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Bowery at Midnight

A worthy vehicle for Bela Lugosi
1942's "Bowery at Midnight" was the 5th of 9 Monograms for Bela Lugosi, second straight for director Wallace Fox, and perhaps the very best of the bunch, which admittedly isn't saying much. Those who look at the title and assume that 'Poor Bela' would again be saddled with Leo Gorcey and Huntz Hall should find themselves pleasantly surprised to find a throwback to a recent Lugosi vehicle distributed by Monogram but produced in Britain, "The Human Monster" aka "The Dark Eyes of London," a crime drama with definite horror elements that produces more chills than actual horror efforts like "The Ape Man" or "Voodoo Man." As in "London," Lugosi lives a double life, during the day he is kindly Professor Frederick Brenner, happily married to a devoted wife (Anna Hope) and teaching students about psychology, while by night he is criminal mastermind Karl Wagner, using his mission in the Bowery as a front for thieving double crosses, often leaving associates dead at the scene of the crime. This is demonstrated in the opening reel, escaped convict 'Fingers' Dolan (John Berkes) shot by confederate Stratten (Wheeler Oakman) and placed inside the vault of a jewelry store to be found by the stunned proprietor. Wagner's victims are usually left in the care of Doc Brooks (Lew Kelly), a once great doctor sadly reduced to a drug addicted wreck, curiously reviving the corpses to live beneath a hidden grave as proof of his genius. Wagner's nurse, Judy Malvern (Wanda McKay), believes in her benefactor, to the displeasure of playboy fiancee Richard Dennison (John Archer), who attends Brenner's classes and intends to write a paper on the underprivileged. His sudden appearance at the mission (a great cameo from Pat Costello, Lou's elder brother) puts Wagner in danger, requiring the youth be dispatched by a new partner, trigger happy Frankie Mills (Tom Neal), but this proves to be a fatal mistake, a victim who would be missed by his prominent family. For once, the rambling plot makes a bit more sense, the large cast an exceptional one, Dave O'Brien here going from smarmy reporter in "The Devil Bat" to dedicated investigator, Vince Barnett fittingly bumped off for a change (former silent comic Snub Pollard enjoys a silent bit as a doomed motorist). Lugosi plays both characters straight up, no difference between them, unlike his heavy disguise in "The Human Monster" (requiring a voice dub to carry out the deception), Wallace Fox doing better this time than on "The Corpse Vanishes," three years before earning a Universal horror, Lon Chaney's "Pillow of Death."

Invisible Ghost

First seen on Pittsburgh's Chiller Theater in 1968
1941's "Invisible Ghost" marked Bela Lugosi's his first starring vehicle under a new pact with Poverty Row Monogram, its confused script undergoing several different titles before the final moniker was chosen, making less sense than "Murder by the Stars," "Phantom Monster," or "The Phantom Killer," characters not behaving like real people, and a baffled police force who never once suspect the most obvious culprit. Director Joseph H. Lewis again works from an Al Martin screenplay (later collaborating on Universal's "The Mad Doctor of Market Street"), and is able to add some stylistic touches on an obviously short shooting schedule. Sam Katzman was a producer who freely admitted that he was doing 'moron pictures' that made money no matter how bad the result, his previous Lugosi vehicle the 1936 serial "Shadow of Chinatown." The home of Bela's Charles Kessler is where he continues to reside despite a number of mysterious murders that haven't produced a single suspect, his daughter Virginia (Polly Ann Young) also unperturbed, Clarence Muse as the rock steady butler Evans. Kessler has spent the last three years mourning the loss of his beloved wife, supposedly killed in a car crash after running off with his best friend, only she remains alive yet left with the mind of a child, tended by gardener Jules Mason (Ernie Adams), who keeps her presence a secret until the day she might regain her memory from the accident. On those occasions when she escapes to patrol the grounds and stare at her husband through a window, he goes into a homicidal fog during which he removes his robe to strangle the nearest person before awakening from his trance with no knowledge that he is a killer. Lewis' camera is stalked by Lugosi for the first murder, a pretty maid who was heard being threatened by Virginia's new beau, swiftly convicted and executed in what authorities claim was an open and shut case. Inexplicably, the deceased later turns up, neither a ghost nor invisible, just a twin brother looking to solve the mystery. Lewis makes as much of the sets as possible, filming from the front door and also the top of the steps, and each time Mrs. Kessler (Betty Compson) shows her face in a window her long suffering husband stumbles down the hall toward the next victim. There was little any actor could do to salvage a part like this, but it's clearly a change of pace for Bela to essay a kind hearted soul no matter how many lives he's claimed under the influence, longtime silent screen actress Betty Compson looking far more aged as the instigator of the tragedies, mumbling to herself while urging on Kessler to commit his misdeeds: "I'm afraid to come home, you'd kill me, you'd kill anybody." No explanations are forthcoming as to whether hypnosis is involved, no background offered about the Kesslers other than they have wealth and influence. After previously working with Loretta Young in "The Devil's in Love" and Sally Blane in "Night of Terror" (both 1933), here Lugosi works with the eldest member of the acting Young sisters, Polly Ann Young in her final screen role, but the one believable performance, not surprisingly, belongs to Clarence Muse, always dignified in every film, first seen opposite Lugosi in "White Zombie," and Karloff in Universal's "Night World" (both 1932). The box office returns impressed Katzman so much that he rewarded his star by demoting him to being a stooge for the East Side Kids in his next Monogram, "Spooks Run Wild."

Man in the Dark

Audrey Totter the only standout in dreary 3-D effort
1953's "Main in the Dark" marked Columbia's debut in the short lived 3-D sweepstakes, supposedly a remake of their 1936 title "The Man Who Lived Twice" that completely botches the premise. In the earlier version, Ralph Bellamy played dual roles, a disfigured cop killer who volunteers as a test subject for Thurston Hall's eminent surgeon, in the belief that a delicate brain operation may remove the criminal element to allow the patient to become a more useful human being. The fear of exposure maintains a high level of suspense as Bellamy's criminal past threatens to derail his current position as a renowned physician, until fingerprints reveal the truth and he's arrested; this update ignores the possibilities inherent in such a scenario, casting Edmond O'Brien as convicted crook Steve Rawley, caught after hiding the $130,000 from a daring payroll robbery, spending a year behind bars before being selected for an operation that causes him to lose his memory (Lon Chaney buffs familiar with 1954's "The Big Chase" may experience deja vu in regard to the crime). Rather than retraining to become a doctor like his benefactor in the original, this version quickly goes off the rails as Rawley's old gang kidnap him and spend the rest of the picture holding him hostage in a cramped apartment, the only excitement generated by a deck of cards, a bizarre amusement park nightmare finally stirring his memory, plus a mysterious note left behind in his former home sending him off on a literal roller coaster ride. A perfect example of how a remake can go terribly wrong when they fail to use the original story, Audrey Totter easily standing out in a dreary cast led by the unsympathetic performance of a surprisingly unengaged Edmond O'Brien, looking and behaving exactly the same both before and after the operation so no change in characterization, a huge comedown from Ralph Bellamy's excellent work (only those unfamiliar with the 1936 title may get some enjoyment out of this forgettable gangster meller). Director Lew Landers had seen better days with Boris Karloff in "The Raven" and "The Boogie Man Will Get You," and Bela Lugosi's "The Return of the Vampire," his career ending with the posthumous release of 1962's "Terrified."

Voodoo Man

First seen on Pittsburgh's Chiller Theater in 1969
1944's "Voodoo Man" manages to unite Bela Lugosi, John Carradine, and George Zucco and in typical Monogram fashion completely botches the job as in their just completed "Return of the Ape Man." As expected, the script (originally conceived as "Tiger Man") is entirely at fault with nonexistent characterization and hapless dialogue, exemplified by Henry Hall's exasperated sheriff: "gosh all fish hooks!" Lugosi, in the last of his nine Monogram entries dating back to 1941's "Invisible Ghost," has the plum role of Dr. Richard Marlowe, expert in spiritualism and mesmerism, requiring both to resuscitate a bride (Ellen Hall) deceased for 22 years yet still as young and lovely as the day they were wed (unmistakable echoes of "The Corpse Vanishes"). Zucco is henchman Nicholas, masquerading, incredibly, as a gas station attendant specifically catering only to comely beauties from out of town who likely won't be missed, directing them near the Marlowe residence where a fake road sign takes them to imbeciles Toby (Carradine) and Grego (Pat McKee), each girl a receptacle to provide their life force to the doctor's voodoo ceremony. While Carradine beats on the bongos, Zucco chants incessantly in service to the mysterious god Ramboona, yet 'Ramboona never fails' proves a misnomer to every unwary viewer, all of the girls winding up mindless zombies for Toby to look after. The part of this halfwit menial was clearly a low point for the distinguished Carradine, who considered this to be his worst film until 1965's "Billy the Kid Versus Dracula" (coincidentally, both features plus "The Face of Marble" were all directed by silent veteran William Beaudine). Much of the story centers around would be screenwriter Ralph (Tod Andrews), dubbed a 'Hollywood sap' by astute maid of honor Louise Currie as Stella Saunders, vanishing along with her car only to pop up later due to Toby's negligence, the sheriff and his sleepy deputy so incompetent that they can only locate her walking along the side of the road. While Lugosi is able to convey his sorrow at times, his costars fare as badly as in their previous teaming in "Return of the Ape Man," where Carradine played a secondary scientist, Zucco on screen for mere moments as the titular creature before Frank Moran displayed his BVDs in his place. Both Lugosi and Carradine would be cast in another recycling of the same storyline in 1956's "The Black Sleep," a sadly mute Bela (six months away from his death) lamenting that Basil Rathbone now played his original starring role.

The Mystery of the Mary Celeste

Ship of ghouls
1935's "Phantom Ship" was the earliest title to survive from Britain's Hammer Films (only their second production, the first long since lost), no doubt due to the surprise casting of Bela Lugosi in the central role, his first of three across the pond, followed by 1939's "The Human Monster" (aka "The Dark Eyes of London") and 1951's "My Son the Vampire" (aka "Mother Riley Meets the Vampire"). Known in England as "The Mystery of the Mary Celeste," Hammer sought to achieve great publicity by jumping on the bandwagon for MGM's "Mutiny on the Bounty," director Denison Clift deciding on a screenplay about the real life mystery surrounding the 1872 voyage of the Mary Celeste out of New York, bound for Italy with a cargo of alcohol yet found without a soul on board after one month. Keeping the total number of crewmembers at an unlucky 13 (including one woman but not a black cat), this fairly transparent storyline is only exacerbated by an interminable love triangle, Arthur Margetson's hapless Captain Briggs set to wed Shirley Grey's pretty Sarah, much to the displeasure of fellow captain Jim Morehead (Clifford McLaglen, a dead ringer for Hollywood brother Victor), who yields to Briggs' request for one additional mate by installing an assassin to make certain Sarah returns a widow (they finally set sail at the 19 minute mark). Since we already know everyone's ultimate fate the running time simply flails when the focus is on Mr. And Mrs. Briggs, though it does allow for Dennis Hoey an attempted rape before being felled by Lugosi's Anton Lorenzen, so shaken by taking a life to save another that he breaks down in tearful remorse. Various crew members are killed accidentally (Terence de Marney as Charlie Kaye is barely visible and dispatched quickly), others are found murdered or simply vanish, with Morehead's hired killer put to death by the cook before he can stab Briggs. Much of the mayhem takes place off screen to hide the culprit's identity, but even audiences of the time had a good idea of where the plot was heading, on course without hesitation toward destinations unknown, the question was how long before the reveal? Lugosi's performance is a marvelous showcase for his dramatic prowess, Lorenzen using the alias Gottlieb to infiltrate the Mary Celeste once he learns that the first mate is the feared Toby Bilson (Edmund Willard), obvious bad blood between the two. Lorenzen is now essentially a derelict, his left arm lost to the sharks, his hair turned white, a pathetic figure that the actor plays with great zeal, and a love for the black cat that would never happen with Vitus Werdegast. The original British print ran 80 minutes, alternating the mystery with courtroom intrigue in its aftermath, 20 minutes cut from all current versions but apparently nothing minus Lugosi (though a surprise ending for the captain and his bride). Arthur Margetson would soon work with Boris Karloff in "Juggernaut" before relocating to Hollywood, his final role opposite Basil Rathbone as the surprise villain in 1943's "Sherlock Holmes Faces Death" (interestingly, his on screen romance with Hollywood actress Shirley Grey was duplicated in real life though the marriage didn't last, she too working with Karloff in 1931's "The Public Defender"). Dennis Hoey inherited the part of Inspector Lestrade of Scotland Yard in half of Universal's 12 Holmes entries, while Terence de Marney made more of a name for himself on American television before horror recognition later in life as Karloff's butler in the British "Die, Monster, Die!" and as a different kind of vampire on location in "Beast of Morocco," his bulging eyed decomposition a prominent feature in its advertising. Hammer completed only four features during the 1930s and would not return to full time production until 1946, then another decade of quota quickies before finding their niche in full, blood red color.

Mother Riley Meets the Vampire

Bela Lugosi in fine comic form, for once in on the joke
1951's "My Son the Vampire" was not originally conceived as the latest entry in the Old Mother Riley series dating back to 1937, thus far a total of 14 features held in low esteem by London critics but highly successful in the provinces. Arthur Lucan made a career out of playing the frumpy Irish biddy in full drag, a music hall veteran of more than 50 years who may have inspired the members of Monty Python, his popularity obviously on the decline with just 3 titles in the previous six years. It was the financial plight of the chronically unemployed Bela Lugosi that inspired Renown to try melding his horror persona with the wildly over the top Lucan, whose screen career came to an end with "Mother Riley Meets the Vampire." Ironically, Lugosi's previous film was the hugely popular "Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein," and though he's not playing Dracula here, his characterization of Professor Von Housen is described by Scotland Yard as 'The Vampire,' taking after a legendary ancestor and boasting of his plans to rule the earth with an army of 50,000 robots under his control. When asked how many have been built, he hilariously stammers into a reply of 'one,' forced into hitchhiking to The Vampire's abode and driving off in the drunken motorist's car (he later reports to the local police station: "it was stolen by some fellow behind the Iron Curtain!"). Toned down considerably for its intended juvenile audience but Von Housen at least is guilty of drinking the blood of missing girls, his giggling assistant Hitchcock (Ian Wilson) taunting Mother Riley as his latest victim: "you're being got ready!" Once Lucan's sole musical number is dispensed with, we are introduced to Lugosi at the 12 minute mark (just under 18 minutes screen time), soundly snoring in his coffin as Hitchcock awakens him and inquires why he wears his evening clothes while he sleeps: "I was buried in them!" What appears to be a slapdash script by Val Valentine is assured a decent pace by director John Gilling, more adept at straight up chills with later efforts like "The Flesh and the Fiends," "The Plague of the Zombies," and "The Reptile." Lucan remained in character both on and off camera, always spot on after so many years honing his craft, but a little of Mother Riley tends to go a long way so Lugosi's welcome presence makes this something less of the disaster that most viewers perceive, coming after the likes of The Ritz Brothers, East Side Kids, Wally Brown and Alan Carney, or Duke Mitchell and Sammy Petrillo. What no one might have guessed was that its American distribution was no sure thing, the new title "Vampire Over London" earning no takers until it was snapped up by producer Jack H. Harris, best known for "The Blob," where his theater marquee specifies 'Bela Lugosi' in a film titled "The Vampire and the Robot." Even this only resulted in spotty playdates, its final 1963 moniker "My Son the Vampire" allowing satirist Allan Sherman a precredits sequence detailing how the picture was based on an upside down book. Unsuccessful on both sides of the Atlantic, and mostly a curiosity that only Lugosi fans will eventually seek out, discovering an actor hardly humbled by his desperate need for financing to return to the US but a confident performer who gets more chuckles than his overbearing costar, for once in on the joke.

The Dark Eyes of London

First seen on Pittsburgh's Chiller Theater in 1973
"The Human Monster" is actually the 1939 British thriller "The Dark Eyes of London," an Edgar Wallace adaptation which Bela Lugosi filmed quickly in between Hollywood assignments "The Gorilla" at Fox and "The Phantom Creeps" at Universal, easily one of his meatiest roles in the wake of his superb Ygor in "Son of Frankenstein." One can almost believe that the country most responsible for spearheading the horror ban that severely hampered his career was among the first to offer him their first defiantly terror feature in the face of their own edict, although for most of the running time it qualifies as less horror than police procedural. A series of drownings in the Thames have put Scotland Yard in an embarrassing situation, so Inspector Holt (Hugh Williams) finds himself teamed with Chicago flatfoot Patrick O'Reilly (Edmon Ryan) to conduct a more thorough investigation. It's not long before they wind up in the office of Greenwich Insurance, run by Lugosi's Dr. Feodor Orloff, a real physician whose career was curtailed by a streak of megalomania, using clients who take out policies with him as sole beneficiary, then drowning them in a vat of clear tap water before they're dumped into the Thames. His latest pigeon proves to be his undoing, for Henry Stuart (Gerald Pring) obediently ventures to the home of the blind and destitute run by John Dearborn, revealing that he has a daughter returning home just as he's about to be murdered by Orloff's disfigured servant Jake (Wilfred Walter). The police are tipped off by a message in braille left in Stuart's pocket written by street musician Dumb Lew (Arthur E. Owen), blind like his friend Jake but no accomplice in crime. Jake is dispatched to kill forger Grogan (Alexander Field) before he can be questioned about his association with Orloff, then tries to do the same to plucky Diana Stuart (Greta Gynt) as she too nears the truth about her father's demise. Through it all Lugosi's fiendish 'caregiver' believes he can never be caught but is finally hoist on his own petard due to Diana's feisty nature, causing Jake's loyalty to shift away from his master even after a bullet for his pains. On the surface Bela's character is merely a greedy crook without scruples, but early on we are shown his ability to mesmerize chosen victims to perform his bidding, including an attractive secretary (Julie Suedo) who never speaks a word, a mutifaceted villain that makes more extensive use of his talents than any future film roles. In America Poverty Row Monogram struck paydirt with this bonanza, suitably inspired to sign the actor to a star contract for 9 titles over 3 years, including one ("Bowery at Midnight") clearly inspired by "The Human Monster."

Plan 9 from Outer Space

Bela Lugosi and Ed Wood, the final curtain
The infamous "Plan 9 from Outer Space" was initially conceived as "Grave Robbers from Outer Space" until writer-editor-producer-director Ed Wood found financing for his masterpiece from Baptist minister J. Edward Reynolds (it took a meat packing executive to help him complete "Bride of the Monster"). Wearing his Dracula cape for what was intended for "The Vampire's Tomb," the late Bela Lugosi is shown emerging from the woods in three different shots, then skulking about someone's back door, while we first see him mourning at the funeral of his late wife before leaving his home one last time (this was actually the residence of Tor Johnson). If this was all the footage in the can that Wood had filmed for other projects, 3 silent minutes of a shattered Lugosi performance, then he must be congratulated for making certain the public would see it, billed above John Breckinridge and Lyle Talbot as 'Special Guest Stars.' Local television celebrities Vampira (as Vampire Girl) and would be prognosticator Criswell make their presence felt early on, the latter narrating off screen when necessary, while the former horror hostess appears very much in costume playing Lugosi's deceased wife, the first corpse to rise from the dead through alien means, Plan 9 to be exact (no light is shed on how the previous 8 fared). This may have been the first occasion when extraterrestrials brought back the living dead, two years before John Carradine's "Invisible Invaders," and over a decade before radiation was suggested in George Romero's Pittsburgh classic "Night of the Living Dead." Wood's story holds together as well as "Bride of the Monster," Gregory Walcott a headstrong pilot, former Western star Tom Keene assigned by Lyle Talbot's General to investigate flying saucers over Los Angeles, Duke Moore's Lieutenant in charge with the demise of Tor Johnson's Inspector Clay. The cemetery next to Walcott's home is a hive of activity, Dudley Manlove as Eros and Joanna Lee as Tanna the concerned invaders fearing the worst from mankind's acquisition of greater power in the wake of the hydrogen bomb. Far too entertaining to be erroneously labeled 'worst movie ever made,' plenty of quotable lines since exhausted from overuse, and Wood's all too real sincerity in the face of nuclear annihilation, younger viewers such as Joe Dante may have scoffed at its dirt cheap production values but no other director could have achieved so much with so little.

Glen or Glenda

Bela Lugosi and Ed Wood, together for the first time
1953's "Glen or Glenda" can only be regarded as the autobiographical work of an auteur, in this case Edward D. Wood Jr., whose initial notoriety as a purveyor of bad cinema has made him something more than 'worst director of all time' in that his enjoyment of the filmmaking process creates a genuinely likable figure, unlike those (like Jerry Warren) out to make a fast buck without undue effort (Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert made this clear in their praise of Tim Burton's 1994 biopic). Producer George Weiss sought to capitalize on the recent sex change of Christine Jorgensen, her published account in February 1953 sounding like exploitation gold, but with Ed Wood on board Weiss got more than he bargained for and less of what he desired on screen. He got a man who would work for peanuts, as well as play the lead performance complete in full female regalia (especially the angora sweaters), but this impassioned plea for tolerance from a disbelieving public came up short in most every way, including running time. What most likely took place was the addition of professional names to guarantee marquee value and acceptable feature length padding, Lyle Talbot a fairly busy character player who had no qualms about working in Poverty Row productions, cast as an inspector examining the suicide of cross dressing Glen (Wood, using the acting pseudonym 'Daniel Davis'), keeping his hidden side Glenda a secret from fiancee Barbara (Dolores Fuller). Perhaps more to Ed Wood's liking is top billed Bela Lugosi as the unnamed 'Scientist' who comments on events periodically, more puppet master than mad scientist, particularly with his frequent announcement: "pull the string!" The actor leaves his comfortable chair only once to produce a smoking beaker of liquid, otherwise it's one incredible line after another delivered in typical Lugosi style, slowly drawing out the syllables for a still entertaining performance under very limited circumstances (less than 9 minutes screen time). The first half keeps the focus on Wood, but by the latter stages more daring footage is introduced by the producer of women lounging, engaged in bondage, or even enjoying simulated sex (fully clothed of course), before the introduction of a second character who undergoes the whole Jorgensen treatment to transition from man to woman. Falling on hard times in the late 40s, one would think that reprising the role of Count Dracula in a huge success like "Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein" would increase Bela's opportunities for further work, but shortsighted Hollywood only called upon him twice more while Ed Wood managed at least three to close out his final decade. Fortunately he's not required to leave the confines of a miniscule set, in a picture that may be worse yet no less frenzied than "Bride of the Monster" or "Plan 9 from Outer Space," a bold statement to make for a first feature attempt, just the beginning for Ed Wood's imagination to run wild and even using his own father as the horned devil!

Island of Lost Souls

Charles Laughton and Bela Lugosi
1932's "Island of Lost Souls" was Paramount's follow up to their smash horror hit "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," but like companion feature "Murders in the Zoo" found itself in hot water due to censorship problems. Minus the overripe humor of Charlie Ruggles, this sizes up as one of the decade's strongest and most potent classics, Charles Laughton's Dr. Moreau a quietly menacing scientist whose megalomania results in a number of four legged beasts transformed into walking monstrosities by experimental treatments in evolution to advance the species 1000 years. Tetsu Komai as M'ling remains a faithful dog, Hans Steinke as Ouran a watchful threat with brute strength, Kathleen Burke the sultry Panther Woman Lota, with Bela Lugosi cast as the Sayer of the Law, reciting Moreau's doctrine: "not to run around on all fours, not to eat meat, not to spill blood, that is the law...are we not men?" The doctor's home is an incredible piece of architecture in the jungle of this uncharted island, into which an unexpected visitor arrives, Richard Arlen as Edward Parker, a shipwreck survivor whose fiancee Ruth (Leila Hyams) searches for. Despite objections from assistant Montgomery (Arthur Hohl), Moreau seeks to mate Parker with Lota to learn if she, his only female creation, can love and bear children. All of his subjects emerge in their current state from the dreaded House of Pain, which even author H. G. Wells found objectionable, censors criticizing the 'manimals' as being against the laws of nature, to which Elsa Lanchester (Mrs. Charles Laughton) had a powerful response: "so is Mickey Mouse!" Karl Struss expertly uses light and shadow to convey menace in every corner, and the varied makeups often walk into vivid closeup, the stuff of nightmares. Director Erle C. Kenton later completed several Universal triumphs ("The Ghost of Frankenstein," "House of Frankenstein," "House of Dracula") but this remains his undisputed masterpiece. 19 year old Kathleen Burke (also seen to great advantage in "Murders in the Zoo") proving unforgettable as the childlike catwoman Lota, Lugosi's disappointingly brief appearance under heavy makeup leading the charge as Moreau's creations turn on their creator with blades aplenty in the scream filled House of Pain. The impact of such perverse material was too much for H. G. Wells, making this arguably the most frightening pre-Code horror of them all.

The Thirteenth Chair

Bela Lugosi and director Tod Browning in their talkie debut for MGM
1929's "The Thirteenth Chair" marked the talkie debut of MGM director Tod Browning, and also future "Dracula" Bela Lugosi, whose lead performance here should have made him a star even earlier. It was indeed his Broadway triumph that inspired Browning to cast him in a part played for laughs in Bayard Veiller's original stage version of 1916, the author's then wife Margaret Wycherly as the phony medium Madame La Grange, repeating the role in this version after missing out on the silent adaptation of 1919 (a second remake came out in 1937). A murder has already been committed before the opening scene, a curious Philip Wales (John Davidson) certain that the killer was a veiled woman, the setting a British mansion in Calcutta, where Lugosi's Inspector Delzante ferrets out the suspects until a little sleight of hand pointing at the murder weapon finally reveals the guilty party. The cast are required to stand around before an immobile camera and recite witless dialogue that drags things out further even at a mere 72 minutes, but once Bela enters at the 35 minute mark he takes charge and lights up the screen to our benefit. Despite two seances and a corpse present for the finale the mystery itself is strictly ho hum, unable to raise a single goose pimple for the killer's reveal. In a lesser actor's hands the Inspector might have come off as bullying and abrasive, but Lugosi, surrounded by so many stiffs besides those already deceased, contributes the only life the picture has, reuniting with Leila Hyams in Paramount's "Island of Lost Souls" (Margaret Wycherly would later be immortalized as James Cagney's mother in Raoul Walsh's 1949 "White Heat").


Joe E. Brown and Bela Lugosi
1931's "Broadminded" was an early vehicle for the hugely popular Warners star Joe E. Brown, known for his unusually large mouth and inevitable yelp when in trouble (in later years he would become immortalized by three words to climax 1959's "Some Like It Hot" - "well, nobody's perfect!"). As an athlete and former circus clown his rubbery features already looked like a clown without makeup, and this screenplay by Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby takes every advantage for facial expressions and bits where he impersonates a gorilla, then Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. One need only endure a fairly embarrassing opening reel, where police raid a 'baby party,' all the guests dressed as toddlers with bottles not filled with milk, and an enraged Senior Hackett (Holmes Herbert) hoping to straighten out his ladies man son Jack (William Collier Sr.) by sending him away from New York with cousin Ossie (Brown), who's an even bigger carouser than put upon Jack. A long trip to California is made far longer by Jack's insistence on stopping to flirt with every girl en route (even one milking a cow!), but once they pull over at the Cactus Cafe the fun really starts at the 15 minute mark. Here we get to see Bela Lugosi, still basking in his newfound stardom after "Dracula," making for an excellent comic foil as South American Pancho Arango, unable to get through a promising meal with Ossie throwing salt over his shoulder ("dandruff!"), then using Pancho's own fountain pen to turn his cherished dessert from strawberry to blackberry. A busload of female students distracts Ossie long enough to ram into the car in front of him, which turns out to be driven by a still fuming Pancho: "first you spoil my shortcake and now you ruin my rear end!" Jack and Ossie end up at a hotel where they've made the acquaintance of brunette Constance (Ona Munson) and blonde Penelope (Marjorie White), but Ossie's attempts to humor Connie's disapproving aunt (Grayce Hampton) get him into more trouble (it's a jaw dropping sight watching him eat celery as noisily as possible). When he begins to talk about punching out some South American 'bozo,' who should be in the booth right next to him but Pancho and his gorgeous girlfriend Gertie (Thelma Todd), giving Ossie the full Lugosi stare as he stammers and stutters, admitting defeat by feigning laryngitis. When a blackmailing former flame tries to halt Jack's engagement to Constance, Gertie is hired to play the fiancee to accept Jack's damning love letters but again Pancho spies his girl in a negligee and gets the wrong idea. Kalmar and Ruby were best known for their work for The Marx Brothers but went on to script two more vehicles for Brown, as well as Eddie Cantor and Wheeler and Woolsey. Those unfamiliar with Brown's appeal as a star comedian probably won't be swayed by his material here, but his ability to use his entire body makes him akin to Buster Keaton, and Thelma Todd was always a welcome presence opposite the cinema's top comedians. The underrated Marjorie White unfortunately has no opportunity to display her skillful singing and dancing, a diminutive dynamo who excelled in Wheeler and Woolsey's "Diplomaniacs" before her final screen performance in The Three Stooges' "Woman Haters" (she also appears with Bela Lugosi in "Oh, for a Man!" "Women of All Nations," and "The Black Camel"). With nearly 9 minutes screen time, Lugosi not only holds his own in another surefire box office success, he also gets the girl for the fadeout.

The Saint's Double Trouble

George Sanders and Bela Lugosi
1940's "The Saint's Double Trouble" was the fourth of 9 features in the movie series based on the Leslie Charteris character, begun by Louis Hayward two years earlier in "The Saint in New York" (he repeats the role for the 1953 British finale "The Saint's Girl Friday"), third of five to star George Sanders (preceded by "The Saint Strikes Back" and "The Saint in London," and followed by "The Saint Takes Over" and "The Saint in Palm Springs"), replaced by charisma free Hugh Sinclair for both "The Saint's Vacation" and "The Saint Meets the Tiger." By now Sanders had already tired of the role so this entry offers him the opportunity to share the screen with himself, as Simon Templar as well as Duke Bates, leader of a diamond smuggling ring operating out of a waterfront dive in Philadelphia. The opening scene finds the surprising presence of Bela Lugosi in the secondary role of Bates' unnamed Partner, secretly conducting the latest shipment inside an Egyptian mummy using The Saint as cover (after this Bela remains off screen for a half hour, less than 6 minutes screen time). Templar has a new love interest in Helene Whitney's pretty Anne Bitts, whose father (Thomas W. Ross) is the recipient of the mummy, but it's Duke Bates who first calls upon the Bitts home to examine the hidden location of the diamonds. The Saint is blamed for three murders committed by the double crossing Duke, while the genuine Templar confuses his rival's henchmen in switching places. Jonathan Hale makes his third of five series appearances as Inspector Henry Fernack, knowledgeable enough of The Saint to help him solve crimes when necessary, a crack shot who misses badly when Simon Templar is his target. Sanders doesn't really stand out in either performance, soon to ditch this shady ladies man for four films as The Falcon before graduating to 'A' status. Lugosi is the main source of intrigue though cast as an ordinary thug, and not a very bright one either, similar to his brief turn in Universal's 1936 "Postal Inspector" (his next vehicle would at least find him playing crime boss in Universal's "Black Friday").

The Return of the Vampire

Bela Lugosi's return to form with werewolf slave
1943's "The Return of the Vampire" was Columbia's attempt to ape the Universal formula, actually casting Bela Lugosi himself in the title role, the only time other than Dracula (twice) he portrayed a genuine member of the undead in the cinema. Director Lew Landers, previously at the helm for Lugosi's 1935 "The Raven," was clearly no stylist, only an expert in pacing benefiting from a capable cast recruited from many a Universal classic, both Billy Bevan and Gilbert Emery veterans from "Dracula's Daughter." A new character added to the mix is a subservient werewolf with the power of speech in full hirsute form, Matt Willis as Andreas Obry contrasting with Lon Chaney's opposing Wolf Man in the later Abbott and Costello entry (Clay Campbell's makeup design later used in 1956's "The Werewolf"), as well as an attractive female Van Helsing in Frieda Inescort, a fine actress who believably carries the picture in Lugosi's absence. This was also the screen debut for a newcomer who had nothing but contempt for Hollywood, Nina Foch the ingenue victim targeted by modern day vampire Armand Tesla, who must contend with human enemies on the ground and Nazi bombers above London. The 60 year old Bela looked better five years later, still capable if a bit late to arrive at the 22 minute mark, over 16 minutes screen time being roughly 5 less than he had in the 1931 "Dracula." After faux vampires in "Mark of the Vampire" or "Spooks Run Wild" at least one studio took a chance on the chronically unemployed horror icon, a much needed shot in the arm between Lon Chaney's "Son of Dracula" and John Carradine's Baron Latos in both "House of Frankenstein" and "House of Dracula."

Mark of the Vampire

Tod Browning sinks this glossy MGM remake, a waste of Bela Lugosi
1935's "Mark of the Vampire" was director Tod Browning's sound remake of his 1927 Lon Chaney vehicle "London After Midnight," splitting up Lon's dual roles of detective and vampire into separate parts, Lionel Barrymore over the top as the investigating Prof. Zelen, Bela Lugosi completely silent in the guise of Count Mora and kept off screen for all but 3 lousy minutes of this hour long travesty. A European village appears to be teeming with the undead because no one among the populace talks of anything else, Michael Visaroff spouting the same gibberish as the identical innkeeper he played in "Dracula." Visually, Browning apes the Universal classic very closely, but in going through the motions exactly the same way provides for a very dull viewing for those familiar with Lugosi's great triumph (and who among us is not?). His Count Mora has a female sidekick named Luna (Carroll Borland in the prototype of the seductive Hammer vixens), supposedly a father and daughter guilty of incest who became vampires after a double suicide, a fact deleted in post production but clearly outlined by the bullet wound in his temple. Most infuriating of all is the director's insistence on sticking to the legendary climax from the silent version, acceptable to a 1920s audience but not to that of Bela's era just 8 years later, making the interminable goings on collapse during a final reel reveal that proves tougher to swallow and about as digestible as rat poison. The actors involved all play to the hilt with total conviction, Lionel Atwill much better than Barrymore, but the entire cast was completely deflated by the ending, assuring a box office dud for MGM and only two final features ahead for Tod Browning. Lugosi of course looks magnificent and he and his 20 year old protege make a very impressive team, too bad this was the only time they worked together on screen.

International House

W.C. Fields and Bela Lugosi
1933's "International House" was a Paramount grab bag of comedy and music based around what then was an early concept of television (here called a 'radioscope'), created by Dr. Wong (Edmund Breese) in his laboratory at the International House in Wu-Hu, China, managed by the always delightful Franklin Pangborn. As resident doctor and nurse we have George Burns and Gracie Allen carrying the first half, with Stu Erwin's American representative unable to make his bid due to the latest in a series of contagions brought about by his inability to wed his sweetheart. Bela Lugosi as General Nicholas Branovsky Petronovich intends to make the winning bid for himself by guaranteeing the hotel be quarantined but winds up in a dive across the street for his troubles. Complicating matters further is the presence of top billed Peggy Hopkins Joyce, real life gold digger bred to wed for wealth, legally divorced from the General who refuses to acknowledge it and vows to kill any man who comes between them. By the midway mark one fellow does just that, the irrepressible W. C. Fields as Professor Henry R. Quail, taking time out from his haphazard flight to Kansas City to land on the hotel roof, finds an empty room to sleep in, inadvertently in the bed next to Peggy. Apart from the surefire laugh getters there are also a series of novelty acts like Baby Rose Marie, all of 9 years old belting out a jazz number, swooner crooner Rudy Vallee, complaining about Fields interrupting his number ("hold your tongue and sit down" "hold your breath and lie down, you howling hyena!"), and a very young Cab Calloway with his infamous rendition of "Reefer Man." Perhaps the funniest line comes from Lumsden Hare, as absent minded Sir Mortimer Fortescue, asked about his opinion on Dr. Wong's invention: "absolutely worthless" "the invention?" "no, my opinion!" As a pre-Code feature there's much to admire, from the Busby Berkeley style musical number shooting though the dancers' legs, to Fields' side splitting asides, especially when Peggy gets her dress caught in the door of his mini car in front of her jealous husband: "my little scanty panty!" Lugosi, on screen for just over 4 1/2 minutes, rarely got to do mainstream comedy like Joe E. Brown's "Broadminded," so this would be the last apart from those related to his genre (Paramount's 1944 "One Body Too Many," "Zombies on Broadway," "Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein").

Bud Abbott Lou Costello Meet Frankenstein

A warm sendoff for Universal's classic monsters
1948's "Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein" was always intended to combine the antics of Bud and Lou with the classic Universal monsters (the script was conceived as "Brain of Frankenstein"), but while purists like Boris Karloff (willingly posing for publicity photos) scoffed at the idea of a spoof it actually works as a respectful sendoff for the postwar years, save for that infamous moment when The Monster (Glenn Strange) does a frightened double take at the sight of Costello. Lou himself wasn't enamored of the project until his mother assured him at the preview that it was the best thing he'd ever done, director Charles T. Barton putting a serious stamp on the horror icons while Frank Skinner's music score was more effectively scary than it would be amusing. Third billed Lon Chaney enjoys his 5th and final outing as Lawrence Talbot, 'my baby' as he called The Wolf Man, now the hero opposed to the master plan of Bela Lugosi's Count Dracula, securing the services of a disgraced European surgeon (Lenore Aubert) to supply a new brain for The Monster that will make him a more obedient slave. The comedy team have many verbal routines to satisfy any ardent fan, discussing Lou's recent dating disasters ("yours had teeth!"), Bud's disbelief at two women simultaneously falling for his partner, or reviving the moving candle gag from 1941's "Hold That Ghost." Strange is at least more active than in previous outings in "House of Frankenstein" and "House of Dracula" (also appearing with Bud and Lou in "The Wistful Widow of Wagon Gap" and "Comin Round the Mountain"), even granted some meager dialogue for once, but no other Monster would allow anyone to sit in his lap so long and survive. Chaney is again a sympathetic and reliable Talbot, still feral under a new application from Bud Westmore that took less time than Jack Pierce (he even gets to don the Monster's guise for an injured Strange, far more imposing in his brief footage). It's ultimately Lugosi's triumph, his only return to his most famous screen role, as deliciously evil with Lenore Aubert as he is comedically adept with Costello: "ah you young people, making the most of life...while it lasts!" 16 minutes screen time in a relaxed performance that deserved to be recognized, yet Bela found work in only 6 more features his final decade, half of which arrived courtesy Ed Wood (he only played Dracula in two features, and a genuine vampire on just one other occasion, Columbia's 1943 "The Return of the Vampire"). The appropriate wrap up gag is provided by the familiar voice of an unbilled Vincent Price: "I was hoping to get in on the excitement...allow me to introduce myself, I'm the Invisible Man!" (whom he did indeed portray in 1940's "The Invisible Man Returns").


Gary Cooper and Boris Karloff
1947's "Unconquered" may not be regarded as one of director Cecil B. De Mille's top drawer Westerns, set as it is during the climactic days of the French and Indian War of 1763, but it is precisely for that reason that it surprises despite its bloated length of 2 1/2 hours and $4.5 million budget, his highest to date (this ensured its high grossing box office failure). Gary Cooper and Paulette Goddard are paired for the last time, he as colonial captain Christopher Holden, in opposition to Howard Da Silva's treacherous fur trader Martin Garth, who seeks greater wealth and power by working with the various Indian tribes to secure the Ohio valley for himself. Paulette's Abigail Martha Hale is the British subject sentenced to be an indentured servant in the American colonies, coming between the two men, a virtual pinball bouncing back and forth as slave to the lascivious Garth, captive to the vengeful Senecas, or willing companion to Captain Holden, whose rescue of Abigail from certain torture and death earns him a court martial for desertion. His faceoff with Seneca Chief Guyasuta is the highlight at the midway mark, due to the surprise casting of longtime horror specialist Boris Karloff learning actual Native American language to play the part. Holden makes a grand entrance from the forest to confront the entire tribe, contemptuously referring to the warriors as women dressed up as torturers of captive women before using a magnetic compass as a threat to secure escape by making certain the tiny arrow points at Guyasuta's heart. As Garth's jealous wife, and daughter of Guyasuta, we see the director's daughter Katherine De Mille, Karloff's former costar and murdered mistress from 1935's "The Black Room," foiling her husband's attempts to kill Holden at the cost of her own life. Fine work from veterans such as Ward Bond, C. Aubrey Smith, Mike Mazurki, and Alan Napier, plus appearances from historical figures George Washington, even Mason and Dixon. The climactic siege of Fort Pitt was the most elaborate yet staged, and for all the exposition that precedes it the picture may not stick to accuracy but it never bores. Karloff had essayed many Native American roles during the silent era due to his dark complexion and exotic name, but only here and in Universal's upcoming "Tap Roots" did he do so in a speaking part, 10 1/2 minutes screen time under a makeup that took as long as Frankenstein's Monster, and enabled an Indian observer who knew no English to marvel at the actor's goodwill in his own language: "this man is as patient as a horse!"

The Comedy of Terrors

With a cast like this hugely enjoying themselves you can't go wrong
1963's "The Comedy of Terrors" brings together Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, Boris Karloff, and Basil Rathbone in a Richard Matheson satire designed to capitalize on the laughs generated by previous Poe entries "Tales of Terror" and "The Raven." Instead of speedy, free wheeling Roger Corman at the helm we get austere Jacques Tourneur, no specialist in comedy, whose heavy hand left everything up to the actors to make things work as they should, all well cast in their respective roles. Vincent Price naturally assumes the top slot as Waldo Trumbull, proprietor of a once thriving undertaking business that he has single handedly run into the ground ("where else?"), burdened by the presence of featherbrained wife Amaryllis (Joyce Jameson), whose singing abilities only manage to shatter every glass in the house ("the vocal emissions of a laryngitic crow!"). Peter Lorre plays bumbling assistant and partner in crime Felix Gillie, who cannot resist being a party to murder to keep up appearances due to his former profession as amateur locksmith and 'self confessed bank robber' ("I've never confessed, they just proved it!"). Boris Karloff is an absolute hoot as Amos Hinchley, deaf and senile father of Amaryllis, whose frequent asides to pass the sugar are topped by his complaints that they keep his medicine away from him, unaware that his son-in-law is actually trying to poison him. Basil Rathbone uses his considerable Shakespearean expertise as the penny pinching landlord Mr. Black, whose demands for prompt payment earn him a spot in one of their coffins, only to continuously deny them the pleasure by refusing to stay put due to his catalepsy (Lorre: "for a man in his condition, he certainly has a lot of energy!"). There's even a nice bit for longtime vaudeville veteran Joe E. Brown in his final screen role as the Cemetery Keeper with Irish brogue, including his trademark wide mouthed yelp with Rathbone's insistent corpse bent on revenge ("I regard your actions as inimical to good fellowship!"). All four stars have their moments to shine, Price as despicable a cad as one might expect, drumming up business by resorting to murder but relishing every juicy line for increased amusement. Lorre's illness means he is less animated than in previous titles (only five months before his premature death at age 59), frequently using a stunt double in Lorre mask for the more strenuous sequences. Karloff is the genuine find in a most atypical role, mostly kept on the sidelines except when called upon to officiate at Rathbone's funeral, forgetting who the guest of honor is by simply referring to the deceased as 'what's his name' or 'you know who' ("that's pretty good!"). Rathbone himself was taken aback at the realization that he was thought by many to have long since passed away, and in taking an on screen ax to his critics gets to chew the scenery in a fine showcase that perhaps eased his worries for the future ("you're dead, Mr. Black" "the hell I am!"). Apart from Tourneur's sluggish direction the picture only drags during some of its extended slapstick, and in the end Price's Trumbull never met a bottle he didn't drink!

The Body Snatcher

Val Lewton's greatest triumph, three stars in top form
1945's "The Body Snatcher" was a natural choice for RKO producer Val Lewton to court a more mainstream audience while still providing chills with a public domain story by Jekyll/Hyde creator Robert Louis Stevenson. The setting is 1831 Edinburgh, not long after the murderous exploits of Burke and Hare were exposed, Henry Daniell's Dr. Wolfe MacFarlane a learned surgeon who has forsaken actual practice to teach students in his own school of medicine. Young Donald Fettes (Russell Wade) hears about the brazenness of grave robbers in despoiling the recent dead to procure subjects for financial gain, but is put off from quitting by MacFarlane's regard for his bedside manner, put to the test by a crippled little girl in a wheelchair. One of Fettes' tasks as new assistant is to receive specimens from Cabman John Gray (Boris Karloff), as kind and gentle to the child as he is cold and heartless in regards to a dog that gave him trouble on his latest acquisition, and a thorn in MacFarlane's side for some past indiscretion. When the doctor balks at a delicate spinal operation that may cure the girl's paralysis, Gray convinces him to take up the case, not so much for her as for MacFarlane's vanity. Now that the kirkyards are under guard a female subject may take longer to obtain, until the cabman eyes a pretty street singer unaware of her peril. This time Fettes finds himself a party to murder, his conversations on the matter conveniently overheard by skulking janitor Joseph (Bela Lugosi), a recent arrival from Lisbon with blackmail on his mind. As the last of 8 features to pair Karloff and Lugosi, their final on screen meeting finds both in fine form, Boris relishing one of his very best roles, singing and laughing as he explains how to 'Burke' a proper victim, Bela the unknowing stooge plied with drink for his inevitable demise. Still, the picture is clearly owned by Henry Daniell, longtime master of Hollywood villainy, cast in atypical mode not only in a rare lead but also one that allows him to display his full range as a brilliant yet tragically flawed human being, expertly sparring with the great Karloff's 'crawling graveyard rat.' Daniell later scored as Basil Rathbone's nemesis Moriarty in a latter Sherlock Holmes entry "The Woman in Green," and made five appearances on Karloff's THRILLER in the early 60s. After his Broadway success in "Arsenic and Old Lace," Karloff's collaborations with Lewton broadened his screen career from a simple minded Universal scientist to doing films for Cecil B. De Mille ("Unconquered") and Norman Z. McLeod ("The Secret Life of Walter Mitty"). Some unbilled actors went on to acclaim (Robert Clarke, Bill Williams), while pretty contract starlet Rita Corday would reunite with Boris in her penultimate title "The Black Castle."

The Mask of Fu Manchu

Boris Karloff's first speaking horror role comes from MGM
1932's "The Mask of Fu Manchu" was MGM's answer to Paramount's trio of Warner Oland entries about Sax Rohmer's evil embodiment of 'The Yellow Peril,' the Oxford educated Chinese mastermind Fu Manchu (later revived in the 1960s in the capable hands of Christopher Lee). "Mask" had only recently been serialized, and would become the last Hollywood feature for the character, although Henry Brandon would take the lead in a 1940 serial "Drums of Fu Manchu." After mute roles in James Whale classics "Frankenstein" and "The Old Dark House," this loan out to Metro would be the first time that audiences finally heard Boris Karloff speak in a starring role, and the invasion of the tomb of Genghis Khan can't help but look ahead to Universal's upcoming "The Mummy." Assembled haphazardly as a series of threats, captures, and narrow escapes (all for a mask and scimitar from the tomb), it serves as little but an opulent catalogue of over the top depictions of torture conducted by a gleefully sadistic Karloff and legendary beauty Myrna Loy as Fu's 'ugly and insignificant daughter.' Lawrence Grant suffers beneath a clanging bell as Boris taunts him with grapes and a gulp of salt water, Charles Starrett watches in trepidation as a serum is crafted for his complete obedience with venomous spiders and snakes, Jean Hersholt is trapped inside a death trap to crush him between two sides, and Lewis Stone as Nayland Smith braves an opium den before finding himself being lowered over an alligator pit. Its pre-Code status lends it some weight as a relic that even its stars couldn't take seriously, but behind a makeup that took nearly 3 hours to apply Karloff proves himself worthy of his hard won stardom, audiences reminded of his greatest triumph in the ads: "Tortures of Frankenstein of the Orient!" (not many performers could spit out such dialogue as 'stiff British spine' with as much aplomb). Often stereotyped as ethnic villains during the silent days, Karloff was now able to pick and choose more carefully while having deluxe vehicles conceived especially for him, playing Asian characters in Warners' 1937 "West of Shanghai" (a delightful comic performance), and the Mr. Wong series at Monogram. MGM rarely indulged in this disreputable genre (Tod Browning's "Freaks" already a notorious flop earlier in the year), not returning for more until Peter Lorre's Hollywood debut in 1935's "Mad Love," unsurprisingly another flop (Browning tried again with "Mark of the Vampire" and "The Devil-Doll").

You'll Find Out

Karloff and Lugosi joined by Peter Lorre
1940's "You'll Find Out" (shooting title "The Old Professor") may have followed in the footsteps of Bob Hope's "The Cat and the Canary" and "The Ghost Breakers," but here the top billed bandleader Kay Kyser (and his orchestra) are menaced by experts of frightful melodrama, Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi in their 7th picture together, plus Peter Lorre in between Columbia assignments "Island of Doomed Men" and "The Face Behind the Mask." Sadly, the actual plot outlined around a bevy of songs and comic asides is the all too familiar one about evildoers trying to keep a young woman from claiming her inheritance to continue fleecing her gullible aunt, who believes that her late brother speaks to her from beyond the grave. Lugosi is the natural choice for Prince Saliano, effortlessly playing it straight while conducting phony seances to cover for various 'accidents' that fail to hit their target. Karloff plays Judge Mainwaring, supposedly the late man's attorney, barely escaping with his life in darkest Africa but bringing a multitude of artifacts and props back to make the seaside mansion look like a museum. Finally there's Peter Lorre, the one bogeyman allowed to loosen up in disguise as he toys with the unsuspecting Kyser like a cat with a mouse, earning his share of chuckles: "as long as you can shoot straight we have nothing to worry about" "that's true!" Karloff's best line comes right after his first appearance ("I can assure you that Alma Bellacrest is as sane as I am!"), and at one point gets to share a delightful bit at the star's expense with Lorre: "who is this fellow Kyser?" "some bandleader!" Genuine frissons are still generated for Bela's seances, the weak spots coming later when Kyser and company spend way too much time wandering through hidden passageways to learn what the audience already knows. Everyone involved had such a grand time that criticizing it as outdated is rather too obvious, it remains the only teaming of all three terror titans, with one deleted exchange that should have been kept between Kyser and Lorre: "you ever hear of a Mr. Moto?" "yes, I think he was one of my students at Oxford!" This was also one of the first screen appearances of Jeff Corey, unrecognizable clean shaven, actually playing himself in the opening Kay Kyser sketch, soon to head over to Universal for two Lon Chaney vehicles, "North to the Klondike" and "Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man" (as the crypt keeper who finds the lock broken from inside).

Curse of the Crimson Altar

Astonishingly bad, even with an incredible cast headed by Boris Karloff
1968's "The Crimson Cult" was a rare collaboration between Tony Tenser of Tigon British and Louis M. Heyward of AIP (previously responsible for Michael Reeves' "Conqueror Worm"), managing to corral an ailing Christopher Lee (a bad back keeping him inactive for much of the year), native born star of Italian Gothics Barbara Steele, perennial second fiddle Michael Gough, and a dying Boris Karloff, only on screen for a measly 10 minutes but still an improvement on his final Mexican quartet. The poorly written script adeptly bypasses all attempts to convey a cogent story about executed witch Lavinia Morley (Barbara Steele, inexplicably painted green), and her centuries long vengeance against the descendants of those who burned her at the stake, none of which is ever shown or barely even mentioned; the bulk of the running time finds Mark Eden as Robert Manning endlessly repeating the same questions about his brother's disappearance, without it ever dawning on him that the Mannings are among Lavinia's targets, the goal to have their souls signed off in blood. Lee's J. D. Morley remains in pleasant denial for the entire picture until fate decrees that a climax must be played out, Gough's Elder a mentally feeble butler with little to say worth hearing. The one performer listed as 'Guest Star' turns out to be Rupert Davies as town vicar, before his most iconic turn as the Monsignor opposing Lee in the upcoming "Dracula Has Risen from the Grave," also seen together in "The Brides of Fu Manchu" and "The Oblong Box." Boris Karloff is the main attraction despite only arriving after 22 interminable minutes at a swingers party that makes one long for the insipid antics of Peter Cushing's "Corruption." As Prof. John Marsh, foremost expert on the occult, he frequently enjoys snifters of the finest brandy with Morley, but is curiously filmed from wide angles with very few close ups, often apologizing for his mute manservant and once gallantly rising out of his chair to exhibit his collection of torture devices. Even Lee was amazed at the stamina and professionalism of an 80 year old actor able to breathe life into wheezy old dialogue, he too felt the picture quite inadequate for such a roster of wasted talents.

The Raven

Poe burlesque that flaps rather than flops
1963's "The Raven" came about when Roger Corman's previous Edgar Allan Poe entry for AIP, the anthology "Tales of Terror," successfully integrated comedy with horror in its middle story "The Black Cat," reteaming Vincent Price and Peter Lorre for a feature attempt at full blown spoof scripted by a played out Richard Matheson. Add to this mix Boris Karloff, himself a veteran of a straight 1935 version of "The Raven" with Bela Lugosi, not seen on movie screens since 1958's "Corridors of Blood," and audiences could rejoice at the star power on display and the charm with which they perform. Price takes the top slot as Dr. Erasmus Craven, adept sorcerer of the Middle Ages, who has forsaken the Brotherhood of Magicians to live a quiet life since the death of his beloved father, only to learn that their bitter enemy, Karloff's Dr. Scarabus, is now unquestioned leader. Lorre's Dr. Adolphus Bedlo is both raven and craven coward, turned into a winged messenger by Scarabus to assure Craven's presence in his own castle, where the soft spoken sorcerer's long lost Lenore (Hazel Court) is alive and well and enjoying her status as consort to the most powerful magician of all. Olive Sturgess was a veteran of two episodes of Karloff's THRILLER, a comely presence as Price's daughter, but the true find is 25 year old Jack Nicholson as Lorre's son Rexford, not exactly getting along together since his mother would prefer her drunkard husband to be home nights. We arrive at the Scarabus abode at the midway mark, and despite the pleasantries at dinner it's obvious their host is up to no good, requiring a final showdown of surprising effectiveness considering the typical Corman low budget, Price and Karloff trying to outdo each other while staying alive to fight another day. Inspiration occasionally flags but the stars have both the experience and wit to keep things literally afloat, Lorre's frequent ad libbed mutterings a delight, Boris playing it straight yet still lighthearted (his henchman puts out a red hot poker on his own hand: "not quite ready yet!"). Price holds it all together in an atypically heroic role for a Poe film, all three back together for one more Matheson go round, adding Basil Rathbone for an even foursome in Jacques Tourneur's "The Comedy of Terrors."


Boris Karloff and Anna Lee match wits a second time
1946's "Bedlam" was producer Val Lewton's farewell to RKO horror, also the last of three collaborations with macabre master Boris Karloff (working titles "Chamber of Horrors" and "A Tale of Bedlam"), and by a lucky quirk of fate reuniting him with his costar of ten years before, the beautiful Anna Lee, from the British entry "The Man Who Changed His Mind." They had such a rapport trying to stump or outdo each other that one would start reciting a certain poem and the other would finish it, both equally learned in great literature and most appreciative in matching wits on screen one last time in this historical melodrama depicting the harsh treatment and squalid conditions at St. Mary's of Bethlehem in the 1770s. Karloff was the only choice as Master George Sims, head physician in charge of Bedlam, charging patrons a tuppence for admission to laugh at the antics of 'the loonies.' Anna Lee plays Nell Bowen, close associate to Lord Mortimer (Billy House), less enamored of the 'frivolity' when one gilded lad dies from skin suffocation, guided on her journey toward the light of truth by a Quaker stonemason (Richard Fraser). She sees Sims for the obsequious toady he is, using the law to serve his needs by keeping close to Mortimer's ear until the latter is convinced that Nell may be a danger to both their social positions. A partisan trial results in Nell being sentenced to Bedlam, where she remains terrified of the 'soulless' inmates, before her innate kindness wins them over at the expense of Sims' control. As she is about to win back her freedom, Sims attempts a dreaded 'remedy' upon her that forces the loonies to take charge and put him on trial instead, now pleading his own case to maintain the status for which he has toiled so many years. The first half concludes with Nell's conviction, the second half her salvation, Karloff mostly sidelined during the late stages as he unsuccessfully tries to break her spirit time and again, taken in by his own folly. Anna Lee became a member of John Ford's stock company and continued working into her 90s, always grateful to recall such happy times trying to scare theatergoers with her dear friend Boris Karloff, who would spend the next 15+ years concentrating on stage ("Peter Pan," "The Lark") and television (THRILLER) to yet greater acclaim.

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