When he traveled the backlot world, Appellate Judge James A. Stewart couldn't find snowdomes.
"Very interesting to watch, as if I were visiting a different world."
I wouldn't go as far as to call it a different world, but you're certainly entering a different era of moviemaking with Fox Horror Classics Vol. 2. Fox has gone deep into its vaults, as far back as 1932, for a triple feature of films featuring three of the greatest names in horror: Chandu the Magician, with Bela Lugosi; Dragonwyck, with Vincent Price; and Dr. Renault's Secret, with J. Carrol Naish. At least two of these movies are on DVD for the first time, as mentioned in the accompanying features.
Back in the studio days, movies were made on backlots, so the actors never got anywhere near the locations: Egypt, the Hudson River Valley, and rural France.
Facts of the Case
Fox Horror Classics Vol. 2 features three movies, each in its own case:
Chandu the Magician (1932)
As the movie begins, Frank Chandler (Edmund Lowe, The Spider) is taking his yogi exam, splitting off an astral self, walking over fire, and hypnotizing with his eyes. All of these skills, plus the ability to pull a Houdini, will be required on his first mission as Chandu the Magician: his sister and her family are in danger because his brother-in-law invented a death ray. "Human monster" Roxor (Bela Lugosi, Dracula) wants the operating instructions so he can rule the world. Based on the radio series.
Nicholas Van Ryn (Vincent Price, Laura) lives very well in Dragonwyck, his mansion on the Hudson. That makes an impression on poor distant relation Miranda (Gene Tierney, Laura), who has been brought to Dragonwyck to care for his young daughter. When Von Ryn's fragile wife dies, Nicholas proposes to Miranda. Look for early appearances by Jessica Tandy and Harry Morgan. Based on Anya Seton's novel.
Dr. Renault's Secret (1942)
Dr. Renault (George Zucco, The Mummy's Hand) is experimenting with both. He's trying to neutralize the criminal aspects in an ex-convict gardener (Mike Mazurki, Murder, My Sweet) and transforming an ape into a human being (J. Carrol Naish, House of Frankenstein). When there's a murder, which one is responsible?
The emphasis in Chandu the Magician is on cliffhanger action. According to the commentary, director William Cameron Menzies was brought on board to handle the action, effects, and look of the film, with Marcel Varnel handling the nuts-and-bolts stuff. For the most part (there's an underwater escape scene that just looks fake), Menzies' work is spot on. The effects that create a sense of grandeur for the sets and make Chandu's hypnotism seem real as he convinces villains that their guns are snakes are still impressive today. Although the stakes and budget are lower, the best moments in Chandu feel like a modern summer popcorn film. That's quite an accomplishment for 1932.
The movie mostly boils down to a battle of wills between Chandu and Roxor. Edmund Lowe has both a hearty English voice and a spooky magic voice, and he has a strange expression to use when he's doing magic. Lugosi is genuinely frightening, although the movie isn't trying to scare. A likable Irene Ware (No Parking) manages to shine through the movie's hammy style and "mushy" dialogue as Princess Nadji, Chandu's romantic interest. A subplot in which Chandu creates a magic "conscience" to cure his lackey (Herbert Mundin, Orient Express) of drinking didn't impress me. The unconvincing extras in turbans posing as stereotyped Egyptians also hurt the movie.
Film historian Gregory William Mank's commentary was, for the most part, informative, mixing facts with occasional sarcasm. My favorites are that Nicola Tesla actually did try to develop a death ray, and Lugosi took over the role of Chandu for a sequel. I thought it was bad timing to bring up the deaths of the actual writers as Chandu faced death, but that was a small slip. There's also a short documentary, "Masters of Magic: The World of 'Chandu,'" which looks back at the popular but short-lived radio series and the interest in mysticism which spawned it.
A restoration comparison shows that Chandu, the oldest picture here, was in the worst original shape. There are still some flaws, but it's a vast improvement. Of note in a stills gallery is a photo of an Egyptian delegate and attache to the Olympics posing with movie directors and Bela Lugosi.
Dragonwyck has a ghost playing the harpsichord. The mansion, looking like a painting in those transition shots, is suitably eerie and foreboding. It's not exactly a horror movie, though, despite the Gothic trappings.
It's a mystery, perhaps, with Nicholas Van Ryn retreating to his tower room and his first wife dying under circumstances that should raise a few suspicions. More than that, though, it takes on the question of a godly life versus a worldly life. Gene Tierney's Miranda is a naive farm girl, given to saying "Golly" and smiling gratefully to servants for the meals they serve. She's entranced by Van Ryn's wealth, his fancy balls, and his noble guests, enough that she doesn't see how dysfunctional his household is. Von Ryn's own daughter asks of him, "What's he like?…Is he nice?" While Miranda is quickly led by the domineering Van Ryn, her father, who answers questions by going to random passages in The Bible, is not so easily swayed. He's against the marriage, but she doesn't listen. It's no coincidence that Von Ryn makes his entrance as Miranda and her father are engaging in Bible reading, on the words, "I will not know a wicked person."
Vincent Price is more mesmerizing than Chandu as Nicholas Van Ryn, who usually gets his determined way with a smile on his face and a few words like, "Consider your objections overruled and the matter settled." He's in perfect control of himself and those around him through most of the movie, falling apart tragically at the end. Price's Van Ryn is charming and, on the surface, thoughtful, having a sumptuous meal sent to Miranda and her father as they arrive in New York and bringing flowers and cake to his sick wife early in the film. He's also arrogant, tossing a tenant farmer who protests his tributes off his land without a second thought. "I shall never relinquish my position," he says.
As Miranda's father, a strict religious man who turns up his nose at fruit with rum and other fancy trappings, Walter Huston shows his concern for his daughter and his underlying principles, not just religious bluster. Spring Byington has some good moments as a servant who warns Miranda that all is not golden at glistening Dragonwyck.
Dragonwyck pulls out all the stops, including a mournful and musical score, lots of shadows, and a long table with only three people dining, to create its atmosphere of foreboding. Fox's restoration shows off all this imagery excellently; a comparison reveals the flaws in the original, but even that version looked watchable. In the end, though, its strength is drawn by the pairing of Price and Tierney.
The film experts in "A House of Secrets: Exploring Dragonwyck" emphasize the horror elements of Dragonwyck. I'd still call it more of a mystery, but they did convince me that it's a must for Price fans since his later role of Roderick Usher is foreshadowed in Nicholas Van Ryn. There's also some interesting discussion of Joseph L. Mankiewicz, who made his directorial debut with Dragonwyck, and his shaping of the material.
A commentary by author Steve Haberman and DVD producer Constantine Nasr talks a lot about missing scenes that would have tipped the film's hand about its villainous leading man earlier in the story. It's also noted that Fox considered shooting this moody movie in color. Now that would be a horror!
The Lux Radio Theater version from 1946 is condensed, and you'll notice the absence of supporting players like Huston and Byington, but it's well done. Gale Gordon's version of Dr. Turner, Van Ryn's rival for Miranda, sounded better than Glenn Langan's movie turn as Dr. Turner. There's even a description of the patroon system and the anti-rent revolution in the introduction. This is the pre-TV era equivalent of a good DVD treatment! A second radio version, from a 1947 episode of Screen Guild Players, is disappointing. Narrated by Miranda, now played by Teresa Wright, it's a half-hour that rushes through much too quickly.
Rounding out the package are four photo galleries, covering advertising, U.K. lobby cards, behind the scenes, and production, and a trailer that assumes you've read and enjoyed the popular novel. There's an isolated score track as well.
Dr. Renault's Secret could be that it's an uncredited adaptation of Balaoo, a Gaston Leroux (The Phantom of the Opera) novel, as is noted in the accompanying featurette. It could also be that it wanted to capitalize on the success of Frankenstein.
Naahh, the latter's no secret. J. Carrol Naish gives a good performance as the ape-man Noel, combining the moves of the ape with a simple, childlike speech pattern and expression. When driving, he can sense a dog in the road and stop long before anyone else can see it. On the flip side, he turns violent at a perceived threat to Madelon, the doctor's daughter, whom he loves.
This could turn dangerous when Dr. Larry Forbes, Madelon's fiancee shows up. When he arrives in his trenchcoat, Forbes looks like the typical B-movie lead. Actually, everyone here, except for Naish, plays things one-dimensional. It's set in a French village, but none of these people sounds remotely French.
The reversal of your expectations at the end works beautifully, even after a movie that's been telegraphing things more than Western Union. However, the main reason to watch is Naish. The picture's good, again thanks to careful restoration.
"Horror's Missing Link: Rediscovering Dr. Renault's Secret" looks at the interest in apes in the movies, attributed to the Scopes evolution trial. There's also a trailer that tells too much of the tale. It includes three galleries—advertising, lobby cards, and production; some of the lobby cards are colorized.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
After sifting through the DVD features on three movies, I wasn't convinced that these films belonged together in a set. The booklet, which fell out of the box last, explains the theme: madmen. Still, the movies don't match the tone of the blood-spattered cover illustration.
If you're a student of history, you'll note that France in 1942 was dealing with something much worse than mad scientists; it was World War II and the Nazis had taken over.
With a list price under $20 and lots of extras, Fox Horror Classics Vol. 2 is a good buy. You're essentially buying Dragonwyck and getting two other movies for free. While I wasn't particularly frightened by these films, the appearance of Bela Lugosi in Chandu the Magician, the early starring role of Vincent Price in Dragonwyck, and the performance of J. Carrol Naish in Dr. Renault's Secret will please classic horror buffs.
Fox also did a good job of putting this box set together, restoring the film and adding special features that provide the extra information film buffs look for.
Not guilty. I'll let Fox off on the misnamed box set misdemeanor for otherwise outstanding behavior.
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What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice, Chandu The Magician
Perp Profile, Chandu The Magician
Distinguishing Marks, Chandu The Magician
• Commentary by Gregory William Mack
Scales of Justice, Dragonwyck
Perp Profile, Dragonwyck
Distinguishing Marks, Dragonwyck
• Commentary by Author Steve Haberman and DVD Producer Constantine Nair
Scales of Justice, Dr. Renault's Secret
Perp Profile, Dr. Renault's Secret
Distinguishing Marks, Dr. Renault's Secret
• "Horror's Missing Link: Rediscovering Dr. Renault's Secret"
Review content copyright © 2008 James A. Stewart; Site design and review layout copyright © 2014 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.