By Kristin Battestella
I’ve sung the Hungarian Horror Hunk’s praises previously. However, there’s nothing like spending an October evening with the unfortunately typecast and it seems oft under appreciated Bela Lugosi, so here’s a spooky sampling to get the Creatures of the Nights started!
The Black Cat – Bela and Boris together, Oh me oh my! Title aside, there isn’t much Poe in this 1934 horror hit. However, a fun opening, great trains, wonderful shadows, classical cues, and early thirties style accent the boys beautifully. Our Man of the Hour looks good, classy, and handsome- a gentleman of the time despite his military trauma and lost love. The ferociously juicy looking Karloff has a great entrance, too. We just know something’s afoot! Both men are sympathetic in their motives, but they have their own agendas, indeed. Whose vengeance is justified? Who’s more sinister? Why choose? Not to mention the hidden kinky- bedroom scenes with waifish, barely dressed ladies winding up men in smoking jackets- and how about those iffy lines between wives, daughters, and dead bodies? These horror heavyweights play chess and cross the occult line, and it’s simply glorious to see them going head to head without hiding behind fantastical capes and makeup. Though some may find Lugosi’s lengthy dialogue tough to understand, his torment comes thru nonetheless thanks to hefty, passionate debates, secret rituals, and good old fashioned blows. Toss in a bit of feline paranoia and mythology, a freaky Deco cool house, and not often seen interwar consequences, and hot damn. Cat lovers may both enjoy the motifs or be upset by the stereotypical ailurophobia fears, but fans of the boys will adore this one, oh yes.
The Corpse Vanishes – Besides a totally cop out ending that almost undoes all the fun, I’m not sure why this fast paced hour long 1942 deadfest received the MST3K treatment. We open with a shocking death or two at the altar and proceed with hints of all the genre staples: Elizabeth Russell (Cat People) and her fountain of youth extremes, ingenue reporter Luana Walters (The She Creature) in creepy house with foreign eccentrics, their weird staff, and a few deadly secrets. Yes, the mystery is completely impractical today- Bela Lugosi stealing bridal bodies via his strangely always on the scene suspicious hearst. Though he doesn’t speak much, Pimp Bela is skilled and demented with a purpose in his mad scientist laboratory replete with very big needles, screaming lady patients, and deformed servants in need of a whippin’! It’s also amusing how sassy newsfolk and none too bright authorities so readily use scandalous words like drop dead and corpse so casually, “I have a daughter…maybe she’ll drop dead, too!” The limited sets feel more like a simplistic play, and nothing is scary, but there’s some demented and sinister entertainment here.
Murders in the Rue Morgue – This 1932 Lugosi vehicle inspired by Poe’s story of the same name takes a lot of liberties, with early Darwinism, religious subtext, and saucy human/ape interactions. Despite editing cuts that make for some confusion, there are a few great onscreen murders, sweet shadows, screams, and other pre-code treats to circumvent the censors. Some sequences seem downright nasty- animal hissings and damsel screams from the upstairs bedroom! Our Man Bela is gloriously demented in his torturous looking mad scientist laboratory. He creates a wonderfully twisted and wild-eyed showman inside and out with superb presence and delivery. It’s totally different from his alluringly classic Count, and yet we want to see more of his absolutely creepy obsessions over angelic in white virginal victims. The scenes without Lugosi are good in pace and storytelling, and yet his absence is apparent. Sidney Fox (The Bad Sister) and the rest of the cast are quite fine for the time, and there are even brief shots of a real monkey to accent the man in a monkey suit action. Hints of then-modern stereotypes, 19th century trappings, and shades of King Kong in the finale aside, this is a great little hour for Lugosi lovers and a must see for early horror fans.
The Gorilla –Lugosi joins Lionel Atwill (House of Dracula) and The Ritz Brothers (The Three Musketeers) for this 1939 comedy horror murder mystery mix. Ironically, the slapstick humor and crazy ladies are more annoying than laughable, and this film would have been a lot better as a straight scary. The spooky décor, effects, and trick lighting look great, and the underlying mysterious makes the Three Stooges-esque comedy attempt feel completely out of place extraneous in this quick hour. Fun crime montages work in seriousness and suspense, and the class of our leading men holds the mystery, secrets, and scandal together. Lugosi has a few wry, subtle, and bemusing moments that showcase his range, and his accent isn’t that pronounced either. It’s as if he and/or The Ritz Brothers are in completely separate films- even when they are onscreen together. Make no mistake, fans of the cast will delight piecemeal, for the Ritz funny isn’t bad and the creepy is a-okay. But unfortunately, these elements just shouldn’t be together.