CineSlice

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

“Rusty Knife” (1958)

"Rusty Knife" poster

 

Any filmmaker, novelist, or what have you weaving a saga of crime undoubtedly has their work cut out for them. Despite the genre’s cultural proliferation, it’s hard to do right, as your audience is, in some respect, asked to pledge allegiance to the exploits of individuals tainted by seediness. However, one way around such a tricky premise entails focusing on a figure who’s since abandoned their illicit past, allowing an audience to experience firsthand the struggle of someone from delinquent origins trying to adhere to the straight and narrow. The list of movies that incorporated this technique to great success is extensive indeed, including in their numbers everything from the Godfather trilogy to 1958’s Rusty Knife. One of the classic, scrappy noir thrillers from Japan’s Nikkatsu studio, this picture adopts a borderline nihilistic view of crime’s corruptive influence, revealing the scummy sides of its supposed “good guys” and exposing its villains as being even more morally bankrupt than on the outset. Into this sea of wickedness wades a man driven to the brink of madness, and it’s by way of chronicling his self-destructive quest to bring the whole damn thing down that Rusty Knife‘s veins come to pulsate with an invigorating fury.

From the ashes of World War II rose Udaka City, a metropolis on the move. Industrial developments are quickly turning this young community into a thriving economic powerhouse, but, alas, crime has already infested its very heart. Gang bosses like Katsumata (Naoki Suigura) reign supreme and rest comfortably, knowing that witnesses to their misdeeds are too frightened to come forward. But one threat to this creep’s empire arises in the guise of an old low-level thug, who anonymously declares his intentions to inform the authorities about Katsumata’s role in staging a councilman’s suicide. Scrambling to silence any with knowledge of the incident, his cronies track down those parties present to the deed — one of whom, Tachibana (Yujiro Ishihara), prefers to be left alone to tend his humble bar. Quite the hothead in his time, Tachibana wants nothing to do with Katsumata or the police seeking to put him away…that is, until learning the truth of an ex-girlfriend’s death sends him on a vengeful journey to strike at the mobster and his operations by any means possible.

Rusty Knife was among the first features by director Toshio Masuda, who became something of a fixture in Japanese cinema’s swelling crime movement of the ’50s and ’60s. Teaming again with star Ishihara for Nikkatsu’s Red Pier later that year and eventually contributing to the Outlaw Gangster VIP series, Masuda presents a movie whose thematic ambition and technical proficiency are all the more impressive, considering he was virtually a first-timer. His is a sad, angry, and unexpectedly philosophical picture, one that commits the majority of itself towards chronicling Tachibana’s crisis of conscience. Whether it’s allowing Katsumata to buy his silence or snitching to the cops, our protagonist sees any involvement in that old life as a potential trigger for feelings he never wants to confront again. Just mentioning his former associates gets Tachibana riled up, and he only grows more unhinged when the reality behind past tragedies comes to light. Masuda makes a compelling case for how ignoring one’s sins doesn’t atone for them, as not only does the evil Tachibana became wrapped up in continue to prosper and adapt alongside Udaka City, it was even more deplorable than he knew back in the day. The realization of how deeply corruption has penetrated society rocks our man to his core, leaving him to ponder whether protecting his soul is worth it if means allowing depravity to flourish.

Masuda proves so adept in communicating the complex nature of his subject matter, it’s relieving to also see Rusty Knife as confident on a visual scale. The camera perfectly captures the close-quartered state of the story’s setting without getting trapped in a cycle of static shots, enabling an intimate atmosphere with nary a hint of staginess. Of course, the emotions afoot in Rusty Knife wouldn’t connect as effectively as they do, were they not being supplied by such a sterling ensemble. It’s easy to look at Ishihara’s performance and chuckle at his melodramatic outbursts, but he helps everything click in the end, skillfully and successfully presenting himself as a ticking time bomb of a man. Solid support is lent by Suguira as the smug and sneering Katsumata, Mie Kitahara as a journalist who tries goading Tachibana into coming clean, and Akira Kobayashi as a witness who happily accepts Katsumata’s payoff — until the dough runs out, though. The viewer is bombarded with rage and grit from all angles throughout the film, though the story loses a little of its punch towards the ending. The revelation of an eleventh-hour twist (as much as it connects with Masuda’s overarching notion of crime evolving as society does) doesn’t resonate with the impact that it might, having been fairly telegraphed in advance and causing the finale to come across as a smidge muddled.

While back-alley brawling and gunplay are most assuredly part of the package, Rusty Knife values its smarts more than anything and feels a much richer flick for it. Moody in tone yet never sensationalizing the humanity out of its characters, this is a true thinking person’s yakuza tale, with action and emotion working in tandem to make one another feel as palpable as possible. Regardless of what jokes its title may tempt you to use, Rusty Knife emerges as an example of Japanese noir at its sharpest.

(This review is part of CineSlice’s Noirvember tribute, featuring a different film noir review every week throughout November. For Noirvember reviews from other critics, check out the official community Facebook page or follow the #Noirvember hashtag on Twitter.)

“Skiptrace” (2016)

"Skiptrace" poster

 

There comes a time when all film fans must acknowledge that their idols are still human beings. Take, for example, Jackie Chan, whose work yours truly has followed since childhood, even as the past decade has been spent reconciling with the fact that he simply can’t pull off as many astounding feats as he once could. Time has nudged Chan towards taking on less taxing projects, although some, including 2016’s Skiptrace, still put him through the wringer to an extent. There’s no shame in an action icon of his stature kicking it back, particularly since sharp comedic timing was every bit a part of his appeal as left hooks and backflips. That said, when a movie like Skiptrace leans so heavily on what turns out to be lazy direction to carry out an already feeble script teeming with forced humor, the absence of those amazing stunts that would’ve otherwise taken the edge off such matters enables its mediocrity to ring out twice as clearly.

Jackie plays Bennie Chan, a cop on the hunt for one of the most ruthless criminal masterminds of our time. Years ago, a mysterious figure known as the Matador took out his partner, and now, he believes he’s found the culprit in well-to-do tycoon Victor Wong (Winston Chao). Without evidence, however, Wong keeps slipping through Bennie’s grasp, with even his own colleagues starting to doubt his suspicions. But not only is our man about to stumble upon his biggest break in the case yet, it’s also from the world’s unlikeliest source. Enter con artist, gambler, and sneak-about-town Connor Watts (Johnny Knoxville), whose fleecing of a Macau casino’s fortunes ends with him witnessing a murder…committed by Wong. After tracking Connor down and learning of the information he holds, Bennie makes it his mission to haul the lout back to his superiors and at long last bring the Matador to justice. But in addition to being pursued by both Wong’s men and the Russian mafia, Bennie’s charge himself proves to be a slippery customer, using every chance he gets to try escaping and throw all the dogged detective’s plans into disarray.

I’ll be the first to admit that many of the issues working against Skiptrace are ones that myself and legions of fans forgave in past Chan vehicles. The plot is a predictably slender affair involving determined cops chasing down sneering villains, wrapped up in a Midnight Run-style travelogue format that sees Bennie and Connor traipsing about the Asian countryside. The premise in and of itself isn’t incompetent, though the film’s relentlessly mediocre execution sure helps it feel that way. Skiptrace comes to us from director Renny Harlin, who has never been mistaken for one of cinema’s unsung artists but whose dopiest productions (Mindhunters, Deep Blue Sea, etc.) nevertheless had enough foresight to tap into their inherent crazy streaks. This flick, on the other hand, would be hard-pressed to come off as any less lethargic, with seemingly every facet — from its sanitized cinematography to its vanilla score — exhibiting the bare minimum of effort. It’s a flatness that infects virtually every scene, swiping the comedic wind from moments of levity and draining what are supposed to be neat action set pieces of their energy. What we get here is a textbook definition of a movie stuck on autopilot, shirking such flourishes as truly witty dialogue or creative fight choreography that usually prevent such easily excusable nitpicks as unimaginative storytelling from being bumped to the front of the line.

Skiptrace‘s tedious demise, however, isn’t for a lack of trying on behalf of its stars. At 62, Chan makes an effort to appear as spry in dealing out roundhouse kicks to the face as he is in rattling off quips, and largely, he succeeds. As evidenced by the Rush Hour trilogy, he’s had some experience playing the exasperated straight man opposite a motormouthed sidekick, but whether he’s rolling his eyes at the latter’s shenanigans or hopping across collapsing buildings, the man remains a consummate performer. In a part reportedly intended for Seann William Scott, Knoxville actually fares pretty well, a perfect fit for a swindler type who matches Bennie in terms of sheer stubbornness. The crook with a heart of gold character is one that can easily be rendered clichéd and boring, but Knoxville brings a charismatic edge to the role and keeps Connor as fun to watch as he can. In terms of supporting players, though, most are left with no choice but to lay low with thankless stock archetypes, and even those featured more prominently than others aren’t much better off. Fan Bingbing (X-Men: Days of Future Past) is absolutely wasted as what’s ultimately a damsel in distress, and despite some amusing one-liners at the expense of her character’s apparent invulnerability, wrestler Eve Gracie is just another thinly-written sexy henchwoman.

There’s an exotic, rip-roaring, butt-kicking good time to be whipped up out of Skiptrace‘s ingredients, but the final product has had nearly all the flavor pounded out of it. Viewers are served almost two hours of something that goes through the motions of your average martial arts buddy comedy but hasn’t a soul of its own. Not that I was rooting for Skiptrace to be a bust, but if it had to stink, the least it could’ve done was pack some go-for-broke lunacy for the way down.

“Vicki” (1953)

"Vicki" poster

 

Exposing one’s self to the world entails two different levels of sacrifice. Not only does an actor, model, or the like surrender a degree of freedom once they choose to pierce the public consciousness, so do their admirers, who devote time and energy towards keeping up on their affairs. It’s easy to lose your way in pursuit of loving or being loved, a fate that’s befallen scores of those unfortunate enough to be trapped in a film noir narrative. The ensemble inhabiting 1953’s Vicki follows suit to an extent, yet the picture itself falls achingly short of fostering its tragic themes in a fashion that resonates with viewers. It talks the talk and passes with flying colors a good deal of noir’s technical prerequisites, but the story merely skirts the sort of sordid territory in which its brothers in darkness thrived.

Vicki Lynn (Jean Peters) was inescapable. Glance at any billboard or flip open any magazine, and there she was, her enchanting visage beckoning you to buy whatever it was employed to sell. But now, Vicki’s received the biggest press of her life…only it’s for her death. A blow to the head put an end to Miss Lynn’s brief time on this earth, and Lt. Cornell (Richard Boone) is hell-bent on hunting down who did it. Out of the frenzy surrounding the crime scene emerge two suspects: publicity agent Steve Christopher (Elliott Reid) and Vicki’s sister, Jill (Jeanne Crain). An intense grilling follows, during which the two profess their innocence while detailing the deceased’s rise from humble waitress to superstar in the making. But no matter how ironclad Steve’s and Jill’s alibis might be, that doesn’t cut it with Cornell, who couldn’t care less about how many innocent reputations he tramples over in his crusade to bring Vicki’s killer to justice.

Based on the same material that inspired 1941’s I Wake Up ScreamingVicki endeavors to examine the ways in which obsession warps all it touches. No souls are off this flick’s hook, whether you’ve allowed yourself to be suckered by a pretty face or you’re the one letting your mug profit off the adoration of others. “If men want to look at me, why shouldn’t they pay for it?” inquires Vicki during her ascent into notoriety, showing just how swiftly even the most pure-hearted can be seduced by fame. All appears set for a sardonic exploration of some very rich, sinister themes, yet the story’s fear of painting itself in too somber of strokes ultimately undermines its efforts. Vicki is visibly skittish about casting the characters it eventually wants us to like in a negative light, as well as in trying to cast suspicion onto others. While the picture needn’t dive whole hog into depravity to be interesting, its shaky command of moral complexity makes it that much harder to appreciate what elements do click. It’s a recurring issue that comes into play as soon as the movie veers from its initial, Rashomon-esque set-up, which sees Vicki’s personality pieced together via accounts from people who knew her in different capacities. From the woman of the hour herself to those who witness her climb to the top, all manner of figures with multiple facets screaming to be expanded on come across as disappointingly by-the-numbers.

However, none of this is because of Vicki‘s actors, each of whom put forth as profound of a performance as the script allows. Foremost is Peters, who, despite her role not quite achieving the dominating presence that the story demands, exudes a genuine and undeniable charm. Hers is a grounded turn, one portraying Vicki as a sweet person whose gradual cravings for recognition are shown to stem from good enough intentions. Crain (1945’s State Fair) fares nicely as her supportive yet skeptical sister, Reid does a solid job as the rare PR guy in a movie who’s (seemingly) genuinely concerned about his client’s well-being, and Boone commits himself to filling Cornell with piss and vinegar to spare. There’s nary a sour note struck by anyone in this bunch (which also includes future TV mogul Aaron Spelling as a shady switchboard operator), but again, without a screenplay going that extra mile, the amount of dimensions so briefly addressed is downright disheartening. Plus, as if that weren’t enough, the film comes to favor a romantic bent that deals even more blows to what moody atmosphere it has to its name. Milton Krasner’s ink-black photography and the odd burst of acerbic dialogue reflect the relative doom and gloom that’s a tenet of any proper noir, yet the whole enterprise culminates in an ending far too sunny by genre standards.

Tonal gripes and nitpicks aside, Vicki is a perfectly serviceable thriller. The acting is sturdy, the cinematography maintains an ominous ambience, and not all of the notions the writing touches upon go by wasted or undeveloped. Vicki isn’t a bad flick, but get ready for the grand-daddy of echoes with how much room for improvement there is.

(This review is part of CineSlice’s Noirvember tribute, featuring a different film noir review every week throughout November. For Noirvember reviews from other critics, check out the official community Facebook page or follow the #Noirvember hashtag on Twitter.)

“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.

“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.