Thursday, January 30, 2014

‘Dracula’: Was the Count resigned to his death?

By Doug Gibson

I absolutely love Bela Lugosi’s portrayal of Count Dracula in the 1931 classic. He is pure aristocratic evil, able to put on a facade of gallantry yet betray it in mere seconds with a deadly glare at Van Helsing. Also, even in fine attire, in his own domain, in a dungeon, with rats, bugs, whey-faced brides or a cringing, spider-eating Renfield, he conveys malicious evil deeper than the filth around him. In that deepest part of his existence, his dead heart rots darker.

Why, though, did Lugosi’s Count Dracula ditch his Romanian, Hungarian playfields, where he had his pick of the scared villagers, and easy escape to his coffins filled with native soil, and go to alien England, with a mere few coffins and shovelfuls of native soil? Why choose such a conflicted, weak minion as the anonymous, unloved Renfield as his companion? And why set up shop, in Carfax Abbey, so close to such a deadly rival as Dr. Van Helsing? Why seek the virginal, well-protected Mina, the intended of the feckless Jonathan Harker, but whose back is closely watched by Van Helsing?
I’ve watched Lugosi play Dracula many times. I can knock away the silly claims that Dracula is a stagy film, or slow. Every frame is necessary — with the possible exception of the asylum employees played for laughs — to establish and maintain Lugosi’s Count’s sinister, evil, egotistical persona. But recently, I’ve added this interpretation. Did Count Dracula move to London, with its unknown attractions and more dangerous temptations, with the intention of ending his long, endless existence?
Dracula is a slave to his passion, his thirst for blood. It cannot be satiated, whether the victim is a mere flower girl or society belle Lucy. He knows well he cannot resist tasting his pretty neighbor Mina. He cannot even haul up stakes and flee after Van Helsing exposes him with the mirror parlor trick. In fact, Dracula, although nearly claiming Mina’s life due to his blunt force of personality, is merely pitiable at his end. He lies in his coffin, chased into the bowels of Carfax Abbey after being betrayed by the ill-fated Renfield, and submits to an anticlimactic, off-screen death at the hands of the vampire hunter Van Helsing.
Was the Count so vain as to think that no harm could come to him in his coffin filled with native soil in the basement of a rotting abbey? Van Helsing didn’t even have to break a lock to stab the Count in the heart. I think not. I hypothesize that Dracula himself was tired of living for centuries, that he chose his trip to London, a land of new blood and unseen dangers, as a deliberate step to the end of his existence. Although the script allows no confirmation, I think Lugosi’s Dracula must have known that he was to be the neighbor of his most feared enemy, Van Helsing.
Of course Dracula tried to prevent his death. His natural greed and cold evil did not dissipate in his last adventure, and he nearly succeeded — for a brief moment — in vanquishing Van Helsing. He allowed nature, his generations-old greed and lust for blood, to be his undoing.
The strongest evidence for Dracula’s death wish is found early in Dracula’s journey to London when he encounters Mina, her dad, Lucy, and Jonathan at the opera house. He says, wistfully, “To die, to be really dead, that must be glorious!” Mina Seward replies, “Why, Count Dracula!” and Dracula adds, “There are far worse things awaiting man than death.”
Dracula fights, he makes an effort to save himself, but he will not move from his final home. As a result, he is vanquished, but it is an honorable end for the old fiend.
Horror movie expert Frank J. Dello Stritto, who along with other experts have mulled over Dracula’s motives in his final days, opines that the slow, thousands year-plus lives of Dracula is conveyed by Lugosi’s mannerisms. Dello Stritto says, “He (Lugosi) put into his performance a lot of subtle touches to make Dracula seem from another world: the odd pace of his speech, the use of his cape, his very slow movements compared to the other cast members’ … A lot of actors who play Dracula are ordinary men trying to appear extraordinary, and not quite succeeding. Lugosi’s character is like Dracula himself — an extraordinary being trying to appear ordinary, and again not quite succeeding.”
I once wrote this of Dracula, and I stand by it. “I have seen “Dracula” scores of times, and Lugosi is the key to the film. He is a tall, courtly, menacing figure who promises a fate worse than death. And that is the appeal of these early horror films compared to the sadistic gore-fests of today — a fate worse than death awaits the vampire’s victims. That fate is conveyed to perfection in the scene where Lugosi’s vampire murders actor Dwight Frye’s cringing, pathetic, mad disciple Renfield. Dracula’s exterior is charming. But his filthy interior attracts darkness, fog, storm, chill winds, rodents, flies, spiders, blood and undeath.”
Dracula was a slave of his filthy existence. Pleasure had long been usurped by bloodlust. It was a tremendous feat for the Count to keep it up for centuries. But he was tired, and chose London for his grand finale. He became, finally, really dead.
If you have not seen Bela Lugosi’s Dracula, do yourself a favor and watch it. It can be accessed, in parts, via YouTube (here) or for pay at Amazon OnDemand.
(This essay originally appeared at StandardBlogs)

Monday, January 27, 2014

The Devil Bat is Lugosi's finest poverty row offering

The Devil Bat
The Devil Bat, 1941, Producers Releasing Corporation, directed by Jean Yarbrough. Starring Bela Lugosi, Suzaane Kaaren, Dave O’Brien, Guy Usher, Hal Price. Sixty-nine minutes. Schlock-Meter Rating: *********1/2 stars out of 10 stars. Note: Also sold on some video labels as Killer Bats.

By Doug Gibson
Okay, I know that the plot of Devil Bat is silly. I know the budget is a $1.89. I know the special effects are ridiculous with rubber bats swooping down to victims’ necks. I’m aware that many critics, including John Stanley (whom I respect) consider Devil Bat an example of Lugosi’s slow side to oblivion, and Ed Wood movies.

Nevertheless, I love this film. It is a great cult movie because it has heart. Lugosi -- and the rest of the cast -- take their job seriously. They take a sow’s ear and turn it into a silk purse. The plot is as follows: A seemingly kindly scientist (Lugosi) has toiled his entire life for a perfume company. The scientist’s discoveries had made millions for the firm’s family, but he remains a salaried employee. For that he is bitter and angry, and has harvested killer bats that will attack the scent of a perfume. Of course, Lugosi gives the perfume to the rich family members, and murders occur. By the end, nosy reporters and cops uncover Lugosi’s crime and he is killed at the end. Of course, as was PRC’s and other minor 40s film companies’ wont, there is also a love story mixed in this thriller.

Bela Lugosi’s greatest talent was providing an excellent performance no matter the subject matter. His performance as a brooding scientist, bitter, angry, feeling underappreciated, is a masterpiece. There is a scene at the beginning of Devil Bat where the family members of the firm -- who really seem to love the scientist -- throw him an appreciation testimonial and provide him with a $25,000 gift. Lugosi’s scientist is all decorum in this scene, and it’s chilling when he’s alone and the mad, angry, bitter murderer is revealed. It’s an effective contrast, which I don’t think other 40 chiller stars George Zucco or John Carradine could have pulled off.

By all means, rent Devil Bat (I recommend you buy it) and lose yourself in a great actor making the most of a simple story. Lugosi on screen can hypnotize a viewer. One ignores the plot flaws and poor special effects and appreciates a master actor in a great performance.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Intolerance – An Epic Masterpiece of the Silent Era

By Steve D. Stones

The folks at Cohen Media Group have released a beautiful digitally restored DVD and Blu-Ray print of D.W. Griffith’s 1916 silent epic “Intolerance.”  The DVD comes with a booklet of information about the making of “Intolerance.” The film is the first in Hollywood history to be called “epic” and innovative because of its use of enormous sets, elaborate costumes and thousands of extras in crowd scenes - despite the fact that no script had been written for the film.

“Intolerance” opens with a recurring image of a mother rocking a cradle, played by Griffith regular Lillian Gish. Four stories are woven together from different times in history - Biblical Judea, Medieval Paris, Ancient Babylon and early 20th century America. Two of the stories – The Mother & The Law (the early 20th century America story) and the fall of Ancient Babylon can be seen as separate films on a second disc that comes with the DVD, which is how director Griffith originally intended the four films to be seen.

The Mother & The Law story deals with the injustice a poverty stricken young mother goes through when a group of self-righteous society women take her baby away because they feel she is unfit to care for the child. The Biblical Judea story tells of Christ’s struggles with the Pharisees, and ultimately his crucifixion. Medieval Paris tells of Charles IX of France influence of his mother, Marguerite of Medici, to issue a decree against the Huguenots, which results in the events of the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre on the 24th of August 1572. The Ancient Babylon story is of the High Priest of Bel who convinces the Persian King Cyrus to destroy and conquer Prince Belshazzar in 539 BC.

In January to April of 1916, Griffith filmed the fall of Ancient Babylon scenes, which are the most famous and legendary of the film. With this story, he had built the largest, most spectacular sets ever made in motion picture history up to that time. The interior shots of Ancient Babylon are a truly breathtaking sight. The great Babylon set became legend in Hollywood, and a replica was made near the Dolby Theatre as a backdrop for the annual Academy Awards.

Still dealing with his critics after the release of “Birth of A Nation” (1915), Griffith’s “Intolerance” also had its share of critics. Griffith’s depiction of undraped women in Ancient Babylon times outraged some critics and movie-goers. Some even suggested that the Mother & The Law story was an attempt to show how the wealthy and powerful try to impose rigid standards of morality on the poor class.

Upon its initial release, movie-goers flocked to see “Intolerance” in 1916. However, after just a few short weeks, attendance started to drop. Considered a “box office failure” at the time, the film suffered mostly from the huge expenses lost from promoting the film. Today, it is regarded as one of the most important films in early Hollywood history, if not the most important.

A number of worn out, public domain prints can be found for sale of "Intolerance" in the movie marketplace. Avoid these prints at all costs. It is worth the extra money for the serious film collector to invest in this print put out by Cohen Media Group. Happy Viewing!

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Book thoroughly details the film career of funnymen Wheeler and Woolsey

Review by Doug Gibson

As the '30s approached, and the "talkies" gained momentum and the Great Depression became the norm for a while, a shift occurred in screen comedy. The subtle, pathos-driven comedy of the silent era faded, and more broad comedy, with an emphasis on witty dialogue and even musical numbers, gained in popularity. One example of this shift was The Marx Brothers. Another lesser-known example is a distressingly forgotten pair -- except to genre buffs and film historians, of course -- named (Bert) Wheeler and (Robert) Woolsey. The duo, long vets of the stagecraft of vaudeville, had been together several years when RKO Radio Pictures, a studio that cranked out B features, signed the duo. It turned out to be a profitable venture for the comics and the studio. Over the course of nearly a decade, until the older Woolsey died, more than a score of films were produced. They were funny, fast-paced romps, with lots of laughs, pretty women and pleasant music for Depression-era audiences. The pair were mismatched well; Wheeler with the softer edges, a more pathos comedian who caught most of the girls' eyes, and Woolsey, the angular, homely but wisecracking schemer who had his share of the girls too.

There isn't much out there on Bert and Robert, so we can be grateful that film historian Ed Watz wrote a while back the book "Wheeler & Woolsey: The Vaudeville Comic Duo and Their Films, 1929 to 1937," McFarland Press. The RKO films are analyzed in detail, all of them, including my personal favorites "The Cuckoos," "Peach O Reno," "Hold 'Em Jail," "The Nitwits" and even the much-lamented "Mummy's Boys," which I kind of liked, darn it! As it is with genre books that are written for extreme fans and historians, much of the action behind the scenes is detailed, including the duo's dealings with a very boorish studio exec David O. Selznick, as well as RKO's shabby treatment of Woolsey at the genesis of his tenure. The studio planned to dump him relatively early but the duo's success prevented that, and Woolsey was able to get his "revenge" in the form of a fat paycheck later.

Ed Watz, when he wrote the book, was able to include the reminisces of frequent co-star Dorothy Lee, and recollections from her and others on the scene add to the value of the screen biographies. Another co-star to the duo included Betty Grable, as well "the Mexican Spitfire" Lupe Velez. Directors of the comedies included future great George Stevens. In "The Nitwits," directed by Stevens, there is a wonderful song and dance number, up and down a staircase, with Wheeler and the gorgeous Grable, who play young lovers in the film.

Peach O Reno is an interesting film, as it presents the comedy team as successful at the outset. The pair are the top divorce team in Reno by day, and successful casino operators by night. Nevertheless, the duo soon get into trouble. More typical scenarios have the boys as foils who outsmart the heavies. Examples include Hold 'Em Jail, where they are patsies put in jail and Mummy's Boys, where they are low-wage workers signed for a dig. As Watz notes, the latter film was similar to an Abbott & Costello feature 20 years later.

Prior to the story of their film career together, Watz offers concise updates on their earlier lives. Wheeler enjoyed fame on vaudeville with his wife Betty, until she dumped him -- both in love and art -- for a competitor. After a short period of doldrums, Wheeler hooked up with Woolsey, a veteran of vaudeville, and the pair were a big success in the mid to late 1920s. (Betty's career faded, by the way, and she ended up divorced.) Woolsey, not uncommon for future vaudeville stars, grew up in extreme poverty with most of his siblings dying as a children. Later, it was affectionately noted, writes Watz, that his wife Minnie was both perfect for him, and as homely.

The pair had a long movies run. As Watz recounts, the frailer Woolsey's body just gave out. In his final film, long shots of him are another actor. He died, in 1938 of, as Watz notes, of either kidney or liver problems, or perhaps both. With death at the cusp of his success, his funeral was a big deal in Hollywood.

As Watz recalls, Wheeler outlived his partner by three decades, but his death received far less fanfare. In fact, he was buried in "an area for impoverished actors," writes Watz. Wheeler's first film sans Woolsey, in which he played a Midwestern quarterback in a Warner's film, was a flop. I have seen the film, "Cowboy Quarterback," and it isn't much. Watz is correct to note it was a poor rip off of Joe E. Brown material.Wheeler's film career continued downward. He had small parts in TV and even a short stint doing comedy shorts at Columbia's factory. It wasn't all bad, though. The actor, although grown more cynical over the years, maintained success on the stage, and that kept the bills paid for the rest of his life. He died in 1968. In an event that shows Wheeler's humanity, Watz relates a one-day reunion Bert had with his long wife/partner Betty. Because she was down on her luck, it's likely Bert gave his New York stage salary to her.

I have compared Wheeler and Woolsey to the Marx Brothers, albeit a more meat and potatoes version. There's music and wisecracks from Woolsey and a more subdued but still very funny Wheeler. There's also love, although it's tongue is often in its cheek. However, it's worth noting the pair often outgrossed Groucho, Harpo and Chico. Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey saved RKO Studios from probable ruin. They used their vaudeville experience and comic timing to create original characters who made audiences laugh, enjoy music, and feel good in tough times. It's been sheer bad luck -- too many comedy brews out there -- that the pair have faded from most memories.

Watz' book is a treasure, and his detailed research, done for love and not money, is appreciated. The book is well worth the $35 asking price from McFarland (here). Thanks to DVD and stations such as Turner Classic Movies, the comedy pair can be watched. As soon as I finish this review, I'm sitting down to enjoy "The Nitwits,' DVD-rd just a few days ago via TCM.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

The Return of Dracula, mediocre film, but a great vampire

By Doug Gibson

I avoided watching "The Return of Dracula" for a long time, mainly because it always annoyed me that Bela Lugosi was passed over for so any Universal monster rallies (except for Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein). It would have been cool, and a potential career boost for Lugosi to have played his signature role in a real Dracula sequel. But he was long dead by the time Gramercy, not Universal, made this inexpensive $125,000 "sequel" in which Count Dracula, posing as artist Bellac Gordal -- who he kills off on a train in Hungary -- to visit relatives in California who are eager to see him, consider him a dear member of the family, but apparently have never swapped photos with dear Belac!

Eventually, Count Dracula, the faux artist, behaves so oddly (He's never around during the day, you see, and spurns affection, and demands that he not be disturbed in his "room") that family teenager Rachel Mayberry, played by a sexy Norma Eberhardt, begins to suspect that her dear relative may be something more sinister. A game of cat and mouse develops between the old predator and the young teenager, and it eventually leads to a finish to the film, directed by Paul Landres.

If this has started to sound like a pallid "remake-in-everything-but-name" of Alfred Hitchcock's classic "Shadow of a Doubt," give yourself 10 points because you are right. It's not nearly as good, by a mile, as the standoff between Joseph Cotton and Teresa Wright, but as a low-budget 1950s horror flick, it's not too bad. The film moves swiftly and the acting is passable with one positive exception.

The positive exception is Francis Lederer, who is marvelous as Count Dracula. He blends the cold continental manners of a Bela Lugosi with the physical menace of a Christopher Lee to produce -- amazingly -- an unforgettable portrayal of the vampire. I cannot call it iconic because not enough people have seen the film. Lederer is arrogant, merciless and predatory when consumed by a thirst for blood. He is a film monster that may stay in the nightmares of viewers for awhile. It his for his portrayal that I recommend this movie.

There is a lot of hokum in this film, thanks to the low budget. Virginia Vincent, as a victim of Dracula, overacts badly as an ill shut-in, and mediocre writing contributes to a ridiculous scene in which Rachel discovers her vampire guest has painted a picture of her in a coffin! Nevertheless, this is a breezy, corny vampire flick, likely overshadowed by Hammer's Horror of Dracula, that should merit a watch by cult film fans.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Jail Bait, one of Ed Wood's lesser known cult films

Jail Bait, 1954, 72 minutes, Howco, B&W. Directed by Edward D. Wood, Jr. Starring Lyle Talbot as Inspector John, Dolores Fuller as Marilyn Gregor, Herbert Rawlinson as Dr. Boris Gregor, Steve Reeves as Lt. Bob Lawrence, Clancy Malone as Don Gregor, Timothy Farrell as Vic Brady, Theodora Thurman as Loretta, Bud Osborne as the night watchman, and Mona McKinnon as Miss Willis. Conrad Brooks has a cameo. Schlock-Meter rating: 8 and 1/2 stars out of 10.

Jail Bait is a cult film lover's delight. It's Ed Wood's first foray into crime pictures, and except for a very annoying musical score, it's not a half-bad film. Of course, it has Wood's mark of organized chaos, where he simply didn't have the budget to make this picture, but that just adds to the viewing fun.

The plot concerns a young man gone bad from a nice family (Malone) and his sinister confederate in crime (Farrell, who really is good in the role). Malone is eventually killed by Farrell, who then takes the slain gangster's sister (Fuller) and father (Rawlinson) hostage. The dad is a plastic surgeon, and he has a few tricks up the sleeve for Farrell at the end of the film. Talbot and strongman Reeves (in his first film) play cops assigned to catch Malone and Farrell. Theodora Thurman, who was a top model in the 1950s, plays Farrell's moll.

The acting is, of course, weak, and Wood hurries through each scene, reflecting the tiny budget. But Wood's eccentric personality is on full display. Depending on which print you view, action is interrupted for a minstrel show or a very faded scene of a striptease. (my copy shows the striptease) Also the climax of the film takes place at a motel, where Wood stole shots. Wood tries hard to achieve a type of film noir atmosphere, and almost succeeds at times, particularly with Farrell.

Like any Wood film, the story behind the movie is just as interesting as the film. Watch silent film star Rawlinson very closely during his scenes as the aging dad/plastic surgeon. If he appears tired it shouldn't be a surprise. He died the morning after filming. Rawlinson's role, in fact, was intended for Bela Lugosi, but he was too sick to do it. Also, Reeves took 27 takes to tie his tie, which must have driven the thrifty Wood mad. The great actor Jimmy Cagney was visiting the motel where Wood and cast was stealing a scene shot. Cagney offered to be in the film, but everyone was chased from the motel by the irate manager. If you are a Wood fan, buy Jail Bait. It's a must for your cult films collection. But even those who aren't Wood fans will find it worth a $2 rental. By the way: Jail Bait in the title refers to a gun, not a woman.

-- Doug Gibson

Monday, January 6, 2014

Orgy of the Living Dead trailer ... great '70s kitsch

Here's a dose of 70s cheesiness. This unique trailer was used to pitch three Harry Novak (Boxoffice International) European retread imports -- Revenge of the Living Dead, Fangs of the Living Dead and Revenge of the Living Dead -- as a cheap triple feature for non-discriminating audiences. (All those Living Dead titles were not, of course, the original titles. Rumor has it that one of the films was a Mario Bava production, so I guess the triple bill would not have been a complete waste.

So, back from the dead, courtesy of YouTube, is the trailer that featured a man gone mad from the movies with an offer for free care in a mental asylum if needed! For the record, Revenge of the Living Dead is the 1966 film La Lama Nel Corpo, Fangs of the Living Dead is the 1969 film Malenka, and Curse of the Living Dead is the Bava-directed 1966 film better known as Kill, Baby, Kill.
-- Doug Gibson