Tuesday, Sept. 30, 2008

Vintage Horror

By David Luhrssen
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“What are you doing in that funny looking get-up?” Asking the question is a man wearing a pith helmet, a khaki colonial officer’s uniform, tall leather cavalry boots and a flowing cape. In comparison, the sidekick he’s questioning cuts a modest figure in his fez and loose Arabic robe.

The man in the cape and pith helmet, who happens to be the hero of Chandu the Magician (1932), seems utterly in earnest and innocent of irony. And that’s part of the fun of this movie, one of three in a new DVD set called “Fox Horror Classics Vol. 2.”



An artifact of the primitive era in talking pictures, Chandu’s plot, cast in the tone of silliness taking itself perfectly serious, concerns an American schooled in Eastern mysteries by Hindu priests who saves the world from a mad scientist’s death ray. Bela Lugosi plays the scientist, lighting his character from within with a lurid glow as he declares his megalomaniacal desire for world dominance.

Lugosi is Chandu’s obvious reason attraction, at least until a startling scene in which co-director William Cameron Menzies (who went on to adapt H.G. Wells’ Things to Come) zooms his camera into the interior of an Egyptian rock temple, darting left and right through carven corridors like any number of computer-generated scenes from recent adventure movies. But as one of the film historians on the bonus track asks, how did Menzies do it back then? In that and other ways, old Chandu begins to look like the grandfather of Indiana Jones.

By the time of the other two films collected on “Fox Horror Classics,” Hollywood had ironed out the technical problems of sound recording and cinematography and had reached a golden age of studio production. Dr. Renault’s Secret (1942) was considered a B movie and Dragonwyck (1946) was on the A List, yet both were expertly crafted, possessed a similar dark sheen in appearance and featured pitch perfect casts. Dragonwyck stared Gene Tierney, one of Hollywood’s rising actresses, and teamed her with Vincent Price, previously a supporting actor to Tierney in the film noir classic Lora. In the earlier film Price was an amiable gigolo of the upper class. With Dragonwyck he started on his path to fame and typecasting as an aristocratic land baron who gradually reveals his heartlessness.

Dragonwyck was an American Gothic set in 1840s New York State, when feudal plantations still lined the Hudson River. It had a respectable literary source, a popular recent novel by Anya Seton. Dr. Renault’s Secret originated in pulpier material. The title character, a seemingly sane scientist engaged in a horrific experiment gone amok, surgically altered an ape into a looping semblance of man. The film’s look was more assertively German Expressionist than Dragonwyck with its bizarre camera angles and shafts of shadow. It’s close in feel and spirit to such better-known horror films of the era as Cat People and I Walked With theZombie.

Is the plot a little crazy? Not after it was revealed that Soviet scientists in the 1930s were researching the possibility of transforming apes into humans. Apparently Stalin thought the apemen might make superior soldiers. Dr. Renault’s Secret illustrates one of the great values of the horror genre—its ability to see beyond the everyday normal and into the heart of darkness.

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