Monday, June 20, 2011

Alraune (1952)

... aka: Alraune - naispaholainen
... aka: Mandragore
... aka: Mandrake
... aka: Unnatural
... aka: Unnatural ... The Fruit of Evil
... aka: Vengeance

Directed by:
Arthur Maria Rabenalt

Hanns Heinz Ewers' 1911 novel Alraune was the basis for this interesting, tragic drama, which incorporates new ideas not found in the novel as well as touches of horror and science fiction. The same novel had already been the basis for four other film versions. In 1918, it was filmed twice; once in Hungary (that version is missing) and then again (by Eugen Illés) in Germany. In 1928, Henrik Galeen made a third silent version, this time starring Brigitte Helm (of METROPOLIS fame) and released some places under the title UNHOLY LOVE. In 1930, a fourth version - this time with sound and aka THE DAUGHTER OF EVIL - was also filmed in Germany. It again starred Helm, but was directed by Richard Oswald. Though the storyline would go on to influence many later films, this 1952 adaptation is the last semi-faithful version of the tale. It featued several well-known European stars, had two original songs (sung by the leading lady) and is a fairly lavish production, though the English-dubbed DVD version I saw was in very poor shape.

The opening scroll informs us that "Since ancient times, the legend of the alraune, or mandrake root, has held a mystical fascination for mankind. The root, which flourishes under the gallows of a hanged man, is believed to endow its master with the power of producing good or evil... to enable him to possess the powers of the gods. UNNATURAL is the story of one man's attempt to control destinies with the powers of the alraune root." They left out the part saying the root was fertilized with the semen or blood of the dead men and that witch's supposedly used the root for sexual purposes and to impregnate themselves with unfeeling, VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED-style children, but hey, I wasn't really expecting the gory details from something made in the early '50s.

The film opens with a young man - Frank Braun ("Carlheinz Boehm" aka Karlheinz Böhm of PEEPING TOM fame) - heading out to visit his wealthy uncle. He's there to borrow tuition money for medical school, but when he arrives he briefly spots a young woman on the balcony. Since his uncle is away, the butler won't allow Frank to enter, but he's strangely, instantly smitten by the mysterious beauty. Meanwhile, we find the uncle, Professor Jacob ten Brinker (Erich von Stroheim), has taken a trip to a convent / boarding school. There he discovers his daughter Alraune (Hildegarde "Neff" / Knef) has run away. A nun tells him she was placed in a "cell" for causing unrest, excitement and disturbing behavior from other students, as well as hiding "obscene" literature under her mattress. The professor heads home and discovers Alraune is there waiting on him. Then Frank shows up looking for answers. If Alraune is really his uncle's daughter - and his cousin - how come he's never seen or heard about her until now?

Regardless of the awkward situation (and an incorrect assumption Alraune might be his uncle's much younger mistress), Frank ends up quickly falling for her. When the two make plans to run off to Paris together, the professor has a sit down with his nephew to explain the awful truth. Alraune is the bi-product of artificial insemination. He took the sperm of a double-murderer and implanted it into a prostitute and - wholla! - Alraune was born. Why? Because, as the professor puts it "Good people are so uninteresting." He also seems to believe in heredity of evil; that his daughter has received the worst qualities of both of her parents and she has no conscience, no ability to emphathize. In essence, he believes she has no soul. Also taking into consideration he's also been warned by family friend Princess Wolkonski (Trude Hesterberg) to steer clear of Alraune, it's enough to scare Frank off. He takes off for Paris by himself and ignores Alraune's letters.

While he's away, Alraune is pursued by nearly every man she comes into contact with, including Frank's two best friends - painter Ralph (Rolf Henniger) and handsome count Gerald (Harry Meyen). She also strikes the fancy of her father's friend and confidant, Dr. Mohn (Harry Halm). The Professor hires a governess, tutor and all-around mother figure (played by Denise Vernac) to live in the home with them and provide some guidance, but it's for naught. Intelligent, manipulative and clever, Alraune ends up, whether intentionally or inadvertently, causing a wave of depression, death or destruction.

With help from a bewitched Dr. Mohn, she sets up the governess as a thief and gets her fired. When he starts being a little too nosy for his own good, handyman Mathieu (Hans Cossy) dies when his carriage crashes. Olga (Julia Koschka) - who is set to possibly marry Frank when he finishes his studies - unsuccessfully tries to poison herself. Alraune also manages to turn friends Ralph and Gerald against one another, leading to one commiting suicide and the other dying of pneumonia because he went outside on a freezing night to talk to Alraune. By the time Frank returns, everything is in dissarray, and possibly because of Alraune... but he still loves her.

Though not for all tastes and somewhat artless compared to several of the earlier versions, the actors are all solid and well cast and I found the storyline intriguing and thought-provoking enough to keep me interested. Does Alraune possess powers that somehow enable her to subconsciously cause death? Are all the freak accidents and misfortunes sheer coincidence, or is it because Alraune was raised in a sterile environment without love and affection? Is she really emotionless... or just plain evil? The film - regardless of the conclusion you draw from it - doesn't exactly explain away some of the supernatural events that occur, and settles for a simple nature vs. nurture stance at the end.


Unearthly, The (1957)

... aka: House of the Monsters
... aka: Night of the Monsters

Directed by:
Boris Petroff

Oft-dissed, this low-budget time-waster (which was later poked fun of on an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000), managed to keep me reasonably entertained for 70 minutes. Not that it's particularly good, and it's certainly not original, but it's also not without merit. The acting is uneven, but passable, for the most part, the science is silly, there are a few (unintentionally) hilarious moments, the make-up fx work from Harry Thomas is good and the Island of Dr. Moreau-inspired shock finale is surprisingly potent after a slow build-up. I was also surprised to discover that the works of Ed Wood had actually influenced other films immediately upon their release. How else can you explain the presence of slow-witted behemoth Lobo; who was transplanted here from Wood's semi-famous 1955 mad doctor tale BRIDE OF THE MONSTER (1955) with same actor (Tor Johnson) playing the part? The poster - complete with a seal promising it was "guaranteed to frighten!" - is pretty amusing, too. Good thing that wasn't a money-back guarantee!

Emotionally troubled Grace Thomas (Allison Hayes) - who has just suffered from a nervous breakdown - checks in at a large, remote clinic run by Dr. Charles Conway (John Carradine). Well actually she's been lured there under false pretenses by her own psychologist, Dr. Wright (Roy Gordon), who apparently doesn't think much of her despite the fact she's very kind and extremely polite. Not to mention a hottie. Dr. Conway doesn't want his "patients" to have any ties to the outside world, so Dr. Wright promises to arrange it to look like Grace has killed herself. In the meantime, she's led to believe that the clinic will cure her of her bouts of fright.

We're also introduced to an array of other characters who populate the clinic. There's Conway's assistant, icy blonde Dr. Sharon Gilchrist (Marilyn Buferd), who's in love with Conway, jealous over the attention he lavishes on the beautiful Grace and serves up midnight snacks of milk and sedatives. Then there's Danny (Arthur Batanides), a loud, obnoxious, chain-smoking neurotic who wants to break someone's neck for serving him cold toast and claims "It's a lousy world!" Natalie (Sally Todd) is a lovestruck, romance novel reading nympho who needs to "co-ordinate" herself. A thief and murderer named Frank Scott (Myron Healey) shows up fresh from a prison escape with an alias ("Mark Houston") and is blackmailed into doing Conway's bidding. And then there's hulking manservant Lobo (Tor J.), who also does the doctor's bidding and is described as "an overgrown moron" who has the "strength of a Hercules and the brain of chicken."

Naturally, Carradine's mad scientist is conducting unethical experiments and all of his patients are guinea pigs unaware of what's in store for them. Dr. Conway is interested is prolonging youth and vigour and feels he can do so by surgically implanting an artificially-developed "17 gland" (?!) and then shooting his test subjects up with a blast of radiation to kick the gland into gear. Unfortunately, his procedure hasn't quite worked out and sometimes the patient ends up a little lobotomized and/or deformed. One of his failed test subjects is a zombie-like man confined to a chair in the cellar with limited, jerky movement. Another female patient ends up getting her face horribly wrinkled. And well, let's just say those aren't the only two glandular experiments that haven't worked out.

Carradine had played this same exact egomaniacal, sociopathic mad doctor role a dozen times before this one and gives a typical John Carradine egomaniacal, sociopathic mad doctor performance here. You could make a drinking game out of the amount of times his character reminds us that he's a brilliant scientist who loves his work, so every other stoic line is something like "I am a scientist, thinking is my business!" or "As a true scientist, nothing is impossible!" or "They've always called the greatest scientists crazy!" During a completely bloodless (!) organ transplant surgery, Carradine dryly barks out orders to his assistant: "scalpel, sponge, sponge, clamp, clamp, clamp, wipe my brow, clamp, sponge, number 23 scalpel, brow, sponge..." as she hurridly tries to keep up with him. The transplant is done in about 90 seconds. Durng another amusing scene, Carradine plays Bach's 'Toccata and Fugue in D Minor' on the organ after dinner to try to cover up any noise being made while a patient upstairs is being drugged and prepped for surgery.

Hayes (immortalized as the title character in ATTACK OF THE 50 FT. WOMAN) is a fine actress but stuck here playing a sometimes annoyingly naive character ("I'll do as you wish, doctor!"). Still, she commands attention in all of her scenes simply because she's so damn gorgeous to look at and is often clad in form-fitting attire that shows off her statuesque figure. Healey is a little wooden but somewhat likable as the fugitive, Buferd does OK as the loyal but frustrated assistant and both Todd and Batanides try their best to be convincing nuthouse patients, with varying degrees of success. Johnson is very, very funny here, makes hilarious facial expressions throughout and gets such side-splitting lines as "Ohhh... Pretty girl. Ohhh... Prettttty!," "FerdiNAND?" and "Time for go to bed!" So while the film is nothing spectacular, there's some definite redeeming camp value contained within.

Hey, director / producer Boris Petroff liked the end result so much that he decided to remove his name from the credits and replace it with "Brooke L. Peters!" In many ways, this film was a family affair. Petroff's wife Jane Mann wrote the original story and co-scripted, and his daughter Gloria Petroff appears in the pre-credits sequence clawing Lobo's face and screaming. Petroff also made ANATOMY OF A PSYCHO (1961), which was also written by his wife.

Unearthly is an easy title to find. It's been released multiple times to both VHS - by Rhino and WEA Corp.; including a special version available with the MST3K commentary - and on DVD. The Image Entertainment disc includes a very good quality, nice-looking print of the film, but the special features are nearly nonexistent.


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