The Horror and Mystery of Bela Lugosi
Today is the birthday of Hungarian-American actor Bela Lugosi (for my biographical post on Lugosi go here). Since his birthday falls so conveniently during the Halloween season, I thought we’d devote a post to him in our month long series about classic horror we launched here.
While 1931’s Dracula was the film that put Lugosi on the map, it’s interesting to note that he’d made something like 50 films prior to that, staring in 1917, first in his native Austria-Hungary, then in Germany, then in Hollywood. Most of them are silent pictures; many of them were moody, scary pictures of the type he would be known for doing in the sound era. It’s interesting to track the path his career takes — from relative prestige and respect…to something sadly the opposite of that.
At any rate here are some, but hardly all of the characteristic films from the Lugosivian canon:
Der Januskopf (1920)
This was a pirated version of The Strange Tale of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, directed by F.W. Murnau and starring Conrad Veidt. Two years later, Murnau would use this same technique (um, piracy) to adapt Dracula into Nosferatu. Lugosi played the butler of Veidt’s character, the Jeckyll/Hyde stand-in. Sadly, today Der Januskopf is considered a lost film.
The Thirteenth Chair (1929)
Tod Browning directed Bayard Veillard’s moody mystery The Thirteenth Chair, starring Veillard’s wife Margaret Wycherly, and two future stars of Browning pictures, Lugosi and Leila Hyams (Freaks). The beauty of silence is that Lugosi can be a fairly straight character without his accent getting in the way. Here, he plays a detective who uses a seance to solve a murder.
The nightmare that started it all. Bela Lugosi, who had starred in the Broadway stage play (1927-1928), defined the character for all time in playing the lead, although both the studio and director Tod Browning dithered for some time before finally casting him. Which is as well—Lugosi is indelible, indistinguishable from the role, permanently etched in our minds. Lugosi seemed incapable of being anything but creepy, weird, and portentous. Also from the Broadway cast came Edward Van Sloan who IS Dracula’s nemesis Professor Van Helsing.
Filmed by cinematographer Karl Freud (and by all accounts substantially directed by him as well), I find the film unspeakably gorgeous, moody, atmospheric. It happens entirely at the level of a dream or a fairy tale…not of logic. Incredible Gothic visions, carriages on mountain roads, the castle, cobwebs and candelabras! I love the scene where Dracula’s three wives come out of their coffins. Are those possums crawling about? Armadillos? And a tiny bug climbs out of a tiny coffin? Yet there are plenty of technical crudities, fairly unavoidable at this early stage of sound motion picture production. The bats are crudely done, and the transformation (from man to bat and vice versa) always takes place off camera. We hear the wolves but never see them.
Things are changed around from Bram Stoker’s book. Here it is Renfield (Dwight Fry) who comes to Castle Dracula to sell the abbey, setting it up for his later bug-eating lackeydom. The screenplay seems composed entirely of quotable catch-phrases, much like modern films. (Yet a silent film test on one of the DVD bonus features shows that the film may work better as a silent, which was of course the milieu Browning knew best). And the various characters are hilariously myopic in their inability or unwillingness to realize the reality that is literally staring them right in the face. David Manners as always plays an ineffectual, effeminate hero. And the blatant Pre-Code metaphor of corruption and sexual pollution, implicit in the idea of an animal transformation that results from the intimate act of a bite on the neck.
An insane Joe E. Brown comedy, directed by Mervyn Leroy and written by Kalmar and Ruby, in their full-on crazy vein. Brown plays a rich party boy who drives across country to California on his uncle’s instructions so he can keep out of trouble. Amond the trouble they get into is a feud with hot-headed foreigner Bela Lugosi .
Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932)
Yes, it’s “based on the Poe story” but, on the other hand, no, not really. The only thing the film shares in common with the story is the event of a body being stuffed up a chimney by an ape. This version casts Lugosi as one “Dr. Mirakle”, who appalls the people of Paris by exhibiting a “gorilla” which is alternately portrayed by an actual chimpanzee and a guy in a gorilla suit, often in different angles during the same scene. Even worse, he preaches the heinous doctrine of evolution! And did you notice how he happens to resemble an ape? Worse than all of this, he is performing an evil experiment, kidnapping maidens and injecting them with ape blood, which kills them. Then he very shockingly dumps them into the river. Instead of following the detective (Dupin) as he gradually solves the unexplained murders (the template that would come to be used by Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie and a million others, we know from the outset who the murderer is. Dupin is a medical student, who eventually solves the mystery with a microscope—and the next victim, in an amazing coincidence, is his girlfriend. Still, the movie is as beautiful to look at as the other Universal horror films of the time, if you can forgive the absolutely daffy element of how the ape itself is represented.
White Zombie (1932)
This is probably my favorite zombie movie. I find that I am rarely truly scared by modern zombie movies of the post-Night of the Living Dead variety. Whatever it is that scares people about them eludes me entirely. However I find VOODOO zombies terrifying. This one is set in Haiti, where it seems to be perpetually nighttime. A pair of young lovers comes there to marry. An unscrupulous plantation owner wants the girl for his own, so he contacts the evil zombie master Bela Lugosi (who uses zombie slave labor) to obtain his zombie-making secrets. He turns the bride into a zombie—she becomes the “wife” of the plantation owner. He quickly regrets this path…his zombie wife is a little unsatisfying. Lugosi starts to turn him into a zombie too. In the end the groom comes to rescue the girl, and the plantation owner in a last burst of humanity pushes Lugosi over a cliff to his death. Lots of cool Dracula derived elements inexplicably transplanted to Haiti…a ride in a similar carriage, and especially the mysterious, gorgeous Gothic castle. The atmosphere is nightmarish, chilling….
Chandu the Magician (1932)
Fox’s answer to Universal’s string of horror hits. It is an absolutely gorgeous movie set in a “Mysterious East” of the imagination. It is based on a radio show that had much in common with The Shadow and Mandrake the Magician, and clearly is a model for the later comic book Dr. Strange.
“Chandu” is the American Frank Chandler (Edmund Lowe) who in the first act has just finished a course to be a yogi of the highest order. He celebrates his mystic ceremony by performing some gratuitous, familiar magic tricks: causing a rope to float, walking across fire. He is given his mission by his mystical mentor to go out and do good in the world. Conveniently his first mission is close to home. His brother in law, a scientist who is working on a death ray (cue the tesla coils) is kidnapped by an evil mad scientist played by Bela Lugosi. Lugosi is great in the part; the guy who plays Chandu unfortunately is a bit of a schmuck. The bulk of the plot is set in Egypt which mysteriously bears not a trace of resemblance to the modern Muslim country. Though gang members have names like Abdullah, they appear to worship Osiris and other ancient gods, providing us with a choice Mummy movie atmosphere.
Chandu’s sidekick is an old army buddy—for some reason he is a Kiplingesque hard drinking Britisher….what army were they in precisely? He is the comic relief, always sneaking a drink. To keep him in line, Chandu conquers a little impish double who constantly chides him for his drinking. There are many memorable scenes. One very racy Pre-Code scene has Chandu’s niece being sold at a white slave auction. Several, toothless, dark-hued foreigners leer and drool as they bid on her. In a great set piece, the villain causes the floor of the cell containing Chandu’s family to slowly drop out, threatening to send them plummeting into an underground river several hundred feet below. And the climax is blood chilling. Chandu causes Lugosi to freeze with his hands on the control to the death ray. The thing starts to overheat, while the villain stands there horribly immobile until the thing explodes. Nightmarish.
The Island of Lost Souls (1932)
Wonderfully spooky and atmospheric—definitely the best version of this H.G. Wells story (not hard to beat the Burt Lancaster and Marlon Brando ones). The movie gives off a vibe as scary as that of White Zombie, which I consider the gold standard. You need those torch lit nighttime black and white scenes. Charles Laughton chews the scenery as Dr. Moreau, who doesn’t care how many creatures he tortures, makes miserable, or kills in his experiments. He rules them all as a God, and one can’t help think Wells is making a comment on British Imperialism. And of course a furry faced Bela Lugosi as the Sayer of the Law. (Devo used his phrase “Are Not Men?” in their theme song). The monster rebellion at the climax of the film is one of the most nightmarish scenes ever put on film).
The Death Kiss (1932)
An entertaining semi-comical murder mystery set in a movie studio — the murder of an actor taking place when blank cartridges are replaced with live ones during a scene. (That is a hoary device nowadays, not so much then). David Manners, from Dracula is the hero. Lugosi, the studio’s business manager is one of the many suspects.
International House (1933)
I’ve probably seen this one two dozen times, and will no doubt watch it many more. It’s essentially a revue film showcasing many musical and comedy stars, spliced together with a parody of MGM’s Grand Hotel, which had been released the previous year. It’s all set at the titular International House hotel in Wuhu, China, where VIPS from all over the globe have come to see a demonstration of a new invention called a “radioscope”, which is essentially a prototype of television.
Lugosi plays an evil Russian spy. The flustered hotel manager is of course Franklin Pangborn; the hotel doctor and nurse are George Burns and Gracie Allen. Guests include W.C. Fields, Peggy Hopkins Joyce (as herself), and Stuart Erwin. The radioscope itself is the devise that enables the revue portion. As the assembled parties watch, the device tunes into various parts of the globe where it just happens to capture great variety acts, among them, Cab Calloway, Rudy Vallee, Baby Rose Marie and Stoopnagle and Budd. There’s never a dull moment in this movie; there’s never time for one.
The Black Cat (1934)
An amazing movie—gorgeous. Bela Lugosi meets up with a pair of newlyweds on their way to honeymoon in the Carpathians! (hahahahahaa) Well, the groom (David Manners) is a mystery writer so I guess it does make a little sense. Their bus crashes. Lugosi brings them to his destination, the home of his former enemy in war, Boris Karloff , who was the commandant of the prison camp where Lugosi was interred. You know you’re in a bad way, when your only protection from Boris Karloff is…Bela Lugosi! And Lugosi, though creepy in the film, is actually the good guy…although he is consumed with revenge against Karloff for his experience in the camp and for either killing his wife and daughter or stealing them—he isn’t sure which. Meanwhile Karloff’s house is a masterpiece of modern art deco design, as are his clothes and even his haircut. He is said to be a brilliant architect. It turns out he has Lugosi’s wife in suspended animation, and has married his daughter, who looks just like the wife.
Meanwhile, as if that werene’t enough, he plans to use the newlywed bride as a human sacrifice in a Satanist ceremony. For fun, he plays Bach’s Toccatto and Fugue on the pipe organ. Lugosi, meanwhile, a famous psychiatrist, is afraid of black cats—it turns out with reason—they must play some vague part in Karloff’s Satanic connections. In the end the couple escapes as Lugosi and Karloff do battle. The house explodes behind them. In a jokey button, the groom reads a review of his novel which was based on their real experience: it gets panned for being too unrealistic!
The Return of Chandu (1934)
The sequel to Chandu was done as a serial, this time with Lugosi as Frank Chandler (his thick accent completely unexplained). This edition seems done on the cheap and is rather dull, I couldn’t get past the first couple of episodes.
Mark of the Vampire (1935)
Essentially a remake of Browning’s 1927 London After Midnight. Not a good film, though a good and weird one! Seems to be set in Czechoslovakia. A baron has been killed, presumably by vampires from a nearby castle. Browning revisits much of Dracula here, right down to the recapitulation of certain scenes. Lionel Atwill as some sort of investigator, frequent Browning collaborator Lionel Barrymore as a Van Helsing-like vampire expert. It is clearly a vampire movie for most of the film. Bela Lugosi plays the count…who never speaks! And he has a daughter, a sort of early template for Vampira, Lily Munster, et al. Many scenes of the usual slow moving bats on fishing wire changing into vampires and so forth. One very cool shot—the only one in the movie—of the vampire daughter flying into the castle as a giant bat. Then the movie stops on a dime and the entire reality changes. It turns out to be a conventional murder investigation. Barrymore hypnotizes the suspect and forces him to relive the crime. It turns out the vampires are hired actors; the guardian of the murdered man’s daughter murdered the baron with poison. Talk about being short-changed! Surely this ending must have left audiences grumbling!
The Raven (1935)
Lugosi plays an insane but brilliant surgeon who is obsessed with Edgar Allen Poe. He keeps a stuffed raven on his desk, and has built replicas of all the torture devices from his stories in his basement. Retired from practice, he is devoting all his time to research until he is called on by a judge to save the life of his daughter who has had a bad car accident. Lugosi wants to marry the daughter and won’t take no for an answer, even though the girl is engaged to be married to someone else. Fortuitously, Boris Karloff shows up as a common criminal seeking plastic surgery so he can escape the law. Lugosi purposely mangles his face so he can control him, dangling the promise of restoration so he’ll do his bidding. Then he invites a small party including the affianced couple and the judge for an overnight party. Don’t go, you stupids!! Before the night is out, he has the judge strapped to a Poe-like ax-pendulum, and the couple locked in one of those rooms where the walls move in to crush you. (The house is amazing…a lever that turns off all the phones. Another lever that makes metal shutters go over all the windows. A bedroom in an elevator that takes the girl to the basement.) In the end, Karloff breaks ranks and attacks Lugosi, throwing him in the wall-crusher and ending his career of madness. And the girl is left with her husband, an empty twit with a pencil thin mustache.
Murder by Television (1935)
A very bad, low budget murder mystery from an outfit called Cameo Pictures. The only real horror elements are a death ray, and the presence of Bela Lugosi as a suspicious scientist and his FBI man twin brother. Essentially several people gather to watch demonstrations of experimental television. The main guy dies, and we watch the inspector try to solve the crime. Hattie McDaniel plays a comical maid.
The Invisible Ray (1936)
A perfect movie. Boris Karloff is a scientist in Carpathian mountains living with his blind mother and wife, who happens to be the daughter of his former mentor. His observatory is of course located in a castle. He invites skeptical colleagues (one of whom is Bela Lugosi in a rare non-villainous role) to show them something. His special telescope looks deep into space, able to look back on earth millions of years in the past. They witness a meteorite hitting Africa. As a result, they mount an expedition there to look for a special element, the most powerful in the universe, known as Radium X. Several scenes in the jungle, with stereotyical African native porters. Karloff finds his element, but it poisons him. He now glows in the dark, and kills whatever he touches. Lugosi makes him an antidote, but he has to take it every day. Meanwhile, his estrangement from his wife causes her to fall in love with the young explorer from the scientific society. When they return to London, Karloff gets the Nobel Prize but it isn’t enough. The radiation has affected his brain, he is paranoid, jealous of everyone. While his ray cures blindness, he also has visions of destroying cities. He pretends to be dead, allowing his wife to marry his rival. Then he plots revenge, killing those who went with him to Africa, one by one. He finds himself unable to kill his wife however. Then his mother destroys his antidote, dooming him. He burns up in a fire, and tumbles over a balcony to his death.
Son of Frankenstein (1939)
The wild thing about this one is that THIS is the model for Mel Brooks’ parody Young Frankenstein, NOT the two earlier Frankenstein pictures. Brooks and Gene Wilder lifted not just the entire plot, but many of the details and gags—unchanged.
Basil Rathbone plays Dr. Frankenstein’s son. He returns to the ancestral village with his wife, butler and young son (a sort of Shirley Temple rip-off), and finds a castle and lab looking very much like sets from Dr. Caligari. The entire village is suspicious of him from the get-go. The monacle-wearing, mechanical-armed police constable, played by Lionel Atwill, keeps close tabs on him at all times. They have a great relationship, he and Frankenstein, cordial, but wary and watchful.
Meanwhile, one Ygor (Bela Lugosi) a local deformed criminal who has been unsuccessfully hanged, encourages Frankenstein to revive the monster, who had been his only friend. (We soon learn why—Ygor employed him to kill 6 of the 8 people on the committee who hanged him). (Ygor was hanged for grave robbing. How convenient!) Frankenstein uses his father’s diary to bring the creature back to life. (The make up is not as good in this film, and it seems to me the the role of the monster is pretty thankless—probably why this is the last time Karloff did it).
Right away Ygor gets the monster to kill the two remaining committee members and also Frankenstein’s butler (he somehow controls him by playing a strange looking little alpenhorn). An angry mob forms. Frankenstein shoots Ygor, and eventually pushes the monster into a bubbling sulfur pit conveniently located underneath his laboratory. He donates his castle and everyone cheers. All in all this is a surprisingly strong movies. It stands up pretty good on its own—which is more than you can say about what comes afterward!
Largely a parody of The Bat, this sui generis 1939 comedy/horror film/ murder mystery concerns a cast of characters in an Old Dark House concerned about a threat from a mysterious murderer who signs his letters “The Gorilla”. To confuse matters, an actual gorilla (i.e., guy in a cheap gorilla suit) keeps wandering in and out of the mansion’s secret passageways. Directed by Allan Dwan, the all-star cast features Lugosi as the butler (a red herring), the Ritz Brothers (as detectives), Anita Louise, Patsy Kelly (as a perpetually fretting maid), and the omnipresent Lionel Atwill. And a guy in a gorilla suit. For this reason, if not other, this movie should be seen at least once, if never again thereafter.
Lugosi has a small role as a Russian Commissar in Lubitsch’s classic comedy.
The Phantom Creeps (1939)
An entertaining serial in which Lugosi plays a villainous scientist named Dr. Zorka. Everyone (the forces of light and darkness both) wants his inventions, including an invisibility device, robots and mind control. Edward Van Sloan from Dracula is also in the film.
Black Friday (1940)
This is more of a gangster picture than Gothic horror, but it has certain horror elements. It stars Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, the former as a mad scientist who saves the life of his dying friend, a mild-mannered professor, by transplanting part of an injured gangster’s brain into his. When Karloff hears that the gangster has $500,000 hidden, he gets greedy, and begins to control the man in order to find out where it is. The guy keeps shifting between his two personalities….professor and gangster. As the latter, he begins bumping off his old colleagues (one of whom is Lugosi) as well as policemen. Eventually it all comes to light and Karloff gets the electric chair.
The Devil Bat (1940)
This movie is unspeakably awesome…down in the Ed Wood category of Grade Z films. Bela Lugosi is a mad scientist who has not only artificially grown a bunch of super-sized bats (through radiation of course) but has also trained them to attack whoever wears a certain cologne. (His ostensible job is inventing colognes). One of my favorite exchanges in cinema: Innocent victim: “Goodnight, doctor!” Lugosi: “GoodBYE, Jimmy”. The bat of course is shown is separate shots which give no idea of scale (a real bat), or presented as a big plastic swooping kite-like prop on a wire. I have seen this film perhaps ten times.
The Invisible Ghost (1941)
Lugosi as a somnambulant killer. First we see him having dinner with his wife—who isn’t there. We learn that she disappeared years ago. We learn that she is mad, living at the house of a servant. She is afraid to go home to her husband because she fears he will kill her (she was unfaithful). Unfortunately she goes out at night. When Lugosi sees her out the window he thinks she is a vision or a ghost, then he goes into a trance and kills whomever’s around. After about for people are dispatched, the police begin to get somewhat interested. Eventually the facts come out and Lugosi is properly pinched.
The Black Cat (1941)
Quite different from the 1934 film of the same name (above), this one is an Old Dark House mystery comedy, with an ensemble that includes Lugosi, Cecilia Loftus, Basil Rathbone, Hugh Herbert, Broderick Crawford and Gale Sondergaard.
Spooks Run Wild (1941)
The Wolf Man (1941)
Our full post on The Wolf Man and its sequels will follow later this week. Suffice it to say for now that in this film, Lugosi plays the monster who bites Lon Chaney Jr., thus turning HIM into a Wolf Man.
Black Dragons (1942)
Lugosi plays a Nazi scientist who works with the Japanese Black Dragon Society to replace six murdered American leaders with six Japanese spies who have been enhanced with plastic surgery to resemble them. The hero of the film is played by Clayton Moore, who later become famous playing the Lone Ranger. Look for Bernard Gorcey in a bit part as a cab driver. Humorously, his presence is a kind of foreshadowing. The fictional Black Dragon society would later be thwarted by the East Side Kids.
The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942)
Oh yes, the ghost of Dr Frankenstein does appear in this film, although it is a little hard to tell if he is just a figment of his son (Cedric Hardwicke)’s imagination. This is Frankenstein’s second son, a psychiatrist in a village fairly distant from the one where all the havoc happened in the previous films, thus making it possible for all sorts of familiar things to happen.
In the prologue, back in the old village we see that Ygor (Bela Lugosi) not only somehow didn’t die from his gunshot wounds in the last picture, but he even looks a little better. The villagers are having tough economic times. They blame even THIS on the “Curse of Frankenstein” and so blow up the old castle. This of course fulfills the curse, by releasing the monster (Lon Chaney Jr) from the hardened sulfur mud from the last film. He and Ygor go to a nearby village, cause a disruption and then wind up being tried in a local court as madmen. The monster escapes, but Frankenstein fils has him locked up in his asylum.
Egged on by Ygor and the Ghost of the original Dr Frankenstein, they decide the thing to do is replace the monster’s brain with a better one. (“They” is Hardwicke and his colleague Lionel Atwill—it is very nearly impossible in this film to tell them apart). The plan is to use the brain of their other colleague whom the monster has killed. But Ygor, who has suddenly become a criminal mastermind who wants to take over the country (instead of the deformed halfwit he was in the previous film) convinces Atwill to switch HIS brain. Meanwhile a young child the monster had demonstrated a fondness for has dispappeared and now a mob is after the monster. (Somehow in the middle of all this are the obligatory romantic couple, Frankenstein’s daughter and her beau, local prosecutor Ralph Bellamy).
What happens in the end? Lab blows up and mansion burns down with monster in it. By now we know not to consider that a conclusive ending. There is a sad new dip in quality with this picture. It’s a routine programmer, barely an hour long (and that padded with flashback footage from first film). It is more of a sequel to Son of Frankenstein than it is to Frankenstein. We are getting far from the wellspring.
The Corpse Vanishes (1942)
In this Monogram cheapie, Lugosi is a mad scientist who sends poisoned orchids to brides on their wedding day so he can steal their mysterious virgin essence of youth and beauty, and transplant it to his wife! I’d say that this one marks a new low for him, but then he’d already made The Devil Bat! On the other hand, at least The Devil Bat has a Devil Bat!
Night Monster (1942)
Though Lugosi has top billing in this thriller, he actually has one of the smallest roles, as a creepy butler. They throw everything including the kitchen sink to make this movie scary, including an evil swami (Nils Asther), a hunchback, a swamp monster, mad scientists, and a multiple amputee, yet unaccountable it’s still not an (intentional) comedy. It’s too bad Tod Browning’s career was washed up by this point. He was the one director who probably could have made something out of this collection of elements.
The Bowery at Midnight (1942)
Lugosi is a criminal ringleader with two covers—as the benevolent leader of the Friendly Bowery Mission and as a college psychology professor. But underneath his mission is a lair where he meets with his gang. Unfortunately he always kills the new gang members, very efficiently right on the spot, once they’ve completed their their job. The bottom of the basement is a cemetery. But there is another twist. One of his gang members is a doctor, and he is bringing all his victims back to life!
The Apeman (1943)
Directed by the wonderful William Beaudine. This is merely the penultimate level of badness (E. Wood being the gold standard). As in The Alligator People, we begin in medias res – 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!
Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943)
This is the one in which Lugosi finally drank the Kool-Aid! He had originally been slated to play Frankenstein’s monster in the original Frankenstein, but his ego got the better of him and he walked off the set. He didn’t recognize it for the potentially excellent part it was because there were no speaking lines and his face would be obscured by make-up. So the then-obscure Boris Karloff got the part and walked away with critical plaudits. Ten years later, Lugosi was doing The Ape Man and The Corpse Vanishes. You’d be better believe he was grateful to eat a little crow and play the monster now for a Universal paycheck.
Ghosts on the Loose (1943)
A better than average spook comedy featuring the East Side Kids, directed by William Beaudine, and featuring Lugosi as a Nazi spy….but best of all, as the beautiful love interest — Ava Gardner, whom we are supposed to believe is Huntz Hall’s sister! That’s enough for three movies and it’s only an hour long! Them’s what I call moovies!
Return of the Vampire (1943)
For this picture, Columbia essentially stole the characters of Dracula and the Wolf Man from Universal (and gave them different names). But having Lugosi as a vampire in a black cape…if it looks like a bat, and flaps its wings like a bat…Should I bother telling you about it? Okay! Well, it’s very much a “B” movie. The graveyard set reminds me very much of the ones Ed Wood would work with ten years later. Cheaply fabricated in a small studio, with lots of dry ice for atmosphere. World War II dominates the film, mostly as a framing device. After an air raid, a couple of wardens (one of whom is Billy Bevan, who’d been in Dracula’s Daughter!) patrol a blitzed graveyard, and pull the stake out of a deceased vampire’s heart (Lugosi). The vampire has an assistant, a preposterous, unintentionally comical talking werewolf with a cartoon nose. The werewolf doesn’t attack people, he just acts as the assistant for the vampire. He was in a sort of werewolf rehab for several decades, but now he has relapsed.
A woman scientist, the daughter of the man who first conquered the vampire is onto him, and lots of the usual stuff transpires as the vampire pursues the daughter etc. This vampire’s social skills are much better than Dracula’s. He moves about in the world, albeit at night, and he doesn’t act nearly as weird. (He was formerly vampire expert—he wrote a book on the subject). In the end, we have another German air raid, and the werewolf himself drives the stake through the vampire’s heart. Not Dracula, but the next best thing.
Voodoo Man (1944)
Quite a disappointment. Imagine a movie with this title without any actual Africans! 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 individual 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 somnambulant. He will use these women to bring her fully to life. Why he is doing this all the sudden after 22 years of not doing this 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.
Return of the Apeman (1944)
Was the first one such a smash hit they needed a sequel? This one has nothing to do with the original. Lugosi and John Carradine are scientists working on the problem of suspended animation. They get it to work on a homeless man they have frozen. Realizing that it works, they launch an arctic expedition to find intact frozen cavemen—and they find one! They bring him back to the lab and thaw him out. But the caveman can’t talk to relay what he knows. Lugosi decides to transplant part of a modern brain into his head. Carradine refuses to participate—it will be murder to do so. Lugosi tricks him (with an electric floor plate that paralyzes him but somehow allows him to talk) and takes his brain. The caveman runs amok in city and commits some murders. Authorities chase him back to lab. Caveman kills Lugosi, but then dies in fire. He should have stayed in bed!
One Body Too Many (1944)
Lugosi plays the creepy butler in yet another Old Dark House style spook comedy. This one has Jack Haley in the lead as an insurance salesman who goes on a sales call at the mansion of a rich old recluse only to learn the man has died and his family are all there for the reading of the will. All manner of hijinks result as Haley is hired to guard the corpse as the various relatives scheme to subvert the terms of the will. Others in the cast include Lyle Talbot and Dorothy Granger. Lugosi’s recurring bit is to try to serve everyone coffee he has laced with rat poison. I’ve watched this one a few times just to study the brilliant Haley’s performance (he actually manages to wring a few chuckles out of the weak material).
Zombies on Broadway (1945)
Spook comedy starring Wally Brown and Alan Carney. They are often referred to as “RKO’s answer to Abbott and Costello“, through to me the combination is closer in spirit to Wheeler and Woolsey or Martin and Lewis (though the latter two came after). And further, the movie in question is often referred to as RKO’s answer to Abbott and Costello’s Universal Monster spook comedy team-ups. BUT for the inconvenient fact that those started coming out a few years AFTER Zombies on Broadway. Likewise it’s often assumed that Zombies on Broadway was a spin-off of or sequel to Val Lewton’s I Walked with a Zombie, which was released two years earlier. But apart from the word “zombie”, a Caribbean setting and that it’s the same studio, I’d say the connection is overstated.
The plot of this movie is pretty funny (i.e. enjoyably far fetched). Sheldon Leonard is a gangster who is opening a voodoo themed nightclub in Times Square. But he needs to have a REAL zombie on hand for the launch event or a Walter Winchell-esque radio columnist will trash the place. Carney and Brown are the publicists who caused this whole mishigas by promising an actual zombie in their press release. The gangster is not amused. He send them on a tramp steamer to Haiti, to bring back a real zombie — or else. After many spooky encounters, they actually manage to bring one back — It’s Carney, who has been zombified by a witch doctor back on the island. (Bela Lugosi plays the mad scientist who makes zombies. Thus, if anything it’s more of a sequel to White Zombie). Anyway, ironically Carney reverts to himself just before the gangster sees him, causing yet another crisis. But the boys manage to fake it and it all turns out alright.
Despite the fact that this is a comedy, the zombie effect they use (prosthetic bugged-out eyes) is plenty disturbing. Want to see it? It’s embedded in my Wally Brown post here.
The Body Snatcher (1945)
One of the better (perhaps the best) of the Val Lewton horror pictures for RKO, based on Robert Louis Stevenson’s tale (which was in turn based on the real life story of Burke and Hare.) Set in Edinburgh in the 1830s. Boris Karloff plays a grave robber who helps a famous surgeon (Henry Daniell) obtain the corpses he needs to do his research. Like Burke and Hare, Karloff’s character has taken to killing people to get the corpses he needs. Lugosi plays a creepy servant.
Scared to Death (1947)
One of the few films I have ever seen that is as bad as any Ed Wood movie. The script a horrible mess. As in Ed Wood, every line, every development, every plot twist seems to occur solely because something is supposed to happen next, with no logic from moment to moment, no (cinematic) grammar guiding the steps. On top of that, despite the presence of Lugosi, George Zucco, Nat Pendleton, and a woefully underused little person (Angelo Rossitto), it manages to be pretty boring. Its weirdest feature is a constantly recurring shot of a dead woman on a slab accompanied by an echoey voice over. By the time the woman has been “Scared to Death” we have been Bored to Death.
Abbot and Costello meet Frankenstein (1948)
This should have had a better title, because they also meet Dracula and the Wolf Man (Bela Lugosi and Lon Chaney) and in the film’s closing gag, the Invisible Man (Vincent Price). This is the last film to use the original classic horror monsters, and their original actors (or, heh, their original replacements). Bud Abbott and Lou Costello are baggage handlers who have to deliver two crates to an amusement park House of Horrors. The crates turn out to contain Dracula and Frankenstein (Glenn Strange). The Wolf Man shows up to try to warn everybody. Costello’s girlfriend is a female mad scientist who wants to transplant his brain into the monsters. Several, tedious, endless scenes with Costello seeing the monsters, being scared, and trying to tell a disbelieving Abbott. Finally Abbott does believe him—when he gets abducted and he rescues him in the end. There is one inspired scene—a Halloween party, making for amusing confusion between real and costumed monsters. But most of it is pretty irritating.
Vampire Over London a.k.a Mother Riley Meets the Vampire a.k.a My Son, the Vampire (1952)
I think of this as Lugosi’s last “real” movie. I litmus test for “realness” is if the association confers some legitimacy on Lugosi vs. Lugosi bestowing legitimacy on the production (as happens in his remaining pictures). Of the three titles named above, the middle one is the best and most accurate. It’s actually an installment in a series of “Mother Riley” comedies, the Mother Riley character played by Music Hall drag comedian Arthur Lucan. Thus the movie is not at all unlike Lugosi’s team-ups with Abbott and Costello or the East Side kids. In this film he plays a mad scientist named “the Vampire”, who sleeps in a coffin in a Dracula costume and commits a series of highly publicized murders across London. He has built a robot, a prototype of a kind he hopes to build 50,000 more of so he can create an army. Lugosi is intending to mail it to a “Dr. Riley”, the crates are switched, and the robot arrives at Mrs. Riley’s house. Let the comedy begin! It actually is a pretty funny movie.
Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla (1952)
Dare I say, William 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. This film was Lugosi’s last stop before the indignities of Ed Wood.
Glen or Glenda (1953)
Ostensibly an exploitation picture about the world’s first sex change operation, Ed Wood adulterated the screenplay by making it an autobiographical “coming out” story about his own transvestism and angora sweater fetish. Then, on top of this, he happened to run into Lugosi on the street one day and wrote him into the picture as narrator. And when you have Lugosi, you USE Lugosi, and thus the film becomes horror, or at least semi-horror, and we are repeatedly treated to scenes like this which seem to imply that God is some sort of of mad scientist who revels in making people miserable by unleashing transvestism into the world.
If a film features Bela Lugosi, thunder and lightning, skeletons, smoking beakers, and Satan and ISN’T horror, I don’t know what the hell it is. And– okay, no one knows what the hell Glen or Glenda is.
Bride of the Monster (1955)
At least we know what Bride of the Monster is — straight-up 50s’ era horror. Now that Wood had a working relationship with Lugosi, who needed the money badly, he could build a proper Lugosi picture around him. In Bride he plays a mad scientist from some Eastern European country who now has a castle in an American swamp and conducts evil experiments on monsters, hoping to take over the world. By his side is his terrifying assistant Lobo (Swedish wrestler Tor Johnson). Unfortunately, people (like intrepid reporter Janet Lawton) keep wandering onto his property, forcing him to tie them up and scare them (before they inevitably escape). The “monster” is alternately stock footage of an octopus shot through the window of an aquarium, and an inert rubber octopus in some sort of outdoor wading pool the actors are forced to thrash around with. A much more conventional film than Glen or Glenda it allows us to contemplate the poverty of the sets and Wood’s mind-splittingly illogical dialogue without such distractions as bizarre motives and the creation of entirely new cinematic genre.
Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959)
Amusingly this movie isn’t even listed among Lugosi’s IMDB credits. Released posthumously, it contains the last footage ever shot of Lugosi — essential a bunch of MOS home movies of him walking around. Wood used his dentist as a body double for other scenes in the film, which concerns a plan by space aliens to take over earth by animating the dead. Read more about Plan 9 and Wood’s other films here.
If Lugosi had lived even a few months longer, as he announced in a 1955 interview, he might have starred in Wood’s The Ghoul Goes West. Oh, God in heaven! Why did you rob us?!