More bark than bite: A critical review of “Cry of the Werewolf” (1944)

Who doesn’t love a copycat, er, copy-wolf? The logical consensus on 1940s hairy horror film “Cry of the Werewolf” is that Columbia was trying to cash in on the recent lycanthropic successes of “The Wolf Man” and “Cat People.” Considering its name, one would expect Columbia’s effort to follow Universal’s tale of wolves and men rather than RKO’s narrative of cats and Simone Simon. However, “Cry” goes for the less obvious choice, ultimately having more in common with Val Lewton’s film. Both films feature an urban setting, a heavier emphasis on a psychological rather than Gothic atmosphere, an undercurrent of female sexuality, and creative use of light and shadow due to budget constraints.

Interestingly, “Cry” is not the first female werewolf movie (nor is it “Cat People,” wolves aside). It’s a 1913 silent called, rather creatively, “The Werewolf.” Wikipedia even tells us it was the first werewolf movie on record. Wikipedia also tells us the film is lost, having been destroyed in a fire about 10 years later. A likely story. Has anyone seen the “Cigarette Burns” episode of “Masters of Horror”? I sense a werewolf movie conspiracy.

But that’s for another blog post. “Cry of the Werewolf” opens with a gratuitous narrative crawl about how nothing is truly unnoticed or forgotten by cultural memory. It’s a promising, albeit convoluted, start, but don’t pay too much attention. The film could have gone straight into its first scene, a tour of a museum dedicated to psychic research and occult history. It’s well photographed, atmospherically lit, and entertainingly set and blocked, not to mention the tour is led by the very watchable character actor John Abbott. That cool introduction is interrupted by a thoroughly unnecessary flashback, which is also well shot but features the tamest werewolf ever caught on camera.

The plot, in case it wasn’t clear, is a little disposable. A “Gypsy princess” who can apparently assume the form of a wolf kills a researcher before he can finish writing a book about about the secrets of her tribe. When the researcher’s son shows up to finish his father’s work, he gets mixed up in the perplexed police investigation into the occult killing. He’s also finds himself caught between the interests of two young women: his late father’s secretary and the alleged killer herself.

“Cry” is an uneven movie for a few reasons. Despite being less than 70 minutes long, a lot of it feels unnecessary or at least uncomfortable. The dialogue keeps teetering between Gothic horror and pulp detective. The gumshoe stuff feels off in a werewolf movie. It doesn’t help that a lot of it is trying too hard to be funny. I know that humor and horror have always gone hand in hand, but the humor in “Cry” is never fitting for that genre. It’s not bleak or subtle. It’s just goofy. That’s fine in an Abbot and Costello mashup, but it’s not so funny here.

The Gothic stuff is a little more adequate, but even that has problems. This was supposedly Columbia’s first shot at a popular horror film, and it feels like the movie threw everything “horror” it could think of at the screen to see what landed, regardless of how well it went together or how developed it ended up being. There’s the Gypsy princess/werewolf combo, voodoo dolls and occult crime, and the secretary is from Transylvania. Of course she is.

I’m not sure who to blame. One of the writers, Griffin Jay, had some horror experience beforehand, but with titles like “The Mummy’s Hand,” “The Mummy’s Tomb” and “The Mummy’s Ghost” I’m not feeling like serious and subtle horror was his thing (his first credit on IMDb is a Three Stooges short). On the other hand, co-writer Charles O’Neal wrote the very subtle Val Lewton produced “The Seventh Victim,” and ultimately worked on the underrated sci fi/horror flick “The Alligator People.” Huh.

The werewolf transformation is suitably subtle though, at least at first, all told through shadow. Maybe it’s just me, but I appreciate werewolf movies where there the werewolf looks like a wolf. I’m probably wrong. My favorite werewolf movie is “Company of Wolves,” and that might not even be a werewolf movie.

I feel like I’m talking about every film but this film. The acting is mostly good. Abbott as the tour guide is affable, and he gets one of the most unsettling moments in the film. Nina Foch does well as the princess, managing to capture about as much complexity as the script allows her character. Fritz Leiber is natural as the old researcher. Al Bridge has a fun turn as a weird mortician (he pronounces “secretive” as if it means “something that secretes something”). Barton MacLane plays the chief investigating officer with the proper amount of grim resolve. Just don’t pay attention to his men in uniform.

That said, the weakest links are Stephen Crane and Osa Massen as the two leads, the researcher’s son and the secretary. There’s no trace of chemistry between them. Crane in particular is pretty wooden. He seems merely a little unhappy that his dad just died, and it’s never a good sign when the wicked seductress is trying to corrupt some guy named “Bob.”

However, I con’t condemn the film’s love triangle outright. Again, the two sweethearts are pretty anemic, but Foch is fine. Her performance gives “Cry” the hints of feminine sexuality – presented as a complex of allure, danger and destiny – that could not be found in the more male-dominated horror films around it (remember, this was decades before “Ginger Snaps”).

Some of the images are pretty solid too. There’s some moments in the opening tour sequence and some clever photography around the Gypsy camp (which is set up in… Griffith Park? Where does this film take place anyway?). The most thrilling set piece is likely a cat and mouse moment in the labyrinthine darkness beneath a mortuary. That has good shot composition, appropriate lighting, the dialogue shuts up and the erratic editing takes a breather. It’s too bad the film can’t regain that atmosphere in a later scene where the power goes out at the occult museum.

That’s the problem with “Cry of the Werewolf.” It’s not enough any one thing. It’s not enough Gothic horror or psychological horror. It’s not enough atmosphere or humor. It’s not enough good or bad. It can’t decide what it is, and neither can this blog. There’s enough there to make it worth a look for the curious, especially considering the slight running time. If you’ve already watched “The Wolf Man” and “Cat People,” and you’re itching for more old school lycanthropy, this might do the trick. If you’re expecting a waiting-to-be-rediscovered prize, you’ll likely leave a little disappointed.

The kill count of ’33: A critical review of “Night of Terror”

Plenty of pre-Code horror films took advantage of the lax rules, whether tackling taboo subjects (Tod Browning’s “Freaks”), queer sexuality (James Whale’s “Old Dark House”) or good old fashioned violence (Merian C. Cooper’s original un-cut “King Kong”). These movies married intelligence, subtlety and quality filmmaking to their envelope pushing, and as such they are fondly remembered.

This blog can announce with relative certainty that “Night of Terror,” a 1933 murder thriller starring Bela Lugosi, is not one of those films. Instead, it feels old and awkward. If anyone remembers it today, it is for gross gimmicks rather than quality. But there’s a reason this blog will quietly champion the film. We’ll get there though.

First, “Night of Terror” is effectively the story of a young scientist preparing to test his serum that makes people not need oxygen, whose attributes the film never bothers to explain. The scientist intends to test the serum on himself, which requires him to be buried alive. Unfortunately, before he’s in the ground, bodies start piling up. Police are searching for a maniac – dubbed “the Maniac” by the press – who has been killing random people at night. And on the eve of the experiment, he’s picked the scientist’s mansion as his stalking ground.

The movie doesn’t waste a lot of time, so I won’t either. The very first scene has two attractive adults (it’s too early in the century for them to be sexy teens) necking in a car. The Maniac pops up behind them, raises his knife, and bam. They’re both dead. Less than two minutes in and we have two bodies. We almost see it too. It’s pretty stagy and kinda hokey, but holy crap, that is impressive speed.

But that’s just the first scene, you think, and probably not representative of the whole film. The plot gets rolling, things slow down, you think you can relax, and bam. At the nine-and-a-half minute mark, there’s another body. And another at 20 minutes. What is this film?

To be fair, the movie never quite recaptures these opening scenes. Once it gets going, it will feel pretty familiar, albeit in a forward looking way. Some of the movie boils down to “people wandering around the old Rinehart Estate,” which predicts a lot of the haunted house flicks of the 1950s and beyond. There’s even a twist ending and a “no spoilers” gimmick that would have made William Castle blush.

The film might be at its best when its looking back. Some of the photography and edits recall silent film aesthetics, and they’re fine. A few images are quite striking: clever lighting on a staircase, good angles of Lugosi, a well-blocked scene of men carrying a coffin. It’s interesting to note that the cinematographer, Joseph A. Valentine, started in silents and closed his career photographing a couple of superb thrillers, including “The Wolf Man” and “Shadow of a Doubt.”

Where the film is not at its best is the narrative. The film credits three writers (two for screenplay, one for story), and none of them have much to say. Anyone expecting a clever whodunit will probably be disappointed. The intricacies of the plot don’t try to make sense. Does science really pay so well this guy can afford a mansion? What’s up with his family? The ages and, uh, marital relations seem all wrong. I can’t tell who is whose brother or niece or fiance. The servants are Gypsies with turbans? Most of the gags were old even then. And none of this is getting into what seems problematic 90 years out: the crime reporter’s aggressive pursuit of the heiress, the stereotypical Black chauffeur, and I’m surprised no one yet has suggested the Maniac is coded as Jewish.

But you don’t even have to be insulted to see the stereotypes. The plot is a collection of every cliche you can think of: an old dark house, creepy servants, a seance, weird science with plenty of test tubes, stuffy Continental professors, a fast-talking crime reporter, a clueless cop, a crazy-cos-crazy killer, police sirens and bad driving. My least favorite are the one-sided phone conversations. You know the ones, where we only see one of the characters talking so they have to repeat everything the other person is saying for the audience.

Those phone calls come courtesy of Wallace Ford (from the aforementioned “Freaks,” which I had forgotten) as that fast-talking crime reporter, and this feels like a good place to talk about the acting. It’s not good. Ford is energetic. I’m not a fan, but maybe you will be. Of course, I find most of the performances bad. Cliches and stereotypes can be watchable in the hands of the right cast, but this ain’t that cast.

If you need solid performances, this blog can recommend two. The first is Sally Blane as the young heiress. She’s fashionably costumed, which I always find interesting in a contemporary film, and gives her role enough personality that she come across like a person and not a prop.

The second is, perhaps unsurprisingly, Bela Lugosi as Degar the mystic butler. Lugosi is not merely the most notable actor in the picture because of his name. He probably knew he was in a bargain film – the rumor is this was strictly a “for the paycheck” gig for him – but he still moved like he meant it. Don’t pay attention to his dialogue. Classic thriller fans will know it all already, and Lugosi delivers it all in the same deadpan baritone. Instead, watch the way he moves his body and holds his face. The concern he shows his wife in particular feels genuine. As a whole, his performance is easily the most compelling thing on screen.

But the real reason anyone would watch this film, the only reason it should be remembered, is the pre-Code murders. There are a couple of sexually suggestive lines dialogue and a certain box of cigarettes that probably wouldn’t have gotten into the script two years later, but it’s really the murders that are the draw. There are imminent threats of danger, smatterings of blood and pointy objects, and we see about as much of it as the times (and the budget) would permit.

In fact, the Maniac might be the first serial killer in the movies, or at least the talkies. He’s kind of got a costume, he leaves a calling card on his victims (newspapers because crazy), and there is a body count of eight when the movie’s over. The running time is a little more than an hour, so that averages out to roughly one body every seven minutes. That’s impressive, even by today’s standards.

In a scene, Lugosi offers one of the mansion’s guests a newspaper. The guest rejects it. “There’s nothing in the papers,” he says.

“Nothing… but murder.” Lugosi retorts. You tell ’em Bela.

Beyond its years: A critical review of “Puella Magi Madoka Magica” (2011)

We screwed up, Tonstant Weader. I got my dates wrong, and I missed the technical 10-year anniversary of cosmic-horror-by-way-of-magical-girl anime “Puella Magi Madoka Magica,” whose original run concluded in April of 2011.

To be fair, this blog has yet to meet a Madoka product it didn’t like. This retrospective review was always going to be at best biased and at worst a foregone conclusion. The original series still stands as one of our favorite anime; the subsequent movie (the one that’s not a recap of the series, not that there’s anything wrong with that) is a worthy successor; and the side-story-sequel series was one of our favorite shows of 2020.

But everything has to start somewhere. What makes “Madoka” worth talking about 10 (plus) years later? To put it simply, “Madoka” is a series that defies expectations about what a magical girl show could be in terms of story, visuals and sound.

Less simply, “Madoka” is the story of the titular Madoka Kaname, a regular 14-year-old student in a regular Japanese city. She and a friend are offered a chance by a cat-bunny-thing to become magical girls – individuals who must tirelessly fight surreal creatures called witches – in exchange for having their dearest wish granted. When the girls express skepticism, they are paired with a senior magical girl to show them the ropes, all while being shadowed by another girl with unknown intentions. The deeper they get into the adjacent reality of magical girls, the more they realize they don’t know anything about reality itself.

“Madoka” is what you get when the writer of your new magical girl show had previously penned a kinda pervy visual novel that is one of the most stealth H. P. Lovecraft stories ever written (seriously people, “Song of Saya” is my favorite video game I’ve never played). Screenwriter Gen Urobuchi covers familiar ground regarding responsibility and “be careful what you wish for,” but he also taps into the fallout of escaping reality through fantasy, living with the trauma of individual decisions, what it truly means to be selfish or selfless, and cosmic acceptance.

The characters are deep in a slow-burning way. The show is called “Madoka,” but Madoka herself is hardly the most interesting character. She’s fine, a pleasant presence and useful entry to the world, but she’s joined by brooding and complex Homura, motherly but guarded Mami, and brash softie Kyoko. I’m a Sayaka Miki man myself: self-embarrassed and self-destructive, a brave face that hides romantic naivety and personal weakness, good intentions that grasp for nobility but often end in tragedy, and the unshakable guilt that follows a subconscious willingness to hurt other people.

Whoa, that got dark. Weren’t we just discussing a cartoon about 14-year-old girls?

Still, as the show itself notes, girls of that age might be the most emotionally appropriate actors – given the ups and downs of adolescence coupled with the particular pressures on young women – to stage a deep psychological drama.

If you are curious but still skeptical, at least watch until episode three. Every Madoka fan will likely agree with that assessment, although it’s nice to know that even after that, there are still moments ahead. Episodes seven and eight had similar gut punches for this viewer, but you might get more out of six or nine or 10. The series is flexible in its darkness and revelations, and more than that, it’s tight as a tourniquet. Also, it’s worth noting that “Madoka” has one of the best in-universe explanations for the “chosen one” archetype this blog ever seen.

After narrative, the most striking thing might be its visuals. Ume Aoki’s character designs are distinct from much of the other anime around at the time, particularly in the ultimate use of color and shading, light and shadow. There is often a dreamlike quality, regardless of whether scenes are taking place in the mundane world or the fantastic.

Special mention must also be given to design team Gekidan Inu Curry for handling the stylized witch sequences. The result looks like the 2D characters are interacting with an acid-drenched multimedia collage. Accordingly, each encounter resembles a cross between a late game boss battle and a Hieronymus Bosch triptych, and this blog is hard-pressed to think of something similar (the 2007 series “Mononoke” perhaps?).

That leaves us with sound. The series composer was Yuki Kajiura, who had previously provided the excellent soundtrack for the introspective fantasy “.hack//SIGN.” “Madoka’s” equally eclectic soundtrack sports intense mashups of rock and orchestral instrumentals, but also medieval flavored pieces to hint at timelessness and mystery, acoustic pieces to suggest self-reflection, and atmospheric percussive movements to keep things plummeting forward.

It doesn’t hurt that the opening and closing themes are fitting as well. The show opens with a pleasant J-pop song by duo ClariS, and then closes with a swirling vocal-heavy metal track by trio Kalafina, suggesting the darkness ahead (compare to “Neon Genesis Evangelion,” which opened with a catchy J-rock track, but closed with offbeat and laid-back covers of “Fly Me to the Moon”). Cleverly, the closing track is something a little more poppy for the first two episodes, right until consequences emerge.

Every time someone says series X was the first to do something, it’s only a matter of time before someone else argues series Y did it first, and someone else argues series Z beat them both. I will not say that “Madoka” was the first dark magical girl series, but I will say that “Madoka” is probably the first magical girl series to tell the story it did, and to do so while looking and sounding just so, with every element reinforcing the tragedy to come.

I love me my first season of “Higurashi,” but “Madoka” might be the best stealth horror series in anime. It is a perfect storm of suggestion and psychological depth, and it does not quite look or sound like anything before or since. That singular mixture is precisely why the series has kept viewers engaged for more than a decade.