Bela Lugosi IV ~ Installment 4
Enough has been said about Bela Lugosi’s drug addiction and his voluntary commitment to an institution in 1955 to beat the habit. Both biographies cover it in detail, not to mention numerous articles on the subject. For the purpose of this column it is worth pointing out that Lugosi became “news” again because of that scandal.
As Lugosi neared the end of his life he attempted several come-backs, dreaming of a 3D remake of Dracula (Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein in 1948 had seen Lugosi in the role of Dracula again after too long an absence from the screen and had no doubt inspire him); but succeeding in reality only through his surprise public appearances, live theater acts, and a few brief appearances on TV.
Unfortunately, he found himself involved on the film side of the ledger primarily with Edward D. Wood, Jr. For this incredibly untalented producer/director, he starred in an unholy trinity of films, two before Lugosi’s death and one afterward. I can hear you asking: “Did you say afterward?” Before describing how Lugosi starred in a film posthumously at the time of his highest visibility in the rags of yellow journalism, it’s best to spend some time on Ed Wood.
This was the man who brought new meaning to low-budget films. It could be argued that Wood’s films were no-budget. To illustrate the difference between cheap and unbelievable, I draw your attention to the quality of a scene in Monogram’s Return of the Ape Man where Lugosi’s pet Neanderthal is bending the bars of his cell. As he pulls on a bar, it starts to pop out of the wall! He stops, notices the problem, and proceeds to gingerly “bend” the bars without wrecking the cheap prop. If PRC had done this scene, I expect the actor would have just “gone with the flow” and pulled the bars out. In an Ed Wood picture, however, they couldn’t have afforded rubber bars in the first place—the jail would have been constructed of cardboard and the ape man would have had to tear his way out. Ah, the wonders of doing it all in one take!
The first Wood film Lugosi did was Glen or Glenda (1953), a non-horror item (depending on your point of view). The title character is a transvestite for most of the story, and the subject of a sex change operation at the end. (And you thought that Gore Vidal was wildly original?) Fourtunately Lugosi has only a bit part as a spirit, or something like that. His God-like presence appears over boring scenes and pronounces meaningless aphorisms. At one point he is in a dingy room, sitting on a chair covered with a fish-net and giving advice to Glen/Glenda. This is the sort of movie that probably transmits germs. The best line is the narrator’s when he describes how Glen enjoyed dressing up as a girl for Halloween when he was a child…"And then one day it wasn’t Halloween anymore." Real National Lampoon humor...only for real.
The second Wood epic is the “major production” of the trio: Bride of the Monster (originally Bride of the Atom) (1955) . Lugosi was teamed with a horror actor who is somehow a perfect symbol of the Hungarian star’s decline: a 400 pound, bald, ugly, gigantic ex-wrestling ham to end all hams, Tor Johnson! At last Lugosi was to have as his assistant the lumbering Lobo wrapped in a burlap sack. This rotund thespian’s most oft-quoted line is the heart-felt delivery of “ugh!”
I have a peculiar fascination for this movie; I’ve seen it several times and I hope to see it again. Lugosi plays Dr. Vornoff, a European scientist banished to a small swamp outside Hollywood (in reality, the indoor set was built at the site of Poverty Row!) which he refers to as a “forsaken jungle hell.” A sleepy community of dull extras lives next door in the All American Small Town. They leave the crazy doctor alone in his cardboard house, unaware that he is trying to create a race of atomic supermen with a ray device that looks like an old photo enlarger (which it is ) and a metal cap that he places on the head of whatever victim happen along. Oh, and he also has a pet octopus that lives in a tank under his house and swims out to a nearby fresh water creek where it somehow lives and eats people who are lost in the woods.
When the octopus finishes dinner it returns to its harbor, as it were. Vornoff says to his assistant, “Isn’t it strange, Lobo, how our friend always returns home after its long and tiresome swim?” Lobo replies with his single syllable—“Ugh!”—thus proving that the doc was asking a rhetorical question. Anyway, it’s a dumb question. There is nothing strange about the octopus coming back—where else would it go?
The lab has laughable cardboard sets, and the stone wall is clearly a painted backdrop. One of the few production values is the adequate lighting that allows you to see how terrible everything else really is! (There were times of the day when they couldn’t film because the sound equipment would pick up traffic sounds from outside. Everyone in the set must have realized the cheapness of this production.)
In Bride, Lugosi’s health is so poor that he appears to be a living skeleton, but the film is held together by the strength of character and intense delivery of lines he gives. (After the completion of Bride, he would commit himself for his medically incurred drug addiction. A small role he plays shortly after his release, in the Black Sleep (1956) , shows how he improved, in that he looks filled out and more relaxed.
Bride of the Monster has so many clichés from other horror movies that you need a score-card to keep track of them. It reaches a peak of absurdity when a character announces himself to the local police captain as Professor Vladimir Strowski, a monsterologist. He claims to be tracking the Loch Ness Monster (supposedly Lugosi’s octopus) that has somehow emigrated to America. The head cop is only mildly suspicious of this obvious lunatic (who is in reality an agent from the Old Country come to take Lugosi home to the ones who originally laughed at his theories but now wish to exploit him); but one shouldn’t expect much from a police official who wiles away his time by using his eyeglasses as a swing for his parakeet....
Right before Lugosi feeds the monsterologist to the monster, he makes a speech where he is supposed to say that his theory was right all along. He slips up, though, and comes out with “ I am all right.” Obviously Lugosi was pleased to be making movies, even an Ed Wood opus. His other flubbed line is more amusing; he tells a kidnapped girl reporter not to be afraid of Lobo because ‘he is as gentle as a kitchen.” Ah, but is Lobo as gentle as a dinette? Obviously the script must have said that Lobo was as gentle as a kitten. In any case, Dr. Vornoff is lying because a few seconds later he is triking his assistant with a bull whip because poor old Lobo has noticed the attractiveness of the woman.
What a movie! Every time Vornoff attempts the creation of a superman, he kills the subject of his experiment. But when the clumsy Lobo turns on his master and decides to kill him with his own apparatus, the thing works and Lugosi becomes a stunt-man who is tall, strong, and able to beat der krapp out of Lobo. It’s magic! The house burns down which in turn sets off an atomic reaction and the movie cuts to that familiar mushroom cloud. The only trouble is that all the good guys are standing a few yards from the house, casually observing what would have reduced them to atoms (love that expression). One of them says, “He tampered with God’s domain.” Vornoff must have been a genius to create an A-bomb blast the size of a Japanese bonsai tree.
The funniest episode with regard to Bride was how the movie was financed. (This story has also been told about Plan Nine From Outer Space (1959) , but the official version belongs to Bride.) The only folks willing to put up the dough were Baptist businessmen who insisted on the condition of the cast becoming baptized in their church. All would have gone well except that Lobo (er, I mean Tor) didn’t fit into the baptismal tank. They had to take him to a swimming pool where the mighty Tor put on the best performance of his life: he faked a drowning, went to the bottom of the pool like a rock, reduced the minister to a blithering panic, and then rose again from the dead, spewing out water like a whale. Let’s hear it for Lobo!
While in the hospital, Lugosi was given a script to a proposed Wood film called the Ghoul Goes West. Nothing came of it. Instead, his next work for Wood would be a brief stint in his Dracula cape in a small cemetery. This along with home movie footage of Lugosi became the basis for his posthumous screen appearance in Plan Nine From Outer Space (inspired by the cover of a 1939 Startling Stories, believe it or not) This is a bona fide movie classic. It’s so God-awful that to see it is to love it.
Tor Johnson’s most difficult assignment is acting like a human being (the sheriff, in fact) for the first part of the film. He even has to talk. Imagine Godzilla dressed in a nondescript way…and then you change his attire and you’ve got yourself a monster. Sure…Once Tor is reanimated from the dead, he’s back in fine form.
Lugosi, Lugosi’s double, Vampira (of TV horror host fame), and Tor wander around the itty-bitty set because aliens from space have brought the dead back to life as a gesture of sincerity. These space people are miffed when living humans misinterpret their friendly gesture. The flying saucers have been variously described as hub-caps, thermos plugs, and pie pans. The inside of the ship has a theater curtain and a table. The space people wear Tom Corbett style costume: and cry a lot. If this movie were any worse, it would cause brain damage. One is left wondering what the other eight plans were like.
The dialogue is goony, as when the leader of the saucer explains how he can blow up our sun by “lighting” the end of a light ray which will act as a “fuse’, and, well, you know…The film is funniest in its use of the Lugosi footage, some of which is used more than once. Shortly into the thing, Lugosi suffers his on-screen death (home movie footage), as he walks off camera and we hear a screech of automobile tires. The narrator informs us that Lugosi has been run down. The only trouble is that we can still see his shadow cast on the house.
Lugosi died in 1956. Frankly, I’m glad that he didn’t live to see the completed Plan Nine. Next to it, Bride of the Monster is a classic from the Universal days. Amazingly, Plan Nine spawned a sequel with Criswell and Tor Johnson. It has never been released. The title is rumored to be either Night of the Ghouls or Orgy of the Dead. I know what I’d call it: Rio Lobo.
The Ed Wood films would be fine as part of a festival dedicated to Tor or dreck, or both. As a tribute to Bela Lugosi, however, the good movies that he made would be sufficient for many hours of viewing pleasure. You know about those. Consider classics such as Dracula (1931), White Zombie (1932), Son of Frankenstein (1939) (with Bela as the unforgettable Ygor), the Black Cat (1941) (with his best performance, in my opinion), the Raven (1935), the Invisible Ray (1936), the Island of Lost Souls (1933), Dark Eyes of London (British title of the Human Monster, 1940), Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932), Mark of the Vampire (1935)… and his small but perfect role in the Val Lewton/Boris Karloff masterpiece, the Body Snatcher (1945). Lesser films that are still OK include the Ghost of Frankenstein (1942), Return of the Vampire (1944) (a lot of fun), the Wolf Man (1941) (bit part), Black Friday (1940), the Night Monster (1942), and even Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943), where the only serious flaw is Lugosi himself because of terrible miscasting). There are just plain fun roles for Lugosi in Abbott & Castello Meet Frankenstein (1948), Chandu the Magician (1932), and Old Mother Riley Meets the Vampire (1952). And there are also interesting non-genre items such as International House (1933), the Death Kiss (1932) (a straight mystery), and his brief role opposite Greta Garbo in Ninotchka (1939).
You can certainly book an evening of Lugosi without using stuff fit for “Der Krapp.”