Hollywood in the 1930s and ‘40s was a rich time for the horror genre, as German Expressionism’s unsettling tropes found fertile ground in such disparate studios as Universal (Dracula, Frankenstein, The Black Cat), RKO (Cat People, The Leopard Man, The Body Snatcher), and Warner Bros. (Mystery of the Wax Museum). While even MGM had the occasional Freaks to rattle its glossiness, Fox remained the pioneering studio with arguably the lowest rate of shockers. No surprise considering it was the residence of Will Rogers, Shirley Temple and other reassuring figures, though the studio’s sporadic journeys into fear were concisely summed up by the trio of moody John Brahm chillers (The Lodger, Hangover Square, The Undying Monster) included in the first volume of the Fox Horror Classics DVD set. What’s left for volume two? The three films rounded up here are not without interest or charm, but despite repeated claims in the featurettes of unearthed genre gems, they scarcely qualify as horror, much less as classics.
Chandu the Magician, for instance, seems now less like a neglected Bela Lugosi opus than just one of the dozen or so serial-style potboilers that danced in Steven Spielberg’s cranium during the making of Raiders of the Lost Ark. A series of cliffhangers lubricated with Hollywood’s then-novel interest in foreign mysticism, the film follows the exploits of the titular hero (bland Edmund Lowe), an American explorer who uses his training as a yogi master to thwart black-turbaned fiend Roxor (Lugosi). As a villain who practically creams his pants while dreaming of flattening the world with a death ray, Lugosi delivers his purplish dialogue (“Roxor, the god whose hands deal death!”) with uproarious zest. Legendary production designer William Cameron Menzies (who shares directing credits with Marcel Varnel) tracks the camera sinuously through striking miniature sets, but for the most part Chandu is flat, filled with patience-trying comic relief, and guilty of the sort of proto-Gunga Din racism that posits the sight of its lilywhite heroine drooled over by horny Arabs as the worst fright imaginable.
Cramming Poe’s Murders in the Rue Morgue, Wells’s The Island of Dr. Moreau, and just about every other mad-scientist yarn into its slender 58 minutes, Dr. Renault’s Secret is the closest the set comes to an authentic horror movie. A young American scientist (Shepperd Strudwick) arrives at a small French village to visit his fiancée and instead finds mysterious killings; answers lie with fellow researcher Dr. Renault (George Zucco), whose so-called secret will be no mystery to anybody who links his strange experiments with apes to his handyman, the suspiciously simian Noel (J. Carroll Naish). Loosely lifted from a novel by Phantom of the Opera scribe Gaston Leroux, the film is the kind of double-bill bottom half an astute Poverty Row subverter like Edgar G. Ulmer could turn into a silk purse, but under Harry Lachman’s lackluster direction it remains a sow’s ear. Still, Naish’s beguilingly numbed performance (aided by a surprisingly subtle makeup job) gives the project affecting notes worthy of a thrift-store Quasimodo.
While both Chandu the Magician and Dr. Renault’s Secret were firmly rooted in B-movie territory, Dragonwyck was clearly a prestige-garlanded project for its studio, from its prominent cast to the opulent mansions on display. Naïve, ambitious farm girl Miranda (Gene Tierney) moves from her pious Connecticut clan to the vast titular manor in the 1840s; arriving full of romantic dreams, she’s met by her cousin Nicholas’s (Vincent Price) Byronic gloom, harpsichord tickling in the middle of the night, poisonous oleanders and servants whispering dark secrets. Originally set to be directed by Ernst Lubitsch, this corseted brooder instead became veteran writer-producer Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s directorial debut, and despite the thick atmosphere of menace, his inexperience with the camera keeps lead weights on the story’s gothic wings. Although he would have far better luck with Tierney and phantoms the following year with The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, Mankiewicz’s shift from the heroine’s perspective to the cousin’s saturnine hauteur did help kick off the Price persona of the Corman-Poe chillers of the ‘60s. And the exploited peons toiling the land show that, for all the story’s mild supernatural intimations, social injustice is the real horror behind the walls of an aristocratic estate. Maybe that’s a subject for volume three.
On the evidence of its restoration, Fox may be the studio that takes the best care of its vault. Excepting a few frame jumps in Chandu the Magician, all three films look strong and healthy. The mono sound is clear.
Though they push unconvincingly for the films' lost-classic status, the three vignettes ("Masters of Magic," "Horror's Missing Link" and "House of Secrets") are breezily informative. So are the two commentaries, one for Chandu the Magician by Lugosi biographer Gregory William Mank and the other for Dragonwyck by author Steve Haberman and filmmaker Constantine Nasr. Dragonwyck also receives an isolated track for Alfred Newman's first-rate score, plus a pair of radio shows from the late '40s showcasing Vincent Price's vocal duels with Gene Tierney and Teresa Wright. Restoration comparisons, still galleries and theatrical trailers round out the presentation.
Not particularly horror and not particularly classics, these overlooked films still warrant a look for the dedicated movie buff.