Saturday, July 7, 1973: Fear Chamber (1968) / Hangover Square (1945)

fearchamberposterSynopsis: Elderly scientist Dr. Karl Martell (Boris Karloff) has dispatched his daughter Corinne (Julissa) and her boyfriend Mark (Carlos East) to an underground chamber in the vicinity of a volcano. There they discover something that Dr. Martell has long theorized about, but has never been able to prove exists: a living creature made of rock.

In studying the creature back at the lab, they discover that it thrives on a substance that can only be found in humans who are in an extreme state of terror. Obtaining such a substance is understandably quite difficult, but they have devised a method of doing so. They set up a phony institute that offers employment and lodging to wayward young women. When a woman is selected to be used to feed the rock creature, she is transported to an underground dungeon while she sleeps.

Awakening to find herself in a chamber of horrors, she is terrorized by tarantulas, snakes, skeletons and so forth, then trussed up and prepared for a ritual sacrifice (presided over by Dr. Martell himself, in the guise of a Satanic priest). When her fear overwhelms her and she passes out, a needle is used to extract the “fear substance” and she is returned to her room. When she wakes in the morning she will assume that she simply had a nightmare.

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In spite of the nourishment Martell’s team provides, the creature, which is able to communicate to the bank of computers in the lab, insists that it is still starving and needs more. Martell is at a loss to understand it.

Eventually he begins to have doubts about the veracity of what the creature is telling them as well as second thoughts about their methods, and decides to end the experiment.

But the doctor’s assistant Helga (Isela Vega), aided by the lobotomized lab dogsbody Roland (Yerye Beirute), secretly begins luring young women to the lab herself, terrorizing them and feeding their fear-substance to the creature — which begins to grow, both in physical strength and in its telepathic control of those around it….

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Comments: Fear Chamber was the last of four back-to-back Mexican horror films Boris Karloff did for exploitation producer Jack Hill (the others being House of Evil, The Incredible Invasion and The Snake People). This one is notable, therefore, as Karloff’s last picture. He was so frail by this time that he is seen standing in only a couple of scenes. In the rest of the picture he is either seated at a desk or lying in bed, and it’s evident that he’s rarely present with the other members of the cast, as scenes are clumsily intercut between him and those he’s supposed to be in the room with. That’s because Hill did the Karloff scenes in Santa Monica, while the rest of the film was shot in Mexico City.

To Karloff’s credit, he brings some real professionalism to the torpid and forgettable lines, and things brighten up considerably when he’s on screen. But he’s not onscreen enough. Roughly 20 of the 90 minutes feature Karloff; we spend the rest of the movie with his weirdo assistants.

And that’s too bad, because they are pretty poor company. It isn’t clear how we’re expected to care about the central characters, since they have no compunction about abducting young women, terrorizing them in a chamber of horrors, subjecting them to a mock execution, then harvesting a “fear substance” from their pituitary glands (the characters even discuss publishing their results — can’t wait to see them explain their methodology in a peer-reviewed paper!). This wildly unethical behavior is waved off early in the film (because the women come from the dregs of society); then, when it’s convenient to the plot, Dr. Martell develops a conscience and tries to shut down the project, only to be thwarted by Helga. The movie tries to have it both ways with Dr. Martell and daughter Corinne, but it doesn’t really make much sense.

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Horror films always walk a fine line about where exactly our sympathies should lie. The victims of horror and violence are, of course, the people most of us will readily identify with (for example, much of the suspense in Halloween is a result of our concern that Laurie Strode should survive). But horror films also allow us to recognize the darker elements of our nature. In The Wolf Man, we identify with Larry Talbot because he’s the victim of a curse that forces him to do terrible things. At the same time, there’s a vicarious thrill at watching him as a werewolf, wandering around the countryside at night and reveling in his animal impulses. And of course, the best movie monsters — Frankenstein’s monster or the Creature From the Black Lagoon, for example  — garner our sympathy because they are on some level outcasts from a society that has no place for them. And every outcast has, at some time or other, felt like tearing down the system that excludes them.

But the more exploitative horror films — and I would count Fear Chamber among them — want us to identify much more strongly with the perpetrators of terror and suffering than the victims. Thus we have an excruciatingly long scene where an innocent woman is thrown into a dungeon filled with snakes, tarantulas, bloody water, and so on; she is then tied up, burned on a brazier and subjected to a mock human sacrifice. It’s pretty unpleasant to watch, but it’s clear that the audience is supposed to dig it.

Now, the stated context of this is that the young woman’s terror is necessary to extract the “fear substance” but (aside from the fact that this is a pretty unlikely diet for a rock monster) the movie quickly abandons that idea. In one scene, Helga hires a woman to perform a strip tease in an empty room (empty, that is, except for the rock monster). At the end of her bump-and-grind routine the creature kills her, extracting the “fear substance” without her having to be out of her mind with terror. Later, another woman is chained up in the dungeon by Helga, who alternately strokes the woman’s hair and whips her; again, this is sufficient for the monster to extract her — well, her precious bodily fluids, I suppose.

The horror genre has always attracted a certain number of sadists and misogynists, I suppose; and producers can’t really be blamed for giving audiences what they want. But good horror films do a lot to blunt those impulses; I’d much rather see a werewolf chasing a woman in a nightgown up a tree than see a guy with a chainsaw trying to cut a woman to pieces. But I’m a bit old-fashioned that way.

 

 

Hangover Square

Synopsis: Gifted musician George Harvey Bone  (Laird Cregar) has been commissioned to write a piano concerto for his patron Sir Henry Chapman (Alan Napier). Sir Henry is so pleased by what George has written so far that he promises to give the concerto a grand premiere as soon as it is finished, and this is all but certain to make his reputation in the music world.

But George is a deeply troubled man.  All his life he has suffered from occasional blackouts, but lately they are becoming more frequent and more disturbing.  George even has a vague memory of attacking a shopkeeper during one such fugue and setting his place on fire by tossing a kerosene lamp to the floor.  But the people around him, including Sir Henry’s daughter (Faye Marlowe) assure him that he’s simply overwrought. The pressure he’s under to complete the concerto is getting to him.

He is advised to take a break — to get out into the world, to do new things.  In walking about London he meets a dance-hall girl named Netty (Linda Darnell) with whom he has little in common.  But she is pretty and charming, and he quickly falls in love.  Netty, intrigued that he is a musician, asks him to write a song for her to perform.

At first reluctant, he does so, and it’s immediately a success.  She presses for more, and he again complies, even though it is taking valuable time away from his concerto. In time Netty is a rising star on the London music-hall scene, thanks to the popular songs George is writing for her. George, meanwhile, is under increasing pressure to complete the project that he is now late in delivering.

Before long he asks Netty to marry him. But she rejects him, revealing to him that she is already engaged to another man.  She does not love him, she confesses; she has just been using him to write the songs that are making her career. Stunned, George returns home, and places a curtain-sash into his coat pocket, and it’s clear that he is entering into another of his murderous blackouts….

 

Comments: We’ve talked about how influential the popular and deeply psychological thriller Gaslight was on filmmakers in the 1940’s, and this smart entry from Fox is a good example of a film that tries to capture its spirit.  Hangover Square is a period piece that somewhat mimics Gaslight’s look; the atmosphere is dark and moody, and the plot turns on whether the protagonist is a killer or just an overly sensitive type whose conscience is working overtime.

Any good movie must have a protagonist trying to reach a goal, and this one is no different.  Aside from the question of guilt or innocence, George’s goal is to complete his masterpiece and perform it for the public.  In spite of everything he does manage to succeed in this, so no matter what else goes wrong in his world, no one can take away the triumph of his premiere.

Laird Cregar really dominates this production as the troubled musician, and there is a deep vulnerability visible beneath his hulking shoulders and coarse features.   This physical awkwardness actually makes him more sympathetic and appealing than if a typical Hollywood prettyboy had been cast in the role. Cregar looked older than he was, which makes his death shortly after Hangover Square wrapped production even more shocking. He apparently died of complications from a crash diet he embarked upon in preparing for this role.  In his earlier films he was obese, and even the slimmed-down Cregar is husky in the manner of a young Orson Welles. He is splendid in this movie, and it’s a shame he wasn’t able to take on more starring roles.

Linda Darnell is pitch perfect too as the calculating Nina, and she convinces us that George would buy her act hook, line and sinker.  It’s an intelligent and understated performance, featuring not just her legs (as the one-sheet implies) but also her eyes, as she constantly checks from moment to moment to see how much of her story George is buying.

I haven’t even mentioned George Sanders, who is in a relatively small but important role as a psychologist.  As always, Sanders is understated and authoritative, the perfect counterpoint to George’s barely-contained bundle of nerves. And Alan Napier is his old reliable self as Sir Henry Chapman: cool, cultured and unflappable.

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One comment

  1. FEAR CHAMBER was not the last of the Karloff quartet, because Julissa was able to finish three before returning to Mexico. The last was INCREDIBLE INVASION, incidentally the one that made the most use of a crippled 80 year old Boris, on his feet more often here than the previous three combined. HANGOVER SQUARE reunited the stars of 1944’s THE LODGER, Laird Cregar and George Sanders, with director John Brahm (THE UNDYING MONSTER).

    Like

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