The old Hollywood never missed a trick - there's a movie that answering to any fantasy you can name. Being a hardenrd late-late show junkie myself, I turned on the tube a couple of weeks ago at about 1:30 a.m. I knew something was up when I got Channel 45, something which ordinarily never happens.
"Frankenstein" - the original, Karloff "Frankenstein" - was about two roels (or 40 commercials) from the end. The monster had strangled the little child, and the villagers were rounding up a search party. I watched it through, for the Zillionth time; it really is a macabre masterpiece, and no other American horror film I've ever seen is quite in its class. When it was over I regretfully got up to turn off the set, when to my groggy surprise, another picture title flashed on the screen - "The House of Horrors."
With a title like that, how could I resist? The thought of resistance, of course, never even entered my insomniac head. But as matters turned out, the movie was made for me. The whole thing is about getting even with critics.
It's a terrible movie, actually - a Universal "B" feature from 1946 in black and white. But if it's awful, it's scrumptiously awful - so crude and ingenuous that it becomes hysterically funny, the sort of harmless movie boner that nobody can afford to make anymore, a genre that television has rescued for posterity. And in its own schlocky way, "The House of Horrors" is a conceptual stroke of genius, bolstered by two wonderfully apt castings.
First the plot, of which there's little enough. There's this insance artist, se, who specializes in grotesque statuary, and he thinks he's found the perfect model in an equally insane killer known as "the Creeper," a veritable gargoyle of a man whom he's rescued from a river and nursed back to life. Meanwhile, just as the artist is about to make his first big sale, in waltzes your vicious art critic, the John Simon of horrorsville, who collars the rich, prospecitve client and explains how our suffering sculptor is a fraud, a madman and a no-talent to boot.
Naturally, this scotches the sale. In retaliation, the artist goads the Creeper into eliminating, one by one, all the pretty pundits who have been keeping him from fame and fortune, starting with the Simon surrogate. One of hte critics happens to be a woman - young, attractive and fearless. She in turn, is in love with another "artist" (he paints varga-like pinups, which gives Universal the opportunity of displaying the latest in studio cheese cake), and the two of them are palsywalsy with the fuzz. After many a fascinating twist, the Creeper turns on his protector and throttles him, where upon his own just desserts follow in short order.
The Creeper was played by Rondo Hatton, who holds a unique place in the annals of the horror film.Hatton, as "The House of Horrors" makes painfully clear, was wholly incompetent as an actor, even with a script that called for little more than a few grunts and grimaces. But Hatton was the only monster in movie history who wore no makeup. None was needed; Hatton suffered from acromegaly, pituitary disorder that grossly distorts limbs and facial features. "The House of Horrors" was the summit of his unusual career - he died the year it was made, after acting the Creeper once more in a quickie sequel, "The Brute Man."
One face in "The House of Horrors" would stand out as instantly recognizable to anymore who lived through the World War II movie period. It belongs to Martin kosleck, who portrays the mad artist with a skill and relish far beyond the worth of the assignment. Kosleck played Gestapo bullies so often and so effectively that it's hard to think of him as anything else. One look at his beady eyes and sadistic sneer, and you can hear him saying, "Ve haff vays of eggsdractink ze truce - bleese don't make me yooze zem."
He was cast as Goebbels in at least three different Third Reich chronicles including "Confessions of a Nazi Spy" and "The Hitler Gang". The joke, in typical Hollywood fashion, is that Kosleck wasn't German at all, but Russian. His real name was Nicolai Yoshkin; as a character actor, he had had considerable experience on the German stage before settling in the United States in the mid-'30s.
One other performance that rises above what the script provides is delivered by Virginia Grey, as the willowy lady critic. She manages to combine the kittenishness of Evelyn Keyes with the snorty wisecracking sophistication of Eve Arden, in a role that's a pallid echo of Roz Russell's reporter in "His Girl Friday."
"The House of Horrors" was directed by Jean Yarbrough, a one-time prop man whose list of credits also includes "Devil Bat" (1941) and "Abbott and Costello Lost in Alaska." Sic transit the good old days.
"The House of Horrors" may be ahead of its time, but I hope not - one can envision irate playwrights or musicians putting out contracts on any reviewer eho happens to ring the wrong chimes. I remember once when I was living on the West Coast, there was a young film critic on the Los Angeles Times who was assaulted by an indignant actor. He showed up in the newspaper office about two weeks after the relevant notice, asked the critic into the hallway, and bopped him right in the kisser. I have always tried to be as judicious as humanly possible in my choice of adjectives ever since that time - the pen may be mightier than the sword, but swords went out a long time ago.
It's true that criticism isn't one of your victimless crimes, and there's entirely too little chance for redress. But let's try to be gentlemen about this whole business, shall we?