Saturday, December 20, 1975: The Crimson Canary (1945) / Fear Chamber (1969)

Synopsis: Danny Brooks (Noah Beery, Jr.) plays the trumpet with a jazz band that tours steadily but is still looking for its big break. Singer and manipulative goodtime girl Anita Lane (Claudia Drake) has been trying to worm her way into the band, but Danny tells her she’s been sowing dissension between the guys — implying that she’s been sleeping with more than one of them — and is not welcome. Anita then tells him that she and drummer Johnny (Danny Morton) are engaged. Danny insists that he won’t allow her to travel with the band, regardless of who she is or isn’t engaged to. She replies that she might call Danny’s girlfriend Jean (Lois Collier) and tell her some old “bedtime stories” about her and Danny. Angry, Danny walks out. As a result of this snub, Anita gives Johnny the cold shoulder, which greatly upsets him. Johnny goes to the bar at the club and begins drinking heavily.

During their set at the club, Danny’s trumpet gets a stuck valve, and he goes to the back room to get a replacement. He resumes playing, but Johnny is soon so drunk he can’t carry on, and staggers off to the back room by himself.

When the band finishes their set, they find Johnny unconscious in the back room, and Anita dead a few feet away, bludgeoned to death by Danny’s trumpet. Unsure of what to do, the band decides to leave immediately for their next tour date and pretend they never saw the body.

A jazz-loving homicide detective (John Litel) is assigned to the case, and he immediately suspects that Danny’s band was involved. The band finds their tour dates have been preemptively cancelled. Johnny decides to turn himself in to the authorities, but Danny argues that someone at the club that night committed the murder and is trying to let Johnny take the fall. He also believes that he knows how to prove that no one in the band was the guilty party….

Comments: Universal’s ambivalence about The Crimson Canary’s subject matter is plain to see on the poster: below the lurid promise of “Rhythm Cults Exposed!” is a blandishment for jazz stars Coleman Hawkins and Oscar Pettiford, as well as guitarist Josh White, all of whom are featured in musical numbers during the film.

Big band and swing had been the popular music forms of the war years, but now that the war was over things were changing. Small groups were in fashion, and they were playing new styles of jazz. Bebop was a more challenging, less accessible form of music, pioneered by Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker and others. Jump blues borrowed riffs and hooks from the traditional blues. These forms of jazz were fast-paced and full of nervous energy, well-suited to a nation that was eager to move on after the war years.

The establishment wasn’t ready for these new styles of jazz, just as it wouldn’t be ready for rock n’ roll a decade later. The provocative rhythms and the permissive lifestyles of those who partook in them were seen as suspect. Like rock n’ roll, the racial makeup of the trend-setting artists were problematic as well.

“Race records”, as they were called, had limited appeal to white audiences, and for that reason the black faces delivering the new sound would inevitably be pushed aside by the record companies in favor of white ones. It shouldn’t surprise us, then, that in The Crimson Canary Danny Brooks and his jazz musician friends are all white — in fact, we never see any black musicians or patrons in the club they work at. It is only in later scenes, when they are on the lam and stop at a jazz club in a different city, that they watch the performances of the black jazz musicians promoted on the movie poster. But these scenes are carefully quarantined from the movie’s plot, presumably so they could be excised from prints playing in the American south — a frequent practice at the time.

The jazz performances from Coleman Hawkins, Oscar Pettiford and Josh White are decent, though not of stellar quality; but their music is much better than that recorded for Danny’s band. While I don’t know much about jazz, these numbers aren’t really bebop, sounding more like Dixieland. In any case, it isn’t great music, and the actors don’t try very hard to synch their fingering with the music, presuming they tried at all.

As to the plot — well, Danny’s crew runs from the scene of the crime and then wanders around, wondering what to do. They sneak up to the hotel room of the detective who’s been assigned to the case (Johnny is going to confess) but hear through the door the sound of the very number they recorded live the night of the murder. This gives Danny an idea that the record they made can exonerate them, but their plan comes to nothing when Danny drops the record and breaks it.

There’s a lot of this sort of running around to little effect, and it’s apparently meant to eat up time. It’s not much of a mystery, as it turns out, but Noah Beery, Jr., whom we last saw in the similarly-titled The Cat Creeps, is quite likable as Danny. This is a rare starring role for him, and he makes the most of it, playing Danny as a guy whose first love has always been music, and who never quite grew up. Beery later found fame as Jim Rockford’s dad in the 1970s series The Rockford Files.

Lois Collier also appeared in The Cat Creeps (her seductive pout in the posters of both movies looks quite similar, in fact) and she isn’t any more memorable here than she was in that film.

Claudia Drake is convincing enough as a lure for the guys in Danny’s band, but her obsession with them doesn’t make sense. Why would a relatively sophisticated woman work so hard to worm her way into the good graces of a struggling bunch of jazz musicians? Why not seduce some successful artists instead?

Well, I don’t know much about music, and even less about love. But I do know a little about horror films, and this barely qualifies; but it’s passable fare, and I imagine that the viewers who tuned in to Horror Incorporated on that July night all those years ago were pretty happy with what they saw.

Fear Chamber

Synopsis: 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.

fearchamber2

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….

fearchamber1

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.

fearchamber3

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.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.