After Bela Lugosi’s career in “A” pictures started to wane, he notoriously started appearing in pictures for “poverty row” studios, and at the forefront of this era was the nine he did for Monogram Pictures during the 1940s (this was the major studios’ loss and a major win for the B movie fan). Collectively known as the “Monogram 9”, the two features presented here together on Blu-ray were produced by Sam Katzman and Jack Dietz for their Banner production company and directed by Wallace Fox (who helmed a number of “The East Side Kids” programmers), and are definitely two of the better ones (though we love them all!). Lugosi is at his nastiest best here as the baddie in these two gloriously gloomy cheapies (which barely run over an hour each) which represent the weird qualities which best exemplify 1940s skid row horror cinema!
THE CORPSE VANISHES: On their wedding day, young brides mysteriously die and then have their bodies stolen without a trace. In actuality, these women are being sent orchids with an unusual scent, one in which puts them in a sort of suspended animation so that they can be abducted for experimental reasons. Newspaper reporter Patricia Hunter (Luana Walter, DRUMS OF FU MANCHU) suspects the funny flowers, and this leads her to visit the secluded mansion (of course) of Dr. Lorenz (Lugosi), an expert botanist, and she’s forced to spend the night there due to a bad storm (naturally). But Lorenz is actually the one delivering the poisoned orchids and taking off with the brides, all so that he can treat his aged wife the Countess Lorenz (Elisabeth Russell, THE CAT PEOPLE) with glandular injections to restore her looks and beauty (something that has to be done repeatedly, resulting in further victims). Patricia witnesses a lot of strange happenings (her hosts sleep in matching coffins!) and weird characters, including and odd haggy woman (Minerva Urecal, THE APE MAN), her half-wit corpse-fondling son Angel (Frank Moran, RETURN OF THE APE MAN) and her other son, a sadistic giggling dwarf named Toby (Angelo Rossitto, FREAKS). Patricia does find an ally (and a romance) in friendly visiting physician Dr. Foster (Tristam Coffin, CREATURE WITH THE ATOM BRAIN) who at first is unaware of the shenanigans but soon teams up with his new reporter gal pal to catch the bad guys in the act, and that calls for staging a wedding, something which can be deadly!
THE CORPSE VANISHES is a lot of popcorn nonsense that no doubt makes great use of Lugosi and definitely capitalizes on his sinister Dracula persona, with the actor seen sleeping in a coffin (because he finds them more comfortable than a bed!). But there’s quite a few unintentional laughs like when Lugosi hides a female corpse by pretending to be a dead man in a casket (with the most ridiculous open-eyed expression on his face) to dodge the police or when he’s kicks poor little Toby (Rossitto) away from a car and onto the curb as he’s making a quick getaway without him. It’s a delight to see stunning Elisabeth Russell playing Lugosi’s mysterious and temperamental wife here, as she usually wasn’t in these “poverty row” cheapies but rather Val Lewton productions (such as both CAT PEOPLE movies, THE SEVENTH VICTIM and BEDLAM with Boris Karloff), the classic ghost tale THE UNINVITED and Universal’s WEIRD WOMAN, a fine “Inner Sanctum” entry with Lon Chaney. Although he’s not given much to do, it’s also nice seeing Rossitto as Lugosi’s unwanted sidekick (and his demise is unforgettable), and it’s one of their three cinematic teamings (the others being Monogram’s SPOOKS RUN WILD with The East Side Kids and the 1947 color film SCARED TO DEATH). THE CORPSE VANISHES has the dingy sets, the familiar library music, as well as the regular Monogram supporting players (including BLACK DRAGONS’ Joan Barclay as one of the brides and BOYS OF THE CITY’s Vince Barnett as an annoying newspaper photographer); basically all the right ingredients that make Monogram movies so irresistible.
BOWERY AT MIDNIGHT was the Monogram Lugosi film that immediately followed THE CORPSE VANISHES (a poster for it seen outside a movie theater in the film), and it of course takes place in the same location as their East Side Kids series. A scrawny convict named Fingers Dolan (John Berkes, BLONDE ALIBI) escapes from prison and goes incognito in the poor section of lower Manhattan. After overhearing the conversation of two tramps, he enters “Bowery Friendly Mission”, a shelter offering food to down-on-their-luck fellows. Karl Wagner (Lugosi), who runs the joint, recognizes Fingers, offers him a cigar and a job as part of his gang, as he’s an expert safecracker (he didn’t get that nickname for nothing). After they rob a jewelry store, Karl has Fingers killed, the first of a number of double-crosses, and he later runs into baby-faced killer Frankie Mills (Tom Neal, DETOUR) who he also makes part of his operation, the hideout of which is underneath the shelter. When he’s not busy robbing and rubbing his friends out, Karl is a university psychology professor named Brenner, and one his rich and conceded students Richard Dennison (John Archer, KING OF THE ZOMBIES) decides to go undercover at the shelter, where his girlfriend Judy (Wanda McKay, THE MONSTER MAKER) volunteers, and he discovers his teacher’s secret “night job”. Richard is lead into a trap, sees the horrors that lie below the happy Friendly Mission, and gets the pistol pointed at him by heartless Freddie.
BOWERY AT MIDNIGHT takes partial ideas from the earlier Lugosi British film THE DARK EYES OF LONDON (which Monogram released here as THE HUMAN MONSTER) where Bela plays a murderous insurance man who disguises himself to run a home for the blind as a front. The film has a heavy-handed plot which lies heavily on the “hoods vs. cops” thing, and lots of confusion sets in, including the hero getting shot towards the end of the film only to show up in the last shot to discuss marriage plans with his love from his bed. But even though at times it can be hard determining what the hell is going on, BOWERY AT MIDNIGHT is a an anomaly in Lugosi’s “Monogram 9”, and it’s scatterbrain execution makes it a fan favorite. Lugosi himself is game here, playing one of his nastiest screen characters and trying to keep a poker face when he’s hiding his evil identity, and the film has the good sense to cast reliable Dave O'Brien (THE DEVIL BAT) as a likable patrolman who gets promoted to detective, as well as Neal as the cold-blooded killer he’s on the trail of. The horror angle is there, and it’s ideally sleazy, as the basement contains a growing group of burial plots, and underneath that is another trap door hiding some ghoulish beings (that we only see for a brief time), the experiments of Doc Brooks (Lew Kelly, THE MAD GHOUL) a junkie who Karl throws his latest victims to like scraps of meat. The film also includes a lot of the familiar Monogram regulars, and look quickly for Lou’s look-alike older brother Pat Costello as a hobo bumming a cigarette, and Leo's dad Bernard Gorcey (“Louie” from the “Bowery Boys” series) as a tailor eager to make a sale.
Retromedia is presenting THE CORPSE VANISHES and BOWERY AT MIDNIGHT together on Blu-ray from new High Definition Progressive Scans, but the results are a mixed bag. The 1080p 1.33:1 black & white presentations on these have some added detail over the bulk of the DVD presentations out there, but the print sources (moreso on BOWERY) definitely have a fair share of age-related wear and tear. CORPSE is the cleaner of the two, and though it offers deep and inky black levels, the picture occasionally looks too smooth and a bit soft. The gray scale is passable, while the grain levels tend to be more noisy than filmic. The last two minutes have some splices which result in obvious jump cuts, but luckily, not much dialogue suffers because of it. BOWERY is the more filmic of the two, but white levels at times tend to get blown out and grain is more speckled-looking than natural. The expected vertical scratches and other markings are apparent, but black levels remain deep throughout. Both films contain decent 2.0 Dolby Digital tracks with no severe problems, except for the occasional pops and slight scratchiness. No subtitle options are on the disc.
The sole extra here is “Tribute to a Star” (4:12), an interview with Lugosi conducted on the Queen Mary by Jack Mangan (“The Ship’s Reporter”) in 1951, when the actor was returning to the U.S. from England. It was there that he had just done a stage version of “Dracula” (of which he talks of the endurance of the character here) as well as a film he calls “Vampire Over London” (released in the UK as OLD MOTHER RILEY MEETS THE VAMPIRE and as MY SON, THE VAMPIRE in America, years after Lugosi died). It’s a nice bonus to this Blu-ray, but the quality looks no better or worse than what you’ve seen of it before. (George R. Reis)
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