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Sunday, January 31, 2016

'A Soldier's Plaything' was a Harry Langdon feature in 1930



By Doug Gibson

One problem that film comic Harry Langdon had, throughout his entire sound career, was that his big-budget films with major studios bombed. The failure of the films were not Langdon’s fault, he performed well in all of them. And the films have gained in critical popularity in the 70 to 80 years after their release. Obviously, that’s little comfort to Langdon, who died 69 years ago. The one-time Sennett/First National silent star enjoyed his best success in the sound era as a comic lead in Hal Roach, Educational and Columbia shorts, and a few acting gigs in low-budget B films. Perhaps the best of these is “Misbehaving Husbands,” from Monogram. Nevertheless, his three A films, “A Soldier’s Plaything,” “Hallelujah, I’m a Bum,” and “Zenobia,” with Oliver Hardy, were all flops.

The film I’m reviewing today is “A Soldier’s Plaything,” from 1930, produced by Warner Brothers. It’s one of those very early talkies that blends comic routines with musical numbers. The film involves Harry (Tim) and co-star Ben Lyons (Georgie) as U.S. soldiers in Germany during the occupation after World War I. Georgie is the lady’s man who falls for a sexy German girl/woman Gretchen, (Lotti Loder). Harry has some excellent scenes, where he plays the “little elf” character he honed as a silent star very well. He also gets to sing a song, and does so very well. He’s not the focus of the film but he’s the funniest one in it. He easily outperforms -- in comedy -- a burly, yelling Noah Berry as Captain Plover, who constantly makes Harry and Ben shovel manure; that’s a running joke in the movie.

Ben’s Georgie, Harry’s soldier pal, is carrying a secret that harms his romance with Gretchen. He thinks he killed a violent gambler/gangster back home in the USA. That’s why he joined Tim as a WW1 recruit. Naturally, this causes some harm to his relationship with the German beauty. Worried that he’ll be arrested, he tells her he’ll come back and get her. Gretchen, who wants to go to the states with him immediately, is naturally skeptical. It looks like their romance is kaput, until an abrupt ending wraps up the plot neatly.

“Abrupt” is an excellent word to apply to this Michael Curtiz-directed film. It’s only 56 or 57 minutes, and is over before you know it. There seems to have been extreme editing in the film. Example: like old silent films, titles, rather than scenes, are used to move action along. Also, when Georgie’s major dilemma with Gretchen is resolved (he discovers the man he thought he killed is a fellow soldier) there’s no reconciliation scene with his girl. She’s just with him, all happy, in the next scene. According to movie books, there is a 73-minute version of this film (now lost) that played in Europe. It’d be nice if it was found one day.

According to genre books, Lotti Loder was a European beauty that Warner Brothers was planning to groom for stardom. It’s clear though, that by the finished release cut, studio execs had abandoned those plans during filming. Although beautiful, she does not have screen presence and seems just another supporting player in the film. There is one memorable -- pre-code -- scene of her with Lyons by a creek where she shows off a pair of very attractive legs, however. According to film books, she only made a few more films before leaving the industry.

Harry Langdon, as mentioned, is the best part of this film. He’s funny and demonstrates good comic timing. The film, due to editing, is a B film that cost A money. Depression-era audiences had other films with more depth to spend money on. Curtiz uses an interesting double-exposure technique when portraying life in the USA from persons describing it in Germany. I recommend this film, particularly if you are a Langdon fan and for those interested in the evolution of the earliest sound films. Watch Langdon sing in this film below!

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Wife to Spare -- a Columbia comedy short with Andy Clyde



By Doug Gibson

Above you is a Columbia comedy short from 1947. It is obscure primarily because it's not one of The Three Stooges shorts. The wonderful trio has endured, and arguably is on TV somewhere daily. But there are many, many other Columbia comedy shorts, and they are gems. Stars include Buster Keaton, Charlie Chase, Harry Langdon, Hugh Herbert, Andy Clyde (of whom we will talk about in this post) and many more.

They merit appreciation today, and at Plan9Crunch we plan to highlight the non-Stooges Columbia shorts. There are a lot. We'll also make sure when we review a short, that our readers can watch it via YouTube, or other sources. That takes me to a wonderful film historian named Greg Hilbrich, who following the fantastic research of Ed Watz, Ted Okuda, Leonard Maltin and others, has created The Columbia Shorts Department website. It's a labor of love to pay homage to all the shorts that studio released over a quarter century. We interviewed Greg on his site recently and we reviewed Watz and Ted's book on the Columbia shorts as well.

What Mr. Hilbrich has done, as well as some others on YouTube (Johnny Flattire and Billie Towzer come to mind) is to upload many of the "lost" Columbia shorts on The Shorts Department YouTube page. Thanks to the Columbia Shorts Department, I have watched a 1947 Andy Clyde Columbia short, "Wife to Spare," several times in the last week. You can watch it too, it's at the top of this blog.

In what will be, as mentioned, and occasional series on Plan9Crunch, we'll make "Wife to Spare" the first Columbia short to be reviewed in 2016. (By the way, we have reviewed another a ways back, Harry Langdon in "To Heir is Human."
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Wife to Spare, 1947, Columbia comedy short, black and white, about 16 minutes, 25 seconds, directed by Edward Bernds, starring Andy Clyde, Christine McIntyre, Lucile Brown, Dick Wessel, Vera Lewis, Murray Alper, Emile Sitka and Heine Conklin.
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What's best about this late 1940s offering is the cast. It's stellar. Besides Clyde as the fussy businessman married to beautiful Brown, and forced to live with a ne-er-do-well brother in law (Wessel) and a mother in law from hell (Lewis) you have Columbia second player stars Sitka and McIntyre in supporting roles. Finally, Conklin, a name from the comedy silents, has a small role as a janitor. It's retro movie magic, and although the tight budget and hurried script is evident, the manpower of talent, as well as above-average direction of Bernds, make this an enjoyable 1,000 seconds and I'm sure pleased theater audiences.

Clyde made hundreds of Columbia shorts. By this time he had long shaved his beard, kept the mustache and was able to play a fussy, yet determined city man, trying to solve others mistakes, get out of his own jam, and have a peaceful life with his wife and no mother in law. The plot has him trying to get his layabout brother in law (Wessel) out of a $500 jam due to activities with a sexy gold-digger, played by a very attractive McIntyre, who literally lets her hair down, chewing up the scenery as a schemer who moves to frame Clyde once she realizes he has more cash.

In a funny scene, McIntyre maneuvers Clyde into compromising photos and audio while her co-swindler husband, Alper, gathers the "evidence." Things appear bleak for Clyde; the swindlers are demanding $5,000, his wife has overheard him talking to McIntyre, and his mother in law hires a lawyer (Sitka) to have her daughter divorce Andy.

As with most of the films, before budgets were really slashed in the 1950s, there's a lot of plot for two reels. Enough of the jokes work to leave you with a smile. These actors stayed busy. Clyde had overall 390 acting roles, says IMDB, McIntyre 130, most with Columbia shorts. Wessel 301!

I'd like to focus on two "Wife to Spare" Columbia shorts regulars. McIntyre is best known as a classy co-star to the Stooges, with her hair up and manners impeccable. Like Dent and Sitka, she's achieved iconic status as a Stooges' foil. In "Wife to Spare,' she has a more prurient sexual appeal, with her hair down and trying to sweet talk Clyde with a fake southern accent (her name is Honey Jackson). The other occasional Columbia player is Wessel. He hasn't gained iconic status and while he had his moments in other shorts, he's the weak link in "Wife to Spare." His idea of comedy is to laugh hysterically (maniacally) every time Andy bumps his head or walks into something.

The opening scene sets the pace for a slightly above average short, with Clyde dressed in woman's clothes, forced to clothes model for the women in his household. Watch it above and come back to Plan9Crunch for another Columbia shorts review in the near future.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

The Man Who Fell To Earth - Bowie's 70s Sci-Fi Epic


By Steve D. Stones

"The strange thing about television is that it tells you nothing. It shows you everything."            - Thomas Newton (David Bowie)

David Bowie was truly a unique artist who constantly reinvented himself and perfromed in a range of styles and genres. His theatrical and androgynist appearance made him perfect for the role of an alien who crashes to earth in The Man Who Fell To Earth (1976).

The Man Who Fell To Earth is a strange, surreal 70s sci-fi epic. Bowie is perfect in the role of an frail alien who crashes on earth to find water for his planet to save his small family. He tells many humans he encounters that his name is Sussex, but goes by the name Thomas Newton when he starts up his own Corporation - World Enterprises.

World Enterprises starts out as a camera and electronics business, but later evolves into a space program. Newton builds a spaceship to get back to his dry planet. The film is filled with interesting flashback sequences with Newton on his planet in a space suit surrounded by his family and a flying house.

While on earth, Newton becomes obsessed with American television and spends lots of time watching many TVs in a room all by himself. His behaviors evolve into drinking heavily and wild sex with Mary Lou, a housekeeper he met in a hotel elevator.

Mary Lou helps Newton after he faints in the elevator with a nose bleed. She nurses him back to health, and the two become lovers who purchase a cabin in the woods with a giant telescope so Newton can watch his planet.

The film is said to be a commentary on the dangerous excesses of the American lifestyle and the greed of capitalism - a message which resonates more broadly in today's world of bank bailouts, a shrinking middle-class and income inequality.

The film also dares to suggest that perhaps no one is strong willed enough to resist the temptations and distrations of television, greed, sex and alcohol consumption, which may be a bit naive and arrogant.

Based on Walter Tevis's novel and later remade for television in 1987, The Man Who Fell To Earth may have borrowed its plot from Robert Heinlein's Strangers In A Strange Land.

Happy viewing!

Monday, January 18, 2016

Bela Lugosi's poverty row films ... a conversation with Frank Dello Stritto


Interview by Doug Gibson

Plan 9 Crunch is pleased to have a conversation with film scholar Frank J. Dello Stritto, author of many genre articles and three books: "A Quaint and Curious Volume of Forgotten Lore" (a collection of his fine articles), "I Saw What I Saw When I Saw It" (his memoir of life as a "monster boomer) and the recently published a second edition of "Vampire Over London: Bela Lugosi in Britain," that he co-wrote with Andi Brooks, who runs the best Bela Lugosi blog.

Dello Stritto's work is priceless to the cult film lover. "Vampire Over London" (our review of the book is our second most popular post) places Dello Stritto and Brooks with Gary Don Rhodes, Robert Cremer and Arthur Lennig as the Lugosi biographers one must read.

A while back, Plan9Crunch interviewed another fine genre scholar, Tom Weaver, about his book, "Poverty Row Horrors." Read it here. After we published it, I thought of interviewing Frank on the low-budget film career of Lugosi, who, it is perfectly just and fair to say, outlasts any other early horror star in prominence in the low-budget chillers of that era. Frank graciously agreed to the interview. We hope you enjoy it; we sure did. By the way, you can buy the three books mentioned above at Cult Movies Press.

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1) Was Bela Lugosi (a) initially an A-actor who descended to Poverty Row roles as his career continued.
or, (b)  a Poverty Row actor who through his career occasionally enjoyed roles in A productions.

Dello Stritto: Definitely (A). Bela Lugosi gave outstanding performances when given half a chance. The few A-films in which he had sizeable roles are all enhanced by his presence. He was trapped by his stereotype and by his accent.
But he was a great presence in Poverty Row films, probably the greatest of the Poverty Row stars.

2) What was Bela Lugosi's top performance in a Poverty Row movie role in the 1930s and why?

Dello Stritto: “Poverty Row” did not really come into its own until the 1940s. In the 1930s, the films are “the low-budget independents,” e.g., those films not associated with a major studio (like Universal) or producer (like Samuel Goldwyn). Lugosi’s best among these has to be White Zombie. While it has the shortcomings of most such movies — mainly bad acting by supporting players — it sticks to a simple story and plays almost as a fairy tale. Lugosi’s role, the sorcerer/zombie master, is one that he could play like no other. The weakness of a lot of Poverty Row films is that they are so hurried. Though White Zombie was filmed on a tight schedule, effort was made to bring in some very effective cinematic touches. The editing is surprisingly good. That was all the help Lugosi needed to give one of his most memorable performances.

3) Why did Bela Lugosi find it so hard to find movie roles in low-budget films in 1937-38, during the British ban on horror, while in contrast his rival Boris Karloff thrived at Monogram and Columbia?

Dello Stritto: Boris Karloff was a more versatile actor, a better handler of his career, and was acting in his native language. And his most famous horror roles had been beneath layers of make-up, while Lugosi’s face was the face of Hollywood horror. His voice was the voice of Dracula. When horror went out of fashion, Lugosi went with it. If he had landed a solid role in a good, non-horror movie, he might have broken horror’s hold on him, but that never happened. No producer wanted to take the chance. 


4) What is your personal favorite of Lugosi's Monogram films, and your least favorite, and why?

Dello Stritto: That’s a tough one. When I was a kid, I liked them all, but in truth there is not a really good movie among them. Lugosi’s roles in the Monograms fall in two categories: those where he is purely a cardboard villain, and where his character has more depth than the film cares to deal with. He is on his own in them, and sometimes overcomes the mediocrity of the rest of the movie. My narrow winner is Black Dragons. Lugosi plays a plastic surgeon, betrayed by his Japanese clients and seeking revenge. The movie has its absurdities, but Lugosi does rather well as a basically lonely man working through his obsession before the law gets him.


Bowery at Midnight, Voodoo Man (both which give Lugosi’s character more potential than the movie can ever realize) and Return of the Ape Man (not much depth there, Lugosi is evil through and through) are close second. Except for the two East Side Kids movies, the other Monograms are closely packed in third. Lugosi’s two East Side Kids are distant last place holders. Neither makes good use of him.

5) Is The Devil Bat, from PRC, superior to the Monogram films, and why?

Dello Stritto: It is certainly better than most of the Monograms, and may well stand above all of them. The touches of humor that often simply don’t work in the Monograms, work well enough in The Devil Bat. Lugosi’s part suits him quite well. Dr. Carruthers is a bitter loner, secretly plotting revenge on those who, in his mind, have crossed him. Lugosi has a lot of scenes alone in his laboratory, and his over-the-top acting works well in that setting. The contrast between the hateful man in the laboratory and the charmer when he meets his victims is perhaps over-done, but it is well-done. Lugosi was great at overacting, which sometimes fits in Poverty Row better than in mainstream films.

6) How did RKO, where Bela had a three-film deal, square in the 40s movie world? A productions, Bs, or somewhere in between?

Dello Stritto: RKO may be my favorite Hollywood studio. It is different from the other majors. It was not founded and run for decades by a mogul. It was cobbled together by bankers (one of them Joseph Kennedy) in the early 1930s, and handed off from one production head to another (such as David O. Selznick and Merian C. Cooper). So, it was often saw hard times, and wound up owned by Howard Hughes. But 1940s RKO turned out Citizen Kane and Orson Welles’s early films, and Val Lewton’s nine horror films. It was in the vanguard of film noir, and was the distributor of choice for major independent producers Goldwyn and Selznick. Cary Grant, perhaps the most important star not under contract to one studio, did some of his best 1940s work at RKO. So, RKO may have struggled to stay among the majors, but its output includes as many enduring films as any of its competitors.
In the mid-1940s, Lugosi made three films at RKO: The Body Snatchers, Zombies on Broadway, and Genius at Work. The Body Snatchers is by far the best of them, but Lugosi has a minor role, as he does in Genius at Work. I have great affection for Zombies on Broadway. I loved it as a kid, and my sons when they were eight or so loved it, too. As light entertainment, which is all it tries to be, it dates quite well.


7) Of Lugosi's four films, Mother Riley Meets the Vampire, Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla, Glen Or Glenda, and Bride of the Monster, where he was mentioned as a star, which is his best performance?

Dello Stritto: The best of performance among them is Dr. Varnoff in Brideof the Monster. It is a true “Lugosi film” built around his character and persona. Again, and for the last time, he is an angry outcast working his mad schemes in secret. The movie has all the incompetence of most Ed Wood films, but Lugosi does quite well with his part. And he has the famous scene where Varnoff bemoans his mistreatment by the world on which he plans vengeance.
Glen or Glenda needs a separate interview. As filmmaking, it is a disaster. But it is such a personal film (by Ed Wood) that I have to give it a nod.  It is like a dream — its parts don’t quite fit together, characters come and go, wild images bubble up from nowhere. Lugosi as whatever he is supposed to be, is quite fine in it.

Mother Riley Meets the Vampire and Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla are intentionally silly movies. As he always did, Lugosi tries his best. You can either enjoy the nonsense, or just turn them off. I have done both. 
Thanks again, we appreciate it.


Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Special Edition - Manos The Hands of Fate



By Steve D. Stones

What do you get when a middle-aged Texas fertilizer salesman directs a film with a wobbly legged servant named Torgo, a polygamous pagan cult of women dressed in see through night gowns, and a cult leader called the "Master?" The result is what Entertainment Weekly calls "The worst film ever made!"

Synapse Films has recently released a special edition of Manos - The Hands of Fate (1966) on DVD and Blu-Ray. This special edition contains three featurettes: Restoring the Hands of Fate, Hands: The Fate of Manos and Felt - The Puppet Hands of Fate. The featurette of Hands: The Fate of Manos interviews many cast and crew members, such as actor Tom Neyman, who played the cult leader, and the mother in the film - actress Diane Mahree, aka Diane Adelson.

If you're already a fan of Manos, you may not need the extra featurettes to give you a greater appreciation for the film. However, the featurettes, particularly Hands: The Fate of Manos, do give viewers a greater appreciation, and perhaps even convince you that Manos is not the worst film ever made.

In charge of the restoration and clean up of Manos was Benjamin Solovey, a cinematographer. In 2012, the restored film was scheduled to play at the Plaza Classic Film Festival in El Paso, Texas. The non-profit that ran the festival was contacted by a lawyer representing Torgo Lives, LLC - a company who held the copyright to Manos. The festival was asked to pull the film if certain demands were not made.

Actor Tom Neyman wore multiple hats during the production of the film. Not only was he the Master, but he also served as production designer. Many of his sculptures of hands were also featured in the film. The hand sculptures helped to influence the title of the film. Neyman's painting of the Master and his evil dog was also featured.

Actor John Reynolds, who played wobbly legged Torgo, committed suicide just a few months before the film premiered. The crew suspected him of taking drugs during the production. Torgo's clothes were borrowed from actor Tom Neyman. Six year old Jackey Raye Newman-Jones, who played Debbie, had her lines dubbed into the film after it was completed.

Manos is a masterpiece of bad cinema. It's cult status was reinforced by an appearance on Mystery Science Theatre 3000 in the 1990s. For further information about this special edition of Manos, refer to Screem Magazine issue #31 for an article written by Benjamin Solovey.

Happy viewing!

Sunday, January 10, 2016

An Inner Sanctum sampler. Three from Lon Chaney Jr.




By Doug Gibson

I have always wanted to sample Universal's "psychological mysteries" that called itself the Inner Sanctum films. When I was a youngster I watched "Calling Dr. Death" in the middle of the night but I recall nothing other than Lon Chaney Jr. seemed mentally tortured throughout. I finally grabbed the six-film DVD set from my co-blogger Steve Stones and watched three of the films, the aforementioned "Calling Dr. Death," "Weird Woman," and "The Frozen Ghost."

They're not bad mystery programmers (the three I saw timed in at 63, 63 and 62 minutes). What struck me in all three films is that one could take way the picture and the audio dialogue would work for radio, with minor shifts, such as reading newspaper headlines. By the way, a strange little man-head in a crystal ball introduces all the films. Although it must have been a given for viewers, 70 years ago Inner Sanctum was also a popular radio show.

Chaney is also miscast. He appears, respectively, as an academic, medical professional and suave rich man who dallies in mind-reading. He's also allegedly appealing to nearly all his pretty female co-stars. The truth is while Chaney was always a better actor than many have given him credit for, he was already starting to morph into the brutish, lumpish figure he would become for the last 20 years of his life. He doesn't pull off "suave," sophisticated" or the "ladies man persona." Of course, there is irony here -- if Chaney had not starred in this mystery series, the films would be largely ignore; there would be no recent Universal DVD release.

So, here are capsule reviews of the three films I viewed:

WEIRD WOMAN, 1944: This was my favorite of the three I viewed. Directed by Reginald LeBorg, Lon plays an academic who while on "safari," picks up an marries a cute woman (Anne Gwynne) who was raised by natives and believes in white magic. When the pair returns to university life, Lon's angry ex-girlfriend, played well by Evelyn Ankers, does a little bit of "gaslight" on Lon and his bride, pitting students, colleagues and colleagues wives against the pair. Among the supporting cast Elizabeth Russell, who was great as Lugosi's insane wife in "The Corpse Vanishes," plays the ambitious wife of a weak university colleague of Lon and Evelyn's. This is a good watch despite the fact that Lon best acting is when he is violent, rather than thoughtful or intellectual. The film never drags, and Ankers' acting is excellent at the climax. (Above is a strong scene with Gwynne and Russell from the film.)

THE FROZEN GHOST, 1945: In this entry, directed by Harold Young, Lon plays Alec Gregor, rich man who enjoys performing as conjurer "Gregor the Great." One night, his drunken plant in the audience annoys Lon so much that he wants him to die. While Lon is "hypnotizing" him, the plant falls dead. Despite evidence the death was natural, Lon goes semi crazy and ends his show as well as his relationship with his wife-to-be, played by Evelyn Ankers. Somewhat improbably, Lon is sent by his business agent, Millburn Stone, to live with Valerie Monet, played by Tala Birell, who runs a wax museum and carries a torch for Lon. She lives there with her pretty niece, Elena Verdugo, and creepy wax dummy creator, played by Martin Kosleck. Meanwhile, once-intended Ankers tries to see Lon again. Eventually, things get a little weird as Valerie Monet disappears, and apparently there's a plot to drive Lon into the loony bin and gain access to his money. The film gets convoluted near its end, but Kosleck is great in his role.

CALLING DR. DEATH, 1943: This is the worst of the trio I sampled. Lon plays a tortured neurologist who pines for his pretty nurse Patricia Morison. The problem is, he's married to a callous sociopathic gold-digger wife, Ramsey Ames, who blatantly advertises her infidelity to him. One weekend, when Ames is away, Lon follows her. He loses all memory of the weekend, waking up in his office. His wife is murdered that weekend. A persistent detective, J. Carrol Naish, continues to torment Lon, even as another man, David Bruce, is arrested, convicted and sentenced to die for the crime. Desperate to know if he killed his wife, Lon asks his nurse to hypnotize him and then interrogate him. Unfortunately, this film, directed by LeBorg, plods, and Naish's character is unprofessional and annoying. When the "twist" ending is announced, there's a hole in its logic that a viewer could drive a Hummer through.

Monday, January 4, 2016

Three great Bela Lugosi films from Monogram

In the early 1940s, Bela Lugosi signed a deal to star in several Monogram low-budget horror flicks (a couple were comedy/thrillers with the East Side Kids). It was a decision that allowed Lugosi to be the top actor on the set, an occurrence diminishing at Universal Studios. The films are mediocre save Lugosi's usual excellent performance. Unlike Boris Karloff, for example, Lugosi never phoned in performances in low-budget films. We've reviewed most of the Monogram films at Plan9Crunch, but I want to give capsule salutes to three of my favorites.

Doug Gibson



BOWERY AT MIDNIGHT, 1942:

Although the competition is fierce, this is likely the most kitschy delight when it comes to chaos and convolution. Lugosi plays a man cursed with three personalities: college professor, kindly operator of skid row soup kitchen and ruthless criminal. My favorite Lugosi scene: When the master criminal, reacting to a low level crook's joy at being part of a big robbery, casually tosses the crook off a multi-story roof, thereby creating the disruption necessary for he crime. Review here.



THE APE MAN, 1943:

Often derided as a "worst film," it isn't. Lugosi goes way beyond what's just to give some dignity to this film as a mad scientist who turns himself into part ape and has to kill to get a spinal fluid that might cure him. Wallace Fox and Louise Currie are also excellent co-stars who play journalists who foil his plans. See this film. Our review is here.



THE INVISIBLE GHOST, 1941:

Lugosi's first Monogram has a convoluted plot but benefits from above-average direction from Joseph H. Lewis. Lugosi plays a kindly man whose wife deserted him. Unbelievably, she still lives on the grounds and he goes quite mad when he catches glimpses of her. The deaths lead to the execution of one innocent man whose brother (same actor) comes to the house to seek justice. Lugosi's hypnotic walk when under the murder spell of his wife is campy but the actor also brings pathos to it. Former silent star Betty Compson plays Lugosi's estranged, insane wife.