Monday, January 17, 2011

Nabongo Pongo Overlongo: Down in the jungle something stirred...

So long ago.
Jungle movies. So, so long ago.
Jungle movies were once popular enough to be conveyor belted out to the masses in endless slight variation; now they look like they were made on another planet. Preserving attitudes more unsavoury than one cares to remember went unquestioned in what is still, for many, living memory, and openly celebrating the bone-headed speciesism of their main characters, jungle pictures are historical documents indeed.
Hard to imagine, now, anyone hearing that there was a new jungle picture coming to their local and instantly reaching out to phone the babysitter, but that must have been the way it was. They made millions: someone had to love them. They made serious, po-faced documentaries, with animals being blown to crap for real. They made sneaky pseudo-documentaries, with library footage and faked inserts of men in gorilla suits. They made popular jungle-based fiction series: Tarzan is merely the best remembered of many. They made artful pastiches like King Kong, spoofs galore, and dozens of third rate supporting mellers, with fuzzy, decades old jungle footage mixed with new scenes in which Poverty Row starlets in pith helmets pretend to look awed as they peer through jungly creeper on a set smaller than their bedroom, troop off camera, come in again from the opposite direction and look awed all over again.
Needless to say, it is in these at the cheaper end of the genre that the most modern-day fun is to be had, and PRC's Nabonga (1944) and White Pongo (1945) are about as cheap as they come. (But not quite as cheap as they come: see The White Gorilla and die.)
Made within a year of each other - same director, same six-foot-square jungle set, same library footage, fractionally different plots, slightly different titles... tell me it wasn't party time every day at that studio!
Hey, remember that jungle picture we shot a couple of months ago? Seems to me it's about time we made it again!
I watched them one after the other with a big glass of something beautiful in my hand the whole time, so it's already impossible for me to remember with absolute certainty what bits go with what movie, though I think I'm still up to speed on the broad outlines provided I get this written down fast enough: Nabonga's the one where a little girl who survived a jungle plane crash is raised by a gorilla (Ray 'Crash' Corrigan in a zip-up ape suit), turns into Julie London in a professionally-tailored sarong, becomes revered by the natives as a white witch and duels with Fifi D'Orsay for the affections of Buster Crabbe. Pretty sure that's right. Set the comments box aflame with indignation if I'm wrong. Whereas White Pongo is the one where Maris Wrixon and a bloke doing the stupidest cockney accent I've ever heard mount an expedition to the jungle and encounter Ray 'Crash' Corrigan in a white zip-up ape suit. As I say, it's been a long night, but I'm pretty sure that both films involve the ape falling into the same pit.
I also see from my notes that I felt the need backaways to jot down the following exchange of dialogue from Nabonga, after Buster encounters Julie's strange, primitive jungle girl for the first time, and witnesses her amazing ability to subdue a rampaging Ray 'Crash' Corrigan with jungle know-how:
Buster (awed): You must be the white witch I've heard so much about.
Julie: I am Doreen.
Incidentally, you may be thinking that White Pongo is just about the silliest title for a film you've ever heard. If so, you'll be delighted to learn that the original shooting title was Congo Pongo. I have a theory that the title of the first draft screenplay was Congo Pongo Wongo Dongo, but I haven't been able to actually prove it yet.
Now for some zoology. Here's how Ray carries off Julie in Nabonga:

And here he is showing us how a fluffy white gorilla would carry off Maris in White Pongo:

You'll notice that in both cases the technique is pretty much the same. The only possible conclusion, then, is that human-carrying dexterity is neither adversely nor beneficially affected by the relative colour or fluffiness of the gorilla's fur.
Tell that to the poster illustrators, who presumably did the Nabonga poster one cold Monday morning, and the White Pongo one after a Friday lunchtime scotch and cocaine rampage:

What did I learn from these films? I learned that if you're the only blonde woman on an arduous jungle expedition you're probably asking for trouble if you put on a slinky evening gown with feather trim collar, and that if you dig a pit in the ground to catch wild animals, chances are that the funny guy on the expedition will fall in it too. The rest of the time I was too busy staring at Julie London to learn much of anything.

There's a great Julie London website that reproduces this priceless article written by PRC publicity hacks for the film's press book, that tries to claim that the apes in the film are genuine (the credits read: 'Gorilla ......... Nabonga', with no mention of poor Crash at all!):

Making jungle pictures is not the easiest way to make a living and is fraught with danger, as all those who worked in and on the PRC’s thriller “Nabonga,” now playing at the . . . . . . Theater, can testify. In the first place , working with animals is always difficult, but working with two gorillas, including the huge Nabonga who has the title role, is something else again.
From running an elevator in a department store to portraying the part of a gorilla's daughter in her first motion picture was the dramatic step taken by Julie London, pretty young film aspirant who makes her debut in PRCs "Nabonga." (...)
Since the exacting part calls for her to play with her “protector” a huge gorilla, and cut capers with monkeys and tropical birds, Julie’s first day on the set was a series of startling experiences.
First, she was introduced to Nabonga the gorilla, who has an important part in the picture as the human actors... Cameras started to grind as director Sam Newfield called ‘action.’ She strode through the jungle with a monkey perched on her shoulder. Then Nabonga lurched into camera view and the monkey screamed, jumped for the nearest tree, and fled, chattering and gibbering. It was some time before the monkey was calmed and shooting resumed.

Quick - phone the babysitter!

Sunday, January 16, 2011

The Girls of PRC: Devil Bat edition

It's an enlightening experience looking at that gadget at the bottom of the sidebar that ranks the ten most read posts each week.
What will they be, I wondered naively, the first time I added the facility.
Surely my piece on the influence of postmodernism on the modern American horror film would come out top. Closely followed no doubt by my 25th birthday salute to Kenny Everett's Bloodbath at the House of Death.
Imagine my surprise on discovering that the things that seem to bring folks here with far greater frequency and fervour are the posts with pictures of Hazel Court and Julie Ege, or the phrases 'Hammer Glamour' and 'Universal Girls' in their titles.
I can take a hint.
So each of the film analyses that form the backbone of my PRC Month posts will be accompanied by a subsidiary post, of which this is the first, celebrating the leading ladies of the films in question, illustrated wherever possible with that most important aspect of American cinematic culture and practice: the swimsuit cheesecake picture.
In so doing I hope to both illuminate a vital and important chapter of American film history, and to get that little page-view counter gadget ticking over like there's no tomorrow.
We start with the girls of The Devil Bat and Devil Bat's Daughter, and with the heroine of that original Lugosi classic, Suzanne Kaaren.
Any Stooges fans in tonight? If so, you may be interested to know that she appeared in a few of their shorts, usually unbilled, including What's the Matador? and Yes, We Have No Bonanza. But most important of all, she's none other than dancing Gail Tempest in Disorder in the Court!
. I appreciate this may not mean much to the rest of you, but to Stooge fans Gail Tempest is probably the most beloved female presence in the entire Howard-Fine-Howard oeuvre, the name instantly recalling that oddly mournful vaudeville number the brothers perform on spoons, double bass and harmonica, prompting Miss Tempest, on trial for murder, to kick off her city suit and delight the court with inappropriate but well-received hoofing.
Judge from the still above whether the old publicity line about a starlet having her legs insured for a million dollars really was true in Suzanne's case, as even contemporary sources continue to insist. I vote yes.
But million dollar pins or no million dollar pins, Kaaren was another of those leading ladies of whom big things were confidently predicted but who was almost instantly relegated to the bush leagues, before she'd even had a chance to fail. Contracted to MGM and Fox, she tends to be unbilled even in prestigious films where she has a named character: The Great Ziegfeld, The Women, Idiot's Delight.
So when PRC offered her the female lead in The Devil Bat she unsurprisingly jumped at it, even though most of Hollywood would undoubtedly have considered an unbilled bit at MGM more classy than a PRC lead. Needless to say, it's for The Devil Bat that she's now remembered.
She retired in 1944, after marrying actor Sidney Blackmer (a Ray Millandish drawing room type, today remembered chiefly for playing the next door satanist in Rosemary's Baby). She came out of retirement once, to play the Duchess of Park Avenue in The Cotton Club (1984). She was, of course, unbilled.
She died in 2004.

Who would have guessed that Bela Lugosi's daughter would come out looking like Rosemary LaPlanche?
Rosemary is probably the best candidate for the female face of PRC horror, in that she's one of only two actresses to have taken the lead in two of their major horror films, and unlike Wanda McKay, she did not perform similar duties for Monogram. Wanda is a Monogal,just moonlighting at Producers Releasing, but Rosemary is the real deal: the Queen of the PRC screamers.
The former Miss America of 1941 (and sister of Louise La Planche: former Sennett child star, the young Esmerelda in the Chaney Hunchback, thirties and forties bit part player, Miss North America of 1940 - the first year that Rosemary won Miss California - and still with us, turning ninety next month), Rosemary appeared in scores of unbilled bits in the early forties, mainly for RKO, among them three titles in the Falcon series, Mademoiselle Fifi for the Lewton unit, and Zombies on Broadway in a sarong with Lugosi.
As with Suzanne, it took a move to PRC to get billing. In Strangler of the Swamp (1945), a moody little ghost story that aspires to a Lewtonesque ambiance and half gets there, she gives the best of her two performances, but for iconic status there's no rivalling Devil Bat's Daughter, her modest but undeniable entree to the pantheon of great horror relations, alongside Dracula's Daughter, Bride of Frankenstein and, of course, Daughter of Dr Jekyll.
Rosemary gave up on movies in 1949 (as who wouldn't after taking a thankless role in a Republic serial called Federal Agents vs. Underworld, Inc?) and switched to tv; she died in 1979.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Truly, she was the most beautiful woman who ever made a British horror film

When I read of the death of Jill Haworth earlier this month, just sixty-five, I found myself turning into a blogging Elvis:
Maybe I didn't write about you quite as often as I should have, but you were always on my mind...
Retrospective praise comes easy. It also feels like an obligation, a mark of respect, to lavish praise on those just departed, almost as if they'll somehow take it as consolation. Much better, if you really loved them, to tell them so when they're still alive.
I clicked on Jill Haworth on my own labels cloud to see what I'd already said about her: loads, surely... But no. Just one reference, in my Tony Tenser obituary. Britain's most beautiful and underused screamer, I called her.
True enough. But had I nowhere said that she was my favourite of all the leading ladies of British horror in the Hammer years? No, I hadn't.
So I deserve your scepticism if you don't believe me when I say she was, now she's gone. But she was.
Why was it so easy to overlook Jill, when we all hailed the greatness of Valerie and Veronica and Caroline and Hazel and the rest so often even their mums were starting to get bored with it? Perhaps we tend to think first of the milestones, then link back to the faces that animated them? Jill always worked off the beaten track. Never at Hammer; never at Amicus. Just once at Tigon. Never alongside Peter or Chris or Vince. You could forget her all too easily when constructing your mental pantheon. The only time you can't forget her is when she's on the screen. Then you can't look away. She was so gorgeous. Did you see her in Haunted House of Horror? I've seen renaissance sculptures less idealised.
I've seen swans with less elegantly poised heads, on less impressive necks.
.Yes, that is Frankie Avalon as her boyfriend. Let's hear it for British horror movies, ladies and gentlemen.

But by the time she made these films, without which I wouldn't even know her name, she'd already had two proper careers.
First, she was Otto Protégé's preminger. The big man with the bad temper plucked her from English obscurity, aged eighteen or something, and launched her with a big splash in Exodus and a couple others. He knew his job to that extent: epics about the founding of Israel are all very well on one level, but a bit of Jill Haworth helps to get it over at the Drake Cinema, Plymouth. That didn't take for some reason. She's back in In Harm's Way and another one, but the old Faith Domergue handling had the old Faith Domergue result; I can never decide if it's a good or a bad thing that he let her go in time to avoid Skidoo.
Then she was the original Sally Bowles in the Broadway run of Cabaret, and despite bad early reviews (worse: bad reviews for her, in raves for the show) she stuck with it for two years and was much disappointed not to get the gig in the movie.
Not half as disappointed as I am. I've had that film on DVD for years; I don't doubt it's good - it's a Monogram movie after all. But there's always something I need to see more. Had it been Jill in the lead it would have probably melted from overuse by now.

Career number three - relegation to cheapo British horror - was not pleasing to her, I fear, and it's a wonder she even stood for it. But it is pleasing to we who persist in finding a dark kind of beauty in those things. Such flawless glamour is not to be expected in these movies, among the tawdriest in the Brit-horror catalogue.
You can tell she's not into it; there's a remote, icy quality to her work in British horror - she knows we don't deserve her here. Perversely, it's one of the most attractive things about these performances; a sense of sadness and frustration, the obvious feeling that here is a butterfly of Hollywood on the wheel of Wardour Street. It's one thing to do this on the way up, but when it's clearly a step back down - well, it's no wonder that she always seems disdainfully apart from the other characters.
But I love all of her horror movies a great big lot, however tacky or mired in their eras or occasionally demeaning they seem. However much, for that matter, she appears to be just going through the motions in them. If you only watch one actress going through the motions this year, watch Jill Haworth going through the motions. There are motions and then there are motions, after all.

I never got to see It! (1967), though one of the key images of my Alan Frank horror education was that mad shot of her in a nightie and cute little slippers being carried off by the Golem. (Oh what a time it was to be going to the cinema!)
But the other three: Haunted House of Horror, Tower of Evil, The Mutations... Now you're talking!

Of the three, Haunted House of Horror is the most purely fun, a typical Tigon barn dance that should go down well with anyone who enjoyed The Beast in the Cellar (that'll be YOU, dear reader), but with the added attraction of Richard O'Sullivan, Sid James's son from Bless This House and two women so outrageously beautiful the film needs no further endorsement, instead of Flora Robson and Beryl Reid. (Gina Warwick is the other one: another inexplicably non-starting career.)
But as anyone who has listened to director Michael Armstrong's fascinating DVD commentary will know, it could have been much, much more. The film he originally delivered was a cynical attack on the values in which it superficially trades, an anti-swinging sixties film that takes the beautiful people and exposes them for the self-obsessed, mean-spirited and superficial crowd of wretches they so surely were. Much has been made of the daffy things Tigon did and tried to do with the movie (attempts to get Karloff into it persisted in various forms almost until the last minute) but far more important is the insidious damage done to its thematic framework.
Editing, reordering and extensive reshoots (with which Armstrong was not involved) relentlessly softened and humanised the characters; in an effort to make them more - or even vaguely - likeable, the new material serves only to make them uninteresting, and to leave many of their motivations obscure and some of the plot developments decidedly opaque.
One of the worst hit characters is Haworth's, now turned into a typically bland damsel in distress with not much going on under her sensational architecture, but given every once in a while to what now seem like inexplicable flashes of petulance that have lingered from Armstrong's original cut. As written, her character is a prize bitch; spiteful, resentful and sullen. For what is ostensibly the heroine, the girl in whose last-act peril we are expected to care, this was audacious indeed.
That said, she's still hardly what you'd call sympathetic, and a bit of a primadonna, even in the soppy recut. She and her boyfriend (Frankie Avalon, you'll recall) appear to have come together through a kind of social inevitability: they are the stars of the London party scene and could never be seen with anyone lesser on their arms. But they don't give any indication that they actually like each other.

Tower of Evil (1972) is so grimy, so claustrophobic and so dank you'll want to hose your tv down when it's finished. It's one of those ultra-cheap Brit-horrors with one foot firmly in the British sex film tradition, far franker than the norm in matters of sex, nudity and salty dialogue, as well as gore. In these respects not unlike Horror Hospital, with which it shares Robin Askwith, but lacking entirely that film's playfulness of tone, Tower is grim, grim, grim - but compulsive. It's also cheap - cheaper even than the Mike Raven films it may also remind you of a little. In the opening scene, wreaths of swirling fog nobly try to distract us from the fact that the boat approaching the island is a) in a studio, and b) not even moving.
As in Haunted House, Jill's character is fittingly resentful, miserable and tense throughout. Only in The Mutations (1974) is she the straight, sweet heroine, most charmingly cast as a student in Donald Pleasence's biology class, clad in the sheepskin fashions of those delightful years when London had stopped swinging and started smiling, when Cathy Come Home had morphed into Man About the House, and not before time either.
The Mutations is hardly the most savoury of films, but at least some of it is shot in real, daylit exteriors, so it feels like a holiday in the Bahamas after Tower of Evil. By any other standards it's still pure sleaze, though.
Pleasence is trying to cross-breed animals and plants. At one point he is asked if he has had any success; he replies that he most certainly has, and proudly produces a dead mouse with a sprig of watercress sticking out of it. In need of human subjects for his experiments, he pays the grotesquely deformed proprietors of a travelling freak show (Tom Baker, drooling and covered in plastic lumps, and Michael Dunn, real dwarf and fine, much-underused and misused actor) to abduct sexy girls from London parks. Post-experimental rejects are sold on to the freak show.
When Donald's students get a bit too close to the truth they go the same way; Jill's boyfriend (payed by Scott Anthony from Ken Russell's Savage Messiah, and yet another talent that vanished without trace soon after) is turned into a human venus fly trap. Because of the freak element, many people feel this film crosses some sort of line, but it's hard to stay angry with a film in which a man feeds a rabbit to a growling shrub.
As for Jill, it's the most relaxed performance she ever gave in British horror, the only one where her character is one of the gang, the only one where she appears to like her boyfriend, and quite possibly the only one where we see her smile. Certainly it's the only one where she's laid back enough to put her hair in these cute little bunches:

And there it ended, and now, it ends for all. Natural causes they say, and thank God for that. But surely there's nothing natural about any causes that can take Jill Haworth away.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Say what you will about Dr Paul Carruthers, but his theory of glandular stimulation through electrical impulses was correct

"With the town in an uproar, and everybody terror-stricken and wondering whether he's going to be the next victim, I don't want any more trouble stirred up, even with an artificial bat!"
.Wise words from the sheriff of Heathville, the town at the centre of what the papers are calling the Devil Bat Murders, in response to news photographer "One Shot" McGuire's attempts to storm the front page with a faked photo of the Devil Bat in action.
You or I, if called upon to play the Sheriff, might have stressed the word 'artificial', meaning that the bat might still have panicked people even though it wasn't real.
But Hal Price, a PRC man to his fingertips, opts to put the emphasis on 'even' and 'bat', implying he's so opposed to any form of trouble-stirring, that he even draws the line at some nitwit rigging up a massive fake bat in the grounds of the house where the victims lived.
These small town sheriffs! Will they ever lighten up?
.It's not easy to find anything new to say about The Devil Bat (1940) - though that in itself is a point worth making.
A Poverty Row quickie that came and went, that most critics ignored, that those who didn't heaped scorn upon... and which is now more famous, more beloved and probably more watched that anything MGM released in 1940.
.Actually, remind me - what did MGM release in 1940?
Basically a crazy cock-eyed spin on The Hound of the Baskervilles, an adaptation of which had just proved a nice hit for Fox, The Devil Bat is one of those films that everybody loves - even those who claim to hate it. It is unquestionably the best-known of all Bela Lugosi's Poverty Row horrors; it's also surely the best.
It was the only film he ever made for PRC and that's a great shame because, love his Monogram monstrosities though I do, he was often ill-used by the company, placed in unsuitable and sometimes demeaning roles, whereas you only have to consider for a second what he could have done with the lead role in The Monster Maker, for example, and his absence from the film becomes almost too heartbreaking to contemplate.
Whatever distinctions one has to draw about the scenario and production values of The Devil Bat, the fact remains that it is a classic Lugosi role, another Richard Vollin or Dr Mirakle. It's a rare treat indeed to see him get so full-blooded a showcase in a 1940s movie, virtually a unique treat in fact.
You know you're in for a good time from the very start, kicking off with that so familiar yet so perfect score, and then, the best explanatory foreword in the history of American cinema:
. Kindly village doctor? Everyone loves him?
Poor Lugosi - typecast again. How he must have longed for the opportunity to play a nasty character!
This is PRC chutzpah indeed - with his usual portentous, knitted-brow delivery and bats upstairs both literally and figuratively, to say nothing of the human skull on his telephone table, it's hard to imagine there was ever a time when Dr Carruthers took temperatures and applied antiseptic cream in such a way as to earn not just the respect but the love of all Heathville.
Nonetheless, the fact that any such love is misplaced is confirmed to us instantly the credits are over.
Like many another PRC horror, the film begins by plunging us into the story at an advanced stage. This spares us the boring preambles that disfigure so many horror films, and means that the very first thing we see is Bela Lugosi already in the throes of madness, talking to a bat (useful for filling in the back story; thanks):
"Ahhh, my friend! Our theory of glandular stimulation through electrical impusles was correct! A few days ago you were as small as your companion, and now look at you!"The bat - which didn't, I think, have any actual creative input in the scheme; Lugosi was just being cute with that bit about "our theory" - then hangs motionless from a coat hanger while Lugosi zaps it with electrical impulses, peering through a window in the door, wearing goggles and beating his clenched fist in waltz time.
Sure enough, the bat's glands are indeed stimulated: within a few seconds it has doubled in size and - presumably not as a result of the same process, but by some related training undisclosed in its details - we learn (because we get to hear Lugosi explaining this to the bat as well) that it hates the smell of a particular aftershave so much that when it encounters someone wearing it, rather than fly off smartly in the opposite direction to get the hell away from it, it will rip out the offending dandy's jugular vein.
The smell actually makes it angry: a bit of conditioning far more impressive than the electrically impulsed gland stimulated size increase. (What's the betting Lugosi gave Karloff a bottle of aftershave that Christmas?)
.Immediately after discovering how Carruthers is able to make bats bigger and more crotchety than nature felt necessary, we find out why: it's because he's an embittered aftershave formulator driven to fury by the fact that he was left out of a business venture that allowed several of the town's other inhabitants to become perfume millionaires using his fragrances.
So he has decided to kill them in the most complicated, impractical and attention-seeking method he can devise: by inventing, building and secretly locating the expensive and cumbersome apparatus needed to make bats swell to many times their natural size, training them to kill people who wear his special aftershave lotion, getting his enemies to use it, then releasing the bats and hoping for the best.
Even when the first of these attempts proves such a gruesome success, and the eyes of the nation are fixed on the Heathville mystery, he continues to stalk them one at a time, doing everything he can to look suspicious short of actually bringing the bat along with him on a string.
And to think, he would have succeeded, if only his plans hadn't come up against that eternal barrier between the innocent masses and the machinations of evil criminal geniuses - a smartass reporter. This one's played by Dave O'Brien, the pratfalling stuntman from all those Pete Smith shorts.
.The oddest touch in the screenplay is the decision not to make Lugosi's victims grasping villains who deliberately pushed him out of the deal that made their fortunes on the back of his efforts. On the contrary: they're scrupulously fair. He declined the offer to take a share in the venture, and even now, as he unleashes his bats, they are still making every effort to be friendly and accomodating to him. Their only sin, it would seem, was not to give him a big payoff when their ship came in. For that, it seems, they must die.
It's a nice touch to have a bat's shadow superimposed over the usual newspaper headlines montage (one of several small but pleasing evidences of just that little bit more care being taken than usual in the movie), though from the evidence it's hard to tell how seriously the papers are taking the case.
In the Chicago Daily Register the headline MYSTERIOUS DEVIL BAT KILLS THOMAS HEATH! dominates the front page, but the accompanying story is abruptly stiffed midway through a sentence in the first paragraph, to make way for another scoop: Pericles the Great Athenian Speaks. The Devil Bat mystery is 'continued on next page'.
In an identical layout, the Heathville Daily goes for the massive header VILLAGERS LIVE IN FEAR OF THE DEVIL BAT but pulls the same trick after the first paragraph, and - suggesting that readers have more interest in the affair in Chicago than in the town where it's actually happening - doesn't pick it up again until page 5. While over in Peoria, where they also use the same typesetters as the Chicago Daily Regsiter, the Gazette headline asks WHO WILL BE THE DEVIL BAT'S NEXT VICTIM? but then relegates all but its first two sentences to page thirty.
Later, when the Register's man manages to blast Bela's baby from the skies, the paper celebrates its scoop by giving it two paragraphs before relegation (to page 22) to leave room for the day's other top stories: AMERICANISM, an enigmatically-titled piece they had already printed in the same spot in the last edition, the intriguing At Ease! and the even more intriguing GIRLS.
When the deaths continue, and it seems a new bat is on the loose, the Register is so excited (DEVIL BAT'S MATE KILLS HENRY MORTON) it again only forces its readers to wait until page two to read the second paragraph; meanwhile the rest of the front page allows readers who may have missed it last time a second chance to enjoy that exclusive interview with Pericles the great Athenian.
Few are the horror film monster-makers who are not ultimately undone at the hands of their own creation, and sure enough, Carruthers eventually perishes under the talons of his own devil bat, after O'Brien takes some of the aftershave and splashes it all over the doctor.
So ends Carruthers's insane campaign of murder and madness, and so ends a film which, while every bit as deranged as its central character, has much to commend it. Even as a horror film, it sort of works (in Poverty Row terms that is extravagant praise). The shots of the giant bat prop, flapping its way through the dusky, deserty landscapre of Heathville are eerie and beautiful; the bat itself a laudable piece of special effects engineering for its time and place. PRC liked it so much they later used it again in a spooky western, Wild Horse Phantom (1944), and the accompaniment of what sounds like a human scream as it swoops down, along with well-used intercuts of a real bat's ornery face, make the film a rare thing among Poverty Row horrors: one where the actual horror scenes are as effective as those of a Universal movie.

Well - so far, so familiar.
Nobody reading this needs me to tell them - again - what a great film The Devil Bat is, but not all of you may know that what you see in the movie is in fact only half the story.
Because the truth about Dr Carruthers and his giant bats may not be as straightforward as you think. Is it possible that we read him wrong? That what we thought was a vindictive nutcase releasing killer bats was in fact a nice guy doing nothing of the sort?
Did we only think we saw him doling out that aftershave and chuckling as each fresh jugular is severed? Could we really all be the victims of some sort of collective hallucination?
Sounds incredible, doesn't it?
But hold tight - we're about to hit a curve...
Devil Bat's Daughter (1946), made a full six years after the original film had been released and (temporarily) forgotten, is surely the only sequel to a Poverty Row horror original ever made. (Don't count Return of the Ape Man, because it's about an ape man returning, not the Ape Man returning, and has nothing in common with the Lugosi film besides the presence of the man himself, in a totally different and unconnected role.)
It stars Rosemary LaPlanche, the former Miss America of 1941 and already a PRC veteran - she's also the lead in Strangler of the Swamp - as Nina MacCarron, who we first see unconscious in the sheriff's office, having been found face down in the road. According to a local cabbie she had just arrived in town, and asked him to take her to the old Carruthers residence...
The sheriff takes a trip to the now derelict property, where an abandoned newspaper reminds us of the conclusion of the previous film:

He also finds the girl's handbag, dropped in her flight from the house, which contains a birth certificate revealing that her real name is Carruthers - she is the Devil Bat's Daughter!
What follows takes every first-time viewer by surprise. While the original Devil Bat appeared at a time when Son of Frankenstein had made traditional horror all the rage again after a half-decade in the doldrums, the sequel appeared when the genre was again winding down, and the new thing was the twisty psychological thriller laced with quarter-baked chunks of half-baked Freudianism.
Sure enough, Devil Bat's Daughter is a boldly revisionist murder mystery, with several overt but presumably coincidental similarities to the Universal movie She-Wolf of London, released the same year. The only Devil Bats we get to see are in the distorted flashbacks using footage from the first film, and almost from the first, a strange note of ambiguity creeps in when characters are called upon to recall the original events.
As the friendly town doctor puts it:
He was a scientist who came here to work in peace and secrecy. No one around here got to know him. His work seemed to consist chiefly of experiments in cell growth stimulation. How he achieved what he did, I don't know. But his work finally appeared in the form of gigantic bats. Several people were killed by the creatures, and then one day he himself was found dead, killed by one of his own beasts... Somehow or other the rumour spread that Carruthers was a vampire, so round here they call him the Devil Bat.
This explanation is given to Dr Morris (Michael Hale), a psychiatrist, and one that all but the naivest viewers will instantly want to keep at arm's length, with his oily insincerity and an odd habit of tossing a walnut into the air and catching it again while he's conversing.
Meanwhile, poor Nina is subject to terrifying waking nightmares, in which she thinks she sees one of her father's Devil Bats in her bedroom. As Dr Morris attempts to probe her psyche for the explanation of her strange obsessions (she's just learned her father was found guilty of training giant killer bats and was appararently widely thought to be a vampire - won't that do for starters?) we become more and more certain that the slimy headshrinker is up to something. (We already know he's having an affair and wants to get rid of his wife.)
It's an unwritten rule that whenever a creepy psychiatrist makes a big deal about whether or not you drink the tonic he's made for you every night, the chances are you'll wake up the prime suspect in a murder you can't remember commiting.

Sure enough, Nina wakes in the middle of the night to find herself in the hall, and Morris's wife nearby, stabbed to death with a pair of scissors.

Confessing to the crime like a good psychotic, Nina becomes as big a news sensation as her father had been, with the Chicago Star jumping to the obvious and inevitable conclusion, as who wouldn't when they hear of a woman murdering someone with scissors:

But luckily, Morris's stepson Ted, who loves Nina and is the only man in town who dislikes Morris as much as we do, decides to do a little investigating of his own, journeying with the town doctor to the old Carruthers house. Here he finds a dropped walnut, indicating that his stepfather's been snooping around there too, and dropped his walnut in the excitement. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that Carruthers's papers on cell stimulation are missing.
"I don't get it, Doctor," Ted exclaims, "who would be interested in learning the secret of enlarging bats? Who?"
"Well, to speak for myself, Ted, I'd be very interested," the doc replies. "Any man with a scientific turn of mind would be."
Ah, yes! The great dreams of science: fuller understanding of the limits, structure and origin of the universe, technological progress, fewer diseases and bigger bats.
And if you're entertaining any hopes at this point that Dr Morris has stolen the papers because he has become infatuated with Carruthers's ideas, and even now may be in the act of duplicating his experiments and unleashing an all-new army of Devil Bats - take a deep breath and calm down. This is 1946, for God's sake, not 1940! It's all in the mind, now. He just wants to get some psychological dirt with which to influence Nina's mind, to push her towards insanity and get her to take the rap for his murder of his wife.
But the biggest surprise is still to come, when Ted confronts Morris with the evidence:
Ted - I've found Carruthers' papers!
Morris - Well! Now perhaps you'll tell me their great significance.
Ted - They prove that Carruthers was not a murderer. If you'd let Nina read the truth about her father, she would have been cured!

You heard him right. Carruthers was not guilty of the Devil Bat murders! And Ted's not finished, as he later explains to the police:
Any jury would be quick to condemn her on the basis of inherited criminal tendencies. He couldn't give up those papers because they prove that her father was not a murderer. Calling him 'devil bat' and 'vampire' was throwing mud at a great scientist. He was far ahead of even today's experiments in cell growth stimulation and proved it on plants and frogs and bats. It was the world's loss when his bats broke loose and killed some people - because they killed him too!
Not a word about the aftershave, the fact that all the bat's victims were members of one family in the cosmetics trade, or any explanation as to why Carruthers had stood idly, not to say maliciously by as the deaths continued, denying all knowledge of their cause. All of that, the nasty Dr Morris made you think you saw, when really, you saw nothing of the sort.
If the good Dr Carruthers is looking down on us now, and I like to think he is, I only hope he's forgiven us for saying such beastly things about him.
Which is to basically say that Devil Bat's Daughter just has to be the loopiest, most audacious Poverty Row horror of them all. The nerve of it! The sheer nerve!
For some reason it tends to be loathed even by seasoned fans of this sort of thing, but I loved it. Once you know you aren't getting a proper follow-up to the original - and really, how much fun would that be anyway, without Bela? - there's no reason in the world that I can see why this hallucinatory wallow into B-movie absurdia shouldn't strike you as it did me; as a constant delight.
And as the second half of a double-bill with the original Devil Bat? Well, is there a word to describe the experience? 'Sublime' will have to do, until a better one comes along.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

PRC: Monogram's cousin from the country

Producers Releasing Corporation were latecomers to Poverty Row.
When Monogram first appeared in the early thirties there were scores of small production outfits specialising in cheap and cheerful genre entertainment, companies like Chesterfield, Grand National and Invincible. But most of these had fallen by the wayside by 1939, when distributor Ben Judell teamed up with producer Sigmund Neufeld and his director brother Sam Newfield to form Producers Pictures Corporation (PPC) and Producers Distributing Company (PDC). Their first film was the interesting, and interestingly early, anti-Nazi film Hitler: Beast of Berlin (1939).
Their second sounds like a tempting foretaste of the company's horror future: Torture Ship (1939), directed by Victor Halperin, one half of the maverick brothers that made White Zombie and Supernatural. But Torture Ship, sadly, lives up neither to its name nor Halperin's reputation, being basically a thriller, with little horror and less torture, always assuming that the 49 minute print I've seen is a fair representation of the original release. (It's a version issued to tv in the fifties to fill a sixty-minute slot, from which the enterprising distributor has simply lopped off the opening reel. Frank Capra once claimed he turned Lost Horizon from a dud into a hit by doing the same, and counselled other filmmakers to try it, but the only effect here is to make the film more or less impossible to make any sense of.)
Basically we have a mad medico who has chartered a yacht as a means of obtaining the privacy he needs to experiment on kidnapped criminals, to support his contention that either criminality has something to do with endocrine injections, or endocrine injections have something to do with criminality, or both.
The cast is a Poverty Row all-star bill: Lyle Talbot is the hero, Irving Pichel is the doc, Skelton Knaggs is on board, and Jacqueline Wells and Sheila Bromley are the gals. Wells had appeared with Laurel & Hardy and Karloff & Lugosi; Bromley is beloved by all Marx Brothers fans as the girl whose entire appearance in Horse Feathers consists of entering Groucho's office and delivering the two most thankless pun-enabling feed lines in comedy history.
Five more films followed but the big time kept its distance and by 1940 PPC was on the verge of bankruptcy. It was then that it was renamed PRC and sold to Pathe, who appointed a new President for the company but retained the Neufelds.
And so the golden age of PRC began.
Like Monogram, most of their movies were westerns: in their banner year of 1944 (when Leon Fromkess, one-time treasurer of Monogram, became their second president), the company were boasting of a production schedule encompassing "24 features, 16 westerns". But their line-up included most other kinds of movies too:
PRC knows why girls leave home
Yes, that is the Blake Edwards in the cast - and Laurel and Hardy villain Charles Middleton as the ghostly strangler (who looks nothing like this illustration!)
A cozy murder! A mad romance! It's gay and ghoulish! I don't know about you but I'm sold
Eight top-hatted dwarves jostle for the best vantage point from which to contemplate Mary Beth Hughes
By 1948, the company was again looking like a spent force: it was bought out by Eagle Lion and ceased to exist as an independent production outfit.
In its various forms, PRC had existed for less than a decade. Yet in that short time, it produced a disproportionate number of horror quickies that amply reward exhumation and examination.
We shall begin our journey by returning to the dawn of PRC proper: the year 1940, and the unleashing of one of the most loved and enduring Poverty Row horrors ever made: The Devil Bat...