Saturday, June 21, 2014

The 1967 in Film Blogathon :: Whodunit? Who Cares! It's All Edgar Wallace's Fault in Alfred Vohrer's The College Girl Murders (1967)

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"Your plan is perfect. Who would look for a murderer in prison?" 
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Our Teutonic film of masked killers, daring (and somewhat dopey) detectives, damsels in distress, mayhem, and mass murder at a girl's boarding school begins, quite inexplicably, in the secret lair of a couple of wütender wissenschaftlers, who feverishly work to put their new odorless, forensically undetectable, and fast-acting poison gas through one last test on a vat of rats. When this experiment proves a rousing success, the elder scientist decides to field test the poison's dubious delivery device on his clueless assistant, too, who dies almost instantly upon opening a ledger as instructed and the resulting puff of aerosol spray from the ensconced-doodad hits him in the face.

Cut to a cemetery, where a sinister looking masked monk armed with a bullwhip stealthily lurks amongst the tombstones. (Well, as stealthily as you can in that scarlet get-up.) Nearby, the mad scientist delivers the poison gas and the gadget to deliver it, now secreted inside a bible, to the client who commissioned it. Keeping to the shadows, we never see The Client's face during this exchange. When asked for payment, he tells the scientist to remain right where he is and he'll get what's coming to him. And after he leaves, the Scarlet Monk reveals himself and goes all Indiana Jones on the scientist, snapping his neck with that rawhide whip.

Cut to a prison, where Frank Keeny (Rauch), a small time hood who would do almost anything for a $1000, gets roped into a scheme by a fellow inmate wanting to test that theory. With that, a baffled Keeny is swiftly (and rather easily) secreted out of the prison and delivered to a palatial estate, where he's escorted into a secluded chamber / aquarium / secret lair / yes, it even has a pit of alligators / no I'm not kidding / and meets The Client, who gives the fugitive an offer he can't refuse. (Author's note: The Client is still being shy, seated with his back to Keeny, who angrily barks out instructions to his new henchman without ever turning around.) Shown a picture of a teenaged girl, Keeny is ordered to give a certain bible to her by any means necessary. And if he does exactly as told, The Client promises his reward will be great. But if he fails, well, yeah. *thwack* Anyhoo...

Cut to a church, where a gaggle of school girls file in for mass, including the girl in the picture, Pam Walsbury (Strömberg). Working quickly, Keeny manages to bump into her and deftly switches out bibles. And as the invocation kicks up, Pam opens the deadly tome to read along, gets a face-full of gas, convulses violently, and keels over into the aisle, much to the distress of her fellow classmates, who didn't notice that gas attack. (Pam dropped the bible instantly and kicked it under a pew.) And as her best friend, Ann Portland (Glas), and the school's headmistress (Lauenstein) move to help, they're already too late. The girl was dead before she even hit the floor. Watching all of this, and quickly realizing he's gotten into something way, way, way over his head, Keeny flees the scene as fast as his feet will carry him.

And that, believe it or not, is basically just the preamble, folks; and Der Mönch mit der Peitsche a/k/a The College Girl Murders (1967) is only getting warmed up, destined to get even more screwier from here... 

Born the illegitimate son of a stage actor and a chorus girl in April, 1875, author Edgar Wallace had ditched school by the age of twelve to hock newspapers in London's Ludgate Circus, washed out as a printer's apprentice the next year, and then spent the next six years bouncing around, bilking, and getting fired from several menial jobs until enlisting in the army on his 18th birthday, where he served in South Africa during the Boer War of 1896 as part of the Royal West Kent Regiment. Sticking with the theme, Wallace wasn't too enamored with army life and wrangled a transfer to a medical outfit. This proved even worse, which soon had him on the move again until he apparently finally found what he was looking for in the military press corps. 

A voracious reader of military history and the ripping yarns of Rudyard Kipling, Wallace used these influences as inspiration for his stories and poems. According to legend, Wallace's dispatches so impressed Kipling that he arranged to meet the fledgling author (most reports place this meeting in Capetown, South Africa, in 1898) and encouraged him to keep writing once his enlistment was up. And with the sale of his first book of ballads, The Mission that Failed, Wallace sped up this process by using the profits to buy his way out of the army, got married, started a family, and moved back to England, determined to make writing a full time career. 
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"Such is the insanity of the age that do not doubt 
for one moment the success of my venture."

                                     -- Edgar Wallace 
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While still working as a reporter for the London Daily Mail, Wallace completed The Four Just Men, his first mystery novel concerning a quartet of proto-Batman-esque vigilantes, which he had to publish himself in 1905. To help boost sales, Wallace concocted an ill-conceived publicity blitz with his employers, serializing parts of the novel in the paper, promising 500 pounds to any reader -- stress on the "any" and not "the first" -- who solved how the crimes were committed before the author's official solution was published. This was accompanied by a four-walling advertising campaign throughout the Empire -- all done on credit. And as more and more correct guesses were mailed in, after the last chapter was published and no contest winners were announced, the lawsuits started flying. Legally obligated to pay off all the winners, the paper's publishers stepped in to bail him out. Couple that catastrophe with several lingering libel lawsuits, and Wallace found himself fired. However, even though it cost him his job and bankrupted him, The Four Just Men did become a best seller. However, one should note that this kind of enthusiastic self-sabotage would serve as a microcosm for Wallace's entire career. 

With his journalistic reputation in tatters and the rights to his novel sold off for a pittance to satisfy some of his creditors, Wallace headed back to Africa at the behest of the publisher of the Weekly Tale-Teller, a sensationalist penny magazine, for which he chronicled the terrible atrocities the Belgians were inflicting on the Congolese native laborers at their rubber plantations. He was also encouraged to write fictionalized accounts of his adventures in the jungle, which added a healthy dose of foreign exotica and taboo rituals into his stories. And along with his adventure tales, private dicks and amateur sleuths, Wallace also pioneered the police procedural by forgoing the middleman and making the detectives his protagonists. 

As his popularity grew, so did his proficiency (-- according to legend, he cranked out The Ringer in just 14 hours.) Again, this staggeringly massive output was by necessity to stave off his creditors and bookies. Seems Wallace had a weakness for the ponies and throwing extravagant parties for the culturally elite but couldn't really afford either, but which never stopped him from partaking in both. And so, by now, the author had developed a formula that sold: "crime, blood and three murders the chapter" and adopted "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" mentality as he pounded them out, published them, and immediately started on the next project.

Sustaining himself on copious amounts of tea and cartons of cigarettes, Wallace would go on to write 18 stage plays, 957 short stories and over 170 novels (12 of them in 1929 alone). It's been said during his reign (1910-1932) that one in four books being read in England were written by Wallace. And though contemporary authors found him both crude and lacking, and the critics thought his work was distasteful and without any merit, the reading public devoured his output to an estimated tune of 50 million copies sold. Outside of Britain, a quarter of a million books were sold in America, but where his writing proved most popular internationally was in Germany -- both in print and at the movies.

Wallace's salaciously violent and violently salacious stories were a decadently perfect fit for pre-Nazi Germany. When films first evolved as an art form, the story was the most important element and the director, cinematographer, and actors were mere technicians, tasked to translate them into moving pictures. (The Germans referred to this as autorenfilm.) And so, the more prestigious the source material usually meant more box-office receipts. Again, Wallace seemed a perfect fit. And happy to find another source of quick cash, Wallace quickly signed off on Der große Unbekannte a/k/a The Unknown (1927) and Der rote Kreis a/k/a The Crimson Circle (1929). About a half-dozen adaptations followed, ending in 1934 with E.W. Emo's Der Doppelgänger, when the rise of Hitler and National Socialism made this type of foreign materiel strictly verboten.

When the German money dried up, Wallace turned to America, hoping to find the same success in Hollywood. He signed on with RKO, where he famously helped Merian C. Cooper flesh out a certain "gorilla movie". Maybe you've heard of it? Alas, barely three months into his contract, Wallace tragically died in February, 1932, due to sudden and acute complications from an undiagnosed case of diabetes, bringing a premature end to his writing and filmmaking career. But this is not the end of our tale. No. This is just the beginning. (Well, more like the middle.) For it seems the Germans weren't quite done with the author yet.

At the dawn of the 1950s there was a sudden resurgence in popularity for these kinds of seedy crime thrillers and two-fisted adventure pulps in Europe, especially in Italy and West Germany. And while the Italians had their gialli (yellow) paperbacks, the Germans had the taschenkrimis -- "pocket-sized crime novels". With their theaters also flooded with American films in the same vein, the distributors of the Frankfurt based Constantin Film decided to try and do something similar domestically. Looking to cash in on these pulp influences, they sent out feelers to several studios, hoping to get someone interested in adapting the westerns of Karl May, the espionage tales of Jerry Cotten, or the criminal capers of Edgar Wallace but found no takers until the Dutch-based Rialto films agreed to take a gamble with them.

Remember, filmmaking in post-war Germany still hadn't really found its legs yet or established any kind of signature identity like it had in the heyday of Fritz Lang and Paul Wegener. But that was about to change when this risky endeavor quickly paid off with Der Frosch mit der Maske (1959), based on Wallace's The Fellowship of the Frog, where a masked super-criminal and his gang of thugs terrorize and loot London while staying one step ahead of Scotland Yard. And it proved so successful it quickly spawned a franchise that earned its own genre -- the kriminalfilm or krimi for short.

Under the guiding hand of producers Preben Phillipsen and Horst Wendlandt, and directors Harald Reinl and Alfred Vohrer, these krimis flourished throughout the 1960s, where "femme fatales, gamblers, and other denizens of the underworld -- stooges, squealers, informers and the like -- shared screen time with heirs and heiresses, insane relatives, mad scientists, psychos, criminal masterminds and (other) worse (elements of horror) in the blurred borders of a corrupt society."

From 1959 thru 1972, with 32 films in-between, Constantin-Rialto seldom strayed from this formula. They were always set in England; the bad guys were always opposed by a rotating gallery of detectives from Scotland Yard and their odious comedy relief; all under the watchful eye of the bumbling chief inspector, Sir John (Schürenberg, who played this same character in 13 of these things), and his ever-revolving pool of perky secretaries. And these investigators would then try to unravel the serpentine schemes of the master villain to save some hapless heroine from being cheated out of her rightful inheritance, being sold off to a white slavery ring, or getting her head chopped off by some guy dressed in a gorilla costume. Combine all of that with an international cast, mindless violence, some eye-popping production design, a swingin' horn heavy soundtrack, more mindless violence, deep shadows, wild camera angles, and a staggering body count by film's end, once you're exposed to this insanity, there is no turning back.

Spawning dozens of imitators, each tried hard to emulate this formula but they always lacked the true delirium of the Rialto series. And though Rialto acquired the rights to exclusively adapt Wallace's books, and they all still bore the signature Wallace stamp of the pre-credit sequence, where the screen would be riddled with bullets and a ghostly voice would announce "This is Edgar Wallace speaking...", barely five films in, it quickly became apparent they were based on the source material in the same way Roger Corman's The House of Usher was based on the poem of Edgar Allan Poe. And as the series progressed, things got even more violent, more decadent, and also a whole lot goofier, which brings us back to The College Girl Murders.

Like the rest of the series, The College Girl Murders plays out like an old Republic serial, mixed with the absurdity of a Gilligan's Island dream sequence, with the overall look and feel and vibe of the old Batman TV show. If you watched all of these films chronologically, by 1967, it's fairly obvious Rialto's formula was on the verge of collapsing under the weight of its own, ever-increasingly convoluted plots. And if things weren't convoluted enough already, the plot proper kicks in when that perfect poison turns out to be not as undetectable as advertised.

With another bizarre homicide on his hands, Sir John assigns Inspector Higgins (Fuchsberger, another series regular) to assist him in the investigation. As a fan of the series, I like Sir John enough, but I like the old goofball in small doses and he spends way too much time out from behind his office desk in this film, which is sorely lacking the true comedy relief of Eddi Arent, another regular, who, alas, doesn't appear in this entry.

Neither the faculty or the students are all that thrilled to have the police sniffing around the school for suspects and leads for Pam's murder, as everyone seems to be harboring a secret or having an illicit affair. Only Ann is willing to talk to Higgins, who earnestly but erroneously sends him sniffing down several false trails. And as these red herrings keep piling up, The Client arms Keeny with another deadly device (which resembles a ray-gun that shoots lethal cotton-candy) and keeps sending him back to the school to bump off more girls. And while Keeny reduces the student body, the Scarlet Monk starts wiping out the faculty before they can talk to the police.

The thing you have to remember is the majority of the players are acting squirrelly due to their own private skeletons that have nothing to do with main murder thread. They act guilty because they are guilty, just not of murder. Thus, due to this behavior, nearly everyone winds up a suspect in this thing. And as Higgins focuses in on them, their life-expectancy can be measured in mere minutes as the true culprits bump them off to sow confusion or, more than likely, just employing a scorched-earth policy to eliminate any possible leaks.

With all these false leads and false witness baring, then, there is no way in hell Higgins or the audience could ever solve the mystery of who is really behind this mad scheme; just a lot of loose dot-connecting, a five-car-twist-pile-up during the climax, and a last minute revelation that nearly explains away everything. Here, The Client was basically carpet-bombing the school to create a pile of bodies big enough that no one would realize who the real target was and trace it back to him. How does the Scarlet Monk fit into all of this? Well, I've watched this film four times now and, You know what? I'm still not sure how they wound up in league together. That's me shrugging right now -- but he sure looked cool!

And even though the whackadoodle plot leads in you thirty different directions at once, there are some interesting twists if you can manage to glom onto them as they rocket by. I like how the setting is another one of those European boarding schools where the only class appears to be lounging around the pool. But I especially dug The Client using prisoners as his lackeys, causing much confusion when several witnesses identify Keeny, who is always snuck back into his cell before the police arrive. Fortunately, Keeny gets a little too greedy and pays the price. And this mistake finally provides a pivotal clue for Higgins, who sniffs out the revolving door to the prison in time to save Pam from that alligator pit. Credit also to Vohrer, who directed nearly half of the Rialto krimis, and cinematographer Karl Löb because, if nothing else, the film is a visual feast, over-compensating for the lack of cohesion everywhere else.

Before I wrap this up, it should be noted that these Rialto krimis were also a huge hit in Italy, where their influence on the body count films of Mario Bava and Dario Argento cannot be discounted. But as the Italian bred giallo evolved, and by the time The College Girl Murders was made, influences were definitely starting to cross-pollinate as the high contrast color schemes, eerie settings, and voluptuous eye-candy of Vohrer's film definitely has Mario Bava's Blood and Black Lace fingerprints all over it. And as the series moved out of the 1960s and into the 1970s, with the likes of Lenzi's Seven Blood-Stained Orchids (1972) and Sallamano's What Have You Done to Solange (1972), you could barely tell the difference between the genres anymore. And then the whole thing finally collapsed the same year, along with half the European film industry, ending one of the greatest, goofiest, brain-bending series in cinematic history.

Now, if you've made it this far, you may have inferred from my reservations about the cock-eyed plot that The College Girl Murders is a complete, intractable mess that might not be worth the time to endure. This, was not my intention and I hope it doesn't scare you off from checking it out -- or any other film from the Rialto series, for that matter. It's more of a friendly warning to brace yourselves, there's gonna be a lot chucked at you for the next hour and a half, but, oh, Boils and Ghouls, is it ever worth it to find out no matter whodunit.

This review is part of Silver Screenings and The Rosebud Cinema's 1967 in film Blogathon. And a big Hooray! to them for throwing out such a wide net for participants and landing Yours Truly. Please follow the linkage and check out all the other fantastic entries, won't you? Thank you. I also must relay the bad news that even though I promised a second write-up for this roundtable of The Born Losers and the birth of Billy Jack, alas, a last minute shift change and a three day weekend that suddenly wasn't have officially scuttled this notion. Boo! Apologies to one and all.

The College Girl Murders a/k/a Der Mönch mit der Peitsche (1967) Rialto Film :: Constantin Film / P: Horst Wendlandt / D: Alfred Vohrer / W: Herbert Reinecker, Edgar Wallace (novel) / C: Karl Löb / E: Jutta Hering / M: Martin Böttcher / S: Joachim Fuchsberger, Uschi Glas, Grit Boettcher, Siegfried Schürenberg, Tilly Lauenstei, Ewa Strömberg


Silver Screenings said...

I learned SO MUCH from reading your post. Lots of great info here, especially on the life & times of Edgar Wallace, whom I knew nothing about.

Really enjoyed this post, and loved this quip: "The College Girl Murders plays out like an old Republic serial, mixed with the absurdity of a Gilligan's Island dream sequence, with the overall look and feel and vibe of the old Batman TV show." Fabulous!

Thanks for joining the blogathon of '67!

Jeff Flugel said...

Great post! Glad to see you cover one of the Rialto krimis...I've only seen a handful of them myself but they are tons of colorful fun. This one looks no exception. Nice background info on Wallace, too.

Anonymous said...

This film sounds crazy and yet a hoot, too! I didn't know about Edgar Wallace, so thanks for for the information about him and his career.

Clayton @ Phantom Empires said...

Before I'd seen any Spaghetti Westerns I may have balked a little at this one, but, being both an Edgar Wallace lover and a Spaghetti-type surreal-plot lover, this sounds GREAT! I'm well-pleased by an odd movie from time to time.

I'll have to dig it up. Good one!

W.B. Kelso said...

Thank you all for reading. And thanks once again to our gracious hosts for providing this forum.

For those wanting to explore further, here's a master list of all 32 Rialto krimis. Most are available via digital rental through Amazon Prime, which I used to plow through the majority of the series and had a ball. And I also picked up a couple of Sinister Cinema's DVDs on the ones I wanted a permanent copy of. Good luck, and have fun.

Anonymous said...

I knew very little about Wallace, so this was an excellent starting point, thank you! I'll certainly be checking out the link you posted - can't wait to watch some for myself!

Kristina said...

what a great read this was, a crash course and got me totally interested in seeing this (and more of these) too! thanks for all the work that went into this post

W.B. Kelso said...

I thank you. Aaaaand I forgot to cite my sources. If you'd like to know more, check out Schneider's FEAR WITHOUT FRONTIERS (FAB Press) and Tohill & Tombs IMMORAL TALES (St. Martin's Griffin).


This sounds sooo odd: whodunit movie, a boarding school, a cemetery, a Red Monk? I loved it! Thanks for the tip and for the incredibly written piece.
Don't forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! :)
Greetings! said...

What a character Wallace was! If this film is half as funny as your review it's well worth a viewing. Thank you!

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