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08 May, 2011

Before Skull Island: The Early Horror Films of Fay Wray

The image is iconic, and the sound is unforgettable: the director, hand-cranking the old motion-picture camera, urging his young starlet to “… scream, Ann … scream for your life!”  That scream, and the actress who produced it, would become part of Horror Film history.  The movie, of course, was 1933’s KING KONG, and the actress was a 26-year old Canadian beauty named Fay Wray.

Born Vina Fay Wray in Cardston, Alberta, Canada, Wray came to Hollywood as a teen-ager, getting bit parts and supporting roles in a variety of pictures.  Her major break came in 1928, in Erich Von Stroheim’s THE WEDDING MARCH.  Her first genre role came in 1932, and her last in 1935, but in those three short years she became the first true Horror queen.  The amazing part of her story is that she owes that status almost entirely to five films released in 1932 and ‘33:  DOCTOR X; THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME; THE VAMPIRE BAT; THE MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM; and, naturally, KING KONG.

Volumes have been written about KING KONG, analyzing every characteristic of the film, from the technical aspects of Willis O’Brien’s stop-motion animation to the psychosexual subtext of the plot.  Tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands of words have been devoted to Wray’s performance in that film, and I’ll pass on adding to that total in this article.  I want to examine those four films that preceded KONG, the four little known gems in the crown of Horror’s first Queen.

DOCTOR X—(1932)

Starring Lionel Atwill, Preston Foster, and Wray, and directed by Michael Curtiz, Warner’s DOCTOR X is a very good little film about a cannibalistic “Moon-Killer,” who strikes under the full moon.  Filmed in Two-Strip Technicolor, an early color film process, the restored film has an odd, greenish cast to it that is strangely effective for the subject.  Curtiz, who would later direct what some feel to be the greatest film ever, 1943’s CASABLANCA, kept this film moving at a good pace overall, though there are points where the comedy relief wears thin.  Wray portrays Joan Xavier, the daughter of the titular Dr. Xavier, who is played wonderfully by Lionel Atwill.  As lovely as ever, she plays the role a bit too broadly, and for some reason seems as jittery as the proverbial long-tailed cat.  Still, it’s always easy to enjoy Wray on-screen, and this film is no different.
The true star of this movie, however, is Lionel Atwill, and he shows that he can chew scenery with the best of them.  The best scene in the film involves Joan reenacting one of the murders, playing the role of the young victim.  Her father and those suspected of being the “moon-killer” are strapped into chairs, watching what they believe to be a reenactment of the latest killing, as devices record their reactions.  However, the real killer has taken the place of the reenactor, and to their horror they realize Joan is being murdered in front of them, as they sit helpless.  Curtiz does a masterful job building the suspense as the scene unfolds, especially since the audience is aware that the real murderer is now involved.

As previously mentioned, the de rigueur comic relief wears on the viewer after a comparatively short period, particularly as the actor in question, Lee Tracy as a stereotypical big-city reporter, is also the romantic lead.  While a more competent actor might have pulled the combination off, Tracy fails abysmally in both facets of his role.

Yes, the performances are generally weak and the material is dated, but the overall effect of the film holds up well nonetheless, thanks in large part to the strong showing by Atwill.  One of the more underappreciated Icons of Horror, Atwill’s career as a star may have been short-lived, but his impact on generations of horror fans hasn’t been, and in recent years he’s been getting some of the recognition that’s due him.  DOCTOR X may not be his best work—that must undoubtedly be his performance as Inspector Krogh in SON OF FRANKENSTEIN… but it’s not far from it.


As Merian Cooper and Ernest Shoedsack were putting Robert Armstrong and Fay Wray through their paces by day for KING KONG, Shoedsack and co-director Irving Pichel were working them just as hard at night to produce THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME.  With a script based upon a prize-winning story by Richard Connell, Shoedsack and Pichel constructed a first-rate thriller/adventure yarn, one that has been remade at least three times, and spoofed countless others.

The story centers on Count Zaroff, played by Leslie Banks, a wealthy recluse whose one passion is hunting.  He lives alone on a private island, save for his servants and his pack of hounds… massive, savage brutes, bred to the hunt.  Into this isolated locale comes the lone survivor of a shipwreck:  Rainsford, (Joel McCrea) a fellow hunter and adventurer.  He finds two castaways from a previous shipwreck, Martin Trowbridge, (Robert Armstrong) a dissolute playboy, given to drinking large quantities of the Count’s liquor; and Eve, Martin’s sister, played by Wray.

Though Zaroff seems the perfect host at first, his sinister persona soon manifests itself, and his true intention for his “guests” is revealed.  Zaroff, jaded with hunting even the most ferocious of beasts, indulges his desire for the ultimate challenge, the ultimate hunt—man.

He attempts to draw his fellow adventurer into sharing his hunts, but when Rainsford refuses, he becomes the quarry in a vicious fight for survival:  Elude the Count, and live until dawn—and win his freedom and that of Eve.  Fail and the Count will celebrate his triumph… with the unfortunate girl as his trophy.

Wray actually has a rather small part in this film, as the conflict between Rainsford and Zaroff is the engine that drives the plot.  The desire of both men for Eve is secondary to their true motivation—to kill the other.  Both are archetypal Alpha males, and the viewer soon realizes that, even absent Zaroff’s psychotic tendencies, conflict between the two would’ve been inevitable.  McCrea does a credible job as Rainsford, but Banks is simply the wrong choice as the uber-hunter Zaroff; in fact, the part would have been perfect for Robert Armstrong.  Banks is too soft, too cultured… too effete.  The supporting cast, including Armstrong, is superfluous; on-screen for far too brief a time to exert much influence over the flow of the film.  The focus is kept on the three main characters, and they drive it along nicely without them.

While not really a Horror Film, THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME certainly contains enough horrific elements to qualify it for this discussion, as does the film’s inherent quality.  What’s more, its impact on popular culture far outstrips its notoriety, as many people have seen spoofs of it without realizing what film was being riffed.  From Gilligan’s Island to Star Trek, this film has provided inspiration and material to television writers for decades—it’s time more people became familiar with the source of that inspiration.


This, the least well known of the four films in this retrospective, once again paired Atwill and Wray, he as the demented scientist, and she as his unwitting assistant.  The movie also features Melvyn Douglas as a police detective investigating a series of reputed “vampire” murders in a small central European village, and Dwight Frye as Herman, the ‘village idiot’ suspected of the killings.

The film opens as the town burghers are gathered in a closed session to discuss a rash of deaths that has recently plagued the German village of Kleinschloss, deaths that have coincided with a sudden infestation of large bats.  Also present is Karl Brettschneider (Douglas), the town’s chief law enforcement officer.  The odd manner of the deaths is the topic of the discussion—all the victims were found drained of blood, with two puncture wounds in their jugular veins.  The superstitious townsfolk are all too eager to seize on vampires as the cause of the deaths, citing records of similar deaths in the 17th Century.  Karl’s not convinced, believing there must be a human agent behind these murders.  He insists on conducting a proper investigation, not presiding over a modern witch-hunt.

He leaves them to their superstitions, heading to the home of Dr. Otto von Niemann (Atwill), the physician of Kleinschloss.  Karl is involved with the Doctor’s assistant, Ruth Bertin (Wray), a lovely, bright young woman, who resides at the Doctor’s manor house with her hypochondriac aunt, Gussie Schnappmann (Maude Eburn, as the comic relief) and von Niemann’s servants, Emil and Georgiana.  The Doctor has examined each of the victims, and can find no clue as to the identity of the culprit.  At that moment he is at the home of a survivor of a bat attack, Martha Mueller.  As he tries to calm her nerves, her friend Herman (Frye) tries to reassure the Doctor that the bats are harmless; he’s befriended them, and they wouldn’t hurt anyone.

The townsfolk are far less sanguine about the bats, and frankly speaking, about Herman.  Kringen (George E. Stone), the night watchman for the town, reports that Herman wanders the streets at all hours, playing with and talking to the hordes of bats that infest the town.  He raises the suspicion that Herman is the vampire, feasting on the blood of his fellows, though the Doctor advises him to watch that kind of talk, else he start a panic.  That admonition is soon forgotten, however, as the nervous townspeople watch Herman take a bat from a lamppost and tuck it gently into his coat pocket.

Dr. von Niemann returns home, where he finds the detective waiting to discuss the case with him.  The Doctor begs off, stating that he has important work to do, and dismisses the young people to less serious pursuits.  In the town square, the clock tolls midnight.  The window in Frau Mueller’s sick room opens slowly; the woman opens her eyes and screams.  The scene cuts to her lifeless corpse, lying in the morgue as the coroner enters the record of her death.  The cause—the bite of a vampire.

As the burghers gather over Martha’s body to discuss the latest murder, Herman quietly slips into the morgue, and seeing his friend’s body, runs out screaming.  To both Karl and the Doctor, this is plainly evidence that the man lacks the capacity to be the fiend for which they are searching.  The villagers however see it differently.  Kringen convinces them that Herman is the vampire, and that he himself is likely to be the next victim, as he’s trying to warn people about Herman.

The next morning, Ruth is eating breakfast in the garden, as Herman, concealed behind the wall, watches her.  Karl surprises her; he’s there to discuss the murders with von Niemann, but seizes the chance to get some time alone with Ruth.  The opportunity is soon lost however, as Aunt Gussie appears, in the throes of a hypochondriacal crisis.  She has discovered that she is experiencing, “… palpitations of the auricular, ventricular, mitral and tricuspid valves,”—in other words, her heart is beating.  The couple reassures her that she will be fine, then go to find the Doctor.

As they leave, Herman sneaks into the garden, distracting the woman so that he might take some of the food.  She catches him, however, startling him so that he accidentally cuts his finger.  Concerned of course about the possibility of a tetanus infection, Gussie rushes to fetch dressings for the man’s wound.

Inside, von Niemann has been searching his library for information on the lore of vampirism.  He’s reading from an old French text on the subject as Gussie enters.  She ridicules the legends they are discussing while waiting for Emil to bring the first-aid supplies.  As she waits, men from the village enter with news.  Kringen is dead, just as he feared—and Herman is nowhere to be found.  Not even Karl can deny the appearance of guilt this creates, and gives orders that Herman be apprehended—without harm.  The townspeople want to deal with him as one must with a vampire, but Karl forbids it.  Herman will be tried in a court of law, and the law will decide his fate.  But is Herman guilty of the crimes?  Is he in fact a Vampire, an undead creature of the night?  Or is there another answer for the mystery that’s plaguing the peaceful village?

Produced quickly by Majestic Pictures in order to capitalize on the forthcoming MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM, THE VAMPIRE BAT was filmed at Universal, on sets left over from both FRANKENSTEIN and THE OLD DARK HOUSE.  This was common practice for the “Poverty Row” producers, those low-budget studios that frequently lacked the assets of the major companies.   Often, the smaller of these were without even the rudimentary facilities for motion-picture production.  Renting soundstages, sets, even costumes at a major studio was far more cost-effective in the short term.  One thing that Majestic didn’t scrimp on was the cast.

Led by Lionel Atwill, one of the most underrated stars of the Golden Age of Horror, this was a group that one would’ve expected to see in one of the great Universal Horrors.  With co-stars such as Melvyn Douglas (who had just previously starred in James Whale’s THE OLD DARK HOUSE alongside Boris Karloff and Gloria Stewart), Dwight Frye (veteran of most of the Universal Horrors of the 1930s), and Wray, and filming on Russell Gausman’s spectacular sets, this movie looked far better than it had any right to look.

Directed by Frank R. Strayer, from a script by Edward T. Lowe, Jr., the story may be underwhelming at times; however, the high-quality cast performs superbly with little help from either screenwriter or director.  Strayer, forty-one years old when he directed THE VAMPIRE BAT, had been a director for only seven years and had thirty features to his credit prior to this film—not unusual for those filmmakers who earned their living on Poverty Row.  Best remembered for directing twelve entries in the popular “Blondie” series of movies (based on the venerable comic strip), Strayer had a twenty-five year long, very productive career.  Workmanlike and competent, if not gifted with an abundance of artistic talent, Strayer, and hundreds like him, were the unknown heroes of Hollywood.  They might not have gotten critical acclaim and name recognition, but they earned a living doing what they loved while entertaining millions.


The best of Wray’s Pre-KONG horrors, this was another of Warner’s experimental forays into color films, one that produced much better results than DOCTOR X did the previous year.  Not only was the color photography much improved, but the script, the acting, the direction—all was superior to the earlier film.

For the second time Wray is cast opposite Atwill, though her role is actually a minor one.  Atwill plays Ivan Igor, the curator of a wax museum, crippled years before in a fire his business partner started to collect on the insurance.  As the story shifts from London in the early ‘20’s to New York City’s New Year’s 1933 celebration, morgue attendants are loading a young woman’s body into a waiting hearse.  The body is that of Joan Gale, a woman believed to have committed suicide.  Florence Dempsey (Glenda Farrell), a newspaper reporter for the Express, is allowed to be present for the autopsy of the woman.  Earlier however, a vague figure, wearing a black cloak and hat, stole the body of Joan Gale, lowering it out the window to a waiting truck.  When the morgue attendants are sent to bring in the body of the suicide, they find it’s gone, and havoc ensues.

Police believe the body’s disappearance from the morgue is an effort to conceal evidence of murder, despite the earlier finding of suicide, and suspicion turns to a man named Winton (Gavin Gordon), the son of a wealthy industrialist and former lover of the dead woman.  Florence however, after interviewing Winton in jail, believes otherwise.  The next morning, she accompanies her roommate to her fiancé’s place of business.  Her roommate, Charlotte Duncan, (Wray) is engaged to Igor’s assistant, Ralph (a forgettable Allen Vincent).  Igor, now confined to a wheelchair, has other hangers-on about the place, ne’er-do-wells such as Darcy (Arthur Edmund Carewe), a seedy looking, self-styled “Professor” and drug addict, and a deaf-mute named Hugo (Matthew Betz).

Florence discovers a wax effigy of St. Joan of Arc that bears a striking resemblance to the missing dead woman, and becomes suspicious of the museum.  At the paper’s offices, she examines photos of the Gale woman.  She is convinced that the figure of Joan of Arc is the image of the dead woman, and that the body’s disappearance, perhaps even the woman’s death, is connected to Igor's waxworks.

Florence’s investigation of the waxworks leads her to follow Darcy to Winton’s liquor supplier, a bootlegger named Worth (Edwin Maxwell), who is the man who started the fire that injured Igor twelve years before.  She breaks into the warehouse where Worth stores his illegal liquor, discovering a hideous creature, face twisted and deformed.  It is the same monster who stole the body of Gale from the morgue.  When Darcy is arrested leaving the place, all the police can find are bootleg bottles of whiskey.  However, while searching the man, by now beginning to suffer through withdrawals, a watch belonging to a Judge Ramsey, who disappeared months earlier, is found.  Detectives begin a rigorous interrogation of the junkie, who finally cracks under the strain.  Yes, he killed Judge Ramsey—who died because he resembled Voltaire.  That’s the secret of Igor’s amazingly life-like effigies.  They look so realistic because there’s a dead body concealed in each one.  Joan of Arc wasn’t merely modeled after a dead woman; the woman herself is sealed within the waxen shell.  In addition to supplying victims to Igor, he was tasked to keeping a close tab on Worth while working with him, to aid Igor in exacting his ultimate vengeance against the man who crippled him.

During the interrogation of Darcy, Florence, accompanied by Winton, goes back to the wax museum to search for clues.  Prior to their arrival, however, Charlotte shows up, looking for Ralph.  Igor, obsessed by her resemblance to his lost ‘masterpiece’, his sculpture of Marie Antoinette, tricks her into his basement ‘workshop’, then stands up to reveal that he’s not as infirm as he wants people to believe.  He grabs Charlotte, telling her she will have eternal beauty as his Marie Antoinette.  She struggles against him, striking his face.  In the film’s most iconic scene, it shatters, breaking apart like the wax mask it was, revealing the twisted face of the creature from the warehouse.  Charlotte screams, then passes out.

Florence, Ralph, and Winton, now together in the museum, hear the screams and head downstairs.  After breaking into the concealed workshop, Ralph fights Igor, but is knocked unconscious.  Florence and Winton look on in horror, unsure of how to help Charlotte, herself unconscious and strapped to an operating table, as a vat of boiling wax begins filling a sprinkling system suspended over her.  As they stare at the scene unfolding below them, the police, in response to Darcy’s confession, burst in.  They are forced to shoot Igor, who falls into the massive vat of wax.  Ralph comes to, pulling Charlotte out of harm’s way just as the molten wax starts to rain down.

Florence has her story, and apparently, her man.  Winton has fallen madly in love with her, proposing to her in the midst of their adventure.  She starts to tell her editor, when he also asks her to marry him.  With a quick glance out the window at Winton cooling his heels in his expensive car, she tells her editor yes, and the film ends on a happy note.

Warner Bros. in the 1930s was known for it’s gritty, realistic crime dramas, not Horror films.  However, even by those standards this is an atypical picture.  It is definitely a pre-code film, meaning it was produced before the strict guidelines of the Motion Picture Production Code came into use in 1934.  Had this movie been produced as little as one year later, it would have been a far different film.  Not only would the mention of Winton and Gale having lived together have been banned, but also would the device of Darcy being a junkie, and the background that Joan Gale had been a narcotics user.  A humorous scene between Florence and a cop at the station, in which she snatches a racy magazine out of his hands, while inquiring about his, “… sex life,” would certainly be out, as would other questionable remarks by Farrell’s character.  One need only compare this film to it’s 1953 remake, the Andre de Toth-directed HOUSE OF WAX, to get a sense of what a post-code version would have resembled.  It is fortunate for fans of this film that it was produced in 1933, not 1934, as the 1933 film is far superior to the remake, in large part due to the increased realism and maturity of the material.

Though Wray’s role in this production is minor, it is the one that stands out as the most memorable.  She, after all, is the object of the villain’s obsession, and the image of the beauty that he longs to recreate.  And to her is given the honor of unmasking the evil within Igor, both figuratively and literally, in the film’s spectacular dénouement.

Long thought to be a ‘lost’ film, a complete print was fortunately found in the private archive of Jack Warner, and restored to its full glory in the 1980s.  MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM remains a glittering diadem from Horror’s Golden Age.

Every era of Horror has had its female icons—more popularly known as “Scream Queens,” whether they were virginal victims or vengeful vixens.  In the ‘40s it was Evelyn Ankers and Simone Simon; in the ‘80s, Sigourney Weaver and Jamie Lee Curtis.  But through all the decades, one name, and one beauty, has reigned over them all—so much so that now, nearly eighty years since her famous scream first thrilled moviegoers she is still a household name.  The role of Ann Darrow may have been the sparkling diamond in Fay Wray’s career—but it was far from the only jewel in the crown of Horror’s first Queen.

Dracula Reborn: HORROR OF DRACULA and the Rise of Hammer


         The mid 1940’s to mid 1950’s was a period of decline for Classic Horror.  Monsters were no longer tuxedo-clad vampires or shambling, cloth-wrapped mummies.  Monsters were now gigantic insects, radioactive mutants, and alien invaders.  What vampires and werewolves were to be found were products of science tampering with nature, not the ancient undead or supernatural curses.

          Two prime examples of this are a pair of films released in 1957:  THE VAMPIRE, and I WAS A TEEN-AGE WEREWOLF.

          THE VAMPIRE, directed by Paul Landres, was a nondescript programmer from Gramercy Pictures, distributed by United Artists; not a terrible film, but hardly memorable.  A doctor, while on a quest to improve his mind, tries an extract of vampire bat blood, with predictable results. 

          Gene Fowler Jr.’s I WAS A TEEN-AGE WEREWOLF on the other hand, became something of a cult-classic, primarily because of the screen debut of a youthful Michael Landon rather than the film’s inherent quality.  Landon plays Tony Rivers, a juvenile delinquent placed under the care of a psychologist (Whit Bissell). 

          The psychologist performs some unauthorized experiments on the young man, using hypnosis to regress him to a point in man’s development where he is a savage, feral beast.  Here too, the results are entirely predictable and, for the junior wolf-man, unfortunate.

          Such was the state of our classic creatures of horror through most of the decade of the 1950’s.  But the pendulum was beginning to swing back towards the classics, and two unrelated events provided the impetus for that change of fortune.  The first was the release, in June of 1957, of Hammer Films THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, launching the British studio to the forefront of the horror genre.  Introducing Hammer’s Dynamic Duo of Horror, Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, along with the studio’s star director, Terence Fisher, this film sparked a resurgence of interest in the classics, as well as changed the look of Horror Films.

          Hammer Film Productions had been around, in its then-current form, since shortly after the end of World War II.  A child of Col. James Carreras, Hammer was very much a small family business in the mid-1950’s, known primarily for crime, adventure, and war pictures.  Ensconced at Bray Studios, Down Place, in Berkshire, a small, tightly-knit group of artists and craftsmen would create some of the greatest Horror Films ever produced, working on budgets that were fractions of what was typical in a Hollywood production.

          They accomplished these miracles, at least in the beginning, through the efforts of a few very talented people, the people who created the “Hammer Look”… people such as Michael Carreras, the son of James, Tony Nelson-Keyes, Tony Hinds, and Jimmy Sangster.  Jack Asher’s superb photography brought the Hammer horrors to life, painted in brilliant colors across a canvas laid before the viewer by Bernard Robinson’s perfect production and art designs.

          THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN was the film that established the pattern for the “Hammer Look”… bold, vibrant colors, lush period sets and costumes, and, at least at this point in time, quality acting, writing, and directing.  Peter Cushing, as the mad genius Dr. Victor Frankenstein, carries the film, creating a character at once evil yet complex, someone the viewer is unable to see completely as a villain.  Lee’s Monster, by comparison, is simply cruel and brutish, lacking any of the pathos and humanity of Karloff’s creation. 

          Philip Leakey’s make-up, constrained as it was by threat of legal action from Universal if it too closely resembled Jack Pierce’s trademarked conception, was generic and unimpressive, doing nothing to convey the monster’s origins the way Pierce’s did for Karloff.  Karloff looked like a patchwork, a being stitched together from rotting cadavers into a less than perfect whole; Lee, on the other hand, looked like nothing more than the common zombie that would populate Horror Films beginning little more than a decade later.  It was not an effective look.

          While the film was much closer in plot to Shelley’s original tale, it was all gloss and glitter; beautiful to look at, but lacking the heart and soul of James Whale’s landmark film, and wholly inferior to it.  This movie, like Hammer Films itself, was a gorgeous façade, with very little of substance supporting it.
          The second major development in the restoration of classic horror occurred in the fall of 1957, when Universal, through an arrangement with Screen Gems, released their Shock Theater package to Television stations around the country.  Composed of some of their greatest Horror Films, including FRANKENSTEIN, DRACULA, THE WOLF-MAN, and CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON, this led to an explosion of Hosted Horror programs on Friday and Saturday nights.  Though Horror Hosts had existed prior to the Shock Theater release, it was the flood of high-quality movies and the success of hosts such as Zacherley in New York and Vampira in Los Angeles that spurred stations from Atlanta to Minneapolis to develop their own late-night Horror shows.

          These trends continued into 1958, and on the 22nd of May of that year, at the Gaumont Theater in London, Hammer’s second blockbuster premiered.  HORROR OF DRACULA, once again directed by Fisher and starring Cushing and Lee, took the basic blueprint laid down by the previous film and set it in concrete, defining for the next twelve years the look and texture of classic horror.  Not until DRACULA A.D. 1972 was there anything more than a qualitative change in Hammer’s Dracula franchise, and decidedly not for the better.

          This time however there would be a clear choice between good and evil, as Cushing was cast as Dr. Van Helsing, the bloody Count’s nemesis.  Though he ably demonstrated that he could play evil convincingly in THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, it’s as the heroic Van Helsing that he found his greatest role. 

          Where, in 1931’s DRACULA, Edward Van Sloan had essayed an elderly, superstitious professor (for all his scientific training, Van Sloan’s character was little more than a village wise woman…), Cushing portrayed Van Helsing as a young, strong, active combatant against evil, seeking scientific explanations for the vampire’s existence, and scientific means to destroy him.  Universal’s Van Helsing was a teacher; Hammer’s was a warrior, and a worthy foe for the Prince of Darkness.

          And what a Prince of Darkness he faced.
          For more than a quarter of a century previously, Bela Lugosi’s portrayal of the eponymous Count from Bram Stoker’s novel had been the model that moviemakers followed, and moviegoers wanted.  The image of Dracula as an urbane, sophisticated gentleman, clad in black-tie formality, had become ingrained into the consciousness of Horror fans through multiple iterations of the Count and his clones. 

          Whether portrayed by Lugosi himself, Lon Chaney Jr., or John Carradine, the American image of the Vampire was that of Bela, in tie and tails, top hat and cape.  His Dracula had a slow, languid quality, almost hypnotic to watch.  It took no stretch of the imagination to picture a beautiful young woman falling victim to his spell.  Dracula, as created by Lugosi, was first and foremost a seducer, a debaucher.  He was, at heart, a lecherous old man.

          Christopher Lee’s reinvention of the Count cast aside this “Undead Man-about-Town…” image of Dracula.  While the wardrobe was little changed, the vampire inside underwent a radical transformation.

          Lee’s Dracula exuded youth, power, strength, vitality.  Lugosi was polished, refined; Lee was a barely concealed savage, like a wolf masquerading as a dog.  Lee’s Dracula was no seducer of women; he was a rapist, in spirit if not in fact; taking his women by force, not by guile.  However, in a typically post-Victorian British Male Freudian manner, his victims were all too willing accomplices to their own debasement, eager to offer up their throats for his hungry kisses.

          Dracula, as rendered by Christopher Lee, was an animalistic creature of the night, savage, brutal… and just like the studio that spawned him, new and exciting.

          That phrase also serves well to describe the film itself.  Though no more faithful to the source material than Browning’s 1931 film had been, this script, by Jimmy Sangster, possesses an energy totally lacking in the original.  Where John L. Balderston’s script for the ’31 version had been stiff and stagey, betraying its origins, Sangster, with some alterations by Fisher, crafted a script that fairly flew from plot-point to plot-point, dispensing with everything that failed to advance the story.

          Gone was the slow moving, talky introductory scene of the Browning film.  Here we meet Jonathan Harker (not the extraneous character of Renfield…) already arrived at Castle Dracula.  In a brief voice-over, taken from the pages of his diary, we are told all we need to know:  Harker, played ably by John Van Eyssen, is a friend and colleague of a Dr. Van Helsing, and is there to find and kill Count Dracula, and end his “…reign of terror.”

          Harker is found out, however, and infected by a vampire’s bite.  Racing against time before he too becomes one of the undead, he finds the daytime resting place of Dracula and his consort.  In typical Horror movie style, he makes a monumental blunder and, as the sun is setting, decides to stake the female vampire first.  This he does successfully, only to find the sun has set and Dracula has awakened.

          The scene shifts to a small village Gasthaus, decked out with wreaths of garlic, where we first meet Dr. Van Helsing.  He’s in search of his friend Harker, and the inn was his last reported address.  The innkeeper is less than forthcoming with Van Helsing, but Inga, the serving girl, gives him Harker’s diary, found at the crossroads near the Castle.

          The book leads him to the castle, now abandoned by Dracula.  As he nears the castle, Van Helsing is nearly run down by a fast moving hearse, bearing a white casket inside it.  Entering the castle, Van Helsing finds the body of his now undead friend, and releases his soul from its torment. 

          He then travels to the home of Arthur and Mina Holmwood (Michael Gough and Melissa Stribling) to inform them, and Miss Lucy Holmwood, Arthur’s sister and the fiancée of Harker, of his death.  He provides no details, but simply tells them that Harker had died ten days before.  Holmwood treats him coldly, and, as soon as his news is delivered, asks him to leave.  The Holmwoods decide to keep the information from Lucy, whose health is fragile.  However, she is already aware of her fiancé’s death, and seems strangely unaffected by this knowledge.  As her brother bends to kiss her goodnight, he fails to notice the two puncture wounds in her neck, over her jugular vein.

          Once she is alone, she removes a silver crucifix from her neck and opens a door leading out onto the grounds.  As she lies back on the bed, anticipation on her face, Dracula appears in the doorway, and shadows and darkness engulf the young woman.

          The next morning, the Holmwoods are shocked and dismayed by the deterioration in Lucy’s condition, as is Dr. Seward, the attending physician.  He suggests a second opinion, and Mina decides to seek help from Van Helsing.  He immediately recognizes the symptoms for what they are, and issues strict orders for the household to follow:  All doors and windows in Lucy’s room are to remain tightly closed and locked between sunset and sunrise; and her room is to be filled with boughs of garlic flowers.  Any deviation from these instructions, he adds ominously, would result in her death. 

          Lucy, however, convinces a maid to remove the flowers and open the doors, allowing her bloodthirsty lover into her bedroom.  The next morning, she is found dead, drained of blood.

          Holmwood is devastated by his sister’s death, and asks Van Helsing to leave them to their grief.  The doctor apologizes, but informs them of the true nature of Harker’s, and now Lucy’s, deaths.  He leaves Harker’s diary with Holmwood, with the admonition that if he could not believe Van Helsing, then certainly he could trust his late friend’s own words.

          The diary doesn’t fully convince Holmwood, but when the little daughter of the maid is nearly attacked by someone she recognizes as “Aunt Lucy”, he goes to the family mausoleum, and finds her coffin empty.  He waits for her return, and is shocked to see her walking towards him, leading the young girl by the hand.  He calls to her, and she releases the girl.  She approaches her brother, reaching out her arms to embrace him, mouth opening to reveal the elongated canines of the vampire. 

          Suddenly, a cross is thrust into view…  Van Helsing has arrived just in time to save Holmwood from his sister’s bloodlust.  He presses the cross against the flesh of her forehead, burning the image of the icon into her skin.  She breaks away, rushing back into the mausoleum, and back to her coffin.  They follow her in, and Holmwood is shocked to see the evil that is manifested in Lucy’s face; her formerly beautiful, innocent features now twisted into a vulpine grimace.  He asks Van Helsing what can be done to release her from this vile curse.  The answer is simple, though horrifying:  They must drive a wooden stake into her heart, finally ending her existence, and releasing her spirit.

          But, before they take that step, they should consider one thing:  Lucy can be used to lead them to her master.  They can follow her straight to Dracula’s lair.  Holmwood, however, balks at this.  He wants his sister freed from her curse now, before she can defile others as she has been defiled, spreading Dracula’s corruption like a virus.  Van Helsing regrets his decision, but cannot in good conscience deny the grieving man.  With a sigh of resignation, he drives the stake into Lucy’s chest.

          With the deed done, he leads Holmwood over to his sister’s coffin.  Once again, innocence and peace have returned to her visage…  Lucy Holmwood is finally at rest.

          The pair returns to Holmwood’s home, and begin to lay plans for an assault on Dracula himself.  Holmwood still is in disbelief, despite the evidence of his own experiences.  He questions Van Helsing on the legendary aspects of vampires, their ability to transform themselves, for instance.  A common fallacy, he is told.  Vampires have no such power.  Van Helsing has devoted his life to the study of these creatures, and even his knowledge barely scratches the surface. 

          The first priority they have is to locate his resting place.  Dracula must reside in his native soil by day, and Van Helsing believes he has a clue.  The hearse that nearly ran him down that day at the castle must have been carrying Dracula in his box of earth, and to get to Karlstadt, it had to pass through the border crossing.  There they might find records of the crossing, and a destination for Dracula’s coffin.

          However, the border official is less than cooperative with the duo, even after Van Helsing presents his medical credentials.  Holmwood, however, has better credentials… cash.  A bribe reveals that the coffin was consigned to an undertaker in Karlstadt, and gives them the address of the establishment.

          At that moment, Mina is receiving a message from a street urchin, informing her that Mr. Arthur Holmwood wishes her to meet him after sundown at 49 Freidrichstrasse… the same address that now holds Dracula’s coffin.  She goes, oblivious to the danger, and as she enters the storeroom of the undertaker’s shop, the camera shifts to a single white casket… as the lid slowly slides open.

          The next morning, Van Helsing and Holmwood have returned, though only temporarily.  They have yet to visit the undertaker, hopefully to find Dracula helpless in his coffin.  As they head out, they encounter Mina, returning from a night with the object of their hunt.  She explains that she had taken an early morning stroll in the garden.  There is an odd look of contentment, even satisfaction, on her face, and it’s perhaps a poor reflection on her husband that he does not recognize it for what it is, instead inquiring as to her health.  She reassures him, and the pair leaves on their mission.  At the undertaker’s, the situation is worse than they had expected.  Not only is Dracula not there, but his coffin has been relocated.  They’ve lost their only clue to his whereabouts.

          Back at the Holmwood house, they quietly discuss their options over maps of the area.  Holmwood remembers a small, neglected graveyard in the vicinity; with no other logical place to start, they decide to begin their hunt there.  He turns to say good-bye to his wife, and asks her to wear, as a personal favor to him, a small silver cross.  She resists, but he places it in her hand.  Instantly she screams, and falls unconscious to the floor.  As Van Helsing rushes to her aid, he opens her clenched fist, to reveal the shape of the cross, burned into the palm.

          Holmwood is angry with himself for not following Van Helsing’s suggestion to use Lucy to lead them to Dracula, but Van Helsing tells him not to worry; there is still time to save Mina, and she can serve the same purpose he had in mind for Lucy.  They will keep watch over the house later that night, and catch Dracula when he attempts to reach her.

          That night, the two men patrol the grounds, keeping a watchful eye on the house.  Mina watches them from her window, then turns to open her bedroom door.  Below, in the foyer of the house, stands Dracula.  With desire on her face, she watches him approach her.  He closes the door as he enters her bedroom, and as she falls back onto the bed, he throws himself on her.

          As dawn breaks, the men end their vigil.  Van Helsing decides to stay there and rest, and Holmwood heads up to bed.  A sudden cry brings the doctor running to find a scene of horror:  Mina, apparently lifeless, rivulets of dried blood tracing paths down her pale throat.

          Van Helsing hastily gives the woman a transfusion, using her husband as a donor.  This saves her life, though she remains under Dracula’s control.  He sends Holmwood down to rest, with an admonition to drink some wine to fortify his strength, then turns his attention to caring for his patient.

          Later, he joins Holmwood in the parlor.  The shaken man has taken his advice, finishing off a bottle of wine.  He asks the maid to bring up another bottle from the cellar, but she demurs, saying that Mrs. Holmwood had forbidden her to go into the cellar.  That sends a jolt through Van Helsing, who rushes down to the cellar.  There he finds Dracula’s coffin, empty.  At that moment, the cellar door opens, and just for a moment hunter and hunted stand face-to-face.  Dracula runs out, pulling the door shut behind him.  After Van Helsing insures that Dracula will not return to his coffin by placing a silver cross on the bed of earth, he and Holmwood give chase, and a scream leads them upstairs.  Gerda, the maid, has been attacked by Dracula, though not harmed.  But Dracula has taken Mina with him as he fled the house.

          There is only one place he can go for shelter before the sun rises, and that is back home to his castle.  They find a dead coachman; Dracula has killed the man and stolen his vehicle, and is racing to get home before dawn.  They must catch up to him before he can hide himself in the basements and catacombs of his home, or they might be searching for him for years. 

          And for Mina.

          Dracula arrives at the castle with mere moments to spare, and he must first open a grave for Mina.  Rapidly he digs a shallow trench, drops her in, and begins shoveling earth in over her unconscious form.  She awakens with a scream just as Van Helsing and her husband pull up in their carriage.

          Holmwood leaps to his wife’s aid, as Van Helsing pursues Dracula into the castle.  Cornered, Dracula fights with Van Helsing, gaining the upper hand, and slowly drawing near the doctor’s exposed throat.  Van Helsing breaks the vampire’s grip, however, and notices a thin shaft of sunlight stabbing through closed curtains.  He rips the curtains down, flooding the hall with light.  With a pair of crossed candlesticks he forces Dracula into the sunlight, where he crumbles into dust.  The threat is over, Mina is freed, and Dracula is finally dead.

          This was perhaps Hammer’s best production, with the possible exception of the following year’s THE MUMMY.  All the important elements were in place… Sangster’s script, Asher’s photography, the performances of Cushing and Lee, all tied together by Fisher’s competent, workmanlike direction.  Together, these artisans equaled more than the sum of their individual talents, and for the brief period of time that they were all together at Bray, they produced some of the best Horror Films the genre has ever seen. 

          The story of the rise of Hammer Films is very much the story of a few gifted individuals in precisely the right place at precisely the right time.  It wasn’t due to the inherent strengths of Hammer; there were none, as events unfolding less than two decades later would pointedly demonstrate. 

          When this group began to dissolve within five years, Hammer Films would take a hit, in terms of quality, from which it would never recover.  The Hammer look would soon degenerate into an assembly-line, mass-produced commodity, churned out as rapidly as possible, sold lock, stock, and residual rights to the highest bidder.

          Hammer, for most of its existence, lived in a perpetual cycle of brief periods of plenty broken by long stretches of lean; living from paycheck to paycheck, always trying to catch onto the latest trend.  For the most part, they succeeded, at least until the fragile house of cards that was the company’s financial structure came crashing down around the head of Michael Carreras.

          But in 1958, that was still twenty years away.  In 1958, they weren’t trying to follow the trends, they were creating them.

          In 1958, Hammer Films released HORROR OF DRACULA… and the renaissance of classic horror began.

FORBIDDEN PLANET Two-Disc Ultimate Collector’s Edition Tin Box Set

Title:  FORBIDDEN PLANET Two-Disc Ultimate Collector’s Edition Tin Box Set

Year of Release—Film:  1956

Year of Release—DVD:  2006

DVD Label:  Warner Home Video

One of the most influential Science-Fiction films of the 1950s, FORBIDDEN PLANET was the high water mark of 1950s Sci-Fi; it had virtually everything on its side.  A wonderful cast, including a young (and surprisingly serious) Leslie Nielsen, Walter Pidgeon, and a spectacularly lovely Anne Francis; a superior script, based on Shakespeare’s The Tempest; cinematography that’s as beautiful as the leading lady; and effects work that was very impressive, at least in 1956.  Add a director smart enough to bring all of these elements into play, then get out of the way and let them work their magic, and you have the ingredients of a great movie.

Directed by Fred MacLeod Wilcox, working from Cyril Hume’s excellent screenplay, FORBIDDEN PLANET was groundbreaking in many ways.  Where most ‘50s Sci-Fi to that time had been based on the premise of aliens coming to Earth, or contemporary astronauts traveling to the Moon or to Mars, FP was set in the future, (the 23rd century), in a time when interstellar flight is a practical reality.  Earth is now a member of the United Planets, an organization whose star cruisers are pushing back the boundaries of explored space.
One of those star cruisers, designated C57-D, under the command of Cdr. J. J. Adams (Nielsen), is nearing the fourth planet of the Altair star system, 16 light-years from Earth.  Their mission is to try to make contact with colonists who landed there 20 years before, or failing that, ascertain their fate.  As they approach the planet, they are contacted by radio, by someone identifying himself as Dr. Morbius, a member of the expedition.  He warns them not to land on the planet, to return from where they came.  Adams replies that that is not possible; they will land.  They touch down on Altair-IV, and are met by a mechanical welcoming committee of one, a robot who takes Adams, Lt. Farman, the ship’s First Officer (Jack Kelly), and Lt. “Doc” Ostrow (Warren Stevens), the ship’s Medical Officer, to meet his creator, the enigmatic Morbius (Walter Pidgeon).  The robot is Robby, an electronic automaton that functions as its creator’s servant.

Morbius receives them coolly but politely, explaining the reasons behind his warning to stay away.  Two decades before, the expedition encountered a mysterious force shortly after landing, a force that killed several colonists and destroyed their ship, the Bellerophon, as most of the survivors attempted to escape.  Only Morbius, his wife (since deceased), and infant daughter Altaira stayed behind, and survived.  The scientist fears that a similar fate might befall the crew of the C57-D if they remain on the planet for any length of time.
The three officers are introduced to Altaira (Francis), who her father refers to with the diminutive ‘Alta’.  A beautiful young woman, she makes a powerful impression on healthy young men who’ve been in space for more than a year—an effect heightened by the revealing nature of her dress.  They begin jockeying for her attention, as is natural for young men in the presence of young women.

Adams is uncertain how to proceed regarding Morbius and his daughter—his instinct is to take them back to Earth, something that the scientist adamantly resists, arguing that his work can’t spare the two years the round trip would take.  Adams decides that the situation is unusual enough to warrant the heroic effort necessary to contact their command base for instructions.  Establishing communications requires the cannibalization of a major part of the ship to build the transmitter, not a task to be undertaken lightly.

Soon however, odd events begin to occur, events that are merely troublesome at first, but rapidly escalate—including a vital piece of equipment that vanishes from the ship, despite the posted guards having seen nothing.  Adams notices that these events are escalating in rough correlation to the awakening of Alta’s feelings of attraction to the crew of his ship—the first men, other than her father, that the girl has ever seen—and her growing awareness of her sexuality.  There is no doubt in Adams’ mind that his crew is aware of that last, especially after he catches Farman teaching her the finer points of kissing.  He chews his First Officer out over this indiscretion, then turns on Altaira.

You have to understand that I’m in command of eighteen competitively selected, super-perfect physical specimens with an average age of 24.6, who have been locked up in hyperspace for 378 days.  It would have served you right if I hadn’t … and he … go on, get out of here before I have you run out of the area under guard—and then I’ll put more guards on the guards!

Part of Adams’ problem is his obvious attraction to, and growing affection for, the young woman; a situation not lost on, nor appreciated by her father.  Neither is her reciprocation of those feelings.

When Adams confronts Morbius regarding the sabotage, he leads the officers into a secret chamber beneath his home, and introduces them to the wonders of the Krell, the long-dead inhabitants of Altair-IV.  Extinct for 200,000 years, the Krell had reached the pinnacle of evolutionary development before vanishing in a global cataclysm virtually overnight.  Their giant machines still function, even after 2,000 centuries, and Morbius has deciphered enough of their language to begin to grasp how they operate.  His use of the machines has even boosted his intellect to the level of a somewhat retarded Krell child.  He wants to continue his study of the Krell, and being called home to Earth would be a very unwelcome interruption.

 As he and Adams are arguing over the disposition of the Krell knowledge, word comes that Chief Quinn has been murdered, by an intruder who was able to slip past all their defenses.  Without Quinn, the sabotage can’t be repaired, and the transmitter can’t be finished.  It’s now a fight for survival against an invisible foe that can come and go at will.  By nightfall, the crew has deployed two massive ray cannons outside the ship, anticipating another attack.  When it comes, it’s sudden and brutal, the creature outlined in the glow of the ray impacts.  Several of the crew, including Farman, are killed in the battle, though the attacker is successfully driven off.  This leads to the ultimate confrontation between Adams and Morbius, as the last secret of the Krell is finally revealed.

Though long regarded as a classic of the 1950s Science-Fiction genre, FORBIDDEN PLANET has a special place in the Unimonster’s heart, as it was a powerful inspiration to Gene Roddenberry while he was conceiving what would become Star Trek.  Connections to the series are easy to spot for devoted Trekkers; even the NCC (Naval Construction Contract) number of the Enterprise (1701) is taken from a line in the film.  Beyond this obvious appeal, however, is the fact that this is a great movie, in every way that counts.  For the first time, humanity was depicted traveling to the stars on ships of human design, and this event was treated as a matter of course.  The crew of the C57-D hadn’t been kidnapped, abducted by some alien beings intent on conquering Earth.  They were out there by choice, part of a greater service, doing their jobs.

It also marked the first time that a robot was depicted as a character in a film, a character with dialogue and a personality, not just a collection of scrap metal clunking across the screen.  Built by Robert Kinoshita at a cost of $125,000, Robby saw much service in both film and television in the latter half of the ‘50s and ‘60s, including the 1957 film THE INVISIBLE BOY (S.O.S. SPACESHIP) [included in this edition of the DVD].  A redesigned variant was used as the robot on the 1960’s television series Lost in Space, where it did battle with the original version in the first season episode “War of the Robots.”

Warner Home Video went all out in an effort to give fans of this movie a fitting tribute for it’s 50th anniversary.  Not only is this release the best I have ever seen this film look, it’s hard to imagine a bonus feature that they might have neglected to include.  From deleted footage, to the obligatory “making-of” featurette, to the inclusion of the aforementioned THE INVISIBLE BOY feature film and an episode of The Thin Man television series from the 1960s guest-starring Robby, the video content alone is surprisingly bounteous.  Add in a sheaf of reproduction lobby cards and poster art, along with a 3-inch tall replica of Robby the Robot, and encase the whole in a beautiful collector’s tin box, and you have a very ‘needful thing’ for any fan of the movie.

With a list price of $20.98 for the set, this one is a definite “buy” recommendation, but even that low price can be beat.  Amazon currently lists the set at $17.99—a steal for such a wealth of material on such a great movie.  If you have any fondness in your heart for this film, you should have this set in your collection.