A Columbia double feature: 'Cry of the Werewolf' and 'Soul of a Monster'
Like many of the major studios, Columbia Pictures did not specialize in horror movies during the form's heyday in the 1930s and '40s. But when it was moved to produce some horrors, the results were for the most part pretty admirable, as seen with the original gothic drama THE BLACK ROOM (1935) and the "Mad Doctor" series, both of which starred Boris Karloff. By the time of the Mad Doctors, the studio's terrors were in the B category, not a bad thing since its second features tended toward handsome production and occasionally offbeat writing, as in the case of THE FACE BEHIND THE MASK (1941) that starred Peter Lorre, and the numerous series entries (Blondie, Boston Blackie, The Whistler, etc.) of the '40s.
Columbia's skill was in its taking an established genre, be it comedy, musical or western, and refining it to a more-than-acceptable addition, not merely a copy, to the format. THE BLACK ROOM takes kudos for the freshness of its story, design, direction (by Roy William Neill) and acting, not only by Karloff but supporting players Marian Marsh, Robert Allen and Thurston Hall. Put together with care, THE BLACK ROOM was an A level project whose influence filtered down into the Bs. As the '40s progressed, Columbia was looking to rival the popular fright films of Universal, whose more direct terrors were accomplished with a certain artistry, as well as the efforts of RKO producer Val Lewton to suggest rather than show the horror unreeling on the screen.
Such influence can be seen in the Mad Doctor set of five second features, including the last, THE BOOGIE MAN WILL GET YOU (1942), whose comedic element was no doubt inspired by Karloff's stage success in the darkly humorous ARSENIC AND OLD LACE, livening up a formula that had served Columbia well but was in need of rejuvenation by that point. After a hiatus of more than a year, Columbia returned to the well to dip into deeper thrills with RETURN OF THE VAMPIRE, shot late in 1943 and released on New Year's Day 1944. Produced by Sam White, directed by Lew Landers and starring Bela Lugosi as the titular undead being Armand Tesla, RETURN is a credit to Columbia that observed all of the cinema vampire myths so far set down and upped the horrific content by giving Tesla a werewolf assistant (Matt Willis).
For Lugosi, whose screen career was then defined by small roles at Universal and leads in a series of lower-budgeted chillers for Monogram, RETURN was a serious step up in prestige and he responded well to the opportunity presented by the project. Under his real name, Louis Friedlander, Landers had elicited an electric performance out of Lugosi in Universal's THE RAVEN (1935); he did so again with RETURN. Response to the film inspired a call for more shudders in quick order, resulting in the production of CRY OF THE WEREWOLF and a companion piece, SOUL OF A MONSTER, both issued as a double feature on Aug. 17, 1944.
Both carry the influence of the formulas from the other studios; CRY OF THE WEREWOLF leaning toward the Universal approach along with a hint of the Lewton method, while SOUL OF A MONSTER went for the RKO mode in not showing much but offering a more cerebral undercurrent to the proceedings in a modern-day update of the Faust story.
CRY OF THE WEREWOLF's lycanthropic menace is traced to Marie LaTour, a New Orleans grand dame of a previous generation who vanished the night her unfortunate husband (George Eldredge) was killed and a wolf, blood dripping from its jaws, was found over the body before it, too, disappeared. Later, the house is transformed by occult expert Dr. Charles Morris (Fritz Leiber Sr.) into a museum focusing on all aspects of the unknown. Morris has been researching a book on the LaTour legend, and as his assistant Elsa Chauvet (Osa Massen) goes to the airport to pick up the scholar's son Bob (Stephen Crane), a government scientist, Morris enters a secret passage behind a fireplace. His cries are soon heard by tour guide Peter Althius (John Abbott), who investigates and finds Morris's mangled remains. His notes for the book are left in ashes.
Bob is as determined to find the killer as local police Lt. Barry Lane (Barton MacLane). Bob's piecing together of the burned notes leads him to a gypsy tribe camped outside the city and led by their fetching high priestess, Princess Celeste (Nina Foch). In the interim, the guide Peter is reduced to madness after getting caught in the secret passage, and Jan Spavero (Ivan Triesault), a custodian in league with Celeste, meets his doom at the hands of a wolf when he becomes Lane's chief suspect in the Morris slaying. Celeste, who's fallen for Bob but is forbidden to have a relationship with any man, hopes to snare him by controlling Elsa, who's Bob's fiance.
All of this plays into the climax in which Celeste, revealed as the werewolf and agent behind the murders, is unmasked as the daughter of Marie LaTour, who had embraced the dark side, become a shape-shifter (seemingly changing back and forth at will) and who fled to the tribe on the night she disappeared. Celeste, in the supernatural state she inherited from her sensualist parent, eliminated all who discovered her secret.
That CRY OF THE WEREWOLF unreels like a Universal chiller is partly attributable to the influence of its co-scenarist, Griffin Jay, who had previously worked on the scripts of THE MUMMY'S HAND (1940) and two of its sequels, THE MUMMY'S TOMB (1942) and THE MUMMY'S GHOST (1944), as well as RETURN OF THE VAMPIRE. His partner on CRY OF THE WEREWOLF, Charles O'Neal, had co-written (with DeWitt Bodeen) one of the more disturbing Lewtons, 1943's THE SEVENTH VICTIM, which may account for the CAT PEOPLE (1942)-inspired scenes of Celeste's high-heeled feet, shot in closeup as she follows Bob at one point, becoming the legs and paws of the werewolf.
Not that CRY OF THE WEREWOLF is completely derivative of other horror films, and director Henry Levin (1909-1980), making his feature film debut, reveals flashes of the skill that earned him bigger and better projects within a few years. Pacing is fast and despite the requisite comic relief from Lane's crew of flatfoots aiding him in the investigation, the mood remains foreboding, even within the outwardly jolly Romany encampment. The suspenseful tone is also maintained by re-use of the chilling original musical score for RETURN OF THE VAMPIRE by Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, which as Barry Monush points out in his critique for Scarlet Street magazine (No. 33, 1999, p. 53), saw further use in Columbia pictures well into the '50s.
An unusual and interesting sidelight is provided when Bob's probe uncovers the fact that this tribe has gathered outside New Orleans once a year for generations for fellowship and to bury their dead, a facet of the culture that leads the hero to a funeral home that services the tribe's unique need. This werewolf tale, for a change, is based on American soil rather than the then-accepted practice of taking place in the British Isles or Central Europe, and is set in contemporary times. Wallace MacDonald, a former actor turned Columbia producer on the Mad Doctor series, was responsible for CRY OF THE WEREWOLF.
Danish-born Osa Massen (1914-2006) lends sturdy support as Elsa, whose Transylvanian roots put her under suspicion for a spell. The role was one of Massen's last as a potential ingenue, and by the time she co-starred in the seminal science fiction film ROCKETSHIP X-M (1950), maturity had become one of her leading qualities. Barton MacLane, Warner Bros.' favorite gangster next to Humphrey Bogart in the mid-to-late '30s, delivers his usual strong performance as the cop on the case, a role not dissimilar from his casting in THE MUMMY'S GHOST. MacLane (1902-1969) lends an intelligence to his role of the hard-bitten homicide detective, accepting the existence of such creatures as werewolves when he views the dying creature transform back into Celeste.
Okay, but what about this Stephen Crane character as hero Bob Morris? And who in the world was he?
Born Joseph Stephen Crane III on Feb. 7, 1916, at Crawfordsville, Ind., the Wabash College graduate was managing his family's successful cigar store when he decided to try Hollywood full-time in 1939. Cultivating some connections there, he married Lana Turner in 1942, only to seek a quick annulment when it was found his first marriage wasn't officially over. He remarried Turner two years later about the time he landed a contract with Columbia. But his union with the M-G-M beauty soured as did his screen career; after appearing in THE CRIME DOCTOR'S COURAGE and TONIGHT AND EVERY NIGHT (both 1945), Columbia gave him his liberty. Viewing his performance in CRY OF THE WEREWOLF, it's not hard to see why. The poor guy's inexperience shows in every scene, and the good work shown by his fellow cast members keep the film from sinking out of view. "To be honest, I was a very poor actor," Crane admitted in a 1967 interview with The Associated Press.
With acting out of the question, Crane and Turner divorced and he returned to business, purchasing a popular Hollywood restaurant, Lucy's, then selling to live in Europe. His preference for blonde bombshells reasserted itself again when he married French movie siren Martine Carol in 1948, only to see that union dissolve five years later. Back in the U.S.A., Crane launched his biggest success with a Polynesian-themed Beverly Hills restaurant that served as the genesis of his Kon Tiki chain of fashionable eateries in the Sheraton hotel chain. Crane died Feb. 6, 1985, one day shy of his 69th birthday, in Pauma Valley, Calif. He was interred back home in Crawfordsville.
The second feature, SOUL OF A MONSTER, is easily dismissable as some misguided attempt to ape the Lewton formula, but a re-viewing reveals it to be a product of some care and consideration from director Will Jason, scenarist Edward Dein and producer Ted Richmond, not simply a B movie to fill the bottom half of the bill. There is no monster to speak of, but there is a tale of demonic possession with a suitably dark and intense atmosphere that skillfully capitalizes on its low-budget roots.
Noted surgeon and humanitarian Dr. George Winson (George Macready) lies at death's door, victim of an accidential infection during an operation. His partner, Dr. Roger Vance (Jim Bannon), is unable to cure him and family minister Fred Stevens (Erik Rolf) can only stand by helplessly, leading Winson's anguished wife Ann (Jeanne Bates) to call on dark forces to save her husband.
Her cry is heard and we are treated to the sudden appearance of Lilyan Gregg (Rose Hobart), walking purposely down a country road where she survives getting run over by a speeding auto, enters the city and leaves a shower of sparks from bursting streetlights in her wake. Haughtily presenting herself to Ann, Lilyan demands to be alone with the fading George. Ann and George's friends warily agree, and hours later, Lilyan leaves his room to declare that George is on the path to recovery. George is soon back on his feet, but Lilyan remains at his side, much to Ann's discomfort. George begins exhibiting uncharacteristic behavior that leads to the death of his beloved German Shepherd. Roger touches the now-impassive George and finds he has no pulse; a sudden jab from a scalpel in George's arm produces no blood. What goes here?
Lilyan reveals that George has regained his life but minus a soul, thanks to the intervention of Lilyan's demonic overlord, who evidently sensed a good thing in Ann's desperation. Lilyan then dominates George, compelling him to leave Ann, attempt to kill Fred (which fails) and then slay Roger (which succeeds), landing George a murder charge. Ann, working with Fred's support and faith, then appeals for help in George regaining his soul and the banishment of Lilyan. The mystery woman is killed as George awakens from the coma he was in as the story began; the whole experience was a dream and he will recover from his illness.
Despite the shopworn ending, SOUL OF A MONSTER travels in the same territory as THE SEVENTH VICTIM, adopting a similarly dour approach but following a different and blacker path as Lilyan's control over George becomes deeper and more sinister. Scenarist Dein, who had co-scripted Lewton's THE LEOPARD MAN (1943) with Ardel Wray, borrowed a few tricks from the producer's bag but makes SOUL OF A MONSTER an individual effort, almost an experiment given the usual audience-pleasing intent of most Columbia Bs. Dein later realized his ambition to direct his own scripts with the cult items SHACK OUT ON 101 (1955) and the vampire western CURSE OF THE UNDEAD (1959).
Director Jason (1910-1970), emerging from Columbia's shorts department, gave his feature debut that something extra which he hoped would lead to better things, but his career remained with second features and television. Burnett Guffey's cinematography is impressive, particularly in scenes where George reacts in a peculiar manner to a storm raging during a friend's piano performance.
"SOUL OF A MONSTER turned out to be a very interesting film," Dein told Tom Weaver and Michael Brunas in an interview published several months after his Feb. 14, 1984, passing at 76. "You must remember that when a writer wrote a script in those days, he wasn't in control of his material. Many times other writers were called in to add a line here or there so you didn't know if the material they used was yours until you actually saw the picture." ("William (sic) Dein interviewed: From LEOPARD MAN to LEECH WOMAN," Midnight Marquee, No. 33, Fall 1984, p. 16).
Winning the lion's share of praise for her performance was Hobart (1906-2000), a stage actress who signed with Universal in the early '30s and lent a luminous presence to Fredric March's DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE (1931) as Jekyll's fiancee. Now settled into character roles, Hobart's icy portrayal of Lilyan is memorable as an underplayed exercise in evil. A campaigner for improved working conditions for screen actors, Hobart ran afoul of the Red Scare that infected Hollywood in the late '40s because of her outspokeness and was blacklisted. She eventually pursued counseling as a career. Her 1994 autobiography, A STEADY DIGRESSION TO A FIXED POINT, made for "marvelous reading," David J. Hogan concluded in his review for Filmfax (No. 52, September-October 1995, p. 14).
Hobart is matched by Macready's George as the actor employs all of his skill to convey that his character has become an otherworldly presence. The former Broadway thespian made his screen debut in the Paul Muni action drama COMMANDOS STRIKE AT DAWN (1942) which Lester Cowan produced for Columbia, and he was later put under contract. Like Foch and other new talent working for studio chief Harry Cohn, the 40-ish Macready started out in Bs. But following SOUL OF A MONSTER, he received equally prominent roles in I LOVE A MYSTERY and MY NAME IS JULIA ROSS (both 1945), co-starring in each with Foch. He soon found himself in A productions after his brilliant turn as Rita Hayworth's mysterious husband in GILDA (1946). Macready (1899-1973) remained one of the more visible faces in film and television until ill health sidelined him in the early '70s.
Seemingly out of his element is Bannon (1911-1984) as George's partner and friend Roger, but only because the actor, also new to Columbia, became more identified with action roles. Although he comes across as wooden as Stephen Crane in CRY OF THR WEREWOLF, Bannon was nevertheless one of those reassuring presences in films of the period and he gives his reading of Roger's lines the old college try. Unlike his co-stars, Bannon failed to break out of the second feature category at the studio, but won a role more suited to his talents as private detective Jack Packard in Columbia's three-film I Love a Mystery series, adapted from the popular radio program created by Carlton E. Morse. Bannon was also one of several actors who played Packard during the show's radio run from 1939 until 1944. The IMDB informs us that Bannon, who in the late '40s was the fourth actor to portray Red Ryder in a series of four movies for Eagle-Lion Films, left acting behind in the mid-'60s.
Sensing a change in audience taste, or simply willing to let Universal lead the market in horror movies, Columbia seemed content to make CRY OF THE WEREWOLF and SOUL OF A MONSTER its last entries in the genre for several years. Instead, more horrific themes entered the numerous series films from the studio at this juncture. The I Love a Mystery movies, I LOVE A MYSTERY, THE DEVIL'S MASK and THE UNKNOWN (1945-1946), all directed by CRY OF THE WEREWOLF's Henry Levin, introduced such chilling elements as curses, shrunken heads and madness into the proceedings, while THE CRIME DOCTOR'S COURAGE hinted (none too convincingly) at vampirism.
An interesting sidelight to this film was the casting of Mexican actress Lupita Tovar, the heroine of Universal's Spanish-language version of DRACULA (1931), as one of the suspected "vampires." Another Crime Doctor, JUST BEFORE DAWN (1946), directed by William Castle and dealing in part with nefarious activities at a funeral home, created a suitably eerie atmosphere unusual to the series. And The Whistler movies, which flourished partly due to Castle's participation, were lent a supernatural strain with an omniscient narrator, seen only in shadow, telling the "strange tales ... of men and women who have stepped into the shadows."
Thus, CRY OF THE WEREWOLF and SOUL OF A MONSTER stand as perhaps not the best, but entirely serviceable, examples of Columbia's conception of horror films during the genre's Second Golden Age in Hollywood. In keeping with the studio's tinkering with format, CRY OF THE WEREWOLF emerges as an efficient and engaging variation on the wolf man theme, while SOUL OF A MONSTER displays the studio's occasional willigness to be different. Both, however, are enjoyable and worth the time of anyone who hasn't yet encountered them.