CineSlice

A.J. Hakari's sporadically-updated musings on the wide world of movies

Month: October, 2016

“Bride of the Monster” (1955)

"Bride of the Monster" poster

 

By and large, Edward D. Wood, Jr.’s reputation as the “worst director ever” is unearned. It’s not that none of his films were ever hampered by a puzzling command of dialogue or lack of proper funding, but what circumstances granted him such infamous agency over the likes of William Beaudine or Chester Novell Turner are beyond me. All it took was one mention in one book for the label to stick, with few considering how Wood’s schlock wasn’t especially different from that which other studios were shoveling onto screens at the time. Take, for example, 1955’s Bride of the Monster, ol’ Ed’s contribution to the decade’s cinematic fascination with creatures spawned by the atom. It certainly wasn’t the first or last flick of its kind that had to make do with inferior sound equipment, unsteady acting, or that most ubiquitous of B-movie staples, stock footage. But in spite of these factors and more working against it, Bride of the Monster finds other means by which to engage and entertain viewers, in ways similar low-budget horror shows would’ve set on autopilot entirely.

Some mighty strange things are afoot over at Lake Marsh. Twelve people have gone missing in the area, which intrepid reporter Janet Lawton (Loretta King) considers to be the work of a bloodthirsty beast. The police — including her beau, Lt. Craig (Tony McCoy) — dismiss her claims as a load of hooey, but unfortunately, she’s not as nuts as they think. The crazed Dr. Eric Vornoff (Bela Lugosi) has set up shop near Lake Marsh, using an abandoned mansion as a base of operations from which to run all manner of awful experiments. In addition to siccing his own private giant octopus on potential intruders, the doctor has taken to kidnapping locals, with the aim of transforming them into atomic-powered superfolk. All of the mad Vornoff’s efforts have resulted in death thus far, so when Janet’s nosiness lands her a spot on the slab, Lt. Craig leaps into action to save her before it’s too late.

Though not the stuff of Z-grade cinema legend as Plan 9 from Outer Space‘s making-of is, the tale behind Bride of the Monster‘s creation is still a page torn from “Ed Wood’s Guide to Frugal Filmmaking.” At $70,000 (much of which was supplied by McCoy’s father, who insisted that Tony be cast as the star), Wood’s budget was fairly robust, given what the director was used to, yet thriftiness is nonetheless evident just about everywhere you look. From the doctor’s scientific accoutrements having seen better days to actors being call upon to wrap themselves up in the octopus prop’s tentacles rather than vice versa, one can almost see the pennies being pinched before their very eyes. Such sights weren’t uncommon amongst the era’s genre fare, and Wood’s foibles shouldn’t get a pass purely because others were guilty of them, too. However, by the time all of its God’s domain-tampering has reached its zenith, Bride of the Monster has amassed a number of legitimately enjoyable checks in its favor. Frank Worth’s score is some truly bombastic stuff, the look of Vornoff’s lab and surrounding estate have a creepy streak going for them, and the collectively melodramatic delivery of the screenplay’s already hokey dialogue (“Everything points to an inhuman violence!”) is well worth a hoot and a half.

But at the heart of Bride of the Monster‘s ultimate charm is Lugosi himself, a little surprising given the nature of his role and the state of his career when he filmed it. While he played a mute character in 1956’s The Black Sleep and appeared posthumously via stock footage in Plan 9, this turned out to be the man’s final speaking role, the cap-off to many years spent getting kicked around Hollywood’s horror dregs. Cast as yet another scientist with conquering the world on his mind, one might be initially inclined to roll their eyes at how Lugosi is used in Bride of the Monster, but to Wood’s credit, our star is given decidedly meatier material to work with than normal. There’s a real verve to his performance here, an energy that matches Vornoff’s fanatical aspirations; look no further than the doctor’s monologue explaining why he’s doing what he does for evidence that Lugosi was completely committed. The remaining performers can’t help but come across a bit sheepishly in the wake of his dominating presence, though a good deal of them aren’t half-bad, either. King’s Janet possesses a nice degree of spunk, Harvey B. Dunn is lovably folksy as the local police captain, and as Vornoff’s assistant Lobo, wrestler Tor Johnson is…well, still an ox of a man lumbering about the joint, but even the smidgen of inner turmoil his character is granted does go a long way.

Should your mind still be inquiring as to Bride of the Monster‘s overall quality, then, yes, it’s “bad,” though not incompetent or devoid of fun by a long shot. The stock premise, goofy effects, and aggressively noticeable change when Lugosi’s stunt guy takes over are all undeniable, yet these elements contribute to a vehicle that, in the end, skews endearing more so than insufferable. As crummy around the corners as it might be, Bride of the Monster just makes itself too hard to hate.

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“Zombies on Broadway” (1945)

"Zombies on Broadway" poster

 

As if being denied eternal rest and condemned to walk the earth with an insatiable hunger wasn’t enough, zombies have suffered further indignities during their time in the cinematic limelight. For every George A. Romero elevating flesh-eating ghouls to compelling thematic heights, there are dozens of deluded “successors” waiting in the wings with interminable, no-account gore shows (and if you’ve seen Survival of the Dead, you know that not even Grandpa George’s track record is spotless). This humiliation also extends to the classic image of the living damned, wherein poor souls were drugged and/or mesmerized via dark rituals into becoming mindless slaves. Outside of those plodding Poverty Row chillers of the time, the worst this got back then arguably has to be 1945’s Zombies on Broadway, a comedic creepfest hailing from RKO. This movie had a shot at being the sort of zany retro kitsch that’s fondly discussed by outfits like “Trailers from Hell” nowadays, were it not for the forced laughs, forgettable tunes, and sheer wastefulness of its (ostensibly) main draw undermining it at every turn.

There isn’t a person in the Big Apple that hasn’t heard about the Zombie Hut. Run by ex-gangster Ace Miller (Sheldon Leonard), the tropical-themed club is all set for a killer opening night…that is, until the press agents hired to hype it up bite off more than they can chew. Jerry Miles (Wally Brown) and Mike Strager (Alan Carney) boast that a real, live zombie will be among the Hut’s attractions, a promise that Ace doesn’t intend on leaving unfulfilled. Wanting to avoid embarrassment at any cost, he ships the boys off to the isle of San Sebastian to drum up an actual walking corpse — and as it turns out, they haven’t far to look. Professor Renault (Bela Lugosi) is working in secret on the island, toiling away at his long-gestating formula for creating the perfect obedient zombie. Eventually, Jerry and Mike bumble their way to Renault’s front door, but before their night of horrors is over, will they end up being transformed into the very ghouls they were sent to haul back to the States?

Not content with just existing as an exhausting, ill-advised, dated-on-arrival mess unto itself, Zombies on Broadway has to drag other, genuinely great flicks down with it, too. What with being an RKO production in the years following Val Lewton’s famed run of the studio’s horror unit, this picture incorporates particular elements from a few of those projects. In playing Renault’s undead man Friday, Darby Jones essentially reprises his frightfully iconic character from I Walked with a Zombie, as does singer Sir Lancelot (who also appeared in such Lewton thrillers as The Ghost Ship and The Curse of the Cat People). While viewers unfamiliar with these actors or their places in horror history would be none the wiser, seeing what was once taken seriously and depicted as legitimately unnerving mere years earlier turned into a bad punchline makes Zombies on Broadway feel doubly irritating for seasoned fans. But even without an intricate knowledge of vintage genre cinema, one can tell right off the bat how unappealing and uninspired the film’s comedic set-ups really are. Working off of a completely ludicrous premise to begin with (in which avoiding false advertising charges are taken to a whole other level), the movie resorts to incessant mugging and routines that “Scooby-Doo” would handle with more tact in increasingly vain, desperate efforts to tickle our funny bones.

It’s not even that I set out to hate Zombies on Broadway, given my proclivity for the sort of cheesy tidbits stored within its framed. Old-school horror comedies with creepy mansions, secret passageways, and the occasional shoehorned musical number more often than not trip yours truly’s trigger. All of these and more are at play in Zombies on Broadway, and yet none wield the charm or cleverness as they did in similar, fear-based farces. This is partially the fault of a threadbare script that recycles tired scenarios without adding anything new (a la Mike seeing zombies that disappear and getting yelled at by a disbelieving Jerry), but blame also falls upon the production’s very headliners. Though Brown and Carney seem to be genial gents, their go-to defense mechanism when the sub-par material threatens to sink them is to launch a barrage of hollering and stammering that only leaves them resembling a cut-rate Abbott & Costello. As a San Sebastian chanteuse, Anne Jeffreys is fine (though she gets to sing maybe one so-so song and plays a mostly superfluous part), but no one has it worse here than Bela Lugosi. Not only has another clichéd mad scientist role that offers him no opportunities to lampoon said archetype been hoisted upon him, Lugosi finds himself further debased by having to play a handful of scenes opposite a monkey (who, in all fairness, does earn the movie’s biggest chuckles).

Neither funny or freaky to any significant degree, Zombies on Broadway mainly spends its time confusing you with the question of who it exactly hoped to entertain. Its soundtrack is severely understocked, eerie atmosphere is out of the question, and while the screenplay’s gags come across as weak sauce these days, one can easily picture them feeling old hat upon the flick’s release. No matter what reason might draw you to Zombies on Broadway, you’re all but guaranteed to be left underwhelmed and unamused in the end.

“Chandu the Magician” (1932)

"Chandu the Magician" poster

 

As Marvel continues expanding its cinematic universe by adapting more offbeat properties for the screen, so has the studio begun encroaching upon a minefield of cultural sensitivity. In bringing to life the impending Doctor Strange film and “Iron Fist” Netflix show, steps were taken to tone down some of the more stereotypical aspects of their source material, only for certain fans to respond with charges of silencing diversity. It’s a classic “damned if you do” scenario, wherein Marvel is stuck choosing between either appearing to whitewash their own characters or feeding into the old “Caucasian hero masters weird foreign customs” motif that informed the original comics, as well as flicks like 1932’s Chandu the Magician. You won’t hear me excuse the wild misconceptions such media would eventually help spread, nor can you truly blame those who find the tropes contained therein in poor taste these days. On the other hand, a fun movie is still a fun movie, and for all about it that modern eyes may find out of touch, Chandu the Magician remains a dazzling vintage fantasy all the same.

The far east holds many strange secrets to which few souls are privy. Outsiders aren’t known to penetrate its world of wizardry and mysticism, but Frank Chandler (Edmund Lowe) is different. Committing himself to righting society’s injustices, Frank’s years of study with the best yogis  has at last paid off, achieving unparalleled skills in the arts of mesmerism and being granted the new title of “Chandu.” But as it turns out, he’s completed his training just in time, for the forces of evil have recently targeted those nearest to his heart. A madman named Roxor (Bela Lugosi) has kidnapped Frank’s brother-in-law Robert (Henry B. Walthall), seeking to use his latest invention to destroy the cities of the globe and declare himself emperor. However, the fiend didn’t count on the newly-minted Chandu to jump into action and call upon his powers of illusion to save not only his loved ones from certain doom but the very earth, as well.

Based upon a then-current radio series, Chandu the Magician is an entity that definitely benefits from its promotion to a visual medium. One can imagine our protagonist’s feats only feeling so magical when we’re being told what he’s up to, but when just about every top-notch special effects trick in the book is used to give them life on film, the results are especially snazzy. Throughout the movie, Frank/Chandu summons phantom doppelgangers, makes henchmen see their guns as deadly snakes, and maintains a close watch on danger by gazing into his handy crystal ball. These sights and others like them all look pretty spectacular for their time, adding up to a visual feast so varied and teeming with energy, you almost forget about the plot’s more quirky details altogether. I’m not quite sure how so many characters are aware of Chandu or his reputation when he’s apparently spent years honing his craft in seclusion, and don’t be surprised if you’re thrown for a loop when others casually refer to Robert’s invention as a “death ray” even before Roxor announces his plan to reduce the likes of London and Paris to rubble. The picture does experience the occasional, culturally-dicey patch (as in one scene that has Roxor offering up Frank’s niece in a slave auction), to which all that can be said is that they’re thankfully infrequent, as the production is more concerned with entertaining the eyes than with engaging in harsh generalizations.

There’s such a playful enthusiasm to the way that Chandu the Magician explores its title hero’s abilities and presents them on screen, one wishes that more was done with the characters so as to really tie everything together. Not that flicks centered around crimefighters and various proto-superfolk were big on detailed origins at the time, but Frank’s ascension to mind-bender extraordinaire is virtually nonexistent. He hasn’t time to tidy his burnoose before he’s off to rescue his brother-in-law from Roxor’s clutches, without imparting so much as a hint as to what sent him on his spiritual quest to begin with. Lowe proves such a good sport in his performance, helping Chandu’s hypnotic stares and hand gestures feel more mysterious than silly, so filling in just a few of the mystic’s background blanks would have made him pop even more. Lugosi is essentially in the same boat, what with playing your standard-issue exotic villain with the vaguest motivations for seeking world domination, yet one can’t deny the impassioned show he puts on; long story short, this guy knows how to deliver one dilly of a bad guy monologue. The remaining roles are likewise very basic in nature, though the supporting cast members elevate them nicely with their appeal. Irene Ware (in her first prominent studio part) makes for a suitably alluring love interest opposite Lowe, Herbert Mundin scores some smirks as the resident cowardly comic relief, and Weldon Heyburn glowers up a storm as Roxor’s right-hand thug.

For what’s basically a superhero tale that came out before the notion of superheroes had become so deeply ingrained within the public consciousness, Chandu the Magician exhibits a tremendous deal of confidence. Bolstered by its wonderful visual effects and spirited acting, the film hasn’t a doubt in its mind that viewers will fall briskly under its spell. Dated though some of its finer details might be, Chandu the Magician makes up for it by being an exhilarating joy to watch.

“Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla” (1952)

"Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla" poster

 

Boy, Bela Lugosi could never catch a break, could he? Even in a project reportedly rushed into production after he expressed a desire to do more comedies (one that went on to use his name in the title, no less), the horror star ultimately found his role in a diminished state and his talents laid to waste. This was the fate that befell 1952’s Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla, a low-rent farce doubling as a vehicle for two dudes more famous for their lounge act being a nearly lawsuit-worthy rip-off of the Martin & Lewis routine than for said schtick actually being any good. Just one glance at that preposterous moniker should clue you in that high art isn’t imminent, but that doesn’t mean an appealingly zany hunk of retro cheese along the lines of all those ’60s beach musicals is out of the question. Unfortunately, while such fondly-remembered flicks had actual jokes to make and humorous set-ups to execute, Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla hasn’t an inspired zinger to its name, depending almost solely on the energy of actors who barely want to be there in the first place to instill the barren screenplay with a case of the giggles.

In thinly-veiled riffs on their own stage personas, Duke Mitchell and Sammy Petrillo play entertainers who end up stranded on a jungle isle, en route to putting on a show for the boys overseas. Luckily, it’s not long before the two are found and taken in by a native tribe, whose fetching princess Nona (Charlita) takes an instant shine to the dashing Duke. Even better for the pair, there also lives and works on the island one Dr. Zabor (Lugosi), a scientist running experiments on the local wildlife. He agrees to let the guys stay at his place until a boat can swing by and haul them back to civilization, but his gears change after Nona spurns his affections and instead gravitates towards Duke’s arms. Suddenly, the crooner finds himself Dr. Zabor’s latest guinea pig, the unwilling recipient of a heinous potion that transforms him into a huge gorilla. In the midst of dodging the gaze of Nona’s man-hungry sister (Muriel Landers), can Sammy pull himself together in time to save his pal from going ape for good and return to his beloved Big Apple in one piece?

Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla is as antiquated as B-pictures can get, yet its insensitive aspects would do more damage, were their presence not so inherently puzzling. Among the most cringe-worthy material is, obviously, the cornucopia of jungle stereotypes forever spilling out onscreen, with the “native” tribesmen consisting mostly of white guys with tans and loincloths muttering abject gibberish for the whole ride. You’d think that the movies would’ve gotten amusing themselves with “ooga-booga” nonsense out of their systems a long time before Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla came around, yet here we have a flick feasting on about the lowest-hanging fruit possible, because that’s all it strives to harvest. The film was released at a time when audiences were well-versed in horror tropes, leading productions like Abbott & Costello’s Universal Monster crossovers to have fun with the formulas and turn them on their heads. That this thing mainly ignores such calls for self-aware deconstruction is no great surprise, but that it forsakes passing any clever dialogue or creatively comic scenarios onto viewers is virtually unforgivable. God forbid the writers be bothered to put something resembling a personal stamp on the script, as their involvement extends to establishing a situation and leaving it up to the actors to scream, mug, or pratfall their way through it.

Alright, so Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla‘s jokes connect about as successfully as a pile of King Kong’s scat, but a solid cast has been known to elevate crummy material in the past. At the forefront of this caper are Mitchell and Petrillo, whose act enjoyed a fair deal of popularity for a spell, until Jerry Lewis saw to it that the men were essentially blackballed out of show business. It’s sort of sad that their careers never really took off respectively or as a team, because even in this ill-conceived mash of monkey business, it’s obvious that they weren’t devoid of talent. Mitchell (who’d later achieve cult prominence as the director/star of 1974’s Massacre Mafia Style) has a good singing voice, and the inhumanly-lanky Petrillo — despite his hollering grinding one’s nerves to a fine powder within seconds — possesses an energy and physical presence that might have serviced him better, had the script actually been up to snuff. But as for the guy the entire picture was named after, opportunities for Lugosi to flex his comedic muscles as he’d wished are few and far between. Dr. Zabor is often positioned as the straight man against Petrillo and his frantic shenanigans, but Lugosi is given next to no reactions or lines to keep the funny flow going, basically trapping him in yet another generic retread of the tired mad scientist archetype.

Its title alone has secured Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla‘s spot on many a “worst movies ever” list until the end times, but actually watching it is another story. While it set out to be little more than a dopey comedy cobbled together to cash in on a fading horror icon’s reputation, it’s still a dreadfully laughless progenitor of the Friedberg/Seltzer philosophy of just rattling off clichés and pop culture references counting as crafting a quality gag. Even for the extremely modest goals it set for itself, Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla fails to rise to the occasion, giving us neither a flick amusing on its own merits or one teeming with ironic charm.

“Phantom Ship” (1935)

"Phantom Ship" poster

 

The draw of a maritime mystery isn’t hard to comprehend. It’s a textbook “rock and a hard place” scenario, forcing the poor souls on board some doomed vessel to either confront the evil among them or take their chances on the cold, open seas alone. A film’s frightful potential is further raised when it bases itself on an infamous real-life puzzler, as was the decision made by 1935’s oceanic chiller Phantom Ship. Of course, when a story is inspired by an incident that left so many unanswered questions, some gap-filling conjecture is to be expected, but with information as cryptic as that which this picture has to work with, little effort is needed to jump to spine-tingling conclusions. However, while Phantom Ship fares admirably in stocking its bowels with intrigue aplenty on the outset, a fatal leak is sprung soon into the second act, one that unravels all the suspenseful good will the movie had accumulated up to that point and sends our interest sinking swiftly to the briny deep.

On December 5th, 1872, one of the strangest tales in seafaring history presented itself to the world. The cargo ship Mary Celeste, bound for Italy with scores of alcohol in its belly, was discovered adrift and devoid of life, with no sign of its crew in sight. What could have possibly prompted those aboard to abandon ship and instead choose to face the Atlantic’s brutal waters? The makers of this film have a few ideas, painting a most deadly portrait of the events that might have led to the Mary Celeste‘s ultimate fate. What follows is the story of one Captain Benjamin Briggs (Arthur Margetson), a young lad who brought his new bride Sarah (Shirley Grey) on what at first seemed to be a typical voyage. But little do the lovers know of the danger surrounding them on all sides, from a spy assigned to sabotage the trip by Briggs’s jealous best friend (Clifford McLaglen) to an unstable sailor (Bela Lugosi) who wants revenge for being shanghaied years before. However, when more and more bodies start stacking up, it becomes clear that the Mary Celeste is dealing with no ordinary murderer but a veritable madman, one with the mother of all grudges against the vessel and all it stands for.

Perhaps the greatest distinction that Phantom Ship can claim is being among the first productions from some teensy British movie outfit called Hammer. The ensuing decades would help cement the studio’s prominence within the horror genre, but before their gothic goings-on could get underway, the powers that be had to cut their teeth on a series of low-budget, no-frills thrillers. Phantom Ship (released as The Mystery of the Mary Celeste in its native England) was a part of this initial wave, closely adhering to the routine of the era’s average pulse-pounder by introducing a touch of romance into the mix and filling out the suspect pool with every shady-looking character actor it could get its mits on. Although his approach can come across as a little stiff on occasion, director Denison Clift does a fine job of establishing the story’s many pieces. Not only does he supply the viewer with multiple parties who board the Mary Celeste with murder in mind, he also subverts expectations by painting Briggs — the sort of dashing romantic lead who’s often depicted as a hopeless goody two-shoes — in dark shades himself. Add in the usual perils that come with being stuck on a scuzzy boat with a decidedly disgruntled crew (some of whom didn’t sign up willingly), and one can’t help but get excited thinking about the possibilities of how a cold-blooded killer might use these conditions to his or her advantage.

But once Phantom Ship starts getting down to the meat of the mystery at its core, that’s when its borderline incompetent grasp on the “whodunit” concept makes itself known. Part of this could be attributed to the fact that about twenty minutes were cut from the picture’s original version for its stateside release, a sizable chunk of celluloid now unfortunately lost to time. We can only surmise what those frames contained, but it wouldn’t be surprising in the least to learn that most of the film’s character arcs, red herrings, and stabs at misdirection were chucked in the trash. Even if they weren’t, however, Phantom Ship‘s go at leaving the audience guessing as to what’s really happening is inexcusably poor, for not even the script can apparently be bothered to keep most of its players straight or muster much concern for the figures on whom it does manage to focus. Whether it’s a sailor whose name we’re never told or one of the protagonists, character development is constantly getting the shaft here, and when the unceremonious off-screen deaths begin piling up in both departments, caring how anyone turns out is nigh impossible. In all fairness, though, the shiftless screenplay’s sting is eased some by the acting (with Lugosi turning in a particularly pained performance), as well as the movie’s art and sound design, which turns the titular craft into a high seas haunted house with ghostly gales ominously bellowing across the bow.

Admittedly, ganging up on Phantom Ship seems a bit mean, considering how stacked the deck is against it. In addition to its virtually incomplete present condition, the film’s decades spent in the public domain means toughing out sub-par sound and degraded prints, should one get the itch to give it a whirl. Bearing in mind the horrifying heights to which Hammer would eventually ascend, there’s no use in sweating Phantom Ship, but were it to make its way onto your to-watch list, then prepare for a one-hour tour that feels thrice as long.

“The Return of the Vampire” (1943)

"The Return of the Vampire" poster

 

When we’re confronted with something frightening, one of our first instincts is to stifle its power through means of mockery. This could apply to virtually any facet of our lives, but it’s especially true when it comes to horror cinema. Whereas certain aspects of 1931’s Frankenstein were viewed as blasphemous upon its release, its sequels made talk of brain-swapping and graveyard-raiding as casually-acknowledged as cobwebs in a matter of years. Having arrived in 1943 and laden with so much classic genre imagery, one could scarcely be blamed for initially sizing up Columbia Pictures’ The Return of the Vampire as a cynical riff on the old Universal Horror style. However, these misgivings are soon laid to rest when the flick’s affection for the stories from whence it came makes itself known, crafting a love letter to the fright films of yore that nonetheless recognizes how it has nothing on the real-life terrors of its time.

In 1918, Armand Tesla (Bela Lugosi) held court in the crypts of London’s outskirts. A former intellectual who studied various vampire legends, he eventually became a creature of the night himself, stalking the streets whilst aided by his werewolf servant, Andreas (Matt Willis). Fortunately, Lady Ainsley (Frieda Inescort) and Professor Saunders (Gilbert Emery) put an end to Tesla’s feeding frenzy, driving a stake through his black heart and ushering in an era of peace…or so they thought. Over twenty years later, a German bombing raid manages to unearth Tesla’s grave, allowing the ghoul to rise once more and resume his fearsome reign. This time, though, it’s personal, as the fiend impersonates a doctor fleeing the Nazis and integrates himself into Lady Ainsley’s social circles, with aims on seducing the professor’s grown granddaughter Nicki (Nina Foch) over to the dark side. Ready to do whatever it takes to save Nicki’s soul, Lady Ainsley prepares herself for a showdown with the master of monsters, determined to prevent anyone she loves from joining the ranks of the living dead at all costs.

If you’re thinking that The Return of the Vampire sounds an awful lot like the Dracula sequel that never was, then you’re actually kind of right. By some accounts, Columbia intended this picture to be a direct follow-up to the fright fest that put Lugosi on the map, but when Universal threatened legal retribution, the most obvious connections were Etch-a-Sketched away and replaced. This is particularly telling in certain areas (most glaringly so in the rushed detailing of Tesla’s origins), but one gets the gist of things pretty quickly. The Return of the Vampire makes old-school horror nuts feel right at home before the opening credits have fully dissipated, bombarding them with images of fog-drenched cemeteries, wolf men on the prowl, and imposing shadows bearing down on unsuspecting victims. Even by the ’40s, such sights had since grown hopelessly cliché, but because director Lew Landers (reunited with Lugosi after helming The Raven eight years prior) plays them so straight, we become less encouraged to greet them with eyes rolled back. There’s no winking or nodding afoot in this production, just a straightforward story about an unspeakable evil encroaching upon the forces of good, one that clicks in spite of all the on- and off-screen horrors with which its audiences were more greatly concerned.

For all of the familiar genre iconography it heaps onto our plates, that The Return of the Vampire realizes such content’s cultural relevance has nearly expired is part of what makes it the wise endeavor it is. Setting the action during World War II — with the characters having gotten accustomed to blackouts and blitzes — is a master stroke, giving the story a forlorn quality that cries out for simpler days when mankind had only the silver screen’s supernatural threats to fear and not flesh-and-blood dictators. Thus, the script’s frequent assurances that goodness shall prevail no matter what, which would seem hokey as hell under virtually any other circumstances, take on more profound and unexpectedly touching connotations. Whether the actors were on a similar wavelength or just saw this as a silly horror show from the start, they all remain committed to selling the premise with a straight face regardless. Though he could do this schtick in his sleep by this point, Lugosi’s presence is creepily captivating all the same, especially as Tesla beckons Nicki to his side and taunts Lady Ainsley’s efforts to protect her. Inescort turns in a resolute performance as our heroine, and that our protagonist is a woman (when the part could have easily been rewritten for a guy) is a most welcome treat for such an early chapter in horror cinema history. Foch’s Nicki effectively evokes our concern, and while there’s nothing that requires Andreas to be a werewolf (seeing as how the character retains his intellect anyway), Willis successfully transforms him into a sympathetic figure all the same.

The Return of the Vampire is replete with narrative inconsistencies over which one could quibble for hours, but the film as a whole is no worse for the wear because of them. In an era when scenarios like those reverently recreated within its frames were losing their touch, this flick makes them work, exhibiting the same firm grasp on visual and thematic storytelling that gave Universal’s greatest monster mashes their impact. Earnest and atmospheric in equal doses, The Return of the Vampire is a genre gem that’s ripe for rediscovering.

“Invisible Ghost” (1941)

"Invisible Ghost" poster

 

Boris Karloff played many a misunderstood monster in his time. Sadsacks were Lon Chaney Jr.’s specialty. But out of all the classic horror icons, Bela Lugosi was the one whose roles were the least likely to be sympathetic. Nine times out of ten, poor Bela would be typecast as a predatory madman, his signature accent used to give said parts a touch of exoticism but not an abundance of dimension. But on the rare occasion when he was called upon to portray a character meant to invoke our compassion, the guy made a meal out of it, even in what were otherwise unassuming Poverty Row productions like 1941’s Invisible Ghost. Thanks to the unconventional order in which the pieces of its plot are unveiled, this flick already has a leg up on many of the other cheapie chillers of its era, so the addition of Lugosi as a truly tragic figure only sweetens the pot. Unfortunately, Invisible Ghost encounters a frustrating amount of difficulty as it tries keeping its own twists in check, as some cool and creepy developments lose their luster once you start wondering what in the world is really going on.

The Kessler estate would give the House on Haunted Hill a run for its spooky money. In addition to being the site of a string of unsolved murders, it’s also the home of Charles Kessler (Lugosi), a man still rattled from the disappearance of his wife (Betty Compson). Every night, he hopes and prays for the moment she’ll return to him…until the one time she actually does. As it turns out, Mrs. Kessler has been for some time a guest of the family groundskeeper (Ernie Adams), having sequestered her in the wake of a terrible car accident. But on the odd instance when she wanders back to her old home in a daze, her sight causes Charles to black out and plunge into a homicidal spell. He’s not aware of it in the slightest, but Kessler is the very killer who’s plagued his mansion for months, the unknowing mastermind of a string of gruesome deaths…the latest of which might result in a horrible fate for the innocent man (John McGuire) accused of engineering it.

Whereas several of its dirt-poor contemporaries would run themselves ragged trying to pad their stories out to the sixty-minute mark, Invisible Ghost is shockingly dense with goings-on. Subplots and suspicious characters abound from the word go, so when the picture makes the bold choice of announcing quite early on that Lugosi is the maniac, one initially can’t help but sit there beguiled and ponder what possible directions in which the narrative might take this revelation and others like it. Invisible Ghost has stacked its deck with a number of intriguing cards, but throughout its running time, it deals them out in a bizarrely erratic fashion, leaving a four-lane freeway’s worth of plot holes in its wake. What did happen the night Mrs. Kessler abandoned her husband? Did Charles experience his murderous urges before she took off? Where was she prior to the accident, and why was the groundskeeper so adamant on keeping her locked up afterwards? The answers to these questions — which could very well have boosted the moody tinge of the proceedings — are all addressed the most lackadaisical manner fathomable. Nothing about the screenplay’s explanations are even close to being serviceable (let alone wholly satisfying), creating a directionless atmosphere in which the twists shed their luster as expediently as the audience’s interest in the story plummets.

Scatterbrained and replete with chasms though its script might be, Invisible Ghost‘s cast manages to put on a dignified show nevertheless. While there’s no denying how silly he looks while stumbling about with arms outstretched in “killer mode,” Lugosi takes to Kessler’s more charming aspects very nicely. He does a commendable job of selling the man’s friendly disposition, coming across as genuinely amiable and helping make it easier to accept that none of the other characters would even remotely suspect him of murder once corpses start piling up around the place. The supporting cast also carries on with relatively few hiccups, with fine performances from Polly Ann Young as Kessler’s inquisitive daughter and, as the family butler, Clarence Muse, who’s fortunately spared the cringing comic relief the likes of which Mantan Moreland and Willie Best were saddled with in similar servant parts at the time. Though the majority of the action is confined to inside the Kessler house, director Joseph H. Lewis (The Mad Doctor of Market Street) still sneaks in an effective shot here and there, particularly whenever Compson plants her mug in the living room window. The eerie ambience holds up well for the most part, although the ridiculously bombastic score does a doozy of a job of bringing what tension it can to a screeching halt.

Because of its novel set-up, Invisible Ghost has achieved a certain prominence amongst Poverty Row’s throngs of murder mysteries and drawing-room thrillers. There are those who even gladly forgive its lapses in storytelling logic, much in the same way narrative flaws in countless vintage puzzlers made on the quick are largely ignored. The old-fashioned appeal of Invisible Ghost isn’t lost on yours truly, but it falls asleep at the wheel far too often for the bumps incurred during its journey into suspense to be easily looked past.

“The Raven” (1935)

"The Raven" poster

 

It’s strange how Universal didn’t crank out more Edgar Allan Poe adaptations than it did during its golden age of horror. The studio’s few such productions were so loosely connected to the original stories as is, one would assume the powers that be would be content to clean up on name recognition and the presence of famous genre icons alone. That’s exactly what happened with 1934’s smash thriller The Black Cat, and the following year, Universal reunited stars Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff for another Poe-inspired collaboration, The Raven. Given the former’s expressionist style and ghoulish insinuations of violence, it was a tough act to follow, setting a precedent for cinematic nightmares to which measuring up would be no small feat. Unfortunately, The Raven falls considerably short of this mark, but even taking its creepy cousin out of the picture, it remains an uneven opus of the macabre, thanks to an emaciated screenplay that nearly knocks the wind out of an otherwise tremendous leading performance’s sails.

Once upon a time, Dr. Richard Vollin (Lugosi) was a most respected surgeon. Few were more skilled with a scalpel, and his collection of Poe paraphernalia is the envy of the academic community. But when Judge Thatcher (Samuel S. Hinds) beckons the doc out of retirement to save the life of his daughter Jean (Irene Ware), little does he know that he’s played into the hands of a madman. After sparing the girl a grisly fate, Vollin soon develops an obsession with her, resolving to make her his bride some day — or else. The judge picks up on this unsettling fixation and forbids the two from seeing each other again, which only fuels the doctor’s vengeful fire. With the reluctant help of escaped convict Edmond Bateman (Karloff), Vollin hatches a plot to gather all who’ve wronged him and subject them to his collection of gruesome torture devices, in a night of horror none will ever forget.

The Raven isn’t a remake or blatant rip-off by any stretch, but the specter of The Black Cat hangs over it regardless. We have the Poe connection, the elements of torture, and a rivalry between Lugosi and Karloff’s characters that drives certain aspects of the plot. However, The Raven is nowhere near as effective in going about its business, and why all boils down to a matter of build-up. Saying this sounds odd, considering Vollin does take his sweet time in getting revenge on Judge Thatcher (plus Jean and her fiancé, but they’re not at the top of his to-punish list). But during that period leading up to the doc going full Pit and the Pendulum on his enemies, Vollin’s back story is granted no deeper exploration, his lust for Jean and eventual urge to inflict unspeakable pain upon others attributed to no other motivation than, “He’s just crazy.” Even the contentious partnership between the doctor and Bateman feels like a rush job, as the latter is coerced into servitude by having his face horribly disfigured. Compared to the history and seething hatred their characters in The Black Cat shared with each other, Lugosi and Karloff’s clash here is built upon the flimsiest of foundations, with Vollin’s mocking of Bateman’s newfound ugliness as a means of stoking his murderous flames falling flat.

All of this is unfortunate, because at the center of The Raven is one of the most twisted and commanding performances of Lugosi’s career. The script may not always serve him as well as it might, but the man himself is firing on all cylinders, cackling up a storm and having a total blast giving life to Vollin’s demented persona. Afforded few leading man opportunities by Universal (even after Dracula‘s astounding success), Lugosi seizes his rare shot at being the center of attention and pulls through with a crazed, menacing performance from which it’s hard to glance away. Simultaneously, Karloff’s portrayal of Bateman is more of the understated variety, as the legendary horror star uses his weathered looks (pre-mutilation, too) and anguished attitude to hint at the lifetime of chips this guy’s had to lug on his shoulders. Outside of these two titans of terror, however, The Raven‘s remaining cast members range from the fine, but unremarkable to the utterly disposable. Ware is pleasant, and Hinds is appropriately stern, but as Jean’s fiancé, Lester Matthews is a complete drip, and the various actors on hand to provide forced comic relief only make us wish they’d meet the business end of one of Vollin’s contraptions even sooner. On that note, though, the set design is rather intimidating, with the doctor’s swanky pad gradually revealing itself to house all manner of swinging blades, moving falls, and entire rooms than can be summoned below ground on a moment’s notice.

Though Lugosi’s dominating turn and the morbid machinery he lords over help out a good deal, The Raven‘s shocks only work so well without strong writing or characters to support them. The film’s underperformance at the box office played a part in informing Universal’s decision to lay off the horror stories for a while, only to return years later with what can be arguably considered Lugosi’s best role ever in 1939’s Son of Frankenstein. The Raven is no black mark on the studio’s genre record, but given the talent involved with its creation, that it turned out as anything but a dark little gem is a letdown among letdowns.