Spooky Scary Skeletons. Shivers down your spine. We’re only one week away from the fearful day of Halloween, and we can feel the dread and the spooks taking over our minds, souls and bodies, as we search for dumb costumes or we see how… Christmas decorations? Really? It’s not even Halloween yet! What the fuck! So, today’s film is based on the choice made by the Cinemassacre’s Monster Madness, and you can watch the video on this Peter Lorre film here. What did I think? Well, keep on reading to find out.
There’s an inherent strength to the performances of Peter Lorre, specially because I consider his performances in the 1930’s among the best of the decade, before and after his departure to the United States, in films like the masterpiece ‘M’ (1931) or the great Karl Freund directed horror film ‘Mad Love’ (1935), he has not only a distinct look and voice, as his body and movements also speak loads about his attitude, and he’s the most interesting when he doesn’t play the absolute worse man in the building, something that due to his physique wasn’t always able to do. Here there’s no difference, Peter Lorre with his voice and mannerisms completely controls this Warner Bros film noir infused horror chiller, one that is elevated by his presence from the average concept and ludicrous commentary put around it. Lorre plays a servant in the house of a rich Italian man, but he has been using the books bought by his master to study astrology and how to predict the future “in a mathematical and scientific way”, something that could’ve been interesting but isn’t fully exploited in the film beyond a couple of sequences. The master dies in mysterious circumstances and he leaves all his possessions not to his family, but to the nurse that took care of him in the later years, something the family is actively trying to dispute, while Lorre is allied with this girl who wants to stay in the manor and keep Lorre with his studies. But suddenly, people start dying, and the hand in the corpse is missing and people start to think that maybe it’s the hand that is murdering and well, the fact that the commisario seems to believe it from pretty early on, makes this a strange film to look at.
Specially when you think that the death of the owner of the fortune occurs at around the 35 minute mark, and the concept of the killing hand is only finally fully realized at around the 50 minutes of the movie. It’s a movie that, to say the least, takes its time, but I don’t feel that it’s quite heavy on the viewer. It does have a strong, almost hypnotic way to frame and light its scenes, which makes that those that are watching it with a sensation of drowsiness, it is augmented and might make them fall asleep just in the most interesting scenes. But it is Peter Lorre’s performance that makes it pop and jolt the viewers, and it’s mostly a shame that he doesn’t have a more prominent role in the history, as much as he is the most important character, he isn’t onscreen much of the film, and only towards the end with his constant battles with the severed hand is when he becomes more present. I have to say that I wasn’t bored as much as I was disappointed by the choices made by the director Robert Florey, who was also the director of the movie reviewed last year ‘The Murders of the Rue Morgue’ (1932), and that I also found somewhat disappointing. While this is absolutely better than the Edgar Allan Poe adaptation, this movie wastes opportunities left and right, as well as makes strange turns to other genres that don’t make complete sense, specially towards the end when the tragic and great performance of Lorre is then followed by jokes and people talking straight to the audience, and the whole thing has an almost Abbot and Costello vibe that breaks the whole mood that wasn’t what this movie needed after that. It almost made me angry to see the commisario character suddenly is turned into a comic relief, something that was hinted at parts, but when he fully turns, it’s annoying.
But the movie isn’t completely ruined, and while strange and weird in what it brings to the plot, it’s all saved by the “centerpiece” (it comes at the hour mark of the film, and the film is only 85 minutes long) scene in which Peter Lorre is confronted by the severed hand that plays the piano, asks for a ring to be put on it, and has many other set pieces that are among the most impressive solo acts in the career of Peter Lorre, and at least that makes it a worthwhile watch.