Tag Archives: Bela Lugosi

PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE (1959)

It was inevitable that we would have to find an individual space for Edward D. Wood, Jr.‘s Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959). Everyone knows the story of how the 1959 sci-fi flop was rediscovered: two smarmy fundamentalist brothers, who managed to become full time film critics and fancied themselves patron saints of the bourgeoisie, crowned Eddie’s opus as “the worst film of all time.” Only it backfired on the Medveds, and their “Golden Turkey” award gifted the recently departed director with something he could not achieve in this mortal coil: infamy. The Medveds will be rightfully forgotten, cast into their suburban purgatory of banality—and if there is justice amongst the lesser gods, then little Mikey and Harry will be personally tended to by Mr. Heat Miser and Mr. Snow Miser in a tailor-made torture pit. In the moral cosmos, Yukon “even among misfits you’re a misfit” Cornelius has knighted the societal outcasts to dole out celestial justice. Rounding out the bacchanal of a Medved hell, little Eddie Wood, Jr., reunites with Bela, Vampira, Criswell, Tor, and Valda Hansen, administering an eternal enema to such constipated dolts.

The Medveds evolved into Mystery Science Theater 3000. Rather than giving Hollywood, with its plethora of big budget, generic excrement, what it deserved, the MST3K production team, erroneously imagining themselves hip, picked easy targets in low budget indie films. Naturally, Ed Wood was a frequent focus. The do-nothing couch potato geeks made the show a hit. It was their sole shot at superiority.

Wood stands out, even among his peers, because he imbued his films with his own personality. Even in his later films, when his energy had been zapped by one personal defeat after another, there is still no mistaking Wood’s hand in the recipe. Near the end of his life, Wood waxed nostalgic about his failed career and admitted that Glen or Glenda (1953) was his self-portrait, but that Plan 9 From Outer Space was his pride and joy. Both films stand out, even amongst likeminded 50s indie genre films. Intensely and inherently weird, they are defiantly individualistic and, in that sense, they stand apart as authentic art, of far more intrinsic value than most of the drek manufactured by big studios.

Attesting to its originality, Plan 9 From Outer Space has as many classic lines as films like Dracula (1931) and Casablanca (1942), but do not take our word for it. Just read them:

Still from Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959)Narrator [Criswell]: “Greetings, my friend. We are all interested in the future, for that is where you and I are going to spend the rest of our lives. And remember my friend, future events such as these will affect you in the future. You are interested in the unknown… the mysterious. The unexplainable. That is why you are here. And now, for the first time, we are bringing to you, the full story of what happened on that fateful day. We are bringing you all the evidence, based only on the secret testimony, of the miserable souls, who survived this terrifying ordeal. The incidents, the places. My friend, we cannot keep this a secret any longer. Let us punish the guilty. Let us reward the innocent. My friend, can your heart stand the shocking facts of grave robbers from outer space?”

—-

Narrator: “All of us on this earth know that there is a time to live, and that there is a time to die.”

—- Continue reading PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE (1959)

MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE (1932) AND THE MUMMY (1932)

After the successes of Dracula (1931) and Frankenstein (1931) Universal Studios and Carl Laemmle, Jr. became anxious to produce vehicles for  and . After seeing unsatisfactory test footage for an early run at Frankenstein, Laemmle had sacked both director Robert Florey and actor Lugosi from that project. To make amends, Laemmle assigned Florey and Lugosi Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932) and teamed them with cinematographer Karl Freund, who had done extensive work in German Expressionist cinema, including The Golem (1920, d. Paul Wegener), The Last Laugh (1924, d. F.W. Murnau) and Metropolis (1927, d. ).

Still from Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932)Murders in the Rue Morgue was the first of an -inspired trilogy starring Lugosi, followed by The Black Cat (1934, d. ) and The Raven (1935, d. Lew Landers). The star and Freund’s camera (barely) save the film from Florey’s banal touch. Lugosi’s Dr. Mirakle is a far cry from the Count in his evening tux. Adorned in curly top, unibrow, and carnivalesque mad scientist duds, Mirakle is a Darwinist pervert who seeks to mate a  young woman with his Adam-like Ape, Erik, through some kind of mumbo-jumbo blood transfusion. Of course, Mirakle really gets his jollies by tying attractive, barely legal-aged girls to a king’s cross before penetrating them with a needle. Naturally, there are failed experiments before Mirakle thinks he has found Eve in Sidney Fox. Fox, a delicate, saccharine actress, is pure decor. No doubt she got the role via her engagement to a Universal Executive, whom she wedded later that year (it proved to be a stormy marriage, ending in the actress’ suicide in 1934).

A lurid, ludicrous plot is made worse by excessive babbling from a wretched supporting cast. Lugosi supplies an essential touch of rudimentary European mystery through non-acting tricks and his bewitching deconstruction of the English language. A Cabinet of Dr. Calagri-eque chase scene across the Paris rooftops and a brutal knife fight over a prostitute (with the startling visage of a voyeuristic Mirakle descending from the fog) are stylishly executed.  Florey lacked ‘s narrative rhythm and ‘s authentic empathy. The result is a case of style over substance, with the style supplied by others.

“When I first met Karloff, I felt this incredible wave of sadness. His eyes were like shattered mirrors. Whatever his pain was, it was very deep and very much a part of his soul. I never intruded and he was always a perfect gentleman.” Zita Johann on Boris Karloff

Meanwhile, Karl Freund was finally given the chance to direct. His The Mummy (1932) is saddled with an almost equally silly plot, but in Freund’s hands, it comes across as pure grand-guignol poetry. It was made by most of the same team who worked on Dracula, and is, essentially, a reworking of that story by the same writer, John L. Balderstein. Crusty Edward Van Sloan (who played Van Helsing) and chiseled David Manners (Harker) virtually reprise their roles. Like Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Mummy opens with Dracula‘s curious theme music: Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake.”

Still from The Mummy (1932)Freund creates an ominous, ambiguous, and static mood, which is refreshingly anti-commercial. Universal thought so as well. This was his first and last directorial assignment for them. Karloff’s Imhotep exudes eroticism, even through 3,000 years of masterfully stretched flesh courtesy of makeup genius Jack Pierce, perfectly caught in the film’s gorgeously lit black and white. The actor’s performance is nuanced, menacing and simultaneously sympathetic. His yearning for the tenebrous, commanding Zita Johann is entirely convincing. Johann is Karloff’s most perfect female lead. Despite the doomed setup, their chemistry elevates us past the hokum. Unfortunately, they only worked together once, but they do constitute one the silver screen’s most original couples; a sort of Grimm’s Valentine.  Several scenes, depicting the history of the lovers was excised and, unfortunately lost. Rather, we are saddled with too much of that suburban bore; David Manners. Universal, as per the norm, sadistically allows him to live and get the girl.

DIRECTOR RETROSPECTIVE: JAMES WHALE, PART ONE

Journey’s End (1930) marked several firsts. It was the first film directed by , and it was the screen debut for actors Colin Clive and David Manners (actually Manners did have one previous credit, albeit uncredited). Journey’s End is a World War I film based on a popular play by R.C. Sherriff. Whale had previously directed the stage play, also starring Clive. The film version for Universal  is a typical example of early sound film that’s overly stage-bound. However, the literate adaptation, bleak ending, Clive’s canny, ulcerous performance, Benjamin Kline’s cinematography, and Whale’s own wartime experiences (as an officer in the trenches) gave a feeling of authenticity to studio heads and 1930 audiences. Luckily for all concerned, it was a tremendous success.

Whale followed with a second, superior war drama, Waterloo Bridge (1931). Starring Mae Clark (possibly in the best role of her career) the film was based on Robert E. Sherwood’s play. Clark’s portrayal of a prostitute in war torn London offended the Catholic Legion of Decency (who voiced no objections to the depiction of war and mass killing). This resulted in the film being unavailable for years. Legion of Decency condemnation or no, Whale’s film was a critical and box office hit upon its release, far superior to both the play itself and the watered down 1940 MGM remake. In the little space of a year, Whale’s style improved dramatically. Gone are all the stagey vestiges of his theater origins. Whale injects a feeling of authenticity and empathy with an outcast character, which led to his securing the prestigious assignment to adapt Frankenstein (1931).

Still from Frankenstein (1931)It is Frankenstein, not Dracula (1931) which is considered the grandfather of the American horror film, even if ‘s take on Bram Stoker’s vampire is somewhat undervalued today in critical reassessment (which erroneously prefers George Melford’s Spanish version). Regardless, Frankenstein is undeniably a superior film to both versions of Dracula, primarily because of Whale’s first-class sense of cinematic lucidity. Another reason is , who gives a pantomime performance worthy of Chaplin or Chaney. ‘s fictionalized Whale biopic, Gods and Monsters (1998), is condescending and unfair in regards to the relationship between Whale and Karloff. By all accounts the two worked very well together, resulting in a collaboration which reaped artistic riches. Colin Clive’s lugubrious portrayal of Dr. Frankenstein is as iconic as Karloff’s monster. Mae Clark, Edward van Sloan and  round off Whale’s Gothic misfit family. Jack Pierce’s makeup and Kenneth Strickfaden’s sets became much imitated. Whale’s handling of crowd scenes is remarkable, as if he personally directed every individual. Most likely this was due to Whale’s military training. Later Universal films helmed by lesser directors show sharp contrast with their mechanical, assembly-line mobs of villagers.

Whale followed his mega-hit with an odd choice: The Impatient Maiden (1932). It was originally titled “The Impatient Virgin,” but predictably that was Continue reading DIRECTOR RETROSPECTIVE: JAMES WHALE, PART ONE

THE BODY SNATCHER (1945)

When  discovered that RKO was saddling him with star  for a three picture deal, Lewton was not at all happy. The producer had wanted to veer away from the Universal monster-mash factory, which he naturally associated Karloff with. A meeting between Karloff, Lewton, and  changed all that. To Lewton’s surprise, Karloff was seeking a change of pace and a return to more literate acting. By the end of that meeting, both Lewton and Wise were charmed by the actor and enthusiastically looking forward to a fulfilling artistic collaboration. Karloff did three films with Lewton, the other two being Isle of the Dead (1945) and Bedlam (1946) both directed by Mark Robson, a stock RKO director. Lewton should never have hesitated. The Body Snatcher is, easily, the best of the three starring Karloff and the actor almost single-handedly redeems the two Robson films.

Shortly after securing Karloff  for The Body Snatcher, RKO signed  to the film and ordered Lewton to create a role for the former Dracula star. RKO was bound and determined to replicate a Universal horror star extravaganza. Lewton was just as determined to give them something better. Karloff graciously accepted working with his former co-star (this would be their last teaming) and would prove helpful to Lugosi during shooting. While Karloff proved as rewarding an actor as Lewton and Wise hoped he would be, Lugosi’s casting proved problematic. Although Lugosi did turn in one of his few good latter-day performances, the actor’s mental and physical health (a combination of age, drugs, and alcoholism) was a considerable obstacle.

Robert Wise co-directed Curse of the Cat People (1944), but The Body Snatcher was his first solo effort. The film features two superb star performances and several very good character performances, including Lugosi’s. The Body Snatcher, in its pronounced literalness, may lack Lewton favorite ‘s poetic aesthetic, but Wise’s fleshier terrain gleans benefits.

Body Snatcher is an adaptation of a Robert Louise Stevenson short story which Val Lewton scripted (under his pseudonym, Carlos Keith) with Philip MacDonald. The film is inspired by and loosely based on the infamous Burke and Hare murders.

Karloff’s performance here is, rightly, one of his most critically acclaimed. Henry Daniel, one of the great character actors, is precision par excellence. The Body Snatcher is an actors’ film, and the two character stars deliver.

Still from The Body Snatcher (1945)Cabman John Gray (Karloff) and Dr. Toddy McFarland (Daniel) are the ambiguous antagonist and protagonist. McFarland is essentially moral, socially accepted, but chillingly cold and obsessively driven to criminal activities. Gray is a social outcast. He is malevolent, manipulative, capable of brutality, blackmail, and murder. Yet, he has a fire in his heart that McFarland lacks.

It’s not even quite that cut and dry. This is Edinburgh in the Victorian era, when celibacy was proof of vocational dedication. McFarland’s celibacy is a facade. He has a secret wife, Meg (Edith Atwater), who poses as his maid. Meg is a seer, with the gift of vision and fire in her bosom. This relationship, so subtly presented, is the heart of McFarland’s hypocrisy and tragedy.

Gray is equally complex. He savagely brings a shovel down on the skull of an interruptive dog, yet is capable of tenderness when caressing the cheek of his horse, or petting his cat (after committing murder). Gray has affection for a crippled girl but, without an iota of remorse, murders a blind balladeer (an effective scene, shot in Lewtonesque shadows) to supply the cadaver for the girl’s much-needed surgery.

Lewton and Wise astutely play to Lugosi’s limitations, taking advantage of his language difficulty. Lugosi, as the blackmailing servant Joseph, is slow-witted, slow of speech and slow to grasp what’s happening. Lugosi’s best directors played to his awkward delivery. Some have criticized the brevity of Lugosi’s role here (including Lugosi himself). But it is that brevity which gives power to Lugosi’s role.The role Joseph stands alongside the actor’s best character work. Lugosi’s death scene with Karloff is expertly directed and acted.

Atwater projects strongly in her role. Hers are the needs of a fully rounded woman, her passions and visions aflame underneath the icy exterior McFarland demands of her. She fulfills that role without complaint, self-pity, or self-deceit.

However, the film falters considerably in the roles of McFarland’s assistant Fettes (Russell Wade), the crippled girl Georgina (Sharyn Moffett) and her mother (Rita Corday). These are contrived, saccharine characters.

The finale, straight out of the Stevenson story, is harrowing and sears the conscience.

Next week: Tourneur’s evocative I Walked With A Zombie (1943).

THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO EDWARD D. WOOD, JR!

*This is the first testament in our Ed Wood Gospel. The second, New Testament, will cover Wood’s late films, including his collaborations with A.C. Stephens.

This month, Ed Wood‘s Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959) sees its Blu-ray release; posthumously, Ed is thoroughly enjoying his last laugh. He can thank those smug, condescending, hopelessly unimaginative thugs posing as establishment critics, the Medveds, for resurrecting him from the dead and catapulting him into a cult Valhalla. As everyone knows by now, the Medveds infamously awarded Wood the honor of  “Worst Director of All Time” in their infamous Golden Turkey Awards. Today, of course, we know that award could go to someone far more deserving, such as Mel Gibson, Tony Scott, or Mark Steven Johnson. Why pick on the genuine tranny auteur of outsider art?  But, thank , the Medveds saw fit to bestow their award on Ed! There is a sense of divine justice after all, because we have rightly canonized him.

Still from Plan 9 from Outer Space (colorized)Plan 9 was already colorized for DVD a few years ago, and there wasn’t a single complaint about a legendary film being subjected to this much-maligned process. Probably because we all realized Ed simply would have loved the extra attention it gave his magnum opus. According to his biographer, Ed Wood said that while Glen or Glenda? (1953) was his most personal film, Plan 9 was his proudest accomplishment!

Wood’s appeal and fame continues unabated. Yes, he was a trash filmmaker, but he was a trash filmmaker delightfully of his time, simultaneously encased in and fighting against the naiveté of the 1950s. Naturally, that phenomenon is something that cannot be repeated, despite the countless attempts to do so by Continue reading THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO EDWARD D. WOOD, JR!

THE ISLAND OF LOST SOULS (1932) CRITERION RELEASE

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 has 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 ‘s The Invisible Man (1933).  The inimitable , 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.

Still from The Island of Lost Souls (1932)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 (, 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 (, 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 (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.

LUGOSI

According to ‘s official bio, before coming to America he had been a star on the Hungarian stage, appearing in major Shakespeare productions.  Several biographers, however, 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.

Bela Lugosi as DraculaIn 1929, director , 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 he 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 Continue reading LUGOSI