Saturday, April 9, 1977: The Strange Door (1952) / She-Wolf of London (1946)

Synopsis: Noble-born Denis de Beaulieu (Richard Stapley) is a hard-drinking wastrel and libertine who lives only for boozing and wenching. His boorishness in various French public houses brings him to the attention of the wealthy Alain de Matetroit (Charles Laughton) who decides the young cad will be perfect for the plot he is about to set in motion. He arranges for de Beaulieu to get into a barroom brawl, have a pistol pushed into his hand and — apparently — shoot his opponent to death. With de Beaulieu soon on the run from a mob, it is simple enough to drive him onto de Maretroit’s land and then corral him into de Maretroit’s castle through a trick door.

Once there, de Maretroit explains the situation — at least in part. He wants de Beaulieu to marry his beautiful niece Blanche (Sally Forrest). In return, he will be provided a lavish residence, a generous allowance and freedom to do whatever he wants as her husband. If he refuses, de Maretroit will see that de Beaulieu is handed to the mob that is hunting him.

For a wastrel like de Beaulieu, this might seem like a pretty good set-up regardless of the motives of his blackmailer, but he proves to be made of sterner stuff and refuses to cooperate. Meanwhile, fearsome shrieks are heard from a distant part of the castle. We learn that these are the cries of Edmond de Maretroit (Paul Cavanagh), the older brother of Alain.

It turns out that Edmond has been held prisoner in the castle’s dungeon for years. Sire de Maretroit likes to visit the dungeon and torment his older brother, though his enjoyment is blunted somewhat by the fact that Edmond is stark raving mad. But today he gamely tells Edmond his plan to marry Blanche off to an odious ne’er-do-well in order to exact revenge on his brother for marrying the love of his life 20 years ago — the woman who died in labor giving birth to Blanche.

But — plot twist — Edmond is only feigning madness, and he conspires with dungeon keeper Voltan (Boris Karloff) to free himself from captivity and defeat his brother’s plans.

Meanwhile, unbeknownst to Alain de Maretroit, de Beaulieu and Blanche have been meeting in secret, and have begun to fall in love….

Comments: I will admit that I’d never even heard of this gothic Universal costume drama before it popped up on Horror Incorporated. It’s a bit of a stretch to call it a horror movie. But there’s a castle with a dungeon, and lots of secret passages. So let’s give it a chance, shall we?

It’s a throwback to Universal melodramas of the 1930s like The Black Room, which featured Boris Karloff at the peak of his career. And indeed Karloff can be found here skulking along secret passages in this picture, but in a minor role despite his prominent billing.

The centerpiece of the film is a waaaay over-the-top Charles Laughton, who seems to be having an enormously good time as the sinister Sire de Maretroit. We also get a strong supporting cast, which includes Michael Pate (whom we saw recently in Curse of the Undead) and Alan Napier (House of Horrors, The Invisible Man Returns).

It’s loosely based on the Robert Louis Stevenson story “The Sire de Meretroit’s Door”. Having a literary pedigree lent movies in the 1950s a sheen of respectability and boosted box office appeal. And Stevenson’s name in particular promised audiences a ripping adventure yarn.

It all works pretty well, despite problems caused by the story conventions of the time. de Beaulieu is first presented to us as a cruel, wenching drunkard and libertine with a weakness for brunettes, but in order for him to be acceptable as a protagonist, he must suddenly change his ways when an attractive blonde is set in front of him. The sudden turnaround in his character is bit difficult to believe. Nevertheless, it’s a good melodrama, with plenty of twists, turns and escapes.

The movie was directed by Joseph Pevney, an actor in a number of 40s noirs who turned to a successful career in directing. He was a solid craftsman of B-pictures who never had an identifiable style, and he became a prolific director on TV, doing a great many episodes of 1960s shows like Star Trek, Bonanza, The Virginian and others.

She Wolf of London

Synopsis: Young Phyllis Allenby (June Lockhart) is preparing for her marriage to attorney Barry Lanfield (Don Porter). Barry is the perfect candidate for marriage: handsome, patient, understanding, and (last but not least) wealthy. But Phyllis is deeply troubled, because a bizarre series of murders has been taking place in the park near the Allenby estate. The method of the killings suggest an animal attack, and Phyllis mutters fearfully about a return of the “Allenby Curse”.

Meanwhile, Phyllis’ cousin Carol Winthrop (Jan Wiley) is caught by her mother, Martha Winthrop (Sara Haden) trying to send a letter to a boyfriend across town. Martha warns Carol that she can never have anything to do with young Dwight Severn (Martin Kosleck), reminding her that Dwight is penniless. She reveals something that no one else seems to know — that neither she nor Carol is related by blood to Phyllis Allenby. Martha has been the family housekeeper for decades and it is now taken on faith that she and Carol are members of the family.

Now that Phyllis is the sole remaining heir of the Allenby estate, Martha and Carol are in a precarious position, at risk of losing everything — if Phyllis marries. But if Carol were to marry Lanfield instead, matters would improve considerably for both Carol and Martha.

Unorthodox Detective Latham of Scotland Yard is convinced that the park murders are the work of a werewolf, a theory rejected by hidebound Inspector Pierce (Dennis Hoey). In fact, the only person who seems to buy into the werewolf theory is Phyllis herself, who explains to Aunt Martha that the Allenby Curse dooms members of her family to turn into ravenous wolves, an affliction for which there is no cure.

Aunt Martha tries to convince Phyllis that it’s all in her head, but Phyllis knows that each morning her slippers are caked with mud, her dress sodden and torn, and her hands covered with blood.

Fearful of the creature that she has become, she breaks off her engagement with Barry. But Barry refuses to believe in the curse, or in Phyllis’ guilt, and he is determined to unmask the real she-wolf of London….

Comments: She-Wolf Of London is often cited as the last in Universal’s cycle of werewolf movies from the 1940s. But that’s misleading. It isn’t really a werewolf movie at all.

Rather, it’s an apparent attempt to cash in on two popular movies that had come out earlier in the decade: Gaslight (1943), starring Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman, and Cat People (1942), starring Simone Simon.

She-Wolf of London never captures the air of psychological menace that the former achieved, nor does it manage to build the self-contained world of dread found in the latter.

And it’s too quickly churned out to offer director Jean Yarborough many opportunities for artiness or psychological complexity (although near the climax we’re treated to a couple of arch camera angles, which stand out only because the balance of shots are so spare and unimaginative).

But what you ought to remember is a very young June Lockhart in the leading role. She was 20 when she starred in this picture, still more than a decade away from appearing as Timmy’s mom in that curiously oedipal TV show Lassie.

Lockhart isn’t particularly good here — frankly, no one is — but that seems more the result of a rushed shooting schedule than anything else. In later interviews she stated proudly that she employed a British accent in the role of Phyllis, but if she did, I can’t detect it. To be fair, few of the other cast members try for an accent at all. And Lockhart does have an open, expressive look that sets her apart from other leading ladies of the time.

Also of note is the set for the Allenby estate itself — Universal’s frequently-used mansion set, which was used in countless movies, many of which we’ve seen on Horror Incorporated.

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