Friday, November 28, 2014

The Strange Door (1951)

Director: Joseph Pevney                                    Writer: Jerry Sackheim
Film Score: Hans Salter                                     Cinematography: Irving Glassberg
Starring: Charles Laughton, Boris Karloff, Richard Wyler and Sally Forrest

The Strange Door is a story adapted from Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Sire de Malétroit’s Door.” What’s immediately noticeable about the film is the late medieval setting which brings to mind the costumed horror pictures of Val Lewton rather than the more gothic flavor of the Universal horror films. Director Joseph Pevney had only begun working for Universal the previous year. He began as a stage actor and eventually moved from New York to Hollywood, his best-known role coming in the 1947 boxing film Body and Soul starring John Garfield. The only other film he directed at Universal that was related to their horror pictures was the Lon Chaney biopic Man of a Thousand Faces starring James Cagney. While Pevney’s directorial vision does have some nice touches, overall it’s a fairly forgettable film that uses Stevenson’s original story as an excuse for excess, both by Jerry Sackheim in his lurid screenplay and the overacting by Charles Laughton. As with most of the Universal product from this period, the film score was cobbled together by Joseph Gershenson from existing recordings in the music library, but the majority of the cues can be traced back to the work of Hans Salter and Frank Skinner, especially their distinctive music from The Wolf Man.

The film begins with Charles Laughton’s coach dropping him off at a tavern. Once inside he meets with his servants who point out a young nobleman of dubious morality, Richard Wyler, trying to kiss every woman in the place. He agrees with the men that Wyler will be acceptable. When he leaves, his men stage a fake fight in which Wyler thinks he has killed a man. Escaping, he hops into a carriage owned by Laughton and taken to his residence. There, as he is trying to escape the posse that is after him, he enters the door to the mansion and can’t get out. In another room he meets Laughton, who is pleasant at first, but eventually turns vicious as he tells Wyler that he will not be leaving. With no other option, Wyler relents, but that night Sally Forrest steals into his room to tell him something. He is only interested in one thing, however, and after kissing her she runs away. The next morning one of Laughton’s men, Michael Pate, tells him that he will gladly show him a means of escape and takes him to the window of his bedroom, three stories up, and says he may leave any time. Later Laughton introduces Wyler to Forrest formally, and while both of them ask not to be forced into marriage, Laughton insists.

At the same time Laughton has a spying servant named Voltan, played by Boris Karloff. Laughton keeps his demented brother, Paul Cavanaugh, chained in a dungeon, complete with torture chamber, and plans to punish him by marrying his daughter off to a scoundrel. What Laughton doesn’t know is that Cavanaugh is only playing at being crazy and that Karloff is actually working for him. But the key to his cell is the only one that Karloff doesn’t possess. Fortunately for Wyler, one of the guests at the wedding is a friend, Alan Napier, and he promises to help Wyler escape that night. And this is just the beginning of a convoluted story that doesn’t really make sense until the very end. While veteran producer Ted Richmond was no doubt attempting to ride the long deceased coattails of the second horror cycle that had ended after the Second World War, the picture is far more reminiscent of what Roger Corman would do at AIP in the sixties. This is reinforced even more the presence of a visibly aging Karloff. It’s not much of a role, either, and it’s clear he was only brought in for name recognition. Laughton, on the other hand, hams it up every time he’s on the screen and gives everyone else in the cast very little room to maneuver. Ultimately, The Strange Door is a B-movie that holds interest only for Universal horror fans as a curiosity.

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