Tuesday, April 13, 2010

East Side Kids vs Fifth Column Propagandists

This post is part of my month-long observance of the 65th anniversary of the Nazi Germany's defeat in WW2.

Ghosts on the Loose (1943)
Starring: Leo Gorcey, Huntz Hall, Sammy Morrison, Bobby Jordan, Billy Benedict, Bobby Stone, Ava Gardner and Bela Lugosi
Director: William Beaudine
Rating: Three of Ten Stars

When a gang of inner-city kids decide to fix up a house as their gift to a newly wed couple, they run afoul a cell of Nazi propagandists covertly working out of a purportedly haunted house next door. Hi-jinx ensue.

I suppose I might have liked this movie if I was more familiar with the characters. I've seen listings for numerous "East Side Kids" movies, and I understand they are a spin-off from an early feature. Perhaps with a clearer understanding of who these kids are, I'd find them a little less annoying and a little more interesting.

As it is, I only got some mild chuckles out of this picture, mostly because almost every character is dumb beyond words. But it's not a funny kind of dumb like what you get from an Abbott & Costello or Mel Brooks picture, but rather a brain-hurting "I can't believe anyone can be that stupid" sort of dumb. I get the feeling the writers expected the audience to be amused first at the industriousness of the boys, then at their hijinx in the "haunted house", and then at the back and forth as they fight against the Fifth Columnists.

Speaking of the Fifth Columnists, if infiltrators and sabateurs were as stupid as the ones in this film, no espionage or terrorist rings would be able to function. Sure, these dastardly villains had invested a lot of time and money in making their hideout seem haunted, but once discovered they could either have a) stayed safely in their hidden room until the activity died down, or b) carried their printing press and papers out the secret tunnel and to the far end of the back yard where no one would have seen it until a truck could be brought in to take it away. But, if they'd been smart, there wouldn't have been a movie.

These Nazi agents aren't even particularly sinister, even if they are led by Bela Lugosi. In fact, Lugosi is wasted more here than in any other film I've seen him in, except perhaps the 1940s version of "The Black Cat."

Unless you're the world's biggest fan of the East End Kids, this is a movie you can skip. The only other reason to possibly see this movie is for the moment when Bela Lugosi puts William Beaudine's reputation for never doing more than one take a scene to the test. During one of the film's gags, Lugosi utters a four letter word ("shit"), partially masked by a sneeze. Beaudine nonetheless stayed true to his nickname of "One Shot" and Lugosi's obscene language was immortalized for the ages.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Fear of a black cat....

One of the many bits of imagery from the unfairly obscure Lugosi/Karloff Universal Pictures classic "The Black Cat." (I was hanging onto this picture for inclusion in a future installment of Picture Perfect Wednesday, but I've just decided there's no time like the present!

Monday, March 22, 2010

'Voodoo Man' is full of stars and weirdness

Voodoo Man (1944)
Starring: Michael Ames, Louise Currie, Wanda McKay, Bela Lugosi, George Zucco, John Carradine, Henry Hall and Ellen Hall
Director: William Beaudine
Rating: Five of Ten Stars (if meant to be a serious movie); Seven of Ten Stars (if meant to be a spoof)

Women are vanishing along a lonely stretch of highway... and the latest victims are a brides maid and a bride-to-be (McKay and Currie). Can a Hollywood screenwriter (Ames) rise to the challenge and face the real-life menace of the Voodoo Man (Lugosi) and minions (which include Zucco and Carradine)?

There are some movies that are so bad they become good. "Voodoo Man" may be one of those. In fact, it's so strange and over-the-top that I'm not sure it was ever intended to be taken seriously; the numerous in-jokes sprinkled throughout the film--starting with the main character being a writer for Banner Productions (the company that produced the film), with a boss named S.K. (Sam Katzman was the chief executive and lead producer at Banner) and the many sly references to other successful zombie movies of the day, such as the Lugosi-starring "White Zombie" from a decade earlier and the 1943 hit "I Walked With a Zombie". Then there's the absolute goofiness of George Zucco's gas station-owning voodoo priest, a character that even within the bizarre reality that exists within every Monogram picture is so outrageous that I can't believe he was supposed to be taken seriously. And then there's the absolutely ineffectual "hero" of the picture, the screenwriter who spends the film's climactic moments unconcious while the sheriff and his dimwitted deputy save the day.

Also, thinking of the film as more of a spoof than a serious attempt at making a horror movie also makes Zucco and John Carradine look a little less pathetic in the picture. By pathetic, I'm not referring to their performances, but to the fact they are playing the characters they do. If the film was intended to be a serious movie, then I feel sad for the state of both their finances that they were reduced to playing a cartoon character in a silly hat (Zucco) and a dimwitted pervert who walked like he had just crapped his pants (Carradine). How desperate must they have been to not walk away from parts like that, even if they had iron-clad, multi-picture contracts with Monogram-related production entities--could Carradine's theater projects REALLY have been that in need of money that he had to stoop this low? If treated as a serious movie, Carradine and Zucco both give performances that mark low points in their careers and that their families should STILL be embarrassed about. However, if they are playing in a comedy, then they're not half bad. (And whether a serious movie or not, Carradine's character undoubtedly found a place among the beatniks a few years later... that cat can beat the drum, man.

Whether a comedy or not, Bela Lugosi is the solid core of the film, an absolute straight man at the heart of the silly weirdness of the rest of the movie. Yeah, he may be a mad scientist who dresses funny for voodoo rituals, but the scene where the mumbo-jumbo briefly pays off by reviving his braindead wife's soul is a genuinely touching and ultimately heartbreaking moment that is worthy of more serious drama. (In fact, Lugosi is the only reason I'm even wavering in my belief that this is a comedy. In films like "Scared to Death" and "You'll Find Out", he is clearly playing in a comedic style, but here he is at his most dramatic and serious.

Also, whether this is a comedy or not, it is quite the star-studded feature and that alone makes it worth checking out for fans of old movies, especially if you have a taste for the quirky. Not only do you have Lugosi, Zucco and Carradine, but you are also treated to performances by the very lovely Wanda McKay and Louise Currie. Both were regular leading ladies and supporting actresses in low-budget thrillers and comedies during the 1930s and 1940s, and with McKay in particular one has to wonder why she never managed to make it to "the big time". She is every bit as attractive and talented as any number of ladies appearing in Universal, RKO and MGM B-movies of the time... and she even has a few A-listers beat.

Moreso than usual, I'd love to hear your take on this film. Is it a comedy or just a complete misfire in the horror department? What do you think?

If you decide to check out "Voodoo Man", I recommend you get the edition released by Mike Nelson's "Riff Trax"/Legend Films edition. It contains the movie and an optional second audio track where the three stars of "Mystery Science Theater 3000" engage in mockery and commentary as funny as anything they did in the old days. After some dissapointing efforts from them as "The Film Crew," they seem to have gotten their groove back. (And if you do get this version, make sure to let the menu screen play a while. There's a great song inspired by "Voodoo Man" that plays. It's almost worth the price of admission by itself.)