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?
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...
.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.
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.")
. Another drink, a handful of Snyder's of Hanover's Jalapeño Pretzel Pieces, and on to the Bowery. Don't stop me now.
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.)
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.
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 not a ghost in sight.
.Ava needed a holiday to get over Ghosts on the Loose