10 Horror Stars Who Never Won An Oscar

It’s Oscar night in Hollywood! We all may have our gripes with the Academy over things like the nominating process (see my posts on THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND STAN & OLLIE and THEY SHALL NOT GROW OLD ), but in the end, we’ll all still be watching – I know I will!

One of my gripes over the years has always been how the horror genre has gotten little to no attention from Oscar over the years. Sure, Fredric March won for DR. JEKYLL & MR. HYDE , but there were plenty of other horror performances who’ve been snubbed. The following ten actors should have (at least in my opinion) received consideration for their dignified work in that most neglected of genres, the horror film:

(and I’ll do this alphabetically in the interest of fairness)

LIONEL ATWILL

 Atwill’s Ivan Igor in MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM goes from cultured sophisticate to raving lunatic in the course of 77 minutes, and was worthy of a nomination. His Inspector Krough in 1939’s SON OF FRANKENSTEIN has become an iconic portrayal over the years (just ask Mel Brooks !). But the real crime is Atwill being passed over for his villainous Colonel Bishop in CAPTAIN BLOOD (though the film did receive a Best Picture nomination).

LON CHANEY JR. 

Many consider Chaney a one-note actor of limited range, but his performances as the simple-minded Lenny in OF MICE AND MEN and retired lawman Mart Howe in HIGH NOON prove Chaney could act when given the right material. And as Lawrence Talbot in THE WOLF MAN , Chaney gives an Oscar-worthy performance as the glib young man who becomes a tortured soul after getting bit by a werewolf. The low-budget SPIDER BABY found Lon shut out of Oscar consideration again as Bruno, chauffeur/caretaker to the bizarre Merrie Family.

PETER CUSHING 

Cushing could probably read the phone book and make it more dramatic than any ten actors working today. He never gave a bad performance in whatever he did, but Academy bias against horror never gave him the recognition he deserved. Of all his roles, I’d cite his Baron Frankenstein in Hammer’s first in the series, THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN , and Sir John Rowan in the (admittedly) out-there cult classic CORRUPTION as Oscar caliber. Then there’s his Gran Moff Tarkin in a little thing called STAR WARS

BORIS KARLOFF

When Boris Karloff first appeared on the screen as The Monster of FRANKENSTEIN , audiences across the country screamed at the sight of this hideous, inhuman thing, but thanks to Karloff’s acting skills, he imbued The Monster with a spark of humanity, and definitely deserved at least a nomination for his breakout performance. Equally deserving was his Ardeth Bey (aka Imhotep) in THE MUMMY , a romantic terror tale of love and death across the centuries. Boris’s work as twin brothers in THE BLACK ROOM is among his best, and his films with Val Lewton feature two distinctly different but fine portrayals: the murderous John Grey in THE BODY SNATCHER and the decadent Master Sims in BEDLAM . King Karloff was also denied a nomination for his turn as faded horror star Byron Orlok in Peter Bogdanovich’s brilliant TARGETS.

CHRISTOPHER LEE 

Oscar never recognized Lee for any of his outstanding roles, and the fact that his Lord Summerisle in THE WICKER MAN was ignored is truly an Oscar crime! Lee also should have got some Oscar love for playing against type as Duc de Richleau in THE DEVIL’S BRIDE , and his part as grave robber Resurrection Joe in CORRIDORS OF BLOOD, though a smaller role, should have  warranted some Supporting Actor attention.

PETER LORRE

Although not primarily a horror star, Lorre gave the genre two of it’s best performances, both Oscar worthy: the creepy child killer Hans Beckert in Fritz Lang’s M and the deranged, obsessed Dr. Gogol in MAD LOVE . And I think his role as the humble immigrant turned crime boss Janos Szabo in the horror-tinged noir THE FACE BEHIND THE MASK was worth a nomination. As for his non-horror roles, there’s CRIME AND PUNISHMENT, THE MALTESE FALCON, THREE STRANGERS, BEAT THE DEVIL….

BELA LUGOSI

Lugosi’s iconic Count DRACULA , still as death and evil as anyone in movie history, didn’t get past Oscar’s garlic-laced gates, and neither did Bela during his career. Granted, the Hungarian star made some poor choices over his movie days, but I’d say his Poe-obsessed Dr. Richard Vollin in THE RAVEN and broken-necked Ygor in SON OF FRANKENSTEIN deserved at least a look by the Academy. I could cite his Dr. Carruthers in THE DEVIL BAT and Dr. Vornoff in BRIDE OF THE MONSTER as examples of how a bad film can be elevated by a good performance, but I’d be stretching if I said they should have got Oscar consideration. One can dream, though, can’t one?

VINCENT PRICE

Price was known to ham it up on occasion (and parodies that notion in HIS KIND OF WOMAN ), but take a look at his work in film noir and discover Vinnie when he tones it down – he’s a great actor. Of his horror films, Price does fine work in the Roger Corman Poe series: Roderick Usher in HOUSE OF USHER, Prince Prospero in MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH, and Verden Fell in TOMB OF LIGEIA all find Price giving subtle, nuanced performances; and his witch hunter Matthew Hopkins in Michael Reeves’ THE CONQUEROR WORM is as finely etched a portrait of evil as you’ll ever see. Even when he cranks it up to 11, as in THEATER OF BLOOD , he’s more than watchable, and his Edward Lionheart in that film is an unforgivable Oscar snub! Price also should have been considered for his short but pivotal role as The Inventor in Tim Burton’s EDWARD SCISSORHANDS.

CLAUDE RAINS

Like Peter Lorre, Rains wasn’t primarily a horror star, but his dazzling performance as Dr. Jack Griffin in James Whale’s THE INVISIBLE MAN is a tour de force of both physical and vocal acting, and the fact that Oscar didn’t see it is (wait for it) Another Oscar Crime! However, of all the great actors on this list, he’s the only one recognized by the Academy for his work – Rains received Supporting Actor nominations for MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON, CASABLANCA , MR. SKEFFINGTON, and NOTORIOUS . He didn’t win for any of them (but should have for CASABLANCA!)

ERNEST THESIGER

“And the winner is… Ernest Thesiger for BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN !” That phrase was never uttered during Oscar’s banquet honoring the films of 1935, as the Supporting Actor category wasn’t initiated until a year later, but if it had been in effect, I’d place my money on Thesiger’s Dr. Pretorious to win it all!

Honorable mentions go to Colin Clive’s mad Henry FRANKENSTEIN and John Carradine’s strangler Gaston Morrell in Edgar G. Ulmer’s BLUEBEARD, and I’m sure you Dear Readers can think of many other Oscar-worthy performances in the horror field, so have some fun while we all wait for tonight’s Academy Awards ceremony… and I’ll have more on that little shindig later tomorrow!

Halloween Havoc!: HOUSE OF DRACULA (Universal 1945)

Since I’ve already reviewed HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN back in 2015,  we now turn our attention to HOUSE OF DRACULA, the last “official” entry in the series (though the Universal Monsters would ‘Meet Abbott & Costello’ three years later). The film tries to put a new slant on things, using science to conquer the supernatural, but winds up being just a hodgepodge of familiar horror tropes without much cohesion. HOUSE OF DRACUA does have its fans, but I’m not one of them.

John Carradine  returns as Count Dracula, introducing himself as Baron Latos to Dr. Edlemann (Onslow Stevens ) and seeking a cure for his vampirism. Edlemann discovers a “peculiar parasite” in Dracula’s blood, and believes he can cure him through a series of transfusions. But the Count, that sneaky devil, has his fangs set for Edlemann’s pretty nurse Militza (Martha O’Driscoll),  whom he hypnotizes with those hypnotic eyes of his. Drac reverses a transfusion, and turns Edlemann into a Jekyll & Hyde-type homicidal maniac.

Also looking for help is Larry Talbot, aka The Wolf Man, seeking relief from his lycanthropic curse. Lon Chaney Jr. once again takes the dual role, sporting a pencil-thin moustache this time (for his “Inner Sanctum Mysteries” series”). Talbot, fearing the full moon, gets himself locked in the local jail, where Edlemann and Inspector Holtz (Lionel Atwill, in his fifth and final different part in the saga) watch him transform before their very eyes. Tired of waiting for a cure, Talbot throws himself into the sea below Edlemann’s estate, is rescued by Edlemann, and the pair find the body of Frankenstein’s Monster in a cavern.

The procedure on Talbot is a success, and Edlemann promises his hunchbacked nurse Nina (Jane Adams) she’s next on the list. But Edlemann,    now gone mad thanks to Dracula’s tainted blood, kills his servant Siegfried (Ludwig Stossel, no relation to John!) and Nina, and brings The Monster back to life, just as Inspector Holtz and a gang of those angry villagers barge in, and chaos ensues as Talbot shoots Edlemann and The Monster is destroyed in a fiery finish lifted straight from GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN (with Lon playing  The Monster!).

Carradine is good as Dracula, as he was in HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (not so much in BILLY THE KID VS. DRACULA , however!). His “hypnotic eyes” rival Bela Lugosi’s, and he makes a very suave vampire. Chaney, though, is way too whiney this time around, and when he’s finally cured I breathed a sigh of relief that I wouldn’t have to listen to his complaining anymore! Glenn Strange, in his second of three appearances as The Monster, is once again little more than a prop. Onslow Stevens tries as Edlemann, but is defeated by Edward T. Lowe’s ludicrous script, which constantly contradicts itself, often in the same scene! As for the rest, Atwill’s done the Inspector routine a thousand times before, Martha O’Driscoll isn’t convincing as Militza, Jane Adams does manage to gain some sympathy as Nina, and Skelton Knaggs’s part as a villager is  underwritten.

It’s not director Erle C. Kenton’s finest hour, either, though George Robinson’s cinematography helps a bit. HOUSE OF DRACULA seems like too much of a rush job, as if Universal just wanted to be rid of its Monsters once and for all. The Second Horror Cycle was winding down, and though the studio would bring all it’s Monsters back for ABBOTT & COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN, it took Hammer Films’ CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN  and HORROR OF DRACULA , along with the release of the Universal Monster Movies to television with SHOCK THEATER in 1957, to fully bring Frankenstein’s Monster, Count Dracula, and the rest of the brood back to bloodcurdling life.

 

Halloween Havoc!: FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN (Universal 1943)

FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN was Universal’s first Monster Mash-Up, and in my opinion the best of the lot. From here, things got a little crowded, but by spotlighting just two supernatural terrors, we get a spooky, atmospheric ‘B’ film that really works. Lon Chaney Jr. returns to his signature role of Lawrence Talbot, suffering from the curse of lycanthropy, and he’s even better than in the original (which I reviewed in 2015 ). And The Monster is played by 60-year-old Bela Lugosi , in the part he rejected twelve years earlier. Bela’s interpretation is… interesting (but more on that later).

The eerie opening scene features two graverobbers under a full moon, breaking into the Talbot family crypt. Opening the lid of the late Larry Talbot’s coffin, they find the body is covered in wolfbane, and one of them recites that familiar “Even a man who’s pure in heart…” poem. As Talbot’s body is bathed in moonlight, the dormant werewolf revives, and a hand reaches out from beyond the grave, snatching one unfortunate graverobber. This beautifully shot sequence by DP George Robinson sets the mood for the horrors to come.

Talbot is found unconscious in Cardiff and taken to the local hospital, where he’s treated for a skull fracture by Dr. Mannering and questioned by Inspector Owen. A routine call to the police in Llanwelly to verify Talbot’s identity finds Lawrence Talbot “died four years ago”. The full moon beckons once again, and Talbot leaves his room as The Wolf Man, killing a constable, and found in the morning slumped in his bed. Talbot confesses to Mannering and Owen his cursed affliction, but they think he’s insane. The two men then take a trip to Llanwelly, discovering the dead graverobber and an empty coffin inside the crypt. A call to the Cardiff hospital reveals Talbot has escaped.

Talbot now wanders Europe searching for Maleva, the gypsy woman whose son inflicted the curse on him. Finding the elderly Maleva in a gypsy camp, she takes him to see Dr. Ludwig von Frankenstein, healer of “Diseases of the Mind” in Vasaria (who, as we all know from GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN, perished in that film fiery finale). The Wolf Man kills again, and is chased by angry villagers to the ruins of Frankenstein’s estate, where he awakens in a frozen cavern and discovers The Monster encased in ice. Talbot searches unsuccessfully for Frankenstein’s notebook, which contains “the secrets of life and death”, then (under an assumed name) contacts Baroness Elsa von Frankenstein. Elsa (who must’ve dumped fiancé Erick from the previous film) refuses, but the Mayor invites them both to stay for the Festival of the New Wine, celebrated in song by an uncredited Adia Kuznetzoff:

… obviously, Talbot doesn’t dig the song! Just then, Mannering, who’s been tracking Talbot’s path of destruction across Europe, arrives, as does The Monster, terrorizing those villagers again! Talbot and the creature escape, the villagers are in an uproar once again, and Mannering, Elsa, and Maleva return to the Frankenstein homestead to destroy The Monster and cure Talbot of his curse. But like all scientists, Mannering lets his curiosity get the best of him (“I’ve got to see Frankenstein’s creation at its full strength”), resulting in an epic Battle of the Monsters (well, as epic as a three-minute fight can be!).

Curt Siodmak’s  script retains the continuity of both THE WOLF MAN and GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN, unlike some of the other entries before and after. Veteran director Roy William Neill handles the pacing well, and creates a genuinely creepy atmosphere throughout, aided by Robinson and John Fulton’s camera tricks during the transformation scenes of Talbot to The Wolf Man. Chaney his outstanding as “his baby” Lawrence Talbot/The Wolf Man, eliciting sympathy as the man and getting gruesomely physical as the werewolf. Ilona Massey, making her second Universal Horror appearance,  takes over the role of Elsa from Evelyn Ankers. Patric Knowles gets the ‘mad scientist’ role, though he’s not really mad… just curious! Maria Ouspenskaya returns to the part of Maleva, Lionel Atwill is the Mayor of Vasaria, Dennis Hoey the Inspector, and Rex Evans an angry villager. Also appearing as a villager is Dwight Frye , marking his seventh and final Universal Horror role  (Frye died at age 44 nine months after the film’s release).

Then there’s Bela Lugosi as The Monster, who had all his dialog cut out of the film by the studio after test audiences laughed during a pre-screening. If you recall GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN, you’ll remember Ygor’s brain was transplanted in The Monster’s body, and he went blind due to having the wrong blood type. This explains Lugosi’s outstretched arms and lumbering gait through the movie, but filmgoers didn’t have DVD or DVR back in the 40’s, and had short memories (besides, no one back then took these little ‘B’ films seriously). And since the Monster’s blindness isn’t mentioned by any character in this one, Lugosi’s performance  has been a source of ridicule for generations. It wasn’t Bela’s fault… he was playing the part according the original script. Despite this studio meddling undoing Lugosi’s portrayal of The Monster, FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN remains a classic outing in the genre, and that’s more than can be said for subsequent Universal Frankenstein films to come…

Halloween Havoc!: GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN (Universal 1942)

The success of Universal’s SON OF FRANKENSTEIN meant a sequel was inevitable, and the studio trotted out GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN three years later. Horror stalwarts Bela Lugosi (as the broken-necked Ygor) and Lionel Atwill (although in a decidedly different role than the previous film) were back, but for the first time it wasn’t Boris Karloff under Jack Pierce’s monster makeup. Instead, Lon Chaney Jr., fresh off his triumph as THE WOLF MAN , stepped into those big asphalter’s boots as The Monster. But while SON OF was an ‘A’ budget production, GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN begins The Monster’s journey into ‘B’ territory.

Old Ygor is still alive and well, “playing his weird harp” at deserted Castle Frankenstein. The villagers (including Dwight Frye! ) are in an uproar (as villagers are wont to do), complaining “the curse of Frankenstein” has left them in poverty, and storm the castle to blow it up once and for all. The Monster gets jarred loose from his sulfur-pit grave, in a weakened condition (and without his fur vest), and escapes with Ygor into the night. A storm is brewing (because that’s how things go in these movies), and The Monster reaches out to the lightning. “Your father was Frankenstein, but your mother was the lightning”, says Ygor, and they’re off to see The Wizard… actually, to see Ludwig, “the second son of Frankenstein”.

Ludwig von Frankenstein lives at an estate in the village of Vasaria, specializing in “Diseases of the Mind” (it says so right on the sign). Ludwig and his two assistants, Drs. Bohmer and Kettering, perform a successful brain operation, but Bohmer harbors deep resentments (“in those days, I was the master, Frankenstein was just a pupil…. but I made a slight miscalculation”). Meanwhile, Ygor and The Monster arrive in Vasaria, asking a pretty young villager for directions to Frankenstein’s home (and the fact she doesn’t flee in terror at the sight of these two boggles the mind!). When The Monster helps the little child Cloestine retrieve her ball from a rooftop, he shows compassion… which is more than the villagers show, as a cadre of cops subdue him.

Village prosecutor Erick, who happens to be Ludwig’s daughter Elsa von Frankenstein’s boyfriend (what a coincidence!), asks Ludwig to examine the “madman” who’s “already killed two villagers”. When Erick leaves, Ygor appears, asking Ludwig to “harness the lightning” and return his friend to full strength, or he’ll spill the beans about Ludwig’s true ancestry (although the name Frankenstein is probably a dead giveaway). At the inquest, The Monster recognizes his ‘brother’ Ludwig and breaks free of his chains, escaping with Ygor in a waiting cart. Meanwhile, Elsa finds her grandfather’s diary on Ludwig’s desk and begins reading, giving the filmmakers the opportunity to utilize stock footage from the 1931 classic (and giving Dwight Frye the opportunity to appear in two different roles!).

The dastardly duo return to Frankenstein’s lab, where The Monster kills Dr. Kettering. Ludwig turns on the “knockout gas” to render them unconscious (and his own daughter in the process). Ludwig decides the only way to stop this madness is to “dissect” The Monster, but receives a ghostly visitation from his father (hence the title), and changes his plan: he’ll remove The Monster’s criminal brain and transplant the brain of Dr. Kettering! Ygor protests, wanting instead his own brain transplanted in The Monster’s body, and The Monster himself has an idea of his own… use Cloestine’s little brain! The sneaky Dr. Bohmer conspires with Ygor, and they pull a switcheroo, and Ygor now has “the strength of a hundred men” (and speaks with the voice of Lugosi!). But The Ygor Monster goes blind, result of a wrong blood type, and goes berserk just as the villagers blow the whole place to Kingdom Come!

Despite my glibness, GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN is an enjoyable entry in the Universal Horror canon. The main problem is Scott Darling’s silly script, but the all-star cast of horror veterans and director Erle C. Kenton (ISLAND OF LOST SOULS) somehow make it work.  Lugosi’s Ygor is one of his classic roles, and Atwill as Dr. Bohmer shows once again why he was the best mad doctor in the business. Sir Cedric Hardwicke (THE INVISIBLE MAN RETURNS ) takes his Ludwig von Frankenstein seriously, and WOLF MAN costars Ralph Bellamy and Evelyn Ankers are lovers Erick and Elsa. Little Janet Ann Gallow (Cloestine) is expressionless and wooden, but like Donnie Donagan in SON OF…, she’s just a kid, so I’ll cut her a break.

As for Lon Chaney Jr. as The Monster, he really isn’t given much to do besides bring his imposing physical presence and brute strength to the part. He doesn’t even get to grunt like Karloff, but that may be due to The Monster’s weakened condition. Later in the film, after the brain transplant takes place, Lon perks up a bit, miming the words overdubbed by Lugosi. This change in character leads directly to the next sequel, FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN… or rather, it was supposed to, as we’ll find out…

Halloween Havoc!: THE MAD DOCTOR OF MARKET STREET (Universal 1942)

The natives are getting restless… and you will too, while watching THE MAD DOCTOR OF MARKET STREET, which feels a lot longer than its 61 minute running time. The film does have a few saving graces, mainly the great Lionel Atwill as a mad scientist experimenting with bringing people back from the dead, and is an early endeavor for future film noir auteur Joseph H. Lewis . But the extremely lame script by Al Martin, whose inexplicably long career included the Lewis-directed Bela Lugosi vehicle INVISIBLE GHOST, manages to sink this shocker despite Atwill’s and Lewis’s best efforts.

Dr. Ralph Benson offers a man $1000 to let him put the man in a “catatonic state”, and revive him later. Benson has mad dreams about conquering death and disease with his untried (and definitely not FDA approved) methods. When the man doesn’t return home the next day, his wife calls the cops, who come a-knocking, and Benson takes a powder out the window. The man is dead, and an APB is sent out for Benson, who shaves his beard, dyes his hair, and jumps on a cruise ship headed to New Zealand. Here we meet the rest of the cast: lovely Patricia Wentworth and her ditzy Aunt Margaret, equally ditzy boxer Red Hogan, lovestruck young purser Jim, and Ship’s Officer Dwight.

After Benson murders a detective on his trail and throws him overboard, a catastrophic fire breaks out onboard, and everyone abandons ship. Our main cast get stranded on an uncharted desert isle (no, not Gilligan’s), and the superstitious natives (who naturally speak English!) take them prisoner, to be thrown into a fire for bringing “evil spirits” to their happy home. The Chief’s daughter is dead, and Benson says he can restore her to life (which he does with a shot of adrenaline – seems she only suffered a mild heart attack). The natives now worship Benson as “The God of Life” and do his bidding, including keeping the others captive now that they know his true identity. The mad Dr. Benson plans to continue his life-and-death experiments here on this tropic isle, by making Patricia his bride and using her as his latest “experiment”…

Lionel Atwill’s as Mad as a Doctor can be, with that insane glint in his eyes and God-complex in his soul helping him to rise above the weak material. This was his last starring vehicle after a 1941 sex scandal involving orgies and porn at his home ruined his career; he’d be relegated to smaller supporting parts in the future. Nat Pendleton (Red) and Una Merkel (Aunt Margaret) salvage what they can in comic relief roles, but Claire Dodd (Patricia) and Richard Davies (Jim) are as boring as horror movie romantic leads can be. KING KONG’s Noble Johnson is once again an island chief, John Eldridge the officious Dwight, and Anne Nagel , Milton Kibbee, and Al Kikume have tiny cameos.

Lewis uses tight close-ups and shadows to hide the budget limitations, and almost (but not quite) succeeds. The opening scene in Benson’s office is probably the spookiest, but once we get to Universal’s backlot island things go steadily downhill. Lewis does employ a neat trick of having Atwill’s ether-soaked cotton pressed directly into the camera to transition from scenes; other than these few instances he was still a work in progress. THE MAD DOCTOR OF MARKET STREET is for fans of Lewis and/or Atwill only, an eminently missable entry in the Universal Horror canon, though if you’re in the mood for bad cinema you might just get a kick out of it!

Halloween Havoc! Extra: THE VAMPIRE BAT (Majestic 1933) Complete Horror Movie!

1933’s THE VAMPIRE BAT isn’t a Universal Horror movie, but it sure comes damn close! This independent feature from Majestic Pictures contains a number of Universal Horror stars, including Lionel Atwill , Melvyn Douglas (THE OLD DARK HOUSE ), Lionel Belmore (FRANKENSTEIN ), and a positively Renfield-like performance from the great Dwight Frye – not to mention KING KONG’s main squeeze Fay Wray as our heroine! Majestic also rented some of the standing sets from FRANKENSTEIN and THE OLD DARK HOUSE to film on, giving the film a real Universal feel.

The screenplay by Edward T. Lowe (who wrote Lon Chaney’s 1923 HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME, and the later horror entry HOUSE OF DRACULA) concerns the village of Kleinschloss up in arms over a series of gruesome murders that point to the presence of a vampire in their midst, with Frye’s simple-minded Herman the chief suspect. Turns out the killings are not really supernatural but that old devil, mad science, with Atwill’s Dr. von Neimann needing human blood for his deranged experiments! Directed by Frank L. Strayer (1932’s THE MONSTER WALKS), enjoy today’s classic fright fest, THE VAMPIRE BAT!:

Halloween Havoc: SON OF FRANKENSTEIN (Universal 1939)


Horror films took a hiatus from Hollywood from 1937 to 1939. The British Horror Ban forbid monster movies from being screened without an X rating, curtailing the export of terror-inducing tales. The Production Code was in full effect, with Joseph Breen and his censorship minions clamping down on what they considered wasn’t suitable for the public. Lastly, Carl Laemmle Sr. (and his son) were ousted from Universal Studios, the company he founded, with J. Cheever Cowdin taking over as Chairman. Cowdin was a money man with a tight hold on the bottom line for the cash-strapped Universal.

Then in 1938, a Los Angeles theater desperate for business featured a triple-bill consisting of FRANKENSTEIN , DRACULA , and KING KONG , playing to sold-out crowds, and a nationwide rerelease saw similar box-office success. The Universal Monsters were back in business, and a third sequel to their profitable series based on Mary Shelley’s novel was readied for production – SON OF FRANKENSTEIN, reuniting horror icons Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi , and teaming them with another villainous star, Basil Rathbone .

We begin with some exposition, as village leaders debate the return of heir Wolf von Frankenstein and his family, followed by more exposition from Wolf aboard a train. Now that we’re all caught up on the legend of Frankenstein, the film begins in earnest, with those villagers not exactly giving Wolf and family a warm welcome! Arriving at the ancestral home (which features a large portrait of Colin Clive in the library), Wolf is called on by Inspector Krough, who warns of danger from the villagers due to a series of unsolved murders rumored to be the work of the “ghost” of his father’s creation. Krough gives Wolf his father’s papers, then relates the tale of how he acquired his wooden arm… seems The Monster ripped his limb out “by the roots” as a child!

Wife Elsa isn’t a fan of the creepy old Gothic manse (and it is creepy indeed, an Expressionistic nightmare filled with shadows), and is worried for son Peter (who doesn’t seem to worry about anything). Wolf, ever the determined scientist, explores his father’s old laboratory, and is almost killed by a falling  boulder. He discovers the grotesque, broken-necked Ygor, a former body snatcher for pater Frankenstein, who was hanged for his crimes but miraculously lived. Ygor takes Wolf to his sick “friend” – The Monster, lying in a catatonic state! “Make him well, Frankenstein”, croaks Ygor, and Wolf, being his father’s son, sets out to revive The Monster and vindicate dear old dad…

Producer/director Rowland V. Lee was tasked with reviving the franchise, and his film has echoes of James Whale’s style combined with a more modernistic approach. Lee, who began his career in silents, had success in the Pre-Code Era and helmed some popular swashbucklers (1934’s THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO, 1935’s THE THREE MUSKETEERS), wasn’t happy with the script by radio’s Willis Cooper (LIGHTS OUT), and did an extensive rewrite, throwing out some ideas, adding new ones, and beefing up the character of Ygor. Together with cinematographer George Robinson (who’d go on to do a number of Universal shockers in the 40’s) and Art Director Jack Otterson, Lee creates a world populated by shadows, a rich dark texture giving SON OF FRANKENSTEIN the look and feel of those early 30’s classics while updating things for modern (1939) audiences unfamiliar with the earlier movies. And he succeeds, thanks to his collaborators both behind and in front of the camera.

Basil Rathbone as Wolf von Frankenstein is a bundle of nerves with a mad gleam in his eye, a far cry from his cool, calm, and collected Sherlock Holmes persona. He even gets to perform a bit of swashbuckling himself at the film’s conclusion. Rathbone was one of Hollywood’s vilest villains, though here he’s as much misunderstood anti-hero as dastardly mad scientist. Lionel Atwill’s Inspector Krough was one of his best parts before a scandal reduced him to ‘B’ movie status (and yes, you can’t help but think of Kenneth Mars in YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN when you see him – thanks again, Mel Brooks!). Boris Karloff, in his third outing as The Monster, isn’t given much to do but growl and just be a killing machine. Where he obtained that fur vest he wears is never explained – a Christmas gift from Ygor, perhaps? Josephine Hutchinson plays the thankless role of wife Elsa. A lot of horror critics harp on little Donnie Dunagan’s acting as young Peter, but HEY… HE WAS JUST A FIVE YEAR OLD KID AT THE TIME! LEAVE HIM ALONE (besides, Donnie more than made up for it when he supplied the voice of BAMBI)!

Then there’s the great Bela Lugosi as the broken-necked Ygor, arguably his last great film part. Lugosi hadn’t been seen onscreen in over a year, and Lee was determined to keep the actor working by giving him a bigger part in the film. Ygor pops up everywhere in the movie, so the Hungarian star would continue to get paid by skinflint Universal. Lugosi responded with his best performance since THE RAVEN , not just playing Jack Pierce’s monstrous makeup but creating a full-bodied character. His gravelly voice is unrecognizable from his Count Dracula days, and the scene where he spits at one of the village leaders (“bone gets stuck in my throat”) is a highlight. Ygor is the only one who can control The Monster, and after his demise all bets are off! Ygor should’ve led to better roles for Bela Lugosi, but his poor choices and addiction to morphine instead sunk him, like Atwill, to Poverty Row programmers at PRC and Monogram.

SON OF FRANKENSTEIN was a hit, and Universal was back in the monster business. But it would be the last big budget effort for the Universal Monster brigade. The studio decided to concentrated on quick, cheap flicks during World War II, as we shall see…

Halloween Havoc!: SECRET OF THE BLUE ROOM (Universal 1933)

The horror cycle of the early 1930’s cast its dark shadow on other film genres. SECRET OF THE BLUE ROOM is one of those “old dark house/locked room” mysteries showing that influence; it’s a creepy, atmospheric little movie about mysterious murders, with horror vet Lionel Atwill front and center among the suspects. There aren’t any “monsters” here, but some good chills courtesy of director Kurt Neumann, who later directed the 1950’s sci-fi horrors KRONUS, SHE DEVIL, and THE FLY .

It’s a dark and stormy night (naturally!) at Castle von Hellsdorf, and Irene, daughter of Master of the House Robert, is celebrating her birthday with three suitors: Captain Walter Brink, Frank Faber, and Tommy Brandt, while outside, a mysterious stranger lurks. The conversation turns to ‘The Blue Room’, kept under lock and key after three strange (some say supernatural) murders occurred many years ago, always at One AM. Tommy, eager to “prove his courage” to Irene, proposes all three would-be beaus spend a night in ‘The Blue Room’, with himself going first. The next morning, Tommy has completely vanished from the room, despite it being locked! Frank follows up, and is found shot inside the locked room. The police are called in ,and the cagey Commissioner Forster holds an inquiry, where family secrets are exposed, the identity of that “mysterious stranger” revealed, and the killer is unmasked as…. ?

If you haven’t figured it out before the movie ends… well, you’re not a very good Armchair Detective! There are plenty of suspects to keep people guessing though, chief among them Lionel Atwill, who played ‘red herrings’ in films like this almost as much as he did mad scientists. Atwill’s presence lends SECRET OF THE BLUE ROOM some horror cred, as does the shadowy camerawork of Charles Stumar, who later shot WEREWOLF OF LONDON and THE RAVEN for Universal. Also lending horror cred is leading lady Gloria Stuart , in her second of three Universal Horrors. Future Oscar winner Paul Lukas (Walter) would appear twenty years later as Professor Aronnax in 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA , Onslow Stevens (Frank) would return to horror in the 40’s with HOUSE OF DRACULA, and Robert Barrat (Paul) later played a Martian in 1951’s FLIGHT TO MARS. Character actor Edward Arnold , best remembered for playing corrupt businessmen and gangsters in prestige films, is on the right side of the law here as the Commissioner.

When Universal released its package of pre-1948 horror films to television in 1957 as SHOCK THEATER, SECRET OF THE BLUE ROOM was included, and if it’s good enough for Universal to qualify, it’s good enough for me! While it’s not out-and-out horror, the film’s got enough spooky moments and frights to keep horror buffs satisfied. Plus, it’s got Lionel Atwill… that’s more than enough reason to watch right there!

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!

Polish Ham: Jack Benny in TO BE OR NOT TO BE (United Artists 1942)

Comedian Jack Benny got a lot of mileage (and a lot of laughs) making fun of his movie career, especially THE HORN BLOWS AT MIDNIGHT . While that film isn’t half as bad as Jack claimed it was, even better was Ernst Lubitsch’s TO BE OR NOT TO BE, a topical (at the time) tale of a band of Polish actors taking on the invading Nazis during WWII. Jack’s got his best film foil here, the marvelous Carole Lombard, and the movie’s got that wonderful “Lubitsch Touch”, a blend of sophistication and sparkling wit evidenced in classic films ranging from THE MERRY WIDOW and DESIGN FOR LIVING to NINOTCHKA and HEAVEN CAN WAIT.

Benny plays Joseph Tura, the self-proclaimed “greatest actor in the world”, and Lombard is his bantering wife Maria. Together, they lead a troupe of actors in Warsaw in a production of “Hamlet”, but every time Tura begins his “To be, or not to be…” soliloquy, an audience member walks out – unbeknownst to the vain Tura, the line’s a code for Maria’s young lover Lt. Sobinski (Robert Stack) to meet her in the dressing room! Germany invades Poland, and Sobinski’s off to join the RAF, but the acting troupe is forced to disban.

When the eminent Professor Siletsky is discovered to be a secret Nazi agent, the British send Sobinski back to Warsaw before the traitor can reveal the names of the Polish underground to the Gestapo. He reunites with Maria, now working for the underground herself, and Tura catches the young lieutenant sleeping in his bed! Maria returns, and an elaborate plan involving the acting troupe evolves with Tura impersonating Siletsky in order to retrieve that list of names. Gestapo head Col. Ehrardt is initially fooled by Tura, but then the dead body of the real Siletsky is found, just as Der Führer himself is about to pay a visit to Warsaw….

Benny’s vain, egotistical ham actor Joseph Tura is the perfect fit for his comic persona, developed through years of vaudeville and honed to a tee on his popular radio show. His trademark physical mannerisms and facial expressions are priceless, and Lubitsch brings out the best in him. He’s matched by screwball queen Carole Lombard, who shines in every scene she appears in as Tura’s not-so faithful wife. Sadly, this was the 33-year-old star’s last picture; on January 16, 1942, Lombard and 21 others (including her mother) were killed in a plane crash returning from a War Bond rally in her home state of Indiana. She was married to Clark Gable at the time. Among her many films, my favorites are TWENTIETH CENTURY, MY MAN GODFREY, NOTHING SACRED, and this one, released posthumously, and a fine capping to a brilliant career.

The supporting cast is equally brilliant, with young up-and-comer Robert Stack a fine lovestruck Sobinski. Sig Ruman ,  the Marx Brothers’ nemesis in A NIGHT AT THE OPERA, gives another great comic characterization as the pompous Col. Ehrhardt (“So they call me Concentration Camp Ehrhardt, eh?”). Henry Victor is Ehrhardt’s top aide (and convenient scapegoat) Captain Schultz. Felix Bressart as Greenberg, one of the Polish actors, gets a chance to truly shine when he gives Shylock’s speech from “The Merchant of Venice (“If you prick us, do we not bleed…”). Old friend Lionel Atwill is on board as an actor who’s even hammier than Tura! Among the rest of the cast, you’ll find Familiar Faces like Helmut Dantine, Tom Dugan, Maude Eburne, James Finlayson , Charles Halton, Miles Mander, Frank Reicher , and Stanley Ridges in roles large and small.

TO BE OR NOT TO BE is one of the few films where the remake (1983) is just as good. That’s probably because of producer/star Mel Brooks , a huge Jack Benny fan, who even pays tribute to the great comedian in the film (be on the lookout for the street sign Kubelsky Street, Benny’s given name). But if I had to pick one over the other to watch on a rainy night, it would definitely be Lubitsch’s 1942 classic, mainly because, like Brooks, I’m a huge Jack Benny fan myself! I’m pretty sure Mel would make the same choice.