It's October, which practically is Bela Lugosi month at Plan9Crunch. Besides Halloween approaching, October 20 is the birthday of the screen's iconic Dracula. So, in honor of this supernal month, we offer a Halloween treat for our readers. Five writers, well versed in the life and art of Bela Lugosi, examine five of his late-career films. They explain how Bela Lugosi's performance enhances films that would otherwise have remained mediocre, derivative, boring, or oltherwise undistinguished. Lugosi often failed to get roles, or money, as prominent as his horror rival, Boris Karloff, but there's no debate that Bela gave his all in every role, adding his iconic stamp to even the attic offerings of Poverty Row.
Our five writers are: your's truly, Doug Gibson, co-blogger of Plan9Crunch, on "Return of the Ape Man"; Andi Brooks, blogger at The Bela Lugosi blog, and its attending Facebook page, as well as co-author of "Vampire Over London: Bela Lugosi in Britain," on "Mother Riley Meets the Vampire"; Frank Dello Stritto, author of numerous genre essays, many collected in "A Quaint and Curious Volume of Forgotten Lore..." The prolific Dello Stritto co-authored "Vampire Over London: Bela Lugosi in Britain" with Brooks. He has also written his memoir of life as a monster boomer, "I Saw What I Saw When I Saw It ...," and most recently wrote "A Werewolf Remembers: The Testament of Lawrence Stewart Talbot." Frank offers his thoughts on "Glen Or Glenda." And Christopher R. Gauthier, who oversees the Facebook page, A Celebration of the Life and Art of Bela Lugosi, writes about Lugosi's last starring role, "Bride of the Monster."
So, on with the essays! We will go in the order the films were made, starting with 1944's "Return of the Ape Man" and ending with 1955's "Bride of the Monster."
Lugosi scientist makes “Return of the Ape Man” mad fun for viewers
By Doug Gibson
In “Return of the Ape Man,” one of Bela Lugosi’s final Monogram offerings, his deviously mad scientist, Professor Dexter, offers , with polite arrogance, this laconic remark at a fashionable party to another guest. “You know, some people’s brains would never be missed.” Shortly afterward, Dexter tries to prove it by luring the intended of his partner’s niece to his laboratory for an unwilling partial brain transfer to a reanimated, prehistoric “ape man.” Only the interference of partner Professor Gilmore, with the added persuasion of a gun, stops Dexter. “He might not die,” is Dexter’s defense.
If not for Lugosi, “Return of the Ape Man” would be virtually forgotten. Even John Carradine underplays his role as Gilmore to the point of near narcolepsy. The rest of the cast also seems to play their roles with lethargy. The script, frankly, is unimaginative, and cheats viewers of a climax with Bela’s character alive. But Lugosi’s Dexter is his second-best mad scientist role; only Dr. Vollin in 1935’s “The Raven,” surpasses Prof. Gilmore in mad, ethics-be-damned-crime-be-damned, obsession. Like Vollin, Gilmore is courtly, charismatic, dedicated and mad as a hatter in his desire to reanimate a primitive human and provide him a decent brain, at any cost.
Casual fans of the genre may not know that Lugosi played a mad scientist far more often on screen than he did a vampire. He has some great lines in “Return of the Ape Man.” They include: “Murder is an ugly word. As a scientist I don’t recognize it;” and “Fool, you’ll pay for this!” is Dexter’s angry retort when Gilmore stops him the first time. The too-passive Gilmore eventually becomes the subject of Dexter’s partial brain transplant, and the mad glee that fills the countenance of Lugosi’s Dexter is chilling and unforgettable. Do yourself a favor, Lugosi fans, see “Return of the Ape Man.
Mother Riley Meets the Vampire offers insight into Bela's misunderstood later years
By Andi Brooks
Dogged for over half a century by a negative reputation which preceded most people’s chance to view it for themselves, "Mother Riley Meets the Vampire" is in reality a far cry from the wretched, hastily thrown together, poverty row comedy it has regularly been portrayed as. Offering a precious insight into a much-maligned and misunderstood period of Bela Lugosi’s professional life, the film is essential viewing for his many fans.
In 1951, Lugosi had travelled to England with his wife Lillian to star in a revival of Dracula which, after a short tour of the provinces, would revive his flagging career with a triumphant run in London’s West End. Instead, he found himself starring in an under-funded production wildly criss-crossing the United Kingdom while awaiting an opening in a West End theatre. After almost six months on the road, the 68-year-old actor, exhausted by the grueling demands of travelling long distances through the provinces and twice-daily performances, asked the management to bring the tour to an end.
A persistent legend holds that Mother Riley Meets the Vampire was hastily arranged to finance the return to America of Lugosi and his wife when the tour supposedly collapsed shortly after opening, leaving the couple penniless and stranded in England. In reality, Lugosi’s participation in the film was first announced in the press over two months before the tour ended. While a typical B production of the period, with a slapstick plot lifted directly from "Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein," the film boasts solid production values and acting from a supporting cast comprised of then-current and future stars of British theatre, film and TV. Bela Lugosi himself delivers a deliciously confident and versatile performance as the mad scientist Von Housen.
With no known filmed record of the Dracula tour in existence, one of the treats of the film is Lugosi’s first appearance, which mirrors the play’s prologue. Awakened in a coffin on the floor of his bedchamber by his Renfield-esque assistant, Lugosi’s hand “spiderwalks” from beneath the lid before he exits the coffin in one fluid movement in full Dracula costume. Asked why he sleeps in his evening clothes, he replies, with a twinkle in his eyes, “I was buried in them.” Fully recovered from the rigors of the tour, the actor would never look in such great shape on film again.
While Lugosi is said to have been confused by the constant verbal gymnastics and ad-libbing of the never-out-of-character, or costume, Arthur Lucan -- in the guise of Mother Riley -- the two veteran actors display a delightful comic chemistry in their first big scene together. As Von Housen attempts to cooingly seduce the old washerwoman, Lugosi’s presence brings out a more subdued performance form his usually manic co-star. The interplay between them really is a joy to watch.
Lugosi’s much neglected comedic skills are demonstrated throughout the film. When pompously bragging of his proposed army of 50,000 robots, the suddenly deflated mad scientist is forced to admit that he has only succeeded in building one. Lugosi’s timing and delivery are perfect. Later, in an all too brief moment reminiscent of scenes in both "Dracula" and "Dark Eyes of London," all pretense of comedy is dropped. After finally ridding himself of the constantly interrupting Mother Riley, his face a mask of gloating evil, Von Housen menacingly approaches the prostrate form of Maria Mercedes as Julia Loretti before clamping his hand over her mouth. Conscious of the need to secure a “U” certificate, essential to allow children, Mother Riley’s biggest fans, to see the film, the scene is smartly edited to comply with the certificate’s requirement that scenes of “mild” violence should not be prolonged.
Although the script makes it quite clear that Von Housen is not really a vampire to avoid losing its desired certification, it does play with fire by dropping several very clear hints that the mad scientist is a blood-drinking serial killer. This seems to have escaped the censor’s scrutiny, as does Lugosi’s final scene in which he guns down a police officer at close range.
Every aspect of Bela Lugosi’s performance in "Mother Riley Meets the Vampire" is a pleasure to watch. He demonstrates a versatility he is seldom credited with. In addition to his comedic flourishes, he effortlessly “alternates between a straight reading and a parody of his mad doctor stereotype, between scene-chewing bravado and a sinister, soothing charm." If you only know the film by its ill-deserved reputation, you are guaranteed to be very pleasantly surprised.
Bela Lugosi Meets A Brooklyn Gorilla (1952) -- Lugosi's authenticity reigns
By Steve D. Stones
Perhaps the only authentic aspect of "Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla" is the performance of the actor in the title – Bela Lugosi. Lugosi plays Dr. Zabor, a mad scientist on a tropical island. Zabor soon meets nightclub performers and Martin-and-Lewis imitators – Duke Mitchell and Sammy Petrillo -- who become stranded on the island after a plane crash. Zabor plans to use a serum he has developed on the annoying Petrillo to turn him into a gorilla.
This was Lugosi's last role before starring in a number of Ed Wood Jr. features. As with all of Lugosi's films, he gives this role all his best. His Dr. Zabor role in this film is a precursor to the Dr. Vornoff role he plays in Wood's 1956 feature, "Bride of The Monster," (aka "Bride of The Atom"). Whenever Lugosi is not in a scene, we anxiously await for him to return after sitting through bad musical performances and the annoying antics of Sammy Petrillo. Lugosi may be the only reason to see this film.
Directed by William “One Shot “Beaudine ("The Ape Man" – 1943, "Voodoo Man" - 1945), the film was completed in less than two weeks for only $12,000 and was also titled "The Boys From Brooklyn." Producer Hal Wallis threatened to sue over Mitchell and Petrillo's impersonation of Martin-and-Lewis. This ended the movie partnership of Mitchell and Petrillo. At least actor Ray “Crash” Corrigan, the man in the ape suit, went on to star in a number of other monster movies, such as "It! The Terror Beyond Space" (1958). Only Lugosi purists should apply.
GLEN OR GLENDA, 1953, IS 'MAD ART'
By Frank Dello Stritto
“All great art is a little mad,” goes the old saying, “and all mad art is a little great.” Glen or Glenda, Ed Wood’s 1953 tale of transvestism and transsexuality, is mad art. And it is at least a little great. Undeterred by a minuscule budget and his own limitations, Wood reached deep within himself to explore sexual identity as no film maker had done been before, and rarely since. The movie alternates between the surreal and documentary. The narrator of the documentary is Dr. Alton (Timothy Farrell), a psychiatrist specializing in the complexities of human sexuality. Bela Lugosi embodies the surreal. His character is billed as “The Scientist,” but he is more a dark sorcerer or spirit who rules men’s fates.
Glen or Glenda begins and ends with Lugosi monologues. Lugosi’s task is to convey sexuality as more than Alton’s clinical explanations. Lugosi delivers his eccentric dialogue in a lush style: serious but mysterious, with more than a little of what the actor himself would call “mugging.” “The Scientist” knows something normal humans do not, and never will. As in some of Lugosi’s classic horror films, the supernatural impinges on the real world, and rational reasoning falls short of the full truth.
The documentary takes over with the suicide of transvestite Patrick/Patricia (a transvestite), and the tales of Glen/Glenda, a transvestite played by Wood, and Alan/Ann, a transsexual. Lugosi intervenes throughout the movie, but is little seen. In one of these pop-ins, he interrupts the sober discourses on Glen’s desires with the movie’s most famous line:
“Beware! Beware! Beware of the big green dragon that sits on your doorstep. He eats little boys...puppy dog tails, and big, fat snails. Beware. Take care. Beware!”
Without Lugosi, the documentary would be rather dry, buoyed only by its sensational subject matter. Producer George Weiss allegedly inserted the soft-porn sequences in the middle of the film to liven up the action, make the running time a little longer, and perhaps add some comic relief (with insert close-ups of an apparently disapproving Lugosi). The presence of Lugosi throughout the movie adds the other-worldly element that makes Glen or Glenda more than just a sex-education video. It makes more palatable Glen’s weird dream sequences, with a truly bizarre Satan (played by Captain DeZita, who also played Glen’s father).
Lugosi achieved some great things during his career. The last one, unintentionally no doubt, may be exposing the sordid underbelly of Hollywood through his association with Ed Wood. Wood spent his entire career on Hollywood’s lowest rung, and Lugosi in his last years joined him there. Wood might not be remembered at all but for Lugosi’s appearances in Bride of the Monster, Plan Nine from Outer Space, and Glen or Glenda. They should not be listed among “the worst films ever” as they often are, but perhaps among “the worst films that audiences can really enjoy.” No small part of that enjoyment comes from Lugosi.
Bride Of The Monster 1955, Lugosi's Dr. Vornoff is a monumental character
By Christopher R. Gauthier
Considered by many to be his final film despite making "The Black Sleep" in '56 after his release from rehab for his addiction to pain narcotics, Dr. Eric Vornoff is quite a vivaciously monumental character, rich with a substance that evokes a strange curiosity and under Lugosi's powerful command, conjures an undeniable intrigue that draws one into a world that might otherwise be languid and tediously mundane... Lugosi as Vornoff brings the film together, he remains the focal point and breathes promethean life into a filmic rhetorical anatomy that is otherwise dilapidated and near close to brain dead.
The role is particularly emotional and poignant at times, no doubt could Lugosi identify with the tragedies his character for this film had endured. Being banned from his native Hungary, estranged from his wife and son, having to struggle with the inability to secure a home of his own in the forsaken impoverished jungle hell that was Hollywood, Lugosi is doing his best, as he always did, with this personally crafted role, that in many subliminal ways to the audiences at the time was cathartic for his browbeaten soul....It was his last speaking role on screen. There is a morose poetry to his performance, and he has made it something we as die-hard loyal Lugosi aficionados treasure deeply to this very day. I think Wood wanted this to be a swansong for Lugosi, and in its own right, indeed it is.
Disregard the scoffs that often follow the very mention of the film, "Bride Of The Monster" is a beautifully flawed poetic masterpiece, which because of Bela is so incredibly wonderful to watch. The circumstantial production values were quite terrible, the film was not by far the best material he was ever offered, but as always, Lugosi being the true professional he was, uplifts the film into the echelons of cinematic greatness. Bela was the grandest mad scientist of them all during that era, and even in this lopsided production his indelible and incandescent ingenuity upon the nobility of his theatrical craft shines through the chinked flaws that overall make-up the entire sets and scripted inconsistencies of this slapdash and often incomprehensible film.
Bride Of The Monster is a very significant film for Lugosi and as disciples we must study it and appreciate it. It is his last crusade and conquest as a lone Star of a Hollywood production. One of the last great performances, before the final curtain was descended upon him to collect him in the twilight winter of his life.
Thanks so much to Steve, Andi, Frank and Chris for their contributions!