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.")