Born Bela Ferenc Dezso Blasko in 1882 in Lugos, a town that was then part of Austria-Hungary but that today lies in Romania, Bela Lugosi (he would go on to take his famous last name from the town of his birth) is today regarded as one of the true titans of cinematic terror. A veteran of the National Theatre of Hungary, Lugosi, over the course of some four dozen horror films for Universal and various Poverty Row studios, has managed, over the decades since his passing in 1956, to remain one of the true cinematic greats in the arena of horror. For today’s Shocktober column, I would like to review a half dozen of his seldom-discussed films; films that, although not nearly as classic in status as Dracula (1931), White Zombie (1932) or Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), might yet provide some kind of entertainment value (for the most part) during this scariest of holiday seasons. And if you should choose October 20th (Bela’s birthday) as the day on which to take in one of these six little wonders, then all the better! 


Boy, this is one weird little movie! Bela Lugosi’s first of nine films for Monogram Pictures, Invisible Ghost tells the story of Mr. Kessler (Lugosi), whose wife had run away some years before and been injured in a car wreck with another man. What Bela does not know is that his wife is still alive, in a semicomatose state, and being cared for by his gardener in a nearby barn. Unfortunately, whenever Mrs. K takes one of her nocturnal somnambulent strolls and Bela catches a glimpse of her, he becomes a mesmerized maniac and kills off another of his household… Anyway, this Bela outing, while perhaps not quite as much fun as another of his pictures that I saw recently, 1942’s The Corpse Vanishes, is still far, far superior to the surreally stinky Scared to Death (1947). It is interestingly shot and features some stylish direction by Joseph H. Lewis, who would go on to helm such film-noir cult classics as Gun Crazy (1949) and The Big Combo (1955). The film moves along quite briskly and manages to pack quite a bit into its brief 64-minute running time. And I like the fact that Bela’s butler, as played by Clarence Muse, is devoid of the embarrassing black-stereotype behavior so often encountered in films of that era; indeed, he might be the most dignified character in the entire film. I also like the fact that, unlike so many other Bela films, this one is not presented on yet another awful-looking/sounding DVD from Alpha Video, but rather given a nice, clean treatment from the fine folks at the Roan Group. The bottom line, I suppose, is that Invisible Ghost is piffle, but still an engaging and entertaining time killer.


In the 1942 Monogram horror cheapie Bowery at Midnight, Bela Lugosi plays quite the enterprising fellow, not just moonlighting … but double moonlighting! By day, he works as a college psychology professor named Frederick Brenner. By night, under his Karl Wagner alias, he runs a soup kitchen/hospital for the poor in NYC’s Bowery. But wait … as Wagner, he is also the mastermind of a burglary ring that has lately been scourging the area. This ring is small in number, as Wagner has a habit of killing off one of his henchmen every time a heist is performed, and burying him in his basement … with named placards in lieu of headstones, no less! Anyway, the picture has been competently directed by Wallace Fox, who had already worked with Bela on two previous Monogram films, Spooks Run Wild (’41) and The Corpse Vanishes (’42); I wonder how this director would have fared with a budget larger than a few thousand bucks, some shoestrings and two bottle caps. In a relatively no-name cast, Tom Neal, playing Bela’s sadistic gunsel, is a welcome presence; he would, of course, go on to achieve cult status by dint of his work in that truly bizarre film noir, Detour (’45). Bowery at Midnight, at 63 minutes, never wears out its welcome, despite some occasional lame humor, incredibly chintzy sets and an unfortunate dependence on unlikely coincidence. (Really, what are the odds of Wagner’s soup kitchen assistant being the fiancée of one of Brenner’s students?) I mentioned up top that this is a horror film, but honestly, the only genuine horror elements here are Bela himself and the fact that his drunken doctor pal manages, inexplicably, to bring all his buried victims back to life. And speaking of inexplicable, just what is the deal with that map of Australia that Wagner keeps on his wall? Best not to ask such questions, I suppose. Just sit back and enjoy the spectacle of one of our true horror icons essentially playing three different roles in one hour. From a Poverty Row studio, that really IS value for money!


Boy, some guys will do just about anything to keep the little Mrs. happy! Take Dr. Lorenz, for example, in the 1942 horror quickie The Corpse Vanishes. Not only has Lorenz been stealing brides from their altars, in order to harvest their youthful hormonal fluids to keep his aged countess wife looking young and fresh, but he also maintains a household consisting of an old crone, a hulking mute and a sinister dwarf (oops … little person), all to further his nefarious pursuits. Good thing for brides everywhere that spunky cub reporter Pat Hunter has started to snoop around… Clocking in at a brief 64 minutes, this brisk little thriller, directed by Wallace Fox, certainly doesn’t waste too much of the viewer’s time. Indeed, it can be accused of being a fairly paint-by-numbers affair, with not enough meat on its frame. Still, I can think of worse ways to kill an hour. Bela Lugosi is fun as usual in the lead role, and Luana Walters is very fine as the pretty reporter. She is abetted in her investigations by a doctor she meets, played by an actor named Tris Coffin. (I mention him only because I love his moniker; in a perfect universe, that would have been Jerry Garcia’s name!) The film contains some nice eerie touches (such as the shot of Bela and his wife sleeping side by side in matching coffins) for a Monogram picture made on the supercheap. The DVD that I just watched, however, betrays its crummy 16mm print source and, pretty much like the picture itself, is completely without frills.


After they were the Dead End Kids and before they morphed into the Bowery Boys, Leo Gorcey, Huntz Hall and a bunch of snappy-pattered palookas they were palling around with at the time made a series of films as the East Side Kids. Whereas the Dead End Kids made “only” 16 films between 1937 and ’43 (sometimes billed as the Dead End Kids and the Little Tough Guys, and minus Gorcey, Hall and Bobby Jordan after 1940), the East Siders made 22 films for Monogram Studios between 1940 and ’45, followed by a whopping 48 Bowery Boys pictures between 1946 and ’58. I have always been partial to this third incarnation myself, having grown up on Saturday afternoon TV showings of these flicks in the ’60s. (My preference may also have something to do with a possible man crush that I have on Louie Dumbrowski!) Anyway, in 1941, Bela Lugosi, an ex-student of the Budapest Academy of Theatrical Arts, deigned to appear in the 7th East Side Kids film, Spooks Run Wild, and two years later appeared in their 14th, Ghosts on the Loose. In this one, Bela plays a Nazi of sorts who is operating a propaganda printing press in the basement of a house next door to the one that Glimpy Williams’ (our Huntz) sister is about to move into with her new husband. That sister, incidentally, is played by Ava Gardner, here in one of her earliest roles; in just a few years, she would be labeled “the world’s most beautiful animal.” When Glimpy, Mugs McGinnis (Gorcey) and the boys decide to spruce up the newlyweds’ place before they move in, they enter Bela’s creepy old house accidentally. And then the fun starts, as Bela and his cohorts do their darnedest to scare the mugs out. The film, silly as it is, is still occasionally LOL funny, such as when Glimpy mutters “Oy gevalt,” or when Scruno (a black member of the East Side Kids, played in an UNembarrassing manner by Ernie Morrison) falls off a ladder after seeing Bela’s “living portrait.” The film is not afraid to get cartoonish, either; witness the final scene, in which Glimpy, suffering from German measles, is shown with tiny swastikas all over his face! Directed in a lazy, undistinguished manner by William “One-Shot” Beaudine, the picture is nevertheless a fairly painless 67 minutes of lighthearted fun. And yet, it still leaves one with a residue of discomfort. I mean, all Bela was doing in this picture was printing subversive literature. Is that such a terrible thing, even during wartime? Wouldn’t he be covered by that Freedom of Speech thingy in the Constitution? Or is that freedom abrogated during a time of conflict? Fortunately, goofy fare such as this is hardly the venue for such speculation…


Offhand, I can think of only two movies in film history that have been narrated by murder victims: Billy Wilder’s Sunset Blvd. (1950), one of the finest pictures of all time, and 1947’s Scared to Death, which turns out to be one of the worst. This latter effort also holds the distinction of being Bela Lugosi’s only movie to have been filmed in color. Bela here plays a hypnotist/magician named Leonide, who comes with his dwarf companion Angelo Rossitto (who appeared with Bela in 1942’s infinitely superior film The Corpse Vanishes) to cousin George Zucco’s house, where George’s daughter-in-law is being driven insane by a mysterious masked personage. Nat Pendleton is on hand as a remarkably dim-witted cop, and the juvenile humor that he provides would have torpedoed this film itself, without any help from its other wretched elements. But those wretched elements are there in abundance: The plot here makes little sense, the script is by turns fatuous and yawn inducing, the background music is annoying, the “action” is confined to a few rooms, the characters are ridiculous types, and the entire film is tedious and uninvolving. Bela’s grimacing presence doesn’t even begin to salvage this one. Anyway, my beloved Psychotronic Encyclopedia calls this film “surreal”; the Maltin book deems it “dreadful”; I say that you might require psychedelics to get you through! It’s only 65 minutes long, but trust me, they’ll feel like the longest 65 minutes of your life! I must also add that this is the first DVD from Alpha Video that I’ve viewed that seems to have been taken from a respectable-looking print; too bad it was for this pathetic little stinker!


BELA LUGOSI MEETS A BROOKLYN GORILLA The logo at the beginning of 1952’s Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla reveals that this is a “Realart Picture,” and while I would certainly hesitate to call this film an instance of “real art,” I can now attest that it IS real fun. In it, the poor man’s Martin & Lewis, Duke Mitchell and Sammy Petrillo, playing themselves, accidentally fall out of an airplane and land on the Pacific island of Cola-Cola, where they are rescued by friendly natives. The chief’s daughter, Nona (played by a pretty actress called only Charlita), falls for the charms of good-looking crooner Duke, while her 200-lb. sister, Saloma (amusingly portrayed by Muriel Landers), takes a hot-blooded fancy for Sammy. Dr. Zabor, the only other “white man” on the island, and played by you know who, soon decides that Duke is the perfect test subject for his recent devolution experiments… Anyway, I must admit how easily this silly confection went down with me. The goofball humor is so very stoopid that it strangely becomes quite funny, and it really is remarkable how much Petrillo looks and sounds like the 1950s’ Jerry Lewis. (No wonder Jerry felt compelled to slap a cease-and-desist order on him!) Bela, a graduate of the Budapest Academy of Theatrical Arts, plays his role absolutely straight here and maintains his dignity; he may have been addicted to painkillers at the time, but this particular film is surprisingly painless! A twist ending at the tail end of the picture does much to mitigate some of the silliness and illogic that had come before, and even becomes very P.C. in its treatment of the overweight Saloma. Throw in a couple of nice songs, some cute antics from Ramona the Chimp (aka Cheetah), and a cool man-into-ape transformation and you’ve got yourself a perfectly acceptable entertainment, finely presented on the crisp-looking Image DVD that I recently watched. To my delighted surprise, I DO recommend this zany picture to both young and old.

So there you have it … six wonders from one of the true titans of vintage horror! Grab yourself a glass of wine (or whatever other crimson-colored beverage you happen to like slurping!) and enjoy! As they would say in Hungary, “Boldog filmnezest!”


  • Sandy Ferber

    SANDY FERBER, on our staff since April 2014 (but hanging around here since November 2012), is a resident of Queens, New York and a product of that borough's finest institution of higher learning, Queens College. After a "misspent youth" of steady and incessant doses of Conan the Barbarian, Doc Savage and any and all forms of fantasy and sci-fi literature, Sandy has changed little in the four decades since. His favorite author these days is H. Rider Haggard, with whom he feels a strange kinship -- although Sandy is not English or a manored gentleman of the 19th century -- and his favorite reading matter consists of sci-fi, fantasy and horror... but of the period 1850-1960. Sandy is also a devoted buff of classic Hollywood and foreign films, and has reviewed extensively on the IMDb under the handle "ferbs54." Film Forum in Greenwich Village, indeed, is his second home, and Sandy at this time serves as the assistant vice president of the Louie Dumbrowski Fan Club....

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