Friday, April 2, 2010

The Lugosi-at-Monogram Marathon


I did it.
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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.
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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.
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Explain yourself and fast, I hear you cry.
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Well, look at it this way. What's bad about them?
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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!
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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.
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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.
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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.
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She's just in this one scene, for about ten seconds. What were you thinking, Katzman?
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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:
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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.
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...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.
.

17 comments:

Steve Miller, Writer of Stuff said...

Another great post!

Like you, I've also yet been unable to get my hands on "Return of the Ape Man." I ordered a copy, but when it arrived the DVD in the case was new coverage of the Warren Commision of all things! I've yet to receive a replacement from the publisher.

Also like you, I've watched every Lugosi Monogram except "Return," even if I have a different take on several of them.

"Voodoo Man," "The Bowery at Midnight" and "The Corpse Vanishes" are the best of Lugosi's Monogram's films in my opinion, but I have a big soft spot in my heart for "The Invisible Ghost."

I absolutely hated "Black Dragons" and "Mysterious Mr. Wong," but I can see your points as well.

If you're curious, I've got brief reviews of the films here: http://lugosicollection.blogspot.com/search/label/Monogram%20Pictures

I'll also be reviewing "Ghosts on the Loose" in a couple of weeks as part of my "Nazis Quit!" mini-blogathon.

Holger Haase said...

Dare I say it? You're now officially my hero. Wow, what an achievement.

Mr Pendlebury said...

How the devil do you lay your hands on these films (my wife may not thank you if you deign to tell)?

Matthew Coniam said...

Thanks, Holger and Steve! Does that mean that someone somewhere ordered a DVD about the Warren Commission and ended up with Return of the Ape Man?

Mr P: Bad news for your wife - these should all be pretty easy to get hold of, and they're not expensive either. The majority have fallen into the public domain, and so can be picked up for a song on E-bay or Amazon, often in multi-Lugosi box sets. The quality varies slightly, but most are perfectly watchable. The only one that may prove slightly trickier (and pricier) than the others to get hold of is, sadly, Voodoo Man, my favourite. But the rest are out there now, just waiting for you...

Holger Haase said...

Even better (or worse for the wife): Because a lot of these pictures are public domain they can easily be found all over the Net in places like Archive.org or Google Video etc

Matthew Coniam said...

Yes, I forgot to say that too. Being of a generation that still places value on tangible ownership I always forget this option.

Paul Castiglia said...

Thank you for this excellent post, sir! I too love low budget Lugosi's. While my fave will always be PRC's "The Devil Bat" and I have a soft spot (in my head) for "Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla" the Monograms are, as you say, a universe unto themselves. Truly unique, and really a lot of fun if you just allow them to be.

Of course, being the horror-comedy nut I am I'm partial to the East Side Kids/Lugosi pairings. So far I've reviewed "Spooks Run Wild" on my blog, and I'll get to "Ghosts on the Loose" at some point. I've also reviewed some of Bela's other forays into horror-comedy. I invite all Carfax Abby fans to read my reviews at http://scaredsillybypaulcastiglia.blogspot.com - there's a handy alphabetical list of films I've reviewed on the right-hand side of the page. The blog is actually a blog-to-book project - I hope to have a book out someday reviewing the majority of horror-comedies made from the 1920s through 1966. Feel free to stop by! :)

Mr Pendlebury said...

I often worry about the quality of those dvd's on ebay after buying His Girl Friday and the picture was a horrible blurry, fuzzy mess. Still I don't suppose it can hurt to give some more a chance. If Mrs P takes umbrage I'm afraid I'll have no option but to point her in your direction.

Matthew Coniam said...

Thanks, Paul: yes, The Devil Bat is the gold standard cheapo Lugosi movie, and as soon as the headaches stop I may even subject myself to a PRC marathon and see if even fewer people give a toss about it than this one. Did any film ever have a weirder sequel than Devil Bat's daughter? Or a weirder remake than The Flying Serpent?
Incidentally, do follow Paul's links: his site is a treasure trove for all who love the horror-comedy subgenre, which I'm assuming is all of us.

Mr P - Yep, it can be a lottery; I too got suckered by a scummy His Girl Friday. Funnily enough, though, it had a much more attractive box than the official Columbia release I grudgingly shelled out for afterwards, so now I have a hybrid edition, the disc of one in the packaging of the other. But all the Lugosis I've seen have been fine: the quality does vary, but from perfectly watchable to terrif. And anyway, it takes a lot of negative decomposition and multi-generational dupings to sap the magic out of these babies. Don't worry about Mrs P. She'll love 'em.

Catie said...

some day all apes will wear fedoras.' Lmao! id like to see that

Matthew Coniam said...

It could be sooner than you think.

Mykal said...

Matthew: This is the first time I can remember wishing a post were part of a book that I could keep on the shelf, secure in the knowledge of its placement. I will always consider print the real format for a writer.

That is to say, I completely loved this post. It is one of the best (OK, the best) think I have read about Monogram, certainly, and also one of the best pieces on Lugosi.

It made me think hard about the dark one - that man with a smile like a viper. I don't think I would ever love Lugosi as I do without his Monogram work, as that flea-bitten studio brought out the true greatness in the man. The thing I love about Lugosi is that he could be hopped to the kills on drugs, riddled with depression and worry, racked with pain and age; but if the local high school had contracted him to play the lead in the musical version of Robin Hood, he would have put on the green tights and given them 110 percent of himself and acted his ass off. -- Mykal

Matthew Coniam said...

Thanks so much, Mykal, for the generous comments.
And for the image of Lugosi in green tights as a singing Robin Hood that I am now completely unable to dislodge from the old cerebrum.

James said...

Wow. This is SUCH a great post, Matthew. Wonderful stuff, actually. Your enthusiasm for everything Bela Lugosi and Monogram is positively infectious! There are a few titles here I still need to check out (and as I actually own Invisable Ghost, The Ape Man and Black Dragons, there's really no excuse for my not having done so yet).
This is pretty much everything I ever wanted to know about the Lugosi Monogram pictures, but was always too afraid to ask...
Thank you! Keep up the sterling work.
:o)

Howard Beale's Ghost said...

Matthew,

Announcing BELA LUGOSI'S TALES FROM THE GRAVE horror anthology comic book series from MONSTERVERSE! The Lugosi horror comic will be out in October in time for Halloween! Here are some links below. We're bringing back the most popular horror icon and vampire in the world to comics and beyond "the grave!"

Sam F. Park
West Coast Editor
"Bela Lugosi's Tales From The Grave"
http://monsterverse.com/
park@monsterverse.com

Links:

YouTube Slideshow TRAILER of BELA LUGOSI'S TALES FROM THE GRAVE. See pages from all the stories and other art! http://monsterverse.com/

Basil Gogos cover for Monsterverse's "Bela Lugosi's Tales From The Grave" http://twitpic.com/1doadj

John Cassaday variant cover for Monsterverse's "Bela Lugosi's Tales From The Grave" http://twitpic.com/25v1o3

Monsterverse interview at FANBOY PLANET with latest news

http://www.fanboyplanet.com/interviews/mc-monsterverse.php

MONSTERVERSE and BELA LUGOSI on FACEBOOK!

http://www.facebook.com/pages/Dallas-TX/Comics-from-the-MONSTERVERSE/118838267124?ref=mf

MONSTERVERSE Official Site

http://www.monsterverse.com/

AN EVENING WITH BELA LUGOSI at the AMERICAN CINEMATHEQUE. Celebrating the career of horror icon Bela Lugosi and the launch of MONSTERVERSE's new horror anthology comic book, BELA LUGOSI'S TALES FROM THE GRAVE.
Thursday, 7:30 PM, October 28th, 2010.
The Egyptian Theater.
Special Guests including Bela Lugosi, Jr., and Kerry Gammill. Previews of FLESH AND BLOOD. TRAILERS FROM HELL.
Poster design by artist Charlie Largent of the NEW YORK TIMES and WALL STREET JOURNAL.
See the stunning poster for the event at:
http://twitpic.com/2mxwhx

MONSTERVERSE on TWITTER

http://www.twitter.com/monsterverse

MONSTERVERSE PROJECTS BLOG

http://monsterverseblog.blogspot.com/

MONSTER KID ONLINE HORROR MAGAZINE:

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SPECIAL COMIC SHOP PROMOTIONAL POSTER #1 - MONSTERVERSE/LUGOSI COMICS! http://twitpic.com/2kpmjf

SPECIAL COMIC SHOP PROMOTIONAL POSTER # 2 - MONSTERVERSE/LUGOSI COMICS! LUGOSI and VAMPIRA PUTTING THE BITE BACK IN COMICS http://twitpic.com/2mcyk

Mister Bill said...

I stumbled upon your website while I was Googling some Bela Lugosi stuff. Fantastic and well written article on the Lugosi Monograms. I am like you, I really rather enjoy these little films. If you have time, please check out my new Bela Lugosi blog at http://belathenomadyears.blogspot.com

Peter H. Brothers said...

A truly fantastic job, well done!