Saturday, October 7, 1978: The Black Castle (1952) / The Frozen Ghost (1945)

Synopsis: In 19th century Austria, Sir Ronald Burton (Richard Greene) travels to the castle of the fearsome Count von Bruno (Stephen McNally). Burton is in search of two friends who had disappeared after going to confront the count. Suspecting they have been imprisoned or murdered, he adopts the pseudonym Richard Beckett and arrives at the castle, where he is welcomed as a guest.

Count von Bruno is the sort of guy who wears an eye patch and keeps a pit filled with hungry crocodiles around in case he needs to throw some smart-alec into it. He enjoys pausing for diabolical laughter when he has done something particularly sinister, and has a couple of other accoutrements of the evil aristocrat: a mute, brutish assistant named Gargon (Lon Chaney, Jr.) and a beautiful, unhappy wife named Elga (Rita Cordray).

Burton finds himself attracted to Elga, and the two strike up a relationship. He also finds an ally in the Count’s dogsbody Dr. Messien (Boris Karloff). Burton promises Elga that he will find a way to take her away from the castle.

But Count von Bruno has been suspicious of his houseguest all along, and not only does he determine that Beckett is really Sir Ronald, but he also finds out that he has been moving in on Elga as well. He locks them up in his dungeon, but they are assisted by Dr. Messien, who provides them with a drug that will simulate death for 10 hours. Messien will help spirit away their bodies after the Count gives them up for dead.

Unfortunately, Count von Bruno discovers Messien’s plan, and he kills the doctor, then decides to bury Burton and Elga in 10 hours time — just as they will be regaining consciousness….

Comments: The Black Castle was the first feature directed by Nathan Juran, who worked occasionally under the name Nathan Hertz; and it seems fair to say he had a successful career that varied a good bit in terms of quality. This film is actually a pretty good example of what he could do. It’s a workmanlike film, not flashy; a simple, competently-made programmer. Juran went on to direct a number of genre films, including some very good ones (The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, 20 Million Miles to Earth) and some that weren’t so good (The Brain From Planet Arous, Attack of the 50 Foot Woman).

Juran wasn’t a director with an identifiable style, but he was an able craftsman and even his lesser efforts had a professional sure-footedness about them.

This film hearkens back to Universal’s horror titles of the 1930s and 40s, and even boasts the presence of two of its biggest stars of that era, Boris Karloff and Lon Chaney, Jr. From that alone we should expect something interesting from the studio that once dominated the genre. But despite its trappings The Black Castle isn’t really a horror film at all. It’s a costume melodrama that echoes the horror films of Universal’s golden age without having anything new or memorable to say.

Tonally the movie most closely resembles Karloff’s own The Black Room, but with the showy bad-guy role going to McNally and Karloff relegated to playing the count’s conscience-ridden physician.

However, Karloff in his supporting role does far better than Lon Chaney, Jr. It had only been seven years since Chaney starred in his last Inner Sanctum mystery (1945’s Pillow of Death) and — to put it mildly — the years had not been kind to him. Here we find him playing Gargan, the count’s wild-eyed, nearly-mute house maniac. Bloated, sallow, no longer able to memorize dialogue, Chaney stumbles around and grunts, exactly the same way he would play Mongo in The Black Sleep a few years later, slumming it with Tor Johnson and John Carradine.

Richard Greene is a winning presence as Burton. He was best known for playing Robin Hood on his 1950s TV incarnation, and his insouciance is quite winning here.

Rita Cordray is pretty enough but never seems to find her character, and it isn’t clear how a woman as pure-hearted as Elga ended up with an evil count. Cordray doesn’t seem well-suited to period dramas, and indeed this appears to be her only one, having done most of her work in programmers like The Falcon in San Francisco and Dick Tracy vs. Cueball.

The Frozen Ghost

Synopsis: Alex Gregor (Lon Chaney, Jr.) is a successful stage hypnotist who’s got it all: sold-out live performances, a national radio show and a knockout assistant named Maura (Evelyn Ankers), to whom he is engaged. Performing as “The Great Gregor”, his act is to first put Maura in a trance, then have her read the minds of astonished audience members.

One night a loud-mouthed drunk heckles Gregor, who gamely invites the man up to the stage. Gregor offers to hypnotize the guy and have him answer questions from the audience, just as Maura did. But the drunk is uncooperative and as Gregor stares into his eyes he angrily wishes the man were dead. Instantly the drunk keels over — stone dead!

Gregor is mortified and turns himself over to the police. But the coroner states that the man was a heavy drinker with a heart condition, and the death is ruled the result of natural causes.

This does not satisfy the morose mentalist, who spends the night walking the streets, muttering “Death….death!” over and over.

So distraught is Gregor that he breaks off his engagement with Maura. His manager George Keene (Milburn Stone), sensing his client needs a little R&R, urges Gregor to stay at a relaxing place in a remote area for a while, and Gregor accepts.

Inexplicably, everyone agrees that there’s no place more relaxing than a wax museum, and Gregor moves into Madame Monet’s, which is a sort of mansion with living quarters upstairs and wax sculptures on the main floor. He gets to know the people living there: owner Valerie Monet is assisted by brilliant wax sculptor and freelance kookenheimer Rudi (Martin Kosleck), and Valerie’s general dogsbody Nina (Elena Verdugo).

As the weeks go by Gregor begins to feel more himself again, but seems only dimly aware that young Nina has developed a crush on him. Finding out about this, Valerie Monet, who had been nursing a crush of her own, is furious. She and Gregor argue, and Monet suddenly collapses to the floor. Hours later, Gregor finds himself standing down by the waterfront, with no idea of how he got there. He learns that Monet has vanished, and that her scarf is in his coat pocket….

Comments: The Inner Sanctum Mysteries were a series of films produced as a tie-in with the popular Inner Sanctum anthology series on radio. The two series really had no connection beside the name. The films can be summed up pretty simply: they were mystery-thrillers with a dollop of the supernatural. A small dollop, mind you; the spooky stuff was meant to keep things interesting, not to get in the way of the main action.

For example, the question of whether Gregor the Great actually has psychic powers, or if he is just a fraud who has started to believe his own press releases, is left up in the air for most of the film’s running time. Much more attention is paid to the fairly predictable wax museum subplot, and to the shenanigans and monkeyshines of its altogether ooky inhabitants.

Lon Chaney, Jr. starred in each of the relatively short films (they usually ran about 65 minutes) and a rotating cast of Universal contract players filled out the remaining parts. Like all of the Inner Sanctum Mysteries, this one was clearly done quickly and on a budget, and feels less like a feature film than an episode from an anthology TV series.

Unfortunately, the pace of television dramas hadn’t been invented yet, and The Frozen Ghost drags terribly, in spite of its brief running time. Nevertheless, the much-maligned Chaney carries things pretty well; say what you want about the guy, he could do gloomy and guilt-ridden pretty well.

Evelyn Ankers, who appeared in several of these films with Chaney, plays Maura, and the combination of Maura’s forgettable character and Anker’s forgettable performance made me feel like the guy from Memento: the second she was off screen I forgot she ever existed.

Douglas Dumbrille appears as a Shakespeare-spouting detective. Martin Kosleck is amusing as the deranged wax figure designer Rudi, who fusses with the wax figures, talking to them constantly (“Ah, Cleopatra — you are the queen of the Nile, we mustn’t let your hair get mussed like that”). Kosleck was a native of Germany who made a career playing cold-blooded Nazis, which he seemed to greatly enjoy.

Tala Birell has a shortage of screen time, but is at least credible as the curator of a wax museum, while longtime character actor Arthur Hohl is rewarded for two decades of film work with the indelible credit “Drunk Contestant”.

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