Saturday, February 27, 2016

Ode To the Bitter Tears of a Lycanthrope :: A Beer-Gut Reaction to Henry Levin's Cry of the Werewolf (1944)

Rumors have long circulated in the city of New Orleans about the most infamous resident of the LaTour mansion, namely Marie LaTour, who, as the legend goes, was of royal gypsy blood and, wait for it, also a werewolf. [Insert stock wolf-howl here. You know the one I’m talking about.] This revelation comes in the form of a flashback, where her god-fearing husband decides to confront his wife with these rumors, which are confirmed when the lady of the house transforms into an unearthly beast (well, sort of,) and mauls him to death. After, Marie LaTour was said to have escaped into the bayous and swamps surrounding the crescent city, never to be heard from again.

Now, some twenty years later, the LaTour mansion has been transformed into an ersatz museum of the macabre by a Dr. Charles Morris (Leiber), only one part of his obsession over the mystery of Marie, her alleged lycanthropy, and her ultimate fate. And the movie proper gets up to speed with the last guided tour of the day, that starts in the eastern European vampire exhibit, then a mock-up of an ancient Egyptian tomb (complete with mummy), before moving on to a crash-course on voodoo and zombies, and then ending in the preserved bedroom of Marie LaTour, herself, which we recognize as the same room where she murdered her husband. And as the tour wraps up, Morris' assistant, Ilsa Chauvet (Massen), checks in with the boss, who is about to reveal a startling breakthrough in his research. In fact, he believes he has found the final resting place of Marie, but wants to wait until his son arrives before spilling the beans. Thus, Ilsa heads to the airport to pick him up, leaving Dr. Morris behind to cross a few last Ts in his journal.

However, unbeknownst to Morris and his senior staff, the real reason one of the janitors, Spavero (Triesault), asked to cut out earlier that day, was so he could make a beeline to a large gypsy camp somewhere outside the city limits, where he seeks out their leader, Princess Celeste (Foch), who also just happens to be Marie's equally long-lost daughter. Here, Spavero confides that Morris has most assuredly found the secret crypt which holds the remains of her mother hidden somewhere inside the mansion. And that's why Celeste was part of that last tour, who quietly remained behind in the bedroom as the rest of the group moved on. Once alone, she trips open a hidden entrance to a secret chamber behind the fireplace and enters, laying a trap for Dr. Morris, who is about to find out that Celeste inherited more than just her mother's features and title -- something far more sinister, and deadly...

While Carl Laemmle Jr. and Universal drained the blood out of the box-office with their monsters, horror, and Gothic melodramas of the 1930s, strangely, their rival studios only made token efforts to cash in as they franchised out. The Brothers Warner drummed up Dr. X (1932) and The Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933), Paramount took us on a tour of The Island of Lost Souls (1932) and unfolded the strange case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1932), and while RKO seemed content with King Kong (1933), MGM tried and died with Freaks (1932), and Fox, well, they essentially washed their hands of the whole gruesome business.

Meantime, after a lot of digging, the only real "horror" entry I could find for Columbia in that initial pre-code wave was Roy William Neill's Black Moon (1934). Coming on the heels of White Zombie (1932) and setting the template for Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur's I Walked with a Zombie (1943), this Caribbean island tale tells of a New York socialite (Dorothy Burgess), who is plagued by dreams of her time spent on Haiti, where she was raised by a voodoo priestess after her parents were killed under dubious (sacrificial) circumstances. Encouraged by her husband (Jack Holt) to meet these fears head on, the wife returns to the island where she suddenly finds herself once more under the influence and promoted to voodoo queen, with her husband, daughter, and most likely the nanny (Fay Wray) meeting the same fate as her parents, a blood sacrifice, during the next full moon.

But that was about it for Columbia until they snatched Karloff from Universal (after a layover at Monogram) for a series of science gone awry programmers, which all basically followed the same plot with Karloff's character exacting some form of preternatural revenge on those who wronged him, starting with The Man they Could Not Hang (1939) and ending with The Devil Commands (1941) with three more films jammed in-between. Beyond that, the studio seemed content to rely on their serials or the serialized adventures of The Crime Doctor and Boston Blackie for their thrills and chills and bottom bills; that is they were until the release of The Return of the Vampire (1943) and Cry of the Werewolf (1944).

Both films were a deliberate cash-in on rival studios' product. The Return of the Vampire was a shameless grope at Universal's current monster rallies, and is rightfully noted for the rare occasion where Bela Lugosi actually played a vampire on screen. By no means great, I do dig the film quite a bit, mostly for its wartime setting (-- the graveyard where the once vanquished vampire was buried took a hit during the blitz, dislodging the stake from his heart, resurrecting him), the wildcard werewolf, and its female take on Professor Van Helsing (Frieda Inescort). Meanwhile, Cry of the Werewolf, was more of a clumsy collage of several elements cribbed from the series of suggestive "psychological" horror films Lewton and Tourneur were mass-producing at RKO, essentially taking The Cat People (1942 -- with Massen ably subbing in as a Teutonic Simone Simon) and The Leopard Man (1943) and putting them in a blender. And while all the familiar elements may be present and identifiable, director Henry Levin's final concoction doesn't quite taste the same -- like it was filtered through a used gym sock.

Speaking honestly, Cry of the Werewolf's biggest problem lies with the cast. Well, one cast member, and the film might have really had something here if Stephen Crane wasn't such a drip as the younger Bob Morris, who, alas, turns out to be the designated hero of our piece as he takes up the case when he and Isla return home to find his father missing, what's left of his journal smoldering in the fireplace, and then hear some strange gibbering coming from Marie LaTour's bedroom. This, turns out to be the tour guide, who heard the elder Morris screaming and came to his aid in the opened secret chamber, where he witnessed a wolf murder his boss and then change back into Celeste, leaving him a few cans short of a six-pack.

The poor guide is quickly ruled out as a suspect when his fingerprints fail to match those found near Morris’ body in the otherwise empty chamber. But, police Lieutenant Lane (MacLane) says the prints belong to a female, making Ilsa the new prime suspect since she was also the last person to see Dr. Morris alive. But her prints don’t match either, sending Lane back to square one, leading us to the film’s second biggest flaw, with the police investigation providing the comedy relief, which borrows heavily from another Columbia staple, The Three Stooges, as all that was missing was for Lane to start poking his trio of underlings in the eye or bopping them on the noggin’ before ordering them all to spread out, nearly turning this whole thing into Cry of the Woob-Woob-Woob-Woobwolf *n’yuck-n’yuck-n’yuck* ... 

"I said spread out!"
*ahem* Anyhoo …Adding more confusion to this forensic pile are some strange paw prints and traces of fur that the lab identifies as coming from a wolf. But despite Bob’s pleas about his father’s research into lycanthropy, and his and Ilsa’s efforts to salvage what they can of the immolated journal, and the fact that the medical examiner lists the cause of death as an animal attack, Lane will hear none of it and focuses, instead, on his latest prime suspect, Spavero, who seems to have disappeared -- that is, until he turns up dead, too, butchered in the same fashion.

Seems Celeste felt the janitor was a loose end that needed to be tied up. Unfortunately for her, Bob and Ilsa are able to salvage enough pages of the journal to make a connection between Latour and a tribe of gypsies from Transylvania, who migrated to the States. Turns out those gypsies are from the same area where Dr. Harris found Ilsa, making her a fount of information on Carpathian folklore and assorted oogie-boogies. But this does little to protect Bob when his investigation leads him to a funeral parlor frequented by the gypsies, where he bumps into Celeste, who sneaks a totem into his pocket, placing him under a love spell, in an effort to derail his investigation. Luckily for Bob, Ilsa recognizes a fetish doll when she sees one.

Cut to the gypsy camp, where we discover Celeste is a reluctant monster, forced to bear the weight of her mother’s curse. Turns out her feelings for Bob were more than strategic, but when that all falls apart thanks to Ilsa, with the encouragement of her second in command, Celeste is determined to keep her mother’s hidden crypt within the secret chamber undisturbed forever. And if that takes the death of Bob, and if, say, Ilsa gets hypno-whammied into thinking she’s the werewolf and framed for the whole string of murders, then, so be it.

Both Return of the Vampire and Cry of the Werewolf were written by Griffin Jay, the latter with an assist from Charles O’Neal, who had scripted The Seventh Victim (1943), explaining the Lewton influence. Jay’s first credited work was a Three Stooges short, Three Little Pigskins (1934), and from there he penned some two-fisted Don Winslow movies and unraveled Universal’s mummy franchise with The Mummy’s Hand (1940), Tomb (1942) and Ghost (1944), which would explain ah-lot of the tonal inconsistencies found here as the writer tried to jam too much into the narrative. So much so that, by the end, the wheels were already long gone and this thing was off the track and pretzeling itself, which kinda short-changes an otherwise fairly gruesome climax.

The efforts of director Levin, making his debut, doesn’t help all that much. There are a few effective sequences, especially a scene where Celeste stalks Bob through the basement of the mortuary, where the echoing clack of her high heels keep getting closer and closer and then abruptly shifts to the sound of padded feet as she closes in for the kill. 

Speaking of feet, fair warning, Levin likes him some low angle shots of gams and feet moving around. I mean, LIKE, like.

As for the werewolf itself, perhaps in an effort to save costs all transformations are done with morphing shadows or take place off-screen; and the “monster” was played by an actual wolf. Well, except for the final fight between Celeste and Bob, when a stunt-German Shepherd was brought in for the hand-to-paw combat. The use of an actual wolf is actually kinda cool in my book, which wouldn’t be used again until, what? The Company of Wolves (1984)? However, one should note the application of what I think is a rubber band wrapped around the wolf’s upper snout, causing it to snarl involuntarily. At least I hope that was a rubber band and not piano wire. *sheesh*

On the acting side, again, Crane is a complete waste of time. Checking out his IMDB credits, he was destined to wash out of filmmaking just three films later. No surprise there. Pulling double-duty, Nina Foch played the victim in Return of the Vampire and shows some range in Cry of the Werewolf when she breaks down under the weight of her heritage, never having asked to be born into it. Now, I loved Barton MacClane in those old Torchy Blane movies, as he was the perfect foil for motor-mouth Glenda Farrell. Here, he doesn’t fare nearly as well. Osa Massen was another one of those European imports made by studios looking for their own version of Greta Garbo. Her career never took off, perhaps hampered a bit by an accent that never went away, but she paid her dues in a couple of outstanding film noir [A Woman’s Face (1941) and Deadline at Dawn (1946)] before becoming a pioneering astronautix in Kurt Neumann’s Rocketship X-M (1950), part of the first wave of science fiction films of the 1950s.

Columbia Pictures would fare better in genre films in the 1950s and ‘60s with their share of Hammer imports [Revenge of Frankenstein (1958), The Gorgon (1964)], most notably a string of mini-Hitchcocks shot in glorious black and white [Scream of Fear (1961) Cash on Demand (1961)], the gonzo films of William Castle [The Tingler (1959), 13 Ghosts (1960)], and the completely whackadoodle sci-fi horror hybrids of Sam Katzman [Creature with the Atom Brain (1955), Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956), The Werewolf (1956), The Giant Claw (1957)].

But there wasn’t a whole lot there in the 1940s between that boom and Cry of the Werewolf. No, where Columbia would really leave its mark in this era would be on the small screen with the formation of Screen Gems, their TV subsidiary, which eventually acquired the broadcast rights to 52 horror films from Universal and packaged them off as part of a syndicated Shock Theater package, which conjured hundreds of local TV horror hosts and spawned a whole new generation of fans, and for that alone we monster movie fanatics should be eternally grateful.

As for Cry of the Werewolf, eh, it ain’t that terrible but it does gets worse and more convoluted as it goes along; and by the climax we breach some sort of Stooges Hyper-Overdrive as the comedy relief of the police investigation crashes head-on with the melodrama of the leads, leaving no survivors. A sterling example of “if only they’d done this” or “focused on that” and then “it might’ve been more memorable.” Maybe even great. Well, make that "not half bad."

Cry of the Werewolf (1944) Columbia Pictures Corporation / P: Henry Levin / D: Henry Levin / W: Griffin Jay, Charles O'Neal / C: L. William O'Connell / E: Reg Browne / M: Mischa Bakaleinikoff / S: Nina Foch, Stephen Crane, Osa Massen, Barton MacLane, Ivan Triesault, Fritz Leiber

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