Wednesday, May 14, 2008

PD Project Horror Part 2

Disc 2

Four movies, each one starring Bela Lugosi because Bela Lugosi equals horror, even when it doesn't.

Black Dragons

On the eve of war, major American industrialists are being murdered one by one. What's their connection to this mysterious stranger who's arrived in town and why is a Japanese dagger left with each body?

More of a revenge/mystery story than a horror movie, Bela of course plays the visiting stranger. The film has an odd logic that spills over into the pacing and the logic of the film. The conclusion arrives almost in spite of itself.

The Invisible Ghost

Bela Lugosi plays a man driven mad by the death of his wife, only she's not dead and there are strange murders occurring in his house.

It's clear, early on, that Bela's the killer. What makes the movie interesting is an innocent man gets the blame, and the chair, for it. Kind of a weird piece.

One Body Too Many

An insurance salesman is hired to guard the body of a man so his potential heirs don't try to bury it and invalidate the man's will.

This isn't horror and Bela isn't even the star of this one. He plays the butler (a funny, seemingly murderous butler, but still, just a butler). The star is actually Jack Haley (the Tin Man) who plays a bumbling insurance agent. It's a simple enough murder/comedy without much mystery. The villain just steps out from the shadows at the end and announces their guilt while trying to kill one more person. But Haley, Bela and the rest are entertaining enough. It's a fun little flick, just absurd to include it in a "horror" box set.

White Zombie

Bela Lugosi plays the evil Murder Legendre, a witch doctor who uses zombie slaves to run his sugar plantation. He's asked by a fellow islander to turn a woman into a zombie so she can be stolen away from her fiancé, only the deal has a higher cost than he could have imagined.

The first zombie movie (no kidding) and kind of neat. The film indicates Lugosi commanding the zombies by doing a close-up of just his eyes, a bit of film that was then re-used in another Halperin picture, Revolt of the Zombies (which is featured on the next disc). There's a priest in this movie who sort of appears out of nowhere. It's a little strange. In fact, there's a lot strange to this film. Lugosi took the role after doing Dracula and turning down, I think, Frankenstein. He was hoping Murder would become another staple character so he could play him in sequel after sequel. Things didn't work out that way.

Saturday, Disc 3 featuring Tor Johnson, 3 movies that were on MST3K and Roger Corman directing Jack Nicholson!


MetalNoir said...

In the universe of PRC and Monogram movies, nothing is surprising and anything can happen. My father recounts going to the local movie theaters in the 40s and catching countless examples of their lower-than-B-grade output. Black Dragons is a prime example of exactly why these films continue to fascinate a certain fringe element (to which I can certainly say I sometimes feel as though I belong).

I recently watched Black Dragons also. I was initially impressed by the speed at which the narrative proceeded (Monogram's output, shoddy as it often is, can rarely be accused of being "boring") with a near disregard for coherence (I, for one, embrace art-house incoherence, so I could make a case to elevate this film to a level of "art", but I'll spare you: art was almost certainly not on the producers' minds): this film began by assembling strands of dialog, snippets of newsreel footage, and button-pushing WWII symbols into a critical mass of-sorts (released in 1942, any film which invoked images of the axis forces was certain to get some strong audience reaction). Clearly, the filmmakers knew what they were doing, even if they stumbled upon an effective way to do it (probably quite by accident). The film's plot is interesting and infused with an imagination that seems straight out of the wartime pulps of the day. The film ends almost prematurely. I had to watch the ending a second time, wondering if I had nodded off at some point during the last 10 minutes and missed some crucial exchange of dialog or action. If the film's premise is a little too way-out and its execution lacks in continuity and coherence, it somehow comes off (to my subtext-seeking sensibilities) oblique in a way that it's all-the-better for. I loved it as a guilty pleasure as well as some-sort of atrophied-but-ambitious wartime movie: it gets to places that only a grade-Z movie seems capable of finding.

A perfect example of this phenomenon is Edgar Ulmer's PRC film Detour, the first poverty-row-production to be singled-out for preservation by the Library of Congress (and a crucial part of the film noir canon).

MetalNoir said...

Perhaps too much has been written about White Zombie, but I'm going to add to that volume of words (and it wouldn't be the first time).

I love this film. The acting is almost criminally bad (save for Lugosi's larger-than-life villain); the process-visual effects are crude (much slicker work had been done in the silent-era); the music-score is obnoxious (accentuating the fact that, although this film has dialog, it's nearly a silent film); and the plot is, zombie-angle notwithstanding, silly and generic. All these things, though, are somehow forgiven. The film is otherworldy enough to pass for a unconscious/subconscious reverie acted out on-screen. Like the simultaneously-made Danish film Vampyr, this film overcomes its technical shortcomings with some level of dream-logic (or friendly illogic). Some viewers feel White Zombie is over-rated; to me, it's solid pleasure.

Also, behind-the-scenes industry fact-checking for this era of film is as awash in urban legend as it is in insubstantiated fact. Questions exist as to whether Lugosi actually turned down the role of Frankenstein's creature or was, perhaps, outright rejected (like the initially-proposed director Robert Florey being rejected in favor of James Whale). Rumors, possibly true, continue that Lugosi was paid a mere $500 for his work in White Zombie, but such rumors cannot be proven (or disproven). Perhaps these things add to the fascination surrounding this film.