Thursday, August 27, 2009

Ed Wood & Bela Lugosi: Incompetence and Tragic Finishes

By the mid-1950s, Bela Lugosi was looking at the stark reality that drug addiction had ruined his career and was threatening to end his life. As things were at their darkest, he met and was befriended by notorious hack Edward D. Wood, Jr. What Wood lacked in talent, he made up for by having a big heart, and Wood struggled to get Lugosi into rehab and to help restart his career.

The end result were two movies that brought a little light to Lugosi's darkest days and ended up being the best work that Eddie Wood would ever produce.

Glen or Glenda? (aka "I Changed My Sex") (1953)
Rating: Five of Ten Stars
Starring: Edward D. Wood, Jr., Lyle Talbot, Timothy Farrell, Deloris Fuller and Bela Lugosi
Director: Edward D. Wood Jr.

A police inspector (Talbot) puzzled by the suicide of a transvestite seeks out experts to broaden his horizons. Meanwhile, the business of the world continues, with God (Lugosi) dictating how things will turn out, even if it means that cross-dressers like Glen (Wood) will be miserable because they're different in an unaccepting world.

"Glen or Glenda?" is not a good movie. It's technically inept in just about every conceivable way and it's message is so unclear so as to be indecipherable, except for the part where it makes a plea for tolerance to those who different from the rest of us.

While this is not a good movie, it's a movie that I can't help but like for its strange imagery. I also can't help but like it, because this is the film where the rhythm and odd poetry present in Wood's dialogue is heard the clearest.

Try to listen as the film unfolds. Don't get distracted by the incomprehensible mix of images that unfold (which aren't so incomprehensible if you pay attention... if you give this movie some thought, all the pieces start falling into place). If you listen to the dialogue, you will notice that the characters have a sound to them that is very unique... a sound that we've never heard in cinema before, and a sound that we've never heard since. It's not Shakespeare, but it is unique and interesting. Wood's "voice" is also heard very loudly and effectively in "Revenge of Dr. X"; it's a film that's more painful to watch than "Glen or Glenda?", but the Poetry of Ed Wood is nonetheless present.

As for watching this movie... as badly put together as it is, there are dozens upon dozens of critics that have failed to notice even the most obvious elements in the film.

Bela Lugosi is not playing a "mad scientist". He is God/The Supreme Being in this movie... and the "Pull the strings!" line that so frequently gets mocked spells that out so clearly that I'm baffled that so many commentators describe his role in the film as "incomprehensible" and his lines as "inane babbling". And if you consider the Narrator's lines in conjunction with those spoken by Lugosi, then the fact that his character is God becomes even more clear.

Perhaps if critics and movie lovers spent more time paying attention to what is on the screen in front of them instead of looking for ways to show of their wit and self-presumed intelligence, they'd notice some of these very obvious aspects in this movie.

So, just like Ed Wood, Jr offers a plea for tolerance and understanding toward transvestites and transsexuals with this movie, I'm going to offer a plea for understanding toward this movie. Give it a second look and try to forget about all the stuff you've been spoonfed about how worthless Ed Wood movies are.

"Glen or Glenda?" is not a good movie, but it's not as bad as some critics make it out to be. It's a film that the attentive viewer will watch with fascination as it unfolds. (The inattentive viewer can have lots of fun, too... just like 90% of critics and reviews have when watching it. It remains a film that will enliven any Bad Movie Night line-up.)

Bride of the Monster (aka "Bride of the Atom") (1955)
Starring: Bela Lugosi, Loretta King, Tor Johnson, Tony McCoy, Harvey Dunn, Paul Marco, and George Becwar
Director: Edward D. Wood
Rating: Three of Ten Stars

A mad scientist (Lugosi) captures those who venture to close to his dilapitated house and subjects them to expierments intended to create a new race of radioactive supermen. When he captures a nosy female tabloid reporter (King) can it be long before his simpleminded assistant (Johnson) falls in love with her and turns on him?

"Bride of the Monster" is one of those movies that's so bad it's fun to watch if you're in the right mood and with the right group of friends. It's perfect to include in the line-up for a Bad Movie Night, because it's full of strange characters that are badly acted, situations that are badly explained and sets that are badly made, but it moves fast and has just enough redeeming features that it will keep you entertaining and laughing. (What's more, the story actually makes some degree of sense, assuming you buy into the whole mad scientist creating atomic monsters thing.)

But this is also a sad movie. Sad because it features an old and broken-down Bela Lugosi so prominanantly. When watching this movie, I feel the same sort of sorrow I felt while watching Peter Cushing in "The Masks of Death", because in both cases the ravages of age and illness are so visible on both men. It's sad to see such great talent at the point where it is about to be taken from the world forever. Lugosi's presence in this film is made twice as tragic because it's such a shoddy piece of work and because of a clumsily executed homage to one of Lugosi's greatest films, "White Zombie". (There are extreme close-ups of Lugosi's eyes, he does the same weird hand gestures he did while playing the Zombine Master, and the female victim appears hypnotized in a flowing white gown. Unfortunately, Lugosi's eyes look as old and tired as he is, the hand gesture seems out of place, and the gown is nowhere as stylish as the one in "White Zombie".)

Although Lugosi fans will feel a twinge of sadness to see him in this movie, they can take heart in the fact that he is treated better by both the script and the director than he was in any other of the films he did in his last decade on Earth. They can also take heart in the fact that Lugosi gets to act in this film. Wood lets him show a greater range than any role Lugosi had played since "The Black Cat" and "Son of Frankenstein".

No matter how old and frail Lugosi appears in this film, no matter how cheap and pathetic the quality of the sets around him, there is no denying that he gives a powerful performance.

Reportedly, Ed Wood promised Lugosi that "Bride of the Monster" would return him to stardom, and he certainly did all he could to deliver on that promise. Lugosi's scenes with George Becwar--where we learn of his character's tragic past and the depths of his madness--is great stuff. It's perhaps the best scene that Wood ever filmed. In fact, every scene that features Lugosi in this movie probably ranks among the best Wood ever filmed, and the weakness of the rest of the cast only helps to accentuate that even as a broken old man, Lugosi was an actor with great ability.

The scenes and the strange police captain and his pet bird in "Bride of the Monster" are really all the evidence that one should need to put a lie to the claim that Wood is the worst director ever. It takes actually watching the film to realize this, though. That said, this would be a far better viewing experience if someone actually knew how to edit a film properly took a crack at reworking it.

(As a sad footnote, even if this film had been good enough to restart Lugosi's film career as Ed Wood believe, Lugosi passed away in August of 1956.)

It's Voodoo love for Lugosi

White Zombie (1932)
Starring: Bela Lugosi, Madge Bellamy, Robert Frazer, John Harron, and Joseph Cawthorn
Director: Victor Halperin
Rating: Nine of Ten Stars

When Haitian plantation owner Charles Beaumont (Frazer) becomes obsessed with the beautiful Madeleine (Bellamy), he invites her and her husband-to-be (Harron) to have their marriage and spend their honeymoon at his plantation. When he fails to win Madeleine's heart, he turns to his neighbor, 'Murder' Legendre (Lugosi) and asks him to use his powers to create zombies to recreate Madeleine as his love slave. Will Madeleine's fiance and the local priest (Cawthorn) unmask Legendre's evil and save Madeleine from a fate worse than death, or will they merely become yet another pair of zombies in Legendre's growing force of mindless slaves?

"White Zombie" has been described as the first zombie movie ever made. I don't know if this is true or not, but it is definately one of the best. It predates the flesh-eating blood-spattered cannibal zombies of George Romero, but instead relies upon traditional zombie myths and tales of dark sorcery to generate its chills. It's a stylishly filmed movie that features creepy performances by Lugosi and Bellamy, and scenes that drip with creepiness, as Legendre's mindless slaves work his sugar mills, and as a ghostly, zombie-fied Madeleine glides silently through the vaulted halls of Legendre' house. (The height of creepiness is reached when the depth of Legendre's evil is fully revealed and he gradually starts turning Charles Beaumont into a zombie as well.)

"White Zombie" is a must-see for fans of classic horror movies in general, and fans of zombie movies in particular. It is the one of the roots from which the horror genre sprang. Heck, the film should be required viewing for anyone who is currently making horror movies... if filmmakers chose to emulate a work like this, maybe we'd have more decent horror movies coming out.

Movies and murder collide in 'The Death Kiss'

Some film historians ascribe the downward trajectory of Bela Lugosi's career to the fact that he went freelance almost immediately after the runaway success that as "Dracula" (while his fellow Universal monster-maker Boris Karloff remained loyal to the studio system and saw his career blossom).

They may be right. I bigger contributing factor may well have been the fact that Lugosi made horrible choices when it came to the movies he made. If they had all been as good as White Zombie and The Death Kiss, maybe he wouldn't have died a drug-addicted pauper.

"The Death Kiss" is among the top five of my favorite films that Lugosi appeared in.

The Death Kiss (1933)
Starring: David Manners, Adrienne Ames, and Bela Lugosi
Director: Phil Rosen
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

When the star of Tonart's latest mystery movie, "The Death Kiss", is killed during the filming of the climax, studio mogul Joseph Steiner (Lugosi) is convinced that it an tragic accident. But soon the police find evidence that it was actually murder, and suspicious swiftly falls on Marcia Lane (Ames), the dead man's widow. She was having an affair with screenwriter Franklin Drew (Manners), so she had both motive and opportunity to stage the killing. Her lover starts working toward proving her innosence by finding the real killer. But with the deceased having crossed just about everyone working on the production, and Steiner seemingly having an agenda of his own, will Drew clear his lady love, or will the killer add him to the list of victims first?

This low-budget mystery film is a surprisingly well-crafted and well-acted movie. The mystery is complex enough that the audience is kept getting up to the end--I admit to being surprised when the actual murderer was revealed and that doesn't happen often these days! As far as I can find out, "The Death Kiss" is also the first film about some of the behind-the-scenes aspects of making a film. (A number of the clues and red herrings even involve movie-making equipment.)

I enjoyed the film quite a bit. The gimmicky color-tinting didn't do a whole lot for me, but I suspect that it generated a lot of excitement to the people sitting in the theatre in 1933, just like I'm sure they were fascinated by the fictionalized glimpse into the Hollowood Dream Factory.

Lugosi and Universal Do Poe (Sort of)

Bela Lugosi appeared in a trio of very loose Edgar Allan Poe adaptations for Universal in the wake of his success in "Dracula". They're interesting films, but I wouldn't recommend them as shortcuts when writing that report for English class.

(For that, you click here to visit the Poe section of my Fiction Archive. There you'll find the story that "Muders in the Rue Morgue" is supposedly based on, along with many other of my favorite works by Poe.)

Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932)
Starring: Bela Lugosi, Leon Ames and Sidney Fox
Director: Robert Florey
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

When Pierre Dupin (Ames) and his gorgeous girlfriend, Camille (Fox), visit a traveling carnival, they attract the attention of the insane Dr. Mirakle (Lugosi). Mirakle is attempting to prove that man evolved from apes by injecting beautiful women with blood drawn from his strange pet ape, Erik. Will Pierre manage to protect the love of his life from Erik, Mirakle, and Mirakle's menacing unibrow?!

"Murders in Rue Morgue" is a VERY loose adaptation of the Poe mystery tale that is goofy from beginning to end. Although well-filmed, the way the film uses close-ups of a cimpanzee to supposedly represent Erik, who in long and medium shots is a guy in a gorilla suit, is giggle-inspiring, and the silent-movie-esque acting and make-up used thoughout the movie is also excessively stylized for the modern viewer. (I found myself wondering at times if this film started out as a silent movie, and was then converted to a "talkie" ala what Hitchcock did with "Murder.")

On the upside, however, there are a several chilling moments in this brief horror film, foremost among them being when the audience is first exposed to the nature of Mirakle's "experiments"; and when Mirakle and Erik later invade the home of Camille and her mother.

One of the most worthwhile reasons to watch "Murders in the Rue Morgue" is that this movie is a great example of Lugosi's acting talent. During the 40s, it seemed almost as if he fell into a rut, and every character he portrayed seemed to be flat and identical to every other... but here, he displays a range of emotions and can convey a wide range of emotions with just facial expressions and gestures. He even manages to be supremely menacing, despite a rather amuing hairdo and the unibrow that he sports.

I'm not sure this film is all that suitable for most modern viewers, but I think that if you've liked Lugosi in other movies, you owe it to yourself (and to his memory) to view him in this short film. I think you'll be amazed at the range he displayed early in his film career.

The Black Cat (aka "The House of Doom" and "The Vanishing Body") (1934)
Starring: Bela Lugosi, David Manners, Boris Karloff, and Jacqueline Wells
Director: Edgar G. Ulmer
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

Honeymooners Peter and Joan Allison (Manners and Wells) are stranded in an isolated house in a Hungarian backwater. Here, they become drawn into the evil Satanist Hjaldmar Poelzig (Karloff) and the revenge-plans of his one-time friend Dr. Vitus Werdegast (Lugosi). As the story unfolds, the depth of Poelzig's evil and perversion is revealed in its fullest, and it seems there will be no escape for anyone.

"The Black Cat" is a stylish, incredibly creepy B-movie. It takes place almost entirely within a house built upon the site of a ruined WWI fortress, with the lower levels being the decaying remains of the original structure and the upper floors consisting of a sleek, ultra-modern home. Both sections of the structure lend to the tone of dread that permeates the entire film--with the well-lit, clean rooms of the upper levels of Poelzig's home being even creepier than that the shadow-haunted lower levels thanks to some fine camera work--although the revelation of Poelzig's "exhibit" of beautiful women below has got to be the most terrifying moment of the film. (In fact, I'm hard-pressed to think of a more evil and perverted character present anywhere in these classic horror films than Poelzig: Satanism, treachery, mass-murder, pedophelia... you name it, Poelzig's done it/is into it. (Karloff doesn't have a lot to do acting-wise, other than to just be sinister... but, boy, does he do that in spades here!)

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this film is Lugosi. First, those who watch "The Black Cat" will get to see that he was, in fact, a great actor at one time. The pain Dr. Werdegast feels when he is told his wife and daughter died while he languished in a Russian prison is conveyed with incredible strength, as is the mixture of pain and rage when he later learns the truth about their fates, as he and the Allisons manage to seize the initiative from Poelzig and his cultists. Second, it's interesting to see Lugosi playing a hero for once, even if a deeply flawed hero.

On a quirky note, I often complain that horror movies from 30s through the 60s and early 70s often just end: The story resolves and the credits roll without providing the audience with the nicety of a denoument. "The Black Cat" DOES provide what I wish more films would, yet here I almost wish that last minute or so hadn't been included. This is a film that probably should have ended while still in darkness.

While "The Black Cat" has absolutely nothing to do with the Poe tale that "suggested" it--it's got more in common with "The Fall of the House of Usher", I'd say--I think it represents a high point of the horror films that Universal was making in the 30s. I don't see it mentioned often, and I think it's a shame. It's a film that's worth seeing.

The Raven (1934)
Starring: Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff and Irene Ware
Director: Lew Landers
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

After saving young dancer Jean Thatcher (Ware) from certain death through a miraculous feat of neurosurgery, the mentally unstable Dr. Vollin (Lugosi) becomes obsessed with her. When her powerful father makes it clear that Vollin is to stay away from her, Vollin forces a wanted murderer (Karloff) into assisting him in eliminating Jean, her fiance, and her father in hideous death-traps modeled after gruesome scenes from the writing of Edgar Allan Poe.

"The Raven" isn't really an adaptation of the Poe work by that name, but is instead the tale of a thoroughly evil and utterly insane man so rich and so obssessed that he's built a house full of secret doors, secret basements, and entire rooms that serve as elevators... all so he can reinact scenes from Poe's writings.

There is plenty of potential in this B-movie, but tepid direction and mostly uninspired lighting and set design leave most of it unrealized. Lugosi is completely over the top in this film, taking center stage as the perfect image of a raving madman. He is ably supported by co-star Karloff who plays the role of the tortured, remorse-filled murderer trapped into serving Vollin with the promise of a new life in the exact opposite direction of Lugosi--remaining subdued as he slinks through each scene he's in. Ware is very attractive in the scenes she's in, but that's about all she is. In fact, the only actors in the film who aren't just so much set decoration are Lugosi and Karloff.

The "torture room" is nifty, and the climax where Dr. Vollin has houseguests trapped in a Poe-world of his making is excellent. All in all, an entertaining film, but it would have been much better with a more inspired supporting cast and more creativity on the technical side of the camera.

Lugosi in his most famous role: Dracula

While Lugosi's turns as Dracula don't rank among my favorite of his performances, Dracula is the character he is most famous for playing. Even films where he plays a similar character--like "Mark of the Vampire" are better remembered than some of his better movies.

It seems fitting, therefore, that the first post on this blog reviews Lugosi's Dracula films.

Dracula (1931)

Starring: Bela Lugosi, Dwight Frye, Helen Chandler, Edward Van Sloan, Herbert Bunston, David Manners, and Charles K. Gerrard
Director: Tod Browning
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

Count Dracula (Lugosi) travels to England where he sates his bloodlust on young women, including the lovely Mina (Chandler).

Universal's 1931 "Dracula" was the first horror talkie and is one of the three most influential horror films ever made. It's a film that's truly a significant milestone not only in film history, but in pop culture as well, and, even though its age is showing, it's a genuiine classic.

Mina (Helen Chandler) as she is about to receive the kiss of undeath from Dracula (Bela Lugosi)
I don't think anything quite as subtly creepy and startling as Dracula passing through a mass of cobwebs without breaking them has ever been put on film. It's a perfect film moment, because the feeling of "waitaminnit... did that just happen?" that Renfield (Frye) has is shared by the audience, and we're sitting there with a chill that goes right down to our very bones.

Because this film is such a classic milestone, I feel a bit awkward about not liking it more than I do. Like "Frankenstein" (also made by Universal in 1931), this movie has nearly as many flaws as it has elements of perfection.

The biggest problem with "Dracula" is the haphazard way the film unfolds, particuarly in its second half. The vampiric Lucy and her preying on little children is dealt with a throw-away fashion, and the climactic encounter at Carfax Abby, which is so weakly and disjointedly handled that it is barely a climax at all. (It's particuarly dissapointing that Dracula's death happens entirely off-screen, except for a very effective reaction from the psychically bonded Mina.)

In fact, in many ways, it's almost as if someone forgot the movie needed a script, and it was made up as the crew went along. The film is worth seeing for spectacular performances from Bela Lugosi (it's easy to see why he solidified vampires as suave, sharp-dresserrs as opposed to fugly scarecrows like the one featured in "Nosferatu"), Dwight Frye (who, as Renfield, is as much a star of the film as Lugosi, and who does some great acting when he vascilates from raving madman to apparently sane and back again), and Helen Chandler (who, as Mina, conveys more with her eyes, body language, and facial expressions than one would thinks possible, and who has the only decent moment during the film's climax as she shares in Dracula's pain as Van Helsin stakes him). The film's impressive sets and creative camera work also bring about some genuinely creepy moments, such as when Dracula and his vampire brides emerge from their coffins under his Transylvanian castle, and then when they later close on an unconcious Renfield; the discovery of Renfield in the hold of the death ship after it runs aground; Dracula's feeding upon the flower girl in London; Renfield crawling across the floor toward an unconcious maid with a look of madness and bloodlust on his face; Mina's transformation as she urges John Harker to get rid of Van Helsing and his cruxifixes; and Dracula and Mina's arrival at Carfax Abby.

But, for every great moment or spectacular performance, there's a boring one, or one where opportunities that should have been obvious to filmmakes even in 1931 are completely missed. Edward Van Sloan (as Van Helsing) and David Manners (as a particularly milquetoasty Harker) are completely dead spots in the film, giving weak performances that almost manage to drag down those excellent ones from Chandler, Frye, and Lugosi. (In fact, Van Sloan and Manners are so weak here that it's surprising to me that they;'re the same actors who do so well in "The Mummy" just one years later. (Perhaps the better script and a different director made all the difference for them.)

By the way, the new score that Phillip Glass composed for the restored version of the film included in the "Dracula Legacy Collection" (and which can be toggled on and off) is actually a fine reflection of the movie itself: Glass has some good moments and some supremely weak moments in his score. For the most part, it is just muazak that doesn't seem to have a whole lot to do with enhancing the mood on the scrreen, but every so often, it is spot-on and it makes the film that much more impressive. (Glass's music ALMOST gives the film's climax some impact, for example.)

Although far from perfect, the 1931 "Dracula" is a must-see for anyone with an interest in examining the origins of horror as a seperate and unique genre. While I'll take "White Zombie" or "The Mummy" over this film any day, I think the 75 minutes it takes to watch this film, is time well spent.

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)
Starring: Bud Abbott, Lou Costello, Lon Chaney Jr., Lenore Aubert, and Bela Lugosi
Director: Charles Barton
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

The reluctant Wolfman, Larry Talbot (Chaney) learns that Dracula (Lugosi) intends to revive Frankenstein's Monster and use it as his personal super-soldier. He pursues the evil vampire lord to the United States where he finds his only allies to be Wilbur and Chick (Costello and Abbott), a couple of less-than-bright shipping clerks. Unfortunately, Dracula as an ally of his own--mad scientist femme fatale Dr. Sandra Mornay (Aubert), and she has Wilbur wrapped around her little finger. Little does Wilbur know that his girlfriend doesn't love him for his mind but rather his brain... she intends to do Dracula's bidding and transplant into the rejuvinated monster!

"Abott and Costello Meet Frankenstein" is a wild screwball comedy with the two master comedians doing their usual routines within the framework of a solid script and a story that's actually pretty logical in its own crazy way. I think it's the first fusion of comedy and monsters, and one reason it works so well is that the monsters are played straight. Even when they are involved in funny schtick (Dracula and the Wolf Man are both part of several routines), they remain as they were featured in the serious monster movies they were in.

Too often, I hear this film written off as Universal's last and crassest attempt to wring some dollars out of their tired monster franchise. While that may be all the studio bosses had in mind, the creators involved with "Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein" managed to make a great movie that is still worth watching today. It's even superior to many of Universal's "straight" movies with Dracula, Frankenstein's Monster, and the Wolf Man (or, for that matter, countless recent so-called horror films). Much of its strength grows from the fact that has a plot that with some tweaking could be a straight horror movie.

I recommend this underappreciated film to any lover of the classic monster films, as well as lovers of slapstick comedy.