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.

Still from The Invisible Ghost (1941)
The Invisible Ghost (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.

The 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).

Black 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.

The 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).

The remaining five films in the series will be covered next week in Part Two.

2 thoughts on “BELA LUGOSI AND THE MONOGRAM NINE, PART ONE (1941-1942)”

  1. Alfred, Have you ever seen experimental filmmaker, Martin Arnold’s post-modernist deconstruction of Invisible Ghost (called “Deanimated”)? Here’s what I wrote about it awhile back:

    Pioneer avant-garde artist (or video terrorist, if you prefer), Martin Arnold, appropriated an old poverty row thriller that Bela Lugosi made for Monogram studios and gave a unique spin on a familiar formula: murders taking place in a spooky house. This post-modern experimental piece opens up a world of possibilities. As always, of course, mileage varies according to interest in both the genre and the experiment itself.

    The film proper is a standard cheapie one-off playing on Lugosi’s cult of celebrity at the time. Apart from Joseph Lewis’ above average diection, it was easy to dismiss the entire affair as a perfect disaster consisting of wooden actors reciting insipid dialogue from an inane script. Martin’s remix, however, shows that something intriguing exists beneath the dull veneer of this horror quickie.

    The original film begins with Lugosi having dinner opposite an empty place setting, meant to represent his deceased wife on one of their anniversaries. She appears to him as an apparition, or so he thinks, and he becomes “hypnotized” and starts murdering a bunch of people all up in his place. Of note is the fact that not all of the actors are bad: the house servant, played by Clarence Muse, has great presence (and the best lines), and it was refreshing that he wasn’t treated like the stereotypical Mantan Moreland character

    Arnold takes the film and edits out certain extraneous scenes, but most importantly, he slowly starts to remove expository dialogue (actually, pretty much all the dialogue — digitally altering mouth movement), leaving only cursory greetings and acknowledgements, before gradually digitally removing entire characters, one by one, until the final act of the film is the house itself sans characters — but retaining musical cues, empty rooms and camera pans to nowhere, and elements of a plot that is no longer apparent. It’s a disorienting treatment that radically enhances both the film’s atmosphere and the surprising directorial flourishes that may not originally have been quite so apparent.

    I won’t pretend to understand exactly what statement (if any) Arnold is attempting to make with this left-field approach. It certainly lacks the playful, subversive humor of his groundbreaking masterwork, Alone. Life Wastes Andy Hardy. But it does enable the viewer to see a film in an entirely different light, indeed, to look inside the makings of said film and to differentiate good elements from bad, to see where films take a wrong turn. And to contemplate on the separate conceptual meanings of space and absence of space as it applies to cinema. Certainly, it’s not a revisionist take that’s for everyone; likely it’s one for very few. But it’s certainly one of the more provocative deconstructions produced lately.

    1. Russ, wow-thank you for this, which is quite informative. I have not seen it. I’ll have to look for it and watch it-after haunt season, which is why i just saw your comment (we’re extremely busy and on top of all that i’ve been sick for a couple of weeks). BTW,I paid tribute to the MONOGRAM NINE in some murals I did for the House of Shadows -painting scenes from Voodoo Man and Ape Man, among others.

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