Classic Horror Meets the “Women’s Picture”
This post came about because I noticed a little mini subgenre within classic horror — several of the series or franchises seem to have to tried at least one version geared more toward female audiences. This seems like a box office calculation; and (at least as executed), a flawed one. If you’re going to make a “woman’s picture”, make one; mixing the two genres won’t attract an audience that was previously turned off to horror. All it does is adulterate and neuter the horror and then nobody is pleased. Most of these films give us a heroine who is either tortured about her identity as a monster, or isn’t a monster at all, just worries that she is one. Yes, there are some male horror characters who fret like this (Larry Talbot and Barnabas Collins are two that spring to mind). But as a general rule, I don’t think the twelve year olds who make up the rank and file of this fan base were signing up for Hamlet With Fangs. They don’t want to empathize with some sensitive adult with pangs of conscience. They just want to be scared.
It’s always interested me that some traditional monsters from folklore like vampires and werewolves got their own horror franchises, yet one very important one didn’t: witches. Sometimes the likes of Karloff or Lugosi or Vincent Price would play an evil sorcerer, but the female witch does have the power to terrify and there are very few such characters in the Hollywood movies of the time. Margaret Hamilton’s witch from The Wizard of Oz (1939) may have produced more nightmares than all the Universal monsters combined, as has the wicked stepmother in Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. But for some reason, Hollywood decided this was for small children. Almost all witches in Hollywood tend to be comic characters (that’s true to this day). It’s almost as though producers were too scared to go near the power of the concept. I think some amazing female driven horror films might have been made if they’d allowed it.
One other interesting observation. A great many of the biggest stars in actual (non-horror) women’s pictures of the 1930s, 40s and 50s, people like Bette Davis and Joan Crawford became major horror stars in the 1960s and ’70s, when they became older and more “witch-like”, permitting themselves presumably to be as ugly and scary as the job required. Davis had always specialized in being brave enough to be unattractive (e.g., The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex; Now, Voyager), but it was a new thing allowing her characters to be evil inside as well. And true visions of evil are what produces the nightmares people seek from a horror movie.
At any rate, here are some of the hybrid pictures I came across:
An amazing movie, based on the novel by H. Rider Haggard. A kind of flip of the usual sex roles. In this one the monster (or “mad scientist) is an immortal, despotic woman, played by Helen Gahagan Douglas (wife of Melvyn and nemesis of Nixon) in her one and only starring role. And the love object is a young man, Randolph Scott in one of his early non-western roles. He and his partner Nigel Bruce travel to the Arctic circle above Russia and team up with a trader and his daughter (Helen Mack). They are en route to find a rare element said to bestow immortality. “The Flame of Life”. The trader is killed in an avalanche. The three are captured in a cave by Morelock-like primitives, who seem poised to eat them. Then ancient-attired soldiers appear (evoking Sumeria and other ancient civilizations) and rescue them and bring them to She Who Must Be Obeyed (Douglas) in their subterranean land.
She rules with an iron fist, kills whomever displeases her. She wants Scott (who resembles her lover of 500 years ago who happens to have been his ancestor), and has convinced him to stay with her, but then she makes the mistake of trying to sacrifice the trader’s daughter in a ritual ceremony. Scott and Bruce rescue her and escape. Then they run into She at her temple, where she steps into the Flame of Life, which for some mysterious reasons ages her horribly until she dies. So you see, it is ultimately a film about a jealous woman who dies for love.
Dracula’s Daughter (1936)
Universal had hoped that James Whale, whose 1935 Bride of Frankenstein was very likely his masterpiece, would come back the following year and direct the Dracula sequel Dracula’s Daughter. But he didn’t want to do two monster pictures in a row. Most of the major horror stars of the day stayed away from Dracula’s Daughter, and the OTHER stars didn’t want to do a horror film, AND the Production Code had come into play and hurt horror substantially (recall the sexual themes I mentioned above).
So the result here, is a disjointed, lackluster, uneven thing. The opening scene promises much; it is duly atmospheric and scary. Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan again) has just killed Dracula and Renfield. He’s taken to jail (one of the comical constables is silent comedy star Billy Bevan) but then the daughter of Dracula Countess Olenska (Gloria Holden) comes and steals the body…only to destroy it with fire, prayer and a cross. Which is odd, since she proves to be a vampire. But she doesn’t want to be one. She spends the bulk of the picture bemoaning the fact that she is one, and trying not to be one. Meanwhile her weird lackey Sandor (Irving Pichel) hovers around reinforcing her vampirism. She falls in love with a psychiatrist who has been brought in to help Van Helsing. She wants very much for him to be undead with her. In the end a jealous Sandor shoots and kills her with an arrow.
The movie lacks Gothic touches and, really, is anything but sexy or scary (after that first scene). Olenska hypnotizes her victims, but it is not scary. We don’t see bites, not bats, nor wolves, nor moving mists (although there is a bit of fog). Many of the sets are brightly lit contemporary locations, not the slightest bit moody. An unworthy follow up to the original.
The Devil’s Daughter (1939)
This one was a low-budget independent production. What makes this one unique was its all black cast, and the fact that it was mainly marketed and distributed to black audiences. The plot: a young lady from Harlem (Ida James) inherits her father’s Jamaican plantation. When she arrives, there is no sign of her half sister who has been running the place, so there are many scenes with two rival scenes and the comic relief (Hamtree Harrington — he’s the reason I saw the film in the first place). Meanwhile, drums in the jungle are beating, beating. Finally the sister (Nina Mae McKinley) shows up. She, too is beautiful, but also mysterious, aloof and (as we rapidly surmise) vindictive and unprincipled. Comedian Jack Carter (in his first film role) plays a white business manager.
The Invisible Woman (1940)
Strictly a campy comedy, directed by Eddie Sutherland and written by Curt Siodmak—not even remotely a horror film, but highly entertaining. John Barrymore as a kindly old absent minded scientist who invents a machine which makes one invisible (the sort of role we associate much more with his brother Lionel). The usual non-descript lead actors…a young wastrel playboy millionaire who underwrites the scientist’s experiments (John Howard)…and a fashion model who answers the scientist’s ad for a guinea pig and becomes the title character (Virginia Bruce). She uses her invisibilty to torment her boss (Charles Lane). Then some crooks (one of whom is Shemp Howard!) steal the invention. Meanwhile the two leads fall in love, aided by alcohol, which somehow amplifies the invisibility process in addition to being a well known social lubricant. Additional comic relief is provided by Margaret Hamilton as Barrymore’s maid, and Charlie Ruggles as the young man’s butler.
Cat People (1942)
“People”? It’s just one cat woman and for most of the film we don’t know if she really is one. This is Val Lewton’s first film as producer, based on his own story. It does have certain virtues, it’s beautiful to look at…and contains the themes of sexual frustration, jealousy, personal demons and the connection with the animal within us. But it’s very talky, the actors are extremely boring, and, while it is suspenseful, they make you way too long for very meager payoffs. The Panther Lady holds off for as long as she can on going full feline, but finally succumbs. Yet there are very interesting little details all throughout. A mixed bag at best.
Cry of the Werewolf (1944)
A low budget Columbia B picture, with many original elements—more than enough to keep it very interesting. For one it is set in a supernatural museum, with exhibits on vampires, voodoo, and werewolves. It is the former house of a Gypsy Queen who was herself a werewolf. A curator who is on the verge of discovering the truth is killed. An investigation begins. Meanwhile, the Gypsy Queen’s daughter arrives from Transylvania and becomes the new one. She realizes she is a werewolf and begins killing everyone who comes to the secret. One cool aspect that sets the film apart is that instead of conventional make up, she turns into a real, literal wolf. The other of course is that she is female.
She-Wolf of London (1946)
Despite the racy title, this is one of the dullest of the bunch. Here the heroine (June Lockhart) merely FEARS that she is a werewolf, because of a rash of recent murders and “the Curse of the Allenbys”. It is saved only by the presence of gaslights and hansom cabs, but lots of GOOD horror movies have those.
The Devil Bat’s Daughter (1946)
Dracula’s Daughter is one thing—but this? This seems to be falling in the footsteps of that fizzly film and of She-Wolf of London. A lame picture about a woman who FEARS she is a killer, because her father was one. A shrink brainwashes her so he can kill his own wife and shift the blame to the heroine. Meanwhile, she dreams about bats. A tedious and unworthy film. The Devil Bat at least had mad scientists and giant bats. This one has giant yawns!
Daughter of Dr. Jekyll (1957)
Written by Jack Pollexfen, the same guy who wrote The Son of Dr. Jekyll, this one has better horror movie street cred (theoretically), as it was directed by Edgar Ullmer and stars Gloria Talbott, star of The Cyclops (1957), I Married a Monster from Outer Space (1958) and The Leech Woman (1960). Unfortunately, the Daughter of Dr. Jekyll disappoints — not much happens. It has much in common with The Curse of the Cat People, which has no cat people. And if that spoils it for you, I’m more than okay with that!