Friday, March 19, 2010

“Is He Man Or Zombie?” … at Monogram, he really could be either

One of the strange features of Monogram horror often remarked upon by fans and non-fans alike is just how reluctant a lot of it is to actually be horror.
Look at the Lugosi series, for instance. Black Dragons is an espionage mystery with a fantasy twist. Bowery at Midnight is a fanciful crime caper with a supernatural afterthought, one not directly involving Lugosi's character and obviously added after the script was complete to beef up the film's horror potential. ("The Monster and the Ghoul!" screamed the posters; "One deals in wholesale murder... the other serves as a torture master for the living dead!" Well, sort of... but not really.)
As Tom Weaver notes in Poverty Row Horrors, PRC was the studio that made real horror movies with real monsters: Monogram's were usually spooky mysteries. But the question remains: If the publicists felt obliged to sell the films misleadingly as horror, it can only be because they expected to do better with a horror than a thriller. So why not simply make horror films and save them the effort?
A fine example is The Living Ghost (1942), promising the "strange secrets of a scientific killer" and asking, above a huge ghoulish close-up of actor Gus Glassmire, seemingly glowing like Chaney's Man Made Monster, "IS HE MAN or ZOMBIE?" A fair question judging by the picture, but the answer, most assuredly, is 'man'.
The Living Ghost is actually rather clever in its way: hypnotism, not voodoo, is the answer, but it's a nice touch to have the hypnotised first victim set up as chief suspect in the murder of the second.
What we have here basically is a fun whodunnit, directed by William Beaudine, that pairs James Dunn and Joan Woodbury as investigators. Woodbury, as usual, is as glamorous as all get out, like visiting royalty in the sparse Monogram backgrounds. As well as being a class-A dish she reveals a genuine gift for comedy in her bantering relationship with Dunn (who plays broad, and who she easily outclasses comedically). Woodbury fans should additionally note that the film ends with the sound of her being spanked off-screen.
At Monogram an old dark house mystery usually translates as a new brightly-lit house mystery, and so it proves here. Horror fans invariably come away from these kinds of movies disappointed for this reason as well as because they appear to cheat, promising much and delivering little, but anyone who likes sliding panels should enjoy it regardless, and the occasional line like, "Why does every murder mystery have to have a butler?" at least points to a certain degree of awareness of the age of the material.
Actually, Monogram's ballyhoo usually just about plays fair: ambiguity without any downright deception seemingly their touchstone. Return of the Ape Man is not a sequel to The Ape Man but it is about an ape man returning. Similarly, Living Ghost is not about a living ghost (whatever that might possibly mean) but a living ghost.
Phantom Killer (1942) reunites the stars of King of the Zombies (Woodbury, Dick Purcell and Mantan Moreland) but again: do not expect any phantoms. This is a murder mystery about crimes committed by identical twins, and a remake of The Sphinx, produced by the original Monogram back in 1933.
Phantom is fun in the established Monogram manner, but comparison between it and The Sphinx (directed by Phil Rosen) point out the very real qualitative differences between the studio's output before and after the Republic experiment.
Sphinx is by any measure an excellent little low-budget mystery, with typically A-list lead work from Atwill as the twins, and quality support from Sheila Terry and Theodore Newton, both on loan from Warner Brothers. The title - and title sequence, showing Atwill's face nicely incorporated into the Sphinx of Giza - seems to suggest an Egyptological flavour (perhaps in emulation of Karloff's Mummy of the previous year) but no: 'Sphinx' is merely the nickname of Atwill's deaf-mute twin, who serves as alibi for the cocky, talkative one who does the killings (all of stockbrokers, incidentally).
Atwill, alternately charming as the deaf-mute brother and swaggeringly evil as the other, gives one of his best performances, despite very little screen time, and the film - intriguing, stylish, compelling, and boasting only a couple of the kind of inane plot holes on which the later Monogram prided itself - is actually as good a low-budget time-passer as any major studio's B-unit turned out in the thirties.


Steve Miller, Writer of Stuff said...

I've been reading your Monogram series with great interest. Excellent stuff.

I hope this isn't spamming, but it occurs to me that interested readers can co check out write-ups of Monogram features at my blogs:
Shades of Gray( )

The Bela Lugosi Collection ( )

The Boris Karloff Collection ( )

I will also be adding a review of "Voodoo Man" to the Bela Lugosi Collection this weekend.

Mykal said...

Matthew: Forgive me for not chiming in sooner. Stupid life. I loved this post and laughed out loud at your observation about the delicious Woodbridge being paddled off-screen at the end of Living Corpse. Suffice to say, I've noticed that myself. I've stopped just short of putting that on my cellphone for a ringtone.

I have not seen Phantom Killer or Sphinx, but will soon as (once again because of a Matthew post) I have ordered them from Amazon. I don't know how I missed them previously as I love all things Monogram - and poverty row in general.

Speaking of Atwill, have you read Gregory Mank's Hollywood's Maddest Doctors - a Biography of Lionel Atwill, Colin Clive, and George Zucco? Good stuff - particularly the Atwill and Zucco chapters. -- Mykal

Matthew Coniam said...

Thanks Steve. Voodoo Man is actually my favourite of all the Lugosi Monograms and I'll enjoy reading your review. It's a missed opportunity, as they all are, but it has by far the most genuinely sinister atmosphere of them all I thought, as well as some odd anticipations of the plot and structure of Texas Chainsaw...


No, I haven't read that book, but Mank is one of my favourite writers on horror so I'll definitely look out for it.
I'm sure you'll enjoy The Sphinx: it's an odd one. And Phantom Killer, for that matter: it's got Joan Woodbury in it.
Do you think they really did smack her or is it all just movie makebelieve???
Hope things are okay down your way, buddy.

Mykal said...

Matthew: I choose to believe it was a real spanking. -- Mykal

Erich Kuersten said...

Matthew! Guten tag, love your blog and bizarre topic. I too was raised on the warping of Voodoo Man, and recently posted about it on my own acidemic blog (here) and wrote a long po-faced deconstruction of Return of the Ape Man for an old Midnight Marquee (20th anniv. issue) which I need to soon re-post. Anyway, I applaud your resolution to avenge these masterworks. I have to go read the rest of this now. Cheers!

Matthew Coniam said...

Hello Erich,
Thanks for stopping by, and great to meet another Monogram addict. I'm off to read your Voodoo Man piece now, and as for Return of the Ape Man: curse you! I have never seen it, and have never got my hands on a copy. The fact is like an open wound that never heals.