Horror Island (1941)

Directed by George Waggner [Other horror films: Man Made Monster (1941), The Wolf Man (1941), The Climax (1944), Jack the Ripper (1958), Destination Nightmare (1958), The Veil (1958)]

This is a film that I’ve wanted to see for some time now, and despite it being nothing special or really unique in any way, I am quite happy that I finally got to this one, as it’s a fun ride throughout.

What with a hidden treasure, half of a treasure map, multiple parties looking for the gold, and a mysterious Phantom, Horror Island has pretty much all of the elements that make those old dark house mysteries of the bygone era so damn fun, and it’s made moderately more unique by setting itself on an island (and the opening on the atmospheric docks was also welcomed).

It does carry a more noticeable light-hearted element (think Sh! The Octopus), much of it coming from Fuzzy Knight’s character Stuff, but that doesn’t hamper the quality feel that the film possesses, especially once the group gets to the titular island and deal more and more with the mysterious phantom, not to mention some other dangerous characters.

Dick Foran made for a solid, if potentially unremarkable, lead. Having also starred in both The Mummy’s Hand and The Mummy’s Tomb, Foran had that typical lead look that radiates ‘good guy.’ Fuzzy Knight was a lot more meh if only because he was the central source of comedy, and his side-kick character just struck me as more silly than anything else. Peggy Moran (who was also in The Mummy’s Hand) was solid as the romantic interest, her wittiness often amusing.

Leo Carrillo (who played a heavily-accented sea captain), much like Knight, was another source of humor, though I could sort of dig his style. The others that make a difference, such as John Eldredge and Lewis Howard, were just fine, if not, as Foran was, unremarkable.

Luckily, despite having a few sources of humor here, Horror Island never gets to the point where it’s too silly, and in it’s favor, the fact it takes place on an old castle on a small island, what with multiple mysterious parties running around, is nice to be witness to.

Overall, Horror Island is a movie that I’d wanted to see for quite some time, and it lived up to my expectations. It’s not an amazing movie, but it’s quick and easily digestible, not to mention fun, so if that’s what you look forward to from classic horror, give this a shot.

7/10

The Lodger (1944)

Directed by John Brahm [Other horror films: The Undying Monster (1942), The Mad Magician (1954)]

I’ve been well-aware of this film for years and years – it used to play on AMC what seemed like every week – but it took until now to see it, and I definitely found it an impressive film.

The story of Jack the Ripper is one that I’ve seen in a few other films, from the 1927 The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog and the 1953 Man in the Attic, and this is probably the best one. Man in the Attic was very enjoyable, and went a very similar route as this one, but since this came first, I’ve gotta give this more credit.

We don’t see any over-the-top murders or gore, of course, given this film is from the mid-1940’s, but we do get some very suspenseful scenes and occasionally great moments leading up to what one can imagine are brutal murders. Great use of setting too – I loved those scenes where the police and civilians were enclosed in a small portion of Whitechapel trying to trap Jack the Ripper in the mist, but just unable to do so. Great, great scenes there.

I don’t know if it’s his slightly larger frame, or just his imposing physique, but Laird Cregar reminded me a lot of Victor Buono, so it should go without saying that his performance was top-notch. The sad thing is, as some of you may know, Cregar died in late 1944 at the extraordinarily young age of 30, his final movie Hangover Square being released after his death. With less than twenty roles, I think it’s a damn shame he died that young, especially since he could have had a long-lasting career in horror had he survived into the 1950’s, 1960’s, and into the 1970’s. Cregar was great here, and it’s just a shame.

Cedric Hardwicke (The Ghoul) was solid, and he had one of the more reasonable characters in the film. As his wife, Sara Allgood was fine, though not necessarily stellar (not that really a whole lot would be expected from a character like hers). Merle Oberon does pretty well in her role, and I like her interactions with Cregar’s character, as they always had an undercurrent of growing suspense. Lastly, George Sanders (Village of the Damned and The Picture of Dorian Gray) was a wee bit generic to really stand out, but got more character in the end, so he turned out well.

I was impressed with just how suspenseful this one became at times, and I was also drawn into the whole “is the Lodger actually Jack the Ripper” plot-line as more and more possible coincidences occurred. The Lodger is a strong film, and definitely a highlight of the 1940’s, so I’m glad that I finally took the time to watch this.

8/10

The Uninvited (1944)

Directed by Lewis Allen [Other horror films: The Unseen (1945)]

This is a classic that I’ve not seen until now, and it was great to sit down and finally watch it. Quite a solid film with a decent mystery, it’s pretty easy to see how this influenced ghost films in the following decades, into today.

A large house on the English coast was a fine choice for the setting, and I also like that it is just a house (albeit a large one) as opposed to a castle or mansion. It makes it seem a bit more relatable to those of us who have never set foot in a castle or mansion, and shows that even us lowly poor people can be haunted.

The Uninvited also really started off great with a little voice-over talking about ghosts and the like, all set to the beautiful scenery we’d been exploring for the next hour-and-a-half. It reminded me a little of Return to Glennascaul, a 1953 horror short narrated by Orson Welles. The atmosphere started off strong, and never really let up.

Ruth Hussey and Ray Milland made a fine brother and sister (and I have to say that it’s quaint to have siblings buying a house together as opposed to a couple), and Milland (who has been in plenty of horror films, such as Frogs, X, Terror in the Wax Museum, The House in Nightmare Park, and Premature Burial) was pretty witty at times, giving us some pretty amusing lines.

Playing an older gent with a stick up his ass, Donald Crisp (who I actually saw earlier this very month in the 1941 version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) was pretty solid, and playing his granddaughter was Gail Russell (who apparently died at the young age of 36 due to a long bout with alcoholism). Russell got a bit hysterical at times, but she was cute, so I’ll give her a pass (it also helps that it makes sense with the story). Alan Napier was also #beast in this.

I loved the mystery here, as Milland and Hussey are trying to figure out the whole true story behind the murders that took place at their new house. It reminded me of many more modern ghost films in which the protagonists have to solve the old crimes before they can really understand what’s going on (such as The Changeling or Dark Water), and I thought it was done wonderfully here, with a solid sense of atmosphere.

The 1940’s wasn’t the strongest decade for horror, and in fact, I’ve long-thought that it was among the weakest, but The Uninvited belies that and ends up being a sometimes-amusing, sometimes-spooky film that it well worth seeing.

8/10

I Walked with a Zombie (1943)

Directed by Jacques Tourneur [Other horror films: Cat People (1942), The Leopard Man (1943), Night of the Demon (1957), The Comedy of Terrors (1963), War-Gods of the Deep (1965)]

I have a bit of a mixed record with films related to both Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur. I enjoyed The Leopard Man immensely, but found both Isle of the Dead and Cat People lacking. Luckily, this atmospheric little movie is better than those I found lacking, and perhaps even better than The Leopard Man, and I Walked with a Zombie ended up being quite a solid film.

Not to over-stress this, but a big part of that would be the setting, being a mansion that is surrounded by the encroaching jungle. The open porches which are just yards away from the jungle and it’s wildlife, not to mention the hot jungle air blowing over the grounds – what I can I say, I find it enchanting (the same way I find houses surrounded by swamps enchanting – look no further than The Alligator People for that).

White Zombie might be a better demonstration of the outright horror of zombies and voodoo, and I certainly agree that White Zombie might have more memorable scenes overall, but this is a lot more polished and character-driven, with a large part of the film dealing with the drama between two brothers, their mother, and a zombie wife. And in the middle of it all, a nurse entirely new to the island.

The two brothers are great with their distinctive personalities – James Ellison (of The Undying Monster) as the witty, charming brother and Tom Conway (Cat People and The Seventh Victim) as the oft-somber one. Throw into a mix a brain-dead wife of Conway’s (played by Christine Gordon) that was in a relationship with Ellison, and you have some quality drama that’s actually both intriguing and tragic. Frances Dee playing the main character (with some classy voice-overs, which I appreciated) did a great job too, and her walk – but more on that shortly.

It’s been shortly, so let’s talk about that walk, brahs.

The titular walk with a zombie is one of the best sequences in the movie. It doesn’t last long, but it’s packed with a walk through the jungle, through the sugarcane farm, past a giant black zombie-like homeboi (Darby Jones) – it’s a fantastic time with Dee dragging Gordon along to a voodoo ceremony, with the animals all chirping and hooting. My words can only do so much (and probably not as much as I think), but it’s a great scene, and definitely a high-light of the film.

Not that the rest of I Walked with a Zombie is dull. Despite a lot of the focus being on the family drama as opposed to the voodoo and the zombies, it’s a pretty fun movie, and it’s helped by the fact that it’s also a pretty short film (under an hour-and-ten-minutes). For the atmosphere alone, though, this is well-worth seeing, and the finale too is pretty solid (though an argument could be made it’s somewhat anticlimactic).

8.5/10

The Beast with Five Fingers (1946)

Directed by Robert Florey [Other horror films: Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932)]

It’s been some years since I’ve last seen this one, and I have to admit that I didn’t find it as enjoyable this time around as I did the first time I saw it. It’s not that The Beast with Five Fingers is a bad movie, because it certainly has it’s charm, but I do think an argument could be made that it moderately overstays it’s welcome, and that goofy conclusion didn’t help much.

Of course, it’s great to see Peter Lorre focused on so heavily here. He’s not the main character, no, but he does have an important role, and given how fantastic he was in the eleven-year earlier Mad Love, it’s nice to see him being thrown a somewhat similar role. Robert Alda (who later starred in a forgettable horror film ironically titled The Devil’s Hand) was a decent lead, and with J. Carroll Naish (The Monster Maker), they were an interesting pair trying to figure out what was going on.

Even so, as fun as some of the movie was, it definitely felt like it was dragging past the half-way mark, and again, the final few moments throws in some goofy things that aren’t be any means deal-breakers, but at the same time, I wish they had at least kept it down to one goofy ending scene, as opposed to two.

Still, I’ll give this credit for it’s original idea (especially for a decade like the 1940’s) that predates The Hand by 35 years and Idle Hands by 53 years (these are the only three killer hand movies that I can think of, so take that as you will). I just wish it had cut a few things out. The Beast with Five Fingers isn’t a bad movie, but I do think it’s a bit below average, which is definitely not my view on it when I last saw it.

6/10

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941)

Directed by Victor Fleming [Other horror films: N/A]

When I revisited the 1931 version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, I was pleasantly surprised with how much I enjoyed it. I didn’t really have the same hopes for this, one, though, and unfortunately I was probably right in that.

Part of the lack of high hopes was that lightning can often only strike once (which obviously isn’t true, but #fuckitbrahs), and given that I enjoyed the 1931 version quite a bit, I thought it unlikely that I’d enjoy another one, especially one so close in time period, quite as much. Even with the cast, Spencer Tracy being the most impressive, I think this feels more drawn-out than necessary, and it just wasn’t near as much fun to watch.

Certainly seeing Spencer Tracy in his only horror role was interesting. He’s not necessarily an actor I’ve seen a lot from, but he was in some movies I really enjoy, such as the fantastically underrated comedy It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World and the solid Bad Day at Black Rock, and seeing him playing Dr. Jekyll was fun (though he looked older than I’d really expect his character to look).

No one else in the cast really adds that much, but Ingrid Bergman, Lana Turner, Donald Crisp, Ian Hunter (of one of the best movies of all time, 1938’s The Adventures of Robin Hood), and Peter Godfrey all put in perfectly acceptable performances. In fact, I think the scene where Turner’s character is going to Dr. Jekyll for help against the abuse she faces from Mr. Hyde is one of the strongest in the movie, certainly one of the most emotional, so many kudos to Lana Turner for that.

Also, while speaking of Turner, I think that song will be stuck in my head for at least the next few days. When the band commences playing, my feet begin to go. For a rollicking, romping Polka is the jolliest fun I know!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Despite that fun, though, I wouldn’t call this a fun rollick, partially because it unnecessarily almost clocks in at two hours. I didn’t feel that much dragging in the 1931 version (though that’s not to say the film was without flaws), but boy, I certainly felt some here, and it also felt a bit more melodramatic than it really needed to be.

I won’t say that this was a waste of time to watch, because it wasn’t, and I won’t say it’s a bad movie, but I think I will say that the 1931 version is one that I’m more likely to stick to, Spencer Tracy or not.

6/10

Isle of the Dead (1945)

Directed by Mark Robson [Other horror films: The Seventh Victim (1943), Bedlam (1946)]

I didn’t know what I was getting into when I started this movie because, in truth, while I knew the title, I didn’t really know anything about it. After seeing it, I can’t say I’m disappointed, as I had few expectations going in, but I can say that it’s not quite the movie I was looking for.

Like some horror films, especially horror films related to Val Lewton (who was one of the writers here), there’s a decent amount of build-up before we get to anything that really feels like actual horror. Hell, the director of this picture, Mark Robson, directed a horror film where it almost never gets to actual horror (being 1943’s The Seventh Victim), which is almost a feat in itself. Certainly this movie picks up with the final twenty minutes or so, and it’s not exactly dull beforehand, but given the talent involved here, I expected a bit more.

Obviously Boris Karloff doesn’t really need an introduction. Among my favorite performances of his is that of The Black Cat (a movie I didn’t love at a whole, but I won’t deny he did great in it), Frankenstein, The Body Snatcher, and Bedlam (which, coincidentally, was also directed by Robson), and he’s pretty good here, as a by-the-book general who might be a bit too brutal. Others here do okay, such as Ernst Deutsch, Marc Cramer, and Ellen Drew, but really, Karloff pretty much commands the screen.

Story-wise, there’s an interesting (and, as I’m writing this in late 2020, time-relevant) plot where a group of people are stuck on an island trying to survive a plague. It leads to the expected tension and increased feeling of being on edge, which might be a bit much for some characters, such as that played by, of course, Boris Karloff. It leads to some quality scenes in which characters argue between science and religion (and of course, this being an older movie, my atheist friends and comrades will be disappointed by the illogical nature of the conversations), but ultimately, it doesn’t really get good until a confluence of events at the end.

The finale itself is no doubt pretty solid, though I’d argue it’s not enough to really warrant watching this one again, at least any time soon. Isle of the Dead isn’t a movie that I could see myself throwing into a favorites pile of classics, but I did certainly appreciate the, for lack of a different word, almost atypical presentation and story, and it may just take some more viewings for it to really grow on me.

6/10

The Cat Creeps (1946)

Directed by Erle C. Kenton [Other horror films: Island of Lost Souls (1932), The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942), House of Frankenstein (1944), House of Dracula (1945)]

I’ve long thought that the 1940’s was one of the weakest decades for the horror genre, and this movie is a good example of why. The Cat Creeps isn’t a poor movie, though – like most dark house mystery movies, it’s enjoyable enough. The problem, though, is that this could have been made ten years earlier, and nothing would have seemed out of place.

Obviously, I enjoy the old dark house movies, giving quite solid ratings in the past to such films as The Monster Walks, The Cat and the Canary, and The Bat Whispers, and I enjoyed this well enough also, but I can’t say that it’s not overly derivative. It most certainly is, and it doesn’t have that much going for it that really sets it apart from the better films that came out years and years previously.

Casting-wise, I don’t really have any complaints. Maybe Frederick Brady was a bit weak as the star, and maybe Lois Collier was far more underused than she could have been, but for a quick murder-mystery (this film comes in at under an hour), I thought most here were fine. Rose Hobart (1931’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) was nice to see, and both Paul Kelly and Douglass Dumbrille were both solid threatening individuals.

For what this movie was, and as little as it was made for, I did enjoy the setting, being a large house on a secluded island. It’s nothing new to this subgenre of horror, but fun nonetheless. Related, while there’s not many outstanding or memorable scenes here whatsoever, I did enjoy the utilization of mysterious shadows baring down on people. It happened a few times, and it looked decently effective.

Also worth mentioning is Vera Lewis’ character, who has a bit of a twist to her. It was pretty easy to see her role in the whole mystery, but I did like the addition, and at times, even led me to wonder if Brady’s character wasn’t somehow involved in the multiple murders.

All-in-all, though, The Cat Creeps is competently made and little more. There’s occasionally some fun dialogue, and of course the mystery is fun, but it’s not a movie that I imagine will really stand out in my memory, and given that I’ve seen this once before but remembered next-to-nothing about it, that may be the most accurate statement about this one. It’s not a bad movie, but it’s not memorable either.

7/10

The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945)

Directed by Albert Lewin [Other horror films: The Living Idol (1957)]

While certainly more a morality tale than a straight horror film, there’s a reason that this classic is often listed as part of the genre, especially come the end of the film in it’s debauched glory.

More than anything, The Picture of Dorian Gray questions morality. Personally, when it comes to many aspects of the hedonistic lifestyle portrayed in the film, I didn’t have a big deal with it. It was a different time, though, so if you can get past how tame Dorian’s ‘sins’ seem (some of the worst stuff is off-screen, only alluded to), you can have a good time.

The cast here is stellar. Hurd Hatfield does a great job as the debonair but somewhat soulless Gray, and his youthful appearance lends credibility to the story. He’s never really been in much that I’ve seen, but given that this was only his second role, it shows the quality of his performance. Honestly, though, George Sanders and his amoral character impressed me more. He was witty, fun, and most importantly, entirely able to defend the actions others see as questionable. Sanders here really brought a great character to life.

Donna Reed and Angela Lansbury played two love interests of Gray at different periods of his life. Reed was decent, but it was Lansbury who made a bigger impression, and the scene in which she’s singing prior to meeting Gray was great. Her time with Gray was short and tragic, especially come the test of her virtuousness (all thanks to Sanders’ character).

One more name need be mentioned, and that’s Cedric Hardwicke, who narrated the film. I sometimes have an issue with narration (look at how awful it was in Curse of the Faceless Man), but it was very solid here, and only added to the tone of the film.

Another thing very much worth pointing out was how, despite the film being black-and-white, there were a few scenes in full color, when first showing the titular picture of Dorian Gray and again toward the end once, showing just how far his soul has fallen (which led to some unnecessary “Pray for your soul, Dorian,” stuff, but whateves, I can deal with it). It was a very effective use of dramatic coloring, and that, coupled with a murder that happens moments after the second portrait reveal, really bring the horror element of the film to the forefront for those scenes.

When it comes to classic films, it’s not uncommon for horror elements to get mixed up with heavy dollops of drama, and this movie is a prime example of that. For fans of modern-day horror, The Picture of Dorian Gray might not be up to their standards. It’s a great mixture, though, of a morality tale, throwing in elements of romance, horror, and the desire for one to better himself. Certainly a movie that’s recommended, and referred to a ‘classic’ for a reason.

8/10

The Seventh Victim (1943)

Directed by Mark Robson [Other horror films: Isle of the Dead (1945), Bedlam (1946)]

This is an odd little film that more feels like a cult-based thriller than it does a horror. It’s not a bad movie, and the mystery is a bit interesting, but boy, even as far as 1940’s horror goes, The Seventh Victim probably only just squeezes in, at least in my opinion.

What works really well about this movie is the dense atmosphere. Tracking a missing person through a city, following multiple leads, hearing different stories, and eventually leading to a Satanic cult makes for a somewhat fun film, and certainly engaging at times.

I just didn’t think that too much of it was that memorable. In the moment, sure, you have some creepy vibes and a somewhat engrossing (if not a bit involved) story, but once the credits come up, I don’t think it takes that long for much of the material to fall out of memory.

The performances here were all fine, though honestly, as competent as they were (Tom Conway, Kim Hunter, Jean Brooks being among the best), no one here blows me away at all. Perhaps it’s just that the story, despite being only 70 minutes, felt a bit overlong, or maybe the cult wasn’t entirely convincing, but it just didn’t wow me.

The Seventh Victim had the atmosphere that was commendable, but it definitely felt more like a mystery/thriller than it did a horror, and that may have caused this to drag a bit more than you might expect from the off-set. It’s a 40’s movie that’s probably still worth giving a view, but there are plenty of other films from the decade (such as Bedlam, The Body Snatcher, The Leopard Man, You’ll Find Out) that I’d go to first.

6/10