“…A web of intrigue veils the lives of all who know only too well that today’s friends might be tomorrow’s enemies” – Except from the Prologue
Strictly speaking, Tower of London isn’t exactly a horror movie – it’s a historical drama set in the 15th century. The time of King Edward IV and his brother the Duke of Gloucester who would become King Richard III. I make no claims whatsoever to knowing what parts of the story are historically accurate because I’m not a student of history, I assume some are, some are not. I’ve included it in the line-up for Shocktober because there’s a dark vein of black humour running throughout the film – and the cast and pedigree. But just so you guys know – I know it’s not a documentary, I’m covering it for what it is. Basically, this is Universal horror’s take on Game of Thrones.
It's one of the Universal films that I’m least familiar with, and this was only my second viewing. (There are a few movies coming up that I’ll be watching for the first time) It opens with a variation on the theme music for Son of Frankenstein, and those notes would be used often over the next few years as a cue for various monsters – most notably the Frankenstein monster. But the reusing of the music is hardly surprising, not only was it common practice back then – this was directed by Roland V. Lee, fresh from Son of Frankenstein. And he bought along some familiar faces, including top billed Basil Rathbone as the hunchbacked Richard, Duke of Gloucester. Rathbone plays it to the hilt as a conniving, scheming, manipulative villain in this film. The kind of villain who has no redeeming qualities, the type you love to hate. You want him to get his just desserts, but not just yet – you want to see how far he’ll go. And Rathbone’s Richard III knows no bounds. He wants the throne of England, and will go to any treacherous lengths to achieve his ambition. Nobody is safe.
Richard is sixth in line to the throne, and to get to where he wants to be, he must arrange for the deaths of several family members, including young children. Having certain undesirables sent into exile is one of his more merciful tactics. He has to manipulate marriages so that the wealth of two rich families can be merged, he has one soft spot for his childhood sweetheart, but a war must be arranged so she can be widowed and he can “rescue” her – you get the Machiavellian drift of his schemes. He has, behind a secret panel in his chambers, a miniature of the throne room with figures representing all who stand in his way – and as soon as they’re out of the picture, so to speak, the figure is thrown in the fire.
He has a henchman, the Chief Executioner Mord (Boris Karloff) a bald, club footed thug who oversees the torture chambers in the Tower. Karloff had to have his head shaved every two days for the role. His club foot was achieved more or less by wearing a boot similar to the ones he wore as the Frankenstein monster which affected his walk. No sympathy of pathos from the usually kindly Boris this time. Mord is Richard’s assassin, gleefully torturing his helpless victims, adding some extra weight to a board crushing a prisoner’s chest, or absently opening an iron maiden and watching with vague disinterest as a forgotten body drops out. Mord’s blind obedience and his constant quest for someone to injure or kill supply the black humour. In a less skilled actor’s hands the role would become pantomime, or even camp perhaps – but Karloff knew exactly what he was doing – even when slyly measuring a child for a grave.
Speaking of camp – let’s talk about the Duke of Clarence, perpetually having petulant hissy fits because his half brother Richard is threatening him. And this is how Vincent Price entered the world of Universal horror as a young actor. Among the many family members Richard kills on his way to the throne, the poor Duke’s is the most memorable. Challenged to a drinking match, the Duke is hammered, but Richard retains his senses because he’s throwing his drinks under the table, then summons Mord who helps lift the helpless drunken Duke and drop him in a vat of wine, where he drowns.
Another familiar face from Son of Frankenstein is little Donnie Dunagan, the precocious curly haired brat who plays a young prince married off for family gain at the age of five. Thankfully, he’s only in one scene, but his only line is still delivered in his annoying southern drawl. “I do” is delivered as “Ah doooooo”.
Of course, we need a dashing young hero – and John Wyatt (John Sutton) is the man. His cousin is executed by Mord at the beginning of the film and he heads off to France in hiding because at Richard’s suggestion the King (Ian Hunter) decrees that he is to marry an old widow whose grandson is older than he is for the good of the family fortune. Wyatt wants to marry the fair Lady Alice Barton (Nan Grey, previously seen as Lili, who fell to the damned charms of Dracula’s daughter).
The ending is a typical Universal horror one in which we see Richard die in battle, as does Mord.Thus, the monsters have been vanquished and the young couple get married in the last scene and presumably live happily ever after.
Actually, on reflection…how is this NOT a horror film?
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