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.