Saturday, December 12, 2009

Lugosi serves as a red herring in
'Night Monster'

Night Monster (aka "House of Mystery")
Starring: Don Porter, Irene Hervey, Ralph Morgan, Doris Lloyd, Fay Helm, Leif Erickson, Bela Lugosi, Robert Homans, Nils Asther Francis Pierlot, Frank Reicher, Lionel Atwill and Janet Shaw
Director: Ford Beebe
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

A wealthy, embittered cripple (Morgan) invites the doctors he blames for his state (Atwill, Peirlot and Reicher) to his mansion in order to witness the miracle he hopes will cure him: A swami (Asther) has discovered a way to use mindpower to materialize matter from thin air, and he believes this method can be used to give him new limbs. Other house-guests include a mystery writer friend to the crippled man(Porter) and a psychologist (Hervey) visiting to help his troubled younger sister (Helm) with her mental problems. When a murderer that seems to materialize and dematerialize at will starts killing members of the household staff and guests, everyone one and anyone can be the next victim... or possibly even the killer.

"Night Monster" is a mystery film with horror overtones that is as crowded with plots as it is with characters. The writers and director do a better job keeping all the threads flowing than is the case in many films similar to this, making good use of all characters and managing to not tangle the plots too badly. The filmmakers even manage to throw in enough red herrings and plausible suspects that the true nature and identity of the killer isn't certain to viewers until the Big Reveal at the end of the movie. (The only suspect that never seems likely is the bulter played by Bela Lugosi, even if I'm sure the director was expecting viewers to automatically assume he was nefarious because it's Bela Lugosi.)

The film is also impressive for the dark mood that pervades it. While there are a couple of "comic relief characters" in the film, they are more subdued than is often the case if movies of this vintage, and their buffoonery is deployed to augment the darkness of the film rather than dispel or undermine it... like where they find the body of one of the victims. The expressions of cowardice are comical, but they enhance the grim mood of the film rather than lighten it.

Each of the murders (or close brushes with the killer) are also very expertly presented. As is to be expected, we never see any actual killings, or even dead bodies, but we don't need to because the scenes are so expertly staged. Even more powerful is when the mysterious killer prowls the marshes around the mansion--the otherwise ever-present sound of croaking frogs suddenly ceases. The silence is even more unnerving than the screams of the victim that soon follow.

This is not a perfect film, however, and the filmmakers don't quite manage to keep all the balls in the air for its full running time, as they stumble badly when it comes to the third act. As it comes to its fiery conclusion, the filmmakers start to lose track of the characters and subplots, with Bela Lugosi's character vanishing from the scene entirely and a bit of involvement of the deus ex machina that makes the attentive viewer wonder why a certain character could have let things get so far out of hand and/or didn't speak up sooner. However, these are problems that won't come to mind until after the film is over, and until they do, you will be in for a very enjoyable ride.

Reportedly, Alfred Hitchcock believed "Night Monster" was an important film as it was being made. If he was basing his opinion on footage as it was assembled into the final product, I can see why he might say that. It is a film made up of some very finely crafted parts, even if there ultimately seems to be a piece or two missing.

Monday, November 23, 2009

'Return of the Vampire' is mostly feeble

Return of the Vampire (1944)
Starring: Matt Willis, Frieda Inescort, Nina Foch and Bela Lugosi
Director: Lew Landers
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

At the height of WWI, Lady Jane (Inescort) joined with an occult expert to slay a vampire (Lugosi) that was preying on his daughter. More than two decades later, as WWII rages, the vampire is restored to life during Nazi bombing raid on London. He sets about executing revenge and to claim the victim he was once denied (Foch).

According to some sources, "Return of the Vampire" started as Columbia's plan to make a direct sequel to Universal's classic "Dracula"... until Universal threatened to sue. In response, Columbia then had some minor script changes done, including changing all the names of the characters, but otherwise proceeded with their project as planned. Although he was called "Armand Tesla," Bela Lugosi was once again playing the role that made him a movie star.

Unfortunately, "Return of the Vampire" isn't as good as "Dracula." The story is weaker here, not to mention even more predictable even than one based on a famous stage play and novel, and the sets and camera-work aren't even close to as evocative as those featured in Lugosi's previous outing as a vampire. Even the film where he played a fake vampire ("Mark of the Vampire") had more horror atmosphere and surprises than this film, which has a slap-dash, quickie feel to it from beginning to end. (A minor source of distraction while watching is that also seems obvious that many of the scenes featuring "Bela Lugosi" are actually a body double. It's slightly less obvious than the doubling Edward D. Wood Jr would do a decade later when Lugosi passed away during production of "Plan 9 From Outer Space," but it's still plain.)

Despite mostly tepid direction, an almost entirely predictable script, and one of the most drab collections of vampire film characters since the original "Dracula" film, there are some highlights here that makes it interesting to watch.

Firstly, the film is the first to feature both a vampire and a werewolf, beating "House of Frankenstein" to the screens by a matter of months.

Secondly, the film draws upon a more truthfully folklore oriented background for its featured werewolf than the made-up-of-whole-cloth lycanthrope legend from "The Wolf Man" which has become the pop cultural standard. In the universe of "Return of the Vampire," a werewolf is a person dominated and controlled by evil forces and the cycles of the moon have nothing to do with anything except the tides.

Thirdly, it is one of the few monster movies of this vintage that places itself firmly in the everyday world, with its references to the German bombings on London and the overall war effort. I think only Val Lewton's films for RKO were more successful in highlighting supernatural horror by placing it squarely in the middle of the recognizable modern world. (This approach would, of course, swiftly become the norm.)

Finally, while the film's director and cinematographer both mostly seem to have been on vacation while this film was being made, they did manage to create some classic fright moments on the film's cemetery set--the vampire moving through the fogbound graveyard are the films most visually interesting moments--and the final confrontation in the tomb actually manages to bring some real excitement and tension to the film. It's the one point while watching it where I found myself unsure of how the scene would play out, and after roughly an hour of lameness, the film finally became worthwhile and ended on a strong note.

"Return of the Vampire" is really only of interest for those Lugosi completists out there, or if you are the world's biggest admirer of Nina Foch. There is is really not enough entertainment here for the average fan of old movies to make it worth seeking out.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

'Murder by Television' is sad example
of wasted potential

Murder By Television (aka The Houghland Murder Case) (1935)
Starring: Bela Lugosi, Charles Hill Mailes, Huntley Gordon and June Collyer
Director: Clifford Sanforth
Rating: Two of Ten Stars

In the mid-30s, the promise of television had captivated the imagination of Americans. Experimental broadcasts were being conducted, and science fiction and fantasy writers of all stripes were inventing all sorts of adventures about the wonders and dangers that this amazing new media would present.

And that brings us to "Murder By Television", a 1930s techno-thriller that uses the fantastic new medium of televison as its jumping-off point. Sadly, the film doesn't live up to its promise, especially given the cast of noted mystery/sci-fi genre players.

In "Murder By Television", independently wealthy, eccentric, and independent-minded inventor James Houghland (Mailes) has created the perfect television broadcast system. Every corporation that has has been working to commercialize the new technology, and an array of governments ranging from the United States to certain sinister foreign powers want to have control of Houghland's wondrous invention, but he has rebuffed them all. The air is thick with plots and schemes as Houghland gathers friends and fellow inventors--among them criminologist and medical pioneer Dr. Scofield (Gordon)--demonstrates the power of his creation by receiving and rebroadcasting images from around the world, without the use of broadcast towers. His triumphant demonstration is cut short, however, as he is murdered during his live broadcast, for all viewers to see. It seems one of the many factions trying to get their hands on the invention deciced to end the compeition by eliminating the prize.

As a police commissioner who had been among Houghland's guests investigates the murder--which is made all the more mysterious by the fact that Houghland simply dropped dead--all suspicion stars to fall on Arthur Perry, Houghland's newly hired assistant (Lugosi). But when Perry is found murdered, it seems that the detective has been outwitted... at least until members of Houghland's household start seeing Perry's ghost.

"Murder By Television" has at its heart a great idea, and it could actually have been a neat cross between a murder mystery and a sci-fi thriller... if only the filmmakers had shown even the slightest idea of how to enliven a film, or perhaps even the slightest grasp of how to approach the visual medium that the story revolves around.

Instead of being an exciting, "Murder By Television" plays like a bad radio play that someone made a halfhearted attempt at translating into film. Most of the film consists of the actors standing around delivering bad expository dialogue, and it seems that only the comic relief characters (a wide-eyed black cook/maid (played by future Oscar winner Hattie McDaniel), and a self-parodying Chinese houseboy (with secrets of his own) seem to be the only actors who are putting any energy into their parts. Even Lugosi--who can usually be counted on to chew every bit of scenery into tiny pieces--seems to have phoned in his performance.

It also doesn't help the film that one of the story's twists is set up in such a ham-fisted way that it ends up not being a twist at all. I kept hoping for a double-reversal, but it never came. Worse, there's an ongoing nonsensical bit with a comic relief character who is constantly trying to break into the house, but it's never explained why.

In fairness to the film, the copy I viewed was severely degraded, with many missing frames and at least one scene that seems to be missing almost entirely. Perhaps that is where the "I've got business in the house" character is explained. But, even allowing for that, "Murder By Television" is a dull, badly done B-movie... and I say this having wanted to like it alot. There was so much potential here, and I think it a shame that it was wasted so badly.

'The Corpse Vanishes' will make you appreciate your family

The Corpse Vanishes (aka "The Case of the Missing Brides") (1942)
Starring: Luana Walters, Bela Lugosi, Elizabeth Russell and Angelo
Director: Wallace Fox
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

Certifiable madman and scientific genius Prof. Lorenz (Lugosi) is placing beautiful, virgin brides into deathlike states at the altar with specially created orchids. He then steals the bodies and drains glandular fluids from them to create a concoction that keeps is even crazier wife looking youthful. His scientific fountain of youth is threatened when society columnist and wanna-be hardnosed reporter Patricia Hunter (Walters) grows suspicious and pays him a visit at his isolated home. Will she bring in the scoop of the year, or will she herself become a victim?

"The Corpse Vanishes" is a pretty standard mad scientist vs. plucky girl reporter lightweight horror movie... except for the bizarre group of characters that make up Lorenz's household.

From Lorenz's wife (who sleeps in a coffin for no apparent reason) to the house-keeper (a doomsaying withered old hag), her bestial son (who likes fondling the comotose brides Lorenz brings home, not to mention our heroine when she stays the night at the house), to her midget son (who serves as valet, butler, and Lorenz's chief henchman), to Lorenz himself (who at one moment refers to them as his "strange family" and the next moment is threatening to kill them... not to mention the whole abducting of brides thing), this is the weirdest household this side of the Manson Family.

No matter how freaky your family is, if you watch this film before going to celebrate a holiday with them, you will be able to say to yourself, "Eh... they could be worse."

Aside from the Lorenz household, everything else is pretty much stock here--including our heroine and the bland love interest she picks up--but the fast-paced story keeps things lively and moving.

Lugosi gives a standard performance. Although he has quite a bit of screen time, he doesn't have alot do to, except to be a centerpiece around which other, stranger characters orbit.

'Black Dragons' lost all value on when WW2 ended

Black Dragons (aka "The Yellow Menace") (1942)
Starring: Bela Lugosi and Joan Barclay
Director: William Nigh
Rating: Two of Ten Stars

As America gears up to fight the Japanese during WWII, a group of wealthy Fifth Columnists finalize their plans to sabotage the war effort from the top down. However, they share a secret far deeper and more sinister than just being traitors--and that secret is why the mysterious Mr. Cologne (Lugosi) is murdering them, one by one. Is Cologne an American patriot, or is he a threat more sinister than even the enemy agents?

There isn't much in this 1942 spy movie that recommends it to the modern viewer. "Black Dragons" is terribly dated due to its WWII message of "loose lips sink ships" and while it shows some glimmers of perhaps having risen to the level of an interesting thriller, the rushed, exposition-heavy wrap-up during the film's final ten minutes dispels what little supense had been built up, and the fact that the mysterious powers displayed by Lugosi's character (who, literally, vanishes into thin air several times) remain unexplained, confine this film to the massive scrapheap of Z-grade pictures.

A monkey is made of Lugosi in 'The Ape Man'

The Ape Man (aka "Lock Your Doors") (1943)
Starring: Bela Lugosi, Wallace Ford, Minerva Urecal, Louise Currie, and Henry Hall
Director: William Beaudine
Rating: Three of Ten Stars

Dr. Brewster (Lugosi) decides to prove his evolutionary theory of by using a serum to turn himself into a "missing link." He soon regrets his state and goes about developing a cure. Unfortunately, his cure requires lots of fresh spinal fluid, so he takes to prowling the streets with his pet gorilla looking for people to kill.

"The Ape Man" is an embarrassing affair all around. From the guy in the cheap gorilla suit; to Lugosi's "ape man" costume; to the lame reporter trio of comic relief characters; to the tepid climax of the unfocused, messy script, just about everything here should stand as an embarrassment to all those involved in created it. I'm sure everyone could hold their heads high while cashing their paychecks, but I hope they slinked by any theater screening this disaster back in the day. It must have been clear during filming what an awful film this would be; whether viewed as a horror film, or a horror film spoof (and I think they were trying to make the latter) this is a movie that just doesn't work.

In fairness, the actors, by the way, do a passable job, given what they're working with... but even if they'd given Oscar-worthy performances, "The Ape Man" would still be a steaming pile of primate droppings.

Running just under 70 minutes, "The Ape Man" is okay for the first 10-15 of them, but then it takes a sharp nose-dive into The Suck. It remains watchable, but only if you're interested in seeing if it can get any worse (and in seeing an actor in a terribly gorilla suit make a monkey out of himself).

'Shadow of Chinatown' is ghost of a good movie

The Shadow of Chinatown (1936)
Starring: Herman Brix, Joan Barclay, Luana Walters, Maurice Lui, and Bela Lugosi
Director: Robert F. Hill
Rating: Two of Ten Stars

A pair of self-loathing "Eurasians" (Walters and Lugosi) team up to use their business saavy and scientific know-how to enrich themselves and take their revenge on both the White and Oriental peoples. But they haven't counted on interference from a San Francisco society page reporter wanting to graduate to investigative reporting (Barclay), her Chinese culture-loving private detective friend (Brix), nor the assortment of superfluous secondary characters and bumbling henchmen.

"The Shadow of Chinatown" that I watched is the feature-film version, which is a condensing of a 15-part serial. That explains for some of the disjointedness of the story, but it doesn't account for the atrociously wooden acting on the part of the actors--except Luana Walters, the only performer who gives a decent accounting of herself--the erratic and contradictory abilities and powers of Lugosi's character, and the lame, anti-climax of the movie's end.

This 70-minute version was so dull I almost didn't make it to end. It starts out strong enough with Walters and Lugosi's minions fanning out through Chinatown and terrorizing business patrons while disguised as Chinese gangsters, and providing Barclay's character an opportunity to get captured by the villains and then escape... but then it starts to sink into a mess of bad acting and even worse plotting. Walters remains a bright spot throughout, but she's really the only thing worth watching here.

'The Human Monster' is a humongous bore

The Dark Eyes of London (aka "The Human Monster" and "The Dead Eyes of London") (1940)
Starring: Bela Lugosi, Hugh Williams and Greta Gynt
Director: Walter Summers
Rating: Three of Ten Stars

Bela Lugosi plays Dr. Orloff, a physician turned insurance broker who is issuing life insurance policies to disabled men with himself as the beneficiary and then murdering them. His scheme goes awry when one of his victims failed to mention that he has a daugther... and she has just happened to return to England after living for many years in the United States (played by Greta Gynt). Orloff needs to act fast and subtely, or this meddling relative and the dashing Scotland Yard inspector (Hugh Williams) who is her would-be love interest will unmask him as a multi-murderer for sure.

"The Dark Eyes of London" is a dreary, dreadfully boring movie with too much wooden dialogue and too little forward movement in the story as the film unfolds. To make matters even worse, the story relies too much on coincidence to get the story going and to keep it moving. (I can live with the daughter returning just after her father has died, but it's too much for me that she happens to run into the inspector who will work her father's murder-case, or that... I could continue, but I might spoil what little suspense that "The Dark Eyes of London" actually manages to build for the viewer.)

It's too bad the director didn't have a better sense of pacing, and the writers didn't have a better talent for dialogue, because the actors all deliver good performances, there is some nice very nice photography and effective staging of scenes, and the brutal picture painted of the everyday world is also interesting for a movie of this vintage.

Of particular note is Bela Lugosi. Like so many other movies he was featured in, he transcends the awfulness of the material and delivers a fantastic performance. He is in rare form in this picture, projecting a degree of evil that matches the villain he played in "The Raven." The movie isn't all that good, but Lugosi is terrific.

I know there are some reviewers who praise "The Dark Eyes of London" as a brooding masterpiece with a sinister and evil villain. I found it boring, with Lugosi being great but not enough to make the film worthwhile.

Maybe someone out there can tell me what I missed while watching "The Dark Eyes of London"?

Trivia: "The Dark Eyes of London" was the last film to be produced and released before the outbreak of WW2. Then, the British film industry turned its attention to doing its part to battle the Axis Powers.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Lugosi mostly wasted in this comedy muted by passage of time

Zombies on Broadway (aka "Loonies on Broadway") (1945)
Starring: Wally Brown, Alan Carney, Sheldon Leonard, Bela Lugosi, Anne Jeffreys and Darby Jones
Director: Douglas Gordon
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

A pair of bumbling promoters (Brown and Carney) travel to the voodoo-haunted San Sebastian island to find a real zombie for the opening night of a racketeer's new night club, the Zombie Hut.

There aren't many comedies that remain relevant and funny beyond the decade in which they were made, let alone five decades after they were made. This is even more true if a comedy full of pop culture references that the people of the day would understand, but that grow evermore obscure and meaningless to viewers who come later. "Zombies on Broadway" is a comedy that has been sapped of all its punch in the interveening years.

Much of the humor in this film is derived from the fact that it is to a large extent a direct spoof of "I Walked With a Zombie", a stylish horror film that had been a hit for RKO in 1943 and which the audiences watching this film in 1945 would almost certainly have seen. The setting for the two films are the same, the same wandering muscian sings the same tune in both flicks--although here the lyrics are goofy instead of haunting--and the spoofing of the trek to the secret voodoo ceremony is unmistakable and funny... if you're familiar with "I Walked With a Zombie." If not, the film will seem even more insipid than it is.

Aside from the muted references to a popular movie that has now fallen into obscurity, the film is further hampered by the fact that it centers around a pair of comedians whose routines will remind viewers of Abbott & Costello. Unfortunately, Brown & Carney are no Abbott & Costello, so with vaudeville and this style of comedy no longer in vougue, viewers will find themselves wondering why they aren't watching the real Abbott & Costello instead of a studio-manufactured knock-off. (The only bits that remain chuckle-worthy are some of the activity when Mike gets turned into a zombie.)

Even Bela Lugosi fans will be disappointed with this one. While he had an absolutely fabulous role in "The Body Snatcher" (also from RKO the following year), the role he plays here is on the level of some of his worst Poverty Row flicks and a foreshadowing of what is to come for him in "Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla" toward the end of his career. Lugosi doesn't even get to show his talent for comedy, something that at let him do every so often.

Finally, this film pre-dates the flesh-eating zombies that have become the cinematic norm since George Romero made "Night of the Living Dead" and "Dawn of the Dead". It centers around voodoo and the kind of zombie that entered into the public imagination with White Zombie, one of the many genre-defining horror films that Bela Lugosi appeared in (and which is also referenced obliquely in "Zombies on Broadway").

If you're interested in seeing what a satire like "Team America: World Police" will look like to viewers in 50 years (or "Disaster Movie" or "Silver City" in five years), this film is worth checking out. Otherwise, it should just be ignored. My advice is to spend the time you might have wasted watching this film is to seek out a copy of "I Walked With a Zombie", one of the greatest zombie movies ever made. (And, as of this writing, freshly available on DVD alone with the eight other groundbreaking and vionary horror movies that he produced for RKO during the 1940s. They are films that anyone who enjoys horror movies must see... and that goes double if you fancy yourself a filmmaker. (The set even includes the aforementioned "The Body Snatcher.")

Friday, October 23, 2009

Three horror greats and a novelty band in a time capsule

You'll Find Out (aka "Wild Wild Spookhouse") (1940)
Starring: Kay Kyser and His Orchestra, Dennis O'Keefe, Peter Lorre, Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, M.A. Bogue, Helen Parrish and Ginny Simms
Director: David Butler
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

Kay Kyser (Keyser) and the wacky musicians and singers that make up his orchestra are booked to play at the 21st birthday party of their manager's heiress girlfriend (Parrish). Swing music, high-jinx, and attempted murder follow as Keyser must team with a renowned debunker of psychics also invited to the party (Lorre) who has also been invited to the event in order to reveal the true nature of a phoney spiritualist (Lugosi), who has been bleeding money from the young lady's gullable guardian.

"You'll Find Out" is interesting viewing for two reasons.

First of all, it's the only film where Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff and Peter Lorre appear together. The three actors don't have alot of screen time, but their parts are meaty and they get to show their best sides; even Lugosi has a decent part, something that was becoming increasingly rare for him at this point. (In a meta-critical sense, their appearance is an almost Three Fates and/or The Stages of Man sort of affair--Lorre is on the verge of acheiving super-stardom, Karloff is at the pinnacle of his career, and Lugosi is slipping from twilight and into darkness.)

Second, it's an example of the fleeting nature of fame. While Karloff, Lugosi and Lorre have some presence in the minds of virtually every movie fan--even if their names might be a bit vague--how many know who Kay Kyser is? And this despite the fact that Kay Kyser was every bit as big a star as Karloff and Lugosi in his time, the leader of a very popular novelty band that had numerous Billboard-charting hit records, was the centerpiece of their own weekly network radio show, and starred in seven movies, including this one. Some 65 years after retiring from show business during World War II, Kyser and his band are completely forgotten by all. You can watch this movie to see what place Slim Shadey will hold in the public conciousness in sixty years... not to mention what "8 Miles" will look and sound like.

As for the film itself, it's more corny than suspenseful, which is fitting given that it was not a vehicle for the three horror actors but for Kyser's orchestra. Some viewers might be dissapointed at this, but I've always enjoyed Bela Lugosi's comedic turns. Lorre also has some very funny scenes with Kyser, sometimes being the straight man, sometimes being the deliverer of the jokes... and doing an equally good job in either role. (You may notice by now that I've not said much about Karloff. That's because there isn't much to say. He plays a dignified, slightly sinister lawyer and he delivers his lines on cue. It's a decent part and it's key to the story, but there's not much else to say other than, "Look... Boris Karloff!"

Is "You'll Find Out" a classic? No, "Ghostbreakers" this is not. However, it holds up a little better than many other pieces of disposable cinema made for no purpose other than to cash in on a cross-marketing opportunity of a musician.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Top talent, bargain-basement comedy and thrills in 'The Black Cat'

The Black Cat (1941)
Starring: Broderick Crawford, Hugh Herbert, Anne Gwynne, Basil Rathbone, Gale Sondergaard, Gladys Cooper and Bela Lugosi
Director: Albert S. Rogell
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

When one of greedy relatives on an unpleasant--but exceedingly wealthy--old woman decides to help her into the grave through murder, it's up to a family friend and greasy real estate broker (Crawford) to unmaks the killer. But he better hurry, because it's a dark and stormy night, and the killer has more lives to claim....

Universal sure does love to throw random films into their DVD collections. In the marketed-as-a-horror-films "Boris Karloff Collection" there was the light mystery "The Night Key" and the historical drama "Tower of London," while the "Universal Horror: Classic Archive" features "The Black Cat." Sure, the film includes horror film regulars like Basil Rathbone, Anne Gwynn and Bela Lugosi, but it is actually a comedy that spoofs the Dark Old House genre that flourished in the early 1930s.

"The Black Cat" was the second film that the famous Poe short story "suggested" to Universal Pictures. It has more in common with the source material than the 1934 picture the story "suggested"--this one at least features a black cat that ends up unmasking a killer with its yowling--but it's nowhere near as good.

As comedies go, it's below average. The behavior of the comic characters--a real estate agent played by Broderick Crawford and a dishonested and scatterbrained dealer of antiques played by Hugh Herbert--is rarely all that funny, although the comparisons I've seen made to Abbott and Costello are unfair. Crawford's more-often-than-not straight man is far more respectable than most characters portrayed by Abbott, and Herbert's "Costello imitation" is more a reflection of the fact that both men started their carrers as comedians on the Vaudeville stage. It's not that Crawford and Herbert are ripping anyone off that viewers should be upset with, it's that they have such poor material and badly written lines to work with.

The overall thrust of the story is decent enough, although it is full of logic holes. I have the senese that someone, somewhere said, "Screw it... it's a comedy being made to just fill the release schedule; who cares the story doen't hang together?"

So, as is always the case when producers don't bother to get the foundation fo their film solid, we end up with an end product that is little more than a waste of talent and time. We have a comedy that's only mildly funny, featuring a mystery that's badly put together because the writers didn't put enough tought into it, and a film that squanders great talent like Rathbone, Gwynn and Lugosi.

In fact, no one is wasted more in this picture than Lugosi. He is relegated to a small and pointless role as the Italian groundskeeper, a role so small and pointless that he doesn't get to show his talent for dramatic or comedic acting. In fact, the role is so pointless that I think not even Lugosi took it seriously--or if he did, he added an attempt to do an Italian accent on top of his Hungarian one late in the shooting schedule because his accent is inconsistent between scenes. It has been written that Universal executives either did not respect Lugosi or didn't know what to do with him... and it's films like this that prove the truth of that. I still have to see one or two of Lugosi's Universal films, but this one has got to be close to the low point of his appearances in them.

That said, Gale Sondergaard does play one of the creepiest house keepers to ever grace the silver screen. Also, the scenes leading up to the end after the murderer has been revealed are very suspenseful and well paced. One can also add that the film is fast-paced, so no matter how dumb it gets at times, it never gets boring.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Lugosi shines in his final role for RKO

The Body Snatcher (1945)
Starring: Boris Karloff, Henry Daniell, Russell Wade, Bela Lugosi and Edith Atwater
Director: Robert Wise
Rating: Night of Ten Stars

In this loose adaptation of a Robert Louis Stevenson short story, a young medical student (Russell Wade) becomes drawn into the twisted relationship between a brilliant but coldhearted surgeon (Daniell) and a strange coachman who moonlights as a body snatcher to provide the doctor with research specimens (Karloff).

Lobby card for The Body Snatcher
"The Body Snatcher" is a one-stop spot to discover why producer Val Lewton, actor Boris Karloff, director Robert Wise, and even Bela Lugosi, are held in such high regard by horror movie fans and filmmakers.

Lewton's touch is all over this film, and there is barely a scene that doesn't feature terror technqiues that filmmakers copy and rely on to this very day. Karloff gives one of the very best performances of his career, oozing gresy charm and quiet menace with every word and gesture. And then there's the very chilling scene where he's just choked a man to death, is sitting over the corpse, and then reaches out to stroke his pet cat. And, finally, Wise mounts a brilliantly structured film where the mystery and tension keeps mounting until the end, and every scene is perfectly paced, framed and lit. Much gets said about film noir, but the use of light and shadow in black and white horror films like this one is far more important that in crime dramas, and Wise here Wise uses the medium to perfection.

And, of course, the stars are backed up by an excellent supporting cast, especially Bela Lugosi. Lugosi's role is small, but he brings a level of raw creepiness to his character, creepiness born more of stupidity than the evil that wafts from Karloff's character.

In retrospect, the fact that Lugosi dies in a very key scene in the film is something of an allegory for his career, as well as Karloff's. In the scene in question, Lugosi ends up dead on the floor and Karloff reaches out to pet a cat in a very creepy moment. This was the second-to-last film Lugosi made for a major studio, and his career and life were mostly a downward spiral from here, while Karloff's career in horror films continued to flourish.

This film alone is almost worth the price of the Val Lewton Collection (which features three Karloff movies and all of the groundbreaking horror films Lewton produced for RKO.)

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

'The Devil Bat' is one of Lugosi's best Poverty Row pictures

The Devil Bat (aka "Killer Bats") (1942)
Starring: Bela Lugosi, Dave O'Brien, and Donald Kerr
Director: Jean Yarborough
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

Everyone loves the ever-smiling chemist Dr. Paul Carruthers (Lugosi), especially the investors in the cosmetics company he's been creating best-selling colognes and perfumes for. When the company owners make what they feel is a nice gesture to reward Carruthers' many years of service, he feels like he's been insulted and he decides to kill his bosses and their entire family. Revealing that he's as talented a mad scientist as he is a chemist, Carruthers transforms otherwise harmless bats into giant hunter-killers that hone in on a special cologne that he's given to his victims for "testing." Will Carruthers get away with his bloody schemes, or will a lazy tabloid reporter (O'Brien) and his photographer (Kerr) manage to stumble their way to the truth?

Bela Lugosi in The Killer Bats
That's a long summary, but "The Devil Bat" is pretty convoluted. In fact, it's so convoluted that it's one of those films that you need to just watch without thinking too hard, particularly when it comes to Paul Carruthers, his killer bats, and his rambler house with its secret Mad Scientiest Lab and tower for convenient bat launches.

The film's got a decent cast (with Lugosi being particularly fun to watch) a story with plenty of humor (both intentional and unintentional), and a pace that is just fast enough to keep the viewers interested. It's by no means a masterpiece, and its low, low budget is painfully visible in some of the sets (although the bat effects are better than I expected), but it's a fun bit of viewing if you enjoy Bela Lugosi and the nonsense breed of plup fiction-style sci-fi/horror flicks that filled the B-feature slots at movie houses in the 30s and 40s.

By the way, I highly recommend getting the DVD version of the film that I've linked to below. Not because I recommend watching colorized classics, but because I think it's fascinating to compare a colorized version with the black-and-white version. Invariably, you will discover that colorizing saps a film of life rather than enhances it. (I used to think that it was only dramas that were ruined by colorization. Then I picked up the disc containing both the colorized version and original version of "My Man Godfrey." Actually, watching both versions close together changed my mind completely.)

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Lugosi and forgotten comedy team monkey around in 'The Gorilla'

The Gorilla (1939)
Starring: The Ritz Brothers, Lionel Atwill, Anita Louise, Bela Lugosi, Patsy Kelly, and Edward Norris
Director: Alan Dwan
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

When millionaire Walter Stevens (Atwill) receives a death threat from a vicious murderer and extortionist known as The Gorilla on the very eve his beautiful niece Norma (Louise) and her boyfriend (Norris) are returning to the States, he hires a trio of private detectives (The Ritz Brothers) to protect him and his family. Unfortunately, these detectives couldn't find their way around a well-lit, empty room, so things get hairy when The Gorilla strikes. They get even hairier when a REAL gorilla invades the house.

When I first put this movie in my DVD player, the opening credits took me by surprise. These days, it is being marketed as a Bela Lugosi movie (in so far as it was included in a ten-movie pack of Lugosi films), but when it was first released, the star attraction was a comedy team known as the Ritz Brothers and it was a vehicle first and foremost for them.

As a comedy, "The Gorilla" doesn't quite work, and it works even less as an intended showcase for the Ritz Brothers. Their "stupid detectives" schtick quickly becomes more annoying than funny, and the funniest bits are actualy performed by Patsy Kelly (the household's maid who wants nothing more than to quit) and Bela Lugosi as a creepy butler who seems to have the power to appear and dissapear at will. (This seems to be a minor theme in Lugosi flicks, as he plays a character with a similar talent in "Black Dragons"). It works when played for laughs, like it is here, but it is incredibly annoying when it is featured in a serious drama, like the awful "Black Dragons" was intended as.

As a mystery, the film is somewhat more entertaining. If one can tolerate the antics of the Ritz Brothers, there's actually a clever little story with some neat twists and turns and a Big Reveal that is actually somewhat surprising. (The fact that the gorilla suit featured is better than aveage also helps.)

Of primary interest, I think, is the fact that this film has ended up as an exhibit of the fleeting nature of fame. As mentioned above, I was a bit surprised when I learned this film was a vehicle for a comedy team I'd never even heard of. I did some research, and it seems that the Ritz Brothers may have bene more popular than the Marx Brothers at one time...yet the former are totally forgotten. Similarly, Lugosi and Atwill were big names in their day, but they too have sunken into obsurity. (Hardcore horror fans know Lugosi because he did "Dracula", but Atwill? Only real film geeks have even the slightest inkling about the full output of either actor. Yet, in the 30s and 40s, their names were major draws.)

"The Gorilla" is also worth watching because viewers will once again see that Lugosi was a far better comedic actor than he has ever been given credit for. His part is small here, but he shows perfect comedic timing in every scene he's in. It really is too bad that his career track was such that he didn't get to make more comedies.

In final analysis, howevery, "The Gorilla" is really only of interest to the biggest movie geeks among us... and possibly the truly hardcore fans of Bela Lugosi's work. The rest can safely pass this one by; it's not particularly bad, but it's also not very noteworthy.

(As for the Ritz Brothers, it seems their Main Funny was to be found in musical routines... of which they do none in "The Gorilla". Maybe this film is a case of the wrong vehicle for a particular group of performers. If the Ritz Brothers really were any good, it's a shame their movie legacy doesn't reflect that. This was just one or two films they starred in.)

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Lugosi is the dark, beating heart of
'The Invisible Ghost'

The Invisible Ghost (aka "The Phantom Killer") (1941)
Starring: Bela Lugosi, Clarence Muse, John McGuire, and Polly Ann Young
Director: Joseph H. Lewis
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

Charles Kessler (Lugosi) is a widely admired man who, known only to his faithful manservant Evans (Muse) and his daughter Virginia (Young) suffers minor bouts with insanity during which he thinks he is still living with his beloved wife, who vanished years ago. However, Kessler's insanity is far deeper and far deadlier than anyone imagines; his wife seemingly appears outside his window at night, and the sight of her sends him into a trance during which he committs horrendous strangulation murders. When Virginia's fiance (McGuire) is executed for one of the murders, his twin brother Paul (also McGuire) arrives in town intent on finding the true killer.

"The Invisible Ghost" is another one of those films where I can see lots of potential that buried under a badly written script. The idea of a decent man so filled with grief and rage that he goes into murderous trances is pretty neat, but in this case the question of exactly how crazy Kessler is undermind within the first ten minutes of the film. (There's a "big revelation" that should have been saved for much later on.) Further, the dialogue (and its delivery) feels more suitable for a stage play than a movie... and it's delivered by actors whose performances mostly leave a lot to be desired.

The two exceptions to my negative comments about the actors are Clarence Muse and Bela Lugosi.

In the case of Muse, he plays Kessler's butler and manservant, but he projects an intelligence, dignity, and sensitivity that is lacking in just about every other character in the film; he's also the one actor who never comes across as unintentionally funny in the film... his laugh lines are true laugh lines, and they're delivered with excellent timing.

Lugosi also gives an engaging performance. Although the man seemed to lack the ability to pick decent projects to perform in, he often managed to make the most of the roles he did. In this case, he shows his acting ability by going through several emotions, and even completely transforming himself by doing nothing but changing his facial expressions. On the downside of his performance in "The Invisible Ghost", Lugosi is unintentionally HILARIOUS when Kessler enters his murderous trances. It takes some of the horror and tragedy away from the story when giggling viewers are trying to decide what Kessler resembles most in his murderous state: Kharis the Mummy without his bandages, or a spastic retard shuffling home after riding the short bus.

One strong aspect of the film that I must mention is that it is beautifully lit. The technical crew who worked on it really knew their stuff--the many candle-lit scenes are very well-handled with spotlights that properly follow the actors carrying the candleholders, and lighting is used consistently with great effect to underscore the drama and tension. Further, there's some very creative camerawork on display. (On the downside, the drama and tension is undermind by a truly awful score and the aforementioned bad acting.)

I think "The Invisible Ghost" is worth watching for Muse and Lugosi's performances, but the bad definately outweighs the good.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Lugosi takes a turn as hero in 'The Invisible Ray'

The Invisible Ray (1936)
Starring: Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi and Frances Drake
Director: Lambert Hillyer
Rating: Three of Ten Stars

Scientific genius Janos Rukh (Karloff) discovers an amazing new radioactive element, but accidentially becomes poisoned by it. His equally bright collegue Dr. Benet (Lugosi) devises a serum that surpresses the deadly effects, but the chemicals and radioactivity drive the already mentally unstable Rukh over the edge, and he soon starts using his new radioactive powers to kill everyone he feels as wronged him. Will the kindly Benet and the police stop manage to stop Rukh's murderous rampage in time to save Rukh's ex-wife (Drake)?

"The Invisible Ray" has all the makings of a cool little Science Gone Mad film (complete with Karloff delivering the "they called me mad" speech!), but it is sabotaged by pedestrian direction, some of the tinniest dialogue ever put on film, and a too slow build-up before the killings start. Throughout the film, I saw glimmers of what it COULD have been if someone had written decent dialogue for the actors to deliver, but as "The Invisible Ray" currently exists, it's not until the action move to Paris and Rukh goes on his mad rampage that the film becomes entertaining. (There's enough going on at that point that the bad dialogue is no longer such an irritant.)

I think the only reason to watch the movie is for seeing Lugosi play a role that's almost entirely unlike any other part he's played; everyone else appearing doesn't really deliver performances that are noteworthy for being good or bad... they're just in the movie. Lugosi, however, is not only the film's indisputable hero (even if Dr. Benet is just about Rukh's equal when it comes to Mad Science... but he uses the WonderTech and crazy discoveries for good!), but he gives a more-restrained-than-usual performance that lets us see why he was such a respected stage actor. It's another one of those those pictures that makes it easy to understand why Boris Karloff described Lugosi as "Poor Bela" in interviews following Lugosi's death. It's another Lugosi film that gives a glimpse at what moviedom lost because Universal management treated him like a throw-away bit player and because Lugosi managed his overall film career badly.

(Oh... I don't usually do much trivia in this forum, but there is an amusing bit of stock footage in the film. The scene where Janos lowers himself into the meteor crater in protective gear was taken from the matinee serial "The Phantom Creeps". It is actually Bela Lugosi wearing the suit.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Lugosi is wasted in this so-so comedy

One Body Too Many (1944)
Starring: Jack Haley, Jean Parker, Bernard Nedell, Bela Lugosi, Lyle Talbot, and Lucien Littlefield
Director: Frank McDonald
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

Insurance salesman Albert Tuttle (Haley) arrives to sell a millionaire life insurance, only to find that his customer is already deceased and his greedy family members are at his house to fulfill the terms of his unusual will. Albert's night goes from bad to worse when he is recruited to help watch the body (which is laying in state in the house until construction on a special crypt is finished), as the estate's executor (Nedell) fears the some of the relatives may try to circumvent the terms of the will. And can anything more happen once Albert is attacked and the body is stolen? Well, there's always murder....

"One Body Too Many" is a film that history has passed by. It's a straight-up spoof of "the dark old house" mystery subgenre that flourished in the 1930s and early 1940s. That genre so long out of favor that it is barely remembered (although several horror movies in recent years have incorporated elements of the genre, with "See No Evil" being perhaps the most prominent of them), and much of its humor is therefore somewhat muted to the modern viewer. Although, those who remember the "Scooby-Doo" cartoons are familiar with the standard elements of the genre, as bioth "Scooby-Doo" and this film features (and pokes fun) at all them, such as the setting of a gothic mansion that is honey-combed with bad electrical wiring and secret passages, full of creepy servants, crooked relatives, andshadowy killers, and beset by rain and thunderstorms that come and go depending on the needs of the plot.

The film features a solid cast and decent sets, even if the rooftop observatory left a lot to be desired. Jack Haley, as the hapless Albert Tuttle, brings about many chuckles, and he does a fine turn as the start of this comedy. Despite the fact that Bela Lugosi's name and face are huuuge on the DVD case of this film, his part is rather small. Further, while he and Haley play off each other in one of the film's funniest exchanges--where Lugosi, playing Murkil the butler, has to explain the mud on his shoes--he doesn't get to show off his all-too-rarely used talent for comedy. The running gag with the servants and the coffee, which pays off in the film's final scene, isn't one that required a great deal of skill to deliver.

Script-wise, it's okay, but there's nothing particularly bad, but there's also nothing particuarly spectacular. There only one part that doesn't work on any level, and that's when three of the relatives decide to take the coffin and hide it in the pool. The action makes no sense and the schtick that it lets Haley do isn't particularly funny. The rest of the fillm is pleasently amusing, however.

While "One Body Too Many" isn't a film that I would necessarily recommend buying on its own, it does add to the value of any DVD multipack it is featured in. It's also a fine candidate for a Netflix rental if you enjoy comedies and mysteries from the 1930s and 1940s.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Lugosi's only color film is less than impressive but still mysterious

Scared to Death (1947)
Starring: George Zucco, Bela Lugosi, Nat Pendleton, Molly Lamont and Angelo
Director: William Christy Cabanne
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

In "Scared to Death", Laura Van Ee (Molly Lamont) relates the final few hours of her life where her sordid past caught up with her, and she was.. well, scared to death. She is on a slab in the morgue as she relates a tale of a loveless, yet co-dependent to an extreme degree, marriage to an ethics-challeged psychiatrist (Zucco); a discredited doctor and hypnotist, Leonid (Lugosi), and his ill-tempered long-time midget companion; a bumbling bodyguard (Pendleton) who wants nothing more than to have a murder occur, so he can solve it and get back in good standing with the police force; a super-annoying reporter and his airhead girlfriend; the skittish maid; and a mysterious blue-gree face that keeps hovering outside the windows. The presense of these strange and whacky characters all add up to Laura being dead by the movie's end... and being in the morgue where we started.

No... I'm not giving the ending away, because the title gives it away. The fact that the opening scene has Laura dead in teh morgue gives it away. So, suspense over whether she's going to live or die is never an issue in the film. How she is going is going to die isn;'t an issue either. The mystery as to "why" does come up every so often during the film, but it's not really something that viewers are all that concerned about. The insanity of the proceedings is more what we're focused on.

"Scared to Death" is either a really bad horror movie, or an incredibly quirky comedy (although not necessarily a good one). This short B-movie (which is one of Bela Lugosi's few color appearances, by the way) left me so confused about what the filmmakers had been hoping to accomplish that I did some searching online in hopes of finding some reviewer who could give me a little context.

Well, no one seems to have more of a clue about the film than I do, so I'm going with my opinion that "Scared to Death" was intended as a comedy--a horror movie spoof, actually--but it somehow went awry. (In fact, I think most of the reviewers I came across with my quick Google search have looked at "Scared to Death" in the wrong way. I don't think it was intended as a horror film, at least not when principle shooting was going on.)

Every actor, except the woman who is being scared to death, delivers their parts and their lines in a comedic fashion. (If you take a look at comedies from the 30s and 40s, you'll know what I mean by that.) I've seen Nat Pendleton as the comic relief screwball character in two or three other films (most notably the very excellent "Trapped by Television" ), but his antics pale next to those of Lugosi and his look-alike midget buddy, and several other minor characters that appear. Further, Lugosi's delivery as he plays Dr. Leonid is very similar to how he played his parts in the clear-cut comedies "The Gorilla" and "Abott and Costello Meet Frankenstein". (In fact, critics often praise Lugosi's comedic timing in "Meet Frankenstein", but I think his talent for comedy is even more clear in "Scared to Death" during his scenes with the cranky midget.

If considered as a pseudo-screwball comedy horror spoof, "Scared to Death" is not all that bad--if very, very strange. The film never manages to build the frenetic pace it would need to fully work, because the unfolding chaos is constantly interrupted by cut-aways to Laura at the morgue so she can deliver obvious and dull commentary on what we've just seen, or are about to see.

If viewed as a horror film, "Scared to the Death" is a complete and total disaster--unscary and utterly insipid--that is made worse by the lame cut-aways to the morgue and the tension-dispelling framing device that establishes Laura is already dead.

However you think of the film, the morgue scenes don't fit. In fact, they feel out of place and tacked on. They lead me to suspect that they were added by studio executives who were trying to reshape a bizarre comedy into a horror movie, because, according to two different websites, "Scared to Death" was completed several years before its 1947 release date.

If I'm right in my speculation--and it is just speculation, as I haven't done all that much research--I can't help but wonder what "Scared to Death" might have looked like if it had remained the comedy is was intended to be.

I'm giving "Scared to Death" a four-star rating, because I'm treating it like a comedy. If it wasn't for the morgue cut-aways, it would be a Five or Six film. (If I were to treat it like a horror film, we'd be talking One or Two Stars, and those would be awarded unintentional comedy.)

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Lugosi is miscast in 'Black Friday'

Black Friday (1940)
Starring: Boris Karloff, Stanley Ridges, Bela Lugosi and Anne Gwynne
Director: Arthur Lubin
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

When brilliant brain surgeon Dr. Sovac (Karloff) is the attending physician for dying mad-dog gangster Red Cannon and his best friend Professor Kingsley (Ridges), a man who is already dead from brain damage due to Cannon's actions, Sovac decides to conduct an extreme eperiment: He transplants part of Cannon's brain in the hopes of saving Kingsley... as well as proving his theory that a person's personality and memories is preserved in the brain cells. To Sovac's initial delight, his surgery is a success and his theory is proven true, but when he causes Cannon's personality to become the dominant one, the gangster-in-the-professor's body starts taking gruesome revenge on those who killed him, including rival gangster Marney (Lugosi).

Bela Lugosi and Anne Gwynne in a publicity still for Black Friday
"Black Friday" is an interesting horror flick that crosses Frankensteinian mad science with the hardboiled gangster genre. It has its interesting points, but it is a bit overburdened by too many plot complications, and it has an ending that comes too suddenly and too easily. Another run at the script to streamline the plot and expand the ending a bit would have improved this film immensely.

The acting is excellent all around, with Stanley Ridges doing a great job in the dual role of Cannon and Kingsley. (Never mind where the brill cream comes from when he turns into the gangster... it's a great bit of acting, contrasting the mild-mannered professor with the homicidal gangster.)

The oddest thing about the movie is the casting choicies. It seems like Karloff would have been perfect in the dual-role of Kingsley/Cannon, and that Lugosi would have been great as Sovac--heck, some of the exchanges between characters seem to imply that Sovac hailed from some strange and foreign land--but instead we have Karloff as Sovac, Lugosi in a minor role as a gangster, and Ridges as the ambulatory mad science project. As mentioned above, Ridges does a great job, but I can't help but wonder how much better the film wold have been if Karloff had been in that role, and Lugosi as the doctor.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Lugosi gives a better performance than this film deserves

Bowery at Midnight (1942)
Starring: Bela Lugosi, Wanda McKay, John Archer, Tom Neal, Lew Kelly, Wheeler Oakman and Dave O'Brien
Director: Wallace Fox
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

A deranged psychology professor (Lugosi) leads a double-life as a lecturer and a murderous criminal mastermind operating from the front of a Skid Row soup kitchen.

There are many crazy low-budget horror films and thrilles from the 1930s and 1940s that feel like someone took random pages from unfinished scripts for horror films, detective films and ill-conceived comedies, shuffled them together and then went about shooting a movie.

A few of these loose mixture of genres and tangled subplots worked, but "Bowery at Midnight" isn't one of them. The set-up won't make sense to anyone over the age of 8 (or sober)--why is the professor using a soup kitchen as a front for his criminal enterprise and why is it full of secret doors?--nor do most of the film's story elements fit together in any way at all.

Most jarring is the mad scientist and his zombies in the basement. The cemetary works, but that twist does not. It's like someone said, "How can we have Lugosi in a movie without some sort of supernatural monster?" but no one bothered to do any real script revisions to fully incorporate the left-overs from whatever unproduced script they scavenged pages from.

The only decent thing about the film is the cast. Every performance is decent, considering what they have to work with. Bela Lugosi in particular does a good job, once again rising above the garbage he's appearing in and showing that he had talent that shouldn't have been squandered on films like "Bowery at Midnight".

Time has left this Lugosi drama behind

Postal Inspector (1936)
Starring: Ricardo Cortez, Patricia Ellis, Michael Loring, and Bela Lugosi
Director: Otto Brower
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

When a nightclub owner Gregory Benez (Lugosi) frames the brother of Postal Inspector Bill Davis (Cortez) for stealing a shipment of three million dollars, he discovers it doesn't pay to mess with the US Postal Service!

A somewhat overblown melodrama that is filled with entirely too many speeches about the importance and wonderful nature of the mail carriers and the federal law enforcement officers who investigate mail fraud, "Postal Inspector" is of foremost interest in the way it demonstrates how things that were thrilling to audiences in the 1930s are commonplace today. For example, the "tense" sequence with the plane landing in the fog isn't really all that dramatic in an age where flying is probably more commonplace than driving across country.

The acting is decent, the story's pace is quick--even taking into account the hokey and repative declarations about the mighty Postal Service--and the action is acceptable. The interesting "triangle" between Bill, nightclub singer Connie (Ellis), and Bill's brother Charlie (Loring) is also an interesting aspect to the film; the two men aren't competing for the woman, but she is coming between their brotherly love, as Bill is convinced that she is an active participant in Benez's scheme.

Lugosi's character is an intersting one. Unlike most of the bad guys he played in his career, the character here is more desperate than actively corrupt--even if Postal Inspector Bill seems to suspect him of something from the get-go. (That's one aspect that makes Bill an unlikable character to the modern viewer; he seems to suspect Benez of being a criminal for no reason other than he's a "dirty fer'ner." Bill never expresses this opinion, but its hard to see what other motivation he may have. it turns out he's right, but when he first voices his suspicions, he really has nothing to base them on.)

One element of the film that annoyed me more than it might others was the way the postal inspectors played with mail fraud evidence and used items to pick on one particular member of the staff. I know it was supposed to be funny, and maybe it was the manager in me, but all I could think about was how fired those guys would be if the target of their abuse went up the chain. But, I suspect few will have that sort of reaction to those scenes.

All in all, I think "Postal Inspector" is a movie that time has passed by. It's well enough put together to be an interesting historical artifact, but it isn't much more than that. Check it out when you've seen the rest of what the Bela Lugosi catalogue contains.

Lugosi plays a Fu Manchu clone in a film that's many kinds of awful

The Mysterious Mr. Wong (1934)
Starring: Bela Lugosi, Wallace Ford, Arline Judge and Lotus Long
Director: William Nigh
Rating: Two of Ten Stars

"The Mysterious Mr. Wong" is a B-movie double-threat that manages to both be a bad Yellow Menace and a bad newspaper reporter comedy.

Bela Lugosi stars as Wong, a cheap, underachieving Fu Manchu imitation whose minions are murdering their way through Chinatown's underworld to acquire the ancient Twelve Coins of Confucius. A slacker, racist newspaper reporter dismisses the police's theory that it's a Tong War unfolding, but is otherwise indifferent to the situation until his editor forces him to follow up on the story. He bumbles his way through some of the lamest detective work (with his incompetence exceeded only by that of the police), narrowly avoids several harebrained assasination attempts by Wong's minions, and eventually makes his way to the film's lame climax through the miracle of Plot Dictates.

While "The Mysterious Mr. Wong" is watchable, it is only just. It is better than some later Yellow Menace films (such as the awful "The Castle of Fu Manchu" starring Christopher Lee) but not by much. And if you have even so much as a tiny bit of sensitivity to racism and bad stereotypes, prepare to be at the very least mildly outraged. The worst racism is comes from the mouth of the film's "hero," so be prepared to not like him much. (It's pretty bad, even by the standards of the day in which this film was made.)

The Addams Family was never as creepy as this father/daugher duo

Mark of the Vampire (aka "Vampires of Prague") (1935)
Starring: Lionel Barrymore, Lionel Atwill, Elizabeth Allen, Jean Hersholt, Henry Wadsworth, Donald Meek, Bela Lugosi, Caroll Borland, and Holmes Herbert
Director: Tod Browning
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

When a local nobleman (Herbert) is found dead, his body completely drained of blood, the villagers are certain that the vampires Count Mora (Lugosi) and his daughter Luna (Borland) have returned to spread more evil. However, Police Inspector Neumann (Atwill) refuses to believe in such superstitious nonsense as vampires--it IS after all 1935--and he searches for a more down-to-earth culprit. But when the nobleman's daugther (Allen) and her fiance (Wadsworth) come under attack, and the vampires being to menace the home of Baron Zinden (Hersholt), Neumann has to reconsider his sceptical ways and joins forces with the Baron and occult expert Professor Zelin (Barrymore) to destroy the vampires.

"Mark of the Vampire" is a fairly lighthearted mystery/horror movie, with some genuine chills thrown in for good measure. (The scene with Luna Mora winging her way across the vampire gathering while turning from bat into human is creepy as all get-out. In fact, every scene featuring Luna is creepy as all get-out!)

The actors here all to a good job, and the sets and lighting are all well-done. Although Lugosi has top-billing here, he really doesn't do much. He has a nice transformation scene after which he chases some terrified servants down a hallway, and his closing scene is hilariously self-referential, but otherwise all he does is stand around and grimmace. Borland even gets to be scarier than Lugosi.

The overall story isn't anything surprising, even by 1935 standards, but the final-act twist was not one that I saw coming. Its presence was welcomed, and it actually made the movie far more entertaining for me. I would have liked to have gotten a bit more background on the Moras--why does the Count have a bullet wound in his head?--but that may have overburdened the simple story that is already having to bear the above-mentioned twist.

(Speaking of that twist, it probably wasn't all that surprising to the audiences in 1935. It was standard in those days to provide down-to-earth explanations of anything that appeared supernatural in a film. The Lugosi-starring and Browning-directed "Dracula" from 1931 was the first movie to break that standard.)

"Mark of the Vampire" isn't the greatest of the 1930s thrillers, but it's still worthwhile viewing. And it's one of the six movies included in the "Hollywood Legends of Horror" DVD collection, which does include several must-see classics like The Mask of Fu Manchu and Mad Love.

Bela Lugosi at his lowest, together with Martin & Lewis Clones

Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla (aka The Boys From Brooklyn) (1952)
Starring: Duke Mitchell, Sammy Petrillo, Bela Lugosi, and Charlito
Director: William Beaudine
Rating: One of Ten Stars

Two small-time comedians (Mitchell and Petrillo, who pretty much copy their act from Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis) become stranded on a tropical island that is home to beautiful white women (including the sexy Charlito) and Dr. Zabor, a mad scientist who lives in a creepy castle (Lugosi). Wacky hi-jinx ensue.

First off, if anyone says they've seen the worst movie ever made, ask if they've seen "Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla". If they haven't, tell them they have no concept of what a bad movie really is.

There are two vaguely amusing reasons to watch this movie: First, some humour can be found in the way that Dr. Zabor is the only character in the film who doesn't seem to get that he's actually creepy Bela Lugosi (although it's somewhat saddening to see how bad off Lugosi was health-wise by the time he was in this movie). Second, Petrillo is actually funnier at doing Jerry Lewis schtick than Lewis himself... which is probably why Lewis reportedly sued Petrillo to make him stop. However, neither of these two reasons add up to sufficient grounds for the torture you'll endure sitting through this flick.

As a matter of trivia, I'll mention that Lugosi played in another vehicle that was predominantly made to promote a comedy team, and it also had "Gorilla" in the the title. It was made for the Ritz Brothers, and it was titled "The Gorillia". It's a much better and funnier movie.

Lugosi By (Full) Moonlight

Lugosi was on hand for the introduction of Universal Picture's last great addition to the iconic movie monsters: The Wolf Man.

The Wolf Man (1941)
Starring: Lon Chaney Jr., Claude Rains, Evelyn Ankers, Maria Ouspenskaya, Warren William, and Bela Lugosi
Director: George Waggner
Steve's Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

Engineer Larry Talbot (Chaney) returns to his ancestral home and reconnects with his roots... only to be bitten by a werewolf and find himself cursed. Will he manage to find a cure for a malady that no one in the modern world believes in before he kills someone he loves?

"The Wolf Man" isn't the first werewolf movie--I think that was Universal's "Werewolf of London"--but it's the one that brought werewolves firmly into pop culture, and most every other film, novel, or comic book that's followed in the 65+ years since its release owes one thing or another to it. In fact, there are a numer of elements that are now taken as "fact" about werewolf legends that didn't exist until the writer of "The Wolf Man" made them up.

Interestingly, this really isn't that good a movie. It's sloppily edited--leading to characters entering through the same door twice within a few seconds and other glitches--and the script shows signs of only partially implimented rewrites that gives the flm a slightly schizophrenic quality and that causes characters to seemingly forget key plot elements as the story unfolds. (The biggest one; Larry's given an amulet that will supposedly suppress his transformation, an amulet he gives to a lady friend when he thinks the werewolf stuff is a bunch of hooey. Later, though, he seems to have totally forgotten the purpose of the amulet. And let's not even consider the bad script-induced callousness of our heroine, Gwen, who cheerfully goes on a date the night after a good friend is mysteriously murdered in the woods.)

However, what flaws this movie possesses are rendered insignificant thanks to an amazing performance by Lon Chaney Jr. as the tortured werewolf, Larry Talbot. "The Wolf Man" is one of those rare movies where a single actor manages to lift a weak film to the level of a classic. Although he's assisted by a supporting cast that is a veritable who's-who of 1930s and 1940s genre films, and the set designers and dressers went all out, this is truly it is Lon Chaney Jr's movie. It might even be the brightest moment of his entire career.

Chaney plays a decent man who becomes a monster through no fault of his own, and who is horrified by the acts he commits while he is the wolf man. This makes Larry Talbot unique among all the various monsters in the Universal horror picutres of the 1930s and 1940s, and Chaney makes the character even more remarkable by playing him as one of the most likeable (if a bit smarmy when it comes to the ladies) characters in any of the classic horror films. This likeability makes Chaney's performance even more powerful and causes the viewer to feel even more deeper for Larry when he experiences the grief, helplessness, and terror when he realizes that he is a murderer and the victim of a supernatural affliction that his modern, rational mind can't even begin to comprehend.

There are other good performances in the film, and they too help make up for the weak script. Most noteworthy among these is Maria Ouspenskaya who plays a gypsy wise-woman. Ouspenskaya delivers her magic incantations and werewolf lore with such conviction that it's easy to see why they've become the accepted "facts" of werewolves. (This may also be the first film where gypsies became firmly associated with werewolves.)

Lugosi only has a small part, but crucial, part and he does alot with it. He is at his most mysterious in the role of a gypsy who is at the root of Larry Talbot's curse. Lugosi would also appear in the first Wolf Man sequel, a crossover with the Frankenstein series titled "Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man."

Although flawed, "The Wolf Man" is a cornerstone of modern popular horror, and it's well-deserving of its status as a classic. It should be seen by lovers of classic horror pictures (Lon Chaney Jr. deserves to be remembered for this film and it's required viewing for any self-respecting fan of werewolf films and literature.

Bela Lugosi Meets Frankenstein

After being twice replaced by director James Whale with other actors (Lugosi was initially to play the monster in Frankenstein, and then Dr. Praetorius in Bride of Frankenstein, but was booted by Whale on each occassion), Lugosi appeared in three of the sequels, playing one of the most villanous figures to appear in the series.

Son of Frankenstein (1939)
Starring: Basil Rathbone, Bela Lugosi, Lionel Atwill, Josephine Hutchinson, Edgar Norton and Boris Karloff
Director: Rowland Lee
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

Wolf von Frankenstein (Rathbone) returns with this family to his ancenstral home in the hopes of rehabilitating his father's name. His high hopes soon turn to bitter ashes as the villagers refuse to give him a chance--except for the police captain (Atwill) who has more cause to hate the Frankenstein name than any of the others--and he is soon drawn into a sinister scheme launched by psychopathic former assistant of his father (Lugosi) to restore the Frankenstein Monster (Karloff) to life.

"Son of Frankenstein" is one of the true classics among horror films. As good as "Frankenstein' and almost as good as "Bride of Frankenstein", it features a top-notch cast, great camera-work, fantastic sets, and a story that's actually better constructed than any other of the Universal Frankenstein movies.

Particularly noteworthy among thge actors are Bela Lugosi and Basil Rathbone. Lugosi is gives one of the best performances of his career, and as I watched, I once again found myself lamenting that he didn't do more comedic roles than he did. He manages to portray the crippled Ygor as funny, pitiable, and frighteing, showing greater range in this role than just about any other he played. The funny bits show a fabulous degree of comedic timing that Lugosi only had the opportunity to show on few other occassions. Rathbone is also excellent, as the high-minded dreamer who is driven to the edge of madness by frustration, fear, and guilt. (He may be a bit too hammy at times, but he's generally very good.)

Lionel Atwill is also deserving of a praise. I think he is better here in his role as Krogh than in any other film I've seen him in. In some ways, "Son of Frankenstein" is as much Krogh's tale as that of Wolf von Frankenstein so pivotal is his character to the tale, and so impactful is Krogh's eventual confrontation with the monster that tore his arm off as a chld. Atwill also manages to portray a very intelligent and sensitive character--perhaps the most intelligent character in the entire movie.

One actor that I almost feel sorry for in this film is Boris Karloff. The monster has very little to do... except lay comatose and go on mindless rampages. ANYONE could have been in the clown-shoes and square-head makeup for this film, because none of the depth shown in the creature in the previous two movies is present here. (While the whole talk about "cosmic rays" and the true source of the creature's lifeforce is very interesting, the monster isn't a character in this film... he's just a beast.)

The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942)
Starring: Cedric Hardwicke, Ralph Bellamy, Bela Lugosi, Lionel Atwill, Lon Chaney Jr, and Evelyn Ankers
Director: Erle C. Kenton
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

The evil Ygor (Lugosi) resurrects the Frankenstein Monster (Chaney) and forces the second son of Baron Frankenstein (Hardwicke) to "fix him." Frankenstein resolves to give the monster the mind of a decent man, but Ygor and Frankenstein's jealous collegue (Atwill) have other ideas.

"The Ghost of Frankenstein" is a good, workman's like horror flick. The sets are decent, the acting is good, and the script moves along briskly and makes sense (within the context of manmade monsters and full brain-transplant operations). However, the film lacks the style and atmosphere of the previous three films in the series. Gone are the sets with the disturbing angles and sharp shadows. We've also got more subdued, more realistic acting on the part of the cast--and this is a great shame as far as Lugosi's Ygor character goes. Virtually all the humor and quirkiness that made this such a great character in "Son of Frankenstein" is gone, although there is still plenty of menace here.

Speaking of menace, a strong point of this film is that the Monster is actually put to good use story-wise, and the demand he places on Frankenstein is truly monstrous. It's not the character we saw in either "Frankenstein" or "Bride of Frankenstein", but it is an evolution that makes sense; it's as if the Monster wants a fresh start, but that the evil influence of Ygor has leeched away even the slight decency he showed in "Bride."

This may not be the high point of classic horror, but it's a fun flick and one you'll be glad you saw.

Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943)
Steve's Rating: Six of Ten Stars
Starring: Starring: Lon Chaney Jr., Patric Knowles, Ilona Massey, Maria Ouspenskaya, Lionel Atwill and Bela Lugosi
Director: Roy William Neill

When grave robbers disturb Larry Talbot's tomb, the unwilling werewolf (Chaney) awakens to the discovery that not only is he cursed to become a beast under the full moon, but he is immortal. With the help of Maleva (Ouspenskaya), a gypsy wise-woman, he seeks out Dr. Frankenstein, the premiere expert on life, death, and immortality... because if anyone can find a way to bring death to an immortal, it's Dr. Frankenstein. Will Larry find peace, or will Frankenstein's experiments bring more horror and destruction to the world?

"Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man" is a direct sequel to both "The Wolf Man" and "Ghost of Frankenstein". It's the first time two legendary horror creatures meet... and without this film, we'd probably never have been treated to "Freddy vs. Jason" or "Alien vs. Predator" or "Alvin and the Chipmunks Meet Dracula".

Unlike most of Universal's movies during the 1940s, I appreciate the fact that the creatives and executives at Universal are paying some attention to the continuity of prior Frankenstein films and "The Wolf Man", but there's still plenty of sloppiness and bad storytelling to remind us that this is a Universal film from the 1940s. (Like the werewolf mysteriously changing from pajamas into his dark shirt and pants when transformed, and then changing back into his pajamas as be becomes Larry Talbot again. Or the bizarre forgetfulness of the townspeople who drive Larry and his gypsy friend away, but who don't bat an eye when Larry is later invited to the town's wiine festival and the mayor's guest and date for Baroness Frankenstein (Massey), the granddaugher of the original monster-maker. Maybe the fact that Larry's wearing a suit and tie when he returns fooled them!)

The movie starts out strong, however. The grave-robbing and the wolf man's ressurection scene are spine-chilling. Chaney once again effectively conveys Talbot's mental anguish during the scenes where he is confined to a hospital and recovering from the supposedly fatal headwounds he receieved at the end of "The Wolf Man" (apparently, a werewolf's wounds don't heal while he's supposedly dead and piled high with wolf's bane). It looks like we're in for a thrilling chiller that's going to be better than the original film...

But then the action moves to Switzerland and things start to go wrong.

Although a seemingly endless musical number at the village wine festival is the low point, the inexplicable transformation of a level-headed medical man (Knowles) hoping to help cure Talbot of what he perceives to be a homocidal mania to crazed Frankenstein-wannabe, the seemingly laughable arm-waving performance of the Frankenstein Monster by Bela Lugosi--because Larry simply can't just leave him sleeping in his ice cave--and an ending so abbrupt that it feels like something's missing, all drag the film down to a level of crapitude that almost manages to make the viewer forget about the very excellent first half.

I don't know what went wrong with this film, but I suspect that it was decided at an executive level at Universal that the monster movies were going to be targeted at kids. It's the only explanation that makes sense of the deterioation from mature, well-developed films like "Frankenstein" and "The Mummy" to the mostly slap-dash stuff found in the movies featuring Dracula, the Wolf Man, and the Mummy for the rest of the 1940s.

My guess is that someone, somewhere, made a decision to shorten this movie and make it more accessible for kids by simplifying it. According to several sources, this film suffered more than average from butchery in the editing room where all of Lugosi's lines were deleted from the soundtrack and key scenes were cut out, such as the one where it's revealed that the Monster is still blind from the partially botched brain transplant in "Ghost of Frankenstein". This detail explains why Lugosi is stumbling about with with his arms outstretched and is seen pawing strangely at items while Larry Talbot is searching for Dr. Frankenstein's records. Lugosi's performance goes from laughably stupid to perfectly decent when one understands what he was doing. (The original screen writer says that the editing was done was test audiences thought the monster was funny when speaking with Lugosi's accent and that this is why the second half of the film was so heavilly edited. That sounds reasonable, but only if one ignores the overall direction the Universal horror movies were heading in. And the shockingly badly handled, abrubt ending. And the dangling plot threads... where DOES Maleva vanish to?)

But, a film can only be judged by what's there on the screen. While the editing left the flim shorter and more straight-forward, it also resulted in very important plot-points and probably even mood-establishing scenes and elements being slashed out. We also have a movie where Frankenstein's Monster once again has very little to do (as was the case in "Son of Frankenstein"), And, ultimately, we're left with a movie that is both remarkable for its being the first meeting of two great cinematic monsters, but also for being a clear point at which to say that this is where the reign of Universal as king of horror films ended.

"Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man" isn't a truly terrible movie. It's just rendered dissapointingly mediocre by its second half, and it just manages to hang onto a Six rating.