July 24, 2020

The Drive-in Rises from the Dead

Before the pandemic, the Great American Drive-in was on life-support, with only a little over 300 drive-ins left in the U.S. (down from a high of over 4000 in the late 1950s). Now that social distancing has become the new norm, drive-ins are suddenly cool again. Many existing drive-ins are seeing big upticks in business, and some agile theater owners and entrepreneurs are converting parking lots into makeshift drive-ins. Even some performers are getting into the act, realizing that they can still play to live audiences in a much safer environment -- and instead of applause and laughter, get car honks and flashing headlights in return.

The new pandemic-era drive-in is not without its challenges. Having enough bathrooms and keeping them properly sanitized and users properly distanced is a big headache. And getting snacks out to the cars safely -- no more hanging around the scuzzy snackbar -- requires a lot of labor and planning.

In a recent interview, America’s "foremost drive-in movie critic" and fan, Joe Bob Briggs (aka John Bloom), predictably saw a sliver of a silver lining in dark times, declaring 2020 the “year of the drive-in.” He added:
"Films were designed to be watched together. ... The drive-in is the symbol of that. The drive-in was always a place where everybody gathered. And it was all races, creeds, genders. That’s still true online as we prove every Friday night with our show [The Last Drive-In with Joe Bob Briggs, recently renewed on Shudder for a 3rd season]. It’s a great thing and it’s an optimistic thing and I hope it helps the real drive-ins, the mom and pops that are still out there doing that good work keeping the drive-in alive.” [“Joe Bob Briggs Declares This the Summer of the Drive-in,” Kelle Long, The Credits, motionpictures.org, 6/1/20] 
John Bloom as Joe Bob Briggs on the set of The Last Drive-in
As long as there are people out there like Joe Bob, the drive-in will never die.

I haven’t been to a drive-in in many years, but I am (ahem) old enough to have experienced its hey-day. My first movie memory is being taken by my parents -- in footie pajamas no less -- to the drive-in to see Darby O’Gill and the Little People. I dived down beneath the dashboard when the banshee appeared. I think that early shot of adrenaline jump started my love of horror movies. Thanks Disney!

Later, shortly after high school, a good friend was hired as an assistant manager at the local drive-in, and he would give me free passes. I’d sit on a lawn chair next to the concession stand and watch second-runs like Hannie Calder while scarfing down popcorn. I fantasized about running my own drive-in, but seeing as how they were already in decline at that point, that thankfully stayed a dream.

An interesting aspect of the drive-in resurgence is that in many cases, venues are going retro, playing movies like Jaws and Back to the Future instead of more contemporary second-runs. This is proving popular, as many apparently want to see older movies to complete the nostalgic effect.

This got me thinking about the movies I would show at my alternate universe drive-in where money is no object and I don’t have to worry about losing my shirt.

My first order of business would be to show truly retro movies that few under the age of 50 have seen. Second, have fun with themes, promotions and even the concessions. And of course, in my perfect universe, there’s no Covid19, so people can hang around the grotty snackbar and kids can get out and run around all they want. Oh, what a wonderful alternate world it would be!

Tonight, this drive-in is going to the dogs!
Dracula's Dog (1977) & Devil Dog: The Hound of Hell (1978)

All cars with leashed dogs get in half-price
Featured Snack: Hot-off-Hell's-grill dogs

The "Hot-off-Hell's-grill" dog

Posters: Daughter of Dr. Jekyll (1957) and Frankenstein's Daughter (1958)
Two chips off the old Doc!
Daughter of Dr. Jekyll (1957) & Frankenstein's Daughter (1958)

Promotion: Ladies’ two-for-one night at the snackbar
Featured Drink: Mad Dr Pepper

The featured drink is "Mad" Dr Pepper

Posters: Satan's School for Girls (1973) and Satan's Cheerleaders (1977)
At these schools, detention is served in Hell, forever...
Satan's School for Girls (1973) & Satan's Cheerleaders (1977)

Promotion: Half-price admission with a student ID
Featured Snack: Satan's Red Hots

Grab some Red Hots before you get dragged down to Hell

Posters: Panic in the Streets (1950) and Panic in Year Zero (1962)
Don't Panic! It's only two movies!
Panic in the Streets (1950) & Panic in Year Zero (1962)

Promotion: Every admission gets a “Panic” sickness bag
Featured snack: Bring your sickness bag to the snackbar for a free popcorn fill-up

Posters: Night of the Blood Beast (1958) and The Blood Beast Terror (1968)
Your blood will freeze when you see these beasts!
Night of the Blood Beast (1958) & The Blood Beast Terror (1968)

Promotion: Free admission with proof of blood donation
Featured snack: Bloody Red Vines

Red Vines are for sharing

Posters: It! The Terror from Beyond Space (1958) and Terror from the Year 5000 (1958)
It's about time, it's about space, it's about two terrors vs. the human race!
It! The Terror from Beyond Space (1958) & Terror from the Year 5000 (1958)

Promotion: Show a selfie with your most terrorized face for half-price admission
Featured snack: Terror tots

Keep repeating: it's only a tot, it's only a tot...

July 13, 2020

Hanging out with Boris

The condemned man stands before the court of popular opinion, his head held high, his dignity still intact. A hush falls over the assembled witnesses as the sentence is pronounced:
“William Henry Pratt, also known as Boris Karloff, for the crime of scaring us silly by portraying the Frankenstein monster in three movies and searing the creature’s terrible image into our minds, the court condemns you to act in low-budget horror films for the rest of your natural life. May God have mercy on your actor’s soul.”
There is a mischievous gleam in the unrepentant man’s eyes as he addresses the court:
“[W]hat is typing? It is a trademark, a means by which the public recognizes you. Actors work all their lives to achieve that. I got mine with just one picture. It was a blessing.” [IMDb bio: personal quotes]
Later, surrounded by reporters, he reminisces,
“My dear old monster. I owe everything to him. He's my best friend.” [IMDb]
Boris was not one to complain about being consigned to B movie “jail.” Instead, he realized how spectacularly lucky he was that the role of his “dear old monster” led to a lifetime of secure, reliable work and worldwide fame.

Still - Court room scene, The Man They Could Not Hang (1939)
Boris explains to the court why he's grateful for being sentenced to B movie jail.

Karloff was already 44 when lightning struck Frankenstein’s lab in 1931, jump starting the monster and the gentle Englishman’s career. After his last stint as the monster in Son of Frankenstein in 1939, he largely eschewed the heavy make-up to portray more down-to-earth, human menaces -- sometimes consciously evil, sometimes unwitting facilitators.

Boris was one of those types who seemed to have been born old. In the late ‘30s and early ‘40s, he was a 50-something actor who often played characters 10 or even 20 years older than his actual age.

Naturally, the shadow of Frankenstein loomed large over his career at this point. He was tapped again and again to play a doctor or scientist dabbling in things man was not meant to know.

With Karloff’s shock of white hair and craggy features, he was a natural for this new scientific film career. The studios would often outfit him with wire rim glasses to complete the scholarly look. Coupled with Boris’ gentle lisp, the effect was to often make his characters sympathetic even as their work led to mayhem and murder.

Between 1935 and 1945, Karloff had more mad scientist gigs than you could shake a beaker at:
  • The Invisible Ray (1936) - A scientist goes on murderous rampage after being poisoned by radiation 
  • The Man Who Lived Again (1936) - A brilliant but unstable doctor creates mayhem with his mind transference experiments 
  • Black Friday (1940) - A doctor gets more than he bargained for when he transplants part of the brain of a gangster into the brain of a gentle college professor 
  • The Man with Nine Lives (1940) - Things go south when the medical establishment condemns the cryogenic experiments of a well-meaning doctor 
  • The Ape (1940) - A doctor resorts to murder to obtain the spinal fluid he needs to treat polio cases 
  • The Devil Commands (1941) - A scientist devises a bizarre electrical contraption to communicate with the dead 
  • House of Frankenstein (1945) - A demented doctor escapes from prison and revives Count Dracula and Frankenstein’s monster to take revenge on the town officials who condemned him
Predictably, in their attempts to push scientific and ethical envelopes, Karloff’s obsessed doctors would often run afoul of the legal establishment. But the seemingly gentle, elderly men of science were often hard to kill, judicially or extra-judicially.

Two of Karloff’s mad doctor movies stand out because they begin with the courts coming down like a ton of bricks on his characters for their overzealous experiments, with the mad, homicidal fun taking off from there.

Poster - The Man They Could Not Hang (1939)
Now Playing: The Man They Could Not Hang (1939)

Pros: More stylishly directed and photographed than most Bs of the era; Good acting; The climactic revenge sequence is well-conceived and suspenseful.
Cons: The revenge plan goes awry fairly quickly, leaving only a modest body count.

Boris plays Dr. Henryk Savaard, a brilliant but ethically challenged doctor who has developed an artificial heart that can restore the dead to life. When he enlists a healthy young medical student volunteer to be gassed to death then restored to life (!!), the doctor’s nurse (who is also the young man’s fiance) loses her nerve and calls in the police to stop the mad experiment. Tragically, the cops barge in and take Savaard away before he can bring the student back.

At his dramatic trial, Savaard, incensed that such plodding dullards would interrupt his work, blames the police, the medical examiner and the nurse for the student’s death. On the stand, he patiently tries to explain how his technique of stopping a patient’s heart and then reviving him again could revolutionize complicated surgeries:
"To operate on a living body, is like trying to repair a motor while it’s still running. But with a motor you can turn the power off, you can take it apart, find out what’s wrong, replace the worn and broken parts... it can be put back together and made to run just as good as new. … Our first great objective is the replacement of vital organs that have worn out. And with the body scientifically dead, the surgery in such operations is simple. But the real secret lies in the pumping of an artificial bloodstream through the body by means of a mechanical heart until the life functions pick up their own rhythm."
The jury and the court reject the good doctor’s auto mechanics theory of medicine, and he is sentenced to hang. After he is executed, prison officials blithely allow Savaard’s assistant Lang (Byron Foulger) to claim the body and take it back to the lab, where he fixes the doctor’s broken neck and restores him to life with the mechanical heart.

Still - Boris Karloff in court in The Man They Could Not Hang (1939)
If looks could kill, the prosecutor would be a pile of ash.

Re-animated and righteously angry, Savaard sets about to exact his revenge. When a plucky reporter, “Scoop” Foley (Robert Wilcox) notices that the jurors from the trial are hanging themselves at an alarming rate, he figures something’s up (well yeah…)

Foley and the major trial participants -- the judge, the prosecutor, the jury foreman, the medical examiner and the skittish nurse, among others -- end up at the doctor’s mansion, lured by phony telegrams.

Savaard reveals himself to the startled assemblage, and proceeds to toy with them like a gaunt cat playing with trapped mice, ominously informing them, “If I decided to kill all of you tonight, who would believe I had done it?”

Soon, the group realizes they are trapped in the dining room, with an electrified floor-to-ceiling grill barring the main exit and steel shutters preventing escape through the windows. Name cards on the dining table specify the order in which each person will be killed, as well as the exact time.

Their only hope is Savaard’s innocent daughter Janet (Lorna Gray), who shows up at the mansion well after Savaard’s diabolical plan for revenge has kicked into high gear.

The Man They Couldn’t Hang packs a lot of mad doctor ideas, lab paraphernalia and a fiendishly diabolical revenge plan into its spare 65 minute runtime. Savaard’s idea of temporarily killing his patients in order to more effectively operate on them is fascinating and stupendously cracked at the same time.

The doctor’s mechanical heart is indeed an elegant-looking piece of equipment, with two large glass “chambers” and a plethora of tubing to circulate the life-restoring fluid. Karloff is especially good in the courtroom scene, alternately calmly explaining his theories to the jury, and then becoming maniacally intense as he condemns the fools who interrupted his work.

"So Lang, remind me again what barking mad scheme this is. I've
done so many I can't keep 'em all straight."

We’re even treated to a fly-on-the-wall look at the jury’s deliberations, as a couple of hold-outs sympathetic to the doctor cause frustration for their fellow jurors. They eventually relent, but I couldn’t help thinking that if Savaar’s lawyer had somehow arranged to show the jury the elegant artificial heart, they might have been moved to acquit (and it would have been a much less interesting movie).

The elaborate trap Savaard sets for his judicial tormentors plays out very suspensefully. The sequence owes a bit to old dark house conventions, where the unwary prospective victims are summoned to their doom, but the means of that doom are elaborate, cunning and cruel, more reminiscent of the fiendish machinations of an exotic villain like Fu Manchu (which Karloff played in 1932’s The Mask of Fu Manchu).

The anxiety is heightened by Savaard’s disembodied voice emanating from the mansion’s intercom, calmly informing his involuntary guests whose turn it is to die. An ornate clock in the dining room ticks down the minutes and seconds to the next murder. Dick Curtis as the jury foreman gives it his all as a particularly agitated victim. When his turn is announced, the sweat beads on his face, his eyes bulge, and he bobs his head around like a chicken as he desperately tries to find a way out.

Still - The jury foreman is marked for death in The Man They Could Not Hang (1939)
"Hello, Domino's? Can you tell the delivery person to slip the pizza down the chimney?"

Nick Grinde’s
direction is uncommonly stylish for a knock-off B movie. He makes liberal use of worm’s eye shots to create a sinister, oppressive mood, and bird’s eye shots to emphasize the prospective victims’ helplessness against an unseen, almost god-like executioner watching their every move.

One knock on the movie is that time constraints prevent Savaard’s diabolical plans from going very far. We get a taste of Savaard’s cruel deceit and ingenious methods for bumping people off, and then it’s on to serving the vengeful doctor his just deserts. Some horror fans (perhaps most) will feel a bit cheated.

According to Richard Bojarski and Kenneth Beals (The Films of Boris Karloff, Citadel Press, 1974), “The film’s success encouraged Columbia to sign Karloff for several more films in the same theme, launching the actor onto his second ‘crazed scientist’ cycle which lasted until Karloff returned to the stage in early 1941.” [p. 144]

Some of that success was undoubtedly due to the then public notoriety of a real mad scientist, Dr. Robert Cornish. 
“The biochemist attracted publicity during the thirties by restoring dead dogs back to life after gassing them with nitrogen gas. Cornish also tried to obtain permission to restore life to executed convicts in order to further test his theories. But he did not obtain the opportunity to do so.” [Bojarski & Beals, p. 144]
Yikes! Thankfully, there is no record of Cornish exacting a fiendish revenge on the disbelieving authorities who frustrated his plans for human experimentation.

Regardless of the inspiration, The Man They Couldn’t Hang is a cracking good, well-paced horror-thriller, one of the best of Boris’ crazed scientist pictures.

Poster - Before I Hang (1940)
Bonus Review: Before I Hang (1940)

Pros: Karloff turns in a very solid performance in a more sympathetic role.
Cons: The murders are repetitive and relatively lacking in excitement or suspense.

A year later and Boris is back in court, answering for yet another death connected to unconventional medical experiments. This time, Boris is Dr. John Garth, a kindlier, less arrogant version of his previous role, who is nonetheless on trial for his life. Garth had tried to reverse the aging process in a dying man through a revolutionary new blood serum, but was forced to perform a mercy killing after the experiments failed and the patient was in unbearable pain.

Apparently back then they executed people for anything more severe than unpaid parking tickets, so naturally Garth has to die. While Garth is cooling his heels on death row, the prison doctor (Edward Van Sloan) talks the incredibly permissive warden into letting Garth continue the experiments with his assistance until the execution date.

Right before he’s scheduled to be executed, Garth injects himself with the serum in the hopes that the prison doctor can get usable data even after he’s dead. The governor’s pardon comes through with only minutes to spare, but Garth collapses and is taken to the infirmary.

When Garth comes to, he’s amazed to find that he no longer needs his thick glasses, and his prison friends remark that he looks twenty years younger. There’s just one catch. In order to make the new batch of serum, they had to draw blood from a condemned murderer.

Still - Prison laboratory scene, Before I Hang (1940)
Garth and his assistant put the final touches on their Visible Man model.
Show of hands: who had one as a kid?

In a Jekyll and Hyde moment, Garth kills the prison doctor, but another inmate is blamed. He becomes a free man, obsessed with the idea of inoculating his wealthy and accomplished friends against the ravages of old age. But every time he tries to perform the procedure, blind, murderous instincts take over.

It’s deja vu all over again for another of Boris’ patented mad doctor / hangin’ pictures:
  • Released by Columbia Pictures - ✓
  • Directed by Nick Grinde - ✓
  • Dramatic courtroom scene - ✓ (even the judge is the same, played by Charles Trowbridge
  • Small-minded, uncomprehending judicial and medical authorities - ✓
  • Death sentence by hanging - ✓
  • Loyal, loving daughter - ✓ (played by Evelyn Keyes
  • Crazy lab equipment - ✓ (in this case, a half-lifesize replica of the human body with a working heart and circulatory system) 
  • Bodies start piling up post-trial - ✓
For all its similarities, Before I Hang lacks the cracked energy of its immediate predecessor. The revenge plot of The Man They Couldn’t Hang is fiendishly complex, and the victims’ desperate attempts to escape and protect each other from sudden death add greatly to the suspense. In contrast, Garth’s murders are repetitive and not all that exciting. The well meaning doctor contacts old friends, tries to convince them to try the anti-aging serum, and when they balk, murderous instincts (born of contaminated blood!) take over. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Still - Boris Karloff in Before I Hang (1940)
Dr. Garth can't remember if he came to his friend's house
to save his life or to kill him.

The elderly victims are seemingly incapable of defending themselves, making the scenes even more anti-climactic. In the previous film, Savaard becomes a cold, calculating, remorseless villain who makes you wonder what he’ll do next. Garth is well meaning but clueless, and knocks off his colleagues in a fugue state with comparatively little muss or fuss. One has you on the edge of your seat, the other, not so much.

Still, Before I Hang is worth watching for another solid Karloff performance, one that allows him to ride an emotional roller coaster, from regret at not being able to complete his life’s work, to joy at being pardoned, to remorse and despair as he realizes what he has done. And while the murders are somewhat sedate, the emotions that play out on his face in just those scenes are worth the price of admission.

In their entry on the film, Bojarski and Beals quoted a contemporaneous review from the New York Post:
“No matter how well Boris Karloff starts out, he ends up bad… The picture is fanciful pseudo-science which builds to an exciting murder orgy. Poor Boris. Once a movie murderer, always a movie murder.” [p. 166]
The Post reviewer needn’t have felt sorry for Boris. As he murdered his way through movie after movie, he was laughing all the way to the bank.

Where to find them: The Man They Could Not Hang and Before I Hang are included on Mill Creek’s Boris Karloff Collection, available here