The Frozen Ghost (1944) -**˝
While I would hardly call Reginald Le Borg a good filmmaker, he unquestionably knew what he was doing. In fact, during his tenure as a contract director for Universal, he might have understood his role a little too well. The studio was paying him to crank out cheap, shoddy programmers for the bottom halves of double bills, and that’s exactly what Le Borg gave his bosses throughout the 1940’s. Few people in the business made such an exact science of trying this hard and no harder. Consequently, Le Borg’s movies tend to be frustrating experiences, neither good enough nor bad enough to fire the esthetic sensibilities, and nowhere is the pattern clearer than in his three contributions to the Inner Sanctum Mysteries series. We’ve already discussed those films, though, and the reason I bring up Le Borg now is for the sake of comparison between his cloddishly professional work and The Frozen Ghost. With this fourth installment, the Inner Sanctum franchise was taken off Le Borg’s hands, and turned over to a succession of directors who were on the whole no better than him, but who knew how to suck far more engagingly. The Frozen Ghost was helmed by Harold Young, and it combines the snappy pacing of his flukishly decent The Mummy’s Tomb with the jittery distractibility of his rather more typical Jungle Captive.
Once again, we begin with an egregiously miscast Lon Chaney Jr. in an exotic line of work for which he seems comically ill-suited. This time, Chaney is Alexander Gregor— known to his fans as Gregor the Great— a showman hypnotist whose radio program enjoys the second-highest ratings for its timeslot in the local broadcast market. Gregor’s act is really something. His “hypnotism” is more an innate psionic power than a learned psychological skill, and rather than rendering the subject highly susceptible to suggestion, the trances it produces grant temporary clairvoyance! Understandably, Gregor gets his best results with longtime assistant Maura Daniel (Evelyn Ankers, from The Ghost of Frankenstein and Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror)— also his fiancee— but he can induce some degree of second sight in nearly anybody if they’re willing to cooperate with his mental manipulations. In fact, that seems to be the way the radio show normally works. First Gregor uses Maura as his medium for accessing the secrets of the studio audience, and then he brings up a volunteer from the crowd to take her place. This goes rather poorly the time we’re around to see it. The audience volunteer is a drunk (Arthur Hohl, of The Devil Doll and The Scarlet Claw) who’d been heckling the show, and he isn’t cooperative at all when Gregor somewhat reluctantly calls him to the stage in the hope of shutting him up. Gregor happens to be in the process of wishing him an ugly death when he finally manages to wrestle him into a trance— and the truculent jackass immediately keels over with a stopped heart in front of both the studio audience and who knows how many thousand live listeners!
Gregor responds to this unfortunate turn of events in the eminently reasonable manner that one comes to expect whenever adversity befalls Lon Chaney Jr. in a movie bearing the Inner Sanctum brand name. When Inspector Brant (Douglass Dumbrille, from Jungle Woman and The Cat Creeps) shows up to deal with the mess at the radio station, Alex immediately flies into hysterics and confesses to killing the drunk accidentally with his mind powers. Brant, as you might imagine, is reluctant to believe that Gregor has any of those, especially once the medical examiner gives the cause of death as heart attack. He pretty much pats the overwrought hypnotist on the head and tells him to get some rest. Gregor will not be placated, however. He remains convinced that the heckler’s death was the result of his ill-will at the moment of entrancement, and he remains determined to see himself punished for his “crime.” If the law won’t do it, then he’ll just have to take matters into his own hands. Alex shuts down his radio show, breaks up with Maura, and tells anyone who’ll listen— reporters included— that he’s a mental murderer. His business manager, George Keene (Milburn Stone, of Invaders from Mars and The Spider Woman Strikes Back), does his best to keep the situation under control, but the simple fact is that Gregor doesn’t want it under control. He wants to suffer, and he’ll wreck any aspect of his life that he can until he reaches his desired level of misery. Eventually, though, Keene does persuade his boss that a retreat from the spotlight is in order. He knows just the thing, too. A mutual friend named Valerie Monet (The Monster Maker’s Tala Birell) runs a wax museum out of the first floor of her mansion, and she could maybe use a smart guy like Alex to help her devise… actually, no. Anyone can see that’s a stupid, stupid idea, totally inapplicable to Gregor’s circumstances, no matter how one chooses to define them. Of course, knowing Alex, that’s probably the very reason why the next thing we know, he’s moving into one of the multitude of spare rooms above Madame Monet’s.
Inevitably, there are hidden agendas at work here. Valerie, to begin with, doesn’t see herself as just Alex’s friend. She’s in love with him, and only too happy to have both Maura out of the picture and him under her roof. What Valerie doesn’t realize is that she’s created a new rival for herself by moving Alex in, because her perky teenaged niece, Nina Coudreau (House of Frankenstein’s Elena Verdugo), is a big fan of Gregor the Great, and develops an instant crush on the troubled radio star the moment she meets him in person. The love quadrangle thus formed (what— you didn’t think Maura was giving up without a fight, did you?) has a triangle of sorts superimposed on it, too, for Nina was already being chased after by Rudi Polden (Martin Kosleck, from The Mummy’s Curse and Pursuit to Algiers), the eccentric genius who creates the wax figures for Madame Monet’s. Rudi, incidentally, comes by his gift for sculpting the human face via a background in plastic surgery. He was the most sought-after face-lifter and nose-jobber in town until an impatient patient disregarded his instructions for convalescence, and took off her dressings too early. Her expensively remodeled face was ruined, and she made sure that Dr. Polden’s career was ruined right along with it. Perhaps understandably, Rudi now has enough chips on his shoulder to launch his own Frito-Lay subsidiary, and he isn’t about to let a little thing like the total absence of encouragement from Nina deter him from treating Gregor’s advent at the mansion as the Great Girlfriend Robbery. Gregor, perspicacious as ever, is totally unaware of any of this. Not Valerie’s smarming, not Nina’s fawning, not Rudi’s seething— nothing. He’s also more justifiably oblivious to George Keene’s secret motivation for tossing him into this swamp of jealousy and resentment. Like the true friend that he is, Keene is hoping to drive Alex the rest of the way over the edge, so as to gain control of the sizable fortune he’s helped Gregor the Great amass. Madame Monet’s isn’t just a nexus of irreconcilable demands on Alex’s loyalties and affections. It’s also a controlled environment in which Keene, Polden, and Valerie can stage a recurrence or two of Gregor’s supposed mental manslaughter problem, and thus the hypnotist’s point of embarkation on the Involuntary Commitment Express. It never crossed any of the conspirators’ minds, though, that any of them might die for real…
You know how up until relatively recently, there was no surer guarantee that a movie would contain no actual nudity than the presence of the word “naked” in the title? Well, I’ve lately come to the conclusion that among 1940’s B-movies, the word “ghost” in the title was similarly tantamount to a solemn vow from the filmmakers that the picture would contain no actual ghosts. The Frozen Ghost attempts to excuse its title with the fate of Nina Coudreau, who winds up anesthetized by Rudi as one of Gregor’s “victims,” then left in the after-hours cold of the wax museum to prevent her from regaining consciousness. (The temperature at Madame Monet’s gets turned down to just above freezing at night so as to protect the wax figures against melting.) As titling rationales go, that falls somewhere between The Living Ghost (which at least concerns the ambulatory return of a character who was believed dead) and The Invisible Ghost (which lacks even the most dishonest alibi for namedropping ghosts in the title).
Qualitatively speaking, The Frozen Ghost has nothing whatsoever on Weird Woman or even Dead Man’s Eyes, but neither of those films can match this one for dopey fun. The Frozen Ghost is a frenetically busy hour of low-rent cinema, with more plot threads than its writers can find any plausible use for and not a spare moment anywhere for Harold Young to take a break from the breathless running about necessary to service them all. At times, it feels almost like an unusually well-financed Monogram production, implying things its creators can’t possibly have meant— as when the clunky “all’s well that ends well” conclusion seems to leave Alex coupled with both Maura and Nina! Nor would I be a bit surprised to hear that Harold Young had to contend at some point with an irate studio apartchik pulling Sam Katzman’s old trick of bringing a tardy shoot back on schedule by junking an arbitrary number of randomly selected pages from the script. At the very least, it seems like somebody was never quite sure from one scene to the next exactly what had already been established, or in how much detail. Aspects of the story frequently proceed in weird lurches, dwelling obsessively on irrelevancies while simultaneously glossing over important points or even dealing with them only obliquely. The film can’t seem to make up its mind regarding Gregor’s mental talents, either, treating them as indubitably real in some scenes and as pure self-delusion in others. Lon Chaney Jr.’s performance here is his worst for the series since Calling Dr. Death,; his limitations as an actor collide headlong with an incoherently written character to create the impression that Gregor is not playing with a full deck in ways that have nothing to do with psychic manslaughter, and our old friend the Raspy Whispering Voiceover has returned after mostly sitting out Dead Man’s Eyes. It’s the sort of performance I associate more with Chaney’s later years, after his alcoholism had begun to get the better of him. Inspector Brant (who reenters the story in a big way after people start going missing from Madame Monet’s) offers Cry of the Werewolf’s Lieutenant Lane stiff competition for the Most Incompetent B-Movie Cop of 1944 crown, eventually getting his man by sheer happenstance in a way that would make more sense coming from a horror comedy like The Gorilla or One Body Too Many. All in all, The Frozen Ghost is one of those cases in which the film itself appears to be drunk, stoned, or otherwise incapacitated, and although it’s surely a piece of shit, it’s more enjoyable in its unabashed feculence than the previous three movies were in their timid mediocrity.