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.)

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Lugosi serves as a red herring in
'Night Monster'

Night Monster (aka "House of Mystery")
Starring: Don Porter, Irene Hervey, Ralph Morgan, Doris Lloyd, Fay Helm, Leif Erickson, Bela Lugosi, Robert Homans, Nils Asther Francis Pierlot, Frank Reicher, Lionel Atwill and Janet Shaw
Director: Ford Beebe
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

A wealthy, embittered cripple (Morgan) invites the doctors he blames for his state (Atwill, Peirlot and Reicher) to his mansion in order to witness the miracle he hopes will cure him: A swami (Asther) has discovered a way to use mindpower to materialize matter from thin air, and he believes this method can be used to give him new limbs. Other house-guests include a mystery writer friend to the crippled man(Porter) and a psychologist (Hervey) visiting to help his troubled younger sister (Helm) with her mental problems. When a murderer that seems to materialize and dematerialize at will starts killing members of the household staff and guests, everyone one and anyone can be the next victim... or possibly even the killer.

"Night Monster" is a mystery film with horror overtones that is as crowded with plots as it is with characters. The writers and director do a better job keeping all the threads flowing than is the case in many films similar to this, making good use of all characters and managing to not tangle the plots too badly. The filmmakers even manage to throw in enough red herrings and plausible suspects that the true nature and identity of the killer isn't certain to viewers until the Big Reveal at the end of the movie. (The only suspect that never seems likely is the bulter played by Bela Lugosi, even if I'm sure the director was expecting viewers to automatically assume he was nefarious because it's Bela Lugosi.)

The film is also impressive for the dark mood that pervades it. While there are a couple of "comic relief characters" in the film, they are more subdued than is often the case if movies of this vintage, and their buffoonery is deployed to augment the darkness of the film rather than dispel or undermine it... like where they find the body of one of the victims. The expressions of cowardice are comical, but they enhance the grim mood of the film rather than lighten it.

Each of the murders (or close brushes with the killer) are also very expertly presented. As is to be expected, we never see any actual killings, or even dead bodies, but we don't need to because the scenes are so expertly staged. Even more powerful is when the mysterious killer prowls the marshes around the mansion--the otherwise ever-present sound of croaking frogs suddenly ceases. The silence is even more unnerving than the screams of the victim that soon follow.

This is not a perfect film, however, and the filmmakers don't quite manage to keep all the balls in the air for its full running time, as they stumble badly when it comes to the third act. As it comes to its fiery conclusion, the filmmakers start to lose track of the characters and subplots, with Bela Lugosi's character vanishing from the scene entirely and a bit of involvement of the deus ex machina that makes the attentive viewer wonder why a certain character could have let things get so far out of hand and/or didn't speak up sooner. However, these are problems that won't come to mind until after the film is over, and until they do, you will be in for a very enjoyable ride.

Reportedly, Alfred Hitchcock believed "Night Monster" was an important film as it was being made. If he was basing his opinion on footage as it was assembled into the final product, I can see why he might say that. It is a film made up of some very finely crafted parts, even if there ultimately seems to be a piece or two missing.

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.