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!

And To All A Good Fright: THE MUNSTERS SCARY LITTLE CHRISTMAS (TV Movie 1996)

If you grew up in the “Monster Kid” generation like me… well, you’re old! That is, old enough to remember THE MUNSTERS, the silly 60’s sitcom about a family of monsters adjusting to life in suburbia. The show ran two seasons and inspired a feature film, 1966’s MUNSTER, GO HOME!, with Fred Gwynne (Herman, the Frankenstein’s Monster surrogate), Yvonne DeCarlo (Lily, a vampire resembling Carroll Borland in MARK OF THE VAMPIRE), Al Lewis (Grandpa, aka Count Dracula himself!), and Butch Patrick (Eddie, a wolf-boy) reprising their roles. The Munsters returned in a 1981 TV Movie THE MUNSTERS’ REVENGE with Gwynne, DeCarlo, and Lewis, then as a 1988-91 syndicated sitcom THE MUNSTERS TODAY, this time starring John Schuck (Herman), Lee Meriweather (Lily) and Howard Morton (Grandpa).

The fright family have proved durable, and were trotted out yet again for a 1996 holiday TV Movie, THE MUNSTERS SCARY LITTLE CHRISTMAS. I’m usually not a fan of reboots, being a stickler for the originals (as us old folks do!), but this one surprisingly stuck to the spirit of the classic series. Okay, so it’s not the original cast, but the actors involved captured the essence of The Munsters,  and the set recreates the Munster Mansion’s groovy gloom. Most importantly, it made me laugh out loud in places!

The story concerns little Eddie Munster (Bug Hall, THE LITTLE RASCALS) homesick for a traditional Transylvanian Christmas, and the family trying to cheer him up. Herman (Sam McMurray of TV’s DINOSAURS and KING OF QUEENS) takes a series of part time jobs to earn enough money to purchase the year’s hottest item, a Marquis De Sade Dungeon Action Playset! Lily (Ann Magnuson, MAKING MR. RIGHT) gets Eddie involved with decorating the house and yard, Transylvanian style. Marilyn (Elaine Hendrix), the “ugly duckling” of the bunch, sends Christmas invitations to long-lost family members (Phantom of the Opera, Creature from the Black Lagoon, The Mummy, etc).

Grandpa (stand-up comic Sandy Baron, Jack Klompus on SEINFELD), who tells everyone within earshot he was “Eastern Europe’s preeminent alchemist”, uses his wizardry to conjure up snow in Southern California. But his experiment backfires, and instead conjures up none other than Santa Claus, along with a couple of naughty elves. Now Santa’s stuck in LA while Grandpa tries to figure out how to reverse the spell. The  naughty elves, sick and tired of working every Christmas and just wanting to party, try to slip a mickey in Santa’s figgy pudding, and Jolly Ol’ St. Nick transmogrifies into a giant fruitcake (Elf #!: “But what if, while we’re gone, someone tries to eat Santa?” Elf #2: “Never happen – NOBODY likes fruitcake!”). Can Grandpa’s mad science restore Santa in time to save Christmas Eve, and will little Eddie finally get his traditional Transylvanian Christmas?

There’s gobs of ghoulish humor and references to Ghosts of Classic Horror Past. The cast also features marvelous Mary Woronov as neighbor Edna Dimwitty, winner of the neighborhood Christmas decorating contest five years running, and out to stop Lily’s gruesome tableau from taking first prize. Producer John Landis (AN AMERCIAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON, TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE) is an old ‘Monster Kid’ himself, and certainly knows the territory. Veteran TV writers Ed Ferrara (who was a part time pro wrestler and worked behind the scenes for WWF & WCW in their 90’s heydays) and Kevin Murphy (later the head writer for DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES) put together a fun filled script, and director Ian Emes, an animator noted for his work with Pink Floyd, aids tremendously with his bizarre visual concepts.

THE MUNSTERS SCARY LITTLE CHRISTMAS first aired on Fox , and is available online, streaming, and DVD. Sure, it gets a bit saccharine in the scenes between Eddie and Santa, but whaddaya want – it’s a Christmas TV Movie! I really enjoyed this pretty much forgotten holiday classic, certain to make a “scary little Christmas” for the ‘Monster Kid’ in everyone!

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!: 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.

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!: THE COMEDY OF TERRORS (AIP 1964)

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Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, Boris Karloff, and Basil Rathbone had all appeared together on film in various combinations seven different times, but never all at once until THE COMEDY OF TERRORS. This black comedy masterpiece spoofs AIP’s own Poe flicks and Shakespeare, with the quartet of chiller icons having a grand old time playing Richard Matheson’s delicious screenplay to the hilt. Horror and noir vet Jacques Tourneur gets to direct the old pros, and the supporting cast features classic comic Joe E. Brown and Rhubarb The Cat (more on him later!).

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Price  is Waldo Trumble, the besotted, greedy proprietor of Trumble & Hinchley Funeral Parlor. He’s cruel to wife Amaryllis (Joyce Jameson), a failed opera singer (“I wish her vocal chords would snap”) who he married only to gain control of the company from her doddering old, half-deaf father Amos. “Demon rum will get you yet!”, she tells Waldo, to which he replies, “I look forward to that occasion with anticipation, madam”. Waldo keeps trying to give Amos a dose of poison, which the elderly man thinks is medicine, and Amaryllis keeps stopping him, causing the befuddled Amos to wail, “I don’t believe you care whether your poor old father lives or dies!”.

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Business has been off lately, and landlord Mr. Black (the Shakespeare-spouting Rathbone ) demands his year’s worth of back rent or he’ll throw them all out within 24 hours (Waldo calls him a “penny-pinching old pig”). Soon Waldo and his assistant, the fugitive Felix Gillie (Lorre , who’s wanted for “sundry illicit peccadillos”), go and drum up some business on their own, murdering a well-to-do local. They get the stiff’s funeral, but the widow stiffs them, running off to Boston without paying, leading Waldo to a morbid conclusion: he’ll “kill two birds with one pillow” by murdering Mr. Black, thus billing for an expensive funeral and ridding himself of his overdue rent obligations.

This leads to total chaos when Black, who suffers from catatonia, refuses to stay dead! “What place is this?”, he bellows as he rises from his coffin, causing Waldo and Felix to kill him again. Black’s finally laid to rest in his family crypt, but rises again, scaring the beejesus out of the cemetary caretaker (Big-mouth Brown in his final screen appearance). While Waldo and company celebrate their success, Black grabs an axe and heads for the funeral parlor in a rainstorm, ready to unleash mayhem on the lot of them!

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Price is at his hammy best as Waldo, with one snide remark after the other. When he finds out the first victim’s widow has run off, the murderous undertaker moans, ” Is there no morality left in the world?”. On Amaryllis’s singing, he growls, “Will you stop that ungodly caterwauling!”. He and Lorre (who calls Waldo ‘Mr. Tremble’) are like a macabre version of Abbott & Costello with their homicidal wordplay and bumbling pratfalls (performed by stunt doubles). Rathbone gets to shine too, spouting Shakespeare alone in his bedroom while fencing with shadows, and continuously popping back from the dead with lines like “What jiggery pokery is this?”.

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But its King Boris who truly steals the show as the feebleminded Amos Hinchley. Karloff shows a flair for comedy rarely seen in his films with just a look and a quick quip. Boris stands out amidst all the absurdity, and his soliloquy at the dinner table, babbling about embalming methods, is a scream:

“Old Ben Jonson, buried standing up… Edward III, buried with his horses… Alexander the Great, embalmed in honey, so they say, heehee… Egyptians used to hollow ’em out and fill ’em full of rosin… Egyptains used to bend ’em in two and stick ’em in a vase of salt water… give ’em false eyes, yank their brains out with a hook!”.

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Joyce Jameson holds her own with the seasoned vets as the off-key Amaryllis. She’d acted with Price and Lorre in a segment of the horror anthology TALES OF TERROR, and appeared in films from THE APARTMENT to DEATH RACE 2000, but is best remembered as one of the “Fun Girls” from Mt. Pilot on THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW . Then there’s Rhubarb the Cat, who slinks his way throughout the film as Cleopatra. The Orange tabby, who’s real name was Orangey, was a star in his own right, winning two Patsy Awards (the animal equivalent of the Oscar)  for RHUBARB (costarring with Ray Milland) and as Audrey Hepburn’s pet “Cat” in BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S. The feline was one of trainer Frank Inn’s animal stars, and his science-fiction credits included THIS ISLAND EARTH and THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN.

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Richard Matheson’s  screenplay sends up his Poe films with wit and black humor. Jacques Tourneur takes a break from serious filmmaking like CAT PEOPLE and OUT OF THE PAST , and lets the veteran horror actors take free reign. All the old AIP behind the scenes gang contribute to the madness (DP Floyd Crosby, music score Les Baxter, editor Anthony Carras, art director Daniel Haller), and have a good time doing it. But it’s the four Masters of Terror that make this worthwhile, especially Karloff’s comical performance as Amos. Sandwich this one between ABBOTT & COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN and YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN for a triple bill of horror and humor on All Hallows Eve, and have yourself a hysterically horrific Halloween!

 

 

Halloween Havoc!: Bela Lugosi Meets The East Side Kids… Twice!

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Ten years after making horror history as DRACULA,   Bela Lugosi signed a contract with Monogram Studios producer Sam Katzman   to star in a series of low-budget shockers. The films have been affectionately dubbed by fans “The Monogram Nine” and for the most part are really terrible, redeemed only by the presence of our favorite Hungarian. Two of the films were with the East Side Kids, SPOOKS RUN WILD and GHOSTS ON THE LOOSE, making them sort of Poverty Row All-Star Productions for wartime audiences.

I won’t go too deeply into all the Dead End Kids/East Side Kids/Bowery Boys variations here. Suffice it to say original Dead Enders Leo Gorcey   (Muggs), Huntz Hall (Glimpy), and Bobby Jordan (Danny) landed at Monogram after their Warner Brothers contracts expired, much to Jack Warner’s relief. The young actors were a rowdy bunch, and Jack was probably glad to be rid of them! Anyway, the trio were popular with the masses, and Katzman snapped them up to star in a quickie comedy series about a gang of slum kids getting involved in the usual movie-type shenanigans (boxing, high society, etc etc).

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The first teaming of Lugosi and the East Side Kids was 1941’s SPOOKS RUN WILD, an “old dark house” flick that plays on Bela’s Vampire King persona. The movie suffers from extremely poor lighting and camerawork, not to mention a lousy script by Carl Foreman, who went on to much better things (CYRANO DE BERGERAC, HIGH NOON, BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI) later in his career. Bela’s an obvious red herring but is seen to good advantage. The plot has the Kids reluctantly going to summer camp for the underprivileged while a “bloodthirsty monster” is on the loose. They wind up at your standard “old, dark house” with the usual spiders, skeletons, and secret passageways before they discover Bela’s a mere stage magician and the real maniac is finally caught.

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Besides the original Dead Enders, SPOOKS RUN WILD features Sunshine Sammy Morrison as Scruno, the only black member of the Dead End/East Side/Bowery conglomerate. Morrison was a former silent child star and original Our Gang member, and he’s pretty funny in a Mantan Moreland sort of way. Dave O’Brien (REEFER MADNESS THE DEVIL BAT ) is on hand as a camp counselor, and 2′ 11″ actor Angelo Rossitto skulks about as Bela’s assistant, as he did in two other Lugosi vehicles (THE CORPSE VANISHES, SCARED TO DEATH ). Little Angelo had a lengthy film career that stretched from the silent to the 1980’s (MAD MAX BEYOND THUNDERDOME), and included supporting roles in Tod Browning’s FREAKS, the exploitation classic CHILD BRIDE, a pair of Al Adamson shockers (BRAIN OF BLOOD, DRACULA VS FRANKENSTEIN), and a recurring role on Robert Blake’s 70’s detective series BARETTA.

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Bela and the boys reteamed two years later for GHOSTS ON THE LOOSE, with our man Lugosi as a legitimate villain this time, leader of a Nazi propaganda ring. This is the better of the two, as the series began to hit its stride. Once again, the boys get involved in some haunted house gags that were as moldy as the house itself, with moving pictures, mysterious laughter, and the like. Gorcey’s still the leader of the pack, mangling the English language as only he could (“I’m gonna send you to an optimist and have yer eyes examined”), and there’s more slapstick added, with Gorcey and Hall beginning to gel as a screen comedy team. Jordan and Sunshine Sammy return, and perennial messenger boy/elevator operator Billy Benedict makes one of his first appearances with the gang, as does Stanley Clements (GOING MY WAY), who would later take over the Gorcey part in the series last few Bowery Boys entries.

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Extra added interest to movie buffs is the young lady playing Glimpy’s sister. She’s none other than Ava Gardner, at the time a struggling bit player best known for being married to Mickey Rooney. This was Ava’s first billed role, and though she isn’t really given much to do, she’s certainly lovely to look at. Ava would go on struggling a few more years, until 1946’s THE KILLERS made her a star.

The two films have their moments, with a few chuckles to be found, but they’ll never make anyone’s Ten Best Lists. It’s fun watching Gorcey and Hall come together, and their ad-libbing is funnier than the most of the dialog they’re given. Bela Lugosi completests (like yours truly) will want to catch these, as will any East Side Kids/Bowery Boys fans out there (and I must admit I have a nostalgic soft spot for these movies) . For the rest, I’d recommend GHOSTS ON THE LOOSE for the presence of Miss Gardner, and skip the wretchedly made SPOOKS RUN WILD.

 

 

Halloween TV Havoc!: THE MILTON THE MONSTER SHOW

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The Monster Boom of the 1960’s saw kids of all ages craving their horror fix, and television supplied us with a steady stream of Monstermania. There were creepy comedies (THE MUNSTERS, THE ADDAMS FAMILY), anthologies (THRILLER, THE OUTER LIMITS), and monsters galore lurking on LOST IN SPACE and VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA. Even Saturday mornings cartoons weren’t safe, as ABC-TV began running THE MILTON THE MONSTER SHOW in 1965.

MILTON THE MONSTER was a limited-animation series about a man-made monster (ala Frankenstein) created in vat by Professor Weirdo and his sidekick Count Kook. Weirdo accidentally spills too much “tincture of tenderness” into the mix, resulting in a too-gentle monster who sounded a lot like Gomer Pyle. Milton’s fellow monsters were Heebie & Jeebie, the former a top-hatted skeleton who talked like Peter Lorre, the latter a hairy, one-eyed, snaggle-toothed goofball. Professor Fruitcake was their rival, the mad scientist next door always at odds with Weirdo and company.

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The show featured two other cartoon segments.  “Fearless Fly” was an insect superhero, and “Fluky Luke” a clumsy cowboy sleuth who got by on sheer luck. All the voices were done by talented Bob McFadden, who also voiced the cartoon spy spoof COOL MCCOOL, and was the Snarf in THUNDERCATS, as well as the original voice in the ads for the monstrous breakfast cereal Frankenberry.

And now it’s cartoon time, with Milton the Monster and friends in “Zelda the Zombie”:

And just for kicks, here’s an episode of Fearless Fly as he battles arch-enemy Dr. Goo-Fee and his invisible assistant Gung-Ho:

 

Halloween Havoc!: THE GHOST OF DRAGSTRIP HOLLOW (AIP 1959)

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Hey all you Halloween hepcats and creepy chicks! Are you ready for THE GHOST OF DRAGSTRIP HOLLOW? And by ready I mean prepared to watch a really lousy movie redeemed only by the in-joke twist ending that’s sure to please horror fans. All you’ve got to do is slog through the rest of this nonsense… so let’s slog on!

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THE GHOST OF DRAGSTRIP HOLLOW is a sequel of sorts to HOT ROD GIRL, and  starts off as your basic hot rod drive-in flick.  Pretty young Lois Cavendish is a member of the Zenith Club, a group of hot rod enthusiasts being interviewed by magazine writer Mr. Hedley. Lois gets busted drag racing against her rival Nita, and her parents (who just don’t understand) ground her. This means she’s gonna miss the big wing-ding at the club Saturday night, but not to worry… Mom suggests moving the party to their house, much to Dad’s consternation.

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Dad’s “favorite client” Anastasia Abernathy and her annoying talking parrot Alphonso just happen to be visiting that weekend, which makes for a lot of goofiness involving the teens and the adults. Nita, her boyfriend Tony, and their gang (consisting of Nita, Tony, and two others) try to crash, but Lois’s boyfriend Stan chucks them out. Then the “cats” leave, and the “kittens” have a slumber party where of course no one sleeps, especially put-upon Dad (oh, the hilarity!).

Lois gets a call from Stan saying the bank is foreclosing on the Zenith’s clubhouse, and kicking them out. Things look bleak until Anastasia offers to let them have her place out on Dragstrip Hollow, that is if they can get rid of the ghosts haunting the joint! Lois, Stan, and gang all spend the night in the creepy manor, compete with weird noises, moving fireplaces, floating candles, and a monster (to be specific, the monster from 1956’s THE SHE CREATURE!).  They decide to hold a “spook ball” the next night, with everyone dressed in scary costumes, while the band plays “Ghost Train”:

Finally everyone unmasks and the She-Creature is revealed to be none other than monster maker Paul Blaisdell , who’s been haunting the house because AIP has tossed him aside! “I scared you to death in THE DAY THE WORLD ENDED, you shivered when you saw me in SHE CREATURE”, whines the 50’s greatest rubber-suited monster. “Oh the shame of it, the indignity! They didn’t use me in HORRORS OF THE BLACK MUSEUM, they just discarded me!” Blaisdell gets chased off by one of the girls, the teens dance away, and the credits tell us it’s “The Endest, Man!”

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Aside from the gag with Paul Blaisdell (whose alien head from INVASION OF THE SAUCER-MEN is also used here), this hot rod/horror hybrid offers little of each. It’s mostly a teen comedy, with lots of rock’n’roll songs interspersed. The band is drummer Sandy Nelson (who had a hit with “Teen Beat”), future Beach Boy Bruce Johnston, and future record producers Nick Venet and Richard Polodor. Lou Rusoff’s self-referential script served as a template for his BEACH PARTY , spawning a whole new genre. Director William Hole was one of those Hollywood jacks-of-all-trades with credits as producer (TV soap PEYTON PLACE), assistant director, second unit director, production manager, and script supervisor. He did direct one interesting horror film, THE DEVIL’S HAND with Robert Alda.

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Pretty Jody Fair (Lois) had a short career, mainly in teen exploitation flicks like this. Her best known credit is John Frankenheimer’s 1961 THE YOUNG SAVAGES. Martin Braddock (Stan) played Rip in  HIGH SCHOOL HELLCATS , Russ Bender (Hedley) was featured in WAR OF THE COLOSSAL BEAST and WILD ON THE BEACH, Jack Ging (Tony) was an early member of Clint Eastwood’s stock company (HANG EM HIGH, PLAY MISTY FOR ME, HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER), and Dorothy Neumann (Anastasia) played in countless AIP epics for Roger Corman. TV Tommy Ivo, former child star turned pro drag racer, appears as himself. I don’t know who the voice of the parrot was. Nor do I care. It was annoying!

So is THE GHOST OF DRAGSTRIP HOLLOW worth your time? As a horror movie, no. It’s not scary at all. Those who dig 50’s teen flicks may want to give it a shot, and I’d recommend it to fans of Paul Blaisdell. His presence at film’s end is the only reason to watch this movie. That is, if you can slog through the rest of this turkey.

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