Friday, April 10, 2015

Poverty Row Horrors remains, despite the snark, a great achievement for Tom Weaver

By Doug Gibson

I re-read a genre book that's been around a long time, "Poverty Row Horrors," by Tom Weaver, with help from Michael and John Brunas. It's a marvelous work of film scholarship that covers -- in depth -- the output of Monogram, Producers Releasing Corporation and Republic studios during the first several years of the 1940s. It was a certainly a golden era for cult film buffs with stars such as Bela Lugosi, George Zucco, John Carradine, and even Boris Karloff, working in the C-film horror trade.

Weaver is, to use a cliche, a treasure. Besides his interview books, he has done work, with associates, on the Universal horror films, the films of John Carradine, and of course this book, that frankly may not be equaled. The depth of the research is superb. Everything you want to know about, say "The Mad Monster," "The Invisible Ghost," or "The Vampire's Ghost," etc., you are liable to find in this volume.

In the era of the now-defunct "Cult Movies" magazine, I always looked for a Tom Weaver film review and read it first, for the sole reason that I knew it would have far more genre-intensive information than the other film reviews.

But there is a less attractive feature to Weaver in his writing; he can be snarky, particularly to Bela Lugosi ad his fans. Here's an example from "Poverty Row Horrors" in "The Devil Bat chapter: "According to another PRC 'scoop,' 'Bela Lugosi says that for sheer dramatic tension and unadulterated horror, Devil Bat far outshines Dracula (cue to Weaver's snark) (There may be more truth to that statement than traditionalist horror fans will want to admit!)"

Sigh. Anyone who has read Universal Horrors has to put up with the Bela-bashing to enjoy that otherwise superb book. But one aspect of reading Poverty Row Horrors will be the periodic snarky jabs at directors, actors in these cheap but memorable films. Although these jabs are a small price to pay for the scholarship Weaver uncovers, one wishes he could see these films in the way that Cult Movies once opined, as "Rembrandt with a crayon." We are all aware of the plot holes, inconsistencies, and low budgets of films such as "The Corpse Vanishes," "Dead Men Walk," "Ghosts On the Loose," and others, but it's odd to hear a writer of this genre unleash his inner-Bosley Crowther (the fussy New York Times critic of that era) in meticulously criticizing Poverty Row cinema.

Enough of my rants, though; Weaver does acknowledge the fun factor of these films, the ability of these crazy plots of films such as "Bowery Over Midnight" or "Return of the Ape Man" or "Isle of Forgotten Sins" to provide entertainment, to be successes due to the charisma, mixed with outlandishness, that a Lugosi can provide. I agree with Frank Dello Stritto that these poverty row horrors did not really scare audiences; they were a combination of relief and nostalgia, escape for audiences wearied by the Depression and World War II. Also, Weaver seems to be a good sport, willing to take opposing viewpoints. He wrote a gracious introduction to the recent book "Tod Browning's Dracula," by Gary Don Rhodes, even though he disagrees with Rhodes' take on "Dracula."

If I have a real beef on a film's quality with Weaver it's probably his take on Frank Wisbar's PRC masterpiece "Strangler of the Swamp." Although I agree the later PRC version is not as good as Wisbar's German effort "Ferryboat Woman Maria,' it's still a superb film with amazing atmosphere for having a swamp on a stage. And Charles Middleton as the Strangler, with his methodical steps and dead eyes, is the closest poverty row came to creating legit scares. Weaver claims that many of Strangler's fans are merely echoing William K. Everson's praise in "Classics of the Horror Film." I disagree; I never read Everson's book and still loved "Strangler," among the first Poverty Row films I saw. I agree with Weaver that Wisbar bored us later, including with "Devil Bat's Daughter," but he scored with "Strangler in the Swamp."

(Frankly, an example of genre fans being swayed to one side is the excessive praise for the Spanish "Dracula" a generation-plus ago when it was located. Too many declared it superior to Browning's "Dracula," an incorrect assessment that is slowly being corrected.)

I do love this book, and no one should get upset at subjective differences of opinion. If you are a poverty-row horror film fan, this is a book that will last a lifetime as one reads chapters over and over. There is also an informative chapter on the music used in these films. A segment of more films with short synopsis, and a filmography for the many professionals who appeared in the films.

I favor the Monogram and PRC films, and particularly enjoy reading the Joseph L. Lewis and Edgar Ulmer directed films. I'm not as big a fan of the Republic poverty row films, but I do love the offbeat film "The Vampire's Ghost," and it has its chapter. You can buy this book via amazon here

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