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

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