Thursday, December 16, 2010

Bela the nomad, Elyse the nonagenarian and notification of PRC Month...


Just three short announcements before I return with something more substantial after Christmas...
.
First, in case you missed it, December 14th was the 93rd birthday of lovely Elyse Knox, female lead of Universal's The Mummy's Tomb (1942).
Elyse (whose real first name was Elsie - you've got to give it to those Hollywood publicists) made a mammoth 37 films in seven years, between her debut in 1940 and her retirement (to raise a family) in '47. She also appeared in Abbott and Costello's Hit the Ice and as herself in the all-star jamboree Follow the Boys at Universal, and was a queen of sorts at Monogram, where she slogged through the entire Joe Palooka series.
But at the Abbey she will always be swoon-postured in the burly and none too secure arms of Lon Chaney Jr, her negligee trailing behind, as he stalks slowly through the standing sets.
Happy birthday, Elyse.
.
Second, if you're a Lugosiphile - and if you're not you must have sneaked in here under false pretences - I'd like to draw your attention to a nice new blog, Bela: the Nomad Years, they being the underdocumented period of '46 to '55. It's an ambitious site which aims to plug some of the gaps in the known Lugosi story, specifically (but by no means solely) in this twilight interlude between the twin peaks of Monogram and Bride of the Monster. The author became a Lugosi fan after a formative viewing of Scared to Death on tv - an impressive claim in itself - and the site promises to be a feast of rare photos and obscure insights. Do take a look...
.And finally, some of you out there seemed to like my Monogram Month postings, so it is with the chill hand of inevitability that I direct your attention to the fact that January will be the month for celebrating the great Producers Releasing Corporation, the studio that made similar films to Monogram but without that studio's showy veneer of high class and lavish resources.
PRC is where Lugosi created his army of giant gland-stimulated bats that strike and kill whenever their victims use his patented after shave lotion, where George Zucco plays his vampire twin brother in a toupee, where mad scientists hope to create a legion of snarling wolfmen as their contribution to the Allied war effort, where the Aztec bird god Quetzacoatl is alive and well and ready to kill anyone who attempts to steal his feathers, and where J Carroll Naish deliberately infects a concert pianist with acromegaly because he won't let him get jiggy with his daughter.
The stats assure me that my Lugosi Monogram Marathon was one of the most read posts I've done on this site, so naturally there will be a PRC marathon, in which I attempt to watch more George Zucco films in immediate succession than has ever been attempted before (beating the current Guinness World Record holder's total of one). And there'll be lots more beside. If you'd like to contribute, let me know either in the comments or at matthewconiam@aol.com.
Okay, that's it for now. Back shortly.
.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Ingrid and Michael and you and me


The British horror film.
A bit like the American horror film, except for the fact that a) it had a different Golden Age (roughly 1956-1975), and b) it had Michael Ripper instead of Dwight Frye.
There may be other differences, but those are the main ones.
I'd be the first to admit that it is not the Bach Matthäus-Passion. Neither is it Mahler's third, The Brothers Karamazov or that Rembrandt painting of the female tennis player showing her bum.
.
But if this stuff does have lasting merit, and I think it does, it should strike us more forcefully than it tends to that we were alive at the same time as these people who helped make it.
Future fans will not be so lucky, and they will assume that we went around all day remarking on our good fortune to have actually lived in the same days as Michael Gough or Ingrid Pitt.
But we don't, we just sort of take it for granted, as if it couldn't be any other way, as we mark off the dates on the calendar: Ingrid Pitt died this week, aged 73; Michael Gough - I hope - ate a big cake with a miniature icing sugar Konga and 94 candles on it this week.
That's this week, modern life fans!
. So, firstly, we lost mad Ingrid.
When all is said and done - and, now, all is said and done - Ingrid was the female face of Hammer Horror. The stubborn facts that she only appeared in two Hammer films, and was dubbed in one of them, matter less than zip. Today is a day for printing the legend, and if anyone ever relished their association with Hammer it was Ingrid. Not for her the Christopher Lee "actually I'm more of a roller-skating song and dance man than a vampire" type of squeamishness. Ingrid loved being a Hammer gal, and you don't get to be the number one female face of Hammer for no reason. Something about her Carmilla Karnstein was uniquely iconic in a way that her peers could never quite duplicate.
If you're a regular reader in these parts you'll know why I'm bending over backwards to stress points that are for most uncontested and uncontroversial. Ingrid was not my favourite Hammer actress, and it would be disingenuous to pretend I haven't gone on record as saying so. Off screen she seemed like an exposed electric wire, onscreen I always preferred Valerie and Veronica and Caroline and Hazel.
But I do think she's a good actress, which was not something Hammer actually demanded of its leading ladies. Her two Hammer performances are real performances, with odd moments and nuances not dictated by the script but indicative of a responding intelligence in their interpreter.
Countess Dracula, even crassly dubbed, is to be commended for the way in which both actress and director seem to be inspiring each other to take the thing more seriously than necessary: the result is one of the most instantly distinctive and under-rated Hammer films of the seventies. Her performance in Vampire Lovers, the schoolboy's Citizen Kane, is even more layered: the character's existential melancholy is entirely Ingrid and entirely effective, as though she had taken Lugosi's enigmatic line "To die, to be really dead, that must be glorious..." and used it as template for the entire performance.
It is especially interesting to see how she plays her scenes with the young girls she corrupts and ultimately abandons. One might have expected her to do it Dracula-style: coldly seductive, with an obvious edge of calculating, cynical disregard. Quite the reverse: she seems almost self-loathing in her appetites and genuinely in love with her victims. Just compare her scenes with Madeline Smith with the swiftness and savagery with which she dispatches inconvenient men. You can see the difference instantly if you look at Lust for a Vampire (and it's as good an excuse as any): Yutte's Mircalla is much more the machine-like vampiress; it's not - and I mean this - a bad performance by any means, but a standard one. Pitt was never standard.
. Aside from her Hammer films, the obituaries have focused on Where Eagles Dare and, for some reason, The Wicker Man, in which she has almost literally nothing to do. According to Allan Brown's book Inside The Wicker Man she was cast against Anthony Shaffer's wishes ("I said, "Christ, must we have her?"; I wanted to avoid any further connections to Hammer Horror"), apparently because it was felt her then-liaison with George Pinches, Rank's head of exhibition, would guarantee the film a place on the Odeon circuit. But even in the full-length version she has only one tiny speaking scene before she turns up at the finale to assist the villagers in the burning of Sgt Howie. (Her only other appearance is in a gloriously unnecessary two-second shot of Howie disturbing her in her bath, apologising and leaving again: "It was quite wonderful to get all my kit off and sit in the hot water in the cold winter... When you take your kit off, everybody is so nice, everybody just loves you to bits...")
I liked this recollection, from assistant director Jake Wright, very much:

The weather was just appalling. It was always bitterly cold, with a cold wind blowing in off the sea. All our lovely crowd were dressed in little summer blouses, the men in shirt sleeves. And they froze, poor loves... Then came a moment when we needed two minutes to reload the camera, so I told the wardrobe people to give the main artists their coats to keep them warm. And Britt Ekland took hers, Diane Cilento put her coat on, but Ingrid Pitt said, "Thank you, but if the crowd haven't got time to put on their coats, I haven't got time," which I thought was lovely.

I tend more readily to think of her in The House That Dripped Blood.

This is her third great appearance, a nice little spoof of Hammer, in which she is both authentic and amusing. It's as if she just knew she was destined to be the female Christopher Lee for all time, remarkable considering that she was launched by Hammer with none of the fanfare that accompanied non-starters like Victoria Vetri or Julie Ege, and doubly so when you realise it was made before Vampire Lovers had even been released.
It's great because it trades on the idea of her being a horror star, an idea that would have been conveyed even more joyously if only Lee hadn't been so silly as to turn down the male lead. As it is, Pitt's third and - in its own odd way - most iconic British horror role remains curiously overlooked.

Farewell, Ingrid - a place in the Abbey crypt is yours.

.
.
Michael Gough might be the most neglected stalwart of British horror still with us.

I always think of him as the British horror film's equivalent of George Zucco. Like Zucco he was, to the real world, a respected character actor. Like Zucco, he never became a real film star, but did occasionally make a notable impression in the odd character role in a major film. (He's good in two of Ken Russell's, Women In Love and Savage Messiah, also an interesting Bertrand Russell in Derek Jarman's lousy Wittgenstein.) Like Zucco, he was happy - and I do mean clearly happy, not reconciled or merely content - to take roles in horror films between more earnest gigs. Like Zucco at Universal, his work for Hammer was of the unshowy, supporting variety; both men got to be the big horror star only in the shadier parts of town: Monogram and PRC for mad George, Herman Cohen for Gough.
To Herman Cohen, Gough was Chris, Peter and Vincent all rolled into one, and - again like Carradine - he rewarded the attention by really letting rip when the narrative demanded, sometimes even when it didn't quite.

He's always good value in a horror film: as the villain in The Phantom of the Opera or Arthur Holmwood in Dracula, or in stranger escapades like The Corpse or Satan's Slave. He also did a nice line in weird and/or doolally butlers: as the almost literally dusty family retainer in that joyous all-star romp Curse of the Crimson Altar, he turns in a performance almost as knowingly generic as in that fine spoof What a Carve Up.
But it's as obsessive perverts that we love him the most: watch him in Horror Hospital or Cohen's Horrors of the Black Museum if you're after the full dosage. Quite simply, nobody in British horror does uninhibited sadistic loonery with the relish, enthusiasm and delight of Michael Gough.

Horror Hospital (1973), one of the weirdest and most fabulous British horrors of the seventies, was the work of eccentric showman and Wardour Street legend Antony Balch. An occasional film-maker and full-time importer and distributor, he was perhaps best known for the imagination and ingenuity with which he retitled foreign films, correctly reasoning that The Kinky Darlings could well take a shilling or two but Per Una Valigia Piene di Donne was on a hiding to nothing. (Other, equally unpromising titles went through his back door to emerge out the front as The Doctor In The Nude, Pussycats, The Pornographer, Massacre For an Orgy and, my particular favourite, Weird Weirdo. These titles usually had nothing to do with the film in question, and the last two, as the more observant among you will have spotted straight away, don't actually mean anything at all. According to David McGillivray he retitled Juliette de Sade as Heterosexual in the hope that punters would assume the term referred to some obscure perversion.)
He wrote and directed Horror Hospital seemingly on a whim. Robin Askwith is the hero, so it's a winner before it even starts, but audiences will realise within two minutes that this is one of the strangest darned films ever. Sillier than any spoof, but not a spoof... just talented people messing about. It's like a horror pantomime. Watch it this Christmas after the Queen's speech.
And happily, Gough seems to be enjoying it most of all. He plays Dr Storm, a lunatic scientist who runs a health farm cum holiday camp as a front for his attempts to build an army of zombified tenagers. He talks a great deal about his scientific innovation and sophistication in this regard, but as far as we can see he just lobotomises them, and spends the rest of the time being pushed around in a wheelchair by his devoted accolyte (a German lesbian and former brothel owner nicknamed Harris on account of her fetish for harris tweed suits), cracking his knuckles (the sound of which Balch amplifies horrendously) and caning his dwarf assistant about the face. He also has a customised Rolls Royce in which he pursues would-be escapees: as the car pulls up alongside the runaway, a decapitating blade shoots out of the side and the severed head is caught in a string bag attached to a hoop.
But Storm is not just a nutso scientist: in a glorious twist inspired (if that's not too ordinary a word) by Mystery of the Wax Museum we learn that his wiry body and fully expressive face and hands are just a synthetic suit and rubber mask concealing his true form: a hideous pink mutant blob, substantially larger than when he's got the Michael Gough suit on.

I've no idea what Gough's position is on his horror career now. I do know I've never read an interview with him on the subject. Perhaps he shuns such unworthy attention? I only hope it's not just that nobody's asked. In the great pantheon of British horror stars, he's the next best thing to Tod Slaughter - or even Edward Lionheart. Many happy returns. May he live forever.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Tits and monkeys: “Mother of Tears”, “Giallo” and the decline of Dario Argento


So they built this big theme park dedicated to the films of Dario Argento, and they called it Italy.
.
I've written about this before, I know, but I've just got back from the place and it feels truer than ever.
Despite my ever-advancing disenchantment with his filmography, the man's shadow still looms over every street, every building and courtyard, every tree and streetlamp.
I've probably watched more Italian movies, with greater pleasure and keener appreciation, than those of any other non-Anglophone nation, but no other Italian director has stamped his signature on the landscape for me with anything like as much force and ubiquity.
With the possible exception of Chaplin, Fellini is to me the greatest film-poet in the history of the medium - but the fact remains that when I'm in Italy I rarely feel like I'm in Fellini's Italy. We watched I Vitelloni while we were in Florence last month, because we knew that it was partly shot there, but not for a second did I connect the images on the screen with the view from the window. It's Fellini-land; he built it himself. But Argento is Italy and Italy is Argento, and in that strange, seductive menace that is uniquely his, man and landscape share each other.
We walked from Florence to Fiesole, and the architecture that seemed merely picturesque to my wife was to me so vividly cinematic as to be almost hallucinatory. All those old houses, their peeling paint, high walls, rusty ironwork and crumbling pillars and shuttered windows, seemed like repositories of secrets - old secrets, nearly forgotten, biding their time.
Why is this? I've been trying to make sense of it for years. There now follows my latest attempt. Does this make sense, I wonder? Perhaps it comes down to this...
Some Italian directors ignore Italy. Antonioni ignores Italy because he's an existentialist and all that matters is the people: that's why his films could be set anywhere and, indeed, why he made a point of setting them all over the world. Others deliberately show you Italy because they want to tell you Italian stories: Bicycle Thieves, obviously, evokes a real and tangible Italy in this sense. While Fellini takes Italy and turns it into something different because he is interested in creating his own universe.
But only Argento uses the real Italy and plonks his own fantasy universe into it, each redefining the shape and limits of the other.
This is what sets Argento apart not just from other Italian directors generally but specifically from Italy's other exploitation horror directors of the seventies. Fulci made some good films and some bad ones, but none of them trade in Italian-ness for their effects, and many try to deny it. All of his most famous films are set outside of Italy, though often largely shot there, with locations picked therefore for their anonymity. And even if nominally Italian-set they are still shot in faceless anywhere-cities, the better to complement the dubbing. We tend to think of him as the Number 2 man in Italian horror, and I do find his films interesting and like a good number of them, but that's an important difference. Argento's work is explicitly Italian - he tends to name his cities and to really show them and use them, while still completely re-imagining them in the process. And it rubs off permanently, for me at least.
. Though it's a long time since a new Argento release has actually excited me (not since Stendhal, I suppose; my interest in the man just post-dated his glory years, and Trauma was the first one I saw while it was still new) I always return from Italy with the compulsion to rewatch Bird With The Crystal Plumage or Deep Red.
But until this time I've never actually watched one of his films while there. (It seemed superfluous somehow.) Mother of Tears was on Italian general release last time I was in Bologna and I toyed with the idea of seeing it, but having seen The Phantom of the Opera and The Card Player I was in no mad rush, and never quite got round to it. But I did get the DVD and watched it before heading off to Italy this time.
Wow.
If it's not the worst film ever made - and it's got to be somewhere in the running - it must be the worst film Argento's ever made. As we speak, linguistic scientists are hard at work inventing a new language containing words capable of conveying how wretched it is.
The most obvious problems have been ably listed by others, notably Maitland McDonagh. The screenplay is by American hacks with no grasp of Argento's style, the gross-out violence is unaffectingly crude in both conception and mechanics, the scenes of diabolic excess are pretty puerile, it's all depressingly mean-spirited, none of it is even remotely scary and too much of it - especially but by no means solely the bit where the Italian branch of the Cyndi Lauper Appreciation Society go razzing at the airport - is just plain silly.

But the biggest problem for me is simply this: it doesn't for one minute make it impossible to believe that anyone but Argento made it. Until now, even his very worst films had at least done that. But this is completely faceless, voiceless, authorless. It doesn't look, sound, feel or smell like Suspiria or Inferno in any detail or regard. It's set in Italy only in the sense that it's set somewhere. Rome it may well be, but it doesn't say Argento and it doesn't say Italy. If anyone can save it, Asia can save it - and Asia can't save it. That patented Argento atmosphere - thick, weird, dusty, cloying, dreamlike but pin-sharp - is gone.
Instead we just have substandard sadism, gore as slapstick (more Three Stooges than Three Mothers), tits and monkeys and intestines, and all so unenthusiastically dispensed.

I instinctively gave Giallo an easier ride because, even though it wasn't Argento back to being good, at least it was Argento back to being interesting. This one I did see in Italy, in my hotel room in Florence as I recovered from the previous night's attack of the mosquitoes. It's bad but fascinating in its badness, and I haven't been able to stop pondering on it.
According to what I've read, the film had a complicated history. In the first place, rather than a project he devised himself, it was written for Argento by a pair of Americans: Sean Keller and Jim Agnew, the latter a Film Threat writer who, to quote the imdb, "played guitar for the Industrial Rock group Hate Dept". (The credits are very strange. First we get 'written and directed by Dario Argento', Argento solely that is, but then, quite a bit later, 'screenplay by...' the two other blokes, and Dario third, presumably meaning that he just gave it a bit of a polish.
But if the fact that it was written specifically for Argento makes you think it's going to be full of the kind of quirks and deviations that would be sure to lure him to the project (as Boileau and Narcejac deliberately wrote Vertigo to attract Hitchcock) let me sit you down and disappoint you before the film itself does.
The title may raise expectations of it being the director's ultimate giallo, both an example of the form and an examination of it, with tricks upon tricks upon tricks upon tricks in the plotting, in place of the director's usual tricks upon tricks upon tricks. But the film itself goes out of its way to frustrate them, and is (to the limits of my experience - I've not seen everything he's done in the last ten years or so) his first and only non-supernatural thriller with no plot twists of any sort - no sleight of hand, no audacious surprises... none of the structural mystery suggested, demanded even, by the title.
This is, I think, Argento's only twist-free giallo, and so arguably not really a giallo at all. It's just your basic police procedural serial killer thriller, fifteen-to-twenty years too late, and rendered ever stupider than the likes of Copycat and The Bone Collector (no small boast) by Argento's habitual (and in other contexts laudable) inattention to realism in scenario, plot development and characterisation.
It's not just the usual daffy criminal profiling stuff (killers who 'like to destroy beautiful things' and leave bodies in significant places because 'they're trying to tell us something', detectives that can see into the killer's mind, and all that sort of horseshit). It's crazy stuff like the detective knowing the killer uses a taxi on no evidence at all, or the idea that a policeman might interrupt someone in the act of committing a savage murder and, out of sympathy for his motives, give him a job on the force instead of arresting him, or how, after victim upon victim of thumb twiddling, the supposed psychological profiling genius is instantly galvanised into tracking down his man by someone else's idle speculation that the killer might be nicknamed Giallo because he has jaundice.

The casting, too, which in the absence of any non-linear plotting is the only distinctive thing about the movie, was all very last minute and haphazard.
Originally Ray Liotta was down to play the New York cop in the Italian sub-basement, Asia was the tagalong sister of the victim, and Vincent Gallo was Giallo. (Liotta would have been interesting; Gallo would have been very interesting.) Then, as I read it, Gallo dropped out like a big sissy for no better reason than that he and Asia had a bit of a history, Asia got pregnant and pulled out too, and Liotta, I don't know, had to go visit his brother Tarka or something.
Only then was it decided to recast the three roles with a Polanski double-header: his wife - Emmanuelle Seigner - as the heroine, and his pianist - that strange, strange actor Adrien Brody - as both 'tec and killer (and using an anagram of his real name in the latter role).

Seigner fits well, in a role that seems to deliberately evoke her iconic debut in Polanski's Frantic, my favourite Paris movie (albeit in the Harrison Ford role this time). But despite bagging himself a producer credit as well as the two main roles, Brody seems deeply unhappy, gives two totally ridiculous performances, and ended up suing for unpaid wages and trying to stop it being released at all.
Okay, it's a cheap shot to say you have to wonder if that was all just an excuse because he'd seen the movie and realised what a laughing stock he'd made of himself. But you really do have to wonder if that was all just an excuse because he'd seen the movie and realised what a laughing stock he'd made of himself.
But how odd that the only thing that makes the movie remotely Dario Argentoish - the doubling-up of Brody as both sleuth and sadist - was not part of the original idea. As the story develops, of course, there's no reason why it should have been, other than to do what the film in fact now does: frustrate the hell out of the audience. But that's what makes it all so intriguing.
As it is, even the most minimally Argento-savvy viewer will instantly recognise Brody under the Giallo putty and ready themselves for the totally predictable but still dramatically and logistically intriguing twist ending: that the killer is the detective in disguise. Certainly the most enjoyment the film gave me came from watching the scenes where the two characters appeared to be in different places at the same time, and trying to guess how Argento was going to explain it all away. (Or if not the same guy dressed up then they're brothers, and the one is somehow responsible for, perhaps even complicit in, the psychopathological quirks of the other.)
It comes as the worst kind of surprise to discover they are two different people after all, and the only reason Brody's playing both of them seems to be to get two silly performances out of him instead of just one, and to spoil the big fight at the end with loads of that similar-actor-with-back-to-camera-when-the-other-character's-in-shot stuff.
I suppose had it been two actors it would have been even more annoying, because our minds would have been constantly whirling with possible twists of all kinds, instead of the one we opt for from the start here. How much crueller then, would have been the big bad surprise that there is no surprise at all.

In the light of this, the film's silly-nasty violence is the least of its troubles, though it's a shame to see Argento playing catch-up with the torture prats rather than loftily challenging them to raise their game to his level.
As I get older, I do see less and less of what is essential about Argento in his scenes of frenzied violent excess, even in the masterpieces. The first killing here, in the taxi, looks like it's going to be totally bloodless and I can't tell you how excited I was by that, and how disappointed that we then found the victim still alive, strapped to a table, next to that oh-so-boring trolley of tools and implements...
Doubtless he felt, quite rightly, that without the grue there really would be nothing left in the movie with his stamp on it at all, and it's true that the violence here is less stupid and special-effectsy than in Mother of Tears. But still, I always think there's something a bit sad about horror directors in their dotage still sucking up to the punks. (Look at Wes Craven. He's in his seventies for Christ's sake, and still fartarsing around with cock rock soundtracks and frat house killers. Grow up, man!)
Argento should have become the most stylish and acclaimed director in Italy, as cherished as Fellini; instead he went the fanboy route, which is ironic as well as disappointing, because the blackshirts by and large don't like his new stuff any more than I do.

So what next? Well, apparently, it's a 3-D Dracula. Will I be able to resist that if it's on when I'm next in Italy? Does Berlusconi dye his hair? You bet I won't - especially if Asia plays Lucy. But I'll be amazed if it's any good. And considering this is the director of Suspiria we're talking about, that's a depressing certainty to have settled on.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Please note the Abbey will be temporarily closed for a private function


Carfax Abbey will be closing its doors for a month while I go off and get myself hitched.

Thanks to everyone who has stopped by the Abbey in the past, and do please come again in November, when it'll be re-opening its doors - bigger and better, and with a ring on its finger.

Cheers!

Matthew,
Keeper of the Keys,
Carfax Abbey

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Roy Ward Baker (1916 - 2010): “People only bluff because they are stupid”


"Nowadays the audience is expected to be absolutely passive; they are given no encouragement to involve themselves emotionally with the film... Perhaps they are flattered by the lengths to which filmmakers go in titillating their eyeballs. They don't seem to protest about the sheer vulgarity of it all; they remain uninvolved. What real pleasure they get out of it, I do not know. I believe that this attitude may simply be a bad habit which developed from watching television. The audience here usually consists of two or three people: doing homework, glancing occasionally at the sports page, or knitting. And then the phone rings... This is not a criticism of the programmes; this is the way things are and people develop a detached attitude."
- Roy Ward Baker, The Director's Cut
.
Roy Ward Baker, one of the less-discussed but to my mind most interesting directors to have made a corner for themselves in the British horror movie died last week at the age of 93.
I like his films very much, and I always found him a most attractively crotchety character in interviews. He reminded me of my grandfather. I also very much enjoyed his book The Director's Cut, a fascinating account of his working life that also doubles as a guide for aspiring directors, and ends with the invaluable advice: "don't go to the cinema too much."
.
Baker occupies an interesting place in the Hammer (and Amicus, and Tyburn) story, in that he was an old hand of the Terence Fisher generation (and another Gainsborough graduate), but one who only arrived at the studio when most of his generation were being replaced with the cynical young bloods like Chris Wicking and Peters Sasdy and Sykes, and such brazenly exploitational talents as producers Fine and Style and screenwriter Tudor Gates.
If he tends to get overlooked it's not so much because of any deficiencies in his work so much as the fact that his films are associated less with their director and more with their stars (The Anniversary), their writers (Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde, Quatermass and the Pit, Asylum) or their wacky innovations. As regards the latter, he certainly seemed to get first dibs on the crumbs from Hammer's weirdo table. (Even I can see that's a bizarre sentence, but I think I'll leave it.)
So he got to direct "the first Kung Fu Horror Spectacular!" (Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires - also the last kung fu horror spectacular, frustrating those of us who continue to long for a kung fu Frankenstein film), and the definitive lesbo vampire movie (The Vampire Lovers). Strangest of all, perhaps, was Moon Zero Two, the sci-fi western that the studio were convinced was going to be the big hit of 1969.
The film was a logistical nightmare, as Baker recalled in his autobiography:
.
We had difficulty with the simplest problems, for instance, flying Bernard Bresslaw on a Kirby wire.
.
When making Bernard Bresslaw fly is one of your simpler problems, you know you're in trouble.
But several of his films are underrated. Asylum (1972) is a beauty, probably second only to Tales from the Crypt among the Amicus multi-story films, and I'm not sure that company ever made a better full feature than Baker's splendid And Now The Screaming Starts (1973). Not much wrong with Vault of Horror (1973), either.
.
As plain Roy Baker he began as a tea boy and gradually worked his way up to second assistant director by the end of the thirties. In various capacities en route he worked on the films of Will Hay and the Crazy Gang and Arthur Askey and Mags Lockwood, alongside Hitchcock on The Lady Vanishes and Roy William Neill on Dr Syn, and with visiting Hollywood stars Boris Karloff on The Man Who Changed His Mind and Fay Wray on The Clairvoyant.
"People like Claude Rains, Boris Karloff and Fay Wray were eye-openers to us," he recalled in his autobiography. "They had an instinct for the camera and they weren't afraid of it."
The home-grown talent, by contrast, was primarily comprised of "actors who fluffed their lines and missed their marks, were hopelessly inefficient about their wardrobe, make-up, props, etc, and spent most of their time wandering off the set."
.
He rose to the rank of full director and soon earned a reputation for tight-shipped professionalism, reliability and skill. ("People only bluff because they are stupid.") This reputation spread as far as Hollywood, to which he was invited for a brief stint, most interestingly making Don't Bother To Knock for Fox, the only film to exploit the instability informing Marilyn Monroe's passively inviting allure.
.Back in England he made an interesting movie out of Margery Allingham's The Tiger In The Smoke in 1956, and perhaps his most famous film, A Night To Remember, in 1958.
The latter is without any serious competition the best film ever made about the Titanic disaster and a considerable logistical achievement, with difficult visual effects and fifty speaking roles. With characteristic inventiveness, Baker shot the scenes of the survivors stranded in the freezing Atlantic on a suitably chilly night at Ruislip Lido, and disguised the fact that only a cross-section of the ship exterior was built by shooting the starboard scenes in a mirror, with the cast wearing reverse-printed cap badges and and jackets buttoned on the wrong side:
.
It worked. The officers saluted with their left arms and the gentlemen exchanged left-handed handshakes. I gather this wheeze has also been used elsewhere; I have no copyright in it.
.
But after the failure of The Singer Not the Song (1960) film work was suddenly hard to come by, and he did lots of tv, including several of the very best episodes of The Avengers.

In 1967 he entered the world of British horror, and added the 'Ward' to his name to distinguish himself from a dubbing editor with the same name. The unfortunate result was that people assumed it was to distinguish himself from himself. To this day, the mistake that the man who made A Night To Remember and the man who made The Monster Club are two different people persists.

My favourite of his Hammer films is Scars of Dracula - not a masterpiece, perhaps, but better than its reputation, plainly.
For one thing it restores Lee's Dracula to a position of centrality, and gives him proper dialogue for the first time since the original film. And its faults are clearly not Baker's. It looks cheap, with some truly horrid studio sets, and terrible special effects, especially at the climax. But the worst mistake is the beginning, which seeks to establish spurious continuity by having Dracula revived from his ashes by a rubber bat dribbling blood on them.
It's crazy: he died in London at the end of the previous film, and as soon as he's revived here the flame-wielding villagers are on the scene to burn his castle down! It seems obvious that the film as conceived, and as shot by Baker, was not a sequel but a new beginning, with Dracula back in his Transylvanian castle at the kick-off. The new opening - with its cheapo revivification scene that simply plays his demise from the last one in reverse - ruins the film as planned, and in no legitimate way achieves the sense of continuity it seeks. I'm convinced that, even with all its other faults still in situ, the film would be much more highly regarded if only this sequence were removed.
The most obvious novelty in the movie is its vastly increased level of gore and sadism, which Baker says he entered into wholeheartedly on the basis of 'if that's what they want, that's what they'll get'. It gives the film a harsh, modern quality that translates well for younger horror fans, and also sits intriguingly alongside the director's equally pronounced streak of romanticism. (Dracula has doors that open for him, and for the first time in the movies he does Stoker's clambering up and down the castle walls routine - and far more effectively than Gary Oldman, too.)
A similar sense of old-fashioned mystery permeates The Vampire Lovers, another film that balances romance and exploitation with surprising dexterity. Certainly the film Baker delivered was not the one producer Harry Fine had initially envisaged:
.
He always carried a briefcase in which he kept several copies of a New York magazine. He seemed to be keen to show them to me. It was called Screw. It was in tabloid newspaper form and was entirely devoted to physical sex in all its forms, including full page photographs of full frontal nudes, men and women together, still fairly unusual in those days.
.
Roy's last movie was The Monster Club in 1981. If I were to claim that this is my favourite of his films I suspect I would lose the sympathy of virtually everyone who has followed me thus far, and to explain why would double the length of this post and fatally overbalance it.
That's why I've relegated discussion of this beautiful film to a separate post, below.
For now, I shall end, with a heartfelt thank you to RWB, for so many happy hours of British horror.
May flights of vampire bats flap thee to thy rest.
.

The Monster Club dims its lights


I've already noted the passing of director Roy Ward Baker, the British and Hollywood film director, who directed Bette Davis, Marilyn Monroe, the Titanic classic A Night to Remember, a sci-fi western with Bernard Bresslaw in it, the first ever Kung Fu Dracula film, the last ever kung fu Dracula film (same film actually), a Dracula film in which Peter Cushing's son is played by the chap who plays Sid James's son in Bless This House (yep: same one again), and the one where Dr Jekyll turns into a hot babe.

But to me, all of the above are merely footnotes.
Let the obituaries yell first and above all: Roy Ward Baker was the man who directed The Monster Club (1981).
It was his last theatrical work as director. Anyone who has seen it will share my certainty that he saved his best for last.
The Monster Club is important for being the only true first generation Hammer-Amicus era horror film that I can remember being on general release. (The only other candidate is House of the Long Shadows, but that's a bit more of a pastiche than a straggling authentic like the Club.)
Alas, I didn't actually see it on general release - I don't think its box-office glory trail extended as far as Plymouth - but I vividly remember staring at a full-page poster for it in my Doctor Who Monthly and thinking - as I still do - that it was one of the most exciting and enticing film posters I'd ever seen.
I even borrowed the title for my imaginary tv horror movie review programme, and cut out the poster to use as the cover of my spin-off book (which devoted a whole chapter to 'Horror Films with the actors who have played The Doctor in them').
I was a little older when I finally saw it, it would have been in the early days of Betamax, the day after its first ITV showing. Many, many subsequent viewings only confirmed my deathless regard for its manifold subtleties and delights.

Basically, the film was producer Milton Subotsky's last and most suicidal attempt to keep making the horror short story movies that he had made his trademark when he was running Amicus.
Already in 1977 he had come up with The Uncanny, a three-story clanger about killer cats. (He had already done a story about a killer cat as part of Torture Garden back in '67; but the twist this time was that all the stories are about killer cats, which gives the film a unique kind of negative momentum.)
The link story had Peter Cushing as a paranoiac author, trying to sell his publisher his book about how cats are evil and conspiring to destroy mankind, a thesis he illustrates with three anecdotes that then form the basis of the film. The first rips off the American film Eye of the Cat (1968) and has a good bit where Susan Penhaligon, trapped in the pantry by marauding moggies, is forced to eat cat food spread on crackers. The next, about a witch's cat, is set in Montreal (where the money came from) and features my favourite kind of miniaturisation effects - where the actors stand next to massive props - and a child actress you really want to get hold of and slap. The last steals the plot of Bram Stoker's The Squaw and features Donald Pleasance as Hollywood actor Valentine De'ath (with VD monogrammed on his dressing gown) who kills his wife but is himself killed by... her cat. Then finally, it's back to Cushing, who gets killed by some cats.
Is this the only horror film that opens with a Ted Hughes quote? I know of no others.

Then, in 1981, he was back; the film was The Monster Club, the director was Roy Ward Baker, and the tagline was "the horror film that's fun", which carries with it the peculiar implication that most horror films are not fun.
It stars Vincent Price as Eramus, a vampire with retractable fangs, a role that had already been turned down by both Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. The idea (if that's not too strong a word) is that Eramus bites a passer-by, who turns out to be R Chetwynd Hayes - the real horror author who wrote the original stories the film is based on, but here played by John Carradine, another actor whose answerphone presumably said, "I'm not in at the moment, but I'll do it."
As a reward for letting him have some blood ("from such a noble source") Vincent takes John to the eponymous club, where blood is served by the glass, the club secretary is a werewolf in a suit and glasses, the entertainment comes from the likes of The Pretty Things and B. A. Robertson, and the disco-dancing monsters all wear polo necks to disguise the bottoms of their plastic joke shop masks.

As well as several exceptionally good pop songs, there are three stories, as told by Eramus.
The first is about a hybrid monster called a Shadmock that can kill with a high-pitched whistle, who never leaves his house because he is so hideously, monstrously ugly. When a woman comes to his door, shock music yells on the soundtrack and she flees, screaming.
But this is the odd thing: there is nothing - absolutely nothing - wrong with him. He has fairly pasty skin, fairly - but not abnormally - large nostrils, and a fairly severe centre parting. But that's it. He's just an ordinary looking bloke. Now, how this came about I don't know. Perhaps there was a make-up design that relied on lighting and opticals rather than prosthetics, and it didn't photograph properly. Who knows? All we can see is a woman running in terror from a man who looks, at worst, like a bank manager.
Episode two is supposedly work in progress from an autobiographical film by "the great vampire film producer Lintom Busotsky". Richard Johnson is a vampire and devoted family man apprehended by Donald Pleasance and the men from Scotland Yard's B-Squad, a special unit formed to investigate "blood crimes" and known as 'the Bleeney'. Humour on this level is generally speaking rare after teatime. At the end the supposedly dead vampire rises from his coffin to reveal that he has been saved by his stake-proof vest. ("Filled with... TOMATO KETCHUP!" screams Johnson.)
Episode three is about a location-scouting horror director, played by Stuart Whitman, the only actor who envied Cameron Mitchell his career trajectory. He turns up at a village of ghouls, barely escapes with his life and flags down a police car, but the policemen have plastic fangs, and drive him back again to be eaten.

Oh, do I ever love this film! Of course, I know that the general feeling is that it's not even bad enough to be fun, just bad enough to be bad. But objectivity is out of the question. Unchanging, uncomplaining, and as unfathomable today as it was when it came out of the kiln in 1981, this film has walked with me through the good times and the bad. If I live to be ninety I'll still be finding an excuse to watch it at least once a year.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Make us famous: Pamela Green (1929 - 2010)


My good friend Anthony Blampied has emailed to tell me that Pamela Green has died at the age of 81.
.
Pamela, should you need reminding, was Britain's foremost glamour model of the nineteen-fifties, a monumentally statuesque blonde who appeared in countless magazines and 8mm striptease films, mainly made in collaboration with George Harrison Marks, with whom for a time she shared both a professional and a private association.
Their most famous joint venture remains the cinema film Naked As Nature Intended, a supposed celebration of naturism that caused considerable controversy at the time for the barrier-breaking ease with which it circumnavigated censorship restrictions against nudity despite its obvious insincerity.
Remember the scene at the start of Carry On Camping, with Sid and Bernie trying to convince their dates that the nudist film they are seeing is an artistic celebration of physical freedom? Such debates were commonplace in every cinema in the land at the time. Now, you hardly need telling, it all seems almost heartbreakingly innocent.
.
.
This is more than enough to ensure Green's place in the pantheon of British exploitation icons, but she secures her spot in Carfax Abbey's Hall of Fame on account of her short but scene-stealing appearance in Michael Powell's Peeping Tom, as the girlie model Mark Lewis photographs above the newsagents that sells the pictures to middle aged gentlemen.
Pamela is obviously the genuine article, and her scene rings with authenticity: she's also a more than competent actress, who invests her lines with a colour that Powell surely wasn't counting on when he cast her. ("Well look who's here - Cecil Beaton!")
.
It's a funny old film is Peeping Tom, isn't it? Obviously an important piece, and fascinating to watch, though just as surely its vaunted reputation is as much a knee-jerk reaction to its initial denigration as a sober evaluation of its merits. I'm not certain it's quite a masterpiece; certainly it's not Powell's masterpiece, not while A Canterbury Tale or The Edge of the World are still around. It's uncertainly paced, the suspense goes awry at a few key moments, and the oddball piano score is plenty unusual but so emphatic that after a while it works against the film's mood, which should be one of lingering unease and dread. Some of it is profoundly clever, but a lot of its tricks are just that, and screenwriter Leo Marks - a fascinating man whose compelling book Between Silk and Cyanide documents his work as a World War 2 code breaker and deviser, and reflects a lifelong obsession with subterfuge and games playing that carries over into the movie - is as much a sleight of hand conjurer as a true penetrator of psychopathology. The film's psychology is for the most part crassly Freudian.
Still, it is one of those films that must be seen, and once seen, is never forgotten: certainly it wasn't forgotten - or forgiven - by contemporary critics, who spoke of the desire to flush it down the nearest sewer.
.
Powell cast himself as the murderer's sadistic father, the cause of his adult psychoses, and his own son as the infant killer. It was typical of his demand for authenticity that none other than Green would do in the role, and you can only wonder how many in the audience knew who she was. He even shot a nude sequence with her, only a fragment of which remains in the most complete modern prints, knowing full well that it would be cut by the censors. According to Green he insisted that his son watched the scene being shot.


The calm before the storm: Powell and Pamela at the film's ill-fated premiere

It was not Pamela's last appearance in British horror: look sharp for her in the bordello scenes of Tyburn's Legend of the Werewolf in 1975. (By this time she and Marks had split and she was living with Doug Webb, veteran of the Dambusters raid and Tyburn's stills photographer.)
But it is her work in Peeping Tom that will carry her into cinema history.

"Come on, sonny, make us famous..."

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Highgate Cemetery is officially a Hammer-free zone


When I was growing up in the late seventies and early eighties, Hammer Horror still retained just a smidgen of that disreputability it enjoyed when it first erupted in 1957.
.
Since then, I've watched it become a cosy uncle of British cinema, equivalent almost to the Ealing comedy in respectability and affection, with some pleasure but a little sadness also.
It's disheartening to see something that was once edgy become so thoroughly absorbed into the fabric. I suppose the days when we see the films being shown on television on weekday afternoons are just around the corner.
So in a way it was almost pleasurable to discover that there are corners still where Hammer Horror is still something to be sniffed at, and handled, if at all, with tongs.
.
Despite living virtually on its doorstep for over five years, I had never been to Highgate Cemetery. A visit from my sister a couple of weekends back seemed the perfect opportunity to put this right, since she too is a Hammer Dracula addict, and the cemetery was used for some of the locations in Taste the Blood of Dracula; the (matte-painted) church in which the blood rite takes place being approached via a gated section of the cemetery called the Collumbarium.
.
We arrived on the Sunday morning, just in time for the guided tour. We asked the tour guide if the official route encompassed the Collumbarium.
"We go past it," he replied; "why?"
It's funny how embarrassing the phrase Taste the Blood of Dracula seems when you have to say it to a Highgate Cemetery tour guide.
"It was used in a film," I fudged.
"Which one?" he persisted.
"A Hammer film called Taste the Blood of Dracula," I conceded, any further obfuscation futile.
"Oh," he said, almost wistfully, as if receiving confirmation of a bad suspicion. "We don't mention that."
"Really?"
"Yes, I've got the DVD, but I won't be mentioning it."
"Any chance that we could go in on our own?"
"No, it's unsafe and you'll get lost."
.
Feeling thoroughly leprous, we decided not to take his tour, and that's why there are no photographs of the locations for Taste the Blood in this post.
The wonderful feeling that I again love something just a little bit too unsavoury for the English to openly acknowledge to each other on a Sunday morning, however, remains oddly compensatory.
.

Friday, April 2, 2010

The Lugosi-at-Monogram Marathon


I did it.
.
I watched every single Lugosi Monogram film (except Return of the Ape Man, which I still don't have; my birthday is June 20th...)
I watched them in order, I watched them one after the other, I stopped for nothing other than natural necessities, and I lived to tell the tale.
.
And I have to be honest about something right at the start.
What I thought would be a fun test of endurance was, for the most part, an effortless blast.
And I'll go further. I always loved these movies, but it was a condescending kind of love, far from the mockery of the Golden Turkey fraternity, but condescending all the same.
What this exercise has finally convinced me of is that I actually really do think these movies are good.
.
Explain yourself and fast, I hear you cry.
.
Well, look at it this way. What's bad about them?
.

They're cheap.
True. And I don't care. I love low budget movies when they're made by people seeking to transcend such petty brakes on their creativity with sheer, unfettered imagination. A low budget film with no imagination is no fun, but then, neither is a big budget film with no imagination. And you'll find plenty of them playing at your local cinema right now.
Lugosi's Monogram films have almost too much imagination.
.
But they look cheap...
So what? If by that you mean the sets are small and there's no location shots, and it's obvious that the laboratories and living rooms are studio flats... well, what's your problem with that? Does it bother you at the theatre, too? Do you come out of Macbeth thinking, 'hmmm... some pretty language there, but that castle was obviously a set...'? Why should it be any different for films? We love seeing the same sets go by time and again in Universal and Hammer horrors - what's so bad about Monogram not really having any sets worth speaking of in the first place? Use your imagination. If you can't enjoy a film about a guy who accidentally turns himself into an ape unless you're convinced by the architecture, you're in the wrong genre, pal.
.
But the cheapness shows in the technique: they're badly directed and photographed, they lack atmosphere...
Well, I hear you and I take your point. It's true that the studio did not have the liberty of being able to craft beautiful imagery, shoot exotic sets in moody shadows, call on the services of expert make-up and special effects teams, or labour over composition so as to achieve exactly the right shot for the monster to leap into from the left hand corner. On the other hand, there's so much else to enjoy in them that you don't get in those superficially better-crafted movies, I'm happy with the trade-off. And when they are placed in the hands of a director who wants to do something with them - above all here, I'm thinking of Invisible Ghost - the results can be surprising.
.
They demean Lugosi.
Some do, perhaps. I can see that The Ape Man does. But most of the others give him juicy parts, loads of dialogue and acting opportunities undreamed of in the crappy parts Universal were throwing to him in the forties. There are actually some great Lugosi moments in these films, classic sequences, in which he is allowed to show exactly why he is the foremost horror star of cinema history. Without Monogram, we wouldn't have the opening dinner party scene and dressing gown murder sequence from Invisible Ghost, the eerie opening scenes of Voodoo Man, the wonderfully creepy sequence in Bowery at Midnight when his university student slowly realises that he is a cold-blooded maniac and is about to kill him, or the campy but still cherishable highlights of The Corpse Vanishes, with Lugosi and Elizabeth Russell in their twin coffins.
.
But they're so silly... the plots are just insane...
I know; isn't it wonderful? You've noticed that too, have you?
Now, I'm assuming here that you don't believe in vampires, or that Egyptian mummies can rise from the dead and carry away the cream of forties womanhood. If you do, we will never quite see eye to eye about anything. But if you don't... These are meant to be fun films, and you're not meant to believe them. People talk about 'the suspension of disbelief' as if it meant something, as if anybody, any time, any place, was ever sufficiently impressed by the crafting of Bride of Frankenstein to think that maybe it is possible to stitch a bunch of corpses together and create a green giant with an English accent, until they leave the cinema and realise they've been had yet again. Verisimilitude is all very well for true life dramas, but who the hell says horror films need do anything other than entertain? And I would rather watch a film like Invisible Ghost, with enough plots for six movies and not the first idea about what to do with any of them, much less how to tie them all together, than some formulaic big-studio spook show without a fresh idea in its head.
Weird is good. Illogical is good. If you hate Fellini and David Lynch and Luis Bunuel because they don't make sense too, then fine. We'll talk again when The Simpsons is over. But if there's poetry in Miracle in Milan or It's a Wonderful Life then there's poetry in Monogram. The Seventh Victim doesn't make a whole lot of sense either. I love it when the Monograms don't make sense. Love it.
.
Okay, okay... but even you wouldn't dare say they're scary...
Well it depends what you mean. If you mean: do they feature people being tied to chairs and tortured by freaks in masks on the understanding that you'll get off on watching folks whimpering and begging before having parts of their bodies cut off, you have a point. If you mean they're not scary compared to what the other studios were doing at the time, you have less of a point. Personally, I find Voodoo Man much spookier than The Mummy's Curse, mainly because the first time I saw Voodoo Man I really didn't have a clue what was going to happen next at virtually every stage, whereas you only need to see the first two minutes of The Mummy's Curse to know exactly how it's going to pan out. And that's fine too: those Mummy films are great fun. Don't ever make me choose between them... but if I ever had to choose between them...
Sorry, Lon.
.Trust this smiling man with the big collars who got dressed in the dark this morning. He may look like Moe Howard's sinister uncle, but when it comes to cheapo horror movies, he knows what he's about.
So let's go!
.
.
Ahhh! That gorgeous original Monogram logo sequence! A celebration of modernity: planes, trains and airships. The Mysterious Mr Wong (1935) is the only film Lugosi made for the old Monogram, pre-Republic, and not for Sam and Jack at Banner Productions. As such, it has a totally different atmosphere from the later films he made for the studio.
It also has nothing to do with the studio's later Mr Wong detective series except, oddly enough, sharing their director William Nigh. Nigh was thus able to boast that he made a film called The Mysterious Mr Wong and a film called The Mystery of Mr Wong and that they had nothing whatsoever in common. (Whether he actually did boast about this, I don't know.)
The main point of interest is of course: how is Lugosi going to handle the role of a Chinese warlord? Is he going to do an accent?
What's more, the film knows that's what we want to know, and teases us mercilessly.
First, there's the preamble to sit through, setting up the plot. Then we see him sat at his desk, fiddling about with something, saying nothing. But then, three guys come in, a transaction of some sort is carried out and they leave again, and still all without Lugosi saying a word. Some more fiddling about with coins (they're important to the plot), and then, at last, what we've been longing to hear...
"One more! And the province of Keelat shall know its rightful ruler!"
Yes! Just as we'd hoped, it's Mysterious Mr Vonk. Only Lugosi can pronounce the word 'one' as if it begins with a 'v'.
Despite the fact that its obvious inspiration is Karloff's Mask of Fu Manchu, this is for the most part a serial-style action film, with Lugosi's villain more dastardly than horrifying, notwithstanding a good bit where he gets cross with one of his servants and pushes him through a trap door into a pit full of rats.
By and large, though, he displays none of Karloff's sadistic relish, neither is anything of the perfumed perversity of Karloff's relationship with daughter Myrna Loy duplicated in his bickering and crotchety dealings with his dishy niece Moonflower, played by Lotus Long. (Long, incidentally, also turns up in the 'other' Mr Wong films.) Unlike Loy she wants nothing to do with his criminal schemes: "That dreadful gong!" she exclaims at one point; "Every time it sounds Wong gives dreadful orders and terrible things begin to happen!" (The truth is somewhat more prosaic: every time it sounds it means someone is about to come in.)
Bela is at his most at sea in his scenes with Moonflower: "I will teach you to guard indifferent speech!" is the kind of line that would defeat most any actor; coming from a Hungarian done up like a Chinaman it doesn't stand a chance. (Though Moonflower does manage to top it, coming straight back with the film's best line: "This madness of his is driving all reason from his mind!")
It says a lot for the depth of Monogram's casting pool that several of the supporting army of Vonk's Chinese assassins are played by actors even less convincing in their racial origins than Lugosi, and the most fun aside from the big man is to be had with the romantic leads: a point one is rarely able to make.
Here though we have Wallace Ford as a reporter, dealing with the usual unhelpful editors and stupid Irish flatfoots, and Arline Judge as Peg, the spunky telephonist who deliberately plays Wally off against a slick rival who's invited her to watch a six-day bike race. Their scenes together have a lovely, bouncy thirtiesness to them, with plenty of crackle and snap in the dialogue. Ford - a great actor and a great guy - shows again why he is second only to Lee Tracy as a reporter in my book, and Judge is a pip.
In all, a pleasant and painless, if untypical overture to the Lugosi marathon, and it perks up a lot at the end, with Arline strapped to a table and Vonk threatening to do something unmentionable to her with long thin strips of bamboo. Mysterious Mr Wong came in eighth in our readers poll, with a 4% share of votes cast.
..
.
On then to the forties, and to Invisible Ghost (1941), a film dismissed as the most arrant tripe by even the most sympathetic Lugosiphiles and secret Monogram maniacs, but for me one of the three true classics of the series; a film in which almost nothing makes sense from the title on. (How to tell a Monogram fan: whereas most people would go into a film called Invisible Ghost with the expectation that it would be about an invisible ghost, a true devotee sees the title and is immediately certain of two things: there won't be any ghosts, and they won't be invisible.)
Everything about this film is just perfect. It's well-paced, with some very good suspense scenes and a bravura Lugosi performance, and any idiot can see it is unusually well-directed for a Monogram, with inventive camera placement and very good use of light and shadow. (If only director Joseph H Lewis had been assigned Bowery at Midnight and Voodoo Man as well, I think we'd be talking about these movies with the same kind of reverence with which we speak of The Seventh Victim and I Walked With a Zombie.)
But for most people all this counts for nothing because, and there's no denying it, the plot is simply bananas. Lugosi's Dr Kessler has a problem. Years before, his beloved wife left him for another man, and now once a year, on the anniversary of their parting, he goes a little doolally and pretends she is still there having dinner with him. The butler has to lay out two meals and dutifully tend to the imaginary wife, while Lugosi has conversations with thin air.
But - and I cannot stress this enough - the rest of the time he is COMPLETELY NORMAL. When his daughter and her boyfriend Ralph enter the house during this annual performance, Ralph in particular is shocked to the core because Lugosi had "always appeared completely rational to me." (Yes, and you'll remember that all Heathville loved Paul Carruthers, their kindly village doctor.)
But the truth is even stranger: his wife has not been absent for years, but living under his very roof: she crashed her car the night she set out to start her new life and now lives secretly on the premises with a brain injury that has reduced her to a childlike state, tended to by the butler and the gardener. (There seems no good reason why Lugosi wasn't told instantly of her crash; whether the film bothers to make up a daffy one or not I can't remember. It probably does.)
On top of all this, there have been a number of murders in the house, for each of which the police troop out, ask a few questions and then go, as if a house in which people are constantly being murdered is just another routine spot on their beat. They never seem to draw any conclusions, treat each killing as if it were an entirely separate affair, and seem no more concerned for the safety of those still living there than those still living there seem to be on their own behalf.
After what must be something like the fourth slaying, a cop asks Lugosi: "What gets me, Mr Kessler is why you refuse to move out of this place." "Sentimental reasons," Lugosi replies. "There's nothing very sentimental about a house where anything can happen and usually does," the cop continues. "My mother lived here, Lieutenant," Kessler's daughter explains. "Oh, I see," says the cop, his incomprehension soothed away.
But guess what: the killer is actually that nice Dr Kessler! Every so often he looks out of the window and sees - as nobody else in the house ever seems to - his wife mooching aimlessly about the garden. Their eyes meet, Lugosi falls into a trance, and is instantly overcome by an irresistible urge to go off and kill someone. (Ours not to reason why.)
The film's first murder (of Lugosi's cute blonde maid), is a genuinely chilling and effective piece of cinema, featuring a Lugosi-advances-menacingly-towards-the-camera shot to rival the classic examples in White Zombie and Rue Morgue. It's superbly directed by Lewis, using unconventional imagery and strictly ambient sound, setting the whole thing not to something from Monogram's spooky music library but, weirdly and effectively, to the dance music on the maid's radio.
Lugosi enters the room and slowly takes off his dressing gown (making us seriously wonder for a moment if he has rape on his mind). Holding the robe in front of him, we realise he intends to smother the girl, and Lewis keeps cutting between his face, the terrified girl, and a static shot of the radio, which somehow enhances the mood by ignoring it, and continuing to emit band music. Then, with the camera taking the girl's point of view, we see Lugosi bring the robe up in front of the camera, and as the screen blacks we probably assume it will then fade on a scream. Most surprisingly, it instead lowers slightly again - the girl's, and our, ordeal is not over - and we see more of his leering face before the screen blacks a second time.
If you have any ideas as to how anyone on Val Lewton's staff could have made a better job of this, by all means let me know.

Because he and the maid have a past, and he has no alibi (for any of the murders?), poor old dopey Ralph finds himself charged with the crime and then, to our great surprise, convicted and executed. But don't worry if you're a big fan of actor John McGuire: a couple of minutes later he's back as Ralph's lookalike twin brother.
In a lesser work, this might come across as a bit of a stretch. But Invisible Ghost is so successful in creating and sealing its own world, within which its own rules apply, that such overt absurdities somehow play as convincingly as the comparable moments in our own dreams: it's only when we leave this other world, when we wake from our dreams, or stop watching strange Monogram films, that the silliness seems overwhelming. Commit to the logic when in process, however, and it will sustain itself.
This is what I meant when I compared the film to Bunuel or Fellini or Lynch: the film is not a representation of reality any more than it claims to be; it is the recreation of an internal world.
Obviously director Lewis deserves a large slice of the credit, but let us also salute the screenwriters, Al Martin and Helen Martin. Though the automatic assumption is that the two were related, I have never actually seen this confirmed, and from their credits and career paths it seems unlikely. Al was a script machine who started out writing the titles for the silent What! No Spinach? in 1920 and was still crafting episodes of Tarzan for tv in 1967. In between came scores of thirties cheapies, Invasion of the Saucer Men ("They Threatened The World Until Some Hep Youngsters Took Over!") in '57, and some episodes of My Favorite Martian. He also created Rusty the Dog. Helen, who only wrote one other movie, was one of the founders of the American Negro Theater, and an actress who was still appearing in movies and tv in 2000, the year she died at the age of 91. Between them, these two unlikelies got together and wrote Invisible Ghost. And an invisible ghost is pretty much the only thing they didn't cram into their profoundly unusual screenplay.
There are some equally surprising supporting players, including the great Clarence Muse as the butler, former silent star Betty Compson, left, as Lugosi's nuthatch former wife, and Polly Ann Young as the heroine.
Polly, who was responsible for her little sister Loretta's career when she suggested she attend a casting call meant for herself, worked a few times at Monogram, but this was her only horror. Her resemblance to her sisters is striking in some shots, and she gives the film a nice kind of class-by-proxy. (The thought of Loretta in a film of this nature is almost too exciting to contemplate.)
Hero John McGuire played uncredited bits in Shadow of a Doubt and White Heat, and was apparently the voice of Michael Redgrave's vent doll in Dead of Night. Can this really be true?
Invisible Ghost secured the pleasingly higher-than-I-was-expecting position of joint third in our readers poll, with 16% of your votes, for which Polly thanks you, below.


Still going strong...
Spooks Run Wild (1941) is what happens when you assign an old dark house comedy involving a bunch of loveable juvenile delinquents, a sinister magician, his dwarf assistant and a prowling sex-killer to the author of High Noon and Bridge on the River Kwai.
I'll be honest, this one took it out of me a bit, not so much on account of the East Side Kids, whose schtick I found myself rather enjoying, but because Bela's red herring role is so ridiculous: if he's just a harmless magician, why doesn't he say? Why is he so blatantly sinister? Why, even when the Kids have knocked him unconscious and tied him up, does he decide after freeing himself not to say, "hey, Kids, you've got it wrong; I'm a magician" - which he presumably does do at some point between the penultimate and final scene - but to continue stalking them about the house, and advancing silently and malevolently whenever he gets one cornered?
But again, even here, that old Monogram black magic had me in its spell - either it's the gin that I've been quaffing liberally since the latter stages of Mysterious Mr Wong or there really is some genuine and intoxicating atmosphere that is hard to pin down and define, but real all the same, and all Monogram. No other studio had it (or wanted it, but that's beside the point) and it's here as definitely as it's in Voodoo Man. This, I'm assuming, is what accounts for your generosity in giving the film 8% of your votes, helping it to joint fifth position in our poll.
And how sweet to think of these Kids as the same characters that appeared in Dead End and Angels with Dirty Faces, one minute in a gritty recreation of the New York slums and the company of Joel McCrea and Sylvia Sidney and Bogart and Cagney, now being chased by wee Angelo Rossito round a spooky house festooned with cobwebs and suits of medieval armour.
A stiff drink after this one.
.
.
I'm sure you know, but just in case you don't, I'm not going to tell you the one thing that all write-ups and reviews of Black Dragons (1942) tell you about its plot in their first sentences. Not because it isn't up to Monogram's highest and most crazed standards - believe me: you won't be disappointed - but because it is retained as a twist. The plot is not explained, in fact, until the very last scene, which makes the whole thing a lot more fun if you're lucky enough to not know what's coming. (If you do know what's revealed at the end, I'll content myself with two questions: is a small bag of scalpels and scissors all Lugosi needs to perform plastic surgery, and why does he have to anyway, when the other guy's an exact lookalike?)
The fact that virgin audiences don't know who Lugosi is or quite what he's up to until the final scene makes for a fun climax (somewhat in the manner of one of Roald Dahl's Tales of the Unexpected, with a last-minute monster make-up thrown in to boot) but if what you're after is horror film atmospherics, be warned that Black Dragons is the most ordinary of Bela's Monogram pseudo-horrors; basically an espionage thriller with a last-minute fantasy twist. Not that it is without merit or interest: it's an intriguing little piece, and historically very interesting indeed, but of all the vaguely horror-themed vehicles that Monogram's publicists had to try to whip up into full-fledged screamers, they had the most work to do on this one. (Even Lugosi helped out, claiming on posters that "Never have I worked in a story so startling or so blood-chillingly shocking.")
The film is an opportunistic wartime mystery, made by people whose immediate response to the attack on Pearl Harbour was to think, 'there must be a way to make use of this in a Bela Lugosi picture.' And what do you know: there was a way, albeit one that involves Japanese spies disguised as American businessmen, and stock footage revealing for the first time that axis saboteurs were responsible for crowd disturbance during the funeral of Rudolph Valentino.
It's an offbeat, unusual little film that holds the attention and scarcely deserved its joint-bottom ranking in our poll, with not even a single vote. (It's fellow null-pointer, Return of the Ape Man, probably got nothing because it is so rarely seen: Black Dragons has no such excuse.) Well, if I have to bang the drum for this one, let me merely note in passing that the film boasts some of the sexiest walk-on bit-part actresses of any film I've ever seen. Joan Barclay is the only woman credited in the whole cast (and in a fairly kinky touch for the time spends a lot of the second half cracking the case and climbing out of windows in a white bath robe), but the secretary that brings Mr Hanlan's special delivery letter towards the end and then leaves again, and the girl at the party in the spray-on satin dress are major distractions, or at least they were to me at this stage in the day, with three films behind me and six still to go. Is this the gin talking? Here's the party girl so you can judge for yourselves.
.
She's just in this one scene, for about ten seconds. What were you thinking, Katzman?
..
.
The Corpse Vanishes (1942) is perhaps the most authentic seeming Lugosi Monogram, the one that at times (though only at times) comes closest to being able to pass itself off as mainstream studio B-product. If it weren't for Lugosi getting a proper role and all that juicy dialogue, there are moments where you could almost mistake it for a Universal movie. (It's the only Monogram movie in which Lugosi plays the organ, for example.) Whether this makes it a better or lesser Monogram movie depends on whether you enjoy the films because or in spite of the studio's characteristic flashes of lunacy... but either way, it romped home to first place in our poll, with a 36% grab of votes cast.
.
For my part, I find it all hugely enjoyable (it was the first Lugosi Monogram I saw, and is still the one I've seen the most) but it doesn't impress me, or linger in my mind afterwards, in the way that weirder and more ornery critters like Invisible Ghost and Voodoo Man do.
Perhaps I just take it for granted a little. There's stacks to enjoy in it: Tris Coffin as a goodie, Luana Walters as a reporter, Joan Barclay drawing the straw maked 'your turn to be strapped to the table', a dwarf, a big loon, Lugosi and Elizabeth Russell in twin coffins, poisoned orchids being sent to brides so they collapse at the altar and Lugosi can abduct them and remove their glands to keep his decrepit wife in a state of permanent artificial youthfulness... It's all here. The only surprise is that there's no caged ape in the cellar. Perhaps they were using the costume for something else that week.
.
Best of all, no explanation is ever given as to why Lugosi is specifically snatching brides - presumably they are a Breen-era euphemism for virgins, but that doesn't explain why he snatches them in so risky, complicated and attention-seeking a manner, when it would surely be easier to just bundle them into his car when they are walking along the street a week or so before the wedding. That the orchid scheme is not only senselessly elaborate but also leads straight to Lugosi, the original hybridiser of the unusual strain in question, is a gloriously typical Monogram touch, as is the fact that after Walters discovers it, her boneheaded editor mocks her for reading anything into it at all. Later, when she mentions to Lugosi seeing his wife's and his unusual sleeping arrangements, he asks her if she thinks it is "so strange" to want to sleep in a coffin while waiting for eternal rest; she ponders for a moment and replies, "No, I suppose not."
Joan Barclay's nonchalant refusal to accept she might be in any danger comes likewise from the studio's well-thumbed manual of irrational characterisation: she disdainfully tells her mother to "forget all that silly nonsense about brides dropping dead", as if they haven't been, and it isn't the biggest news story of the day.
. Another drink, a handful of Snyder's of Hanover's Jalapeño Pretzel Pieces, and on to the Bowery. Don't stop me now.
.
.
A splendid little oddball crime melodrama in horror spats, Bowery at Midnight (1942) is one of my favourites, and I'm pleased to say it did quite well in our poll, taking 16% of your votes and sharing third place with Invisible Ghost.
This time round, 'Gosi is a college professor (with pince-nez!) called Professor Brenner, who also runs a Bowery soup kitchen under the alias Karl Wagner, which is not only an alias but also a front, because kindly Karl, the bum's friend, is really a ruthless criminal mastermind. (Since he really is a Professor, living a double life in the underworld, rather than a criminal masquerading as a Professor, we can only wonder what drew this happily married, dignified academic to moonlight as a skid row crime boss.)
In his private office at the mission, a secret door behind a bookcase connects to an inner sanctum in which he organises his crimes and stashes the proceeds. From here a second door, not hidden but for some reason with a map of Australia stretched over the top half of it, so he keeps having to duck as he passes through, leads to his sub-basement, where the really weird stuff goes on.
Wagner, who reruits jailbirds from his mission to carry out his robberies, has the peculiar quirk of making his newest recruit murder the previous one after each caper, partly to cover his tracks, partly to keep them on their toes, partly so he gets to see a different thug when he goes to work every day, and partly because he's a good few numbers short of the grand total. Touchingly, however, when he buries them in his basement he marks their graves with little crosses with their names on.
.
All of which makes Brenner/Wagner a thoroughly nasty piece of work (and the already mentioned scene in which he smilingly allows the truth to dawn on one of his students after he stumbles onto his secret is a true classic, and a reminder of what a good actor Lugosi could be when he had something worth doing and knew what all the words meant), but not quite the stuff of horror films.
So someone at Monogram hit on the idea of giving him a whacked-out former doctor as an assistant, who just happens to know how to revive the dead, and keeps many of Wagner's victims as zombies in the cellar.
This truly bizarre subplot has no bearing on the main story at all, until the very end when Lugosi tumbles through the trap door and gets killed by the zombies, while the police and various other characters stand by like lemons and do nothing to help him, as if they see a pit full of zombies killing people all the time.
(And, in true Monogram fashion, one of the zombies - our nominal hero, the aforementioned dimwit student - is somehow able to bounce back to normality after being killed and zombified, just as at the end of King of the Zombies.)
All this and Wanda McKay, too! At last, Monogram's most straight-down-the-line gorgeous female lead makes her coquettish debut in the Lugosi series playing, as usual, one of her trademarked cocky, rather obnoxious teases, who refuse to take things seriously and treat the male leads like the idiots they usually are.
...
The best of Monogram's horror films say: we don't have all the things that those other studios have; we have to make do with a scarcity of resources, not coast on a surfeit of them, but we will do our very best with what we've got.
For some reason, perhaps because it is the only film in the Lugosi sequence in which he gets to wear a monster make-up, The Ape Man (1943) is regarded in many quarters as the archetypal Monogram horror movie, as befits its second place status in our poll, with 24% of your votes in its pocket. But it's one of my least favourites, largely because its cynically self-parodying script violates exactly that covenant with the audience I outlined above.
.
The fault, I think, lies in the fact that it is the only Lugosi Monogram to have been written by their regular associate producer Barney Sarecky, and you can just hear him suggesting what a hoot it would be if he wrote one of them as well. His jokey script is incredibly formulaic, but the formula to which he thinks he is adhering is only half understood.
So we have a character called Zippo (played by Ralph Littlefield, who had already played a bum uncredited in Bowery at Midnight and would go on to the decent but still uncredited part of Sam, George Zucco's gas station assistant, in Voodoo Man) who wanders through the scenes, peering in windows, sometimes directly altering the plot by steering characters away from their deaths, sometimes looking straight at us and laughing mockingly at what we are watching. At the end he reveals himself to be the writer of the film ("Screwy idea, wasn't it?") and winds up a car window on which the words 'The End' are written.
.
So anyway, for reasons unspecified, but presumably connected with increased virility, Lugosi's Dr Brewster has been injecting himself with ape glands in a series of experiments "far in advance" of contemporary science. "Unfortunately," his colleague explains ruefully, "it was a great success." And what a success:
.
Some day, all apes will wear fedoras.
But Lugosi, having suceeded, decides he preferred things before he had a furry face and slept in a cage, but is at a loss as to how to put things back. He's tried just about every liquid that can bubble in jars and be poured into a test tube, but alas, without success. The answer, of course, is the usual stuff about injections of human spinal fluid that can only come via murder.
It's great to welcome Wally Ford back as the reporter, partnered by Monogram's Katherine Hepburn, Louise Currie, as photographer Billie Mason. Minerva Urecal does her usual thing as Lugosi's ghost-hunter sister, and in fact bags the film's best moment, as (in a totally irrelevant scene) she proves the existence of ghosts to Ford and Currie by playing a record she has made of spooky noises and people screaming.
And the film does pick up at the end, with Louise Currie in killer heels being chased about the lab by Lugosi and attempting to defend herself with a bullwhip.
.
.
.
...And not a ghost in sight.
Imagine Spooks Run Wild all over again, but without the killer on the loose, or much of the spooky atmos, and with Lugosi not as a weird magician but a common or garden Nazi with hardly any screen time and you'll have Ghosts on the Loose (1943).
Now imagine watching it right after watching Spooks Run Wild, and six other Lugosi films, and explain to me why I enjoyed it so much. I certainly can't explain it. Everyone hates this film, and I'd always thought with good reason. How it (and Spooks) cobbled together 8% of the votes in our poll - the same as Voodoo Man for God's sake! - was an annoying mystery to me, and I must say that the prospect of this coming over the horizon as I plodded through The Ape Man filled me with something like dread. A couple of times I could have sworn it was Huntz Hall in the ape make-up, so preoccupied was I with the thought of it.
In the event, I had a lot of fun. Maybe it's because I watched Spooks in unhelpful daylight, whereas it was dark by the time I got to this baby. Maybe it's because I'd forgotten how much I'd had to drink by this point. Whatever the reason, I was pleasantly surprised to realise that just as I thought the film was getting going it was actually two thirds over already, and I hadn't been bored once. (It does sound alcohol-related, I know.)
Ava Gardner - Huntz Hall's sister, everybody - is getting married, and her husband has bought her a house out in the sticks. The only drawback is the house next door, which the previous tenants were convinced is haunted. ("But you know how old people are," the estate agent explains sympathetically.) In fact, it's a nest of Nazis, headed by the 'Gosi, running a covert printing press operation, producing seditious leaflets called WHAT THE NEW ORDER MEANS TO YOU!
Despite the ambiguous exclamation mark, these guys are deadly serious, and just in case any intruders stumble upon their secret they have equipped the house with a variety of hokey ghost effects, including the ever-popular 'portraits with holes in the eyes for someone to look through', and that essential proof of a supernatural presence: the double-sided rotating painting of Napoleon, on one side of which he is wearing a coat while on the other he's carrying it folded over his arm. It may not sound terrifying to you now, but time the switch properly and it's a cinch. I've seen the proof.
This is to the best of my knowledge the only film in which Lugosi sneezes in big, tonsil-baring close-up. He's doing the old 'standing motionless in a picture frame' routine, when Sunshine Sammy Morrison puts a feather duster in his face. Just imagine the kind of movies he'd have been making if he hadn't been one of the biggest stars of the National Theatre of Hungary.
"Why do I have such idiots around me?" he asks at one point.
.Ava needed a holiday to get over Ghosts on the Loose
..
.
A fitting finale, Voodoo Man (1944) is my favourite Lugosi Monogram film, as well as the newest to me, and how it ended up sharing fifth place with the two East Side Kids films is a mystery to set alongside the aerodynamics of bumble-bee flight and the career of Alan Parker. This is a really fascinating, pretty spooky, classy-looking and endlessly surprising classic of low-budget horror. That's what it is.
The first time I watched it, as I sat open-mouthed through its superb opening scenes, I couldn't believe how much like Texas Chainsaw it was, and how keenly it anticipated that whole 'people stumbling into a backwoods nightmare' sub-genre.
There's been a series of disappearances of lone female motorists, and we learn what's been going on in the first scene. Whenever a fresh looker turns up at George Zucco's middle-of-nowhere gas station, he first checks they are strangers in the area and then telephones Lugosi. Using a series of fake detours, the driver is then corralled into an ambush, where two goons (one of them John Carradine!) grab the girl and drag her through an earthy tunnel into Lugosi's house. (The first one we see being subjected to this ordeal is Terry Walker, no luckier than she was as the maid in Invisible Ghost.)
Now, up to this point, we have a totally unusual and really creepy movie. From here, admittedly, the Monogram factor - and the innate good taste of forties Hollywood - kicks in to the horror's detriment: Lugosi wants to use the girls' souls as a means of reanimating his zombified wife; and there's lots of cod ritual, with Lugosi and Zucco in robes with stars - and hands - painted on them.
But though it never quite regains the truly eerie atmosphere with which it began, it still remains a zippy, entertaining thing, with a number of perverse touches (like Lugosi's habit of keeping his zombified failed experiments in their own little alcoves, which Carradine likes to visit and - well, we're not sure what he does with them, actually.)
.Bela Lugosi and George Zucco making asses of themselves
.
Lugosi never loses faith in George's powers as a necromancer, despite the fact that the ritual has so far failed at least eight times, the household's burgeoning collection of zombie babes ample testament to his ineptitude. (They were the wrong types, he insists, without saying who or what are the right types; he just remains convinced that whatever the right type is it will sooner or later pull up at his gas station.)
In fairness to him he has got the old 'getting two pieces of string to tie themselves together unaided as if by stop motion animation' routine off to a fine art, though it would seem to be, at best, only peripherally relevant to a soul transplanting ritual, and it's the more vital part - actually transmuting the souls - that he hasn't quite got the hang of yet.
.
Meanwhile, we have as the central male character a screenwriter for Banner Productions, whose boss (called S.K!) has tasked him with turning the mystery into a horror script. Driving to meet his fiancee (Wanda) he instead runs into her cousin (Louise) and when their car breaks down he goes off to get some petrol and she is abducted by the goons. Wanda, at her blasé best, pays little attention to the story, but when Louise is found wandering the highway in a catatonic state the two decide to investigate, after the local sherrif opines that, as each new disappearance occurs, the case is "getting monotonous".
Currie, who had been the spunky lead of The Ape Man, here gets the secondary role of the largely catatonic cousin in favour of McKay, luscious and wide-eyed but one tenth as good an actress. Their roles really should have been swapped, and if Currie was anything like the no-nonsense personalities she usually played I'll bet she was mightily annoyed by the casting. For much of her role she does nothing except stare blankly and walk about in flowing robes. McKay could do that splendidly, while Currie would have made lighter work of the dialogue. It also might have improved the dramatic structure of the piece if, as in Psycho, the man was searching for his fiancee and his co-investigator was her relative.
But this is to look for fault with a film that deserves to be far better known, and vastly more appreciated than it is.
At the end, the hero returns to S.K with his script before going on honeymoon, and when asked to nominate a likely star for the forthcoming production, suggests Bela Lugosi, providing a neat little coda indeed to the Lugosi marathon.
.
And so that concludes not only the marathon but Monogram Month itself. I hope you've enjoyed these excursions into this much maligned yet defiantly loved little studio.
I'd like to thank whoever's been looking in, and, most of all, I'd like to thank Monogram Film Productions:
.
... gone ...
.
... but not forgotten.
.