Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Halloween Movies 6. & 7. Fleshy Waxy Screamy Double Bill!

Two classics from the early Thirties, next, with The Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933) and Doctor X (1932). Both films star Lionel Atwill and Fray 'Eek!' Wray, and both were directed by Michael Curtiz. Both are bonkers but engaging, and I have to admit that I found myself warming to Mr Atwill and Miss Wray. What's more, the brilliant Curtiz makes both films look better, with pre-war technology, than 99 per cent of the stuff produced nowadays.

Curtiz's gifts are particularly evident in Doctor X, an absurdly-plotted story that feels a bit like a wildly improbable Sherlock Holmes mystery, but only if Conan Doyle had chronicled the great detective's dreams under the influence of powerful drugs. The film was produced before the notorious Hays Code severely restricted the range of violence, sex and general depravity that film-makers could include. This might explain why, for all its period charm, it has a distinctly grisly plot and some weirdly disturbing scenes.

In New York, a series of cannibalistic murders are committed. The killer employs a special type of scalpel that happens to be only used in a particular research institute. The scientists under suspicion are a fantastical hodgepodge of mad, maimed and boggled-eyed types, leaving the detectives and a fast-talking reporter baffled by Too Many Nutters As Suspects. We, the audience, already know that the killer is a weirdly-deformed creature in a hooded black robe who looks nothing like any of the suspects anyway. What on earth is going on?

Suffice to say that the gradual build-up to the revelation that the killer is... Well, I won't spoil it. Suffice to say that the decision by New York's finest to let Atwill's character sort out the problem by using scientific brain analysis does not quite prove the resounding success he'd hoped for. And if this all sounds rather comical, well, that's sort of the idea. Even this early on, Hollywood was mining the seam of parody, recognising that the tropes of the horror/mystery genre were ripe for calculated satire. Yet the climactic scenes involving the full-blown mad scientist's laboratory are as good as any 'straight' feature of the day.

Billed (see poster) as 'Better than Dr. X', our second feature certainly looks very different, not least because the early colour process (apparently it was the last feature film using a 'two-color' Technicolor system) gives it a beautiful 'hand-tinted' appearance. Again, Atwill is a genius with a problem, and Wray gets to scream a lot. (To be fair, Fay Wray's characters always had perfectly good reasons to panic and yell for help, what with giant gorillas and so forth.) In a nod to feminism Glenda Farrell plays the fast-talking reporter this time, and the whole thing chugs along nicely.

It doesn't take the astute viewer long to realise that Atwill's maimed sculptor, Ivan Igor, went more than a bit barmy when his London business was torched for the insurance by his dodgy partner. When he set up shop in New York things take a turn for the odd when yet another hideously disfigured weirdo in a cloak starts stealing bodies from the city morgue.

The actual mystery is not really hard to solve, but as with Doctor X the fun is in playing along with a film that recalls - as events career towards yet another OTT climax - Kenneth Williams' immortal 'Frying Tonight!' Again, it's barmy but stylish and fun, like a horror movie should be. Here's a rather realistic scuffle between two middle-aged blokes who have different opinions about insurance fraud, with some wonderful images of melting historical personages.

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