LugosiFest 2014

BELA COLOR

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.

The Invisible Ghost

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.

The Invisible Ghost_Bela Creeping

The Invisible Ghost_Bela

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.

The Ape Man

Bela Lugosi as The Ape Man.

The Ape Man_Lab

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.

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.

Ghosts on the Loose

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

  1. Invisible Ghost
  2. The Corpse Vanishes
  3. The Voodoo Man
  4. Bowery at Midnight
  5. Return of the Apeman
  6. Black Dragons
  7. The Ape Man
  8. Spooks Run Wild
  9. Ghosts on the Loose

MONSTERMINIONS RANKING:

  1. Invisible Ghost
  2. The Ape Man
  3. Voodoo Man
  4. The Corpse Vanishes
  5. Return of the Apeman* (based on what I watched)
  6. Bowery at Midnight
  7. Spooks Run Wild
  8. Black Dragons
  9. Ghosts on the Loose

2 Responses to “LugosiFest 2014”

  1. Why does everyone refer to Lugosi’s ‘Monogram nine’ when there is a tenth film he did for Monogram (MYSTERIOUS MR. WONG)?

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