Saturday, September 4, 1971: Cry of the Werewolf (1944) / The Boogie Man Will Get You (1942)

Synopsis: Dr. Charles Morris (Fritz Leiber) operates a museum of the occult, located in the former mansion of a famous Gypsy queen named Marie LaTour.  Dr. Morris tells assistant Elsa Chauvet (Osa Massen) that he is about to publish a ground-breaking work on Marie LaTour, which will reveal important new information about her life.  Elsa leaves to pick up Dr. Morris’ son Bob (Stephen Crane) at the train station, but when the two of them return to the LaTour mansion they find Dr. Morris has been killed by an animal – apparently a wolf.  Moreover, the notes he has compiled for his manuscript have been tossed into the fireplace and are mostly burned, and a tour guide who was present at the museum is now babbling incoherently, his mind apparently broken by what he witnessed.

Bob and Elsa devise a way to reconstruct some of the information from the burned notes, and this leads them to investigate the mythology and practices of the Gypsies.  Marie LaTour had purportedly been a werewolf, and as the Gypsies are a matriarchal society, her daughter — also named Marie LaTour — has inherited her lycanthropy.
Meanwhile, Lt. Barry Lane (Barton McLane) doggedly tries to solve the murder without resorting to occult explanations.  This is surprisingly difficult, since Elsa, his first prime suspect, is cleared because her fingerprints don’t match those found at the scene of the crime, and museum janitor Jan Spavero, his second prime suspect, ends up getting mauled by a wolf. …

Comments: In their indispensable reference work Universal Horrors, Brunas and Weaver make the interesting claim that Cry of the Werewolf was originally conceived as a sequel to the Bela Lugosi vehicle Return of the Vampire, which we saw just last week.  They maintain that early drafts of the script were entitled Bride of the Vampire, but that at some point the decision was make to rework the material into a werewolf picture.*

I’m tempted to say they make this assertion  while discussing 1943’s Son of Dracula.  However, it’s more accurate to say they make this assertion while conducting a drive-by on poor old Bela Lugosi.  

Look, don’t get me wrong.  Universal Horrors is a delightful book.  It’s both informative and entertaining.  But it’s not perfect.  One of its quirks is an almost pathological hostility toward Lugosi.  No opportunity to ridicule Universal’s first Dracula is ever missed.   In this case, the authors hint that Columbia, panic-stricken at the thought of having Lugosi star in the sequel to the (ahem, inexplicably money-making) Return of the Vampire, completely overhauled the project rather than risk allowing the hammy Hungarian to stink up another of their pictures. 
Such a notion might be tempting to those who find Lugosi’s screen presence overbearing, but it’s unfair. As I’ve asserted previously, Lugosi was a flawed actor of limited appeal, but he certainly wasn’t without talent. His career was hobbled less by his acting than by a combination of short-sighted business decisions and bad luck.  After Dracula made him a star he tended to accept the highest-paying roles on offer, regardless of their merit**.  These were often relatively small “red-herring” roles that did little to keep him in the public eye, and convinced the studios that he was an overvalued commodity. Eventually  he was left scrambling for whatever kind of screen work he could get.  

But we’re not here to discuss Bela Lugosi anyway, are we?  We’re here to discuss Cry of the Werewolf, one of the few examples of an honest-to-peaches, straight-up-no-chaser horror film offered by Columbia in the mid 1940s.

While not up to the standards of Return of the Vampire, this picture aspires to the same sort of low-budget atmospherics as its predecessor and, obviously, the popular Universal thrillers of the time.

But the big difference between Columbia and Universal horror films is quite evident here.  Columbia didn’t have a large staff dreaming up special effects and make-up for its horror pictures.  What would have been elaborate set pieces in Universal films are almost thrown away at Columbia. 

Let me show you what I mean.  Here’s a crucial sequence featuring Marie LaTour, werewolf queen:

 Jan Spavero is told by Marie that he’s going to sleep with the fishes…or the Gypsy equivalent thereof.

What?!? Marie wouldn’t cast me aside like that after so many years of loyal service.   Would she?
 Frightened, he stumbles out of Marie’s trailer and attempts to flee the Gypsy camp.
We go back to Marie LaTour, and the camera makes a very quick pan left to the shadow on the wall behind her…
….which immediately begins to change shape…..
…it begins to shrink….
…collapsing into the shape of an animal…

…a wolf!  Awooooooooooooooo!

We see Spavero’s feet stumbling through the woods….
Intercut with the werewolf’s feet, inexorably pursuing….
The Gypsies in the camp sit impassively….
Looking up only momentarily when they hear Jan’s screams come from the woods.

This sequence is interesting for how little we actually see.  No yak hair, no special make-up effects, no time-lapse photography.  Instead, the trickiest effects shots prove to be a moving shadow on the wall and a shot of a dog’s feet running through the woods.  That points to a pretty meager effects budget, even by Columbia’s standards.

The cast isn’t particularly notable: Nina Foch was certainly the biggest name, having played a number of similarly aristocratic roles. Fritz Lieber was a fairly successful character actor who is perhaps best known today as the father of science fiction writer Fritz Lieber, Jr.  Osa Massen played a lot of evil Nazi temptresses during the war, and went on to star in Kurt Neumann’s Rocketship X-M (1950).  John Abbot brought his dignified Shakespearean cadence to dozens of movies and countless TV shows throughout the 1950s and 1960s. 

Without question the weakest link in the cast is Stephen Crane, completely in over his head as good-natured doofus Bob.  The girls apparently go for Bob, in spite of the fact that he’s as dull as library paste.  Crane wasn’t exactly cast against type in that department, yet he still couldn’t pull off the role.  Go figure.

The Boogie Man Will Get You

Synopsis: Nathanial Billings (Boris Karloff) is a wigged-out professor who owns a dilapidated colonial inn. Billings carries out unorthodox experiments in the basement of the house, much to the consternation of the town mayor / sheriff / banker / justice of the peace Dr. Lorencz (Peter Lorre). Billings is paying a usurious interest rate on the mortgage and for this reason is eager to sell. The only hitch is that nobody would want the place — it is in desperate need of maintenance and is quite off the beaten track.

His prayers are answered when young divorcee Winnie Slade (Miss Jeff Donnell) shows up at the inn with the determination to buy it and restore it to its former approximation of glory. Billings gets her to agree to let him stay on for a time and work on his experiments in the basement.

The nature of his experiments quickly becomes clear to us. Billings is a patriotic fellow, and he wants to do his part for the war effort. He believes he is closing in on a method of making ordinary men into super-soldiers. Alas, none of the door-to-door salesmen he’s used as guinea pigs have become super-soldiers. In fact, none of them have survived the treatment. So there is a growing stack of dead salesmen in the basement, which he is desperately trying to hide.

Soon Winnie’s ex-husband (Larry Park) shows up and immediately becomes suspicious of the goings-on around the house, Dr. Lorencz becomes an unlikely backer in Dr. Billing’s experiments, and a new dopey door-to-door salesman ( “Slapsie” Maxie Rosenbloom) becomes the latest chump hoping to be converted to a superman.

Comments: Hey, did tonight’s werewolf movie put you on edge?  Would you like to unwind with a screwball comedy?  You’ve come to the right place.

Frankly, there isn’t much to say about this little Arsenic and Old Lace knock-off that I haven’t said before.  Karloff and Lorre seem to enjoy doing a bit of light-hearted comedy for a change; Miss Jeff Donnell seems to be every bit as solid and reliable as Winnie Slade, the character she plays; “Slapsie” Maxie Rosenbloom seems at least plausible as a down-on-his luck salesman; and the story — well, let’s just forget about the story, shall we?

Truth is, the more you focus on the story, the less likely you are to enjoy yourself.  The screenwriters are painfully aware of this, and try to keep things moving quickly enough that the seams won’t show.  It doesn’t always work, but my advice would be to give them all the assistance you can.  

For example, when Frank Puglia shows up as a demented Italian P.O.W., take a moment to appreciate the man’s career.  He was a bread-and-butter character actor who appeared in hundreds of movies and television shows, usually as a kindly priest or doctor, always as what the industry called “ethnic” characters — Latino / Italian / Greek / etc.   Watching this movie, you can take him at face value: he’s a hard-working actor earning a living. And that’s a pretty good thing.

*Brunas, Michael, et al: Universal Horrors: The Studio’s Classic Films, 1931 – 1946. Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Co. 1990, pp 380-381.  I don’t think bloggers ever cite book sources on the Internet, but I’m an old-fashioned sort of fellow and I’m doing it anyway.
**Exhibit A: The role of Professor Strang in the 12-chapter serial Whispering Shadows (1933)

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  1. CRY OF THE WEREWOLF probably made audiences cry, but at least they offer an actual monster, unlike SHE-WOLF OF LONDON. Still can't figure how Nina Foch would diss all her work in Hollywood, even THE TEN COMMANDMENTS: “I knew it was terrible when I made it.” Peter Lorre yet again, well he's at least more amusing than Karloff.


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