Halloween Havoc!: THE SMILING GHOST (Warner Brothers 1941)

A mysterious killer stalks his prey in an old, dark house! Sound familiar? Sure, the formula has been around since Lon Chaney Sr. first crept his way through 1925’s THE MONSTER, and was perfected in the 1927 horror comedy THE CAT AND THE CANARY. THE SMILING GHOST, a 1941 variation on the venerable theme, doesn’t add anything new to the genre, but it’s a pleasant enough diversion with a solid cast courtesy of the Warner Brothers Stock Company of contract players and a swift 71-minute running time.

Lucky Downing, a somewhat dimwitted chemical engineer heavily in debt to his creditors, answers a newspaper ad for a male willing to do “anything legal’ for a thousand bucks. Rich Mrs. Bentley explains the job is to get engaged to her granddaughter, Elinor Bentley Fairchild, for a month. Smelling easy money, and a way out of the hole, Lucky and his best friend/valet Clarence take a train to the countryside to meet Elinor.

What Mrs. Bentley hasn’t explained to Lucky is that Elinor is the infamous “Kiss of Death Girl”, whose three previous fiances have all met with disaster. The first drowned and the third was bitten by a cobra “on the 18th floor of a Boston hotel”. The second, Paul Myron, is in an iron lung due to a car accident, and is working with plucky girl reporter (is there any other kind in these films?) Lil Barstow to prove victim #1 is the undead “Smiling Ghost”. Elinor’s family is your basic motley crew of eccentrics, including Great-Uncle Ames, a collector of shrunken heads who develops an interest in Clarence!

There’s sliding panels, secret passageways, and a masked killer roaming around, all the ingredients necessary for “old, dark house” fun. The script by Kenneth Garrett and Stuart Palmer is geared more towards humor than horror, though there’s a few atmospheric scenes staged by director Lewis Seiler , including one in a fog-shrouded graveyard. There’s also an innovative scene with Paul Myron in his iron lung talking to Lucky and Lil , his face reflected in the mirror,  well shot by DP Arthur L. Todd, whose career stretched from 1917 until his death in 1942.

Wayne Morris (KID GALAHAD, BROTHER RAT) does his good-natured lug act as Lucky, and he’s delightful. Ingenue Alexis Smith (THE HORN BLOWS AT MIDNIGHT , THE TWO MRS. CARROLLS) has one of her earliest credited roles as Elinor. Brenda Marshall (THE SEA HAWK, THE CONSTANT NYMPH) gets the plucky reporter part, David Bruce (THE MAD GHOUL , LADY ON A TRAIN) is Paul, Lee Patrick (THE MALTESE FALCON, GEORGE WASHINGTON SLEPT HERE) is a cousin, Charles Halton (TO BE OR NOT TO BE, IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE) is the creepy Grand-Uncle, and brawny Alan Hale Sr. (ROBIN HOOD’s Little John) gets to show off his comic talents as Norton the butler.

Wonderful Willie Best plays Clarence, whose relationship with Lucky is more as a pal than a servant. Mr. Best was a black comedian who no less than Bob Hope once called “the greatest actor I know”. Willie’s from the Mantan Moreland school of acting, meaning he was usually typecast as a superstitious, “feets don’t fail me now” stereotype, and this film’s no different. However, Best’s comic timing was impeccable, and he and Morris make a great duo. Unfortunately billed as “Sleep’n’Eat” early in his career, the actor brightened many a 30’s & 40’s film with his talent. Equally unfortunate, a 1951 drug bust made him unemployable. Gale Storm , who knew Willie from her Monogram days, gave him steady work as Charlie the elevator operator in her sitcom MY LITTLE MARGIE, and had nothing but good things to say about his professionalism. Ostracized by the black community during the civil rights movement, forgotten by Hollywood, and reduced to making his living selling weed and women, Willie Best, one of Hollywood’s first recognizable black stars, died of cancer in 1962 at the young age of 45.

THE SMILING GHOST is silly fun, and won’t scare anyone under the age of ten, just an  “old, dark house” mystery done by some seasoned pros that knew their business when it came to making quick ‘B’ movies. Sometimes I like these ”second features” better than the more prestigious films produced at the time. This one’s definitely worth a look.

 

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Halloween Havoc!: BUBBA HO-TEP (Vitagraph 2002)

Don Coscarelli, the man who brought you the PHANTASM series, scores a bulls-eye with BUBBA HO-TEP, a totally unique film based on Joe R. Lansdale’s novella. Lansdale is well known to fans of horror fiction for his books and short stories in the filed as well as other genres (crime, westerns, even comic books). Coscarelli’s adaptation is a delightful blend of horror and humor, and a bittersweet reflection on aging, if not gracefully, then with courage.

Bruce Campbell (ASH VS EVIL DEAD) stars as Sebastian Haff, former Elvis impersonator who may or may not really be The King. He believes he is, and that’s what matters. He’s stuck in a Mud Creek, Texas rest home, confined to a walker and battling a weird growth on his pecker. People at the rest home are dying, as you’d expect in a place like this, but under some strange circumstances that’re causing Elvis to have recurring visions.

Elvis has a friend at the home who thinks he’s John F. Kennedy – only the president is now an elderly black man (Ossie Davis), his pigment dyed after the Dallas assassination attempt failed. Or so he believes! When Elvis is attacked in his room by a huge Egyptian beetle (who The King mistakes for a Texas cockroach!), Jack Kennedy thinks LBJ has sent an assassin to finish the job. The pair find some hieroglyphics written in the bathroom stall, and uncover a conspiracy theory about an ancient mummy (who Elvis calls ‘Bubba Ho-Tep’) sucking the souls out of the elderly patients through – well, let’s just say through nefarious means! The King and The President must now join forces and get ready to TCB against the evil Egyptian soul-sucker!

Campbell does Elvis better than anyone this side of Kurt Russell, and his performance as the aging King of Rock & Roll is a joy to behold. Davis also shines as JFK, who’s had part of his brain replaced by a bag of sand (or so he believes). The two men may be old and infirm, not to mention a bit daft in the head, but that doesn’t stop them from performing some heroic deeds in order to save their fellow rest home residents from losing the only thing most of them have left – their immortal souls! Both Campbell and Davis create believable, sympathetic characters, never falling into outright parody, and make one hell of a geriatric Dynamic Duo!

Veteran Larry Pennell, known to TV fans as ‘Dash Riprock’ on THE BEVERLY HILLBILLIES, has a brief but memorable role as Kemosabe, who believes he’s The Lone Ranger, and who are we to doubt him! Ella Joyce (ROC) is a standout as Elvis’s sassy nurse. Coscarelli regulars Reggie Bannister, Heidi Marnhout, and Bob Ivy (as Bubba) appear, and cult actor Daniel Roebuck has a cameo as a hearse driver. BUBBA HO-TEP has gained cult status itself over time, and is a bit of a different treat to put on your Halloween watch list.

 

Halloween Havoc!: FRANKENHOOKER (SGE 1990)

Wanna have a good time? Got any money? Then go pick up FRANKENHOOKER, Frank Henenlotter’s tacky tale of terror that sets Mary Shelley’s classic novel on its severed head and features an explosive (literally)  combination of the goofy and the gruesome, with plenty of black comedy  strewn among the body parts.

Jeffrey Franken’s fiancé Elizabeth Shelley is killed when the remote control lawnmower he invents runs her down, turning her into “one big jigsaw puzzle”. Saving Elizabeth’s head, Jeffrey vows to rebuild, probably after watching too many reruns of THE SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN. Seems our boy, who’s a med school dropout now working for New Jersey Gas & Electric, likes to tinker around with mad science, as evidenced by the floating brain with one eyeball he keeps in a fish tank. His grand scheme involves rounding up hookers and getting them loaded on his latest invention, a deadly lethal form of “super crack”!

But Jeffrey’s rock candy causes the ho’s to explode all over the room, so he gathers up the goods in a garbage bag, bringing them to his secret lab, located in his mother’s suburban garage. A fierce electrical storm is brewing, and Jeffrey quickly cobbles together the sexiest parts to revive his lady-love. Elizabeth returns from the dead, but carries memories of the deceased whores, becoming a freakish Frankenhooker. She shambles back to her old stomping grounds of Times Square, with Jeffrey in hot pursuit. Little does he know Zorro, the ho’s pimp, is on the prowl, and wants his hookers back…

FRANKENHOOKER is off-the-wall exploitation fun, with cult director Henenlotter in top form. The man behind such oddities as BASKET CASE and BRAIN DAMAGE, Henenlotter’s bizarre Grindhouse-inspired film is loaded with gore, nudity, and a warped sense of humor sure to please even the most jaded of horror fans. His script, co-written with former FANGORIA editor Robert Martin, is chock full of lunatic bits like the aforementioned floating brain and Jeffrey’s penchant for drilling holes in his frontal lobe to calm himself down.

James Lorinz spends a lot of screen time alone, and delivers a fine performance as the cracked weirdo Jeffrey. Former Penthouse Pet of the Year Patty Mullen channels Elsa Lanchester’s mannerisms as Elizabeth/Frankenhooker. There are cameos from cult icons ranging from TV horror host Zacherley (as a ghoulish TV weatherman) to Shirley Stoler (THE HONEYMOON KILLERS) to MARY HARTMAN’s Louise Lasser as Jeffrey’s mom. The hookers are all straight from the pages of PLAYBOY and PENTHOUSE magazines, and are appropriately slutty. FRANKENHOOKER makes for outrageously fun viewing this Halloween season… just be sure you put the kiddos to bed before watching!

Halloween Havoc!: CREATURE FROM THE HAUNTED SEA (Filmgroup 1961)

Roger Corman  satirizes himself in CREATURE FROM THE HAUNTED SEA, throwing in everything but the kitchen sink to create one of the most wacked-out goofy drive-in flicks ever filmed, that gets even goofier as it goes along. We’ve got goony gangsters, a lovesick spy, beautiful babes, and the silliest looking monster you’ll ever see.

Rapid Roger had just wrapped up shooting THE LAST WOMAN ON EARTH in sunny Puerto Rico, and since the weather was so beautiful, decided to quickly churn out another picture. He got screenwriter Charles B. Griffith to whip up a monster movie spoof (having had success with Griffith’s A BUCKET OF BLOOD and LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS) and retained the previously shot film’s stars. Actor Beach Dickerson designed the sea creature out of a wet suit, with ping-pong ball eyes and covered in an oil cloth to give it that straight from the depths look. Hokey looking yes, but I’ll give the guy credit for ingenuity!

After some crazy cartoon credits, we dive right in to the plot, such as it is. The Cuban revolution is on, and casino owner/gangster Renzo Capetto (Antony Carbone ) helps the former regime smuggle gold from the national treasury off the island. With him are his hot moll Mary-Belle Monahan (Betsy Jones-Moreland ), her dimwit brother Happy Jack (Robert Bean), and weirdo Pete Peterson Jr. (Dickerson), who communicates in animal calls! Also on board the getaway yacht is Sparks Moran, in reality Agent XK150 of the CIA. He’s played by Edward Wain, in reality Oscar winning screenwriter (CHINATOWN) and director Robert Towne at the beginning of his film career.

Capetto gets the great idea to make the Cuban exiles think a sea monster is on the loose, in order to steal the gold for himself and his criminal crew. What he and the others don’t know is there’s a real sea monster on the loose offing the Cubans left and right! Renzo intentionally scuttles the ship and tosses the gold overboard. They get stranded on a definitely not desert island, where they meet up with some oversexed island girls. XK150 falls in love with Mary-Belle, who wants nothing to do with the nebbish.

It’s hard to describe all the shenanigans going on in CREATURE FROM THE HAUNTED SEA. The movie’s so good-naturedly goofy it’s hard to dislike it either, even though this is definitely not Corman’s finest hour. Basically it’s a throwaway film, made for the bottom of a double bill and loaded with in-jokes and gags. But the cast looks like they’re having a good time, the underwater footage is kinda cool, and in a rarity in these films the monster actually wins! If you’re a Corman fan (and count me among you), you’ll want to take a peek at CREATURE FROM THE HAUNTED SEA. Just don’t expect too much; switch off your brain for an hour and fifteen minutes and enjoy.

A Quickie on a Quickie: KING OF THE ZOMBIES (Monogram 1941)

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KING OF THE ZOMBIES is a 1941 Monogram horror quickie that does not star Bela Lugosi. Apparently, the great Hungarian actor was too busy at the time. I don’t see how, it’s not like he was making A-list epics that year.  Looking at his 1941 output, Lugosi starred in the studio’s THE INVISIBLE GHOST, SPOOKS RUN WILD with the East Side Kids, and had small roles in Universal’s THE BLACK CAT and THE WOLF MAN . That’s what, about 4-5 weeks worth of work? Anyway, the part of zombie master Dr. Sangre was taken by Henry Victor, best known as strongman Hercules in Tod Browning’s FREAKS.

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What KING OF THE ZOMBIES does have is black comic actor Mantan Moreland . In fact, I’m pretty sure if it wasn’t for Mantan, this film would’ve been long forgotten. I know many people today find his pop-eyed, mangled English, “feets do yo stuff” scairdy-cat schtick offensive and stereotypical. But it’s that very schtick that carries the film and rescues it from the abyss of obscurity. Besides, he’s treated more as an equal among his white cohorts, regardless of being called the nominal hero’s “valet”.

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The movie itself will scare nobody, though it does have a few atmospheric scenes courtesy of director Jean Yarbrough . It’s basically an “old, dark house” story with zombies, but the zombies aren’t very creepy, and the voodoo ritual scene is pretty blah. Madam Sul-Te-Wan tries to give it some oomph as voodoo priestess Tahama, but Henry Victor is no Bela Lugosi as Dr. Sangre, who turns out to be a mere Nazi spy. Marguerite Whitten has some good banter with Mantan as Sangre’s housekeeper Samantha; the two would work well together in several films. The “good guys” include John Archer, Joan Woodbury , and Dick Purcell (the screen’s first Captain America!), all of whom are much blander and less interesting than Mantan.

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So if your interested in seeing a spooky zombie movie, you’re in the wrong place. But if you’re looking for comedy, watch KING OF THE ZOMBIES and let the underrated Mantan Moreland entertain you with his brand of buffoonery. He was a very funny dude who starred in his own series of independent “all-black cast” movies, and saved many a low-budget studio effort with his comic support (especially those late 40’s Monogram/Charlie Chan efforts). He worked steady in films for years, transcending his stereotyped roles, and deserves to be remembered for his comedic talents.

Halloween Havoc!: ABBOTT & COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN (Universal-International 1948)

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It’s Halloween, and we’ve finally made it to the Universal Classic Monsters! Frankenstein’s Monster, Dracula, and The Wolf Man had last appeared onscreen in 1945’s HOUSE OF DRACULA. Shortly thereafter, Universal merged with International Pictures and decided to produce only “prestige” pictures from then on, deeming their Gothic creature features no longer relevant in the post-war, post-nuclear world. The comedy team of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello were also in danger of becoming irrelevant, victims of their own success, as audiences were beginning to grow tired of them after twenty movies in a scant eight years.

That “prestige” thing didn’t work out so well, and Universal went back to what they did best…. producing mid-budget movies for the masses. Producer Robert Arthur developed a script called “The Brain of Frankenstein”, giving it over to Frederic Rinaldo and Robert Lees. Lou Costello hated it, and the team’s gag writer John Grant was brought it to punch things up. Horror icons Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney Jr, and Glenn Strange were recruited to reprise their most famous roles, and the title was changed to ABBOTT & COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN, the template for all horror comedies to come.

Lou Costello (Wilbur Grey) and Bud Abbott (Chick Young) deliver two crates to a house of horrors. The crates contain Count Dracula and Frankenstein's monster. The vampire wants to transplant Wilbur's simple brain into the monster so he will be completely under Dracula's control.

For the uninitiated, Bud and Lou play a pair of inept delivery men charged with transporting two very large crates to McDougal’s House of Horrors, said to contain the remains of Count Dracula and the Frankenstein Monster. Lou gets creeped out when Dracula’s coffin keeps opening (mainly so they could use the old “moving candle” gag), which of course Bud doesn’t see. The two fiends escape and McDougal has the boys arrested for stealing his property. They’re bailed out by a beautiful woman, but it’s not Lou’s girlfriend Sandra, it’s Joan Raymond, an undercover insurance investigator hired by McDougal.

Bud doesn’t understand how two gorgeous women can go ga-ga over short, fat Lou. What he doesn’t know is Sandra is Dracula’s assistant, a female mad scientist out to help revive the Monster by transplanting Lou’s pliable brain into it. Add Larry Talbot, the Wolf Man himself, into this mix trying to put an end to Dracula’s grandiose scheme, and you’ve got a recipe for horror and humor that ends in a climactic Monster Battle Royal and a guest “appearance” by The Invisible Man (voiced by the one-and-only Vincent Price !).

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The monsters play it straight, leaving the comedy to A&C, except for a funny bit when Lou scares the bejesus out of the Monster! Lugosi dons Dracula’s cape onscreen for the first time in 17 years, though he still toured with the stage play on occasion. With those hypnotic eyes and double-jointed hand gestures, the 67-year-old Lugosi still conveyed the power of the evil Count. He’s charming under the guise of Dr. Lejos, but as Dracula he’s still the deadliest vampire of them all. This was Bela’s last good role in a major motion picture, and takes advantage of it, showing his acting talents hadn’t diminished one bit. Unfortunately, he received no further scripts of this caliber, and found himself mired in dreck like BELA LUGOSI MEETS A BROOKLYN GORILLA , Ed Wood’s no-budget efforts, and his own tragic opiate addiction.

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Lon Chaney Jr.  returned to the studio that made him a star after being dismissed with the rest of Universal’s contract players after the merger. He’s less whiny than usual as Talbot, playing the nominal hero dead-set on stopping Dracula’s quest for world domination. Chaney still makes an athletic werewolf, as his physical acting had always outshone his sometimes awkward way with dialog. When they find Talbot’s room a shambles after the moon rises, Bud quips, “Boy, what a bender he must’ve been on last night”, possibly a veiled reference to Chaney’s problems with the bottle. In a funny bit, Talbot explains, “In a half hour the moon will rise and I’ll turn into a wolf”, to which Lou replies, “You and twenty million other guys!”.

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Glenn Strange once again portrays the Frankenstein Monster, as he did in HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN and HOUSE OF DRACULA. His shambling, psychotic version of Mary Shelley’s creature is an instrument of pure destruction, totally unlike the Karloff original. Strange’s Monster has no soul, and who can really blame him, having suffered through all those brain transplants over the course of the series. Lenore Aubert as Sandra is both beautiful and deadly, Jane Randolph is okay as the plucky heroine, Frank Ferguson blusters his way through the part of McDougal, and Charles Bradstreet has the thankless role of Sandra’s assistant who suspects foul play.

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Abbott and Costello are… well, they’re Abbott and Costello! The duo had spent years honing their schtick in burlesque, on Broadway, radio, and in films. Teaming them with the Universal Monsters helped put them back on top and opened the floodgates for a slew of ABBOTT & COSTELLO MEET movies. They met THE KILLER BORIS KARLOFF, DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE (again with Boris), THE INVISIBLE MAN, THE MUMMY, and even THE KEYSTONE KOPS! The boys are in top form here, their timing and snappy patter routines sharp as ever, and are the comic glue that holds the horrors together.

Many horror fans ask, “Yeah, but where does this fit in the Universal horror canon?” My answer to that is, “WHO CARES!” ABBOTT & COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN stands alone as a horror-comedy classic, and should be enjoyed as such. It’s your last chance to see Lugosi in his definitive role, Chaney as the cursed Larry Talbot, and Strange as the demented Monster. Plus Bud and Lou at the peak of their comic power. That’s more than enough for me, and will be for you too when you watch ABBOTT & COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN. Happy Halloween all you monster lovers out there!

 

Halloween Havoc!: A BUCKET OF BLOOD (AIP 1959)

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We can’t have Halloween without a good Roger Corman movie, and A BUCKET OF BLOOD is one of my favorites. This 1959 black comedy is a precursor to Corman’s THE LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS, and I actually prefer it over that little gem. A BUCKET OF BLOOD skewers the pretentiousness of the art world, the 50’s beatnik scene, and the horror genre itself with its story of nerdy Walter Paisley, a busboy at a hipster coffee house learns making it as a famous artist can be murder!

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Walter’s a no-talent nebbish longing to be accepted by the pompous clientele at The Yellow Door, especially beautiful hostess Carla. When he accidentally kills the landlady’s cat, Walter covers it in clay (with the knife still protruding in poor little Frankie!), and brings it in to work. The grotesque sculpture causes a stir among the patrons, and Walter is congratulated for his brilliant work ‘Dead Cat’. Beatnik chick Naolia is so impressed, not to mention hot for Walter, she gives the innocent busboy some heroin to celebrate.

But undercover cop Lou, staking out the joint, sees the transaction and follows Walter home, arresting him for possession. Walter reacts by crowning the cop with a frying pan and stashing the body in his ceiling, blood dripping down as he thinks of a way out of this mess. Thus a new masterpiece, ‘Murdered Man’, is born! Meanwhile over at the Yellow Door, owner Leonard discovers Walter’s gruesome secret when he accidentally drops ‘Dead Cat’ and cracks the plaster. Leonard’s horrified, until an art collector offers him $500 bucks for the piece, and his greed takes over.

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Walter invites Carla and Leonard over to view ‘Murdered Man’, complete with split skull, and while Carla hails him as a genius, Leonard’s a nervous wreck! Walter shows up at work all artsy, dressed in a tam and ascot, long-cigarette holder dangling from his lips. House poet Maxwell composes an ode in his honor, but stuck-up model Alice still treats him with distain. Guess who becomes Walter’s next objet d’art? After Walter cuts off a workman’s head with a buzzsaw for his newest work, Leonard’s had enough, and arranges a showing of Walter’s bizzare statues. All the local hipsters are on the scene giving the boy raves reviews, but Walter’s depressed when Carla tells him she just wants to be friends, so weirdo Walter decides he’ll use her as his latest creation…

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Character actor Dick Miller will be forever identified as Walter Paisley, so much he’s used the character name on six different occasions, including HOLLYWOOD BOULEVARD, THE HOWLING, TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE, and CHOPPING MALL. Miller was one of the key players of Roger Corman’s stock company, appearing in 17 of the director’s films, from THE OKLAHOMA WOMAN to THE TRIP, and a host of others with Corman as producer. Miller was introduced to a  new generation of filmgoers in the 80’s as neighbor Murray Futterman in GREMILINS and GREMLINS 2: THE NEW BATCH. Happily, Dick Miller is still with us as of this writing at age 87, and occasionally acts in small roles.

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Other Corman regulars in the cast include pretty Barboura Morris as Walter’s crush Carla, Anthony Carbone as Yellow Door owner Leonard, Ed Nelson as vice cop Art Lacroix, and Bruno VeSota as the art collector. Future game show host Bert Convy (billed here as Burt) plays the unfortunate undercover cop, while sexy Judy Bamber is the doomed Alice. Julian Burton is great as beatnik poet Maxwell, and John Shaner and John Brinkley are hilarious as a pair of hopheads who frequent the coffeehouse.

The legend goes that Corman and screenwriter Charles B. Griffith spent an evening prowling the beat scene in Los Angeles trying to come up with a story, when they met up with struggling actress Sally Kellerman, working as a waitress to supplement her income. The trio sat down as the coffee shop was closing and concocted the wild tale. A BUCKET OF BLOOD has since become a true cult classic over the years, an original black comedy that takes the MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM /HOUSE OF WAX premise and turns it on its ear, satirizing Corman’s more conventional movies in the process. Its warped worldview makes A BUCKET OF BLOOD a must for your Halloween watch list!