A Halloween Ode to Lionel Atwill

October 31, 2009

There are many people who come to mind on October 31st if you're a classic film fan-- primarily Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi and Vincent Price. Maybe Lon Chaney, Jr., Val Lewton, and Hitchcock, too. But tonight, when the sun goes down, the lights are turned out and I'm ready to watch a film that will make my hair stand on end-- I'm turning to Lionel Atwill.

Lionel Atwill isn't usually associated with horror, probably because, unlike Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff, he made so many films outside the genre that he isn't immediately linked to it. But just watch him in Doctor X and try to sleep with the lights off the same night. It's not possible.

Lionel Atwill starred in the original Mystery of the Wax Museum -- I know I'll probably be burned at the stake for mentioning this (on Halloween of all days, too!) but I really prefer his to the Vincent Price version. The huge selling point is the two-strip technicolor. This process was also used on Doctor X (in my opinion, the scarier of the two) and it gives both films a deathly, greenish pallor that makes them look like they were filmed in a morgue. Of course, the other selling point is Lionel Atwill-- his performances give creepy a whole new meaning.

What I love about his horror film characters is that he isn't playing a supernatural monster. You can turn your television off after Dracula, safe in the notion that a vampire will not be slipping through your window while you're asleep. But Lionel Atwill's characters are often mad scientists or crazy people who really could exist in real life. Walk down the wrong alleyway, and you could become the next victim in his crazy experiment!

While he was also very successful in other genres and roles, (most notably playing a ham actor in To Be or Not To Be) to me he'll always be my favorite horror movie villian- a real life monster whose presence on film makes my hair stand on end!


I had this all written up, and ready to post when I started looking for images of Lionel Atwill on the internet. Even though he usually plays kind of creepy men on screen, I always fancied that he was a reserved gentlemen in real life. He just seemed that way. Boy was I wrong! According to wikipedia & imdb (oh-so-reliable, you know) he was famous for throwing crazy parties, and was actually arrested after a Christmas party turned into an orgy with illegal pornographic movies being shown! Lionel! He wouldn't say who any of the guests were, so he was convicted of perjury and sentenced to five years probation. Because of the scandal, he was blacklisted and worked in b-movies until he died from pnemonia in 1946. Isn't that awfully sad?!


pjowens75 said...

I haven't seen Doctor X yet, but agree with you completely on Wax Museum. I often find the older, original films provide much more subtle chills. Modern horror can make me jump, but older horror can still send chills up my spine.

He sounds like quite the partier, too. Lionel, you ol' devil.

Operator_99 said...

Yes, his off-screen life was rather sordid and sad. But both of those films are are fine examples of his work. And I think the two color process adds to their creepy factor. I also put Mystery of the Wax Museum above House of Wax.

Terence Towles Canote said...

I always loved Lionel Atwill. He was actually one of the best horror actors around. I loved him in Dr. X, Mystery in the Wax Museum, and The Hound of the Baskervilles. And he was the best Prof. Moriarty on screen. Even when he wasn't playing the bad guy, as in Son of Frankenstein, he was great!

Jonas Nordin said...

Lionel Atwill! Nice post!
In my oppinion Doctor X and Wax Museum are the two technically best two-strip Technicolor movies ever made. Luckily Fay Wray is in both of them too! Yay!

NoirGirl said...

Even though I am a die-hard Vincent Price fan, I will agree with you on Lionel's Wax Museum. The VP version isn't as real, somehow. Too campy all most.

I love the 2-strip technicolor, too! It gives the films a whole creepier element.

I'm shocked by the orgy! I always thought he was a proper English gentleman, too! It is very sad. Poor, misguided Lionel...

Rick29 said...

The Atwill role I always think of first is the one-armed prefect in SON OF FRANKENSTEIN. But he was also a quite good as Professor Moriarty opposite Basil Rathbone's Sherlock Holmes in SHERLOCK HOLMES AND THE SECRET WEAPON.

Mr Pendlebury said...

Well Lionel you dirty old dog. I never knew that about him, he's one of those actors that you know so well but very rarely take the time to learn anything about.

Keith said...

Great post. I quite enjoyed it. I don't know much about him so this post definitely gave me some insight into the man.