Sunday, January 19, 2020

Son of Dracula: Count Alucard; spell it backwards

Son of Dracula, 1943, Universal, B/W, 80 minutes. Directed by Robert Siodmark. Starring Lon Chaney Jr., Louise Albritton, Robert Paige, Evelyn Ankers, Frank Craven. Schlock-Meter rating: 8 stars out of 10.

Son of Dracula is an enjoyable old-time horror flick with a suitably creepy if kind of miscast Lon Chaney Jr. as Count Alucard (spell it backwards) visiting the American South in hopes of forming an unholy alliance with Kay, a woman (Albritton) obsessed with the occult. There are some above-average special effects. The Count is finally foiled by his confederate (Albritton) as she helps her confused one-time fiance Frank (Paige) destroy the Count's daytime resting spot, thereby destroying him. However, at the end, Frank -- unable to bear what Kay has become ot share her wish to be "undead" -- burns her in her coffin. Several stock characters (family doctor, visiting Hungarian professor, old Hungarian gypsy woman, dopey sheriff) also match wits with the Count.

As mentioned, this film is a winner and worthy of a buy or stream. It's fast-paced, has a unique plot and always keeps the viewer's interest. But here are some quibbles. First, Chaney is a weak Count. He provides no charm of sinister finesse like a Lugosi, for instance. Instead, he comes across as an intimidating brute. In fairness to Chaney, however, the script is very unkind to his character.

This is the first Dracula who fails to hold control over the woman he has added to the ranks of the undead. In fact Albritton's character is the bigger villain in the film. She uses Count Alucard to gain immortality, marries him and then plots quickly to kill him and replace his space in the coffin with Paige. I often wondered why Bela Lugosi was passed up for this role. After seeing Count Alucard's role, I'm not surprised. Lugosi can play many roles, but a cuckolded Count is not one of them.

Although the film seems like an A production for its time, you can also see the beginnings of the Universal monsters' slide into B moviedom in Son of Dracula. There are characters (a judge) and Kay's sister Claire (Ankers) who are introduced and then remain undeveloped and fade away. There are stock black servants which are dated and racist today. Also, although it seems there is a town somewhere in the set, it never seems to be seen.

On the plus side, Paige is very good as the bewildered fiance and Albritton makes a charming villianess. It's a great Universal early horror and well worth 80 minutes of any cult movie fan's time.

-- Doug Gibson

Monday, January 6, 2020

Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman, Universal pairs the monsters

Frankenstein Meets The Wolfman, 1943, Universal, directed by Roy William Neill, starring Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney Jr., Patric Knowles, Ilona Massey, Maria Ouspenskaya, Lionel Atwill, Dwight Frye. Schlock-Meter rating: 8 stars out of 10.

Frankensten Meets the Wolfman is a fun movie that classic horror film lovers will enjoy. It's not quite at the level of the 1930s Frankenstein tales, and it's a little short -- or perhaps it just ends too abruptly for this reviewer. Nevertheless, it has three stars of the genre (Lugosi, Chaney Jr., Frye), a gorgeous female lead (Massey) and the reliably sinister Atwill and Ouspenskaya.

The plot involves the wolfman (Chaney Jr.) desperately trying to find a way to die so he can stop killing when the moon turns full. He's on the run, with gypsy Ouspensakaya helping him, when he encounters Dr. Frankenstein's granddaughter (Massey). From her he seeks the secret to ending an immortal life. Eventually, they stumble upon the frozen Frankenstein monster (Lugosi)within a decaying castle. A doctor who wants to take the cursed Chaney Jr. back to an asylum falls under the Frankenstein obsession and revives the monster to full strength. The full moon rise, and, you guessed it: We have a climatic monster battle royale.

The film is hampered by Lugosi's performance as the Frankenstein monster. He shambles around in a pathetic manner with his arms akimbo, looking every bit the 60 years of age he was during filming. In fairness, however, the original script called for Lugosi to be blind and included a speaking role for him. That was scrapped by Universal, and as a result Lugosi looks a little silly to unaware audiences. Still, he portrays little menace as the monster, even despite the sabotage by Universal. However, the look on Lugosi's monster's face, when he realizes his strength is back, is a highlight of the film.

Chaney Jr., as the cursed Larry Talbot, is very good. The first half of the film, as he makes his way to the Frankenstein castle, is very chilling and atmospheric. Knowles as the obsessed doctor fails to inspire, but the attractive Massey adds to the film. Old horror hands Atwill, Frye and Ouspenskaya add atmosphere. As mentioned, the final fight scene between Lugosi and Chaney Jr. is too brief, but it's good while it lasts. It's a pity both needed stunt men to finish the scene.

-- Doug Gibson

Saturday, December 28, 2019

Bela Lugosi -- The Monogramthology, a book review

Book review by Doug Gibson

There's been a literary boom regarding the nine Monogram films of Bela Lugosi. A short while back academics Gary D. Rhodes and Robert Guffey co-authored Bela Lugosi and The Monogram 9 (BearManor Media), which analyzed and deconstructed the films, from Invisible Ghost to Return of the Ape Man. (Our review of that book is here). And ....

Late in the year 2019 arrived Bela Lugosi: The Monogramthology, (Arcane Shadows Press), an anthology of "homage fiction," nine short stories, ranging from a few pages to mini-novellas, each based on the nine Lugosi films: Invisible Ghost, Spooks Run Wild, Black Dragons, The Corpse Vanishes, Bowery After Midnight, The Ape Man, Ghosts on the Loose, Voodoo Man, and The Return of the Ape Man. Bookending the collection are a forward by Drac, Classic Horror Host, and and afterward from his companion, Carita Drac. Both touch on aspects of Bela Lugosi's career and challenges. They are entertaining reads.

When a fellow fan reviews homage fiction, and I am a big fan of the Monogram series, it's important to focus on the author's story. Is it entertaining, well constructed, or does it flow well? My personal beliefs on how the films should be massaged into prequels, sequels, production dramas ... that's really not important.

Reader, if you need to learn the plots, consult Wikipedia or some of the reviews on our blog. This review assumes readers know the plots. There are prequels, sequels and more. I find much to praise in the stories. The authors have created art that manages to capture the spirit of the iconic 9 films. In some stories, characters from distinct films manage to encounter each other. That seems appropriate to this reviewer, given the mystical world of the Monogram, with Bela Lugosi as "God" of each film.

I have minor quibbles with some stories. I have two or three favorites. To apply equal space to the nine story-tellers, each will have a capsule review that includes the name of the story, the name of the author, and a few observations. A main goal of mine is not to cheat the reader of discovering chief plot elements.

-- The Invisible Cell, by Robert J. Kokai Jr. (from Invisible Ghost) -- This sequel involves what happens soon after Charles Kessler, played by Lugosi, is taken into custody for several murders he committed in a trance after he sees his estranged, thought-dead wife. Kessler narrates an interesting tale heavy on psychology and madness, with a clever twist at the end.

--Spooks Run Wild ... Again, by Dwight Kemper (from Spooks Run Wild) -- This is a pithy, fast-moving story of a production crisis when producer Sam Katzman accuses this mischievous East Side Kids actors of stealing the film. Bela Lugosi, star of the film, uses his talents to discover the truth of the theft.

-- Black Dragons II: Count Dracula vs. a Phantom of the Opera, by Todd Shiba, (from Black Dragons) -- The author takes Black Dragons, a World War II semi-propaganda film that is easily the most convoluted of the Monogram 9 and ... creates a very long short story that manages to be even more convoluted than the movie. I'm not criticizing the author. The wild, ever-changing plot is an intentional spoof on the film. It's done well, and with humor. My only criticism is a few pages could be trimmed from the 43-page story.

-- Happy Birthday Countess, by Gregory William Mank, (from The Corpse Vanishes) -- This is my favorite story. Film scholar Mank, who knows the genre as well as anyone, crafts a short but deeply affecting prequel of how Lugosi's Dr. George Lorenz, the mad scientist of The Corpse Vanishes, met his vain, cruel, mostly unfeeling wife/countess. It's a strong tale of unrequited love turning a relationship into co-dependency, madness and depravity.

-- Bowery After Midnight, by Brian Carney, (from Bowery At Midnight) -- This sequel takes survivors from Bowery at Midnight back to the soup kitchen where Lugosi's character also ran a criminal enterprise, with many murders. It appears that restless spirits are haunting the location. There's a fake spiritualist, a taunting magician, a confused young couple (particularly the man), and a supernatural god who can open, and close horrific passages. Characters from other Monogram 9 films make appearances.

-- The Gorilla Strikes! by Kurt McCoy, (from The Ape Man) -- This 45-page sequel is jarring with its passages of violence and sadism in a carnival atmosphere where Dr. James Brewster, Bela Lugosi's Ape Man, is now living, having survived the previous film; but still needing spinal fluid to appear normal for short periods. I was initially put off by the tale, contrasting its extreme violence with the G-rated implied or mild violence in the film. A second reading, however, made me a big fan. McCoy has crafted very strong pulp fiction. It's as good, even better, than Ed Wood's' pulp fiction produced in the last decade of his life. That is a compliment, by the way.

-- The Bride of Andy Hardy Meets Dracula, by Frank J. Dello Stritto, (from Ghosts on the Loose) -- This is a favorite tale of mine as well. It stays away from the plot and instead imagines how Ava Gardner, on loan from MGM and not a star yet, may have felt while acting in this poverty-row film, her first movie where she's among the stars' names. As a still-young woman better known as Mrs. Mickey Rooney than Ava Gardner, she and Lugosi share a day on the set, and Dello Stritto also imagines how one of Lugosi's most controversial lines came to be.

-- Voodoo Man Returns, by Brad A. Braddock, (from Voodoo Man) -- Braddock, who has written a prequel novel to Lugosi's film, White Zombie, crafts an entertaining revenge tale taking place after the finish of Voodoo Man. Lugosi is resurrected via voodoo, helped by confederates played in the film by George Zucco and John Carradine. Lugosi's mad scientist Dr. Marlowe, is outraged at how his dead wife has been treated by a local judge. The 25-page story generates suspense and reads quickly.

-- The Road to Madness: A Prequel to Return of the Ape Man, by Stefanie Kokai, (from Return of the Ape Man) -- This is a love story, narrated by the woman who once had requited love with Prof. James Dexter, the obsessed scientist who tries to swap brains with a neanderthal in the film. But that's in the future. In this romantic tragedy, the narrator relates how Dexter's life was almost led astray from his obsession by a greater power, love. The story has an interesting twist, involving the narrator, that I'll let readers discover.

This anthology will attract notice from fans of the films interested in sampling the literary additions. However, those unfamiliar with the movies could also be motivated to see the films after reading these tales for a dark night in a warm easy chair or bed.

Monday, December 23, 2019

Our favorite kitschy Christmas films at Plan9Crunch

(This essay originally ran in the Dec. 20, 2007 Standard-Examiner)

By Doug Gibson

Every December (or after Thanksgiving!)  the best Christmas films pop up on TV: "Miracle on 34th Street," "A Christmas Carol," "Going My Way," "The Shop Around the Corner," "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" — I refer to the Boris Karloff-narrated cartoon — "Mr. Krueger's Christmas" and, of course, that other Jimmy Stewart classic, "It's a Wonderful Life."

We all have our favorite Christmas cinema moments. George Bailey's joyous run through Bedford Falls, Ebenezer Scrooge dancing for joy on Christmas morning, Macy's Kris Kringle speaking Dutch to a World War II orphan girl, and my favorite, crusty but lovable Father Fitzgibbon's surprise reunion with his mother after decades apart.

There are great holiday films. Much has been written about them. But today let's spill some ink about the other Christmas films, the kitschy ones. They're all over the dial. Just turn on the Hallmark Channel!

Most aren't worth five minutes of our time, but some still spread holiday magic. We've all heard of "A Christmas Carol" or "Scrooge," but how many recall the Fonz — Henry Winkler — starring in "An American Christmas Carol"? There are two well-received versions of "Miracle on 34th Street," but do you recall the kitschy 1973 TV version in which the lawyer was played by actor-turned-newsman David Hartman?

Even the biggy, "It's a Wonderful Life," has a kitschy cousin. Remember "It Happened One Christmas," the gender-switching knockoff starring Marlo Thomas?

Indeed, the competition is fierce for those kitschiest Christmas movies that still entertain us. But here are three finalists, all made on the cheap, yet still being sold and garnering holiday TV showings.

So, without further adieu, here is the best kitschiest Christmas film:

"Santa Claus Conquers the Martians" — This 1964 film was shot in an abandoned airport hangar in Long Island, N.Y., using many minor cast members from a NYC stage production of "Oliver Twist." It has a catchy theme song, "Hurray for Santy (sic) Claus," that you'll hum afterward. The plot involves Martians coming to earth, kidnapping Santa and whisking him away to cheer up the Martian kiddies. Two earth children are kidnapped along with Santa. Santa and the earth kids fight off a Martian baddie, prep a goofy Martian to become that planet's Santa, and launch off to earth in the spaceship. We never know if they made it home — perhaps the budget didn't allow that. The acting has to be seen to be believed, but the film has a goofy charm.

It was a big hit on the now-gone "weekend matinee" circuit and played theaters for years. Pia Zadora, who was briefly a sexy starlet in the 1980s, plays one of the Martian children. John Call, as Santa, does a mean "ho, ho, ho." (Update, in 2011 holiday season this film played at the North Ogden Walker Cinemas for $2 plus a donated can of food!)

And now, the second-best kitschiest Christmas film:

* "Santa Claus" — Don't confuse this 1959 Mexican film with Dudley Moore's "Santa Claus: The Movie" or Tim Allen's "The Santa Clause" films. This import is weird and a little creepy, but it sticks with you. Old Kris Kringle is a sort of recluse who talks to himself and lives in a castle in outer space. He has no elves. His helpers are children from around the world who can't sing very well, though they belt out a lot of songs. Santa's reindeer are, I think, plastic and he uses a key to start them. Santa also works out on an exercise belt to slim down for the chimneys. For some reason Santa hangs out with Merlin the Magician.

Enter "Pitch," a devil. His goal is to stop Santa from delivering presents. Pitch is a wimpy fellow in red tights and wears what looks like a short middy skirt. Santa and Merlin foil Pitch's nefarious plans. The film also focuses on two children, a poor girl and a rich, neglected boy, who resist Pitch's temptations. There are magic flowers and even special drinks. Santa glides safely to a chimney using a parasol. If this film sounds to readers like the after-effects of taking two Percocet, you got the gist of it.

Finally, the third-best kitschiest Christmas film:

* "Santa and the Three Bears" — If you lived in Southern California long ago, this 1970 blend of live action and cartoon was a Thanksgiving afternoon staple on KTLA Channel 5. The animation is mediocre, but the story has a simple charm. A forest ranger teaches two excitable bear cubs about Christmas while their grouchy mother bear wants them to hibernate for the winter. The ranger agrees to play Santa for the cubs on Christmas Eve, but a storm keeps "Santa" away ... or does it?

The best part of the film is the live-action beginning and ending, where the ranger sits by the Christmas tree with his grand-daughter, a sleepy cat and many toys. The ranger is voiced and played by Hal Smith, best known as Otis the town drunk on "The Andy Griffith Show." Grumpy Mama Bear was voiced by Jean Vander Pyl (Wilma on "The Flintstones"). The uncredited director is Barry Mahon, who made soft-core sex films in the 1960s with such titles as "Nudes Inc." and "The Sex Killer."

A footnote: These films can occasionally be found on TV. Indeed, "Santa Claus Conquers the Martians" and "Santa Claus" are usually broadcast a Friday in December on KULC Channel 9 in Utah at 9 p.m. and on TCM. Antenna TV sometimes plays "... Martians" during the Christmas season. Both Santa Claus films mentioned here have also been spoofed by the snarky robots of "Mystery Science Theater 3000."