Tag Archives: Boris Karloff

Looking for Mr. Wong

Movie night and a lovely evening for another stroll through Poverty Row; the low-budget side of Hollywood.

Asian detectives were plentiful and standard fare for movie-goers in the 30’s and 40’s. They remain so today for me. Charlie Chan (either Warner Oland or Sidney Toler), Peter Lorre’s Mr. Moto, and Boris Karloff as Mr. Wong are all welcome to solve my homicidal conundrums. All of those actors are improbable, occasionally silly, and delightful. None of them of course are actually Asian…go figure. But then, the last Pad Thai we ordered was of dubious ethnicity now that I think of it.

The Mystery of Mr. Wong (1939) offers us all that foolishness in big servings;

  • Our Asian detective is played by an Englishman with a Russian-sounding name. Oh yeah…I’m buyin’ that.
  • Thrilling quote #1; “Then it was deliberate murder.” (Is there really any other kind?)
  • Thrilling quote #2; “He’s absolutely trustworthy, completely devoted to me.” (I’d be slappin’ the cuffs on him pronto.)
  • Boris Karloff’s make-up looks more like it’s from Madame Tussaud’s than Nanking.
  • Thrilling quote #3; “You know something, but you hold your tongue in more than one language.” (I know there’s wisdom in there somewhere but it plumb evades me.)
  • The clock strikes three a.m. in the film, but when Mr. Wong emerges from his bedroom at the police detective’s summons, he’s wearing his dressing gown and a perfectly knotted tie. Classy. Of questionable sleeping hygiene, but definitely classy.
  • The McGuffin in this flick is “The Eye of the Daughter of the Moon” – not quite as catchy as “The Maltese Falcon”.

What fiddle-faddle.

I loved it.

Don’t Just Move, Stand There!

I’ve been pondering mobility, or rather the lack of it, as an important element in horror films.

Normally, we’re a lot more a’feared of a terror whose current location is uncertain and moves mysteriously and quickly (ala the alien in ALIEN or Zika-carrying mosquitoes) than we are of a known and fixed enemy like, say, a patch of poison ivy. I don’t fear poison ivy, I avoid it. I can’t outrun much but I can outrun poison ivy. It can’t “cut me off at the pass”. Mosquitoes however…those suckers are everywhere! This is the stuff of most horror flicks.

But there are a number of horror films that feature stationary menaces or menaces that move at glacier-like rapidity. I happen to have viewed a couple of these recently; THE LIVING HEAD (Mexican), and THE HEAD (German). Two other previously viewed films; THEY SAVED HITLER’S BRAIN and DONOVAN’s BRAIN (both USA), would also fall into this sedentary and thus far inadequately studied category; films about living heads with no bodies (no legs, arms, wings, or driver’s licenses). The writers of these films are required to strive mightily to make these threats plausible since anyone could escape by falling down and crawling.

So, how do they do it?

Well, in THE LIVING HEAD and THEY SAVED HITLER’S BRAIN, we are shown mesmerized worshippers of the head toting it about from place to place. No one seems to notice or care until it’s too late.

In DONOVAN’S BRAIN the title brain enforces its desires through emanations (wouldn’t that be a great name for a baseball team or a doo-wop group?) In THE HEAD it’s like the writers don’t even try. The threat simply exists as a sideshow to be gasped over. Meh.

Until Brendan Fraser, mummy films had much the same problem. Bandage-bound Boris Karloff and Christopher Lee were not precipitous. Writers on these films worked hard to trap their victims in a corner, or just trip them repeatedly, or paralyze them with fear. Fainting was a popular and useful response. Plausibility fled as the mummy shuffled.

Two films come to mind that actually turned this lack of mobility into a positive. In THE INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, those malevolent pods can’t move, but are placed where they are most effective by previous victims of the pods. This is effective because of the mathematics of the situation. One victim begets two. Two beget four. Four beget eight. Eight beget… You see the problem. The rapid and devastating multiplication of zombie-fied neighbors and public officials is completely plausible and scary.

I hate pods to this day. I look at sugar snap peas and tremble.

In the beginning of the film THE DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS, the title plants apparently cannot move. But after the Earth’s population is blinded by a handy meteor shower the plants pull up their roots and reveal their slow, but inexorable mobility. The fright factor soars. Kudos for the writer! BUT, look how hard it was to make effective – handy meteor shower? Please.

And that’s my point. Writing is hard work. Why make it harder? I’m thinkin’ writers should unleash their terrors, not nail their feet (or whatever might pass for feet) to the floor.

Indulge me one more example.

THE MONOLITH MONSTERS featured mountains that grew quickly and fell on you if you were foolish enough to stick around and watch.

Let that sink in…but don’t let it fall on you.

This film reminded me of my one and only visit to Phoenix, Arizona. I looked out the window of my hotel room and saw, not too far away, a butte. Is that the correct term? There were two impressive houses built snugly into the base of the butte. I remarked to the bellman that I would be fearful of living in those houses because of the possibility of gigantic rocks falling on me. He replied that the rocks never fell.

Let that sink in.

I gazed again at the butte surrounded by the Greyhound-Bus-sized boulders that formed the 60-70 foot high slopes of the butte. It reminded me of my California-living friends who blithely dismiss earthquakes as a factor in their lives; “But the weather’s so nice all the time.”

Blissful denial…perhaps that’s the key to the monolith monsters’ path to success.

Oh, and did I mention how much I hate pods?