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.)