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Never Let Me Go (2010)
Don't let this one go
I put this film on last night having no prior knowledge of what it was about, and I certainly hadn't read the book from which it was adapted. The intriguing storyline soon sucked me in and I remained completely absorbed throughout. As this is a spoiler-free review, I won't say too much about the plot, but it unfolds at an acceptable pace with a few nice twists and turns along the way. It raises questions here and there, but provides enough clues for the viewer to fill in the blanks without leaving him confused and, thankfully, without having to labour every point. The story is mainly centred around 3 characters, Kathy, Tommy and Ruth, and follows their lives over a period of many years. It's debatable which is actually the main plot - the love triangle, or the sci-fi/moral element of the narrative, but these two strands are woven together well and as well as being handled sensitively and with refreshing subtlety, they are also thought-provoking. The characters themselves are believable, a far cry from the usual stereotypical protagonists of modern film. I was also relieved that as this film progressed it didn't descend into clichéd action-thriller nonsense with the main characters being relentlessly pursued as they try to escape their destiny, as is so often the case. The film is also well directed and boasts some lovely cinematography, showing off some excellent scenery throughout. All in all, my viewing of this film was a most pleasurable surprise. I shall file this one away under "Excellent - must watch again."
One Way Pendulum (1964)
Inventive surreal comedy that will linger in the memory
I watched this film with practically no prior knowledge of it and for the first fifteen minutes or so I thought it was shaping up into a typical farce or situation comedy of the era with one or two elements which seemed a little too far-fetched. However, the dialogue and the situations become even more bizarre and then, at about 40 minutes in, the film turns completely on its head with a wholly surreal twist.
This film is wonderfully bonkers, incredibly inventive with a small but excellent cast and a plethora of richly absurd lines of dialogue. The characters almost without exception see the peculiarities in their peers whilst being completely oblivious to their own eccentricities and in that sense is a wonderful observation of our own individual failings. It won't appeal to everyone, but if you like the humour of Monty Python, Spike Milligan or, especially, The Strange World of Gurney Slade, you should love this overlooked, and largely forgotten gem.
I see it flopped on its original release, maybe it was too ahead of its time, or more likely people watched it with expectations that this film would deliver a comprehensible plot with traditional gags. It doesn't. Like the main character, Mr Groomkirby, it exists in a world of its own - and we are privileged to be afforded a glimpse into it.
The Reptile (1966)
This reptile lacks bite!
This 1966 offering from the famous Hammer studios starts off fairly well, building up a nice air of mystery in spite of a pre-credits sequence which rather unnecessarily lets the cat out of the bag. It's all very clichéd stuff, really - Captain Harry Spalding and his wife arrive in a small Cornish village to take possession of the cottage that belonged to his late brother, who recently died in mysterious circumstances.
Spalding finds the locals very stand-offish, and they have an annoying habit (but convenient to the plot) of talking in riddles about a "black death" which is killing people, whilst also hinting that "they" are responsible for the deaths without elaborating further.
The Spaldings are visited in turn by their abrasive and evasive neighbour Doctor Franklyn and his considerably more affable daughter Anna, who seems to be frightened of her father and repressed by him.
Ultimately, of course, it turns out that the beautiful Anna is the victim of some curse from an Eastern 'snake cult' which causes her to transform periodically into a reptilian monster, whose lethal bite is causing the mysterious deaths in the village.
Unfortunately, the plot begins to unravel more and more as the film progresses and rather than explaining most of the mysterious things that have been happening, the subsequent events serve only to ignore them.
The locals' hostility towards Spalding is never explained beyond an initial "they don't like strangers in these parts" comment. The ransacking of Spalding's cottage is never explained. There's a shocking lack of exploration into the psyche of Anna/The Reptile - Why does she kill? What's her motivation? Is she even aware, when in human form, that she becomes this monster? It's just not made clear.
Likewise, her father's behaviour is a bit bizarre and seems to stem from a need to add drama and intrigue into the plot rather than any logical motivation. Supposedly he's keeping Anna repressed to limit the harm she can cause in her reptilian form, and you could understand him not wanting people poking their noses into his affairs, but even so, his rudeness to others seems extreme whilst wandering into other people's property uninvited is clearly going to make people curious about you, as does angrily smashing up a sitar in front of dinner guests because you don't like the way your daughter is playing it (an interesting sequence which again is left very ambiguous). Franklyn's treatment of his daughter suggests she's at fault for everything, he certainly doesn't show her an ounce of sympathy for the condition his actions brought upon her. This is at odds with the rest of the film which suggests Anna is the innocent victim.
Things get progressively sillier. For a start, is it really necessary to go digging up bodies just to see if they have bites on their neck? Where are the police in this film? Or the local doctor? You know, the sort of people you expect to arrive on the scene when people are dying mysteriously.
The reason the deaths are a mystery, of course, is that a bite victim dies quickly, before they can raise the alarm and explain what has happened to them. So why, when Spalding is bitten, does he have time to run all the way back across the moor to his house? Furthermore, with the deadly venom having had time to circulate around his body, how does making a small cut in his neck prevent him from dying? How does he even know to do this when, by his own earlier admission, he has absolutely no medical knowledge at all? Even more absurdly, reptiles need to keep warm so Franlyn's mansion has a convenient bubbling sulphur pit in its cellar. I wonder how long it took him to find a property on the market with such a facility? Still, it's not all bad. The cast are generally very good, with Michael Ripper (in a sizable role for once!) and Jacqueline Pearce being particularly worthy of mention. Sets, costumes and effects are mostly good, the exception being the rather weak appearance of the monster, though these are wisely kept to brief glimpses. Playing the story out as a mystery at least keeps the viewer interested in it throughout, even if the ending isn't very satisfying.
I'd much rather have seen a bit more depth to the relationship between Franklyn and his daughter Anna, and seen her more visibly locked in some struggle between her good 'human' persona and her evil 'reptilian' one, and Franklyn portrayed as a more sympathetic character torn between his love for his daughter and his horror at the murders she is responsible for. However, this is ultimately a film designed for 'surface' horror, easily-digestible set pieces which we're not supposed to think about too much.
Trial by Combat (1976)
When did you last see a knight like this?
Quite an oddity this one.
The premise is simple. In 1970s England, a cult of enthusiasts of medieval knights, led by Sir Giles Marley (Donald Pleasance), have become vigilantes, dishing out their own unique brand of justice to criminals who have managed to evade punishment by the police or law courts. After capturing their targets, they put them through a 'trial by combat', that is making them fight for their lives in the style of the old knights, primarily via a joust.
Now whilst that's not exactly the most solid premise, but it's certainly no worse than that which many other horror films are founded upon. Indeed, things start off quite promisingly. The images of heraldry and the colourful English countryside (back in the days when English summers used to be dry and sunny) give an interesting look to the film, then when you throw in actors like Donald Pleasance being suitably sinister and Peter Cushing as a concerned neighbour who discovers and opposes the dastardly goings-on, you think this could unfold as a dark, macabre game of cat-and-mouse between the pair.
Unfortunately that's not the case. Cushing's character is immediately bumped off, so instead of him we have as the leading good guys retired police chief Colonel Cook (John Mills) and David Birney as Sir John Gifford, the estranged son of Cushing's character returned from the USA to claim his inheritance.
Unfortunately Mills' character is made eccentric almost to the point of being ridiculous, for example he leaves the windows open so that pigeons can fly around his office whilst he's working. Well, actually it's not his office anymore, it's that of his replacement Oliver Griggs (John Savident), so perhaps it's all really Cook's way of winding him up since the pair are rivals. Whatever, it seems to be thrown into the film for comedy effect, and that's one of the main problems, there's too much comedy. Light relief ceases to become 'relief' when it dominates the rest of the proceedings.
Many British TV and film productions of this period felt a need to incorporate an American leading man in order to capture the overseas market. Whilst there's nothing wrong with that idea, in practise many of them failed because they had a bland, stereotypical American character played by a bland stereotypical American actor. The 1970s British TV series 'Thriller' suffers very badly in this respect and 'Trial By Combat' is another case in point. In a film littered with great British actors who are able to inject a real presence and character into even the smallest of parts (even down to the likes of Bernard Hill, George Sweeney and Kevin Lloyd who have early cameos here), Birney as a lead is so one-dimensional and uninteresting he just gets swallowed up. Furthermore, very early on in the film, his character comfortably defeats pretty much all of Marley's toughest warriors in a friendly contest, which completely undermines the suspense when they lock horns on a more serious level in the closing stages of the film.
Barbara Hershey plays the female lead and is given very little to do. Well, actually she does manage to knock down John Savident by pushing a cannon ball along the floor at him with her foot from a distance of 15 feet, but that's just symptomatic of the kind of film this is. I won't say how Pleasance's character meets his end, but that's pretty silly too.
The most frustrating thing about this film is that, with the ideas and resources at its disposal, it should have been so much better. Birney aside, it really does have a good cast, and there are some good ideas and images too, which at least keeps it interesting, but it completely fails as a work of horror or suspense due to a pervading air of silliness, and so it consequently leaves you wondering exactly what audience the director was trying to appeal to.
Dracula's Dog (1978)
This film was known in the UK as "Zoltan - Hound Of Dracula". Now, a 1970s horror flick with that sort of title would probably make you think of the Hammer films, but in fact this production has nothing of the look or feel of a Hammer film. In fact, I'm not sure it has the look or feel of *any* other horror film I've seen, because Zoltan - Hound Of Dracula is really something quite unique.
Much of it is shot in bright, sunny open countryside, a setting which tends not to lend itself very well to the horror genre, although to be fair most of this picture's suspense scenes are reserved for the night-time sequences.
The film's 'star' is a big black dog, Zoltan, a vampire in its own right. Through a brief flashback sequence we learn that many years ago he gained his vampire status after being bitten by Dracula, and thereafter served as the faithful companion to the famous vampire. And no, I've no idea why Dracula, a being that can supposedly adopt the guise of a bat or a wolf, would have need of a pet dog, but there you go. Maybe Dracula had a sentimental side to him where animals were concerned - after all, he did apparently pose to have his photo taken with Zoltan! Anyway, at some point in the past Dracula and his clan, including Zoltan, were stopped with the customary stakes through the heart, and laid to rest in an underground tomb in Eastern Europe. Military explosions open this tomb in the present day, and at this point the film is very vague as to why things happen - suffice to say contrived events lead to Zoltan coming back to life, along with his original owner, the semi-vampiric Veidt Schmidt, but not Dracula himself, which is probably just as well, because in the brief flashback glimpses we have of the Count, actor Michael Pataki looks quite ridiculous in the traditional Bela Lugosi attire.
Without the proper Dracula to serve, Zoltan and Schmidt apparently have to seek out a new master from the same bloodline (yes, run that one by me again, please...) and so head off to Los Angeles to track down his only known living descendant, to turn him into a vampire. And no, it's not explained how they know where he is. Luckily, local vampire expert Inspector Branco (Jose Ferrer) realises what's going on and heads off in pursuit to stop them.
The descendant, Michael Drake, is a happy family man who is just in the process of taking his wife, kids and dogs off on a camping trip to get away from it all.
The bulk of the film consists of Drake and his family being terrorised by Zoltan and the other dogs, who get bitten and become vampiric themselves. Despite an overall air of cheapness and lack of depth, there are some good sequences, particularly when Drake finds himself trapped in first a hut, and later his car, surrounded by a pack of dogs clawing away at his defences, intent on getting to him, or also the brutal savaging of a lone camper. The titular canine, Zoltan, looks quite effective throughout, and certainly isn't an animal you'd want to cross on a dark night.
You have to give the film some credit for trying to come up with something a little different. The Dracula aspect of this film is more a marketing ploy and the plot might have benefited from having the Dracula references removed altogether. The character of Veidt Schmidt doesn't do very much either, but given that a dog can't talk, he's really just a lazy plot device to explain Zoltan's motivations at any given point.
The musical score is low key and unmemorable. This is a film that stretches credulity at times, but it is undemanding, lively and original. It's far from being a great film, but there are certainly worse ones around. If your expectations aren't too high, then you might find it enjoyable. And the closing shot is quite good!
Dracula A.D. 1972 (1972)
Stake and chicks
Dracula, the most famous vampire in literature, has cropped up in countless films over the decades. The original novel, written by Bram Stoker, is rightly regarded as a classic. Stoker at least had the sense to keep the character as a one-off and resisted the temptation to write sequels.
With the movies, it's a different matter. Any hit film practically demands a sequel, because any film project guaranteed to make a certain amount at the box office is easier to finance than an unknown original work. The problem with Dracula, though, is that he's a very limited character. Audiences know him so well that they have certain expectations, so you've got to have him sinking his fangs into the neck of a woman or two, you've got to have him avoiding sunlight, having an aversion to crucifixes and ultimately being dispatched with that stake through the heart.
In the 50s and 60s it was the Hammer studio which was producing the regular adventures of Dracula, but repetition was inevitably setting in. So, how to give the vampire fresh blood? Simple, transplant him from that very vaguely defined European setting of the past and drop him into (then) present-day London.
Of course, when Dracula was originally written it was essentially in a "present day" setting, just as the Sherlock Holmes stories were. Like Holmes, Dracula has tended to stay in his Victorian environs ever since, rather than move with the times, though there is no specific reason why this should have to be the case.
This film opens with a final battle between Lawrence Van Helsing and Dracula in Hyde Park, London in 1872, so well constructed that it could rightfully have formed the climax to any of Hammer's previous Dracula entries. Taking their usual respective roles, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee add that essential touch of continuity to the earlier films.
Then there's a sudden cut to a jet plane flying overhead, coupled with a more modern style of music (but still to the same basic tune) and we now find ourselves in the early 70s.
Hammer tried so hard to emphasise that the film was "now" that the 70s references are frequently glaringly over the top. Middle-aged men who make these sort of films are seldom finely in tune with fast-changing youth culture, and their attempts to capture it here result in some outrageous fashions (even by 1970s standards), plus lots of hip talk about 'shooting up', 'digging' things and calling everyone 'man'. The backgrounds of the group of young adults at the centre of this story remain sadly unexplored, one can only conclude they come from rich families and are free of any shackles of responsibility. Jessica (Stephanie Beacham) we know lives with her grandfather, Lorrimer Van Helsing (grandson of Lawrence - you can see where this is going), but her parents are never referred to. Johnny Alucard (Christopher Neame), a disciple of Dracula, has enough money at his disposal to afford a luxury apartment in London, but we never find out how.
Alucard soon has the group dabbling in the occult - they think it's a bit of fun, but he's really bringing Dracula back from the grave, and so the fun begins.
What follows is Cushing's Lorrimer Van Helsing having to convince the authorities that a vampire is at work in the neighbourhood, and then, ultimately, another duel to the death between him and Dracula in the ruins of an old church.
Whilst the plot doesn't stand up to close scrutiny - there is too much left unexplained - it is lively and entertaining. The settings are varied but work well, particularly having Dracula creeping around the old church at night, or Van Helsing setting off for his do-or-die mission walking along streets covered in graffiti.
Whilst the characters are mixed and generally shallow, we are at least treated to a first rate cast, several of whom (Beacham, Kitchen, Munro and Neame) went on to distinguish themselves.
What the film really lacks is a real threat from Dracula. His menace in this film is confined to a small group of 'trendy' young adults who, thanks to their loutish behaviour early on in the film, we have little sympathy for. Placing Dracula in the present day should have made audiences of the time feel unnerved that this monster could be within their midst, and to better achieve this Dracula should have been shown to have claimed victims from all cross sections of society. Instead, he doesn't actually do all that much in the film, but then that was a perennial problem with a character that is rather limited in scope.
I just wish that Hammer had had the guts to keep Dracula alive at the end, and maybe kill off Van Helsing instead. If there's anything that really undermined the whole Hammer Dracula series, it was the number of times Dracula was killed only to come back to life again in the following film.
Despite the niggles, I enjoy this film and can happily re-watch it. The 1970s are becoming more a part of history now rather than present day, so this film is taking on a new slant, and a very colourful one at that. Don't take it too seriously and you might just dig it!
High Road to China (1983)
Better than its reputation
This film will probably always be compared to "Raiders Of The Lost Ark". Compare most films to "Raiders..." and they will come out second best and, sadly, that is also the case here. However, High Road To China has lots to commend it and, taken on its own merits, is a very enjoyable film. On the surface, it's hard to see what's wrong with it. There are some superb flying sequences using vintage aircraft, some excellent cinematography, a score by John Barry (never a bad thing) and the two lead actors, Tom Selleck and Bess Armstrong, deliver excellent performances.
And yet... there's something lacking. Where does it fail? It's hard to say exactly. Maybe the stakes aren't high enough - the quest is only so that the heroine, Evey, can find her father and save her inheritance, but when she's throwing about tens of thousands of pounds to hire O'Malley, it's difficult for the viewer to believe she's in dire need of financial security. Then there's the villain of the piece, Bentik. He's played well by Robert Morley, and whilst his scenes are quite amusing they're basically brief inserts and seem largely unconnected to the main events. He never meets the main protagonists at all.
Overall, High Road isn't quite as inventive as Raiders, it's not quite as pacey and perhaps the humour isn't quite as strong. The heroes do most of their fighting in aircraft, so it's less of an action picture in that sense, but the budding romance, although clichéd, is handled very well. Both Selleck and Armstrong act to a point where you can see what's going on behind the eyes, which helps make their on-screen relationship much more credible.
Battlestar Galactica followed in the wake of Star Wars and was too easily dismissed as a weak clone of that film. Its good points were overlooked for years, but eventually its qualities won recognition. Now, dare I say, the same re-evaluation is required for High Road To China. Write it off as a weak clone of Raiders Of The Lost Ark if you like, but you're missing a lot of good points in this decent film. It won't have you on the edge of your seat, but it will certainly hold your attention throughout.
Carry on Nurse (1959)
It's not the patients who require treatment, it's the plot!
From 1959 comes the second film in the famous "Carry On" series. Many of the personnel return from the earlier "Carry On Sergeant", now in a different setting but still poking fun at British traditions and authority.
Some of the actors from the first film return in very similar roles: Kenneth Williams as the intellectual, Shirley Eaton as the glamorous love interest, Hattie Jacques as an imperious authority figure and Charles Hawtrey as the wimpish man. Others are now playing different types of characters, notably Kenneth Connor, shedding his previous persona as a neurotic hypochondriac to portray a confident, successful boxer. Bill Owen is no longer an establishment figure as in the first film and joins the ranks of the common men.
Added to the mix are many new faces, not least Joan Sims and Leslie Philips who will go on to become established stars of the film series. The big name guest star on this occasion is Wilfrid Hyde White.
Like the earlier film, there are many witty one-liners, much of the humour suggestive rather than coarse, and the story is littered with instances of authority constantly being undermined by ineptitude.
Did I say story? Alas, that is Carry On Nurse's big glaring weakness. The plot is virtually non-existent. Whereas Carry On Sergeant unfolded with a clear sense of purpose and progression, Carry On Nurse just lurches from one situation to another in a seemingly random manner. As with the earlier film, there are two romances on the go but in this film they seem rather incidental. Kenneth Williams' connection with Jill Ireland (surely one of the most unlikely romances in cinematic history) just sort of happens, and occurring so quickly without complication makes one wonder what the point of it was. More drawn out is Terence Longdon's pursuit of Shirley Eaton. There is a hint that there could be twists in store when Eaton is shown to be looking more longingly at Doctor Winn, but this plot thread, like many others, is just discarded and forgotten about. Another is the idea that Longdon's reporter character is hired to observe hospital life whilst he is a patient there and write a report on it, but again this idea never gets picked up again.
It seems that whenever the film starts running out of steam, a new character is introduced just to keep events ticking along. Having had one incompetent nurse in the form of Joan Sims, we later get another one (Rosalind Knight). Having had one smooth talking, womanising patient in Terence Longdon, halfway through the film we get another in the guise of Leslie Phillips.
The only thrust of the plot in the first half of the film is that Matron mustn't be defied, but we don't get too care too much because we don't see much by way of what happens when she *is* defied, other than a nice brief essay on rank, when Matron's stern rebuke of the Ward Sister is passed on in turn by the Sister to the staff nurse, and so on until the student nurse gets the ear-bashing.
Late on the film comes the most interesting phase, when a drunken Williams is coerced into putting his money where his mouth is and performing an operation himself. This leads to the patients taking over an operating theatre and then unwittingly overdosing themselves with laughing gas. It is pure Carry On comedy, but it only lasts about 15 minutes.
Aside from the main plot is Wilfrid Hyde White's colonel, in a private room. He likes gambling on horses and pestering the nurses, but doesn't really contribute anything by way of laughs until the film's famous closing gag. White is given no interaction with most of the main cast at all and his inclusion seems completely superfluous.
There are lots of good gags, and good performances, but with a shallow plot and, consequently, shallow characters, the overall film is merely average. Writer Norman Hudis just fails to make the ideas work. To see how it should have been done, watch Talbot Rothwell's later reworking of the same ideas in "Carry On Doctor" which is not only much funnier, it has a much stronger storyline and characters the viewer will care more about.
Hands of the Ripper (1971)
Nice premise, shame about the execution
The title of this early 1970s horror film from the fondly-remembered Hammer studio might lead one to believe this is a film primarily about the exploits of real-life 19th Century serial killer Jack The Ripper. Indeed, the film opens with the Ripper fleeing the scene of his latest murder. Whilst a dollop of accuracy is supplied in the use of the name Berner Street (one of the actual murder sites), but all attempts at adhering to fact would appear to end there, for the Ripper is yet again portrayed in the stereotypical, but ludicrous, image of top hat and flowing cape, with his modus operandi taking the form of savage, frenzied stabbing rather than the more calculated throat-cutting and mutilation that were the hallmarks of the actual murders.
This Jack arrives home and suddenly decides it would be a good idea to murder his wife too, watched by his infant daughter. So ends the set-up, and after the credits the story moves forward 15 years or so.
We never find out what happened to Jack, but his daughter, Anna, has now grown up and is the ward of the uncaring Mrs Golding who uses Anna not only to assist with the fake séances she holds to gain money from the gullible, but also to force Anna into prostitution.
However, Anna has a habit of falling into a trance, whereupon she savagely murders the nearest person. It is all a little vague as to whether she is possessed by her late father's spirit or whether this has just come about because of the trauma of witnessing her mother's brutal murder.
Mrs Golding falls prey to this murderous behaviour, at which point Dr John Pritchard takes custody of Anna. He has heard from the only witness to Mrs Golding's murder, Dysart, how Anna kills and is keen to study the minds of murderers so that he can identify precisely what makes them kill and, perhaps, effect a cure. This obsession of his leads him to protect Anna from the police after she kills one of his maids, a prostitute, and a medium.
Whilst there are some interesting concepts, the whole films lurches from one gory killing to another without much sense of direction or progression. Anna, we are expected to believe, kills somebody every time she is kissed. If, indeed, this is the case, it seems very far fetched that her murders have never attracted attention before.
Dr Pritchard seems a very unsympathetic character, showing absolutely no remorse when one of his servants is killed or taking any steps to safeguard his other staff, friends, family or anybody else. We don't see very much of his attempting to find the reason for Anna's homicidal mania, he actually finds out more about her from a royal spiritualist with whom he and Anna had an appointment not of his making. When Anna kills this spiritualist he just takes her away, apparently without any worry that they will be obvious suspects for this crime! Thrown into the mix is Pritchard's son and his fiancé Laura, who is blind. Laura's blindness serves very little purpose in the plot, though it would appear that most of the other characters suffer a degree of blindness too: the police fail to take notice of the sudden spate of murders, nobody seems to notice when Anna is in one of her trances, Anna herself doesn't seem to question her blackouts...
Ultimately Pritchard himself falls victim to Anna's violence, having a sword plunged through him. We assume this staunches the bleeding, since there is surprisingly little sign of blood, so being a medical man he pulls the sword out again (probably the worst thing you could do). He then miraculously has the strength to get all the way to St Paul's where Laura has taken Anna for a rousing climax in the inspired backdrop of the cathedral's whispering gallery.
Too many plot threads are just forgotten about or don't go anywhere. Why was Pritchard at the fake séance at the start of the film? Why does police interest cease after the first murder rather than increasing with each successive one? Why does Pritchard wisely start using restraints on Anna, then stop again? Ultimately this film might have been more tense if there was a feeling that the net was closing in around Pritchard, and that both he and Anna were wrestling with their own consciences but there is none of this, and the ending subsequently feels rather inconsequential. On the plus side the period setting looks very good (if a little clichéd at times - why must all vigilante mobs carry flaming torches?) and there are some reliable actors at work here, not least Eric Porter in the main role of Pritchard. It's not a poor film, but the plot is more lightweight than it should have been given the premise, and relies on the shock-factor of its killings to maintain interest.
The Black Cat (1934)
Absorbing two-hander featuring the kings of horror
I'm delighted to find that The Black Cat is one of those rare films that gets better and more absorbing with each viewing. It simply oozes quality from start to finish, drawing its strengths from good design, dialogue and character moments rather than through flashy gimmicks.
You surely don't need me to tell you that this was the first pairing of Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi in a film, and could a better vehicle have been designed for them? Lugosi is Dr Vitus Werdegast, a bitter, driven war veteran not long released after 15 years of incarceration, returning to the place where he fought and saw countless comrades die in battle. The place where he wants to get his revenge on the man who betrayed them, Hjalmar Poelzig (Karloff). To add personal spice to this hatred, Werdegast also believes that Poelzig stole his wife.
Unwittingly ensnared in this duel between the pair are a couple of innocent newly-weds, Peter and Joan Alison, who have to take refuge at Poelzig's home following a car accident in stormy conditions.
Whilst Poelzig is guilty of everything Werdegast suspects, there is actually even more to it. Poelzig not only stole Werdegast's wife, he also possibly killed her, is certainly keeping her body preserved in his basement (along with those of other women) and has now taken Werdegast's long-lost daughter as his current wife. He is also the head of a devil-worshipping cult and has designs on sacrificing his new house guest, Joan Alison, in the next ritual.
Let me start enthusing about some of the good things this film has to offer. Firstly the set design, especially Poelzig's home, which is still vibrant now but by 1930s standards stunningly original. Secondly the musical score, a tour-de-force of classical themes which hardly lets up at all throughout the film but, rather than being intrusive, complements the visuals (a far cry from the earlier Lugosi films "Dracula" and "Murders In The Rue Morgue", which both suffered from a total lack of incidental music). Thirdly the direction, which has flashes of real invention and a great feel for its subject. Shadows and silhouettes are used to effect and there's a simply delicious cutaway shot showing a close-up of Poelzig's hand gripping an ornament in jealous frustration as he watches Joan Alison gratefully accept some affection from her husband. Fourthly there are the lesser characters in the film. Usually once you get past the first two or three prominent characters, the remainder tend to be dull stereotypes but here they seem to each have a real personality of their own in the way they are written, designed and played.
The dialogue is a simple joy with a whole glut of memorable lines: "Even the phones are dead", for instance, a simple statement that positively drips with meaning.
But even when the dialogue is less than first class, it is lifted to greatness by The Black Cat's real aces in the pack: Karloff and Lugosi. Here are two masters of their art at the peak of their powers. As their characters are vying with each other on screen, so to do we get the feeling that the two actors are enjoying a similar battle of supremacy. The material is ripe for them, giving each man the platform to deliver a performance probably greater than either would ever achieve again. Every scene they share is electrified with tension, an underlying feeling that events are moving inexorably towards an almighty climax. Although Lugosi is the 'good guy' on this occasion, something of a rarity for him, his character is so consumed by an irrational fear, by the desire for revenge, and by so many haunting memories of the past that he is far from a clean-cut, dashing hero. This is a role that allows his Hungarian accent to be an asset rather than a hindrance and allows him to go through a whole spectrum of emotions. Lugosi is up to the challenge at every turn.
Karloff's performance is very different, but no less impressive. His dialogue is sparse but highly effective, with not a single word wasted. When not speaking, Karloff is still performing. Although showing restraint, some of his facial reactions, when he moves not a single muscle except for his eyes, still manage to speak volumes about his character.
It's fun to speculate how this film might have turned out had Karloff and Lugosi swapped roles. I daresay it still would have worked, but I think we have the best combination here, with Karloff's "more normal" portrayal making for a more convincing evil villain than a stereotyped, accented madman would have been with Lugosi at the helm. Likewise Lugosi's eccentricities really flesh out the character of Werdegast in a manner that Karloff might not have been able to match.
Weaknesses? Well the two romantic leads, David Manners and Jacqueline Wells get completely overshadowed by the two main stars. Maybe that's to the film's advantage though, as too many actors commanding constant attention might have been too much.
There are two moments of comedy which sit rather uncomfortably within the otherwise doom-laden film too. One comes right at the end, so perhaps it's forgivable, but it does seem a bit of a twee moment considering what the characters have just been through. The other comes about halfway through and feature Albert Conti and Henry Armetta as two rather comic policemen. Yet I suppose even this scene plays its part, allowing a momentary breather from the otherwise unrelenting tension, and also serving to indicate that the police will not be of much use in saving the day later on and, indeed, suggesting why Poelzig's activities have been allowed to continue for so long.
In summary then, I don't just recommend that you watch this film; I insist that you watch it several times. You'll be rewarded if you do.