Dead Men Walk (1943)

Directed by Sam Newfield [Other horror films: The Mad Monster (1942), The Monster Maker (1944), The Flying Serpent (1946)]

I have little to say about this one, because ultimately, Dead Men Walk is extraordinarily forgettable.

A big problem, though, isn’t with the film itself, but the commonly-available copy. It’s audio tends to be muffled and garbled, making it pretty hard at times to make out some dialogue. I got a lot of it, but there are times when whole lines go over my head, and that certainly can’t be blamed on the movie itself.

What can be blamed, though, is the generic and uninspired story. Despite being just over an hour, it’s also pretty dull. At best, you have Dwight Frye (Dracula, Frankenstein, The Vampire Bat) and George Zucco (The Mad Monster, The Mad Ghoul, Fog Island, and The Flying Serpent), but neither one makes up for a lucklaster plot, which Dead Men Walk definitely boasts.

I’ve thought for a long while that the 1940’s was probably the weakest decade in terms of horror output, and this goes a long way to showcase my point. This movie easily could have been made ten years earlier and not feel an ounce out of place, and it still would have been uninspired, which is a shame.

Dead Men Walk isn’t a movie I’d recommend watching once, and I’ve seen it twice, which is probably the most I’ll ever see it. It’s just pointless and meandering, even for the time, making this just a disappointing film, and only for those who deeply love lower-level 40’s films.

4/10

Cat People (1942)

Directed by Jacques Tourneur [Other horror films: I Walked with a Zombie (1943), The Leopard Man (1943), Night of the Demon (1957), The Comedy of Terrors (1963), War-Gods of the Deep (1965)]

This RKO production doesn’t have the same impact that a Universal horror film would have, but it’s still a mostly fine film, though elements of the plot don’t entirely work for me.

At times, the film is appropriately moody, and the heavy use of shadows during the more suspenseful sequences (perhaps the pool scene being the best example of this) really lent the film a darker feel, but the bigger problem here is the route the plot took, which truthfully came as a surprise to me.

The antagonist of the film wasn’t at all the individual who I at first thought it would be, and like I said, when it becomes obvious where the movie’s going (about half-way through, probably), I was taken aback. Personally, I would have changed a few things, maybe instead move the film toward an ending more like The Leopard Man from 1943, which I enjoyed quite a bit more.

Still, Cat People isn’t a bad movie, by any means. The main cast are all great (though Jane Randolph’s character really grated on me), and when the film drifts away from the drama to a more suspenseful film, the scenes stand out well. When Randolph’s character is walking home, and then suspects someone following behind, it’s a jolly good time.

All this said, though, I just can’t get over the somewhat disappointing route the film took. In some ways, I felt as though elements were almost xenophobic, though I know that wasn’t the intent. I guess I was looking for perhaps a more conventional fair, and this one veers a different direction. It doesn’t pack the punch a Universal film generally did, so while I’d tepidly recommend it, I do think you could do much better for 1940’s horror.

6.5/10

Bedlam (1946)

Directed by Mark Robson [Other horror films: The Seventh Victim (1943), Isle of the Dead (1945)]

What an amazing film on so many levels.

Once a well-to-do lady becomes concerned about the state of a local mental institution, with a little help from a Quaker, and finding that neither Tory nor Whig seemingly care about reforms, she takes it upon herself to fight for what she believes right. Unfortunately, the head of the institute, played by Boris Karloff, has little interest in the welfare of his patients (which seems too generous a term to describe them, truth be told), and instead plots to throw the lady herself into the asylum, so she can no longer speak out.

There’s a lot in Bedlam to really like. What’s easy is the cast. Boris Karloff (who really needs no introduction at this point) is fantastic as the sinister head of the asylum, and has a pretty satisfactory story arc come the conclusion. Anna Lee, too, is fantastic as the lead character, and she definitely has a passion in her throughout the film. At times, her character is unlikable, but for a woman who is starting to see the poor and maligned people as people for the first time, I think that’s understandable. Billy House (who plays an amusing, mostly inoffensive, pompous lord) and Richard Fraser (who plays a straight-laced Quaker wonderfully) both add a lot to Bedlam.

It’s the story that really makes things work. A woman of high standing, Lee’s character slowly becomes moved by the plights of the mentally unsound, but even when in the institute, she can’t get past her deep fear and mistrust of the insanity surrounding her. And when she does make friends in the institution, they’re the higher class of patients (beautifully comparing her previous life of abject apathy with her new life locked up).

There’s a line in the film that really got to me. “Why should we help.” asks one of the upper echelon of patients to Lee’s character, in reference to the cruelty others are facing, “We are the people of the pillar.” I think it’s at that point that the character finally realized exactly the type of person, even locked up, she tended to be, and then set out to change it, by making beds, and tending wounds, of those who couldn’t do it for themselves.

Earlier in the film, there’s a member of the Whig Party who purports to care (as opposed to the Tories, who, much like many modern-day Republicans, revel in the despair of the poor and unfortunate), but later we see him laughing with the rest at a mockery of a play, using the patients themselves as actors. Like many modern-day Democrats, he gives lip service to the issue, but as a man from the upper class, he doesn’t truly have a concern for the welfare of those beneath him.

It takes a Quaker, one opposed to violence of any type, and not prone to lofty ideals, to really bring the idea of equality between all men, poor and rich, peasants and lords, insane and sane, to Lee’s character. At the same time, this Quaker sets too much faith in the laws to really hold a revolutionary view of the best way to help those who need it the most.

Bedlam has a lot of political ideas, and that deeply interests me, but if you can somehow separate the politics from the film, I still think most people would see what a great and clever film this is.

All of my praise aside, I do wish there had been a few more suspenseful and tense scenes. The trial at the finale was fantastic, and the scenes afterward were damn amazing, but it wasn’t enough to make up for the lack of great suspense beforehand. In some ways, Bedlam’s a slow-burn, but I don’t really know, as great as the ending is, if it makes up for what the movie was lacking previously.

The 1940’s is probably, in my opinion, the worst decade for horror films since the creation of the genre, but there are some really great films that came out in this ten-year range, and Bedlam is definitely one of them. I loved this when I first saw it many years back, and the movie still has so much to offer.

9/10

Revenge of the Zombies (1943)

Directed by Steve Sekely [Other horror films: The Day of the Triffids (1963)]

There’s not really that much interesting going on in this early 1940’s zombie flick. Sure, there are some okay performances (most notably John Carradine, sporting a mustache), and a few humorous lines, courtesy of Mantan Moreland, but otherwise, I can’t think of a reason to really give this film much time.

Of course, it’s not really horrible, by any means, just rather generic and derivative, even for the time. I enjoyed a few of the twists (regarding Bob Steele’s character), but the story ultimately wasn’t too different from an earlier zombie comedy, King of the Zombies (interesting note: this film is sometimes considered a sequel to King of the Zombies, but aside from Moreland’s character, there seems to be little connection, and in fact, Madame Sul-Te-Wan, who also appears in both, is a different character here).

John Carradine does well for himself here, though his performance isn’t going to win any awards. Gale Storm was okay, though not overly relevant to the story. The aforementioned Madame Sul-Te-Wan was a bit over-the-top, but still worked well with James Baskett. Of course, Moreland is both humorous and unfortunately not helpful to racial stereotypes. A solid performance, but marred in that he didn’t get any different a storyline than from King of the Zombies. Robert Lowery, Barry Macollum, and Mauritz Hugo all do fine, but none of the three will be overly memorable once the movie’s done.

Ultimately, Revenge of the Zombies isn’t a great zombie film, nor a great horror film, nor a great film of any kind. It’s not even necessarily worth a watch – it certainly wouldn’t hurt, but I don’t see any reason for it, unless it’s due to being a large fan of Carradine. Really, while some of the settings are cool, such as the swamp, and a few aspects of the story are decent, in that war-time, mistaken identity, the bad-guys-are-Nazis-type-of-way, but I’ve seen this twice now, and I can about guarantee I’ll not be seeing it a third time. It’s just not worth it.

5.5/10

The Body Snatcher (1945)

Directed by Robert Wise [Other horror films: The Curse of the Cat People (1944), The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), The Haunting (1963), Audrey Rose (1977)]

This classic film is one that’s heavily bolstered by solid performances and a rather entertaining story. While somewhat light on what you might traditionally expect from a horror film, I think The Body Snatcher has a lot going for it.

One thing about this film that I rather enjoy is the fact that it’s easy to use this as a companion piece to the 1960 release The Flesh and the Fiends. If one were somewhat daring, you could even call The Flesh and the Fiends a prequel to The Body Snatcher. At the very least, the two films work together well, and as both are rather decent films, there’s possibilities there.

The Body Snatcher’s cast is probably the best part about the film. Bela Lugosi is somewhat underused, but both Henry Daniell and Boris Karloff are used to great effect. Daniell has that aura of a dignified man with a rather torrid past, while Karloff oozes sleaziness in virtually every second of screen-time. Daniell and Karloff are definitely the most memorable performances here, because while the audience’s moral center, played by Russell Wade, is decent, he’s ultimately somewhat forgettable by the time the story wraps up.

Speaking of which, while at first I was hesitant toward the final ten minutes of the film (they struck me as unnecessary, given the death of the antagonist that had already happened), I found them masterful (important to note that while I’ve seen this one before, it’s been quite a long while, so many of the details were forgotten). The final carriage ride is just fantastic, both introspective and somber, turning into a manic, thrilling conclusion.

While it’s light on some horror aspects (which is something I didn’t really notice at the time, but seems clear when thinking back to the film), The Body Snatcher is a lot of fun, and it really does have a lot going for. Definitely give it a watch, as it’s one of the high-lights of the often lackluster decade that was the 1940’s.

8/10

Cry of the Werewolf (1944)

Directed by Henry Levin [Other horror films: The Unknown (1946)]

I saw this one once before, and it didn’t do much for me. I didn’t hate it, it just came across as pretty generic and unmemorable. Unfortunately, not much has changed.

Part of this consistent disappointment comes from the fact that the title of the film is a bit misleading. There’s a woman in the film who can turn into a wolf, but there’s no werewolf whatsoever, so if you’re looking for The Wolf Man or Werewolf of London, you won’t find it here.

Honestly, this isn’t a film that there’s a lot to say about. The lead performance of Stephen Crane was pretty underwhelming, and while both Nina Foch and Osa Massen were okay, I don’t think either one particularly stood out, partially because of the script.

While the movie itself isn’t necessarily dull (given it’s just over an hour, there’s not really much time to mess around with anyway), the story is just sort of meh. There are some interesting elements, but I also can’t deny that it strikes me as occasionally xenophobic in regards to the gypsies.

Really, much of the film just feels pretty weak and tepid. There was a single suspenseful scene which didn’t go anywhere, but hey, it was something. The kills, though, are pretty much all uninspiring, and overall, Cry of the Werewolf doesn’t really have a hell of a lot going for it, even for a fan of older horror films such as myself.

If there’s one positive thing I can say about it, the plot, while I personally didn’t much care for it, was moderately unique. There’s sort of a nice mysterious vibe to portions of the film, and while, as an audience, there’s nothing that we don’t really know, it’s still almost okay. But having seen this twice, I just don’t think there’s much to it. Might be worth checking out, but I don’t know how much someone would get from this one, even if they’re into the classics of the genre.

5/10

Bluebeard (1944)

Directed by Edgar G. Ulmer [Other horror films: The Black Cat (1934), The Man from Planet X (1951), Daughter of Dr. Jekyll (1957), The Amazing Transparent Man (1960)]

Having seen this one about three times now, I have to admit that it’s never done much for me. The story is fine, and John Carradine does particularly well in it, but overall, Bluebeard just doesn’t impress me.

Generally, the plot’s perfectly enjoyable. I sort of like the brief side-step they took with the portrait subplot, which added a bit more meat to the film, and the conclusion’s pretty decent also. Carrdine’s presence here really brings life to the antagonist of the film, so that’s a plus.

Somewhat unfortunately, Carradine’s about the only performance here who really glowed. Jean Parker and Teala Loring were virtually indistinguishable to me, and Ludwig Stössel, while an interesting character, had a bit of an accent to him, and was hard, at times, to really decipher.

Which may not really be his fault, as the audio and visual quality of this film has somewhat faltered over the last eighty years. The most common print has pretty bad audio, and it’s not uncommon for some of the dialogue to be drowned out by background music. The black-and-white is a bit muddled, and while it’s not overly distracting, it is noticeable. Even if you can look past that, though, I’m not convinced that the film is all that enthralling.

Bluebeard is a story that’s been made multiple times within the genre, the earliest version, titled Barbe-bleue, is from 1901 (and, for a short from such an early period of cinematic history, it’s not that bad). Maybe that’s part of the issue – this movie, at 70 minutes, just feels too drawn out, and while some of the film is perfectly solid, after having seen it multiple times, it’s continually let me down.

If you see this for any reason, let it be for Carradine, who is fantastic, especially toward the end of the film. His character’s sanity toppling toward the end as he recounts the origins of his crimes was pretty spectacular, in a Povery Row type of way.

This said, ultimately, Bluebeard isn’t one of those 40’s movies I’d go out of my way to recommend. It might be okay for a single viewing, but I don’t think multiple viewings will do much for you, no matter how fun Carradine is here. By no means a god-awful film, I do feel it’s below average, and pretty much always have.

6/10

The Mysterious Doctor (1943)

Directed by Benjamin Stoloff [Other horror films: Night of Terror (1933), The Hidden Hand (1942)]

This short quickie (hovers around 57 minutes in total) is a delightful little film with a pretty fun premise (headless ghost haunts a tin mine, while a mysterious doctor arrive in town and arouses suspicions of the townsfolk), and while certainly a lower-budget film, I thought it was appropriately atmospheric.

Most of the performances hovered around average, with not many individuals standing out. Matt Willis did a pretty decent job with his sympathetic character, whereas Lester Matthews and John Loder (both some of the main actors) felt pretty cookie-cutter. I did appreciate Elanor Parker’s strong female character, which wasn’t necessarily common for the time period.

For some reason or another, though, I can’t think of too much to say for this one. I loved both the atmosphere and much of the setting (the ground mist over the moors was always a fun look to me), and the headless ghost, while obviously fake, had charm to the design.

The whole movie, despite it’s lower budget, had a lot of charm, in fact. It’s a shame that The Mysterious Doctor isn’t more widely available, because while it’s not a great movie, I do think that it’s a minor classic for the time period, and I will admit to really enjoying the entirely anticipated conclusion. I’ve seen this before, but it’s been so long, much of it felt new to me, so the ending had the punch I was hoping for. It’s nothing amazing, guys, but it may well be worth a look.

7.5/10

The Leopard Man (1943)

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

Often moody and rather atmospheric, this early 40’s film has a lot to offer fans of classic horror. There’s a plot that keeps you guessing, some characters who actually feel human, and great suspenseful sequences throughout.

While I suspect nothing about the film would shock fans of the genre today, the plot overall is pretty fun, and also a bit unique, what with the main characters (Dennis O’Keefe and Jean Brooks) feeling guilty about the escape of a leopard in their possession, subsequently causing the death of a teenage girl. It gives the film a pretty somber tone, which pretty much lasts the whole of the film, including the conclusion.

Speaking of which, the conclusion was damn fun, especially the scene during the procession of monks, which including chanting and pretty intimidating men in hoods. Pretty much everything about the ending was a lot of fun, though I sort of wish there was a bit more oompf.

The suspect was great in this one, and we even got what’s now the ordinary shot of a person yelling, banging on a door, then seconds later, blood pouring from the bottom of the door. It definitely wasn’t shocking by today’s standards, but for 1943, that struck me as surprisingly racy.

I saw this for the first time something like five years ago, perhaps as many as seven or eight, and it always stuck with me, because it certainly seems like a movie ahead of it’s time. Very little around this same time period had the same feel as this one, so The Leopard Man is definitely a memorable film.

Aside from O’Keefe (who also starred in You’ll Find Out, from 1940, which I saw just a few days before this writing) and Brooks, the only other performance to really stand out here was James Bell, who played a somewhat interesting character. From the face alone, Bell isn’t an actor I know that well, though he did appear in another horror classic, I Walked with a Zombie, which is a film I’ve not actually seen up to this point. Abner Biberman was decent, as was Margaret Landry in her short sequence, but ultimately, O’Keefe, Brooks, and Bell are the only three who really made a difference.

The only downside of The Leopard Man was that some of the padding (which itself is somewhat amusing, given the film’s just an hour and six minutes) struck me as a bit much. One of the final kills, while certainly welcomed, had a longer set-up than I was hoping for, and I felt just a bit bored during that sequence.

This said, otherwise The Leopard Man is a pretty enjoyable and forward-thinking film, and I think that from a modern-day perspective, this has a lot to offer horror fans. If this one has escaped your notice, I’d certainly recommend taking a look.

8/10

The Mad Monster (1942)

Directed by Sam Newfield [Other horror films: Dead Men Walk (1943), The Monster Maker (1944), The Flying Serpent (1946)]

I think I was much too harsh on this when I first saw it. The Mad Monster’s certainly on the lower spectrum of 40’s horror flicks, but I don’t know if it’s entirely bottom of the barrel, and you could still get some entertainment value out of it.

Being an early werewolf movie (released a year after the classic The Wolf Man) lacks the more supernatural origin of the werewolf (such as a curse) and instead relies on a scientifically-created wolf man, a simple-minded handyman (played by Glenn Strange), who a scientist (George Zucco) uses to extract revenge of those who deemed his scientific ideas mad.

In all fairness, as Zucco’s first scene has the scientist seeing visions of the four scientists scorning him for these same ideas, and Zucco replies to them in a tone that reaches shouting before long, one could probably forgive those who find Zucco’s character mentally unbalanced.

Zucco gives a pretty good performance here, as it is. Zucco appeared in a fair amount of b-level hororr films in the 1940’s before his retirement from films, and while this performance isn’t his most memorable, it is a good portrayal of a truly mad scientist. Glenn Strange did great in his simple-minded role, and I thought he was perhaps the real stand-out here. Anne Nagel and Johnny Downs were both decent in their roles, though Downs didn’t really have all that much to do until the ending, and Nagel almost never had anything to do.

Another thing that positively stood out was portions of the setting, especially the mist-covered marshlands where some of the action took place. It had a suitably creepy vibe, despite the cheapness of the film, and I’ve personally always liked how swamps look, especially in black-and-white. I wish more of the horror sequences had taken place in such a setting, though.

When all’s said and done, The Mad Monster certainly pales in comparison to some of the classics of the 1940’s, and really, would probably only appeal to fans of the lower-end B movies of the time period (such as The Monster Maker, coincidentally directed by the same guy). I enjoyed it more this time around than when I first saw it, but ultimately, there’s so many more memorable and just plain better movies out there than this one. I did appreciate the victim choices, though, so kudos there.

6/10