HOLLYWOOD'S LEGENDS OF HORROR COLLECTION: DOCTOR X / RETURN OF DOCTOR X / MAD LOVE / THE DEVIL DOLL / MARK OF THE VAMPIRE / ... - DVD review

Fun stuff, if rather campy by today's standards.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.
Puccio

Afficienados of old 1930s' horror movies and fans of famous old stars and filmmakers may enjoy this collection of minor horror-movie classics starring major horror-movie actors. The six films offered in the box range in entertainment value from very good to very bad, with everything in between, so there is a little something for everyone in WB's "Hollywood Legends of Horror Collection."

I'm sure I saw most of these films on television when I was a kid in the 1950s, yet I couldn't remember the particulars about any of them while watching the DVDs. The movies came from both WB and MGM originally, but they are all now in the Warner Bros. catalogue, the studio distributing them on three double-feature discs. This seems appropriate because after their first run, most theaters of 1930s would have exhibited these things in double features. Anyway, the original prints are good, the transfers are good, the actors and directors are good, and even some of the story material is good. That a lot of it is also pretty corny just goes with the territory. All six movies are exclusive to the set and come housed in ultrathin DVD cases.

"Mark of the Vampire"
The collection starts out with one of the set's better offerings, "Mark of the Vampire" (1935), directed by Tod Browning ("Dracula," "Freaks") and starring Lionel Barrymore, Bela Lugosi, Elizabeth Allan, Jean Hersholt, and Lionel Atwill. It is basically a sound version of Browning's 1927 silent film "London After Midnight" with Lon Chaney, Sr., now lost, and a clever reworking of the "Dracula" stage play.

Interestingly, Lugosi only played his signature Dracula role in two films, "Dracula" in 1931, also directed by Browning, and "Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein" in 1948. But that didn't stop him from playing vampire-like characters, here playing the sinister Count Mora.

The setting for this MGM picture is a remote village in the mountains near Prague, where the townsfolk claim that vampires are feeding on the populace. When a prominent local citizen, Sir Karell Borotyn, dies mysteriously, with two small puncture wounds on this neck and his body drained of blood, suspicion naturally falls on the Count. Lionel Barrymore, chewing up the scenery, plays Professor Zelin, a Van Helsing-type researcher of the occult. Barrymore was not the only notable actor to play such a role, with Laurence Olivier, Anthony Hopkins, Christopher Plummer, and Hugh Jackman all tackling similar jobs.

Then, too, there is a beautiful heroine, Irena Borotyn (Elizabeth Allan), the murder victim's daughter; Fedor Vincente (Henry Wadsworth), Irena's handsome young fiancé; Police Inspector Neumann (Lionel Atwill), the skeptical investigating officer; Baron Otto von Zinden (Jean Hersholt), Irena's guardian after the death of her father; and Luna Mora (Carol Borland), the Count's exceptionally pale daughter.

The movie is high on atmospherics, with bats, beetles, rats (and possums), spiders (and spider webs), castles, manor houses, graveyards, and peasant dancers in costume lending it a quaint and eerie charm. There isn't much in the story that one hasn't seen before, until the very end when Browning and the script turn everything on its ear. It's worth the wait.

Video, Audio, and Extras:
The picture quality of the DVD is fairly average for an older film. The black-and-white contrasts hold up well; delineation is fairly crisp; and there are very few noticeable age marks. Grain is the only minor problem, but the eye adjusts. The sound in Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural is also fine, clear but a little hard, with a small accompaniment of background hiss. For extras, Warner Bros. provide an audio commentary by genre historians Kim Newman and Steve Jones; a theatrical trailer; nineteen scene selections; English as the only spoken language; and English, French, and Spanish subtitles. 6/10

"The Mask of Fu Manchu"
It was probably in the seventh grade that I first came to read several of Sax Rohmer's novels about Dr. Fu Manchu, the insidious evil genius who always seemed bent on conquering the world. By high school I had advanced to Ian Fleming's racier and more- sophisticated James Bond adventures, but the Fu Manchu books have stayed with me, nonetheless, and one can easily see traces of the old scoundrel in Fleming's Dr. No.

Certainly, Arthur Conan Doyle influenced Rohmer's writing, as we find echoes of Sherlock Holmes in Rohmer's hero, Sir Dennis Nayland Smith, and of Dr. Watson in Smith's right-hand man, Dr. Petrie (who does not appear in this movie). The first Fu Manchu novel appeared in 1911, and the movies about him began appearing in the early 1920s, so "The Mask of Fu Manchu" from 1935 is a relative latecomer. But it wasn't this movie starring Boris Karloff as the villainous Asian mastermind that I saw first; in fact, I didn't see it until well into the 1970s. Instead, my introduction to Fu Manchu's screen presence was in the 1960s with Christopher Lee in the part. I'm afraid neither Karloff nor Lee nor any of the other actors who have essayed the role have impressed me as much as reading those first few Rohmer novels in the seventh grade; and I was especially disappointed when the late, great Peter Sellers made as his last film the lame spoof "The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu," in which played both the hero and the villain to ill effect.

Oh, well, Karloff then is no worse than anybody else who took on the thankless Fu Manchu role. "The Mask of Fu Manchu" is the silliest and most melodramatic of the films in this collection, and for that reason alone it may be a hoot for some viewers. But, believe me, it's a long slog to the end.

In the story, the British government and Fu Manchu are competing to find the lost and buried tomb of Genghis Khan. The British want the artifacts therein for the British Museum; Fu Manchu wants the mask and scimitar of Khan to make him Khan come back to life, to command all of Asia, and then to rule the world. You can't deny he doesn't think big.

Nayland Smith (played by a too-old Lewis Stone) is a Scotland Yard Commissioner for the British Secret Service who knows all about Fu Manchu's dirty tricks. He sends out an expedition to the edge of the Gobi Desert to head him off, an expedition headed up by a friend, Sir Lionel Barton (Lawrence Grant), and two colleagues, Von Berg (Jean Hersholt again) and McLeod (David Torrence). Smith is a very cunning guy; he doesn't go himself. However, it isn't long after the expedition sets out on its task that Fu Manchu captures Barton and attempts to torture him into revealing where the tomb and the valuables are. With the expedition, to say nothing of the world, in peril, Nayland Smith reluctantly goes off to the rescue.

The requisite pretty girl is Sir Lionel's daughter, played by Karen Morley. And the requisite handsome young man, her boyfriend, is played by Charles Starrett. Fu Manchu's daughter is played by, of all people, Myrna Loy. MGM provided the lavish sets and costumes, and director Charles Brabin ("The Bridge of San Luis Rey," "The Beast of the City") provided the thrills. Or laughs, depending on your point of view.

As I say, the film is filled with high camp, Karloff in droopy mustache and long, curled fingernails and Loy in slinky gown and dangly headdress. It doesn't take long for the tale to turn completely incoherent, with the sight of various kinds of torture the only reason to stick around. These begin with the "torture of the bell," where Fu Manchu places Sir Lionel under a huge bell, and two bell ringers pull the clapper back and forth. Question: If the bell is supposed to drive the victim crazy, why does it have no effect on the bell ringers? Following this torture are ones involving snakes, spiders, lizards, spikes, death rays, alligator pits, and, well, the movie itself. It's hard not to giggle at the sheer awfulness of the action or be put off by the overt racism of the characters.

Video, Audio, and Extras:
The DVD image quality is a bit more faded and grainy than I'd like to see, but it holds up decently for its age, and as usual Warner Bros. found a good print, with few signs of damage. The Dolby Digital 1.0 sound holds up even better, being very clear and clean, with hardly any background noise. The extras include an audio commentary by Greg Mank, author of "Karloff and Lugosi: A Story of a Haunting Collaboration," which is far more interesting and fun than the main feature; twenty scene selections; English as the only spoken language; and English, French, and Spanish subtitles. 4/10

"Doctor X"
People remember director Michael Curtiz for many great films, including "Captain Blood," "The Adventures of Robin Hood," "The Sea Hawk," "Yankee Doodle Dandy," and "Casablanca," but they may not remember his work in "Doctor X" (1932), with Lionel Atwill, Fay Wray, Lee Tracy, and Preston Foster.

In this early Technicolor, Warner Brothers First National Pictures production, we have a combination of horror and comedy, not an uncommon situation to relieve some of the tension of a terror-filled fright flick. The movie provides the horror through a series of "moonlight murders," people being killed one per month by the light of the full moon by a murderer described as horribly mutilated. The movie provides the comedy through actor Lee Tracy as a fast-talking, wisecracking newspaper reporter assigned to the story.

The police have determined that the murders have something to do with a medical facility, the Academy of Surgical Research, run by Dr. Jerry Xavier (Lionel Atwill). The Academy's bizarre group of scientists, headed up by Professor Wells (Preston Foster), do stuff like reanimating human tissue, keeping human hearts alive, and creating synthetic flesh. Nice.

The main settings for the film are the Academy itself, a gruesome enough place, in the movie's first half and Dr. Xavier's strange, old coastal manor house, Blackstone Shoals, in the second half. It's hard to tell which place is creepier, thanks to art director Anton Grot and photographer Ray Rennahan. Indeed, it is the film's dark, shadowy look, an obvious carryover from the German Expressionism of the previous decade, that contributes most to its effectiveness. And, frankly, Tracy's comic relief only detracts from its overall effect.

Naturally, there has to be a pretty girl, and again it's Fay Wray, this time playing Dr. Xavier's daughter, Joanne. She is quite good at screaming in the night, starting with her very first scene. And just as naturally, she has to fall for somebody, and that somebody would be the nosy, bumbling reporter.

Beyond the film's weird look and feel, there isn't a lot to it until the last ten minutes, when the story turns from eerie-yet-humorous to outright shocking and horrifying. Then it becomes something more akin to a typical monster movie, whereas earlier it had the aura of a comedy-mystery thriller. While I can't say the film's ending or its humor impressed me much, I did enjoy its visual appearance and the idea of a creepy old house full of mad scientists.

Video, Audio, and Extras:
The early two-strip Technicolor runs big to greens, browns, and yellows but doesn't do a lot for natural skin tones. It's not very bright or colorful, either, nor very well focused, but we have to remember that it was just the beginning of the color process; and, besides, the film's odd hues add to the film's peculiar tone. The print contains any number of vertical lines, none of them too severe but all of them noticeable, and, of course, there is a degree of grain involved. The Dolby Digital monaural sound is among the best in the collection in terms of quiet backgrounds, but like most early talkie films, this one has a rather limited frequency response and dynamic range, with somewhat pinched dialogue. For extras, WB include an audio commentary by horror scholar Scott McQueen; a theatrical trailer; twenty-five scene selections; English as the only spoken language; and English, French, and Spanish subtitles. 6/10

"The Return of Doctor X"
Perhaps the most surprising thing about "The Return of Doctor X" (1939) is that it has little to do with "Doctor X" from seven years earlier. Perhaps the second most-surprising thing about it is that it co-stars Humphrey Bogart in one of his least-memorable roles. And perhaps the least-surprising thing is that the film is among the weakest entries in the "Legends of Horror" set.

The only real connections between this film and "Doctor X" are that both films feature a breezy, comic newspaper reporter in the lead and a character named Dr. Xavier. No, it's not the same reporter and it's not the same Dr. Xavier. Nor does the newer film have much of the Expressionistic touches of its predecessor, settling for the occasional deep-focus shot, a few odd camera angles, and a couple of curious shadows.

Things start out promisingly with a happy-go-lucky newsman named Walt "Wichita" Garrett (Wayne Morris) going to interview a famous stage actress, Angela Merrova (Lya Lys), only to find her dead in her hotel apartment, her body drained of blood. He scoops the story, his newspaper putting out an instant extra edition, but when the police arrive on the scene, they find no body. Not only that, the next morning, Ms. Merrova shows up at the newspaper office very much alive and demanding an apology! Garrett loses his job.

Unfortunately, from that point on the story disintegrates into schlock foolishness and clichés. Garrett goes to his friend, Dr. Mike Rhodes (Dennis Morgan), to ask about the body he saw, and at the hospital he meets Dr. Rhodes's associate, Dr. Francis Flegg (John Litel), a specialist in blood work, and his gimpy, pasty-faced assistant, Dr. Quesne (Bogart). Bogart not only has to endure the pale makeup, he sports a shock of white hair down his otherwise dark mane, and gets about two lines of dialogue in the entire movie. Since he wouldn't be playing heroes until his breakthrough film, "The Maltese Falcon," a few years later, you can guess that this is another in a long line of Bogart's fall guys.

Meanwhile, Morris and Morgan vie for our attention, Morris the bumbling comic and Morgan the dashing lead. Why the studio thought it would help to have two guys competing for top honors, and two guys who look alike at that, is anybody's guess. Like them, everyone else in the plot is a stereotype: mad scientists; a hard-nosed, skeptical newspaper editor; a hard-nosed, skeptical police lieutenant; and, of course, a beautiful girl (Rosemary Lane), whose only presence is to be beautiful and vulnerable. There is even a goofy newspaper copyboy, Pinky (Huntz Hall of the Dead End Kids/Bowery Boys), involved in a couple of scenes.

The film combines thematic elements of "Frankenstein" and "Dracula," but none of it helps. The story makes little sense, develops virtually no suspense, creates no serious horror, and exhibits little actual humor. It is only the charm of its two leading men that keeps it afloat. At least "The Mask of Fu Manchu" had some camp value; "The Return of Doctor X" is simply twaddle, albeit mildly pleasant twaddle.

Trivia note: For reasons unknown, the credits at the end of the film list Morris's Walter Garrett character as "Walter Barnett." Mistakes happen, then and now.

Video, Audio, and Extras:
This is one of the best prints in the collection and one of the best transfers. Frames are generally free of grain, black-and-white contrasts are strong, and object delineation is sharp. One finds no age spots, lines, flecks, or fades anywhere. Then, too, the Dolby Digital mono sound is among the best in the set, clean and clear, with decent dynamics and quiet backgrounds.

The remarkable thing about the extras is that one of the two speakers on the audio commentary is the movie's original director, Vincent Sherman, who was almost a hundred years old when he recorded his remarks. He was born in July, 1906, and died in June, 2006. His partner in the commentary is "Chronicles of Terror" author Steve Haberman, and together they do a good job analyzing the film and revealing many of its secrets. In addition, there are twenty scene selections; a theatrical trailer; English as the only spoken language; and English, French, and Spanish subtitles. 4/10

"Mad Love"
This one, directed by Karl Freund (who was better known as an Expressionistic cinematographer) is among the best in the "Legends" collection. "Mad Love" (1935) from MGM stars Peter Lorre in an adaptation of Maurice Renard's "Les Mains d'Orlac," about a mad doctor who replaces the crippled hands of a pianist with the hands of executed murderer. Hollywood had filmed the story before as "The Hands of Orlac" (1924) and filmed later, with Lorre himself doing a variation on it in "The Beast With Five Fingers" (1946); but they never did it better, or at least more evocatively, than here.

Things start out creepy enough at the Theater of Horrors in Paris, all dark shadows and hanging bodies. There, Yvonne Orlac (Francis Drake) performs, while each night a surgeon, Dr. Gogol (Lorre, in his first Hollywood production) sits in attendance, madly obsessed with her. However, Yvonne is married to a brilliant young pianist, Stephen Orlac (Colin Clive of "Frankenstein" fame), a formidable obstacle for the doctor.

When Stephan gets in a train wreck that crushes his hands, Dr. Gogol operates to save them by secretly grafting on the hands of a knife thrower, Rollo (played, oddly, by character actor Edward Brophy), guillotined for murder. Gogol tells no one of the substitution; even Orlac thinks his hands are his own. The operation comes with disastrous consequences, ones the doctor appreciates. The hands have a life of their own; they want to throw knives and kill.

Lorre is perfectly cast, almost somnamulistic in the role, making him all the more obnoxious. Outwardly, he is a selfless public servant, performing operations to save life and limb, often without pay. In private, his obsession for Yvonne has corrupted his mind, making him a monster. Furthering matters to even more bizarre extremes, Gogol keeps a wax statue of Yvonne in his rooms, along with flesh-eating plants. One weird fellow.

Unfortunately, the studio felt that the movie needed some comic relief to ease its grim intentions, so again we get a happy-go-lucky newspaper reporter, this time played by vaudevillian Ted Healy. His scenes only detract from the film's otherwise sinister, decadent tone. Likewise, it's hard to take Colin Clive seriously, with his tendency to stare vacantly out into space as he histrionically recites his lines. Nevertheless, it is fun to see him in the reverse role of obtaining the hands of a dead man rather than in the "Frankenstein" films where he was doing the grafting. Finally, I should add that two of the scariest things in the movie are Francis Drake's eyebrows. Who in the world did her makeup?

I mentioned that Karl Freund directed the film, a man known primarily for his Expressionist cinematography. His work is almost as much a star of the show as Lorre's, but he is ably assisted by co-photographer Gregg Toland, only a few years away from "Citizen Kane." Together, Freund, Toland, and Lorre make a formidable filmmaking team. The last half hour of "Mad Love" gets more and more strange until it becomes honestly horrifying.

Trivia: Look also for Keye Luke as Dr. Wong, Gogol's assistant. You'll remember Luke as Charlie Chan's number-one son in the 1930s, as old Mr. Wing in "Gremlins," and in scores of other films right up until his death in 1991.

Video, Audio, and Extras:
For its age the print is in fine condition, and the high-bit-rate transfer maintains reasonably good definition and contrast, if a little on the soft side. There are very few age marks and even less film grain. One can hear a faint background hiss from the Dolby Digital 1.0 sound if one turns the volume up, and one notices the frequencies limited mainly to the midrange; otherwise, the audio track renders speech and music clearly. The extras include another audio commentary by Steve Haberman; a theatrical trailer; twenty scene selections; English as the only spoken language; and English, French, and Spanish subtitles. 7/10

"The Devil-Doll"
From 1936, "The Devil-Doll" was the next-to-last film Tod Browning made, and it features all the eccentric characters you would expect from the director. Interestingly, it is more of a mystery yarn, a tall-tale if you will, than a horror movie, although it is big on mood and atmosphere.

Moreover, there is not just Browning at work here. The filmmakers based the story on the novel "Burn Witch Burn!" by Abraham Merritt; Garrett Fort-Guy Endore and Eric Von Stroheim wrote the screenplay; Franz Waxman composed the music; and Lionel Barrymore stars. So you can see that MGM, who made the film, spared no expense with the production. If it doesn't exactly qualify as a horror thriller, it certainly qualifies as good entertainment.

The plot involves a Frenchman, Paul Lavond (Barrymore), a former bank president falsely framed for a crime he didn't commit and sent to Devil's Island for life. Seventeen years later he escapes with a convict named Marcel (Henry B. Walthall), a scientist who, along with his wife, Malita (Rafaela Ottiano), has perfected a method of miniaturizing animals and people. A by-product of the process is that the subject's mind is completely wiped clean; it has no mind left of its own, yet it has a perfect brain. Then its masters can order it to follow any instructions they give it. Marcel and Malita intend to use the procedure to reprogram the world to perfect Mankind. Yeah, more mad scientists.

Once Lavond has escaped and reached Paris, his only aim is to exact revenge--to get even with the three men who ruined his life--and to clear his name. In addition, he wants to reconcile with his daughter, Lorraine (Maureen O'Sullivan), who has grown up to hate him for what he supposedly did to her and her mother. So, you get the idea: Lavond wants revenge, and through the miniaturization process he's learned from Marcel and Malita, he's got the means to do it.

This one takes a while to develop, but once it gets started, it's a kick. Barrymore goes about disguised as an old woman and spends probably half the film in a dress and wig! He is really quite remarkably funny in the role in an offbeat sort of way. He reminds one of a later Alec Guinness in "Kind Hearts and Coronets" and such. Then, too, the little people committed to carrying out Lavond's nefarious plans will creep you out. And on top of that, the movie uses some excellent special effects for the day--double exposures, oversized sets, and the like. No, the movie is not terrifying, as I say, but it is never less than fascinating.

Video, Audio, and Extras:
The original MGM print is as good as anything in the collection, with just a touch of fine grain and almost no age spots, lines, flecks, or signs of fading. Blacks and whites are reasonably intense; object definition is more than acceptable; and bit-rate levels are high. What's more, the Dolby Digital mono sound is clear and bright, making dialogue especially easy to hear, and background noise is almost unnoticeable. This is the only movie in the group not to have an audio commentary, but there are twenty-two scene selections; a theatrical trailer; English as the spoken language; and English, French, and Spanish subtitles. 7/10

Parting Thoughts:
OK, so these are not the absolute greatest horror films of all time. Nevertheless, they can be quite entertaining, filled as they are with mad scientists, helpless damsels, dashing heroes, and suffused with a peculiar mix of humor and terror. Fun stuff, if rather campy by today's standards. The ratings below are composite scores for all six films.

Ratings

Video
6
Audio
5
Extras
5
Film Value
6