LEADING LADIES: HAZEL COURT

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Hazel Court as Elizabeth in THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1957, as the Creature (Christopher Lee) peers down at her through the skylight.

Hazel Court as Elizabeth in THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1957).  That’s Christopher Lee’s Creature peering down at her through the skylight.

LEADING LADIES:  Hazel Court

By Michael Arruda

 

Welcome back to LEADING LADIES, the column where we look at leading ladies in horror movies, especially from years gone by.

 

Today we look at the career of Hazel Court, the beautiful actress who graced many of the horror period pieces of the 1950s and 1960s.  She played Elizabeth opposite Peter Cushing’s Baron Frankenstein in THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1957), and her performance as Elizabeth in this movie just might be my favorite Elizabeth performance in a Frankenstein movie, with perhaps the possible exception of Madeline Kahn’s over-the-top performance in Mel Brooks’ YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN (1974).

 

Hazel Court enjoyed a long career, appearing in movies and TV shows beginning in 1944 and continuing all the way up to 1981.  She has 71 screen credits.  While I know her most from her horror movie appearances, she also appeared in a bunch of TV shows in the 1960s, appearing on such shows as TWILIGHT ZONE (1964), THE WILD WILD WEST (1966), MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE (1967), MANNIX (1967), and MCMILLAN & WIFE (1972).

 

I will forever remember her for her appearance as Elizabeth in the Hammer classic THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN.  What I enjoy about her most in this movie is the class she brings to the role.  Peter Cushing is an absolute devil as Victor Frankenstein, and Court’s Elizabeth is so beautiful, charming, and genuine, it makes what Victor does to her all the more painful, as he lies to her continually and cheats on her as well.

 

Her character seemed so genuinely interested in Victor’s work, I often wonder what her reaction would have been had Victor made good on his promise to tell her the truth about his work and show her his creation.  Would she have been horrified?  Or would she have been supportive?  Judging from her character in this movie, I’d guess it would be the latter, that she, unlike Victor’s former tutor-turned-assistant Paul Krempe (Robert Urquhart) would not have been offended but would have offered her help to her husband to make his dream of creating life come true.  But alas, this doesn’t happen, as Elizabeth is nearly murdered by the Creature (Christopher Lee), and thanks to Paul’s betrayal, Victor is sent to the guillotine.

 

My favorite Hazel Court scene as Elizabeth in THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN is when she boldly decides to search Victor’s laboratory on her own, to learn for herself just what it is that has caused such a rift between Victor and Paul.  She picks up a candle—the same one that Victor would use moments later to engulf his Creature in flames— and searches the area, and when she comes to the acid vat where Victor had been disposing his body parts, she brings her hand to her nose just as the Creature looks down upon her from the rooftop skylight. She looks up and cries out, “Who’s that?”  But the Creature is no longer there.

 

Here is a partial look at Hazel Court’s career, concentrating mostly on her horror film appearances:

 

CHAMPAGNE CHARLIE (1944) – Hazel Court’s first screen appearance, an uncredited bit in this comedy musical.

 

GHOST SHIP (1952) – ghosts on the high seas!

 

DEVIL GIRL FROM MARS (1954) – Hazel Court’s not the Devil Girl, but she is terribly sexy in this campy science fiction tale about a woman alien from Mars dressed in leather who’s come to Earth to dominate men.  Court plays a fashion model named Ellen Prestwick, and she definitely looks the part.  She’s never looked sexier!

 

THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1957) – plays Elizabeth to Peter Cushing’s Victor Frankenstein in Hammer Films’ first horror hit.  That’s Court’s real life daughter Sally Walsh playing the character of Elizabeth as a child.  My favorite Hazel Court performance.

 

THE MAN WHO COULD CHEAT DEATH (1959) – Janine Du Bois- reunited with THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN director Terence Fisher, screenwriter Jimmy Sangster, and star Christopher Lee in this thriller from Hammer Films.

 

BONANZA (1960) – Lady Beatrice Dunsford – guest spot on the popular TV western in the episode named “The Last Trophy.”

 

DOCTOR BLOOD’S COFFIN (1961) – Nurse Linda Parker- low budget horror movie written by director Nathan Juran, who directed such classics as 20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH (1957) and THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD (1958), both films featuring special effects by Ray Harryhausen.

 

ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS (1958-1961) – appeared in four different episodes of this popular television show.

 

THRILLER (1961) – Leonie Vicek- appeared in the episode “The Terror in Teakwood” in this horror show hosted by Boris Karloff.

 

PREMATURE BURIAL (1962) – Emily Gault – stars opposite Ray Milland in this handsome horror movie directed by Roger Corman based on the Edgar Allan Poe story.

 

THE RAVEN (1963) – Lenore Craven – gets to star with Vincent Price, Boris Karloff, Peter Lorre, and Jack Nicholson in this horror comedy by Roger Corman, loosely based on the Edgar Allan Poe poem.

 

TWILIGHT ZONE (1964) – Charlotte Scott – stars in the episode called “The Fear” in this iconic science fiction series.

 

THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH (1964) – Juliana – in danger from Vincent Price’s evil Prince Prospero in this horror movie by Roger Corman based on the Edgar Allan Poe story.

 

THE WILD WILD WEST (1965) – Elizabeth Carter – appears in the episode “The Night of the Returning Dead” directed by Richard Donner, in this western TV series starring Robert Conrad and Ross Martin.

 

MISSION:  IMPOSSIBLE (1967) – Catherine Hagar – appeared in the episode “Charity” of this spy television series starring Peter Graves.

 

MCMILLAN & WIFE (1972) – Frances Mayerling – appeared in the episode “The Face of Murder” in this mystery TV series starring Rock Hudson and Susan Saint James.

 

 

Hazel Court passed away from a heart attack on April 15, 2008 at the age of 82.

 

Hazel Court.  February 10, 1926 – April 15, 2008.

 

Thanks for reading!

 

—Michael

 

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: THE BLACK CAT (1934)

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the black cat posterHere’s my latest IN THE SPOOKLIGHT column, on the Boris Karloff/Bela Lugosi masterpiece THE BLACK CAT (1934), up now in the January 2015 edition of The Horror Writers Association Newsletter.

 

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT

BY

MICHAEL ARRUDA

 

 

THE BLACK CAT (1934) is my favorite teaming of Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi.  It’s also the first time these two horror stars appeared together in a movie.

THE BLACK CAT was made when both Karloff and Lugosi were at the height of their popularity, each coming off the success of their first horror hit, Lugosi with DRACULA (1931) and Karloff with FRANKENSTEIN (1931).  Audiences definitely responded, as this was Universal’s biggest money maker at the box office in 1934.

Since the two play adversaries in THE BLACK CAT, it’s very easy to see this movie as Dracula vs. Frankenstein.  This concept wasn’t lost on director Edgar G. Ulmer, as he takes full advantage of these two actors’ famous monster counterparts.  Lugosi gets to spout haunting dialogue throughout, a la Dracula.  When Karloff is introduced, it’s through a silhouette.  We see his solid physique which in shadow strongly resembles the Frankenstein Monster, and Karloff’s first few minutes of screen time are spent in silence, as if, like the Monster, he cannot speak.

In THE BLACK CAT, Dr. Vitus Verdegast (Bela Lugosi) returns to Hungary in search of his wife.  On his way there, he befriends two Americans on a train, author Peter Allison (David Manners) and his wife Joan (Jacqueline Wells) who for some reason are honeymooning in Hungary.  Whose idea was that?  When there is a car crash in a storm, and Joan is injured, Vitus brings the couple to the home of Hjalmar Poelzig (Boris Karloff), in order to treat her injuries.  Poelzig is the man Vitus has come to see, believing that his wife is now living in Poelzig’s home.

The two men have a history.  Poelzig was the commanding officer of the military unit in which Vitus served in World War I, and according to Vitus, Poelzig abandoned his men, leaving them to be killed or worse yet, captured, which is what happened to Vitus. After spending fifteen years in prison, Vitus has returned to claim his wife back from Poelzig.  Vitus demands Poelzig bring him to his wife, and he does, but his wife is dead, her body preserved in a glass case.

It turns out, Poelzig is a Satanist, and he has set his sights on Joan as his latest sacrificial victim, unless Vitus can stop him.

THE BLACK CAT is one of the more interesting Universal horror movies of the 1930s.  It has many things going for it.  It has Karloff and Lugosi of course, and it also has an amazingly talented director at the helm, Edgar G. Ulmer, who does a phenomenal job with this movie.

Ulmer offers a lot of neat touches.  There’s some nifty camerawork, offering creative transitions from scene to scene.  Ulmer also made the unusual decision to include background music in nearly the entire film.  Most films during this time period employed very little music other than during the opening and closing credits.  Nearly all of THE BLACK CAT has music playing in the background.

It’s a compact little film.  At 65 minutes, things move briskly and efficiently.  There’s no time to daydream.

The screenplay by Peter Ruric tells a haunting story which was quite gruesome for its day.  Karloff’s Poelzig keeps women—evidently his dead wives— preserved in glass cases in his own personal museum— talk about trophy wives!  He most likely killed all these women, making him one of the earliest movie serial killers.

There’s also a very gruesome “skinning alive” scene that still makes me squirm each time I see it.

Poelzig’s ultra-modern house is incredibly cool.  It has a modern design because Poelzig is supposedly his country’s most talented architect.  The house is unlike anything else seen in the Universal monster movies.  Usually the events in these movies take place in decrepit castles and laboratories, but here, we have revolving rooms, slick sliding doors, communication systems, and interior architecture which resembles something you’d find on STAR TREK.

Although the title THE BLACK CAT comes from the Edgar Allan Poe short story, the film has nothing at all to do with Poe’s tale.  In fact, the only connection to the events in the movie and the black cat is that Vitus suffers from an intense fear of cats.

By far, the best part of THE BLACK CAT is Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi.

Lugosi is on top of his game throughout, and he gets to deliver one memorable line after another.  For me, it’s always a treat listening to Lugosi speak in a movie, as his voice and his accent have a poetic quality about them that make his dialogue all the better, and he’s got some classic lines in this movie.

When speaking of Poelzig’s home, which was built on a massive battlefield graveyard, Vitus says, “The masterpiece of construction, built upon the ruins of the masterpiece of destruction.”

Karloff’s got some great lines as well.  My favorite is when Peter Allison barks at him that the phone is dead, Poelzig turns to Vitus and says, “The phone is dead.  Do you hear that, Vitus?  Even the phone is dead!”

So, you have Lugosi strutting his stuff throughout, displaying all the skills which he used to create Dracula, and you think, there’s no way anyone in this film can be better, but then you get to Karloff, whose style is the antithesis of Lugosi’s.  While Lugosi is commanding and authoritative, and all about the dialogue which he uses to great dramatic effect, Karloff is the opposite, seeming so relaxed and subtle.  With Karloff, it’s a nuanced expression, the raising of an eyebrow, the clenching of a hand.  He incites fear in his audience so effortlessly it’s amazing.  His is a different style, and he not only holds his own against Lugosi, he surpasses him.  The interactions of these two actors in this movie is a nice microcosm of how their careers played out in real life, with Karloff continuing to grow stronger over the years on his way to becoming the “King of Horror.”

There’s just a relaxed glee about Karloff, like when he comments on Lugosi’s fear of cats, lines he delivers with a devilish smile:  “You must be indulgent of Dr. Verdegast’s weakness.  He is the unfortunate victim of one of the commoner phobias, but in an extreme form.  He has an intense and all-consuming horror of cats.”

Even David Manners, who’s usually the straight—and dull— leading man in such films as DRACULA and THE MUMMY (1932)— gets to display an edge here not always seen in his other roles.

Not only is THE BLACK CAT one of Universal’s best horror movies and the best of the Karloff/Lugosi pairings, it’s also one of the finest horror movies ever made, period.

Looking for a winter vacation destination?  Check out Hjalmar Poelzig’s place.  I’m not sure how the skiing is, but I hear the skinning is just fine.  Ouch!

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