Dragonwyck Movie Review

by Chris McEneany
Movies & TV Review
Dragonwyck Movie Review
A year after their exciting first volume of horror/thrillers, Fox present us with the second selection. This time around, we no longer have the magnificent Laird Cregar to bolster the set with his searing intensity, although we do get the very man who went on to assume the roles that Cregar would have taken had he not tragically died before he had even seen his final film, Hangover Square, released - the one and only Vincent Price, making tempestuous, deranged waves in the gothic spectacle of Dragonwyck. Elsewhere, we find a punishing big screen adaptation of a classic horror story and a blazing vintage adventure that can't exactly be described as Old School as it possibly breaks new ground in every department.

So, let's dive into this trio of chills, thrills and fantasy without any further ado.

Dr. Renault's Secret, from 1942, is a great little gem directed by Harry Lachman. Rocketing along at only 58 minutes - although it seems to cram in an awful lot of incident for such a short running time - the film is an unusual take on the old mad scientist formula. Ostensibly a remake of the silent 1928 thriller The Wizard, with Gustav von Seyffertitz and George Kotsonaros which is now sadly lost to us bar a few stills here and there (which, itself, was a telling of Gaston Leroux's book, Balaoo), Secret tells the tale of a young American physician travelling to France to take the hand of his bride-to-be, the niece of a nefarious surgeon who has foolishly dabbled in the field of anthropological experimentation. With a dubious trio of servants at his lovely chateau - a violent jailbird for groundsman, a frightened schemer with a troubled past for his butler and the hulking, stoop-shouldered handyman Noel making eyes at the lovely Madelon (Lynne Roberts) and barely holding his jealous paws back from the throats of anyone he dislikes - the scene is set for a couple of nights of intrigue and murder as Dr. Larry Forbes (Shepperd Strudwick) becomes convinced that there is something more primal about Noel than meets the eye. How can he sense a dog in the road well before he turns the corner to confront it? Why does the same dog attack him so viciously later on? How does he possess such phenomenal strength? And why is Renault so curiously protective of him?

“The throwback is excellent for experimental humanisation - gentle at times, then savage and frightening.”

One of the best of Hollywood's early villains, George Zucco plays a somewhat strange character in that he is genuinely benign for much of the time and we definitely believe in his love for his niece and his hopes for a happy marriage between her and the ever-suspicious Larry. But his touching display of benevolence and charity for Noel is turned savagely on its head during a sadistic whipping that occurs behind closed doors and some snarled threats. That Zucco can so effortlessly switch from one side to another with such ease and convinction is testament to the dedication that he had for even such a formulaic role in a B-movie as small as this. The actor was best known for his often diabolical turns in pictures for Universal - such as Prof. Moriarty in The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes and various disreputable scientists and shaman in the likes of The House Of Frankenstein, The Mummy's Hand and The Mummy's Ghost and the rarely-seen, but pleasingly goofy The Mad Monster for PRC - but he always brought a texture of boo-hissable villainy to his roles no matter what stable he produced them for.

But whilst the entire cast, including some fruity French villagers, do just as ably, one actor runs away with the whole thing.

J. Carroll Naish is wonderful as Noel, the poor recipient of Zucco's ill-judged (yet incredibly successful) lab discoveries. He is both profoundly sympathetic and also powerfully intimidating. His lumbering swagger and bestial rage is memorably conveyed and the dead-on conviction with which both he and Zucco interact, particularly during their pivotal confrontation down in the cellar/lair is excellently played. His faltering speech and severely tender yet inevitably broken heart brings immense pathos to the role. His intensity is unavoidably touching and there is a definite nod to Quasimodo's equally tough breaks in the playful jibes from mocking onlookers during the town festival when Noel unsurprisingly bests the lot of them, single-handedly, at a fairground show of hammer-swinging strength. His subsequent, and reluctant, dancing is also well-wrought with Naish's sheer discomfort and embarrassment poignantly revealed.

“You called me ... monkey ...”

“I was only ... joking - ”

“You made fun of me in front of ... mademoiselle!”

Strong moments include the ferocious tussle with the Great Dane, the lurking threat from perennial movie-heavy Mike Mazurki, who has nasty plots of his own, and the punishing murders towards the end. The level of violence is actually quite surprising. A broken and strangled body is hurled through a high window to land in a crumpled heap on the cobbles below; the sadism of Zucco when his true colours are revealed; the ghastly shadow of a nocturnal kill left hanging from a tree; and the hands-on ferocity elsewhere is also pretty raw. But Naish carries a lot of emotional weight upon his slouched shoulders and makes Noel one of the easiest “monsters” to champion. Yet, despite our sympathies, there is that tremendously macabre and sinister moment of devilish wit when he demands that the taunting barber gives him “a shave ...”

With its short running time, Dr. Renault's Secret was paired-up with Fox's great wolfman mystery The Undying Monster (which we looked at in the review for Vol. 1 of this series) and what a fast-paced and menacing duo they make. With its high production values and smart performances the film proves itself to be a bold little bruiser confidently punching way beyond its weight. I like the way that we are introduced to France during a rainstorm that pitches our hero straight into the local tavern, thus denying us a chance to see the external set for the village and making us believe that the budget possibly didn't quite stretch to constructing one, and then, later on, treats us to the large-scale extended festival sequence from all angles and avenues with real verve. The French setting, naturally, follows the original story though, of course, the studio-bound sets only add to the wonderful sense of dreamy unreality.

Chandu The Magician (1932) brings Bela Lugosi to the screen with a trademark mesmerising performance as the evil Roxor, a demented rogue hell-bent on subjugating the entire world with only the dapper and freshly trained Chandu the Magician (Edmund Lowe) to stand in his way. Wholly ludicrous from start to finish, this lavish big screen adaptation of the popular radio show about the heroic sorcerer's exploits is, nevertheless, rip-roaring fun in a sort of proto-Raiders fashion. Mixing derring-do, traps, assassins and lots of genuine magic, Chandu is quite a unique prospect. Minted for the cliff-hanger-loving kids of the day, it also seeks to bring in science-fiction with a tumultuous Death Ray contraption that Roxor can't wait to get his devious mitts on and a smattering of horror overtones. But its popularity hinges on two clearly defined elements - an episodic and adventurous spirit, and the vital ingredient of Lugosi's inestimable star power. Only the year before he had brought terror and everlasting notoriety in the role of Dracula for director Todd Browning and audiences flocked to see this master of the macabre cackle and stare malevolently with those glowering eyes as his victims recoiled in terror. That he overshadows Lowe's charismatic, but unconvincing hero isn't at all surprising. This was exactly the type of role that Lugosi, in his younger days, totally relished. Sadly, in his later days, it was exactly the type of role that he wished he could avoid ... unsuccessfully.

Directed by Marcel Varnel and William Cameron Menzies, Chandu looks magnificent. Already a celebrated art director, Menzies (who would go on to make the awesome original Invaders From Mars) knew exactly how to lens and mount the production. Fabulous camerawork sweeps elegantly along wild Egyptian temples and tunnels carved into mountainsides, glides atmospherically right up towards the windows of far-away buildings and trails alongside cleverly constructed miniatures. A great showpiece sequence has us given a swift and dizzying tour of Roxor's labyrinthine lair until the camera poises above his laboratory far below. Such technical prowess also stretched to the special effects that were quite elaborate and inventive for the time. Lots of matte-shots, glass shots, opticals and on-set trickery keeps the attention as Chandu perfects his conjurations. Astral projections, laser-beams, smoke and flames populate this daftly enjoyable caper, with Menzies throwing in everything but the kitchen sink as Chandu seeks to rescue first his brother-in-law (genre-vet Henry B. Walthall playing Robert Regent, the guy who actually invented the Death Ray that Roxor desires so much) and then his entire family from the villain's poisonous clutches.

With able support from Irene Ware as Chandu's love interest, a princess, no less, and Herbert Mundin as his comical stooge, Miggles, who gains a mystical mini-me of the Jiminy Cricket variety courtesy of his playful lord and benefactor, the film is full of ripe insanity, vintage wit and some unintentionally snigger-some dialogue. Lowe's performance, especially, is unwittingly hysterical. He looks absolutely absurd in a turban (and possibly even worse in his outlandishly sized pith-helmet) and his po-faced use of a crystal ball as though it was a telephone - “I'm calling ... but he doesn't answer!” - is pure giggle-inducing farce. His vast girth savagely tucked into his safari-suit and miniscule pencil-moustache also make for a hero that is little more than a jest-fest. Even his lovely bit on the side, former Miss America Irene Ware has to suffer the embarrassment of the most derriere-unflattering pair of desert jodhpurs imaginable.

“Open in the name of Osiris - the blind eyes, the sealed lips, the deaf ear!”

Not much of a lookout, is he, this Osiris?

But the film has so much more going for it beyond camp villainy and lush melodrama. Censor-baiting scenes abound. A shot of an assassin pouring poison into a wine-glass courted controversy in Ontario. Some hideous eyeball melting down in Roxor's lab-cum-dungeon frightened everyone. And the sight of lovely June Lang's perky breasts and prominent pre-Code nipples, as Robert's kidnapped daughter being roughly auctioned-off to the highest Arab bidder, raised a damn sight more than eyebrows amongst jittery critics and audiences alike. A God-like speech of self-adulation from Lugosi also troubled some commentators as he stands poised to throw a lever that will obliterate civilisation. Other moments of cool inventiveness and pure imaginative cinema would have to include the instance when an immense stone door swings out over a calamitous sheer chasm festooned with the broken bones of unfortunates who failed to navigate the perilous way into Roxor's forbidden temple, a trio of assassins' rifles transmuted into living serpents and a great sequence in which an entire cell floor splits down the centre and begins to slowly tilt down towards the dastardly fate that awaits the prisoners a long way below.

Lugosi is typically full-throttle, mangling his vowels with monumentally vigorous and over-ripe zeal. He would go on to play his nemesis, Chandu, in the serialised follow-up, The Return Of Chandu, years later, but this would pale considerably when compared to sheer wealth of exuberance on offer here. All I can say is, prepare yourself for a fast and energetic ride with this one. Grand old adventure of the most delirious kind.

Dragonwyck (1946) was a lavish and highly prestigious production, a kind of Gone With The Wind meets The Haunting is possibly how it would be pitched nowadays. That it never quite reached the towering suspense and intense character study of either of those classics is not surprising. Whilst it clearly aims high, it struggles with its own melodrama and all-too often becomes bogged-down in overwrought contrivance and festering histrionics. The brood-o-meter goes off the scale in this tale of 19th Century obsession. Vincent Price's Dutch-colonial patroon, Nicholas Van Ryn, is a harsh landlord, presiding over his inherited kingdom in upstate New York with a greedy and callous attitude to the poor tenants struggling to pay him rent. Struggling with the constraints of a parched and loveless marriage, he sends out for a distant cousin that he has never met, Gene Tierney's striking Connecticut-dreamer Miranda, to come and stay at his regal seat, the imposing mansion of Dragonwyck, nestling in the spectral foothills of the Peekskill Mountains. Against the better, but harsher judgement of her own parents - who may not know the Van Ryn strand of the family very well, but quite clearly know enough to want little to do with them - she enters into the wealthy new world of pomp and gentry, a stranger in a fairytale land of veiled suspicions, simmering hatreds and queer addictions. Lost within the tragic yet alluring maze of ghostly presences, suave diabolism and murderous madness, she will ultimately face some shattering dilemmas that threaten her sanity and her life, itself.

“One day, you'll wish with all your heart that you never came to Dragonwyck.”

Whilst undoubtedly the big attraction of this trio and, unlike its companions, a startlingly serious story that completely absconds with flippancy, sight-gags or the usual tongue-in-cheek stress-relieving tricks of the genre, Dragonwyck is heavy period melodrama, an American gothic romance very deliberately moulded in the Jane Ayre, Wuthering Heights tradition, but with a sprinkling of The Uninvited thrown in, as well - the inclusion of the ghostly influence of Van Ryn's great-grandmother, Azilde, singing and playing the harpsichord to batter away at the senses of those with dark hearts is reminiscent of Stella in Lewis Allen's effective ghost story. But its darkness is slow creeping, its unease hard-fought. Although tension and suspicions are aroused fairly early on - though really only in a class-divide scenario that Miranda's fish-out-of-water encounters in such a rigidly enforced colonial caste system - it takes a very long time for the chills to fully arrive. So, not exactly a horror story, Dragonwyck is rather a rich, overblown descent into familial intrigue and marital obsession. But, if this makes you wonder just why Fox have decided to pitch it in with a series that caters for the grim and the ghoulish, then you have to understand that the studio, itself, rarely treated the genre with the same sense of direct macabre as, say, Universal or RKO, whose Val Lewton fear-flicks, though restrained mood-pieces, were still bonafide horror films in their own right. Fox tended to prefer the less sensational approach, opting for mysteries and sublime tales of dark intent and haunted desire over the more conventional creature-features that were so prevalent at this time. This obviously meant that, when they done right, Fox's chillers were often more intelligent and studied. Okay, Chandu The Magician flies right in the face of that theory, but most of their output during this period was fashioned from the infinitely more realistic, the historical and the profoundly disturbing.

With Dragonwyck, screenwriter/producer and debut director Joseph L. Mankiewicz was on perfect ground, then, with his adaptation of Anya Seton's bestselling novel of the same name.

Price, so soon to become crowned the Prince Of Horror after his stately-cum-demonic role here, is easy to dismiss nowadays for his notorious camp extremes in many later films. But the fact is that he was, in fact, an excellent character actor, provided, of course, that the character he was playing was an aristocratic rogue with almost satanic appetites. His curling speech - so refined, yet so insidious - is perfectly suited to the role of a pure-blood noble. That long, narrow-boat of a face and statuesque frame reeks of breeding, and the immaculate sense of propriety never once seems like a performance. Look at the confrontational moment when his tenants refuse to pay their rent and give tribute to him at the so-called Kermess - Price is magnificently assured and steadfast in delivering Van Ryn's doctrine in the face of a hostile, and indeed murderous, mob. There are also the icily splendid exchanges between Van Ryn and his stricken, faltering wife, Joanna. Here, Price conveys both smarmy, stunted affection and a rascally condescension that leaves us in no doubt as to the wastrel's fate. Yet, in his reserved and disciplined courtship of Miranda, he gives us many sudden outbursts of such gaiety and pleasure that we can, at times, forget what an ogre he really is. And, naturally, when things inevitably turn ugly and decidedly deadly, he is second-to-none at employing a deep-seated and wholly credible level of dementia. Price is the epitome of the play-actor. So many of his future portrayals would involve him putting on airs and graces, assuming roles within roles - The Abominable Dr. Phibes and Lionheart, the Shakespearean avenger in Theatre Of Blood, or his many duplicitous charades in all those Poe adaptations - and the seeds of so indomitable a trait are clearly sowed here as Dragonwyck's brooding tryant, Nicholas Van Ryn.

At the same time as this, Hitchcock's wonderful Spellbound was doing the rounds and wowing audiences. Both films sought to delve into the damaged minds of their leading characters and dredge-up all manner of frightening revelations, but of the two, it was Hitchcock's admittedly flawed offering that provided the best tension and dark frissons. Where Dragonwyck falls down is with the titular edifice, itself. Although the baronial castle is wonderfully designed and more than suitably gothic, it lacks the sense of foreboding that it so desperately needs. The plentiful shadows don't really appear to mask much jeopardy, the halls and the all-important tower fail to convey menace. As such, there is really only one sequence - when Miranda comforts Van Ryn's daughter on the ornate stairs as the child hears the otherworldly singing of her Azilde when she, herself, cannot - that actually delivers a shiver or two. Even the lashing storm that roars around the walls and hurls hellish rain at the bedroom windows only provides a moment or so of genuine atmospheric splendour. The film is much more concerned with character and the gentle escalation of mood.

Gene Tierney is actually extremely good in the role of the innocent forced to confront some harsh social and psychological realities during the course of her stay at Dragonwyck. Her switch from wide-eyed, “Golly!” exclaiming country-girl to mature unearther of terrible secrets is very smoothly done, without us even noticing how much she has altered in attitude, expression and deportment along the way. That she and Price had acted together in several other movies probably aided their almost effortless chemistry, though the troubled and frightening relationship they have here - from authentic romance to harrowing shame and rage - still seems fresh and dynamic. Walter Huston, as Miranda's Bible-bashing father, is equally remarkable. His pure and devout conviction to his chosen path is nowhere as contrived or as overly-laboured as many other actors would have allowed the part to have made them. There is a touching resilience to his stern and emphatic verbosity, especially so when we come to realise that he may have been right all along - and the simple, God-fearing life that Miranda is turning her back on would, in truth, have been much better all round.

Naturally, there are lesser performers floating about the wayside. Glenn Langan isn't particularly arresting as the well-intentioned young doctor who, besides fighting the cause for the aggrieved tenant farmers and incurring the wrath of Van Ryn, has also fallen in love the lord's new lady, and, in one scene of unrequited romance affects such a crestfallen demeanour that it clouds any perception we have of him as the reliable hero. Then again, as with Chandu and so many other examples from virtually every conceivable genre, it is hard for any good-guy to effectively establish themselves when put up against such impactful villainy ... so, really, I'd better cut him some slack. Jessica Tandy also appears as a crippled housemaid during the second half of the movie but, strangely enough, doesn't possess anywhere near the impact that the earlier maid had, the ominous and prophetic Magda, played by the great Spring Byington. But the film does have a terrific score from Alfred Newman which, although it carries a plethora of polkas and waltzes does imbue a dark and intense aura of the sinister and the mysterious. Fans can even hear it in on an isolated track with some muffled words from who I presume is the orchestrator, Edward Powell, as he conducts. Although, I have to say that, the score for Spellbound from Miklos Rosza, just prior to Dragonwyck's release, is much, much better at creating a magical milieu of madness and murder.

So, to wrap things up, Fox have released another wonderful trio of demented movies in gloriously restored transfers, films that could have been forgotten and overlooked but now deserve to be inspected and enjoyed once more. Volume 2 is right hodgepodge, though. Enraged ape-men, duelling wizards and bizarre death-traps and the brooding magnificence of Vincent Price - what more could a vintage fantasy-lover ask for?

Excellent stuff.



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