Sunday, April 28, 2019

Bela Lugosi and the Monogram 9 -- a book review

Review by Doug Gibson

Since we heard about this a year or so ago, we Bela Lugosi super-fans have been -- at times impatiently -- waiting for the release of "Bela Lugosi and the Monogram 9," (BearManorMedia, 2019), a collection of essays from academics Gary D. Rhodes (who's written more than several books on Lugosi) and Robert Guffey, on the series of features Lugosi made for the poverty-row studio during the first half of the 1940s.

That's a handful of a paragraph/sentence, so what to make of this collection, ranging from "Invisible Ghost" to "Return of the Ape Man"? Short answer: I liked it a lot. However, and this is important for the casual Lugosi fan -- these are not production histories/movie reviews of the films. The 10 essays, two are reserved for "Invisible Ghost," are artistic criticism and analysis. Some of it's deep; you may want to Google individuals such as the surrealist Andre Breton and the eccentric but talented artist Stanislav Szukalski. Their philosophies relate with some of these two-week productions, or so say the authors.

And I kind of agree with them, with reservations. I love all but one of the Monogram films, and let's roll them out: "Invisible Ghost," "Spooks Run Wild," "Black Dragons," "The Corpse Vanishes," "Bowery at Midnight," "The Ape Man," "Ghosts on the Loose," "Voodoo Man," and "Return of The Ape Man." The only four-flusher in the list is "Ghosts on the Loose," and even that clinker I've seen more the once.

Until I read "... The Monogram 9,"' my love for the films was solely predicated on Bela Lugosi's dominance within eight of the films. His charisma and thespian talents make the films special. The reason "Ghosts on the Loose" is a clunker is because it's the only film of the series in which Lugosi is not the important or interesting character; he's almost background material.

I know I'm rambling so let's get to the essays, and provide some snippets, to hopefully whet your interest. The authors' scholarly musings are well-researched. Both provide insight on "Invisible Ghost," regarded as the best-directed film. The director was Joseph H. Lewis, who went on to bigger acclaim. Rhodes' essay conveys his directorial skills, noting the unique camera angles, from the fireplace, actors almost nose to nose across from a window. He also explains in detail how Lewis shot perhaps the scariest scene in the film, where Lugosi's character strangles a family maid in her bed.

Guffey's essay focuses on the film's surreal qualities, citing the aforementioned Breton. Lugosi's character is both respected man and cold killer. Guffey correctly notes the lack of concern over a long tally of death and how characters, such as the police, almost serve as props while the murders in the house occur. Bad dreams appear to be reality. Is the murder of the maid a subconscious act of violence by the killer toward his hidden, mentally ill wife? What of the reappearance of the "doppelganger" brother of a doomed, early character? Is all of this just happening in Lugosi's character, Charles Kessler's mind? Artistic criticism offers many questions that can spark even more answers, is perhaps the theme of this essay.

In the essay on "Spooks Run Wild," Rhodes, after noting Lugosi's  various "sinister" roles in films, tabs "Spooks ..." as perhaps Lugosi's most developed "red herring" role, in which he appears to be the villain until the end. As the author notes, Lugosi, playing a magician suspected of being a murderer, appears and acts a lot like Dracula. It was his first film with the comedy "East Side Kids" cast. Somnambulism, magic, suits of armor, and human monsters all factor into the film, adds Rhodes.

In the essay on "Black Dragons," in which Lugosi plays a betrayed Nazi doctor who gets even with the Japanese agents, in America, who turned on him earlier, Guffey compares this bizarre, war propaganda film with the term "the Cinema of Hysteria." Now in my opinion this is a surreal film. It has a tough plot to follow, a lot of sexual banter and attraction between spies and lovely young ladies (as Guffey notes) and Lugosi, for the last time in the film, is looked at with interest by a starlet. Oddly, as Guffey notes, though the film contains a strong nationalist, even racist message to be on constant watch against the enemy, it contradicts itself by how showing how easily Japanese agents can plastic surgery their way into the highest levels of U.S. government. Racial profiling won't work, the film seems to subtly say.

Rhodes' essay on "The Corpse Vanishes" has some interesting insights. The film's hero is a persistent female reporter, a stock character in many '30s and '40s films. Also, although Lugosi's Dr. Lorenz is no vampire, Rhodes notes similarities to "Dracula." Lorenz is from Eastern Europe, it seems. His wife is a countess. The villagers near his remote home fear him. The reporter wanting to see him can't get a ride there. Also, the captured brides in the home could represent Dracula's brides. Lorenz and his countess wife sleep in coffins. All these are noted by Rhodes, who also alludes to the significance of families in horror films, noting that Lugosi refers to his assistants and henchmen as part of my "little family." (My co-blogger Steve D. Stones and I regard "The Corpse Vanishes" as the most entertaining Monogram films and Rhodes' insights I found valuable.)

Guffey's essay on the multi-plotted "Bowery at Midnight" compares the film as "slipstream" cinema. In a nutshell, that means one really can't nail down the action and plot with a single definition. That makes sense, as this chaotic but fun film can be tagged a crime drama, a missing persons drama, a multiple personality drama, a deceiving husband film, or a horror film. Multiple realities occupy individual and settings in the film. And how do dead people turn into zombies and then reappear as normal individuals, asks Guffey. That does happen in the film, I guess. I thought the doctor just healed them. But to be fair to Guffey, how did they all exist for so long in that cramped basement?

"Artifices, lies and false fronts" define "The Ape Man," Guffey says in that film's essay. At heart, the film is a deliberate con job, like a magician offering the audience all the secrets of how he's pulling their legs on the theater screen, he notes. "The Ape Man" is a lot of nonsensical fun and that's due in part to a goofy, extraneous character, Zippo, who serves as narrator to move the action along. He serves as a kind of God, deciding who lives and dies. Guffey writes that the film is an example of the thinker  Bertolt Brecht's Theory of Alienation. To sum up, it's an effort to dislodge an audience from the traditional suspension of belief by disrupting the flow of the film and forcing said audiences to slip out of the film's trance and become active participants of the art. I know it sounds a bit goofy but one can argue that having a narrator interact with an audience accomplishes that.

Rhodes does his best with the boring film "Ghosts on the Loose," which has the East Side Kids outwitting Nazi publishers (headed by Lugosi) living in a fake haunted house. In the essay, he recounts historical instances of criminals attempting to cover up crimes with tales of haunted houses. On a side note, a very funny episode of The Andy Griffith Show has moonshiners scaring Deputy Barney Fife and others by using a "haunted house" that they rigged with spooky tricks. So there's an example of an effective short comedy. Fife's Don Knotts made another fake haunted house film, "The Ghost and Mr. Chicken."

For "Voodoo Man," one of my favorite-half Monogram entries, in his essay Rhodes says that syncretic best describes the film, meaning that several "discrete sources" are used to fuse a film together. One particular fusion of a film: a character Lugosi, with the help of voodoo religion confederates, kidnaps and stores young women kept in a zombiefied state to try to reanimate his zombie-like wife. But the voodoo has no traditional Caribbean source. It appears to be a white man's voodoo in a rural area close to Southern California. There also appear to be elements of Svengali (Trilby) in the film as Lugosi's character can hypnotize and summon women from far away.

Finally, Guffey concludes the book with an essay on "Return of the Ape Man," This is probably Lugosi's strongest mad scientist performance short of "The Raven." He is beyond obsessed with bringing a neanderthal man back to life and trying to experiment with sharing his brain with modern man. This has the usual disastrous results. Guffey draws a fascinating connection with the famed artist Stanislav Szukalski, who had this bizarre theory that mankind, after Noah's flood, intermingled with a Yeti-like race, producing a polluted version of homo sapiens. He even wrote a book about it, called "Behold!!! The Protong," notes Guffey. Szukalski was a great talent; unfortunately much of his work was destroyed during and after World War II. He's such an interesting character that his outlandish theories spark renewed interest in the man, a true survivor of an adversity-filled life. Ironically, a month ago I watched a great Netflix documentary on Stanislav Szukalski, "Struggle: The Life and Lost Art of Stanislav Szukalski." I highly recommend it. Honestly, I doubt the artist ever saw "Return of the Ape Man." It's possible, of course. But I just think it's really cool to read an analysis of the Lugosi film that includes "Protong," etc.

Let me add a note here, to be fair to Guffey in particular. The authors are not claiming that there are deliberate connections to the arts, theories and genres mentioned as artistic connections to the Monogram 9 films. It's acknowledged often that the relationships are likely unintentional, more products of the directors' training or past experiences as they were learning the film craft. Like the creation of a cult film, the insertion of a philosophy is nearly always unintentional. To try to force it into a film never succeeds. It turns the film into something derivative, labored and clumsy.

The Monogram 9 were for the most part remarkable achievements given budgets and time constraints. Their legacies were fueled by an iconic, charismatic star and directors forced to rely on their first instincts to create a finished film within a two-week period. Monogram profit margins were tiny; no allowances were given for wasted time and money. It's a credit to Rhodes and Guffey that these films have been rewarded with a bit of scholarship that took far longer to create than the films being discussed.

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