Saturday, June 14, 2014

In short: The Frozen Ghost (1945)

Radio mentalist Alex Gregor aka Gregor the Great (Lon Chaney Jr.) suffers a breakdown when he thinks he has accidentally willed a drunken audience member to death. He breaks off all contact with his medium and girlfriend Maura (Evelyn Ankers), and doesn’t exactly act like the picture of mental health in other respects either.

His helpful agent and friend George Keene (Milburn Stone) has just the idea for a relaxing way for Alex to get his act back together. Why not move into the wax museum of Madame Valerie Monet (Tala Birell)? It will come as a complete surprise for everyone in the audience that things don’t go too well there for Alex. Ignoring the atmosphere of the place, there’s also the fact that the museum’s resident artist, former plastic surgeon Rudi Polden (Martin Kosleck), is a creepy eccentric who talks with his wax figures as if they were living human beings and hates Alex on sight, perhaps because Valerie’s niece Nina (Elena Verdugo) adores the man as if he were a singer in a boy band, or Frank Sinatra, to use a more timely comparison. As an additional problem, Valerie is very much in love with Alex, a feeling he doesn’t reciprocate.

When he friend-zones Valerie, the resulting scene ends with Valerie falling down (dead? unconscious? just very sleepy?), and Alex doing what he does best – running away. When he returns with George, his potential victim has disappeared, and the dumbest cop in town (Douglass Dumbrille) treats Alex as his main suspect in what can clearly only have been murder, right? Oh the mystery and excitement!

But seriously, Harold Young’s The Frozen Ghost, the fourth entry in Universal’s series of films branded after radio’s Inner Sanctum Mysteries – alas without excellent elements like the Creaking Door, or the cheesily cynical narrator - is a perfectly good time, if you’re not afraid of a mystery that is both obvious and just as preposterously constructed as it would have been in comparable Poverty Row movies. This being a Universal production, the production values are quite a bit higher than that of the poor relations, though, with some decently atmospheric sets (probably re-used from higher budget efforts), a director whose nickname isn’t “One-Shot”, and who consequently actually seems to have directed beyond shouting “cut!”, and acting that is at least decent, sometimes, like in the delightful scenery chewing of Martin Kosleck, decidedly enjoyable to watch.

Like the other Inner Sanctum movies, the film is also a showcase for the talents of Lon Chaney Jr., at this point in time credited without the “Jr.”, playing more suave and better dressed characters than you’d expect if you only know him as poor Larry Talbot or in his later incarnation of alcoholic wreck, in usually more convincing ways than you might fear. These films did of course know that what Chaney did best was reacting to pressure in ways even I’d call wimpy and milked that fact generally too much, but The Frozen Ghost at least isn’t overdoing it, and, like a few of the other Inner Sanctum films, also realizes the importance of giving Chaney’s characters some redeeming back bone when it is most needed. Despite their varying quality, the more of these films I see, the more respect I develop for Chaney as the kind of actor who actually could make something out of the things a script gave him, providing his characters with a dignity that made them worth rooting for because of their relatable weakness, or who at the very least gave it his best try.

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