Tag Archives: Bela Lugosi

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

Read the introduction to the Monogram Nine.

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.

Still from The Ape Man (1943)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).

Ghosts 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.

By 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.

Return 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.

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

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.”

It’s Showtime!

Bride of the Monster was ‘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. (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 naïve 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.

Still from Bride of the Monster (1955)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 had more range (although according to peers and biographers, both actors were a tad slow on the uptake Continue reading 1955 DRIVE-IN DOUBLE FEATURE: BRIDE OF THE MONSTER AND PHANTOM FROM 10,000 LEAGUES

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.

 

THE RAVEN (1935)

The Raven (1935) marks the second teaming of Universal’s dual horror stars: and . It is also downright mortifying  in its pedestrianism. Director Lew Landers simply did not have the sense of style or vision with which  imbued The Black Cat (1934) . Worse, Landers lacked the foresight or directorial strength to shape or reign in Lugosi’s performance. Lugosi’s overacting is both the key to that which remains most fascinating about The Raven and, paradoxically, sinks the film into abject parody. It was Lugosi’s deliriously sadistic antics here which inspired the two-year UK ban on horror films. The ban significantly hurt Lugosi, causing his salary stock, never good to begin, to plummet. Seeing The Raven today through a decidedly more jaded contemporary lens, one wonders what all the fuss was about.  Still, one can easily imagine why 1935 audiences were nonplussed regarding the Hungarian ham.

As the -obsessed, stark staring mad Dr. Vollin, Lugosi melodramatically throws up his arms, laughs maniacally, and screams: “Poe, you are avenged!” It plays like a scene out of a wretched comic book, with a Transylvanian Marx Brother in the lead role. The reason for Vollin’s madness is his unrequited love of the prettified Jean Thatcher (Irene Ware), which never seems feasible.  In gratitude for Vollin saving her life, Jean does a Poe-inspired ballet for him, but the dance is as dull as she is. Earlier, Vollin compares himself to a god, and that is ultimately the nagging problem with Lugosi’s screen persona. Karloff inspires us to identify with his suffering and outsider status: Lugosi, with few exceptions, distances himself from his audience.

While Lugosi undoubtedly sends The Raven crashing, the film would have imploded from boredom without him. Aside from Karloff, the rest of the cast is a non-presence, alternately delivering lethargic line readings and  grotesque comedy relief, which is anything but. The only relief  is supplied by the two stars, who are our lifeline, even through all that Lugosi pretension.

Still from The Raven (1935)Lugosi has a chilling, seductive moment when asking Jean if her injured neck still hurts. We sense his glee in the potential of her pain. This scene of intimate sadism works far better than his later howling. However, even in Lugosi’s most embarrassing moments, he remains alluring through his presence and his idiosyncratic mangling of the English language: “Torture, I love torture! What a deeelicccious torture!” When  Vollin has just mutilated Karloff’s Bateman, the victim, upon seeing his own reflection, shoots out the room of mirrors. Lugosi’s Vollin responds with a hair raising cackle. Vollin would have felt at home in ‘s castle.

Unfortunately, Karloff is saddled with one of Jack Pierce’s absolute worst makeup jobs, which seriously threatens to undermine his performance. The actor even has a been there, done that canned monster growl. Playing second fiddle, Karloff’s discomfort occasionally shows. Still, he is our humanist touchstone. The strength of his performance lies in his introduction as a gangster on the lam, pre-mutilating surgery. He has an outcast monster-like sense of resilience and pathos, and with no help from his director or makeup man, Karloff is forced to rely solely on his own internal resources.  He succeeds with underrated, protean skills, delivering a refreshingly nuanced performance, even through a fake, pancake eye. Fortunately, Karloff never descends into Lugosi’s level of cringe-inducing caricature.

The rest of the film is merely a commercial for torture devices. Just as in a commercial, little drama is drawn from the props.  Apart from the two leads, The Raven is adolescent, gothic decor.

BUD ABBOTT AND LOU COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN (1948)

For some inexplicable reason, Bud Abbott and Lou Costello are often confused with Stan Laurel and . Apart from the skinny guy/fat guy theme, the two comedy teams have nothing in common (except perhaps to muggles). In their prime, Stan and Ollie etched a creative brand of celluloid comedy full of nuance and infused with their winning personalities that raised laughter to an art form. With Stan as the uncredited creative force, they produced a body of short films, from the silent era to the late 1930s, which remain the proverbial comedy yardstick. With two notable exceptions, they were less lucky in their studio-controlled features, which sadly led to their eventual fall from grace.

In contrast, Bud and Lou were assembly line hacks who never made a great film. None of the Abbott and Costello films hold up, but the closest they approach to classic status is in Bud Abbott and Lou Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), which is, overall, a happy accident with uneven results.

The real stars of Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein are and Lenore Aubert. An erroneous consensus holds that Lugosi plays the part of Dracula straight here. In fact, there is little in common here with his iconic 1931 performance which was shaped by . Revisiting Bram Stoker’s anti-protagonist, Lugosi spoofs his original role. The parody here is almost equally iconic, and these two performances are so cemented in people’s minds that viewers often mingle two contrasting interpretations, separated by seventeen years. A typical example of this confusion is Stephen King’s description of Lugosi’s original performance as a second rate Valentino, with cape over his nose, frightening no one. The cape-over-the nose cliche came from Lugosi’s mugging opposite the comedy team.

Publicity still from Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)In Aubert, Lugosi has his most charismatic leading lady, and she really is the most underrated monster here. Aubert is no hapless victim and makes Lugosi’s vampire actually work to control her. Lugosi, enjoying the chase, and in best European, satirical grand guignol style, maintains his dignity throughout. In contrast to this,  gives what is unquestionably his worst performance as Larry Talbot, AKA The WolfMan. By 1945’s House of Dracula, Talbot had been reduced to a whiny, one note character. Apparently, sharing the spotlight with Dracula and Frankenstein’s monster, playing second banana to Lugosi’s superior count, and being subjected to Bud Westmore’s hackneyed rubber makeup reduced to the butt of Bud and Lou’s pranks made the poor man utterly miserable. It shows. Glenn Strange, as the Monster, is merely a warm body in makeup, as he was in previous Frankenstein entries. ‘s cameo is a welcome injection of joy.

Abbott and Costello are as canned and stale as usual, but they do have moments of authentic, contagious fun when breaking away from their routines. Despite the film’s flaws, the curiously titled Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (they never actually meet the long dead doctor) was the yardstick of horror spoofs for many years. That is, until Rankin and BassMad Monster Party (1967) proved the usurper.

178. THE BLACK CAT (1934)

Peter Allison: “Sounds like a lot of supernatural baloney to me.”

Dr. Vitus Werdegast: “Supernatural, perhaps. Baloney, perhaps not.”–The Black Cat

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , David Manners, Jacqueline Wells, Lucille Lund

PLOT: A rainy night and roadside accident lands WWI veteran Dr. Vitus Werdegast and a honeymooning couple to the old dark house of Satanist Hjalmar Poelzig. Poelzig, a mass murderer guilty of war crimes, is also Werdegast’ s longtime nemesis. Werdegast is sworn to revenge, but must also protect the couple from being sacrified at a Black Mass.

Still from The Black Cat (1934)
BACKGROUND:

  • In his native Hungary, Lugosi had often played romantic leads. Typecast since Dracula (1931), Lugosi was initially enthusiastic about taking on the role of Werdegast. However, upon seeing the script and discovering that his beloved “protagonist” raped the heroine, The Black Cat became a career nightmare for the actor. Adding to the onset tension was Lugosi’s increasing jealousy of Karloff. In an interview with author Gregory Mank, Ulmer’s widow, Shirley Ulmer, related that Karloff and her late husband were kindred, erudite spirits. The two often engaged in discussions ranging from art to philosophy and film aesthetics. Lugosi, who was no intellectual heavyweight, felt the odd man out. Threatened by his genre rival, Lugosi resorted to lurid anecdotes for attention, even claiming that he had once been a Hungarian hangman. Naturally, such yarn spinning only served to further distance Lugosi from his peers.
  • According to Mank, Lugosi got increasingly excited at the prospect of “skinning” his rival. Multiple takes were required and, in each take, Lugosi’s English became even more rushed and indecipherable. Many years later, Karloff advised impressionist Rich Little to watch the skinning scene from The Black Cat, in order to mimic Lugosi’s idiosyncratic vocalizations: “Did you ever seen an animal skinned, Hjalmar? That’sh what I’m going to do to you now. Vear the skin from your body, shlowly, bit by bit.” Karloff’s infamous lisp, at its most pronounced here, parallels Lugosi’s language mangling. Reportedly, Lugosi, of all people, consistently ridiculed Karloff’s speech impediment.
  • Among the excised scenes were the afore mentioned rape, a scene of Joan Allison actually transforming into a black cat, and shots of Karloff’s skinned Poelzig, crawling on the floor with bloodied, flayed flesh hanging off his frame. Awkward comedy relief and embarrassing scenes depicting Werdegast’s fear of black cats were added, along with a slightly more traditionally heroic shaping of Lugosi’s character.
  • Ulmer drew his inspiration for Poelzig from two sources: first, the German architect and leading member of the avant garde architectural society “Der Ring,” Hans Poelzig. Polezig’s work was an eccentric mix of Gothic and Noveua, filtered through very personal sensibilities. Second was the infamous Satanist and misogynist Aleister Crowley, whose concupiscent philosophy is expressed by his motto “I rave and I rape and I rip and I rend.” Ulmer grafts those two identification points into a First World War backstory. Ulmer had additional influence here as well: his father was one of the countless European victims in the Great War.
  • Ulmer doubled as set designer and imbued the film with Bauhaus sensibilities.
  • Ulmer should have been Universal’s third iconic horror director, directly behind  and . Like those contemporaries, Ulmer had enough personal vision to elevate a pedestrian seed into something unique. Unfortunately, Ulmer broke a basic rule: He had an affair with his boss’ wife, which lead to his being fired and blacklisted by major studios. Although Ulmer was offered a chance to direct a big budget Shirley Temple musical for Fox, he turned down the offer, choosing instead to makepoverty row quickies for  PRC, where he languished for the rest of his career. Most of  his films are saddled with execrable scripts, and despite a cult following in France, Ulmer’s ultimate artistic merit is speculative.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: After the roadside accident, Vitus Werdegast and company arrive at Hjalmar Poelzig’s mansion. Ulmer’s camera jerkily climbs the deco stairs. The light from a radio blinks. Through cracks and clicks, Poelzig’s manservant announces: “Dr. Werdegast has arrived.” Poelzig’s wife lies asleep in bed; a half nude vision of purest white. Next to her lies the blackened silhouette of Polezig. Upon hearing the voice of his servant, Poelzig awakes, clicks on a light, and sits straight up. It doesn’t take a Freudian to see the image for what it is; a blatantly erect phallus. Polezig rises and walks menacingly toward the bedroom door, seen through the sheer curtain of a canopy bed. He is a phallic symbol as harbinger of death. Sex and death awash in starkly cubist black and white, and dramatic classical music. Poelzig’s wife is also his step-daughter, and Werdegast’ daughter. Werdegast waits below, suspicious but not completely aware of the incestuous milieu permeating Polezig’s fortress.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Despite a checklist of outré taboos, The Black Cat, partly due to studio tampering, is characterized by subdued aesthetics. Rather than conveying grotesquerie and perversity through blood-soaked Poe-like dungeons, which would be the pedestrian route, Ulmer crafts a very personal restlessness through the icy tents of modernism, futurism, highly stylized acting, and artistic music. While this may make it a challenge for contemporary viewers, it renders this tale of revenge, lust and paranoia even weirder.


Fan made trailer for The Black Cat (by David Smith)

COMMENTS: For the first team-up of Universal’s horror stars, Karloff and Lugosi, uncredited producer Carl Laemmle Jr. virtually gave director Edgar G. Continue reading 178. THE BLACK CAT (1934)