Introduction to Der Krapp ~ Bela Lugosi I ~ Installment 1
The videotape machine in the living room is perhaps as significant a development as the advent of the home computer. That which was once considered out of reach for the average guy is now available... and affordable! Movie collecting used to be a hobby for the wealthy and those directly involved with the film industry. Now it's for anyone with a middle class income.
So what is the collecter to do when he finally has all his favorite flicks neatly arranged on his shelf? How many times can he watch them before the only interest left has to do with remembering the number of steps The Big Star took to cross the nightclub floor? When the movie watcher reaches this stage, he has become jaded.
This column is meant to fill the need of the dissolute cinema fan. It makes sense to spend money on quality, of course. I will argue that it can be just as rewarding to obtain junk. By this I do not mean ordinary junk. What I have in mind is the sublimely bad film, the work of profound incompetence that is entertaining in spite of itself. And for whatever arcane reasons, the most diverting of awful cinema tends to be of the science fiction/fantasy/horror school (the same genre that has provided a lot of memorable classics).
It is a strange terrain we will set out to map. What we see will be slightly out of focus, or bathed in shadows, or overlit to the point of the ethereal. Sounds will grate on your senses -- either too loud or too indistinct, even as they crawl through the ear into the brain.
Stumbling down dark corridors, we fall against faded walls that threaten to topple. Tinker-toy technologies are stomped into plastic shrapnel by giant, rubberoid monstrosities as sinister as last year's muppets. Rocket ships dangle precariously from wires. Lost worlds are found that should have remained lost. Strange planets rotate awkwardly on 10¢ budgets. Beach blanket menaces slither and dance out of real studios. Tasteless gore drips off cameras lugged into southern swamps to shoot the quick buck sleazo production. Bulging musclemen strain against plastic chains, and badly made-up monsters struggle against equally inadequate restraints in cardboard castles. Mad scientists overact grotesquely so that we may ignore the bland, monotone performances of the supporting cast.
Science will always be demonic. Looking at the heroes who are threatened, you won't mind at all.
There is nothing inherently entertaining about failure. It is the context that makes the difference. Recognizing the disparity between high aspirations and low realizations is where wry amusement may be found. It is hardly a matter of money alone. As the Medved Brothers point out in The Golden Turkey Awards, bombs emerge from big studios as readily as from shoestring independents.
Ideally, you should read this column at a drive-in, cramped in a convertible with a six-pack. Another appropriate environment is a seedy apartment, with a small TV set flickering before your bemused gaze at four in the morning. The most inappropriate place is surely a classroom in which the professor is lecturing on symbolism in films by The Great Directors.
Having actually been involved with some dubious film projects myself, I feel qualified to discuss low budget productions from the personal side. While having seen every genre-related film that has come my way in the capacity of movie theater manager, haunter of midnight shows, Late Show addict, revival house groupie, and employee of a campus film series, I'll make observations from some level of expertise (or insanity, if you like).
All hail cut-rate space invaders, giant bugs, endless Nazi survivals, slow, spastic zombies, and unfunny (unnecessary) comedy relief. Consider rear screen projections in abundance; voices booming in echo chambers; jacob's ladders sputtering and zapping! Man, we're going to be up to our eyeballs in crap.
Requests sent to this department will be looked into with these blood-shot eyes. Name the film, and I'll try to find the sucker.
Meanwhile, I'll launch the series properly with a couple of pieces about Monogram studio, and how one of my favorite actors became the focal point of its Grade Z "classics" from the war years. The story of Bela Lugosi's degradations on the Monogram lot has become one of Hollywood's legends.
He became the embodiment of their goony universe, often the only articulate soul caught up in a mumbling hodge-podge of dullness. These are films where the credit sequence can put you to sleep.
Lugosi spent half his time there as the quintessential mad doctor. In the Ape Man (1943), for instance, he needs spinal fluid. As everyone knows, you have to kill some poor unfortunate to keep a decent supply on hand. Young girls are best, but in a pinch, anyone will do. Without the fluid, the character played by Bela reverts to a horrible half-ape, half-man (i.e., he has a bit of hair stuck on his face and hands, and he walks hunched over). With the precious liquid injected, he has temporary relief, but still can't shave! Either way, he has to hide in the basement... except when mugging victims on a dingy street corner with the help of his pet ape.
"Spinal fluid" is a good metaphor for Monogram's horror product. When Boris Karloff participated in one of its cheapie-creepies (his career was far more successful than Bela's), even he found himself hot after the stuff. He got to dress in an ape costume, too, for the appropriately-named film, the Ape (1940). Are you beginning to catch the drift of a Monogram motif?
One way or another, the medical practioners in these things make do. When they run out of girls and crotchety fellow scientists to murder, there are plenty of winos left to provide required materials.
Winos were a mainstay at Monogram. This was the studio's idea of local color, or character types. But there was something worse for Lugosi's screen image than merely rubbing shoulders with the standard derelict. He wound up starring in some pictures with those lovable psychopaths known as the East Side Kids.
More on that next time, when we discuss how Bela Lugosi was trapped in Poverty Row's closet