The Dark Eyes of London (1939)

Directed by Walter Summers [Other horror films: Chamber of Horrors (1929)]

Perhaps better known under the title The Human Monster, this British horror film from the late 1930’s certainly possesses some interesting ideas, and even a few decently thrilling scenes, but I don’t think it’s enough to really stand out amongst the other films that were coming out around the same time.

Certainly Bela Lugosi (Dracula, Mark of the Vampire, The Devil Bat) gave a great performance, and his character Dr. Orloff even had a sort of surprising development toward the end, but his good performance, and the solid performances of others, wasn’t really enough to pull the story past the finish line.

Hugh Williams made for a somewhat generic lead. I didn’t have an issue with him, but he struck me as somewhat uninspired. That’s not quite as bad as Edmond Ryan’s character, though, who was pretty much only here to crack jokes, which has it’s place, but I never felt his character really deserved to be there. Greta Gynt was as solid as any other leading actress of the time, and Wilfred Walter was pretty good as a hulking, deformed menace.

At times, the plot does seem a bit muddled, what with a bunch of insurance policies, underwriters, and potential forgeries going on, but once the movie got going, it got going, and we got some good scenes, such as a man being drowned in his bathtub, another man getting electrodes shoved into his ears (this was off-screen, of course, but we did hear the scream), and a great donnybrook at the end with deadly consequences.

The movie isn’t without it’s charm. A lot of this comes from Lugosi, who is just fun here, and some of it comes from the fact the film’s British (a scene toward the end, with a police car racing to help a damsel in distress, was cool, as it was a first-person view, swerving in-and-out of double-decker buses), but the charm alone, even with the memorable scenes, don’t save it.

I still think that, if you’re a fan of classic horror, The Dark Eyes of London is worth a shot, but I do think there are better movies from around the same time, such as The Face at the Window or The Devil Bat, and this just ends up rather forgettable.


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.


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.


The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939)

Directed by William Dieterle [Other horror films: 6 Hours to Live (1932)]

Whether this one is horror is someone’s personal decision. I think there’s a decent amount of dark sequences and the like to throw this in, allowing that it’s included with the caveat that it’s primarily a drama.

And what a damn good drama it is. The story is overly engaging (I’ve not actually read the original novel, but I do own it, so perhaps that’s something I’ll endeavor to do within the next fifteen years), and it gets somewhat involved toward the end (both groups at the church, the Beggars and the Craftsmen, basically wanted the same thing, yet utilized different methods), and the characters here are really complex, especially for a time that many might consider more simple in terms of plot.

Obviously, without a doubt, Charles Laughton’s performance as Quasimodo is the stand-out here, and it’s an emotional roller-coaster of a flick, watching Quasimodo get whipped for reasons beyond his comprehension, to see him save another in a most heroic fashion, only to end with a great line, ‘Oh why could I not be made of stone as thee,’ when speaking to a gargoyle. Laughton is no stranger to horror films, appearing in classics such as The Old Dark House, Island of Lost Souls, and The Strange Door (1951), and his dramatic performance here is just amazing.

There’s a lot of great actors and actresses here aside from Laughton, though. Cedric Hardwicke was amazing as the rather devious and horrid Frollo. Blaming and allowing another person to be tortured because he’s too weak to admit his culpability in a crime, Hardwicke definitely was a worthy antagonist in the film. Playing King Louis XI, Harry Davenport played his character with such ambiguity. At times, he was a progressive, forward-thinking monarch, at others, latching onto archaic, meaningless tradition (that courtroom sequence killed me a little).

I can’t say much about Maureen O’Hara, but she did a great job too. Her character was appropriately sympathetic, and during the latter half of the film, your heart really goes out to her. Admittedly, I didn’t love Edmond O’Brien here, as his character was a bit too flighty for me, but he did make some strong points toward the conclusion of the film. Lastly, both Thomas Mitchell and Walter Hampden were both greatly enjoyable, and Hampden in particular was a character worth remembering.

Near the end of the film, there’s a somewhat large battle that breaks out, culminating in the Hunchback not only tossing heavy rocks and large pillars from atop the cathedral, but also dumping quite a bit of molten metal onto the crowd below. I’ve seen this film before, to be sure, but I’m pretty sure I audibly gasped during that act, as I forgot just how brutal the Hunchback was during that sequence (and unnecessarily so, if you realize that pretty much everyone’s on the same side). There were scenes earlier of the Hunchback being whipped (him crying out for water, only to be ignored and jeered at, was exceedingly haunting), and some brief torture of O’Hara’s character. All of this, along with a sequence reminiscence of Freaks, in which beggars pop out of nowhere in a dark and seemingly-deserted alleyway, all lead me to understand the horror label some people throw onto this one.


The Face at the Window (1939)

Face at the Window

Directed by George King [Other horror films: Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (1936), The Crimes of Stephen Hawke (1936), Sexton Blake and the Hooded Terror (1938), Crimes at the Dark House (1940)]

While certainly not a well-known classic of the genre, The Face at the Window is a rather enjoyable romp from a time when there weren’t many releases in the genre, allowing it to stand out all the more.

The story here is more engaging than the usual old dark house movie (though make no mistake, I love those also), what with a serial killer known as the Wolf murdering people around Paris. After a bank robbery, things get even more involved, and everything ties in nicely at the end, which may not be surprising, given the time this came out.

For a lower-budget movie, The Face at the Window boasts a strong cast. Tod Slaughter (who starred in, among other things, the 1936 adaptation of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street and 1948’s The Greed of William Hart) does pretty damn well here, with his over-the-top, hammy performance. He was masterful in every scene, and really stood out above all others. John Warwick (who never really appeared in a horror film before or after) did great as the main character, appropriately sympathetic and a solid individual to root for.

Marjorie Taylor was solid, too, in her role, though, as one can guess from the time period, she wasn’t given a whole lot to really do. Robert Adair (who appeared in classics such as The Invisible Man and 1931’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, uncredited in both) was good as the police chief, and really helped bring things together during the conclusion.

And what a fun conclusion it is. The ham-fisted way they threw in the mystery behind *cue dramatic voice * the Wolf was no doubt ridiculous, but was it fun? Very much so. And the laughable experiment with electricity, in which a dead body would incriminate his murderer, along with a twist, was rather enjoyable also.

The Face at the Window isn’t aiming to be in the leagues of such classics as Frankenstein, Doctor X, or Mystery of the Wax Museum, but for a cheap addition of late 30’s horror (one of the driest periods of the genre), I think this one is both deeply amusing and pretty fun. I love the whole terrifying face appearing at the window, followed by one getting stabbed in the back. Quality beginning. This movie, in my view, had style, and Slaughter’s performance was fantastic.