31 Days of Horror: Film 9: Bluebeard (1944)

It’s time for the 31 Days of Horror: 2014 Edition. For those of you who weren’t around for last year’s journey, the plan is to watch at least 31 horror movies I’ve never seen before and review them all. So sit back, strap in, and enjoy my journey down the rabbit hole.

I’ve grown so accustomed to seeing the withered, elderly version of John Carradine in crappy horror movies from the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, it was almost a surprise to see him in Bluebeard. His long, thin face that became gaunt and haunted as the hard years of alcoholism took their toll is youthful and handsome here. His tall frame, emaciated in old age, is trim and fit, allowing him to move with the grace of an athlete. It’s a shame that so many horror fans (including myself) tend to think of him as the eccentric old character actor in countless bottom of the barrel exploitation movies he made later in life. If nothing else, Bluebeard is worth watching to see Carradine in his prime.

Carradine plays Gaston, a puppeteer and painter living in Paris. He moonlights as a serial killer, nicknamed “Bluebeard” by the police. Gaston has the nasty habit of painting models, strangling them to death, and dumping their bodies in the Seine. When he falls in love with the beautiful Lucille (Jean Parker), he vows to change his ways. He refuses to paint her portrait and makes plans to extricate himself from a bad business arrangement with crooked art dealer Lamarte (Ludwig Stossel). Not surprisingly, very little goes according to plan.

Bluebeard was an independent production directed by Edgar G. Ulmer. A talented filmmaker who worked the “poverty row” of Hollywood, Ulmer churned out dozens of better-than-they-should-have-been exploitation films. Best known today for the low-budget noir classic Detour, it’s easy to forget that early in his career he was a studio horror filmmaker—his version of The Black Cat starring Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff is one of the more unsettling horror films of the ’30s. He brings the kind of efficiency and eye for horrific details to Bluebeard that highlighted the best of the classic horror films from the ’30s.

Even more importantly, Ulmer understands how to hide the cheapness of his sets and the holes in Pierre Gendron’s screenplay by paring each scene down to its essence and never letting shots linger too long. Most of these choices were needed to keep the audience from noticing a wall made of cardboard or asking why a character would behave in a way that was entirely unmotivated.

Ulmer’s techniques of under-lighting the background, focusing on close-ups of Carradine and Parker, and using quick (for the time) edits, heighten the dark mood of the film and make the creaky story move more quickly than even it’s short 70-minute running time already feels.

While Ulmer uses every trick in the poverty row book to craft something worthwhile out of a lackluster script, Bluebeard is Carradine’s show all the way. Gaston was one of his few lead roles, and Carradine shows how capable he was of carrying a film when asked. He manages the tricky job of making the audience feel sympathy for a killer and even comes off as sexy with a laidback charm. Just as impressively, when needed, he is able to show the menace under that charm and eventually lets fly with the frustration and anger driving Gaston. Given the notoriously quick shooting schedules that Ulmer worked under, Carradine’s fully rounded performance is even more impressive.

Bluebeard is hardly a requirement for horror fans; in all honesty, it’s a mostly routine low-budget horror film of the era. But Ulmer’s capable direction and Carradine’s performance elevate it just enough to make it worth watching.

You can contact me at obsessivemovienerd@gmail.com and read all the extraneous crap that goes through my head by following me on Twitter.

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