She-Wolf of London (1946)

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The release last year of the complete series of the 1930s and 1940s Universal Mummy, Dracula, Frankenstein and Wolf Man movies on blu-ray has, no doubt, had many, like myself, revisiting some of the films from these cycles that they hadn’t seen in some time – only this time in much better quality.  It is worth adding that, perhaps appropriately, the Invisible Man movies are nowhere to be seen on blu-ray with the exception of the original movie.  Without doubt, these films look wonderful in high definition, and some of them really come to life in a way they hadn’t in their DVD incarnation.

Dracula’s Daughter (1936) is a key example.  This is a weird, dark, and eerie film that came at the end of the first cycle of Universal horror films during the sound period.   On blu-ray, all of that weirdness seems even more startling, and the picture quality for a film of this vintage is truly stunning.

Werewolf of London (1935), from a year earlier, was another that I enjoyed revisiting over the Christmas period.  Not part of the Wolf Man series at all, but a stand alone effort from six years before Lon Chaney Jr started having a problem with facial hair, this one suffers a little from rather sedate pacing, but is still an interesting movie nonetheless and is certainly better than many of the Universal horror movies of the 1940s.

In fact, Werewolf of London was the last film I saw in 2017, and so it only seemed right that She-Wolf of London (1946)  was the first I screened in 2018.  This is probably the least-known of all the films on the recent blu ray sets, and yet it is also one of the best.  As with Werewolf of London, it is not part of the Wolf Man series, but a stand alone feature starring June Lockhart as a young woman who fears she has the family curse of becoming a werewolf when there are a series of murders and attacks in a park close to her home.

I confess I don’t have much time for the “House of” series, in which the various Universal monsters come together in one film, that dominated the 1940s horror cycle.  By this point, the series had, arguably, lost its way, becoming more fantasy (and comedy) than horror.  She-Wolf of London isn’t really traditional horror either – no hairy beasts are seen within the movie at all, with the except of a couple of dogs.  Instead, we have a film which seems to be a mix of Gaslightthe Val Lewton films for RKO, and even Rebecca.   It seems almost ironic that Universal, who at one point led the way with regards to horror during the previous decade, here borrows from what other studios were doing.  The central character’s obsession with her supposed family curse has a great deal in common with Cat People (1942) from the Lewton/RKO series  and The Undying Monster, made by Fox.  Sadly, She-Wolf of London doesn’t have the same intelligent script or sense of dread as Cat People, although it certainly treads some of the same ground thematically.  It is still a taut little thriller, aided and abetted by some really fine performances, including the wide-eyed June Lockhart herself, but also Jan Wiley, who does well in a far less showy role.  Sara Haden, meanwhile, chews up and spits out the scenery.

Running at only 61 minutes, the mystery element isn’t given room to be taxing, and the ending comes about rather suddenly, but the film seems remarkably classy compared to the other horrors that Universal were producing at the time, and the period atmosphere is nicely sustained throughout.   Certainly an enjoyable way of spending an hour if you prefer your horror to be of a sinister rather than supernatural variety.

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Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1913)

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It’s safe to say that cinema was obsessed with Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde during the 1910s and early 1920s, with multiple versions being produced on both sides of the Atlantic.  Most famous of these is the version starring John Barrymore, produced in 1920.  However, Grapevine Video has pulled together four silent versions (including the Barrymore film), a few silent comedy shorts, and a number of sound adaptations for their Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde Collection, which is a three-disc set.   Do you need this many Jekyll and Hydes in your collection? Maybe not, but the price is good at $17, and it’s interesting to see how film adaptations changed as cinema became more sophisticated during the 1910s, and there is a vast difference between the 1912 version and the ones from 1920.

The 1913 version, starring the wonderfully-named King Baggot, is certainly not the best of the surviving silent films, but it is particularly interesting in that it was made at a time when Hollywood was making its first tentative steps towards feature-length films.  This may run at just under half an hour, but that was almost an epic in American film at this point, and it was well received.  Two years after the film’s release, The Moving Picture World wrote: “King Baggot played the name parts, and his work in the two roles ranked as the equal of the best he has done. …It was a strong picture.”.

For those people new to silent film, the benefit with this version is that there is no hanging around when it comes to telling the story.  Meanwhile, for fans of classic horror coming to this film, there will be special significance because this is the very first horror film to be produced by Universal studios, who would go on to make the classic horror cycle of the 1930s which included Dracula (1931), Frankenstein (1931) and Bride of Frankenstein (1935).

This, and all subsequent silent and early sound film adaptations that are known to survive, include a love interest for Jekyll – something which is not present in the novella, which contains only male characters.  One can only surmise at the motives for introducing extra characters and subplots in an adaptation of a novel which runs for under thirty minutes.  Perhaps it was simply a case that American film by this point had a set of conventions which had become popular with audiences, and one of them was a female love interest for a male protagonist and vice versa. It should also be remembered that the first big stars of the movies were female, so the making of a film with an all-male cast may have been looked down upon by studio bosses.  It could also be that the story left too much open to interpretation if Jekyll was left as a single man – both Benschoff and Showalter have written about what Jekyll and Hyde might really be about.  However, the most likely reason for the addition of a love interest was that the 1887 stage adaptation of the story, dramatised by Thomas Russell Sullivan, included such a character, and it was common for many years to base film versions of novels on stage adaptations, particularly within the horror genre.  For example, both Dracula (1931) and The Innocents (1961) are based on the stage versions of Dracula and The Turn of the Screw respectively.  We can only surmise as to why the playright, Sullivan, included a love interest in the stage version, but presumably it was simply to make the narrative more conventional. 

A few words on the other silent versions included in the Grapevine set.  The 1912 version runs for around ten minutes, and is simply is a series of short scenes giving the basic elements of the narrative within its restricted timeframe, and thus is rather lacking when it comes to the thriller element.  This form of screen condensation of full length novels was a common practice by this time – earlier examples include ten minute versions of Ben Hur (Sidney Olcott et al, 1907) and Frankenstein (J Searle Dawley, 1910).  It was only during the early 1910s, as the popularity of longer films started to increase, that film adaptations of novels could begin to give a faithful  and complex rendering of the source text other than simple representations of key scenes.  The 1920 version starring John Barrymore is the most highly-regarded of the silent adaptations that survives, and is certainly the most accomplished film.  However, for pure entertainment value, the other version from 1920, starring Sheldon Lewis, is thoroughly recommended for it is one of those films we like to label “so bad it’s good”.  Lewis is outrageous as Hyde, and the film’s budget restraints result in a series of continuity errors and sequences that really don’t make much sense.  Near the end of the film, Lewis is seen changing from Jekyll to Hyde and back about every thirty seconds!  It’s a real hoot (but for all the wrong reasons)!