Halloween Havoc! Extra: Bela Lugosi in THE DEVIL BAT (PRC 1940) Complete Horror Movie

Today, we celebrate the birth of a true horror legend, the great Bela Lugosi! 

Bela Lugosi helped usher in the horror era in 1931’s DRACULA , but nine years later, the Hungarian actor was taking whatever roles he could get. I’ve told you before how much I love THE DEVIL BAT (just click on this link to find out!), an entertaining little fright flick despite its rock-bottom production values and some really bad writing. Only Bela Lugosi could make a film like this work, and he does so brilliantly! Grab some popcorn, put your feet up, and enjoy horror’s first icon Bela Lugosi in THE DEVIL BAT!:

Cleaning Out the DVR #19: Things To Watch When You Have Flumonia!

So I’ve been laid up with the flu/early stage pneumonia/whateverthehellitis for the past few days, which seemed like a  good excuse to clean out the DVR by watching a bunch of random movies:

Bette Davis & Jimmy Cagney in “Jimmy the Gent”

JIMMY THE GENT (Warner Brothers 1934; D: Michael Curtiz ) –  Fast paced James Cagney vehicle has Jimmy as the head of a shady “missing heir” racket, with Bette Davis as his ex-girl, now working for his classy (but grabby!) rival Alan Dinehart. Allen Jenkins returns once again as Cagney’s sidekick, and Alice White is a riot as Jenkins’s ditzy dame. Some funny dialog by Bertram Milhauser in this one, coming in at the tail-end of the Pre-Code era. Cagney’s always worth watching, even in minor fare like this one. Fun Fact: Cagney’s battles with boss Jack Warner over better roles were legendary, and the actor went out and got a Teutonic-style haircut right before shooting began, just to piss the boss off!  

Dwight Frye & George Zucco in “Dead Men Walk”

DEAD MEN WALK (PRC 1943; D: Sam Newfield) – Perennial second stringer George Zucco starred in a series of shockers as PRC’s answer to Monogram’s Bela Lugosi series . Here he plays twins, one a good doctor, the other a vampire risen from the grave to enact his gruesome revenge. Despite the ultra-low budget (PRC made Monogram look like MGM!), it’s a surprisingly effective chiller due to some ingenious camerawork from Newfield. Much of the film’s plot elements are borrowed (some would say stolen) from Universal’s DRACULA , including casting Dwight Frye as the vampire’s loyal servant. Fun Fact: Romantic lead Nedrick Young later won a Best Story Oscar for Stanley Kramer’s 1958 THE DEFIANT ONES, which featured another horror icon, Lon Chaney Jr.

LADIES DAY (RKO 1943; D: Leslie Goodwins) – Broad baseball comedy (no pun intended) about star pitcher Eddie Albert , who is easily distracted by pretty women, falling for movie star Lupe Velez . They get hitched, and the other player’s wives band together to kidnap her and keep them apart so Eddie can concentrate on winning the World Series! Silly but enjoyable farce elevated by a cast of comic pros: Patsy Kelly, Iris Adrian , Joan Barclay, Max Baer Sr, Jerome Cowan , Cliff Clark, and Tom Kennedy (Nedrick Young’s in this one, too… a banner year for the actor!). Maybe not a classic, but a whole lot of fun, especially for baseball buffs like me. Fun Fact: Director Goodwins has a cameo as (what else?) a movie director.

MYSTERY STREET (MGM 1950; D: John Sturges ) – Tight little ‘B’ noir as a Boston bar girl’s (Jan Sterling) skeletal remains are discovered on Cape Cod, and police Lt. Ricardo Montalban tries to piece together the murder puzzle with the help of a Harvard forensics professor (Bruce Bennett) and some good old-fashioned detective work. Early effort from Sturges benefits from excellent John Alton photography and a script co-written by Richard Brooks . Elsa Lanchester is a standout as a blackmailing landlady among a strong cast (Betsy Blair, Walter Burke, Sally Forrest, Marshall Thompson, Willard Waterman). Fun Fact: Filmed in Boston, and many of the neighborhood sights are still recognizable almost 70 years later to those familiar with the Olde Towne.

Victor Buono as “The Strangler”

THE STRANGLER (Allied Artists 1964; D: Burt Topper) – Lurid psychological thriller stars Victor Buono in his best screen performance as a sexually repressed, schizoid psycho-killer with a creepy doll fetish. Ellen Corby plays his domineering, invalid mother. Cheap, tawdry, sensationalistic, and definitely worth watching! Fun Fact: Lots of old horror hands worked behind the scenes on this one: DP Jacques Marquette (ATTACK OF THE 50 FOOT WOMAN ), Art Director Eugene Lourie (director of THE GIANT BEHEMOTH and GORGO), Editor Robert Eisen (INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS ), and makeup man Wally Westmore (WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE, WAR OF THE WORLDS).

HYSTERIA (MGM/Hammer 1965; D: Freddie Francis ) – This Hitchcockian homage gives character actor Robert Webber a rare starring role as an amnesia victim embroiled in a GASLIGHT-like murder plot. Director Francis’s keen eye for composition hide the budget restraints, and producer/writer Jimmy Sangster’s script pulls out all the stops, but I couldn’t help but wonder while watching what The Master of Suspense himself could have done with the material. As it is, a fine but minor piece of British noir with horror undertones. Fun Fact: Australian composer Don Banks’s jazzy score aids in setting the overall mood.

BEN (Cinerama 1972; D: Phil Karlson ) – Sequel to the previous year’s horror hit WILLARD is okay, but nowhere near the original. Crazy Bruce Davison is replaced by lonely little Lee Hartcourt Montgomery, an annoying kid (no wonder he’s lonely!) who befriends Ben and his creepy rat posse. The rodents cause havoc at the grocery (“Rats! Millions of ’em! At the supermarket!”) and a health spa in some too-brief scenes, but on the whole this looks and feels like a TV movie, right down to it’s small screen cast (Meredith Baxter, Joseph Campanella, Kaz Garas, Rosemary Murphy, Arthur O’Connell, Norman Alden). We do get genre vet Kenneth Tobey (THE THING ) in a bit as a city engineer, and the climax will remind you of THEM! , but like most sequels, this one fails to satisfy. Stick with the original. Fun Fact: Montgomery would grow out of his annoying stage and become an 80’s heartthrob in GIRLS JUST WANT TO HAVE FUN.

And now, here’s Michael Jackson singing the cloying love theme from BEN at the film’s conclusion. Rats – yuchh!:

Small But Powerful: HITLER’S MADMAN (MGM 1943)

Culver City’s MGM “dream factory” and Gower Gulch’s PRC were miles apart both literally and figuratively.  Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer boasted “more stars than there are in heaven”, while tiny Producer’s Releasing Corporation films starred faded names like Neil Hamilton, Harry Langdon, Bela Lugosi , and Anna May Wong. MGM films featured lavish, opulent sets; PRC’s cardboard walls looked like they would fall over if an actor sneezed. Poverty Row PRC movies were dark and grainy; MGM created glossy, gorgeous Technicolor productions. MGM specialized in big budget extravaganzas, whereas PRC rarely spent more than $1.98. Miles apart – so why did major studio MGM purchase and release a movie originally made for minor PRC, HITLER’S MADMAN?

For one thing, it’s a damn good film, and an important one as well. Based on the true-life atrocity of the destruction of Lidice, Czechoslovakia on June 10, 1942 after the assassination of Nazi Reichsprotektor Reinhardt Heydrich, known as “The Hangman of Prague”, HITLER’S MADMAN was produced with loving care by German exile Seymour Nebenzal, the influential producer of Fritz Lang’s M (1931) and THE TESTAMENT OF DR. MABUSE (1933). Nebenzal was working as an independent producer for PRC at the time, and for one of their films it certainly has a big-budget look and feel; for MGM however, it looks made for the bottom half of a double feature.

Another German ex-pat made his directing debut with HITLER’S MADMAN: Douglas Sirk, later widely praised for his Technicolor 50’s melodramas like MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION, ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS, WRITTEN ON THE WIND, and IMITATION OF LIFE. Sirk’s style here is more film noir than 50’s kitsch, thanks in great part to DP Jack Greenhalgh… or is it? Another German refugee, Eugen Schufftan , is credited as “Technical Adviser”. Schufftan was one of Germany’s greatest cinematographers, working with all the legends of cinema in his native land. He was DP on Lang’s METROPOLIS and Gance’s NAPOLEON, and shot films for European giants like Pabst, Ophuls, Siodmak, and Zinnemann. But his U.S. status at the time was such that he couldn’t join the cinematographer’s union, so no DP credit allowed. The same thing happened on Edgar G. Ulmer’s BLUEBEARD (1944); Jockey Feindel got the screen credit, while Schufftan is listed as “Production Design”. Schufftan would later be unionized, and received an Oscar for 1962’s THE HUSTLER.

The screenplay by Peretz Hirschbein, Melvin Levy, and Doris Malloy (with an uncredited assist from Ulmer) is based somewhat on Edna St. Vincent Millay’s famous poem “The Murder of Lidice”. This fictionalized account tells of Karel Vavra, one of six parachuted into Czechoslovakia by the RAF to stir up support for the underground movement, bringing a message of hope and resistance to the downtrodden people. Karel is reunited with his lover Jarmilla Hanka , whose father Jan is wary of resistance, preaching patience and pacifism. When rabble-rouser Bartonek is arrested under the charge of “sabotage” on Heydrich’s orders, Jan goes with the man’s wife to plead with the Nazi Mayor Bauer. Their pleas fall on deaf ears; Bartonek returns home in a pine box.

Heydrich’s car, travelling on official business, is slowed down at Lidice because of a religious festival being held in the town. Angered by this foolishness, the Nazi gets out and begins to scold the villagers. Father Cemlanik turns the other cheek, only to receive a slap from Heydrich. His faith is tested as Heydrich tries to provoke him, and when the Reichsprotektor uses a sacred cloth to wipe the dust off his boots, Cemlanik can stand no more. Charging at Heydrich, the priest is shot dead in the street. Jan does an about-face and pledges to kill Heydrich, with aid from Karel and Jarmilla. They ambush his auto on his return, mortally wounding “The Hangman”. SS Leader Himmler places the call to Hitler himself as Heydrich dies. Der Fuhrer gives him a grim order: Lidice is to be “razed to the ground, her name to be eradicated from every signpost… all male inhabitants over 16 years of age will be shot, all women interred in concentration camps, all children taken from their mothers and placed in correctional institutions”.

Let’s take a moment to praise John Carradine’s performance as Reinhardt Heydrich. Unlike his hammy “mad doctor” roles, Carradine gives a restrained portrayal of pure evil. Carradine has ice water running through his veins, visiting a university teaching intellectualism (“Intellect is poison”, he tells them matter-of-factly), then rounding up the female students to “entertain” the brave German soldiers at the Russian Front, making him little more than a lowly pimp. He shows no remorse when one of the girls, rather than be enslaved, jumps out a window to her death. Even on his deathbed, Heydrich is evil until the end: “I should have killed all of them, not 30 a day, 300… 3,000”. John Carradine is absolutely chilling as Reinholdt Heydrich, scarier here than in any of his horror roles, and the performance is on a par with his work in John Ford’s STAGECOACH and THE GRAPES OF WRATH.

The rest of the cast amounts to what would’ve been an all-star movie by PRC standards. Universal leading man Alan Curtis (, BUCK PRIVATES,   PHANTOM LADY ) plays Karel, while former Paramount starlet Patricia Morison (who’s still alive as of this writing at age 102!) is Jarmilla. Her father Jan is Ralph Morgan, a PRC regular whose brother Frank (THE WIZARD OF OZ), worked for MGM. A round of applause goes out to comic actor Edgar Kennedy  in a rare dramatic role as Nepomuk, a hermit who lives in the woods. We’re never sure whose side Nepomuk’s on until the ambush on Heydrich when he aids the rebels. He also leads the men of Lidice in singing the Czech National Anthem as they’re lined up to be killed in a stirring scene, certainly Kennedy’s finest screen hour.

Ludwig Stossel is the Nazi Mayor Bauer, efficient and loyal to the party. He’s proud of his two sons – and gets word they’ve both been killed at the Russian Front. His wife Magda (Johanna Hofer) goes to pray at the village church shortly after Father Cemlanik is murdered, and meets Jan there. The scene reminded me of THE FIGHTING SULLIVANS , told from the German point of view. Cemlanik himself is played by Al Shean, formerly of the vaudeville duo Gallagher & Shean (and uncle of the The Marx Brothers! ). Others in the fine supporting cast are Howard Freeman (Himmler), Ava Gardner   (uncredited as one of the university students), Frank Hagney, Victor Killian, Vicky Lane, Michael Mark, Tully Marshall, Elizabeth Russell (heartbreaking as Mrs. Bartonek), Peter van Eyck, Blanche Yurka (Mrs. Hanka), and I’d swear I recognized Leon Askin (Gen. Burkhalter of HOGAN’S HEROES) as a Nazi, but he’s not listed on IMDb. Do any sharp-eyed readers know if it’s him?

This shocking, well-made film would’ve probably fallen into obscurity like many PRC movies if not for MGM. As it stands, Fritz Lang’s HANGMEN MUST DIE, released in March of ’43, is the better known film version of the story of Lidice. HITLER’S MADMAN was released five months later, and though it’s definitely low-budget, it’s a polished little gem, thanks in large part to the efforts of Nebenzal, Sirk, Schufftan, and John Carradine. The story of Lidice is not to be forgotten, a tragedy of human suffering and human evil, and I urge you Dear Readers to watch it as soon as possible.

A MEMORIAL TO THE MURDERED CHILDREN OF LIDICE STILL STANDS TODAY. NEVER FORGET.  

In Blackest Night: Edgar G. Ulmer’s DETOUR (PRC 1945)

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After hearing about DETOUR for years and reading all the critical acclaim, I finally got the chance to  watch it this year, thanks to TCM and the good ol’ DVR. I wondered if it would live up to all the hype, and I was not disappointed. DETOUR is a textbook example of how to make a great film on a shoestring budget. Indie auteurs today could certainly learn a lot from director Edgar G Ulmer’s inventiveness, as he crafts a film noir gem on a six-day schedule and $20,000 budget. Although reports do vary on shooting length and cost, let’s be honest…this is a PRC film, not an MGM prestige production. “Make em fast, make em cheap” was the studio’s mantra!

DETOUR tells the story of Al Roberts, who we meet in an Arizona diner. Al’s a disheveled looking guy who seems to have a chip on his shoulder bigger than the Grand Canyon. When a trucker plays the tune “I Can’t Believe That You’re in Love With Me” on the jukebox, Al goes nuts, demanding he turn it off. After the proprietor calms him down, Al begins musing (in voiceover) about how he got where he is today…

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Flashback to New York City, where Al’s a small-time piano player in New York whose singer/girlfriend Sue goes to seek fame and fortune in Hollywood. After a call to Sue, who tells him she’s “working as a hash slinger”, Al decides he’s going to hitchhike across country to be with her. He makes it to Arizona, broke and destitute, when he’s picked up by a guy named Haskell. The talkative Haskell tells Al he’s going all the way to LA. Cruising down the highway, Haskell (who’s taking some kind of medications) has some scratches on his hand, and he tells Al about the last hitcher he picked up, “the most dangerous animal in the world..a woman”. Al takes the wheel while Haskell sleeps, and when a rainstorm begins, he pulls over to put the top up. Haskell won’t wake up, and when Al opens the door, the man falls on the pavement, bumping his head on a rock. Al realizes Haskell’s dead, and in a panic, he dumps the body in the brush, taking Haskell’s money, clothes, and ID.

While going through Haskell’s stuff in a hotel room, Al learns the guy was a chiseler. Not feeling so bad now, Al continues his journey to California in the stolen car under the guise of Haskell. He gasses up, and sees a woman hitching who “looks as if she’d just been thrown off the crummiest freight train in the world”. Al offers her a lift, and it’s the worst decision he’ll ever make, for this is Vera, the woman who rode with Haskell and gave him the scratches. Vera knows Al is not Haskell, and threatens to expose Al as a murderer if he doesn’t comply with her demands…

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Tom Neal does good work  as the ill-fated Al, caught in a downhill spiral of his own bad decisions, but Ann Savage sizzles as Vera. Ann certainly lives up to her surname, biting off her dialogue in ratatat fashion, with a kisser that looks like she’s been off her meds for a week and a half. Whether barking at Al or drunkenly trying to seduce him, Savage’s Vera is the femme fatale to end them all. It’s a vicious, unsympathetic, no-holds-barred performance, and Ann Savage nails it. She’s the noir bad girl that bad girls aspire to be, and though her film career was largely forgettable, she’ll always be remembered for this once in a lifetime role.

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Edgar G. Ulmer uses all the tricks up his sleeve to cover up the budget limitations. The film is darkly inked in blacks, aiding the mood tremendously. Using tight shots, close-ups, fog shrouded streets, and outdoor locations, Ulmer paints a picture of a man in turmoil, the bleakness of Al’s situation reflected in the bleakness of the film’s settings. Ulmer’s capably assisted by Benjamin Kline’s cinematography. Kline was a veteran of silents, shorts (with lots of early Three Stooges to his credit), and B’s who knew his way around a camera, and DETOUR is his finest work. The screenplay was written by Martin Goldsmith, based on his 1939 novel (I wonder if there’s a copy on Amazon??) Kudos go to all involved with this film, from Ulmer and his crew of artists to the marvelously malevolent Ann Savage. DETOUR is one B-movie you won’t want to miss!

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