Monday, July 19, 2010

Wendigo Meets CONDEMNED TO LIVE (1935)

Frank N. Strayer's poverty-row chiller for Invincible Pictures is arguably the second American film to feature a "real" vampire, after Todd Browning's Dracula (1931), but that depends on how we define a real vampire. My friend Wendigo points out that the film's antihero, Professor Kristan (Ralph Morgan) is not a supernatural vampire; his curse comes from the bite of a vampire bat suffered by his mother while exploring in Africa. Looking at it in biological or psychological terms, it's a trickier call. The taint the professor inherits from his mom doesn't kick in until he's past forty, brought on, a friend suggests, by exhaustion from overwork. Once it kicks in, he becomes an unconscious serial killer, his Jekyll-like (or werewolf-like, without the hair, fangs, etc.) transformation triggered by complete darkness. But why does he kill? Why would he? Why would the friend, his foster father, believe that Kristan's mother being bitten would make her son a monster? How do you make that leap? Did the mother start biting folks before she died? Beats us. The utter idiocy of the film's explanation for Kristan's strange behavior forces Wendigo to speculate about more plausible motives for the man's killing spree.

Mama Kristan struggles dramatically with a prop bat in the prologue to Condemned to Live.

The "good" Professor Kristan is the idol of his little town (the town itself is played by the familiar village set from Universal Studios). He's betrothed to Marguerite, a dim but lovely young woman by arrangement with the girl's father, though the girl herself, meaning no harm, is clearly crushing on David, the village dandy and heroic skeptic. Wendigo believes that the Professor subconsciously recognizes that the girl, despite her virtuous determination to marry him, really loves David. His transformations and attacks targeting young women, Wendigo argues, are really Kristan's subconscious lashing out at substitutes for Marguerite. He doesn't turn victims into vampire brides, but his attacks are very Dracula-like, the "fiend" looming over sleeping women in their beds as Strayer's camera dollies in for a close up on Kristan's distorted features and contorted, claw-like hand before he descends to ravish and claim his victim. Kristan doesn't seem to need blood to survive (throwing his vampire status into question), but he's clearly driven by some need that he doesn't recognize himself in his conscious state. Wendigo sees it as the need to control or own victims that we now attribute to modern serial killers, which would make Condemned to Live prescient if we aren't just reading modern assumptions into an old film. But since the fiend of the film behaves more like a serial killer than a vampire, you have to wonder.

Professor Kristan (Ralph Morgan, flanked by Mischa Auer as Zan the hunchback) shows the public one face, but saves another for private chambers after dark.

Condemned to Live comes from a moment when Hollywood still seemed confused about what a vampire was. You can see this confusion in the way our otherwise-stereotypical villagers behave. Confronted with a series of murders in which the victims had their throats bitten, these folks don't for a moment speculate that the culprit is a vampire in the Dracula sense; an undead dude who kills for blood. Instead, the local consensus is that the women have been killed by a vampire bat -- one big enough to carry the women off to a cave. It's David, the skeptic, who rejects the fantastical notion of a giant bat and suggests a human fiend as the culprit. Even then, no one believes in a human vampire or any sort of evil spirit. Is it unlikely that this town somewhere in 19th century Europe would have no notion of a folkloric vampire? Wendigo says it depends on where the village is. The film itself claims to take place in "another land" (as opposed to the African cave of the prologue), so it's hard to say how likely it'd be for them to believe in vampires. Also, folklore is quite flexible about what a vampire was or did, though folk ideas usually focused on a malevolent corpse that either rises to stalk the living or projects its spirit to torment them in some way. If Condemned to Live takes place in eastern Europe, someone would probably suspect a vampire. If it's somewhere further west, that'd be less likely. Regardless of the location, because this is a movie, the villagers' failure to cry vampire is a surprise. On the other hand, they're ready to kill David for "blasphemy" for questioning Kristan's integrity near the end of the film. Their real superstition is their unquestioning reverence for a man who comes to realize that he doesn't deserve it.

The big suspense moment in Condemned to Live comes when Marguerite gradually blows out all the candles in her living room to soothe Kristan's tired eyes, not realizing (despite his warnings) that darkness triggers his fiendish transformation. I can imagine 1935 audiences yelling out how stupid she was, but I also like to think people were more polite back then.

As a movie, this is nearly a one-man show for Ralph Morgan, who's handed a big challenge in having to play someone sometimes saintly (and later deeply repentant), and sometimes a mute fiend. Wendigo feels that Morgan managed to pull it off without getting insufferable in good-guy mode. He does the fiend bit without makeup, simply scowling and scrunching his hand, but it's still effective. Morgan's definitely the best actor in this group, which includes Mischa Auer as a mediocre hunchback and a helpless Maxine Doyle in the hopeless role of Marguerite. All the actors grapple with often-leaden dialogue, flattering least of all to poor Maxine Doyle. The film looks good, from what we could tell from the grungy Mill Creek DVD. It was always a good investment to rent those Universal sets, which give this film some much-needed class. Overall, Wendigo found it to be a decent little B-movie, acknowledging the limitations of mid-Thirties poverty-row filmmaking. It's also an intriguing milestone in the evolution of American vampire cinema.

1 comment:

dfordoom said...

I think that's a pretty fair review. Not a masterpiece but still entertaining.