This batch of six MGM and Warner Bros. shockers is a quirky cousin to the classic literature-inspired horror classics of Universal Studios. It features familiar stars of horror: Bela Lugosi, Peter Lorre, Boris Karloff and champion screamer Fay Wray, in flicks that get a little naughtier, creepier and more bizarre than those better known classics. It is a sort of adventure to explore this varied set, which is now available on DVD from Warner Archive.
Mark of the Vampire (1935)
Enjoyment of this quirky horror flick with a touch of comedy depends upon your ability to enjoy its parts and ignore how it comes together. Amid the clunky scenes of exposition and Lionel Barrymore intensely chewing on his lines are great spooky moments: a supposed dead man playing a droning tune on an organ; Carroll Borland, an early prototype of the goth girl, eerily peering through a window in her deathly pale make-up, and a soundtrack full of angst-inducing moans and night noises. When it works it's effectively creepy, but a few goofy touches keep it from truly plunging you into horror.
The Devil-Doll (1936)
Lionel Barrymore gets the opportunity to go full ham in this quirky sci-fi horror with special effects that remain intriguing to modern eyes. He masquerades as an old lady in several scenes, and clearly relishes the opportunity to act without restraint. The plot is a busy affair, with a mad scientist who plans to miniaturize the world with his ghoulish sister, Barrymore as a wrongfully convicted escaped prisoner out to clear his name and Maureen O'Sullivan completely unaware of it all as his daughter. The miniaturization effects are a lot of fun and seem to have aged well partly because they are in black and white. Tiny people, horses, dogs and the like are used to often creepy effect to steal, exact revenge and essentially cause chaos.
The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932)
Beautifully designed, acutely racist and oozing with camp, it's amusing to imagine what is going on in Boris Karloff and Myrna Loy's minds as they valiantly attempt to portray "Asians" in this pre-code adventure horror flick full of colonial swagger. Though they play characters that kill and torture, they're somehow more sympathetic than the supposed British heroes who stop a moment to marvel at the legacy of Genghis Khan before pillaging his tomb without a hint of self-awareness. Even the normally entrancing Karen Morley looks like a jerk in her pith helmet and khakis, while Loy is sadistic fun, peering through a headdress of beads, delighting in sticking it to the white man.
Mad Love (1935)
Completely bald, so that he looks like an vaguely menacing egg, Peter Lorre is especially unsettling as a famous doctor who becomes fixated on a Grand Guignol actress (Frances Drake). When her concert pianist husband's (Colin Clive) hands are crushed in a train accident, he attaches the hands of a murderous knife thrower to his arms, make her feel she owes him a debt when he has actually brought her more trouble because of the still violent impulses of the newly-attached appendages. The early scenes in the theater are good fun with its grotesquely-masked attendants and proto-torture porn melodrama. It's a bit baffling that Drake is the only one who seems to see how unbearably creepy Lorre is, but as it unfolds, a guy that socially malignant isn't going to stay under wraps forever.
Doctor X (1932)
Two-strip Technicolor is a great look for a horror film, as can also be seen in The Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933). It gives Caucasian flesh an eerie pink hue, so that everyone looks like a creepy doll come to life, and holds back just enough color to keep dark corners and looming shadows sufficiently forbidding. Lee Tracy is probably the only comic relief journalist that I could bear in a horror film, though it is still baffling that Fay Wray as a crime-solving scientist's daughter would give him a tumble. The look of the film gives it most of its power to chill, though the grotesque make-up effects used to simulate synthetic flesh are also delightfully sickening and the final sequence is suspenseful in a gut-churning way.
The Return of Doctor X (1939)
I was ready to throw my drink at the annoying snappy reporter in this awkward comedy/horror sequel that has nothing to do with the 1932 film, when the oddly-cast Humphrey Bogart made his appearance as a mad scientist. Just before his true break-through in Hollywood, the actor played this villain with greasy skin, a skunk stripe in his hair, and the bearing of a man who doesn't get much fresh air. He's a simultaneously awful and brilliant choice for the role of a mad scientist, as deliciously campy as an old school Bond villain. The rest of the film is silly and forgettable, but seeing pre-headliner Bogie in such a bizarre part made it worth the watch.
Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copies of the films for review. These are Manufacture on Demand (MOD) DVDs. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.