Tag Archives: 1944

1944 DRIVE-IN DOUBLE FEATURE: THE 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 my 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, 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.

It’s Showtime!

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 all of the brides’ corpses vanish! Luana Walters steals the entire film as the spunky reporter giving Lois Lane a run for her money.

Promotional still for The Corpse Vanishes (1942)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 ‘s hulking brute in Bride of the Monster) and dwarf (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 .

“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. ”

“It’s Showtime!”

Still from Voodoo Man (1944)1944 babes are disappearing along Laurel Road after stopping at Nicholas’ gas station. Nicholas (George Zucco) is in cahoots with the henchmen Toby () 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 ). 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.

 

CAPSULE: THE THREE CABALLEROS (1944)

DIRECTED BY: , Clyde Geronimi, Jack Kinney, , Harold Young

FEATURING: Dora Luz, Aurora Miranda, voices of Clarence Nash, Jose Oliveira, Joaquin Garay, Sterling Holloway

PLOT: Three Caballeros is one of the “package features” that Walt Disney made during World War II, a compilation of short subjects (a la Fantasia) with a vaguely Latin American theme.

Still from The Three Caballeros (1944)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Because only the last 15 minutes or so of this 70-minute feature are truly weird. However, if this were a list of the 366 weirdest animated films ever made, this picture might make it.

COMMENTS: In Three Caballeros, Donald Duck and his friends—the Brazilian parrot Jose, the Mexican rooster Panchito, and the manic Aracuan bird—embark on a musical tour of South America that impressively combines live-action with animation. Along the way, they encounter Aurora Miranda (sister of Carmen) and engage in enough wild slapstick to shame the more anarchic Warner Bros. cartoon characters of the time (Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig, etc.).

Despite having its own ride at EPCOT Center, Caballeros is one of Disney’s most obscure animated films, and with good reason: most of it is kind of dull. What does distinguish the movie, however, is its peculiar, almost Tex Avery-like tendency to turn Donald Duck into a downright lustful bird every time he encounters a Latin beauty (which happens a lot), and a bizarrely psychedelic third act that is a relentless assault of wild visual imagery a la the “Pink Elephants on Parade” segment from Dumbo. The last fifteen minutes of the picture practically turns it into Yellow Submarine, with exploding flowers and dancing, suggestive cacti (reminiscent of the giant swaying bananas in ’s 1943 musical The Gang’s All Here), just two factors in a non-stop crazy quilt of pre-psychedelia that refuses to stop until the avian trio has sung the film’s title song and Panchito has shot his guns in the air about 150 times. It’s exhausting (and, by Disney standards, extremely weird), yet clearly the highlight of the film. This makes The Three Caballeros worth seeing for die-hard fans of Disney and/or animation, but they should prepare to do a lot of fast-forwarding on their DVD remotes.

Otherwise, the rest of the film is harmless and/or forgettable, although Blue Sky Studio’s recent, music-filled Rio (about Brazilian parrots) may owe something to both this film and Disney’s similar 1943 packager Saludos Amigos. As alluded to before, this movie obviously has its fans within the Disney empire’s theme park division, as the Mouse has tried to keep all its characters alive in one way or another: Jose and Panchito can be spotted in the revamped “It’s a Small World” ride.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

I would not hesitate to call it the most surreal work ever produced by the Disney studios… in a film full of surrealist touches, Donald the sex fiend is easily the strangest part, though certainly one of the most memorable. (The fact that the animation looks a bit pasted on top of the live action footage just makes it all the weirder).”–Tim Brayton, Anatgony & Ecstasy (DVD)

CREEPY COWBOYS: 4 WEIRD WESTERNS

Retro Media’s collection of “weird westerns” begins with Tombstone Canyon (1932) starring (already reviewed here). The Western, like that other indigenous American art form, jazz, ran the gamut from innovative to godawful. It goes without saying that this set of films falls in the latter category. Naturally, there are different degrees of awfulness. Cheap production, atrocious acting, pedestrian writing and, debatably, juvenile charm characterize the entries.

Tombstone Canyon was made before Maynard began ballooning up from booze, but he was already finding more empathy from his horse than from his fellow actors, which is perhaps why he spends much of the picture talking to his “wonder horse” Tarzan. The movie was made for the Z-grade studio World Pictures, whose mascot was a semi-nude blonde beauty holding two globe balloons over her breasts. No doubt, the 30s kiddies must have had their eyes bugging out.

If Tombstone Canyon looks like a backyard production put on by junior high school kids, then Vanishing Riders (1935) takes us a couple of years back, to fourth or fifth grade. It stars Bill Cody as the titular cowboy and Bill Cody Jr. as his adopted son. The fight scenes are laughable, the acting even worse, and the “scary” ghost riders, dressed in skeleton suits, are a hoot. There a couple of curly blonde cuties for window dressing, but the film, like many early poverty row westerns, is devoid of a score and is an unforgivably dull affair. It was directed by Bob Hill for Spectrum Pictures.

Security Pictures was such a low budget enterprise that it was and remains anonymous even among the infamous poverty row backlots. Its Rawhide Terror (1934) is saddled with three directors: Bruce Mitchell, Jack Nelson, and uncredited western schlockmeister Victor Adamson (whose son was horror schlockmeister Al Adamson). It is easy to assume Adamson, with his resume, did most of the work. Rawhide Terror started production as a serial, but when funding fell through it was converted to a 46 minute feature, despite its listing time as 52 minutes. It seems that six minutes have been lost, and let us fervently hope they are never found. The movie stars Art Mix. Adamson started his career by playing a character named Art Mix. However, he hired at least two different actors to also play Art Mix; that is, until  sued Adamson for capitalizing on his name. To get around that, Adamson searched for and found an “actor” with the real name of Art Mix. Apparently, this is that Art Mix. The plot of this truncated serial is even more confusing. White marauders, dressed as Indians, rob and kill a couple. The couples’ two sons, who have identical birthmarks, survive the raid. The elder son goes mad, wandering off with a maniacal laugh, which is as atrociously acted as one might imagine. Years later, the masked Rawhide Killer systematically kills each of the couples’ killers by strangling them with rawhide. Art Mix is the younger son, grown up. Describing the rest of the indecipherable plot is hardly worth the effort.

Still from Vanishing Riders (1935)
Vanishing Riders (1935)

Wild Horse Phantom (1944) wallows in its own silliness. Directed by Sam Newfield for the notorious PRC Studios, it co-stars that unlikeliest of western heroes: Buster Crabbe. With his blond locks (dyed black here) and baby face, Crabbe always looked out of place in oaters. Rather than taking on Ming the Merciless, Buster here confronts a Wild Horse Phantom. The title turns out to be a cheat, as there is no phantom horse. Instead, PRC dusted off the same flying rodent from ‘s The Devil Bat (1940). The flying rodent takes half of forever to make its appearance. It’s still equipped with the same screeching sound effect, and looks the worse for wear. It’s not after cologne this time. Rather, it’s a dime store Rhinemaiden protecting a gold mine (minus the gold). Stolen bank loot is the treasure, and Al  “Fuzzy” St. John is the slapsticky Nibelung dwarf ready to claim it. Fuzzy’s fight with a bat-on-a-string is tailored for six-year-old boys.  Kermit Maynard (Ken’s brother) fills out the cast.

These are strictly for the curious and, apart from that, to whom the “weirdness” of these might appeal remains the only mystery.

CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE (1944)

RKO was both surprised and elated over the success of Cat People (1942). Predictably, they ordered a sequel, and handed the title to producer: Curse of the Cat People. Lewton, eyes-rolling, took the assignment, but said: “What I’m going to do is make a very delicate story of a child who is on the verge of insanity because she lives in a fantasy world.”

Even today, viewers are split about the sequel. It’s akin to  delivering a prequel to Aliens without a plethora of H.R. Giger monsters. The bourgeois genre fanboys, wanting only the familiar, will aggressively bellow like the unimaginative and artless Neanderthals they are when confronted with something as fresh as Curse of the Cat People (1944). Although flawed, Curse is a haunting, sublime, cinematic dreamscape.

Irena’s widower from Cat People, Oliver Reed (Kent Smith), is even duller now that he has been married to Alice (Jane Moore) for several years. Upsetting poor Ollie’s Hallmark view of the world is a highly imaginative young daughter, Amy (Ann Carter), who is the occupant of a surreal interior terrain.

Still from Curse of the Cat People (1944)Oliver Reed may well serve as a metaphor for a conservative fan base, executive film producers and Promise Keepers. Ollie’s reaction to Amy’s fantasies is archaic hostility. Amy’s preoccupation with the magical constitutes all that is a threat to Ollie. Amy is fully effeminate, artistic, independent, free of the binding status quo.

First, Ollie attempts to mold Amy into a socially acceptable child. Highly introverted, Amy is spurned by the potential friends Ollie tries to force upon her. When chasing after those who reject her, Amy stumbles upon the garden of a faded, elderly actress Mrs. Farren (Julia Dean). Slowly, Amy befriends the lonely woman. Amy reminds Mrs. Farren of a deceased daughter. Mrs. Farren has a grown daughter, Barbara (Elizabeth Russell), but Barbara is consistently rejected by her mother. Mrs. Farren, in a mentally deteriorated state, imagines Barbara to be an impostor and rejects her, withholding maternal love. Barbara, jealous of the attention her mother is showing the stranger Amy, reacts with jealousy.

Amy discovers a photograph of Irena (). Shortly afterwards, a wishing well grants Amy a new friend: Irena. Amy’s garden shimmers with Debussian light when the radiantly passive Irena enters and is welcomed into a picturesque domain.

The edginess of childhood is not glossed over, and a retelling of Irving Washington’s “Legend of Sleepy Hollow” offers a memorable moment of adolescent dread. Amy’s further descent into the magical sends Ollie into a machismo fit. The artistically bankrupt office manager reacts by administering a thrashing. Eventually, Ollie and Barbara accept Amy. Irena has fulfilled her function.

RKO, predictably, reacted to the film with Oliver Reed-inspired hostility and mandated ill-fitting sequences. Gunther von Fritsch, the original director, was replaced by a young Robert Wise, working on his first film. While Curse lacks ‘s assured touch, it is, together with The Body Snatcher (1945, also directed by Wise), the best of the non-Tourneur Lewtons.

The great critic James Agee championed Curse of the Cat People. Captivated, Agee wrote that Lewton’s films “are so consistently alive, limber, poetic, humane, so eager toward the possibilities of the screen, and so resolutely against the grain of all we have learned to expect from the big studios.”

Curse of the Cat People was another unexpected critical and box office hit. Yet again, RKO was dumbfounded. Hit or not, they felt betrayed by their producer and Curse, inevitably, served as a prominent nail in Lewton’s RKO coffin.

Next week: The Body Snatcher (1945).

EDGAR G. ULMER’S BLUEBEARD (1944)

 began his career at Max Reinhardt’s theater, became an apprentice to F.W. Murnau on the director’s masterpiece Sunrise (1927), and received a commission to direct Universal’s two new horror icons, and Bela Lugosi, in their first co-starring film. With The Black Cat (1934), Ulmer secured an enviable budget and practically carte blanche. The Black Cat may not have had much to do with Edgar Allan Poe, but the legendary 19th century writer would have loved Ulmer’s deliciously black deco homage. 1934 critics and audiences most certainly did, making it a bona fide hit. Ulmer’s idiosyncratic cult film remains the two stars’ best film together. The director was at the top of his game and looked to have a long and successful career ahead. By all rights, Edgar G. Ulmer should have had a career and body of work that could be placed alongside the films of  and Tod Browning. Then, Ulmer screwed up.

Universal was a family-run studio when Ulmer decided to have an affair with the wife of a top-ranking Universal studio executive. Ulmer was fired and blacklisted, by the major studios, for life. Believe it or not, Hollywood once had a sense of morality. Ulmer was reduced to working for the poverty row circuit, namely PRC Studios. He later claimed that this was his artistic choice to do so, because it gave him greater creative freedom. He lied. Ulmer loved European culture, art music, and was known to discourse fluently on the aesthetic process with actors (Karloff was delightfully challenged by Ulmer). Many of Ulmer’s contemporaries freely acknowledge that Ulmer was also a pathological liar. Of course, this only makes him more interesting. He consistently exaggerated his background (when he didn’t need to), padded his resume, and made outrageous claims about himself. Despite all of that, Ulmer had a unique aesthetic sensibility and conscientiously tried to inject  that into his films, even in scripts that could only pass for excrement.

Ulmer struggled as much with PRC as he did with Universal. It was the classic case of artist vs. executives. Ulmer lost far more battles than he won, although he naturally fared best when he was allowed to act as his own producer. Ulmer desperately wanted to make a film of the Bluebeard story for 10 years. Originally, it was supposed to star Karloff and would be his follow Continue reading EDGAR G. ULMER’S BLUEBEARD (1944)

MAYA DEREN: AT LAND (1944)

Maya Deren’s At Land (1944) opens with a scene of fearsome waves crashing against a desolate shore.  It could almost be described as Debussian, save for the unsettling dead and total silence that continues, unabated, throughout the film.

Maya Deren's At LandThe exotic Deren appears, emerging from a sleep, like a mermaid spit ashore from the crashing waves.

Deren begins slowly climbing a massive, twisted, dead tree trunk; the figure of Deren/Eros embarking on her great existential journey.

The nymph (her face adorned with child-like innocence) slithers on her stomach across a dining room table, populated with faceless corporates.  They do not take notice of her, preoccupied with idle chatter and many cigarettes.  Her eyes focus on a solitary figure, playing chess at the table’s end.  By the time she reaches that end (there are brief, repeated, struggled, exploratory diversions through a mass of shrubbery) she finds the player has just left and, as she gazes at the board, the rest of the room’s occupants are also leaving.

Telekinetically, she moves the chess pieces, until the pawn (one of eight) falls through a hole in the table.  She attempts to retrieve it and finds herself  back on the shore, then on a country road, walking and talking with a young man (represented by five different men).

She cannot keep up with the man and he leaves her behind as he disappears into a cabin, shutting the foreboding door behind him.

Determined not to be abandoned, she crawls under the log cabin but emerges in a contemporary, nearly abandoned home, laden with furniture, covered in white sheets.

It is not the young man she finds, but an older, bedridden man (figure number six), under a white bed sheet.  They silently stare at each other, identify Continue reading MAYA DEREN: AT LAND (1944)