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).

LON CHANEY, JR.

Why no one has ever produced a cinematic biopic treatment of the Chaney boys ( Lon Sr. and Lon Jr.) is baffling. Bela Lugosi was given quite a spotlight in Ed Wood (1994), and Boris Karloff was a supporting character in Gods and Monsters (1998). Off-screen, Karloff might have made for a nice neighbor, but being the workaholic he was, his biography is dull going. Of course, Lugosi had elements of drug addiction, pathos, and parody late in life working for him. While the Chaneys lacked the European mystery of Karloff and Lugosi, there’s an aptness in these American-bred father and son icons because, as the past year has revealed, Europe has doodly-squat on ‘Murica when it comes to the banality of authentic horror.

From the slivers of information that we have received over the years through peer recollections and various articles, the Chaneys would make for one helluva psycho drama, preferably directed by someone with the sensibilities of a David Cronenberg. No definitive biography has been written about either, and cinematically there’s only a ludicrously whitewashed biopic Man of a Thousand Faces (1957) starring James Cagney as daddy Chaney. Part of the reason for lack of a substantial biography could be the almost obsessive protectiveness of the Chaney estate, who seem to have made things consistently difficult for potential biographers. However, it is also telling that the estate has, as far I know, never disputed the more colorful biographical tidbits that have been given about their silver screen patriarchs.

There must have been something of the masochist in the elder Chaney, who went though much self-inflicted suffering for his art, including looping wires around his eye sockets and wearing false teeth so tight that shots had to be completed quickly before he started bleeding. For Quasimodo, he wore a back prosthetic so heavy that (coupled with instructions to an extra to not spare the whip in the famous beating scene) it sent Lon Sr. to the hospital for an extended stay. Apparently, he was also quite a sadist, and would lock Creighton (Lon Jr.’s birth name) in a closet after razor strap beatings for punishment. (Senior was also psychologically abusive, as when he told Junior that mommy was dead, when in fact she was quite alive).

Such heredity and abuse certainly was instrumental in composing Lon Chaney Jr. as something of a real life lycanthrope with horrific daddy issues. In assessing Jr. as a pale copy of his father, the popular and critical consensus is spot on (for once). In addition to obsessively (and vainly) trying to outdo daddy, Jr. was also a raging alcoholic, had drug problems, and was prone to a violent temper; which, according to some (including writer Curt Siodmak) sprang from guilt over latent homosexuality. However, when actually being directed, instead of just being told to do Lennie from Of Mice and Men again, Chaney, Jr., if not a great actor per se, was memorable in numerous character parts (few of which are in the horror genre).

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1955 DRIVE-IN DOUBLE FEATURE: BRIDE OF THE MONSTER AND PHANTOM FROM 10,000 LEAGUES

Coming Attractions:

“The Picture that unmasks society’s secrets. Jail Bait: the story of boy-crazy girl and gun-crazy guy. The most feared of our modern underworld—men who hate the law and abuse even those they love. See the siren-screaming, gun-blazing thriller, Jail Bait.”

The Violent Years. See what happens behind locked doors of a pajama party! Teenage killers fearing no law! Thrill Girls of the highway! Girl gang terrorists! Untamed girls of the pack-gang! Adolescent gangsters taking their thrills unashamed! Terrifying realism clawing at your unbelieving mind! See The Violent Years.”

Bride of the Monster was Ed Wood’s  most financially successful work, which of course isn’t saying much. It’s success may lie in its attempts to meet mainstream genre expectations, and the fact that it’s Wood’s only film to actually feature a star performance from Bela Lugosi. (In Glen or Glenda, Lugosi was a bizarre narrator. Plan 9 from Outer Space infamously used a few seconds of Lugosi footage, shot mere days before his death, making it a brief, posthumous non-performance which many Lugosi filmographies don’t even list). Rather than pursuing his own twisted muse, Wood, a Lugosi fanboy, attempts to fulfill what he imagines 1955 audiences want from a film starring Bela Lugosi, and therefore Bride of the Monster doesn’t reach the levels of inspired lunacy of the pair’s other collaborations. However, Ed Wood can only be Ed Wood and, in his defense, he’s deprived of good taste—which numerous artists have rightly observed is the enemy of great art. Wood made some of the greatest naive art of all time. Thankfully, Bride of the Monster was produced before booze, poverty, and obsessive kinkiness grabbed poor Eddie by the throat and took him down, which means it’s charming as hell. Adding to its goofy grace is Lugosi’s last starring performance (he had what amounted to a mute cameo in Reginald Le Borg’s The Black Sleep in 1956), which features a beautifully mangled speech that serves as an almost perfect swan song for the horror star.

Lugosi fans (and they are legion, or at least once were) are hardly apt to admit it, but their object of adulation was one of the genre’s worst actors, due in no small part to his clear disdain for the English language and astoundingly poor career choices. With damned few exceptions (notably, Ygor in Son of Frankenstein), he was a one-note performer. Even Lon Chaney, Jr. had more range (although according to peers and biographers, both actors were a tad slow on the take and fared best when actually directed by someone playing to their mental facilities-or lack thereof). What Lugosi had, however, is an undeniable screen presence that brought a sense of mystery even to some of the most unimaginable crap ever produced. No matter to what extent Lugosi slummed it, he gave his roles a dignified pathos. That’s never more apparent than here, a role that’s kind of a summation of his secondary celluloid personality as a mad scientist (his primary one, of course, being the vampire). In Bride of the Monster he is given the aptly loony name Dr. Eric Vornoff. Vornoff has a pet octopus and a brute, mute henchman named Lobo ( Tor Johnson). Unfortunately for Vornoff, Lobo received more than an ounce of tenderness (for pretty girls, that is). Oops, too much!

During a dark, stormy night, two unlucky hayseeds stumble upon an old dark house, known as the “the old Willow place,” now occupied by fascistic scientist Dr. Vornoff. He doesn’t prove hospitable. Frightened by his “monster” Lobo, the two run into nearby Lake Marsh (more of a pond) and fall victim to a rubber octopus (temporarily “borrowed” by Wood from his studio day job). One of the good old boys survives the ordeal only to be strapped to Vornoff’s dentist’ chair and fitted in a chrome helmet thingamajig. He winds up like all the others: “Dead!”

Loretta King, who had given Wood a couple hundred bucks, landed the plum role of ace reporter Janet Lawton. Her acting is actually worse than Wood’s girlfriend, Dolores Fuller, for whom the part was originally written (after filming, Fuller dumped Wood for having relegated her to a bit part). Lawton, who apparently learned the news gal trade by overdosing on Lois Lane comic books, types away about a monster on the loose, much to the eye-rolling chagrin of her boyfriend, Lt. Dick Craig (Tony McCoy, whose daddy was both Wood’s butcher and the film’s financier) and his captain (Harvey Dunn).

Enter monster expert Professor Strowski (George Becwar), a spy “from the old country” intent on bringing Vornoff back home to create a race of atomic supermen.

A snooping Janet gets captured by Vornoff and fitted for a bridal gown, although screenwriter Wood neglects to inform us who the intend groom is. Vornoff gives a heart-breaking speech, to Strowski, about being hunted like an animal and “proving, here in this forsaken jungle hell, that I’m alright.” The line is misspoken, having originally been written as “proving that I’m right.” Either Wood liked the flub, or, more likely, failed to even notice. Lugosi’s aged, emaciated frame (the result of a long drug addiction) renders the speech even more pathetic.  After feeding Strowski to the “real monster” (the rubber octopus), Vornoff attempts to zap Lawton, but Lobo likes her angora sweater and, well, things end with a big bang.

Despite his frailty, this is Lugosi’s funnest mad doctor performance and a climax to a quarter century of celluloid hamming. Bride of the Monster zips along briskly like a tale told by a lovable nine-year-old idiot. The production stories are legion. These of course include Wood and company forgetting to steal the octopus’ motor, thus forcing their actors to juggle the creature’s legs to “make it look like it’s killing you.”

“The show starts in eight minutes. Yum, yum, it’s time for a tasty and refreshing snack. We promise to satisfy your hunger, your thirst, your sweet tooth, so visit our refreshment center now. Let’s Go!”

“Show starts in five minutes. Visit our snack bar and treat yourself to some delicious Castleberry pit-cooked barbecue sandwiches, cooked the Castleberry way: slowly, over open pits of glowing charcoal, then seasoned with a sauce that’s zesty, yet delightfully mild to please the entire family. Also, get some french fries to go with your delicious Castleberry barbecue sandwich. There’s still plenty of time to come and be served at our refreshment center before showtime.”

“See you in CHURCH Sunday. When you attend Church, It’s not an ordinary act, it is something worthwhile.  When you attend Church, you come to GOD’S House to adore, to worship, to praise.

SEE YOU IN CHURCH SUNDAY!”

A poor man’s ripoff of The Creature from the Black Lagoon and Monster from the Ocean Floor, The Phantom from 10,000 Leagues features a practically empty beach; shoddy underwater photography; a mind-numbingly asinine spy subplot; a pointless, inanimate monster; wretched dialogue; even more wretched acting; and characters so ingratiating that one hopes in vain for the phantom to coffee-up, come out of his slumber, and slaughter the lot of them. At least Wood had enthusiasm for his trash. Director Dan Milner doesn’t  even try. A few laughs might be had if one can stay awake through this snooze fest.

“Please remember to return your speaker on the post before you leave the theater.”

1944 DRIVE-IN DOUBLE FEATURE: CORPSE VANISHES AND VOODOO MAN

This is the introductory entry in a new series covering movies that originally played in drive-in-cinema double bills across the country.

One of the first drive-in theaters premiered in Camden, New Jersey in 1933. The venue’s popularity reached its zenith from the 1950s to the early 1980s. Still, the 1940s was also a robust decade for the drive-in, which specialized in low budget B-films, especially horror and science fiction. The setting was also unique in that drive-ins continued to screen films from the 30 and 40s all the way until the late 70s. For a more extended discussion, see the previous article Cinema Under The Stars.

Coming Attraction! Black Dragons!

“Suicide or murder in the shadow of a nation’s capitol? The screen’s master of horror, Bela Lugosi has the answer to this mysterious death. Lugosi as the madman on a mission of vengeance, vengeance  against 6 men who plot the destruction of a nation at war.”

Coming Attraction…

“Ominous footsteps in the night foreshadow terrifying death. By Day… A Man Of Honor. By Night… A Beast Of Horror. Bela Lugosi. The Invisible Ghost.

Brides are dying at the altar, and somebody’s responsible. Before being forever robbed of the opportunity to lose her virginity, each bride was given an mysterious orchid—with a scent. Whoever heard of an orchid with a scent? Maybe it’s a clue. Another clue might be that the same undertaker shows up at every crime scene—and he looks just like Dracula. Odd, too, that everyone of the brides’ corpses vanish! Luana Walters is the spunky reporter giving Lois Lane a run for the money, and stealing the entire film.

Bela’s got a bitch of a wife, too (Elizabeth Russell, from Cat People). She hates aging but, somehow, the blood of virgin brides acts like botox for her. Bela, being a mad doctor, injects it. He’s got a pair of henchman, too: Frank Moran (who’s kind of a precursor to Tor Johnsons’s hulking brute in Bride of the Monster) and dwarf Angel Rossito (from Freaks).

The movie has an imbecilic charm, but it never quite reaches the sap level of PRC’s The Devil Bat (1940) or Lugosi’s work with Ed Wood.

“Show starts in 10 minutes! We will now have an intermission time before starting our next show!”

“Get the item that adds to your personal comfort. Cigarettes? Here they are! Get the kind you prefer and enjoy them thoroughly; all the most popular brands.”

“Ice cream bars! It’s the handy way to enjoy smooth, rich, creamy ice cream. Get some!”

“Crisp, flavorful fish sandwiches. Gold and brown and crunchy outside and tender and juicy inside for a snack or a meal. ”

1944 babes are disappearing along Laurel Road after stopping at Nicholas’ gas station. Nicholas (George Zucco) is in cahoots with the henchmen Toby ( John Carradine) and Grego (Pat McKee) who in turn work for crazy doc Marlow (Bela). Doc has a wife who has been a zombie for twenty plus years and he believes, if he gets the right girl, that a voodoo ceremony will unzombify his beloved. Toby and Grego are, ahem, a tad feebleminded, which makes Doc’s job harder. There’s a also a pesky fiancee and some really cool voodoo robes. There isn’t scare one, but it’s a tacky variation of The Corpse Vanishes and has the good sense to be even more senseless.

Although The Corpse Vanishes (directed by Wallace Fox) was made in 1942, it was double billed two years later for the drive-in-circuit with Voodoo Man (directed by Willam Beaudine). Both movies are part of Lugosi’s infamous “Monogram Nine.” For the unenlightened, this was a poverty row horror series produced by Sam Katzmann, starring the already faded Dracula actor in some of the most inept movies made. Voodoo Man is the last of the infamous Monogram Nine.

“Please remember to replace the speaker on the mast when you leave the theater. Thanks for being with us this evening. We hope that in some small way we have been able to add to your comfort, pleasure, and relaxation.”

Both films are available on a Legends double feature DVD with vintage drive-in ads, trailers, and countdowns. Olive Films has recently released Voodoo Man on Blu-ray in a pristine transfer.

THE ISLAND OF LOST SOULS (1932)

1932’s The Island of Lost Souls is the first of three cinematic adaptations of H.G. Wells “The Island of Dr.Moreau.” It is easily the best, although the 1997 attempt with Marlon Brando was not the disaster some critics claimed, and in fact was considerably better than the static, unimaginative 1977 version with Burt Lancaster.

The 1932 Island, directed by Erle C. Kenton, is rightly considered a classic, enough so that it received the Criterion treatment for a 2011 release. This is Kenton’s sole classic.  Although he was a prolific director, he was essentially a journeyman, taking whatever was handed to him and usually injecting little style. His other horror films for Universal were The Ghost Of Frankenstein(1942), The House Of Frankenstein (1944), and The House Of Dracula (1945), and they are all second rate, at best.

Island of Lost Souls deviates from the original story (which, predictably, prompted H.G. Wells to voice his disapproval), but the film is simply told. Like 1932’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Island is a pre-Hayes code film, and it shows. Of course, both films were taken from  literary sources, and that too is apparent.  Lost Souls‘ literacy is due to screenwriter Philip Wylie, who also adapted Wells for James Whale’s The Invisible Man (1933). The inimitable Charles Laughton, one of the great classic screen actors, plays Dr. Moreua with a classicist’s relish. Laughton is one of the major reasons for this film’s success, and as director Kenton shows atypical subtlety. These factors, combined with well-crafted sets and make-up, add up to a striking milieu.

Island is almost an old-dark-house genre film, except that the stranded visitor, Edward Parker (Richard Arlen) ends up in a sort of kinky, contemporary Eden.  God is present in the symbolic persona of Dr. Moreau and although he is the antagonist, he is a three-dimensional one. He is intelligent, crafty, and that naughty twinkle in the divine eye is ever present.  God is creating again, although this time he’s attempting to correct his previous mistake by making man from the image of Eden’s animals.  Eve (a Wylie addition) appears in the exotic Lota (Kathleen Burke, who notably showed up in the following year’s pre-Code Murders in the Zoo).  Lota, AKA Panther Girl, alternately projects innocence and unbridled sexuality, and she is utilized by Moreau to usher forth a new Adamic age, with Parker as the new Adam. Of course, in every Eden there’s a rotten apple or two, and here it’s Parker’s abroad girlfriend (Leila Hyams, from Freaks) and the Beast Men, Moreau’s ungrateful children who hold a grudge against their creator for little things like torture, brutality, and vivisection. The Beast Men are led by the Sayer of the Law ( Bela Lugosi, who is well-directed). The Sayer calls the creator out for hypocrisy and original sin.  The Beast Men are well sketched here, which is a sharp contrast to the mere animalistic portraits drawn in subsequent versions. The finale is natural jolt, so much so that no other celluloid interpretation of the tale can match it. This lucidly told imaginative spin on Dr. Frankenstein’s Eden still holds up remarkably well.

As for the Criterion treatment, most welcome authoritative commentary is given by historians Gregory Mank and David J. Skall, along with filmmaker Richard Stanley (the original director of the 1997 version, who was replaced by John Frankenheimer).  Stanley offers entertaining, honest insight.  A little less welcome are reflections by John Landis and Devo.  Production stills and the theatrical trailer are excellent supplements.  This is a superb release that is essential for classic film lovers.

TOD BROWNING: DIRECTOR RETROSPECTIVE

Tod Browning

As a child of the 60s and 70s, I grew up reading about Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932), but having been banned in several countries, it was never shown on television and remained-for me-something akin to a “lost film,” achieving mythical status. Then, in the early 80s, with the advent of VCRS, video stores, and VHS, Freaks suddenly was rediscovered. Costing $100.00, I ordered my copy. It was the full feature movie I purchased (excluding the 8MM Chaplin shorts we used to order from Blackhawk Films). When a work of art achieves legendary status, it can fail to live up to its reputation. The Ghoul (1933) with Boris Karloff and Ernest Thesiger (both from Bride Of Frankenstein, 1935) was such an example when I finally viewed it after having read about it for twenty years. Freaks was different. It retained its power and became an anthem; a source of identification to a young art school student. I had previously read of Browning’s uncomfortability with sound and agreed that it would have been even more shocking as a silent, but the awkward line-reading of non-actor freaks (Harry Earles, etc) rendered it powerfully authentic. From there, I explored the films of Tod Browning, discovering his body of art that lead to Freaks, lifetime obsessions, and one of the most unsetlling actor/director collaborations in the history of cinema.

Outside The Law (Tod Browning)Outside The Law (Tod Browning)

Although Lon Chaney has two roles in Outside the Law (1920), he is
not the star; rather, the film features early Tod Browning favorite Priscilla
Dean who plays Silky Moll, daughter of mobster Silent Madden (Ralph Lewis). Both are attempting to reform under the guidance of Confucian Master Chang Lo
(E. Alyn Warren). Black Mike Sylva (Chaney) interrupts the reformation by framing Silent Madden for murder. Silky, like Lorraine Lavond in Browning’s later The Devil Doll (1939), now has a wrongly imprisoned father.

Outside The Law (Tod Browning)Outside The Law (Tod Browning)

Silky and Dapper Bill Ballard plan a jewel heist with Black Mike. Unknown to Mike, Silky is aware of his betrayal of her father and, with Bill, she double-crosses her father’s Judas. Escaping with the heisted jewels, Silky and Bill hole up in an apartment and the time spent in such a  claustrophobic setting is awash with religious symbolism, which points to transformation. Browning, a Mason, repeatedly used religious imagery and themes: In West of Zanzibar (1928) Phroso stands in for the self-martyred Christ and calls upon divine justice under the image of the Virgin. In The Show (1927), the sadomasochistic drama of Salome is reenacted and almost played out in the actors’ lives (Martinu’s
opera ‘The Greek Passion’ would explore that possibility to a more jarring, degree). East is East 1929) utilizes Buddhist and Catholic symbology. Priests and crucifixes play important parts in The Unholy Three (1925), Road to Mandalay (1926), Dracula (1931-
possibly the most religious of the Universal Horror films) and Mark of the
Vampire
 (1935).

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HAPPY BIRTHDAY MR. KARLOFF

Boris Karloff (Nov 23rd, 1887-Feb 2, 1969)

BORIS KARLOFF HAPPY BIRTHDAY (LIFE)

Life Magazine cover

Boris Karloff birthday cake on set of Son Of Frankenstein

Celebrating Boris Karloff’s Birthday on set of “Son Of Frankenstein” with Basil Rathbone and Bela Lugosi

Boris Karloff birthday with Basil Rathbone and Bela Lugosi

Celebrating Boris Karloff’s Birthday on set of “Son Of Frankenstein” with Basil Rathbone and Bela Lugosi

BORIS KARLOFF BIRTHDAY SON OF FRANKENSTEIN

Celebrating Boris Karloff’s Birthday on set of “Son Of Frankenstein” with Basil Rathbone and Bela Lugosi

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THE WOLF MAN (1941) & THE WOLFMAN (2010)

THE WOLFMAN 1941 lobby card. Lon Chaney, Jr. Evelyn Ankers

“Even a Man who is pure of heart and says his prayers by night may become a wolf when the wolf-bane blooms and the autumn moon is bright”.

Even A Man Who Is Pure Of Heart

The best thing about the 1941 film is the tone-setting poem above, which was repeated at least one too many times in the original, yet it is absent from the 2010 remake except in the title. The Wolf Man seemed ripe for a remake since, of the original “horror classics,” it really wasn’t very good to begin with (the same goes for Creature from the Black Lagoon).

THE WOLFMAN 1941 lobby card.

The 1941 film has several strikes against it, the first and foremost of which is writer Curt Siodmak, who was a hack. The second is director George Waggner, who wasn’t really a hack but merely a competent, unimaginative commission director with no personal vision. Finally, there is “star” Lon  Chaney, Jr. The younger Chaney gets picked on a lot these days and always has. He deserves it. He was an idiotic, drunken bully who had an obsessive hang-up about outdoing his father. Since Lon Sr. probably ranks with Chaplin in the silent acting department, Lon Jr., the pale, watered-down copy, did not have a chance. It’s amazing that Jr. even thought he would be able to compete. That said, Lon Jr. did have a few good character roles in his career (damn few out of literally hundreds of films). He was quite good as the arthritic sheriff in Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon, as Big Sam in Stanley Kramer’s The Defiant Ones, as Spurge in Raoul Walsh’s Lion is in the Streets and Bruno in Jack Hill’s cult classic Spider Baby. Like Bela Lugosi, he was best when he was actually being “directed.” Unlike Lugosi, however, Jr.’s signature horror role is not one of his best. That honor goes to his immortal Lenny in Lewis Milestone’s Of Mice and Men.  Continue reading

A BELA LUGOSI RETROSPECTIVE

13TH CHAIR (Tod Browning 1930) lobby card. Bela Lugosi

According to Bela Lugosi‘s official bio, before coming to America he had been a star on the Hungarian stage, appearing in major Shakespeare productions.  However, several biographers  have disputed Lugosi’s “star” ranking during that period.  It seems most of his roles had actually been small ones.  Regardless, Lugosi enlisted in the Hungarian army during the First World War, was wounded several times, and later had to flee Hungary during a tumultuous political climate which was unfriendly to his leftist leanings.  After a stay in Germany, Lugosi arrived penniless in the States.  Eventually, he made his way to the New York stage and began appearing in plays and silent films.  In 1927, Lugosi was cast in the role of Dracula in Hamilton Dean’s famous stage play. With that, Lugosi became a major star of the stage, and stardom brought him numerous female fans, including Clara Bow, with whom he had a brief affair.

13TH CHAIR (Tod Browning 1930) lobby card. Bela Lugosi
In 1929, director Tod Browning, shopping around for the lead of the film version of Dracula, cast Lugosi as a vampire-like inspector in The Thirteenth Chair (1929).  Although Lugosi was not a great actor in the conventional sense, he did have an undeniably magnetic screen presence and brought an air of European mystery to the most rudimentary melodramas. Browning capitalized on this as few directors could and it worked, leading to Lugosi landing the career-making role of Bram Stoker’s Count in Browning’s 1931 film, Dracula.  The 49 year old Lugosi was perfect for the part.  His idiosyncratic mannerisms, unique mangling of the English language (which, despite rumor, he did not deliver phonetically), and otherworldly persona made for a compelling figure, a point made all the more obvious when compared to Carlos Villarias’ laughable performance in the Spanish language version of Dracula (shot at the same time on the same sets as Browning’s classic). Years later, Lugosi bitterly complained about the typecasting which resulted from the film, but realistically, Dracula was the best thing that happened to the actor. With his limited acting skills and heavy accent, Lugosi never could have been successful  in the romantic matinee roles he desired.

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