The Death Kiss (1932)

The Death Kiss (1932) movie poster

director  Edwin L. Marin
viewed: 05/28/2018

The Death Kiss is a pre-code B-picture murder mystery, starring Bela Lugosi, David Manners, and Edward Van Sloan who appeared together one year earlier in the much more heralded Dracula (1931).

It’s a little meta, opening on a scene in which a woman kisses a man, marking him for execution by gunfire. A scene that is a scene on a movie set of a film called “The Death Kiss”. Only, someone set up some real bullets and killed the actor. Now we’ve got a murder mystery! At a Hollywood studio!

Frankly, it’s nonessential but not uninteresting. Outside of the notability of the cast vis-a-vis their prior, more famous grouping, and the film-within-a-film thing, it’s got little to really recommend it. There is, however, at the finale,  some kinda cool hand-tinting color of flashlights and gunfire, a reminder that odd innovations were still commonplace in the early Thirties.

And the movie poster is Deco cool.

Night of Terror (1933)

Night of Terror (1933) movie poster

director Benjamin Stoloff
viewed: 12/26/2017

Night of Terror opens with a fairly awesome crystal ball credit sequence. What follows is pure pre-code kookiness with several over-lapping plots including one with a roving maniac.

“Your eyes are like dewdrops…”

I don’t understand all the nuances of camp and kitsch but this movie is full blown something.

Here’s Bela Lugosi slumming it only two years after his breakout Dracula.

I’d say it’s ridiculous fun but the ending just kicks it up an entire full notch. And you’ll just have to watch it to know why I cannot say more.

White Zombie (1932)

White Zombie (1932) movie poster

director Victor Halperin
viewed: 12/27/2015

White Zombie, the original, very first “zombie” movie was adapted from the 1929 novel The Magic Island by William Seabrook, which popularized and introduced the idea of the voodoo of the West Indies, their forebears in African culture, and the idea of reanimated corpses under the sway of some form of the occult.  Or, even, as here, seemingly reanimated  corpses, people under drugged and hypnotized command.

A product of the pre-code era, it’s not especially racy.  Produced independently by brothers Victor and Edgar Halperin, the film stars Béla Lugosi right off the heels of his biggest hit, Dracula (1931).  Here he is ‘Murder’ Legendre, who has enslaved his white enemies as zombie henchmen and runs his plantation with black zombie slaves.  When asked for help with the lovely Madeline (Madge Bellamy) by an unscrupulous plantation owner (Robert Frazer), he zombifies Madeline and plans further nefarious schemes.

It’s the eyes, Lugosi’s, that haunt the film, zoomed-in on, lit eerily, topped by an interesting mono-brow, they command wordlessly.  They even command the movie poster.

I’d seen this before and hadn’t loved it, but this time through found it surprisingly well-photographed.  The zombies themselves, including the luminous Bellamy, are evocative, with their freakish to vacant expressions, like images from a wax museum.  Not far removed from the Silent Era, the film is at its best in scenes enacted through images and movement, without the sound.  Lugosi is vibrant if stilted, not yet in caricature or self-parody (though the caricature comment might be arguable.)

Mark of the Vampire (1935)

Mark of the Vampire

director Tod Browning
viewed: 10/28/2014

For Bela Lugosi and Tod Browning, the distance from vamp to camp was a mere four years.  In 1931, they made movie history with Dracula, which for all his life was Lugosi’s image and character forever combined.  By 1935, we’ve got this “talkie” re-make of Browning’s famed “lost film” London After Midnight (1927), this time with Lugosi as the vampire in question, with a straight-up goth-tacular daughter.  But the icons evoked in Dracula are already played for evocative thrills but also a certain level of parody.

It starts like a vampire movie, and it’s got some lovely campy effects and the vampire’s daughter Luna (Carroll Borland), a spook that could have launched a thousand goths.  The real star of the film is Lionel Barrymore, who is swimmingly fun as the doctor of the occult, Professor Zelen.

Only the film turns out to not really be a vampire movie.  Apparently, like London After Midnight the vampire turns out to be a ruse by the police to catch a killer.  In this case, the very last scene shows Lugosi and Borland hanging up their capes and announcing their schtick.  Ironically, this fact seems to suggest that maybe London After Midnight might also not be the lost “classic” as suggested, but rather iconic and interesting because of Lon Chaney’s amazing make-up crafted for it.  An image is worth a thousand speculations and projections?

Still, it has its charms.

Bride of the Monster (1955)

Bride of the Monster (1955) movie poster

director Ed D. Wood, Jr.
viewed: 09/08/2014

Gloriously recreated “making of” scenes of Bride of the Monster featured in Tim Burton’s Ed Wood (1994) demonstrate the heartfelt affection that Burton and team had for Wood and this picture in particular.  Ed D. Wood, Jr. has gone down as the “worst director of all time” and fair enough.  At least his bad movies are incredibly fun and utterly enjoyable.

Bride of the Monster really might be his real masterpiece.  It’s a sight better than Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959), though it features some classic silliness, almost non sequitur dialog, cardboard performances, and a weirdly intercut octopus, it does feature Bela Lugosi in his final speaking role, delivering a badly-written but impassioned performance that somehow sums up this whole strange affair.  The film is bad but it was made badly with love.

What’s the movie about?  There’s a mad doctor (Lugosi) with a monster in a swamp (the octopus) plus the ever-present Tor Johnson and the brutal henchman.  And something about a race of atomic supermen.

Oh, the 1950’s, they really did offer some great stuff.

I have to file this one under my growing list of movies that are indeed bad but that I’ve found myself enjoying more than hating, like Robot Monster (1953) and The Horror of Party Beach (1964).  And another truly great movie poster.

Ninotchka (1939)

Ninotchka (1939) movie poster

director Ernst Lubitsch
viewed: 06/01/2014

Earlier this year, I’d never seen an Ernst Lubitsch film.  One trip through Trouble in Paradise (1932) told me everything I needed to know about what I’d been missing out on.  It’s sublime, urbane comedy.  I think someone on the commentary said something about “who knew that American comedies had ever been so urbane?”

Ninotchka I also had never seen.  It’s brilliantly funny, sharp, and terrific.

Greta Garbo?  Another big blind spot on my cinematic resume.  She is wonderful here, playing the stiff Russian uberwoman melted to normality by love in the form of a completely charming and debonair Melvyn Douglas.

The story is about emessaries from Russia who show up in Paris to hock some former crown jewels for the Motherland.  When the former tsarina sends her man, Douglas, to pronounce them hers, a legal scuffle is set in play.  Ninotchka (Garbo) is sent from Russia to help clean things up, but as noted above, falls for Douglas.

When your screenwriting team includes Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder, and Walter Reisch and you’ve got Lubitsch making it all come together, you’ve got magic, wit, and charms sublime to the senses.

Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959)

Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959) movie poster

director Ed Wood
viewed: 1026/2013

I think that watching “the worst film ever made” is a legitimate rite of passage in developing one’s cinematic palate.  The night before, I introduced Felix and Clara to Night of the Living Dead (1968), definitely considered one of the great horror films of all time and I thought it an apt counterpoint to show Plan 9 from Outer Space the following night.  I’d actually tried to tempt the kids with the watching of this bad movie for fun before but initially couldn’t curry interest.  But as time went on, Felix started asking for it specifically.

There is a moderate amount of context that needs to be explained to fully appreciate the film.  For instance the appearance of Bela Lugosi in his final film.  And the appearance of the stand-in the Ed Wood, Jr. employed in scenes that were shot long after Lugosi’s death, in which the taller stand-in keeps his cape above his face to obscure the fact that he looks little if anything like Lugosi.  Clara got quite into this aspect of the film and started announcing “Bela Lugosi” and “not Bela Lugosi” in respective shots.

Laughing at the flying pie plates, the cardboard tombstones, actors reading scripts from their laps, disjointed dialogue is all part of the process.

Felix actually fell asleep and missed out on most of it.

There are definitely some seriously hilarious elements of the film.  It’s deservedly a legend, an archetype of bad movies.  But, as I explained to the kids, part of why it is such a great bad movie is because it was made in all earnestness.  The kids kept asking why Wood didn’t go back and fix things if he was really trying to make a good movie.  Well, I tried to explain it but decided that it might be more appropriate and efficient to show them Tim Burton’s movie Ed Wood (1994), so that is our plan for the next week’s movie night.

It wasn’t just Burton’s film but a lot of elements that came together in the 1990’s that brought Ed Wood, Jr. into a different kind of consideration, an appreciation for the passionate ineptitude, the true joys of the unintentional comedy, some aspects of Wood’s real life and Hollywood dreams all into a much more meta experience of his films.  It is in this way that I think we watched the film together.   Probably more so after watching Ed Wood.

Because in the 1980’s Michael and Harry Medved’s Golden Turkey Awards helped to establish the canon of the worst films ever made and Plan 9‘s and Ed Wood, Jr.’s place in the pantheon of bad.  Perhaps this is just a part of the development of movie-watching culture, cinema studies,  and pop culture.  The movie is pretty funny on its outside.  It’s inept, bad beyond bad in places, hard to fathom anyone not realizing this.  And trying to be objective about the worst B-movies of the all time, you might want to quantify if not qualify for it.

Whether it’s the worst movie ever made, well, I don’t really want to take that away from the film.  It gives it its notoriety.  But I don’t think I’ll file it in my Worst of page.  I think I like it too well for that to be my true attitude.

Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932)

Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932) movie poster

director Robert Florey
viewed: 10/07/2013

Compared to Edgar G. Ulmer’s The Black Cat (1934), this 1932 Béla Lugosi version of Edgar Allan Poe’s “Murders in the Rue Morgue” is downright exacting.  But only because the Ulmer film has zero relationship to its source material.

Murders in the Rue Morgue was Poe’s first detective story and perhaps the first detective story of all time.  It’s typically crazy, wherein a “locked room” mystery (a murder is committed in a room that is locked from the inside entirely — how did it happen?  how did the killer escape?) but with the weirdest explanations ever.  It was an escaped orangutan!  Of course!

Well, that simply wasn’t weird enough for Robert Florey and crew.  This time the animal (a gorilla not an orangutan) is the henchman for a crazed sideshow exhibitionist (Lugosi, with a hilarious monobrow), who is kidnapping beautiful women and trying to inject them with ape blood for reasons unknown.

It’s some pretty seriously weird stuff.  And quite passable and diverting as well.  Apparently it was pared down rather heavily, from 80 to 61 minutes, and one can only imagine what hair-raising bizarreness failed to pass the “Pre-Code” Hollywood code.

The Invisible Ray (1936)

The Invisible Ray (1936) movie poster

director Lambert Hillyer
viewed: 10/05/2013

After watching the very short, weird and wacky The Black Cat (1934) with Béla Lugosi and Boris Karloff, I directed Clara and I to their 1936 collaboration, The Invisible Ray, in part because I thought it looked a little easier to follow.

I’m pretty sure that I had seen this before as a kid though not one bit of it jangled any memories.

In this one, Karloff is a mad, loner scientist who has found a way to peer into the past by following some form of atomic rays from ancient stars and then “looking back at Earth”.  Really wonderful weird science that.  He notices that this asteroid hit Earth somewhere in Africa some millennia ago and heads off with Lugosi and some other interested parties to locate the space fragment.  His “Uranium X” as he calls it turns out to be super powerful but super deadly.  It imbues him with the power to glow in the dark and to kill anything he touches.  Also, having harnessed the ore, he has a deadly ray that he can use to destroy whatever he likes.

But the radiation is killing him and driving him mad.

He shares his discovery with Lugosi, here playing the good doctor to Karloff’s mad villain, and Karloff becomes incensed when his wife leaves him and others begin tapping into his discoveries to use to help others.  He winds up seeking revenge on all of those who went on the African trip together.

The “glowing” is the film’s main effect, and it’s kind of cheap but effective.  The story is a lot more linear than that or The Black Cat, so in a ways less interesting, but a decent yarn for sure.   I thought it was pretty good.  Lugosi and Karloff sport odd facial hair in this one, with Karloff also wearing a weird dark, curly wig.  I’m still curious to know how much the kids picked up from this and if they could pick either man out of a line-up yet.  (Felix slept through it so I doubt he would.)

The Black Cat (1934)

The Black Cat (1934) movie poster

director Edgar G. Ulmer
viewed: 10/05/2013

Sort of like I did with Vincent Price, I decided it was a good time to familiarize the kids with Béla Lugosi and by proxy Boris Karloff as well.  I’d actually queued up this disc for this film, The Black Cat, in particular because it is also an Edgar G. Ulmer movie.  It was Ulmer’s biggest budget production and biggest commercial success.  It was also Lugosi’s biggest post-Dracula (1931) commercial success.

It’s quite the cult film too.  Featuring all sorts of “out there” elements including “necrophilia, ailurophobia, drugs, a deadly game of chess, torture, flaying, and a black mass with a human sacrifice.” (per critic Philip French)  It’s pretty far out, perhaps far outre.

It’s also a rambled, jambling mess.  I mean, I’m a fully cognizant adult and I felt like the story just kept turning, each step of the way, like it was making it up as it was going along.

Lugosi shows up as Dr. Vitus Werdegast, a vengeful doctor, fresh from fifteen years in a cruel prison, seeking the man who ran the prison and stole his wife and daughter.  He runs into a honeymooning couple on a train, but with whom he survives a motorcar crash and winds up on his nemesis’, Hjalmar Poelzig’s (Karloff), doorstep.  Poelzig had indeed run off with Werdegast’s wife, but then she died so he’s had her frozen in time in a glass case.  And then married her look-alike daughter.  And then runs a Satanic community.  In the location of the former prison, which is built on a pile of dynamite.

The weirdest aspect of the film is the only nod the film gives to its utterly non sequitur title.  Though one would assume that this was adapted from the Edgar Allen Poe story, the only thing that a black cat has to do with this film is that Werdegast is inexplicably mortally afraid of black cats and tries to kill them or has a nervous breakdown when they show up.

It’s all weird and convoluted and still quite campily charming.

For the kids, though, it was probably just confusing.  Felix actually fell asleep.  Clara had a myriad of questions, some of which I could answer, others of which I could not.