Saturday, December 10, 2011

Socko Zucco Back To Backo

George Zucco and Lionel Atwill to me are a bit like Karloff and Lugosi, or rather I should say Lugosi and Karloff: crazy George is plainly the Bela of the outfit.
Atwill is the all-rounder, and like Boris is invariably a classy pleasure to watch, but if you want to see a real force of nature going berserk, giving wild performances in wilder scenarios, you need Lugosi... or you need George Zucco.

Are you in the Zucco club? Not many of us are.
Unlike Lugosi he didn't even have that one classic signature performance as a starting point from which to decline. He started off running. He began at the bottom, and declined from there.
If there is any kind of tragedy in his career equivalent to Lugosi's it is certainly a less romantic one; he lacks the sense of doomed majesty that permeates Lugosi's work.
He is a member of the Universal team, sometimes in good bit roles in the biggies (like his Professor Lampini getting House of Frankenstein off to a roaring start, killed at the end of his first scene in a perfect little cameo), sometimes in leads in the second-eleven (most effectively in The Mad Ghoul).
But PRC gave him his best opportunities in the genre, and unlike Lugosi at Monogram, there is never the uneasy feeling of a great man being exploited.
Zucco always stands out, even when he's over on straight street, doing sensible cameos in proper films. He's not a bona fide horror star, but one of those men like Atwill, Carradine and Naish, who maintained a busy and sometimes critically successful career in supporting character roles in A pictures, but who moonlighted in horror films for extra pocket money. As a rule, their attitude to the latter work is not serious, and in some cases you may detect a certain visible resentment that manifests itself either in uninspired stock performances, or else a lofty kind of mockery (Carradine is especially guilty of the latter).
Zucco has certainly drawn this complaint over the years, but I can't see it myself.
Zucco, for me, has the velvet class of Karloff and that glint of genuine insanity that flickers in Lugosi's eye; the theatrical certainty of the one; the spectacular ill-restraint of the other, and a commitment to rival either.

His own background seems to account for the combination: his father a Greek merchant and his mother a former lady in waiting to Queen Victoria; part outsider, part aristocrat, all neither. He has flamboyance and he has precision, his mad professors have the cold madness of reason.
He is the consummate horror star: well-spoken and uninhibited, sardonic and flamboyant; the voice cut from the silk lining of Dracula's cape; the figure dapper, soft but not paunchy; the hands controlled. The face would radiate nothing but grandfatherly warmth if it were not for the eyes, which, possessed of some internal form of illumination, brood darkly and malevolently until suddenly lit from within, like the flicking on of a switch, as insane inspiration strikes.

To satisfy my heretic suspicion that the mad Mancunian might just be the greatest horror star of Hollywood's golden age, I have opted to watch all of his PRC horrors in one back to back session.
This was originally planned back when I was doing PRC Month, which ended without finishing. You may remember when I did the same thing with Lugosi and Monogram. Well this is like that, but even more so. It really feels like I've learned something doing this. I always loved Zucco, but now I really love Zucco. I can't understand why he isn't one of the absolute top icons in the horror star pantheon. He certainly is as far as I am concerned.
What an actor! And what a star; what screen-floodlighting star presence in the man! Such silky evil, such barely concealed depths of sadism and depravity.
I find myself heretically imagining him in other roles, even roles associated untouchably with the star who immortalised them: as Dr Mirakle in Rue Morgue, or Dr Moreau in Lost Souls, or Dr Vollin in The Raven. I'd have liked to have seen him doing the Atwill role in Murders in the Zoo. He was the screen's greatest ever Professor Moriarty.

Monogram misused him as they did most everybody: his near-comically demeaning role in Voodoo Man, as Lugosi's berk of an assistant, plays to none of his strengths. It hardly uses him at all, in fact, after his effectively creepy first scene at his gas station (as he deliberately steers lone female drivers into peril, his unlikely accent adding greatly to the character's creepiness). He somehow got out of the monster role in Return of the Ape Man - some say illness, others say pride.
But all of his PRC roles are, for me, models of the art of horror villain acting. They allow him a range of which Lugosi could only dream: monster-making mad scientist here, criminal mastermind there, revenger, vampire.
In each he is subtly different but always basically gives the star performance, the Zucco show, as if he somehow knew that decades after his death we were going to start really loving what he does. I don't think any other Poverty Row lead was as well served by his studio.
I really enjoyed these movies; as with the Monograms, it has changed my whole perception of them.

I kicked off with The Mad Monster (1942): not the best of them, my memory told me, but as archetypal as they come.
In the event I was pleasantly diverted. Posters claimed it 'the year's most terrifying shocker' (and just get a look of that luxuriant brown hair on Zucco)!
It may not be that, but there's one thing we can all agree on: what a title!
What a fantastically, amazingly fabulous title!
The Mad Monster: it's the very essence of PRC horror. So perfect a mix of hyperbole and mundanity. He's a monster, and he's mad!
With most monsters there always the chance you can reason with them. Catch them in a quiet moment, just before going to bed perhaps, and you can explain to them why violence never really solves anything. Or you can appeal to their best interests, if not to their better natures. Lon Chaney's Wolf Man might be induced to take a bribe in exchange for not savaging you - not this guy! He's not just a werewolf, but an insane werewolf!
American viewers, of course, have the additional option of taking it to mean 'The Really Angry Monster', which is if anything even better.
It's a masterpiece of a title. It's the Sistine Chapel ceiling of forties horror movie titles.
And the opening of the film lives up to the magic of the title. To the ominous theme tune, over which PRC in their profound wisdom have laid the sound of a barking domestic dog, we fade into a moonlit night in Dr Zucco's lab, where his assistant Petro (Glenn Strange doing Lon doing Lenny) is already tied down ready for business. And, as a measure of just how big a doofus Petro is, Zucco is ignoring him and chatting to a wolf in a cage (handily for us recapping everything he has been up to in the lab so far).
As with The Devil Bat there's no messing about like you'd get in a Universal horror: setting the scene, establishing relationships and motives, any of that rubbish. He's already perfected the means of turning Glenn Strange into a werewolf by syringing a bit of fluid out of the wolf's leg and injecting it into Glenn while we were still buying the Kia-Ora. A couple of minutes after lights down and it's already lap dissolve time.
The special effects, though hardly Jack Pierce standard, are ambitious and commendable, though it is typical of Poverty Row eccentricity that once transformed he does not leap out snarling but settles down to have a nap.

Zucco, clearly the weirder of the two, then immediately launches into an address to his imaginary colleagues, justifying his experiments and railing against their opposition to his ideas.
As he does so, we see their transparent forms hovering around the table. Sometimes they interject with objections to his claims, but there's no arguing with Zucco once all you can see of his eyes are the white bits.
"Gentlemen," he begins, "I wish you were here to see the proof of my claim that the transfusion of blood between different species is possible," perhaps not realising that 'possible' is next to meaningless if the result is that it turns people into werewolves.
Recalling one eminent professor who dared call him mad, he suggests: "Perhaps you will change your mind one day soon when Petro tears at your throat..."
Yes, that'll be the moment that clinches it. This guy's experiments have turned a harmless boob into a snarling werewolf and now it's ripping my jugular out. How wrong I was to suggest he was not the full shilling...
And it's not just revenge he's got in mind with his werewolf serum: he also wants to do his bit for the war effort.
This monologue is just terrific:

You realise, of course that this country is at war. That our armed forces are locked in combat with a savage horde that fight with fanatical fury. Well that fanatical fury will avail them of nothing when I place my new serum at the disposal of the war department. Just picture gentlemen: An army of wolf men. Fearless! Raging! Every man a snarling animal! My serum will make it possible to unloose millions of such animal men. Men who are governed by one collective thought: the animal lust to kill, without regard to personal safety. Such an army will be invincible gentlemen!

I foresee two possible objections to this plan. One is the Geneva convention - I doubt it's explicitly forbidden, but there must be at least one abstract principle it violates. The other is the more practical one of what you do to maintain esprit de corps when your platoon consists of snarling wolf men governed by the animal lust to kill. My guess is that discipline is going to be a problem.

Oddly, after this crackerjack beginning, the film settles down as one of the slower and least eventful of the PRC horrors, albeit with an honourably well-sustained spooky atmosphere, and well-photographed scenes of the beast stalking his victims through the undergrowth only occasionally let down by the size of the sets. And there's a major shock when Petro in wolf form slaughters a little kid.
But the plot goes pretty much nowhere (and literally nowhere in a geographical sense), consisting mainly of Zucco grumbling about his rival scientists interspersed with scenes of the local dungaree-clad rubes discussing mittel European folklore like they've just got off the bus from the Universal studios tour.
These yokels immediately spot a werewolf's handiwork, but our reporter hero (Johnny Downs - top-billed!) has a more audacious theory: dinosaurs.
I know, I know. But hear him out:

I understand they travelled around on their hind legs and made our present day public enemies look like horticultural specimens.

Well, that's my choice taken care of - now your suggestions, please, for the strangest line of dialogue in the history of American cinema.


Grrr!


Woof!

The film has one of PRC's most interesting casts. As well as Zucco the film boasts bona-fide Universal horror heroine Anne Nagel in the female lead, as George's daughter. (Interestingly, George is often a close relative of the heroine in PRC.)
Nagel's also one of Monogram's Women In Bondage, but you know her best from a somewhat classier bill of fare: Black Friday, The Invisible Woman, Man Made Monster and The Mad Doctor of Market Street. (To say nothing of Never Give a Sucker an Even Break.) Behind the scenes she seemed sadly to have been one who never got a break herself, and professionally her luck was on the out by this time too.
You may also spot another refugee of the terrible lottery of stardom: the great Mae Busch as Susan the hillbilly.
Way back in silent days Busch had been a major and exotic star. One of the many casualties of the talkie changeover, she kept at it in what little work she could get, though fate being an odd son of a bitch, one of the most demeaning gigs it landed her was supporting roles in Laurel and Hardy shorts - thus catapulting her securely into screen immortality.
If we only had her silent movies she would be a complete unknown today, thanks to Laurel and Hardy she remains a cherished star to millions of comedy fans. It's great when the roulette wheel dishes out some arbitrary good luck for a change.
This is a rare post-L&H straight appearance, and one of her last: I didn't even recognise her the first time I saw her in the movie.
It's her voice more than her face that gives her away. When she yells at some clay pipe-chewing old crone: "Oh will ya stop talking like that! I'm so nervous now I could scream!" you suddenly hear her in Their First Mistake, berating husband Ollie: "It's Stan here, Stan there! I'm telling you it's beginning to get on my nerves!" God, I love this still. If a snarling man-beast tries to make off with your girl, grab him by the dungaree-straps and let him know who's boss.

Next up, a new one to me, which the reference books tell me is more a mystery thriller than a horror, albeit with horror icing: The Black Raven (1943).
Another splendid title. Films with the word 'raven' in the title are usually pretty good. Something about the word just seems to bring out the best in movie folk.
And another great opening, with that fabulous Devil Bat theme tune and one of those handy credits sequences I tend to associate with Warner Brothers, where they show the actor at the same time as projecting his name and character.
So we learn that Zucco and Strange are back together again, the former as "Amos Bradford, alias 'The Raven'", the latter, doing his Lenny bit again, as his dimwit assistant Andy. I really wouldn't care to guess if they are called Amos and Andy as a joke, or in blissful innocence. It could so easily be either.
Who else do we have to look forward to? Well, there's Noel Madison (gangster of choice for studios that couldn't afford Jack LaRue), Charlie Middleton (another L&H regular, to say nothing of the strangler in the PRC swamp, here playing a cop in a raincoat) and, joy of joys, the former Miss Dorothy Quackenbush herself: Wanda McKay, the oomph girl of Poverty Row horror. I. Stanford Jolley too.
I smell masterpiece and it hasn't even started.

Immediately the credits are over we learn that the Black Raven is not a black raven but an inn near the Canadian border, run by criminal mastermind Zucco.
In a splendidly Old Darky Housey first act, various unsavoury characters turn up in the middle of a storm, including a two-bit crook (Jolley) that Zucco had double-crossed right into the pokey, now busted out and itching for revenge ("he's suffering from rabid delusions aggravated by a moronic mentality," Zucco sums-up; "Is that bad?" asks Strange), a bank teller turned thief (Byron Foulger), and Madison as Mike Baroni, racketeer on the run, who wants Zucco to get him into Canada after his flight from the law has made the front page of the New York Leader, alongside 'Rodeo Begins Photo Drive'. "D'you think I got where I did by bein' a cream puff?'", he asks when Zucco questions his criminal chops.

Just when you think this inn caters for nothing but criminals, along come Wanda McKay and Robert Randall (our hero), with their eyes likewise fixed on Canada but for entirely different reasons: "We're not going to give up, even if your father's political influence did keep us from getting a marriage license in this state", he obligingly reminds her, filling in for us like he's George Zucco talking to a wolf.
Last to arrive is the father himself (Robert Middlemass), on the trail of Wanda, and coincidentally the man whose pressure has resulted in Madison's fleeing... Add thunder, a dead telephone and a weirdo stranger who may or may not be all or less than he seems, and all is in place for one of those delightful old house thrillers that Hollywood was at that time turning out at the rate of about one a week, but which never lost their instant marquee appeal (and still haven't round my place: if I had to pick one type of movie that I never, ever get bored of it's the spooky old dark house comedy mystery thriller).
Some good dialogue, as in this bit where a nocturnal shock propels the weaselly bank teller into the orbit of the redoubtable father:

- Help! Help! Someone tried to break into my room!
- A man or a woman?
- A man I suppose. Why would a woman want to break into my room?
- Yeah, I guess you're right.


Next thing, Pops is dead and obviously everyone's got a motive, and just as obviously the killer turns out to be the weedy little one who wouldn't say boo to a goose. (No this isn't a spoiler - the killer in these films always turns out to be the weedy little one who wouldn't say boo to a goose.)

Now its off to Fog Island (1945), another of those borderline horror-mysteries, but a really good one, with Zucco and Atwill, and that glorious spiv Lester Cowan, an actor born shifty, best known to me as Humphrey Bogart's ill-fated partner from the head-end of Maltese Falcon.
It starts off a bit like Black Raven, with a criminal on the run coming for Zucco's help, but soon turns into one of the most truly mean-spirited thrillers of the forties: a parade of figurative and literal back-stabbers, all trying to cross and double-cross each other, that builds to a grand finale in which almost the whole cast are locked in a flooded room and drown screaming.
It's inspiration, I assume, was Rene Clair's adaptation the same year of And Then There Were None, but whereas the Christie story is a blackly comic whodunnit, this puts all its cards on the table at the start, as Zucco greets his weekend guests:

I invited you out here for, let me say, retribution. Now, retribution's an odd word. It can mean so many things. It could mean reward - the return of money you think I stole from you. It could mean giving you an opportunity of getting even with me. Or with each other. It could mean revenge - taking a life for a life. You see, one of you killed something very dear to me. It might have been friendship, it might have been my ideals, it might have been my wife. Perhaps she never knew it, but I happened to love Kama. She was more than just a wife to me. She was my ideal, my friend. Whichever one of you killed her will kill again, and just as wantonly. So let me warn you - the innocent, mind you - to beware of the murderer whenever he, or she, finds it necessary to strike again. And that, my dear friends, concludes the business of the evening. Now. Let's all be as socialble as we can, hmm?

And then, as a deliberately insincere afterthought:

Oh, by the way. I'm afraid I had to send the launch back to the mainland for some slight repairs. It'll be back in the morning, probably. In th meantime I'm quite sure that you'll find every convenience on this island. Except, of course, the telephone. Dinner will be at eight-thirty.

Now, this is really good stuff, and Zucco is note-perfect: he's not overdoing it, he's not sleepwalking though it and he's not condescending to it.
It's good writing and it's good acting, the latter somehow improved by the retention of a moment, in the middle of the line 'Retribution's a funny word', where Zucco suddenly looks as though he is about to sneeze; he abruptly looks away, grimaces and puts his finger to his nose. He just manages to stifle it and, like the theatrical pro he is, continues uninterrupted.
And PRC, who know to the penny how much a retake costs, have their cameras do likewise. The result is a moment of charming and unexpected naturalism that somehow adds to the casual menace of the scene.

It's great to see Atwill and Zucco sparring, exchanging pithy, rat-a-tat dialogue, steeped in sarcastic loathing. Can't you hear their voices, and theirs alone, here, when Zucco discovers Atwill obviously snooping around where he shouldn't be:

ZUCCO: Looking for something, Alec?
ATWILL (knowing himself caught): Er... my pipe-cleaners. I thought I left them here.
ZUCCO: I didn't know you smoked a pipe.
ATWILL: Oh, didn't you?
ZUCCO: I've always been very interested in pipes. Do you mind if I have a look at yours?
ATWILL: Certainly... (Makes vague, token gesture of pretending to check his pockets.) Oh, I must have left it in my room.
ZUCCO: Undoubtedly. Have a cigar.
ATWILL (his old silky composure returned): Thanks.


Shortly after, Zucco is dead at Atwill's hand, and his death scene, a beautifully sustained rasping monologue as Atwill stands, nonchalantly smoking a cigar and staring at him with a fixed but entirely emotionless expression, is another genuinely fine moment. Two absolute pros doing what they do. (Sadly, it would be one of Atwill's last performances before his death from throat cancer the following year.)

Dead Men Walk (1943) begins with a scene almost guaranteed to play strange tricks on a heavily intoxicated brain that has already seriously overdosed on PRC wonderment: Zucco at a funeral, in full toupee, gazing into a coffin at the corpse of... Zucco, with characteristic bald pate.
Turns out they're twin brothers, and the one who's dead is an evil murderer and, according to his brother at least, a demonically possessed force of pure evil. This diagnosis is confirmed when the nasty one pops up post mortem in the nice one's office, and threatens him.
The hero is a big lunk of a doctor who arrogantly refuses to believe Zucco's story and treats him like a silly child, at first even refusing to accompany him to the crypt and examine the coffin ("I'd feel like a fool, or... worse," he cryptically explains.)
Eventually persuaded, his skepticism is undented on discovering the body gone ("perhaps it's been stolen by medical students") and despite Zucco's assertion that his dead brother has actually visited and talked with him, he continues to insist that "ignorant people believed that stuff in medieval times but not anymore."
"Perhaps you're right, I don't know," says Zucco, who has just finished explaining what he has seen with his own eyes.

This is a straight vampire movie: a rarity indeed on Poverty Row, with a support cast to match the nostalgic script.
Mary Carlisle, former WAMPAS starlet and high hope of 1931 gives her last screen performance before retiring as the heroine, and as the vampire's assistant, in one of his last performances before dying from a heart ailment exacerbated by overwork (movies by day, factory work for the war effort at night) and wacko religious abstention from medication, we have none other than Dwight Frye, quite unrecognisable as Lugosi's Renfield, but giving an equally balls out performance.

Mary looks like she's travelled a long road from the little cutie who illuminated many a modest pre-coder, but Frye looks decades older than Renfield; sadly indeed he looks exactly like what he is: a man with not very long to live. There's something a little sad, but massively imprressive, about the aplomb with which he goes back into his whining and cackling routine here, even though he had tired of it years before. We lost a good one in Dwight Frye: I'd give anything to see him taking comeback roles for Roger Corman, or William Castle.

This is one of a number of PRC films that really do show how serious the studio was about producing quality product to rival the larger studios - unlike Monogram, whose films, though delightful, play as the work of sherbert addicts who can only just keep the camera steady from laughing so much.
This is no masterpiece - as most critics will helpfully tell you - but it is made with care, it has some great moments and it's emphatically worth your time. Zucco is, if anything, more than usually restrained in his two roles.
He makes for a suave, sinister vampire, taunting his brother much as his Moriarty goads Rathbone's Sherlock Holmes, but he never really seems like a vampire as such. We never get much of a sense of the demonic fury that his brother was ascribing to him even while he was still alive; there's something too solid and calculating about Zucco to usefully suggest the supernatural: like Atwill, he's strictly mad scientist, and could never really play any kind of monster. (I'm sure that's why he pulled out of Return of the Ape Man at some time after the eleventh hour.)

If you're like me, your first thought on hearing of a film in which Zucco plays twin brothers is - oh good, trick work! In particular, I'm already hoping for my favourite eerie effect: the stand-in dressed like the star with his back to the camera while Zucco is photographed over his shoulder, then switch angles and POV, and repeat.
And somehow you can always tell when it's the stand-in, and obviously it's fabulous when they let you get a good look at him, as they increasingly did in Three Stooges shorts when Curly was supposed to fall off a chair but was too ill to do it himself. The thought of Zucco filming this is an especially amusing one, because it would entail his having to take his toupee on and off each time as he swaps places.
Sadly, though, there's not nearly enough of this, though the final shot, in which the two Zuccos fight to the death in a burning room makes up for the lack immediately prior. Rarely have we seen such carefully positioned and half-hearted death struggles. The thing about a good screen fight is that it's uninhibited, and it's difficult to be uninhibited when the most important consideration is that one of the pugilists keeps his face away from the camera at all times and the other one's wig doesn't fly off.

Lastly, one of the great joys of my life. There have been some wonderful surprises today; how nice to round-off with something known and trusted.
The Flying Serpent (1946): an old friend.
That said, I'd quite forgotten that it began with a rolling caption, informing us that when "the wiley Emperor Montezuma" was fleeing the invading Spanish conquistadores, he "hid his fabulous treasure... and implored his native gods to guard it. Among these gods was the feathered serpent QUETZALCOATL."

Perhaps because he was silly enough to hide his fortune in a massive temple (in a 'secret chamber' only accessible by going through the door carved visibly into the temple's exterior wall), only one of the gods showed up, the aforementioned Quetzacoatl, and you have to assume that Montezuma knew he was coming, because he made a special alcove for him, the entrance barred so he can't escape.
Rather a shabby way to treat a god, still more one for whose assistance you have implored - and not much protection against looters either if it's trapped behind a grill in an alcove. Loyalty is not Quetzalcoatl's strong suit anyway: when Profesor Zucco finds the treasure (in best PRC tradition, long before the beginning of the movie) its loyalties, such as they are, switch immediately to him, which was of course the one thing it had been waiting there all that time not to do.
Even more obligingly, it proves willing to kill Zucco's enemies for him. Many writers have noted that this film is basically a remake of The Devil Bat and so it is, with the flying serpent primed to kill this time not by hatred of the victim's aftershave lotion but by their possession of one of its own feathers, which Zucco tweaks out and places on the person of the intended victim, and which the serpent can then mysteriously locate at any distance.
This leads to much amusement at the big climax when the monster kills its own master: in The Devil Bat it comes perilously close to making sense, because Lugosi had no means of removing the aftershave that had been splashed on him, but this time we get Zucco fleeing in terror from the winged serpent, but not thinking to simply discard the feather he knows full well is the reason for the attack.
Actually, his motives are pretty zany all through the film. He is zoologically fascinated by the serpent, and intoxicated by the treasure, which he makes no effort to move to a new location. He then pretty much goes looking for trouble, and seems in no hurry or desire to make his life more comfortable in the light of his find.
His only aim, it seems, is to leave both treaure and beast in situ, and kill anyone who looks like they might stumble upon the discovery themselves. This, rather than become both rich and hero of the hour by claiming discover's rights of the greatest combined arcaeological and zoological find of the century.

As in The Mad Monster (and The Devil Bat) we kick off with a useful sequence in which Zucco gets us up to speed by recapping his plans and achievements to the monster, this time Quetz in his alcove, whom he addresses with bar-room familiarity.
When an ornithologist innocently writes a piece about sightings of the legendary bird in Mexico and the legend of Montezuma's treasure in an obscure academic journal, Zucco is driven to open, contemptuous rage from fear that it will bring treasure-seekers, journalists and sightseers to the area. So he decides that the only way to rain on all this curiosity before it even starts is to make the bird man the victim of a sensational murder.
Before he has a chance to spring his trap, however, his dishy daughter invites the ornithologist round: "Doctor Lambert, I wish there had never been any such thing as Aztec Indians! Father does nothing but think, dream and talk Aztecs!"
What her well-meant meddling does, of course, is give Zucco a chance to plant the feather on the doc. Before his death, though, he correctly pieces together the truth, that the Aztec shaman who conceived of Quetalcoatl based it upon an extant prehistoric flying lizard, a last survivor of which is most likely the creature that has ended up fortuitously, and presumably coincidentally, in the temple.
This is precisely the account that Zucco pooh-poohs in his opening monologue, but there is little that is god-like about the creature's behaviour or abilities: it is, after all, killed with ordinary bullets. Neither can a Hollywood film of the forties admit to the genuine existence of non-Christian deities (or at least I would assume not, not that the Breen Office would have bothered spending too long untangling something like this).
All of which strongly implies that Zucco is wrong to assume that his house guest is a living Aztec god - making him even more of a bozo than he seemed straight off the bat.

The case is big enough to make the front pages in Chicago: "MYSTERY MOUNTAIN MURDER" (a phrase that cries out to be the title of a John Denver song) - "Scientist Victim of Unindentified Beast" yells the headline.
The story begins by observing that the killer appears to be "some monstrous creature", and goes on to add that "the case presents some strange angles."
The New York Blade opts to claim the doc is the victim of a vampire, "evidenced by the fact that the victim's body was entirely bloodless", an element the Chicago press had refrained from mentioning.

Meanwhile in San Francisco, where the police department must have a spotless record of clearing up cases, the somewhat impatient headline announces "HORRIBLE DEATH OF SCIENTIST REMAINS UNSOLVED MYSTERY".
So much for wanting to keep a lid on it. Zucco can only stand sullenly by as the small town becomes the focus of the nation's fascination, and fills with reporters, treasure hunters and rifle-packing serpent hunters, to say nothing of radio crime writer Dick Thorpe pledging to solve the case in a series of radio broadcasts: the exact opposite of the results he must somehow have anticipated when he first opted to murder an obscure academic who merely mentioned an already-acknowledged legend in a specialist ornithology journal.

Oh, how beautiful is this film? What part of it is not entirely perfect?
It gives me such pleasure I feel my eyes welling with tears as I watch.
The special effects are magnificent. The titular serpent is the best movie monster of all time. I love the way it swoops, I love the way it screams, and I love those beautiful shots of it making its lonely course through those gorgeous deserty locations. There are even a couple of lovely little moments where it switches to stop-frame.
People go on about visible wires as if they're let down to discover it isn't a real serpent, righteously wounded that forties technology wasn't quite up to the task of letting them off having to use the smallest grain of their own imaginations. 'Look - it's on wires!' they shriek.
Yes, I know. Funnily enough I guessed it might be as soon as I saw it. Did you think it wasn't, then? Because otherwise, what's the great harm in seeing them once in a while?
Cynical sophistication's all very nice, but if it stops you enjoying things like this with 1940s eyes you really are cutting off your stable door before the horse has bolted to spite your spilled milk. (Sorry, but I've been on a PRC dialogue-writing course. This week it was metaphor mixing. I'm looking forward to next week's: 'Why your hero should always be an unimginative dumbo'.)

The acting is wonderful: It may be Zucco's best and most confident PRC lead, and you'll also enjoy the spooky, switched-off quality of Hope Kramer as his daughter, especially if, like me, you've been watching PRC movies all day and are pretty much hammered by the time she comes on.
PRC's leads often seem a little doped-up; understandable, I suppose. With painted eyebrows and an almost hypnotised delivery, Kramer is a real mystery, with this lead and a smallish support role in I Was a Communist For the FBI seemingly her only movie credits. But if you're only going to make two movies, these, clearly, are the two...
The supporting male cast is drawn to a man from that great PRC stable of city-boy wiseacres and dumb-as-an-ox hicks, like the offspring of some new race created when the extras from Guys and Dolls and Oklahoma went off to live together on an island. Not a sympathetic characteristic in any of them, even the nominal hero: they're all either on the make, or trying to stitch up one or the other of them, or else big dopes walking blindly into danger and incapable of making the most elementary logical connections.

But this is Zucco's show - it's the Zucco show - and what it is to watch him skulk about, effervescent with derangement, as he acts out a plot that requires total capitulation to his own lunatic world view for it to even pass as coherent, much less logical.
I don't really know what this is or where it comes from, but it can't be something as random as carelessness. This is not bad writing, still less is it lazy writing. It's something different, but it has an almost narcotic allure, for me at least. (And if you agree, there's a comments box below...)
What strange alchemy was at work in forties Hollywood, whereby studios with no resources, no budgets, no big stars and only the lowest commercial aspirations so reliably turned out such strange and magnificent fare?
And this is 1946, remember. Nothing Universal was doing by now was as innocent, authentic and fresh as this. These guys really were the ones keeping the torch alight by this point.
Thank you, Mr Zucco. Thank you, PRC.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Bath - City of Cheese, Monsters and John Landis

A gala day in Bath on Saturday (and as Groucho will tell you a gal a day's enough for any man).
Not only was it the Bath Cheese Festival, with over twenty award winning cheesemakers keen for us to sample their wares - oh! cheese heaven; my friends, you have never smelt anything like it - but John Landis was in town too, signing copies of his new coffee table book Monsters in the Movies.

When we were living in London, my wife was a picture researcher at the Kobal Collection, which provided the images for the book, and so we have an insider's perspective on the project.
If you ask her nicely she'll tell you one of a thousand funny stories about his regular visits to their office to select posters and stills, each one a whirlwind of frenetic enthusiasm, his booming voice never varying in volume or tempo.
Though I say so myself, we both do rather a good impersonation of 'the Landis boom' - "Get me a Diet Coke!" "That's not a werewolf!" "Admit it! Your website's no good! Admit it!" - and once mastered it's enormous fun to slip into at random moments throughout the day.
An especially good time, in fact, can be had doing it while reading aloud the picture captions from his book.
It's a nice, Christmasy book, lavishly illustrated and attractively laid out, that probably won't tell you bunch of jaded know-all sods anything you don't already know about monster movies, but will pass a pleasant hour or two nonetheless, and would make the ideal gift for the young fan just finding their feet in the genre. I can't imagine how much it would have delighted me if I'd got it for Christmas when I was ten.
Plus he's a nice guy, and he wrote and directed An American Werewolf in London, a film virtually without peer in post-Hammer horror film history.
Good on you, Landis.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Devil Bats In His Belfry: An interview with Peter H. Brothers


When you're obsessed with something to a degree that qualifies as 'medical', it's always a relief to encounter someone else who shares the same problem. Even better when they've got it even worse than you have.

I thought I had plumbed the outer limits when it came to obsessively pondering The Devil Bat, Lugosi's PRC masterpiece.
But even after that occasion when I watched it three times in a row without a break, it never once struck me that it might be a good idea to turn it into a novel.
For that stroke of genius, ladies and gentleman, the gent to whom your fedora must be tipped is Peter H. Brothers.
Peter's name may well be familiar to you already, author as he is of Mushroom Clouds and Mushroom Men: The Fantastic Cinema of Ishiro Honda. But now he has come up with Devil Bat Diary: The Journal of Johnny Layton, which as its title suggests is a retelling of the film, from the perspective of its newspaper reporter hero.

If anyone has ever had a better idea before - and I'm including penicillin here - I've yet to hear about it.
When Peter got in touch to tell me about the project, I decided to find out more.

Carfax Abbey: This is a terrific idea for a book! How did it first come to you, how long did it take to write and how many people per day on average told you you were crazy...?

Peter H. Brothers: Well I have been a Bela Lugosi fan since way back and The Devil Bat is my favourite film of his (don't tell him this!) And I thought since the story was so zany and the characters so interesting it might be fun to write, and it was. The film was ahead of its time in its tongue-in-cheek and self-parodying tone ("I tell you Layton, the idea of a bat being attracted to the scent of a lotion, is all foolishness!"); in fact its chief virtue is that it doesn't take itself too seriously.
One thing that makes the film so enjoyable to watch is seeing the idle rich getting bumped-off one by one by a guy who spends his whole life with his nose to the grindstone. The Carruthers character is one that a lot of people can relate to: a hard-working grunt who feels he doesn't get the credit or salary he deserves, so he takes revenge against those who wronged him - a premise we can all relate to! It took six months to write it and my wife, who thinks I'm crazy anyway, gave it her blessing.

Can you let us in on any of the book's major revelations? I'm assuming it doesn't go so far as Devil Bat's Daughter and whitewashes Carruthers of all responsibility?

Oh no! Carruthers did what he did all right, but we do learn why he is so resentful of the Heaths and Mortons. It turns out he has other issues as well. I have altered the ending a bit as well, to give it a more cinematic feel.

This is the diary of Johnny, the reporter in the film. Do we get to see an altogether different side to his character, or is he basically the same obtuse wiseacre we fans know and love?

We learn more about his character and his relationships with the others in the film; how he feels about them and basically the kind of person he is, how his mind works, a little about his background and so on. He basically comes across in a similar fashion to how he is in the film, but we learn more about him.

What other characters come over differently? I see Mary Heath is pegged as a religious lunatic...

Yes. I thought it would be fun to give some of the characters little quirks. For example, "One Shot" McGuire is a rather vulgar fellow who can't stand the sight of Layton (and vice-versa), Martin Heath is devastated by the loss of his son, Mary is a bible-beater who gets crazier and crazier as the story goes on and Chief Wilkins is gay -- strong stuff for 1940!

This can only be the work of a truly obsessive fan of the movie. Speaking as another one, can you tell me what it is about the film that inspires this kind of devotion?

I'm not too sure when I first saw it but I just fell in love with it and realised there's much more to it than meets the eye. It's an interesting film in many ways. For one thing, Bela was a man who was a cheap hire and who was known to take the first offer rather than hold out for things like better salary and so on; he was not choosy, he just loved to work.
The famous story is that he accepted Dracula for a mere pittance rather than get a percentage of the profits (although such deals were rather rare for the time). In a sense he had no bargaining power and he had to basically take or leave the offer. The Devil Bat follows an ironic parallel is that he plays a a man who settles for a quick cash settlement rather than become a partner of the firm. I'm sure Bela - who was an intelligent and sensitive man - was very aware of this parallel while he made the movie.

It's also an interesting part for him. As you know Bela loved to always give 110% when he performed regardless of the role or the studio or the story. In The Devil Bat he gives a very restrained and realistic performance; there is very little of the theatricality that is typically called for in a Bela role. "Sour irony" is I believe how director Joe Dante defined Bela's portrayal of Carruthers, which also comes across as very appealing; we like the guy even though he is basically a sourpuss!
Bela's greatest moment in the film is near the end, when he gets a wistful look in the eyes and tells Layton, "You wouldn't understand a scientific theory," which is delivered so sublimely I'm not sure I can ever attempt to define it. It is truly an extraordinary moment for him. He was truly a great actor.

Have you seen the sequel?

I have yet to catch-up with Devil Bat's Daughter but I understand that Carruthers is completely exonerated of his crimes and is now remembered as a bit of a local hero(!), which brings up another interesting issue: how people's reputations are enhanced after they're gone: you know, like Ronald Reagan?

What are your views on Lugosi's 'Poverty Row' films in general?

He was a professional who loved his craft, and I personally feel his performance as James Brewster in The Ape Man is the finest performance I have seen an actor give in a film; I mean we're talking Shakespearian stuff, man... just heartbreaking. I also love Scared to Death, The Raven, White Zombie, Chandu the Magician, The Corpse Vanishes, Son of Frankenstein (he should have gotten an Oscar for that one) ... I could go on and on, but yeah, I love the guy ...
In 1971, when I was 18, I saw Dracula on TV during a Saturday afternoon and that was it for me. He is my idol and in fact I visit his grave every year around his birthday and leave him a cigar which I'm sure ends up in the hands of the groundskeeper! (I live in Agoura Hills, about 40 minutes from the Holy Cross Cemetery where he is buried). I love all his films because I too am an actor and appreciate the total dedication he gave to each and every role he played.
So Devil Bat Diary is a tribute to both Bela and a wonderfully entertaining film which was very cleverly-written and has some wonderful moments in it (I can hear those Devil Bat screams to this day!) I hope you and your readers enjoy it.

Leave him a cigar from me next time.

Yes, next time I visit his grave I'll leave a cigar from you and say hello.

Lugosi in The Ape Man: "The finest performance I have seen an actor give in a film"

Peter H. Brothers: Well, he looks relatively normal...

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

By the way, it's still PRC month, too...

... So it's about time I published the results of the favourite PRC movie readers' poll.
They're listed in reverse order, with the number of votes received in brackets:

9 (joint):
The Black Raven (1)
Devil Bat's Daughter (1)

7 (joint):
Fog Island (2)
The Mad Monster (2)
Strangler of the Swamp (2)

4 (joint):
The Flying Serpent (3)
The Monster Maker (3)

2: Bluebeard (4)

1: The Devil Bat (13)

No surprises at Devil Bat's runaway lead, or, I suppose, at his daughter's poor showing. But the low figure for a film as fantastic as Fog Island can only be attrubutable to the fact that it remains so criminally little seen.
Indeed all of PRC's output - which is, I've come to think, rather better and more interesting than Monogram's - still wallows in obscurity even in comparison with that studio's films. The only reason I can think of why this should be so is that Monogram had frequent recourse to Lugosi, whereas PRC bagged him only once (in a film that comes closer to legit horror classic status, for all its barking absurdities, than any of Lugosi's Monograms).
As horror films, especially if you imagine Lugosi in the leads, the PRC titles are a splendidly weird and wonderful crop: in particular The Monster Maker, Bluebeard and Fog Island would be unquestioned cherished favourites if only poor Bela had graced them with his presence.
And Fog Island, in particular, best illustrates another reason why PRC's horrors have their own claim to individual merit and status: they are the most unremittingly cynical and mean-spirited horror movies of the forties.
I don't think you need to look far to work out why. World-weary cynicism is only to be expected from a company that operated in the way that PRC did.
It's odd that they existed at all, really: just breaking even in the land of dreams seems almost to defeat the object. Nobody could have been working at PRC for the love of PRC. It was a place that existed on hope: on the starlet's hope that this, against all the odds, is going to be the one that gets them noticed, or that of the formerly noticed on the way down, hoping that this is going to be, against odds still greater, the one that turns the descent round again. Or the studio's own hope that this, or if not this then the next one, is going to be the one that breaks all known patterns and become the Poverty Row Breakhtough, the one that's a massive hit, just liked for what it is - even, dare to dream, the one that pushes them into the ranks of the semi-majors, like Capra had done for Columbia.
Success on Poverty Row was measured by how quickly you got the hell out. This seems to have been the great animating dream of all the Poverty Row studios as much as the individual men and women who toiled there.
None ever quite achieved it, but PRC got there closer than most, thanks to the likes of Detour, and Edgar Ulmer and Frank Wisbar.
The air must have been thick there with the scent of hope and frustration mixed: so who cares about trying and failing to match the majors in sappy heroes who can do anything, and have only to flash their million dollar teeth to guarantee a return on the investment? That's why they have no heroes, why they don't bother trying to compete on star power - or the imposed characterisations that star power demands. It's why every character at PRC is either a doofus or a chiseller, and every character is drawn from stock: the reappearance in film after film of the exact same obtuse country sherrif, identical in performance though rarely by the same actor twice, is a particular joy. That the hero, or the closest the film will get towards anything so crass as an endorsement of heroism in their lead males, will probably be some species of reporter, drawn almost always to the heroine as a subsidiary of his professional fly-to-a-corpse instincts, and often as not accompanied by a goonish photographer who's there to get the big laughs is similarly close to given.
Unmistakably, this is a fictional world peopled by the kind of characters who hung around while they were making it.
All the world is here, if by the world you mean the scruffier parts of Los Angeles, but none portrayed with a drop of real human compassion, and always with either no aspirations or else aspirations so meagre - yet so devoutly held - you just know they speak to a community of workers who all know how it feels to be so nearly what they've always dreamed of being, yet still not quite.
What seems so strikingly obvious in Detour actually holds good for almost all PRC product. It is the noir studio. It may not have had the resources to define that moment stylistically, but in its sensibilities it was the studio that thought noir, regardless of the film it was making.

Think about Fog Island again in this light: was there ever a more noirish little murder mystery, however unifrom the lighting or limited the set design?
After the death of Zucco's character we watch virtually every other character tie themselves in knots of cross and double-cross, before all perish in the watery finale. Killing off virtually your entire cast all at once at the end of the film takes a certain insouciance and also, I would suggest, a very certain kind of take on the world and its wonders.
Because PRC has characteristically filled the film with nasties and left just two half-hearted young lovers to represent the decent mass of humanity, they can get away with the mass slaughter of most of the cast and still not ruffle Breen, because they all separately and individually had it coming. As a result, nearly everybody drowns, screaming, in the last scene.
Just the thing to get your mind off the Second World War.

PRC's movies have had the sweetness knocked out of them by the hard lessons of experience: lacking Universal's gloss, RKO's hauteur and Monogram's who-cares sense of fun, these are cold, hard films. Nobody ever trusts anybody else or likes anybody else in them. Their villains are animated not by mad inspiration or cosmic hubris but rather by petty resentments, jealousy, spite, wounded pride. Their monsters are like Warner gangsters: heartless, selfish, contemptuous of their victims. Warners may have built the better mean streets for their characters to go down: PRC could never afford such artful poverty, but at PRC, the bus ride home was the real thing. Inside, the sets were bright and noir was an attitude, not a template. MGM was for winners, with not a care in the world. At PRC they had to turn their collars up to keep out the rain, work all night to fill the larder.
There were no mean streets leading to the gates of MGM, so what did they know?

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Mortality, Immortality, Yvette Vickers


The rainbow comes and goes,
And lovely is the rose;
The moon doth with delight
Look round her when the heavens are bare;
Waters on a starry night
Are beautiful and fair;
The sunshine is a glorious birth;
But yet I know, where'er I go,
That there hath pass'd away a glory from the earth
.

- Wordsworth, Intimations of Immortality

It's a set-up tailor-made for Myron Fass, that could have leapt complete from the depraved frames of an Eerie Publication...
Neighbours near a small, largely boarded Los Angeles home become apprehensive at the complete lack of activity visible on the property. Closer inspection reveals cobwebs in the undisturbed mailbox.
Finally, they force an entry... and discover a mummified body.
Determining the cause of death is virtually impossible, even its identity will only be made certain after much scientific testing. It might have laid there for almost a year...

Of course, in a Myron Fass magazine, this would be where the story starts.
For Yvette Vickers, it's how it all ended, a strangely apposite last stop on her private roller coaster tour of B-Hollywood.
Ah, but she was a bonny thing...

Her parents were jazz musicians. She originally aspired to be a screenwriter. She met Billy Wilder in 1949 and he liked her enough, and thought she had enough of the right stuff, to give her a showy cameo in Sunset Boulevard.
Wilder had been around long enough to see through Hollywood's self-regard and out the other side where they dump the leftovers. He knew its wolves can turn savage when they're cornered, and his film is a knowing knife in Tinseltown's back. For Yvette it might have served as a prescient reminder, not that she was listening, that Hollywood is rarely what it's cracked up to be. She jumped in anyway; auditioned for the big shows, nearly got a few, landed upright but far from target in Reform School Girl and Juvenile Jungle.

Film-makers took one look at her and saw the word 'trampy' above her face like a neon halo. Her two shots at immortality both use her as a demonstration of the dangers of unchecked libidinous desire, as proof that adulterous liaisons invariably lead to death by mutant.
She is Honey Parker, whose fling with married William Hudson kick-starts the Attack of the Fifty Foot Woman. Then she's Liz, a frustrated Baby Doll in leopardskin underwear, trapped in the Florida swamps, who cuckolds Bruno VeSota, her obese husband, and ends up the victim of man-size bloodsuckers in Attack of the Giant Leeches.
Two utterly unforgettable performances; two certain guarantees of drive-in immortality.
Leeches is my favourite. I just love the way she torments her poor, tub of lard sap of a husband, and that whole extended scene of him threatening murderous revenge, as her supposedly burly lover collapses into whining, begging cowardice while she spits in his face and curses them both... it goes on and on, and is dramatically riveting, ending magnificently when the monsters show up.
This is where the filmmakers were, in the fifties.

But drive-in immortality is a positive encumbrance when you're up for a role in This Earth Is Mine (1959). Director Henry King - who knew what he was looking for - okayed her, big lunk lead-with-co-star-approval Rock Hudson - who didn't, obviously - said no.
From hereon, whenever she was linked with Lee Marvin and Cary Grant it would be strictly in the gossip columns. Screen work was more or less all small screen work, and lucky to get that, from Leeches on. Howard Hughes called her up a few times, too: it was the high life for an hour or two, but strictly taxi-fare back home.

Her 1959 Playboy pictorial ended her second marriage, to writer Leonard Burns. Three months after the wedding he learned of the photographs and walked out.
"He was kinda square," Yvette explained.

She lived long enough to enjoy her rediscovery by cult movie fans, and went to the conventions, and did the DVD interviews.
But behind the bolted shutters, where she never threw anything away and lived amidst mountains of junk, she was becoming increasingly paranoid, convinced she was being pursued and watched. And so we end where we begin, in the Sunset Boulevard twilight of faded Hollywood dreams, and with a fifty foot woman laid low by movieland's giant leeches.

Her body was positively identified on May 13th, 2011.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

RIP Michael Gough, the George Zucco of British horror

Last November I paid tribute to Michael Gough on the occasion of his 94th birthday. That post, sadly, must now serve as his obituary.
Michael was one of the great unsung heroes of British horror, a true George Zucco to Lee and Cushing's Karloff and Lugosi. Whether in relatively sane supporting roles or going hell for leather in the lead he was always a delight to watch. Lovers of British horror's more eccentric byways will have so many memories of him to cherish, whether it's feeding chunks of raw meat to a huge carnivorous plant in Konga, playing the organ in Black Zoo to an audience of big cats in armchairs, smiling contentedly in the back seat as his customised Rolls Royce decapitates yet another luckless pair of would-be escapees in Horror Hospital, or ranting so peerlessly from virtually the first to last frame of Horrors of the Black Museum. He will be missed.
You can read the original post here.

Michael Gough (1917-2011)

Sunday, March 6, 2011

The man I love


Eternal custodian of the old dark house, keeper of the sacred tana leaves, Professor Bruno Lampini ("I have a collection of the world's most astounding horrors!"), foil to Bob Hope and the Ritz Brothers, sworn enemy of Sherlock Holmes, Bulldog Drummond and Tarzan, fiend of choice at PRC...

There never once was, nor ever shall be again, anyone else quite like George Zucco.

The George Zucco-at-PRC marathon is up next...