Ah, the week anticipating Halloween and I’m doing it right this year. I’m watching the infamous “Monogram Nine” which are the Béla Lugosi films produced by Sam Katzman from 1941-1944, including (in chronological order):
1. Invisible Ghost (1941), dir. Joseph H. Lewis
2. Spooks Run Wild (1941), dir. Phil Rosen
3. The Corpse Vanishes (1942), dir. Wallace Fox
4. Bowery at Midnight (1942), dir. Wallace Fox
5. The Ape Man (1943), William Beaudine
6. Ghosts on the Loose (1943), William Beaudine
7. Black Dragons (1944), dir. William Nigh
8. Voodoo Man (1944), dir. William Beaudine
9. Return of the Ape Man (1944), dir. Phil Rosen
In my opinion none of these films are nearly as fun as the low-budget PRC film The Devil Bat (1941), Universal’s serial The Phantom Creeps (1939) or Scared to Death (1947), which is mainly of interest in being Lugosi’s only color film. The best of the Katzman-Monogram Lugosi films is arguably the first one, Invisible Ghost. Lugosi plays a somnambulic strangler in a creepy old house setting.
I like the sets and some of the photography by cinematographer Marcel Le Picard, who was a long time veteran of low-budget cinema, including several films at Monogram. Lugosi provides several patented hand gestures as he is sleep-walking.
I also enjoyed The Ape Man which is all Lugosi. How he stayed in character in the ridiculous makeup and story is anyone’s guess. The film predates Ed Wood’s Bride of the Monster (1955), with a hulking hench-ape (compared to Lobo) and terrific laboratory sets. It’s one of Lugosi’s funnest films and actually inspired a sequel Return of the Ape Man (1944), which also features John Carradine as Lugosi’s lab assistant. Check out that fake cellophane ice! I couldn’t track down a copy of Return, so I watched crappy fragments on YouTube.
Bela Lugosi as The Ape Man.
Voodoo Man probably has the best cast of the lot, with George Zucco, in top form as a Voodoo Bokor, and John Carradine as one of the heavies. Lugosi looks particularly menacing in this film with goatee similar to his appearance Universal’s The Invisible Ray (1936). The movie differs from the other Monogram features in having a rural setting, which is refreshing and helps the story. I also liked The Corpse Vanishes, with Lugosi playing a horticulturist who specializes on orchids. He also collects women and extracts fluids to keep his wife young and beautiful. Corpse Vanishes also stars the diminutive Angelo Rossitto (Freaks, 1932; Invasion of the Saucer Men, 1957 and many other films) who played Lugosi’s sidekick in a few films. As a side note, there is a terrific “Legend’s Drive*In Theater” double feature DVD available with Voodoo Man and The Corpse Vanishes.
I struggled watching Bowery at Midnight (Bowery referring to the neighborhood in the borough of Manhattan), with Lugosi miscast playing a gangster. However, the story may hold your interest and the ending is worth the wait. But man is this film dullsville. I stopped it a half dozen times and resumed play. Likewise for Black Dragons, which Katzman cranked out to convey the evils of the Japanese just after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Does that make Sam Katzman a profiteer or patriot? Lugosi plays a Nazi plastic surgeon who transforms six “Black Dragons” into American industrialists.
The two East Side Kids vehicles Spooks Run Wild (1941) and Ghosts on the Loose (1943) are best left for fans of wise-cracking Leo Gorcey —a little bit of the East Side Kids goes a long way. Ghosts on the Loose is torpedoed by the monotonous use of the grating hymn Drink to Me Only with Thine Eyes. Refer to Chuck Jones’ animated owl in I Love to Singa (1936) for a hip interpretation of Thine Eyes. Given a choice, I prefer Spooks which has a slight twist ending.
Tom Weaver’s Poverty Row Horrors (McFarland, 1993), provides a “best film ranking” of the Monogram Nine, as determined by a crack squad of Lugosiphiles, including Weaver, Forry Ackerman, Joe Dante, Richard and Alex Gordon and several other notables.
POVERTY ROW HORRORS! RANKING
- Invisible Ghost
- The Corpse Vanishes
- The Voodoo Man
- Bowery at Midnight
- Return of the Apeman
- Black Dragons
- The Ape Man
- Spooks Run Wild
- Ghosts on the Loose
- Invisible Ghost
- The Ape Man
- Voodoo Man
- The Corpse Vanishes
- Return of the Apeman* (based on what I watched)
- Bowery at Midnight
- Spooks Run Wild
- Black Dragons
- Ghosts on the Loose
I’m estimating that I’ve seen Béla Lugosi’s film Dracula (1931) at least once a year since I was about 6 —I’m picking that age because I know I watched Frankenstein (1931) on the original Svengoolie’s Screaming Yellow Theater circa 1971, so I was bound to have caught Dracula too. That’s 43 years ago, so I am thinking I’ve seen Drac 5o to 100 times, and the real number is probably teetering closer to 200. Compared to several other horror films from the Golden Age (1931-1939), Dracula falls short of my top ten list (however, it is in the top 20), largely due to uninspired and static cinematography (I think Browning had reins on Karl Freund) and the slow deliberate pacing of the later half. However, Lugosi’s performance is so mesmerizing I can’t help but watch the film every year during the Halloween season. Sometimes I’ll even live on the edge and tune into the Philip Glass Kronos Quartet score (Egads). To me, Dracula is Lugosi and Lugosi is the definitive count. Sir Christopher Lee is a bloody capillary length away as No. 2.
I also appreciate Edward Van Sloan as vampire specialist Van Helsing. He’s to vampires what Quint was to sharks. For a long time as a kid I thought Van Sloan was comparable to Charleton Heston in thesbian stature or heroic abilities, having played a slayer of vampires, an expert on the occult, and advisor to Dr. Frankenstein! This guy had the juiciest roles in filmdom as exemplified in this publicity still from Dracula, which stages Edward Van Sloan vs. Dracula.
This year I’m exploring a bit and have dug up a few unusual vampire films. They are not rare, but are discussed less than your garden variety nosferatu film du jour. These movies experiment a bit with vampire behavior and abilities, and push the boundaries of what we expect out of our blood-sucking Strigoi (to borrow from Romanian folklore and Guillermo Del Toro).
My friend and fellow horror film aficionado Dan opines that Dracula’s Daughter (1936), which came at the end of Universal first horror cycle is a better film than its predecessor. Just as I don’t follow the camp that says the Spanish version of Dracula is superior, I’m not buying into the notion that Daughter is a more enjoyable film. To me, Lugosi’s presence trumps direction, cinematography, pacing, lighting, casting, score and all those attributes rolled into a tightly constructed deliverable. Even a bad film like The Ape Man (1943) is watchable because of Béla. He’s that good.
I consider Dracula’s Daughter an unusual vampire film. On one hand it is a direct sequel to Dracula, starting immediately after the scene where Dracula is staked by Van Helsing, but it tries to stand on its own as a horror film with a fairly interesting story with Gloria Holden’s Countess Zaleska coming to grips that she too is a vampire, even after Dracula’s death, and an effective sub-plot with Van Helsing being investigated for murder. Edward Van Sloan is fine again as Van Helsing, but it is Otto Kruger as Dr. Jeffrey Garth who carries much of the film. I also like Irving Pichel (The Most Dangerous Game, 1993; She, 1935) as Zaleska’s henchman Sandor. Dracula’s Daughter is often cited as an early film with lesbian precepts —two of Zaleska’s victims are women. Compare this to RKO’s Cat People (1943), with obvious lesbian undertones.
Director Lambert Hillyer helmed several genre films including The Invisible Ray (1936), with Karloff and Lugosi, a Batman Serial (1943), and several westerns. While no classic, Dracula’s Daughter has some effective horror moments and is worth a look as a double-bill with Dracula.
Much has be written about the Spanish language version of Dracula (1931), which was filmed at the same time and using the same sets as the English version, but with a Spanish-speaking cast and alleged budget of $66,000. The film was thought to be lost, but was discovered in the 1970’s, and has since been restored and is available as a supplement film on various re-issues of Dracula on DVDs and Bluray.
I prefer George Robinson’s fluid photography in the Spanish language version of Drácula (1931) compared to Karl Freund’s (Metropolis, 1927; The Mummy, 1932; Mad Love, 1935) rather static camera in Dracula (1931). The best way to watch this film is back-to-back with the Lugosi version. You’ll notice several differences in staging and composition, particularly in the scenes through the Borgo Pass and those occurring at Dracula’s castle. I also like the romantic leads in the Spanish version. Lupita Tovar is stunning in the lead. However, I don’t agree with Tovar who has said in an interview that the only difference between Carlos Villarías and Lugosi was in the hands (Lugosi has long angular and expressive fingers). To me there is no comparison. While Villarías is ok, Lugosi had honed his role on stage and personified Dracula in film. However, Villarías is interesting enough where I would love to see him in his remaining 1930’s horror films The Mystery of the Ghastly Face (1935) and The Super Mad Man (1937).
The Spanish Dracula was directed by George Melford, best known as a character actor in many westerns produced in the 1940’s and 1950’s and for directing the notorious The Skeik (1921), starring Rudolph Valentino. The real star is George Robinson’s photography. Robinson went on to be DOP for several notables, including Son of Frankenstein (1939), Tower of London (1939), The Mummy’s Tomb (1942), Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman (1943), Son of Dracula (1943), House of Frankenstein (1944), one of the best and most atmospheric Sherlock Holmes mysteries The Scarlet Claw (1944), House of Dracula (1945), The Cat Creeps (1946) and the seminal big bug classic Tarantula (1955).
Director Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr (1932) may be the oddest vampire film ever made. I’ve watched it a half-dozen times and still haven’t decided if I like it or not. The film was exquisitely lensed [through a thin veil of gauze] by DOP Rudolph Maté (The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928); Foreign Correspondent (1940); Gilda (1946), When World’s Collide (1951)). The film is best described as an atmospheric dream [nightmare?]. Film historian William K. Everson believes Vampyr to be the greatest horror film of the 1930’s. It’s also plodding and difficult to follow.
But with images like these….
Vampyr is worth a look.
George Romero has been around as a director for approximately 45 years and has helmed less than 20 films. He is best known for his zombie films, but three of my favorites include the vampire flick Martin (1978), the unique Knightriders (1981), starring a young Ed Harris, and the disturbing Monkey Shines (1981), which affirms the notion that I will never ever own a “pet” primate.
Martin is a well-crafted horror thriller garnering a 96% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and 7.2/10 through IMDb. Romero has claimed that Martin is the favorite of all his films. Tom Savini provided the blood-letting. The film works by having real-life scenarios, with Martin doping victims and slicing wrists, and being treated by a religious Lithuanian zealot grand-uncle using Old World vampire exorcism techniques (use of garlic, wielding of crucifix, use of stakes). Romero has never been better.
Kenneth Tobey in a vampire film? Look no further than this 1950’s gem The Vampire (1957). John Beal (The Cat and the Canary, 1939) stars as a hometown doctor who is accidentally doped with a serum derived from vampire bats! This film has the irresistible low-budget aura like The Hideous Sun Demon (1959) and The Werewolf (1956).
Plus there are some shoking scenes!
Vampire was directed by Paul Landres, who is best known for his work on The Lone Ranger (1952-1953), The Cisco Kid (1950-1954) and the underrated The Return of Dracula (1958), starring Francis Lederer as the count (also worth a look). Check out John Beal as The Vampire….
Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary (2002) is my vote for the most unusual of vampire films. Warning —Horror fans stay clear. This is a film adaptation of a ballet rendition of Stoker’s novel. It’s gorgeous to look at and the choreography is stunning as presented in an expressionistic style, but a little bit of dancing and music goes a long way. There are effective horror moments. Dracula’s resurrection is as effective as any I’ve seen in any film this side of Nosferatu (1922). Virgin’s Diary is an experimental film from the creative mind of Canadian Guy Maddin. Curious art-bent folks might enjoy this spin.
You haven’t lived until you see Wei-Qiang Zhang as Count Dracula.
I’m watching the subtitled Spanish language version of Dracula (1931). Right after the Demeter arrives in English port with a crew of the dead, a headline appears. Unfortunately the good folks at Universal home media didn’t subtitle the headline. Fear not -I used my trusty “Word Lens” app to translate.
Oooooooh. Halloween is right around the corner. Here are my film picks for a long evening of monster mayhem. Let’s start with an animated short.
Ub Iwerk’s brilliant The Skeleton Dance (1929) is a masterwork of early American animation available on the Walt Disney Treasures Collection, DVD Catalogue #52420 (The Adventures of Oswald The Lucky Rabbit). The short runs approximately 5:30 and is a delight from beginning to end and is perfect for setting the mood for the following films.
The Torture Chamber of Dr. Sadism (aka Castle of the Walking Dead, 1967) is a quintessential 1960’s Euro-horror film loosely based on Poe’s The Pit and the Pendulum (1983), and reminds me of various Poe-influenced fright films produced under American-International Pictures (House of Usher, 1960; TPATP, 1961 and others). The film stars the inimitable Christopher Lee as a sadistic nobleman who has returned from being drawn and quartered to raise blood-letting hell on those that defy him. Karin Dor (You Only Live Twice, 1967) provides the eye candy. This film has all the Halloween trappings including colorful photography, a corridor with arachnids and scorpions, a snake pit, skeleton, green blood, ghosts, cobbly passageways, and diabolical torture devices, including one hell of a pendulum.
This is the film where Christopher Lee’s body, under suspended animation, reassembles and connects (*pop*) dismembered limbs! Be sure to watch the widescreen “Johnny Legend Presents” DVD with added bonus feature Death Smiles of a Murderer (1973)(not recommended).
For the next film I recommend a lesser known horror film from the golden age of horror. Paramount’s Murders in the Zoo (1933) is one of the most gruesome pre-code horror-thrillers ever made. Lionell Atwill plays a fiendish psychopathic zoologist and game hunter Eric Gorman, possibly patented after animal collector Frank Buck (1884-1950), who has problems with other men looking at his wife, and knows nefarious ways of dealing with them! Right from the opening this film packs a wallop.
Zoo has a solid cast with Randolph Scott (who starred in three non-western genre films with Zoo, 1933; Supernatural, 1933; and She, 1935), as a herpetologist, Gail Patrick, character actor Charles Ruggles, and Lionell Atwill as the heavy. Here’s another film with odd halloween accoutrements, including venomous snakes, venom injection apparatus, a monster crocodile and other surprises. Unfortunately, Zoo is hard to come by on DVD. It was once available as a TCM Vault Collection “Universal Cult Horror Collection” set of five films.
If you can’t find Murders in the Zoo, Universal’s The Old Dark House (1932) is the lesser known and appreciated of James Whale’s horror films, including Frankenstein (1931), The Invisible Man (1933) and The Bride of Frankenstein (1935). I like the film a lot, with major kudos to cinematographer Arthur Edeson (Frankenstein, 1931; The Maltese Falcon, 1941) and a superb script and cast, but I don’t agree with horror film historian and author Bryan Senn, who describes the film as “the one truly flawless picture from the golden age of horror” (Melvyn Douglas’ singing and comedic quips annoy me and there are too many characters in the story). The film is best known today for Karloff’s performance as the ape-like butler Morgan. Check out the KINO special collector’s edition DVD, with running commentary by actress Gloria Stuart.
For the finale I’m picking Richard Gordon’s wildly entertaining horror/sci-fi hybrid Fiend Without a Face (1957). This is the film with the stop-motion animated brain suckers terrorizing an air force base. Be sure to grab the Criterion 1.66:1 print of this classic of British genre filmmaking.