Halloween Havoc! Extra: Boris & Bela’s “Forgotten” Universal Film!

I’ve covered every Universal Horror Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi made together on this blog but one… it’s a Universal Picture, but not a horror! Instead, the Demonic Duo make cameo appearences in 1934’s GIFT OF GAB, an “all-star comedy with music” featuring the likes of Edmond Lowe, Gloria Stuart , singers Ruth Etting and Ethel Waters, Victor Moore, and others. In this scene, Paul Lukas , Binnie Barnes, Chester Morris, Roger Pryor, and June Knight perform a murder mystery sketch in which the Twin Titans of Terror make all-too-brief cameos:

The Terror Twins worked together one other time, in a 1938 guest shot on Ozzie Nelson’s radio program, “singing” (if you could call it that!!) a little ditty called “We’re Horrible, Horrible Men”:

Thankfully, Boris and Bela stuck to acting… though I have to admit, their singing’s pretty scary, too!!

Happy Halloween from Bela and Boris!

A Quickie That Clicks: GENIUS AT WORK (RKO 1946)

Back in 2015, I reviewed a turkey called ZOMBIES ON BROADWAY , which paired Bela Lugosi with the “comedy” team of Wally Brown and Alan Carney, RKO’s cut-rate answer to Abbott & Costello. Well, it seems the studio threw together this unlucky trio again, along with co-star Anne Jeffreys and adding horror icon Lionel Atwill in another attempt at a scare comedy titled GENIUS AT WORK. Glutton for punishment that I am, I recorded it, then watched, expecting another bomb… and instead found a fairly funny little ‘B’ movie that, while not on a par with ABBOTT & COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN , is a whole lot better than the aforementioned ZOMBIES fiasco!

Brown and Carney are back in their screen personas as doofuses Jerry Miles and Mike Strager, which they played in all eight of their films together. This time around, they’re radio sleuths hosting a show called ‘Crime of the Week’, and the lovely Miss Jeffreys (who died last September at age 94) is head writer/producer Ellen. The team is aided by eminent criminologist Latimer Marsh (Atwill), who lives a double life as a diabolical, mysterious killer known as The Cobra, abetted by his equally diabolical manservant/accomplice Stone (Lugosi).   Police detectives Campbell (Marc Cramer) and Gilley (Ralph Dunn) aren’t too happy with Jerry and Mike taunting the force’s ineptitude in capturing The Cobra (Cramer also serves as Anne’s love interest). Marsh begins to think Ellen’s too smart for her own good, and getting too close to the truth, and sets out to rid himself of the nosy radio trio…

You can throw logic out the window in the script by Monte Brice and Robert E. Kent, but you’ll find some amusing situations and good wisecracks courtesy of Brown and Carney. This was their last film as a team, and it seems they finally hit their groove, with Brown doing his comic double-talk routine and Carney his trademark dumb act. Anne Jeffreys livens up any ‘B’ she appears in; this was her fourth film with B&C, and her enthusiasm in the mixed-up proceedings helps carry the movie. Marc Cramer’s dull leading man role is a drawback, but fortunately he’s not onscreen too often.

As for Atwill and Lugosi, the veteran spooks elevate GENIUS AT WORK by their mere presence. Atwill is his usual sinister self as Marsh/The Cobra, with a demented gleam in his eye and a ‘hobby room’ that’s a collection of torture devices (which serve to provide some sight gags for Brown and Carney). Bela is equally sinister as the henchman Stone, and even gets a few laughs at his own expense, like when Carney drops a heavy blunderbuss on his foot! Towards the end, the horror stars disguise themselves as an elderly couple, with Atwill dressed in old lady drag (shaving off his pencil-thin moustache to boot!). Unfortunately, this was his last completed film; the star of early horror classics DR. X and MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM succumbed to cancer that year before finishing work on the serial LOST CITY OF THE JUNGLE.

GENIUS AT WORK isn’t exactly high art, but it doesn’t deserve the bad rap it gets among critics. It’s probably the best of the Wally Brown/Alan Carney series (which admittedly isn’t saying much), Anne Jeffreys is always a welcome presence, and Lionel Atwill and Bela Lugosi (in the last of seven films they made together) help kick things up a few notches with their malevolent machinations. You can’t ask for much more out of a ‘B’ movie!

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.

 

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.