This third offering from Scream Factory offers up the names classic horror fans can never get enough of. Karloff, Lugosi, Chaney, Rathbone, Price, Atwill and Alan Ladd. No seriously, Alan Ladd.
It’s another four pack of titles from the vault of Universal Horror. The cash cow that the studio continues to mine with each successive format of home video. This time out Scream Factory has put together The Tower of London, Man Made Monster, The Black Cat and Horror Island.
First up is the most ambitious project of the set ….
The Tower of London (1939)
I’ve no idea how close this Rowland V. Lee film sticks to the facts of England’s history but I could care less as I’ve always enjoyed this non-horror tale that casts Basil Rathbone as the power hungry Richard, Duke of Gloucester in the 15th Century. Coming on the heels of Lee’s Son of Frankenstein, the director again again employs Rathbone and Boris Karloff for this story with a big canvas that to be honest cries out for a bigger budget. Something akin to an Errol Flynn technicolor extravaganza for Warner Bros.
Rathbone’s Duke is sixth in line to the throne of England and with a devious mind sets out to remove all those who stand in his way. Enter Dear Boris as Mord, the bald headed ruler of the Basil’s personal torture chamber. It’s Boris who will carry out Basil’s orders of murder and mayhem. Karloff will make an impressive entry into the film as he sharpens his oversized axe in anticipation of an upcoming beheading.
Ian Hunter is Basil’s brother and soon to be King of England once Basil has Boris push the aging Monarch to the hereafter. Alongside Hunter’s King is Barbara O’Neill as the Queen and her two small boys. One of which is a young Donnie Dunegan. The same little tyke who played Basil’s son and Boris’ special friend in 1938’s Son of Frankenstein who also voiced Bambi for Disney. The Queen is fearful of Basil’s devious look and when he kills another of his obstacles on the battlefield, he’s that much closer to the throne.
Enter Vincent Price as the rather effeminate Duke of Clarence who with Basil’s pushing runs afoul of Hunter’s King which ends with his arrest. This leads to perhaps the film’s most famous scenes for fans of classic horror. It’s Basil vs. Vincent in a wine drinking contest. Unfortunately for Vincent, it’s not exactly a refereed affair and when Boris turns up during the final toast, Vincent is to be famously drowned in a vat of his own choosing. Another of Basil’s obstacles has now been conveniently removed.
Price loved to tell the story of this scene and how Basil and Boris toyed with him as veterans on the set at the time of filming. Price would also be promoted to play the Basil/Richard role in the 1962 version from Roger Corman.
I’ll leave the balance of the film for those who have not seen it to discover for themselves but will add that it does feature a terrifying scene that if the film was not based on fact would never have been allowed in a Hollywood production of 1939. A scene that still packs a punch.
Enjoyable as I do find this film, there’s no doubting it’s let down by the budget restraints which are most noticeable when the plot moves from the interiors of the castle walls to the battlefields where Basil and Boris march towards their destiny. While color photography would have been nice, another fault is the fact that Basil needs a scene worthy of his skills as a swordsman in the final reel. With all due respect to “hero” John Sutton, Basil’s appearance all but begs for another dynamic go around with Flynn or a precursor to his electrifying tango with Tyrone Power’s Zorro.
Despite it’s obvious faults and limitations, I do believe this to be the gem of the Scream Factory set.
Man-Made Monster (1941)
Serving as a test run to his Wolfman, Lon Chaney Jr. enters the world of Universal Monsters as Dynamo Dan in this fast paced “B” thriller that sees him with just a hint of “Lenny” portraying a man with a touch that is nothing short of electrifying to all those he comes in contact with. All thanks to the devious mind of noted screen madman, Lionel Atwill.
Following the crash of a bus into an electrical station, Chaney, walks away the only survivor. This prompts interest from Samuel S. Hinds to ask Chaney if he’d be interested in some simple experiments to learn more about how he survived an electrifying crash. Chaney submits and has his eye on Hinds’ daughter Anne Nagel. What no one other than all of us see coming is Hinds’ assistant, Dr. Atwill. He has it in his mind to create that race of supermen with an indestructible strength to “conquer the vorld!”
Sorry, there I go again with one of my favorite Lugosi as Dr. Vornoff lines.
If anything this serves as the template for many of Lon’s monsters in the years to come but chiefly his Lawrence Talbot who like Dynamo Dan is just about the nicest fellah you could ask to meet but due to circumstances beyond his control is doomed to a life of killing and endless remorse. Not surprisingly both the Wolfman and Man-Made Monster were directed by George Waggner.
I’ve always enjoyed this fast paced 60 minute special that if it weren’t for the Universal logo and Atwill as the nutty guy in the white coat, the script could easily have been teleported over to Columbia. Here it could have played in the Karloff as a mad scientist festival that the studio were cranking out during this period with titles like The Man With Nine Lives.
The Black Cat (1941)
This is where Alan Ladd comes in. Just prior to becoming a heavy hitter for Paramount and a Noir regular, Ladd, starred in a supporting role alongside Basil and Bela in this old dark house tale where the reading of the will might lead to murder and mayhem. For more on the film click here as I had previously featured it back in 2018.
Horror Island (1941)
Coming off his heroic role in The Mummy’s Hand, Dick Foran, was enlisted to take charge of a treasure hunt in a run down castle on Horror Island that plays an awful lot like Bob Hope’s The Ghost Breakers released by Paramount in 1940. Once again it’s George Waggner behind the camera in another fast paced 60 minute spook filled thriller.
When Foran, who runs a sight seeing boat for hire is approached by a mysterious man with half a treasure map, he and his sidekick Fuzzy Knight get caught up in the chase for a fortune in loss treasure said to be located on Horror Island. The problem is there’s another half to that map and someone who is willing to kill for the half they need to locate the missing loot. Now let’s get a few fortune hunters together and embark on a three hour tour for thrills and chills. The problem is one of those fortune hunters is bound to be our killer but which one?
Foran needs a leading lady to verbally spar with and maybe find romance and treasure if the script goes according to plan. Why not bring along his leading lady from The Mummy’s Hand, Peggy Moran? Miss Moran had a relatively short career in film retiring at just 25 years of age following her marriage to director Henry Koster (Harvey, The Robe) whom she would remain with until his death in 1988. She herself would pass on in 2002.
Easy to fit in to most any time slot, Horror Island, is another of those entertaining “B’s” that Universal was cranking out as they prepped for their second wave of horror titles that were coming out regularly in the first half of the 1940’s thus cementing the love affair between generations of monster movie fans and the studios brand of Universal Monsters and by extension, this quartet of releases from Scream Factory.
For students of the films and the Universe of Monster films from the studio, each movie comes on it’s own separate blu ray disc with accompanying commentary from various historians. Steve Haberman on Tower of London. Tom Weaver on Man-Made Monster. Lugosi specialist Gary D. Rhodes on The Black Cat and Ted Newsom on Horror Island.
Lesser titles these may be from the Universal Monster cycle, that’s of no consequence to those of us who never get enough of these old black and white thrills from yesteryear. Film’s we never tire of revisiting when the mood strikes us or when the autumn moon is full and bright.