Thursday, May 17, 2012

Hairy Beasts: Der Hund von Blackwood Castle (1968)

aka The Monster of Blackwood Castle

aka The Horror of Blackwood Castle

Warning: there will be spoilers.

This May the agents of M.O.S.S. throw their collective gaze (warning: may resurrect the dead as mid-tempo zombies) toward everything hairy and beastly: King Kong, cuddly little dogs and more. To stay up to date on our exploits regarding the matter, you can just follow this handy link.

Der Hund von Blackwood Castle, despite a title that translates to "the hound of Blackwood Castle", only barely qualifies for the "Hairy Beasts" theme, because it may contain an evil dog, but it's really treating the poor thing strictly as a murder weapon that could be replaced by just about anything.

When Jane Wilson's (Karin Baal) estranged father, Captain Wilson (Otto Stern), dies, he leaves her run-down old Blackwood Castle and a bunch of problems she surely didn't expect.

For one, there's Wilson's shady lawyer's (Hans Söhnker) heavy insistence on Jane selling the castle as soon as possible (but only to the people he chooses, which would be him), there's a cellar full of snakes, and there's the Captain's former factotum Grimsby (Arthur Binder), all dress-sense a few centuries out of fashion and threatening demeanour, and these are just the problems Jane learns about early on in her stay.

Among the mysterious occurrences surrounding her Jane doesn't yet know about is the start of a series of murders; various shady people taking residence in the nearby inn of Lady Agathy Beverton (Agnes Windeck) and her brother Henry (Tilo von Berlepsch) meet a horrible end when walking the moors by the fake (and pretty ridiculous looking) poison fangs of the titular hound. The hound's victims also have a tendency to disappear afterwards.

That is, until one of them finally re-appears right in Blackwood Castle's living room. Jane, being the heroine of the piece, calls Scotland Yard, but to the audience's disappointment, there's no inspector available, so Sir John (Siegfried Schürenberg) and his secretary Miss Finley (Ilse Pagé) take on the case personally. Poor Jane.

Sir John will for once actually have to use his own brain to cut through the mystery. And I haven't even mentioned the added complexity of the case provided by the not murdered shady residents of Lady Agathy's inn (Wallace inspector actors Heinz Drache and Horst Tappert, among others), or by the suspicious manner in which village doctor Doc Adams (Alexander Engel) and Sir Henry act. Only one thing is clear: there must be something quite valuable hidden in or around Blackwood Castle, and whoever knows of these valuables is willing to murder people with a hound.

I am tempted to call Alfred Vohrer's Hund von Blackwood Castle an archetypal example of the German Edgar Wallace Cycle that began in the 50s, but that would only be half true.

Sure, half the film's cast can also be found in about half of the other Wallace movies, and the film's plot is a variation on all the usual Wallace themes - there's the innocent woman inheriting money and a whole lot of trouble from a shady relation, the mysterious killer who murders other nasty people by bizarre means, the typical assortment of secret doors, threatening animals, and other signs of pulp cinema, and a plot that is so convoluted it becomes difficult to keep track of the cast and their motives (which isn't helped by the fact that people's actions only barely make sense even when you take their hidden agendas into account).

On the other hand, Herbert Reinecker's script puts some work into using some of these elements a bit differently than usual. Firstly, while using Siegfried Schürenberg as the main police detective gives the man a bit too much room for a comedy shtick that is generally more amusing when used sparingly, it also gives the movie the opportunity to eschew the whole "male hero romances the heroine" business that nearly always is a weak point in films of the series completely; it's just too bad that the script doesn't use this opportunity to make Karin Baal's character more active, but since this is a German movie and not one made in Hong Kong, that would be too much to hope for.

Secondly, Der Hund confuses the role of its hero even more by casting actors like Tappert (seriously playing a man called Donald Fairbanks) and especially Drache (his character name is Connery, Humphrey Connery) who would usually play the male hero as some of the film's bad guys. To make matters even more self-conscious, Drache does seem to play his usual inspector/private eye/etc working incognito part for large parts of the movie, only to finally be exposed to be just as evil as everyone else is.

Thanks to this twist, Der Hund has the rather curious distinction of being a movie in which every character apart from the heroine is either an idiot (hullo Sir John, hullo Lady Agathy), evil, a snake, or a dog with ridiculous fake teeth. Which would put Der Hund's world view right next to that of the more pessimistic noirs, if its inherent silliness and the self-conscious winking at the audience Vohrer so loved in his movies wouldn't suggest that to be an indulgence in over-interpretation.

On the directorial side, Vohrer seems most alive here when he can indulge in his love for silly gadgets (I still don't have a clue how that sarcophagus/chess set contraption is supposed to work - it's awesome anyhow) or slightly bizarre sight gags (Vohrer truly loves making jokes about monocles and eye patches). The director's treatment of the suspense scenes seems less enthusiastic this time around: while the scenes of dog attacks and people sneaking through the moors aren't done badly - Vohrer probably being too much of the professional for that - I couldn't help but think his heart wasn't really in them while I watched the movie.

Which, in combination with the high self-referentiality of its most interesting elements, makes Der Hund von Blackwood Castle quite typical of the decadent (colour) phase of the Rialto Wallace krimis. It's not exactly a film I'd recommend to people starting out with the series, but one that reserves its charms for an audience (pretty much like its contemporary German audience that had been eating these films up for a decade by then, and would continue to do so in TV broadcasts for decades to come) well versed in the ways of the Wallace cycle.

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