Bela Lugosi III ~ Installment 3
This month, I think it would be fun to give out some special awards for outstandingly meretricious moments in Monogram’s Bela Lugosi films.
BOWERY AT MIDNIGHT (1942)
To this film goes the recognition, for what it’s worth, of Lugosi’s best work at Monogram. True, much of the plot was lifted from a British film Lugosi made that was quite good, Dark Eyes of London, known in America as The Human Monster (1940). But to even steal with any degree of competence is an achievement for this outfit. Besides, there are numerous silly touches in “Bowery” that only Monogram could pull off.
By day, mild-mannered college professor, Bela Lugosi is transformed at night into a hideous incarnation of …Bela Lugosi! (Actually, he turns nasty in the daytime too, but not during class hours). Little does his wife suspect that he is a crime lord using a Bowery mission for the poor as a cover for his crimes. (His cover in the other film is running an institution for the blind). To the public, he is a philanthropist, teaching and helping and reaching and clutching… well , they don’t know.
Little does Lugosi realize that a drunken old bum he keeps in the cellar to dispose of bodies, is in reality, a mad scientist! This wild-eyed derelict is animating the corpses Lugosi sends him and turning them into an army of zombies. (He is supposed to be burying them in the basement, but his hobby got in the way). The young hero of this movie learns the terrible truth by being turned into a zombie himself. Remember that detail for later.
Later, Lugosi kills a wino (not his wino, but someone else’s) in broad daylight, by pushing the poor guy off a roof. Just thought you’d like to know.
The climax of this movie is the definitive existentialist statement of the studio. Lugosi is tracked to his lair by Monogram cops (who don’t behave the same as other cops). The mad scientist/bum called “Doc,” opens a trap door for Lugosi to make his getaway through a subbasement. Bela climbs down the ladder into the arms of an army of blood-lusting ghouls! They surround him. He screams. He is only a few yards from the cops who, looking down at the carnage, observe, “Well, that takes care of him,” or words to the effect.
These officers of the law treat the walking dead as a natural phenomenon, as though Lugosi had fallen into a pool of sharks. The hero is now one of the monsters, his pale hands reaching out for the warmth of living flesh.
Cut to the final scene. The hero is sitting in bed in a hospital. His girlfriend enters and they make some small talk. He is obviously recovering from a serious illness. The y wonder when they will get married. FADE OUT.
I know what you’re saying. I am too: “Huh?!” The heroine is going to marry a living dead ghoul? I figure that some scenes must have never been filmed because of budget restrictions. My assumption is that no scriptwriter could be that dumb. They must have just run out of shooting time and had to tag on an obligatory happy ending. At any rate, we are left with a truly original ending for a horror film.
VOODOO MAN (1944)
To this masterpiece goes the dubious distinction of being, the dullest of the lot. The competition is admittedly stiff.
John Carradine and George Zucco are along for the ride and manage to scrape bottom along with everything else in this film. Carradine has probably made more movies than anyone else so his many ‘turkeys” are only part of a much a larger output. Zucco unfortunately found himself mired in trash without a sufficient body of good films to compensate for it. He was to PRC what Lugosi was to Monogram. My fondest memory of Zucco is his superb performance as Moriarity in the Sherlock Holmes classic, Adventures of Sherlock Homes (1939). If only his whole career had been like that!
Lugosi wears a beard, adopts a wooden expression and spends the film muttering occult sounding phrase such as “Life unto life.” In this case, the zombie master apparently has to speak zombie-like dialogue. It is ironic to think that only a decade earlier, he had made the classic film, White Zombie (1932).
Zucco, as a sinister gas station attendant, adds a slight bit of amusement to the proceedings. But Carradine is in a particularly bad way as a demented geek-type character who can barely talk. To him falls the task of beating drums during the ceremonies when Lugosi attempts a soul transference (or recharge, or something) from the body of a kidnapped young girl to that of his wife, who is in a mystic kind of suspended animation, awaiting the one maiden with whom she can be in perfect rapport. Naturally the ceremonies never work.
Carradine is Lugosi’s handyman. He takes each new girl who has been zombified (occupational hazard of a Voodoo Man’s profession) down into a cellar, where she stands in a little booth and looks like a dummy out of the store window at Sears. His one great line is, “Hmmm, you’re a pretty one.”
To that, Bela can only say, “Life unto life unto life….” God, I’m boring myself at the typewriter describing this one. Here is a movie that unquestionably fits the title of this column. In the last scene of Voodoo Man, a reporter jokes about the adventure he has just gone through as being a real Bela Lugosi kind of story. Everyone chuckles except the people in the audience. The tragedy of what had happened to Lugosi’s career lies in the truth of that statement. In fact, Voodoo Man is so bloody awful, that it makes The Corpse Vanishes (1942) look good.
RETURN OF THE APE MAN (1944)
I’ve mentioned this film previously, but it is here because it deserves an award as the funniest of all the Monograms, Lugosi or otherwise. No deliberate comedy by that studio was ever as good. I only wish I had a copy of it for viewing. A friend of mine owns his very own 16mm print of the movie. Now you know about my friends.
Return begins with Dr. Lugosi demonstrating a great innovation to Dr. Carradine: freeze-dried winos. Some tramp has frozen to death in the park and Lugosi proves that it is possible to revive the man if he froze quickly enough, which he did.
Now if you had Lugosi’s secret, what would be the next reasonable step to take? Think it over. Use logic. Be scientific.
Right! You’d mount an expedition to the arctic in hopes of finding the remains of a frozen Neanderthal man. I mean, what else could you do with it?
So there they are, Lugosi and Carradine, standing in front of this plain awful arctic set, while two extras make believe that they are using picks to break up the “ice” in the background, (one of them never comes near hitting anything with his tool, he just swings at the air). Lugosi makes a speech about how he doesn’t miss the comforts of civilization, unlike his complaining assistant, because he is, “married to science!” Such a line moves the gods to pity, and they let Lugosi discover a hairy caveman trapped in Saran Wrap, with long-johns sticking out from his bearskin.
They return to civilization, the trip depicted as always in Monogram with newspaper headlines. Now if you were Dr. Lugosi, and you had a dumb, ungrateful caveman, and a dumb, ungrateful assistant, what would you do? Why you’d put an electric grid under a rug, have Dr. Carradine stand on it, ‘freeze” him in place by the shock, and tell him that you were going to transplant part of his brain into the Neanderthal man. What else?
So Lugosi does. The ape man is just as stupid as before… if you overlook his new-found talent to play the piano and his sudden lust for Carradine’s wife. When he runs out of her house, the Monogram cops notice that he leaves big footprints behind. Do they subset Bozo the clown? Why, no, they figure that nothing human could leave those prints.
When Dr. Lugosi is dying at the feet of the typically ineffectual police, who emptied their guns into the ape man but couldn’t keep the critter from beating up the doc, they ask him why bullets have no effect. It seems that bullets hadn’t been invented in the Ice Age, and so they can’t hut a caveman. Monogram metaphysics!!! Only fire will do the trick, warns Lugosi who had been using a blowtorch to keep the ape man in line. Guess how the movie ends? You get one guess. I wonder if an A-bomb would kill the ape man, but would that count as “fire”?
THE APE MAN (1943)
I didn’t mention this one in the first installment of “Der Krapp,” but this flick has no thematic connection to “Return.” Does this mean that it was such a hit that they had to make it sound as though they did a sequel? I don’t believe it!
This one has the best ending of the lot. All through the movie, there is this weird-looking individual in an overcoat, who just hangs around. You’re sure he’s a flasher. A character in the story finally asks this guy want his interest is in the proceedings. “ I’m the writer,” the man announces. “Screwy idea for a story, wasn’t it?” He rolls up a window in his car, and on it you see the written words, “THE END”.
Heh heh, Heh heh heh. Ho ho. Hee hee. Ha hahahahahaha.
INVISIBLE GHOST (1941)
It’s a bit difficult to explain why I think this picture rates an award, but it has to do with the dialogue being constantly non sequitur. The plot, such as it is, concerns a man with a servant problem: he keeps killing off his own hired help. On bad nights, he is possessed by the spirit of his dead wife, and she drives him to commit murder. The unusual twist is that his wife isn’t really dead at all, but living in the shed in the side yard. As to why she wanders out every now and then and tells him to kill of the staff, your surmise is as good as mine. The addled woman is finally caught by those ever-present Monogram cops when she sneaks into the house to raid the refrigerator. She’s not very invisible.
About the goony dialogue, here is some of it: When asked why he stays in a house with a chronic murder problem, Lugosi tells the inquisitive cop that it is for sentimental reasons. The cop replies, “There’s nothing sentimental about a house where anything can happen and usually does.” Another goodie is that after the second murder, Lugosi tells a visitor, “This isn’t a very pleasant way to entertain a guest.” When the new cook arrives, all that she worries about is that she not be sacked (apparently the agency didn’t bother warning her about good old Lugosi’s servant problem). Telling him what she plans to make for dessert inspires Lugosi to exclaim, “Apple pie, that will be a real treat!” I swear that he put menace in the phrase. After one of his frequent somnambulistic murders, during which he leers at the camera and drapes his robe over it implying that he is suffocating a maid or whatever, he tells the survivors the next morning, “ I was so tired when I got to bed, I don’t remember climbing in.”
Some classic Monogram lines are given to the black butler, including that perennial favorite, when shortly after being frightened by discovering a corpse in the house, he asks, “Do I look pale?” This is the same unfortunate who, at the climax of the movie, is given a sanity test to determine whether or not he is the murderer. The test in this case involves a doctor asking the butler whether or not he is thinks his employer is crazy! Before the poor man loses his job, Lugosi conveniently goes mad right then and there. Wow.
This picture also earns Monogram kudos for economy in casting. When the young hero-type is falsely incriminated and executed as the mystery killer, his brother returns from overseas to try and clear the family me. Are you ready for this? The same actor returns to the set as the identical twin! Bet he wasn’t paid twice.
And now for the award for the most Monogram-like Lugosi movie by another studio. The envelope please. The winner is from PRC: The Devil Bat (1940). Bear in mind that PRC was an even cheaper outfit. Don’t believe me eh? Just wait.