evelyn Ankers) over to the professor's for dinner. Isabel is popular radio singer who is getting ready to go on a tour with her dark-and-handsome piano accompanist Eric Iverson (Turhan Bey). The smooth, devious professor gets Isabel alone for a few minutes, and she confides that she's having second thoughts about the engagement. Ted's a great guy and all, but he's still somewhat immature, and then there's the tour to think about…  The self-obsessed professor mistakes Isabel's hesitation with a budding May-December romance, and starts plotting to remove the competition. "It's perfectly natural now that you should turn to a more sophisticated man," he tells the confused Isabel. "A man who can share your great joy in music… a man who knows the book of life, and can teach you how to read it…" (What a dawg!)

Wearing a gas mask, Morris brews up some of his Mayan poison gas, then sends Ted into the lab on an errand. He calmly plays the piano in the other room as Ted collapses. When Ted stands up at Morris' command, he looks like a med student who's been studying for finals and hasn't slept for days on end-- in other words, a shambling, dead-eyed, pasty-faced zombie. (Of course, along with doing bad things to your complexion, the gas takes away your mind and will, making you a pliable tool for any mad scientist or Mayan priest who might be hanging around.)

When a worried Isabel calls the professor wondering why Ted didn't show up to the train station to see her off on her tour, Morris explains that the young man was too ill from tension and overwork. Morris gives Ted the antidote, thinking that he's effectively sabotaged the engagement. Unfortunately for the dirty old man, once Ted recovers his senses he wants more than ever to see Isabel and get married right away, the concert tour be damned.

Soon, another of the madman's best laid plans goes awry. The monkey they revived has a relapse, and it becomes obvious that the antidote's effects are only temporary. Like the cold-hearted one-percenter that he is, once Ted relapses, Morris has the poor zombie-med student dig up a fresh corpse from the local cemetery all by himself and extract the heart to effect another temporary cure. Back to his old self once again (and completely oblivious to his zombie episodes), Ted insists upon seeing Isabel, even though she's busy with her tour. Morris, knowing that Ted could revert at any time, offers to accompany him.

Confronted by the eager Ted after one of her concerts, Isabel finally lets the callow young man down with the 1940's equivalent of the "it's not you, it's me" routine. The stress of losing the love of his young life sends Ted into a funk… and then into a zombie relapse. At the same time, the oily professor comes to realize that Isabel isn't looking for an older man who can "read to her from the book of life," but rather has eyes for a much younger, much handsomer man in the form of suave, sophisticated Eric Iverson. Rather than bowing out gracefully (something that madmen generally don't do well), Morris decides that he has just the plan, and just the zombified tool, to eliminate this latest competitor for the lovely Isabel's affections. In the meantime, the police and the press slowly but surely figure out that baffling murders and grave desecrations seem to follow Isabel around wherever she's touring.

For a B programmer designed for the bottom of a double-bill (it debuted with the underrated Lon Chaney Jr. vehicle Son of Dracula), The Mad Ghoul boasts an outstanding cast. Sure, there's no one named Bela, Boris or Lon anywhere in the credits, but the Ghoul does quite alright without them, thank you very much. Classically trained George Zucco, who by this time was well into his career as a typecast B movie madman, turns in an understated, nuanced performance that finds a bit of humanity in Morris' madness (more on Zucco shortly). Evelyn Ankers spent much of her Universal career being menaced by a variety of monsters, including Lon Chaney's The Wolfman, The Ghost of Frankenstein (Lon again), Captive Wild Woman, Son of Dracula (Lon yet again), and of course The Mad Ghoul. (In the Inner Sanctum series entry Weird Woman she played against type as a haughty villainess.)

Prof. Morris (George Zucco) helps steady his wobbly, zombified assistant (David Bruce)
A newly created zombie, or just a med student with a very
bad hangover? At this stage it's hard to tell.
Suave Turhan Bey spent a decade or so in Hollywood acting in movies and wooing a considerable number of stars and starlets (and almost marrying Lana Turner!). Turhan passed away recently at the ripe old age of 90. His time in Hollywood was just a small part of a fascinating, richly-led life -- the kind that most of us can only dream about. Contract player David Bruce had the unenviable task of playing the immature, anxious boyfriend and a zombie. The film's concept of a scientifically-generated zombie may have been just a little too clever for this type of B programmer. The first time we see poor Ted under the effects of the gas, he looks more like a frat-boy with an hangover than a loathsome living dead man. Later, after a number of relapses, he looks more corpse-like. Apparently the intent was to show the progressive degenerative effects each time Ted lapsed into his zombie-state.  (Tom Weaver, et al., Universal Horrors: The Studio's Classic Films, 1931 - 1946, 2nd ed., McFarland, 2007).

Unfortunately, the "money" closeup shots of Bruce with the more revolting, parchment-like skin are relatively few and far between. As a zombie, Ted is more pathetic than intimidating. Regardless, Bruce "suffered for his art" under makeup master Jack Pierce (creator of Universal's Frankenstein, Mummy and Wolfman makeups). As he told a Famous Monsters magazine interviewer:
"My makeup was green and it made my hair look red for some reason-- bright red. They tinted me green and combed my hair over my eyes and for the later thing they put the false skin on, which was absolute murder. I wore it for three days and the third time I took it off my skin was bleeding because you had to peel the makeup off. They put on spirit gum and then a layer of cotton and then another layer of gum so this created an entirely false face on top of mine. Then they'd wrinkle it up and the wrinkles would stay in…" (Quoted by Weaver, et al.)
Other cast members to look for are Milburn Stone (best known as Doc Adams on TV's Gunsmoke) as a police detective, tough guy Charles McGraw as Stone's assistant, and King Kong's captor, Robert Armstrong, as an ill-fated reporter. But George Zucco is the main reason to dig up The Mad Ghoul for your viewing pleasure. Zucco gives real, human life to a cliched B movie madman role that others might have been tempted to ham up outrageously. With a glance here and a slight hitch in his voice there, he transforms Prof. Morris from a madman doing evil for evil's sake, to a mere man so overcome by emotions and longing that he's willing to do evil. It's a pearl of a performance in a rough, raggedy oyster of a low-budget horror film.

By all accounts, George was a gentleman's gentleman and a "pussycat." In his opening chapter on Zucco, biographer Gregory William Mank summed up a great and varied career:

DVD cover art - TCM's Universal Cult Horror Collection"With his Old Vic Shakespearean background, Zucco could (and did) play just about everything, at every studio, with everybody: sparking scenes with such great ladies as Garbo, Harlow, Crawford, Colbert, and Bergman; supporting male legends like Gable, Cooper and Boyer; working with an alphabetical Who's Who of great directors, from Dorothy Arzner to Fred Zinnemann. His film career tallied over 90 movies, from England to Hollywood, from the most prestigious MGM productions to PRC six-day wonders. While Zucco's specialty was villainy, he played every human emotion, from the saintly to the sinister-- posthumously winning regard as one of the cinema's most beloved character actors." (Hollywood's Maddest Doctors: A Biography of Lionel Atwill, Colin Clive and George Zucco, Luminary Press, 1998.)

So what are you waiting for? The Mad Ghoul is available on TCM's Universal Cult Horror Collection, along with such other underrated Universal horrors as The Mad Doctor of Market Street (1942) and Murders in the Zoo (1933).

Poor Ted's in for a big letdown:

October 6, 2012

The Poor Man's Phantom

Poster for The Phantom of the Opera (1962)
Now Playing: The Phantom of the Opera (1962)

Pros: A prime example of Hammer's famous lavish look on a small budget; A Phantom who is both frightening and pitiable
Cons: Wasted dramatic possibilities; A mildly irritating plot "cheat"
R.I.P. Herbert Lom (1917 - 2012)

When I was a kid, I knew one Phantom of the Opera, and his name was Claude Rains. By the time I got to high school, I'd seen Universal's 1943 remake several times, and ol' Claude was for me the definitive Phantom. Of course I'd seen the great, hair-raising stills of Lon Chaney as the Phantom in Famous Monsters magazine and various books, but he was from a dim, dark and very silent era -- practically another universe -- and he'd never shown up on any of the afternoon or late night creature features I loved so much.

It took some maturing ("A silent film, are you kidding me? How could anyone watch something with no dialog?!") and a little discretionary cash before I got my hands on Chaney's original, masterful film version. But by then, the damage was done. I discovered that Rains had made other highly-regarded movies like Casablanca (heard of that one?), and so over the years I kept an eye out for his stuff on TV and in the classics section of the video store. I could appreciate Lon Chaney from a sort of abstract, historical perspective, but for a kid raised on talking monsters from the '30s, '40s and '50s, he could never be the definitive anything. (Similarly, when I visualize the Hunchback of Notre Dame, I see Charles Laughton, not Chaney. I wonder if there's anyone walking around out there who only knows the Hunchback from Disney's wretched animated version -- now that would be a true shame!)

We often speak of generations when referencing pop culture influences, especially when it comes to music -- the Big Band generation, the Rock and Roll generation, the Hip Hop generation, etc. Less so for movies, but the generational influences can't help but be there. For example, I'm a '60s Monster Kid who was glued to the old black and white TV whenever a creature feature reared its ugly head on the air. (Saturday nights were a special treat at central Iowa's Gravesend Manor, one of the many locally-produced shows that featured bizarre hosts introducing Shock Theater package flicks. Manor "residents" Malcolm, Claude and Esmerelda were a hoot, and the movies weren't bad either. Sadly, only a couple of minutes of tape survives from the show-- see it here on YouTube.)

My wife, who is (ahem) a few years younger, grew up in rural northern Illinois. While she is not the monster fan I am, she managed to take in a few creature features here and there, and to this day is a huge fan of Universal's Mummy series. Interestingly, the Phantom she vividly remembers is not dashing Claude Rains, but the creepy Herbert Lom. (She also likes Andrew Lloyd Webber's version, but I try not to hold that against her.) In honor of Herbert, and recalling how creeped out my wife was by his makeup and performance, I checked out The Hammer Horror Series Franchise Collection from the library and gave Hammer's version a spin.

The film's pre-title sequence culminates with this chilling closeup
The eye of the Phantom is upon you!
A short pre-title sequence is extraordinarily eerie. The faint strains of organ music sound as a hand-held camera pans around an enormous darkened opera hall. The dirge-like organ music grows louder as the shot dissolves into the dank, dimly lit environs of the Phantom, the camera exploring the bric-a-brac of a madman's Victorian parlor somehow plopped down in a cavernous sewer. We see a dark-clad figure hunched over the organ, and then the camera pans to a dark, strange-looking gnome of a man sitting cross-legged on a dry perch above the running water, listening with rapt attention. Cut to a closeup of bluish, corpse-like hands at the organ keys. The camera quickly sweeps up and freezes on a dark, bloodshot eye staring out of a grotesque, mouth-less mask. Orchestra music swells up and the main titles appear. Wow! Nothing else that follows is quite as effective, but if that doesn't grab you, nothing will!

As you might expect, Hammer's Phantom is a remake of Universal's 1943 version with Rains, but turns what was essentially a lavish romantic melodrama with Gothic overtones into an honest-to-goodness horror film. All the familiar story elements are there: the beautiful but modest chorus singer Christine with the angelic voice; the mysterious accidents that plague the opera house; the haunted opera box that the Phantom has reserved for himself; a falling chandelier (but fortunately in this version the opera goers are spared). I especially like the recycling of the 1943 origin story for the Phantom, wherein a poor humble musician and amateur composer has his music stolen by a greedy, wealthy man who publishes his works as his own. When the aggrieved musician discovers the theft and tries to stop publication of his music under the phony's name, an accident with printer's etching acid creates a monster.

The Phantom's original creator, Gaston Leroux, would probably not have recognized this character. Leroux's Erik was deformed from birth, and was so repulsive his own mother refused to touch him; deformation of the mind and a career as a phantom followed. I find the 1943/1962 stories more compelling and poignant. An accident of nature is one thing, but we feel so much more for a man who has been victimized by greed and arrogance, and who has become a monster through his desperate, tragic attempts to reclaim his music and his name.

Hammer's distinctive touches include a London, rather than Paris Opera house setting; a hunchbacked, Igor-like henchman for the Phantom; a variation on the classic chandelier scene that is just as dramatic, but sadder and more humane; and best of all, a masked Phantom who is both chilling and heart-wrenching. With their immaculate, stylish masks, the Claude Rains and Andrew Lloyd Webber Phantoms are dapper and intriguing-looking. Herbert Lom's Phantom looks like he spent several months in the grave before being dug up by some wild animals. His clothes are worn and tattered and his hands are tinged blue like a dead man's. He wears a grimy, lumpy mask that covers his entire face. There is only one eye hole and no mouth. Even masked, he presents a horrible, frightening visage. This is no glamorous lead in a romantic melodrama. You really, really don't want to see what's behind that disturbing mask.

Book cover - Greasepaint and Gore: The Hammer Monsters of Roy Ashton
And you don't, except for a very fleeting moment at the end of the film. Compared with Lon Chaney's classically horrific unmasking, Lom's is anticlimactic and pedestrian. It's his creepy masked presence at various moments that lends suspense and atmosphere to Hammer's version. The Phantom was makeup maestro Roy Ashton's biggest disappointment at Hammer (for more on this brilliant craftsman, see Roy Ashton: Monster Maker elsewhere on this blog). As a child, Ashton had been profoundly affected by the original cinematic Phantom of the Opera, and was greatly inspired by Lon Chaney. When he learned of Hammer's remake, he jumped at the opportunity. (Bruce Sachs and Russell Wall, Greasepaint and Gore: The Hammer Monsters of Roy Ashton, Tomahawk Press, 1998.)

In typical fashion, Ashton spent a great deal of time researching Leroux's description of Erik, then exploring the macabre subject of burns and human tissue. After a lot of work and some sleepless nights, the production heads told him they didn't want anything too complicated, as the makeup wasn't going to figure into the film that much. Roy was greatly disappointed, but got a second opportunity to challenge himself when it came time to design a mask. The studio had hired a mask maker, but when his designs didn't pan out, the makeup department was called in. Once again, Roy did a lot of research, but ironically, the end result was due more to happenstance than hard work. Ashton:
"My suggestion was that the Phantom, almost certainly, would have picked up some mask from the theatre properties to conceal his features. Something readily available, because he wouldn't be able to go into any shops or anything like that… I thought about old Japanese masks as they were pictured in a sumptuous publication entitled 'Masks of the World', which I found in the Victoria and Albert Museum. I invited [producer] Tony Hinds to come and have a look, but he told me he couldn't spare the time. So I made a few drawings and showed them to him, but it was not exactly what he hoped for. … Three weeks later we were in the theatre where they had to photograph Herbert Lom with his mask on, and no decision had been taken yet. 'Look,' I said, 'give me five minutes and I will make you one.' I got an old piece of rag, tied it round his face, cut a hole in it, stuck a little bit of mesh over one of the eyes, two bits of string around it, and tried it. 'Great!' they cried out, 'that is just what we want!'" [Ibid.]
For a moment's inspiration, the "rag" mask is very effective and creepy, qualifying Herbert Lom in my book as the scariest masked Phantom. Hammer's Phantom also benefits from the studio's trademark sumptuous look on a limited budget. Director Terence Fisher makes good use of London's New Wimbeldon Theatre for the opera house interiors, and the opera scenes themselves are nicely staged.

The Phantom (Lom) and Christine (Heather Sears) in the Phantom's lair
"You will sing only for me Christine, only for me..."
The acting is uniformly good, or at least interesting. Heather Sears is cute, engaging and vulnerable as the decidedly un-diva-ish Christine, the chorus girl elevated to opera stardom. Edward de Souza does a nice job as a sort of "Prince Charming" producer who recognizes Christine's extraordinary talent, and does battle with the smug, smarmy Lord Ambrose d'Arcy (Michael Gough) and the deranged Phantom to save the sweet girl. Once again, Gough plays his patented scoundrel and lecher with aplomb. He's a guilty pleasure to watch as he screws Prof. Petrie (Lom) out of his life's work, and tries to literally screw the female singers. Sharp-eyed Dr. Who fans will also get a kick out of the appearance of the "grumpy Doctor," Patrick Troughton as the opera house rat catcher. Troughton, almost unrecognizable with his grubby outfit and brown, rotting teeth, provides a bit of comic relief as he licks his chops while describing to Christine and Harry all the fat, juicy rats he's caught in the opera house (moments later, he gets a knife in the eye -- ouch! -- for his troubles).

Lom is alternately pitiful and scary as the humble music teacher, Prof. Petrie, driven to madness by Lord d'Arcy's thievery. Years after Phantom's release, producer/screenwriter Tony (Anthony) Hinds told an interviewer that Hammer had offered Cary Grant (?!!) the Petrie/Phantom role, and even came up with a device to sweeten the deal: a loyal, mute and violent hunchback to take the blame for all the murder and violence plaguing the opera house, making the Phantom that much more sympathetic. Grant ended up declining, and supposedly Lom was recruited at the last minute. Later, Hinds recanted that Grant was ever considered. (Greasepaint and Gore.) Regardless, the hunchback "cheat" seems forced and unnecessary, and serves to dissipate some of the film's dramatic energy at the climax, when the Phantom clumsily pins the murders on the poor wretch.

Lord D'Arcy (Michael Gough) wines and dines his new protege Christine (Heather Sears)
The smarmy Lord Ambrose d'Arcy (Michael Gough) appears to be
interested in more than just Christine's (Heather Sears) singing talent.
Still, as the Halloween season ramps up, this is a pretty good, pretty scary Phantom to add to your viewing list. Not a romantic melodrama Phantom, or a treacly musical Phantom, but a good, solid working man's Phantom. Luckily, this Phantom is part of the Hammer Horror Series Franchise Collection, which includes some other similarly good and relatively unheralded Hammer Horrors like Brides of Dracula (1960), Kiss of the Vampire (1963), and The Evil of Frankenstein (1964).

"In the shadows lurks a monstrous evil!"