Following up on our earlier post about the notorious William Beaudine…
Beaudine created so much work across so many genres, but for better or worse, in the wider community of film buffs he is best known as the director of some of the most notorious “bad movies” this side of Ed Wood. Because he made numerous spook comedies (mostly with the Dead End Kids/ Bowery Boys), I think it’s safe to say though that the comic effects in these Grade Z movies were for the most part intentional. But who can say, in this crazy world? And he did so many straight mysteries and such that it’s just possible that some of these were meant pretty seriously. It’s conundrums like this that makes certain films so fascinating to watch for a beleaguered soul like me.
The Apeman (1943)
This one, for example, seems to be intended to be straight — but that doesn’t mean it ain’t a stinker! A sister (who happens to be a ghost hunter) finds her long missing brother (Bela Lugosi), whose research has caused him to become an ape creature. He is now searching for the antidote. (An unsatisfactory plot formula, it seems to me. Better to meet the hero initially and then watch him change…a journey). Here, we merely watch Lugosi as a half man/ half ape, who, with the aid of a supernaturally well-behaved full ape assistant, must steal the “spinal fluid” from still living victims for his antidote—a process fatal to the victim. The other characters are the requisite policemen and reporters, Lugosi’s colleague and his wife. The movie is surprisingly dull for such a delicious set-up. And, truth to tell, what would be so bad about being a half man/half ape, anyway? So bad you’d kill for the antidote? Why not just come out in the open, gaining fame for your discovery in the process, and get the entire scientific community to work on the antidote while you accept lucrative banana endorsements? Ah, but this is the world of fantasy. There is also a funny coda. This mysterious man who periodically pops up through the story tells us in the end, that he is the screenwriter!
Voodoo Man (1944)
Quite a disappointment. Imagine a movie with this title without any actual Haitian Voodoo practitioners! The voodoo scenes consist of Bela Lugosi and George Zucco in wizard outfits with John Carradine making idiotic faces and beating a bongo. The nefarious plot? They have trapped four successive female motorists on the same stretch of road and turned them into zombies. Zucco, as the least plausible American gas station attendant ever, tips off Lugosi that the motorist is preceding down the road, and then Lugosi uses a special machine that causes her car engine to fail. Lugosi is trying to do some kind of soul transference. He has kept his dead wife alive for the past 22 years but she is comatose. He will use these women to bring her fully to life. Why all the sudden he is doing this after 22 years is unexplained. Carradine’s role as a lackey is especially thankless and humiliating. Can he have been that hard up? At any rate, the authorities figure it out somehow and come rescue the women.
Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla (1952)
Dare I say, Beaudine’s masterpiece? I’m guessing the inspiration was the runaway smash hit Bride of the Gorilla. Jerry Lewis impersonator Sammy Petrillo and his partner Duke Mitchell are stranded on a desert island with a bunch of natives and Bela Lugosi, who plans to turn them into gorillas. (At one point, Mitchell does transform. Petrillo is able to recognize him when he manages to sing his signature song “Indeed I Do”. ) Anyway, it’s all okay. It turns out to have all been a dream. When last we leave the boys (a comedy team that never made another film) they are doing their act in a jungle-themed nightclub.
And Then This Pair of Classics, released at the same time in 1966:
Billy the Kid vs. Dracula
“I’d never thought I’d live to see the day Billy the Kid was afraid of anything.” That was before DRACULA showed up — in the Old West! A perfect hybrid of the two genres—exactly what you would expect. The lynchpin (an inspired one I think) is superstitious immigrants. One of them is played by Mrs. Olsen from the Folger’s coffee commercials. They know Dracula (John Carradine) for what he is from their experiences in the old country. When Drac bites and kills an Indian maiden, the tribe retaliates and kills everyone on a stagecoach, allowing Dracula to assume the identity of a man coming to take possession of a ranch. He ingratiates himself with his beautiful neice (his ward), whose nice boyfriend (for no reason required by the story) is Billy the Kid. Billy has his suspicions about the mysterious goings on and begins to investigate. It turns out Dracula has chosen the “niece” for his bride…Billy catches him at the moment of consummation (Carradine hypnotizes her like a vaudeville mentalist) and kills him by stabbing him with a common scalpel. (This is not the only way this movie’s vampire runs contrary to accepted type. He also seems fine to go around during the daytime.) This is one of those movies where the characters have had several conversations about vampires, then when the heroine is found with marks on her neck and the doctor diagnoses vampires, the hero says “Vampires?” as though he’d never heard the term before. The film’s most priceless feature is a face Carradine repeatedly makes, showing a maximum amount of eye-white. It is done so often and so overtly it is like a form of punctuation.
Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter
If these two horror westerns were a single, this one is definitely the B side, leaning more on the boring western element than horror. Frankensteins daughter (or granddaughter?) and another scientist convert an old Arizona monastery into a haunted castle to do their experiments. They have been using the bodies of the living for their experiements rather than dead body parts. But there is precious little of this to be seen until the end, when they screw off the skullcap of one of the cowboys and he becomes a Tor Johnson-like cypher. It doesn’t weave very well into the plot about Jesse James and his gang robbing banks.
For more on early film history please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc