Sunday, April 24, 2011

Low-Budget Bela

Horror is one genre where a little goes a long way. Unlike, say, the Biblical or historical epic, where a big budget is practically required for good results, in the horror genre a little money spent judiciously can produce a satisfying movie. An example is The Corpse Vanishes, a 1942 chiller starring Bela Lugosi.

The popular impression of Lugosi is that he was a pathetic, even tragic figure who descended from the heights of playing Dracula through drug addiction and cheap movies, to end up filming awful productions with Ed Wood. Some of this is true. But what is too often forgotten is how good his work was in many of those cheap movies, including The Corpse Vanishes. Made for the Poverty Row studio Monogram, Corpse is surprisingly entertaining, with a great deal to recommend it, including Lugosi.

To start with, Corpse has a wonderfully bizarre premise: mad scientist Dr. Lorenz (Lugosi) is murdering (or at least rendering catatonic) brides at the altar, then abducting their bodies to supply glandular serum to keep his aging wife youthful. He kills the brides with orchids he has hybridized to deliver poison through their scent. The movie gets crazier from there. Lorenz has three servants, one a dwarf, one a deformed brute, and one the other servants' mother, who is always trying to protect her sons from Lorenz's propensity to whip and threaten them. Lorenz and his wife sleep in coffins. Lorenz plays the organ. His house has secret passages. And on and on, all packed into 64 minutes.

The normals are a nosy female reporter, Patricia Hunter (Luana Walters), and her love interest, Dr. Foster (Tristram Coffin). Neither of them are good actors, but they put over their roles adequately, and fuse into the heterosexual couple that horror films of the period liked to leave as survivors at the end. In any case, the normals are always less important in a horror movie than the deformed destructive being, or DDB. That is Lorenz, deformed in virtue of his insanity and immorality, and destructive in virtue of his homicidality.

Lugosi is typically suave and sinister in this role, smiling with menace, making the audience believe he is what is presented: a man whose hobby is horticulture, who likes to sleep in a coffin, who will kill at a moment's notice, who keeps a dwarf, and who is devoted to keeping a mad old wife alive and youthful. The figure of this DDB makes the movie worthwhile. And all on a Monogram budget.

George Ochoa


Wes M said...

Great post George and a fine blog - there's plenty of good stuff here... Yep, Lugosi definitely elevates a lot of these poverty-row films. I think his worth as an actor has never been truly appreciated by mainstream critics.

George Ochoa said...

Thanks, Wes. Good to hear from you.