FLESH AND FANTASY
B&W, 1943, 93 mins. 48 secs.
Directed by Julien Duvivier
Starring Edward G. Robinson, Barbara Stanwyck, Charles Boyer, Betty Field, Robert Cummings, Thomas Mitchell
Vinegar Syndrome (Blu-ray) (US RA HD), Universal Vault Series (US R0 DVD-R)
THE CAT CREEPS
B&W, 1946, 57 mins. 51 secs.
Directed by Erle C. Kenton
Lois Collier, Fred Brady, Paul Kelly, Noah Beery Jr., Douglass Dumbrille, Rose Hobart, Vera Lewis, Iris Lancaster
Vinegar Syndrome (Blu-ray) (US RA HD)
While the numerous crown jewels of Universal's classic monster canon and many tangential genre offerings have seen the light of Blu-ray in recent years, a few odd digressions along the way from the 1940s still haven't gotten their due. Two of the more intriguing ones that used to frequent horror movie reference books have finally gotten their due with fresh HD scans from Vinegar Syndrome on Blu-ray, allowing a reappraisal of two titles that skirt the edges of what really defines the horror genre.
A supernatural anthology that predates the far more famous Dead of Night by two years (and another Ealing supernatural omnibus, The Halfway House, by one year), Flesh and Fantasy was the third Hollywood production for one of France's greatest filmmakers, Julien Duvivier. He had just come off the decidedly more lightweight anthology film Tales of Manhattan, and this one allowed him to go a bit more wild and stylized than usual with a trilogy of stories about the presence of the uncanny affecting the lives of otherwise everyday people. Originally it was intended to be four stories, but for some reason Universal decided to lop off the first tale, expand it to feature length under director director Reginald LeBorg as Destiny, and add new linking segments with Robert Benchley being regaled with the stories as evidence of the supernatural by David Hoffman (host of Universal's Inner Sanctum films). Stor one takes place at night during Mardi Gras in New Orleans where the supposedly homely and self-centered Henrietta (Field) is given a striking wax mask to wear out for the celebration. There she meets Michael (Cummings), her secret crush, and undergoes an encounter that will change them both forever. In story two, lawyer Marshall Tyler (Robinson) attends a well-to-do soiree where psychic palm reader Septimus (Mitchell) warns him to avoid a particular intersection out of mortal danger. Soon informed that he will commit a murder, Marshall starts to quickly unravel as he tries to confront his fate with disastrous and twisty results. Finally circus tightrope walker Paul Gaspar (Boyer, who also co-produced) is plagued by nightmares involving a plunge to his death and a mysterious woman he ends up meeting on a cruise in the form of Joan (Stanwyck), who seems to have some demons of her own. He finds himself falling in love with her, a development that will test their resolves more than they expected.
Though it's crammed with spooky imagery and most definitely features the supernatural, Flesh and Fantasy doesn't really operate like a horror movie and seems more concerned with creating an ethereal, off-balance atmosphere. The actors are all in fine form with Robinson in particular doing another variation of his doomed noir protagonist routine a la Night Has a Thousand Eyes and Scarlet Street, while Stanwyck can do no wrong as usual even if her story is the weakest of the bunch. The mangling of the original structure is obvious and disrupts the conceit of each story flowing seamlessly into the next, with the evocative opening of demon-costumed revelers finding a dead body coming as a head scratcher now. Duvivier's sure hand and some striking cinematography (partially credited to the great Stanley Cortez) are the real stars here, making this among the artiest of Universal's output during the decade. Though it popped up occasionally on TV (including multiple airings on AMC in the '90s), Flesh and Fantasy was unavailable on home video in any form until Universal issued a DVD-R through Amazon in 2013 as part of its Vault Collection. That dated master wasn't anything special, but the 2023 Blu-ray from Vinegar Syndrome (as part of its Vinegar Syndrome Labs line devoted to more unexpected films) features a lovely 2K scan from the 35mm dupe negative with very nice contrast and detail that make the Mardi Gras segment in particular a real feast for the eyes. Some minor element damage is evidence here and there, but it's nothing major. The English DTS-HD MA 2.0 mono track is also in solid shape and comes with optional English SDH subtitles. A new commentary by Barry Forshaw and Kim Newman covers the film in a thorough and engaging level of detail, charting the development of the stories (and the cutting of the first one after a couple of other editorial experiments), the pluses and minuses of the end result, ties to other Universal films, the film's reception, and some possible readings of the tales that will make you look at it from another angle. They're surprisingly dismissive of Duvivier outside of his classic Pépé le Moko, but otherwise this is spot on throughout. In the French-produced special "Fate News or the Dark World of Julien Duvivier" (54m59s) originally produced by ESC Editions, filmmaker Christophe Gans (Brotherhood of the Wolf) presents an extensive overview of the director's career from the silent era onward and makes a persuasive argument for his place in the pantheon of the most significant French filmmakers. Also included are a 2m14s stills gallery and a trailer ("sourced from poor quality video"); alas, Destiny isn't included here and has yet to be released on video in any form.
Lifting its title (and nothing else) from a (now lost) 1930 sound remake of The Cat and the Canary, 1946's The Cat Creeps was the last straight horror film at Universal that decade, though it's basically an old dark house mystery with a bit of feline-centered uncanny frosting. Once the word gets around, a desolate old house on a spooky island becomes the hub of major activity in a search for $200,000 hidden on the premises, and an ailing old woman, Cora Williams (Lewis), might be the only key to finding it. Among the new arrivals are reporter Terry Nichols (Brady), photographer Flash Laurie (Beery), and Gay Elliot (Collier), who's trying to clear her politician dad's name as a suspect in the house's deadly past. When the old lady dies in the middle of the night, the glamorous and mysterious Kyra (Lancaster) claims that the estate's pet black cat now harbors her soul and will expose the culprit once and for all.
Clocking in at under an hour and clearly cranked out to fill a double bill (it ended up playing with She-Wolf of London), The Cat Creeps takes a little while to get to the central atmospheric location and goes through the usual murder mystery steps, with various folks getting bumped off amongst a hefty roster of possible suspects. The actual horror content is extremely low, though the cat is actually a pretty good thespian and there's a surprising implied impalement on some gardening implements late in the game. Despite its less than enthusiastic reception among monster movie fans, this one ended up in frequent TV and theatrical revival rotation for a couple of decades by Universal but never hit home video in any form until the 2023 VSL Blu-ray from Vinegar Syndrome. The new 2K scan from the 35mm dupe negative is obviously way better than the terrible fuzzy copies we've had floating around from TV broadcasts for ages, and the film looks fairly striking once night falls and everything gets all shadowy. The DTS-HD MA English 2.0 mono track (with optional English SDH subs) has no issues and sounds fine. A new commentary by Kevin Lyons and Jonathan Rigby approaches this as the end of an era for the '40s Universal cycle and notes the standout credits for just about everyone involved, including a lot of westerns and TV work, while parsing out some of the more perplexing aspects of the plot. It's definitely worth a listen and packs a lot into the short running time. The sole video extra is "Feline Frights" (17m18s), with Newman in front of the camera this time happily chatting about feline-connected genre films from The Cat and the Canary through a number of '40s films including multiple iterations of The Black Cat, the films of Val Lewton, and more.
Reviewed on April 13, 2023.