For Reel

The Unknown (1946)
July 16, 2017, 11:10 pm
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Director: Henry Levin
4 Stars
The UnknownThis final film adaptation of the “I Love a Mystery” radio series (credited as a partial inspiration for Scooby Doo, Where Are You!) elevates the material significantly to near genre masterpiece. Detectives Jack Packard (Jim Bannon) and Doc Sloane (Barton Yarborough) this time find themselves in a decaying mansion where Nina Arnold (Jeff Donnell) reunites with her now deranged mother. The details of the setting are familiar of a number of “old, dark house” pictures, but director Henry Levin grounds the genre spooks in the Southern Gothic plot, involving lost loves and dark family secrets. Henry Freulich’s cinematography makes the nearby mausoleum and requisite hidden passages suitably eerie, and although Karen Morley’s performance is big, it suits the maddening claustrophobia. Director Henry Levin, who capably balanced the tone of Val Lewton-like psychological horror with a traditional noir in the previous two entries, furthers his experimentation here with haunting bookending sequences in which a dead woman provides a voiceover. The film was an unqualified failure and was generally disliked by its stars, but many of its images—the brick-and-mortar burial that echoes “The Cask of Amontillado,” the doll with its voicebox removed—are hair-raising.


The Devil’s Mask (1946)
July 16, 2017, 11:06 pm
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Director: Henry Levin
2.5 Stars
The Devil's Mask.jpgThe second in a series of adaptations of the popular radio series “I Love a Mystery,” The Devil’s Mask moves with a pace just as quick as its predecessor, with a plot twist happening at least once per reel. As a narrative, it’s a bit of a mess, but director Henry Levin’s concerns with tone are more fully realized than in the previous effort (the ultimate realization of this atmospheric blend of horror and noir would happen in the largely unsuccessful final film). Just as in the prior film, this entry contrasts the familiar streets of a film noir with the exotic—the jungle artifacts collected in the workspace of a local taxidermist include everything from a live leopard to a glass case complete with shrunken heads (continue the series’ fixation with the theme of decapitation). The detectives played by Jim Bannon and Barton Yarborough are just as unmemorable as they were in the first film, with the peripheral characters taking most of the spotlight. This is worth watching for the hugely bizarre final act, with the reveal of the murderer’s identity leading to a hugely creative final standoff.

I Love a Mystery (1945)
July 16, 2017, 11:03 pm
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Director: Henry Levin
3.5 Stars
I Love a Mystery.jpgPremiering in 1939, the “I Love a Mystery” radio series was a much-loved hybrid of mystery and horror, often involving investigations into the supernatural. With horror movies having undergone a revival thanks to films such as those by Val Lewton, the film adaptation of the series seemed like a sure bet, especially as the similarly dark The Whistler series translated capably to the big screen just two years prior. The first film in this short-lived series is delightfully bizarre—within minutes of the opening credits, a decapitated head is played simultaneously for shock and humor, establishing a tone that toys with the tropes of horror without undercutting them entirely. Jim Bannon and Barton Yarborough play the lead detectives, however the film’s lack of success might have something to do with how passive they are in the plot. Whereas many mystery series’ brand themselves on the detectives themselves, Bannon and Yarborough hardly leave an impression—if the latter’s Texan drawl distinguishes him from similar characters and he generally seems comfortable on screen, the former is instantly forgettable. Regardless, it’s the performance of George Macready, the paranoiac whose head is a prized possession of a local cult, that sells the tone of the picture, which plays as almost Lovecraftian in the way it deals with cults and madness.