Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Dr. Renault's Secret

There isn’t much of a secret to “Dr. Renault’s Secret” (1942). It’s pretty easy to figure out. But for those who haven’t seen it, I won’t give it away.

20th Century Fox, a studio not known for their horror movies, gave us this “B” chiller, which runs an amazingly tight 58 minutes. The film is beautifully photographed, with that glorious black and white contrast photography Fox was known for. No other studio could touch Fox when it came to black and white photography. With so much visual atmosphere, it’s too bad they didn’t do more horror movies.

A young man (John Shepperd, later Shepperd Strudwick) comes to a French castle to meet his fiancé (Lynne Roberts) whose uncle, Dr. Renault (George Zucco) is a renowned scientist. The household’s servant is the odd looking Noel (J. Carrol Naish) who has a slow, shuffling walk, extra wide nostrils, straight black hair and superhuman strength. Shepperd is immediately suspect something is going on and he’s right. (If George Zucco is playing a scientist, then all is definitely not right.) A petty criminal (Mike Mazurki, about as French as Roy Rogers, but that’s OK) is also lurking around the grounds, determined to get to the castle’s valuables.

Director Harry Lachman keeps the pace moving fast. He knows he’s working on material slated for the bottom half of a double feature, but still gives us lots of arresting visuals, including tilted camera angles and lots of flickering shadows. Good stuff all around. The climax is a bit rushed, and while watching it one feels Universal would have milked the horror elements more. However, like I said earlier, Fox was not a studio for monster mayhem and no doubt the studio memos directed Lachman to hurry things up so they could get it in the can.

The photographs showing the “secret” stick in one’s memory, far more than anything that would have actually been shown.

The acting is quite good here, especially Naish. It’s almost a forerunner for his hunchbacked Daniel portrayal in “House of Frankenstein” (1944), the outwardly hideous person who just craves a little affection. His humanity lessens as the movie progresses, and Naish captures that very well.

According to the featurette on the DVD, “Dr. Renault’s Secret” is based on a novel called “Baloo” by Gaston Leroux, author of “Phantom of the Opera.” The story was previously filmed in 1927 as “The Wizard”, now unfortunately lost, save for a few tantalizing stills. The plot is changed a bit for “Renault,” with “The Wizard” having a mad scientist (Gustav von Seyffertitz) transferring the head of a human onto….well, never mind. The stills from “The Wizard” look incredible and the girl is played by hottie Leila Hyams, who starred in the horror classic “Island of Lost Souls” (1933), which also dealt with…er, never mind. You get the idea.

Here’s hoping “The Wizard” turns up one day for all of us to enjoy. In the meantime, we have its remake, which makes for an engaging time filler.

Rating for “Dr. Renault’s Secret”: Two and a half stars.

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