Bela Lugosi

The Phantom Creeps (1939, Ford Beebe and Saul A. Goodkind), Chapter 4: Invisible Terror

I suppose Invisible Terror, which doesn’t feature much invisible terror, is an improvement over the previous chapter. Terror does have Edward Van Sloan in a full flight suit waving a gun around threateningly. Not many opportunities to see such a thing.

The story continues to be Feds versus gangsters with Bela Lugosi (still thought dead) on the sidelines. Even when he uses his invisibility device to infiltrate the Feds’ headquarters–Edwin Stanley’s home lab. Stanley has an extremely dangerous substance and Robert Kent decides it’d be better to have it in a residential area than the government building in case it blows.

Priorities.

Kent–and lead sidekick Regis Toomey–can’t really get their heads around the case. For example, they think Jack C. Smith is one of the foreign agents, not Igoring for Lugosi. Kent once again shoots Smith multiple times–to get him to drop something–but it turns out okay because Lugosi can heal wounds with a ray.

It’s only the fourth chapter and the screenwriters have already given up on trying with the plot contrivances (maybe they did in the first and I’m blocking it). Dorothy Arnold just inserts herself into every situation, whether it makes sense or not.

The cliffhanger sequence is competently done, which is something. It’s not compelling because who cares, it doesn’t involve Lugosi and he’s all Creeps has got, but it is competently executed. Not sure much of it is original footage, so kudos to the editors for putting it together.

Shame they couldn’t make it dramatic too.

CREDITS

Directed by Ford Beebe and Saul A. Goodkind; screenplay by George H. Plympton, Basil Dickey, and Mildred Barish, based on a story by Wyllis Cooper; directors of photography, Jerome Ash and William A. Sickner; edited by Irving Birnbaum, Joseph Gluck, and Alvin Todd; music by Charles Previn; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Bela Lugosi (Dr. Alex Zorka), Robert Kent (Capt. Bob West), Dorothy Arnold (Jean Drew), Jack C. Smith (Monk), Regis Toomey (Jim Daly), Edwin Stanley (Dr. Fred Mallory), Anthony Averill (Rankin), Dora Clement (Ann Zorka), Hugh Huntley (Perkins), and Edward Van Sloan (Jarvis).


The Phantom Creeps (1939, Ford Beebe and Saul A. Goodkind), Chapter 3: Crashing Towers

If Crashing Towers is any indication, the only thing keep The Phantom Creeps creeping along is top-billed Bela Lugosi. He’s not in the chapter much–more often than not he’s invisible–and, wow, are things rough without him.

In addition to the predictable bad acting from Robert Kent and Dorothy Arnold, Edwin Stanley–who’s not new to the serial–is fairly awful. Some of the fault is Beebe and Goodkind’s direction but especially the editing. The expository scenes in Towers, whether it’s Kent and Stanley or Lugosi and Jack C. Smith, the cutting is jarringly bad.

But in addition to the G-Men (Kent and his crew), this chapter introduces more of the enemy agents. Edward Van Sloan is their boss and he’s boring, not bad (and Edward Van Sloan should never be boring). There’s also Anthony Averill as the active foreign agent (Van Sloan sits at a desk). Averill’s real bad.

And Smith’s terrible here. He was mediocre (ish) before but he’s terrible here.

Crashing Towers is poorly executed, poorly acted, poorly written. There’s a fun car miniature but it’s just in a shot or two. Creeps is far more successful with the invisibility effects than anything else.

Whatever advances the serial made, quality-wise, in the previous chapter, are totally lost here. Nothing about it is memorable. Except maybe the footage from The Invisible Ray, which is only three years old but Lugosi looks like a teenager compared to his appearance in Creeps.

CREDITS

Directed by Ford Beebe and Saul A. Goodkind; screenplay by George H. Plympton, Basil Dickey, and Mildred Barish, based on a story by Wyllis Cooper; directors of photography, Jerome Ash and William A. Sickner; edited by Irving Birnbaum, Joseph Gluck, and Alvin Todd; music by Charles Previn; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Bela Lugosi (Dr. Alex Zorka), Robert Kent (Capt. Bob West), Dorothy Arnold (Jean Drew), Jack C. Smith (Monk), Regis Toomey (Jim Daly), Edwin Stanley (Dr. Fred Mallory), Anthony Averill (Rankin), Dora Clement (Ann Zorka), Hugh Huntley (Perkins), and Edward Van Sloan (Jarvis).


The Phantom Creeps (1939, Ford Beebe and Saul A. Goodkind), Chapter 2: Death Stalks the Highways

Despite a stupefying cliffhanger resolution–disasters happen, people just don’t get hurt–Death Stalks the Highways turns out not too bad. Comparatively.

Take Bela Lugosi for instance. He tries real hard with some of his acting. It’s not good, but he’s trying. The trying gets him ahead of Robert Kent, who’s not good but also not trying. Dorothy Arnold is initially a little less annoying than last chapter, but eventually she gets back to her previous grating achievement.

Lugosi gets to use his invisibility powers, which means invisible man special effects. They’re not great, but they’re not terrible. The visible “phantom” isn’t a particularly good idea. It’s a bad effect and a questionable idea. Why not just make him invisible?

But Highways is full of questionable ideas, like when Kent shoots someone six or seven times (I didn’t count) at near point blank range and only stuns the culprit. Kent tells Arnold he was shooting to stun. Because bullets work different in Phantom Creeps.

Much of the chapter is Lugosi and sidekick Jack C. Smith trying to get back to the laboratory for stuff they left behind. Directors Beebe and Goodkind do pretty good with the creepy house stuff–reporter Arnold is there, trying to scoop Army copper Kent, while Lugosi and Smith are cleaning out the lab. They’re got help from the robot. The robot’s a hoot.

And there are some decent shots towards the end. Phantom Creeps is surprisingly decent a few times in Highways. I’m not exactly hopeful–Kent’s really, really bad–but the serial’s not dread-worthy. Well, maybe not dread-worthy.

CREDITS

Directed by Ford Beebe and Saul A. Goodkind; screenplay by George H. Plympton, Basil Dickey, and Mildred Barish, based on a story by Wyllis Cooper; directors of photography, Jerome Ash and William A. Sickner; edited by Irving Birnbaum, Joseph Gluck, and Alvin Todd; music by Charles Previn; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Bela Lugosi (Dr. Alex Zorka), Robert Kent (Capt. Bob West), Dorothy Arnold (Jean Drew), Jack C. Smith (Monk), Regis Toomey (Jim Daly), Edwin Stanley (Dr. Fred Mallory), Anthony Averill (Rankin), Dora Clement (Ann Zorka), Hugh Huntley (Perkins), and Edward Van Sloan (Jarvis).


The Phantom Creeps (1939, Ford Beebe and Saul A. Goodkind), Chapter 1: The Menacing Power

The Menacing Power does all right setting up the hook of The Phantom Creeps–Bela Lugosi is a mad scientist with various technological inventions he’s going to use for nefarious purposes–and even manages to gracefully segue between the expository setup and the chapter’s cliffhanger.

So far Lugosi’s made an invisibility wearable, an eight-foot plus tall robot, and discovered a new element. That new element lets him blow things up and put people in comas. Lugosi puts the positive part of the element somewhere, then puts the negative part on a spider. The spider crawls over, somehow attracted to the positive, and boom. It’s ludicrous and the pull-string spider is probably Power’s worst effect. Some of the composite shots are iffy, but the jerky movement of the spider wins. The composite shots appear to be reused footage. Spider is for Creeps.

Lugosi’s kind of terrible but only until the other cast members get more to do. Leading man Robert Kent is fairly atrocious, ditto leading lady Dorothy Arnold. He’s an Army captain out to get Lugosi’s technology for the U.S.A. (Lugosi wants to sell to a foreign power because money) and Arnold is a reporter. Undoubtedly some sparks will fly later on.

This chapter also introduces Edwin Stanley as Lugosi’s former science partner, Dora Clement as Lugosi’s suffering wife, and Jack C. Smith as his monosyllabic sidekick and lab assistant. Directors Beebe and Goodkind don’t seem like they spend much time on actors’ performances; both Stanley and Clement disappoint, but Smith’s solid. He finds Lugosi obnoxious. It makes him immediately sympathetic.

Phantom Creeps isn’t off to a great start, but it’s also not off to an intolerable one. The title refers to Lugosi. When invisible, he calls himself the Phantom.

CREDITS

Directed by Ford Beebe and Saul A. Goodkind; screenplay by George H. Plympton, Basil Dickey, and Mildred Barish, based on a story by Wyllis Cooper; directors of photography, Jerome Ash and William A. Sickner; edited by Irving Birnbaum, Joseph Gluck, and Alvin Todd; music by Charles Previn; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Bela Lugosi (Dr. Alex Zorka), Robert Kent (Capt. Bob West), Dorothy Arnold (Jean Drew), Jack C. Smith (Monk), Regis Toomey (Jim Daly), Edwin Stanley (Dr. Fred Mallory), Anthony Averill (Rankin), Dora Clement (Ann Zorka), Hugh Huntley (Perkins), and Edward Van Sloan (Jarvis).


The Black Cat (1934, Edgar G. Ulmer)

The Black Cat has a lot going on. It’s the story of two American honeymooners–David Manners and Julie Bishop–who, for whatever reason, decide Hungary is better than Niagara Falls. It’s also the story of a recently freed Hungarian soldier Bela Lugosi, who went into the war a happily married psychiatrist, only to lose his family after being imprisioned for fifteen years. Finally, it’s the story of Boris Karloff’s Austrian “architect,” who used to command Lugosi’s regiment, but sold them out to the Russians so he could escape to run off with Lugosi’s wife. Oh, and Karloff’s a big Satanic priest. Because the Austrians are Satanists and the Hungarians are either cute or loyal.

Aside from Karloff’s satanism? He kills women and keeps them hung up, preserved, in his dungeon. He built his giant, Art Deco house atop the fortress he betrayed to the Russians.

Through coincidence, Manners and Bishop find themselves in Lugosi’s questionable–but generally benevolent–company. Through bad luck, they find themselves part of Lugosi’s quest to avenge himself upon Karloff. Only Lugosi doesn’t even know how much avenging he’s going to need to do upon Karloff. He’s only got a rough idea.

Most of Ulmer’s direction is excellent. The first act has this shaky camerawork–“courtesy” cameraman John J. Mescall–but eventually those hiccups stop. He does pretty well with the actors. Bishop doesn’t have much to do except scream and pass out from fear, but she’s effective. Manners is in the awkward spot of not being the lead, but looking like he ought to be the lead. Meanwhile, actual lead Lugosi gets a character arc he chaffs against; while Peter Ruric’s script doesn’t favor anyone, Lugosi gets the harshest treatment.

The script’s rather xenophobic–look at these strange Eastern Europeans with their Satanism and so on–and Lugosi gets caught in a lot of it. Otherwise, he’s beyond sympathetic. His nemesis isn’t just a traitor, he’s a traitor who stole his family, murders random women to embalm, and is a Satanic priest.

In that part, Karloff’s okay, not much more. He looks the part–though the height difference between him and Lugosi (Lugosi’s much taller) is disconcerting. Lugosi does better. He doesn’t do great–he suffers from intense ailurophobia (fear of cats) and Karloff has apparently an endless supply of black cats around to creep Lugosi out.

The set design is a big deal, with the Art Deco house overpowering the boring dungeon. Maybe because the dungeon seems too cramped and its geography is confusing, but not in a good way. The third act takes place almost entirely in the dungeon, which doesn’t help things; it’s also when all the character problems and incongruities come to a head.

Solid editing from Ray Curtiss, especially during the first act and then the Satanic ritual. Great music from Heinz Roemheld.

The Black Cat runs just over an hour. Its present action is a day and a half or so. It shouldn’t slog but it does. The setup of the characters then of Karloff and his nightmare house (despite it being bright and Art Deco) all goes well. But Manners and Bishop’s parts get reduced a little too much in the second half; Karloff getting more to do isn’t better. He’s effective at being threatening but there’s not a lot of danger in the script. It’s too spare. There are only four real characters. It can’t spare them.

The film’s pre-Code, so the Hays Code can’t be blamed for the finish, just common morality. Still, The Black Cat’s a reasonable success, with some excellent moments for Lugosi in particular. And Ulmer’s direction can carry it. Most of the time.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Edgar G. Ulmer; screenplay by Peter Ruric, based on a story by Ulmer and Ruric; edited by Ray Curtiss; music by Heinz Roemheld; produced by Carl Laemmle Jr.; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Bela Lugosi (Dr. Vitus Werdegast), Julie Bishop (Joan Alison), David Manners (Peter Alison), Egon Brecher (The Majordomo), Harry Cording (Thamal), and Boris Karloff (Hjalmar Poelzig).


Son of Frankenstein (1939, Rowland V. Lee)

Son of Frankenstein is a mostly wasted opportunity. For everything good, there’s something significantly wrong with it. The script is good, director Lee doesn’t direct actors well. The German Expressionist-influenced sets are great, Lee shoots it so stagy, the sets go to waste. Lee likes his long shots. He and editor Ted J. Kent do nothing to make the cuts interesting. Though, really, Kent doesn’t have any material to work with. Lee has about six different shots and he just goes through them in a cycle. It’d be annoying on its own, but with everything else, it gives Son of Frankenstein way too much narrative distance. If the sets had been worse, if the actors had been better, who knows….

The Son in the title is Basil Rathbone. He is returning to Castle Frankenstein. Oh, right–it’s basically a lot like Young Frankenstein. Rathbone discovers the monster, brings it back to life, chaos ensues. He’s got a wife (Josephine Hutchinson in an admirable performance given all the constraints on her–Lee’s lack of direction, Rathbone’s inability to share scenes) and son (Donnie Dunagan, who’s supposed to be adorable). Right off, Rathbone’s a mad scientist. Most of the film has him hanging out with Bela Lugosi (who understands how to upstage a screen hog and delivers a fairly solid performance). Lionel Atwill’s around as a police inspector with only one arm. Yes, there’s a dart scene in Son too.

Oh, right. The Monster. Boris Karloff. You’d think he’d be important but he’s not. There’s no room for Karloff or the Monster in Son, not with Rathbone, Lugosi and Atwill. Atwill’s got more chemistry with Hutchinson than Rathbone and Atwill’s not even good. Lee doesn’t direct him and sort of lets him dangle in the film’s most thankless, but most important role.

Karloff is great. He has almost nothing to do, but watching him examine himself in the mirror, one can just imagine how good it would be with better direction. Cooper’s script is full of little moments Lee just can’t convey. The script’s far from perfect–anyone but Rathbone needed to be the lead the story, the part itself is inherently unlikable and Cooper doesn’t go anywhere interesting with it.

Really lame music from Frank Skinner doesn’t help things.

Even when Son of Frankenstein feints to impress, it manages to disappoint. And most of it is Lee’s fault.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Rowland V. Lee; written by Wyllis Cooper; director of photography, George Robinson; edited by Ted J. Kent; music by Frank Skinner; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Basil Rathbone (Baron Wolf von Frankenstein), Boris Karloff (The Monster), Bela Lugosi (Ygor), Lionel Atwill (Krogh), Josephine Hutchinson (Elsa von Frankenstein), Donnie Dunagan (Peter von Frankenstein), Emma Dunn (Amelia) and Edgar Norton (Benson).


Island of Lost Souls (1932, Erle C. Kenton)

What’s so incredible about Island of Lost Souls is how Charles Laughton doesn’t overpower the entire picture. Laughton’s take on the mad scientist role–playful, gleeful, callous, cruel–is a joy to watch and it definitely contributes but it doesn’t make Souls. Even with Laughton, Kenton’s direction is still a must, as are the performances of Richard Arlen and Arthur Hohl.

Arlen’s an unlucky shipwrecked man who ends up on Laughton’s island, Hohl’s Laughton’s assistant but also the guy who helped save Arlen. Waldemar Young and Philip Wylie’s script gives Hohl a lot of time to establish himself before revealing his profession. The big things in the film–Laughton, the island, the enormous action sequences–are all hidden at the beginning. It could very well just be the story of a man shipwrecked and tempted by a Polynesian native girl, a riff on a Maugham South Seas outing. And then things get very strange.

There’s no big standoff between Arlen and Laughton; Laughton’s not exactly an antagonist throughout the entire film. Instead, Laughton leads into the next antagonists… only they’re the most sympathetic characters in the film. The film moves fast and demands the viewer keep up pace. There are occasional humor payoffs, but things eventually just stay rough.

Kenton and cinematographer Karl Struss do these wonderful one shots of Laughton being evil. Laughton takes such a joy in the role, frequently smiling at himself.

Great supporting turn from Bela Lugosi. Maybe his best work.

Souls is an excellent picture.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Erle C. Kenton; screenplay by Waldemar Young and Philip Wylie, based on a novel by H.G. Wells; director of photography, Karl Struss; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Charles Laughton (Dr. Moreau), Richard Arlen (Edward Parker), Arthur Hohl (Montgomery), Leila Hyams (Ruth Thomas), Kathleen Burke (Lota), Stanley Fields (Captain Davies), Paul Hurst (Donahue), Hans Steinke (Ouran), Tetsu Komai (M’ling), George Irving (The Consul) and Bela Lugosi (Sayer of the Law).


The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942, Erle C. Kenton)

The Ghost of Frankenstein is pretty bad stuff. Running less than seventy minutes, it’s unbearably boring from the twenty-five minute mark, once the picture focus on Cedric Hardwicke.

Ghost opens with villagers pursuing Bela Lugosi’s evil hunchback. Though awful, Lugosi’s at least an enthusiastically vile character. Hardwicke–playing a neurosurgeon with his own castle (he’s a Frankenstein, after all)–is bad and boring.

Besides the subplot (if one wants to be gracious and call it a subplot) involving the Frankenstein monster (Lon Chaney Jr. here) befriending a child, played by Janet Ann Gallow, the best thing in the main part of the film is the flashback to the original Frankenstein. It’s never clear, but the flashback infers Lugosi was the hunchbacked assistant in that film. Only, he wasn’t… Dwight Frye doesn’t just appear in the flashback, he shows up at the beginning of the film too, along with some other Universal monster movie regulars.

Also lousy is Lionel Atwill. He and Hardwicke have some painful scenes together.

The end’s pretty cool for a few minutes, when Lugosi’s evil brain ends up in the body of the monster. Chaney has a great time mouthing the words and doing a Lugosi impression.

Ralph Bellamy keeps a straight face for his role as town prosecutor (who knew Eastern European villages had legal systems based on the United States) and Evelyn Ankers is okay.

Scott Darling’s script’s disastrous; Kenton has a handful of decent shots. Nice photography of bad sets.

Ghost is ghastly.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Erle C. Kenton; screenplay by Scott Darling, based on a story by Eric Taylor; directors of photography, Elwood Bredell and Milton R. Krasner; edited by Ted J. Kent; music by Hans J. Salter; produced by George Waggner; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Cedric Hardwicke (Ludwig Frankenstein), Ralph Bellamy (Erik), Lionel Atwill (Doctor Bohmer), Bela Lugosi (Ygor), Evelyn Ankers (Elsa Frankenstein), Janet Ann Gallow (Cloestine Hussman), Barton Yarborough (Dr. Kettering), Doris Lloyd (Martha), Leyland Hodgson (Chief Constable), Olaf Hytten (Herr Hussman), Holmes Herbert (Magistrate) and Lon Chaney Jr. (The Monster).


The Body Snatcher (1945, Robert Wise)

The Body Snatcher has half an excellent foundation. Nineteenth century medical genius Henry Daniell can’t escape his past associations with a shady cabman (Boris Karloff). These past associations being of the grave robbing variety. There’s also Daniell’s romance with his maid (Edith Atwater), which humanizes the character throughout the first half, since Daniell’s supposed to be a scary smart doctor guy.

Sadly, the film primarily focuses on Russell Wade as one of Daniell’s students. Wade is occasionally all right–and always earnest–but he’s simply not very good. Some of the problems come from Philip MacDonald and Val Lewton’s script. It’s too obvious and expository. And the story of a little girl who can’t walk (Sharyn Moffett) and her fetching mother (Rita Corday) would be annoying even if Moffett wasn’t awful. Of course Wade is taken with Corday, but the script doesn’t give them enough time. Though more time would have just made for worse scenes.

The best scenes are those with Karloff or Daniell–the ones with them together are absolutely amazing. Without Wade, and even with him to some degree, the men are alter egos, which gives Snatcher a whole lot of depth it otherwise would’ve have.

As for Wise’s direction, he often does very well. Robert De Grasse’s photography is great and the pair come up with some great ways to establish the Edinburgh setting while still shooting economically on a lot. Sometimes, however, Wise is far more overt than need be.

Snatcher should be much better.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Robert Wise; screenplay by Philip MacDonald and Val Lewton, based on the story by Robert Louis Stevenson; director of photography, Robert De Grasse; edited by J.R. Whittredge; music by Roy Webb; produced by Lewton; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring Russell Wade (Donald Fettes), Henry Daniell (Dr. MacFarlane), Boris Karloff (Cabman John Gray), Rita Corday (Mrs. Marsh), Edith Atwater (Meg Cameron), Sharyn Moffett (Georgina Marsh), Donna Lee (Street Singer) and Bela Lugosi (Joseph).


Dracula (1931, Tod Browning), the digest version

Even though it still falls apart at the end, this truncated, eight millimeter version of Dracula is better than the regular version. It’s exactly what I was hoping for from these Castle Films digests.

All of the long dialogue scenes are gone. There’s no explanation of vampires, the entire sequence before London is gone, no one even identifies Dracula by name until the flopping finish. It’s a really neat way to see the film, as it changes so many implications.

Even better, Lugosi doesn’t even have any lines. He’s a mysterious predator, not an awkwardly accented royal. There’s just enough romance between Helen Chandler and her beau too. It efficiently establishes the characters. Chandler’s first encounter with Lugosi is random chance, which makes Lugosi’s Dracula far more dangerous.

I wasn’t expecting much from this version, but Dracula finally works out. Until that ending, which is just too broke to fix.

2/3Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Tod Browning; written by Hamilton Dean, John L. Balderston and Garrett Fort, based on their play and the novel by Bram Stoker; director of photography, Karl Freund; edited by Milton Carruth and Maurice Pivar; produced by Browning and Carl Laemmle Jr.; released by Castle Films.

Starring Bela Lugosi (Count Dracula), Helen Chandler (Mina), David Manners (John Harker) and Edward Van Sloan (Van Helsing).


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