Thursday, December 9, 2010


THE FROZEN GHOST is the fourth of the six "Inner Sanctum" pictures made between 1943 and 1945. These films were were popular money-makers for Universal and were re-released and in theatrical circulation right up to their appearances on TV in 1957 and 1958. Personally, I don't think that the series was very good and I don't think that they warrant consideration as "horror films," but to include them in the Screen Gems SHOCK! assortment makes sense because these were titles with a proven track record of attracting viewers.

Of the six movies, I think that I dislike THE FROZEN GHOST the most. It really exasperated me the last time that I saw it (about fifteen months ago)--- I lost my patience with it and dismissed it as sloppy, shoddy, apathetic filmmaking from professionals who know better but obviously just didn't care.

Salina [KS] Journal, April 7, 1959

Stage hypnotist Alex Gregor “the Great” (Lon Chaney, Jr.) blames himself for the death of a heckler who he had tried to entrance on his top-rated radio program. Feeling guilty that he murdered the man by squinting and staring at him, Gregor breaks off his engagement with his performance partner Maura (a pregnant Evelyn Ankers, trying not to show) and quits his show. To help Gregor get back on his feet again, his business manager George Keene (Milburn Stone) arranges a job for him as a researcher and tour guide at Madame Monet’s wax museum. Valerie Monet (Tala Birell) has the hots for Gregor and is jealous of Maura; she’s also jealous of the attention that her assistant (and niece) Nina (Elena Verdugo) gets from the mopey, dopey Gregor. To make the romantic entanglements even more absurd, add in Rudi Polden (Martin Kosleck), a disgraced and de-licensed plastic surgeon who does all the sculpting at the wax museum and who is obsessed with Nina and resentful of Gregor.

Monet disappears after a quarrel with Gregor; Gregor can’t remember exactly what happened because he blacked-out (or had an amnesiac episode or something or other), so he naturally assumes that he killed her by screwing up his eyes at her like he did the heckler. Police inspector Brant (Douglass Dumbrille) investigates, but he seems far more interested in impressing Rudi with his command of Shakespearean monologues than he is in finding the body of Monet. And then Nina disappears, but for some reason Gregor doesn't blame himself for that one. A knife gets thrown at Gregor while searching for Nina, but he sort of shrugs it off and runs off to Maura's apartment instead of trying to figure out who had just tried to kill him. In the end, Gregor reunites with Maura for more telepathic squinting and the truth is revealed.

The "hypnotic eyes...crawling with madness!" promised by the theatrical poster

Despite the title, there is no ghost in the movie. Nor is there anything frozen. At best, there's a corpse that's kept cool in an air-conditioned room, but that's a far cry from the Chaney-in-a-block-of-ice ballyhoo that Universal recommended to theater operators in 1945:

ridiculous publicity stunt suggestion from Universal in 1945

If I had seen THE FROZEN GHOST for the first time on television in the late 1950s, I may have blamed its multiple gaps in narrative logic and continuity on interruptions by commercial advertising--- perhaps the TV station needed to cut holes in the movie to make room for the commercials and that's why it doesn't make much sense, I would've guessed. But watching this now on DVD reveals how generous an excuse that would have been.

More than likely, though, I would've overlooked the faults in basic story-telling because of the wax museum setting. Warner Bros.'s HOUSE OF WAX, a 3-D film starring Vincent Prince as the owner-operator of a sinister wax museum, had come out in April 1953 and had caused a bit of a sensation; presumably some of the SHOCK!-watchers in the late 1950s had seen and remembered HOUSE OF WAX, so maybe the eerie lure of haunted waxworks would've made up for the gaping plot deficiencies.

Wax museums are unsettling places, after all. They seem like an ideal setting for a horror movie because of all the not-alive-but-not-dead figures that populate them. Sigmund Freud wrote an interesting essay about this in 1919 called "The Uncanny," and it may be one of the things that he actually got right. Puppets, mannequins, waxworks figures, animatronic robots, ventriloquist dummies, hyper-realistic lifesize sculptures... there's something "not right" about these things that can be disturbing on a really deep psychological level, and a good horror movie can exploit that. Out of curiosity, I checked IMDb under the key word "wax museum" and came up with a bunch of titles: MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM, TERROR IN THE WAX MUSEUM, MIDNIGHT AT MADAME TUSSAUD'S, NIGHTMARE IN WAX, MIDNIGHT MANHUNT, the "Waxworks" segment of THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD, CHARLIE CHAN AT THE WAX MUSEUM, DAS WACHSFIGURENKABINETT, and many others.

I've seen a lot of those films, and the "chamber of horrors" stuff done in them is often quite atmospheric, but unfortunately, Madame Monet's wax museum in THE FROZEN GHOST is not all that interesting or creepy. It would appear that Monet's house of wax features random (if not haphazard) tableaux from history (Attilla the Hun, Genghis Khan, Cleopatra, Marie Antoinette) and literature (Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Lady MacBeth), as well as scenes of very recent squalid local domestic homicides that Inspector Brant worked on. It's a less than impressive collection, and it is that kind of squandered opportunity for chills which underscores the general frustration that I feel with a number of elements in THE FROZEN the very least, they could have gotten the creepy wax museum part right, you know? Still, I hope that it was enough to spook SHOCK! viewers in 1958.

El Paso [TX] Herald, July 12, 1958

The SHOCK! promotional book's material on THE FROZEN GHOST included a "TV News Release" story--- perhaps since the SHOCK! movies ran in many markets immediately following the evening news, it was hoped that such a fake story would provide a lead-in for the newscast viewers and coax them to hang around for the movie. The news story for THE FROZEN GHOST is titled "Lon Chaney Without Horror," and reads in part:

"It isn't often that Lon Chaney is given an opportunity to play a sympathetic part on the screen and to appear without the disguise of 'horror' makeup. This opportunity is given him in THE FROZEN GHOST, the Shock feature film presentation to be telecast on this channel [...] As a further change from custom, he gets the girl--- in this case, blonde and beautiful Evelyn Ankers [...] Harold Young directs an excellent cast in support of Mr. Chaney in this topnotch mystery thriller."

As I read this news release, I could only imagine the bubble-headed newsreaders on my local TV station in 2010 delivering this item and then engaging in light, pseudo-extemporaneous banter about THE FROZEN GHOST as the closing theme music began to roll and the weather forecaster pipes up with a quick reminder about tomorrow's outlook. Imagining such a scene amuses me far more than viewing the film itself does.

" 'All Who Entered Are Doomed' was the curse of Ananka's tomb! Yet they dared enter to solve a terror-ridden secret 3000 years old. See Dick Foran in THE MUMMY'S HAND on SHOCK on this channel. You won't want to miss this exciting feature film. Tune in!"


Mirek said...

Nightmare's "The Host" would have agreed with you, Creeping Bride.

I have to rewatch these Inner Sanctums one day. Saw them last when the DVD set was released and found them at least of interest, if not on occasion engaging. But, then again, I like Chaney Junior, so....

The Creeping Bride said...

Yeah, but it's not just Lon that's so aggravating here... I think that this movie wastes a lot of decent talent and doesn't give a damn.

I mean, Uni put together a bullpen of reliable B-players and had a story about a mentalist and a wax museum, and they couldn't be bothered to slap together something better than this?

I'm glad that other people like THE FROZEN GHOST because its charms are sure lost on me. I honestly wish I could enjoy it more.

kochillt said...

I enjoyed the wax museum seen in this film, but it was truly a shame that no other Universal feature had such a horror setting. It was Martin Kosleck who stole the show, and inflamed Lon Chaney's jealousy on their next film, THE MUMMY'S CURSE (which was released six months before THE FROZEN GHOST). This was one of Chaney's worst roles, an impossibly wealthy stage performer, whose unimpressive work hardly justifies the lovelorn mooning, a retread of his petulant artist from DEAD MAN'S EYES. The studio did the actor no favors with these two, and Evelyn Ankers also fared poorly in what turned out to be her farewell to Universal. The DVD's crystal clear picture has allowed me a long sought opportunity to gaze at the lovely features of Tala Birell, underrated fixture of Poverty Row, much of whose work was only available in very poor quality (THE MONSTER MAKER in particular). It's a tough call, but I rank this 5th out of the six INNER SANCTUMs, which aired 8 times on Pittsburgh's CHILLER THEATER.