There was a second Universal horror cycle after the Karloff and Lugosi monsters, even if they never get discussed any longer. And so much of it was based around one man, Rondo Hatton.
Well, Sherlock Holmes too. We’ll get to that.
Hatton was once a sportswriter for The Tampa Tribune and a World War I veteran, but then acromegaly distorted the shape of his head, face and extremities, giving him a unique look that made him a livings special effect. In fact, the studio system tried to play his looks up as an even worse deformity, stating that he’d received elephantiasis after exposure to German mustard gas attack during the war.
After playing the Hoxton Creeper in the Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes film The Pearl of Death, a series of Creeper films was planned. Sadly, House of Horrors and The Brute Man were released after his death, the result of shis acromegalic condition.
Back to the master detective.
The second character spun off from a Holmes film was The Spider Woman, who originally appeared in Sherlock Holmes and the Spider Woman. Again, like Hatton, Gale Sondergaard didn’t need much makeup to achieve her fame as a dangerous and evil woman.
In fact, after the success of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, MGM considered having the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz played as a glamorous villainess, much like Snow White’s evil stepmother. They did two screen tests with Sondergaard in the traditional witch look and the more out there sexy style. After the decision was made to go with the ugly wicked witch, Sondergaard was reluctant to wear the disfiguring makeup, so she stepped away from the role which went to Margaret Hamilton.
Sondergaard also played the evil humanized cat Tylette in The Blue Bird — 20th Century Fox’s answer to Oz — as well as the sinister wife in The Letter.
So yes, back once again to Holmes. After playing the villain in one of the long series of Sherlock movies, Sondergaard would play the sinister Spider Woman again in an unrelated sequel. In the first movie, she was known as Adrea Spedding but now she’s the wealthy, blind and mysterious Zenobia Dollard.
Jean (Brenda Joyce, who played Jane in several Tarzan films) is hired as Zenobia’s caretaker, a job with a definite shelf life as all of the previous caretakers have vanished. Perhaps that’s because at night, Zeonbia’servantnt (yep, Rondo Hatton) harvests her blood while she sleeps a drugged sleep, mixing her plasma with that of her ancestors and a little bit of spider venom — sounds like one of my cocktails — to make a death serum. Oh yeah — he has blood drinking plants to help him with his experiment!
At just 59 minutes and with direction by non-horror fan Arthur Lubin, this film couldn’t catch on the same way Universal’s past horror successes did. Yet it’s still astounding that they attempted to start a new series, much less one with a female antagonist. That said, this did run quite often on TV, as it was part of the original Universal Shock Theater package.
Kino Lorber’s new blu ray of The Soider Woman Strikes has a great looking 2K remaster of the film, commentary by film historians Tom Weaver and David Schecter, trailers and Misteress of Menace and Murder: Making The Spider Woman Strikes Back, a new documentary featuring interviews with C. Courtney Joyner, Rick Baker and Fred Olen Ray. Much like all of their latest releases, Kino really knows how to find that exact movie that you suddently discover that your collection is missing. You can get it directly from Kino Lorber.