Today I’m digging into a couple of films from the horror genre. I considered looking at more modern ones, but in the end I chose two black and white horror films. Today’s films are:
Jacques Tourneur – Cat People (1942)
Robert Day – Corridors of Blood (1959)
I had never seen either of these films before, and I hadn’t even heard of Corridors of Blood before, but it stars Boris Karloff, and it sounded really interesting. I watched both of these on FilmStruck, which has a lot of films that I’ve still never heard of, and as I’ve said before, I’m way into the discovery aspect of films. Seeing something I’ve never seen before, and just experiencing it for the first time is almost always something I’m interested in.
Cat People is a bit more famous, and had a remake that I vaguely remember seeing a long time ago, so that one was a bit familiar, but I definitely didn’t know much of anything about the 1942 version.
So what did I find? Let’s get into it.
Cat People (1942)
Cat People is the story of Irena, a Serbian immigrant who meets Oliver. They quickly fall in love and get married, but Irena has a problem. She comes from a village that tells a legend of evil women who will turn into a large cat and kill their love the first time they kiss. Irena strongly believes this will happen to her. Oliver doesn’t really believe her, but as he becomes closer to Alice, a woman he works with, will he discover that Irena was telling the truth?
We start with a panther in a cage. We get a glimpse of what zoos looked like in 1940. The animals are in cramped cages with concrete floors. We see Irena for the first time, she is sketching, tossing them away when they don’t meet her standards. She misses one and we see Oliver for the first time. He picks it up and tosses it in the can for her, approaching her. So begins their relationship.
She invites him back to her house, and we learn about the legend of her village. She claims that her village had become all evil witches, but King John saved them. Some of the witches he put to the sword, others escaped. The film does an excellent job of setting up an early mystery around Irena.
The next part of the mystery is laid in when Oliver decides to buy her a cat as a present. (Side note: I think it’s incredibly rude to buy someone a present that creates an obligation. Buying someone a pet without discussing it with them first is just insane, but that’s neither here nor there.) We see the cat interacting normally with people at his office, but when he brings it to Irena, it hisses and spits, trying to get away from her. They decide to exchange it for a bird, but when Irena walks into the store, every animal starts freaking out. Cats hissing, birds squawking, dogs barking. Clearly animals don’t like her.
Oliver moves quickly, asking Irena to marry him. She tries to talk him out of it, that she’s running from her past, but he won’t listen. He insists the legends of her village are just legends, and she should leave them behind.
We move to the wedding party, but they spend the wedding night apart. Irena won’t even let her new husband kiss her.
The mystery adds another layer when Irena attempts to touch the bird she received. As she opens the cage and attempts to touch it, it dies of fright. But then, she puts it in a box and takes it to the panther at the zoo. She tosses the dead bird into the cage as an offering to the panther.
When she tells Oliver, he understandably freaks out a bit. He says she needs help, and sends her to a psychologist. The psychologist, Dr. Judd hypnotizes her and hears the legend she fears: that a woman from her village that falls in love and kisses the man she loves will turn into a large cat and kill him. She is certain this will happen.
This adds to the mystery in a way that plays with our expectations as the audience. It makes us question the genre. Are we watching a film about a woman with a delusion? Or are we watching a film about a woman that is cursed with mystical powers that she can’t control? It keeps playing with this for quite awhile in the film.
As the film progresses, Oliver realizes that he can’t help Irena, and that he has fallen in love with Alice, a woman he works with that he has been confiding in. Irena discovers this, and the second half of the film plays out this love triangle.
One night, Oliver goes to work late after fighting with Irena. Alice is already there, and Irena calls to check on him. Alice answers the phone. Irena hangs up without saying anything. But she goes to the office to find them. Irena finds both Oliver and Alice at a nearby restaurant, where they are talking. She follows them without them realizing it, and they part ways, Alice walking home alone. Irena follows.
Here’s where the film vaults from just another horror movie to an all-time classic. The film carefully cuts between Alice walking home, and Irena walking behind her. We hear both of the footsteps, seeing Alice walk under a street light, then Irena walks under it shortly after.
The footsteps continue, until one set drops out. Alice continues walking, but we no longer see or hear Irena. Did she stop? It’s an incredibly subtle moment, but it’s definitely there. Alice is clearly disturbed. She walks faster, looking behind her. She stops under a streetlight, and the film gives us another great moment. A bus comes in suddenly from the right side of the frame in front of Alice. The sound design is perfect. It sounds just enough like a cat growling that I’m certain it produced some jumps in the theater in 1942. I have to admit I was a bit startled myself. The shape of the bus hood along with the sound design convinced me that Alice was being attacked. Brilliant moment.
Later, Alice goes to her apartment, and visits the pool in the basement of the building. Irena has been following her again, and asks the attendant if she can visit Alice at the pool. We see Alice getting out the pool, but then she sees a shadow on the stairs, and hears growling of a large cat. She is scared and runs back to the pool, diving in.
We watch her looking around the shadows of the darkened pool, treading water while we hear the growling around her. She screams. The attendant comes down and the lights are turned on…by Irena, totally normal.
Throughout the film, we almost never see the cat. There’s only one scene late in the film that we explicitly see a cat where Irena should be. Otherwise, it’s all done with sound effects and shadows.
In the end, Dr. Judd helps Oliver and Alice commit Irena. The doctor waits for Irena at her apartment while Oliver and Alice look for her. When Irena arrives, Dr Judd goes for a super creepy resolution, telling her that he’s not afraid of her, and kisses her. Here we see that Irena was right all along, and the doctor is attacked by a large cat. He defends himself with a sword cane.
Oliver and Alice find the doctor dead, and his sword cane broken in half. They look for Irena, and find her at the zoo. She has released the panther and died, the broken sword still in her body.
The film ends with Oliver saying “She never lied to us.”
Let me begin by saying: This is an amazing film. I was totally blown away. The way it uses shadow and sound to create the tension and horror is so engaging. The acting isn’t anything special. The characters get the lines out, but not much beyond that. Irena is probably the best out of the cast, but she also has the most to do. We get to see her inner conflict as she begins to change and wonder if she’ll ever have real control of herself again.
I was amazed at how good this movie was. I was expecting something on the high end of B-movie range. But this is one of the best genre films of the era. What it really does great is work within it’s constraints. They’ve got a plot point of a woman transforming into a cat, but no good way to actually realize it visually. So what do you do? What Tourneur does it make use of what he has: a lot of cat noises, and shadows. It works perfectly. I highly recommend any horror fans take a look at this.
Corridors Of Blood (1959)
Corridors of Blood is a film starring Boris Karloff as Dr. Bolton, a surgeon in the 1800s trying to discover a way to develop ‘painless surgery’, which boils down to finding a way to anesthetize patients while performing surgery. He tests various chemicals on himself to make progress. How far will he go to make a breakthrough? And how far will he go to get the chemicals he needs to continue his experiments?
The film mixes two interesting moments in history. The first is the development of anesthetic, and the second is the way criminals in the Victorian era would murder people and then sell their bodies to medical colleges who needed them for research.
Dr. Thomas Bolton in the film is most likely based on Dr. John Snow, one of the first doctors to calculate the effects of various anesthetics by testing them on himself. He’s more famous for his mapping of a cholera outbreak, but he was important to the history of anesthesia as well. There’s an amazing book called The Ghost Map which talks about John Snow which I highly recommend.
The most famous criminals responsible for body selling of the era were likely Burke and Hare, of which several works of fiction already exist. They would suffocate their victims and then sell the bodies to medical colleges. The colleges needed bodies to teach their students, but it was difficult to get them donated. Because of the great need, college administrators didn’t look too hard at the source of their bodies, so criminals were able to flourish.
In the film, the criminals are portrayed as Black Ben and Resurrection Joe (grave robbers of the era were called ‘resurrection men’), played by Christopher Lee in one of his early film roles. Black Ben runs a tavern and he, his wife and Resurrection Joe get men drunk and then suffocate them in the apartments upstairs. The only problem is, the law says they need a death certificate. Early in the film, they convince Dr. Bolton that a man in their tavern died of natural causes. He believes them after examining the body, and writes out the certificate.
Dr. Bolton is set up as a humanitarian, and the best surgeon in the area. At this point in history, being a good surgeon meant one thing: being fast. There was no anesthetic at the time, so patients were fully conscious during surgery. The faster a surgeon could finish the surgery, the less chance the patient would die of blood loss or shock. And Bolton was the fastest. In addition, he set up a local free clinic for people in town. He is completely respected and revered. His work on painless surgery is driven by his belief that patients shouldn’t have to feel pain. Early in the film, he sees a man that he performed an amputation on. The man is deeply damaged from the surgery, unable to function. Black Ben remarks: “Half a leg and half a brain, that’s all you left him with.”
Dr. Bolton is totally convinced that he’s close to finding the solution to painless surgery. He spends his evenings in his lab, mixing chemicals and inhaling them, taking copious notes on the effects and how long it knocks him out. One night, while testing a new compound, he wanders out in a stupor and ends up at Black Ben’s bar. This is where the two stories really begin to collide. Bolton’s notebook is stolen there, and when he returns, again in a stupor, he is coerced into signing more death certificates.
Meanwhile, his first demonstration of his technique goes poorly when his test patient dies before the surgery and he shortsightedly grabs the next person he sees. The patient doesn’t go under and begins attacking the other people in the room. For the first time Bolton loses credibility. A jealous colleague begins demanding he be limited. He loses privileges at the dispensary, cutting off his supply of chemicals.
He begins to spiral, testing more and more combinations, and we slowly see him lose control. The film makes it clear when he arrives home, then goes to his lab, inhales some of his chemicals, and then goes to entertain guests. He’s no longer experimenting for scientific purposes, he’s using the drugs to get through the days. Everyone in the audience knows what this means, he is becoming an addict.
This becomes a problem as his surgery career suffers. He has to make his son finish a surgery, which the audience at the surgery notices. He’s suspended, but he needs more chemicals to continue his experiments. As an addict, he makes a bad decision. He goes to Black Ben and Resurrection Joe to help him steal the chemicals he needs. In return, he has to sign more death certificates. Of course, the robbery goes poorly, and a guard is killed. The police connect the missing people to Black Ben, and raid his tavern.
Bolton writes in his diary that he does crave the chemical and has to give it up. He is preparing another batch, but he tosses it away, redeeming him.
Before the raid, Resurrection Joe goes to kill the doctor, as he is no longer useful. Joe stabs him, but the doctor defends himself, splashing a chemical in Joe’s face. He is interrupted by the police raid starting.
In the end, with his dying breath, Doctor Bolton gives his notebook to his son, who vows to continue his fathers work.
In the final scene, we see the younger Bolton putting under a patient, very practiced, and we pan over to a small display case of Dr. Thomas Bolton’s notes and early equipment, a pioneer.
Another film with an awesome title that makes me think it’s a total B-movie. But again, I’m totally wrong. This isn’t as good as The Cat People, but it’s a film that works on a lot of levels and is ultimately completely satisfying. I wasn’t really familiar with Boris Karloff aside from his work in Universal monster movies like Frankenstein, but he is a really great actor. He carries the film and in an era where drug addiction wasn’t easy to explore(due to the Hays code), the film is able to create a really believable character with a real problem. I imagine the censors let the story go through because the character wasn’t using any street drugs or drugs that the public could easily get their hands on.
Christopher Lee also shows a glimpse of how great he would later be. His Resurrection Joe almost steals the whole movie, and if he’d been the main villain instead of the sidekick, he might have.
I also just happen to have been familiar with some of the historical inspirations, which I particularly enjoyed. I’m not sure if that’s interesting to everyone, or just to me because I have the background.
The cinematography and sound get the job done but aren’t memorable. The real star here is the acting, and the story. Both elevate this movie to something really special.
The Double Feature
This was a really successful double feature. The movies fit together really well, and for me at least, the discovery aspect was off the charts. I was so surprised and delighted by both of these films. I had no idea what to expect when I started this one, but it turned out to be so enjoyable and engaging. Kind of rare to randomly see two movies and find so much value in both of them.
They were both listed as horror movies, and while Cat People is for sure a horror movie, Corridors of Blood I felt like was more of a drama with some darker elements. If it came out today, it would never be classified as a horror film. But the two films still work together, even though I consider them different genres.
I’m writing this in Columbus, OH, where I’m presenting at a conference right now. If you remember from my first post, one of the reasons I took a break this summer was because I had such a terrible time at the last conference I went to. My breathing was terrible, and I ended up getting pretty sick and missing my presentation. That was tough on me, and this conference has definitely been on my mind. I needed to have a successful experience to get the bad taste out of my mouth. I was also concerned that my allergies and breathing just wouldn’t allow me to present.
But, I presented on Thursday afternoon, and had a completely successful experience. My breathing wasn’t great at the start, but I got through it, and felt strong by the end. The presentation went really well. I can’t describe how much I needed that.
So, for the next set of movies, I’m nowhere near my film collection, so for this next set, I’ll be choosing from Filmstruck again. Looking through the selection, I spied a director I hadn’t covered yet, so I decided to go with him and then do something I haven’t really done before.
Archie Mayo – The Petrified Forest (1936)
Nicholas Ray – In a Lonely Place (1950)
The big film fans get it already. These are both films that star Humphrey Bogart. The Petrified Forest is from earlier in his career, and was something of a star-making turn for him. In a Lonely Place comes later, after Casablanca, when he was a huge star.
I’ve never compared an actor against themselves before, but I’ve seen both of these films before, and it should be good.
See you then.