Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)

*. This movie is included, appropriately, in both the Legacy DVD collections of Dracula and the Wolf Man. It does not mark a sudden change of direction from horror into screwball comedy — the previous few monster mash-up films produced by Universal were madcap and silly enough — but it’s very much the culmination of those franchises.
*. But times were changing. This was now Universal International, not Universal. Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein would be the last of their run of ensemble monster films, the last studio film Bela Lugosi made, and (I believe) the last time Lon Chaney Jr. played the Wolf Man. David Thomson calls it “a kind of going-out-of-business sale” and that’s a good analogy.

*. In my notes on the immediately preceding film in the series, House of Dracula (1945), I mentioned how strange it was that the Wolf Man kept getting dropped from the titles of these films despite his playing the leading part. We see the same bias toward Frankenstein’s Monster here, as (once again) he gets lead billing but is nothing but an almost speechless hunk of meat stretched out on a slab waiting for revival. It’s an inconsequential part, and the original title, The Brain of Frankenstein, made this discrepancy even worse. Lawrence Talbot, meanwhile, is, arguably, the real hero of the piece. I mean, Charles Bradstreet as Professor (or Dr.) Stevens is a total blank, and has almost no role at all to play aside from getting paired off with Jane Randolph.
*. If I have my questions about the title, I want to add that I love the animated opening credits (which were themselves uncredited but on the DVD commentary Gregory Mank says they were assumed to be the work of Walter Lantz). You just know you’re going to have a good time when.
*. That cartoon spirit carries over into the rest of the film as well, with the animated transformations of Dracula into a bat, the costume ball, and that island castle, which takes us just over the top of the usual haunted castle renderings and off to the land of Scooby-Doo.

*. If the classic Universal monsters were on their way out, Abbott and Costello were on the ups. Their salaries were a big part of the budget here ($105,000 plus a percentage), while Chaney and Lugosi got a tenth of that (and Lugosi was lucky just to be hired).
*. Chaney would later say that comedy ruined horror films by making buffoons out of the monsters, but it was time for a changing of the guard. Abbott and Costello would go on to star in other horror comedies with the Invisible Man and the Mummy, before they too would pass from the scene.

*. In 1948, however, they were at the top of their game and had their routine down pat. It isn’t complicated. The gags here are of two types. In the first place there are the physical gags, which mostly revolve around something going on behind Lou, or Lou seeing something scary and not being able to make Bud believe it because he’s dissolving into inarticulate spastics of fright. Then there are the verbal gags, which are really nicely worked into the script so that they don’t play like stand-up bits at all. Also, despite some of the dated word play (for example, over “bunk”), most of it remains pretty fresh.

*. I think they really missed a trick not having the two ladies (Lenore Aubert and Jane Randolph), faux rivals for Wilbur’s love, play off against each other more, each aware of the other’s game. Instead they both spend the final third of the movie as zombies.
*. There’s an interesting point that Mank mentions about how Universal never had a female monster/heavy before Sandra, unless you want to count Elsa Lanchester’s Bride (and I wouldn’t). Movies were afraid of female monsters.

*. That look Lou gives the camera after yanking the sheet out from under the candelabra on the credenza is a great moment, just for being so singular. Apparently the boys put an emphasis on having a lot of fun on set, with pie fights and all the rest of it. In a moment like this it shows.
*. The chaotic finale is great, and actually has more action, a lot more action, than the previous monster brawls. The Wolf Man jumping off the balcony to grab the Dracula bat before plunging together to their doom would have been a perfect climax to any of those earlier films.
*. I’m impressed with how well this movie has held up. I remember seeing it on TV when I was a kid and enjoying it quite a bit. Forty years later I still think it’s a lot of fun. I hope I’m still around to enjoy it forty years hence! But I doubt I will be.

She-Wolf of London (1946)


*. As I point out on my About page, I don’t provide spoiler alerts for these commentaries. My feeling being that anyone reading my notes has already seen the movie being discussed. That said, I’ll issue one here anyway. Just because this is a mystery and I’m a nice guy and really there’s nothing else to talk about but the basic set-up.
*. So, what we have here is a werewolf movie with no werewolf. This shouldn’t surprise us too much. You could have a female vampire (the brides or daughters of Dracula), and even a female Frankenstein’s monster (if you use enough imagination), but the thought of a woman getting all hairy and scary . . . well, in 1946 that was pushing things a bit too far. Even today female lycanthropes are more the exception than the rule. Sybil Danning at least tried to make them sexy in Howling II: Your Sister is a Werewolf, but then that movie was mainly tits ‘n’ giggles. Other than that, who is there? The girls in Ginger Snaps. Serafine in An American Werewolf in Paris. But Serafine appears to be the only girl werewolf in the Paris pack. In Underworld the “lycans” seem predominantly (if not exclusively) male. Sexy vampires, yes. But no sexy werewolves.
*. Anyway, instead of werewolves we have a heroine who is afraid that she may be a werewolf due to an ancient family curse. This, in turn, may spoil her wedding plans. In other words, Cat People with lycanthropes. But it’s actually less interesting than that because there’s no sexual or supernatural angle. Instead it’s just the old story about trying to drive the heiress insane.
*. I wonder where this particular story got started. One term for it, “gaslighting,” comes from a 1938 play (film versions in 1940 and ’44). Whatever its provenance, a lot of mystery-thrillers in the ’50s and ’60s seemed to be doing it. Les Diaboliques is probably the best known. Hammer’s Nightmare is another example.
*. I digress. But I digress only because there isn’t much else to say. I think it will be pretty obvious to everyone in the audience what’s going on as soon as they see “Aunt” Martha (Sara Haden) bringing Phyllis (June Lockhart) a glass of warm milk to soothe her nerves, with Phyllis waking up the next morning covered in mud and blood.
*. It all plays out as quite awkward and artificial. I especially like how the police in the park just sort of stand around when they hear people calling for help, and wait for the mutilated inspector to stagger over to them before expiring right at their feet. Not much of a sense of urgency there, boys.
*. At the end of the day I can’t even call this one an interesting footnote to the werewolf genre. It’s just a dull and obvious little picture without anything particularly memorable about it. The studios churned out a lot of movies like this in the ’40s. Most of them are now lost, and most of those not lost are pretty much forgotten. She-Wolf of London has no greater claim on our attention.


House of Dracula (1945)


*. Choose your metaphor — running on empty, out of steam, shot its bolt, jumped the shark — but the great initial run of Universal horror films ends here.
*. Once again we have a collection of the usual suspects: Frankenstein’s Monster, Dracula, the Wolf Man, plus a Mad Doctor and a Hunchback (I’m taking these names from the theatrical poster). Though the Mad Doctor is a good guy for most of the movie (meaning until he gets infected with tainted blood from Dracula), and the Hunchback isn’t a villain at all but a kind and beautiful woman.
*. I guess this is a sequel to House of Frankenstein, though there’s no explanation at all for how Dracula and the Wolf Man came back to life. What makes this odd is that they do try to maintain continuity with the demise of the Monster in the earlier film, as he’s found still clutching on to the skeleton of Dr. Niemann in a cave under the bog he sank into.
*. Pity the Wolf Man. He has the biggest part among the three icons in both this movie and House of Frankenstein but he doesn’t get title billing. Dracula has a bit more to do here but still disappears half-way through the film. As usual, the Monster is just a slab of dead meat to be strapped on to a table and brought back to life so he can kill everybody that needs to be killed in the last five minutes of the movie before dying, again, in another collapsing building. At this point he’s not even a character but a plot device.


*. Pity the hunchbacks. In House of Frankenstein the hunchback Daniel was supposed to have his brain transplanted into that of Lawrence Talbot, but Dr. Niemann reneges on the deal so Daniel kills him, only to be thrown out the window to his death by the Monster. In this movie the hunchback Nina is supposed to be cured by Dr. Edelmann but he gets tainted blood from Dracula and kills her before tossing her body into a cave. No rehab for the disabled!
*. You know you’re in trouble when all of your leads in an ensemble film are upstaged by a background player. In this movie it’s Skelton Knaggs, the odd duck who plays Steinmuhl. He steals every scene he’s in.
*. That’s not so hard though, given how dull a film this is. Lon Chaney is still moping around wanting to die. John Carradine’s Dracula is one of the wimpiest versions of the Count ever. Dr. Edlemann (Onslow Stevens) is a boring do-gooder who just wants to run a rehab clinic for monsters before he goes all Rotwang.
*. What’s really missing here is that zany, tongue-in-cheek spirit of fun that animated all the earlier Universal horrors. We’re just going through the motions here and it’s clear nobody has any idea what to do with these characters any more. Most franchises have a tendency to run past the point of exhaustion, and this was no exception. The only thing left to do was make fun of the whole thing — and they’d even need to bring in assistance, in the form of Abbott and Costello, to do that.


House of Frankenstein (1944)


*. This one should have been great. In a mere 71 minutes you get three classic Universal monsters (Dracula, the Frankenstein monster, and the Wolf Man), plus a mad scientist accompanied by a lovesick hunchback assistant.
*. But . . .
*. But it doesn’t come together. And by that I mean it doesn’t come together at all. None of the three monsters even meet! The plot to the monster mash that came before this, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, was a mess, but it was a model of coherence and structure compared to the script for this one.
*. Both movies split in two. In Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man the first half is all about bringing the Wolf Man back to life, while the second half transports us to Visaria, Frankenstein’s castle, and a whole other story. Here the first part of the movie has the revival of Dracula, who is then surprisingly (and quite literally) dropped by the side of the road before we go back to Frankenstein’s castle (again) to find the other two monsters.
*. It’s interesting that in both movies the Lawrence Talbot/Wolf Man character is the main “monster,” but Frankenstein (who does little) gets top billing. I guess Frank’s name was still the one selling tickets.
*. Looking at the Monster and the Wolf Man thawing from their blocks of ice made me wonder if they were the inspiration for Hawks’s The Thing from Another World (1951). Maybe to some extent, but The Thing was based on a story published in 1938 which also had the alien thawing out from a block of ice, so really no.


*. One really nice touch: as Dracula (John Carradine) awakens he licks his lips before his eyes open. Beautiful.
*. I didn’t like this one as much as Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, perhaps because it was just so disjointed it started to seem wasteful. I mean, why even introduce Dracula and give him that cool mind-control ring? He has no part in the story at all. In fact, none of the monsters do. They just sort of hang around in the background while the mad Dr. Neimann (Boris Karloff) does his thing, which involves getting revenge on the burghers who put him away in prison years before.
*. I like Karloff, but this movie had to make up its mind to be about his character instead of seeming to lose its focus every five minutes or so. It’s like one of those later Marvel Universe films where they just keep adding more superheroes and villains into the mix while the stories get less and less interesting.
*. So it should have been better. Things move along at a frantic pace, but it’s mostly the same old touchstones. We see a couple of Wolf Man transformation scenes. There’s a lab scene full of climbing electric arcs and bubbling flasks and needles quivering into the danger zone. There’s a camp of gypsies and a mob of angry villagers waving torches and pitchforks. They even trot out that damn werewolf poem again, twice. The multiple brain transplant angle might have been interesting, but . . . it gets talked about but never happens. Even the ending is a dismal anti-climax. No fiery windmill or castle being destroyed “Dambuster”-style but only a slow sinking into the bog (and yes, Dr. Niemann, we know it’s quicksand).
*. They really couldn’t let things end like this. So they didn’t. Next stop on the back lot tour: House of Dracula!


Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943)


*. Let’s start with that title. The verb “meets” is so quaint . . . genteel even. A relic of a bygone era. I mean, we couldn’t imagine Alien Meets Predator could we? Or Freddy Meets Jason? (Two films, by the way, that pay tribute to this as the great monster mash-up original.)
*. You have to love the ingenuity studios put into defibrillating a dead franchise. I think my favourite example of this is how they pulled Escape from the Planet of the Apes out of the ass of Beneath the Planet of the Apes. That was funny. In any event, they were put to the test here, since at the end of The Wolf Man Lawrence Talbot was good and dead. He even had the gypsy woman Maleva give his verse eulogy. But all his corpse really needed was a dash of moonlight, helpfully provided by a mausoleum with an open window.
*. I’ll say right off that I liked this movie better than The Wolf Man. That’s not quite like saying I like Bride of Frankenstein more than Frankenstein though, since the fact is I didn’t like The Wolf Man very much. This one is sillier, but more fun.


*. The plot makes no sense at all. All Talbot wants to do is die, not find a cure for his lycanthropy. So why not just jump into a volcano, or in front of a bus? Frankenstein’s diary is modestly titled The Secrets of Life and Death, but surely there’s no secret to self-destruction. (In the immediate sequel, House of Frankenstein, the title of the book has changed to Experiments in Life and Death, by the way. In Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein it has changed back to Secrets. A bit of discontinuity trivia.)
*. In the event, the actual secret of life and death is almost comically vague. “Connect the minus to the minus.” That doesn’t sound very scientific, even to me.
*. In The Wolf Man Talbot is an engineer and even boasts of being mechanically inclined: “I can figure out most anything if you give me electric current, tubes and wires, something I can do with my hands.” So why in this movie does he look on helplessly at the machinery in the Baron’s lab and immediately ask Dr. Mannering if he might be able to fix it? Mannering is a psychiatrist!


*. The Monster was a butchered part. Originally he was supposed to be able to speak, but they cut his lines and left Lugosi with nothing but growls. They also left out any explanation of his blindness, leaving him to lurch awkwardly around with his arms held out in front of him for no apparent reason.
*. What’s left of the script seems like a bunch of odd bits and pieces. They didn’t really need to bring Maleva back, and after taking Talbot to Frankenstein she no longer has any function. Elsa Frankenstein is dangled as a potential love interest, but whose? And what purpose does she serve except to show where the Baron’s secret diary is hidden? Dr. Mannering starts out as a sympathetic hero but then seems to get infected with the Baron’s madness, only to turn hero again at the very end. What a mess!


*. Finally, how do we rate the Battle of the Universal Titans promised in the title? I’d only give it a passing grade. The Monster was hamstrung because of the aforementioned blindness and stiff movement, but also because Lugosi had to be doubled so they couldn’t do any close shots. As for the Wolf Man (who I think was also doubled), his only move seems to be climbing on top of something and then jumping on to the Monster. This he does again and again and again.
*. Fight scenes have come a long way. Hollywood in the golden age could certainly do great swordfights, but when it came to fist fights or monster brawls the results look primitive to a modern audience (and to some contemporaries: Bosley Crowther was notably underwhelmed at the climax here). There’s nothing in old movie fights like the editing and choreography we’ve come to expect. So the final battle here isn’t much, and finally ends in a draw due to the venue collapsing around the antagonists, but given what the movie had to work with I think it looks pretty good.
*. The early Universal horrors were informed by a spirit of playfulness and fun, never taking themselves entirely seriously. What we have here is an early example, really the studio’s first, of the ensemble horror or Monster Mash: fast-paced, whimsical (that ice cavern under the castle!), and fun. Even Talbot’s whiney desire to kill himself isn’t allowed to dampen the proceedings that much. Nor do we put much faith in the Götterdämmerung finale closing the books on either of these baddies. For all Talbot’s complaining, Chaney seems to have enjoyed playing the Wolf Man. He thought of the role as his “baby.” He was bound to come back.


The Wolf Man (1941)


*. This wasn’t the first werewolf movie — that honour goes to Werewolf of London — but The Wolf Man basically invented the genre. What makes this strange is that it seems to have happened almost by accident.
*. Screenwriter Curt Siodmak usually gets most of the credit, but the final script is actually a long way from what he wrote.


*. What Siodmak intended, in the first place, was a psychological thriller, with the Wolf Man being, perhaps, the protagonist’s unleashed id. It would basically be a furrier version of the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde story, and it may be relevant in this regard that the Spencer Tracy version of that classic tale came out the same year as this film. On the DVD commentary Tom Weaver even suggests that the montage hallucination here was inspired by Tracy’s fevered erotic dreams.
*. Apparently Siodmak had studied Freud, but this Freudian “wolf man” was going to have to wait for Val Lewton to adapt the story in Cat People. Universal wasn’t interested in ambiguity; they wanted a monster.


*. So the script was changed at the last minute. Weaver says it was rewritten only a couple of weeks before shooting started. This is amazing, but given the assembly-line nature of the studio system, not impossible.
*. Another big change to the script was making the Lon Chaney Jr. character the son of Claude Rains. Originally he was to be an unrelated American named Larry Gill.
*. This leads to a lot of incongruities. Weaver remarks how Rains and Chaney look like Mutt and Jeff, which makes him wonder what Mrs. Talbot looked like. For what it’s worth, Chaney was 6’2″ and Rains 5’6″. I’ve known bigger generational variations.
*. Chaney’s lack of a British accent is explained by his being raised in the U.S. But I wonder if they needed to do that. Because where is this movie set, anyway?
*. Siodmak’s script was set in Wales, and if you read much about the film you’ll often here the Welsh setting mentioned. But all references to Wales were cut. So are we in Wales? You’ll have to wait for the sequel, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, to find out. (Spoiler: Yes. The town’s name is even given as Llanwelly and the revived Larry Talbot is taken to a hospital in Cardiff.)
*. In one of the DVD supplements Jan-Christopher Horak shrugs the question of location off, saying the setting is Neverland, a hodgepodge of times and places all shot on Universal’s back lot. David J. Skal: “The Wolf Man, released in 1941, was yet another Hollywood nightmare of a geographically indeterminate ‘Europe’ anxiously blurring together elements of America, England, and the Continent, rather as the Great War had done literally, and the new war was in the process of doing all over again. The Europe of American horror movies was a nearly surreal pastiche of accents, architecture, and costumes, like the scrambled impressions of a soldier/tourist on a whirlwind tour of duty.”


*. There were legends Siodmak could draw on, but no clear literary precedent, as with Shelley’s Frankenstein or Stoker’s Dracula. In that respect Siodmak’s role may be thought of as similar to Romero’s in reinventing the zombie not just as a movie monster but as a genre and a mythology. That said, a lot of the mythology here had limited impact. That awful poem kept getting recited through the next few movies, but was then (thankfully) dropped. And the pentacle was never very important again. It shows up painted on the wall of the tavern in An American Werewolf in London, but that movie was full of arcane nods.
*. Not that the pentacle means very much here. The ramshackle plot is a ball of loose ends, and the pentacle is just part of it. Of what use is the charm Maleva gives Talbot, for example? He gives it to Gwen but she doesn’t wear it and we never see it again. (Originally it was melted down to make a silver bullet that kills Talbot, but that was another script casualty.) Then there’s the great moment when Talbot shows the pentagram on his chest and his father replies “That scar could be made by almost any animal.” Really? Name one, Claude.
*. We start off with some odd opening credits, probably because the studio “rightfully took a lot of pride in the cast” (Weaver). The only other horror movie Universal did this for was The Black Cat.


*. I guess they were proud of the cast, but for me the credits draw attention to how extraneous so many of these characters are. What role do Warren William and Ralph Bellamy (the doctor and the colonel, respectively) play in this movie? They don’t really have any purpose.
*. I love that observatory set, and wish they’d been able to work in more of it. It looks like it’s just waiting for Méliès’ scientists to arrive and start planning their Trip to the Moon. It also introduces an early example of voyeurism into the film. It’s odd that Gwen’s not creeped out more when she finds out that Larry has been spying on her in her bedroom. And this is later echoed when Talbot tells Maleva that he remembers seeing her in the crypt, which is when he was spying on her and she didn’t know he was there. But she says nothing of it.
*. Gwen’s indifference to being spied on is akin to her rather slack attitude toward her engagement. Should she really be going out on dates with Larry?
*. I wonder how much of the effectiveness of these Universal horrors was due to their short running times. The Wolf Man is only 70 minutes, which is the same as Dracula and Frankenstein.


*. It’s a truism that the main interest in any werewolf movie is in the transformation scene. And it has to be said that the special effects and make-up by the legendary Jack Pierce has dated badly here. The Wolf Man isn’t very impressive (as some contemporary reviewers also thought), and there is only the one full transformation shot, and that’s of the Wolf Man’s hairy feet (the reverse transformation at the very end has a couple of cuts so I’m not counting it).


*. Chaney has a soft, vulnerable face and apparently liked to cry in movies. That’s why he starts to blubber in the crypt scene even though it doesn’t really make any sense. But it was important for him that Talbot be a sympathetic character. Later werewolves would tend to drift away from this and go more to the mad-dog side.
*. I don’t dislike Chaney, but I’ve never found him to be much of a leading man in any part. He just lacks a certain firmness and never ignites on screen.
*. “Sounds Greek to me.” “It is Greek.” I don’t know if we owe this to Siodmak, but somebody was smiling when they wrote that.
*. There are all kinds of bizarre continuity-style problems, but it’s hard to tell how much of this is because the script was mangled, and how much was due to budget problems. Among the more prominent examples, Lugosi turns into a German Shepherd (named Moose, who is still wearing a collar in his big scene), but Chaney turns into a Wolf Man. Also, the Wolf Man changes into different clothes when he transforms (shirt and pants). Weaver says, in defence of the latter, that if you’re willing to believe he can change into a wolf you’ll believe that he can put on a shirt, but this misses the point, as we’re being asked to believe very different things. And how does the Wolf Man get out of his ropes? We don’t even get a cut away to see them lying at the foot of the chair, or any other explanation.
*. Is it a well made movie? I’m not sure. As noted, the script is held together with elastic bands and Krazy Glue. The monster effects are underwhelming. I like the sets for their artificiality, especially that foggy forest on a sound stage, but there’s not much else to commend about the production aside from the score. Even the lighting seems off throughout, especially the shadows and half shadows over actors’ faces that I don’t think was deliberate. Note, for one obvious example, the scene between Rains and Chaney when Chaney is bound to the chair at the end. Why are their eyes in shadow? It just seems awkward.


*. So it may be the case that it’s one of those landmark films that had a big impact and long tail, but that doesn’t really hold up well on re-viewing. I like it well enough, but I think it falls well short of greatness. Now that they’d been properly introduced, however, werewolves were going to be big.


Werewolf of London (1935)


*. This might be thought of as a damp squib: the first (surviving) werewolf movie, but a film that went nowhere. It did, however, lay down some of the basics of the genre, including the idea that being bitten by a werewolf is what infects you with the werewolf curse, and the way the transformation is brought about by moonlight. These were new elements.
*. There’s also something mentioned about how the werewolf “instinctively seeks to kill the thing it loves best,” but nothing much is done with this in the movie (Dr. Glendon seems more intent on killing his rival), and it was an idea that later werewolf movies didn’t do much with. David in An American Werewolf in London mentions it to Alex, but even in that film it doesn’t really come in to play.
*. Taking a step back, the werewolf mythos has its roots in the Jekyll and Hyde story, where beneath our polished exteriors there lurks a hairy beast. Because this is the earliest telling of the werewolf story on film, the relation to Jekyll and Hyde is clearest, and when Dr. Jekyll– I mean, Dr. Glendon — turns into a werewolf and then dons his hat and scarf to go out on the town we know we’re in an earlier, more civilized werewolf universe.
*. Comparisons to The Wolf Man are, to my mind, not unfavourable (but keep in mind that I’m not a big fan of The Wolf Man). The makeup here was also done by Jack Pierce, but it wasn’t as involved. Basically it’s just a widow’s peak (maybe borrowed from Dracula) and protruding lower fangs. It’s not as hairy a get-up, so it lets Henry Hull act, which is nice. Plus it allows for more transformation scenes than are in The Wolf Man.
*. There are some nice touches. I love that giant carnivorous plant they feed the frog to. I also like how the cat looks really pissed off. I wonder what they were doing to it off camera. Dr. Glendon’s closed-circuit security cameras are way ahead of their time — indeed so much so that the plot couldn’t think of anything to do with them. And I thought the touch of having Dr. Glendon re-enact Christ’s agony in the garden before his second transformation was quite a surprise.


*. Then there are missteps. It’s typical of the love triangles in werewolf movies to be a bit sticky and ambiguous. Even before the end Lisa seems well on her way to an adulterous affair with her old flame Paul (with whom, presumably, she flies away into the credits). The old ladies letting the room are a standard comic bit, and they seem shoehorned in here. Warner Oland, as Dr. Yogami from the University of Carpathia (he’d already become famous as Charlie Chan), could have been a really interesting character, but nothing is done with him. Since the plant only offers a temporary cure for the disease of lycanthropy, it’s hard to even figure out why he’s bothering hunting it down. So he goes a month or two without killing? Then what?
*. I call it “lycanthropy” because that’s it’s name. Here it’s referred to as “werewolfery” (unintentionally funny, and not a word I recall ever hearing again) and “lycanthrophobia,” which suggests something quite different. Chalk it up to this being early days. They didn’t have their story straight.
*. I wouldn’t want to call this a seminal movie, but at the same time I think it would be wrong to overlook it entirely. It doesn’t have the same atmosphere and deeper resonance of The Wolf Man, and probably tries too hard to stay within what were conventions (for example, making the protagonist a scientist), but it’s more than just a footnote. I’m not sure it can be considered the film that properly launched the genre, but it is a kind of missing link between Jekyll and Hyde and where things were going.


Behind the Green Door (1972)

*. I hope it won’t offend anyone too much if I confess that I have some — not a lot, but some — respect for Gerard Damiano (director of Deep Throat and Devil in Miss Jones) and the Mitchell Brothers (Artie and Jim, the team behind Behind the Green Door).
*. The thing is, they didn’t have to try to make good movies. They could have made a lot of money with no effort at all just shooting stag films. But they didn’t take the easy route. Maybe they didn’t see themselves as creating great art, but they at least thought they were aiming in that general direction. Doesn’t that count for something?
*. Of the Big Three films that defined the era (or was it only a year?) of porno chic, Behind the Green Door may not be the best (I’d give the nod to Devil in Miss Jones), but it is, in my opinion, the most erotic. There are scenes here that are still sexy nearly fifty years later, and Marilyn Chambers looks stunning, even when wearing a toque.
*. Some people complain that they find the proceedings a little dull. Look, all porn films are dull. They aren’t trying to tell a story. They have very little in the way of narrative. And the sex scenes here do tend to go on too long, even when the pay-off is a fantastic slow-motion money shot painted in psychedelic gusts of abstract jizz. Nevertheless, some of it still works, and this despite the alienating air of artiness.
*. My favourite scene is Gloria’s induction, where, after a hypnotic-erotic massage to warm her up, she’s offered like a victim to the brides of Dracula. I think one reason this works so well is because the “female attendants” (as they’re credited) stay fully clothed throughout, making Gloria’s body a spotlight of attention. All things considered (lighting, composition, editing) this is the high point of the film.
*. Just with regard to this same scene, Danny Peary describes the attendants as being dressed as nuns. I don’t think they are, but it’s interesting that he saw them that way.
*. I mentioned the brides of Dracula feasting on Gloria, and if there’s a theme to the sex here it’s in that notion of eating. This is one of the most oral porn films ever, and the fact that it begins in a diner, with its neon EAT sign prominently featured, probably wasn’t an accident.
*. We also have what was possibly the first interracial sex scene in an American hardcore feature (with Chambers and Johnnie Keyes). That’s something else to appreciate, isn’t it? And the thing is, despite being seen as taboo at the time the movie doesn’t play it as anything particularly transgressive.
*. Again we have the emphasis on sex as performance: the porn movie as act of voyeurism. As I said in my notes on Night Trips, porn movies aren’t about people having sex, they’re about watching people having sex. So there’s Marilyn Chambers being “loved as never before” while the audience masturbates and then break into an orgy. Gloria is just there to start the fire. You get the point.
*. After the initiation rite things go downhill. The rest of the sex I do find dull, even with the trapeze, and outside of the sex it seems a very strange movie indeed. Of course the premise of a woman being abducted and then initiated into various public sex acts that she comes to enjoy would not be well received today. For all the talk there was at the time of Gloria being a willing participant in the proceedings, she is presented as largely without agency. Indeed, she seems at times to have been placed on a kind of sexual conveyor belt, and doesn’t even have a voice (Chambers has no lines in the film, even after she’s left the club).
*. Then there is the strange framing narrative. What’s up with that? I’m not sure I understand what is going on even on re-viewings. I imagine audiences seeing it for the first time were totally lost.
*. Jim Mitchell had studied film a bit at university, and at least at one point had ambitions of being a serious filmmaker. But I’m not sure even that explains the odd art-house flavour to the proceedings. Though, as I began by saying, neither does any commercial impulse.
*. I have a hunch that the artistic flourishes were just part of the spirit of the age. Even fringe, exploitation filmmakers wanted to be doing something different, something creative in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Not to make money, but just because they could. Even porn could be art for art’s sake. If they don’t make porn movies like this any more, well, I think we have to add that they no longer make many movies like this in any genre. In the Internet age sex may be more a performance than ever, but is it a cinema of personal expression or just a routine?

Les Mystères du Château de Dé (1929)

*. Experimental art needs wealthy patrons since it is, almost by definition, not going to be aimed at mass tastes.
*. Enter the Vicomte de Noailles, a big supporter of avant-garde and surrealist art who had a fancy new modernist home, the Villa Noailles, that he wanted to show off. Apparently he also wanted to present a film a year as a present to his wife. As a model for the funding of the arts, this is almost medieval. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
*. It may sound a bit churlish starting off in such a way, but at the end of the day I’m not sure this little film is much more than a vanity project. As the camera strolls and pans its way about the villa we start to feel like we’re in one of those virtual-reality real estate tours of fancy homes: wealth porn from the 1920s. Avant-garde it may be, but hardly revolutionary.
*. I do like the approaching dissolves at the beginning, perhaps more than anything that follows. It’s like how we’re drawn into Xanadu at the beginning of Citizen Kane. I wonder if it’s too much of a stretch to think that Welles had seen this film and had it in mind.
*. As with a lot of experimental films, then and now, there are shots included that seem more to have been done just to see what the results would look like rather than for any thematic or narrative purpose. And some of the tricks were already clichéd, like running the film backward and turning the camera upside-down.

*. Man Ray was mainly known as a surrealist, but there’s not much surreal here aside from the mannequins. With the wooden hands, faces wrapped in stockings, uniform-like bathing costumes, and dramatic posing, the humans are made to seem like just another form of statuary, though less abstract.
*. It had its premiere alongside Un Chien Andalou, a far more daring and even poetic film. The poetry in this film is all in the intertitles, most of which struck me as obscure.
*. The house itself is the real star of the show, though I don’t think Ray makes as much out of the architecture as he might have. Nor does he do much with the juxtaposition of ancient and modern, which I thought had a lot of potential.
*. All-in-all, I didn’t find this very interesting. Ideas are hinted at — the villa as a decadent house of games, for example — but they aren’t developed. None of the camerawork or photography stands out. Even as a portrait of a place it doesn’t register as anything special. The patronage model for the arts can produce great results, but here it just leads to something idle and self-indulgent. The thing is, I’m not sure if it was ever meant to be anything more.

The Human Centipede III (Final Sequence)

*. I gave Tom Six credit for going in a new direction in The Human Centipede II, so by rights I should extend the same note of appreciation for what he did with this film. This isn’t more of the same. What it is, is no good at all. But it isn’t more of the same.
*. The idea had potential. The warden of an American prison that is going to hell decides to follow his assistant’s suggestion of keeping the inmates in line by making them into a giant 500-segment “human prison centipede.” That’s an interesting application of the formula.
*. It’s also ridiculous. But then the first movie was the most realistic, while the second definitely moved more in the direction of dark fantasy. Here we just take another step beyond that and end up in the land of slapstick satire.
*. Except it’s not funny. I’ve often said that a horror movie that isn’t scary isn’t the worst thing a moviegoer can be subjected to. A comedy that isn’t funny is an even more painful experience. Well, this movie asks, who says you have to choose? Why not have a horror movie that isn’t scary also be a comedy that isn’t funny?
*. Six literally takes everything from the first two movies that was even moderately well done and wrecks it. Dieter Laser and Laurence Harvey were very good as the leads in The Human Centipede and The Human Centipede II respectively, but they’re both awful here. Laser in particular turns in one of the worst screen performances in film history. He just shouts out all his lines without seeming to have any sense of what he’s saying. Which, if he was lucky, he didn’t. “My leadership balls are atom bombs, 100 megatons each!” is the highest level of wit that’s achieved.
*. The presence of Bree Olson, one of the most accomplished porn actresses of her generation (and “the ultimate American female,” in the words of Tom Six), is easy to make fun of in a “straight” role like this, but in fact she’s the only one in the cast who doesn’t embarrass herself. I think she might have felt more at home working with such wretched material.
*. Eric Roberts at least manages to look amused at the proceedings. He’s really cornered the market on slimy suits lately, hasn’t he?
*. I complimented Six’s eye in the first two films, which I thought made up for the terrible scripts. Which makes it all the more remarkable how this is such an ugly, uninteresting movie to look at. Really, Human Centipede III is so bad, in every way, that I was wondering if Six was even trying.
*. It’s all very knowing, if that’s your thing. Not only does Tom Six appear as himself, but Akihiro Kitamaru (the head of the first human centipede) plays one of the prisoners here, and quotes from Roger Ebert’s review of that film when the prisoners are forced to watch it during their film night. How very meta. I ended my notes on the Full Sequence by saying that this shit was rolling downhill. The warden one-ups this by suggesting that the perfect centipede would be joined in a circle, the shit being endlessly recycled. Which wouldn’t be a bad thing if it meant Six wasn’t going to make any more of these.
*. The proceedings are not so much scary or funny or even gross (though there are a couple of scenes to cringe at) as they are just tasteless. The warden bellows an endless stream of racist rants and eats from a jar of dried clitorises while saying “Thank God for Africa! Thank God for female circumcision!” I guess to be fair he also castrates an inmate and then eats the severed testicles. That’s gender equity for you. At least there’s less room for sexism, given there’s only one female cast member, but then we do see her getting beaten and then raped while she’s in a coma. So . . .
*. I guess if you’re trying really, really hard you can find something to recommend in this. Maybe it works on some minimal level as a political satire. It’s the George H. W. Bush Prison and they practice waterboarding. That seems to be a crack at something, especially as Laser is explicitly identified here as a Nazi. When the Governor decides at the end that Boss’s system is “exactly what America needs” a crude and not every original point is made about the carceral state. And I will acknowledge that Six had 100-megaton balls playing the national anthem over the end credits. He’s certainly not afraid of offending anyone.
*. I don’t want to spend any more time on this, as I think it’s a truly terrible movie. But at the end of my notes on the first Human Centipede I wondered if it might enjoy a rise in critical estimation as its shock value wore off. I wonder too if, twenty years from now, people are going to come to embrace this one. Maybe it will be seen as the grand culmination of the trilogy and one of the most important films of its time. Anything’s possible. Personally I think it’s just too dull and lacking in humour to ever catch on. But in any event, the only thing I can say is that right here, right now, it’s downright awful.