This is the latest in an occasional series of blogs about Paramount horror and semi-horror films of the 1930s. Previously: This Pre-Code Thriller Was Inspired by a Very Un-Trump-Like New York Landlord Family, “Murder by the Clock” … and the Karloff Who Wasn’t, “The Witching Hour” Strikes One Last Time.
In the wake of the mid-1934 enforcement of the Production Code smoothing the raw edges off Hollywood product, some feared it would lead to slim pickings in the horror-film field that fall. And so we had the Miller Theater in Jefferson City, Missouri, showcasing the Paramount programmer Menace as its Halloween night attraction.
The Miller’s was a midnight show advertised as a “A Grand and Glorious Hallowe’en Party” with “spooky short subjects” and a “most unique costume” contest (with top prizes of $5, $3 and $2!). But the featured “super-thriller” was a mere old-dark-house murder mystery – with nary a ghost or goblin within its 57 minutes. “It is said that those with weak hearts should not be present,” crowed the J-City newspaper in advance. No one needn’t have worried in that town, nor in the others (and there were others) who made Menace a holiday treat.
Even if it is a borderline horror at best, Menace is not without its delights. The influential historian-film collector William K. Everson made this film worth seeking out to many Golden Age fantasy-pic completists when he discussed it in his 1994 book More Classics of the Horror Film. The “monster” of the story is indeed all too human, but the revenge angle is vividly laid out, the atmosphere appropriately gloomy, and there are some twists that make the tale worth following to the final suspenseful moments.
The biggest name in Menace is wasted in one of its smaller parts, albeit one key to the plot. You could tell it wasn’t Ray Milland’s time in the spotlight yet: He is billed fifth, still as Raymond Milland, and disappears before the end of the first reel. But 1934 was the last of Milland’s lean years. Bolstered by his brief but impactful work in Menace – and, more particularly, in a sizable part in the Bing Crosby-Carole Lombard musical We’re Not Dressing, Milland was about to graduate to romantic leads … and, within a decade or so, to Oscar glory.
From the same father-son producer-screenwriter team (Bayard and Anthony Veiller) that brought us the underrated supernatural tale The Witching Hour (1934), Menace was based on a novel by Philip MacDonald, writer of The Lost Patrol and The List of Adrian Messenger. It is clearly an ensemble piece. But the two actors billed at the top – Gertrude Michael and Paul Cavanaugh – earned that distinction with their pairing as competing jewel thieves in the successful Paramount crime drama The Notorious Sophie Lang (1934). Few remember either of them anymore, and the Sophie Lang pictures (there were three in all) are practically out of circulation.
Here’s the story: In British East Africa, a resident military man, Colonel Leonard Crecy (Cavanaugh), and two friends, Helen Chalmers (Michael) and Norman Bellamy (Berton Churchill), telephone a young mining engineer, Freddie Bastion (Milland), and ask him to visit for a game of bridge. Against his better judgment, Freddie agrees, but as he is en route by plane back to his post after the game. he watches helplessly as a vicious storm breaks the dam he is supposed to be overseeing, destroying the home of his two sisters. Freddie’s plane then goes down, but Crecy, Helen and Bellamy are cleared of wrongdoing in the tragedy. This decision is not well received by Freddie’s estranged brother, whose face we do not see as, newly escaped from a mental institution, he practices his accomplished knife-throwing skills in hopes of enacting his own verdict.
Soon, Helen is joined at her California mansion by Crecy, Bellamy, her sister Gloria (Arletta Duncan) and Gloria’s boyfriend (Robert Allen). An aged neighbor (Henrietta Crosman) and her actor acquaintance (John Lodge) join the group, as does Cracy’s driver (Forrester Harvey). A newly hired butler (Halliwell Hobbes) is also on hand for the strange reunion. It soon becomes apparent that Timothy Bastion is also on hand … or is he one of the above folks (male or female) traveling incognito?
Director Ralph “Fido” Murphy spent a career making quickies such as this, and he keeps the pace brisk, if not breakneck. Although we don’t see him at first, Timothy is quickly and effectively established as a fearsomely deranged sort, and not just for the thuds of the knives he tosses at the walls of his flat. We see the texts of Timothy’s threatening letters to those he holds responsible for the demise of his family, as he predicts the order of their intended demise. Cuts to a newspaper headline and an eyewitness account of his evils add to the guessing game, and as Timothy travels to Helen’s home, train wheels move in time to a hypnotic madman’s chant of “I’m on my way! I’m on my way!”
At this point, we are only a quarter of the way through the film, which is thereafter devoted to a guessing game as to the villain. I am tempted to guarantee that if you see Menace, you will not accurately predict the identity of the culprit until it is revealed. Same for that of an authority figure for good who is surreptitiously involved. It helps that the cast is properly varied in age and nationality. (Crosman and Harvey provide the kind of comic relief that thrillers were thought to require in 1934.)
Released on October 26, 1934, Menace drew praise from the Los Angeles Times as “smooth, incisive, with suspense developed to an acute degree” and “intelligence in every detail. It is … excellent program entertainment.” The premiere showbiz newspaper Variety could be tough on smaller features such as this, but its reviewer, while saying the film “has … added nothing new to the who-killed-cock-robin formula,” admitted it “shows a sure hand and throughout when it comes to pacing and weaving in the tricks that make for suspense and surprise.”
One almost wishes that Menace had been left for production by a Poverty Row company than as a routine entry from a major studio. Public-domain ’34 indies such as The Ghost Walks and House of Mystery have been available for decades through bargain-bin VHS and DVD releases and currently by streaming. But similar – but better – chillers such as Menace and its studio kin Double Door, Murder by the Clock and The Witching Hour have been rarely revived (although not unnoticed by collectors) while under corporate legal control.
The Boris Karloff-Bela Lugosi starrer The Black Cat deservedly reigns as the best of a sparse 1934 Hollywood horror crop. But it didn’t produce the only genuine scares of its movie year.
“Headquarters for Spooks at Miller Tuesday,” Sunday News and Tribune (Jefferson City, Missouri), October 28, 1934.
“Film Reviews: Menace,” Variety, November 27, 1934.
“Menace Pleases,” Los Angeles Times, December 2, 1934.