Black Dragons is probably Bela Lugosi's oddest C-movie cheapie, and let's face it, the competition is fierce. But, oh, how I love these old '40s gems. It's a Monogram film, made under its Banner Productions. I'm sure it played in LA and NYC street theaters and smaller cities and towns, perhaps paired with an East Side Kids flick?
But I digress: Black Dragons, 1942, directed by William Nigh, runs 64 B&W minutes and stars Lugosi as Dr. Melcher and Monsieur Colomb. He's a sinister guy who pops up just as a bunch of American industrialists are getting mysteriouslybumped off. There is also pretty Joan Barclay as the niece of a Dr. Saunders, who is all mixed up in whatever is going on. It's also fun to see future Lone Ranger Clayton Moore as an FBI agent.
Now, we have mysterious deaths, we have Lugosi. It's all set to be a horror, right ... ahem, no. This is 1942, the U.S. is at war with the Axis, and Monogram head honcho Sam Katzman saw money to be made by creating a combination thriller/WW2 propaganda anti-Japanese film. So that's what Black Dragons is, and it makes the film an interesting historical curio piece.
You see, these U.S. industrialists are Japanese spies, created through plastic surgery to look like the American industrialists. Lugosi was the Nazi-like surgeon who did all this in Japan ... and then was doublecrossed and thrown in prison. Somehow -- the film sort of glosses over this -- Lugosi escaped Japan and headed to the U.S. to get his revenge on the spies.
As I mentioned, I love these time-capsule films. Monogram was famous for its bizarre intricate plots that its ultra-low budgets just could never keep up with. They dissolve into fun nonsensical action. Lugosi is Lugosi in this film. He's wonderful, whether he's coyly flirting with starlet Barclay or cleverly and calmly dispatching his victims. And there's also that wonderful, ubiquitous menacing, Monogram music.
The boom of video and DVD plus public domain has made Black Dragons easy to find. It's often in the $1 DVD bin at Wal-Mart or in the 20- to 50-set public domain offerings. Those with broadband Internet can watch it free on the Net. Buy it and enjoy an hour's diversion into a different filmmaking existence.
-- Doug Gibson