Imagine a life lived entirely inside a big box store, like Target, a world where you measure the days, moths and years by the seasonal displays hanging down from the rafters. Every year the Fourth of July comes out of nowhere, a red, white and blue streak, then the big pencil twirling just about your head says it’s back to school time. Now, just a few weeks into your lessons, along comes the most exciting display event of the year: Halloween.
Cardboard bats and smiling skeletons dangle among wisps of faux-spider webs; an endless supply of candy sits just a few aisles away, promising bellyaches; and the DVD section is stocked with enough scary movies for a yearlong fright fest.
It’s in this world—so much like our own – that we find Fox Horror Classics Volume Two, featuring Chandu the Magician(1932), Dragonwyck(1946) and Dr. Renault’s Secret(1942), three black and white films from the vaults of 20th Century Fox. Unlike it’s predecessor, reviewed here,
“Brahms Lullabies”, Volume Two isn’t a showcase for a single director, but rather an excuse to splatter some blood on a cardboard box and get it into stores before all those ghouls and goblins turn into reindeer and elves.
This set marks the first proper DVD release for all three of these films, and it seems unlikely customers would flock to stores to buy them. So, when lacking a real commercial interest in a product, one must get creative. That’s the magic of marketing, and it’s this set’s biggest failure.
It’s not a scary/un-scary debate: it’s fair to assume movies made 60-plus years ago aren’t going to have the same effect on viewers today as they did when originally released. At issue here is the label “horror”. The genre is broad and encompasses many themes and archetypes, and genres often overlap into gray areas of entertainment, but in this set, those gray areas are stark reminders of a marketing machine at work.
Chandu, for instance, is not a horror film. This much is clear by simply viewing the film for oneself, but it’s also echoed by the experts and historians in the featurette accompanying the film. This doesn’t discount it as a film, however. It does that on its own. Chandu (Edmund Lowe) is a proto-Indiana Jones adventurer, a yogi who fights bad guys with hypnotism. There’s lots of pointing and serious squinting from Chandu as he projects images of himself and makes the minions of Roxor (Bela Lugosi) believe their guns have turned into snakes.
Lugosi’s face is on the box, an obvious appeal to the horror fans considering the man was forever shall be ‘Dracula’, but his Roxor is little more than a death ray-wielding madman determined to destroy the great cities of the world. Lugosi digs into the part, and his few scenes are among the best of the film. Though his plan may be menacing, Roxor is merely a man, not a monster. And again, Chandu’s magic evokes the mysteries of the Far East, but its fun, not frightening.
Beyond Lugosi’s performance and the incredible sets from co-director William Cameron Menzies, Chandu is mostly forgettable. Lowe lacks the air of mystery and sophistication one expects from a magical Westerner who’s never seen without his turban. It’s little surprise that, a few years after the film’s release, Chandu returned with the mystery-deficit filled by the original’s villain, Lugosi, in the title role.
Closer to the horror genre is Dragonwyck, a gothic romance featuring Gene Tierney and Vincent Price. Like Lugosi, Price is very closely associated with the genre, and it’s his performance that gives the film its hints of horror.
Price is Nicholas Van Ryn, a wealthy Dutch landowner in 19th century upstate New York. He rules over his property and its tenants, like a tyrant, desperately clinging to traditions and customs that are being passed by fashion and the law. He lives in a palatial estate called Dragonwyck, where he invites Miranda (Tierney) to come care for his daughter. After the death of Van Ryn’s first wife, he and Miranda are married and his madness begins to unfold. He’s desperate for a son, and when their newborn dies shortly after birth, he finds he has no more use for Miranda and plots to kill her, the same as he did his first wife.
Watching Price come unhinged is a true pleasure. He describes the death of his great-grandmother, whose ghost haunts Dragonwyck, with a detached gaze that’s empty and chilling, and his disgust with nearly every character in the film but himself makes him an unmistakable villain.
The haunting of Dragonwyck is rendered well, with bizarre music accompanying a ghostly wail. We never see the ghost, but hearing it evokes the ghosts in us all. The specter of the Van Ryn matriarch, though, is merely a distraction. What’s truly haunted in the film is Nicholas Van Ryn himself. His failings are human, not supernatural, and his final scene, in which he hallucinates his tenants paying him tribute, is the film’s best.
Dragonwyck, the directorial debut of Joseph L. Mankiewicz (All About Eve), straddles the thin divide between gothic and horror. Its horrors rest squarely on the shoulders of Price, but that’s certainly good company to keep. Still, Price’s performance can’t hide the film’s slow pace and lack of thrills.
The real gem in this set is Dr. Renault’s Secret. It’s a re-imagining of Frankenstein, with the monster replaced with an ape that’s been transformed into a man. Both Frankenstein and Noel the man-ape (J. Carrol Naish) are misfits of science, and both are depressed and disgusted by their misfortunes. Each is disdained by his creator, and each ultimately fails in his attempt at turning away from the monster everyone expects him to be.
Noel, manservant to his creator, Dr. Renault (George Zucco), hulks through the film with a disturbing distance in his speech and his eyes, musing on the ease with which he could kill his master with a dreamlike quality that’s easily film’s the most chilling moment.
Throughout the film, villagers are being strangled, even a dog is killed, and all signs point to Noel. It’s only when we learn he’s been innocent all along that Noel snaps, finally fulfilling the role in which he’s been cast. Noel is vindicated in the end when he rescues Dr. Renault’s niece, Madelon (Lynn Roberts) from the film’s villain, Rogell (Mike Mazurki).
Dr. Renault himself is a classic mad scientist, pushing the limits of science and reason and ethics until it all blows up in his face. Despite Renault’s efforts, Noel remains an animal inside, but in his cruelty, Renault is the film’s true monster.
The biggest surprise in this set is the wealth of bonus materials. All three discs contain featurettes discussing the films’ genesis and production, as well as their impact and legacy. These featurettes contain more than the usual fawning celebration, instead offering real criticism, such as Chandu’s status as a horror film.
Commentaries on Chandu and Dragonwyck are exhaustive, with historians and writers and filmmakers offering more information than one could ever wish to know about the finances, historical context, sets and the interpersonal relationships of the films’ stars. Bela Lugosi biographer Gregory William Mank makes the Roxor scenes in Chandu particularly insightful.
Each of these films has its merits and its flaws, but packaged together they make for a disappointing viewing experience, the sum not at all equal to the parts. This Halloween season, when you’re out among the cardboard and candy at your favorite store, this set might look fun and scary, but much like when you reach into a bag for a handful of candy, what you hope for may not be what you get.