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.