2020 has been scary enough, Dear Reader, and that’s all the more reason to come out from under the bed and enjoy some “just pretend” stories with your favorite tricks and treats. The newest film on our roundup of Top 15 Halloween Classic Blu-rays is over 50 years old, so we’re talking Old School here, yet you’ll find that they still bring the goosebumps.
To speak truly, these titles aren’t all spooky but spread a broad net into fantasy and dress-up spectacles, because Halloween is good for all that stuff. After all, we don’t always want to be too frightened. This avalanche of new releases mostly comes from the indefatigable folks at Kino Lorber, but The War of the Worlds hails from Criterion. Since that’s one of the year’s best packages of any frightful classic, we’ll begin our list with that film. But first, a message from our sponsors…
1. The War of the Worlds (1953) Director: Byron Haskin
Earth is invaded by Martians, “intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic.” Panic and havoc ensue, and certain scenes are scary as hell. Such is the first, still classic film version of The War of the Worlds, based on H.G. Wells‘ milestone novel of 1897 that manages to feel fresh and relevant to every generation.
Right there in the opening of his story, Wells spells out a political theme for his British readers: Imperial countries have invaded and conquered other peoples, so how would you feel if the same were visited upon you? “The Tasmanians, in spite of their human likeness, were entirely swept out of existence in a war of extermination waged by European immigrants, in the space of fifty years. Are we such apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit?”
Some people think the ending, which the film preserves intact from the book, is anti-climactic. They mean that standard adventures focus on the active choices of heroes who bring about their salvation with luck and pluck and ingenuity, while Wells rejects such reassuring lullabies. His grim irony is that humans can do nothing to save themselves, but they may be spared by something infinitely smaller and humbler: microbes and germs.
This recognizes a scientific reality of exploration while it draws a humbling parallel with humans, themselves microbes on the universal scale (“infusoria under the microscope”). It also comments on our place in ecosystems. This ending isn’t comforting but it’s salutary, and we need to absorb it like any vaccine that makes us a little queasy before positive results.
This film’s special effects look as dazzling today as when they won an Oscar. In fact, they look more dazzling than they have in decades. As this 4K restoration of the original Technicolor makes clear, the wires holding up the Martian ships weren’t as visible as later generations have thought. After prints were replaced by cheaper Eastmancolor in the 1960s and the lighting scheme was made brighter, previously obscure wires became obvious. You can still spot a few wires if you look, but why look for them?
Barré Lyndon‘s script makes the connections to two world wars and Cold War nuclear jitters before thrilling us with destruction. Producer George Pal, director Byron Haskin, photographer George Barnes, effects supervisor Gordon Jennings, Oscar-nominated editor Everett Douglas, and art director Al Nozaki (who designed the manta ray ships with cobra heads) present a dazzling spectacle that got drafted into the National Film Registry. Kudos also to Leith Stevens’ score, Chesley Bonestell’s opening paintings, the Oscar-nominated sound mix, and Charles Gemora for designing and manipulating the freaky Martian suit.
Criterion’s Blu-ray throws in some making-of’s, commentary from the 2005 DVD, a 1970 audio interview with Pal, Orson Welles‘ 1938 radio broadcast that supposedly caused some stir, and a 1940 radio talk between Welles and Wells that links the Martian war to the current world war.
2. The Cat and the Canary (1939) Director: Elliot Nugent – and – 3. The Ghost Breakers (1940) Director: George Marshall
Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard paired up in two comedy-horror hits for Paramount, each based on “old dark house” plays that were filmed before: The Cat and the Canary and The Ghost Breakers. Both films were produced by Arthur Hornblow Jr., shot in lovely expressive black and white by Charles Lang, and made largely with the same crew. In both stories, Goddard plays a threatened heiress while Hope plays a wise-cracking radio personality who protects her.
The Cat and the Canary (Kino Lorber) boasts a strong cast including Gale Sondergaard, Douglass Montgomery, John Beal, Elizabeth Patterson, George Zucco and Nydia Westman. The Ghost Breakers (Kino Lorber) has Anthony Quinn, Richard Carlson, Paul Lukas and two very important African-American actors, Willie Best and Noble Johnson, as appropriate for a film whose subtext is the haunted legacy of slavery in Cuba. The topic serves as an historical palimpsest raised and never resolved in the heroine’s inherited Castillo Maldito on “the Black Island”.
Hope and Best make an interesting team, as both characters claim to be scared while doing smart resourceful things. In his commentary, film historian Lee Gambin refers to historian Donald Bogle‘s assessment of Best, and I concur that he’s an attractive, charismatic actor who deserved better parts. This script gives his role plenty of useful business, including lending his gun, showing why his boss can’t be guilty of murder, attacking and subduing a zombie, wielding a mace against a white man, and (accidentally) saving everyone’s life. In Best, we behold a talented actor working with what he’s given, which is sometimes beneath him.
The zombie is played impressively by Johnson, who founded the first black-owned film studio, the Lincoln Motion Picture Company (1916-1921). Like Oscar Micheaux, he’d been inspired by D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1914) into thinking “We’ve got to tell our own stories.” Johnson, best known for King Kong (1933, Merian C. Cooper & Ernest B. Schoedsack), is another actor who forces us to think of the distance between his capacities and his mainstream roles.
4. The Face at the Window (1939) Director: George King
Just as the Bob Hope pictures derive from “old dark house” warhorses of the American stage, The Face at the Window (Kino Lorber) belongs to the British equivalent in Victorian “blood and thunder” melodramas. With gleeful cackling and eye-rolling, star Tod Slaughter cornered the genre in several “quota quickies” with director George King.
In this example, the elements include knives in the back, rumors of werewolfery, a hideous face that signals death, and an intrepid hero (John Warwick) who rescues a damsel (Marjorie Taylor) from foul depredations. These items always promise that evil is glaringly obvious (if not to the victims) and that it shall be vanquished by the young and picturesque. Also that baddies deserve billing above the title as what we’ve really come to see.
So we know where we are, the opening crawl declares the film “melodrama of the old school–dear to the hearts of all who unashamedly enjoy either a shudder or a laugh at the heights of villainy.” We’re not only warned but encouraged to find it absurd and enjoy it as such. That’s aided by a brisk 66 minutes, which hardly leaves time to scoff at each twist before the next comes along.
The oddest element is a bit of mad science in which a doctor who experiments with electricity declares he’ll be able to extract the secret of a killer’s identity from the freshly dead brain of the victim. “And they dare call me mad!” says he with a straight face.
For a film old and cheaply made, this print is handsomely restored to a clarity it probably hasn’t known in decades. Bret Wood performs an English translation of Jean-Claude Michel’s extensive historical commentary about Slaughter, whose career is unknown to most Yanks.
5. Dr. Cyclops (1940) Director: Ernest B. Schoedsack
Paramount’s Dr. Cyclops (Kino Lorber) is among the most unusual and strangely under-appreciated works of sci-fi horror of the 1940s. This gorgeous new 4K master offers scrumptious creamy Technicolor that’s sometimes very arty. For example, the opening scene is saturated by green with little hints of other jarring colors, like the sickly blue that comes over a man’s face as radium rays reveal his skull. This casual murder in the name of mad science is one of the decade’s most exquisitely beautiful moments of sadism and shock, and more disturbing murders follow.
The villain is Dr. Alexander Thorkel (Albert Dekker), the world’s most brilliant and unorthodox biologist. He’s a tall hulk, bald as a cueball, who wears tiny thick glasses to peer from his failing orbs. As Richard Harland Smith’s highly informative commentary points out, his look is half Mussolini, half Tojo. The doctor’s a moody, erudite, sometimes jolly bastard in love with his startling scientific breakthroughs.
From deep in the Peruvian jungle, he summons the help of a few colleagues to help on his secret experiments. These unwitting fools are Dr. Rupert Bulfinch (Charles Halton), a stuffy older birdlike gentleman; the pretty and peremptory Dr. Mary Robinson (Janice Logan); and the irresponsible, lackadaisical Bill Stockton (Thomas Coley), a tall, dark, handsome drink of water. Also present are a crafty mule-trader (Victor Kilian) and a local servant (Steve Yaconelli) with his horse and dog.
Aside from color and Thorkel’s eccentric villainy, the film’s greatest draw is the effects and process photography of Farciot Edouart and Wallace Kelley. Edouart and uncredited Gordon Jennings were deservedly Oscar-nominated for their work here. Edouart had done the lovely process work for the Hope comedies, and you’ll recall that Jennings would pick up an Oscar for The War of the Worlds.
To what end is their artistry applied? Here comes a possible SPOILER for those who don’t know the story, although the trailer gives it away as the selling point. The doc’s into shrinkage, and he reduces the other characters to doll people who run about amid oversize props.
This hardy film trope dates back at least to James Whale’s The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and looks forward to Jack Arnold’s The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957) and many other examples. People born in a certain time and place may recall the Dr. Shrinker segments of The Krofft Supershow (1976) on Saturday mornings, a direct rip-off of Dr. Cyclops. Only recently, Alexander Payne explored the concept in Downsizing (2017) as a possible solution to the world’s ills.
The little folks in Dr. Cyclops prove refreshingly resourceful, coming up with all kinds of ideas that you’d like to think would occur to you in the same fix. Although it’s never explained how, they even find time to dye their initially white handkerchief-togas.
Even though Dr. Cyclops, as a sensational pulp thriller, never mentions the war that was engulfing the world and indeed seems as far removed as possible from such concerns, reality bleeds through in Thorkel’s “dictator” persona and in the fears of misusing the power of radiation, which would soon become an all-consuming topic. And all this fascination is over in 77 unwasted minutes, from the era when they knew how to get in and get out of a pulp story.
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