BELA LUGOSI AND THE MONOGRAM NINE, PART TWO (1942-1944)

Bowery at Midnight (1942), directed by , is a surprisingly dour crime melodrama, with a dash of horror (no doubt mandated by ‘s casting). It borrows heavily from another Lugosi vehicle, Dark Eyes of London (1939), although the earlier movie was from an Edgar Wallace story. Bowery At Midnight is comparatively muddled. As in Dark Eyes, Lugosi again sort of plays dual roles, and does some actual acting. The explanation of why his professor character needs a second identity (he uses a soup kitchen as a front to recruit gang members) is nonsensical, however, as is his need to keep zombies in the basement (?!?) Despite its muddled narrative, this, along with Black Dragons, may be the strangest of the Monogram Nine. It has pacing issues, but Lugosi’s performance and the ending, which is still jolting even today, almost make up for the film’s numerous flaws. It has quite a cult reputation, which is perhaps why fans have a trio of options to purchase superior editions from Roan, Troma, or the Retromedia Blu-Ray edition.

Those who think Bela Lugosi reached the nadir of dignity working with may want to check him out with glued-on whiskers, hunched over, grunting like a monkey, and scratching his arm pit in 1943’s The Ape Man. It’s directed by William “One Shot” Beaudine who got his name because—you guessed it—he almost never did a second take. The plot rips off an earlier Monogram property, 1940’s The Ape (with ). That one at least had a decent central performance, despite its ludicrous plot. Ape Man, however, may be Lugosi’s most humiliating hour, with the actor looking more like an Amish preacher than an ape man, whining about his condition as he scrunches in a corner, needing spinal fluid. It’s poorly lit and, despite its obvious intent to be a parody, its dreadfully dull. It’s so bad that the white-bread heroes ( and Louise Curry) are actually a relief from the tedium. If they, and the film’s strained humor, are enough to interest you, it’s in the public domain, so there’s YouTube or some inexpensive DVD editions (none of which are remastered).

https://ws-na.amazon-adsystem.com/widgets/q?ServiceVersion=20070822&OneJS=1&Operation=GetAdHtml&MarketPlace=US&source=ss&ref=as_ss_li_til&ad_type=product_link&tracking_id=366weirmovi-20&language=en_US&marketplace=amazon&region=US&placement=B00004WG7M&asins=B00004WG7M&linkId=1e3fa9fafbfb0ae9c7039f6cf860bf64&show_border=false&link_opens_in_new_window=trueGhosts on the Loose (1943, directed by Beaudine) is Lugosi’s second—and thankfully final—team-up with the Bowery Boys. As in The Ape Man, the film is poorly lit. Beaudine seems to have stuck the camera in the middle of room, yelled “action,” and left for lunch. The (very) minimal charm and energy of Spooks Run Wild is completely absent here, and Lugosi has nothing to do. He was lucky. Ava Gardner (of all people) embarrasses herself far more in this utterly dismal excrement. This is easily the worst of the lot, something even the most forgiving defenders of the Monogram Nine unanimously agree on. The Roan Group did what they could with the DVD.

https://ws-na.amazon-adsystem.com/widgets/q?ServiceVersion=20070822&OneJS=1&Operation=GetAdHtml&MarketPlace=US&source=ss&ref=as_ss_li_til&ad_type=product_link&tracking_id=366weirmovi-20&language=en_US&marketplace=amazon&region=US&placement=B016BSRZES&asins=B016BSRZES&linkId=389aa71f1758abefdccd93379500af72&show_border=false&link_opens_in_new_window=trueBy contrast, Voodoo Man (1944, again directed by Beaudine) is a hoot, with a trio of horror stars in Lugosi, George Zucco, and . Girls are disappearing from Zucco’s gas station. Yes, you read that right. Carradine is the imbecile abductor working for Dr. Lugosi, whose wife has been a zombie for 22 years. His scientific skills having failed him, Lugosi becomes a Voodoo Man, abducting pretty girls in an effort to transfer their souls into his wife. Darn it, none of the girls have worked so far. Yes, its a ludicrous reworking of The Corpse Vanishes, only this time we have a horror writer (Todd Andrews) whose bride-to-be gets abducted. A clearly stoned Carradine beats a drum, Lugosi and Zucco sport wacky robes, and Andrews wonders if the shenanigans would make a good movie starring Bela Lugosi. Its tongue firmly in cheek, Voodoo Man sizzles in its ridiculousness. Lugosi is good here, leading a colorful cast who seem to be enjoying themselves. It’s contagious. We should be grateful to Olive Films for not subscribing to the film’s reputation as bad cinema, because they remaster it like it’s a neglected masterpiece. This is my personal favorite of the Nine.

https://ws-na.amazon-adsystem.com/widgets/q?ServiceVersion=20070822&OneJS=1&Operation=GetAdHtml&MarketPlace=US&source=ac&ref=tf_til&ad_type=product_link&tracking_id=366weirmovi-20&marketplace=amazon&region=US&placement=B075TQRV8Z&asins=B075TQRV8Z&linkId=7d8aed7e9440ac7b85069bd52a794a3d&show_border=false&link_opens_in_new_window=true&price_color=333333&title_color=0066c0&bg_color=ffffffReturn of the Ape Man (1944, directed by ) is not a sequel to The Ape Man. According to the credits, it also stars Lugosi, Zucco, and Carradine, but Zucco became ill and was replaced by Frank Moran. Lugosi and Carradine thaw out a Neanderthal  man and want to give him a brain transplant. Lugosi intends to use a wino, but things do not go right, and Carradine is toast. The result is a murdering caveman who plays the piano. Oh, and he hates blow torches, too. Lugosi echoes the film in being goofy and entertaining as hell. Some, probably people who used to pull the wings off butterflies, cite this as the worst of the Nine. Ignore them. Olive films did. My advice: buy the Blu-Ray of this and Voodoo Man and throw one hell of a bad movie party.

BELA LUGOSI AND THE MONOGRAM NINE, PART ONE (1941-1942)

Professionally and personally, ’s best decade was the 1930s, but even that was a Grand Guignol roller coaster. Shortly after his star-making turn in ‘s Dracula (1931), Lugosi, known for throwing lavish parties for his Hungarian cronies, filed for bankruptcy. Paradoxically given his financial difficulties, he simultaneously became a prima donna, and was subsequently fired from Frankenstein (1931), which would have secured his inheritance the horror crown of the late . Instead, the role of Frankenstein’s Monster went to . Lugosi was denied a contract with Universal and forced to freelance during the heyday of the studio system. With that, and his personal life in shambles (wife #3 left him, and four years later he married wife #4 and abused her too until she left him as well), Lugosi zig-zagged between big budget productions and slumming in Poverty Row productions.

The Mysterious Mr. Wong (1934) was one of the first of those Z-Grade chillers. It was made for Monogram studios, directed by William Nigh, and produced by George Yohalem. It has a wretched reputation as embarrassingly racist, cheap pulp, with Lugosi as a Chinese villain with a Hungarian accent. Clocking in at barely an hour, it still manages to be poorly paced, with long stretches of dullness. It’s halfway over before Lugosi even dons the menacing Fu Manchu attitude and silk robe, torturing the hell out of the white heroes, including the obnoxious wisecracking . Although we desperately hope that Lugosi will get to slaughter Ford, it’s the 1930s, and we’re going to be disappointed. Still, Lugosi delivers in a hammily animated performance and Lotus Long, in a criminally small role, almost steals every scene she’s in. It’s been remastered for DVD by the esteemed Roan Group and released on Blu-ray by Retromedia. The Mysterious Mr. Wong reportedly made a good profit for the studio; enough for Monogram producer Sam Katzman to remember, and offer a nine-picture deal to a down-on-his luck Lugosi in 1941.

“The Monogram Nine,” as the series has come to be known, is the stuff of infamy. They are perhaps “topped” only by Lugosi’s later work with —although we could argue that the Monogram opuses are still better than Lugosi’s entire1950s output. Alas, as dreadful as they all are, none of the Nine approach the zany nadir of the Wood trilogy. Even bad movie lovers, coming to these movies for the first time, may be disappointed after sampling such delightful morsels as Glen or Glenda(1953). With one very slight exception, the direction in all of the Monogram Nine could be said to be on autopilot, with Lugosi merely being told to be Lugosi. But, nobody does Bela Lugosi better than Bela Lugosi. While he doesn’t rank among the world’s great actors, Lugosi had charisma aplenty, and that he delivers in spades, never condescending to the material (a crime of which Karloff could sometimes be guilty). That must count for something, because quite a few of these lesser Lugosis have been remastered and released on Blu-Ray.

http://ws-na.amazon-adsystem.com/widgets/q?ServiceVersion=20070822&OneJS=1&Operation=GetAdHtml&MarketPlace=US&source=ss&ref=as_ss_li_til&ad_type=product_link&tracking_id=366weirmovi-20&language=en_US&marketplace=amazon&region=US&placement=B01MS740XT&asins=B01MS740XT&linkId=2316bbc695e3b412e1c31dce016c947b&show_border=false&link_opens_in_new_window=trueThe one well-directed exception is the first of the Monogram Nine: The Invisible Ghost (1941), directed by. Lewis has a cult following similar to that of ; he was stuck primarily with cheapie projects, and yet managed to instill  considerable craft into them. Lewis is best know for My Name is Julia Ross (1945), the noir Gun Crazy (1950), his cinematic swan song, Terror in a Texas Town (1958), and a pair of above average westerns. The Invisible Ghost features Lewis’ typical stylish direction: expressive lighting, tracking shots, unorthodox camera angles, etc. This easily makes it the best directed of the Monogram Nine, and it looks fabulous in Kino’s HD Blu-ray transfer. The script, however, is utterly pedestrian. There is no invisible ghost. Instead, there’s the believed-to-be-dead adulterous wife of Lugosi’s Dr. Kessler. Mrs. Kessler is in fact quite alive, appearing occasionally at the window to send Lugosi into a trance-like homicidal frenzy. Lewis milks extreme closeups of the murderous Lugosi to craft an aptly sinister milieu. Lugosi is in full Lugosi mode, but even he’s practically upstaged by the startling non-stereotypical, intelligent performance of African American actor Clarence Muse as the butler. If you can get past the astounding absurdity of its plot (and the annoying meddlesome heroes), the beauty of the Kino edition makes for a divertingly hokey hour.

Spooks Run Wild (1941, directed by Phil Rosen) features the East Side Kids vs. Lugosi as the “Monster Killer.” Only, he’s not. He’s just a stage magician and a red herring. The East Side Kids were also known as the Dead End Kids and the Bowery Bows. They were led primarily by Leo Gorcey and Huntz Hall and were popular for about a decade. It’s hard to see why. Their schtick is embarrassingly obvious and frequently racist, with resident African American Sammy Morris as the butt of their jokes (i.e. he gets bug-eyed and spooked over his own shadow). Spooks Run Wild is a tiresome play on the old dark house genre with thunderstorms, skeletons in the closet, spooky candles, and tripping-over-shoelaces double takes. Lugosi, not having much to do, is a caricature here, and sleepwalks right through it. Worse, it’s dreadfully dull. The best thing that can be said about it is that it’s better than the follow-up (to be covered in part 2).

http://ws-na.amazon-adsystem.com/widgets/q?ServiceVersion=20070822&OneJS=1&Operation=GetAdHtml&MarketPlace=US&source=ss&ref=as_ss_li_til&ad_type=product_link&tracking_id=366weirmovi-20&language=en_US&marketplace=amazon&region=US&placement=B0002T7YXA&asins=B0002T7YXA&linkId=7117ed644ecb26bde4ce739ea3ac7b06&show_border=false&link_opens_in_new_window=trueBlack Dragons (1942, directed by William Nigh) is Monogram’s contribution to the war effort ,and of course they do it in their typically cheap style. Lugosi is again in dual roles and gives a good, animated performance as a Nazi hypnotist killing off the Japanese spies who betrayed him. Nigh takes note, giving the horror icon plenty of sinister eye closeups. The story is paper-thin and it takes too long to get moving, but once it does, it moves at a good clip. Its cheapness is evident, using stock footage, which weirdly includes ‘s funeral. We almost forgive its too-many-flaws-to-count, as this is an utterly bizarre entry which goes for the jugular with a shock finale. As wartime propaganda, its heart is in the right (if idiosyncratic) place. Future Lone Ranger Clayton Moore has a small part. Go for the Roan Group release.

http://ws-na.amazon-adsystem.com/widgets/q?ServiceVersion=20070822&OneJS=1&Operation=GetAdHtml&MarketPlace=US&source=ss&ref=as_ss_li_til&ad_type=product_link&tracking_id=366weirmovi-20&language=en_US&marketplace=amazon&region=US&placement=B06XVYVH2X&asins=B06XVYVH2X&linkId=bd733c3bb824b310ddd7c1ec20c66250&show_border=false&link_opens_in_new_window=trueThe Corpse Vanishes (1942, directed by Wallace Fox) was featured on , which should be an indication that it’s dreadful and preposterous enough to actually be fun. Brides are dying at the altar after smelling an orchid. Could that be a clue? All their corpses were stolen by sinister types in a hearse. Could that be another clue? Not to fear, the resident Lois Lane-styled journalist (Luana Walters) is on the case, and she thinks that that leering mortuary guy’s got something to do with it. Lugosi’s got a sick bitchy wife at home—a countess (Elizabeth Russell, from Cat People)—and she needs virgin brides to make her feel better (hey, it’s 1942). Husband and wife both sleep in coffins, which is thankfully never explained, and have a trio of loyal, but inept henchmen: an old lady and her two sons (a dwarf and a hulking idiot). A thankless Lugosi beats on the boys, and he’s gonna get it back good. Lugosi again plays his stock mad doctor character and there’s nothing special about his performance. Although it’s shoddy, cheap cinematic junk food, it zips along outlandishly enough to make it the most enjoyably lighthearted of the Monogram Nine. It would make a great double feature with Lugosi’s Devil Bat (1940, made for PRC). As with the Mysterious Mr Wong, The Corpse Vanishes has been released by both Roan (DVD) and Retromedia (Blu-ray).

Fr. Justin Belitz O.F.M. (Following in the footsteps of St. Paul)

“Giving thanks, he broke the bread, and said: Take ye, and eat: this is my body, which shall be delivered for you: this do for the commemoration of me. In like manner also the chalice, after he had supped, saying: This chalice is the new testament in my blood: this do ye, as often as you shall drink, for the commemoration of me.”

Fr. Justin Belitz O.F.M. (Following in the footsteps of St. Paul) © Alfred Eaker, 2019

Love your enemies: do good to them that hate you: and pray for them that persecute and calumniate you…

Love your enemies: do good to them that hate you: and pray for them that persecute and calumniate you: That you may be the children of your Father who is in heaven, who maketh his sun to rise upon the good, and bad, and raineth upon the just and the unjust. © Alfred Eaker, 2019