Film Review: The Body Snatcher (1945)

Release Date: February 16th, 1945 (St. Louis premiere)
Directed by: Robert Wise
Written by: Philip MacDonald, Val Lewton
Based on: a story by Robert Louis Stevenson
Music by: Roy Webb
Cast: Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Henry Daniell, Edith Atwater

RKO Radio Pictures, 77 Minutes

Review:

“He taught me the mathematics of anatomy but he couldn’t teach me the poetry of medicine.” – Donald Fettes

I’m a big fan of the horror films that Val Lewton produced while at RKO Radio Pictures in the 1940s. This one brings in Robert Wise, one of his top directors, as well as horror icons Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. It’s kind of like a perfect storm of talent. Not to mention that this is also an adaptation of a Robert Louis Stevenson story.

The main plot has to deal with a doctor that is also a professor and how the corpses he uses to dissect in his classes are actually stolen from graves by Boris Karloff’s John Gray. Gray blackmails the doctor, named MacFarlane, into performing an operation on a young paraplegic girl that he initially refused to do.

Fettes, a young assistant to the doctor, asks Gray for another corpse to help with the preparation of the operation. When the corpse arrives, Fettes is surprised to see that the corpse looks just like a street singer he saw near Gray’s place.

One thing leads to another and bad things justifiably happen to bad people. But, at least the little paraplegic girl is able to walk again by the end of the movie.

Like all the other RKO horror pictures of the 1940s, this one was very strong on atmosphere. I really think that RKO had the best cinematographers and lighting staff under their employ. Between the Val Lewton produced horror films and their masterfully crafted film-noirs, RKO just had very pristine looking movies that understood ambiance and tone.

Now The Body Snatcher looks great, is well acted and Robert Wise did a good job of giving life to a Robert Louis Stevenson adaptation. But it’s not terribly exciting. It’d a bit dry and while it seems like a lot happens within the film, it felt like it was moving too slow while I watched it.

Additionally, Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi only share two fairly quick scenes. One of them is very good but Bela felt like an after though in this and I assume he was just used because of his name value.

Still, for classic horror aficionados, this is worth a look.

Rating: 6.75/10
Pairs well with: other Val Lewton produced horror films for RKO: Cat People, The Curse of the Cat People, The Leopard Man, I Walked With a Zombie and The Seventh Victim, which is actually much more noir than horror but it is still dark.

Film Review: Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959)

Also known as: Grave Robbers From Outer Space, The Vampire’s Tomb (working titles)
Release Date: July 22nd, 1959
Directed by: Ed Wood
Written by: Ed Wood
Music by: stock recordings compiled by Gordon Zahler
Cast: Criswell, Bela Lugosi, Gregory Walcott, Vampira, Lyle Talbot, Tor Johnson, Mona McKinnon, Duke Moore, Tom Keene, Paul Marco, John “Bunny” Breckinridge, Conrad Brooks, Ed Wood (cameo)

Reynolds Pictures, 79 Minutes

Review:

“But one thing’s sure. Inspector Clay is dead, murdered, and somebody’s responsible.” – Lieutenant John Harper

I’ve reviewed several films by Ed Wood but I put off his most famous picture for quite awhile. I wanted to wait for a rainy day to revisit it. But then a friend and I got drunk and decided to watch the Rifftrax Live version of the film.

For those that don’t know, Ed Wood is widely considered to be the worst director of all-time. Frankly, that’s bullshit, as there are many directors who are much worse than Wood. He just got famous for being bad. And yes, his films aren’t good but Wood was able to get his enthusiasm and love across, even if his movies were cheap, terribly acted, terribly directed and had scenarios that were hardly believable even for 1950s science fiction.

There is a charm to Wood’s pictures and Plan 9 From Outer Space wears that charm on its sleeve. It’s a jumbled mess of a lot of ideas, crashing together and competing with one another but Wood’s ambition here is hard to deny.

I always felt like Wood was someone that just needed a good creative partner to help steer his projects and refine them. Ed Wood was the ultimate fanboy and everything he made was a sort of mashup of all the things he was a hardcore fan of. It all just lacks refinement and a budget… and sometimes common sense and continuity.

Plan 9 From Outer Space is Wood’s magnum opus and it has the best cast that he was ever able to assemble. Okay, maybe they weren’t talented from an acting standpoint but he got known icons in the movie like Tor Johnson, Criswell, Vampira and Bela Lugosi, who died before this was actually made but shot footage with Wood for a future project.

As bad of a film as Plan 9 is, it isn’t unwatchable. Okay, it may be unwatchable for a modern audience that doesn’t understand the context of what this is, how it came to be and the legend of the man behind it. But with that being said, you don’t try to push Tommy Wiseau’s The Room on an audience that happily paid to see Transformers 5. For those that understand and appreciate things like this, it’s a worthwhile motion picture to experience.

There are aliens, vampires, ghouls, UFOs and an airplane cockpit that looks like it’s from the set of an elementary school play. There are a lot of things to love about this picture, if you’re into cheesy ’50s sci-fi and horror.

Plan 9 From Outer Space is something special. It has stood the test of time because of its flaws and how its director has become a legend of sorts. But maybe its still talked about because it has a bit of magic in it too.

I would suggest watching the biopic Ed Wood to understand the context of the film and its backstory. Plus, Ed Wood is one of my favorite movies of all-time and is still Tim Burton’s best.

Rating: 4.25/10
Pairs well with: Other Ed Wood films from the era: Bride of the MonsterNight of the Ghouls and Glen or Glenda? Also, the biopic Ed Wood, which was directed by Tim Burton and starred Johnny Depp as Wood.

Film Review: The Black Cat (1934)

Also known as: The Vanishing Body
Release Date: May 7th, 1934
Directed by: Edgar G. Ulmer
Written by: Peter Ruric, Edgar G. Ulmer
Based on: The Black Cat by Edgar Allan Poe
Music by: Heinz Eric Roemheld
Cast: Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, John Carradine (uncredited)

Universal Pictures, 65 Minutes

Review:

“You must be indulgent of Dr. Verdegast’s weakness. He is the unfortunate victim of one of the commoner phobias, but in an extreme form. He has an intense and all-consuming horror of cats.” – Hjalmar Poelzig

The Black Cat is a film that fits under the Universal Monsters banner, even if it was a one-off and not apart of their bigger series like Dracula and Frankenstein. But it does feature the stars of both those franchises: Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff.

The film was also directed by Edgar G. Ulmer, a guy who wouldn’t reach superstardom in Hollywood but would direct some pretty notable pictures and make a few worthwhile film-noirs.

The best part about this film is it puts Lugosi and Karloff together and not as creatures or men in heavy makeup or prosthetics. They actually get to play off of each other as humans, Karloff being the mad man and Lugosi being a heroic doctor that still exudes his Count Dracula vibe.

The name of the film comes from an Edgar Allan Poe short story. Within the film, it is a reference to Lugosi’s character and his abnormal fear of cats.

Karloff plays Hjalmar Poelzig, a difficult name to pronounce. He is an Austrian architect. Once our heroes, a newlywed couple and Lugosi’s Dr. Werdegast meet on a train, they are stuck together for the rest of the film, most of which takes place at Poelzig’s lavish and futuristic looking home. In fact, the interiors resemble a film-noir set from the late 1940s. The cinematography is also similar and maybe this is what led to Ulmer directing film-noir a decade later.

The Black Cat isn’t a great film but it is a better than decent 1930s horror flick that stars the two biggest horror icons of the time. It is a pretty significant picture for films of the genre and the era.

Film Review: The Corpse Vanishes (1942)

Release Date: May 8th, 1942
Directed by: Wallace Fox
Written by: Harvey Gates, Sam Robins, Gerald Schnitzer
Cast: Bela Lugosi, Luana Walters, Tristram Coffin, Minerva Urecal, Elizabeth Russell

Banner Productions, Monogram Pictures, 64 Minutes

Review:

“You should forget all that silly nonsense about those brides dropping dead.” – Alice Wentworth

Bela Lugosi fell on troubled times as he got out of the 1930s, which was the height of his career following 1931’s Dracula. By 1942, he was mostly relegated to making schlock. He tried to work as much as possible but even just a decade later, his Dracula had become sort of a caricature.

The Corpse Vanishes is one of his better known B-movies but that doesn’t mean it’s good. It is a film that would go on to be lampooned in the first season of Mystery Science Theater 3000 and for several very good reasons.

The plot is awful, the script is worse and the acting is pretty horrendous. Even Lugosi couldn’t carry this picture and by this point, Lugosi always played Lugosi and was pretty one-dimensional. He was simply dialing it in, as were the crew and the other actors.

Lugosi plays the evil Dr. Lorenz, a mad scientist that sends a peculiar orchid to young women on their wedding day. The orchid has an effect that causes these women to drop dead at the altar. In reality, he is putting them into a form of suspended animation. He goes on to rob the “corpses” of the brides before burial and takes them to his evil lab.

While not too far outside of the box of what were normal plots for these sort of films, the premise is still pretty ridiculous.

The Corpse Vanishes is a disaster and it is sad to see how far Lugosi has fallen in a decade. Where Boris Karloff seemed to continue to get quality roles all the way up until his death in the 1960s, Lugosi wasn’t so lucky. But at the same time, Karloff was just a lot more versatile as an actor.

Out of respect for Lugosi, I’ll refrain from running this through the Cinespiria Shitometer.

Top 25 Films Starring Bela Lugosi

I have done a list like this for Vincent Price, Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing and Basil Rathbone. I am working my way through all of the legends of classic horror.

So of course, I have to do one for Bela Lugosi.

It was Lugosi’s portrayal of Dracula in 1931 that created the image of vampires in cinema and fiction from that point forward.

Even though Dracula is his most famous role, he also went on to star in a slew of other horror classics. He went from being at the forefront of the Universal Monsters franchise to horror legend and to befriending infamous director Ed Wood. He also had a song made about him by the post-punk band Bauhaus.

These are his twenty-five best pictures.

1. Dracula
2. The Wolf Man
3. Son of Frankenstein
4. The Ghost of Frankenstein
5. White Zombie
6. Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man
7. The Return of the Vampire
8. Chandu the Magician
9. Mark of the Vampire
10. The Raven
11. Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein
12. The Whispering Shadow
13. Night of Terror
14. The Return of Chandu
15. The Phantom Creeps
16. The Black Cat (1934)
17. The Invisible Ray
18. Scared to Death
19. Bride of the Monster
20. Murders In the Rue Morgue
21. Night Monster
22. The Devil Bat
23. The Black Cat (1941)
24. The Corpse Vanishes
25. Plan 9 From Outer Space

Film Serial Review: The Phantom Creeps (1939)

Release Date: January 7th, 1939 (first chapter)
Directed by: Ford Beebe, Saul A. Goodkind
Written by: Willis Cooper, George Plympton, Basil Dickey, Mildred Barish
Music by: Charles Previn
Cast: Bela Lugosi, Dorothy Arnold, Robert Kent

Universal Pictures, 265 Minutes total (12 chapters)

Review:

The Phantom Creeps is the last serial Bela Lugosi did in his career. Unfortunately, even for a serial, it isn’t very good. It was, however, made by Universal Studios, a place where he found stardom in their 1931 adaptation of Dracula, as well as several other horror films that they produced.

Lugosi plays a scientist that goes mad. Initially, he was creating wacky inventions that could be used for evil but instead of selling them to the highest bidder, he decided to take over the world himself.

One of the inventions was an eight foot tall robot. Another invention is an invisibility belt. He was also able to overcome his enemies with mechanical spiders that would hold them in a sort of suspended animation. The secret to the power of Lugosi’s Dr. Zorka is that it comes from a mysterious meteorite.

Rightfully, the serial was lampooned in a few episodes of the second season of Mystery Science Theater 3000.

The Phantom Creeps is a serial that is beyond cheesy. It feels dated, even for 1939. The special effects are awful and the plot is mostly a nonsensical mess. Also, it uses a lot of stock footage that just doesn’t flow with the scenes that are shot. At least the giant robot was kind of cool.

George Lucas may have been inspired by this serial though, as it is not only called The Phantom Creeps but its first episode is called The Menacing PowerThe Phantom Menace, anyone? Additionally, Universal wanted to get rid of the recap segments that started their serials, so this one features a text crawl introduction that is very similar to what George Lucas used to start all of his Star Wars films.

The Phantom Creeps also had some influence on musician and filmmaker Rob Zombie, whose song “Meet the Creeper” is based on the film. Also, he has used several different robots and props, designed as homages to this film, in multiple music videos and live shows. In his animated film, The Haunted World of El Superbeasto, the character of Murray the Robot is also based on Lugosi’s robot.

While The Phantom Creeps is far from great, it has left a lasting legacy throughout pop culture.

Book Review: ‘Ed Wood: Nightmare of Ecstasy (The Life and Art of Edward D. Wood, Jr.)’ by Rudolph Grey

Nightmare of Ecstasy is the book that inspired the great Tim Burton film Ed Wood. If you are a fan of that film or just an aficionado of Edward D. Wood Jr.’s work, this is certainly a must read.

The book obviously goes more in depth with the life and work of Ed Wood. While the film covers the time from when Wood made Glen or Glenda?Bride of the Monster and his most famous work Plan 9 From Outer Space, the book takes a look at his entire life. It nicely bookends the film with Wood’s backstory as well as everything that happened after Plan 9.

The book isn’t written like a typical biography. It is comprised of quotes from Wood’s friends, colleagues and family. The quotes are organized into chapters specific to certain points or projects in Wood’s life.

Nightmare of Ecstasy isn’t just Ed Wood’s story, however. The book is the tale of all of those interesting characters he had around him. It shines a light on his collaborators and really gives them life and something more intimate to connect to than the Ed Wood biopic. It gives intimate looks into the lives of Bela Lugosi, Criswell and a slew of others.

Most importantly, it gives personal accounts of Wood’s passion and what he was like behind the scenes. It talks about the creation of his movies, more in depth than the Burton film and it also showcases letters written by Wood to several of his friends and professional colleagues.

Nightmare of Ecstasy is a fun and entertaining read, especially for fans of Ed Wood or filmmaking in general.