The Hammond Mystery Review
This worthwhile boxset contains three vintage chillers from 20th Century Fox - The Lodger, The Undying Monster and Hangover Square. Not a studio renowned for its horror output in the forties but, hoping to rival Val Lewton's tremendous run for RKO and, possibly even Universal, they optioned these titles and drafted in German-born director John Brahm, perhaps with an eye for the influential Expressionism that was still immensely popular, to helm them. The results are actually quite spectacular. A brand new horror star was discovered in the imposing, but hugely talented Laird Cregar and his films The Lodger and Hangover Square went on to become neglected classics of the genre, whilst The Undying Monster remains a firm cult favourite. Together, the films form an exquisitely atmospheric trio of misty menace, cloaked skulduggery and psychotic suspense. Restored and packaged with some notable extra features, it is great to see them now in a release that proves Fox actually did have what it takes to create the sensationally macabre.
First up is The Undying Monster (aka The Hammond Mystery) from 1942. Although quite comedic in places, this is a werewolf movie, and a very astute one at that. Taking the trappings of the formula - mist enshrouded moors, an isolated country manor, a family curse and a gypsy-style warning a la George Waggner's and Universal's The Wolfman (reviewed separately), to which this film is Fox's shrewd answer - Brahm's story also pitches in a fair amount of highly character-based humour, some kooky vintage detective work from a pair of impetuous, thirty-word-a-second investigators and absolutely oodles of glorious atmosphere. With only a very short running time of only 63 minutes, he also manages to weave a constantly intriguing narrative, sharply developed characters and a keen scientific bent as to the causes of the condition of lycanthropy.
“When the stars are bright ... on a frosty night,
Beware thy bane ... on a frosty lane.”
So runs the time-honoured litany that proclaims the curse of the old English family of the Hammonds who, residing in their spooky ancestral home on the cliffs overlooking a perpetually stormy sea, periodically suffer the cruel fate of something rather nasty - and decidedly hairy - that likes to pounce upon them on just such a night as the one described above. When the family's eldest son, Oliver Hammond (played by Clarke Gable wannabe John Howard) is attacked whilst trying to protect a young woman from some ferocious beast after taking an unwise shortcut along the cliffs, Scotland Yard despatches it's finest, and daftest, young detectives to unravel the mystery. Yes, it is all very Scooby Doo-ish in terms of its clue-gathering vigour, but the gargantuan and baronial sets ooze menace, with things being dragged just out sight, clanking chains and slamming doors, enigmatic footprints in dust that supposedly shouldn't have been disturbed for years and many suspicious glances between the aged housekeeper and her bulbous-eyed butler-husband. It's all terrific stuff, yet Brahm seems, by his later standards certainly, to be reining things in a bit. Just when the tension begins to mount, he will have one of his detectives utter a pithy line that cannot help but dilute the tension of the moment. But the whole thing rattles along with a steady pace and a sublime sense of theatrical energy that imbues the production with delicious unease.
The performances are arch - again something that Brahm would largely eliminate from his later movies - but totally in-keeping with the “golly-gosh” attitude that makes The Undying Monster such good fun. The set-pieces, particularly the opening fracas on the cliffs, with the family's Great Dane even shirking from the thing it senses out there in the twilight, are well mounted. A castle set that is truly colossal in scale and a veritable smorgasbord of meaty shadows continues to amaze, especially so when you realise just how mediocre the budget was and how innovative and adaptive the set-designers had to be to incorporate such a grandly gothic look. One massive and ornate window-wall was hefted around the set and swivelled about-face to make it look as the grand hall was actually much larger. The werewolf, itself, is wisely smothered in gloom for the most part, but makes for a strangely athletic creature come the somewhat well-worn finale. One curious element is that the local constabulary - who we have already seen being fobbed-off on some time-consuming red-herring earlier and, thus, revealed to be little more than interfering bumpkins - appear to be armed with Winchester repeating rifles ... something that even Lon Chaney Jnr's howler never came up against during his rampage across the moors.
Barring an ill-advised sequence that incorporates some speeded-up footage, The Undying Monster is a very technically accomplished assignment from John Brahm and one that feels, somehow, much bigger a production that it really was. With false trails and misdirection aplenty, the film is a veritable assembly-line of mystery and detection and comes well recommended for viewing on one of those stormy nights. Pair it up with the Basil Rathbone version of The Hound Of The Baskervilles for the complete “monster-on-the-moors” experience!
Brahm has a field day with his take on Marie Belloc Lowndes' celebrated 1912 Jack The Ripper novel The Lodger, finding in the young, but impossibly intense actor Laird Cregar the perfect sympathetic monster with which to rival those that Universal were now churning out in their second, but faltering, lease of “horror” life. Vicious and dark-hearted, there is still no doubting the torn thread of conscience that stretches through Cregar's imposing Dr. Slade's quest for revenge. He is on a one-way path to oblivion and he knows it, but his soul-damning crusade is too powerful a drug for him to stop. Although originally filmed two decades before by Alfred Hitchcock in his famous silent version, Brahm's revamping is superior in almost every way - baiting, controversial, exciting and highly polished, his Lodger proved to have a truly dark and tragic heart.
A great opening sees Brahm's camera meander moodily around a gas-lit London town festooned with period detail and encroaching shadows. Even though there are Bobbies everywhere - a lot of them mounted like the US Cavalry - the Ripper makes his mark and the alarm is raised. As scene-setting goes, this is absolutely top-notch, with Brahm taking us by the hand down cobbled roads and past drunks lying in doorways, around dimly-lit corners and into the path of late-night revellers, one of whom will unwisely leave the safety of her cohorts and wander off into the foggy murk alone. Listen out for the scream as destiny claims her - for a 1940's film that would, naturally, not show us a graphic murder, her final guttural shriek is quite horrifying and protracted. But when Laird Cregar's mysterious Mr. Slade looms out of the swirling mist to arrive at the luxurious town house that is to become his base of operations, the film enters the realm of pure pantomime. Almost immediately, he embodies the persona of the classic screen villain, lacing virtually everything he says with menace and sinister double-meanings. His odd nature literally screams out “I'm Jack The Ripper!” and it beggars belief how the normally excellent cast gathered around him - his fellow inhabitants of the house including Sir Cedric Hardwicke and Sara Allgood as its polite and proper owners and the divine Merle Oberon as their niece, Kitty Langley, an aspiring stage entertainer who becomes the focus of Slade's psychotic obsessions - don't immediately cotton-on and hail a passing mob. The thing is, this otherwise daft and all-too-obvious portrayal is actually quite, quite brilliant. It may not be in the least bit realistic to be giving away so many clues to those who could supply his potential alibis, but Cregar creates such a fantastically interesting villain - part victim, as well, it should be stated - that your eyes are glued to him whenever he is onscreen and you positively hang upon his every word, such is the raw power of his dangerous, on-edge charisma. Filmed primarily from below, his imposing stature and wide, saucer-sized eyes help him take on a hypnotic domination of the picture, that insinuatingly soft voice perversely lulling your suspicions as he perpetually gives the game away every time he opens his mouth. But you will have to try to dismiss the sheer amount of “give-aways” that he supplies along the way - such as his perpetual leaving via “the back door” and his penchant for “walking the streets at night”, his work keeping him up into the early hours and, of course, his violent turning around of all the paintings of actresses in his room ringing alarm-bells in everyone's ears except for those sharing the same roof as him. Uncannily, there is a definite resemblance between Cregar, bulky and moustachioed, and the more contemporary Brendan Fraser, almost as though The Mummy star has fallen into a vat of warm plasticene and come out carrying some excess baggage slapped over his features.
The estimable Hardwicke, as Robert Burton, actually dispels his initial fears of the lodger and begins to defend him when police, led by the velvet-voiced and dependable George Sanders, and press evidence basically ends up pointing the finger right at Slade and that mysterious Gladstone medical bag he carries around with him. With one eye on the Production Code of the times, the Ripper's victims are all singers, dancers or entertainers as opposed to prostitutes, but this is only a fairly tenuous one-step removal - they are all conveyed as “good time gals” and, with the exception of Oberon's intelligent and decidedly sympathetic Kitty, gin-sodden and washed-up.
But this is all just grist to the mill, because where The Lodger excels is with its atmospheric set-pieces and a thickly-laboured sense of dark depravity that hints at all manner of psycho-sexual hang-ups, not least a vaguely unsettling and decidedly unhealthy dose of brotherly-love that resides at the heart of the Ripper's rampage. The eloquent notion of the dark cleansing waters of the Thames, so apt considering the crusade that Slade's “lost” surgeon is conducting, is brilliantly brought into play with his almost subliminal death wish and the whole film builds to a suitably tense and overwrought finale in the West End as Brahm delivers some bravura action scenes with Slade scuttling about the scaffolding and behind-the-scenes ducts and walkways of the theatre with a speed and agility that belies his size. Some of the final imagery confirms that the director was clearly aiming for the iconic and it is surprising that this telling of The Lodger isn't more widely known. Even the occasional quiet moment, such as when Slade sits resting in a chair in his room is shot and lit in such a way that he comes to resemble an obese spider hanging poised in the corner of its web, contemplating some poor prey struggling within its trap. There is even a lot to said for the way that he controls an otherwise crowded scene - for instance when he is surrounded by the Burtons, Kitty and the maid who all badger him into coming to see Kitty's illustrious show - his voice and poise literally leaving his fellow cast members gaping up at him is spellbound awe, much like the audience of the film, itself.
The Lodger, despite some of those glaring remarks that the script so delinquently heaves in, is an excellent period chiller and full of rewarding detail and production design. Its darkness and its star turn from Laird Cregar are what make it a classic, though.
By now, of course, great things were expected from John Brahm, especially if he were teamed-up with his ripping leading man again. And their next and, tragically, last collaboration would take that vibrant and primal core connection to an altogether new and dizzying level of psychotic intensity.
And, luckily for us, the gothic endeavour is the third title in Fox's excellent trio of vintage horrors - the towering Hangover Square from 1945. Once again Laird Cregar takes on the titanic main role of the psychotic killer in another gloriously atmospheric London-town chiller. This time he plays George Harvey Bone, the talented and highly esteemed composer and concert pianist who, whenever he hears discordant music or an ugly jumble of sounds can fall into a homicidal alter ego and venture out into the cobbled streets to commit murder. The big catch here is that, right from the word go, Bone (great name!) believes himself to be the killer having realised that his mysterious black-outs seem to coincide with bizarre slayings in the city. Being a plaintively sympathetic and good-natured soul, he immediately reports his own suspicions to the police and, by virtue of circumstances above and beyond his control, is let off the hook due to a lack of credible evidence. Once again, it falls to George Sanders (still working for Scotland Yard, but now as a police psychologist) as Dr. Allen Middleton to get on the case and unravel the mystery. But things are complicated still further when George meets and falls in love with ultra-sexy and manipulative chorus-girl Netta, played by the exquisite Linda Darnell, who strings him along only for his successful song-writing abilities, that she exploits to garner herself fame and fortune whilst, all the while, courting the equally scheming Eddie Carstairs, played by Glenn Langan. Bone's piano-pupil, Barbara (Faye Marlowe), who is obviously sweet on the big guy, is virtually cast by the wayside, powerless to help the easily distracted composer once his creative juices have begun to flow with the intoxicating temptations of Netta, and even falling prey to the wrong side of his personality during an abortive throttling spree. Things become very complicated and convoluted, but the drama is never over-the-top, played in very much an unpredictable European manner, rather than the much more run-of-the-mill American genre standard, making the film highly stylistic and infused with a twisted psychology that even Val Lewton would have been impressed with.
Out of the three movies packaged here, Hangover Square is, in my opinion, the best. Even the terrific The Lodger pales when compared to the mastery that Brahm achieves this time out with regards to suspense, visual complexity and terrific character disassembly. Echoing the bleaker moments of thirties horror and some of the psychological silents, Brahm effects a two-tone atmosphere with one side of the coin reflecting the music halls, bustling streets both night and day and genteel, arts-loving society of London and the other the dark, impoverished and nasty squalor of the urchins, organ-grinders and pipe-fitters going about their business above and below the ground. The setting of the titular Hangover Square is a gaslit fairytale world that seems to exist in some limbo-esque hinterland between Heaven and Hell. Certainly, poor old Bone comes to experience the best and the worst it has to offer. His mood swings are genuine jolts to the pace of the film, rather like sudden crescendos in a musical passage ... although, marvellously, once over, the story reveals itself to have played like a concerto, the whole work flowing together just as neatly and precisely, light and dark, brevity and despair. One of my favourite composers, Bernard Herrmann (see soundtrack reviews elsewhere) was behind the powerful score for the film, so this musical connection is easy to understand. Herrmann's work was very often akin to an orchestral scalpel peeling back the layers of a troubled mind and exposing the raw madness within. His work here is a peerless examination of Bone's crumbling faculties - his momentary joys, his misguided passions and, ultimately, his towering rage - and sets the template for many of his intense and deeply mysterious scores to come.
As with The Lodger, Brahm enjoys linking murderous insanity with the world of the theatre, almost as though he is pre-empting the moralistic stance that would, in later years, eagerly condemn movies for cultivating violent tendencies in impressionable minds. This bond between the performing arts and the psychotic genius is obviously much more overt this time around, since Bone is actually the celebrated creator as well as the notorious destructor in question. A clever development is that Darnell's Netta is actually very good at coining songs to go with Bone's music and the duo could, if they'd put their hearts fully into the enterprise, made a fortune. But, naturally, Bone's creative genius is too damningly affronted at being used and manipulated and, well ... every genius is a borderline crackpot so his frenzied inner-self could hardly be blamed once it has been unleashed.
It is a sensational performance from Cregar. Having slimmed down considerably from his imposing bulk via use of experimental surgery and a horrific diet, the determined actor combines a unique sensitivity with a twisted, all-consuming darkness that is, at once, tragic and terrifying. Whereas Universal was dedicated to finding the humanity within their monsters, Fox here located the potential for evil in even the meekest and gentlest of souls with Laird Cregar's incredibly rich and nuanced portrayal of a good man cursed with a demented subconscious. Our empathy with Bone is undeniable and it is something of a miracle that we can associate with him even when we know, right from the very first scene, that he can be a cold-blooded killer who cannot be bargained with. With such dignity and sensitivity at his disposal, Cregar creates a character that is astonishingly three-dimensional and thoroughly sympathetic. As nasty as he can be when in the throes of one of his murderous mood-swings, there is still a huge degree of suffering likeability about him, even when contemplating wringing his little cat's neck during one terrific scene of mental transformation.
Out of these three movies that Brahm crafted for Fox, Hangover Square is the most effective and most marvellously produced. Cregar is outstanding, despite looking even more like Brendon Fraser now in his less-bulky form, Herrmann's score is mesmerising and powerful and Brahm directs with considerable visual panache and a dark wit. Several classic sequences stand-out - a galvanising and brutal opening murder, the fiery and ferociously deranged finale obviously - but for me, the demented bonfire set-piece is a tremendously macabre tour de force that is a hugely underrated, and possibly overlooked, classic of the genre. Watching it now, the set-piece becomes the signature for Cregar's and Brahm's combined talent - suspenseful despite its flinging of our allegiances towards the killer - and it is such a shame that the actor never received the recognition he deserved until his tragic and untimely death which, sadly, came before the release of this film. It is said that Vincent Price went on to receive the roles that would have been Cregar's, and I can quite easily see why. Both actors perform their characters with a larger-than-life theatricality and can essay charismatic lunacy with meticulous ease, effortless delight and a huge sense of empowerment and slimy superiority. Their voices sound strangely similar too, which just has be one of the reasons that Price would go on to portray Cregar's characters in the radio play adaptations of his films that, in a terrific touch from Fox, have been added to these discs. The actor has so much personality and can mesh villainy with vulnerability with such strength that he holds the attention with pure cinematic presence the influences of which have rippled through the cinema's turgid waters to the likes of Anthony Perkins' Norman Bates and Anthony Hopkins' Hannibal Lector. Agonisingly, as the little documentary on the actor found on the disc for Hangover Square makes clear, he longed to play the good guy, the hero. Yet, his talent was most definitely in corrupting just such a moralistic and upstanding champion into a fearsome and warped impostor. Hangover Square, more than The Lodger, proves this very duality and provides one of the standout performances in a genre picture from that decade.
So, this boxset is a truly unique and highly collectable example of prime forties fright-fare. Fox found a prince with John Brahm and its monster-in-the-attic with Laird Cregar. If Cregar hadn't died so suddenly, the two could have gone on to even greater things. Brahm rapidly drifted into television, and although he would craft some superior episodes of The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits and The Man From U.N.C.L.E, his talents for breathing life into darker cinematic topics would no longer be tested. But this trio of the macabre and the demented offers tremendous value. Each movie has enough shadow - both visually and psychologically - to submerge many a more recent genre outing and, for their time, are revealed to be quite audacious and thematically bold. Brahm's style is striking and, when he wants to, he can bludgeon the viewer with imagery that is both suggestive and frightening. There is a sense of “anything goes” with his films that makes them off-kilter and dangerous and when compared to the rather elaborate but effectively more juvenile offerings that Universal was shoving out in the wake of 1941's The Wolfman (see separate review), such as Horror Island, Night Monster and Captive Wild Woman, there is a stark maturity that makes them just as fresh and vibrant today. All three thoroughly deserve this chance to be removed from the archive and reappraised. Very heartily recommended.