by Francis Friel, The Projectionist
Part Five: I Want To Take His Brain…Out!
I’d say the estates of Curt Siodmak and Clarence Upson Young have a definite case against Jordan Peele. They need to get on this, cause if they think no one’s ever gonna notice that he straight-up ripped off Black Friday and The Strange Case of Doctor Rx then I’m here to set them on the right path. I noticed!
Universal had a weird obsession with yanking people’s brains out back in the early and mid-40s. It comes up again and again. While they were using their monster movie franchises to retread whole scripts, elsewhere they were remix and remodeling even more bizarre themes. Why brain transplants? Mad doctors I get. That’s an easy enough trope. But literal brain swaps are a whole other level of bonkers, especially when played as straight as these stories are.
I’m getting ahead of myself, though, because before all that came Tower of London, the story of… god knows what. I was frankly baffled by this one, even though I swear I’ve seen it before. The king needs to be killed so that his brother can usurp the throne, and it all has to do with an invasion where they’ll use their already-imprisoned king to run some counterintelligence mission he’s not at all aware of, all the while the new child king is being set up as a patsy for the weird uncle who wants to…play with his doll house? Has anyone else seen this movie? That’s not a real question. It’s a real movie. People talk about this movie. People claim to me that they love this movie. But good grief I have no idea what to make of all this. The queen wants to help her child king but she’s also an unwitting pawn in this whole thing? And Weird Uncle Not The King has this weird little Hereditary Doll House mini-stage where he ritualistically inserts and removes little figurines of all the main characters as they start and stop being a part of his plan? Including murdering a baby, complete with a little baby figurine? Is that what’s happening? Am I getting this right?
I have a very difficult time with movies like these because I have haircut blindness, specifically as applies to goofy fifteenth century page-boy do’s. All these guys have the same haircut! It’s impossible to tell the difference! I’ve had people tell me that they can’t tell Matt Damon and Leo DiCaprio apart in The Departed, which has always seemed like pure madness to me, but then I realized: that’s the point. They’re supposed to visually blur together. But it never worked on me, I guess because I just see those two actors and I rarely get so lost in movies that I can’t tell who’s on screen, unless we’re talking, like, Gary Oldman in Hannibal after he peels his face off and feeds it to the dogs (seemed like a good idea at the time, right?). But even then, I knew it was him before I saw the movie, so even that didn’t work on me. But these Tower of London guys kill me. Sure, some of them have mustaches and little pointy chin beards, but on the whole they all just look like Castle Clones. So that’s also giving me a headache when I try to parse out the plot to this whole thing. Then, of course, on the other side we have the women who keep wearing those big giant Queen Hats (the ones you see the Alice in Wonderland queens wear, with the big wings on the top and the sides). They trade hats, even! Making it all but impossible to keep up!
However! I doubt I’ll have trouble telling anyone apart in The Favourite. So another factor I have to take into account is that I’m not terribly familiar with all these actors. There’s that. Then there’s this: Universal had this issue back then where they ignored that big important rule of screenwriting that states that every scene should somehow advance the plot or story or build on a character or theme. This shit is just all over the place. It starts here with Tower of London but it will continue for the rest of this set of films, unfortunately. But! This is the first round since the silent era that I’ve loved every single one of these films. I’d watch them all again in a second, especially Tower of London since I need to actually get to the bottom of what the fuck it’s even about. Have I mentioned that I don’t get this movie? Should we just move on? Let’s move on. Jeez.
Black Friday begins the Universal Brain-Swapping Scare of The 1940s. Some true Frankenstein shit happening here, folks. This is one of the best of the bunch, too. Karloff kills it here as Dr. Sovac, who’s trying to save his friend’s life after the car accident that nearly killed him. The collision was with a well-known gangster, who has the honor of being the first mothertrucker to get his brain sucked out and plopped in some other fool’s head. But what do you know - the brain transplant works, but not the way it was intended! Sovac saves his friend, but slowly the gangster’s personality starts to take over. Karloff, that rascal, realizes he can take advantage of this and starts hypnotizing his friend so he (Sovac) can control when he’s Kindly Old Kingsley and when the dark side takes over, Red Cannon (GREAT NAME!)
This is also another example of Universal taking full advantage of their seemingly limitless resources to make what could’ve been a cheap weirdo gangster movie into a gorgeous production. No matter what, these movies all look incredible, especially all cleaned up for the Karloff Collection DVD Collection. And Karloff gets to play that balance of sweet and intense that was always his greatest strength, that voice never quivering, always crisp and clear but betraying that almost overwhelming creepiness the entire time. He was the master of that stuff, and throws everything he has into this one.
I’ve been trying and failing to come up with a modern equivalent to Karloff. Is there an actor who can play all the things Karloff played? Snarling, lumbering monsters, educated but nebbishy dweebs, super-intelligent psychopaths, fucking Grinches? Fucking MUMMIES? There’s no one else, really. Maybe The Knight Ian McKellan comes close? Or Tilda? (Ed. note: YES, TILDA). I need to think about this more. Let me know if you come up with anybody.
Black Friday also gives you your Recommended Daily Dose of BELA, but he doesn’t get nearly the screen time Karloff gets here. You can almost set your watch to the contract disputes and ego wars going on behind the scenes with the way these films raise or lower the presences of these two per movie. It would be hilarious if I didn’t know how much they fucking hated each other’s GUTS. Nah, fuck it. That’s still funny.
Speaking of retreads, Man Made Monster makes the most of that Invisible Ray effect and slops glow-worm face all over Lon Chaney Jr., who, readers of this series will know by now, I do not give two fucks about. He’s actually not bad in the beginning, playing a kind of big kid who has a little crush on a lady and gets along with a dog, but once he’s in full-on Man Made Monster Mode he goes directly back to being the worst actor in the history of creation. Why did they keep casting this clown in everything??? It’s beyond me, and I need to know who’s behind this. When I was in my early twenties my dad got me and Moviejawn Mixtape Director Neil Cleary-Trask jobs working at the postal plant in our town, where my dad was some kind of big shot. But that was only for a summer, and it was overnight, and I had a nervous breakdown at the end of it which, not coincidentally for that summer, precipitated the rest of my housemates having breakdowns of their own. Or maybe it was coincidental? It wasn’t like I got in their brains, right? Or did I? No, I don’t think so. But anyway, yeah, my dad got me that job, it lasted a few months, then that was that. And now that my dad’s an even bigger big shot in his industry, it’s not like I’m just taking over his old job, right? Or getting juiced in and making those big Postal Bucks. Right? But come to think of it, why aren’t I getting juiced in? Is it because I have no desire to do that job? Is it because I haven’t had a real relationship with my dad for like eighteen years and haven’t heard from him at all in over five? It’s a combination of those last two things, but my point is this: why does Hollywood just give everybody’s fucking kids any goddam job they want? I saw Assassination Nation a while back and I gotta tell you, Barry Levinson’s kid should never have been allowed within five hundred feet of a movie set. But they let his ass just waltz on in and start pointing at people, directing the second-worst movie of the year (after Life Itself, obviously), and all because he had a famous dad. And now a few years from now I’m expected to go see a movie written by PTA’s five year old daughter? The fuck? What is this? What the hell was I even talking about?
Right, Man Made Monster. Lon Chaney Jr. Good grief. Like I said before, I like this movie, I liked all these movies, but it was good in spite of Chaney. He’s a big goofy oaf and lumbers around with his mouth hanging open while he shoots electricity out of his fingers or whatever the fuck before finally peeing on an electric fence. Or something. But, no, this one is cool. Lionel Atwell, who happens to be the MVP of this round, is the Mad Doctor trying to use Chaney in his experiments. Continuing the theme of auto accidents floating through this batch of films, Chaney is the sole survivor of a terrible accident - by the way, in this movie they use the line “there’s been another terrible accident” and I can’t stop thinking of John Waters talking about his childhood in the Divine Trash documentary where he says “Oh no there’s been another terrible accident!” - and the only reason he’s alive is because of his built-up immunity to electricity. He used to be a sideshow performer where he would perform tricks with electricity, giving himself shocks to impress the audience. So Atwell gets ahold of him and uses him in his electricity experiments. He gradually makes Chaney dependent on the shocks, strapping him to his Frankenstein table and eventually making him his slave, his MAN MADE MONSTER! But, yeah, he glows like in The Invisible Ray. It’s so silly. He’s like Ernest in Ernest Goes To Jail.
So anyway, they’re after him for a bunch of crimes and they want to give him the chair. Think it’ll work? Think again! Nothing can stop him! But he terrorizes the town and Atwell’s all fucked up and trying to track down his Terrible Creation. It’s kind of a mess, but it’s so much fun. I’d never seen this one before so this is another one I’m glad I got to finally sit down and watch. But honestly, wouldn’t all these movies be so much greater without Wrong Chaney? He’s just the worst. The absolute worst.
Atwell rules, though. He shows up a lot more, and he’s another guy with such a distinctive voice that you really can’t replace him. Although he is also tragically involved with the only film on this list more convoluted than Tower of London, and also features some weird brain-swap nonsense, but we’ll get to that when we get to that.
Horror Island is much in the same style as The Old Dark House, with a gang of strangers ending up on a cruise to an old mansion being stalked by a creep. Only this time instead of Big Hairy Karloff we get Weird Racist Caricatures. Dick Foran, the most 1940s-looking actor of all time, plays Bill Martin, who’s running from bill collectors and always trying to come up with his next scheme. His main hustle is running a treasure hunt, where he gets people to pay him to ship them off to an island where they look for some old bullshit he’s hidden everywhere. It’s a scam and everyone knows it, but he’s got the requisite bumbling sidekick to always have his back and he’s just enough of a Very Smart Con Man to know when people are on to him. He’s not really giving a hoot, though, since on this treasure hunt he ends up all tangled in a murder mystery! Whuuuuut!
There’s a pirate with a wooden leg. There’s a phantom in a big giant hat. There’s a mansion full of lights and sound effects and gizmos that Martin and his best friend, Goofy Asshole, use to trick people into thinking that the place is haunted, just to add to the overall effect of the treasure hunt. But the Phantom gets ahold of the house! The Phantom is talking over the loudspeaker! The Phantom is creeping into people’s bedrooms! The Phantom is faking having a wooden leg! What the FLUFF is going on on this island???
A lot, as it turns out. But as ridiculous as it all is, it all still more or less adds up and makes sense, even if the big finale has some serious Scooby Doo vibes to it. It never gets as wacky as Man Made Monster but also never falls into the Tower of London trap where it gets so over the top that there’s no way to keep up. It’s got all the typical action, romantic, and mystery subplots boiling all at once, all staying on track and all leading somewhere. But what it also does is this thing that I keep noticing all these movies keep shoving down our throats. It ends with someone saying “We’re getting married!” Like, two characters that just met twenty-four hours earlier are suddenly in love and ready to fucking elope. They keep doing this, these movies, and I have to wonder why the filmmakers back then thought this was how you end your movie. Why make everybody marry each other? It’s so fucking bananas, and it’s non-stop with these things. Were people so hard up for love stories that they had to cram a goddam wedding into every goddam movie that opened every goddam week? I mean…were they? I have no idea. I feel like there were musicals and romantic comedies coming out at the same time as all these horror movies, right? Then again, every movie that comes out today has to squeeze at least one romantic subplot into the fucking script, too, whether it’s Marvel or Star Wars or literally any comedy ever since the beginning of time, so maybe I’m overthinking this, but, still, honestly, they just are like “Hey we’re in love!” Roll credits. It’s so weird! Every time!
Hey, anybody wanna stick around on Dangerous Maniac Island for a while longer? Cause despite its title, The Mad Doctor of Market Street has zero to do with Market Street. But guess who’s back! Lionel Atwell! YES! This time he’s Mad Doctoring it up as a total loon who’s experimenting with suspended animation. Or at least that’s what he’d like you to believe. More or less he’s just murdering motherfuckers and calling it an accident, since every single one of his “test subjects” turns up…DUN DUN DUNNNNN, Dead! His latest victim gets him a little too much police attention so he ABSCONDS onto an ocean liner and, holy shit, TOSSES SOME GUY OVERBOARD! And gets spotted doing it! He even has an alias all lined up, so eventually he gets to hear the juicy gossip that some guy just got tossed overboard with no one suspecting that it’s him! The deck hand who sees him do the deed is obviously a ding dong and never sees his face, so he completely gets away with it! Again!
But so anyway, he then somehow causes a huge fire and makes everybody jump ship where a few survivors end up on Dangerous Maniac Island. He’s stuck there with the following Einsteins: a boxer who won’t stop talking about how he’ll beat everybody up despite being a total useless tool and never once helping anyone; a wacky lady obsessed with marrying a New Zealander and her less-wacky niece; a dork; and the guy from the ship who saw him totally kill that guy by tossing his loopy ass in the drink. The dork announces, with all the confidence of a person who has no living clue what he’s talking about, that the island is definitely deserted. Cut to: an entire society living on the island.
A woman on the island has just died. So to save all their lives once they’re discovered by the Island dwellers, Dr. Lionel Atwell tells the leader of the tribe that he can bring the woman back to life. He saves her and, because this is a racist film from the 1940s, the backwards natives immediately declare him the God of Life. They tell him they are now his slaves and that they will now do his bidding for the rest of their lives. Sounds like a plan to Atwell, who right away tries to start killing everybody again in pursuit of his “experiments.”
My favorite thing about this movie is that every time there’s a new Murder Experiment to be performed, Atwell goes from goofy and jovial nerd to complete American Psycho, and does this thing where he makes a menacing face directly into the camera as he slowwwwwwwwwly marches toward the victim with his knock-out handkerchief (which becomes a knock-out flower once they’re on the island). It’s so great. Oh my god, I love it.
Alas, all good Murder Doctors must come to an end and it’s eventually revealed that he’s the Mad Doctor of Market Street and all the other shipwreck survivors threaten to turn him in to the police. Being a Mad Doctor and all, he just goes, eh, fuck that, you’re all my hostages now, seeing as he has an entire island full of slaves at this point. So no one’s allowed to ever leave the island. Think this goes on forever and he gets to live out his days completely insulated from any attention that might get him in trouble? Nope! Another island person ends up dead and he’s forced to actually try and bring the kid back to life. Turns out that original lady he saved had only had a heart attack and was only unconscious, so his little song and dance with shooting her up with adrenaline was enough to revive her. I won’t spoil the end here, but geeeeeeeeeeeeeeee wiz is our old buddy the Mad Doctor in a pickle. By the way, two of the characters announce that they’re getting married then the movie abruptly ends, The End.
Finally we get to our last entry of the week, The Strange Case of Doctor Rx. What a way to go out. This movie has everything: brain swaps, giant apes, a whole bunch of murders, people’s hair mysteriously turning white, bumbling detectives, racist caricatures, and people announcing out of the fucking blue that they’re getting married after having met four minutes earlier. A perfect movie for the time, is what I’m saying.
Detective Strange Case is on the hunt for the mysterious Doctor Rx, a seeming super villain who’s murdering everybody right out in the open and leaving no trace. How is he doing it? Who is this guy? I mean, it’s clearly Lionel Atwell, since, even when he’s wearing his Doctor Rx costume (a Friday the 13th bag over his head and thick coke bottle glasses FUCKING IDENTICAL to the ones Atwell wears throughout the movie)…only….Is it? Maybe not? Things get real screwy with the plot towards the end, and they really try to tie everything up neatly but it just does not work at all.
This one is great minute to minute but that final wrap-up just makes no sense at all. The murder weapon, the Ape Brain Swap, the disguise…it’s bullshit. It doesn’t work. Nothing leads to that conclusion and, in fact, I solved it using all the clues about ten minutes before the movie just decided at the last minute that every single thing in the movie was a huge misdirect and that you must be a total bozo for actually paying attention. Which, ya know, fine. Whatever. In the end it’s just a huge cheat, the script pulling a bunch of baloney out of its ass to, I guess?, make it even MORE MYSTERIOUS but it just amounts to the movie ending on the worst possible note after being so so so good up until that point. Weird, huh?
This batch of movies showed me, more than anything, that even in the midst of churning out the greatest and most beloved horror films of all time, Universal was certainly not above throwing in ditzy blonde women, slow-witted black characters, or native Americans playing stone-age-level Pacific islanders. This is what people mean by “it was a different time.” Nothing excuses these inclusions, and it’s weird that stuff like this doesn’t get talked about a whole lot by movie people. It’s all there, and it’s super gross, and a lot of these movies have at least one scene where a man forces a kiss on a woman and that woman eventually relents and then just up and fucking marries that guy. This is just what movies were like back then. I’d say it’s hard to imagine, but it makes me look at a lot of what’s coming out today and seeing similar if not identical content and themes and characters. The Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope, which I hate even typing those words because I am not a fan of Nathan Rabin, is also present here. The Beast Rabin used to review films and tv for the AV Club and would always use the word “delicious” to describe some schadenfreude or other, which to me is a sin so unforgivable that I think of it constantly and am horrified when I catch myself overusing words or phrases (which I believe I WROTE ABOUT BEFORE).
But, again, these films are far from perfect in regards to cultural sensitivity and just plain old humanity. I give Mantan Moreland a lot of credit in this regard, since he figured out how to play the system and turn in these overtly racist characterizations while still being actually funny on his own and kind of stealing all the scenes he’s in. Once again, I agree with Spike Lee on this. Dude was the real deal, and while the studios certainly used him for their own sinister ends, he used them right back by being fucking stellar every time.
Oh, and Shemp shows up! Universal loved Shemp in those days. He’s everywhere. You cannot avoid Shemp. There is always Shemp. On that note, I will leave you this week with some words from one of my favorite artists, since I am Real Smart Person who has Good Taste in Things.
“When love is gone, there’s always justice
And when justice is gone there’s always force
And when force is gone there’s always Shemp
- Laurie Anderson, who once made a movie about her dog.