This is my contribution to the Great Imaginary Film Blogathon, hosted by Silver Scenes. Coming up with your very own Classic Movie is a fantastic idea...the last time this blogathon was held, I conceived a Hammer Films-Toho Studios co-production called GODZILLA VS. ENGLAND. It remains one of my most popular blog posts.
So what was the result of my bizarre imaginings this time? How about a Universal horror film....starring Karloff & Lugosi, of course. But wait! You not only get Boris & Bela, you get Basil Rathbone as well...and Lionel Atwill! And George Zucco!!
If that's not enough to peak your interest...the film is based on a novel by H. P. Lovecraft!! Wouldn't this have been a incredible thing to see? Well, unfortunately, what I am about to relate to you was never produced on screen. But who knows....maybe in some alternate universe somewhere, it does exist....
The year is 1940. SON OF FRANKENSTEIN has been an unexpected hit for Universal, and the studio is getting ready to start a whole new program of thriller pictures. Filmmaker Rowland V. Lee has just finished TOWER OF LONDON, starring Basil Rathbone and Boris Karloff. Universal wants Lee to do another picture with Basil & Boris, and they'd like Bela Lugosi to be part of the cast as well. In a meeting with the studio brass, Lee is informed that Lionel Atwill and George Zucco should also be involved with the project.
Lee racks his brain trying to come up with a story that has major roles for all five actors. Thumbing through a stack of pulps one day while at the studio, Lee comes across a serialized novel featured in a number of issues of AMAZING STORIES. The novel is called AT THE MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS, and something about the story--a tale of a doomed Antarctic expedition--intrigues him. Lee believes that the desolate frozen landscapes the story takes place in can inexpensively be shown through weird lighting and shadows--much like how he directed many scenes in SON OF FRANKENSTEIN. The writer of the novel is an obscure deceased Rhode Islander named H. P. Lovecraft--Lee has never heard of him, but he appreciates the fact that the man will not be around to complain how the story is being adapted. Universal buys the rights to the story (rather cheaply, by the way), and assigns Curt Siodmak to write the screenplay.
The tale begins in the present day, at Miskatonic University, located in Arkham, Massachusetts. Dr. William Dyer (Basil Rathbone), head of Miskatonic's Geology Department, is in a meeting with the University's President (Samuel S. Hinds). The President informs Dyer that for over two weeks now, no contact has been made with the University's Antarctic expedition. The last time there was word from the group, there was strange stories issued about various relics and artifacts being unearthed. Dyer is told to head a new expedition to the Antarctic to find out what has happened to the first group.
Dyer goes back to his home and excitedly informs his wife, Susan (Anne Nagel) about his upcoming trip. Susan is understandably nervous--"You're going to the end of the world!!!"--but Dyer is as giddy as a schoolboy. "My dear, think of it! This will be a grand adventure in science!!" Among Dyer's main companions on the trip will be Professor Peter Danforth (Boris Karloff), an anthropologist and expert in occult sciences. The brooding Danforth is considered a bit odd, but Dyer respects his arcane knowledge. Dr. Franklin Pabodie (Bela Lugosi) is also going along--he is the man who invented the drill the first Miskatonic expedition used to burrow into the earth. To his dismay, Dyer finds that Pabodie is as strange as Danforth--and that the two men are bitter rivals.
The two other experts for the trip are Professors Benton Lake (Lionel Atwill) and Gavin Atwood (George Zucco). Lake and Atwood are considered major authorities on ancient cultures, but both men have also been accused of being tomb robbers. Also joining the team is former Marine and all-around mechanic Joe Forrester (Dick Foran), who will fly the customized airplane located at the Antarctic base.
The group is shipped to Antarctica, and travels to the camp of the first expedition. The party finds corpses everywhere--all the men of the first expedition have been mysteriously wiped out--but by who? Or what? Dyer and Danforth find large, mysterious things preserved at the camp--a type of being unknown to modern man. Dyer is shocked to find that Danforth and Pabodie seem to react to the things with a type of reverence.
Dyer finds a log from the first expedition going into detail about the discovery of the things, and the "lost city" located several miles away. The log also has a number of symbols which cause Danforth and Pabodie to almost fight each other in an effort to decipher them. Both men exclaim to Dyer that the symbols can be found in the dreaded tome know as the "Necronomicon"--and that the beings are actually remains of the great and powerful Old Ones, ancient Gods that once ruled the Earth!!
Danforth and Pabodie demand that Joe fly the group to the location of the lost city mentioned in the first expedition's log. Dyer reluctantly agrees. Lake and Atwood consider Danforth and Pabodie superstitious fools....but they also believe that the lost city may contain precious treasures. ("We must agree to this, Atwood! Who knows what valuables we may find!!")
The five men take off in the specially-equipped plane and find a mountain range longer and taller than any ever recorded in human history. Even more amazing is the fact that there are aged structures resting on the high peaks!! Joe lands the plane in a clearing and the men venture into one of these bizarre buildings. The group finds that inside are a series of caves stretching off into all directions. The caves are festooned with all sorts of weird writings and drawings--and these images drive Danforth and Pabodie into almost insane behavior.
Danforth demands that the group pay homage to the Old Ones--and that he will kill them all if they do not agree! Pabodie angrily replies that only he knows how to tap the ultimate power of the Necronomicon, and he battles Danforth in one of the caves. The cave collapses, and the duo are separated from the rest of the group. The other men continue on, going deeper and deeper. Lake and Atwood find brightly colored stones, and their shared greed causes them to fight each other over them, much like Danforth and Pabodie did. The two stop their struggle when they hear Danforth's voice bellowing out a strange rhythmic chant--followed by a rustling sound, as if many creatures are scurrying about. The rustling sounds like a phrase--the phrase being "TEKELI-LI".
Lake and Atwood, now scared to death, grab as many stones as they can carry and try to find their way back to the surface. Dyer and Joe try to stop them, but Lake pulls out a revolver, firing in the air. The rustling sound grows louder, and this cave starts to collapse as well. Dyer and Joe escape into a passageway, while Lake and Atwood come upon a deep chasm, blocking their escape to the surface. Lake drops his stones, preparing to leap the chasm--but Atwood pushes him into it! The madly grinning Atwood tries to go on another way, while carrying both sets of stones. Atwood is starting to collapse when he turns a corner and runs straight into the dead body of Pabodie! Atwood is so startled by this that he falls screaming into a nearby cavern.
Poster designed and created by Joshua Kennedy
Dyer and Joe continue on, and find themselves in a huge chamber filled with fantastic machinery--machinery that was not designed for use by human beings. Danforth is there, crazed beyond belief. Danforth, staring daggers at the two men, intones that by killing Pabodie and using his blood as a sacrifice, he has awakened the Old Ones. Dyer pleads to Danforth to help them escape, but the madman laughs. "We are but specks compared to the Old Ones...what happens to us is of no consequence!!"
Joe attacks Danforth and forces him into one of the strange machines. The machine suddenly hums to life, while the weird rustling becomes louder and louder. The injured Danforth starts to chant again--but before he can finish, the chamber begins to collapse. Joe and Dyer rush out and start down another corridor, while the rustling continues to follow them. The two men finally do make it to the surface--but not before Dyer takes one look behind him. As the rustling reaches it loudest height, Dyer's face--shown in extreme close-up--is paralyzed with fear. Joe pulls away Dyer just in time before a rock slide covers up the entrance to the surface.
A screen title informs us it is one month later. Joe, Susan, and the Miskatonic President are sitting inside a doctor's office. The doctor (Edward Van Sloan) tells the group that William Dyer "...may recover someday--but the road ahead is a long one." Susan asks the doctor, "Do you have any idea what may have forced him into this condition?" "We still have much to learn," replies the doctor, "but it may have been something he had seen...something inside of those mountains of madness..."
The camera pans outside the room, down a hallway, and through a door marked, WARNING: NO UNAUTHORIZED VISITORS BEYOND THIS POINT. The camera moves to another door, with a small window. The camera goes up to the window, which is barred, and we see inside the empty room the figure of William Dyer, dressed in hospital patient garb, sitting on a cot.
We then see an extreme close-up of Dyer's sweaty face, still paralyzed in fear. Dyer is whispering...
THE FILM'S RECEPTION
Released near the end of 1940, AT THE MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS was not received with any great fanfare. A VARIETY review stated: "Universal's new chiller diller really is a chiller, set in snowy climbs...the lead actors give out generous helpings of ham, but the story is so outlandish it's difficult to care what happens." As H. P. Lovecraft's stature climbed, the movie's reputation climbed as well. It became a baby-boomer favorite due to its many TV airings in the 1950s and the 1960s and its being showcased in several monster movie magazines of the period. The once-in-a-lifetime cast also made popular.
In later years movie historians such as Greg Mank and Tom Weaver reassessed it with a more critical eye. Despite the joy of seeing Boris & Bela face off, along with Atwill & Zucco facing off as well, many film geeks have pointed out that Dick Foran as the affable ordinary guy gets as much screen time as the masters of mayhem. One recent publication has stated, "...while the movie deserves credit as the first true cinema adaptation of Lovecraft's work, Curt Siodmak's screenplay just doesn't do justice to the author's cosmic vision. Director Lee's constant use of shadows and lighting to hide the film's meager budget shows that Universal simply wasn't able to properly present the vast city of the Old Ones."
Universal released AT THE MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS on VHS in the early 1980s, and on DVD in the early 2000s as part of the "Bela Lugosi Collection" (despite the fact that Karloff's role was bigger than Bela's). There have been rumors for years that Bela's death at the hands of Karloff, which was not shown on screen, was filmed, due to a famous posed publicity shot showing Boris as Danforth getting ready to stab a frightened Lugosi. To this day it has not been ascertained whether the scene exists or not.
BASIL RATHBONE BORIS KARLOFF BELA LUGOSI in
AT THE MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS
with LIONEL ATWILL GEORGE ZUCCO Dick Foran Anne Nagel
Screenplay by Curt Siodmak (based on a serial appearing in "Amazing Stories")
Produced & Directed by ROWLAND V. LEE
Released November, 1940--87 minutes