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December 10, 2007

The Horror of John Brahm

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The Undying Monster
John Brahm - 1942

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The Lodger
John Brahm - 1944

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Hangover Square
John Brahm - 1945
20th Century-Fox Region 1 DVD

Seeing all three of John Brahm's horror films back to back was cause for me to look at his complete filmography more closely. I realized that including many of his television episodes, I have seen more work by Brahm than I thought. Considering that Brahm worked on several anthology series that specialized in suspense and horror, a complete study of Brahm should cover his contributions for the small screen. It is worth noting that Brahm's highest professional honor was a Directors Guild nomination for the Twilight Zone story, "Time Enough to Last". Without giving away the plot to the two people who haven't seen it, this is the episode with Burgess Meredith as the bookworm, whose obsession with reading is both his salvation and curse. It is another one of Brahm's television episodes that truly scared an impressionable ten year old.

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In the early Sixties, I wouldn't know who John Brahm was, but the name Boris Karloff meant something. The anthology series, Thriller managed to push the boundaries of horror on television. I was too young to see most of the the series, but it was enough to know that it existed, and to read about it in "Famous Monsters of Filmland" magazine. One fateful night, I was staying at my cousin's house where the rules regarding television watching were a bit more relaxed. The episode, "A Wig for Miss Devore" was about an actress who wore the cursed wig of a historical figure she was portraying in a movie. Whenever the actress, Sheila Devore, removed the wig, always off the set, she became a frightening killer. The killings were all filmed from the point of view of Miss Devore. It wasn't until the end of the episode that the audience sees how hideous the actress was once the wig came off. I have remembered this episode of Thriller for forty-five years (!), but only now made the connection with the director.

The Fox horror films are linked stylistically and thematically. The fog machines work overtime to disguise the limited sets. There is a traveling shot near the beginning of The Undying Monster which I recognize as being shot on a set for a John Ford film, with only minor alterations. All three films use point of view shots of the killer, a device Brahm continued to use in his television work. The Undying Monster and Hangover Square both are about men who are unaware of their dual natures. As all three films take place at the beginning of the Twentieth Century in England, Scotland Yard comes to the rescue. The choice of actresses may have been mandated by Darryl F. Zanuck, but we have three dark haired 20th Century foxes - Heather Angel, Merle Oberon and Linda Darnell, the latter two demonstrating the importance of clean underwear. More seriously, the films demonstrate why a better availability of Brahm's films is needed.

Clearly Alfred Hitchock had no problem with Brahm's remake of The Lodger as Brahm directed episodes for Hitchcock's television series. It seems possible that Hitchcock was spellbound by Hangover Square, the camera traveling past the musicians and diving into a close up of Laird Cregar's hands at the piano, or more tellingly, the tight shot of duplicitous Linda Darnell embraced by Cregar while the music of Bernard Herrmann swells with romantic longing.

The Lodger has several shots of Cregar lunging towards the camera. There seemed to be a desire on the part of Brahm to make as close to a 3-D film as possible with objects and people coming straight towards the audience, and to play with the illusion of depth as much as possible. It would be interesting to compare Brahm's work in the Forties with his one foray into 3-D filmmaking, The Mad Magician, starring Vincent Price.

Even under the collective heading of "Fox Horror Classics", this DVD set has aided in the re-evaluation of John Brahm. The comparatively larger budgets may have made a difference as well, as the films compare favorably to the Val Lewton produced films and the Universal horror films made during those same years. While John Brahm made fewer films, and fewer personal films, than some of his contemporaries, he showed that when the opportunity arose even with work for hire on television, that he had not lost his flair for horror that served him and his audience so well in the Forties.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at December 10, 2007 12:39 AM


Peter, I just watched "Hangover Square" this weekend, too. I thought it was superb. I also wondered what studio set they used to shoot the square on. It looked sort of familiar. This is the Guy Fawkes movie that "V For Vendetta" wanted to be. And I agree on Linda Darnell. Plus, this has to go down as one of the best flaming endings in movie history, along with Judith Anderson in "Rebecca."

Posted by: larry aydlette at December 10, 2007 11:41 AM

Brahm's TV work is enough to establish him as an underrated master. His Twilight Zone episodes include the classic "Mirror Image" (Vera Miles as her own doppleganger) and "Shadow Play" (Dennis Weaver in a recurring nightmare of his own execution). He also directed two of the best Outer Limits ("The Bellero Shield" and "ZZZZZ"), and among his Thriller episodes, "The Cheaters," which is the most frightening thing I have ever seen in ANY medium.

Add to that "The Locket," one of my favorite '40s film noirs, and the films in the Fox Box (especially "Hangover Square") and you have a director who is overripe for reevaluation.

Posted by: c. jerry kutner at December 10, 2007 08:26 PM

Thanks for all the great things you've said about my father. He was never a self-publicist but after he died I decided to create a web space for him at: http://www.sumishta.com/pages/johnbrahm.html for good folks like yourselves. All the best, Sumishta

Posted by: S Brahm at March 17, 2009 06:01 PM

Hi, Sumishta
I knew your father well, having conducted an oral history with him in the 1970s for the American Film Institute. I recall him as a wonderfully genial and cultured gentleman, driving me across LA in his white convertible and taking me to lunch at Musso & Franks and other places. In the late 1970s he was interviewed on-camera for German TV with other Hollywood German film exiles in a five-part series, FILMEMIGRATION AUS NAZI-DEUTSCHLAND. For years, I've been trying to obtain a copy of the 237-minute series on tape or preferably on DVD-R. Can you help please? Thank you. Sincerely, Joel Greenberg

Posted by: JOEL GREENBERG at June 4, 2009 01:31 AM