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.

15 comments:

Erich Kuersten said...

I love your description of the glint in Zucco's eyes.You really bring it back - like he brings his own fireplace in those eyes. (the Black Raven is my go-to emergency movie - the one to turn to in times of panic and stress). And the silky voice and whatnot, Zucco would roar in delight to read this I wager... damn good stuff, sir. It makes me want to find my DVD of Feathered Serpent, stat!

Matthew Coniam said...

"Zucco would roar in delight to read this I wager..."

What a lovely thought. Thanks, Erich.

Mykal said...

What a great post! Like you, I have always been mystified by why Zucco worked so consistently, from start to finish, in Poverty Row. Was he slightly mad himself and able to hide it more easily away from the naked glare of the A studios? That's what I choose to be believe. But the bio information about Zucco you provide - the bit about his mother being a lady-waiting for royalty - is really the piece that fits right into the puzzle. It may explain his odd "to-the-manor-born" quality without there really ever being any manor.

Your post is the one Zucco always deserved. He was a great actor, and a great mystery. Hell, maybe he simply was just bent enough to really prefer those great PRC films (like we do) over big studio fare. Man, I hope so. My favorites are Fog Island and Dead Men Walk, which I think was Zucco's finest. His performance as the evil brother is one of the most unique, creepy, and sly vampire performances ever. And Dwight Frye is so completely and utterly ruined, so magnificent in descent, it could break your heart. As you mention, he was a actor - a man - acting as though on the cusp of this mortal coil. I will always believe he knew he was dying and simply held nothing back.

My friend, you really have put me in the mood for some Poverty Row spender! I thought ou captured PRC so perfectly when you mentioned the opening of Mad Monster - doom heavy theme music over the sound of a domestic dog yapping. Perfectly PRC!! After all, on a budget like this, who can afford a wolf howl?

This was one post for the Coniam Archives!

Matthew Coniam said...

Thanks, Mykal - Fog Island and Serpent for me, otherwise we are in complete agreement, as I knew we would be.
I've been trying to draw up a list of my all-time favourite poverty row horrors, both PRC and Monogram, and I've got it down to this 10, in random order. I spent quite a while deciding between The Ape and The Ape Man...

The Flying Serpent
Fog Island
Voodoo Man
Invisible Ghost
The Devil Bat
The Monster Maker
Bowery At Midnight
King of the Zombies
The Ape
The Corpse Vanishes

... and, if I'm allowed one from Republic, the runner-up is:

The Catman of Paris

Anyone agree/disagree???

Mykal said...

Matthew: Those certainly are the biggies. Preferential differences would just be haggling . . . so I'll haggle! I would put Frank Wisbar's Strangler in the Swamp (1946 PRC) in the top 10, perhaps in the top 5, and bounce out "King of the Zombies" which is diminshed for me by Montan Morland's camp.

Matthew Coniam said...

Ah, you could have a point there. I love Mantan's camp, but I must confess I haven't got around to watching Strangler yet, and it does look rather good... and Zombies would certainly be the one to go if need be!

Mykal said...

Do you have a copy of Strangler? If so, I really must insist on a viewing post haste! ;). If not, well, Christmas is coming!

Matthew Coniam said...

Yes, I have it, just never found the time... I will rise early tomorrow and watch it!
I have one of those jobs that is insanely busy at Christmas - I am the online shop of the Jane Austen Centre, Bath! - so I have to find time to do pretty much anything at the moment... but my rendevous with this film is LONG OVERDUE!
6am tomorrow - I'm off to the swamp with the devil bat's daughter and Charlie Middleton!

Mykal said...

I'll join you! I'll re watch it tonight so we can compare notes.

Matthew Coniam said...

What a great idea!
See you tomorrow morning...!

Matthew Coniam said...

Wow! What a strange, eerie, beautiful film.
That swamp, with the ferry gliding back and forth and the dry ice fog rising all around it, has to be the best set ever built for a movie.
Very Val Lewtony atmosphere. Almost constant sound of frogs. Wonderful moment when, after fifteen minutes, of gloom, Rosemary turns up in her sexy heels...
In some ways the perfect example of a Poverty Row production: obviously cheap, but making a stark virtue of that cheapness, not trying to disguise it or work around it but instead to work with it, and make the case for it.

Mykal said...

Matthew: I watched this one again last night, and I loved it just as much as I ever did. As you say, this film makes the most of a minuscule budget with intelligent production. I just loved that ferry on a sled (or whoever they had it rigged up). I also thought the supporting cast was amazing, particularly Nonal Leary as Pete Jeffers - the jittery neighbor and underling of Christian Sanders (Robert Barrat); who himself did a great job.

I loved all the religious subtext (and outright theme) that was in this picture. The idea of self sacrifice key to redemption - how "Christian" was going to sacrifice the church to drain the swamp, etc. I loved Rosemary's entrance as well! What a beautiful woman! I loved how the delicate, oppressive balance of the swamp was destroyed the moment she arrived!

Just a clean, well told story with great direction. And so beautiful! I'm so happy you liked it.

Matthew Coniam said...

Yes, I agree about Leary and about the religious dimension; I was particularly struck by Rosemary's offering of herself at the end, and her attempt to talk down the ghost; both very unusual.
THey should turn it into a play, rig up that one set in a theatre and do the whole thing gliding back and forth on the ferry.
Have you seen the German version Wisbar made first? I don't even know it it's available but it would make a fascinating contrast and compare. There's some interesting stuff about the two in Everson's Classics of the Horror Film.
My guess is that the original version had a larger budget, but it'll have to go some to match the beauty of the PRC.

Mykal said...

Oooh, a German version! I'll have to look up what Everson's says about the PRC version.

Steve Miller, Writer of Stuff said...

I've seen and written about all these films, but your post has made me want to re-visit most of them.

Perhaps even "The Flying Serpent." :)

Great article!