Halloween Havoc!: INVISIBLE AGENT (Universal 1942)

INVISIBLE AGENT could very well have been subtitled “The Invisible Man vs The Nazis”! This is the only Universal Horror that addresses the topic of the war in Europe (despite the fact most of them take place in Europe!), and though there aren’t many scares going on, Curt Siodmak’s sci-fi flavored screenplay, John P. Fulton’s fantastic special effects, and a cast featuring Peter Lorre in his only Universal Horror appearance make this one of the most enjoyable movies of the whole bunch!

Frank Griffin, grandson of the original Invisible Man, is living in London under the assumed name Frank Raymond and running a small printing shop. A gang of Axis creeps led by Gestapo spymaster Stauffer and Japanese Baron Ikito pay him a call, demanding his grandfather’s secret of invisibility, which of course they want to use for their own nefarious purposes. Frank manages to escape their clutches, and goes to the American Embassy. The Allies want it too, but Frank refuses to share the dangerous drug – until Pearl Harbor, then he gets all patriotic and agrees, on the condition he’s the one to use it! Frank’s airlifted to Berlin, where he takes a shot of invisibility juice, parachutes behind enemy lines, and is sent to meet beautiful double agent Maria, who all the Nazis are hot for (and who can blame them?). Frank’s mission is to retrieve the secret book containing the names of all Axis spies and saboteurs in America, and he winds up in and out of danger before the bad guys get what’s comin’ to ’em and the good guys chalk up another victory for liberty and freedom!

That’s right, it’s pure WWII propaganda, as well as pure escapism, and as such works on both levels. Siodmak, who along with brother Robert fled the Nazi regime in the 1930’s, delivers a fast paced and fun script, depicting most of the Nazis as bumbling boobs, except for the totally hissable main bad guys. Director Edwin L. Marin handles the material well, keeping the pedal to the metal at serial-paced speed. Fulton’s special effects are Grade ‘A’ for the era, and he received an Oscar nomination for them. The film, curiously, is produced by two-time Oscar-winning director Frank Lloyd (THE DIVINE LADY, CAVALCADE), usually associated with more prestigious productions.

Square-jawed Jon Hall, Maria Montez’s costar in Universal’s sword-and-sandal epics, is as stalwart a hero as they come. Beautiful Ilona Massey, who was paired with Nelson Eddy in three musicals, makes for a voluptuous spy as Maria. Sir Cedric Hardwicke is downright mean and nasty as the Gestapo chief Stauffer. Lorre plays his Japanese counterpart Baron Ikito, a sinister  menace who threatens to chop off Hall’s fingers with a paper-cutter in the opening scene. J. Edward Bromberg as Nazi Heiser is a treacherous little rat who tries to cut in on Maria while Stauffer’s away (there’s a whimsically funny scene where Maria and the horny Heiser are trying to have dinner, and invisible Frank keeps messing with the Nazi’s head!). Albert Basserman of Hitchcock’s SABOTEUR has a small but strong part as an underground agent. And Familiar Face spotters will have a blast identifying people like Walter Tetley, Phil Van Zandt, and Keye Luke in brief bits.


So now it can be told – The Universal Monsters helped combat The Nazi Terrors, at least in INVISIBLE AGENT, a treat for both horror buffs and 40’s film fans. And remember: the secret password is “Empire Style”!

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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…

The Horror Stars of THE TEN COMMANDMENTS (Paramount 1956)

Last night, as I usually do during the Easter/Passover season, I watched Cecil B. DeMille’s Biblical epic THE TEN COMMANDMENTS. It’s a movie buffs delight, an All-Star spectacle featuring three Oscar winners ( Charlton Heston , Yul Brynner , Anne Baxter ), one who should’ve been (Edward G. Robinson ), and a literal cast of thousands! Something that’s always stood out to me is the number of horror movie stars that appear in various parts, a plethora of Hollywood practitioners from my favorite genre:

John Carradine as Aaron

Carradine’s  credentials in horror films are well documented, and he deserves his spot in the pantheon of Monster Movie Greats. As Moses’s brother Aaron, Carradine has his best “straight” role since THE GRAPES OF WRATH.

Vincent Price as Baka

Our Man Vinnie plays the evil slave master Baka, who gets his just rewards at the hands of John Derek’s Joshua. Price was a few short years away from his work with William Castle, Roger Corman, and horror immortality.

Yvonne DeCarlo as Zipporah

Yvonne DeCarlo  was already an old hand at these costume epics, and would soon find herself wrapped in the shroud of Lily Munster on TV’s THE MUNSTERS!

Sir Cedric Hardwicke as Sethi

The distinguished Sir Cedric was well-known for his horror work at Universal in THE INVISIBLE MAN RETURNS , THE GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN, INVISIBLE AGENT, and the 1933 British film THE GHOUL, starring Boris Karloff.

Debra Paget as Lilia

 Miss Paget was also no stranger to costume dramas. Her last films before retirement were Corman’s TALES OF TERROR and THE HAUNTED PALACE, both alongside Price.

Nina Foch as Bithiah

Nina Foch  was a legendary acting coach, but in the 40’s as a Columbia contract player headlined the horror movies RETURN OF THE VAMPIRE (opposite Bela Lugosi) and CRY OF THE WEREWOLF.

Eduard Franz as Jethro

Franz plays Jethro, father of Zipporah, and was featured in such fare as THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD , THE FOUR SKULLS OF JONATHAN DRAKE, CYBORG 2087, and TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE.

     Ian Keith as Ramses I

Keith has an interesting connection to horror: he was actually considered for the part of Count Dracula in 1931 over Bela Lugosi , and again for 1948’s ABBOTT & COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN ! Thank Cthulhu that didn’t work out!

Eagle eyed fans will spot other horror notables in lesser roles, some uncredited: Dame Judith Anderson (REBECCA’s spooky Mrs. Danvers), Terence de Marney (DIE, MONSTER, DIE!), Patricia Hitchcock (PSYCHO), Michael Mark (FRANKENSTEIN), Gordon Mitchell (FRANKENSTEIN’S CASTLE OF FREAKS), Dorothy Neumann (GHOST OF DRAGSTRIP HOLLOW , THE TERROR ), and Onslow Stevens (HOUSE OF DRACULA). Happy hunting, and Happy Easter and Passover from Cracked Rear Viewer!

Bela Lugosi as Jesus in 1909!

Halloween Havoc!: Vincent Price in THE INVISIBLE MAN RETURNS (Universal 1940)

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Horror movies vanished from the screen in 1936 due to two factors. One was the ban on horror by British censors, closing a major market for the films. The other, a regime change at Universal, in which the Laemmle family sold the studio. The new owners attempted to reinvent the company’s image, but instead almost ran it into the ground. It wasn’t until 1939, when an enterprising theater owner exhibited a revival of the classics FRANKENSTEIN, DRACULA, and KING KONG, that Universal decided to plunge forth with SON OF FRANKENSTEIN. The third sequel was a success, and the floodgates opened for the second horror cycle. Universal brought their monsters back from the dead, and cast a young contract player named Vincent Price in THE INVISIBLE MAN RETURNS, putting Price on a career arc that would build to a long career as a horror star.

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Geoffrey Radcliffe is scheduled to hang for the murder of his brother. Family friend Dr. Griffin is allowed to visit Geoffrey in his cell at Langley Prison, while the condemned man’s fiancé Helen and his cousin Richard wait at home for a reprieve. Griffin leaves the cell, but when the guards go to check on Geoffrey, nothing remains of him but a pile of clothes! Inspector Samson is called in to investigate, and he recalls hearing the name Griffin somewhere before….

Samson goes to Griffin’s lab and tells the doctor he knows his brother was Jack Griffin (pulling out a file with a picture of original INVISIBLE MAN Claude RAains). Geoffrey was given an injection of duocane, the late Jack’s invisbility formula, and is now free to search for the real killer. But the drug has a dire side-effect: it slowly drives the user insane. Can Geoffrey, aided by Helen, find the culprit before he loses his grip on his sanity?

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Joe May was a pioneer German producer/director who, like many of his countrymen, fled Europe during the Nazi regime. His career in America wasn’t long or particularly successful, and he became a Hollywood restauranteur. Screenwriter and fellow ex-pat Curt Siodmak did much better in Tinseltown (see my post on  THE WOLF MAN for more on him). The cast was stuffed with fine character actors, including Sir Cedric Hardwicke as  cousin Richard (and with Hardwicke in the role, any doubt on who the real murderer was??). Nan Grey (Helen) earned her horror wings in 1936’s DRACULA’S DAUGHTER. Cecil Kellaway (Inspector Samson) was the charming Irishman with the twinkle in his eye in far too many films to mention here. John Sutton (Griffin) played in fright films RETURN OF THE FLY and THE BAT with Price later in his career. And Alan Napier’s (drunken foreman Willie Spears in this) credits stretch from CAT PEOPLE and ISLE OF THE DEAD, to THE MOLE PEOLE and JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH, but will forever be remembered as Alfred the butler on TV’s 60s smash BATMAN.

THE INVISIBLE MAN RETURNS is a welcome return to the H.G.Wells-inspired theme. The movies don’t have a recurring character, it’s a different Griffin in every entry, which is probably why they weren’t as popular as Universal’s other monster series. It’s not particularly scary but enjoyable, and a chance to see Vincent Price in his first starring horror role. Errr… well, we don’t actually SEE him til the end of the flick. So it’s a chance to HEAR Vincent anyway. Uhhh, you know what I mean!