Before we get down to the topic at hand, I want to take a moment to note that this column appears on Ken Russell’s 82nd birthday. That means the day isn’t complete without working at least one Ken Russell picture into the schedule—more if you can make time. I haven’t decided on which title—or titles—I’m going for this year. At the moment, I’m leaning toward Valentino (1977) because it’s massively undervalued, and because it contains Russell’s first speaking role in any of his films. (I’m exempting the fact that it’s clearly his voice making comments on the antics of a courting couple during the camera obscura scene in The Music Lovers , since we don’t see him.)
It’s also a good time to remember that so much of his work is not out on DVD—and that some that is (Women in Love , for example) could stand an upgrade. And more than remembering, it’s worth poking and prodding the studios about releasing them. I know The Music Lovers was on a list of titles that was being put up for a vote for DVD releases a few months back, but I’ve yet to hear even a hint of a trace of a soupcon of a rumor about the results of that vote. But in any case, pop in a Russell opus and join me in wishing the filmmaker a happy birthday. I mean that literally, since he has been known to drop in here on occasion.
As anyone who read last week’s column knows, I spent the past weekend at the Monster Bash in Pennsylvania where I had dinner with Jonathan Haze (Seymour in the original Little Shop of Horrors ) and drinks with Ron (grandson of the Wolf Man) and Linda (granddaughter-in-law of the Wolf Man) Chaney and held the door open for Lou Ferrigno. I also spent far too much money on cinematic esoterica. Now, I fully expected to do this, but it did raise the qurestion in my mind of just what the appeal is in collecting copies of movies that few people have heard of and even fewer care about.
There’s obviously a market—clearly a niche one—for these movies. If there wasn’t dealers would not travel to events like this, loading themselves down with copies of old serials, creaky horror and mystery movies, cult oddities and long-forgotten TV shows. (And dealer tables are neither free, nor cheap.) A lot depends, of course, on amassing these things in a confined space where the primary clientele has some deep-felt need to own a copy of G-Men vs. the Black Dragon (1943) or every known episode of The Burns and Allen Show. Broadly speaking, that’s the premise, though it breaks down into obvious factions.
A lot of this esoterica is aimed at completists. There are people in this world who simply are not content if they are not in possession of absolutely every film in which, say, Bela Lugosi so much as showed up for a paycheck. One hopes in these cases that the buyers are at least somewhat savvy. I saw copies of the 1931 Olsen and Johnson comedy 50 Million Frenchmen adorning a number of tables. In each instance the case was boldly labeled, “50 Million Frenchmen with Bela Lugosi.” Well, yes, but it’s worth knowing that Lugosi has only two brief scenes and one line of dialogue (“We are the magicians you hired for the evening”) in the entire movie. The true completist won’t care, but the more casual fan might be rightly cheesed upon actually taking his treasure home and watching it.
Much the same is true of Raoul Walsh’s Women of All Nations (1931), which is actually an entry in his series of Flagg (Victor McLaglen) and Quirt (Edmund Lowe) roughneck Marine romps that started (very respectably) with What Price Glory? (1926). You do get more Bela for your buck here, though he doesn’t arrive on the scene of the 72 minute movie till about the one hour mark. Still, playing Prince Hassan—whose harem Flagg, Quirt and the ever-annoying Swedish dialect comic El Brendel have infiltrated (I was going to say “penetrated,” but though the better of it)—Lugosi gives one of his funniest comic performances. He even gets to meow like a cat, which is a niravana-like moment for a Lugosiphile.
I actually picked up Women of All Nations in hopes of it being a better copy than two lousy copies I already had. It wasn’t, but that’s also part and parcel of the draw of these movies—the search for a good copy of something almost no one has any kind of a copy of. (Fox Movie Channel could change the rules on this one, if they’d simply show the damned thing.) I came home with not just this title, but Howard Hawks’ The Criminal Code (1930), Night of Terror (1933), Double Door (1934), The Best Man Wins (1935), The Westland Case (1937), The Lady in the Morgue (1938), The Last Warning (1938), Son of Ingagi (1940) and The Strange Case of Dr. Rx (1942). Of those, all but two were bought with the idea of getting upgrades.
As is often the case in these matters, that didn’t pan out so well. The copy of Night of Terror is not only no better than the two I already had, but is taken from the same battered TV print I bought on 16mm about 37 years ago. So much for that. And that’s too bad, because this over-the-top Bela Lugosi picture is truly an old favorite for a lot of reasons—not the least of which is that Lugosi solves the mystery. I realized that was noteworthy even as a child. I can see today that it’s also the first Lugosi film that can truly be called a “personality vehicle,” which is to say that Lugosi hovers about the film doing incomprehenisibly mysterious things for no better reason than the fact that he is Bela Lugosi. The film is directed exactly to that end.
The source print on The Strange Case of Dr. Rx actually looks to be pretty good. Unfortunately, either it, or (more likely) the telecine transfer is so dark that it’s often hard to tell what’s going on—even if you know the movie. Apart from Lionel Atwill in a red herring role, the film has no actual horror stars, but it’s always been a favorite of mine. I spent part of my youth wanting to be Patrick Knowles’ detetctive character—or at least to be that cool and have a great apartment like he has. Being married to Anne Gwynne and having Mantan Moreland for a valet might have been pretty neat, too, or so it seemed at the time. Whether having a psycho torment me by threatening to transfer my brain with that of a gorilla is as enticing, I don’t know.
The question arises, have I learned from my mistakes? In the words of the late great Peter Cook from his “Frog and Peach” routine, “Certainly. Certainly I have learned from my mistakes—and I have no doubt that I could repeat them exactly.” Sadly, until such time as the studios decide to put out legitimate copies of these films, chances are good that I not only could repeat my mistakes, but will. The desire to have good—or at least better—copies of these movies is strong enough that I—in common with a lot of people I know—will continue picking up new DVDs from dealers various and sundry in the belief that one day we’ll come across that version that just has to be out there.
This is only part of the appeal, mind you. There’s another aspect to all this—the promise of coming across some treasure you’ve never seen, some long-forgotten gem waiting to be unearthed, or some rarity that you’ve heard about for years that just happens to be on a dealer table staring you in the face. Such was the case with Son of Ingagi (1940). Here is that rare case where the promise of something completely peculiar is actually more or less borne out by seeing the movie.
To understand Son of Ingagi, it helps to go back another ten years to 1930 and the original Ingagi—one of the more notorious cinematic hoaxes. The original purported to be documentary in nature and dealt with supposed actual footage of an African tribal sacrifice in which women were offered up to Ingagi (which the filmmakers decided was Africa-speak for “gorilla”). The titillating hook was in essence that these ladies were to be ravished by this ape or ape man. Oddly enough, people actually bought into this—at least briefly. It was finally revealed that Ingagi was professional ape-suited gorilla impersonator Charlie Gemora, that the movie was shot in California and that it was all BS. Somehow or other, though the idea of Ingagi remained on the fringes of pop culture.
With that in mind, when Zack Amusements—a company specializing in race films aimed at black audiences—opted to knock out the first all-black horror picture, someone decided to trade on the Ingagi name. In this case, Ingagi is an ape man called N’Gina (Zack Williams), who is the personal property of (sort of) mad scientist Dr. Helen Jackson (not a very prepossessing mad scientist name), who is played with surprising conviction and authority by Laura Bowman. For reasons that are never very clear, she keeps N’Gina in the secret basement of her very budget-conscious old dark house.
Equally unclear is whether N’Gina is simply some monstrosity she brought back from a trip to Africa, or whether he was originally a gorilla she has de-simianed to this laughable ape man state. The make-up is pretty dire. Most of the time N’Gina resembles nothing so much as a big guy who overzealous carpet-layers mistook for a bare floor, gave the wall-to-wall treatment, and then tried to fix by cutting out mouth, nose and eye holes. On other unfortunate occasions, N’Gina looks most awfully like a blackface make-up job gone horribly wrong—and one that has started to melt in the bargain. In either case, it’s hardly persuasive.
What plot there is can only be called spotty and serves mostly to have N’Gina come out of the basement every so often and lurch (it can hardly be called running) amok. To this end, there’s some business with a newly married couple, Dr. Jackson’s scheming brother, a shifty lawyer and a scene where the Four Toppers (here billed merely as the Toppers, possibly because there are six of them) pop up and sing. It’s all rather divinely silly and cheapjack. The film’s biggest mistake lies in killing off Dr. Jackson at the mid-point—right after she’s created a serum that will make her “mankind’s greatest benefactor on earth.” Alas, she unwisely leaves it sitting around the laboratory, so naturally N’Gina drinks it (because that’s the sort of thing ape men do) and then inhospitably kills Dr. Jackson (again, because that’s the sort of thing ape men do). Yeah, it’s necessary to the plot, but it also removes the film’s best actor and most interesting character.
The truly striking thing about Son of Ingagi is the Dr. Jackson character. The fact that Dr. Jackson is the first—and possibly last (can anyone think of another?)—black mad scientist (even if a wholly benign one who simply has the poor judgment to keep an ape man in the basement) is noteworthy in itself. That it’s a female character is darn near stop-the-presses remarkable—and part of what makes this otherwise largely negligible outburst of poverty row horror at its most impoverished so fascinating.
Don’t misconstrue. Son of Ingagi is no classic. The production values are far below even the lowest of the 1940s trash horror that surround it. In fact, it has the look and feel of a bottom-of-the-barrel 1930s independent production—an aspect exacerbated by its lack of a musical score. (Chances are good that the film was done with all-live sound that didn’t allow for much in the way of a post-production mix.) Then again, it’s the kind of movie that you’re surprised to find was made at all. That and its relative obscurity is the draw.
I’ll be the first to admit that—from a cineaste point of view—a great deal of the allure of movies like this (and most of the others I named) lies in the very fact that it is obscure. Obscurity has its own special charm because it allows you to feel like a member of a very select club. Yes, I know that’s largely because it’s a club most people have no interest in joining. It’s also a club that comes with a built-in paradox, since no sooner has the cineaste “discovered” whatever esoteric treasure it happens to be than he or she feels compelled to share the film with as many people as possible. If one is successful at making the film better known, the exclusivity factor is reduced dramatically. And when that happens it’s quite possible that the appeal of the film dims just a little. Still the desire to spread the word is irresistible. And that’s as it should be—even if it’s bizarrely self-defeating. Yeah, that means that we’re all at least a little nuts.