Thursday, January 6, 2011

Come with me to PRC...

Sorry; I'm starting a bit late on this one, I know. So it may well be that PRC January extends a little into PRC February too - we've got a lot to get through.
PRC Month serves two purposes for me.
First, because some folks out there seemed to like Monogram Month more than anything else I've done, and it's always nice to see the visit-counter zinging, this seemed like the only right and proper and inevitable follow-up.
The other reason has something to do with an evolving aesthetic. I've always enjoyed Poverty Row horrors, but my attitude towards them had a touch of the Medveds about it. I enjoyed them, or thought I enjoyed them rather, because they were bad. I always looked down on the kind of humourless film writers who resented them because they were bad, but I never questioned that essential badness itself.
But then, when I got stuck into Monogram Month, and really watched them for the first time, and in such large numbers over so short a space of time, my whole attitude changed. Of course, I could still see that they were cheap, with makeshift scenery and tiny cramped sets, full of absurd dialogue, insane plots and bizarre, heightened performances. But since when was that how I defined bad?
'Bad' to me is lazy, is boring, is pretentious, is take-the-cheque film-making. It has nothing to do with how little money you've got to fling about. In the course of Monogram Month I found myself wondering if they were not actually among my favourite horror films of all. Voodoo Man, such a spooky film, was the one that did it, I think, and then it all fell into place. And then Invisible Ghost suddenly came alive as a work of art. Yes, the plot makes no sense whatsoever. But what if that didn't matter? Then, clearly, you are left with a strange and beautiful piece of film-making.
And from 'what if that didn't matter?' to 'what if that were actually a good thing?' is but the smallest - and happiest - of steps. And then you really are in love with Poverty Row horror movies.
PRC, actually, were the Poverty Row studio among Poverty Row studios. Monogram were several enviable rungs higher on the ladder of Hollywood respectability, especially in terms of studio facilities and contract artists. You can see that just by looking at their respective casts.
Over at Monogram, Lugosi - who could barely get a light at Universal - was king of the castle. Only once was Monogram able to bag Karloff for a horror role. But at PRC, it's Lugosi who only appears once. The stars of PRC horror tend to be the supporting actors not only in Universal films but even in Monogram's: John Carradine, George Zucco, J. Carroll Naish.
PRC's support casts don't have the same rep company feel that Monogram's do, and there are fewer recurring faces to establish a sense of identity to the movies as a group. Monogram had a fine stable of starlets to whom they returned whenever a new screamer was in the works; PRC gave the impression they were starting the casting search afresh each time. So while it's great to see the occasional appearance by a Monogal - Wanda McKay, for instance, or Maris Wrixon - their casting feels random, and there isn't that feeling of continuity that the Monogram films enjoy. Every PRC horror film feels different, because they lacked even Monogram's resources to establish a basic house style.
The irony that I think results directly from this fact is that, necessity being the mother of invention and all, the most highly regarded Poverty Row movies, those that now enjoy a reputation as minor classics in the raw, tend to be PRC rather than Monogram titles.
Detour (1945, directed by skid row auteur and PRC regular Edgar G. Ulmer), and Railroaded! (1947, directed by Anthony Mann) have long been acclaimed as among the most stylish of all B-noirs. Hitler's Madmen (1943, directed by Douglas Sirk) was felt to be so good it was picked up for distribution by MGM. In the horror field Bluebeard (1944; directed again by Ulmer) and Strangler of the Swamp (1945, directed by German arthouse emigree Frank Wisbar) enjoy a reputation far greater than any Monogram horror.
Even their one and only Lugosi movie, 1941's The Devil Bat, though not taken seriously critically, is probably the most famous and loved of all his Poverty Row quickies. (The only Monogram that approaches its iconic status is The Ape Man, and it proves a far less generous vehicle for his talents.)
PRC's horrors are less trippy than Monogram's; they play fairer by the genre's coventions, and tend to cheat less with regards to content. Many of the films Monogram sold as horror turned out to be light mysteries, war thrillers, gangster films and suchlike. PRC, by contrast, rarely skimp on the yak hairs and stock footage. PRC give you burly blonde werewolves in dungarees, giant aftershave-crazed bats, Aztec winged serpent gods, and even honest to goodness vampires.
And they give you George Zucco. Oh, how they give you George Zucco!
While Universal were killing him off in reel one of House of Frankenstein, when even Monogram were giving him nothing better to do in Voodoo Man than put on a funny headdress and chant gibberish, PRC were putting him under the centre spotlight and letting him go bananas. Fifty years after his death, this bald Englishman with poached egg eyes and one of the most mellifluous voices in the movies is still awaiting full recognition as perhaps the greatest mad scientist of them all. To see him at his uninhibited best, join me as we cross the Hollywood tracks and drop in on our pals at PRC...
Still to come:
Devil Bat and Devil Bat's Daughter: the most bizarre double-bill in horror film history!
The Zucco-athon: five of the mad Mancunian's PRC finest, back to back!
Nabonga and Pongo: Men in apesuits deep in six square feet of studio jungle!
The Monster Maker: the kinkiest horror film of the forties?
... and more!
So please stick around, don't forget to enter the poll, top right (results announced at the end of the month), and if you feel like sampling a little PRC magic yourself and reporting back here, please get in touch!


Steve Miller, Writer of Stuff said...

I look forward to your PRC reviews this month! So far, I've reviewed 11 films from that outfit over at Shades of Gray--four of them starring George Zucco. I'll see if I can find one or two more in my pile of unwatched movies to join in your celebration.

James said...

January is shaping up to be a cool month at Carfax, Matthew. Aside from The Devil's Bat, I'm not too familiar with PRC. I can't think of anyone I'd rather have as my guide though. Your Monogram Month was fantastic. Educate me!
Best wishes for 2011, also. :)

Matthew Coniam said...

Steve - Thanks for the links. I've never seen Lady From Chungking. Is it in one of those massive box sets we're both so addicted to? If so, which one?

James - Thanks so much for your generous comments - I'll do my best to live up to your expectations!

Best wishes and thanks again to both you fine fellows.

Mykal said...

A Zucco-thon!! Excellent (I'm hunching my shoulders and wringing my hands together in pleasure) - Excellent!

I'm am going out on a limb and will state that you are the only movie blog in the sordid history of movie blogs to offer such a treat! That's class!

Matthew Coniam said...

Thank you!