I have come to a horrifying discovery: for the last seven months, there has not been a single week gone by where I have not seen a film featuring John Carradine in some capacity. From Vampire Hookers to The Bees to Voodoo Man and Universal Horror and beyond, the one-time Grapes of Wrath star won't leave me alone, which is no surprise: the dude was in a whopping 351 fucking movies!! That I would cross his timeline not once but dozens of times in my quest to consume mid- and low-budget/quality movies of every stripe is not inconceivable, as Carradine, while appearing in high-classic movies like The Grapes of Wrath, was also an actor of the Nick Cage school in that he refused to decline work under any circumstance. One that I saw awhile back was The Face of Marble, another Monogram film, apparently the last of their 1940s horror run. My eagerness for the movie swelled when I saw it was a good ol' John Carradine mad scientist film--not as unrestrained as the unrelenting hamminess of House of Frankenstein, but an example of the man at work. Face presents Carradine in one of his more intriguing roles of a mad scientist who is not mad, or even angry.
Dr. Charles Randolph and his assistant David are hard at work at the age-old scientific dream of bringing the dead back to life. This is all without the knowledge of Randolph's notably younger wife Elaine, though she nearly discovers the nature of her husband's experiments late one night when he and David are trying to resurrect a dead sailor fished out of a storm from the water body the Randolphs ostensibly live next to. They are, incidentally, nearly successful, though the appearance of the "patient" is changed. Specifically, the color drains from his face, which becomes seemingly immobile, granting him a "face of marble." Unfortunately the resurrected man deresurrects not long after his restoration to the land of the living, which is disheartening for the simple fact that Randolph and David are always under threat of intervention from the authorities. In fact many of Randolph's colleagues eagerly tell him they will call the cops on him whenever they feel he steps too far, a fact which he accepts genially. While Randolph is kind, and his work is entirely for the betterment of humanity, he is still desperate to conclude what that one promising night offered him, so he makes the hasty decision to kill and attempt to revive Elaine's dog Brutus. The process fails again, at least at first--but after a few long moments, Brutus comes back again, not only feral but with the ability to phase through solid matter. Who must drink blood in order to sustain his existence. I haven't even mentioned how Elaine's housekeeper Maria is a voodoo priestess who puts a curse on David after he burns one of her fetishes! (And that's fetish as a "magical object"; this movie kinkshames not.) This particular subplot is the one which brings us to our climax, when the voodoo curse backfires and kills Elaine instead of David. And so Charles and David must again turn to their experiments in hopes of undoing what has been wrought...
As you might expect, this movie is a little confused about what it wants to do, though I should say it is rarely confusing. Events transpire frankly, with no illusions about what's going on but without serious elaboration on some of the zaniness. While we occasionally get typical Hollywood pseudoscience like "Electrolysis of the blood cells is occurring more rapidly than I dared hope!", this movie recognizes that it is first and foremost a fantasy horror film. Consider: it has not only voodoo, but a ghost, in the form of Brutus the Intangible Vampire Dog. It tries to appeal to the rising culture emphasis on science fiction at the time while still invoking the supernatural eeriness that dominated the horror films of years past. But no matter what genre it adopts, there are still two questions that arise from the matrix of interlocking ideas that builds The Face of Marble: what were they smoking when they came up with this shit, and how did the pitch for this film sound?
It was Monogram, so I doubt there was too much forethought, but what's intriguing about The Face of Marble is that it's not that bad of a horror movie. I doubt it will really scare anyone, but it functions rather elegantly as a character-driven mystery. It's yet another of those "what will happen next" sort of outings, and everyone puts a reasonable performance in, John Carradine especially. The horror in the movie arises less from Charles Randolph's controversial actions than the consequences that befall him for the hubris inherent in those actions; he is a good man who loses everything, making this a tragedy. And in many great tragedies, the punishment of hubris is a theme. All of the weird events that affect the Randolph house--the voodoo and the strange fate of Brutus--could be manifestations of some form of cosmic justice against Dr. Randolph's transgressions. At least that's my way of trying to tie together the various disparate elements of this story.
Plot-wise the film is still a mess, if nothing else for the above-mentioned fact that the least-fleshed-out subplot of this sea of subplots is the one responsible for the climax. You would think that the movie would reach its peak with the authorities busting in on Randolph at the peak of his success, given that everything, including Brutus' bloodthirstiness and ability to walk through walls, keeps leading the police closer and closer to the doctor's secrets. Instead, Maria, a character who has no real motivation to speak outside of vague allegiances to evil voodoo gods, is the one who thrusts the burden of perfecting the revivification process on the protagonists. If there was a bridge between ghost-Brutus and the voodoo then mayyybe I could buy that Maria's story is in any way relevant, but this film needed an antagonist, and if the mad scientists couldn't be evil and the Hays Code stopped the writers from pitting their heroes against cops, then apparently a two-dimensional voodoo witch was sufficient.
As you expect, this movie has some unfortunate racial issues which shouldn't be overlooked. Not only do we have our villain's evil arise from her foreignness and the religion she brings with her, but there's also a butler named Shadrach who is a stereotypical Cowardly Negro. He's not in this movie much and the filmmakers seem aware of the delicacy of overusing comedy (especially shitty racist comedy) in what is supposed to be a supernatural/mad science spectacle. Shadrach's relative absence from the film prevents it from becoming a Mantan Moreland slaughterhouse, but I'm still a little surprised to be seeing this type of shtick in a horror film from '46--it seems late, well beyond the nightmares of King of the Zombies and the like. But the past is always destined to let me down, it seems.
Generally, however, The Face of Marble is not a letdown. It was probably viewed as garbage when it came out, and it's definitely garbage now, but it's still a fun ride. I can only wonder what our grandchildren and great-grandchildren will think when they come across their own grimy bootlegs of our era's unfettered polyheaded weirdness like Ghost Shark.