Before getting started here, I feel I should note that neither of the films under discussion are currently available in very good copies, and that the ones being screened are simply the best that could be found. In the case of a public domain title like The Corpse Vanishes (1942), that’s not too surprising. Movies that no one owns don’t get a lot of care lavished on them. Night of Terror (1933), on the other hand, is a puzzler. Sony owns it. There are good prints available, but for some reason they are apparently disinclined to put the film out even on their “archive” label. I don’t know of a single Bela Lugosi fan, who wouldn’t pony up for a good copy of this, but instead Sony spins their wheels putting out crap titles like The Soul of a Monster (1944) that are of little or no interest.
Ben Stoloff’s Night of Terror has always been a somewhat contentious film. Most Lugosi scholars tend to dismiss it out of hand as just another of the actor’s “red herring roles.” I recall that in his first TV Movies book, Leonard Maltin (or one of his reviewers) gave the film the dreaded “Bomb” rating. (This was the moment I decided Maltin’s opinion was of no value. I was probably 15. I have seen little reason to alter that view.) But I do not know a single Lugosi fan who doesn’t cherish the film as one of the actor’s best. What I’ve never understood from the academic approach is that they fail to understand that Night of Terror is the first of Lugosi’s “personality” vehicles—a film built almost entirely around Lugosi doing what can best be described as Lugosi-like things. He hovers around the scenes looking sinister and suspicious for no very good reason other than the fact he is Bela Lugosi. From a fan standpoint, that’s pretty irresistible—and here it’s helped by the fact that he’s given some wonderfully melodramatic lines that are perfectly suited to his unique halting delivery. When Tully Marshall brushes off the offer an evening paper with, “There’s nothing in the paper,” Lugosi counters with, “Nothing but…murder!” It’s really quite perfect. (His later line, “It is an…Oriental…cigarette,” is always a crowd-pleaser, since it’s obviously a reefer.)
For a low-rent Columbia picture (they were still pretty much poverty row in 1933), it’s a surprisingly handsome production with solid sets and atmospheric lighting. The screenplay is pretty good and Ben Stoloff gives it just the treatment it deserves. It’s your basic old dark house movie, but this one has a genuine homicidal maniac at its center. This is a gent known, appropriately, as The Maniac—one of those obvious mad killers that could hardly go undetected for any length of time. The film opens with him killing victims nos. 11 and 12, a couple in a parked car (the guy is an unbilled Dave O’Brien of Reefer Madness and The Devil Bat fame). Before the film is over he’s at least up to no. 14—and that’s not including three other murders. For a 65 minute movie, this has a mortality rate a Friday the 13th picture would envy. In fact, it can be viewed as the original body count movie.
OK, the movie ultimately doesn’t make a lot of sense—and that’s without wondering whether The Maniac has been hiding in the shrubbery at the Rinehart Estate for at least a week. Just try to make sense of the admittedly clever ending as concerns how the mystery killer planned to get away with it. I dare you. The presence of Oscar Smith as the scared black chauffeur, Martin, was likely a bit much even in 1933. Today it’s startling. (At the same time, it’s easily the biggest role Smith ever had.) And there’s the mystery of The Maniac. Yeah, the venerable Edwin Maxwell plays him in the film’s tag scene, but in the rest of the movie, it’s clearly not him. Some sources claim it’s Pat Harmon, but no one seems quite sure. But what does any of this matter up against Lugosi’s mysterious Hindu, Wallace Ford as a wisecracking reporter, and Matt McHugh’s (Frank’s low-budget brother) obnoxious police detective? There’s also a swell seance and…really, what’s not to love?
Wallace Fox’s The Corpse Vanishes is something else again. It’s the fourth of Lugosi’s Monogram Nine—and if nothing else, it’s hands down the nastiest of the lot. (It’s only competition is the same year’s Bowery at Midnight, which was also made by Mr. Fox.) Here we find Lugosi as Dr. Lorenz—mad scientist and orchid specialist. His mission in life is to keep his wife (Elizabeth Russell) young and “beautiful.” Considering that Mrs. Lorenz is a grade A bitch, his enthusiasm is hard to fathom, but maybe it’s hard finding anyone else who’ll sleep in twin coffins with him. (Despite Ms. Russell’s later claims that she refused to lie in the coffin, she very obviously did.) To this end, she needs periodic—and apparently frequent—injections of glandular fluid. (B movies had some curious ideas about glands.) He gets this by inducing catalepsy in young brides with his special orchids and then making off with their bodies. (There’s a great newspaper headline that reads, “CORPSE THIEF BELIEVED CRANK.”)
Unfortunately, intrepid girl reporter Luana Walters is on the case (“Boy! What a story!”) and soon tracks him down at his (yes) old dark house, which is mostly an old dark matte painting, but no mind. And some joint it is—with his hag housekeeper (the wonderful Minerva Urecal) and her improbable sons, the dwarf Toby (Angelo Rossitto, of course) and the hulking moron Angel (Frank Moran). Much like Night of Terror, Lugosi spends a lot of time just hanging around looking sinister—often for no very good reason. But he’s also thoroughly despicable. He strangles Angel for no compelling reason (and right after telling him, “Don’t be afraid, Angel. I would not hurt you”) except that the poor boob likes stroking the “dead” girls’ hair. (Usually he just beats him with one of those whips that no self-respecting mad scientist would be without.) Later, he kicks the wounded Toby off the running board of his getaway car, precipitating deliriously grim ending with enough corpses for one of the more extravagant operas. This is poverty row gold.
The Thursday Horror Picture Show will screen Night of Terror and The Corpse Vanishes Thursday, March 6 at 8 p.m. in the Cinema Lounge at The Carolina Asheville and will be hosted by Xpress movie critics Ken Hanke and Justin Souther.