The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939)

Directed by Sidney Lanfield [Other horror films: N/A]

Perhaps one of the most famous versions of the story, the 1939 Hound of the Baskervilles is a fantastic movie that has a great cast, a quality moody atmosphere, and the most well-rounded mystery of the adaptations thus far.

So to put this in context, the same day I watched this version, I also watched the two silent versions (1914 and 1929) along with the 1937 German talkie. All of those had their strong points, of course, but along with the 1959 Hammer adaptation, this version is one of the strongest out there, and it really shows.

The setting, being the British moors, are great in all the movies, but it’s not really until this one when they really start to pop and stand out. That scene in which the butler is signaling from the castle (or, in this movie Baskerville Hall) to a mysterious person across the moors really shows just how eerie (and captivating) the landscape is, even in black-and-white.

And that cast – Basil Rathbone (Son of Frankenstein, The Black Sleep, The Black Cat from 1941, and Queen of Blood) does a fantastic Sherlock Holmes, and though I thought that Bruno Güttner did well in the 1937 version, Rathbone here takes the cake, especially with that impersonation of the salesman on the moors – while he had done a similar thing in multiple versions before (1929 and 1937), this is the first time he’s intentionally ran into Watson in disguise, which leads to a decently amusing scene.

On that note, playing Watson, Nigel Bruce was decent. I will admit to thinking more of Fritz Odemar’s 1937 version, as this one is more of the bumbling side-kick, but he’s still a good character. Morton Lowry isn’t a name I know, but he does pretty swell as Stapleton, and though he lacks some of the most interesting aspects of previous actors who’ve taken the part, his performance at the end was strong. Henry Baskerville was never a character I much cared for, but Richard Greene (The Black Castle) does a great job with him here, and really gives the character more life.

John Carradine played Barryman (a replacement of the previous adaptations’ Barrymore) and did so well, though I don’t feel he’s as distinctive as the character’s been in the past. Lionel Atwill is really the first actor to give prominence to Dr. Mortimer, and him being a big name in the genre (Island of Lost Souls and The Strange Door), he’s nice to see. Playing Frankland (a character who had a small role in the beginning of the 1929 version, but wasn’t really seen in any others), Barlowe Borland was pretty fun, in a cantankerous way.

Of course, being a film from this time, much of the dialogue is pretty pithy and amusing, and while that holds true for the 1937 German version, it’s a bit more memorable here. And likewise, that scene in which Sherlock Holmes is examining the cane, and using deductions to find out about the doctor, was both in this version and the 1937 version. I think it’s a good scene in both, but because this dialogue felt a bit more close to me, I’d give this one the edge.

And that ending reference to Sherlock Holmes’ heroin use – just beautiful.

When it comes to this story, I do believe this is one of the most enjoyable versions out there, and if you’re a fan of classic horror, you should do yourself a favor and check this gem out.

8.5/10

Der Hund von Baskerville (1937)

Directed by Karel Lamac [Other horror films: De spooktrein (1939)]

Ah, finally, after having watched the 1914 and 1929 silent versions, I get to hear speaking once again. It’s in German, sure, but it’s also subtitled, so no problems there. This is a pretty good version of the story, but compared to many other versions, I have a hard time believing it really stands out.

Certainly the quality of the print I viewed wasn’t great – it seemed like some VHS rip, which of course has charm to it, but it would have been nice to see a little cleaner print. Even so, that doesn’t negatively impact the film, especially since I’m just glad the copy was in German with English subtitles thrown on.

The movie itself follows the main traditions the 1929 version did – Holmes not accompanying Watson to Baskerville castle, the escaped convict on the moors, and actually having a strong role for Watson (unlike the 1914 version) – and it did so competently enough, but I still think that some parts could have been trimmed (such as the somewhat unnecessary opening regarding the origins of the curse).

I will give it that this version has my favorite Sherlock Holmes thus far (compared to the 1914 and 1929 versions). Here, Holmes is played by Bruno Güttner as a rather analytic and none-too-sensitive Holmes, which is the type of Holmes I like. He has the confidence that 1914’s Alwin Neuß had, but he also had that analytic character trait (case in point: by looking at a cane, he can tell quite a bit about Doctor Mortimer) that wasn’t really shown in either of the previous versions I’ve seen today. What makes this even more impressive is that Güttner’s only been in a total of three films.

They also did Watson pretty well, and better than they have up to this point, having a Fritz Odemar portray him. Here, he doesn’t really come across as a pointless side-kick but a deductive individual of his own right (and investigative, as seen by his opening scene in which he’s looking at the ash remains of 117 types of cigarettes and cigars for comparison of some sort). Not that Odemar was perfect, but I did quite like his performance here.

Fritz Rasp appeared as Barrymore, and though he lacks the character the 1914 Andreas Van Horn got, he did a fine job, and related, Rasp was also in the 1929 version playing Stapleton. Here, Stapleton was played by Erich Ponto – Ponto did a decent job, and I sort of liked his seemingly-weak physique, but he sort of lacked the pache that the previous two Stapleton’s (Friedrich Kühne and Fritz Rasp) brought to the table. And as for Henry Baskerville, well, Peter Voß did okay, but his character has never really impressed me, and it’s no different here.

I think the mystery and horror elements were generally done pretty well here, and while the quality of the film wasn’t great, most of the scenes on the moor weren’t too marred, and the sinister aura that you’d hope to find among the most thrilling of those scenes was present still.

While both of the silent versions were also German films, it’s nice to see a version of the film with sound so I can hear the dulcet tones of the German language. As you can imagine, the cast of this film is somewhat insular (especially compared to the cast of the 1929 version, which had an American and an Italian in leading roles), with this being made during a somewhat bad time for the country, but it’s still an okay version of a good story, and sticks to the necessities, and comes out fine.

7/10

Murders in the Zoo (1933)

Directed by A. Edward Sutherland [Other horror films: The Invisible Woman (1940)]

This is one of those classics that I’ve been wanting to see for quite some time, and I’m decently happy with how this one ended up, especially given that it came not from Universal, whose dominance in horror at the time was unparalleled, but Paramount (Island of Lost Souls, from the previous year, being a big hit for them). Murders in the Zoo isn’t amazing, but it was a pretty good film.

What helps is the somewhat more violent scenes we got occasionally, such as a man getting his lips sewn shut in the opening (a very strong opening, I thought, and I can imagine audiences back in the day finding that distasteful) and a man pushing a woman into water teeming with crocodiles (alas, we don’t see the scaly bois feast, but I liked the idea).

I don’t think that Charles Ruggles made for a great lead (he was generally a comedy lead, and in fact, this was his sole horror film), because that whole scared-of-every-single-animal trait got a bit old. I don’t hold that against him – he had to follow the script as to his character – but I don’t think he was the best lead possible. Luckily, the other lead, Lionel Atwill, is a horse of a different color.

Atwill, who has been in quite a few horror films (such as Doctor X, Mystery of the Wax Museum, The Vampire Bat, The Gorilla, Mark of the Vampire, Secret of the Blue Room, among others) was pretty great here, and really had a menacing and occasionally mad aura. He made for a strong antagonist, and I enjoyed his creative ways at getting revenge.

In other news, Randolph Scott (this and Supernatural, from the same year, made up the sum of his horror appearances) made for one of those characters you wish you’d see more of, the same which could be said of both Gail Patrick and John Lodge. Kathleen Burke (most famous for the aforementioned Island of Lost Souls) was pretty good also, and while a woman in a time where strong women weren’t common in horror, she did well for herself (although I would have advised against telling Atwill’s character that she’d tell everything she knows – that never works out well).

Given that this film is just over an hour, there’s not necessarily a whole lot to digest here, and you never really have time to feel bored, or that the film’s dragging. High-lights for me include the quality opening of the film, along with the dinner held at the zoo and the woman being thrown to the crocodiles. I must admit the ending too was of good stock – saving himself from the lions and tigers only to meet a slithery boi – so no complaints there.

Murders in the Zoo is a pretty strong movie, and one of those horror classics I think has largely been overlooked, which is a shame given the somewhat darker tone of the film along with Atwill’s performance. If you’re into black-and-white horror, and this is at your disposal, go for it.

8/10

Dracula (1931)

Directed by Tod Browning [Other horror films: The Unknown (1927), London After Midnight (1927), Freaks (1932), Mark of the Vampire (1935), The Devil-Doll (1936)] & Karl Freund [Other horror films: The Mummy (1932), Mad Love (1935)]

So this is one of those movies that I grew up with. My parents owned this on VHS, and I saw it multiple times as a child. Watching it nowadays, it doesn’t really stand out as being an absolute classic as far as the story goes, but I can’t get past just how much I enjoy Bela Lugosi in his role.

Obviously, whether you think the film is overrated or not (and in recent years, it seems that people are veering that way – the review of this film in my copy of Horror!: 333 Films to Scare You to Death is absolutely scathing), the opening is pure greatness. A scared village, an eager young man ignoring warnings being fired at him. That carriage ride. That bat. That music they make. That Dracula.

The opening is just fantastic. As Dracula, Bela Lugosi really gave a fantastic performance which, while certainly corny in some aspects, leads to some great lines (among them, “Listen to them – children of the night. What music they make” and the simpler yet still effective “Come here,” with that fun hand configuration). Nowadays I find Frankenstein a better film, but Lugosi is charming and entertaining in ways that no one in Frankenstein can compete with.

Playing Van Helsing, Edward Van Sloan (who also had roles in both Frankenstein and The Mummy) was pretty good, and a solid antagonist for Dracula. Loved his mirror trick (and it was unnecessary too, as by that moment, Dracula didn’t know that Helsing knew, so Helsing lost out on surprising him), and how Dracula just slapped it out of his hands. Sloan was confident throughout and a pleasure to watch.

Otherwise, the best performance goes to Dwight Frye (Frankenstein, The Vampire Bat, and Bride of Frankenstein), who played a crazy guy with endless mirth. He also is rather quotable (though in what situations, I shudder to think), and gives an all-around fun performance. The other central performances, such as David Manners (The Mummy, The Black Cat, and Mystery of Edwin Drood), Herbert Bunston, and Helen Chandler (who had a somewhat weak character, and a pretty sad life post-Dracula) were all reasonable, but without Lugosi here, I doubt any of them would be remembered.

With quality settings (such as the final basement with the coffins spread around, or the initial castle in Hungary), quality music (I’m a fan of Philip Glass’ score), and some really memorable scenes, Dracula is a good late-night movie. It’s not amazing, it’s really not. It is good entertainment, though, and I adore it for that.

7.5/10

The Ghoul (1933)

Directed by T. Hayes Hunter [Other horror films: The Crimson Stain Mystery (1916)]

This creaky British film isn’t one that really stuck with me the first time I saw it, and after revisiting it, while The Ghoul is a decent movie in the vein of many of the horror films back there, with a solid mystery and a large amount of suspects, I don’t think it’s necessarily memorable.

It was occasionally a bit dark at spots throughout the film, which did help with the atmosphere along with prolonging the mystery, so that wasn’t a huge issue. The setting itself wasn’t really original, but you don’t always expect originality during this period of horror.

Boris Karloff didn’t really have that much screen-time, so though he was nice to see, he didn’t really amount to that much here. Cedric Hardwicke and Ernest Thesiger (Bride of Frankenstein) were both good as men with somewhat mysterious goals, which can also be said for Harold Huth and Ralph Richardson. Kathleen Harrison was good comic relief, and Dorothy Hyson and Anthony Bushell made for fine, though unmemorable, leads.

To be honest, while the movie can certainly be fun, and there are plenty of amusing lines of dialogue, a lot of this doesn’t seem like the type of stuff that’ll last, even if the mystery and the characters make it an occasionally-enjoyable movie to watch.

I have a decent time watching The Ghoul in the moment, but it’s not really any more than that, which is sort of disappointing, but there you go.

6/10

Svengali (1931)

Directed by Archie Mayo [Other horror films: N/A]

I don’t necessarily think that this is a great film, and were it not for John Barrymore’s great performance as the titular Svengali, I doubt I’d rate this as well as I’ll end up rating it.

By no means a bad film, the problem is too little happens for quite a lengthy period at the beginning. Sure, we get a solid sequence near the beginning when Svengali, with his powers of hypnotism, causes a woman to commit suicide, but afterward, we get a lot of build-up (with a few creepy scenes, but not enough) and not enough action, which was problematic.

Luckily John Barrymore (of the more popular Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde from 1920, along with a similar role in 1931’s The Mad Genius) puts in a great performance as Svengali. The beautiful Marian Marsh (who was also in The Mad Genius, along with 1935’s The Black Room) was solid too, though didn’t have much character due to her being hypnotized throughout a large portion of the film. I’ll admit I found Bramwell Fletcher (1932’s The Mummy) underwhelming, but I loved both Lumsden Hare and Donald Crisp (who I literally just saw in The Uninvited and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde).

The ending is decent, and surprisingly tragic for some involved, but it’s an 80 minute movie with pretty much only Barrymore to support it (I loved Hare and Crisps’ characters, but they didn’t have enough to do with the conclusion to greatly help matters), and for early 30’s horror, there are better movies out there.

6.5/10

The Return of Doctor X (1939)

Directed by Vincent Sherman [Other horror films: N/A]

I found this sequel-in-name-only to Doctor X an exceptionally pedestrian affair, and while it’s by-the-numbers approach isn’t going to hurt anyone, I suspect the only reason anyone even would seek this movie out is due to the fact it’s the sole horror movie with Humphrey Bogart in it.

There’s nothing in the film that I found particularly objectionable, it’s just that, by the late 1930’s, this was just stale. It doesn’t help that, along with having no connections to the superior 1932 Doctor X, this also wasn’t in color (unlike Doctor X), which made this an even more unremarkable film.

To be sure, I wouldn’t go as far as to call this movie soulless, which is a criticism I have against some modern horror cash-grabs, but it doesn’t have anywhere near the atmosphere you’d hope for, and save maybe one scene in the beginning, completely lacks any real suspense. Sure, there was that abduction of  Rosemary Lane’s character at the end, but I wouldn’t really call any of that suspenseful, especially as we barely knew anything about Lane’s character.

Not that Lane did a bad job with her restricted role, of course, but almost no one in the film ended up wowing me. I guess that Wayne Morris and Dennis Morgan made a fair investigative pair (that scene when the two of them were following clues was decent), and I guess that John Litel is okay as a creepy doctor, and I even guess that Humphrey Bogart was good as the creepy Doctor X (or Quesne, pronounced ‘Kane’ believe it or not), but nothing about any of these performances seemed fresh or even all that inspired.

The Return of Doctor X is a fine movie to watch, and horror films the late 1930’s can be somewhat hard to come by anyways, so it may be a case of any port in a storm, but this isn’t a particularly good movie, and I don’t think about anything here stands out.

5.5/10

The Walking Dead (1936)

Directed by Michael Curtiz [Other horror films: Alraune (1919), The Mad Genius (1931), Doctor X (1932), Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933)]

This inconspicuous little movie may not seem like much – it’s barely over an hour, came out in the mid-1930’s when few great horror films came out (it’s as if those were cordoned off for the beginning of the decade), but I’ll tell you what, this is an excellent film and definitely a new favorite of the decade.

The plot is one that’s not original nowadays – a man is wrongfully sentenced to death and when brought back, has revenge on his mind. In fact, Lon Chaney Jr. stars in the 1956 film Indestructible Man which has a very similar plot, and that’s one that I’m oddly a big fan of. No doubt, though, that this version is better.

I cannot express just how great Boris Karloff is in this role. Rarely has a character been as sympathetic as his is here, and that scene in which he’s about to be executed, even though we know he’s innocent, and others are trying to get the governor on the line and stay the execution – that was fantastic drama. Karloff’s character here is such a pure soul, and seeing him being screwed over and sentenced to death due to it only makes the revenge that much more satisfying.

The five people he seeks revenge on were all good, in their scummy way. Richardo Cortez was great as the ring-leader (and not only was he in on framing Karloff, he also acted as Karloff’s defense, intentionally doing a poor job so he’d be convicted), though I wish his ending had been a bit more personal. The others, being Barton MacLane (The Mummy’s Ghost), Robert Strange, Paul Harvey, and Joe Sawyer, were all good, and made for a solid gang of dicks. Loved seeing them get dispatched.

Warren Hull and Marguerite Churchill (Dracula’s Daughter) didn’t play as much a role in the film as I thought they would, but what time they had was decent (though I’m not entirely sure their story was really concluded at all). Edmund Gwenn and his obsession with figuring out what comes after death was a bit annoying (especially when, at the end, they’re like ‘screw it, God is a jealous God, and only he gets to know’), but he was fine too, and Henry O’Neill’s character was fantastic, as he really wanted to go after the dirty crooks listed above, so kudos there.

Here’s a somewhat fun fact about this film – I’ve seen The Walking Dead before. I know I have, because I keep a list of every film I consider horror that I’ve seen, and this movie has been in the ‘1936’ line for at least 14 years. The thing is, I didn’t remember anything about this film, and whenever I read the plot to jog my memory, I instantly thought of Indestructible Man instead. So while this is a rewatch, it really feels new, which I guess is a good thing, as I struggle to believe that, when I was a kid, I’d have considered this movie as good as I do now.

And I do consider it good, and in fact, after seeing the beauty of Karloff’s performance, it’s probably great, and certainly a classic that I think more people should at least take the chance to see. Obviously, there’s a well-known zombie show with the same title as this movie, and because of that, this probably gets lost in the sauce (as Howie Hawkins, the 2020 Green Party nominee and the man who I proudly voted for) often says. Definitely a movie of quality, and one well-worth seeing.

9/10

Doctor X (1932)

Directed by Michael Curtiz [Other horror films: Alraune (1919), The Mad Genius (1931), Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933), The Walking Dead (1936)]

This has long been a movie I’ve found interesting. The story in Doctor X itself isn’t amazingly before it’s time (though references to cannibalism are welcomed), but the fact that the movie’s in color – in 1932 – is very much a stand-out. I don’t think it necessarily needed to be in color – it’s not like it made a big difference in any way – but the film is probably easier to get into for those who shy away from older movies, and I’ve always found it a hoot.

Certainly the film is far from perfect, but I appreciate how the story focuses on a very human killer as opposed to a vampire, a monster made up from dead body parts, or a mummy. We have, like any quality horror movie from the golden years, a plethora of potential suspects, and of course, a wise-cracking newsman out to get a story.

Lee Tracy isn’t a big name in the genre, and as far as I’m aware, this was his only role in a horror film, which is a shame, as he does pretty decent here. Maybe he comes across a bit generically, and many people in the industry would have been able to take on this same role without problem, but Tracy does well nonetheless.

Lionel Atwill is no stranger to the genre, appearing in films such as The Vampire Bat, Murders in the Zoo, Son of Frankenstein, Secret of the Blue Room, Mystery of the Wax Museum, and Mark of the Vampire, among others, and does great here as one of the lead scientists. He’s just suspicious enough at times to make for a good suspect, and it’s nice seeing an old hand wear a new (and colored) glove.

Elsewise, we have Fay Wray (King Kong, The Vampire Bat, Mystery of the Wax Museum, and Black Moon), who plays the very attractive daughter of Atwill, and has some rather amusing lines as well, matching Tracy with ease. Preston Foster was the only other one who really stood out, and that’s more due to the fact he looked like a good lead man than anything else.

I always loved the opening atmosphere of Doctor X, taking place on the misty docks next to a morgue with an ambulance coming in. It’s a solid opening, and I think the story is pretty entertaining, especially once they move to the admittedly cliché castle. Still, it’s overall a decent movie.

7.5/10

The Mad Genius (1931)

Directed by Michael Curtiz [Other horror films: Alraune (1919), Doctor X (1932), Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933), The Walking Dead (1936)]

Very much a light addition to the horror genre, The Mad Genius is a decent romantic drama with a few splashes of horror thrown in toward the conclusion. As a whole, I don’t think the movie’s great, and nowhere near an undiscovered classic, but it’s okay, just arguably unmemorable.

The story here is okay, though, what with a crippled individual (John Barrymore of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Svengali) trying to vicariously live through a nimble protégé (Donald Cook), forcing the young man into a life of dancing, and when he’s distracted by love (in the form of Marian Marsh, who also appeared in Svengali, along with The Black Room), he stops at nothing to keep his control over the young man.

As such, John Barrymore does really well as a controlling, somewhat egotistical, individual. Donald Cook and Marian Marsh make a decently cute couple, and manage to hang on to each other through much of their hardships, but I couldn’t help but feel that, during these two’s scenes, the movie was drifting dangerously close to a romantic drama of sorts, and problematically (at least to a fan of horror, primarily), that’s a feeling felt throughout the film.

The conclusion here is certainly good, but I don’t know that it’s entirely worth watching the first hour of the movie for. Really, this works better as a drama than it does a horror, and though the elements are there come the ending of the film, I don’t think The Mad Genius can compete with most other horror films from the 1930’s, and ultimately, while the movie’s okay, it’s not much more.

6/10