Bride of the Monster

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(3/10) In 1955 legendary producer/director Ed Wood released the first film of his sci-fi trilogy, and to his great satisfaction was able to place aged horror icon Bela Lugosi in the lead. Often considered Wood’s ”best” movie, this low-budget schlocker has to be ingested with a good dose of good-will. The inaptly made film is good for a whole bunch of laughs, but Lugosi plays his mad scientist with great gusto and even has some touching moments, and the movie has a very distinct charm.

Bela Lugosi as Dr. Eric Vornoff in Bride of the Monster.

Bela Lugosi as Dr. Eric Vornoff in Bride of the Monster.

Bride of the Monster (1955, USA). Directed by Edward D. Wood Jr. Written by Alex Gordon and Edward D. Wood Jr. Starring: Bela Lugosi, Tor Johnson, Tony McCoy, Loretta King, Harvey B. Dunn, George Becwar, Paul Marco, Dolores Fuller. Produced by Edward D. Wood Jr. for Rolling M. Productions.
IMDb raring: 4.1/10. Tomatometer: 45% Rotten. Metascore: N/A.

Poster.

Poster.

The fifties were a golden age for filmmakers without money, time or any particular talent. If you could raise 30 000 dollars, conjure up a script and stick a monster in the film, you could almost bet that someone would pick up distribution rights and make their money back, no matter how bad the movie was. There were quite a few hacks who tried their hands at sci-fi programmers, such as W. Lee Wilder or Bert I. Gordon. Roger Corman, who was in truth a very good producer and director, made an art out of making films on almost no money. But for some reason the name that has gone down in history as the king of bad movies is that of Edward D. Wood Jr. or Ed Wood for short. Best known for his ”magnum opus”, Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959), he did once produce and direct a film that had an actual budget and an actual script, and is often considered his best movie, and that is Bride of the Monster. Continue reading

Voodoo Man

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(2/10) In a nutshell: Horror icons George Zucco and John Carradine join Bela Lugosi in his last film at Poverty Row studio Monogram, for a tongue-in-cheek rendering of one of the most bizarrely funny so-bad-it’s-good sci-fi horror films of the forties. Unfortunately giggles aren’t enough to lift this film out of the ruts, although it is a must-watch for the wonderful Voodoo seances with Carradine and Zucco immensely enjoying the insanity of it all. 

Voodoo Man (1944). Directed by William Beaudine. Written by Robert Charles. Starring: Bela Lugosi, George Zucco, John Carradine, Tod Andrews, Wanda McKay, Louise Currie, Ellen Hall. Produced by Jack Dietz and Sam Katzman for Banner Productions and Monogram Pictures. IMDb score: 5.2

Bela Lugosi, Louise Currie and Wanda McKay in a publicity image for Voodoo Man.

Bela Lugosi, Louise Currie and Wanda McKay in a publicity image for Voodoo Man.

There are, in my opinion, strictly speaking two ways to grade a movie. The first one is to grade it on its entertainment value, i.e. ”how much did I enjoy watching this film?” The problem with this approach, of course, is that it ultimately comes down to personal taste. The other way is to do it the way I do it on this blog: to try and grade the film according to some pre-set criteria, such as originality, production values, artistic merit, impact, acting, directorial and editorial style, writing merits, and so forth. This approach does have the drawback that it is difficult for a low-budget movie to reach really high marks, whereas a film with a lavish production might score slightly higher points than it would actually deserve based on sheer viewing enjoyability or originality. But this is a trade-off that I feel is worth making – a really good low-budget film is able to overcome its low production resources and turn the lack of money into an asset rather than a burden, and makes it easier for a reviewer to have oversight with certain production flaws. And a film with a lavish budget doesn’t get away with a bad script or obvious production blemishes quite as easily as a cheap film with lots of heart. Continue reading

The Ape Man

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(1/10) In a nutshell: Notorious B-quickie director William ”One-Shot” Beaudine and Poverty Row studio Monogram bring us Bela Lugosi in one of his worst roles ever in this 1943 ape man film, much more interesting for its director and actors than for the film itself.

The Ape Man. 1943, USA. Directed by William Beaudine. Written by Karl Brown, Barney A. Sarecky. Starring: Bela Lugosi, Louise Currie, Wallace Ford, Henry Hall, Minerva Urecal, Emil Van Horn. Produced by Jack Dietz & Sam Katzman for Monogram. IMDb score: 4.5

Loiuse Currie and Bela Lugosi in the 1943 cheapo The Ape Man.

Loiuse Currie and Bela Lugosi in the 1943 cheapo The Ape Man.

So finally Bela Lugosi makes it to my list of terrible movies. I guess it was just a matter of time, as he already dodged a bullet with The PRC cheapo The Devil Bat (1941, review). This here is another Poverty Row cheapo churned out in a matter of days, and this time there aren’t many redeeming qualities to the movie. The Monogram movie The Ape Man, telling the story of a scientist who turns himself into an ape and must murder to turn himself back into a human, has few positive notes. Continue reading

Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man

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(3/10) In a nutshell: The first of Universal’s monster mashes, made in 1943, sees the studio finally dropping the ball in their monster franchise. What could have been a decent, fun B horror flick is ruined by Univseral first casting Bela Lugosi as the Frankenstein monster and then doing its best to erase him from the film.

Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man. 1943, USA. Directed by Roy William Neill. Written by Curt Siodmak. Sort of suggested by Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein. Starring: Lon Chaney Jr, Bela Lugosi, Ilona Massey, Patric Knowles, Maria Ouspenskaya, Lionel Atwill, Dennis Hoey, Rex Evans, Dwight Frye. Produced by George Waggner for Universal. Tomatometer: 25 %. IMDb score: 6.5

Bela Lugosi and Lon Chaney Jr. have a standoff in a promo shot for Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man.

Bela Lugosi and Lon Chaney Jr. have a standoff in a promo shot for Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man.

By 1943 Universal’s Frankenstein franchise had lost all roots to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein apart from the name. Scriptwise there isn’t even much proof that it is part of the same francise as the original 1931 Frankenstein (review). There isn’t even a Dr. Frankenstein in the film (on screen anyway). The original Dr. Frankenstein, Colin Clive, passed away in 1937 and one must say that it is to the studio’s credit that they didn’t try to replace him with another actor (apart from a brief hallucination sequence in The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942, review), but instead had not one, but two, sons of Frankenstein take up the mantle, Basil Rathbone and Cedric Hardwicke. One might suppose that Universal thought that a third son might be pushing it. We do, though, get a granddaughter of Frankenstein in the shape of Ilona Massey, but she is no doctor (she’s a woman, d’uh). Continue reading

The Devil Bat

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(3/10) In a nutshell: This bad 1940 B horror comedy from Poverty Row studio PRC has an abysmal script, bad acting and a shoestring budget. Nevertheless, the film has a certain old-timey charm, helped tremendously by a funny Bela Lugosi, who sends a giant killer bat to off the people wearing his new aftershave.

The Devil Bat. 1940, USA. Directed by Jean Yarbrough. Written by John T. Neville & George Bricker. Starring: Bela Lugosi, Suzanne Kaaren, Dave O’Brien, Guy Usher, Donald Kerr, Yolande Donlan. Produced by Jack Gallagher for PRC. Tomatometer: 55 %. IMDb score: 5.4

Bela Lugosi grinning it up in The Devil Bat.

Bela Lugosi grinning it up in The Devil Bat.

Where to begin? Well let’s begin with Bela Lugosi, the star of this film. By 1940 Lugosi’s career was not yet as completely in the ruts as it would become. He was hot off the huge success of The Son of Frankenstein (1939, review), and would yet land a few decent roles in films like The Wolf Man (1941) and The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942). It was his abysmal performance (with no help from the editor who took out all his lines) in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943, review) that would finally sink his career, along with the waning popularity of the Universal monsters and Lugosi’s own health and drug problems. Although his career paled compared to Boris Karloff’s, he had been temporarily saved by The Son of Frankenstein. In fact 1939-1942 was something of a second coming of Lugosi, who, despite being broke, had made only a film serial in 1937 and not a single production in 1938. But despite this, The Devil Bat was certainly a taste of things to come for Bela – a cheapo by Poverty Row studio PRC, surrounded by an incompetent cast and a crew that seemed like they really couldn’t care less. Continue reading

The Son of Frankenstein

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(6/10) In a nutshell: Bela Lugosi’s Ygor is the best thing to come out of the Universal horror stable since The Bride of Frankenstein, but unfortunately the rest of The Son of Frankenstein isn’t really up to the same standard as its predecessors. The expressionistic style is stunning and the acting good across the board, with team members Boris Karloff, Lionel Atwill and Basil Rathbone joining forces with Lugosi. But we mourn the reduction of Frankenstein’s monster to a mute, brute prop.

The Son of Frankenstein. Directed by Rowland V. Lee. Written by Wyllis Cooper, Rowland V. Lee (uncredited). Inspired by Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein. Starring: Basil Rathbone, Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, Lionel Atwill, Josephine Hutchinson, Donnie Dunagan. Produced for Universal. Tomatometer: 89 %. IMDb score: 7.2

Karloff in close-up in Son of Frankenstein.

Karloff in close-up in Son of Frankenstein.

Son of Frankenstein (1939) was the Universal smash hit that wasn’t supposed to be made. In fact, Universal didn’t release any horror films in 1937 or 1938, mainly because of pressure from the PCA, Production Code Administration, set up in 1934 to enforce the infamous Hays code on the US film industry. But happy coincidences and a new-found confidence in the genre made this semi-classic a reality, and once again kicked off a horror-fest in the States. Continue reading

The Invisible Ray

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(5/10) In a nutshell: The last of Universal’s classic horror sci-fi films before the ousting of studio boss Carl Laemmle Jr. The Invisible Ray boasted both Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi in an uneven, but fairly well made and very entertaining death ray film. Lugosi is seen in a rare heroic role, and Karloff is typecast as a mad scientist. Oh, and human organisms are only part of astro-chemistry controlled by forces from the sun, you know.

The Invisible Ray (1936). Directed by Lambert Hillyer. Written by John Colton. Starring: Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Frances Drake, Frank Lawton, Violet Kemble Cooper, Walter Kingsford, Beulah Bondi. Produced by Edmund S. Granger for Universal. Tomatometer: 89 %. IMDb score: 6.7

The not always very dynamic duo of Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff in The Invisible Ray from 1936 - along with the ray cannon.

The not always very dynamic duo of Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff in The Invisible Ray from 1936 – along with the ray cannon.

In 1936 we were reaching ”peak mad scientist”, inasmuch as the subgenre’s films in the United States were gradually diminshing in quality, and after flirting with A-films, were now deeply mired in the bad B-movie bog. About two thirds of the mad scientist films churned out by studios in the coming years would be held together simply by casting Boris Karloff or Bela Lugosi as the villain. But The Invisible Ray still managed to cling to some originality, and can in retrospect be seen as one of the standard bearers for the death ray subgenre, not generally known for producing quality films. Continue reading

The Whispering Shadow

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(4/10) In a nutshell: An entertaining horror-inspired mystery/crime serial with sci-fi elements that features Bela Lugosi in his best paid role ever. Entertaining and well acted, if quite confusing and not very original. It did, however, help pave the way for science fiction serials in Hollywood.

The Whispering Shadow. Serial. 1933, USA. Directed by Robert Clark, Albert Herman. Written by Barney A. Sarecky, George Morgan, Norman S. Hall, Colbert Clark, Wyndham Gittens. Starring: Bela Lugosi, Robert Warwick, Viva Tattersall, Malcolm McGregor, Henry B. Walthall, Ethel Clayton, Roy D’Arcy, Karl Dane, Lloyd Whitlock, Bob Kortman, Lafe McKee. Music: Lee Zahler. Cinematography: Edgar Lyons, Ernest Miller. Produced by Nat Levine, J. Laurence Wickland for Mascot. IMDb score: 5.2

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Bela Lugosi, Malcolm McGregor, Viva Tattersall and — Bela Lugosi in The Whispering Shadow, one of the very first sci-fi serials in sound.

In 1933 the serial format was catching new wind in its sails after the devastating blow of sound pictures, that made films more expensive to make. In the silent era, studios could often make a 12-part serial with one camera in a week, bringing in bit-part players and extras for the roles. These shoestring-budgeted serials could often bring in in double or triple the production cost even with a very modest attendance. When sound equipment was suddenly required, all Hollywood studios save Mascot and Universal dropped their serial productions.

But directors like B. Reeves Eason, Henry MacRae and Ray Taylor at Mascot and Universal proved that very successful serials could still be made at a reasonable cost, even with sound, and they were quickly popularised with the help of stars like Boris Karloff, John Wayne and Tim McCoy. Westerns were the cheapest to make so they were the most common ones, jungle adventures a good second, on the wings of two Tarzan serials. A little further down the list were crime/mystery serials. Science fiction was introduced – sort of – with the first ever full sound serial Voice from the Sky in 1930 – although the sci-fi element was strictly a MacGuffin.  Continue reading

Island of Lost Souls

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(9/10) In a nutshell: Island of Lost Souls (1932) is probably the most refined of the sci-fi horror films of the thirties, and probably the best acted. The H.G. Wells tale about a mad doctor trying to create humans out of animals by surgical means is still thoroughly creepy today.

Island of Lost Souls. 1932, USA. Directed by Erle C. Kenton. Written by Philip Wylie & Waldemar Young. Based on the novel The Island of Dr. Moreau by H.G. Wells. Starring: Charles Laughton, Richard Arlen, Bela Lugosi, Kathleen Burke. Cinematography: Karl Struss. Make-up: Charles Gemora, Wally Westmore. Produced for Paramount. Tomatometer: 96 %. IMDb score: 7.6

Charles Laughton as Dr. Moreau being attacked by his creations.

Charles Laughton as Dr. Moreau being attacked by his creations.

”Not to walk on all fours! That is the law! Are we not men?” chants Bela Lugosi in heavy manimal make-up in as scene from the 1932 film Island of Lost Souls, that has since become a classic. Although it is often clumped together with the Universal horror pictures of the time, like Frankenstein (review) and Dracula (both 1931), it was in fact made by Paramount, who also made Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1931, review). In both these Paramount horrors, you can see a sort of refinement and style that was lacking from the Universal pictures, Bride of Frankenstein (1935, review) perhaps being the exception. Continue reading

Frankenstein

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(8/10) In a nutshell: James Whale’s seminal Frankenstein (1931) is a far cry from Mary Shelley’s novel, and it is marred by some stiff acting and a low budget. But it is still a visual work of art, and a film that in many ways became the benchmark for American horror sfi-fi pictures for years to come, and the duo of Colin Clive and Boris Karloff as the mad scientist and his monster is part of our cultural legacy.

Frankenstein. 1931, USA. Directed by James Whale. Written by Francis Edward Farragoh, Garrett Fort, Robert Florey (uncredited), John Russell (uncredited), based on the play by Peggy Webling, John L. Balderston, in turn based on the play Presumption by Richard Brinsley Peake (uncredited), based on the novel by Mary Shelley. Starring: Colin Clive, Boris Karloff, Mae Clarke, John Boles, Edward van Sloan, Dwight Frye. Cinematography: Arthur Edeson. Make-up: Jack Pierce. Produced by Carl Laemmle Jr. for Universal. Tomatometer: 100 %. IMDb score: 8.0

The great Boris Karloff (William Henry Pratt) in chains as The Monster in Frankenstein from 1931.

The great Boris Karloff (William Henry Pratt) in chains as The Monster in Frankenstein from 1931.

Tod Browning’s Dracula, featuring a Bela Lugosi that would forever be ingrained in our minds as the dark count of the undead, was Universal’s first horror picture in sound. It was also the film that started the golden age of the studio’s horror franchise. But the ultimate film that would define the genre was Frankenstein. Both films were released in 1931, and gave birth to a torrent of horror – and science fiction – films, that has never fully ran dry. Frankenstein was the film that cemented the dark, expressionist gothic style of future American horror films, it was the film that defined the mad scientist, and of course introduced film history’s most recognizable monster in the form of the heavily made-up Boris Karloff. Today it is often overshadowed by director James Whale’s 1935 sequel Bride of Frankenstien (review), that is in many ways a superior film, and a true American classic. It is certainly true that Frankenstein is somewhat hampered by some wooden acting, an illogical and seemingly jumbled script and a fairly tight budget. But the beautiful, suspenseful and innovative visual style of Whale, and the multi-layered and ultimately sympathetic portrait that Whale and Karloff create for the Creature make up for the film’s shortcomings, and it is certainly well deserved of its place among the immortal pieces of art that make up the backbone of much of our cultural heritage. Continue reading