Wednesday, June 1, 2011

By the way, it's still PRC month, too...

... So it's about time I published the results of the favourite PRC movie readers' poll.
They're listed in reverse order, with the number of votes received in brackets:

9 (joint):
The Black Raven (1)
Devil Bat's Daughter (1)

7 (joint):
Fog Island (2)
The Mad Monster (2)
Strangler of the Swamp (2)

4 (joint):
The Flying Serpent (3)
The Monster Maker (3)

2: Bluebeard (4)

1: The Devil Bat (13)

No surprises at Devil Bat's runaway lead, or, I suppose, at his daughter's poor showing. But the low figure for a film as fantastic as Fog Island can only be attrubutable to the fact that it remains so criminally little seen.
Indeed all of PRC's output - which is, I've come to think, rather better and more interesting than Monogram's - still wallows in obscurity even in comparison with that studio's films. The only reason I can think of why this should be so is that Monogram had frequent recourse to Lugosi, whereas PRC bagged him only once (in a film that comes closer to legit horror classic status, for all its barking absurdities, than any of Lugosi's Monograms).
As horror films, especially if you imagine Lugosi in the leads, the PRC titles are a splendidly weird and wonderful crop: in particular The Monster Maker, Bluebeard and Fog Island would be unquestioned cherished favourites if only poor Bela had graced them with his presence.
And Fog Island, in particular, best illustrates another reason why PRC's horrors have their own claim to individual merit and status: they are the most unremittingly cynical and mean-spirited horror movies of the forties.
I don't think you need to look far to work out why. World-weary cynicism is only to be expected from a company that operated in the way that PRC did.
It's odd that they existed at all, really: just breaking even in the land of dreams seems almost to defeat the object. Nobody could have been working at PRC for the love of PRC. It was a place that existed on hope: on the starlet's hope that this, against all the odds, is going to be the one that gets them noticed, or that of the formerly noticed on the way down, hoping that this is going to be, against odds still greater, the one that turns the descent round again. Or the studio's own hope that this, or if not this then the next one, is going to be the one that breaks all known patterns and become the Poverty Row Breakhtough, the one that's a massive hit, just liked for what it is - even, dare to dream, the one that pushes them into the ranks of the semi-majors, like Capra had done for Columbia.
Success on Poverty Row was measured by how quickly you got the hell out. This seems to have been the great animating dream of all the Poverty Row studios as much as the individual men and women who toiled there.
None ever quite achieved it, but PRC got there closer than most, thanks to the likes of Detour, and Edgar Ulmer and Frank Wisbar.
The air must have been thick there with the scent of hope and frustration mixed: so who cares about trying and failing to match the majors in sappy heroes who can do anything, and have only to flash their million dollar teeth to guarantee a return on the investment? That's why they have no heroes, why they don't bother trying to compete on star power - or the imposed characterisations that star power demands. It's why every character at PRC is either a doofus or a chiseller, and every character is drawn from stock: the reappearance in film after film of the exact same obtuse country sherrif, identical in performance though rarely by the same actor twice, is a particular joy. That the hero, or the closest the film will get towards anything so crass as an endorsement of heroism in their lead males, will probably be some species of reporter, drawn almost always to the heroine as a subsidiary of his professional fly-to-a-corpse instincts, and often as not accompanied by a goonish photographer who's there to get the big laughs is similarly close to given.
Unmistakably, this is a fictional world peopled by the kind of characters who hung around while they were making it.
All the world is here, if by the world you mean the scruffier parts of Los Angeles, but none portrayed with a drop of real human compassion, and always with either no aspirations or else aspirations so meagre - yet so devoutly held - you just know they speak to a community of workers who all know how it feels to be so nearly what they've always dreamed of being, yet still not quite.
What seems so strikingly obvious in Detour actually holds good for almost all PRC product. It is the noir studio. It may not have had the resources to define that moment stylistically, but in its sensibilities it was the studio that thought noir, regardless of the film it was making.

Think about Fog Island again in this light: was there ever a more noirish little murder mystery, however unifrom the lighting or limited the set design?
After the death of Zucco's character we watch virtually every other character tie themselves in knots of cross and double-cross, before all perish in the watery finale. Killing off virtually your entire cast all at once at the end of the film takes a certain insouciance and also, I would suggest, a very certain kind of take on the world and its wonders.
Because PRC has characteristically filled the film with nasties and left just two half-hearted young lovers to represent the decent mass of humanity, they can get away with the mass slaughter of most of the cast and still not ruffle Breen, because they all separately and individually had it coming. As a result, nearly everybody drowns, screaming, in the last scene.
Just the thing to get your mind off the Second World War.

PRC's movies have had the sweetness knocked out of them by the hard lessons of experience: lacking Universal's gloss, RKO's hauteur and Monogram's who-cares sense of fun, these are cold, hard films. Nobody ever trusts anybody else or likes anybody else in them. Their villains are animated not by mad inspiration or cosmic hubris but rather by petty resentments, jealousy, spite, wounded pride. Their monsters are like Warner gangsters: heartless, selfish, contemptuous of their victims. Warners may have built the better mean streets for their characters to go down: PRC could never afford such artful poverty, but at PRC, the bus ride home was the real thing. Inside, the sets were bright and noir was an attitude, not a template. MGM was for winners, with not a care in the world. At PRC they had to turn their collars up to keep out the rain, work all night to fill the larder.
There were no mean streets leading to the gates of MGM, so what did they know?

3 comments:

Mykal said...

Crap! Fog Island got my vote!! As you say - criminally unseen!!

More, Matthew. More!!

Matthew Coniam said...

Yes, this really is a case of a movie that would be a big cult favourite and the only reason it isn't is because it slipped through the net...

The Zucco marathon is up next I SWEAR!!!

kochillt said...

I taped FOG ISLAND in 1986, so it's hardly been unseen in my home, also THE BLACK RAVEN. Pairing Zucco with Lionel Atwill turns out a solid product with a few surprises. THE BLACK RAVEN I also loved, with Glenn Strange supplying the comic relief, playing the same handyman role he did in THE MAD MONSTER. Speaking of mean-spirited, TMM even has its werewolf murder a small child (offscreen of course), something that could only occur on Poverty Row (Patty Duke would be next in 1959's 4 D MAN). John Carradine certainly enjoyed star status at PRC, playing a rough, tough, brawling sailor in ISLE OF FORGOTTEN SINS (Gale Sondergaard and Sidney Toler), and a Nazi spy in San Francisco chasing down a code book in WATERFRONT (J. Carrol Naish), before his unforgettable, restrained performance in BLUEBEARD. He stays in magnificent control throughout, maintaining sympathy for a character who fails to curb his homicidal tendencies (and even strangles his wife, Sonia Sorel, mother to Keith and Robert).