The Psychotronic Zone

Dead Men Walk

By Ed Garea

Dead Men Walk (PRC, 1943) – Director: Sam Newfield. Writer Fred Myron (s/p). Stars: George Zucco, Mary Carlisle, Nedrick Young, Dwight Frye, Fern Emmett, Robert Strange, Hal Price & Sam Flint. B&W, 64 minutes.

With the horror film boom of the ‘40s still going strong, 1943 was a banner year for vampire pictures. Columbia led the way with Bela Lugosi in Return of the Vampire; Universal released the so-so Son of Dracula with Lon Chaney Jr. in the lead; and Producers Releasing Corporation brought up the rear with Dead Men Walk.      

But what it lacks in pacing (it runs for 64 minutes, but seems much longer), effects and budget, it more than makes up for in the horror tropes with which we are familiar: a murder mystery that turns out to be much more, a vengeful vampire, the mysterious bite marks on the neck no one can figure out, lots of drivel about the supernatural - especially the observation first stated by Van Helsing in Dracula that “the vampire’s greatest strength is that no one will believe in him,” laughable effects, the wacky villager, a vigilante mob, a crazed hunchback assistant, and the all-pervading “hours of darkness.”

George Zucco plays twin brothers: the good Dr. Lloyd Clayton, the town’s respected physician, and the evil Elwyn Clayton, who had gone to India, was messing around in black magic and had become a servant of Satan. Though Lloyd fought his brother protect the soul of his niece (and Elwyn’s daughter), Gayle (Carlisle), what he doesn’t know is that Satan has arranged for Elwyn to become a vampire as a reward for his years of loyal service.

The film proper begins at Elwyn’s funeral, which is interrupted by the town’s crazy lady, Kate (Emmett). She claims the sanctity of the church is being polluted by the body of the evil Elwin and warns that they haven’t seen the last of him. While most of the townsfolk dismiss Kate as a looney, Lloyd knows that she’s right. She is the only other person, besides Lloyd, who knew of Elwyn’s dabbling in the black arts. 

After the funeral Lloyd goes to Elwyn’s home to burn his collection of occult books and papers. There he’s interrupted by Elwyn’s hunchbacked servant, Zolarr (Frye), who accuses Lloyd of murdering his brother in cold blood. Lloyd, however, claims it was self-defense; that Elwyn fell from a cliff while he and Lloyd struggled.      

Zolarr exhumes Elwyn's casket and Elwyn emerges as a vampire. We learn that he had wasted no time since his burial and subsequently becoming a vampire, having arranged for Zolarr to hide his remains so that no one can find and destroy him. He has plans to initiate his daughter into the vampire cult and frame Lloyd for the crimes.

After Lloyd examines a person who died from extreme anemia, he’s visited that night in his study by Elwyn, who tells Lloyd of his plan for Gayle. He will slowly drain her life while Lloyd can only watch, powerless to stop it. “Your life will be a torment - I'll strip you of everything you hold dear.” Elwyn also tells his brother that if he tried to explain it, no one would believe him. Lloyd’s response is to pull a pistol from his desk drawer and pump several shots into Elwyn as he laughs manically and disappears with no effect.         

Elwyn begins visiting Gayle, draining her of blood. Dr. David Bentley (Young), her fiancé, thinks Lloyd has been poisoning her. He goes to the sheriff (Price) about his suspicions, which are overheard by some of the townsfolk. Soon the town is inundated with rumors that Lloyd is a murderer. Wilkins (Strange), one of the townsfolk, wants to form a posse and go after Lloyd. The sheriff warns Lloyd to leave town, but he refuses.

Kate comes to Lloyd’s defense by explaining to him in David’s presence all the timeworn remedies for handling a vampire, such as the wearing of a crucifix and finding the vampire’s body during daylight and burning it.

She discovers Elwyn’s body, but before she can tell Lloyd about it, Zolarr kills her (off-screen), with the villagers thinking Lloyd is responsible. Later, while Elwyn is dispatching another victim, he lets Wilkins catch him in the act. Wilkins thinks it’s Lloyd and begins getting the villagers together. 

David finally believes Lloyd is telling the truth when Elwyn appears before them. He agrees to stay at the house and stand guard over Gayle while Lloyd looks for Elwyn’s coffin. However, Zolarr has once again moved it, placing it in Elwyn’s house. 

While David stalls the lynch mob, Lloyd hotfoots it over to Elwyn’s and locates his brother.  Zolarr jumps Lloyd, and during their struggle a heavy marble statue falls on the hunchback, trapping him. By this time Elwyn has awakened and attacks his brother. During their struggle a candle is knocked over and sets the house on fire. Elwyn easily has the upper hand until we hear a rooster crowing, making the onset of dawn and the ebbing of the vampire’s strength. 

Meanwhile, the mob finally overcomes David and storms over to Elwyn's pad, where they see Elwyn and Lloyd locked in mortal combat. By the time Lloyd kills Elwyn, he is surrounded by flames, and both he and his brother, along with the trapped Zolarr, die in the blaze.


Directed by schlockmeister Sam Newfield, Dead Men Walk was shot over the course of six days, and looks it. The film eschews outright shock, replacing it with an underlying dark and creepy atmosphere and taking its horror from that.
The visual effects employ cheap editing tricks to provide its scares. The sight of Elwyn appearing and disappearing would be more effective if he appeared more substantial instead of almost transparent. The other scenes where Elwyn and Lloyd appear together, especially at the end make use of in-camera multiple exposures and body doubles. Zucco is also made to look foolish by Newfield’s emphasis on speed. In both of the scenes where Elwyn rises from his coffin, we see Zucco visibly struggling to get to his feet, something an all-powerful vampire should ever do. At least Chaney Jr. in Son of Dracula, released the same year, is allowed to exit his coffin as a mist.

Fred Myton’s script borrows liberally from preceding vampire and horror films, and though he uses a unique gimmick in having both vampire and vampire hunter as twins, his ignorance of basic vampire lore, even after studying these films, is rather disconcerting. For instance, it’s never explained why Elwyn’s rising via black magic should result in his becoming a vampire, as it’s not the usual route.     

George Zucco is solid as the two separate but related personalities, although Elwyn comes off much more like an evil sorcerer than a vampire. Unfortunately for Zucco, his portrayal of the characters of Lloyd and Elwyn comes off as too much alike. While Lloyd is kind and good and Elwyn evil and sadistic, the only way the viewer can tell them apart is that Lloyd wears eyeglasses. The use of subtle differences between the two characters would have made Zucco’s performance and the film much more effective, but then, time was of the essence at PRC and Newfield wasn’t the sort to draw out a performance. He just shot film.     

Mary Carlisle, in her last film role, is fine as Gayle, but is locked into the standard “endangered ingenue” role and comes off much like Suzanne Kaaren in The Devil Bat (1940). She retired shortly after marrying actor James Blakeley, who later became a production executive at Twentieth-Century Fox Television. Nedrick Young’s purpose seems to be there merely to deliver lines and give a little support to Lloyd.

The real joy of the movie is Dwight Frye as Zolarr. A talented actor who was unfortunately typecast after playing Renfield in Dracula and Fritz in Frankenstein, he brings the best of both roles to his performance as Zolarr.  

In the final analysis, Dead Men Walk is an uneven mixture, seeking to combine elements of standard vampire thrillers with black magic. the film is weak on both ends, A rather dubious combination to begin, the script is of no help, making the film weak in both horror aspects. 

While it has its moments of moody atmosphere and bits of supernatural dialogue, the uninspired direction along with a snail’s pacing and a script that gives us a central conflict that fails to engage makes the film a less than gratifying experience. 

Dick Tracy

By Ed Garea

Dick Tracy (RKO, 1945) – Director: William Berke. Writers: Eric Taylor (s/p), Chester Gould (comic strip). Stars: Morgan Conway, Anne Jeffreys, Mike Mazurki, Jane Greer, Lyle Latell, Joseph Crehan, Mickey Kuhn, Trevor Bardette. Morgan Wallace, Milton Parsons & William Halligan. B&W, 61 minutes.

In 1931 Chester Gould’s unique comic strip, Dick Tracy, first appeared in the pages of the Detroit Mirror. A few years and many newspapers later, it became a pop culture phenomenon, with handsome heroes fighting grotesque villains. Names such as Pruneface Boche, Flattop Jones, B.B. Eyes, Lips Manlis and Itchy Oliver became familiar in almost every household. At its height, the strip was carried in more than 800 newspapers with an estimated readership of 100 million. 

Eventually, it wasn’t long before Hollywood got in on the act. Republic Pictures was the first with its 1937 multi-chapter serial Dick Tracy. It proved so successful that the studio followed it up the next year with Dick Tracy Returns. Then followed Dick Tracy's G-Men in 1939 and Dick Tracy vs. Crime, Inc. in 1941. All of the serials starred Ralph Byrd as Tracy. 

In 1945 RKO decided to do its own take on the detective. The studio paid Gould $10,000 for the rights to make the film and brought in character actor Morgan Conway from Broadway to play Tracy. The choice of Conway was somewhat ironic as his fame in Hollywood came from playing heels.

The film opens with schoolteacher Dorothy Stafford alighting from a bus near her home. As she walks to her home in the seeming tea of night she suspects that she is being followed. She is, by a hulking man in the shadows whom we quickly recognize as Mike Mazurki. Needless to say, she never makes it home, her body found on the street by a passerby. 

Dick Tracy and his right-hand man, Pat Patton (Latell), are assigned to the case. In Stafford’s purse Dick finds a note demanding that Dorothy deposit $500 in a trash can located at a street corner near the murder scene. The note is simply signed “Splitface.” 

Shortly after, the mayor (Halligan) receives a note from Splitface. This time the demand is that $10,000 be deposited in a trash can the next evening. Dick, puzzled by the disparity in the amount of the extortion demands, examines Dorothy's records and finds the name Wilbur Thomas. Dick and Pat drive to the Thomas home, only to discover Thomas' body in the driveway, his throat slit in the same manner as Dorothy's. 

Following the murderer's footprints, Dick sees a man enter the backyard of Thomas' neighbor, Steven Owens (Wallace). As Dick questions Owens, Pat slips into the house through a rear window, later telling Dick that he found bloodstains on the carpet. Now suspicious of Owens, Dick learns that he is the owner of the Paradise Club. After finishing at Owens' house, Dick and Pat return to inspect Thomas' body. They find a business card from the Paradise Club lying next to the corpse. 

The following evening, a trap is set with the extortion money, but no one shows to claim it. Dick begins to suspect that the victims were targeted by a killer and must share some common thread. Following the obvious lead, Dick invites his sweetheart Tess Trueheart (Jeffreys) to accompany him while he checks out the Paradise Club. There, Dick is greeted by Owens' daughter Judith (Greer). She tells him that she saw a strange man in the garden and gives Dick a key to the house. At the house, Dick and Tess discover that the electricity has been turned off, and while Dick goes to look for the fuse box, Tess sees a man with a hideous scar across his face run out of a closet and speed away in his car. 

Dick jumps into his car and trails the man to a brownstone. Dick climbs to the roof, where he finds Professor Linwood J. Starling (Bardette) looking at the stars through a telescope. When questioned, Starling denies seeing Splitface and Dick insists on searching his room. Finding a knife under Starling's mattress, Dick questions the professor about the weapon. Starling just gazes into his crystal ball, then goes into a trance and tells Tracy that 14 will die and there are 12 more to go. Just then, the police break down the door to the professor's room, awakening him from the trance and hauling him to headquarters for further questioning. This is all watched from the roof by Splitface. 

Thinking that the scar may be a mere disguise, Dick takes Tess back to the Paradise Club to see if she can identify Owens as Splitface. Judith informs them that her father has disappeared, hinting the reason has something to do with him owing large gambling debts. Dick becomes suspicious of Judith's jittery behavior and takes her into protective custody. Meanwhile, Pat has traced the knife found in Starling's room to a surgical supply store, where he learns that an undertaker named Deathridge (Parsons) purchased three of the knives. Dick goes to question Deathridge, who claims that the knives have simply disappeared. But when he asks about Starling, Dick’s suspicions are aroused and he believes there is a connection between the undertaker and the professor.

At headquarters, Dick tricks Starling into revealing what he knows about Deathridge. Dick's plan is to bring Starling and Deathridge face to face. But he is thwarted when Deathridge is found murdered, his throat slit like the others. When he returns to headquarters from investigating the undertaker's murder, Dick learns that Starling has been released on bail. Starling hurries home and begins packing his suitcase when he hears a rapping on the window. It’s Splitface, who calls the professor up to the roof, where he accuses Starling of drawing police attention by sending extortion demands to Splitface's victims. Starling tries to explain his actions, but Splitface  slits the professor's throat. When Dick arrives at Starling's apartment, he finds the extortion money on the professor's body and realizes that Starling has been extorting money from Splitface's intended victims and that Deathridge was  killed because he knew too much.

Mulling over Starling's prediction about 14 victims, Dick concludes that 14 is the number of people that serve on a jury. Dick questions the mayor about any jury experience he might have had, and the mayor remembers being a juror at the trial of Alexis Banning. After being convicted of murdering his wife, Banning swore revenge on the jury. A check of the records reveals that Banning is at large. Learning that Banning was scarred across the face in prison, Tracy identifies him as Splitface. With the murderer identified, Judith decides to leave the Tracy house, even though her father is still missing. When Tess calls Dick to inform him of Judith's departure, Splitface breaks into the house and takes Tess hostage, grabbing the phone to warn Dick to call off the police. 

As Splitface speeds away in his car with Tess, Tracy Jr., Dick's adopted son (Kuhn), jumps onto the back of the car, throwing off pieces of his clothing along the way to create a trail. Dick follows Junior’s trail to the docks and an abandoned riverboat where Splitface is holding Tess and Junior. After subduing Splitface, Dick promises to take Tess to dinner, but is called away to solve another crime.


Dick Tracy makes for an excellent debut film in a series that eventually reached four films before the studio pulled the plug. Conway reprised his role as Tracy in the sequel, Dick Tracy vs. Cueball (1946), but though his Tracy was praised by critics and Gould himself as the closest to the original concept, exhibitors complained. To them, Byrd was Dick Tracy, and only Byrd would do. RKO acquiesced and hired him to finish the series: Dick Tracy’s Dilemma and Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome (both 1947). Unfortunately for Byrd, because of this he spent the rest of his career typecast as Dick Tracy.

Dick Tracy is a fast-moving film, even given its running time of only 61 minutes, barely giving the audience a chance to rest. Director William Berke and cameraman Frank Redman make good use of the sets, giving the film a noir flavor, especially evident in the neighborhood (RKO’s back lot in Encino) scenes at the beginning of the film. These lend the picture an eerie sort of noir atmosphere. Other sets used include the riverboat from Man Alive (1945) and the brownstone from The Magnificent Ambersons and Cat People (both 1942).

The film is also faithful to the source material. Though the villain, Splitface, was created by screenwriter Eric Taylor, it fits the classic mold of Gould's villains, often named for their physical attributes or deformities, and is even seen by some bloggers as an actual villain from the comic strip.

The performances are uniformly good. Conway makes for an excellent Tracy, though Jeffreys has little to do in her role as Tracy’s long-suffering sweetheart. Her only highlight is when she crosses swords with Jane Greer’s Judith Owens. Speaking of Greer, this was her film debut. She followed the usual path of young actors who were first tried out in B’s to see if the public liked them before being pushed into A-films. Likewise, Kuhn, whose career highlight until then was as Beau Wilkes in GWTW, has little to do as Junior, aside from fingerprinting Dick to see if he had raided the fridge the night before and following Splitface to his hiding place. Lyle Latell does a fine job in the comic relief role of Pat Patton and Joseph Crehan provides solid support as Chief Brandon, who always has Tracy’s back.

Like all the movies in the series, it’s the villains who move it along, and Mike Mazurki is excellent as Splitface. An actor who originally moonlighted in Hollywood from his regular job as professional wrestler “Iron” Mike Mazurki, he made enough of an impact in Tinseltown to be employed for over 50 years, usually in character roles as dimwitted muscle, which belied the fact that he graduated with honors from Manhattan College in New York with a B.A., where he also starred on the wrestling team, and earned a law degree from Fordham. However, wrestling paid more than being a lawyer and Mazurki opted for the mat. He broke into movies in 1934 with help from Mae West, and his best known role was as Moose Malloy in the 1944 classic Murder, My Sweet. Offstage, he founded The Cauliflower Alley Club in the mid-60s, a fraternal non-profit organization for retired wrestlers, boxers, actors and stuntmen. Mazurki passed away in 1990. His daughter, Michelle Mazurki, carries on the thespian tradition.

Mazurki is aided in his villainy by the underrated Trevor Bardette, who had been playing heels since the silent days, and Milton Parsons, who somehow made everyone he played a bit creepy.

How We Know It’s Low-Budget, Department: When Tracy arrives at the Professor’s place and finds his body, he goes through the pockets and removes the $1,000 that the Professor had extorted from Thomas. Upon closer inspection, it seems to be money from the game of Monopoly.


After the RKO series ended, Gould and the Famous Artists Syndicate were interested in resuming the series in 1948 with the specification that Conway be restored to the title role, but the series was not revived.

According to the TCM essay on the film by Roger Fristoe, Gould himself was asked to review the film for the Chicago Tribune. "The gentleman with whom I had shared sweat, blood and tears for almost 15 years – Dick Tracy in the flesh – Morgan Conway's flesh, to be exact – [is] right on the screen at the Palace," he wrote. "And for once he did the talking and I listened. I felt pretty helpless, too, because I couldn't use a piece of art gum to change his face or hat, and what he said came from a script and not from a stubby old lead pencil held by yours truly." 

The movies were not the only Tracy vehicle outside the comics. There was a radio show, which ran from 1934 to 1948; a 30-minute television show, Dick Tracy, which starred Ralph Byrd and ran on ABC from 1950 until the star’s untimely death from a heart attack in 1952; a dreadful cartoon show, The Dick Tracy Show, produced by UPA from 1961-62 with Everett Sloane (Citizen KaneThe Lady From Shanghai) wasted as the voice of Tracy; and the famous 1990 Touchstone film with Warren Beatty as the detective. Filmed in loud primary colors to emulate the feeling of the comic strip, Beatty, who was reluctant to take on the role, but acquiesced when shown the money, insured there would be no sequels, no matter how popular the movie proved to be, by wiping out all the villains.

In 1961 the Chants had a hit on Verve with the doowop/R&B “Dick Tracy.”

The Deadly Mantis

By Ed Garea

The Deadly Mantis (Universal, 1957) – Director: Nathan Juran. Writers: Martin Berkeley (s/p), William Alland (story). Narrator: Marvin Miller. Stars: Craig Stevens, William Hopper, Alix Talton, Donald Randolph, Pat Conway, Florenz Ames, Paul Smith, Phil Harvey, Floyd Simmons, Paul Campbell & Helen Jay. B&W, 79 minutes.

In the world of ‘50s science-fiction films, two trends were popular with moviegoers: big bug films and prehistoric monster films. Along comes The Deadly Mantis, blending these two sub-genres into an unsuccessful concoction that leaves us disappointed and wondering what could have been if a little more time was taken and a little more money was spent.

The big bug movies, so profitable earlier in the decade, were winding down at the box office. Universal was running out of ideas for plots and the return on the films was not worth the cost of making them. So it was decided that if costs could be reduced in some areas of the film, then the special effects would not have to be trimmed as well.

The film opens with a rather awkward pan around a giant wall-map of the world before stopping on a tiny island above the Antarctic circle just long enough for narrator Marvin Miller to solemnly intone “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” We quickly move to footage of a volcanic eruption in the South Pacific followed by a jump more stock footage of icebergs crumbling into the ocean up near the North Pole. Then we see a close-up on a praying mantis, frozen in what appears the ice as we cut to the title superimposed on the image, followed by the cast and crew. 

After about five to ten minutes spent on stock footage the movie begins to take off. At one of the front-line stations, known as Weather 4, a huge blip comes on the radar screen, followed by a loud droning and the collapse of the station.     

Red Eagle One, the home base, tries to contact Weather 4, but to no avail. The base commander, Colonel Parkman (Stevens), flies out to investigate. Everything’s in ruins and there is no sign of the two men who worked there. It looks as though the building was hit by something big. But there’s nothing except a set of long parallel tracks in the snow.    

After Parkman returns to the base, a C-47 cruising along meets that same fate as the weather station. Again Parkman investigates. The same strange tracks are there, along with something new: an object about five feet long that comes to a point like a knife. Parkman decides to turn it over to CONAD (the Continental Air Defense Command at Colorado Springs). They, in turn, send it on to the Pentagon.        

At the Pentagon, General Ford (Randolph) and a room full of scientists are trying to determine what the strange object could be. The consensus is that they don’t know, but they agree that it comes from a living creature. As to what that could be, they are stumped. It’s suggested that Dr. Nedrick Jackson of the Museum of Natural History, the foremost expert in the field of paleontology, be brought in.

At the museum, we meet Dr. Jackson (Hopper) and Marge Blaine (Talton), a former reporter who edits the museum’s magazine. General Ford calls, requesting Dr. Jackson’s presence at the Pentagon.

Jackson determines that the hook is made of cartilage. After a discussion it’s determined the hook’s origin lies in the insect kingdom. Dr Gunther confirms from a blood test that the object is from an insect. It is eventually narrowed down further by Jackson, who shows the others an illustration of a praying mantis in a book. Says Jackson, “In all the kingdom of the living, there is no more deadly or voracious creature than the praying mantis.”

Ned is sent to see Col. Parkman at his base, Red Eagle One, for further investigation. He learns that Marge – to no one’s surprise – has managed to get permission from General Ford to accompany him as his photographer. Meanwhile the mantis has struck again, wiping out a village of Eskimos.

Once Ned and Marge arrive Parkman flies them to the site of the C-47 crash, shows them the strange skid marks and notes that they found the same marks at the weather shack and the Eskimo village.    

As they return to base to figure everything out, we see the mantis has landed outside the base and is slowly making its way to the main building. Jackson is going over notes in an office, trying to determine the size of the beast, when Marge and Parkman enter. As he talks about how huge the creature might be Marge walks over to a shelf to examine a couple of things. Outside the window we see the mantis creeping closer.       

Marge asks if the creature is as big as Ned thinks, then why hasn’t anyone seen it? Ned replies by saying that all who have seen are dead. By this time the mantis is practically against the window and we can see parts of its enormous head and eyes, much like a similar scene in Tarantula where the spider does the same thing. At that instant Marge turns, sees it, and screams. The mantis begins breaking through the roof as the red alert is sounded. Two soldiers armed with a flame thrower manage to drive it off before much damage is done.     

Back at the base reports come in that the mantis has been spotted at the Mid-Canada radar fence and the Pine Tree radar line. The creature is definitely heading south. Ned, Marge and Parkman prepare to head to Washington.   

General Ford appears on television to assure us that the mantis is not a hoax and the military is doing everything it can. He introduces Parkman, who tells of his encounter with the mantis and then assures us that the Civilian Ground Observer Corps is on the job and will spot the creature next time it appears. Parkman and Jackson display the spur and compare an enlarged photo of the mantis to a model of a C-47 to illustrate how big the creature is and so everyone on the ground will know what to look for. Parkman reminds everyone to listen for the loud drone produced by the mantis.     

Finally the creature is spotted and a squadron of jets launch to intercept it. This, of course, means even more stock footage. They fire missiles at the mantis, but the mantis vanishes below the cloud layer after being hit and a kill cannot be confirmed. 

At the Pentagon, Ned and Marge are plotting the locations of any strange events on a map. As it’s after midnight, General Ford orders everyone home for rest. As Parkman is driving Marge home in a thick fog, a report of a train derailment comes over the radio. As it’s nearby they go to investigate, but it looks like just another accident and they drive off, failing to notice the skid marks on the ground.     

Elsewhere in the fog, a bus stops to discharge its passenger. The driver tells his passenger to be careful out there in the fog and drives away – right into the path of the mantis. Parkman and Marge hear the report of the incident over the radio. The announcer goes on to report that, including the earlier train accident, this makes seven accidents in the area within the last 24 hours.

Parkman turns the car around and heads to the scene of the bus accident. A crowd is milling around with the cops trying to comfort the woman who witnessed the attack. Parkman asks one cop what happened and he says that he doesn’t know, but it looks like something lifted the bus and smashed it. Guess who? The cop turns away the guys from the coroner’s office as there are no bodies to collect. Parkman overhears a report coming in over the police radio that the mantis has been sighted over Washington. He and Marge quickly leave.     

We see the mantis fly over the Capitol building and land on the side of the Washington Monument. As it slowly climbs up the side we see two frightened watchmen inside watching as it passes. 
Later in a control room General Ford, Ned and Marge watch as the mantis is tracked toward Baltimore, and the order is given for ground-based artillery to shoot at anything not identified as friendly. As the mantis nears Baltimore, the army starts firing everything they have at it. The bug drops too low for radar to pick it up, but Ford notes that one of the ground observers will pick it up. The ground observers relay information that allows Parkman to track the mantis. The planes spot the beast and begin firing. Parkman, in one of the planes, collides with the monster, and is forced to eject and safely parachutes to the ground. The mantis vanishes and they later learn he is trapped in the Manhattan Tunnel right below the Hudson River.     

We see that the entrance to the tunnel has been portioned off with large tarps and smoke being pumped in the tunnel for cover if troops need to be sent in. Parkman arrives, dressed in a containment suit. He tells General Ford everything is go at the Jersey end as the tarps are holding in the smoke. Ned and Marge arrive with Ned saying that the mantis is mortally wounded. If they can keep it inside the tunnel long enough, it will die. Worried that the mantis may break through the tunnel walls and cause a flood, Ford allows Parkman to go inside and confront the beast.   

The colonel and a small group of soldiers go inside the tunnel and eventually spot the mantis among a group of wrecked and overturned vehicles. After bombarding it with chemical grenades the mantis collapses and dies.     

After the tunnel has been cleared of smoke, Parkman leads the others – including Ned, Marge and Ford – inside. Ned points at the dead mantis and tells Marge right there is the cover for next month’s magazine. As Marge snaps her photos, the giant foreleg of the mantis is rising up behind her. Parkman sees the movement, runs and pushes Marge out of the way as the giant leg drops back to the ground. For some reason, Parkman feels it is necessary to lift her up and carry her away from the mantis. Marge and Parkman kiss as Ned snaps a photo of them, and we get one last shot of the mantis as it lies there dead.


What ultimately does in The Deadly Mantis is its stultifying docudrama style combined with the excessive use of stock footage. To accommodate this something must suffer, and here it’s the almost casual neglect of the hows and whys of the story. It’s the hows and whys that make a sci-fi film interesting, especially one that has such an excellent monster as this does. The film is also handicapped by lack of urgency. We have a monster on the loose and it seems as if everyone’s taking their time about it. Given the 78-minute running time there could have been more put into the script along the line of how and why.

The movie adheres to the standard sci-fi plot line of its time: (1) There is a mystery involving missing people. It deepens as more people vanish and strange clues are found. (2) Specialists are called in to determine the nature of the threat. (3) The monster makes its appearance and goes on an unstoppable rampage. (4) After repeated failed attempts at stopping it, a lethal formula is finally arrived at and the monster is killed. 

If this is done with care we get classics like The Thing From Another WorldThem!, and Tarantula. But done poorly and without care (no matter what the budget) we get Attack of the 50-Foot WomanBeginning of the End, and The Giant ClawThe Deadly Mantis falls somewhere in the middle. It has much to recommend it, such as a solid cast, a great monster and, for the most part, a good plot. Never mind that the basic premiss, that of a huge insect, is impossible. These things have never mattered in sci-fi films as long as there can be the hint of plausibility and a decent monster. The Deadly Mantis has both. Face it, the reason we watch is to see a giant insect and no matter how ridiculous that idea is we will gladly suspend disbelief as long as the thing in entertaining.

What we end up with is a film top heavy on stock footage. Most of the first act is taken up with borrowed footage, mainly from an Air Force short titled One Plane - One Bomb. Additional footage came from Air Force shorts Guardians AllSFP308, and even a Universal adventure drama titled S.O.S. Iceberg, made back in 1933 and starring Rod LaRocque, along with Leni Riefenstahl, of all people, before she became Hitler’s favorite auteur.

The film takes about ten minutes to get the plot going. Until then we are regaled with uninterrupted stock footage accompanied by Our Narrator about the construction, placement and value of the three radar “lines” along with the constantly vigilant personnel who keep America safe from nuclear attack by Godless Communists. I felt as if I was back in grade school watching one of the educational films that only served to break up the boredom of the school day, as I learn the difference between the Pine Tree radar fence, the Mid-Canada radar fence, and the Distant Early Warning System, otherwise known as the DEW line. I also learn that, somehow, all this is very important. 

When Colonel Parkman mentions sending the insect part to CONAD, we get even more stock footage, as Our Narrator explains that, “The focal point of the supersonic shield that guards the North American continent,” and “A shield that could mean the difference between life and death for millions of Americans.” 

Inside, four telephones lined up on a desk, each one a different color. But these are not just ordinary phones. Oh no. “These are hot phones,” says Our Narrator. “Using them it takes only 15 seconds to talk to Alaska, 10 seconds to alert Newfoundland, 5 seconds to contact DEW, 3 seconds to reach the Pentagon command post.” Do we really need to know all this? The last phone rings and is answered by General Ford (Randolph). The way the scene is set up, its seems as if he was sitting there waiting for the call.

Later we cut to even more stock footage as the mantis attacks the Eskimo village. We see the villagers suddenly taking to their kayaks and fleeing from their village. This is the footage taken from S.O.S. Iceberg. But it occurs to us: why are the men suddenly fleeing and leaving the women and children behind? That makes no sense, unless it’s some sort of Eskimo cultural ritual, which it isn’t.

Honestly though, I don’t know what’s worse – the stock footage or the scene at the base’s recreation hall when Parkman takes Marge there. The men are busy dancing with each other to a record playing in the background as Parkman and Marge enter. Immediately the men become utterly entranced by Marge’s presence, like a pack of dogs staring at a package from Omaha Steaks. “A female woman,” says Parkman’s aide (Smith), “I thought they stopped making ‘em.” He walks over clumsily and asks Marge to dance, leading her to the dance floor.

Marge, for her part is there simply as the romantic attraction, and from the minute she meets Parkman, we know romance will be in bloom. Her task is to fill the role of the female in these pictures: a strong, self-sufficient professional who still needs a man to save her and make her life complete. She goes where’s she’s not supposed to go, she charms everyone with her intelligence and the fact she’s a babe, and she’s the best screamer. And let me tell you, Marge screams really well.

Other than the dumb scene in the rec room, the acting is better than this sort of film deserves. Leads Craig Stevens and Alix Talton (a former Miss Georgia) give decent performances. The original choices to play their roles were Rex Reason and Mara Corday. Reason dropped out saying he’d rather not (“I knew that the monster would be the star, and I knew I was worth a little more than just to support a praying mantis,” he said in an interview years later) and Corday was busy at the time being embarrassed by Sam Katzman in The Giant Claw. However, William Hooper often seems like he’d rather be anywhere else, and Donald Randolph as General Ford also seems out of place somehow, like we can see he’s not really a military man. 

One of the film’s lesser highlights is the mantis flying past a superimposed montage of newspaper headlines – Mantis Reported Over Bangor, Curfew Ordered In New Orleans,  Congressman Calls Mantis “Hoax.” The last one is really great, as Congress can always be counted on to be stupid.

When the Civilian Ground Observer Corps is mentioned we are treated to even more stock footage, with shots of people on beaches, in watchtowers and on ships at sea, all staring into the sky and watching for the mantis. When the bug drops too low for radar to pick it up, Ford notes that one of the ground observers will pick it up. That’s the cue for even more stock footage, this time of the ground observers as the mantis flies through the clouds and fog. Say what you want, the people in the Observer Corps are diligent.

The best scenes in the movie are when the mantis comes down in Laurel, Maryland. Parkman is driving Marge home in the fog and making like an octopus at the traffic light when the report of the train derailment comers over the radio. Set in the fog, it makes for an eerie scene, especially when we see they overlooked the mantis’ skid marks. Later, when it attacks the bus, the scene is well done and shocking, especially the passenger who just got off and witnesses the whole thing.

The other effective scene is where the mantis climbs up the Washington Monument. This was achieved by filming a real mantis climbing and combining it with shots of the scared crew inside the building watching it go past. This is the only time a real mantis is used. In the other scenes a 200-by-40-foot-long papier-maché model of a mantis – with a wingspan of 150 feet and fitted with a hydraulic system – was used. Two smaller models, one six feet long, and another, one foot long, were used for the scenes where the mantis walked or flew.

The ending, with the mantis stuck in the tunnel, is a let down. At this point, after the goings-on in Laurel, we were expecting more. Instead we learn that the bug is mortally wounded, it’s trapped in the tunnel, and all Parkman and his gang have to do now is go in and finish it off. 

In the final analysis, the film just seems tired. Perhaps it was the timing. The film was produced at the end of the era. During its heyday, William Alland produced the films and Jack Arnold directed them. Films like It Came From Outer SpaceCreature From the Black Lagoon, This Island EarthTarantula, and The Incredible Shrinking Man were excellent examples of their teamwork. For The Deadly Mantis the director’s chair was turned over to Nathan Juran. This was his fourth picture and his first in the science-fiction genre. The fault for the failure of the movie did not lie with Juran. The blame for this was on the studio for making a film on a cut-rate budget and substituting lots of stock footage for plot and action to save even more money. 


The end credits contain the following written statement: “We gratefully acknowledge the cooperation of the Ground Observer Corps.”

The Deadly Mantis was released in May 1957 as part of a double bill with the spy film The Girl in the Kremlin.

In February 1997, The Deadly Mantis was featured on an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000

William Hopper served in World War II as an underwater demolition expert in the Pacific Theater. His hair turned permanently white by the stress and terror of his job.

Memorable Quotes (all from The MST 3000 Version)

[The movie opens with a review of North American defense monitoring stations.]
Narrator: Another radar fence stretches across the long, unfortified border between the United States and Canada...
Servo [as Narrator]: Canada, our mortal enemy.
Narrator: ... the Pine Tree Radar Fence.
Mike [as Narrator]: The natural radar of pine trees protects our northern borders.

[A museum guard salutes Dr. Jackson]
Mike: Uh, you don't need to salute the paleontologist.

[Parkman’s aide, the Corporal at the Arctic base, acts like he's having a nervous breakdown after Marge Blaine appears.]
Crow: Yeah, I think this guy's familiar with dishonorable discharge.

[The rather effeminate-looking General Ford explains to the media that the mantis is real]
General Ford: I want to say at the outset that, contrary to rumor and certain newspaper headlines...
Crow [as Ford]: I'm not gay!

Crow [as Col. Parkman with Marge in the car]: But I've got a mantis in my pantis.

Glen or Glenda

By Jonathon Saia

Glen Or Glenda (Screen Classics, 1953) – Director: Edward D. Wood, Jr. Writer: Edward D. Wood, Jr. Stars: Bela Lugosi, Lyle Talbot, Timothy Farrell, Dolores Fuller, 'Tommy' Haynes, Edward D. Wood, Jr., Charles Crafts & Conrad Brooks. B&W, 65 minutes.

"The story....MUST...BE TOLD!"

There are bad movies and there are Ed Wood movies: movies so awful, so void of redemption, so lacking in any kind of skill whatsoever that you must assume everyone was stone cold drunk and high when they were being written, shot, edited, and released (which depending whom you believe, was probably true).

Ed Wood was and remains a polarizing figure. There are people like Dolores Fuller, one of his ex-girlfriends and an eventual songwriter for Elvis, who called him "the Orson Welles of Z pictures,” and there are people like Bela Lugosi, Jr. who called him a "user and abuser." His films were derided and discarded in their time, lambasted and lampooned in our own, yet his cult is huge; and thanks to late night television and Tim Burton's sentimental portrait of a misunderstood artist in turmoil, more people have probably seen and laughed at Plan 9 from Outer Space than have seen King Vidor's The Crowd (a criminal injustice).

Choosing just one of his movies for this column was a near impossibility; they are all terrible, practically unwatchable – not even camp worthy. Just horrible miserable wastes of time, energy, money, and passion. I am embarrassed for all of the participants in all of these movies, particularly Bela Lugosi, at that point a sad shell of a man working way beneath what his legend could have afforded him to feed his morphine addiction, and Ed Wood himself who actually believed his stock footage/piecemeal/rush job/bullshit "work" was great and important.

I could have chosen his most infamous work, Plan 9 From Outer Space (1956), a dreadful sci-fi meets zombie film that is often touted as the "worst film ever made" about aliens who revive corpses from the dead to kill the human race before Earth destroys the rest of the universe. I could have chosen its "sequel" Night of the Ghouls (1958), a film so disengaging that you need your eyes pinned open A Clockwork Orange style to even stand a chance. I could have chosen Jail Bait (1954), a gangster film featuring body builder Steve Reeves void of any kind of stakes or suspense that includes a horribly offensive minstrel number about halfway through that has nothing to do with the plot and was presumably added to fill run time. I could have chosen The Sinister Urge (1960), a proselytizing tract about the evils of pornography – or one of the pornos with which he ended his career, Necromania and The Young Marrieds (both 1971). I could have chosen one of his two films that actually doesn't make you want to call Conrad Murray, Bride of the Monster (1955), a film starring Bela Lugosi in full on Dr. Loomis mania as a mad scientist hellbent on creating a master race of atomic supermen.

Instead I have chosen the one film of his I would actually recommend; not because it is good in any traditional sense, but because its novelty and gay sensibility perfectly encapsulates Wood's life and career: Glen or Glenda.

Glen or Glenda, alternately titled He or She?Transvestite, and I Changed My Sex!, was greenlit to capitalize on the Christine Jorgenson craze; the first widely publicized case of an American getting a sex change (Years ago, I saw a wonderful off-Broadway show called Christine Jorgenson Presents, in which drag performer Bradford Louryk lip-synched her famous hour-long interview with Nipsey Russell from 1958 in its entirety. The album of the interview exists on YouTube; check it out!)

Wood decided to make a more personal tale; the story of a transvestite and his struggle to tell his girlfriend about his proclivities, casting himself (cowardly under a pseudonym) and girlfriend Dolores Fuller in the leads. Wood had always worn women's clothes and had an infamous fetish for angora. According to Fuller, "when he was a little boy, his aunt, or his mother, somebody put him into a snowsuit with rabbit fur in it. Or angora fur. And he said it felt so wonderful against his skin." He would wear her sweater while working at his typewriter and would go on dates with women just to score their angora, harboring a trunk full of them in his apartment. According to Kathy Wood, his last wife, Ed had performed as a female impersonator when he was with Dolores and during his time with her, they would go to Hollywood transvestite parties: "Vincent [Price] was so pretty." Evelyn Wood, co-star on Glen or Glenda? remembers, "We all treated it as if it was the most normal thing in the world. Ed would just smile and say, 'That's the real me.’"

But Ed was no homosexual. Glen or Glenda was his call for sympathy, the cinematic defense of his unorthodox behavior. And one of the most progressive, oddest, worst movies ever made.

Lugosi, as the narrator/scientist/creepy old man intones in his best Christopher Walken: "Man's constant groping of things unknown . . . drawing from the endless ridges of time . . . brings to light . . . MANY STARTLING things. Startling? Because they seem new. SUDDEN. But most are not new . . . in the science of the ages.”

Stock footage of lighting strikes, footage that is subsequently used in the next three Wood films. Lugosi toddles around with a beaker and some chemicals in his make shift laboratory/drawing room/library and cackles ominously. Stock footage of people walking up and down a busy city street is superimposed under Lugosi's scowls. We are reminded of the scene in Ed Wood when Landau as Lugosi tells Johnny Depp as Wood that he has no idea what the hell he is talking about. We see the proof on the screen.

An ambulance rushes to collect the corpse of a transvestite who has recently killed himself via asphyxiation. He has been arrested numerous times for wearing women's clothes and since he cannot stop wearing them knows that it is only a matter of time before he will be arrested again; Patrick/Patricia is a pre-op transsexual, unable to make the transition for one reason or another. Today this may seem passe or even camp, but imagine an audience in 1953 asked to sympathize with a cross-dressing man who longs for sexual reassignment surgery at a time when gay men were being lobotomized. Cross-dressing was illegal and carried a jail term, and homosexuality was still seen as a mental disorder. From the very beginning, we are begged to reconsider the "normalcy" of sexual “deviation."

The detective on the case goes to his psychologist friend to learn the ropes on what it means to be a transvestite, the first time the word is used in a film, pre-dating Psycho by seven years. The film then becomes less of a "film" and more of an apologetic, a PSA for accepting cross-dressing. Through two separate stories, we see two very different versions of nontraditional gender identification.

Glen/Glenda is a heterosexual male who enjoys wearing women's clothing, particularly angora sweaters. He can be seen admiring his fiancé Barbara's outfits and is visually tortured by the beautiful dresses he passes in the store front windows.

The film cuts away to a narrated montage, explaining the different comfort levels in each sex's clothing: 

At home, what does modern man have to look forward to for his body comfort? A wool or flannel robe. His feet encased in the same tight fitting leather his shoes are made of. And men's hats are so tight they cut off the blood flow to the head, thus cutting off the growth of hair. 7 out of 10 men wear a hat; 7 out of 10 men are bald! But what about the ladies? When modern woman's day of work is done, that which is designed for comfort IS comfortable. Hats that give no obstruction to the blood flow." He goes on to remind us that in aboriginal culture it is the men who are adorned in fancy headdresses and things. Why can this not be brought into the modern world? Why is it illegal for a man to walk the street in comfort? Can a man not really be a man if he enjoys the dainty caress of chiffon? The narrator is very clear to enunciate that Glen is NOT a woman, nor does he want to be a woman, nor is he gay; Glen and Glenda are one in the same, both equally at home in the same body with its male form and gate. “Maybe your milkman is wearing ladies panties, your electrician, your judge. Why, it is just as normal as apple pie.”

But how can Glen tell Barbara that he is also Glenda? They discuss Christine Jorgenson. She seems receptive and understanding. He strokes her angora sweater. He's afraid he'll lose her. She persists. Cut to Lugosi superimposed over a running stampede of buffalo, screaming, "Pull the strings!" Construction workers sympathize with transsexuals. "Maybe society should try and see them as human beings." Glen shares his fears with his friend Johnny. Should he tell Barbara or not? Johnny tells him that lying about his own cross-dressing ended his marriage. He must tell her. And tell her now.

But . . . 

Bevare . . . Bevare . . . Bevare of the big green dragon dat seets on your doorstep! He eats little boys. Puppy dog tails and big...fat...snails. Bevare! Take care! BEVARE!”

Then there is a . . . dream ballet, I guess you would call it. Barbara is distraught over the news of her fiancé in drag, emoting like Anna Magnani. She becomes pinned down under a large tree in their living room (somehow) and Glen as Glenda is too weak to save his beloved; only as Glen is he mighty enough to lift that oak. A wedding follows that is officiated by a priest, yet witnessed by a grinning devil. Glen, in a shot David Lynch must have stolen for the poster of Eraserhead, tremors in a state of confusion and panic.

A woman is whipped on the couch. Another stripteases. Another is tied to a stake. Another grinds on the couch, seductively, then is hogtied. Bela and Ed are intercut within these shots to try and give them some meaning (in truth, they were not a part of Ed's vision, but were pulled from a different film all together when distributor/producer George Weiss needed to fill the run time; most theatres would only book films that ran over an hour). Barbara and the mob point and laugh at Glen as he transforms into Glenda. The devil cackles in the background. “Bevare . . . Bevare . . . Bevare of the big green dragon that sits on your doorstep . . .” Glen is now more terrified and embarrassed than ever to tell Barbara. But knows he must.

Glen sits Barbara down. She is distraught. But loves Glen more than anything. Glen goes to Bela for...guidance? He waves him away. Barbara speaks:

"Glen. I don't fully understand this. But maybe together we can work it out.”

And then, as in the poster for Ed Wood, Barbara stands and hands her angora sweater to Glen.

Cut back to the psychiatrist and the detective. He tells him that transvestitism can be willed away by therapy and can be explained by some sort of trauma as a child, invented as “a love object, to take the place of the love that he never received in his early youth and the lack of it from his parents. The character was created and dressed and lives the life the author has designed for him to live. And dies only when the author wants him to." Barbara and Glen sit down with the therapist and discuss that in order to "kill" Glenda – who was created when as a child Glen learned in order to earn his mother's love, he needed to be more like his sister because Glen's mother hated her own father; therefore, was reminded of her father by her son – that all he need do is transfer the qualities of Glenda that make him feel whole and loved to Barbara. "It's up to you, Barbara. You must take the place, give the love, and accept the facts that Glenda has always accepted. If you love each other as you now believe you do, it will be a hard job, but one you enjoy doing.” “Supposing Glen never stops wearing women's clothes?” “Would it matter to you much?” “I love Glen. I'll do everything I can to make him happy.” 

Barbara's love conquers all and Glenda disappears forever. (In real life, however, Fuller never married Ed because she couldn't handle his cross-dressing; he wore women's clothes and went by the nickname Shirley until the day he died).


If Ed had had his druthers, this would have been the only story told in Glen or Glenda. But since the film was sold on the promise of being a version of the Christine Jorgenson story, George Weiss demanded that he insert a story of a real transsexual: Anne, a pseudo-hermaphrodite who not only wants to wear women's clothes, but IS a woman trapped in a man's body. Alan becomes Anne and lives happily ever after. This story is also told with compassion, understanding, and love.

Wood's latter years were just as strange and sad as his films. He turned out dozens of pulp erotic novels (most famously Orgy of the Dead) and nudie screenplays, charging 200 bucks a head, acting in anything he could, relishing in the fiction that he was "somebody," showing his films to anyone who would sit long enough. He and his wife Kathy were extremely poor, but refused to go on welfare because of his pride. He would hide his poverty by buying all the neighborhood kids ice cream whenever the Good Humor man came around and always wanted to host when it came time to drink. Ed and Kathy were full-time alcoholics, drinking Imperial whiskey straight with water chasers, sometimes going on benders for weeks at a time. Close friend John Andrews recants, "When they would move to a new house, they would go to the liquor store to establish credit. Kathy would say, 'I wonder if you have any of my husband's books.' She would con her way into credit . . . It was just this constant rip-off. Not paying rent. Not paying tabs."

On at least one occasion, Ed wrote a screenplay for his landlady in exchange for rent. They would hock his typewriter for booze. Frequently, they lived in squalor like the Beales. One apartment they were in, a drag queen was beaten to death in the hall and an upstairs neighbor rented out her five-year-old daughter to pornographers. Ed and Kathy's drunken-fueled fights were common knowledge, friends and onlookers alike wondering who would kill the other first. They were finally evicted and of the few possessions Ed took with him, one was an angora sweater; the other was the screenplay for I Woke Up Early the Day I Died, which was finally produced in 1998 with Christina Ricci, Tippi Hedren, and Billy Zane. He and Kathy moved into a friend's house and he died days later of a heart attack.

To hear Ed's co-workers, friends, and lovers talk about him in Rudolph Grey's Nightmare of Ecstasy or see Depp's brilliant, sympathetic performance, you can't help but feel for the man's passion and drive, however inept. All he ever wanted to do was make movies. Watching Glen or Glenda again, there is a beauty in its heartfelt, very personal nature; a beauty even in its naive skill; a beauty that makes this his best work. It is filled with so much optimism and passion which is why I think Ed Wood lives on. Yes, we "enjoy" Wood's films and life for its schaudenfreude effect, but also because Wood stands in for all of us who dream big. We are all Wood, clawing for fame, reaching for immortality; and like him, most of us will only remain peripheral players in the Hollywood game. Ed may be known for being "the worst director of all time," but at least his films are seen and his name is remembered. I think Ed would like that.

Quotable Dialogue

(Lugosi stares below at the footage of people walking along the street) “People . . . all going somewhere!”

William Castle

By Jonathan Saia

In our current era of $12 movies, digital streaming, and Redbox, Hollywood has returned to one of its oldest gimmicks to get people back into the theaters: 3-D. Created in the 1950s, 3-D was one of many ploys to get audiences up from their new fangled television sets and back dishing out cold hard cash to Hollywood. It made going to the movies an event again, on par with the theatre, an experience you couldn't get anywhere else. Nor forget. But for William Castle, 3-D was for amateurs. 

William Castle excelled at the hard sell. With the personality of a carnival barker, Castle worked his way through Columbia's ranks, first as an assistant to George Stevens and Harry Cohn and eventually became a dependable director of "B" crime dramas. But after seeing a screening of Les Diaboliques (1955), he knew he wanted to make horror films. So he mortgaged his house and self-produced his first film, Macabre (1958), where a father has to find his buried alive daughter before it's too late.

Castle was afraid that the film alone would not get people to see it. With his house on the line, he needed a sure fire hit. So he came up with a gimmick: patrons could sign up outside of the theatre for a life insurance policy from Lloyds of London (a real policy, to boot) that would pay their beneficiaries $1,000 if they happened to die from fright during the movie. The audience loved it. The $90,000 film ended up making $5 million.

Castle’s subsequent films all had a gimmick attached, one more elaborate than the next. House on Haunted Hill (1959) had "Emerg-o" – a skeleton that flew over the audience; The Tingler (1959) had "Percept-o" – electric buzzers that shocked the seats; 13 Ghosts (1960) had "Illusion-O" – a special pair of glasses that helped you see the spirits; Mr. Sardonicus (1961) had the "Punishment Poll," allowing the audience to "choose" the fate of the antagonist; Homicidal (1961) had the "Fright Break" – a 45 second countdown to the climax where audience members who were too scared could leave the theatre and get a refund; Zotz! (1962) handed out "magical" amulets; and 13 Frightened Girls (1963) got attention for supposedly holding a worldwide casting call for the actresses.

For his next two films, The Night Walker (1964) and Strait-Jacket (1964), Castle used the greatest gimmick of all: bonafide movies stars Barbara Stanwyck and Joan Crawford.

Combining his macabre sense of humor with horror and his very public interaction with his fans, Castle became known as the Low Rent Hitchcock. But this is an injustice to Castle. Only seeing him as a lesser version of a master or the King of the Gimmick sells him short. Castle was not merely some Barnum-like con-artist, shucking his snake oil on 42nd Street. He was a talented director and a brilliant producer. 

Even though his films were shot on the cheap and the quick, Castle elevated them to "A" entertainments, yes with the aid of the gimmicks, but more importantly with the craft. In fact, there are times when the gimmicks feel superfluous and more like a crutch than a desperate plea for people to buy tickets. Most glaringly is Mr. Sardonicus, a fine period piece full of chills and thrills and a well-written climax that doesn't need the so-called "Punishment Poll" it tacks on the end. When Castle has well-written material, he flourishes with the dialogue scenes, getting the best out of his actors (the highlight of House on Haunted Hill and The Tingler are the domestic disputes between Vincent Price's characters and their wives). But what comes through most in Castle's work is his love for the material – and his audience. His main goal is to entertain us. And he succeeds.

Three of my favorite Castle films follow. All are of equal value and artistic merit.

Homicidal is a fantastic thriller and great compliment to its progenitor, Psycho. A woman, whose mother forced her to live her life as a man, kills to keep her secret. The opening sequence is brilliantly paced, the score can only be described as Hermann-esque, and Jean Arless (who was really Joan Marshall using an alias) in the dual role of Warren/Emily is award worthy. Highly recommend this film. 

The Tingler is often cited as John Waters' favorite film (alongside Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!). Vincent Price is exceptional as a scientist who discovers a parasite that forms on our spine when we are scared. How to kill it? By screaming, of course. A true "B" classic. (By the way, The Tingler plays every year at CineFamily in Los Angeles during Halloween Week, complete with "Percept-o"). The Tingler is probably Castle's greatest work that you could call 100% his own.

But Strait-Jacket may just be Castle's crowning achievement. Off the success of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), Castle gathered the writer of Psycho Robert Bloch and the star of Baby Jane, Joan Crawford, to try and make a real "A" picture, void of gimmickry. It tells the story of Lucy Harbin, a convicted ax-murderess who is returning home after 20 years in an asylum. But as people wind up dead, her family wonders: Is She Cured?

Ever the diva, Crawford was in charge from the beginning. She chose her own camera man, her own co-stars, and demanded caviar and bourbon in her trailer at all times. As Pepsi's sitting Chairman of the Board, Crawford even got prominent product placement for her famous brand and a role for one of her fellow board members, Mitchell Cox, as her psychiatrist. Castle, eager to make a great picture with a great star, relented to her every desire, even shooting an extra scene when Crawford realized her co-star (Diane Baker, fresh off Hitchcock's Marnie) had given a great performance during the climax. And it paid off. Strait-Jacket is a wonderful film with a twist too good to spoil here and an Oscar worthy turn from Crawford. Ever the showman, even with a film that could stand on its own, Castle had a gimmick: passing out cardboard axes to the audience.

A few years later, Castle got a hold of a manuscript for a new horror novel. He loved it so much he bought the rights and took it to Robert Evans at Paramount. He knew it had the potential to be a huge hit. Evans agreed that he could produce it, but was leery about leaving millions of dollars in the hands of a "B" director. So he brought Roman Polanski over from Poland to make his American debut.

Castle was riding high from the success of Rosemary's Baby (1968) and thought he would go on to finally be an "A" producer, maybe even an "A" director. But the negative backlash from the conservative audience, labeling him a consort with the devil, in addition to the unfortunate death of Polanski's wife Sharon Tate at the hands of the Manson Family, and Castle's own failing health, derailed him from the mainstream. When he returned to work, Hollywood had changed its course to more a cynical type of filmmaking. Castle's brand of campy horror had become passé as the movies made way for the gritty realism of Dennis Hopper, Peter Bogdanovich, and Martin Scorsese. Castle returned to "B" movies, turning in low-rent films with titles like Project X (1968), a sci-fi spy movie, and Bug (1974) about mutant cockroaches.

Castle was the last of a dying breed, a true showman who understood the joys of going to the movies, not only for the art or the entertainment, but for the experience (the closest we have today would be James Cameron). Sometimes I wish Castle would have been allowed to direct Rosemary's Baby. It definitely retains some of his humorous take on horror, particularly in the character played by Ruth Gordon. And don't get me wrong. Polanski made one of the greatest films of all time. But maybe so would have Castle. Maybe he finally would have made his masterpiece and received the respect he deserved.

The Raven

By Jonathon Saia

The Raven (Universal, 1935) – Director: Lew Landers (as Louis Friedlander). Writers: David Boehm (s/p). Edgar Allan Poe (poem). Stars: Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Lester Matthews, Irene Ware, Samuel S. Hinds, Spencer Charters, Inez Courtney, Ian Wolfe & Maidel Turner B&W, 61 minutes.

Fewer actors are identified by a single role more than Bela Lugosi. A quick Google search of the word "Dracula" yields a picture of Lugosi as its first image – the visage that has adorned countless t-shirts, action figures, postage stamps, and coffee mugs. It seems only fitting that a man who played the world's most infamous "undead" would continue to be immortal, even in death.

Since his heyday in the early '30s until the day he died, Lugosi himself was trapped in a purgatory-like state with his relationship to the Count, desperately trying to convince studios that he was more than The Vampire – yet knew that he could always rely on "Dracula" to bring him quick cash. Chronically broke and habitually underpaid by major and minor studios alike, Lugosi would tour between film projects in various productions of the play that made him a Broadway star, even creating various truncations that he took around to old vaudeville houses and radio programs; in his old age when the world had all but passed him by, he even sat around his apartment with fan boys reciting dialogue from Dracula, purportedly still remembering all of his lines. So engrained was the image of Lugosi as Dracula that he chose to be buried in his cape; an image ironically that Lugosi had to practically beg for when Universal wanted resident horror icon Lon Chaney as The Count – but Chaney died before production could begin.

Despite performing Shakespeare with the National Theater in his native Hungary and known for being somewhat of a handsome playboy (he dated Clara Bow and was married 5 times), Lugosi, due to his heavy accent, was the victim of "othering" in Hollywood – cast primarily as a mad scientist, vampire, swami, or other nefarious characters.

Next to Dracula, Lugosi's greatest legacy was his on-screen pairing (and off-screen rivalry) with fellow horror icon, Boris Karloff. Competing to be Universal's Next Great Horror Star after Chaney's death, Karloff was seen as the more bankable and versatile of the two (in no small part because of Lugosi's accent – even though Karloff had a very pronounced lisp himself) and as a result always pulled bigger salaries and was afforded the liberty to play a more diverse range of roles, including of course Dr. Seuss' famous Grinch; on their films together, Karloff ended up getting star billing and double Lugosi's weekly rate, even on films like The Raven, in which Lugosi was the clear star. Ironically, Lugosi once scoffed at the idea of playing the mute Frankenstein monster when Universal head Carl Laemmle, Jr. first developed the property for him – the role that of course launched Karloff's career. To add insult to injury, the role of Jonathan Brewster in Arsenic and Old Lace, a role Karloff originated on Broadway, was one that Lugosi played more than once on the road in between tours of Dracula and a variety of Poverty Row film projects, forever destined to be in Karloff's shadow. [Sidebar: Lugosi and Karloff did see eye to eye on one thing; they were both two of the first members and most active proponents of the Screen Actors Guild; Lugosi was quite political – i.e. Communist – and helped form a similar organization in Hungary, which precipitated his need to flee the country when the Communist regime lost power].

Lugosi and Karloff made eight films together, although only two truly pit them against one another as co-leads, battling for supremacy. The first of their pairings, The Black Cat (1934), is an excellent thriller based very loosely on Edgar Allen Poe's story, in where Lugosi, freshly released from a military prison, goes to visit his old friend Karloff to discover what became of his wife and daughter while he was incarcerated. Turns out, his wife died years ago and Karloff has kept her preserved in glass in the hopes of one day resurrecting her – of course for his own purposes. The film is filled with atmospheric cinematography and inventive direction – helmed by Edgar G. Ulmer, famous for his B-noir masterpiece, Detour (1946) – great acting from its leads (including some tender moments from Lugosi), and such daring topics for 1934 as necrophilia and Satanic worship (Ulmer was heavily inspired by Aleister Crowley).

Again inspired by Poe, The Raven (1935) is the third pairing of Lugosi and Karloff and possibly Lugosi's greatest performance. Despite Karloff's prominent billing position, Lugosi's character is really the star. [Notice the way in which the publicity department felt the need to remind audiences that Lugosi was Dracula, whereas Karloff is known simply by a single name.]

Jean Thatcher (Ware) – famed dancer and the daughter of a prominent judge – is critically injured in a car accident. The doctors claim there is only one man who can save her: the brilliant surgeon – and avid Poe enthusiast – Dr. Richard Vollin (Lugosi). Judge Thatcher (Hinds) implores Vollin to help his daughter, but he is retired and only interested in research and his Poe collection; Vollin, a man who has been surrounded by death and sickness for decades, doesn't see death in the same way as others and has transcended mortal concerns like empathy. In fact, the eponymous raven is seen prominently in silhouette against his wall, as if Death is an almost welcome friend in his presence. Yet when told he is her only hope, Vollin's ego supersedes his ambivalence and he agrees to help. 

With Jean resurrected, she and her fiancé Jerry (Matthews) – a fellow doctor whom Vollin has recently promoted – are indebted to him. Jean surprises Vollin with a new ballet based on "The Raven" she has created as a thank you. But what surprises Vollin most is that he has fallen in love with Jean. Notice Lugosi's performance during the ballet and its surrounding scenes. He imbues these moments with tenderness, desperate romance, and a dose of sensuality; it is easy to see that he was once a heartthrob in Hungary. Thatcher notices Vollin's attraction and begs him to stay away from his daughter. That does not go over well with Vollin's ever-increasing madness. Vollin is not a man whom others tell no. Enter Bateman.

That night, a recently escaped convict named Bateman (Karloff) enters Vollin's chambers with a gun, demanding that Vollin change his face ["Maybe if a man is ugly, he does ugly things"]. Vollin assures him that the gun is not necessary. He is willing to quid pro quo: he will change his face on the condition that he does something "in his line...torture and murder." Bateman begrudgingly agrees. But Vollin double crosses him and makes him even more monstrous in order to blackmail him into keeping his end of the bargain. 

Lugosi and Karloff are glorious in this scene. Bateman's hopes of being changed into something less terrifying are met with Vollin's mad cackles ["Your monstrous ugliness breeds monstrous hate. Good! I can use that hate!"]. Bateman shoots out all of the mirrors in the room, leaving him with an empty chamber when given the chance to kill Vollin [Karloff primitively grunts and shakes his fist in a moment reminiscent of the Frankenstein Monster]. Bateman is left with no other option than to do Vollin's bidding. 

Vollin makes his sadistic tendencies abundantly clear. He shows Bateman his personal collection of Poe inspired torture devices – including a Sword of Damocles that undulates like in "The Pit and the Pendulum" – they will use to seek revenge on the people who have scorned his love. It is worthy to note that Vollin's madness is brought upon not by the desire for world domination or blood or material possessions, but by love – he describes himself as "a god...with the taint of human emotions." From an actor most associated with otherworldly obsessions and motivations, The Raven cleverly uses the most human of phenomenon as his downfall. Bateman tries to use the machine against its creator, but Vollin warns him that if he dies, there will be no one who can fix his face. The film early on establishes Vollin as singular and we believe that no other surgeon could undo what he has done. So once again Bateman acquiesces to his "Master's" wishes. Lugosi is great here, knowing Vollin has the trump card, but behind his confidence plays a tinge of panic in his eyes.

Vollin invites Jean, Jerry, and Judge Thatcher to a dinner party he is having for some friends. Much to Thatcher's chagrin – "Oh, Dad. He's not going to slit our throats in our sleep" – Jean and Jerry decide to attend; Thatcher follows after. Throughout the evening, the disfigured Bateman tries to warn them of the danger they are in, but Vollin is quick to intercept. And that night with the guests all asleep, Bateman drags Thatcher into the dungeon and straps him to the table to await the impending sword. Jean's room, which is actually an elevator, is then lowered into the dungeon. Jerry and some of the other dinner guests chase after her.

Vollin throws Jean and Jerry into a room with compressing walls (much like the trash compactor in Star Wars). With mania in his eyes, he brags to his slave, "What a delicious torture, Bateman! Better than Poe!" Though he has been subjugated, Bateman serves as the only person who could possibly understand the thrill of killing and Vollin professes his triumph with glee; it must be lonely at the top for a sadist.

Bateman will not stand for this and opens the room, disfigured face be damned. Vollin shoots him, but before he dies, he knocks Vollin unconscious and drags him into the chamber; he awakens just as the door slams and the walls begin to close in on him. Thatcher is saved, everyone flees, and Bateman dies alone on the floor.


The Raven is a taut thriller clocking in at 62 minutes with no wasted scenes. The cinematography by Charles Stumar (The Mummy, 1932) is not quite as Expressionistic as The Black Cat's obvious German influences, but still creates a mood of anticipatory horror. Universal had some unique promotional ideas like a "Chamber of Chills" in where part of the lobby would have pendulums and the like and a "Curtain Teaser Stunt" where "brave" filmgoers could open a curtain with the doom-laden message, "This Curtain conceals a Face that is a Crazy-Quilt of Horror! Look at it Before You Dare See The Raven" (paging William Castle).

The Raven was panned in the trades [The New York Times said it had "the distinction of being the season's worst horror film..."] and its gruesome nature saw that it was censored (or not even shown) all over the world, especially in England. Given Britain's ties to the American market, this led to a brief moratorium on horror films, which among other factors, definitely hindered the rising career of Bela Lugosi; he was never given a role as dimensional and exciting in a film as good as The Raven again.

Based on his performance as Dr. Vollin alone, it's a shame – and somewhat of a curiosity – that Lugosi was not given better projects in which to shine. Studios continued to underestimate his potential and continued to throw their support behind Karloff and eventually Chaney, Jr; Lugosi even had to fight for the role of Dracula in Universal's Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)! [To wit: when Karloff made Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff (1949), he was paid double what Lugosi made for his outing with Bud and Lou.] And when Lugosi's brand of horror finally fell out of vogue in lieu of science fiction and a post-WWII sense of American prowess (having defeated the Ultimate of Evils), he was destined to a "career" (which is being generous) of butlers, red-herring heavies, and an embarrassing finale of duds with Edward D. Wood, Jr. – as well as a debilitating addiction to morphine.

When Lugosi died, after almost 40 years as an actor, his estate was worth less than $2,000. When Lugosi's son and widow tried to sue Universal for profiting off his image without their consent, the studio fought the lawsuit – and won. [However, in 1985, Lugosi vs. Universal was overturned and replaced by the California Celebrity Rights Act, in where a deceased celebrity's likeness is treated as a copyright, protecting their heirs from exploitation for a period of 70 years, post-mortem].

In 1995, Martin Landau won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for playing Lugosi during the final years of his life in arguably Tim Burton's greatest film, Ed Wood (1994); finally, albeit indirectly, giving Bela Lugosi the artistic recognition he so desperately craved.

Beach Party 

By Ed Garea

Beach Party (AIP, 1963) – Director: William Asher. Writer: Lou Rusoff (s/p and story). Stars: Robert Cummnigs, Dorothy Malone, Frankie Avalon, Annette Funicello, Morey Amsterdam, Harvey Lembeck, Eva Six, John Ashley, Jody McCrea, Dick Dale, Andy Romano, Jerry Brutsche, Bob Harvey, John Macchia, Alberta Nelson, Valora Noland & Candy Johnson. Color, 101 minutes.

The revolution has arrived. Accompanied by the sound of Dick Dale on the bongos, we are given an overhead view of Malibu Beach while the opening titles flash before us in vibrant color. Cut to a Piper Cub making its way to a landing on the beach. Being as this is American International, any view from a plane must be accompanied by the sight of the actual plane itself. As we shall soon learn, the plane is an important plot point. 

A quick cut and we see a bright yellow Ford Model A tooling down the highway. In the front seat are Frankie and Annette, who break into the title song: 

We got a early start,
We’re gonna have a ball,
We’re gonna ride the surf,
And that ain’t all.

Nothing is greater than the sand, surf, and the salt air, 
Unrack our boards just as soon as we get there, 
Stack ‘em in the sand while they’re breakin’ just right, 
Yeah, we’re surfing all day and we’re swinging all night, 
Vacation is here, beach party tonight!

As if we were expecting anything else. 

As scored and performed, the piece, while not rock n’ roll, is upbeat and bouncy enough to let us know this is a different sort of musical. 

As the car pulls into the beach at Paradise Cove and parks in front of a nice-looking beach house, we learn that Frankie and his girlfriend Dolores (Funicello) have rented this bungalow for a surfing vacation. Just the two of them, alone. Dolores remarks that it will be just like being married. Frankie nods, for there’s one thing on his mind. But when he carries her over the threshold, he discovers that they’re not alone. Far from it. Dolores has invited the whole gang to stay. Frankie is taken back, horrified by Dolores’ deceit. Dolores tells Frankie she invited the whole gang of friends because she “doesn’t trust herself” to be alone with him. A rift forms and it brings into play a theme repeated in all the sequels: Frankie and Annette quarrel over something or other, try to make each other jealous, and end up happily reconciling.

As the gang hits the beach we see they’re being watched by a pair of eyes looking through a telescope and using a listening device. The eyes belong to R.O. (Robert Orwell) Sutwell (Cummings, complete with bushy beard), an anthropology professor who has rented an adjoining beach house and is observing the language and mating habits of the beach-going teenagers for an upcoming book. He is soon joined by his assistant, Marianne (Malone), who before she ascends the stairs to his home, makes sure to kick the tires of his plane and allow us to make the connection.

As Marianne looks over Sutwell’s impressive display of early ‘60s spying equipment, she makes some remarks about the depth of his interest in the teens’ sex lives. Sutwell doesn’t realize she’s joking and explains that his book, which he plans on calling The Behavior Pattern of the Young Adult and Its Relation to Primitive Tribes, could be his best to date. Marianne suggests an alternative title, “Teenage Sex,” which horrifies Robert, lest she get the wrong idea. He’s serious: “They’re a true subculture. They live in a society as primitive as the aborigines of New Guinea.” 

Although he’s traveled the world and knows about many things, what Sutwell doesn’t understand is love. He is naive to the point of being painfully square. Marianne, though romantically starved (she’s obviously in love with Robert), agrees to help him with his book, but also gives him a piece of advice: “After you write this book on sex ... read it.” 

Back at the beach, Dolores’ friend, Rhonda (Noland), shows her how easy it is to knock the boys off their surfboards by just wiggling and jiggling. Dolores isn’t impressed, telling Rhonda that Frankie has her in the deep freeze. Rhoda tells her it’s because she turned a weekend alone into “a teenage flophouse.” Dolores admits to getting cold feet, but tells Rhonda there’s more than just sex, such as love and marriage, and that’s what she’s holding out for from Frankie.

During the initial beach scenes (composed of some great stock surfing footage), Dick Dale appears in the sand with his Stratocaster, and jumps into “Secret Surfin’ Spot,” a surf lingo-filled uptempo dance piece. The song is vintage Dale, and the kids jump up to start dancing as Sutwell observes, comparing the dancing to “the Haitian Voodoo ceremony, the Samoan puberty dance, and the mating dance of the whooping crane.” 

Frankie, still seething over the trick Dolores played on him, discusses it with the guys. Frankie hits on the idea of paying her back by flirting with sexy waitress Ava (Six) at Big Daddy’s, the local beer and music hangout. Deadhead (McCrea) says that Ava has everything, to which Frankie replies, “Well, I’ll tell ya, if she doesn’t it’s only because she hasn’t got room for it.”

The owner/host at Big Daddy’s is Cappy Caplan (Amsterdam), a beatnik type who recites lousy poetry, accompanied by Dick Dale and the Deltones, who function as sort of a house band in the film. In the corner is a man fast asleep in a chair. He will remain like that until the end of the movie. That's the man the club is named for – Big Daddy. Dale grabs his Stratocaster and jumps into “Swingin' and Surfin’,” an upbeat number that of course immediately gets the gang dancing. Dolores stews as Frankie flirts and later dances with Ava. After Frankie finishes singing “Don’t Stop Now,” the leather-jacketed Eric Von Zipper and his motorcycle gang enter the cafe, much to the disgust of Cappy, who tells Eric he was hoping they’d skip him this year. 

Dolores, miffed by Frankie’s behavior, gets up to leave, but trips into Von Zipper’s lap. When he won’t let her go, Sutwell, who has been listening and recording from the back, comes to her rescue, temporarily paralyzing Von Zipper with a martial arts trick he picked up in the Himalayas. He then asks Dolores if he can escort her home. Her answer is an enthusiastic “yes,” to the annoyance of Frankie. As he walks her home, they engage in a rather awkward conversation as she thinks he’s after sex, when all he’s after is information. When he tells her their conversation should be finished at his place, she reluctantly agrees, but then he tells her, “so, tomorrow, then?” She smiles and tells him how he knows when a girl shouldn’t be rushed, as she goes into her bungalow blowing a last kiss at Sutwell.

The next morning, Marianne comes by to drop off research texts. Sutwell boasts to her that he made his first contact, “after only two days!” When Dolores suddenly shows up in a bikini, Robert looks at Marianne and suggests to Dolores that they continue this at the beach. He’ll be right along. After she leaves, Marianne says, “No wonder you feel old.” Robert objects that this is strictly business, to which Marianne interjects, “Lolita business,” to an abashed look from Robert.

At the beach, Frankie’s friends Ken and Deadhead entice Robert to get on the surfboard. He takes them up on it despite Dolores’ objections, and after a few spills, catches on nicely. Afterward, Robert wanders off alone to visit Cappy at Big Daddy’s, where he’s told Von Zipper is looking for him. 

Asked by Sutwell for advice on the kids, Cappy relies, “Boy you came to the right cat. If there’s anything you want to know about these kids I can tell you the whole thing in two words. They’re nuts.” “They’re nuts?” “You see, you noticed it too. What do you think they do all day? Run around the beach all day and they only got one thing on their mind – each other. They need a reason, a cause.” And that’s why he has Big Daddy there, to give them the reason, the cause, the word. When Sutwell asks what the word is, Cappy doesn’t know, but is sure Big Daddy will give it to them. 

Frankie enters to have it out with Sutwell, accusing him of “brainwashing her with his beard.” When Robert asks him if that’s the case, then why is he running around with “that Hungarian goulash”? Frankie admits that all the attention to Ava is to make Dolores jealous. Before Robert leaves, Cappy poses a question: “Professor, are you studying these kids’ sex lives or are you getting involved in it?”

Frankie later argues with Dolores at their bungalow over Sutwell, during the course of which he admits to Dolores that he loves her. But their embrace is broken up by Ava, who gets Dolores so angry that she leaves in a huff.

At the campfire get-together later that night on the beach, Robert shows up in another outlandish outfit. As a joke, Ken sets fire to his hat when he isn’t looking. Frankie, disgusted that Dolores is paying so much attention to him, goes off with Ava as the group splits off to make out. Dolores gets him to shave off his beard and compliments him on how young he looks. When she mentions some eerie things happening at the beach, such as a plane with red lights flying overhead, Robert shows her his plane. She wants to take a ride and they agree to meet later, at three in the morning. When he comes home he finds a note from Marianne, whom he has delegated to listen in and take notes. The note simply says “I’ve heard enough!” Sutwell is somewhat amused that Marianne is jealous.

Meanwhile Von Zipper and his minions show up looking for Sutwell. Looking over the bungalows, Von Zipper mistakenly chooses that of Frankie and his gang. He gets a boost to get him through the window, but to his horror he discovers that he’s landed in Dolores’ bedroom. She screams as Von Zipper tries to find his way out. Sutwell, hearing her screams, runs to her aid. He accidentally knocks Von Zipper silly with a surfboard and enters through the window to see if Dolores is all right. Frankie and the rest enter to find Dolores holding onto Sutwell in a compromising, though innocent, position.

Robert takes Dolores on a flight in his plane. He shows her evasive maneuvers he taught during the war while she gets airsick. But he notices that she is far too attracted to him for both their good. The next day, he seeks Marianne’s help in deflecting the attentions of Dolores. She’s a bit reluctant, but when he spots Dolores coming from his window he grabs Marianne in a passionate embrace. Dolores comes in to see them kissing and boils over. “You’ve traded in a red beard and become a bluebeard!” she says as she stalks off.

When she returns upset to the group’s bungalow, Frankie takes the gang to take care of Robert. While there, they discover the manuscript of his book and begin to read, growing angrier with each sentence. They turn to confront him further, only to discover that he and Marianne have taken a powder.

Robert and Marianne have run to Cappy’s for sanctuary, followed by Frankie, Annette and the rest. Robert settles everything between Frankie and Dolores, but then Von Zipper and the gang enter looking for Robert. Frankie and the gang form a protective circle and a fight breaks out – a pie fight. While almost everyone in the cast catches it with a pie, Robert applies his martial arts technique to members of Von Zipper’s gang. As he sees his gang decimated, Von Zipper calls a truce and asks Sutwell if they could be friends, to which Sutwell says sure and shakes his hand. Von Zipper then says that since they’re now friends, could he teach him the Himalayan technique? Before Sutwell can answer, Von Zipper manages to paralyze himself with his own finger.

Suddenly, the sitting figure of Big Daddy begins to come to life. He’s asked by Cappy and Sutwell as to what the word is. Raising his hat he turns out to be Vincent Price. The word? “The pit. Bring me my pendulum kiddies, I feel like swinging.” An obvious plug for the Corman AIP horror series based on Poe, in which Price stars.

As the film ends, Frankie and Dolores are back together, Robert and Marianne are together, and Von Zipper is taking off with Ava, promising revenge on the gang.


Beach Party was a movie that AIP wasn’t even planning on making. According to Sam Arkoff’s autobiography, in the summer of 1962, he and partner Jim Nicholson were watching films in Italy with an eye towards purchasing some of them for U.S. release. They saw one about a middle-aged man who falls in love with a young woman who spends all her time at a beach resort. They didn’t care for the movie but thought the setting was attractive and commissioned Lou Rusoff to come up with a script. Their plans were to make a JD movie at the beach. Rusoff dutifully presented them with a script about teens in trouble with their parents. 

They then turned to director William Asher for help with the production. Asher reads the script and suggests that instead of making just another JD feature they should make one about kids not in trouble; maybe about kids at the beach having fun. As the talks progressed, Asher, who surfed as a hobby, suggested surfing as the motif. 

It was then suggested that songs be put into the film, as with the popular Elvis vehicles: light comedy interspersed with music. It was a break from what AIP was doing before, musicals with pretentious dramatic storylines with said music almost always coming from a soundstage or recording studio.

Arkoff and Nicholson gave Asher the go-ahead, so he re-wrote the script with Robert Dillon. Arkoff asked them not to take credit; to leave it for Rusoff, who was dying of brain cancer. They agreed, and Rusoff, who died in June 1963 before the film came out, has sole credit.

All this led to a whole new genre and a big moneymaker for the studio.

Funicello was the only choice to play Dolores. As she was under contract to Walt Disney at the time it took a lot of palavering on Arkoff’s part to secure her services. Part of Disney’s demand was that Annette not appear in anything too skimpy, and although she did wear a bikini, it was quite conservative. Fabian was the original choice for her co-star, but as he was under contract to 20th Century Fox, Frankie Avalon was signed instead.

Robert Cummings and Dorothy Malone were selected for the main adult roles, that of a naive anthropology professor and his assistant. For Cummings and Malone, AIP was a landing place after their careers had gone cold. John Ashley, who had made a number of movies for American International, was cast to play Ken, Frankie’s best friend, and Jody McCrea was cast in the role of the goofy member of the gang, “Deadhead.” (Later changed to “Bonehead” in the sequels.) The rest of the cast was quickly put together from actors Asher knew and had worked with in earlier projects.

The first thing we notice, besides the bongos of Dick Dale and the panorama of the beach, is the bright yellow Ford Model A Frankie and Annette are driving to the beach. Though it’s only on screen for a few minutes, it represents AIP’s break with its JD hot car racing past. Cars are now made to be seen rather than raced and are wonderful for carrying surfboards to the beach. They are also immaculately styled, not beaten down jalopies, as in the past. The car was also chosen for its look, as Beach Party was shot in color.

As anthropologist Robert Orville Sutwell, Cummings walks off with the movie. (The “Robert Orville” is taken from his given name of Charles Clarence Robert Orville Cummings.) His beach house contains all the latest electronic equipment with which to snoop on the beachgoers. His naiveté provides much of the comedy, especially when he tries to communicate with the kids, whose lingo he doesn’t understand.

Much of the comedy is centered around Sutwell’s relationship with Dolores, which began when he rescued her from the clutches of Von Zipper at Big Daddy’s. Big Daddy’s is a parody of sorts on the Southern California coffeehouse scene, in particular, Cafe Frankenstein, where beatniks would recite poetry over cups of java. A further added bit is the presence of uncredited Sharon Garrett and Yvette Vickers as Cappy’s yoga girls. They remain in the lotus position throughout the film, deep in meditation (or asleep). 

For Sutwell, Dolores is just another source of research. But she sees it differently; for her he’s a knight in shining armor and she falls madly for him, beard and all. Frankie, for his part, is pretending in be interested in Ava to pay Dolores back and get her jealous. But her interest in Robert is so strong that he can’t really keep up the pretense. He’s the one who becomes jealous, calling Sutwell “old pig bristles” among other things. 

Robert’s relationship with Dolores throughout the film is awkward, as he struggles to communicate for research purposes while she has stars in her eyes. Their dialogue illustrates the gap, as she teaches him surf lingo and criticizes his choice of bathing attire, including a Japanese bathrobe and an old-fashioned bathing suit with a small skirt, which Frankie’s friends have a good laugh over. Later in the film, she gets him to shave off his “pig bristles,” revealing a much younger man underneath all the thatch.

The other highlight of the film is the music, especially Dick Dale. He’s not called “the king of the surf guitar” for nothing, as he proves amply in this movie. (Dale ranks 74th on Rolling Stone's list of the “100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time.”) Both his two songs, “Swingin' and a-Surfin” and “Secret Surfing Spot,” were written by the team of Gary Usher and Roger Christian. Both had previously worked with Brian Wilson, leader of the Beach Boys and the chief source of the California sound that would compete with the British Invasion for the ears of American youth. Usher and Christian can also be spotted in the background of beach scenes in the film as well. But it’s not only his two rocking songs that move the film, but also his work on the bongos. With a big earring in his left ear, emphasizing his beatnik creds, Dale serves as sort of a minstrel for the beachgoers, whether the sand, at Big Daddy’s, or later on the beach during the campfire scene. He was able to parley the success of this film into an appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show on October 6, 1963, two months after the film opened. 

As mentioned before, Frankie’s turn at singing is the rocker “Don’t Stop Now,” by Bob Marcucci and Russ Faith. It’s not the greatest song, but the piece is entertaining enough because of the choreography. Frankie starts out dancing with Ava, moves on to that perpetual motion machine Candy Johnson before dancing with a group of women, eventually getting the whole gang up and dancing. (At the end of the movie, Frankie does a more rocking version of the title song, to the accompaniment of Johnson and her wonderfully frantic dancing.)

Annette also gets her chance for a solo with the ballad, “Treat Him Nicely.” Regretting her “loss” of Frankie to Ava, Annette sings one of the best ballads of the entire series to her reflection in a mirror. As shot by Asher, it’s a slow, beautifully orchestrated piece, redolent of the era, with Annette herself adding a restrained but emotional vocal. The scene also benefits greatly from some wonderful camerawork on the part of Kay Norton. (She would later reprise the song on Dick Clark’s TV special, Dick Clark's Celebrity Party, in November 1963.) Later we hear Dorothy Malone singing along to a recording of Annette singing “Promise Me Anything” (with a close-up shot of the American-International label on the LP) while she spies on Robert and Dolores. Annette’s songs were written by Guy Hemric and Jerry Styner.

Beach Party really takes off after the introduction of one of the great comic characters in the history of psychotronic films: the bungling, totally inept motorcycle gang leader Eric Von Zipper, beautifully realized by Harvey Lembeck. A parody of Marlon Brando in The Wild One, Von Zipper is the leader of the Rats, a leather-clad club with the word “Rats” on the back of their jackets and a picture of a rat underneath the word. The women’s auxiliary, as it were, is called the Mice. Von Zipper can’t even dismount from his motorcycle cleanly; as he does it gets away from him and we hear it crash. His gestures are exaggerated for the benefit of his gang and perhaps to prove his leadership to himself. Assisting him is his right-hand man, JD (Romano), which Von Zipper later explains to Sutwell, is short for “juvenile delinquent.” Throughout the film, Von Zipper’s actions backfire on him, especially in regard to Sutwell, for whom Von Zipper is no match. After the pie fight in the finale, Von Zipper and his gang take off with Ava in tow as they swear revenge. As he starts his motorcycle, it once again gets away from him, the final insult.

Although Cummings and Malone are top-billed, the real charm of Beach Party is the combination of Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello. Bonafide teen idols by the time the picture began shooting, they each possessed individual charm, but when teamed together they were unstoppable. They were also one of the most dysfunctional screen couples in film history. They established the pattern in the first film that would be repeated in each sequel: Dolores wants Frankie to marry her and raise a family. In short, she wants him to get off his surfboard and take life seriously. But Frankie, for his part, just wants to get laid. Thus, they would get into a misunderstanding at the beginning, play games with each other to get the other jealous, and reunite at the end of the film. It was the chaste and sweet Annette versus the charming and droll Frankie, who often broke the fourth wall when things went awry. Twice in Beach Party he turns to the camera and asks the audience, “Where did I go wrong?” They are the essence of summer fun in the sun. 

Annette, more than any other single actress, model or designer, made the bikini acceptable and popular with American women. Beach Party and its sequels also helped generate a huge spike in the sale of surfboards.

The essence of Beach Party is sex. Although William Asher would be later quoted in interviews as saying it was “all in good clean fun with lots of flesh but no sex,” the picture was loaded with innuendo. From the opening dispute between Frankie and Annette over sex to the giggling of the bikini-clad women to Candy Johnson’s suggestive wriggling, Beach Party is dripping with sex; it was the first film aimed specifically at teens that exploited sexual innuendos. The only question for Asher and the producers was how to sell sex but at the same time make it G rated. What they came up with wasn’t subtle, but neither was it pornographic. With the subtext of sex in every scene, it was up to the kids in the audience to read between the lines. Those still innocent enough not to know what they were seeing could merely believe they were just kissing and holding hands. A prime example occurs in the campfire scene, where the kids pair off to canoodle. Ava wants Frankie to make love to her, but he’s more interested in what Dolores is up to with Sutwell. Finally Ava raises from behind the surfboards and says she’s never been so frustrated in her life. Those reading between the lines were hip enough to know that Frankie couldn’t get it up. Today’s audience may find the film laughable and rather lame, but let’s place it into its historical timeline. It was released just as the popular culture of the time was beginning to segue into the sexual revolution. Seen in this regard, Beach Party was groundbreaking.

As a point of trivia, sex wasn’t the only thing going on. As Dick Dale performs “Swingin' and Surfin’,” look closely and you’ll see Frankie passing what looks like a joint to Deadhead.

As with the vast majority of AIP productions, Beach Party was a fast and efficient shoot, with primary filming completed in just over three weeks at a cost of about $300,000. As it was shot in March and April at Newport, Balboa, Laguna and Malibu Beach, the producers and the cast had to deal with the weather. It may have been shot in Southern California, but the weather in March is still chilly. In Gary A. Smith’s informative book, American International Pictures: The Golden Years (Bear Manor 2013), John Ashley recalled that everyone had to wear body make-up because no one had a tan. (Almost no one, that is. In the liner notes to one of his albums, Dick Dale noted that he was the only one on the set with a genuine tan.) Ashley goes on: “One day Frankie and I had some dialogue to do on our way to the water with our surfboards. It was colder than hell that day and the water was freezing. We had our backs to the camera and Frankie said, 'Man, can you believe us? Two thirty-year old guys in body make-up playing teenagers.'”

Several real surfers (including Mickey Dora, who doubled for Cummings in long shots, although in reality Cummings was an accomplished surfer) were employed as doubles and extras. Sharp-eyed viewers can spot Bobbi Shaw, Meredith MacRae, Brian Wilson and Peter Falk (as one of The Rats) among the cast. In a hint of things to come, AIP regular Vincent Price also makes a memorable cameo plugging AIP’s upcoming film, The Haunted Palace

Beach Party was the highest grossing film AIP had made to that date, earning more its opening weekend than any of its competition, including Jerry Lewis’ The Nutty Professor and Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds. It spawned not only a host of sequels but also a host of imitators, including Surf PartyRide the Wild Surf, and For Those Who Think Young (all 1964); A Swingin’ Summer and Beach Ball (both 1965); and Catalina Caper and It’s a Bikini World in 1967. At one point, there was talk of a Beach Party TV series but it failed to get off the ground.

Beach Party is an entertaining movie with several laugh-out-loud moments. It’s a time capsule of its era, a cultural crossroads between rock 'n' roll, skimpy swimwear, surfing, motorcycles, Mad Magazine, and Ed 'Big Daddy' Roth and the car culture, all brought to audiences through the good offices of American International Pictures. To watch it is like going back to the early ‘60s, and therein lies its fun. Just don’t take it seriously.

Notable Quotables

Marianne: Well! I can see the headlines now: “Famed anthropologist Dr. R.O. Sutwell arrested as a Peeping Tom.”

Sutwell: My dear young woman, at this moment I’m concentration on developmental biology in human beings.

Marianne: That’s what I mean.

Sutwell: Marianne, this book will be my triumph.

Marianne: And you’ll never get it through the mail. But hang on to the picture rights. American International will snap it up in a minute.

(Sutwell explains to Cappy why he grew his beard)

Cappy: Amazing how our lives parallel. I mean, you got the, uh ... and ... you know how I happened to raise this? I got a dimple in my chin and I didn’t want anyone mistaking me for Kirk Douglas.

Sutwell: But you don’t look anything like Kirk Douglas.

Cappy: You see?

The Mask of Fu Manchu

By Ed Garea

The Mask of Fu Manchu (MGM, 1932) – Directors: Charles Brabin, Charles Vidor (uncredited). Writers: Irene Kuhn, Edgar Allan Woolf & John Willard (s/p). Sax Rohmer (novel, The Mask of Fu Manchu). Stars: Boris Karloff, Lewis Stone, Karen Morley, Charles Starrett, Myrna Loy, Jean Hersholt, Lawrence Grant, & David Torrence. B&W, 68 minutes.

It’s hokum, hokum on a grand scale, but what saves it from being just another excursion into camp is the strength of its performances and the money lavished on sets. Despite a plot that bordered on the ridiculous, it went on to influence not only just about every serial featuring mortals versus super villains from the ‘30s to the early ‘50s, but also goes beyond that to James Bond and Indiana Jones.

As America slid deeper into the Great Depression, the studios were seeking to make films that not only appealed to an audience shell-shocked by the economy, but would provide enough of a return to keep the studio afloat. Universal had great success with Dracula and Frankenstein the year before and the other studios rushed to cash in on the horror boom. But MGM, like Warner Bros., eschewed the supernatural approach in favor of flesh-and-blood villains. For their villain they turned to the pulp novels of English writer Sax Rohmer (real name Arthur Sarsfield Ward), whose Fu Manchu series (14 novels and story collections published between 1913 and 1959) depicted the adventures of the Chinese criminal mastermind. For many readers, the series reinforced the concept of the “Yellow Peril,” a common fear of Asian domination at the time. Fu Manchu was the incarnation of the Yellow Peril: highly educated (with a doctor of philosophy from Edinburgh, a doctor of law from Christ’s College, and a doctor of medicine from Harvard), inscrutable, and totally amoral, seeking to wipe out the white race. He was not the first supervillain (that honor goes to Fritz Lang’s Dr, Mabuse), but Rohmer’s evil mastermind has been the subject of a number of films. A series of 23 short silent films starring H. Agar Lyons as Fu Manchu was made in England between 1923 and 1924, all of which seem to be lost today. Warner Oland, who later portrayed Charlie Chan, played Fu Manchu in three prior films for Paramount: The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu (1929), The Return of Dr. Fu Manchu (1930), and Daughter of the Dragon (1931). 

The studio beat the publicity drums to rouse audience interest. Colliers magazine serialized Rohmer’s latest Fu Manchu adventure, The Mask of Fu Manchu (on which the film is based) from May to July of 1932. Doubleday published the hardcover edition of the novel in October 1932. 

The film began production in early August 1932, with Charles Vidor as director and Courtenay Terrett writing the screenplay adaptation. Within a couple weeks, they were fired. A new team of scriptwriters and a new director – Charles Brabin – were hired as replacements. The production was rushed and chaotic, with Brabin reshooting Vidor’s material. Hollywood wags called it The Mess of Fu Manchu. It was also quite elaborate, accounting for the picture's relatively high cost for the period – over $327,000.

For its rendition of Fu Manchu, MGM borrowed Boris Karloff from Universal. To play his sex-crazed daughter, Fah Lo See, the studio called on its resident Exotic, Myrna Loy. When Karloff saw an early version of the script that called for him to bounce back and forth between speaking flawless Oxford English to speaking pidgin, he decided that the only way to approach his role was to not take it seriously. When Loy complained about the quality of the script he told her of his plans and she agreed to follow along. Being as the two of then had to be there, anyway, they might as well have some fun with it. In her autobiography Myrna Loy: Being and Becoming, the actress noted that when she saw the film many years later, “It astonished me how good Karloff and I were. Everyone else just tossed it off as something that didn't matter, while Boris and I brought some feeling and humor to those comic-book characters. Boris was a fine actor, a professional who never condescended to his often unworthy material.”

That attitude is what makes this film such fun to watch. We take a perverse pleasure in watching the wily doctor at work, and his daughter is an enticing piece of eye candy, a sadistic and sensual dragon lady. Lewis Stone was cast as Fu’s nemesis, Commissioner Nayland Smith of the British Secret Service, who was forever battling Fu wherever and whenever he appeared.

As the film opens, Sir Lionel Barton (Grant) has been summoned to the office of Commissioner Nayland Smith (Stone). Sir Lionel is astonished to to learn that Smith knows about his proposed expedition to the Gobi Desert to seek the tomb of Genghis Kahn. Smith informs Barton that Khan’s golden mask and scimitar are also being sought by Dr. Fu Manchu (Karloff), who believes that, once possessing these ancient artifacts, he can unite the Asian peoples in a war against the West. Thus, it is imperative that Barton get to the tomb before Fu Manchu. 

Later, at the British Museum, Barton tells his long-time friends and collaborators, Von Berg (Hersholt) and McLeod (Torrence), about the mission. They immediately agree to accompany him. However, as Barton leaves his office at the museum, he is set upon by three sinister figures who were disguised as mummies. They overpower and kidnap him.

Days later, Smith is visited in his office by Barton’s daughter Sheila (Morley), who is inquiring about the whereabouts of her father. Smith tells her he received a telegram informing him that Fu Manchu is holding Sir Lionel captive somewhere near Liangchow. He also tells her he is sending an expedition to rescue her father, and that McLeod and Torrence, along with Sheila’s fiancé, Terry Granville (Starrett), will carry on with the quest for Genghis Kahn’s artifacts. Sheila wishes to go with them, arguing that her knowledge of the expedition, learned over the years from her father, will save precious days of searching. Despite Smith’s apprehensions, she is determined to accompany the mission.

We now find ourselves at Fu Manchu’s headquarters, where he is attempting to bribe Sir Lionel for the information on the whereabouts of the secret tomb, first with the offer of money, then by the offer of his own daughter, Fah Lo See (Loy). When Barton rejects both with the proper amount of contempt, Fu subjects him to the “torture of the bell,” tying Barton under a large bell that is constantly rung. After some time has passed, Fu enters the room, stops the bell, and gives Barton a drink of salt water. He then offers fresh water, food and sleep if only Barton will tell him where the tomb is located. Barton still refuses, so Fu has the bell restarted. 

Meanwhile, with the help of Sheila, the expedition finds the entrance to Genghis Khan’s tomb. Von Berg, McLeod, Granville and Sheila lower themselves into the underground tomb. As McLeod breaks the seal on the tomb the group notes a warning posted above: “May the curse of the gods descend upon him and his forever who dares enter herein.” Once inside they discover the skeleton of Genghis Khan wearing the legendary golden mask. Resting on his lap is the golden scimitar. As Terry removes these artifacts, the team’s Chinese laborers rush into the chamber and throw themselves at the feet of Khan’s skeleton. They are only dispersed when the archaeologists fire their guns into the air.

Back at Fu’s palace, he is holding court, having gathered the leaders of all the Asian nations. He calls forth his “ugly and insignificant daughter” to address the assembly. Fah Lo See informs then that the prophecy is about to be fulfilled: Genghis Khan has returned to lead Asia against the world. 

The archaeologists reach town and find Nayland Smith waiting for them, having joined in the hunt for Fu Manchu. He takes them to a deserted house, telling them that he knows that Fu Manchu is in the vicinity, and that it is imperative that the artifacts are shipped out of the country as soon as possible so that they are in a position to negotiate for Sir Lionel. The artifacts are placed in an upper room with McLeod locked in to guard the treasures. However, Fu Manchu’s minions are watching, and before long McLeod is found dying with a knife in his back.

Smith now tells Granville it is imperative that they leave with the artifacts that night. Granville replies that everyone is worn out from the events of the day, but Smith reminds him of what Fu might do if he discovers they have a beautiful white woman with them. 

The next day, Terry finds a human hand wearing Sir Lionel's ring. Fu sends a messenger to inform the expedition that he will return Barton for the artifacts. Sheila agrees and Terry delivers the sword and mask to Fu. Fah Lo See, who is attracted to Terry, orders her father's men to whip him when the sword turns out to be fake. She wants to make love to him later, but is stopped by her father, who has other things in mind for Terry. Fu then has Sir Lionel's body delivered to the expedition's compound and Smith sadly reveals that he had made the phony relics to fool the evil warlord. He then tells Von Berg that he knows where Fu is hiding and sets out to rescue Terry. 

Smith enters an opium den, where he sees a man with the Tattoo of Manchu on his shoulder. He follows the man and locates the secret entrance to Fu's headquarters. After Fu discovers Smith, Smith demands the release of Terry just as Terry is about to be injected by Fu with a serum that will make him totally subject to the Doctor's will. Fu prepares the serum, derived from various reptiles and deadly insects, and tells Terry that it is the smallest dose, so that he will be himself again for Fah Lo See. Smith is tied to a table in a room where below him are alligators.

Soon Terry, now under the drug’s influence, goes to Sheila. Sheila suspects that Terry has been drugged when he blankly asks for the real artifacts, but she and Von Berg still go with him and are captured by Manchu's men. At Fu's headquarters, Sheila sees Fah Lo See with Terry and manages to snap him out of his stupor. Fu orders Sheila to taken away to be prepared as a human sacrifice to the gods. The next morning, as Sheila lies on the sacrificial table, Smith breaks free from his alligator-infested cell and releases Terry. Together they free Von Berg and tamper with Manchu's electricity machine, sending an electrical charge to the sword, killing the Doctor. While Terry rescues Sheila, Smith and Von Berg use the machine to send shocks to Manchu's men. On the boat back to England, Smith decides to throw the evil sword overboard, making the world safe once more for British imperialism.


The Mask of Fu Manchu is nothing if not outrageous, a lavish fantasy of paranoid Yellow Peril anxiety. The idea of the Yellow Peril was a common one in the Western world. In America, it dates back to the immigration of Chinese and Japanese after the Civil War. The fear really took off with the emergence of Japan as a world power after the First World War. One of the main sources for this fear was the media empire of William Randolph Hearst. Thus, it seems to be no accident that Hearst’s film unit, Cosmopolitan Productions, was the one behind the film. The racism runs throughout, commencing right from the opening scene where Nayland Smith cajoles Sir Lionel to take up his expedition by conjuring up visions of an all-out race war should Fu Manchu get to Genghis Khan’s relics first: “He’ll lead hundreds of millions of men to sweep the world.” This gets right to the roots of the fear – that a charismatic leader will emerge, unify the masses and lead them to the conquest of the West. 

Rohmer, on one hand, saw Fu Manchu, as “yellow peril incarnate.” Yet, despite these anti-Asian sentiments, Rohmer made Fu Manchu extraordinarily intelligent, even displaying noble traits. Rohmer also allowed for a certain grudging respect between the Chinese master criminal and his thoroughly British nemesis, Nayland Smith. This subtle point is lost in The Mask of Fu Manchu.

Of course, what every Asian man and woman desires is white men and women as bedmates. When Smith exhorts the expedition’s team to leave camp as soon as possible, he gives them a warning: “Do you suppose for a moment that Fu Manchu doesn’t know we have a beautiful white girl with us?” 

Later, when Terry is captured, Fu Manchu turns him over to his nympho daughter, Fah Lo See. She orders Terry to be strung up, stripped to the waist, and whipped into unconsciousness. She cries “Faster! Faster!” to the black slaves wielding the whips, watching in a state of undisguised and increasing sexual arousal. (In the original script, she does the whipping herself.) Having had her victim carried to her bedroom, Fah Lo See runs her long fingernails over his chest and is about to jump his bones when her father interrupts. She makes it clear to her father that she has designs on him as her next boy toy. "He is not entirely unhandsome, is he, my father?" To which Fu Manchu responds, "For a white man, no.” But the Doctor has thought up a way to get the knowledge of where the real treasures are. “May I suggest a slight delay in your customary procedure?” he says to his daughter, giving us a possible hint that this scenario has played out frequently before. The Doctor then uses his knowledge to extract the blood from a variety of toxic animals, including rattlesnakes and tarantulas, and mixing it with some of his own blood, concocts a serum that will render Terry completely under his will. After he has served his usefulness, Fu will return him to his daughter as her personal sex-slave.

Another instance of undisguised racism occurs after Fu Manchu takes Sheila into custody. “You hideous yellow monster,” she spits at him. The Doctor intends using her as a sacrifice to the gods in front of his assembled guests. Decked out in shimmering white robes, Shiela is carried in by the Doctor’s black servants while the crowds stretch out to paw at her. As she is placed upon the alter, Fu Manchu looms over her and addresses the crowd: “Would you all have maidens like this for your wives? Then conquer and breed! Kill the white man and take his women!” The crowd responds much as we expect, enthusiastically endorsing his idea.

At the end, after Fu has been vanquished, the heroes are on a boat when they suddenly hear a gong, followed by the arrival of a Chinese man (Willie Fung). Their worries are put to rest when the man, dimwitted and properly servile, speaking in pidgin English, is only announcing – between short bouts of inane giggling – that dinner is being served. We can all rest easy.

While the Asians, and Chinese in particular, are endowed by the scriptwriters with some intelligence (Fu Manchu, after all, has three doctorates), the Africans are reduced to little more than mindless brutes. Fu Manchu keeps a small army of black henchmen serving  as muscle, and sometimes as victims – nameless, faceless ciphers who stand around wearing nothing but nappies, lending a homoerotic undercurrent to the proceedings. It's hard to look at them without concluding that Fu Manchu and his daughter like having such models of masculine physicality on the premises.

Interestingly, as time passes and more Fu Manchu stories are put on film, none comes close to the malevolent spirit of this film. Even looking over this film today, the attitudes are so over the top as to be laughable, perhaps because we can see clearly that neither Karloff nor Loy is taking the nonsense seriously. In an interview given years later, Loy told of reading into psychology in order to understand her character better and going up to director Brabin, saying, “I’m playing a nymphomaniac.” In fact, the attitude of both Karloff and Loy gets us in the audience to sympathize with them, as the whites are so obviously humorless.

The film's main problem is its pacing. It seems to have been shot while the crew was on speed. Everything is happening at an accelerated pace, as though the object was to get the film over with as quickly as possible, making it seem even shorter than its 69 minutes. There were so many rewrites that the fate of Fah Lo See was entirely forgotten at the end. Director Brabin’s main failing is that he is not an action director. As a consequence, the film runs to the static and talky. Though it was shot by the noted cameraman Tony Gaudio, Brabin prefers to let the camera hang back and let the action play out in front of it rather than immersing it into the action. Brabin shoots Karloff for maximum malevolent effect. We first see him appearing on the right side of the frame while on the left an oval funhouse mirror distorts and stretches his face into a disembodied mask. The director’s use of underlighting for both Fu Manchu and Fah Lo See heightens their exotic menace. To further emphasize the difference, Karen Morely's Sheila is blonde and clad in white, while Loy's Fah Lo See is dark and clad accordingly.

Fortunately for Brabin’s rather static style, the film’s main attraction is its torture scenes, which are truly amazing, ranging from Sir Lionel tied upside-down inside a huge bell and tortured by dangling grapes over his lips and giving him salt water to drink to Nayland Smith placed on a bed precariously suspended over a pit of alligators along with a sand-timer that slowly causes it to overbalance. And, for added effect, Von Berg is tied to a seat between a giant clamp-like device with two spiked pads slowly moving towards him.

The sets, designed by Cedric Gibbons, are simply inspired. Brabin does an excellent job decking out Fu’s hideout, Kahn’s tomb and the hotel where the heroes stay with moody lighting and mysterious shadows. Also impressive are entire wall-size maps in the museum, the tomb interior filled with opulent costumery, and a bed built into the wall. 

Kenneth Strickfaden, famous for designing the laboratory equipment for Universal's Frankenstein films, was employed to create the film's electrical equipment. The makeup designed to transform Karloff into Fu Manchu required three hours preparation each day before shooting, with putty to fill in the area around his eyes and a reshaping of his nose. Tooth caps and long fingernails were applied, along with a wig, mustache and painted eyebrows.

The performances overall are excellent. As mentioned previously, both Karloff and Loy excel as the villains of the piece, even though there were times when both would break down into giggles reciting their lines. Karloff does a marvelous job playing his character to the hilt while being careful not to go overboard. He takes obviously obscene delights in the tortures he inflicts on his victims, balancing them out against a subservient, perfectly mannered Hollywood-type Chinese accent. Karloff’s interpretation is in direct contrast to the Fu Manchu portrayal by Christopher Lee over 30 years later: Karloff’s Fu Manchu is delightfully lascivious, while Lee’s is cold and distant.

Myrna Loy brings energy and conviction to the role of Fah Lo See. Exotically beautiful in her gowns and headdress, her sensuality and libidinous attitude pushed the limits of the Pre-Code era.

As Nayland Smith, Lewis Stone is given little to do besides direct traffic. Jean Hersholt, Karen Morely and Lawrence Grant bring solid professionalism to their black and white roles. Charles Starrett, playing boy toy Terry, didn’t make much of an impression in the film. Prepped by both Paramount and MGM to be a romantic star, he failed and landed at Columbia, where he made quite a niche for himself in the ‘40s as B-Western hero The Durango Kid. When the series finally ran out of steam in the early ‘50s after almost 50 movies, Starrett retired. Shrewd investments returned a small fortune that he and his wife used to travel the world.

Fu Manchu proved a difficult character to kill. He returned in 1940 in a 15-chapter serial for Republic, The Drums of Fu Manchu, with Henry Brandon as the Doctor. There were six Mexican films from 1943 to 1949 starring David T. Bamberg. John Carradine was Fu Manchu and Sir Cedric Hardwicke was Nayland Smith in a short televised play for NBC directed by William Cameron Menzies, The Adventures of Fu Manchu: The Zagat Kiss, in 1952. In 1956, Glen Gordon starred in a 30-minute syndicated series about the Doctor. It lasted for only 13 episodes before being canceled.

Christopher Lee starred in five Fu Manchu films produced by Harry Alan Towers: The Face of Fu Manchu (1965), The Brides of Fu Manchu (1966), The Vengeance of Fu Manchu (1967), The Blood of Fu Manchu (1968), and The Castle of Fu Manchu (1969). Tsai Chin played his daughter Lin Tang. Finally, Peter Sellers played both Fu Manchu and Nayland Smith in The Fiendish Plot of Fu Manchu (1980). 

But perhaps the most lasting effect of The Mask of Fu Manchu is the influence it has had on the action/adventure films that followed it. Such serials as Flash GordonBuck Rogers, and those with Commando Cody among others featured their heroes up against villains that employ elaborate electronic devices to try and enslave the earth. The James Bond series, both books and films, takes many cues from both Rohmer and The Mask of Fu Manchu. The most recent influence of the film can be seen in the Indiana Jones series, with archeologist Indy taking on the forces of evil wherever he finds them. While we may never see Dr. Fu Manchu again, we will still be able to enjoy those influenced by the style for years to come.

Memorable Dialogue

Fu Manchu introduces himself to Sir Lionel Barton: “I am a Doctor of Philosophy from Edinburgh. I am a Doctor of Law from Christ’s College. I am a Doctor of Medicine from Harvard. My friends, out of courtesy, call me ‘Doctor.’”

The Return of Doctor X

By Ed Garea

The Return of Doctor X (WB, 1939) – Director: Vincent Sherman. Writers: Lee Katz (s/p), William J. Makin (story). Stars: Humphrey Bogart, Rosemary Lane, Wayne Morris, Dennis Morgan, John Litel, Lya Lys, Huntz Hall, Charles C. Wilson, Vera Lewis, Howard C. Hickman, Olin Howard, Arthur Aylesworth, Cliff Saum, Charles Wilson, Joseph Crehan, Creighton Hale, & John Ridgely. B&W, 62 minutes.

Before High Sierra began to turn his fortunes around in 1940, Humphrey Bogart played many types of roles for the Warner Bros. factory. But his strangest may have been that of a vampire.

A vampire? Strange as it sounds, it’s true. No, Bogart wasn’t running around in a cape with a cheesy Hungarian accent calling himself Count Bogula. This is Warner Brothers, for whom horror pictures do not carry supernatural plots. Bogie is a deceased deranged scientist brought back to life by a living deranged scientist to help him with his research on blood. We hope that’s clear.

Though not a direct sequel to 1932’s Doctor XThe Return of Doctor X does share one small plot point with its predecessor, which we shall see later.

Bogie was billed third behind Wayne Morris (Kid Galahad), and Rosemary Lane (Four Daughters), both of whom the studio was grooming for stardom. As with Doctor X, the hero is a reporter. Morris is reporter Walter Garrett, known as “Wichita” around the office for his Kansas roots. Looking for an easy story he notices that European stage star Angela Merrova (Lys) is in town. He calls her up to arrange an interview, and by the tone of their conversation it seems as if he’s interviewed her before, for she wastes no time telling him to come over. When she hangs up we see a shadow lurking behind her and a gloved hand comes down over her mouth.

When Walt arrives at her hotel for the interview he finds the door unlocked. He enters and looks around, only to find her lifeless body on the floor with a neat, surgical stab wound right above the heart. Does he call the police? Not our boy. He calls his editor (Crehan) to report the incident and gives his story over the phone to the rewrite man. A real scoop.

When the police arrive later, to Walt’s surprise there is no body and the cops, led by Detective Ray Kincaid (Wilson), accuse him of making the whole thing up. But things are about to get worse, for the next day his boss calls him to the office where sitting across the desk is none other than Angela Merrova herself, who, along with the hotel, is suing the paper over the adverse publicity. The boss tells his reporter that he’s fired.

Walt is not the sort of person to take something like this lightly. Things just don’t add up, so he goes over to the hospital to talk things over with good friend Dr. Mike Rhodes (Morgan). Mike tells Walt that he’s getting ready for surgery, but to stick around, even though he tells him that the situation as Walt describes it is patently impossible. However, to placate his friend, Mike will bring the matter up to his colleague, Dr. Flegg (Litel), with whom he’s performing the operation.

But an odd complication arises: the operation calls for a rare blood type and the professional blood donor, who will give the necessary transfusion, has failed to arrive. Flegg is about to call off the operation when one of the nurses, Joan Vance (Lane), steps forward to inform Dr. Rhodes that she has that rare blood type and would be happy to be a donor. The operation goes off without a hitch. As they scrub up after, Rhodes mentions Garrett’s dilemma to Flegg while Flegg, a noted hematologist, is lecturing Rhodes on the importance of blood. Flegg also poo-poohs the notion.

Mike is called to the phone. It’s the police and they want him to come to the blood donor’s apartment. With Walt in tow, Mike arrives and learns the reason why the donor didn’t show up this morning: he’s dead. And what’s more, there isn’t a drop of blood in his body. Not only that, there’s scarcely a trace of spilled blood in the apartment. But Mike notices a few drops on the floor and takes them back to his lab for examination. The blood is determined to be from blood group IV (type O today). But the dead man’s blood was the rare blood group I (type AB). And further, to his surprise, he finds it isn’t human blood. Nor is it animal blood. He tells Walt that if he didn’t know better he’d swear it’s manufactured.

Mike tells Walt that he’s calling it a night and will pick up tomorrow, but he takes a cab to Dr. Flegg’s home. Walt trails him without his knowledge and spies through a window into Flegg’s office. While waiting for Flegg to return, Mike meets a strangely pale man with a white streak through his hair petting a white rabbit in his arms. He introduces himself as Dr. Flegg’s assistant, Dr. Marshall Quesne (pronounced “Kane”). Thus, after the film is nearly halfway through we finally see Bogart as Quesne. When Flegg returns Mike gives him the slide for examination. Flegg looks at it through his microscope and declares it to be nothing more than ordinary group IV blood. As Mike discusses the blood with Flegg, Quesne becomes noticeably distressed, and when Mike describes the blood as “artificial,” Quesne becomes so worked up that he crushes a beaker in his hand, cutting it and is reprimanded by Flegg.

After Mike leaves, Walt gets ready to depart when he spots none other than Merrova coming into Flegg’s building. He rushes to tell Mike about it and the next day they visit Merrova at her apartment. She confirms Walt's story and promises them that she’ll elaborate more on it the following day, as she’s waiting for Dr. Flegg to minister to her. But after Mike and Walt leave, it’s not Flegg who comes to see her, but Quesne. Uh oh. And the next day she is reported as not merely dead but really most sincerely dead. 

This, and the nagging feeling he has that he’s seen Quesne somewhere before, gets Walt to thinking. Cajoling Pinky (Hall), the keeper of the paper’s morgue, to let him in, Garrett begins going through past clippings before finally coming to a picture and story of Quesne from two years back. He discovers that Quesne’s real name is Dr. Xavier and was put on trial for starving a baby to death in an experiment. Found guilty of first-degree murder he was electrocuted in the chair.

When Walt and Mike visit the cemetery and find Xavier’s grave empty, they pay a visit to Flegg. Confronted with the evidence, Flegg confesses. He had been working on a technique for the reanimation of the dead at the time of Xavier’s execution and realized this was the perfect opportunity to test his theories with Xavier as the ideal guinea pig. If successful, Xavier’s vast knowledge would help him perfect the technique. He stole Xavier’s body, hooked it up to his machines, and was successful in restoring the doctor to life. However, he ran into a hurdle when he discovered that a complete change of blood was necessary for the process to work. Flegg, a noted hematologist, developed a synthetic blood he hoped would do the trick. It brought Xavier back to life but also created a need within him for fresh blood to stay alive. He has become, in a sense, a technical vampire. The only blood that will keep him going is the rare blood type that only one in 10 people has. Angela Merrova had that exact type and Quesne killed her to obtain it. He doesn’t drink it in the sense that a normal vampire would, but rather transfuses it into his body. 

Flegg goes on to tell them that when he discovered what Quesne had done to Merrova he used a new experimental version of his synthetic blood to save her, but ultimately the new version proved no better than the older one. Mike’s “professional blood donor” also had blood compatible with Quesne’s, and he was the next victim.

After Mike and Walt leave, Quesne, who had been spying at the window, appears. Flegg tells him that he confessed all to the duo, but the only thing Quesne is interested in is Flegg’s book of donors. Flegg refuses to surrender the book and Quesne shoots him to get it. The sound of the gunshots brings Mike and Walt back to the office. Flegg is barely alive, but has enough time to tell them what Quesne was after. They realize that Joan’s name is in the book and they rush out to grab her before Quesne gets to her. But it's too late. Quesne has tricked her into a cab and is taking her to his secret laboratory for dinner. They try to figure out where Quesne could have taken her before Walt remembers that in the articles he’s read Quesne had a secret laboratory in the swamps outside Newark. Contacting the police, they race to the scene, where Quesne is just about ready to link Joan up to his equipment. A gunfight breaks out, and as Quesne attempts to escape over the roof, he is shot down and killed.


A film buff who has never seen this before has probably been warned that it’s one of the worst movies ever made. At least, that’s the opinion of many critics and bloggers. Truth be told, it’s not a good movie, but it’s far from the worst. It is what it is: a B-programmer, made in a hurry and on the cheap. It’s Bogart’s only horror/science fiction movie and I think the reason why many people downgrade it so radically is the bizarre makeup Bogie wears. With that pasty face and white streak through his flattop he looks positively ridiculous. One would surmise that considering the movie and his role therein that he would either ham it up or walk through it. He does neither, actually turning in a good performance. 

Over the years it’s been said that The Return of Doctor X was a punishment film for Bogart; that it was Jack Warner’s way of getting back at him for all the complaining Bogart did about the sorts of movies he was in over the years. And there may be some truth to that. Bogart was under contract, and to those under contract it’s either ‘my way or the highway,’ the highway being a suspension without pay and the added suspension time added to the end of the actor’s contract. Bogie may have been assuaged by the fact that good friend Vincent Sherman was making his directorial debut. Later in life, Bogart was quoted saying about the vampire role, “If it had been Jack Warner's blood maybe I wouldn't have minded as much. The trouble was, they were drinking mine and I was making this stinking movie.”

There’s also a rumor that Bela Lugosi was offered the role, and when he turned it down, the studio turned to Bogart. I’m not buying this for two reasons: (1) Lugosi may have been in England at the time, filming Dark Eyes of London; and (2) Lugosi would never turn down a role offered by a major studio. He was not renowned for carefully choosing his projects; he went where the money was, and if it was coming from Warner Bros., with the promise of future roles if the film did well, he certainly would have signed on. 

What makes the film so much fun to watch, besides Bogart, is Vincent Sherman’s direction. Incidentally, he was almost canned after his first day. Even though he was working in the B-movie unit with veterans like producer Bryan Foy and cameraman Sid Hickox, Sherman began by shooting the film as if he was making an A picture. When he took 10 takes for a simple 45-second shot, Jack Warner sent Foy a memo that was a short, but not sweet: "If he does this again he won't be on the picture any longer.” But when the picture made a handsome profit Sherman was forgiven his past sin and added to the roster of Warner directors, going on to make such notable films as All Through the NightOld AcquaintanceMr. Skeffington, and Nora Prentiss.

With The Return of Doctor X, Sherman keeps things moving along at a brisk pace, not giving the audience time to rest, lest they consider the holes in the plot. For instance, consider that Walt (who is a friend of the cemetery’s caretaker) suggests breaking into Dr. Xavier’s grave to Mike, and without taking any time to think it over, readily agrees, as if Walt was inviting him to the local saloon for a drink or two. Then after they exhume the body, they walk away, telling the caretaker to fill it in. I suppose this was supposed to pass as a lighter moment.

But with the help of cinematographer Sid Hickox, Sherman crafts a film with loads of stylish but unreal atmosphere. Hickox and Sherman do an excellent job in using underlighting for almost every medium shot and close-up to project the characters in our minds. Litel, for instance, is shot in such a way that he seems sinister, with his goatee and lectures on the nature and importance of blood, though as soon as we get a load of Bogart we know right away who the bad guy is, but is he working with the mysterious Dr. Flegg? And what about Angela Merrova? Shot in this way, she comes across as an otherworldly vamp. Huge shadows are seen on the walls, especially in violent scenes, such as the murder of Merrova. Though shot on an obvious studio set, Sherman takes pains to give it a sort of surreal quality.

As noted before, Bogart gives a wonderful performance as the bizarre Dr. Xavier. John Litel also shines as Dr. Flegg, keeping us guessing to the last about his true involvement with Xavier. And Dennis Morgan gives a performance that promises better things – and bigger roles – in the future. Wayne Morris, on the other hand, plays his usual “Gee Whiz, Aw, Shucks” type of character, and Rosemary Lane is given little to do other than to be a plot device, despite her second billing.

Although we’re somewhat led to think this is going to be a sequel to 1932’s Doctor X, the fact is the plots have almost nothing in common save for the fact they are murder mysteries cantered around a reporter-hero, and both are somewhat tongue-in-cheek. But there is one small plot point both movies share. As I mentioned earlier: Doctor X was concerned with synthetic flesh while The Return of Doctor X was concerned with synthetic blood. But the real fun of the sequel is to watch Humphrey Bogart, long before he became a mega-star, vamping it up in the role of an undead bloodsucker.

Watch closely for future psychotronic stars Glenn Langan (The Amazing Colossal Man) and William Hopper, here billed as “DeWolf Hopper,” using his middle name (20 Million Miles to Earth).

From the Life Imitating Art Department: Japanese medical researchers are working on perfecting an artificial blood to be used in operations and lessening the need for frequent donors.

The Disembodied 

By Ed Garea

The Disembodied (Allied Artists, 1957) – Director: Walter Grauman. Writer: Jack Townley. Stars: Allison Hayes, Paul Burke, John Wengraf, Eugenia Paul, Joel Marston, Robert Christopher, Dean Fredericks, A.E. Ukonu, Paul Thompson, & Otis Greene. B&W, 66 minutes.

The beautiful Allison Hayes is the only reason to watch this tepid jungle exploitation drama. Alert – or desperate – viewers will recognize the set as one from Allied Artists’ Bomba series, and a few of the situations are almost identical to plot devices used in those films.

Author-lecturer Tom Maxwell (Burke), accompanied by companions Norman Adams (Marston) and Joe Lawson (Christopher) are in the middle of a photographic safari in Africa when the unfortunate Joe is mauled by a lion. As their jeep is disabled, Tom and Norman, aided by native guide Gogi (Thompson), bring Joe on a stretcher to the compound of Dr. Karl Metz (Wengraf). As the doctor attempts to save Joe’s life, Tom and Norman are introduced to the comely Tonda (Hayes), Metz’s much younger wife. What they don’t realize is that they interrupted Tonda’s plan to rid herself of Metz by sticking pins into a voodoo doll made in his likeness. 

Metz at first wants to turn them away, but the condition of Joe is such that he lets them stay while he tends to the wounded man. Tonda is immediately attracted to Tom and attempts to seduce him. Caught in the act by Suba (Fredericks), Metz’s manservant, Tonda seduces Suba to keep him from informing to the good doctor. Mara (Paul), Suba’s wife, sees them embracing and is enraged. However, she keeps it to herself for the time being.

During the night, the noise of drums awaken Tom and Norman. Along with Gogi, they steal over to find where the noise is emanating. They find a voodoo ceremony in progress with Tonda as the main attraction, dancing wildly in a tight-fitting sarong with a leather belt and a dagger conspicuously positioned over her navel. Wearing makeup more suitable for an entertainer, Tonda is accompanied by two black dancers and a line of drums. Replete with talismans, and with dead chickens being thrown at her feet, Tonda ends her performance by striking a pose; the whole thing looks like something right out of an L.A. nightclub. Gogi informs them that Tonda is no mere go-go dancer. She is none other than the Voodoo Queen herself. 

The next morning, Tom and Norman find Joe completely healed, but still in a state of shock. They question Metz, who cannot explain how Joe's wounds healed completely overnight. Later, Suba’s body is found with his heart cut out. Tom and Norman return to the site of the voodoo ceremony and determine that Suba was killed there as part of the ritual. What they do not know is that Tonda had Suba’s heart cut out in a ceremony to cause his soul to migrate to Joe’s body.

Norman is anxious to leave and takes Gogi with him to try to bring their disabled jeep to the compound. Metz tells Tom that he is actually a doctor of psychology; he wouldn’t know a scalpel from a butter knife. This prompts Tom to ask him if he has any knowledge of voodoo. Tom accuses Metz of dabbling in voodoo, telling the doctor that he experienced it while researching a book in Haiti. Metz states that he has made some notes on the local practices, but warns Tom that further inquiry would prove dangerous. Only later does Tom realize that Tonda is the agent, with a plan to trade-in her aged husband for the much more desirable Tom.

Joe, with Suba’s soul within him, in now in a trance-like state and under Tonda's control. When Joe sees Tom and Tonda kissing, he attacks Tom with a knife, but Tom overpowers him. Tom questions Metz and threatens to kill the doctor unless he explains Joe's condition. Metz replies that he is not responsible for Joe's state. Later, the doctor accuses Tonda of meddling in voodoo and of being romantically involved with Tom. 

Norman and Gogi manage to revive the jeep and return to the compound. While they make preparations to leave, Tonda persuades Joe to take her along. However, she insists that Tom kill her husband. When Tom refuses, Tonda threatens him with a knife. He slaps her and tells her to stay away from him. Early the next morning, Tom and Norman find that Gogi has been stabbed to death and all their guns are missing. 

That night, when Tom attempts to steal some of Metz's weapons, Metz surprises him, gives him a gun and requests to accompany them. When Metz tells Tonda that he’s leaving, she stabs him. Soon after, Tonda kills Kabar (Greene), another servant, and tries to frame Tom for the murder. As Norman is about to leave to get help for the wounded Metz, he props up Kabar's body in the jeep to make it appear that Kabar is still alive and that Tonda's voodoo has failed. Confused by her apparent failure, Tonda conjures up another ritual, commanding Joe, who is still under her spell, to kill Tom. But just as Joe is about to attack and dispatch Tom, Mara appears and conveniently stabs Tonda to death, thereby releasing her control over Joe. Later, as Metz recovers, Tom, Norman and Joe head back to civilization.


There are some pictures with bad reputations that, at second glance aren’t as bad as their reputations would have one believe. However, The Disembodied is just as awful as its reputation warrants. A standard B-jungle exploitation following in the tracks of MGM’s White Cargo (1942) and Fox’s White Witch Doctor (1953), the film features an uninspired screenplay that shows its cards way too early and must depend on creating tension between the characters to lead it to a conclusion. (Hayes’ character of Tonda seems to have been named after Lamarr’s character of Tondelayo in White Cargo.) But nothing like that occurs as the script slowly meanders to an unsatisfying end. 

Even though it’s only 66 minutes long, the movie contains too many dull stretches where there’s nothing happening. Dependent on action after telling us what’s coming so early in the film, The Disembodied is loaded with characters just sitting or standing around talking about what they’re going to do, with the result that the audience is bored to tears. It was the first assignment for director Walter Gruman, who later went on to a long career, mainly in television. He was best known as the director of Barnaby Jones. The producer was Ben Schwalb, who took over the producer’s reins for the Bowery Boys franchise after original producer Jan Grippo left the series. Schwalb also has other films like Queen of Outer Space, The Hypnotic Eye, and Tickle Me on his resume.

The Disembodied is unusual for its genre in that it uses no stock footage of animals in its establishing shots. It’s clear to see that the film is firmly set on a backlot, as one can easily spot plastic plants among the foliage. Also, the film features both black and white natives. I know it’s supposed to be Africa and the white natives were placed there so that any hint of miscegenation can be avoided. It’s all part of the beauty of a bottom-of-the-barrel B-jungle adventure.

In fact, it seems so generic that film buffs sometimes confuse it with the AIP bottom-of-the-barrel jungle feature, Voodoo Woman, made the same year, but released earlier (March as opposed to August 1957). But Voodoo Woman (originally titled Black Voodoo) at least boasts a monster, even if it is Paul Blaisdell in his She-Creature suit sporting a blond wig. For the trivia fans out there, Otis Greene appears in both pictures.

Unlike Voodoo Woman, however, The Disembodied is reasonably well-acted, boasting a cast that was a Who’s Who of psychotronic actors: Paul Burke (Psychic Killer, Valley of the Dolls), Allison Hayes (The Undead, The Unearthly, Attack of the 50-Foot Woman), John Wengraf (Gog, The Return of Dracula, 12 to the Moon), Joel Marston (Point of Terror), Robert Christopher (Spook Chasers, Creature of the Walking Dead, Frankenstein Island), Dean Fredericks (The Phantom Planet, Jungle Jim TV series), Paul Thompson (Jungle Man-Eaters, The Leech Woman), and Otis Greene (Voodoo WomanPretty Maids All in a Row).

The odd one out is Eugenia Paul, who began her artistic career as a ballerina, but who ended up mainly guesting on television in addition to doing a few B-movies. The Disembodied was her only venture into the psychotronic. She was married to Robert Strauss; not the actor, but the heir to the Pep Boys auto store chain.

The writing is generally dull and filled with cliches. There’s one point in the film where our heroes, Tom and Norman, are roused from a peaceful sleep by the sound of drums. They come outside to investigate, stuck as they are in the middle of nowhere with nothing but vegetation around them. Tom looks around and with all the seriousness he can muster, says, “Seems to be coming from the jungle!” No kidding.

But as I said before, it’s the performance of Allison Hayes that makes the film watchable. Femme fatales don’t come any better. It’s actually fun to watch her as she changes from a malicious wife sticking pins in a doll supposed to be her husband to a sultry seductress to a scared innocent and finally to an enraged woman bent on revenge when her plans go awry. She brings more than her share of conviction, which combined with the intensity of her performance, makes her character all the more believable. She could have simply gone through the motions and it wouldn’t have mattered a bit. Decked out as she is through most of the film in a leopard print sarong with a halter top, and with every motion, every movement, reeking of sexuality, Hayes has us entranced right from the beginning.

This may come as a surprise to some out there who go by the old adage that only bad actors are in bad movies. And Hayes had done more than her share of her bad movies. But in her case it just isn’t true. She came along at a rather awkward time in Hollywood history. The twin punches of the Supreme Court anti-trust ruling against the studios and the advent of television caused the studios to cut back. In the ‘30s and ’40s, new talent was openly welcomed and allowed to flourish. However, in the ‘50s, newcomers had to come with a loaded resume – a proven track record on Broadway or other theater cred. Hayes was a beauty contest winner: Miss District of Columbia, which she represented in the Miss America pageant. With no real resume, she wound up in bit parts for Universal, who released her in 1955 as the outcome of a lawsuit she filed against the studio for injuries received while filming Sign of the Pagan (1954), starring Jack Palance.

She then signed with Columbia and actually had a decent role in the Civil War drama Count Three and Pray (1955), but the reviewers ignored her performance and concentrated on the film’s star, Joanne Woodward. She was loaned out for a few low-budget actioners and signed with Roger Corman for her role as Erica Page in his Western, Gunslinger, opposite Beverly Garland, with whom she is often compared for the title of “Queen of the B’s.” However, a broken arm sustained when she fell off a horse on set kept her inactive for a period of time. After recovering, she began appearing in supporting roles in television productions. Her last film for Columbia before they released her was a supporting role in the low-budget, ridiculous thriller, Zombies of Mora Tau (1957).

After appearing in MST 3000 favorite The Unearthly (1957), and needing work, she freelanced at several Poverty Row studios in a slew of films that can be described as “wretched” at best. She began to expand her horizons into television and became a frequent guest star in several series, with a recurring role as “Ellie Winters” for seven episodes of the Gene Barry Western, Bat Masterson (1958-59). She also parlayed a friendship with Raymond Burr, whom she met on the set of Count Three and Pray, into several guest shots in the ‘60s, while also earning a paycheck as “Priscilla Longworth” for two years of the soap opera General Hospital (1963-64).

But as the ‘60s rolled on, her health began to give way and she was eventually unable to walk without the use of a cane. She landed a very minor role in the Elvis Presley film, Tickle Me (1965) and made her final screen appearances as a guest on Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. (1967).

Hayes had traced the origin of her illness to the ingredients of a calcium supplement that a doctor had prescribed. When she hired a toxicologist to examine the ingredients contained in the pills, he replied that the calcium pills contained extremely high levels of lead and concluded that Hayes most likely was suffering from lead poisoning. The actress later began a campaign to have the FDA ban the import or sale of the food supplement.

Reduced to an invalid, Hayes moved to San Clemente, California, as her condition continued to get worse. In 1976, she was diagnosed with leukemia, for which she was treated regularly at La Jolla. While at the hospital receiving a blood transfusion, her condition unexpectedly and rapidly deteriorated as she experienced chills, combined with flu-like symptoms and intense pain. She was transferred to the University of California Medical Center in San Diego on February 26, 1977, where she died the following day, one week before her 47th birthday. Ironically, in a letter that arrived after death, the FDA informed her that amendments were being made to the laws governing the importation of nutritional supplements, largely as a result of her situation.

Thirteen Women 

By David Skolnick and Ed Garea

Thirteen Women (RKO, 1932) – Director: George Archainbaud. Writers: Tiffany Thayer (story). Bartlett Cormack & Samuel Ornitz (s/p). Stars: Irene Dunne, Ricardo Cortez, Jill Esmond, Myrna Loy, Mary Duncan, Kay Johnson, Florence Eldridge, C. Henry Gordon, Peg Entwistle, Harriet Hagman, Edward Pawley, Blanche Friderici, & Wally Albright. B&W, 59 minutes.

Before we begin we have a confession to make. Both of us are huge fans of Myrna Loy. Like millions of other film fans, we can’t help but be taken with her superb combination of beauty, poise, intelligence and impeccable acting chops. One thing about Loy we’ve noticed over the years is that while she may have been in a few stinkers, the quality of the film never affected the quality of her acting. She approached every part with total professionalism.

That commitment to doing her best came in handy with Thirteen Women. As with many of her early pictures, were it not for her the film would be a lot worse than it already is. However, Thirteen Women holds a special place in our hearts. As we were planing the review we learned that it was the first Myrna Loy film either of us saw. Ed was about 11 or 12 when he first saw it. He was alerted to it by TV Guide, which described it as a horror film, and like most young boys he was enchanted by horror movies. As for David, it came later in life and quite by accident. He was in his late teens, turned on a local station and watched it. As the film is less than an hour with another 15 minutes worth of commercials, it was a quick and enjoyable way to kill some time.

Loy was on loan to RKO from MGM to play Ursula Georgi in this film. The star originally penciled in for the part was Zita Johann, but Johann strongly objected to what she believed was some of the more tawdry aspects of the script. She asked for and received a release from her RKO contract.

Thirteen Women has the look of a film that has been heavily edited, and there is good reason for that: 14 minutes were cut from the original running time of 73 minutes for theatrical release. Speculation for the cuts runs from poor previews to bad reviews when the film opened. Supposedly it was pulled from circulation with the cuts being made before it was rereleased to the theaters.

Several roles were telescoped in the editing process when the film was shortened. For instance, Peg Entwistle’s screen time was cut from 16 minutes to only 4. In fact, we only meet seven of the women and we see two die, including one as the result of negligence in a trapeze act by her sister. Two of the characters cut from the film were played by Betty Furness and Phyliss Fraser (who later married publisher Bennett Cerf). Also cut was Leon Ames.  

There is much to love and much to laugh at in this film, with the laughter coming not so much from the plot as from the editing, which made the plot look more ridiculous than it already is.

Constructed as a suspense thriller, though we know almost from the first who the killer is, we first meet trapeze artist June Raskob (Duncan) receiving a letter from Swami Yogadachi (Gordon). Enclosed with the letter is a horoscope. The letter predicts the death of “someone close to her.” She immediately thinks of her sister May (Hagman), who works the trapeze act with her. She’s visited in her dressing room by her old sorority sister Hazel Clay Cousins (Entwistle). June wants to tell her about the letter, but she gets the call to go on.

As the sisters are performing their trapeze act, June is consumed with the thought of May’s death. They are about to perform their famous double-flip, done without the presence of a safety net. As May goes into her double-flip, June fails to catch her and May falls to her death. We are told that June had a complete mental breakdown after the accident.

Swami Yogadachi is befuddled by all this. All his horoscopes predicted great happiness for the recipients. With him is Ursula Georgi (Loy). The Swami tells her he can’t understand why his predictions are not coming true. For Ursula, however, he predicts a horrible death in an accident, most likely while on a train. But after Ursula sends the Swami to sleep, she tears up his horoscope, substituting her own, along with a letter of doom to which he forges his signature. This latest letter is addressed to Hazel Cousins. Hazel is shown shooting her husband with a newspaper headline superimposed in which she's quoted as saying, "I must have lost my mind."

Ursula takes out a book. In the book are photos of 13 women. She crosses out two of the photos. We cut to another character, Helen Frye (Johnson). She picks up the phone. It’s her old school friend Laura Stanhope (Dunne). They discuss the deaths of both May and Hazel’s husband. Laura invites Helen out to Southern California, telling her that she’s inviting the others so as get to the bottom of all this.

Another old school chum, Grace Coombs (Eldridge) has received a letter. Only this one is from the Swami himself, predicting his own death on July 5. As Laura and Grace discuss matters, we learn (or rather figure out due to the editing) that they are two of 13 sorority sisters who, after graduation from St. Alban’s Seminary in Northern California, began sending “round robin” letters to keep in touch with each other. After one mentions her experience with the famous astrologer, Swami Yogadachi, they all start writing to him for their horoscopes. What they don’t know, however, is that the Swami is under the influence of Ursula, who rewrites each of the Swami’s horoscopes and letters in order to exact her revenge on the sisters. And the Swami is true to his word; we see him on a subway platform with Ursula. As the train comes in, she stares at him, he goes under her spell and subsequently falls in front of the train to his death.

We now cut to Helen, who is on a train heading for Los Angeles. She, too, has gotten a letter from the Swami predicting death, along with a horoscope documenting that fact. As she orders a drink in the club car, who should she run into but Ursula Georgi in the flesh. It is Ursula who makes the first move. At first Helen doesn’t even remember her, but it comes to her in further conversation. We learn that Ursula was a classmate of the sorority sisters and was forced to leave school. Helen discusses the death of her daughter, who was only three years old when she died. Helen then shows Ursula the letter predicting her suicide. For some reason, Helen is carrying a gun in her luggage. After Ursula leaves to retire for the night, Helen returns to her room and blows her brains out with the gun.

Cut back to Laura’s and she is busy entertaining another classmate, Jo Turner (Esmond). As they chat, Laura’s chauffeur, Burns (Pawley), interrupts to say he waited for Helen but she never arrived. 

At the station, Sgt. Barry Clive (Cortez) is investigating Helen’s death. Questioning other passengers, he runs into Ursula, who gives her name as Miss Clemons. She acknowledges speaking to Helen, but says that she only knows her from the train and that they didn’t speak long.

Grace Coombs arrives at Laura’s for dinner, followed by Sgt. Clive, who drops in to inform the ladies of Helen’s suicide. Grace believes the Swami’s letters, but Laura and Jo remain skeptical. After Grace leaves, Laura confides to Jo that she has also received a horoscope and letter predicting that her young son, Bobby (Albright) will meet with a terrible accident on his upcoming birthday. With prompting from Jo, Laura declares that she will tell Sgt. Clive everything the next time they meet. 

Later, we see Burns arriving home, and who should be there waiting for him? Ursula, of course. It seems Burns met Ursula while working for the Swami and that he is very much in love with her, becoming her co-conspirator. Burns informs her that Laura might be too tough to break. Ursula seems to have anticipated this, for the next day young Bobby receives a tin of chocolates in the mail. Before he can get the chance to eat one, Laura takes it away. She brings it to Sgt. Clive, who has it analyzed. The lab chemist says the chocolates have been tampered with and anyone unlucky enough to eat one would die within 30 seconds. Sgt. Clive notes that the candies were mailed right after the Swami died and advises Laura to keep a close watch on Bobby. Noticing a pin on Laura’s lapel, he asks her about it. She tells him it’s a sorority pin from St. Alban’s. Clive tells her he found one on Helen.

Clive’s next stop is St. Alban’s, where he has a discussion with Miss Kirsten (Friderici), the dean of the school. During the course of their discussion, she tells Clive that while in New York to see Helen she also saw Ursula Georgi, a former classmate of the women. When Clive asks her for a photo, she tells him that Ursula didn’t stay long enough to get photographed, but remembers her as a “sweet and mystical” young lady.

Ursula gives Burns a package containing an exploding ball to deliver to Bobby for his birthday. Burns doesn’t want to go along with it, but one look from Ursula changes his mind. He gives Laura the ball as a birthday gift from him. Laura makes the mistake of telling the little brat that the package contains Burns’ birthday gift as she places it on the top shelf of his bedroom closet. After she leaves, he tries to get at the ball in a little bit of suspense, but only succeeds in knocking down the packages in front of it as he retreats to his bed to feign sleep before his mother comes in.

Meanwhile, Sgt. Clive has sent to New York for information and a photo of Ursula. When the photo arrives, he recognizes her as the Miss Clemons he spoke to at the station. He also learns that Ursula is half-Hindu, half-Javanese and has worked for the Swami, as has Laura’s chauffeur, Burns. The capper comes when he discovers that Ursula has purchased dynamite. The person who sold it to her tells Clive that Ursula just looked at him and he was convinced.

Clive manages to catch up with Laura’s car, pulls up and tells her to throw the gift out of the car. She complies and the package explodes. Burns also exits the speeding car, leaving Laura in the back seat until Clive can jump over from his car and bring it to a halt. He advises Laura to take Bobby and get out of town until Ursula is caught.

As Laura’s train pulls away, she retires to her stateroom only to discover Ursula waiting for her. Before she is about to kill Laura, Ursula explains why she killed the others or had them kill. It seems that being a “half-breed,” she tried hard to pass for white. And she would have made it if Laura and her group hadn’t blackballed her from their sorority. She worked hard to get into St. Alban’s and Laura and her friends made it all for naught. Ursula manages to hypnotize Laura but is spotted by Clive, who has set a trap. Ursula runs through the train and leaps from the back car to the tracks – and to her death – fulfilling the Swami’s prediction.


What does Thirteen Women in is haphazard editing despite a strong cast that includes Dunne, Loy, Cortez, Esmond (who was married to Laurence Olivier at the time), Eldridge (married to Frederic March) and the rather unusual astrological plot. Dunne has recently emerged as a top star off her starring role in the immensely profitable Back Street. The studio delayed the opening of Thirteen Women to take advantage of Dunne’s popularity in the belief that her presence would propel it at the box office. 

It didn’t. Among those that panned it was Variety, whose reviewer described it as follows: "Between covers it was fast light reading, thanks to the writing, but on celluloid it deteriorates into an unreasonably far-fetched wholesale butcher shop drama which no amount of good acting could save." 

Mordunt Hall at The New York Times describes it as “horror without laughter, horror that is too awful to be modish and too stark to save itself from a headlong plunge into hokum. Myrna Loy creeps among her old sorority sisters like a young woman suffering from insomnia and a desire to become an actress. Mr. Thayer's novel reputedly told its evil tale with something like caprice and a mischievous twinkle.”

If we were to assign blame for its failure we would give it to the screenplay which reportedly went through three or four revisions. We wonder if Ursula Georgi’s character evolved during the rewrites into the half-Hindu, half-Javanese it finally became. The name “Ursula Georgi” is more fitting for someone from Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, or Georgia than India or Java. We also suspect that the “Hindu” was added to explain her psychic powers and Javanese to give her the aura of the “yellow peril.” 

The writing and editing combine to leave several important questions unanswered. For instance, we have no idea where Ursula developed her power to control people to kill and do other horrible deeds, but we are led to believe her half-breed mystique is largely responsible for it. And even though the ending suggests that Laura is the last one standing, it’s sort of hard not to notice that two of the others, Jo Turner and Grace Coombs, simply vanish from the secret with no explanation. 

But, as we mentioned before, it is Myrna Loy who makes this film compelling viewing. Though only receiving fourth billing, Loy is never more mysterious than in this film as Ursula Georgi, the beautiful half-breed temptress with the power to make her victims kill or commit suicide. It's definitely one of her more exotic roles and she's so sexy it's not a stretch that men would kill for her considering the spell she casts. It was not a role she particularly wanted (unlike Zita Johann, Loy was a professional) as she describes it in her autobiography, Being and Becoming: “They dropped me right back into the vamp mold, loaning me to RKO for Thirteen Women. As a Javanese-Indian half-caste, I methodically murder all the white schoolmates who've patronized me. I recall little about that racist concoction, but it came up recently when the National Board of Review honored me with its first Career Achievement Award. Betty Furness, a charming mistress of ceremonies, who had started at RKO doubling for my hands in closeups when I was busy elsewhere, said that she'd been dropped from Thirteen Women. (Despite the title, there were only ten in the final print.) 'You were lucky,' I told her, 'because I just would have killed you, too. The only one who escaped me in that picture was Irene Dunne, and I regretted it every time she got the parts I wanted.'”

Though Loy’s character is supposed to be the heartless villain of the piece, as the film progresses, we realize she holds a legitimate and justifiable grudge against 13 cruel 12-year-old girls – who are now adults, though they continue to wear their boarding school sorority pins and most remain very close with each other. That doesn't mean she has the right to kill, but it's awfully difficult to feel sorry for them. These were truly mean girls who wronged Ursula when she tried to fit in with the white girls at boarding school — only to have them treat her cruelly and make her leave. We don't know what Ursula looked like at 12, but as a woman, she looks white with a nice tan. 

It’s during her final confrontation with Laura Stanhope that our sympathy goes out for Ursula. Laura asks her, “What have I done, what has anyone done, to make you so inhuman?” And Ursula gives her an answer that we’re sure Laura didn’t like, but one that moves our hearts: “When I was twelve-years-old, white sailors...” she says as her voice trails off, suggesting sexual victimization, possibly rape. Later she asks Laura if she knows what it means to be a half-breed, a half-caste, in a world ruled by whites? “If you’re male, you’re a coolie; if you’re female, you’re...well...The white half of me cried out for the courtesy and protection women like you get.”

This is positively radical and this merging of race and gender has the effect of draining every last bit of sympathy from Laura and her friends. And that each of the women are not only shallow enough to write to a swami, under Ursula's power, seeking their fortunes – all of which tell of their death or the death of a loved one, some by their own hands – and that most of them believe, it only shows how incredibly vapid they all are. 

Ursula cried out to be accepted, to enjoy the advantages her tormentors enjoyed. However, they don’t seem to have made out so well. Two of them were working in the circus as a trapeze act. That the parents of two girls spent money on boarding school and the pair end up as trapeze artists in a traveling circus would lead one to believe whatever tuition was paid was money not well spent. None has a successful marriage. Only one has a child, and another mourns a child that has died. 

Irene Dunne is positively awful at times, completely overacting even though there aren't that many scenes with dialogue. But in her defense she isn’t given much to do other than to be the center around which the plot revolves. As the leader of the 13 women, she doesn't believe the doomed fortunes each of them have until her spoiled brat of a son – who stares at the camera way too much for our taste – nearly dies from wanting to stuff his face with chocolate and then selfishly tries to swipe a wrapped birthday present before his special day. It would be a hell of a birthday for the kid as the present is an explosive inside a rubber bouncing ball. Gordon is exceptional as the Swami, while Cortez and Esmond also acquit themselves well, although Esmond simply disappears without any explanation.

The death scenes are pretty hokey with a phony flash of light occurring either just before or while they are happening. The ending in which Ursula jumps off the back of a moving train to her death is flat; it looks like it would have probably resulted in a nasty sprained ankle, but certainly not her demise. Director Archainbaud keeps the movie moving along at an exceptionally brisk pace without much character development, but that seems to work in favor of the film as we're treated to one action scene after another. He handles the Grand Guignol elements well, building the suspense: the trapeze act, which he films in slow motion, prolonging our agony, the Swami's fall from the subway platform with Ursula right next to him, and Ursula’s attempts to murder Laura’s son. It’s some pretty strong stuff for 1932.

However, it was a year for some pretty strong stuff: witness Murder in the Rue MorgueDoctor XFreaksIsland of Lost Souls, and Kongo, all released in 1932. In the early ‘40s, Archainbaud moved to B-Westerns, including Hopalong Cassidy and Gene Autry movies as well as the TV shows that followed those series. He also directed episodes of such Westerns as The Lone RangerThe Adventures of ChampionAnnie Oakley, among others and, up until his death in 1959, Lassie. Our final verdict is that while the movie is ridiculous in several spots, it's also a ton of fun as Loy gets to vamp for the screen even though she is somewhat stiff at times and has few lines to recite – but she looks damn good doing so.

Faces in the Crowd: Peg Entwistle

Besides Myrna Loy, one reason why many film buffs find Thirteen Women interesting is because it marks the only film appearance of the tragic Peg Entwistle, whose fame sadly comes from the fact that she jumped to her death from the top of the “HOLLYWOODLAND” sign. 

Born Lillian Millicent Entwistle, on July 1, 1908, in Port Talbot, Wales, United Kingdom, she grew up interested in the stage and when she became older, she worked there on stage. But most of all, Peg wanted a shot at Hollywood. 

In 1924, Peg was enrolled into Henry Jewett's Repertory School in Boston. Peg was taught to act by famed director and actress, Blanche Yurka. Peg performed in every play by Henrik Ibsen while under Yurka. Her performance as Hedvig in Ibsen’s The Wild Duck was said to have inspired a young girl who was in the audience with her mother, Ruthie. When this girl (who was the same age as Peg) saw Peg's performance, she became determined to become an actress, telling her mother that, "I want to be exactly like Peg Entwistle!" For many years afterward, this young girl would mention in interviews and her biography that both the play and Peg Entwistle’s performance in it were the driving forces in her desire to become an actress. Two years later, while Peg was headed for stardom on Broadway, Blanche Yurka hired the young girl to play Hedvig. Her name: Bette Davis. 

In 1925, actor Walter Hamden gave Peg her very first Broadway role. Though an uncredited walk-on, she attracted the attention of scouts from the prestigious New York Theatre Guild, which led to her becoming the youngest actress ever to be recruited. Peg received rave reviews in every play she ever performed, even plays the critics did not like. In 1932, Peg was brought out to Los Angeles to co-star opposite Billie Burke and Humphrey Bogart in a tryout production of Romney Brent’s The Mad Hopes. The show was a smash, with Peg was receiving tremendous notices. She was finally in Hollywood and she became enthralled with the lifestyle, wanting to make her mark on the silver screen. Hoping to land a part, she partied with some of the Hollywood elite, but nothing seemed to come of it. And although she could always return to the stage, she didn't want it, believing that movies were her ticket to fame. A mere three days after The Mad Hopes ended, she was packing to return to New York, when RKO called and asked if she’d like to do a screen test. Afterward, she was signed for the role of Hazel Clay Cousins in Thirteen Women. The film was a flop and Peg's contract was dropped. With the Depression in progress, money was tight. Peg was broke with no way to return to New York and there were no stage roles available in Los Angeles.

On September 18, 1932, after a night of drinking and in the throes of a deep depression, she took an electrician’s ladder and climbed to the top of the 50-foot sign. She dove head first onto the ground, killing herself immediately, leaving a note that read: "I am afraid I am a coward. I am sorry for everything. If I had done this a long time ago, it would have saved a lot of pain. P.E.” A hiker found her coat, one of her shoes and purse containing the suicide note. The cause of death was given as internal bleeding cause by "multiple fractures of the pelvis." The Los Angeles Herald Examiner, now defunct, gave her the nickname, “The Hollywoodland Sign Girl.” And in a cruel twist of ironic fate, a letter to Peg arrived the day after her death from the Beverly Hills Playhouse offering her the lead role in a play about a woman driven to suicide.

Over the years, her death has taken on mythic proportions, with reports that her ghost haunts the area around the sign to this day. Depending on which account you believe, she either jumped off the first letter ‘H’ or the 13th letter ‘D.' The notoriety she brought caused the real estate developers to shorten the sign to simply read HOLLYWOOD, which gives credence to the story that she jumped off the last letter.


Film historian William K. Everson noted that composer Max Steiner previewed a bit of his 1933 musical score for King Kong in the film, specifically the scene on the train, which contains the same “unique, tense combination of notes that it's identical with the theme he used just prior to Kong’s attack on the New York elevated train.”

Doctor X

By Ed Garea

Doctor X (WB, 1932) – Director: Michael Curtiz. Writers: Earl Baldwin, and Robert Tasker (s/p). George Rosener (contribution to s/p construction; uncredited). Howard Warren Comstock, Allen C. Miller (play, The Terror). Stars: Lionel Atwill, Fay Wray, Lee Tracy, Preston Foster, John Wray,  Harry Beresford, Arthur Edmund Carewe, Leila Bennett, Robert Warwick, George Rosener, Willard Robertson, Thomas E. Jackson, Harry Holman, Mae Busch, & Tom Dugan. In two-strip Technicolor, 77 minutes.

Now listen, please, to what I have to say: one of us in this room may be a murderer; a murderer who kills by the light of a full moon, leaving his victim’s body mutilated; a cannibal…” – Dr. Xavier (Lionel Atwill)

By the year 1932, the Depression has firmly set in and Hollywood was looking for new diversions to get the public into theaters. Studios took note that Universal had a series of hits with their horror films: DraculaFrankenstein, and Murder in the Rue Morgue that brought audiences into the theaters.

It got to the point where even Warner Bros. was forced to get into the game. But for Warners, known for its gritty urban dramas, horror was unknown territory. Fortunately, they had a director who had cut his teeth in Germany with such films – Michael Curtiz. He was assigned to direct two films devoted to horror: Doctor X and Mystery of the Wax Museum. To boost audience interest, the studio used the two-strip Technicolor process, although audiences not in the urban areas saw the pictures in black and white. And in keeping with the studio’s philosophy, there was absolutely nothing supernatural about each film: they were firmly rooted in the studio's urban environment and ethos.

Lee Taylor (Tracy) is a reporter investigating what the press has dubbed “The Moon Murders,” a series of killings over the past six months always committed under a full moon. Each victim has been neatly and clinically stabbed and chunks of flesh are missing, insinuating some form of cannibalism. Taylor is waiting outside the morgue, located somewhere on New York's Lower East Side, acting on a tip that the police are calling in an expert to do the postmortem on the latest victim, a scrubwoman. Barred from entry, he ducks into a local brothel to call his paper and give them an update on who’s attending the postmortem. 

The police have called in Doctor Xavier (Atwill), the head of the nearby Academy of Surgical Research, to perform the postmortem. Xavier concludes that the old woman was strangled by a pair of powerful hands before an incision was made at the base of her brain and her left deltoid muscle removed, presumably for cannibalization. 

Asked by Police Commissioner Stevens (Warwick) his opinion of the killer, Xavier replies that the killer is “A neurotic, of course. Some poor devil suffering from a fixation ... A knot or kink tied to the brain by some past experience. A madness that comes only at certain times when the killer is brought into direct contact with some vivid reminder of the past.”

Stevens is more than a little skeptical, but Xavier continues, pointing to his head: “But I tell you that locked in each human skull is a little world all its own.”

When Stevens asks what these ‘reminders’ would be, Xavier responds, “Anything. The poor devil, sane at all other times, is forced to live over the scene of the action that first drove him mad.”

And there we have it. While Universal is attributing its horrors for the most part to supernatural causes, Warner Bros. is going straight to Freud, with a side detour to Richard Kraft-Ebbing for the perverse details, for its explanation. There’s nothing supernatural at all about The Moon Killer; he is simply driven to do what he does by a past traumatic experience.

But to his consternation, Dr. Xavier discovers that the commissioner has an ulterior motive for asking him to perform the postmortem. The commissioner believes that someone from Xavier’s nearby Surgical Academy is the killer. Xavier takes umbrage to the accusation. He knows every student and faculty member personally and asks Commissioner Stevens to allow him to conduct his own internal investigation before officially proceeding. Stevens agrees to Xavier’s request. Xavier, Stevens, and the others present leave the morgue to see the Academy and meet its faculty. 

Immediately after the men leave, Taylor pops up from the slab where he has been hiding – and listening – while the discussion has been going on. Tracy’s character will perform tricks like this throughout the film, lending some necessary comic relief to the gruesome proceedings. He puts on his shoes and leaves to report what he has heard to his editor and heads for the Academy.

At the school, formerly titled “Xavier’s Academy of Surgical Research,” Xavier’s daughter, Joanne (Fay Wray) discovers a figure skulking in the dark. She lets out one of her famous screams before turning on the lights only to find her father skimming through the bookcases in his library. She begs him to take a break and get some rest, but he replies that he cannot rest until he clears the name of the school. As she opens the blinds to let in the moonlight, Xavier tells her that he is bothered by the ghastly moon.

Dr. Xavier introduces his faculty to the police, and a better group of likely suspects could not exist. First up is Professor Wells (Foster), an expert on cannibalism. Wells is working on an experiment that is keeping a human heart beating through electrical impulses. He tells Stevens and his staff that his left arm is bothering him, then unscrews his artificial left hand.

Next up is Professor Haines (John Wray), whose specialty is brain research and is experimenting with brain grafting. He asks after Joanne in a way that can best be described as unsettling. Xavier notes to the police that Haines was part of an expedition that was shipwrecked. He and two colleagues were adrift for days in a lifeboat. When they were finally rescued, only two were still present. There was no trace of the third. 

The other person left alive in the lifeboat is Dr. Rowitz (Carewe), who also works at the Academy. His specialty is studying the effects of the moon on a person’s mind. As he is explaining his work, he begins to rhapsodize quite fancifully about the moon, while the light beaming down on his face from the skylight above shows massive scars. His rhapsodizing gets to the point where his grumpy, wheelchair-bound partner Professor Duke (Beresford) interrupts to get him back on track. After meeting the faculty, Stevens gives Xavier the 48 hours he requested to finish his investigation. 

As Xavier is busy making introductions, Joanne catches Taylor prowling around the grounds and threatens him with a gun. Taylor tries to charm her, but to no avail. As he skulks in the dark, an unknown figure creeps up behind him. He lights a cigar given to him by the guard at the morgue as the figure grows closer. Suddenly, just as the figure’s hands are about to close around his neck, the cigar explodes, a payback from a cop he used a joy buzzer on when they shook hands earlier (and something that will come into play later in the movie to save Taylor’s life), and the unknown figure runs away, unnoticed. 

Taylor later sneaks into the Xavier house, conning Mamie (Bennett), the family maid. Joanne once again catches him, this time attempting to steal photos of herself and her father for his paper. She becomes further enraged when she learns that he wrote the story about her father in that morning’s paper. However, as she’s busy taking Taylor to task, she lets slip the fact that her father is convening the faculty at his summer estate in Blackstone Shoals, Long Island, for his internal investigation. Taylor follows the group out to the estate.

At the estate, Xavier tells the others his reasons for the move. He and Professor Wells have devised a psychoneurological test to determine if anyone of them is the guilty party. Xavier is also going to subject himself to the test; the only person exempt will be Wells, who Xavier has deduced can't be a suspect as he has only one hand. Despite the protests of the professors, the test will begin in 10 minutes. Meanwhile, Taylor has snuck into the house, receiving a series of frights as he tries to figure out what is going on. He ducks into a closet full of skeletons, and while waiting, begins to play with them. But one of the skeleton’s arms moves, exposing a hole in the wall through which an eye is watching. The closet soon fills with gas, knocking Taylor out. 

For the experiment, Xavier is using Mamie and Otto the butler (Rosener), dressing them up as victim and killer to re-enact the murders under the light of the full moon. Each of the professors, excepting Wells, is handcuffed to a chair and hooked up to a set of tubes monitoring their heartbeat, with each beat causing a reddish liquid to surge in the tubes. The quicker the heartbeat, the higher the liquid goes, which shows how excited the individual is becoming. If the tube overflows, that individual is guilty. As the experiment goes on, the lights go out, with chaos ensuing. Rowitz screams and as the lights go on, Xavier determines he is the killer, as his tube is overflowing. But Rowitz is dead, murdered like all the others. Wells is later found conked on the head during the pandemonium and when he comes to, he remembers nothing. 

Despite the horrors of the previous night, Xavier is determined to repeat the experiment, but Mamie is too distraught to continue. Joanne volunteers to take her place and dresses as one of the victims, this time, a young girl who was murdered by the fiend while in the hospital. Otto will once again play the killer. Taylor has wandered off to examine the house and has discovered a secret passage to one of the professor’s labs. Doctor Xavier thinks he’s slipped away to send in his story, but Joanne is certain that he kept his promise to her. Although they search, but cannot find him. But we saw that while Taylor is snooping around, a cloaked figure suddenly grabs him and imprisons him on the other side of a sliding panel.

In his room setting up the experiment, Wells begins acting strangely. He reaches behind some shelving and produces another hand. Although it’s misshapen, it is real and quite functional. Slipping it into his empty left sleeve, where it attaches itself to the stump of his arm, he applies what looks like goop to his left stump, all the while muttering the words “synthetic flesh.” The goop sets and allows him to use the hand like a normal hand, only a much stronger one. He turns on an electric arc generator and thrusts his newly-attached hand into the current, with his reaction being a rather strange combination of agony and ecstasy. He also applies the goop to his face, once again muttering “synthetic flesh,” in case we didn’t catch it the first time, creating a mask that looks horribly distorted. 

Wells sneaks up on Otto and strangles him. He then heads for Joanne grabbing her throat and reveling himself to the others, who are struggling to escape from their cuffs. Wells taunts them with his new makeover, revealing his insanity: “Yes, it is Wells! – but a new Wells! A Wells whose name will live forever in the history of science! Yes, look at it! A real hand! It’s alive – it’s flesh! Synthetic flesh! For years I’ve been searching to find the secret of a living manufactured flesh – and now I’ve found it! You think I went to Africa to study cannibalism? I went there to get samples of the human flesh that the natives eat! Yes, that’s what I needed – living flesh from humans for my experiments! What difference did it make if a few people had to die? Their flesh taught me how to manufacture arms, legs, faces that are human! I’ll make a crippled world whole again!”

As Wells continues clutching Joanne by the throat, Taylor suddenly springs out from the shadows and takes on Wells while Joanne manages to free her father and the others. The insane Wells is powerful, but just as Taylor appears to be overcome he uses his hand buzzer to drive Wells back, grabs an oil lamp from the wall, and flings it at the monster. The synthetic flesh catches fire and Taylor pushes Wells through the window, where he plunges in flames to the beach far below. Joanne and Taylor embrace as Lee phones in his story and tells the society editor that a future matrimonial announcement may be forthcoming.


The genesis of Doctor X was on Broadway in a three-act melodrama/mystery originally entitled The Terror, by Howard W. Comstock and Allen C. Miller. The title was changed to Doctor X after one of its main characters to avoid confusion (and a possible lawsuit) with a play of the same name. It opened on Feb. 9, 1931, and closed in April 1931 after 80 performances. Warner’s story department bought the play for $5,000, and while in preparation for filming, the screenwriters focused on the horror elements of the story, making it more of a horror/comedy and made the villain a monster instead of a mere serial killer. They also changed the locale of Dr. Xavier’s mansion from East Orange, N.J., to Long Island, N.Y., to give a more secluded and creepy feeling.

As the script began to evolve, the horror elements were downplayed and new scenes with Lee Tracy were added to emphasize the comical aspects of the story. Possibly it was felt that a film dealing with elements of cannibalism, rape, and other repressed Freudian aspects would be a little too much for the audience to take, as they couldn't merely shrug it off as they could the Universal horrors by noting the presence of the supernatural. One was far more likely to meet a fiend like that in Doctor X than meet someone like Dracula.

So the writers ratcheted up Tracy’s presence, making him both the hero and comic relief character. Usually in these sort of films where the reporter is the hero, he has a comic relief sidekick who usually works as his photographer. They also provided a subplot in the form of a romance between Tracy’s character and Fay Wray’s Joanne Xavier. Throughout most of the film she can’t stand him, but after he comes to her rescue in the final reel, she not only falls head-over-heels for him, but wedding bells are implied as the film fades out. In the end, we get a horror-mystery where the hero places emphasis on the comical aspects of the plot.

This and the film that followed, Mystery of the Wax Museum, were the last Warner Bros. would make using the two-strip Technicolor process. The only reason they were made using this method at all was to fulfill the contract with Technicolor, which was owed two more films. What we know and love today as Technicolor is a three-strip process combining blue, red and green to reproduce a wide range of tones. Back in its early days, Technicolor was a two-strip process, displaying colors only as shades of reds and greens. The company took a shellacking from critics and public alike due to way too many terrible, murky prints, and the public was said to be tired of it by 1932. Two-strip Technicolor was also hell for those who had to act under its strong lights, which raised the temperature on sets to around 120 degrees.

However, in its last bow using the process, the studio decided to go out with a little style. The producers asked Technicolor to work with them on developing a color scheme that would enhance the mysterious atmosphere they wished to create for the film. In addition, Ray Rennahan, a pioneer in color cinematography, was asked to supervise the photography on the film. This created a film that distanced itself from the garish, unflattering reds and greens and moved instead towards a pastel of aquas, grays, and browns. The result is that the film takes on a nightmarish, otherworldly feeling. The opening scene, with the full moon ever so slightly lighting the foggy streets, effectively sets the mood for the rest of the film.

The highlight, of course, is when the film reveals Wells (Foster) as the monster. As he plasters layers of what he calls “synthetic flesh” over his head and hands, the shades of pinkish-orange set off by green shadows provide an unsettling experience for the viewer, maximizing the mood. Max Factor, known by its reputation to glamorize actors and actresses, created the makeup used by Foster for his transformation.

But spooky hues alone do not an effective film make. In order to keep the audience riveted, the hues must emphasize something other than the actors. And so, in order to make maximum use of the color palette, Warner’s assigned art director Anton Grot, their resident genius when it came to fantastic set designs, to create elaborate sets full of wild and dangerous-looking electrical contraptions arranged against dark, vast, and foreboding interiors. The result was a set that mixed futurism with Art Deco, giving the film a look that is distinctly – and unforgettably – odd. 

Grot’s design for the Doctor’s summer home, called “Cliff Manor,” is a masterpiece of Gothic architecture gone wild, with its cavernous hallways, secret passage and huge basement laboratory. Should we be surprised that when reporter Taylor is driven to the place he is taken there in a horse-drawn carriage driven by a cloaked coachman?

The third slice of credit for the look of the film goes to director Curtiz himself. His emphasis on shadows and splitting the colors in order to emphasize one part of the frame, though not a horrifically sharp as black and white, nevertheless makes for an undeniably haunting experience. Curtis can also be credited, along with the writers, for a most unique innovation: standing the Old Dark House Mystery plot on its head. 

In the standard variation, a group of disparate people gathers at some wildly remote sinister old mansion. An entity, which is thought to be supernatural, stalks them and kills some off, until at last the hero and heroine reveal the killer not to be a supernatural force or being, but perfectly human, usually interested in being the last one standing to claim the inheritance. (Many critics and bloggers have noted that this morphed into the general plot for the animated series Scooby-Doo, Where Are You?) In Doctor X, a group of people, all known to each other, gather in a remote, sinister old mansion, only they assume that which stalks them is perfectly natural, for this is the 20th century. But here, at the end, the killer is revealed to be just a bizarre as he is human.

Just as the standard Old Dark House Mystery has a slew of red herrings, so does Doctor X; in fact, the film is awash in them, from Professor Haines, who along with his colleague Dr. Rowitz (he who is investigating the effects of moonlight on the brain), may have eaten the other survivor of the shipwreck to stay alive, to the cranky wheelchair-bound Professor Duke, who we later find could walk on his own due to a hysterical reaction, to the Good Doctor himself. In the scene in his library, when Joanne raises the blinds to let in the moonlight, it causes her father to close his eyes, press his fingers to the bridge of his nose, and complain to her that moonlight makes him feel “nervous.”

As stated previously, our guide to this bizarre, deviate world is Sigmund Freud, with an assist from Kraft-Ebbing’s textbook, Psychopathia Sexualis. Their influence seems to be everywhere: in the killer Dr. Xavier claims is responsible; in his staff with their unusual peccadillos; even in Dr. Xavier himself. No one is immune, not even his daughter Joanne, who shows tendencies of a definite Electra complex towards her father in the way she constantly worriers after him and idolizes him. For instance, Professor Haines is a voyeur. He enquires to Dr. Xavier about his daughter in a creepy way; the police find a semi-pornographic book entitled French Art hidden in one of his textbooks; and when Lee Taylor and Joanne are at the beach, Haines is watching them though a pair of binoculars. Last, but certainly not least, let’s not forget that sequence at the mansion’s laboratory when Xavier has all the scientists (excepting Wells) chained to chair and forced to watch a reenactment of one of the “Moon Killer’s” crimes while being tethered to a machine calibrated to measure how excited they are by the scene. 

But the one who wrote the book on cannibalism, Dr. Wells, is the first suspect the police hone in on, and in the end, revealed as the killer. He was ruled out by both Xavier and the police due to the fact he has only one hand and the victims were forcibly strangled by a powerful pair of hands, but no one took notice of the “synthetic flesh” he was making, and the cuts that were made to remove flesh from the victim supposedly for rites of cannibalism were actually made to obtain specimens to further his synthetic project. In the scene where he reveals himself to the other while holding his hand to the throat of a prostrate Fay Wray in a negligee, implying elements of rape, also set the tone for future trends in horror movies. In both Doctor X and Mystery of the Wax Museum, the women (both played by Fay Wray)  were bound and vulnerable to assault by all too human fiends. The implications of Fay Wray lying prostrate and helpless in a negligee before the Moon Killer was the stuff of which exploitation dreams are made, although we would have to wait until the late ‘50s for this aspect to become fully realized.

And what of the performances? Though he was billed behind Lionel Atwill and Fay Wray, this is clearly Lee Tracy’s movie. He plays one of his typical fast-talking characters, which as noted above, was written to fit into the plot. He comes off as brash and rude, but he also has a vulnerability that shows not only his inventiveness but also reveals a strange sense of humor. It’s this aspect that raises the film from an adaptation of a stage play into something else altogether. His upbeat attitude and morbid humor is in stark contrast to the gravitas of the academics, who are prisoners of their own logic. Tracy’s propensity to sneak into places where he doesn't belong brings him a lot of trouble for his efforts. But when the final moments arrive, he shows his mettle in battling Wells to the death and his inventiveness is using a joy buzzer to throw his opponent off just as it looked like Tracy was done. Tracy’s quintessential role was that of the fast-talking newspaperman, a role he first played  as Hildy Johnson in the Broadway version of The Front Page in 1928. Although Doctor X was a departure from the films he was best known for, he took to the horror format without any problems and it’s a shame he never returned; his humor would have been most welcome.

This was Lionel Atwill’s first foray into the realm of horror, but as we know, it wouldn’t be his last. Atwill was as eccentric as some of the mad scientists he played. His hobby was attending murder trials. Were he acting today instead of back in the ‘30s we would expect to see him playing such characters as Hercule Poirot or Inspector Morse – he seemed born for those parts. It was Atwill’s alternation between the sinister and the sympathetic – set off by his distinguished voice – that allowed him to be so effective, an effect seen even in his comic lines, as they were spoken by a seemingly diabolical doctor and reflective of a sort of morbidity that makes Doctor X so offbeat. Atwill’s attitude is best seen in his attention towards his daughter. On one hand he is the devoted and loving father, yet he comes off so icily and logically menacing that we can easily visualize him killing her for the sake of science. One of Atwill’s funnier moments was his reading of the particularly awkward line “Oh, if only I were not powerless here in chains!” He says it will all the aplomb of someone having a rough time taking this seriously. Probably little did he know at the time that he would be speaking even wackier lines in cheaper movies. 

Speaking of daughters, Fay Wray acquits herself well in what was also for first foray into the horror genre. Known as the Queen of Scream for her role in King Kong, her screaming in Doctor X seems as though it’s a warm-up. Her character doesn’t have much to do in the film except to worry after her father and make for a fetching victim in the film’s climax. The film even has a hard time in distinguishing her character’s name, referring to her as “Joanne” in some parts and “Joan” in others. However, she does get to show the audience a little spunk when she stands down Tracy with a gun after catching him peeping through the window at her father's and tossing him from the house when she discovers that he wrote the story that got her beloved dad in so much hot water. Her romance with Tracy seems forced for the sake of the plot, but we get a nice glimpse of how she took advantage of the Technicolor process with her cream complexion and use of a green dominated wardrobe. I loved her snobby pronunciation of the family name as “Zaave-vee-A” And then … there’s that scream, which we first hear when she’s startled in the library. It was her work in this film – and her screaming – that caught the attention of Merian C. Cooper over at RKO, who was preparing the ultimate version of Beauty and the Beast, and needed someone who could give it her all when she screamed. 

The most interesting performer was Preston Foster as the crazed Wells. It wasn’t so much his performance, though, that interested as it was his casting. Foster had the looks of a matinee star and had just come off an excellent performance as Edward G. Robinson’s best friend in Two Seconds (1932). And yet here he’s in a character role. This would set the pattern for his later career: strong supporting or character player in “A” films and leading man in “B” productions. In Doctor X, he hits all the right notes as Wells, who is driven to murder and mutilation by the vision of the full moon. When he reveals himself in the movie’s crucial scene, the garbed, choking noises he makes when the moonlight envelops him are truly creepy and his enunciation of his concoction as he applies it is truly terrifying because we know his next move. 

George Rosener, the original screenwriter of Doctor X, whose script was totally redone by Baldwin and Tasker due to it’s being “amateurish,” managed to salvage a little victory in the role of Otto, the weirdest butler this side of Lurch. Leila Bennett, as Mamie, the hysterical maid makes little out of a minor role. She would later make an entire career out of playing strange servants, competing with Maude Eburne, who also had the same typecasting. 

Doctor X was a nice entry in the Old Dark house murder mystery genre; it’s great look and good performances making it a surreal, enjoyable murder mystery. Credit to Warner Bros. for taking a gruesome premise and to building around it one of their typical, fast-paced urban dramas. In doing so, they managed to create the first contemporary American horror movie they scored with the public, earning $594,000 worldwide and returning a profit of $72,000, which in 1932 Depression America was a strong plus as most of the studio’s releases that year lost money. The profits were strong enough to allow the studio to go ahead with Mystery of the Wax Museum, also directed by Curtiz.


Director Curtiz was a hard-driving martinet on the set, begrudging the cast their lunch breaks and reportedly shooting 15-hour days, six days a week, to impress Jack Warner with his efficiency. Others maintain that Curtiz shot the film late at night after other units had left the studio and told ghost stories to the cast in order to create the proper atmosphere. 

Doctor X was the first of three films Curtiz made with Lionel Atwill. The others were Mystery of the Wax Museum in 1932 and Captain Blood in 1935. 

Doctor X was also the first of three films Lionel Atwill made with Fay Wray. Afterward they co-starred in The Mystery of the Wax Museum and The Vampire Bat (both 1932).

Doctor X was originally filmed simultaneously in color and in black and white, and supposedly the two versions used different takes in several scenes. When the film was included in a package of older films syndicated to television in the late ‘50s, the Technicolor version was thought to be lost. No print could be located, as Technicolor had discarded most of their two-color negatives in 1948. When Jack Warner died in 1978, a color negative was found in his personal collection and has since been restored by the UCLA Film and Television Archive. Since then, the black and white version has become the more obscure.

The love scenes between Lee Tracy and Fay Wray were shot in Laguna Beach. 

Some of the film’s sets were recycled in Miss Pinkerton.

Memorable Dialogue

After Xavier gives Commissioner Stevens his view of the murders, he’s met with skepticism.

Commissioner Stevens: It’s hard to believe that!

Xavier: Yes, for a policeman, I suppose it is.

Ghost of Dragstrip Hollow

By Ed Garea

Ghost of Dragstrip Hollow (AIP, 1959) – Director: William J. Hole, Jr. Writer: Lou Rusoff. Stars: Jody Fair, Russ Bender, Henry McCann, Martin Braddock, Elaine DuPont, Leon Tyler, Jack Ging, Nancy Anderson, Dorothy Neumann, Sanita Pelkey, Kirby Smith, Jeanne Tatum, Beverly Scott, Bill St. Johns, Paul Blaisdell, & Tommy Ivo. B&W, 65 minutes.

One wouldn’t think to look at it, but this minor obscure effort marked a major transition for its studio, American International Pictures. 

AIP had always prided itself on its ability to discern when a current trend had run its course and when a new direction was needed. Unlike the major studios, who could afford to wait until a trend developed, AIP – a partnership between James Nicholson, a former sales manager for Realart Productions, and Sam Arkoff, a Hollywood entertainment lawyer – lacked the financial wherewithal for patience. Instead, it used a network of exhibitors, especially among the drive-in crowd. Also, by monitoring customer comment cards and convening focus groups comprised of teenage moviegoers, the studio was able to determine what movie fad was on the decline and what new direction to take. This close attention to detail meant the difference between healthy profits and bankruptcy.

The studio’s lifeblood lay in the lucrative teen and young adult market, and their films were tailored specifically for that market. Films either produced or distributed by the studio included Roger Corman’s It Conquered the WorldGirls in PrisonVoodoo WomanI Was a Teenage WerewolfTeenage CavemanThe Cool and the CrazyDaddy-O, and High School Hellcats, to name a few, all produced from 1955 to1959. Like other B-studios, AIP usually started with a title pre-marketed to exhibitors for approval. Once they had the go-ahead, a script was written and a crew and cast assigned. 

Having had success the year before with Hot Rod Gang, a film celebrating hot rods, hot chicks, and hot music with John Ashley as a college student who must lead a quiet life under the guardianship of spinster aunts Abigail and Anastasia (Neumann) in order to inherit his late father’s estate. But he has a secret life: racing cars and singing in combos, and after tussles with both rival racers and the police, and the help of girlfriend Lois Cavendish (Fair), John becomes a singing star.

Ghost of Dragstrip Hollow was conceived as a straight sequel, but as perceived audience tastes changed, the film changed as well. Gone was Ashley’s character, as was most of the drama. Fair’s character of Lois Cavendish was promoted to the lead, and we learn that she belongs to the Zenith car club. 

After the opening credits, the film fades to a Los Angeles street where we see Lois tooling along in an open top car. A similar car suddenly turns up alongside from a side street, driven by rival club member Nita (Anderson). She challenges Lois to a race. and the girls race from streets into one of the dry river beds we often see in films set in Los Angeles. When a motorcycle policeman notices the girls and gives pursuit, Lois races away while Nita crashes into a wall. 

Back at the Zeniths’ garage, leader Stan (Braddock) introduces members Dave (McCann), Rhoda (DuPont), Bonzo (Tyler), Tommy (Ivo), Sandra (Howard), and Amelia (Pelkey) to sympathetic journalist Tom Hendry (Bender), who is researching an article on hot rodders. Impressed by Tommy’s detailed description of a car he designed, Hendry asks whether the stories of hot rodders being delinquents is true. 

Stan tells Hendry that he can help with some good press to counter the prevailing image of them as drag racing young punks who love to break the law. The Zeniths are serious car aficionados and illegal racing is the fastest way to get booted from the club.

Dave (the nerd of the group who just happens to have the hottest girlfriend in Amelia) almost causes Hendry’s head to explode with an explanation of hot rods that includes Euclidian geometry and Einstein’s Theory of Relatively (I kid you not). Stan introduces the reporter to Tommy Ivo and his award-winning car, telling Hendry that Tommy has won over 300 trophies across the country. The main attraction in this scene (although he’ll only be spotted by serious hot rodders), Tommy is “TV” Tommy Ivo, a now legendary drag racer of the late ‘50s to early ‘60s. He proudly gives Hendry a tour of his actual record-holding Buick-engined dragster, a form of early product placement.

When Lois returns to the garage, Stan introduces her to Hendry, but Lois is more interested in making herself scarce. Stan tries to get her to stay, but she alludes to some trouble with the police and insists that she has work to do on her car. Hendry comments on how unusual it is to see a girl so caught up in in all the aspects of hot rodding and Stan informs him that Lois does all her own mechanical work and won’t let anyone touch her car – or her for that matter. Dave remarks that it’s disgusting to see a woman engaged in such unfeminine work, then is hauled off by Amelia to tinker on his own car. (Remember, this is a comedy.)

Stand also tells Hendry that the Zenith Club is only a month away from attaining their charter. In order to qualify, members must take a pledge to abstain from illegal racing or they are booted out. Hendry tells Stan he would like to make the club his home base while writing his articles, but Stan says that may not be feasible; the club is so broke it can no longer pay the rent on the building and are due to be evicted. But until that happens Hendry can be an honorary member. One of the duties of an honorary member, he is then told, is to buy food for everyone, so the gang heads out to feed. 

After they leave, the motorcycle cop from the beginning of the film rides into the club’s yard. He quickly spots two legs sticking out from under a beat up car, grabs them, and hauls out a protesting Lois. Although Lois tries to feign ignorance, he demands to see her driver’s license as the scene fades out.

The Zeniths take Hendry to their hangout, a combination roadside diner, juke joint and malt shop complete with a shotgun-toting chef named Frenchie (Lewis). Several of the club members also sing in a rock and roll band, and musical numbers are sung by Rhoda, Sandra and Amelia.

While the band is playing, Lois arrives and Stan explains to Hendry how they had hoped to use the band to raise money by throwing a few dances, but the club doesn’t even have the loot to rent a place to hold them.

Nita, angry over Lois’ tactics during their race, shows up with her boyfriend Tony (Ging) and his gang. Nita tries to goad Lois into another race by reminding her what happened earlier in the day, but Stan reminds Lois of the Zenith Club’s rules about racing while giving Lois a look of disappointment. Stan tells Tony that the Zeniths will not be goaded into a fight and asks Tony to leave. Frenchie enforces the request with his shotgun. 

Later, Stan follows Lois home, and as they are kissing in Stan’s car, her father, Wesley (Smith), peers through the blinds, expressing his indignation with the scene. Alice (Tatum), his wife, shoos him away from the window.

When Lois comes inside, Dad reads the riot act about racing, telling her that her obsession with cars is unnatural for a young woman. To back up his argument, he shows her a newspaper article describing her race with Nita and her near-serious accident. Because one of his most important clients, the elderly eccentric Anastasia Abernathy, will be spending two weeks with them, he grounding Lois for those two weeks to ensure nothing goes wrong. While Lois accepts her punishment, she’s disappointed because the club was planning a bash for the next Saturday. 

Alice bullies Wesley into allowing Lois to hold the party at their house. Lois says that the bash will be a “double do” – once the party is over and the guys leave, the girls will have a slumber party. Her parents agree as the scene fades out after some further family banter. 

Anastasia soon arrives, accompanied by her parrot, Alfonso, capable of putting entire sentences together, thinking for himself, making witty ripostes to the characters and able to mimic unusual sounds.

At the party, everyone, including Anastasia and the Cavendishs, are having a good time dancing with one another. Everyone is excited because the club band finally recorded their song, “Geronimo,” which (of course) is played during the party. A close-up reveals that it’s labeled American International Pictures, marking the studio’s entry into the music business. 

Everyone’s having a good time, but it doesn’t last long because Nita, Tony and their gang crash the bash. As things predictably heat up, Lois, fearing a brawl, agrees to dance with Tony. After only a few steps, Nita jealously yanks Tony away. When Stan threatens Tony, Alfonso imitates the sound of a police siren, causing Tony and his gang to hit the skids. The party is followed by a G-rated cheesecake pajama party that Lois says is what happens "when the she-kats nap after the he-kats leave." 

Despite everything they tried, the gang finds themselves about to be evicted from their headquarters. Lois and Anastasia arrive after a comedic sequence in which the still-grounded Lois teaches Anastasia, who had never driven before, how to operate her hot rod. Anastasia, distressed at the turn of events, recalls her old family home, Dragstrip Hollow, which was abandoned when it was found to be haunted. Stan asks Anastasia if they could use it for their club headquarters assuring her that he and Hendry can rid the house of its ghosts. Anastasia agrees. 

The gang, accompanied by Anastasia, go to Dragstrip Hollow that night and despite hearing unusual shrieks and thumps, settle in. Inside, they find the usual creepy looking abandoned house, filled with cobwebs and old furniture. The lights go out soon after the group arrives and they light several candles. Hearing screams and moans they decide to explore, bumping into things and knocking stuff over. 

Dave, nervous from it all, sits in a chair that seems to swallow him. Lois sees the fireplace swivel, but no one believes her. The candles all go out and relight themselves. Hendry tells the gang there has to be a rational explanation, but no sooner does he say this than his bow site mysteriously unravels. 

Rather than leaving to return the next day, the gang decides to spend the night. A panel opens and a hand comes out and pinches Rhoda. Lois, sitting in front of the fireplace, vanishes when it swivels before returning. Again, as no one saw it, no one believes her. When the gang begins dozing off, a monster, which horror fans will recognize as the “She Creature” without the breasts, wanders in and snuggles next to Dave, who thinks it’s his girlfriend Amelia. When he touches the rough skin and looks at the monster, he does a double-take as the scene fades out. 

The next morning, a search of the house turns up nothing out of the ordinary, and Anastasia tells the gang that since they appear to have conquered the ghosts, they may have use of the house. The gang spends the day cleaning the house in order to throw a party that evening to celebrate their new club. Hendry suggests a spook-themed costume ball and Stan gets the idea to charge admission to help raise a few bucks. Dave reveals that he will unveil the car he has been working on, named for his super hot girlfriend Amelia, at the party that night. 

That night the party is in full swing, with everyone in costume. Even Tony and Nita, who crash, are allowed to join the party. The monster from the night before joins the festivities, only now he blends right in. Nita proposes to Lois that they finish their race, which they do – offscreen. When Lois returns, Stan chastises her for breaking club rules and after she promises to pay the club fine and tell her father, Stan forgives her.

Later, Stan and Hendry explore several rooms looking for the source of the eerie sounds, but come away empty. Meanwhile, Dave unveils his car, describing it as a thinking car. When Anastasia scoffs, Dave has her sit in the car and give it a spoken command. The group is impressed when the car starts upon request. 

Anastasia then, for some reason known only to the producers, asks the car if the house really is haunted. The car says yes, and after some prodding it rolls over to the fireplace and presses a button, revealing a hidden room behind it in which there is a machine for transmitting sounds and creating other such spooky effects.

Stan orders everyone to remove their costume masks and when the “She Creature” refuses, Stan and the others force him to take off his mask. Hendry recognizes the man as a former movie extra (Blaisdell) who frequently played monsters in low-budget films. The man admits that the end of his career had made him despondent and he wanted to cling to his only talent by haunting the house. After his confession, the man abruptly flees and the party resumes minutes later. However in the midst of the revelry, the very real ghost of Anastasia’s uncle, John Abernathy the First, emerges from his portrait and heads towards Anastasia. When she tells him that she always knew he was haunting the place, the ghost vanishes into the night. Alphonso the annoying bird states that the ghost won’t return, and the music and dancing resume as if nothing ever happened as the film ends with the words “The endest man.”


If it seems that I’ve spent a lot of time and words on a film that today is forgotten and obscure, rest assured that I have very good reasons for doing so. As I said before, this film marks a major transition for American International Pictures in hanging their direction from monster and JD films to the the Gothic color horrors of Roger Corman and the Beach Party films of William Asher that came to dominate the early ‘60s. AIP was not a studio that simply changed direction. Operating as it did on the opinions of both its audience and exhibitors, Ghost of Dragstrip Hollow was a test case to see if the new directions the company discerned were real. The box-office returns confirmed the company’s feelings that they were going in the right direction.

While the film keeps the typical ‘50s teen B movie tropes: hipster type dialogue, guys with slicked down hair, girls with "rocket" bras, and juvenile delinquent types running around, it also seeks to branch out as a comedy be having fun with these conventions at the same time amid a few references to the Cold War. It’s as if to tell us the ‘50s are over and it’s time for a new beginning.

While the title sequence emphasizes the penny-counting style of AIP with double exposure produced ghosts floating up and down as the titles scroll by, “Ghost Train” a bouncy instrumental playing in the background tells us on the other hand that this is anything but a horror flick.

But while all this is going on, the problem with Ghost of Dragstrip Hollow is that it doesn’t quite know what it wants to be. It begins as a straight JD/drag racing picture with Lois facing off against her adversary Nita. Then the scene shifts to the headquarters of the Zeniths with Hendry looking for an interview and we learn with this club, illegal street racing is out. It’s a club for car aficionados with the presence of the legendary Tommy Ivo, who won his many awards in legitimate drag races, to assure the gearheads in the audience that legal racing is cool. In fact, when Lois returns, she is chastised for her racing and promises club president Stan that she will never do it again. The kids are far from being juvenile delinquents; they are of the wholesome homogenized variety. The plot is almost nonexistent at times and the gang’s search for a new club headquarters tends to fade into the background for several long stretches as other plot points are pursued.

When Stan gives Hendry the speech that the Zeniths are unusual in that they have strict rules against rumbles of “chicken runs” because their priority is working on cars, it almost sounds like one of those message shorts that were shown to high school kids and made great fodder for the MST 3000 crew.

When the film shifts to Frenchie’s malt shop, where Nick Venet and the Vettes are performing “Geronimo,” the girls get on the stage to sing with the band, emphasizing the musical aspect.

When Mark sees Lois home, the film changes again into a form of domestic sitcom, with the generation gap being the source of the comedy. Dad’s most important client, Anastasia Abernathy, is going to stay with the family for two weeks and Lois’ behavior threatens to undo Dad’s carefully laid plans, so she’s grounded. 

After the gang discovers how cool Anastasia and her parrot are, the party gets underway. When Nita, Tony and the gang crash the doings, Alfonso mimics a police siren and chases them away. (Shades of Lou Costello in the 1941 comedy Hold That Ghost, who does the same thing to sachet off the bad guys.)

When Anastasia offers the use of Dragstrip Hollow to the Zeniths, the film changes once again into a horror spoof as the house is loaded with scary sounds, a swiveling fireplace, and a monster haunting the premisses. At the party, held to emphasize the music, Nita, Tony, and the gang show up. Lois and Nita agree to settle their differences in one last race, which, tellingly, is held off-screen. Everyone buries the hatchet and we’re all friends again.

Dave unveils his new car, named for his girlfriend Anita, which also seems to be capable of intelligent thought a la KITT, the incredible supercar loaded with artificial intelligence and driven by crimefighter David Hasselhoff in the ‘80s TV actioner, Knight Rider. When prompted, the car reveals the creature’s hiding place behind the swiveling fireplace. 

When the time for everybody to unmask, all comply except the creature. As Shadow says in his excellent take on the film (, the unmasking of the creature as someone who has turned to haunting the house after he was replaced by his studio in his role of portraying monsters in horror movies is “a true Scooby-Doo moment.” Why someone would choose to haunt a house where no one went until the kids showed up defies logic, but at this point it’s too late for logic. 

And just as we are led to believed that the “monster” haunting has been solved, the ghost of John Abernathy the First appears, as if to finally give the film its ghostly creds. “Charge,” a fast-tempo tune by then AIP music director Jimmie Madden fills the soundtrack as the final title, “The Endest Man,” flashes on the screen. 

Ghost of Dragstrip Hollow is the clear stylistic forerunner for the Beach Party series. Lou Rusoff, who wrote the film (he was the brother-in-law of San Arkoff), created. The kids in the film are not juvenile delinquents, but wholesome and misunderstood. It’s their rivals who are the juvenile delinquents. This same plot point would continue with Frankie, Annette and their friends supplying the wholesomeness, and Eric Von Zipper and his followers supplying the delinquency. 

By the time we get to the Beach Party series, hot rods are deemphasized: they are no longer for racing, but for carrying surfboards, people, and to be seen and admired. Both films feature attractive, energetic and rebellious (although in a good way) kids whose lives revolve around an activity – in Ghost  it’s hot cars; in Beach Party films it’s surfing. Both also have lots of good-looking girls in fetching attire, the usual adult opposition, and scripts that concentrate on comedy. Most importantly, the musical interludes and dancing are a direct feature of the storyline instead of being stand alone breaks in the continuity. In the climatic costume party scene, the camerawork focuses on extended close-ups of wildly-dancing partygoers emphasizing on the dancing and the music. No character dialogue is heard, which would also occur later with Frankie and Annette leading the gang in the dance. 

The Beach Party series, like Ghost, is notable for its lack of any sort of teen angst; the emphasis is instead on slapstick. In this, Ghost seems like a dry run, as if the new elements are there to be tested. Both takes their time moving the plot along while building their characters. Thus we have the nerd (in Ghost it’s Dave; in Beach Party various adults), the clown (Bonzo in Ghost, Deadhead in Beach Party), the leader (Stan/Frankie), the chief babe (Lois/Dee-Dee), and at least one sympathetic adult who wants to help the teens.

The spoof of the horror elements seems to be meant as a segue from the science-fiction based horrors to the later Gothic horror based Poe series from Roger Corman. 

But perhaps the best trick of both was convincing us that actors in their twenties, and some even in their thirties, are teenagers.

Ghost of Dragstrip Hollow was released on a double-bill with The Diary of a High School Bride, about a 17-year-old high school senior who must justify her marriage to a 24-year old law student to both her parents and her rather unbalanced ex-boyfriend.

Notable Dialogue

(Lois tells her parents about the club’s upcoming party.)

Lois: “But the club has a big bash coming up.”
Mr. Cavendish: “A bash? That sounds positively indecent.”

Herschell Gordon Lewis: In Memoriam

The Godfather of Gore

By Ed Garea

Known as “The Godfather of Gore,” and “The Sultan of Splatter,” Herschell Gordon Lewis influenced a generation of filmmakers leading the way with his approach to low-budget, violent films. The critics were appalled by his product, Variety described Blood Feast (1963) as “an insult even to the most puerile and salacious of audiences,” but moviegoers ate it up, even though his films had no chance of being shown in mainstream theaters.

Lewis, 87, died in his sleep September 26 at his home in Pompano, Fla.

Beginning in the world of softcore pornographic films known in the business as “nudie-cuties,” Lewis, aided and abetted by his partner, David F. Friedman, created a whole new genre of films that celebrated hyper-violence and exploring the world of mayhem, torture and mass mayhem, all with a copious amount of blood thrown in along the way.

Lewis was born on June 15, 1926, in Pittsburgh, Pa. His father, Emmanuel, died when he was six, and his mother, the former Geraldine Waldman (who never remarried), moved the family to Chicago. Lewis matriculated at Northwestern University in nearby Evanston, earning a B.A. and M.A. in journalism. Afterward, he taught English literature at Mississippi State University before leaving to become manager of WRAC radio in Racine, Wis. He later worked as a studio director at WKY-TV in Oklahoma City. 

Returning to Chicago, he worked as a copywriter for Morlock, a direct-mail advertising agency. He also directed television commercials for Alexander & Associates, a small production company, a job which influenced his future direction. When he realized the company was being mismanaged, he and partner Martin Schmidhofer bought a controlling half-interest in Alexander and Associates. They renamed the company Lewis and Martin Films, and relocated to California. But Schmidhofer dissolved their partnership after Lewis joined the Cameraman's Union, and moved to Florida. Lewis returned to Chicago bitter but wiser, concluding that “the only way to make money in this business is to shoot features.” 

His film career began in 1956 as the producer of a locally-produced documentary, The Naked Eye, which follows the history of camera and photography development from Da Vinci through Louis Daguerre and Matthew Brady, to Margaret Bourke-White, Sulfated Eisenstadt, Weegee and Edward Weston.

In 1959, he founded Mid-Continent Films, a venture he later admitted in an interview that cost him “many friends,” and produced the exploitation film The Prime Time (Gordon Weisenborn directed). The story of a bored young girl looking for excitement and getting involved with nude modeling, drugs and a rock band, it is only notable today as the film debut of Karen Black in a tiny, “don’t blink or you’ll miss her,” role as Betty, a girl seen dancing and later posing on a stool. Legend has it that her agent paid $2,500 to have the negatives of her nude scene destroyed before the final cut, but no evidence exists to verify the story. Filmed in Chicago at the Fred Niles Studio, it was the first feature movie made there since the late 1910s.

In 1961, Lewis met David F. Friedman, an ex-publicist at Paramount Pictures who was working at the Chicago-based Modern Film Distributors, the company that distributed The Prime Time. As they checked each other out, Friedman asked Lewis what sort of films he wanted to make. "The kind that make money," said Lewis.

With that, a partnership was born and they began filming Living Venus for Mid-Continental Films with Friedman as producer and Lewis as co-producer and director. The movie starred William Kerwin as a Hugh Hefner-type character who establishes a men’s magazine called Pagan. As with The Prime Time, the film’s only claim to fame is it's the feature film debut of local actor Harvey Korman, who played Kerwin’s cheesecake photographer.

Though the film did decent business at the box office, Modern Film Distributors, which owed Lewis $100,000, went bankrupt. That caused Lewis’ Mid-Continent Films to follow suit, another hard lesson for the filmmaker. To make ends meet, Lewis worked as a staff director at The United Film and Recording Company, shooting TV commercials. One day, Friedman came to him with an offer from Dallas-based distributor Al Sack, whose company, Sack Amusements, made its fortune distributing African-American movies during the ‘30s and ‘40s. Friedman told Lewis Sack would give them $7,000 for a one-reel film of cute girls running around naked in the sun. 

Lewis jumped at the chance, borrowing an old Mitchell camera from his employer and becoming the cameraman and film editor. He also wrote and performed the score as United Film had a piano, an organ and a celeste. Friedman, for his part, supplied the girls. Film laboratory owner Jack Curtin, who knew Lewis, offered a deal – if Lewis made a film at least 70 minutes long, there would be no lab bills until 90 days after they get the answer print (the first version of the movie printed to film with the sound properly synced to the picture). 

Lewis jumped at the offer and he and Friedman turned it into The Adventures of Lucky Pierre (1961) about a man who imagines that everyone he sees is naked and goes to a psychiatrist to see if he can be cured. Lewis directed under the moniker “Lewis H. Gordon.” Friedman took the print to Tom Dowd, a friend who owned the Capri Theater in Chicago. It played at the Capri for nine weeks, earning enough to play the lab bill and fund 10 additional prints. Lewis and Friedman went to Florida, where they made two more nudie features, Daughter of the Sun and Nature’s Playmates, both under the moniker Lewis H. Gordon. That also shot a number of other nudie features for other people, including Tom Dowd. 

In 1963, they made their best softcore feature to date, Boin-n-g, again with Lewis directing as Lewis H. Gordon. It was a comedy about an inexperienced producer and director who auditions women for a nudie movie with everything that could go wrong actually going wrong. Though it made money, the partners realized they were at the end of the line. “Everybody and his brother was making those cute-girl movies,” Lewis said. The only direction to go was into hardcore pornography, and they didn’t want to do that. They sat down and thought what could be successful on the kind of budgets they had to work with.

The only film that an independent can make and survive with is a film that the major producers cannot or will not make,” Lewis said in an interview with Todd McCarthy and Charles Flynn. “I regard that as a physical law, I don’t regard it as a theory. It’s been proved so many hundreds of times that it’s no longer in question.”

As the barriers in sex were falling year by year, there was only one taboo left, that of extreme violence. Lewis and Friedman weren’t the first to exploit violence, a 1960 Japanese film called Jigoku (The Sinners of Hell) was the first to feature elements of gore as FX, but Lewis and Friedman were the first to exploit violence for its own sake, not to necessarily advance the plot. And it would be shown in glorious color.

While filming Bell, Bare and Beautiful in 1963, a sexploitation film centered on the obvious attractions of curvaceous Virginia Bell, Lewis and Friedman drew up plans for a new kind of film centered around the concept of gore as their point of departure for what would become Blood Feast.

As they reassembled the cast of Bell, Bare and Beautiful, they came up with the story of a caterer named Fuad Ramses who harvests body parts of virgins for an elaborate ritual feast honoring the goddess Ishtar (represented in the film by a spray-painted gold department-store mannequin). Allison Louise Downe, Lewis’ wife at the time, wrote the screenplay. Viewers knew early on where the film was going when a teenage girl, reading the book Ancient Weird Rites in the bathtub, has her legs hacked off. The “highlight” of the film, if it can be called such, is the scene where a victim has her tongue ripped out. 

To quote critic Michael Weldon in The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film: “The acting is terrible. If the actors were as good as the effects it would be nearly impossible to watch.” Watching the film, the first word that comes to mind is “amateurish.” It is not a very well-made picture, which also made it easier to take. Once the film was edited and ready to go, the problem now became one of where to show it. Mainstream theater were not ready for this kind of film. In an interview with the website The AV Club, Lewis said he and Friedman “made a deal with a rather unpleasant man named Stanford Kohlberg, who owned a bunch of drive-ins, to open this movie at his drive-in in Peoria.” The reasoning was that if it died there, no one would notice. 

Their next step was to create an ad campaign, the basis of was “nothing so appalling in the annals of horror.” Many newspaper rejected the ads outright and Lewis had to tone them down. When the moment of truth came, Lewis and Friedman motored down from Chicago to see what business, if any, the film was doing. To their surprise, there was line of cars half a mile long waiting to get in. They had a hit on their hands; eventually the film would gross over $4 million on a budget of $25,000. The division of that fortune led to a prolonged falling out between partners Lewis and Friedman, as well as a lengthy legal battle with exhibitor Kohlberg.

The film also caught the censors completely off-guard. Regulations concerning sexual content had long been in place, but there were no such regulations against gore. The censors soon caught up, however, and Lewis’ 1972 film, The Gore Gore Girls (starring Henny Youngman, of all people, as the owner of a nightclub) was the first film to be rated X because of violence. England had long banned Lewis’ films and only recently has the ban been lifted.

While Blood Feast did well with audiences, the critics were not so kind. Besides the previously mentioned review from VarietyThe Los Angeles Times called it “a blot on the American film industry.” But with the passage of time came the inevitable: Lewis was discovered by the French. In Issue #150 of Cahiers du Cinema, devoted to American cinema, an article praised Lewis’ The Blood Feast and Two Thousand Maniacs! as two of the best horror films of all time and classified Lewis as a “subject for further study.” When informed of the article, Lewis’s only comment was, “That’s what they say about cancer.”

For their next film, Friedman used the question of what would happen if they made a decent film? They thought about it and Two Thousand Maniacs! (1964) was born, a psychotronic version of Brigadoon about a Southern village from the Civil War that comes back to life 100 years after the end of the Civil War. The village was ravaged by renegade Union soldiers and its residents take out their revenge on six luckless tourists lured there for a “Centennial Celebration.” Though it contained the same sort of gore effects as the previous film and marked an improvement, Two Thousand Maniacs! failed to make the same impact at the box office. Lewis even novelized the story as a movie tie-in.

Two Thousand Maniacs! starred William Kerwin (who used the aliases “Thomas Wood” and “Thomas Sweetwood” when appearing in Lewis films) and former Playboy model Connie Mason from Blood Feast. Working with the wooden Mason could be quite a challenge, Lewis stated in a interview with John Waters: “She never knew a line. Not ever. Nor could she ever be on the set on time. What we did in Two Thousand Maniacs! was to pull about two-thirds of her lines in order to finish on time. I often felt if one took the key out of Connie's back, she'd simply stand in place.”

The final film of the Lewis-Friedman partnership was Color Me Blood Red (1965), about a demented artist who discovers that no color can approximate the crimson red he uses like blood, so he kills to obtain a supply of blood for his paintings. After the film was released, Friedman set out for California while Lewis remained in Chicago. The reasons for the split come down to rumors. Lewis, for his part, said they had no differences, but several others involved at the time and later have said that Friedman wanted to make better quality films using gore effects as part of the plot and not the other way around, as Lewis did. Friedman was put off by Lewis’s insistence on filming everything in one-take and his neglect of any quality in favor of his gross-out gore effects.

Those expecting Lewis to continue making only gore pictures were in for rather a surprise. Though the first two of his four films after the split were in the gore genre (A Taste of Blood and The Gruesome Twosome, both 1967), he moved from the gore template by making films such as Something Weird (1967), a excursion into the world of the supernatural; The Girl, the Body and the Pill (1967), about a sex-ed teacher who gives private lessons in her home; Blast-Off Girls (1967), featuring a female rock band exploited by their male manager; She-Devils on Wheels (1968), following the exploits of an all-female biker gang called The Man Eaters; Suburban Roulette (1968), a look at the world of wife-swapping parties; Just for the Hell of It (1968), a JD film; and a lesbian Western, Linda and Abilene (1969). Lewis even turned out two children’s films: Jimmy, the Boy Wonder (1966) and The Magic Land of Mother Goose (1967). 

Besides gore, Lewis was noted for his hicksploitation movies (although Two Thousand Maniacs! might be seen to fit the bill, it was more of a gore film), and made Moonshine Mountain (1964), This Stuff’ll Kill Ya (1971), and The Year of the Yahoo (1972).

Ever the savvy businessman, Lewis bought an unfinished 1961 film by anti-auteur Bill Rebate (most famous for The Giant Spider Invasion, released in 1975), shot additional footage and added narration, releasing the finished product as Monster a-Go Go in 1965. It wallowed in obscurity until it was shown on Mystery Science Theater 3000, whose cast members recalled that it was the worst film ever featured on the show. How bad? Lewis tried to bring back the original actors, but some weren’t interested, so their characters merely disappeared without explanation. One character had changed so much over the years that he was cast as his own brother. It’s a film that needs to be seen through the prism of MST 3000 in order to get the full effect and stop from dozing off.

But gore films were his bread and butter. In 1969, he released The Wizard of Gore, starring Ray Sager as a magician who selects female volunteers at his shows and appears to put swords, drill and knives through them. They walk away unscathed to the applause of the crowd, but are later found dead of the same injuries they endured during the magic show.

In The Gore Gore Girls (1972), a scatterbrained reporter (Amy Farrell) seeks the help of a sleazy private eye (Frank Kress) to solve a series of killings of female strippers at a Chicago nightclub owned by Youngman. As noted above, it was the first film to be rated X for violence. Screened today, we can see most of the violent effects were badly done and come off as quite laughable.

After the release of The Gore Gore Girls, Lewis retired from filmmaking and in 1975 started Communicomp, a direct-mail (known popularly as ‘junk mail’) advertising agency. He wrote a number of books on advertising and marketing, including The Businessman’s Guide to Advertising and Sales Promotion (1974), How to Handle Your Own Public Relations (1977), and On the Art of Writing Copy (2003). In all, he wrote 26 books.

With the popularity of home video, Lewis experienced a renaissance, especially among bad film and psychotronic fans. He came out of retirement in 2002 with Blood Feast 2: All U Can Eat. The plot concerned Fuad Ramses III (J.P. Delahoussaye) who reopens his grandfather’s catering business, only to become possessed by the spirit of Ishtar. Longtime Lewis admirer John Waters has a cameo role as a pedophile priest. 

Lewis’ first marriage to Allison Louise Downe ended in divorce, as did his second to Yvonne Gilbert. Lewis is survived by his third wife, the former Margo Ellis; four daughters, two sons and two grandchildren.

Lewis saw filmmaking as a business and pitied anyone who regarded it as an art form. Of his most famous film, he also had an unsentimental view: “I've often compared Blood Feast (1963) to a Walt Whitman poem; it's no good, but it was the first of its kind.”

Planet of the Apes

By David Skolnick

Planet of the Apes (20th Century Fox, 1968) – Director: Franklin J. Schaffner. Writers: Michael Wilson, Rod Serling (s/p). Pierre Boulle (novel). Cast: Charlton Heston, Roddy McDowall, Kim Hunter, Maurice Evans, James Whitmore, James Daly, Linda Harrison, Robert Gunner, Lou Wagner, Woodrow Palfrey, Jeff Burton, Buck Kartalian, Norman Burton, Wright King, & Paul Lambert. Color, Rated G, 112 minutes.

Beware the beast man, for he is the devil's pawn. Alone among God's primates, he kills for sport or lust or greed. Yea, he will murder his brother to possess his brother's land. Let him not breed in great numbers, for he will make a desert of his home and yours. Shun him, drive him back into his jungle lair, for he is the harbinger of death. – The Lawgiver in the Sacred Scrolls

There isn't another movie more than the Planet of the Apes that has changed my plans over the years. I own the original Planet of the Apes five-movie DVD collection and have seen the first film more than 50 times. But when I stumble across it – no matter whether it just started or is about to end – on TV, whatever I'm doing at the time or about to do waits until the movie is over. Thankfully, I have a patient family.

Sure, there are science-fiction films with significantly better special effects, but few that are as timeless as Planet of the Apes. The 1968 movie isn't stale nearly a half-century later. A key reason is the apes who run the planet are primitive. They ride horses. They use non-automatic rifles. They use nets to capture humans. They live and work in huts. They don't have cars, planes, trains, telephones, televisions, radios, watches or anything people had in 1968, much less what an advanced society more than 2,000 years in the future would have. There's not even evidence of indoor plumbing in Ape City. The ape society could easily pass for 1868. That's the brilliance behind the film: Not having any technology, even the basics, gives the apes a level of authenticity that would be missing if the film took the opposite approach.

The plot is taken from Pierre Boulle’s novel and adapted by the screenwriters. The film begins with a four-person crew on a spaceship that left Earth a year or two ago. Because it's traveling at near light speed, the Earth has aged about 2,000 years. Taylor (Heston) is talking into a machine, acknowledging that those he knew back home are long dead. 

After he joins the others in deep-hibernation sleep, the ship makes a crash landing into a body of water on a planet. To save on money, viewers don't get to see the crash and only get a glimpse of the top of the ship as it sinks into the water. During the crash, the protective cover over Stewart, the lone woman on the ship, cracks and ages her to her death while the three men – Taylor, Landon (Gunner), Dodge (Burton) – age several months. How do we know? They all grew beards, but they’re rather neat when they should be ZZ Top length.

The three abandon ship, board an inflatable raft and paddle to shore, where tests are done showing nothing can grow in the dirt. But at least they can breathe the air. They walk the vast wasteland – we later find it's deep in the Forbidden Zone – until they stumble upon a plant and realize life can be sustained here. They don't give a second thought to several giant scarecrows on top of mountains. Upon finding a body of fresh water we get our only nude scene as all three take their clothes off and we’re given a shot of their bare asses. 

While swimming, their clothes are stolen and destroyed – along with their supplies of food and water. They turn the torn items and found rags into something to cover themselves. It's then that they see who destroyed their clothes and equipment: a group of primitive humans. The humans can't speak. and the astronauts figure they'll be running the place in a few months. Suddenly a horn sounds and they look up. Much to their dismay, they see a group of gorillas, some walking on two feet and other riding horses, attempting to capture the humans. Dodge is shot (he’s the lone black guy and it's the black guy who is typically the first to get killed in movies) and Landon is captured. After fending off the gorilla attack, even though he's shot in the neck, Taylor is eventually caught.

Brought back to Ape City, Taylor attracts the attention of Zira (Hunter), an animal psychologist and chimpanzee, who is fascinated with his ability to mimic speaking. (Getting shot in the neck temporarily takes away Taylor's ability to speak.) She calls him “Bright Eyes.” Zira and her fiancé, Cornelius (McDowall), an archaeologist and also a chimpanzee, are fascinated with Taylor, who starts to write things down, telling his story, which neither believes. But they realize he is intelligent, far more so than the other humans on their planet.

Dr. Zaius (Evans), aware that Taylor is a threat to his society, orders the human castrated. Dr. Zaius doesn't want Taylor breeding, which could be a possibility as he's got the hots for one of the humans on the planet he calls Nova (played by Harrison, who was dating Fox studio head Richard Zanuck at the time).

Taylor escapes and when captured utters the legendary line: “Take your stinking paws off of me, you damn dirty ape!” He's brought before an ape tribunal, consisting of Dr. Zaius and two other high-level orangutans, where he is found guilty of crimes even though humans have no rights under ape law. It's one of the best scenes with Zira speaking on behalf of Taylor and the three orangutans doing the classic monkey “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” bit. Doomed to castration or possibly becoming a lab experiment, Taylor, along with Nova, escape thanks to Zira, Cornelius, and Zira's nephew Lucius (Wagner). The five head for the Forbidden Zone followed by Dr. Zaius and an army of gorillas.

Taylor is able to take Dr. Zaius hostage and the group, except Lucius, enter a cave Cornelius discovered a year prior filled with human artifacts. The most damning item is an old baby doll that cries. Dr. Zaius tries to be skeptical, but can no longer keep up the charade: Why would apes make a human doll that could make noise when they're all mute? The doctor finally admits that he was aware of the history of his planet and that humans were far more civilized centuries ago. But, he says, humans destroyed themselves and parts of the planet, turning the Forbidden Zone from a paradise into a wasteland.

The film ends with the apes agreeing to give Taylor – who has Dr. Zaius hostage – and Nova a horse, gun and supplies as they head deeper into the Forbidden Zone. When asked what Taylor will find, Dr. Zaius ominously says, “His destiny.” The good doctor nailed it: It's one of the most iconic endings in cinematic history.

We first see a rusted piece of metal as Taylor and Nova ride a horse along the shoreline, then a close-up of the two on the horse stopping to look at the metal, they ride a little more, and a metal point is visible, then three more in what looks somewhat like a crown, they both get off the horse and stand. As the water comes ashore, Taylor says: “Oh, my God, I'm back. I'm home. All the time, it was...we finally really did it.” (He drops to his knees and pounds his fists into the wet sand as water rushes over him.) He screams: “You maniacs! You blew it up! Ah, damn you! God damn you all to hell!” The viewer gets a reverse shot to see what Taylor sees. And there it is – the Statue of Liberty buried in the sand from its waist down.


The 1963 French novel of which the film is based – La Planete des Singes, cleverly translated as The Planet of the Apes or Monkey Planet in English – and the original movie screenplay by the legendary Rod Serling featured advanced technology that certainly would look ridiculous if viewed today. But what led to the decision to make the apes primitive? Just one thing: money. It was far too expensive for 20th Century Fox to have the apes living in a high-tech world. The advancements considered in the late 1960s for 3978, the year Taylor and the rest of his ill-fated crew crash land deep in the planet's Forbidden Zone, would cost way too much for a company trying to keep expenses down on this film. Serling was replaced by Michael Wilson, a former blacklisted screenwriter who co-wrote, without credit, films such as Bridge on the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia.

Fox's refusal to spend money on props and sets for Planet of the Apes was stronger on the four sequels released annually between 1970 and 1973. The budget decreased with each film – though the dark storyline of the third film Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972) is the best of the bunch despite the terrible special effects. However, there's no denying that the makeup used in the films to make human actors look simian was spectacular and years ahead of its time. The apes in the later reboots are the results of CGI technology. While it's spectacular, I'll take a guy in classic POTA makeup over an ape created by CGI every time.

As for casting, Heston was Taylor from the word go. Particularly after his career peaked, and even during its high points, Heston's acting ability was much maligned. However, if you were casting a historical/biblical epic such as Ben-HurEl Cid and The Ten Commandments, he was your guy. The same goes for dystopian/post-apocalyptic films such as Soylent GreenThe Omega Man and Planet of the Apes. He's the perfect actor for those roles. Don't believe me? All you have to do is watch the remakes.

Heston's intensity, bravado and charm give life to George Taylor (we only know his first name because it's in the credits; it's never mentioned in the film). Whether he's uttering his first words to his simian captures – the memorable “stinkin' paws” line – or on his hands and knees during the stunning conclusion of the film – “You maniacs! You blew it up! Ah, damn you! God damn you all to hell!” – Heston owns the screen.

The legendary Edward G. Robinson was originally cast to play Dr. Zaius, Taylor's nemesis – an orangutan who is minister of science and chief defender of the faith, two roles that conflict, particularly when Taylor falls from the sky. Eddie G. had to take a pass on the film though he's in a screen test that was used to sell the film to Fox. Robinson had to bow out because of health problems that got worse when he had to sit through hours of makeup to look the part. Robinson's final cinematic role – and his most touching – would come five years later as Heston's partner in Soylent Green, released three months after his death.

Imagine the Planet of the Apes dialogue with Robinson. “I have always known about man, myah. From the evidence, myah, see, I believe his wisdom must walk hand and hand with his idiocy. His emotions must rule his brain, you mugs. He must be a warlike creature who gives battle to everything around him, even himself, Blue Eyes, myah, myah, myah. If you ain't out of town by tomorrow, you won't ever leave it except in a pine box. You're through.”

Evans, a Shakespearean actor with very little film experience, was cast in the key role of Dr. Zaius. He's extraordinary, and while watching the movie you can see Evans put his Shakespearean talents to good use. McDowall and Hunter, two actors with extensive filmographies – including an Academy Award for Hunter for her portrayal of Stella in A Streetcar Named Desire – were eventually tapped to play the key roles of Cornelius and Zira, the chimpanzees who help Taylor. McDowell would have prominent roles in three of the four sequels as well as the short-lived 1974 TV show based on the film.

The apes have a caste system with the orangutans being the government leaders – very similar to our existing society – with the chimps as the timid intellectuals and the gorillas as the soldiers.

That this film received a G rating is stunning. It's filled with violence, including murder, some brief nudity, and very adult themes. This is post-Hays Code, and apparently the Motion Picture Association of America didn't pay any attention to this film.

The ending, with Heston discovering the Statue of Liberty, lasts for about one minute and 50 seconds and to me is the greatest, most powerful and shocking ending in cinematic history. Even though I've seen it dozens of times, it never loses its impact. It was Serling's ending, even though it’s strangely anticipated by Roger Corman in his camp classic, Teenage Cave Man from 1958, and one that seems straight out of an excellent episode of The Twilight Zone.

Based on the film's conclusion and the sequels that are true to the “ape time continuum,” Ape City is somewhere in or near New York City. If the Forbidden Zone is Manhattan, then Ape City is either Staten Island or Long Island – depending on which direction it is.

My first experience seeing the film was on TV. It was a mainstay on WABC-TV's 4:30 Movie in New York City, where I grew up, as part of Planet of the Apes Week. The original was stretched over two days with three of the sequels – Battle rarely aired – shown the other three weekdays. I pop in the DVD every so often and as I mentioned, I've come across it on TV several times.

Thankfully TCM recently showed it on the big screen providing viewers, including myself, who've never seen it in a theater the chance to do just that. It's a movie made for the big screen. The vastness of the Forbidden Zone and the size of the cliffs toward the end of the movie – filmed in Arizona and California, respectively – are incredible sights to see on such a large screen. I didn't truly appreciate the sheer size of the locations until seeing it in a theater. I went with a friend who also loves the films, particularly the original. In between reciting lines to each other and ourselves – there were only about 10 other people in the theater – we marveled at the breathtaking cinematography and the marvelous ape makeup.

The film screamed for a sequel, but Heston barely showed any interest in doing one. The deal struck by Heston's agents on his behalf included that he have a very small part, Taylor would be killed and his salary would go to charity. While Beneath the Planet of the Apes is a very good film, the original is a timeless classic and the best of the entire Apes series of movies.

Attack of the 50 Foot Woman

By Ed Garea

Attack of the 50 Foot Woman (Allied Artists, 1958) – Director: Nathan Juran (as Nathan Hertz). Writer: Mark Hanna. Stars: Allison Hayes, William Hudson, Yvette Vickers, Roy Gordon, George Douglas, Ken Terrell, Otto Waldis, Eileen Stevens, Michael Ross, & Frank Chase. B&W, 65 minutes.

By any reasonable standard, Attack of the 50 Foot Woman is a bad movie. Just how bad can be seen in the fact that director Nathan Juran changed his credit to Nathan Hertz in a desperate attempt to escape responsibility. The film suffers from a dreadful cheapness, which manifests itself in a lousy script and totally laughable special effects. However, it does manage to boast some good performances from a cast that somehow manages to act their way through this mess with straight faces. And it is one of those great absurd movies that’s so bad it’s entertaining to watch. For that reason it’s considered a camp classic today.

The movie was produced by Bernard Woolner, who with his brothers Lawrence and David, owned a chain of drive-in theaters in the Deep South. To obtain product for their theaters, the brothers expanded into film distribution of Roger Corman’s Swamp Women in 1956, and production of Corman’s Teenage Doll in 1957). Looking for a sure fire drive-in hit, the Woolners noticed the success of Bert I. Gordon’s The Amazing Colossal Man (1957) and figured that a distaff version would do as well, if not better.

For Attack of the 50 Foot Woman, the Woolners partnered with Marquette Productions, the brainchild of cinematographer Jacques R. Marquette, who founded the company with the intention of making low-budget pictures. He had cranked out three for distributor Howco Pictures (including his biggest hit, the dreadful The Brain From Planet Arous, 1957), but due to Howco’s creative accounting, Marquette and his investors never saw a dime.

The Woolners decided to throw in with Marquette because he would operate the camera and also secured the services of director Nathan Juran, who helmed Brian From the Planet Arous. The brothers decided Bernard would represent them on this production and they secured Allied Artists as a distributor. Allied Artists fronted Woolner and Marquette a budget of $99,500. Juran directed the picture for union scale, provided he was billed as “Nathan Hertz” (his middle name), the same name he used to direct Brain. He was afraid the material was so awful it would hurt his future job prospects. 

Shooting the film in only eight days (the film was brought in at a final cost of $89,000) with some of the shoddiest special effects ever committed to film. It was somewhat of a hit, grossing $480,000 in its initial theatrical run. As Allied Artists’ accounting methods were much more honest, both the Woolners and Marquette shared in the profits. A sequel was considered and a script written, but the project never got off the drawing board.

The film opens with a television reporter reading reports from around the world of a glowing ball heading in the direction of California. As he announces that it should shortly be over California we cut to a speeding car tooling down Route 66. Driving the car is heiress Nancy Fowler Archer (Hayes) fresh off an argument with her shitheel husband, Harry (Hudson). Suddenly the glowing orb alights in front of Nancy’s car, causing her to swerve, hit the brakes, and stall the car. She flees the car as a giant hand reaches out for her.

The scene now shifts to Tony’s Bar, where Handsome Harry is entertaining his squeeze, Honey Parker (Vickers), as they discuss how to get their hands on Nancy’s fortune. When Nancy, who has spent some time on the funny farm after she and Harry temporarily separated, runs into town barefoot, looking for Harry and frantic over her sighting, Sheriff Dubbitt (Douglas) assumes she’s had a relapse. In order to placate her, Dubbitt agrees to return to the desert with her and his deputy Charlie (Chase) to look for the UFO and its occupant. However, on arrival, the group finds only Nancy’s abandoned car. Dubbitt, however, does get to lecture Nancy on the dangers of wearing her Star of India diamond, especially when out driving alone. Nancy, peeved that all she gets for her trouble is a lecture, returns home in a huff.

When she gets there, who should Nancy find waiting other than her wandering husband, Harry? The two waste no time getting into an argument over Harry’s philandering, with Nancy demanding that Harry leave, telling him they never should have reconciled, despite the fact that she still loves him. She then tells him what happened in the desert, begging him to believe her. Harry humors her before giving her a sleeping pill and heading back to Tony’s, where he informs Honey that Nancy might flip out again. This time, he may be able to gain legal access to her fortune by having her committed. 

The next day, Harry calls Nancy’s personal physician, Dr. Cushing (Gordon), hoping the Doc will see things his way, but Cushing tells Harry that Nancy could not endure another vacation at the nuthouse. Later that day, Nancy picks up with Harry where she left off, accusing him of publicly conducting his affair with Honey and trying to drive her back into the sanitarium. She tells Harry that her experience in the desert was real and after watching a skeptical news reporter mock her encounter, she demands that Harry accompany her back into the desert to find the UFO. Harry demurs. When Nancy tells him she’ll return to the looney bin if they find nothing, Harry takes the bait, even though Nancy’s loyal butler, Jess Stout (Terrell) protests vigorously.

Harry and Nancy take an all-day road trip with no results. At sunset, however, Nancy spots the sphere and runs towards it, banging on the outside. When the amazing see-through giant emerges, Harry fires several shots at him with his revolver but to no effect. The giant grabs Nancy, and while she’s screaming for help, Harry beats it in the car, returning to the house, where he starts packing.

As Harry begins to leave, he’s intercepted by Jess, who wants to know where Nancy is. The two engage in a brief fistfight before Harry lams out. Jess telephones the sheriff and Charlie intercepts Harry and Honey just as they’re leaving Honey’s hotel. Meanwhile, Dubbitt finds Nancy, unconscious with mysterious scratches, atop the pool house. While Cushing attends to her, Charlie brings Harry and Honey to the house for questioning. Cushing tells the assembled party he believes Nancy has radiation burns in addition to those strange scratches on her neck. The sheriff releases Harry and his squeeze with the admonition that they remain in town. 

Back at their favorite watering hole, Honey tells Harry she overheard Cushing caution his nurse that the slightest increase of Nancy's medication could be fatal. Harry agrees to return that night and give Nancy an overdose, but after sneaking back into the house he and the nurse are horrified to find that Nancy has mutated into a giant.

The next morning, Cushing chains the unconscious Nancy and consults with specialist Dr. Von Loeb (Waldis). Meanwhile, Dubbitt and Charlie have found an enormous set of footprints in Nancy's garden. Along with Jess, Dubbitt follows the tracks into the desert, where they discover the sphere. They explore inside, finding Nancy's Star of India and other jewelry apparently used for fuel. When the men see the giant, they run away, and fire at the creature, who is giving chase. He retaliates by picking up their car and destroying it. Dubbitt then hurls grenades at the giant, who retreats to the sphere, which then takes off and disappears into the night sky.

Back at the Archers’, Nancy awakens and begins screaming for Harry. Charlie finds Harry at Tony's with Honey and tries to get him to return. Harry, who has decided to withhold all approval for medical treatment for Nancy, refuses. Cushing and Von Loeb attempt to tranquilize Nancy with an elephant syringe, but she awakens and, breaking the chains, bursts out of the house, searching for Harry. Charlie finds Dubbitt and Jess walking back from the desert and returning to the Archers', discovers the house in shambles and that Nancy's on the loose. Giant Nancy arrives in town and, as people flee in terror, she destroys Honey’s hotel, looking for Harry.

Charlie returns to Tony's and desperately tries to convince the drunken Harry to hide. Nancy begins to break into Tony’s. Harry shoots at her, but with no effect, as Nancy rips the roof off and drops a beam on Honey, killing her. Nancy then grabs Harry and wanders off, crushing him in her fist. Dubbitt fires several shotgun blasts at Nancy with no effect, but as she walks by the city power lines, he fires again and the lines explode, shocking Nancy. She staggers back and collapses, dead, still clutching Harry's lifeless body.

What makes this movie fun to watch are two things. One, it takes itself seriously, a requite for an entertaining bad movie. There are few things worse than a bad movie with its tongue firmly implanted in its cheek. It’s as if the production staff is laughing at the audience for watching their film, which, of course, they are too superior to take seriously themselves. The script by Mark Hanna takes the drama very seriously indeed, and gives us a rather sympathetic leading lady who fighting for her life against two despicable people out for her money. 

It’s also unusual in presenting us with a heroine who’s no shrinking violet (though she does need a shrink). Female characters in most other films made during this time are there to serve the hero. If she’s a scientist, she abandons all science as soon as she meets her hunk. Nancy Archer, on the other hand, is a successful and wealthy woman whose only Achilles heel is her dependence on her heel of a husband, who obviously married her only for the money. 

The other thing that makes this such an enjoyable bad movie is the tremendously shoddy special effects. Most of the credit should go to the spectacularly lousy optical printing, which makes the giant alien and the giant Nancy transparent and almost ghostly. We never see either giant in the same shot with the live-action townsfolk. When the giant reaches out for Nancy all we see is a huge papier-mache hand. The same occurs near the end when Nancy reaches into Tony’s bar for Harry. All we see is the same hand, but without hair. 

When Nancy walks through town, we see the same footage of her walking several times. Sometimes it’s reversed with different backgrounds used. And when she’s standing behind the power pylon, the back projection is so shoddy as to be practically non-existent. Also, when Nancy grows to her outsize proportion it’s amazing that the bed need not be changed or that her added weight doesn’t knock her down to the first floor. When she decides to take her walk into town, her hair is noticeably longer and blonde. She is also conveniently draped in a huge bed sheet bikini, clutching a overdressed doll that’s supposed to be passing for her husband, Harry.

As for the giant, he played by Michael Ross, who doubles as Tony the Bartender. Looking silly in a costume with a giant ax and shield on the front (Shades of Bunny Breckinridge from Plan 9!), he, too, is practically see-through. His best scene comes when chasing the sheriff and Jess. Angered because he’s being shot at, the giant picks up the car that Jess and the sheriff arrived in. After twirling it around, he throws it down to the ground, only the car that hits the ground is an entirely different model than the one he lifted in the air. After the grenades are tossed at him, he takes on despairing look, like he did something he shouldn’t and will be punished for it. He then saunters back to his ship (which, when the sheriff and Jess were checking it out, seemed to have an interior of pegboard), the cue ball UFO takes off into the sky, and we can just about make out the wires.

It was rumored that, doing the finale, Nancy was to have wrought more destruction on the town, but the film’s budget wouldn’t allow it. 

The acting, as mentioned before, is above average for this sort of film. Allison Hayes is wonderful as Nancy Archer, covering the emotional ground of a dysfunctional person whose financial stability enables her to ignore the rejection and lack of love she receives from her husband. And even though she’s aware of the extent of his infidelity, she still wants to save the marriage. Instead of being a shrinking violet, Nancy shows her strength when, angered by the television reporter’s derisive comments about her experience, she drags her husband out to the desert to find the UFO she ran across earlier in the movie. Though she never managed to escape the B’s (and Z’s), Hayes was not a bad actress – she just appeared in bad films. Even though Hollywood had little use for her, she was a frequent guest star on a number of television series, such as Perry Mason. She did land a good supporting role in Elvis’ Tickle Me (1965). She died Feb. 27, 1977, a week before she would have turned 47.

Sexy Yvette Vickers plays seductive Honey Parker so well she was cast in a similar portrayal in the even cheesier Attack of the Giant Leeches the following year (1959). Playmate of the Month for July 1959, Vickers was mesmerizing: blonde hair, blue eyes,  breathless voice and a voluptuous figure. Her look provided a nice contrast to the dark, sultry looks of Hayes. Vickers’ looks and body language typecast her in future films, such as Hud (1963), where she had a brief, but memorable role as Lily Peters. Her death in 2011 was one of Hollywood legend: living in seclusion in a small cottage in Benedict Canyon, Vickers was rarely seen by neighbors. One day, her neighbor Susan Savage was walking her dog when she noticed yellowing envelopes and cobwebs outside the home. She went to the front door and called inside several times before entering. Inside, she found a mummified body. The police identified the remains as that of Vickers and an autopsy revealed that she had died the year before from heart disease.

William Hudson was best known for his portrayal of Ranger Clark in the 1954 sci-fi show, Rocky Jones, Space Ranger, and as Special Agent Mike Andrews in the television show I Led 3 Lives (1954-55). He was a supporting player in mainstream movies and a lead or featured player in B’s or below. Besides Attack of the 50 Foot Woman, other films include The She Creature (1956), The Man Who Turned to Stone (1957), and The Amazing Colossal Man (1957). Most of his work was in television. He died on April 5, 1974, at the age of 55 from cirrhosis.

Director Juran was born in Gura Humra, Bukovina, Austria-Hungary (now part of Romania), in 1907. After coming to the United States, he studied architecture at M.I.T., and while seeking work in California, he became an art director at 20th Century Fox in 1937. He won an Oscar for art direction for How Green Was My Valley in 1941. The film’s director, John Ford, was so impressed with Juran that when World War II broke out, Ford had Juran assigned to his unit, where he used his skills as a draftsman to determine the dimensions of enemy structures in captured photographs for the O.S.S. (Office of Strategic Services).

Returning to Hollywood after the war, he was working as an art director at Universal when the studio offered him a chance to direct after firing Joseph Pevney from the Boris Karloff film The Black Castle (1952). Juran is known primarily for directing B-movies, among them The Deadly Mantis (1957), Hellcats of the Navy (1957), 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957), The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958), Good Day for a Hanging (1959), Jack the Giant Killer (1962), First Men in the Moon (1964), and The Boy Who Cried Werewolf, his final film (1973). In addition, he directed several episodes of various television series, including My Friend Flicka (1955-56), Crossroads (1956), Men Into Space (1959-60), A Man Called Shenandoah (1965-66), Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea  (1965-66), The Time Tunnel (1966-67), Lost in Space (1965-68), Land of the Giants (1968-70), and Daniel Boone (1965-70). The only time he used pseudonyms was when he directed Attack of the 50 Foot Woman and The Brain From the Planet Arous (1957) as Nathan Hertz. He even directed an Italian sword and sandal adventure called Le imprese di una spada leggendaria (The Story of the Legendary Sword) in 1959.

As mentioned earlier, a sequel was considered (in color, no less), and while the script was written, the project never got off the drawing board.

In the mid-1980s, filmmaker Jim Wynorski was considering a remake starring Sybil Danning in the title role. But after going so far as to begin preliminary work by photographing Danning in costume, Wynorski opted instead to direct the 1988 remake of Not of This Earth

A remake was finally made in 1993 for HBO, directed by Christopher Guest, written by Joseph Dougherty (Thirtysomething), and starting Darryl Hannah (who also produced) in the title role. In 1995, director Fred Olen Ray made the T&A farce Attack of the 60-Foot Centerfold.

In 2012, Roger Corman, through his New Horizon company, released the made-for-cable Attack of the 50 Foot Cheerleader. Directed by Kevin O’Neill and written by Mike McLean (who also wrote Sharktopus for Corman), it starred former Miss Georgia Teen USA Jena Sims in the title role. Originally airing in 3D upon its premiere, it played in 2D thereafter.


The poster for the movie, a Raymond Brown illustration of supersized Nancy Archer straddling a freeway while holding a car, has become a prized collectible, fetching thousands of dollars for mint condition. It was voted No. 8 of “The 25 Best Movie Posters Ever” by Premiere magazine in 2008.

Bomba, The Jungle Boy, Part 2

By Ed Garea

There are many that disparage the Bomba films, but who don’t seem to get the fact that the films were made for and aimed at a young audience. Take a close look at the character of Bomba: He’s a definite animal lover; an early example of what we now call a tree-hugger. Today, he’d be an active member of Greenpeace. I would even venture to say that, along with the Warner cartoons, Bomba’s attitude toward hunters has had a strong influence on the generation that viewed his antics as children at the matinee or youngsters watching the movies on Saturday morning television.

Read Part 1 here.

Although Bomba appears physically mature (he seems to be in his early 20s), he’s still retains a boyish innocence about him. (The books also depict him in that manner.) And like the young male audience to who his films were aimed, Bomba has no time what us young boys called “mush.” The attractive young starlets he encounters in each film interest him about as much as a physics lesson. No matter how taken they are with him and how much they seek to attract his interest, the young ladies always seem to hit an unmovable stone wall. Producer Mirish knew his audience.

And Bomba seems contented in his version of “Walden.” Most other adventures stress the notion of community, a concept foreign to Bomba, who never knew his real family. A common theme in the Bomba movies is that of the white people he meets wanting to take him back with them to civilization. Bomba’s answer is invariably the same: “Not alone. With jungle friends. Always home.” In Bomba on Panther Island (1949), Judy (Allene Roberts), yet another gorgeous young woman who can’t rouse his romantic interest, simply remarks, “Well, independent seems to be the word for Bomba!”

And there’s the essence of his connection to his audience. The films make for great fantasy escapes for a young boy. Bomba lives alone in the jungle, far away from bothersome brothers, sisters, grownups and, especially, teachers. Bomba learns at his own pace. He’s not one for sitting still in a classroom. In Elephant Stampede (1951), exotic village girl Lola (Donna Martell) is teaching him his ABC's while attempting to seduce him. But Lola’s skin-tight sarong is no match for the excitement that comes from learning to spell l-i-o-n, which, along with the elephant, is his favorite animal.

Directed and mostly written by Ford Beebe, the Bomba movies are a product of their times. The scripts contain pro-ecology and anti-capitalist themes so obvious and simply stated as to go against the pro-growth and pro-business attitude of the adult world. The bad guys always want to destroy the forest or hunt the animals to extinction, and it’s up to Bomba to stop them.

In something of a turnaround from the usual depiction in these sort of films, the natives are seen as intelligent and, for the most part, helpful. They may be superstitious, but on the whole they are smarter than the white interlopers that seek to destroy or loot their land. For instance, when Robert Maitland (Harry Lewis), the developer in Bomba on Panther Island, is warned that his plan to clear timber with fire is likely to “burn off half of Africa,” he merely answers: “Small loss, if you ask me.” On the other hand, the village chief (Martin Wilkins) in Elephant Stampede welcomes the teacher, Miss Banks (Edith Evanson), telling her that his subjects will never have a better way of life without education.

Bomba’s gentleness extends beyond his treatment of women. Bomba, unlike some other jungle heroes, is a reluctant killer. He doesn’t triumphantly beat his chest or celebrate when winning a battle with a crocodile, leopard, or lion. In Elephant Stampede (1951), he tosses a python from a tree rather than killing it, and we see the snake slithering away unharmed. In the early films, his trusted companion is a capuchin monkey (actually found in South America, not Africa); later after his pet is killed, he adopts a chimp. Unlike Tarzan, Bomba does not yell his lungs out; his way of communication is via squawks, caws and grunts.

In Elephant Stampede, he talks about pachyderms, declaring that, “They’re so big and strong and yet so gentle. They’re my friends. Sometimes at night I sleep between their feet.”

In The Lion Hunters (1951), Bomba invades a safari camp and frees several big cats that have been captured for sale to zoos. Later, when he meets the pretty and well-meaning Jean (Ann Todd), herself the daughter of a lion-trapper, he asks her to consider the plight of the captured beasts. “You think lions like that? Jungle animals need freedom. I’d rather die than be put in a cage. Lions are my friend. They like freedom.” Later in the film, he forces a conniving white hunter (Douglas Kennedy) into one of the bamboo pens: “Maybe animals like look at people in cage.” This remark is followed by a montage of stock-footage animal closeups used as reaction shots, as if the creatures have gathered to gawk and hoot at the captive hunter.

Bomba’s origins are sketchy, and meant to be that way. Seen at first like some sort of jungle legend, his presence always seems like a surprise to the safaris that invade his realm. Commissioner Andy (Charles Irwin) describes Bomba to the safari in Bomba on Panther Island as “one of those African legends you wouldn’t believe.” In The Lion Hunters, no-good hunter Martin (Kennedy) calls him a “jungle brat,” and a “breech-clothed jungle kid.”

The series does its best to make maximum use of its locations and stock footage to pad out its running time, including that time honored shot of macaques leaping through the trees that seems to be a part of every B-level jungle adventure, along with the familiar shot of elephants stampeding. No one will ever confuse them with such classics as Tarzan (1932), but they are much better than many of the B-jungle epics that came later. Just sit back, watch, and enjoy. At an average of about 70 minutes for each film they move and are over quickly, unlike some later adventures that seem as if they go on for hours.

African Treasure (Monogram, 1952) – Written and directed by Ford Beebe. Cast: Johnny Sheffield, Laurette Luez, Martin Garralaga, Lyle Talbot, Lenard Mudie, Arthur Space, Lane Bradford, Smoki Whitfield, James Adamson, Sugarfoot Anderson,Wesley Bly, Woody Strode, Jack Williams, & Kimbbo the Chimp. B&W, 70 minutes.

A hunting expedition, consisting of Professor Catesby, two Americans and Pedro Sebastian, a native guide, has been missing for days. Also, hunter Pat Gilroy (Talbot) is asking for someone to bring him to the nearest village so he can hire guides.

Meanwhile Bomba is busy saving Lita Sebastian (Luez) and her servant from a lion attack. Lita’s also looking for her father, and Bomba accompanies her while his chimpanzee friend, Kimbbo, sends a message throughout the jungle for more information.

Bomba then hears a message coming via the jungle drum wireless telegraph. It’s from Andy Barnes wanting Bomba to locate Catesby and his party. Bomba replies that he will first take Lita to Nomgola’s village to look for clues about her father. However, when they arrive, they find Catesby and Nomgola, are dead.

Kimoo’s friends inform Bomba that the hunting party has been located, We later learn that two hunters, Greg (Space) and Hardy (Bradford), are the killers and are in cahoots with Gilroy, who is a notorious diamond smuggler. Gilroy forces Andy to take him to his partners.

Bomba and Lita find that Greg and Hardy have enslaved Pedro and Nomgola's tribesmen to mine for diamonds. Bomba and Andy overpower and arrest the baddies, who are arrested and taken to Nairobi. Pedro and Lita are reunited.

African Treasure is padded with more stock footage than usual, perhaps to compensate for the somewhat incredible plot. Sheffield also pads out the running time with quite a bit of vine swinging and swimming. Lyle Talbot, veteran of many a B-movie at this juncture in his career and was about to join the Ed Wood, Jr. stock company, gives an adequate heel performance. Luez, born Loretta Mary Luiz in Honolulu in August 1928, looks good in a sarong, but never rose beyond the B’s. She’s best known to psychotronic film fans for her starring role as Tigri in the incredible cheesy 1950 opus, Prehistoric Women, released through Eagle-Lion.  Her last screen appearance was as “Felina” in the B-Western The Ballad of a Gunfighter (1964).

This was Woody Strode’s second Bomba film. Of African/Cree/Blackfoot descent on his father’s side and African/Cherokee descent on his mother’s, he was a decathlete and All-American football star at UCLA, where he broke the team’s color barrier along with teammates Kenny Washington and Jackie Robinson. After college, he helped break the color barrier in the NFL when he signed with the Los Angeles Rams. He claimed that his interracial marriage to Hawaiian princess Launa Kalaeloa (who often doubled for Dorothy Lamour in swimming scenes) drove him out of the NFL, and he wound up signing with the Calgary Stampeders of the Canadian Football League. In 1941, he began a part-time career as a professional wrestler. He made it a full-time occupation in 1951 and worked steadily between films for about 10 years. He also acted in films and formed a strong friendship with director John Ford, who cast Strode to star in Sergeant Rutledge (1960).

Interiors for the movie were shot on the Monogram soundstages with the outdoor footage shot as Bronson Canyon and the Iverson Ranch in nearby Chatsworth.

Bomba and the Jungle Girl (Monogram, 1952) – Written and directed by Ford Beebe. Cast: Johnny Sheffield, Karen Sharpe, Walter Sande, Suzette Harbin, Martin Wilkins, Morris Buchanan, Leonard Mudie, Don Blackman, Amanda Rudolph, Bruce Carruthers, Roy Glenn, Jack Clisby, Bill Walker, & Kimbbo the Chimp. B&W, 70 minutes.

Bomba is having an existential crisis, wondering why his animal friends have parents and he does not. Embarking on a quest to find his origins, he travels to a village, headed by Chief Gamboso (Wilkins), where his parents were last seen. The chief and his daughter deny all knowledge, but Bomba locates a blind woman named Linasi (Randolph) who tells him the chief and his daughter murdered them. She tells him about a cave where their remains lie, but is killed before she can divulge anything further.

Linda Ward (Sharpe), who Bomba had earlier rescued from a crocodile, tells him her father (Sande) is investigating conditions in the village for the government. Bomba learns that the chief and his daughter, Baru (Harbin), are planning to have the Wards whacked. He rescues them and brings them to a nearby village, which they find is deserted. Baru and her men set fire to the brush around the village, driving Bomba and the Wards to a cave.

Grabbing Baru and her bodyguard as prisoners, Bomba takes them to the cave, where he finds the skeletons of his parents and a diary that details the parents’ last days. Baru and her bodyguard attempt to escape, and while escaping, Baru conveniently falls into a volcano located at the center of the caves. Days later, after the fire is brought under control and Chief Gamboso has been sent to jail, the commissioner names a new leader of the tribe. When the Wards look for Bomba to thank him, however, they find he is gone. Barnes explains that Bomba acts not to receive praise but only to see justice accomplished.

'Jungle Girl' Karen Sharpe in dance and theater, never made it out of the Bs, but struck it rich later in life when she married producer/director Staley Kramer in 1966, after which she retired from acting to become a mother and co-producer with her husband.

Safari Drums (Allied Artists, 1953) – Written and directed by Ford Beebe. Cast: John Sheffield, Barbara Bestar, Emory Parnell, Paul Marion, Douglas Kennedy, Leonard Mudie, Smoki Whitfield, James Adamson, Russ Conway, Rory Mallinson, Jack Williams, & Carleton Young. B&W, 71 minutes.

A group of filmmakers arrive in Africa to make a film about jungle wildlife. One of their party kills a geologist and Bomba the Jungle Boy must find the guilty party while helping them compete their movie. But when they needlessly kill a lion, Bomba leaves them, later learning they imported a tiger with which to stage a fight with a lion for their film. Bomba finds the killer, who is chased by lions into a hut, where the cats kill him. Though the police tell the filmmakers they violated no law in bringing in the tiger, they get their just desserts when Bomba’s friend Kimbbo exposes the film.

The Golden Idol (Allied Artists, 1954) – Written and directed by Ford Beebe. Cast: Johnny Sheffield, Anne Kimbell, Paul Guilfoyle, Leonard Mudie, Smoki Whitfield, Rick Vallin, Lane Bradford, Roy Glenn, James Adamson, William Tannen, Don C. Harvey, Bill Walker, Robert Bice, & Kimbbo the Chimp. B&W, 71 minutes.

Evil Arab chieftain Ali Ben Mamoud (Guilfoyle) has stolen the Golden Idol of Watusi from a village chief. Bomba later relieved him of it, but Mamoud wants it back and hires soldier of fortune Joe Hawkins (Bradford) to get it for him.

Archeologist Karen Marsh (Kimbell) from a British museum is seeking to purchase it. Mamoud and Hawkins have taken Marsh captive, along with Andy Barnes (Mudie), telling Bomba they will torture Ms. Marsh unless he gives the idol back to them. Bomba relents, but alerts the local police by jungle drum. Before he can hand over the treasure, the police arrive to arrest the baddies.

Hawkins and Mamoud escape, but Bomba is in hot pursuit. He overturns their boat in the river, and Mamoud drowns after being ensnared in the coils of a huge python. Bomba then overpowers Hawkins after an underwater fight and hands him over to the police. Karen can now purchase the idol, with the proceeds being turned over to the tribe, as Bomba has promised.

Having appeared on Broadway, Anne Kimball began her film career in a uncredited role in the Betty Grable musical, Mother Wore Tights, for Fox in 1947. In the ensuing years, she made several films before earning her first screen credit in Monogram’s Wagons West (1952), starring Rod Cameron. She worked strictly in the B’s, with her most famous films during this time being a starring role in Roger Corman’s Monster From the Ocean Floor (1954) and a supporting role in Allied Artists’ The Bob Mathias Story, also in 1954. She moved to England in 1958, where she co-starred in the comedy Girls at Sea, before leaving films to marry a Foreign Service officer, with whom she toured the world. After her divorce, she settled in Westcliffe, Colorado, where she is the founder and director of the non-profit Westcliffe Center for the Performing Arts. She has also authored several thrillers, including To Catch A Spy (2000) and The Ibeji Twins (2004).

Killer Leopard (Allied Artists, 1954) – Written and directed by Ford Beebe. Cast: Johnny Sheffield, Beverly Garland, Barry Bernard, Donald Murphy, Leonard Mudie, Smoki Whitfield, Russ Conway, Rory Mallinson, Harry Cording, Charles Stevens, Roy Glenn, Bill Walker, Guy Kingsford, & Milton Wood. B&W, 70 minutes.

Movie actress Linda Winters (Garland) has gone into the jungle to find her lost husband Fred (Murphy). Bomba the Jungle Boy helps in the rescue effort. A major obstacle facing them is a killer leopard specializing in tearing people limb from limb.

The police are also looking for Fred on charges of embezzlement. Fred and his cohort Charlie Pulham (Bernard) have traveled to a diamond mine to purchase illegal diamonds from Saunders (Cording), the mine's crooked superintendent. Charlie later tries to extort money from Saunders, who kills him and tells Fred the police are coming. As they try to escape, Bomba captures them, intending to turn them over to the police. The leopard appears and Bomba dispatches it. Fred finds a gun, and as he is about to shoot Bomba, the police intervene and arrest him.

The film benefits from the presence of Garland in the role of Linda. Known to film fans as “The Queen of the B’s,” she began her film career in 1950 as “Miss Foster” in the noir D.O.A. Before her retirement in 2004, she amassed 192 credits in movies and television. Her best-known roles were three films she made for Roger Corman: Gunslinger (1956), Swamp Women (1956), and It Conquered the World (1956), that have been riffed on Mystery Science Theater 3000, and as Fred MacMurray’s wife on the television sitcom My Three Sons.

Lord of the Jungle (Allied Artists, 1955) – Written and directed by Ford Beebe. Cast: Johnny Sheffield, Wayne Morris, Nancy Hale, Paul Picerni, William Phipps, Smoki Whitfield, Leonard Mudie, James Adamson, Joel Fluellen, Harry Lauter, & Juanita Moore. B&W, 69 minutes.

Hunters Jeff Woods (Morris), Paul Gavin (Picerni), and Kenny Balou (Phipps) have been assigned to exterminate a herd of rogue elephants. But Bomba is convinced that there is only one rogue, and prevents the hunters from carrying out their assignment.

Because the animals live on Bomba's land, Commissioner Andy Barnes (Mudie) is reluctant to give the hunters permission to trespass. However, after the elephants stage another stampede, Woods and his associates are given the okay to slaughter the herd.

Complicating matters is a visit by Barnes' niece Mona (Hale), who has arrived after an argument with her fiancé, a doctor who wants to practice in the jungle. Naturally, she hates it in Africa, and being spoiled and used to getting her own way, she adds to Bomba's troubles.

To make sure the hunters will not kill all the elephants, Bomba steals their weapons. Barnes tells Bomba that he’s in trouble with the law, but Bomba asserts that it’s only an elephant named Raju that is the rogue, and if Barnes dispatches him, the others will revert to their former peaceful behavior. Barnes reluctantly accepts the offer.

While Bomba and his elephant friend, Kobu, are looking for Raju, Mona becomes lost in the jungle. They find Raju, but he signals the others to stampede, and in the process they almost trample Mona, who is rescued at the last minute when Bomba swings down on a vine and carries her away. Barnes then shoots Raju and the others immediately revert to peaceful behavior. Bomba has proved his point, and the next morning leads a procession of the now peaceful elephants to the station. Jeff, Paul and Kenny are convinced that there is no reason to kill them. Mona then tells Bomba that she and her fiancé have reconciled and she supports his desire to become a doctor in Africa. Bomba happily states that Lewis is the luckiest man in the world, then waves goodbye to Mona before returning to the jungle.

This marks the end of the series, though there is no formal ending. The storyline in Lord of the Jungle is more complex and introduces explicit ideas concerning animal rights. Bomba's suggestion that because elephants are naturally docile and harmless only the renegade leader bull needs be killed. That is ignored until Bomba proves it at the risk of his life.

That this movie played out more like an episode of a television series seem to have been no accident. Shortly after the series, Johnny Sheffield and his father, Reginald, shot a pilot for a television series titled Bantu, the Zebra Boy. Although on a par with the other jungle series of the period, such as Jungle JimRamar of the Jungle, and Sheena, Queen of the Jungle in terms of plot, cast and production values, a sponsor could not be found and the series never got off the ground. The series was to have featured a gimmick whereby Bantu turns a bracelet over to begin a good deed and turns it back when the good deed is performed. Bantu’s main animal ally is a zebra named Zulu, who supposedly could be ridden, although Sheffield learned that it was not always the case.

Abar, The First Black Superman

The Z-Files

By Ed Garea

Abar, The First Black Superman (Mirror Releasing, 1977) – Director: Frank Packard. Writers: James Smalley (story and s/p), J. Walter Smith (scenario). Stars: J. Walter Smith, Tobar Mayo, Roxie Young, Gladys Lum, Tony Rumford, Rupert Williams, Tina James, Art Jackson, Allen Ogle, Joe Alberti, Dee Turguand, Nelson Meeker, William Carrol, Jr., James Dickson, & Richard Corrigan. Color, PG, 102 minutes.

As the Blaxploitation craze died down and talents were channeled into other genres of film, a few stragglers managed to release their products on an unsuspecting audience. One that truly stands out in all its awfulness is Abar, The First Black Superman, which was released in 1977, a collaboration between black writer-producer James Smalley and white director Frank Packard. The film began in 1973 as SuperBlack, the tale of an African-American superhero who brings peace and justice to the inner city while reconciling opposing forces. In the end it became Abar, after its protagonist, an inner-city activist who becomes a superman with God-like vision and omnipotence after ingesting an experimental drug.

Shot on the fly in Baldwin Hills and Watts, Smalley ran out of money roughly one-third of the way through filming. He was forced to sell the film to Burt Steiger and his Pacific Film Labs in part to settle the unpaid lab bill.

Finished in 1975, American International Pictures expressed interest in distributing it and there was even talk of a sequel. But negotiations fell through and the film sat on the shelf for two years before being acquired by Mirror Releasing, an exploitation film-clearing house. It received a very limited distribution throughout the South, and Mirror took the step of rechristening it In Your Face for release on VHS.

Cast and helmed by amateurs, Abar has the look of a low-budget feature shot on the run. Almost no one can act, the script is ludicrous, and the direction is lacking. The plot as such concerns scientist Dr. Ken Kincade (Smith), who moves his family into an all-white neighborhood in Los Angeles. At first, the neighbors think they are the help, but when they learn the family is to be their neighbors, they go ballistic: picketing in front of the Kincades’ house, throwing garbage on their front lawn, and lynching their cat (although rumor has it that the animal committed suicide after viewing the rushes).

Needing help, Kincade drives to the inner city, where he has his offices and recruits the aid of John Abar (Mayo) and his Black Front of Unity (BFU). Abar, a real badass who has pledged his life to protect black folks in their community, winds up being hired as a live-in full-time bodyguard, all the while complaining to Kincade that the doctor is abandoning his people by moving into a white neighborhood. Unfortunately, he can’t protect Kincade’s young son, Tommie (Rumford) from being run over by one of the local racists.

At his wit’s end, Kincade decides to amp up the work on a serum that will make a man indestructible. He works in his basement laboratory, and until now, has been experimenting on making super rabbits. He asks Abar if he’s like to take a sip or two, even shooting one of his super rabbits with no effect to convince our hero. But Abar turns him down; that is, until some crackers take a few potshots at him. Now he swings the stuff down like a bottle of MD 20/20. Not only does Abar become bulletproof, but he has also acquired psychic powers and abilities that allow him to battle racism and improve his neighborhood at the same time.

After seeing a murderous honky place a bomb in front of the Kincade home and drive off, Abar is able to telepathically move the bomb and place in the honky’s front seat, where it explodes in a frenzy of footage. But it doesn’t stop there. Oh no. After blowing up the honky, Abar turns his powers to helping the black community. He sees a bunch of bums drinking cheap wine and turns their bottles into milk. He sees a pimp beating on his ho and gives the victim the powers of a kung fu master so she can return the favor. When he sees a group of teenagers wasting their time getting high, he turns them into college graduates, complete with outfits. A preacher who is just about to get into his big, shiny new Cadillac finds the car transformed into a horse and buggy, though no one in the congregation even so much as notices. Seeing a purse-snatcher, he makes the thief run and run until, totally exhausted, he returns the purse. When Dr. Kincade’s Uncle Tom friend, Dudley, exclaims, “To hell with the blacks in the ghetto,” Abar transforms his pasta dinner into one of earthworms.

Returning to the doc’s place, Abar proceeds to give one of the best incoherent speeches in bad film history, telling the incredulous doctor that the serum “released from my soul an ancient wisdom.” His powers, you see, “are of a divine origin.” Abar is only a tool, “a mirror reflecting man unto himself. By controlling the mind, I can hasten the retributive forces lodged in his unconscious mind.” Wow. Ed Wood couldn’t have written it any better. After all this speechifying, Abar then goes out and unleashes a series of Biblical plagues on the white suburbs, including lightning and thunder, rats, snakes, and bees, finally sweeping the racist crackers away with huge gusts of wind.

All this has the desired effect on the neighbors, who fall over themselves to apologize to the Kincades for being such racists. One lady even goes so far as to tell them the reason why she was so hostile to their moving in was because she is really black herself; she just passes for white.

The film does attempt to introduce some rumination on social issues, and part of the dialog between Abar and Kincade is profound and rather provocative. But it is completely undermined by the poor script and the atrocious acting, editing, soundtrack, and direction.

First, the acting: To call J. Walter Smith’s acting horrible is generous. He sounds as if he’s absentmindedly reading his lines off cue cards. There is no attempt at dramatic inflection whatsoever. But he’s comes off as Laurence Fishburne when compared to Roxie Young, who plays his wife. Her emoting over the body of her dead son almost made me break out in laughter. The only one in the cast who seems to know his way around a film set is Tobar Mayo. He was in Charles Barnett’s excellent Killer of Sheep, and appeared on television, including The Jeffersons and Mannix. He’s also a co-founder of L.A.’s Open Gate Theatre.

Interestingly both writer-producer Smalley and director Packard also disappeared after this film was made. Abar was their first – and last – credit as writer, producer, and director.

The editing is a series of quick cuts to the next scene, often without warning. And the continuity is lacking. In the scene where young Tommie confronts the bomber, we see the bomber planting his device and setting the timer. Here comes Tommy with his cap pistol and chases the man off. Unfortunately, Tommie attempts to stop the car with his face and fails miserably, as does the cameraman shooting this stunt. Meanwhile, the film ambles on and we see and hear no more of the bomb. It just disappears.

The film’s mix of real issues (such as corrupt government aid programs, crooked cops, urban blight, and lending discrimination) and the atrocious execution of its plot make for one of the campiest films to come down the pike. Abar is for connoisseurs of bad cinema; those hardy souls out there who like their product totally absurd. Compared to Packard and Smalley, Ed Wood comes off like Orson Welles.

Bomba, The Jungle Boy (Part 1)

By Ed Garea

Johnny Sheffield was best known as “Boy” in the Tarzan series. As the series went on, however, he naturally grew older, and subsequently, outgrew the part. His last movie in the series was Tarzan and the Huntress in 1947. A couple of years later, in 1949, producer Walter Mirisch, taking stock of how well Johnny Weissmuller was doing after stepping down as Tarzan and starring as Jungle Jim in producer Sam Katzman’s series of jungle quickies for Columbia, figured he might be able to do the same at Monogram. Playing on Weissmuller’s success, Katzman quickly signed Sheffield to a contract. Now all he needed was vehicle for his new employee. It was already decided that Sheffield would be a type of younger Tarzan, playing to the Saturday matinee crowd that proved quite profitable for Monogram over the years. However, the question was what sort of vehicle would be right for Sheffield, i.e., make the most money for the investment?

Mirisch found his subject material when he acquired the rights to a series of novels aimed at younger readers: the “Bomba the Jungle Boy” series. A popular series based on the success of the Tarzan stories, it was started in 1926 by the Statemeyer Syndicate. Attributed to “Roy Rockwood,” the novels were actually produced by writers on the publisher’s staff. They followed the adventures of Bomba (Swahili for “small package”), a young boy separated from his parents and raised by an aged naturalist. The first 10 books in the series take place in South America and were often focused on Bomba’s search for his true identity. The last 10 books find an older Bomba enjoying adventures in Africa. The series lasted until 1938. Because of the blatant racism of the originals (a common theme of the “Bomba” books is that Bomba, because he is white, has a soul that is awake, while the dark-skinned natives have souls that are sleeping), Mirisch decided on another direction, and except for the first in the series, the rest were based on original screenplays.

Even though they were produced in the usual low-budget, shoddy style that was a Monogram trademark, they proved to be a big hit with Saturday matinee crowd and, along with the Bowery Boys series, became the biggest moneymakers for the studio. In fact, the films were so popular that publishers Grosset and Dunlap reprinted the first 10 “Bomba” books. Clover books, a short-lived outfit in the ‘50s, reprinted the entire series. According to a November 1947 Hollywood Reporter news item, the series was to have been filmed in color.

The Bomba series came to an end in 1955. Mirisch attempted to sell the series as a television show, but there were no takers. With it also came the end of Johnny Sheffield’s career; he never made another film. He died in October 15, 2010, of a heart attack hours after falling off a ladder while attempting to prune a palm tree.

The Bomba series may have ended but there was still life in the franchise. In 1962, independent station WGN in Chicago repackaged the Bomba films as a prime time summer series called Zim Bomba. WGN executive Fred Silverman (remember him?) stated that “Zim” meant “Son of” in Swahili. They proved a local ratings sensation in a season where their only competition was reruns and baseball games. In 1967, DC Comics published a series of seven comic books based on the character.

The Bomba films reflect their low-budget environs. Besides the ubiquitous stock footage, taken mainly from Africa Speaks, a 1930 documentary, the films were shot at Malibu and Griffith Park in Los Angeles, and Bronson Canyon. The scenes where Bomba fights rubber crocodiles were shot at the Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanic Garden, which began life in 1875 as Elias Jackson “Lucky” Baldwin's Ranch. Indoor scenes were shot at Monogram studios.

Bomba, The Jungle Boy (Monogram, 1949) – Director: Ford Beebe. Writers: Jack DeWitt (s/p). Roy Rockwood (books). Cast: Johnny Sheffield, Peggy Ann Garner, Onslow Stevens, Charles Irwin, Smoki Whitfield, & Martin Wilkins. B&W, 70 minutes.

George Harland (Stevens) and his daughter Patricia (Garner) are photographers hoping to capture the local wildlife on film. Andy Barnes (Irwin), an old friend whose house they visit, is their guide, and, along with his assistant Eli (Whitfield), leads them into the jungle. Garner is the first to meet Bomba. She becomes lost, and her gun-bearer is killed by a leopard who, in turn, is killed by Bomba. At first, she’s frightened by Bomba and pulls her pistol on him. He disarms her and leaves. Alone, she runs after Bomba, who eventually takes her to his home, a cave overlooking the Great Rift. He explains that his parents are deceased and an aged naturalist by the name of Cody Cason (since deceased) raised him.

Pat would like to stay, but she has to find her father. Unknown to both of them, Harland is hot on their trail, intending to kill Bomba as a kidnapper, but his plan goes awry when a plague of locusts descends upon him and Barnes. By this point in the movie, Patricia has changed from her former garb into a well-fitting leopard skin, courtesy of bad screenwriting. Bomba then helps build a raft so the party can take a shortcut back to Andy’s place via a river crossing. Invited to come along to America by the Harlands, Bomba demurs, as he’s unwilling to leave his jungle friends.

Bomba on Panther Island (Monogram, 1949) – Written and Directed by Ford Beebe. Cast: Johnny Sheffield, Allene Roberts, Lita Moran, Charles Irwin, Harry Lewis, Smoki Whitfield, Martin Wilkins, & Bill Walker. B&W, 70 minutes.

Developer Robert Maitland (Lewis) brings his sister, Judy (Roberts), with him to Africa with plans to build a plantation. Commissioner Barnes (now played by Irwin) and Eli (Whitfield) are back again to lend a hand. Unfortunately for everyone concerned, though, a rogue panther is on the loose.

Bomba is after the panther that killed his pet monkey. He problem is that the locals believe the animal is sacred and fear it. During his hunt, he meets Judy Maitland (Roberts) and Losana (Baron), her maid and traveling companion. Judy’s father, Robert (Lewis), is building a plantation to provide a living for himself and Judy. Judy hates the jungle and is forever whining about it while Robert is thick in his attitude toward the natives and his mission.

Maitland starts a fire to clear the area, but a sudden windstorm sends the flames out of control and Bomba takes Judy to a cave for refuge. The panther is also conveniently there, and after a fierce struggle, Bomba kills it. When they emerge from the cave, the fire has miraculously stopped. Maitland blames himself for the fire and says he will return to Canada, but Judy has become a convert to the beauties of Africa and encourages her brother to see his project through. Bomba says goodbye to Judy and melts back into the jungle.

The Lost Volcano (Monogram, 1950) – Written and Directed by Ford Beebe. Story by Jack DeWitt. Cast: Johnny Sheffield, Donald Woods, Marjorie Lord, John Ridgely, Tommy Ivo, Elena Verdugo, Don C. Harvey, Grandon Rhodes, & Robert Lewis. B&W, 76 minutes.

Bomba comes across the camp of zoologist Paul Gordon (Woods) and his family. Gordon catches animals for zoos. Being the animal lover he is, Bomba frees the animals. The natives tell Gordon that Bomba did it, but Gordon believes Bomba to be something of an urban myth.  

Gordon discovers that his young son, David (Ivo) is friends with Bomba. He tells David that the young boy must bring his friend home to meet the folks. If not, they can no longer play together. Only Nona (Verdugo), the family maid, believes David, and one day follows the boy into the jungle, where she sees him bring forth Bomba with a series of bird calls. David strips down to a loincloth and he and Bomba go for a swing on the vines.

Dr. Charles Langley (Rhodes), along with his guides, Fred Higgins (Harvey) and Fred Barton (Ridgley), call on Paul and his wife, Ruth (Lord), telling them seismograph records point to the existence of a large volcano in the area. He wants Paul to help him find it. Paul declines, telling his guest that he and Ruth feel it’s time to return to civilization and enroll David in school.

Back in the jungle, David tells Bomba about what his father said, but Bomba, who dislikes those that cage animals, refuses the offer, so they part. Bomba later runs into Nona gives her the loincloth and knife that David keeps hidden in a tree at their special meeting place.

Nona shows the loincloth and knife, which is made of gold and embedded with emeralds, to the Gordons. David tells his father that Bomba found the knife in the hills and has taken him to the secret place he found it, but made David promise not to tell or show anybody where it is. Langley presses Paul to take him to the volcano, and Barton and Higgins offer to take David to school in Capetown. Paul agrees, but that night, as David and Nona leave, Barton and Higgins kidnap them planning to force David to take them to the volcano. Nona escapes and runs into Bomba. He sends Nona home to get help while he trails David.

While the kidnappers are asleep, Bomba sneaks in and unties David as the two of them slip off into the night. In the morning, Barton and Higgins recapture Bomba and tie him up, but a python drops from a tree and attacks Higgins, allowing Bomba to free himself and escape with David. While fording the river, a rubber crocodile attacks. While Bomba is wrestling the rubbery creature, the kidnappers arrive and grab David.

When the search party approaches, Barton opens fire, killing Langley and wounding Paul. Barton and Higgins escape with David, who reluctantly guides them on foot to the lost volcano. As the larger volcano near the mountains begins to erupt, Bomba catches up with group on a rocky ridge and leads them through the lost volcano, which is full of treasure. Barton slips away to greedily fill his pockets with jewels, but meets his end when he’s caught in a rockslide. The search party finally arrives, and Higgins grabs for Paul's gun, but he falls off the ridge into the path of the molten lava, courtesy of a stock footage shot of a cavemen being smothered by lava in Hal Roach’s 1940 epic, One Million Years, B.C. With David and his family reunited, Bomba bids farewell to his new friends and promises visit soon.

The volcano footage was obtained from the film files of the National Geographic and the Encyclopædia Britannica, and is actually footage of an Italian volcano erupting. The footage would be used later in Safari Drums.

Bomba and The Hidden City (Monogram, 1950) – Director: Ford Beebe. Screenplay: Carroll Young. Cast: Johnny Sheffield, Sue England, Paul Guilfoyle, Damian O’Flynn, Leon Belasco, Charles La Torre, Smoki Whitfield, & Franl Lackteen. B&W, 71 minutes.

While snapping photos of jungle wildlife near the Hidden City, American Dennis Johnson (O’Flynn) notices a young man swinging on a vine. He asks his driver, Hadji (Whitfield), who comments that he has heard stories about Bomba, a jungle boy who lives in the trees. Johnson decides to consult the emir, Hassan (Guilfoyle), about the matter.

Hassan is collecting taxes when Johnson arrives, and explains that he became emir after invaders killed his successor during a war. While they are talking, Raschid (Belasco), a poor man from a neighboring village, interrupts, offering to give Hassan his daughter Zidah (England) so that she can take the place of a harem girl who recently escaped. Hassan accepts the offer.

Johnson asks Hassan for permission to find Bomba. Hassan gives his permission and offers to help. After Johnson leaves, Hassan takes his aide Abdullah (La Torre) aside and tells him of his concerns, namely that Bomba had earlier witnesses Hassan killing the rightful ruler and his wife. Abdullah tells Hassan not to worry, for Bomba will not be taken alive.

The search party locates Bomba and tries to kill him. Wounded, Bomba escapes to a nearby village, where a woman named Zidah (England) tends to his wounds. Zidah has been promised by her father as a wife for Hassan, who has come to the village to take her back with him.

Hassan takes Zidah back to the Hidden City, which seems inexplicably familiar to her. Bomba arrives to rescue Zidah, but is taken prisoner by Hassan. Johnson and a party rescues Bomba, who tells them he saw Hassan shoot a man and woman, whom he identifies from a photograph on the storeroom floor. Johnson recognizes them as the former emir and his wife, and Zidah realizes they were her parents, and Hassan wanted to take her back to the Hidden City to kill her.

With Hassan and his men now in hot pursuit, Johnson and the others flee to the jungle, where Hassan conveniently falls into the lake to become crocodile lunch. As they prepare to depart for the coast, Johnson and Hadji tell the grateful citizens of the Hidden City that Zidah will be their temporary ruler. Promising to come back to visit her, Bomba returns to his home in the jungle.

Although the character played by Sue England is referred to as "Leah" in the reviews, she is called "Zidah" in the film.

The Lion Hunters (Monogram, 1951) – Written and Directed by Ford Beebe. Cast: Johnny Sheffield, Morris Ankrum, Ann E. Todd, Douglas Kennedy, Smoki Whitfield, Davis Roberts & Woody Strode. B&W, 75 minutes.

As the movie opens, Bomba sneaks into hunter Martin’s (Kennedy) camp at night and frees four lions trapped there. The next morning, native guide Jonas (Whitfield) discovers Bomba's tracks and shares this information with lion trapper Forbes (Ankrum) and his daughter Jean (Todd), who are on their way to meet Martin.

Soon afterward, Bomba comes upon Jean in the jungle and explains that he found a wounded lion cruelly left to die. Jean tells him the lions are being sent to zoos for educational purposes, but Bomba, friend to all animals in the jungle, tells her that the animals should not be removed from their homes. After hearing this, Jean promises to tell her father about Bomba's reservations.

The next day, Forbes and Jean arrive at the encampment to find Martin has caged over a dozen lions. Martin is fit to be tied when he hears the other lions have been freed, but refuses to believe the Bomba legend. When Forbes suggests to him they find other happy hunting grounds and avoid this mess, Martin turns him down flat.

Finding Jean alone, Bomba leads her to the cubs of the murdered lion where Jean is touched by the vulnerable babies. She confronts her father and Martin about their lion hunting, but they ignore her. Bomba heads for the camp to free the lions. Martin takes aim, but Jean pushes Martin's gun, spoiling his aim. Martin's men refuse to go after Bomba, and Jonas suggests that Martin approach the nearby Massai Tribe, who keep lions for protection against other tribes.

On their way to speak with the Massai, Forbes, Jean and Martin spot Lohu (Roberts), son of a Massai chief, hunting a lion. When the lion attacks the boy, Martin takes several shots, killing not only the lion, but also the boy. In a ruse to secure the Massai’s help, Martin takes the boy's body to the chief, claiming the lion killed his son. The chief agrees to help, but after Martin leaves, it’s discovered that bullets that killed the boy. When the chief orders his men to kill one of the white people in Martin's group for revenge, Bomba offers instead to disarm the white men and drive them out of the area in two days.

Jean discovers that Martin has set up a fatal trap for Bomba and races into the jungle to warn him. Bomba calls to birds and monkeys, who tell the lions to leave the area. Within minutes, dozens of lions flee the jungle. Fearing the lions might attack Jean, Bomba escorts her back to the encampment, where Martin shoots at him. Bomba jumps into the river to escape with Martin following in a boat. When a crocodile attacks Martin, Bomba kills the animal in a fierce knife battle.

Despite Bomba having saved his life, Martin is going to to continue trapping. Holding Martin at spear point, Bomba cages him in a lion trap and calls to his animal friends: chimpanzees, baboons, hyenas, leopards, monkeys and birds to mock Martin. Jean soon finds Martin and laughs at Bomba's joke.

Meanwhile, the Massai chief sends his warriors to drive the lions into Martin's encampment. Early the next morning, Jean and Bomba in the jungle hear the Massai warrior drums driving the lions toward the camp. Bomba rushes to save the men, but Martin, Jonas and Forbes have locked themselves in a hut for protection. A lion breaks into the hut and kills Martin. Bomba kills him with a knife, saving Forbes and Jonas, and when the Massai warriors arrive at the village, Bomba sends them back to their chief and promises that the white man will be gone in two days. Soon after, as agreed, Forbes, Jonas and Jean leave by boat to return home. Bomba waves goodbye and melts back into the jungle.

The Lion Hunters was Woody Strode’s first screen credit and like other black actors, he found himself in the standard role: that of “African native.” With his career slow to take off, Strode returned to the Bomba series a year later, working an uncredited role in African Treasure (1952). It would be several years before he broke through to decent roles in top productions.

Ann E. Todd, who played Jean, added the “E” to her name so as not to be confused with the British actress of the same name best known for Hitchcock's The Paradine Case (1947) and opposite James Mason in The Seventh Veil (1945). Ann E. Todd was a child star who made her debut at seven years old as “Toto” in George Cukor's Zaza (1938). She also appeared as Berthe in All This, and Heaven Too with Bette Davis (1940). She played Ceinwen in John Ford's How Green Was My Valley (1941) and the young Ann Sheridan in Kings Row (1942). The Lion Hunters was her last film. She appeared for a few years in the TV sitcom The Stu Erwin Show (1950-1954) before leaving show business and returning to school, where she earned a master's degree in music history. After trying her hand at teaching, Todd went on to serve as the music librarian at the University of California at Berkeley for 21 years. In 1984, she founded a music publishing company, Fallen Leaf Press, which operated until her retirement in 2000.

Elephant Stampede (Monogram, 1951) – Written and Directed by Ford Beebe. Cast: Johnny Sheffield, Donna Martell, John Kellogg, Myron Healey, Edith Evanson, Leonard Mudie, Martin Wilkins, Guy Kingsford. B&W, 71 minutes.

Elephant poachers Bob Warren (Kellogg) and Joe Collins (Healey) kill game warden Mark Phillips (Kingsford) when he catches Collins shooting an elephant. They hide the body and take Phillips’s papers so Warren can pose as Mark and use the credentials to continue to hunt ivory.

In a nearby village, schoolteacher Miss Banks (Evanson) instructs the villagers in English while her young assistant Lola (Martell) teaches Bomba how to read on the outskirts of the village. Lola wants romance, but Bomba’s more interested in learning, especially in spelling "elephant," his favorite animal and friend in the jungle. Miss Banks tells deputy commissioner Andy Barnes that she knew Phillips, and the man passing himself off as Phillips is an imposter.

Barnes then decides he must return to the station to telegraph the commissioner, and tells Bomba to keep an eye on the suspicious duo. When Bomba discovers what Collins and Warren are doing, he calls to the elephants and leads them out of the area, away from the hunters' range. The hunters then see Bomba, who has just discovered Phillips’s body, and decide they must get rid of him before they can continue.

In the village, Banks tells tribal chief Nagalia that she is being transferred, but the chief believing that education is the only way to help his people, offers to sell hidden ivory, procured before the law forbidding ivory hunting, to generate a salary for her and buy valuable goods for his people.

Collins and Warren find Bomba and Lola by the lake and shoot, wounding Lola, but Bomba's elephants run Warren into the lake and Collins up a tree. The poachers decide to get out while the getting’s good and return to the village to collect their things. Nagalia tells Warren about the ivory, and the poacher, who wants the ivory for himself, offers to help transport it with his jeep. When Collins hears about the ivory, he figures a double cross and chases after Warren on foot.

Nagala admits to Bomba that he told Warren about the ivory. Bomba leaves for the cave and finds the villagers carrying the tusks back to the village. He advises them to hide the ivory in the lake while confronting the poachers. The poachers capture Bomba, Nagalia, Banks, and Lola interrogating them at gunpoint back in the village. Collins wants to leave, but Warren kills him. Just before he can kill the others, the elephants stampede and kill Warren. Andy arrives soon after and, with Nagalia, supervises the villagers in pulling the ivory from the lake. Andy comments on "the curse of the native tribes of Africa," and Banks adds that it "will be the means for helping these people to a better way of life." Lola looks longingly at chimps kissing in the trees, hoping that Bomba will return to say goodbye, but Bomba is watching nearby as his friends leave the jungle.

There’s more Bomba to come in Part Two.

The Cosmic Monster

By Ed Garea

The Cosmic Monster (Artistes Alliance, Ltd./DCA, 1957) – Director: Gilbert Gunn. Writers: Paul Ryder (s/p), Rene Ray (novel). Stars: Forrest Tucker, Gaby Andre, Martin Benson, Wyndham Goldie, Alec Mango, Hugh Latimer, Geoffrey Chater, Patricia Sinclair, Dandy Nichols, Richard Warner, Hilda Fenemore, & Susan Redway. B&W, 75 minutes.

Back in the 1950s, England came out with a number of science-fiction miniseries. They were well acted and tended to be more concerned with plot and dialogue than special effects, being that the latter wasn’t that advanced at the time, especially considering the financial limitations of a television production. English movie studios, always looking for product, would adapt some to feature length films. Like their American counterparts, many featured a good, scary monster to keep the audience intrigued. But while American studios set their films in populated areas, the English took a more parochial outlook, setting the drama in an out of the way village or area. Hammer Films, better known for their gothic horror entries, produced a few notable films, in particular the Quartermass films. However, other producers, looking for a low-budget hit, did not fare as well.

A case in point is The Strange World of Planet X, an intelligently written, thoughtful six-part miniseries. Written by English actress-turned-author Rene Ray, it was adapted as a six-part miniseries by Ray herself for ATV Television and revolved around the premise of inter-dimensional travel. But in the hands of producers John Bash and George Maynard and writer Paul Ryder, it loses much in the translation to feature film. For one thing, it’s too short, as important plot points that could be exploited instead are left unexplored by the wayside.

However, what really does the film in is it was made on the cheap, and that cheapness detracts from what is an intelligent plot. It's reduced to a tawdry sci-fi movie marked by awkward and clichéd dialogue, and cheats the audience from what could have been a spectacular second half.

The film begins in a small laboratory at the home of Dr. Laird (Mango) in rural Bryerly Woods, located in the south of England. There, Laird and his assistant, the Canadian Gil Graham (Tucker), are conducting experiments in magnetism for the military by creating huge ultra-intense magnetic fields. He uses a lot of power and the townsfolk suspect him as the source of the interference in their television and radio signals.

Following an injury to another assistant, project head Brigadier Cartwright (Goldie) is ready to pull the plug, but after Laird shows him how he can turn metal into powder, Cartwright sends Laird another assistant in the form of French scientist Michele Dupont (Andre). Following ‘50s science-fiction protocol, the fact that she is a woman is of major concern to both Laird and Graham, who aren’t sure she’s up to the job. For his part, Laird is indignant: "But a . . .woman? This is preposterous. This is highly skilled work!" But, of course, she proves them wrong and becomes a member of the team.

As the experiments continue, Laird becomes obsessed with pushing the boundaries even further. He tells Graham he never considers anything that might interfere with his work: “If I always stopped to calculate the risks there would be no research.” (The typical mad scientist comment.) During one experiment, he punches a hole in the ionosphere, allowing dangerous cosmic rays through and causing a freak storm that damages televisions and radios in the village. A harmless tramp living in the woods is burned by the influx of cosmic rays and turns into a psychotic killer. In addition, strange things are being reported, such as UFOs in the skies.

The next day, young Jane Hale (Redway), roaming the woods for insects, meets a strange man who introduces himself to her as Mr. Smith (Benson). She asks him where he comes from. He replies that he comes from a faraway place where people ride giant dragonflies. She’s not exactly buying that, but does comment on his “funny beard,” eliciting a response that maybe he should shave it off. “Smith” is most anxious to visit the town, and is particularly curious about the magnetism experiments.

He manages to track down Gil and Michele at the town pub, telling Gil that the experiments must be stopped because they have weakened the Earth’s ionosphere, which is allowing natural cosmic radiation to come through. When Gil questions him further as to how he knows this, “Smith” comes clean. He has come from “Planet X” to investigate Dr. Laird’s mad experiments. He goes on to explain that his advanced, space-traveling people have been watching Earth even since humans stepped out of the primordial ooze. But now it’s time to step in, for messing with the forces of magnetism can lead to all sorts of nasty consequences, from flipping the poles to cosmic ray bombardment, and his people have made it their business to stop it, though we’re never told the reason for this interplanetary kindness. In other words, he’s the Z-film version of Klaatu, though he doesn’t have a robot. (Thank God, considering the last robot we saw in an English film, Devil Girl From Mars, had one that looked like a refrigerator with a police car emergency light on top.)

As their conversation continues, our tramp is whipping all sorts of horror in the woods. He takes a young woman who just got off a bus. (Interesting how the bus stop is in the middle of the woods.) The woman turns out to be Helen Forsyth (Sinclair), the new teacher in the village. The quick action of a man driving by in his car saves her in the nick of time. Another young woman isn’t so fortunate, as she is attacked and killed along with the person coming to her aid. After these heinous crimes, the disfigured tramp now has the common decency to die of his wounds.

As they sit at the pub, Gil, Michele, and Smith begin discussing what else could be affected, when Smith mentioned insects, “the little breeders.” That’s it! And they all head out the door. They rescue the young schoolteacher, trapped by the insects in the schoolhouse. The army is called out and shoots every large bug they come across.

Smith tells Gil it is imperative that Dr. Laird stop his experiments, but when representatives of the government go to his house to tell him, he locks himself in and announces he’s going to go farther than ever before. Smith radios his mothership, which hovers above Laird’s house, and destroys it with a ray, thus ending the experiment. With the danger averted, Smith returns to his ship and Gil and Michele get on with their love lives.

Two things bring this film down. First, it’s the script that dominates. This is both good and bad, considering the short running time. Paul Ryder adapted the script from the miniseries, written by Rene Ray from her novel. Besides filling the movie with outworn clichés, Ryder goes to absurd lengths to include most of the characters from the series. There’s Dr. Laird, his boss and his boss’ liaison to the lab, all of whom are given screen time. In the local town, we meet the barkeeper, the cop, two middle-aged couples, the new schoolmarm, a local lady and her inquisitive daughter, and even a hobo who lives in a van down by the river. Each character gets screen time to relate their life history; maybe a line here and a short speech there. However, none of this really advances the plot and we find ourselves getting antsy for some action. It would have been better to condense all these faces into one or two people who have contact with the scientists in the lab and let’s them know what’s happening outside.

Secondly, and most damaging, the special effects literally ruin the picture. While director Gunn provides some capable framing shots, almost everything on the effects side is awful. Les Bowie, one of the better effects artists, handled the f/x. But in order to have good effects, one needs the money to do so. The insects were enlarged using the old B-movie standard of optical enlargement, a trick most famously used in America by Bert I. Gordon. However, compared to the insects in this film, Gordon looks as if he splurged with the budget. In Bowie’s case, the reason why the insects don’t look all that menacing is because high-speed photography wasn’t used. Had it been used the insects would have moved slower and looked more naturally oversized, making it easier to match them with the actors.

First stop with our monsters is the classroom where our new teacher is getting ready for the school day. In a truly eerie scene, in fact, the only such scene in the whole damn picture, the young teacher finds herself trapped by the insects. As Gil arrives to rescue the fair damsel, we see the giant insects for the first time. They’re actually optically enlarged, and tend to do what insects do, which is not paying attention to the humans supposedly nearby. As Gil walks ever so carefully by the enlarged insects right outside of the schoolhouse, they seem to be far more interested in each other than in Gil. The same happens with Michele as she becomes trapped in a giant spider web. The spider’s there all right, only he’s busy subduing a cockroach. When the spider finally turns its attention to Michele, Smith shows up in the nick of time and kills the beast with his handy-dandy ray gun.

When the army ventures into the woods, they begin shooting whatever insects they happen to come across, but we never actually see an insect shot. We see soldiers firing their rifles and a quick cut to an insect falling from a tree or rolling on the ground. A puppet grasshopper attacks one soldier, eating his face in a scene that looks as if director Gunn inserted it as a gross-out moment (to insure the censors hand out the X-Certificate that bars those under 16 years of age and alerts the public that something good is going on here), but it’s so obviously a dummy that the scene loses any terror it might have had. And at the end, when the UFO destroys Laird’s lab, we can clearly see the strings that hold it aloft.

The Cosmic Monster also looks as if it was slapped together with much haste. Besides the clumsy fitting of humans with the insect matte shots, the cutting of the film itself is very haphazard. Jump cuts that make no sense and the terrible day for night shots seem as if they were better thought out and executed in the films of Ed Wood.

Sometimes acting can make up for lapses in the script, but not this time. The actors are not bad, but director Gunn doesn’t give them a way to be noticed in the material. Aside from Martin Benson, who plays Smith, no one really stands out. Even Forrest Tucker, who can usually be counted upon to provide a good performance no matter what the picture, seems overwhelmed; at a loss as how to proceed. French actress Gaby Andre is also a strange choice, as her dialogue wound up being dubbed. Susan Redway, who plays the precocious young budding entomologist Jane Hale, gives the liveliest performance.

Gilbert Gunn, best known for making low-budget quickies, including a dull comedy about the Loch Ness monster, What a Whopper (1961), directs the film in a very pedestrian style, with only a few close-ups. Though he’s given the chance to make a good mystery, considering the strange laboratory experiments and Benson’s mysterious stranger, his lethargic pacing takes the life out of the film. He does manage to create a few good moments, such as when the insects attack the schoolhouse. The use of shadows surrounding the empty schoolhouse makes for an effective scene, one ruined later by the special effects when help arrives to free the trapped schoolteacher. The scene when Gaby Andre finds herself caught in the giant spider web has its moments until, again, we see clearly that she and the insects are not in the same frame, and the effect is ruined.

Although The Cosmic Monster is a film that fails to live up to its promise, it is watchable and will probably hold a nostalgic memory from those of us who saw it on television as kids, when it was run seven days a week on Million Dollar Movie, or surfaced on late-night Saturday television, introduced more often than not by a horror host.


Martin Benson is probably best remembered as Solo, the American gangster crushed with his car into a dense metal cube in Goldfinger.

Dracula A.D. 1972

By Ed Garea

Dracula A.D. 1972 (Hammer/WB, 1972) – Director: Alan Gibson. Screenplay: Don Houghton. Stars: Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Stephanie Beacham, Christopher Neame, Michael Coles, Marsha A. Hunt, Caroline Munro, Janet Key, William Ellis, Philip Miller, Michael Kitchen, David Andrews, Lolly Bowers, Constance Luttrell, & Michael Daly. Color, Rated PG, 96 minutes.

What are we to make of a film whose best part is the prologue? It’s a sign that Hammer’s Dracula series, which began in 1958 with Lee and Cushing in Horror of Dracula was almost out of steam. This was the next to last of the series. The Satanic Rites of Dracula in 1973, starring Lee and Cushing once again, was the end of the line. That was to the great relief of both stars, who had tired over the years of weaker and weaker scripts. In fact, the only reason Lee agreed to be in this film was that a couple of proposed film projects had fallen through and he needed a quick paycheck.

Dracula A.D. 1972 is a radical updating of the Dracula story. Hammer Studios was suffering financially, as the Gothic horrors that had served as its stock-in-trade for years no longer appealed to the contemporary audience. Hammer tried a number of things to keep the audiences, such as expanded bloodletting, violence, nudity, and lesbian themes, but nothing was working. In an effort to update their product while keeping costs down, Hammer decided to transfer the Gothic horror of the Dracula series to a contemporary setting. Screenwriter Don Houghton (Doctor Who) was brought in with instructions to retain the basic structure of the earlier entries while fast-forwarding it to the present. Alan Gibson, a television director who knew how to keeps costs under control and who two years earlier had directed Crescendo for the studio, was assigned the script. The results, to put it mildly, are unsatisfying. The movie becomes a promise unfulfilled, brought down by stereotyped characters, inane dialogue, all too predictable plot points, and worst of all, a noticeable lack of nudity and violence, as if Gibson were directing a television show for the BBC.

The film opens in September 1872, where we see vampire hunter Lawrence Van Helsing (Cushing) doing battle with Count Dracula (Lee) atop a runaway coach hurtling through London’s Hyde Park. The coach hits a tree, mortally injuring Van Helsing while Dracula becomes partially impaled on the spokes of a broken carriage wheel. With his last remaining strength, Van Helsing pushes the wheel’s spokes deep into Dracula’s chest, killing the vampire and reducing him to dust before Van Helsing himself succumbs to his injuries. At Van Helsing’s funeral in the grounds of nearby St. Bartolph’s Church, one of Dracula’s minions (Neame) buries his ashes just outside the hallowed grounds while marking the spot with a stake for future discovery. He also copped Drac’s signet ring for later – much later – use.

Cut to the present. A group of out-of-control teenagers has crashed a private concert by the rock band Stoneground for a rich twit and his stuffy out-of-it parents. The teens cavort, gyrate and vandalize while the older folks look on in horror and the band manages to play two full-length songs, which makes the scene seem as if it was much longer. Finally, the police arrive to chase the kids off, much to the relief of us in the audience who are waiting for something to happen.

A quick cut and we see the gang in their favorite hangout, the cavern coffee bar, where they hang out, doing Coke (the drink), smoking cigarettes, and spouting inane dialog, made even more ridiculous by the fact that these are 30-somethings trying to pass themselves off as teenagers. The leader of the group, Johnny Alucard (Neame again), tells them that if they really want some wild kicks they should join him in a black mass at this old church slated for demolition, which just happens to be St. Bartolph’s. The group reacts with a mixture of fear and sarcasm, but what the hell? Why not? So they agree to meet him at midnight at the church.

One member of the group is Jessica Van Helsing (Beacham), who lives with her grandfather, Lorrimer Van Helsing (Cushing again), himself the grandson of Lawrence Van Helsing. Jessica is not so sure about this black mass business, as she’s not too crazy about Johnny. When she arrives home she searchers granddaddy’s library, grabbing a book on the black mass to read. Van Helsing enters and asks what this is all about. Jess replies she’s just curious and goes on to tell granddad what a good girl she is. She doesn’t even do LSD. She’s pure as the driven snow, a requirement to be a Hammer heroine. And she’s debating to herself if it’s worth it to even go to this black mass. Unfortunately for her, boyfriend Bob (Miller) tells her it will be a kick, and they show up at the church, where Jess is distressed to find her great-great-grandfather’s tomb. Inside the church, the ceremony begins. Johnny wants Jess to be the centerpiece, but Jess declines and Laura (Munro) volunteers. While the others sit in a satanic circle, Johnny, wearing Drac’s signet ring, dumps some of the ashes into a goblet, slits his wrist, mixes the blood with the ashes, and dumps it onto Laura. 

Meanwhile, the dry ice machine is going full blast at the site where Dracula’s ashes are buried. The gang flees in a combination of terror and disgust. Jess wants to go back for Laura, who is transfixed, but Bob pushes her out. Johnny removes the stake from Drac’s grave, and voila, instant vampire. The first thing Drac does is reclaim his ring. The second thing he does is head into the church for a meal with Laura, who is the meal, as he drains her of blood.

The next day, Jessica is worried because Laura does not show up at the Cavern the next day and she’s not buying Johnny’s explanation that Laura has gone home to visit her parents. Soon afterward, Laura’s body is discovered. The police, mystified about the mutilation of her neck, decide to consult Van Helsing, who helped with a case involving a cult and blackmail some time before. While Johnny is entertaining Gaynor (Hunt), another member of the gang, at his apartment, Van Helsing is conferring with Inspector Murray (Coles) and Sgt. Pearson (Andrews) of New Scotland Yard, convincing them that vampires are real. Despite their skepticism, they believe him. He gives them two bits of advice: vampires fear silver and can be killed by running water. Right away we assume these two plot points will soon come into play.

When Jessica arrives home that evening, the police tell her about Laura’s murder. Distraught, Jess spills all about the black mass and about Johnny. Van Helsing is surprised to find out that Johnny’s surname is Alucard and puzzles out that it is really Dracula spelled backward. Hell, we knew that; we saw Son of Dracula (1943) on Chiller Theater years ago. Where was the professor when all this was going on? Meanwhile, Johnny takes the drugged Gaynor to the church, where Drac is waiting for dinner. After Drac has feasted, Johnny begs him for immortality, to be a vampire. Drac responds that Johnny has not yet brought that which he needs to avenge himself on the Van Helsing family – Jessica. Johnny, however, argues that if he was given the power, it would be a lot easier to get her here. Drac, seeing the logic of Johnny’s argument, admits him to the club, and Johnny gets his vampire membership card, personally autographed photo, and badge.

The next morning, after arming himself with a vial of holy water, Van Helsing learns about the latest murders. Theorizing that the killings are not random, and that Jessica is the ultimate target, Van Helsing convinces Scotland Yard to remove the guards from St. Bartolph's so that Drac can hide there comfortably and thus be more susceptible to Van Helsing's plans. We also learn that the Cavern, the group’s hangout, has been closed in a drug raid. That night, Bob sneaks into the locked Cavern (so much for being closed) to meet Johnny, who reciprocates by turning him into a vampire. The thus transformed Bob goes to the Van Helsing home and persuades Jessica, who does not noticed that he’s not the same Bob, to accompany him to the Cavern. Once there, Bob attacks her and Jessica faints. Before Bob can take a bite, Johnny tells him that she is "for the master."

When Van Helsing arrives home and learns that Jessica is gone, he races to the Cavern, but it is empty by the time he arrives. (We thought it was boarded up.) As he is running through the streets, he is almost run over by Anna Bryant, another friend of Jessica, who dimes out Johnny and drives him to Johnny's flat. There, Van Helsing and Johnny have a confrontation, with Van Helsing, noting that dawn is breaking, throwing a Bible and silver crucifix into Johnny’s coffin, denying him the pleasure of sleep. Van Helsing wants to know where Jessica is while Johnny is only interested in getting his coffin cleared out. Van Helsing then uses a mirror as a weapon by reflecting sunlight off it onto Johnny. He drives Johnny into the bathroom, where he falls into the tub as – you guessed it – Van Helsing turns on the shower, drowning Johnny in the running water.

Unable to do anything else because the vampires are inactive during the day, Van Helsing waits until late afternoon. He goes to St. Bartolph's, where he finds Bob's dead body and digs a pit that he fills with sharpened stakes. Equipped with a silver-bladed knife and the holy water, Van Helsing enters the church, where he finds Jessica lying on the altar in a trance induced by Dracula. When night falls, Dracula enters and the men begin a fierce battle, which seems ended when Van Helsing stabs the vampire, knocking him from the balcony to the floor below. But Jessica, still hypnotized, removes the knife, and Dracula chases Van Helsing outside. Van Helsing falls to the ground, but before Drac can kill him, he throws holy water in the vampire’s face. Blinded by smoke and screaming in pain, Dracula falls backward into the pit of spikes, and Van Helsing finishes him off by pushing him through the stakes. Now finally released from her trance, Jessica runs to granddad, who comforts her as the words “Rest in final peace” appear on the screen.

One of the many problems with the film is that, after the prologue, we don’t see Dracula again until nearly an hour had passed. And even then he has little to do. (To make sure the audience realizes the film is indeed in Swinging London, we are treated to the obligatory shot of a double-decker bus.) Instead it seems like an endless set-up of the return of Dracula with little action afterwards. To say that Lee is underused is putting it mildly. It’s Cushing who dominates the second half of the film. Not that we’re complaining about that, but it’s Cushing versus Lee that we came to see and all we get is a little tussle at the end.

Speaking of being underused, the producers go to the trouble of surrounding Ms. Van Helsing with a good-sized group of friends that, we would expect, will meet their end in various grisly ways at the hands and fangs of Dracula. But it seems that the filmmakers are in a rush or simply ran out of money. For instance, the beautiful Caroline Munro has a paltry death scene and ends up as a lifeless corpse. I was looking forward to Drac making her one of his brides and seeing her parade around in a skimpy negligee. Instead I get nada. It’s so lame and tame that one of the gang, Greg (Kitchen) doesn’t meet an end, instead simply fading out of the movie, doing the equivalent of a 0.1 on the movie’s Richter scale. What seems like a disappointment to the viewer was probably a saving grace to the actor playing Greg, Michael Kitchen, who went on to great popularity as Inspector Foyle. Imagine in interviews being asked about appearing in this turkey. 

As for the others, the only one that stands out is Christopher Neame, who is just enough over-the-top to sustain our interest. The real “hero” of the film is Cushing, who all but takes over the second half and manages to keep it interesting, playing Van Helsing as the occult version of Sherlock Holmes. As his granddaughter Jessica, Beacham’s main function seems to be to show how spectacular her cleavage is, and that’s only in the final sequence. When actually called upon to act, she does a credible job, even though she and her friends recite some of the dopiest dialogue I’ve ever heard. If anything, this shows how clueless the writers were if they thought young folks actually spoke that way.

The problem with Dracula A.D. 1972 is that it doesn’t know which century it wants to be in. The idea of the prologue is good in order to bring the audience up to speed, but once we’re in London, the film goes out of its way not to exploit that fact. I was expecting Dracula to traipse around London in his inimitable vampiric style, adding disciples and discarding victims as he goes. Instead, he seems to have developed a case of agoraphobia, as he never leaves the churchyard, hardly appearing until the showdown at the end.

As mentioned prior, Cushing has a lot more screen time, but he’s saddled with a script that woefully misuses his talents. When he’s not lecturing his granddaughter on how to properly behave, he’s locked into dumb discussions with the Scotland Yard Inspector (Coles, who is billed only as “Inspector.”) over the rash of murders, making silly references to “cult murders a few years back in the States,” i.e., the Manson Family, as if we didn’t know. And while we in the audience get the Alucard-Dracula connection right off the bat, we’re treated to the sight of the great vampire authority sitting in a chair and clumsily diagramming the connection on paper as if he was a freshman doing homework in an “Introduction to Linguistics” course. Add to this, the scene where, realizing what danger his beloved granddaughter is in, he still chooses to run across London on foot rather than using sense and driving or catching a cab.

Speaking of Alucard, was there ever a more incompetent vampire than Johnny Alucard? His death scene, in which he exposes himself multiple times to sunlight, switches on the shower and falls into the bath at the same time, is more worthy of a scene in Top Secret or The Naked Gun than a horror film.

The final battle between Van Helsing and Dracula is so short it almost seems like an afterthought on the part of the writers. To begin, Van Helsing convinces the Inspector to give him one hour alone in the church after sundown. Wouldn’t it be more sensible to call in the Flying Squad and ambush Dracula? Even in their battle at the end, Dracula is doing more to destroy himself than Van Helsing is doing to do him in. The cheesy score by Michael Vickers actually works against the film, ruining scenes intended to provoke fright.

At the end the words “Rest in Final Peace” are posted on the screen. Yeah, right. After each time we were led to believe Drac was no more he somehow managed to revive himself to the next film. All that needed to be done in order to revive the vampire was to splash blood on his ashes, as if he came in a jar labeled “Instant Vampire: Just Add Blood.” What finally did kill off Dracula was the bad box office of the next, and final, film, The Satanic Rites of Dracula.


During shooting, Christopher Lee brought a box of earth he had acquired from Transylvania to the set, hoping it would help him get into character. Given his lack of screen time, he needn’t have bothered.

Stephanie Beacham later became a regular on the soap opera Dynasty and it’s sibling, The Colbys (1985-89) playing Sable Colby. In 2009, she became a regular on Coronation Street, England’s longest running soap opera.

Memorable Dialogue

Inspector: “Sergeant, I’ll bet you a pound to a piece of shit there’s hash at that party.”

Cleopatra Jones

By Ed Garea

Cleopatra Jones (WB, 1973) – Director: Jack Starrett. Writers: Max Julien (story and s/p), Sheldon Keller (s/p). Cast: Tamara Dobson, Bernie Casey, Shelley Winters, Brenda Sykes, Antonio Fargas, Dan Frazer, Bill McKinney, Stafford Morgan, Michael Warren, Albert Popwell, Caro Kenyatta, Esther Rolle, Keith Hamilton, Jay Montgomery, Arnold Dover, Teddy Wilson, George Reynolds, & Angela Elayne Gibbs. Color, 89 minutes, PG.

Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold (WB, Shaw Brothers, 1975) – Director: Charles Bail. Writers: William Tennant (s/p), Max Julien (characters). Cast: Tamara Dobson, Stella Stevens, Ni Tien, Norman Fell, Albert Popwell, Caro Kenyatta, Shen Chan, Christopher Hunt, Chen Chi Lin, Locke Hua Liu, Eddy Donno, Bobby Canavarro, Mui Kwok Sing, John Cheung, & Kung-Wu Huang. Color, 94 minutes, PG.

When it first exploded onto movie screens in the early ‘70s, Blaxploitation was a Man’s World. Characters such as Shaft, Superfly and Slaughter ruled, fighting crime, corruption and The Man. Women, for their part, were relegated to the background, playing casual girlfriends, dope fiends, hookers, and victims working for the Mob, The Man, and/or the White Power structure.

Suddenly, along came Pam Grier and the playing field changed. Grier, who cut her teeth in the exploitation genre with films like The Big Doll HouseWomen in CagesThe Big Bird Cage, and Black Mama, White Mama, starred in the low-budget breakout hit Coffy from American International. Made for $500,000, it cleared more than $2 million in during its first run. Grier was a heroine for the times. A marvelously stacked 5’8”, she possessed a magnificent pair of knockers that she wasn’t afraid to display on the screen. She wasn’t much of an actress at the time, but then she didn’t have to be; she was a presence. With time she developed into a fine actress. Those who don’t believe me should take a gander at her work in Quentin Tarantino’s homage to both Pam and Blaxploitation, Jackie Brown.

One month to the day after Coffy made its debut (June 13, 1973), along came Cleopatra Jones, made by Warner Brothers. The screenplay was written by actor/writer Max Julien (The Mack), who was also responsible for the story. Julien’s original idea was to star his then-girlfriend, Vonetta McGee, but the studio nixed her in the part. A search was undertaken with the help of Julien, and Tamara Dobson, a 6’2” Vogue model, who had a few minor film credits, was chosen. While she wasn’t quite Pam Grier (Who is?), her statuesque frame led to the film’s tag line: “6 foot 2 inches of dynamite.”

Not taking any chances, the studio brought in veteran TV writer Sheldon Keller (The Dick Van Dyke ShowM*A*S*H) to lighten the tone of the script. Jack Strrett (Slaughter) was brought in to direct.

The plot of the film is simple; in fact, all the main lines are laid out in the first few minutes, and except for the addition of a few minor characters, it doesn’t deviate from that straight line. It begins as the film opens. Special Agent to the President Cleopatra Jones steps off a plane somewhere in Turkey. (She works undercover for the U.S. government aside from her regular gig as a supermodel.) Turkish army officials are there to meet her. They have located a huge field of opium poppies, which at Cleo’s signal, is put to the torch. Cut back to Los Angeles and we discover that LA drug lord Mommy (Winters) owns the poppy field, and is she mad when she gets the news. After a minute or so of chewing the scenery, Mommy gets an idea. She’ll phone her “boys” in the LAPD to raid the B&S House, which Cleo’s boyfriend, Reuben (Casey) runs as a halfway house for recovering addicts.

When Cleo hears what Mommy’s done, she sets out for LA, and the rest of the film will be a battle between Cleo and Mommy and her minions. Both have allies on the police force and both have outside forces they can call upon for help. In Cleo’s case it’s a couple of karate ass-kicking brothers named Matthew (Popwell) and Melvin (Kenyatta) Johnson. They are the sons of a friend of Cleo’s, Mrs. Johnson (Rolle), who runs an eatery in the old neighborhood with a dice game going in the back. She also has an ally named Andy (Warren), a championship dirt-bike racer whose appearance at a bike meet gives Cleo a chance to show off her superior biking skills. Director Starrett is employing a sledgehammer approach to let the audience know exactly how cool Cleopatra Jones is.

In Mommy’s case, she has the dubious assistance of local pusher Doodlebug Simkins (Fargas), and his toadies, a pair of comic henchmen named Pickle (Wilson) and Plug (Reynolds), along with a white butler named Mattingly (Mattingly). Doodlebug, however, is also plotting to overthrow Mommy and become the main pusher.

The plot unravels in multiple shootouts, standoffs, and car chases, with Cleo slowly closing in on Mommy until the final confrontation at an auto junkyard, where she finally disposes of Mommy by knocking her into a car compactor. She and her allies collect the members of Mommy’s gang and throw them into a garbage truck (how’s that for symbolism) for delivery to the police.

In most cases with films such as this, characters are secondary to plot. Here, it’s reversed. This is a big cartoon strip of a movie, and is clearly filmed with tongue firmly planted in cheek. Cleo is clearly the distaff version of James Bond. She carries a card (embossed, yet) declaring her to be a Special Agent to the President, but that’s all the details we’re going to receive. As Bond drove an Aston-Martin, Cleo drives a Corvette with the license plate “CLEO 1,” in case the bad guys should ever lose her. Not that any of this matters, because the heels can’t catch up to her anyway, though they don’t give up trying. Car chases are an essential part of action films, and this one has one great big chase after Cleo disembarks at the L.A. airport. After a shootout in the baggage claim area, Cleo escapes and tolls down the road in her custom ’73 Corvette with the minions in hot pursuit, as they speed through the streets of L.A., down into the riverbed, and back again. In the end, Cleo has no trouble shaking them and killing off a few while she’s at it.

If it should come to a shootout, Cleo is fully prepared, as she has an arsenal hidden inside the door panels of her ‘Vette. And should it come down to one on one, never fear, for Cleo is an expert in karate. This girl has it all, including the ability to change into different stunning outfits almost at will, each of which magnificently displays her statuesque 6’2” figure. As Cleo strolls down the street, men of every race and age cannot help be bedazzled by her beauty.

A super hero such as Cleopatra Jones needs an equally super villain, and Cleo has one in the aforementioned Mommy. Shelly Winters plays Mommy with all the enthusiasm of a seasoned ham, chewing each piece of scenery and making the most of every line of dialogue. Winters is experienced enough – and smart enough – to realize that a super hero such as Cleo needs an over-the-top villain to play against, otherwise the film rapidly loses its momentum and sense of fun. We can laugh and sneer at her performance, but if she doesn’t lay it on thick, the film will become boring. And Mommy is one of Shelley’s great hysterical performances, screeching displeasure when one of her inept henchmen screws up, punching one out and taking a bullwhip to another. She is also the anti-Cleopatra, modeling a wardrobe of absolutely hideous clothing (plus an assortment of fright wigs to wear in almost every scene).

But there’s another way in which Shelly is the anti-Cleopatra, and that is in the role of sexuality. Cleo is heterosexual, while Mommy is an aggressive lesbian. Cleo’s male helpers are all strong and competent, while Mommy’s male henchmen are weak and inept. The only male around Mommy who’s even somewhat on the ball is Doodlebug, and he’s plotting to whack her and take over the business. During the course of the film, there’s a running gag of sorts where Mommy loses it after her boys screw up. At this point, one of her female helpers comes in to offer Mommy a soothing brandy or something equally nice. As she accepts it, she turns to the young lady and says, “Oh, Eve (or Annie, or Ursula, yada, yada, yada), you’re the only one around here who understands Mommy.” As the woman leaves, Mommy gives her a big squeeze of the butt.

The other males Cleo and Mommy must deal with are the police, most of whom are seen as corrupt. One in particular is a nasty piece of work named Purdy (McKinney), who leads the raid on Reuben’s halfway house. Bill McKinney made a good living playing despicable country villains in such films as DeliveranceCannonball Run, and Junior Bonner. Here he has a Southern accent, rather odd for an L.A. patrolman, but it gets the point across. His loathing of blacks is shown during the raid on the halfway house when he attempts to shoot one of the recovering addicts in the back. When questioned by Cleo as to who was responsible for the raid, he replies, “I wouldn’t lift a finger to help you or any of your kind.” There is a later scene where Cleo’s crew has him under observation, and we see him going into a porno theater. The only cops Cleo can trust are Captain Crawford (Frazer), and his aide, Sergeant Kert (Morgan), and she learns at the end that she can’t trust Morgan, as he turns out to be Mommy’s source of information.

In B action films, the supporting heels disappear as we get close to the end. Before one of Mommy’s henchmen, Snake (Joy), gets his, he pleads with Cleo not to “rip his doubleknits” before she trashes his suit. Doodlebug also gets his at the hands of Mommy. After he meets a particularly gruesome end, Mommy dispatches her goons to silence his girlfriend, Tiffany (Sykes), who survives the hit. It’s up to Cleo to find her before Mommy’s goons do.

The climax occurs in an auto junkyard (fitting when one thinks about it). Cleo is trapped in a car rusher, but her crew rescues her in the nick of time. The final showdown sees Cleo chasing Mommy to the top of a magnetic crane, from which Cleo hurls Mommy down to her death, while Cleo’s crew mops up the henchmen, throwing them into the back of a garbage truck as the police conveniently show up. As Reuben and the crew celebrate their victory, Cleo departs the scene. She has important work to do in stemming the flow of drugs into the community.

In spite of its outrageousness – or because of it – Cleopatra Jones is an enjoyable film. Screenwriters Max Julien and Sheldon Keller, along with director Jack Starrett have stocked the film with a solid assortment of incidental characters, each of which has a distinct personality and is given some good dialogue. Although beholden to the formula for these sorts of films, they manage to inject some humor and a few nice plot twists along the way. While the film shows the harsh conditions found in the ghetto, it also gives us a united community where the members help and support one another.

As Jones, Dobson cuts a fine figure, and Starrett makes the most of her obvious physical assets to get the character over. It is said to be the first Blaxploitation film to employ martial arts as part of its promotion. (Yvonne D. Sims, Women of Blaxploitation, McFarland & Company, 2006). Aimed at the action movie audience, its identification of its heroine with James Bond has been noted by several critics. While Jones is presented as very feminine, the film also emphasizes her talent at traditional male endeavors such as driving and combat, where she is seen as the equal of, if not superior to, the men. Radio ads proclaimed, "She handles a car like she handles a gun, she handles a gun like she handles a man, and she handles a man like Cleopatra!"

While Jones is fighting it out with Mommy and her henchmen, she still enjoys a loving relationship with Reuben, who is portrayed as a strong male character, sensitive enough to care for his halfway house denizens, and tough enough to actively help Cleo in her fight.

Another way the film differs from other Blaxploitation films with female leads is the absence of nude scenes. According to Sims, Dobson refused to do nude scenes in order to separate herself from the “hypersexuality” of the other black heroines. During a love scene with Reuben, the two share a long, intimate kiss rather than passionately making love, emphasizing love and intimacy rather than lust.

Dobson handles the role of Cleopatra Jones well. She’s convincing in the fight scenes and handles her other scenes well, displaying a decent acting range. She lack the presence of a Pam Grier, but director Starrett’s ingenious use of the supporting cast more than compensates. As her lover, Reuben Masters, Casey also turns in a decent performance. For his part as Doodlebug, Fargas is not too far removed from his recurring role as “Huggy Bear” in the TV series Starsky & Hutch. His main attributes are his obvious untrustworthiness and an ability to chew scenery with the best of them. And what can we say about Shelley Winters? Without her exaggerated performance this film would be a lot less entertaining.

Starrett’s direction is fine. He was well-regarded in the field of B action movies, known as a director smart enough to let the actors do their thing while keeping his interference to a minimum. He also acted upon occasion, with his most famous part being that of Gabby Johnson in Mel Brooks’s Blazing Saddles.

The soundtrack by jazz trombonist J. J. Johnson sounds like something out of a TV-urban-cop show. It proved to be popular with audiences, selling in excess of 500,000 copies. The film itself was a box office success. It grossed more than $100,000 during its first week and climbed to $400,000 by its fifth week. All in all, it made over $3,250,000 for the studio.

Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold was released in 1975 to poor reviews and sparse box office. The attendance was blamed on everything from poor reviews to the decline of the blaxploitation genre, but the real cause was that the film just wasn’t that entertaining.

Dobson reprises her role as Cleo. This time around, Matthew and Melvin Johnson are taken captive in Hong Kong while working undercover for the U.S. government. Cleo learns that they have been captured by a powerful drug lord known as the Dragon Lady (Stevens) and sets out for Hong Kong to free them and bring the Dragon Lady to justice. Supervisory agent Stanley Nagel (Fell) meets her at the airport and explains the lay of the land. He also arranges for private detective Mi Ling Fong (Tanny) to accompany her.

As with the original, this is a odd combination of black empowerment and martial arts, with homophobia thrown in for good measure, as the Dragon Lady, like Mommy, is an aggressive lesbian. It all climaxes in the Dragon Lady’s casino/headquarters with her in a one-on-one showdown with Cleo while Fong and her allies clean up the Dragon Lady’s henchmen, while the Johnson Brothers are rescued and join in the fun.  Afterward Nagel reveals to Cleo that Mi Ling is actually an undercover government agent who, along with her crew, was assigned to help Cleo take down the nefarious Dragon Lady.

While the film contains the usual one-liners and comedy, the frequent wardrobe changes by the star, and plenty of action, it fails because of the failure of Stevens to play the role over-the-top. Her rather muted performance takes away from the film’s outrageousness, making it into another run-of-the mill B actioner. The poor box office also scuttled plans to turn the film into a TV series. 

Dobson returned to modeling, living in New York City until the diagnosis of multiple sclerosis necessitated a return to her native Baltimore and the care of her family. She passed away at the young age of 59 on October 2, 2006. He character, though, continued on in popular culture, being honored in Mike Myers’s 2002 spy spoof, Austin Powers in Goldmember, in which Beyonce Knowles co-starred as undercover FBI agent Foxxy Cleopatra.

An American Hippie in Israel

The Z Files

By Ed Garea

An American Hippie in Israel (Box Office Spectaculars, 1972)  Director: Amos Sefer. Writers: Amos Sefer (s/p), Baruch Verthaim (English dialogue). Cast: Asher Tzarfati, Schmuel Wolf, Lily Avidan, & Tzila Karney. Color, 95 minutes.

There’s an old proverb that a bad penny always turns up. It also applies to movies, as we shall see ahead. This 1972 film disappeared shortly after completion for want of a distributor. It sat on a shelf, and for a time was considered lost. It wasn’t until a couple of years ago that a firm named Grindhouse Releasing somehow discovered the film and released in on DVD and Blu-ray. It also appeared in a few select theaters that specialize in cult classics. TCM brought it to television for the first time on December 28, 2014, at the appropriate time of 2:00 am.

This is truly one of those movies that must be seen, for no amount of word-of-mouth can truly describe or do justice to the awfulness on the screen. The film has all the hallmarks of a crap classic: terrible acting and dialogue, rotten camera work and editing, and lots of gratuitous nudity and violence, even though the violence is of the cardboard cartoon variety.

As the opening credits roll, we see a steamroller with no driver rumbling along and squashing flowers in a field to the sound of small arms fire. Immediately we discern that we’re not watching a mere movie. No, we are witnessing Art.

After the credits end, we cut to an airplane carrying a man (Tzarfati) in a white rabbit-fur vest and bowler hat. He disembarks in Tel Aviv, collects his meager luggage and begins hitchhiking along the highway. He doesn’t get far before a redheaded vixen (Avidan) in a white convertible picks him up. She’s Elizabeth, he’s Mike, and they exchange small talk punctuated by such probing questions like, “Are you a hippie?” Of course he is. They don’t get far before they find two mimes dressed all in black standing in front of a car parked across the road. Mike tells Elizabeth that he’ll handle it and proceeds to have an argument with the mimes, a rather one-sided argument, as they don’t speak. Apparently they’ve been following him all over the world. Returning to the car and his ride, Mike tries to explain them to Elizabeth, who tells him she’s an actress and invites him in for coffee when they get to her parents’ place.

Now comes the “get to know you” scene, where Mike explains himself to Elizabeth. Seems he served in Vietnam and he’s bitter about it. "I killed with my bare hands. I was like an animal. That's the way I was taught to behave. I was ordered. I was forced to do things I didn't want to do. They turned me into a murdering machine." The longer he goes on the more he sounds like Sam Kinison’s crazed history professor in the Rodney Dangerfield comedy, Back to School. Before he bores her to death, Elizabeth comes up and plants a hot kiss on him, ostensibly to shut him up. This leads to the obligatory sex scene. Afterward, she walks around with him looking for fellow hippies for Mike to preach his ideas of communal living.

And, of course, they find them  a whole bunch of them – and he leads them in a hippie parade through the streets that ends in a hippie hoedown in what looks like an abandoned warehouse, complete with bad music and dancing while Mike gives them his spiel about materialism, the Establishment, capitalism, and whatever else enters his empty mind. As Mike and Elizabeth are digging the scene, one of the hippies suggests an isolated island where they can all go to start their very own free society. 

However, just as the party is getting started, the two mines in black show up again and machine-gun the crowd, killing everyone except Mike, Elizabeth, and two of the least attractive hippies in the crowd, Komo (Wolf) and Francoise (Karney). Everyone else is dead, although not one of the victims bleeds. (Guess they couldn’t afford the cost of stage blood.)

The survivors act as if nothing happened and take off in Elizabeth’s convertible for the utopian island paradise, stopping off on the way to make love, then drive around in circles for no reason. They stop to pick up a bag of groceries and a goat. They drive, and drive, and drive. Francoise takes off her top while Mike “flakes out,” dreaming that he’s fighting in slow motion against two people dressed up like tape recorders.

Soon they arrive at the paradise. To get to the island they have to take an inflatable raft past the phoniest sharks I’ve ever seen in a movie. What a place; it’s a rock in the ocean, no plants, no wildlife, no nothing. And these dummies are going to live there by themselves? They celebrate their arrival by doing an awful dance, stripping off their clothes (natch), and enjoying a wonderful dinner of canned food by the fire as night come forth. They proclaim their love for one another and how full of shit the world is.

Ah, but then comes dawn. They waken to discover that not only their boat is missing, but also the goat as well. (Maybe he took the boat.) Mike tries to swim to shore, but is turned back by the phony sharks. They’re stuck. They get hungry. Tempers flare and soon the bonded foursome is at each other’s throats. They form outposts at different ends. At the finale, they come together to stage a fight right out of Monty Python. (Think about the housewives staging a reproduction of the attack on Pearl Harbor.) The women get into a topless catfight while Mike has in intense argument with Komo, who only speaks Hebrew, which is okay because Mike only speaks English. The goat suddenly reappears and the four fight over it, literally squashing it between them. At the end there is only one hippie almost standing. Watching the goings-on are the men-in-black, who get back into their car and drive off as the movie thankfully ends.

The great thing about this movie is its total pretension. From Mike’s speech to Elizabeth to the final fight, director Sefer is trying to convince us of something, but what it is we don’t know. Were it not for the total seriousness of the film, it would be unwatchable. Instead, the pretense, combined with the low budget effects and the laughable plot, place this film in the category of “so bad it's good.” Right from the beginning, when we see the steamroller crushing flowers to the background noise of small arms fire, we know we’re in for a treat. As Mike, Tzarfati is so over the top he’ll never come back down, although we really can’t blame him given the dialogue and soliloquies he’s given, especially his speech about serving in Vietnam.

The hippie hootenanny scene is also a riot. They get together, people begin giving speeches, eventually everyone pairs off to make love, and suddenly the men in black show up and machine gun the lot. The reaction of Mike and his three friends is priceless. They simply act as if this is an everyday occurrence and take off for the promised island in Elizabeth’s convertible without a thought of who the men are and why they gunned everyone down.

And who are the men in black and why are they trailing Mike? Director Sefer never takes the time to explain it to the audience; a simple sentence would suffice. Are they representatives of the Establishment sent to ruin Mike’s good times? Dressed as they are with the mime make-up, they might have been sent by Marcel Marceau for all we know.

And the ending on the island: Is this Sefer’s version of Lord of the Flies? Is he trying to tell us that while we can escape from society we cannot escape from our own violent nature? Is he on the side of the hippies or the men in black? Is he really this bad a filmmaker?

As an actor, Tzarfati is in a class by himself. Not since Dudley Manlove in Plan 9 have we seen such hysterical histrionics. He’s so eager for an audience during his speech to Elizabeth in the beginning of their relationship that he actually breaks the “fourth wall” and speaks directly to the audience. And he’s so direct, so blatantly sincere to the point of laughter. (I’d love to see him hawking a veg-o-matic on an infomercial.) I don’t know if Sefer planned it this way; as it occurs only once in the film I tend to think it was the result of plain incompetence rather than a pointed message. But then Sefer is arty, and perhaps he intended to break the fourth wall all throughout the film but simply forgot. A lot of plot points are merely disregarded during the course of the film, which helps account for its unusual charm. Every time we think the film is going one way, it simply weighs anchor and inexplicably heads off in another direction.

As Elizabeth, Avidan’s idea of acting is to take her clothes off. (The same for Karney.) The best of the bunch was Wolf, because he only spoke Hebrew and I couldn’t understand him.

An American Hippie in Israel proves that there are good points to be had in a bad film  as long as it’s entertaining. It’s the sort of film that leaves unprepared audiences gobsmacked, and ever since its rediscovery it has become a popular “midnight matinee” feature in Israel and remains proof that the truly great bad movies are ones that take themselves seriously. 


By Ed Garea

Fear (Monogram, 1946) - Director: Alfred Zeisler. Writers: Dennis J. Cooper & Alfred Zeisler (s/p); Fyodor Dostoevsky (novel, Crime and Punishment), uncredited. Cast: Peter Cookson, Warren William, Anne Gwynne, Francis Pierlot, Nestor Paiva, James Cardwell, Almira Sessions, William Moss, Ernie Adams, & Charles Calvert. B&W, 68 minutes.

Dostoevsky’s novel, Crime and Punishment, is without a doubt one of the classics of literature and, as such, it’s been adapted into movies over the years, with the most famous being the 1935 Columbia production starring Peter Lorre. The next American production came in 1946, made by Monogram, of all studios. Although Dostoevsky is excised from the credits, perhaps to make viewers think the writers came up with it all on their own, one gander at the film is enough to remind anyone who read the novel or had seen one of the movie adaptations that it was indeed Dostoevsky’s story, even if he didn’t get credit.

That being said, how does the film play out? All in all, not bad, considering that its star, Cookson, is blander than a loaf of store-bought white bread. Director Zeisler keeps everything moving and everyone in play, while the film has some good actors in supporting parts to help overcome the deficiencies of the leading man, particularly William - as Porfiry to Cookson’s Raskolnikov - and Gwynne, though she has practically no reason for being in the film other than to give Cookson someone to talk to in order to stretch out the running time. The film also contains the typical Monogram plot holes (it just wouldn’t be a Monogram film without them) and a novel plot twist at the end, which for cinephiles becomes the movie’s raison d’etre.

Medical student Larry Crain (Cookson) lives in a shabby one-room flat. He also owes everyone: his landlady, his friends, and now his school, which has sent him a letter telling him his scholarship has been revoked because the school is revoking all scholarships (in reality that's about as likely to happen as the moon being found to be made of green cheese). At any rate, the landlady (Sessions) has been bugging him, and out of desperation he goes to see Professor Stanley (Pierlot), who doubles on the side as a pawnbroker.

Stanley looks over the watch Larry has brought, noting that Larry owes him back interest for the last item pawned. Larry promises to pay that off, and Stanley gives him $10 for the watch, which actually translates to $8, as Stanley deducts the interest on this item ahead of time. A trusting fellow, he is. But the scene also serves as a set-up for what is to follow, for Stanley goes to his wall safe to retrieve the money. What, for only eight dollars? No, to show us the strongbox he removes from the safe and which contains oodles and oodles of dough, as well as other pawned items. We notice that Larry is getting the urge to whack the professor right there and then; he’s fiddling with a fireplace poker as Stanley places the box on a table. He doesn’t go through with it, but he’s definitely thinking about it.

The next scene finds him in the local eatery, where he runs into some of his fellow students, and more importantly, the Girl. It’s Gwynne, and when the proprietor asks her to pay for her coffee, she searches her purse, in which she seemingly keeps everything except money. No matter, for Larry’s a gentleman, and he gladly pays for her coffee while she promises to repay him the next time they meet. They exchange introductions: she is Eileen, he is Larry.

Larry returns home to find two pieces of bad news: a tuition bill from the school and an ultimatum from his landlady - either pay up or hit the road. His mind now made up, Larry returns to Professor Stanley’s apartment, carrying an old ashtray he wrapped to make to look like something worth pawning. He hides in the hallway shadows until a painter working on an empty unit leaves. Stanley is reluctant to open the door for Larry (weren’t you just here yesterday?), but Larry convinces him he has something else to pawn. 

As Stanley lets him in, Larry shows him the tightly wrapped ashtray. The safe is open and the strongbox is on the table. Stanley is struggling with the wrapping as Larry sneaks up behind him and lets him have it with the poker. It’s the best scene is the film, for we never see Larry land the poker on the prof’s noggin, but see Stanley’s hands as they unwrap the ashtray, and as he’s hit, the ashtray slip from his hand, land on the table, and knock over a glass of wine, which stains the white table cloth like blood. It’s an effective use of the camera, giving the scene a noirish aspect.

As Peter is about to help himself to the loot, there’s a knock at the door. At the door are some other students who have come to see their friendly pawnbroker. They start to leave until one notices that the lights are on inside. Larry hears them talking about getting the manager, and after they leave he grabs the ashtray and books it out of there - cashless. When he hears someone coming up the stairs he ducks into the empty unit, getting paint on his jacket sleeve. He makes it back to his place, stuffs the jacket under his bed and drops off to sleep.

The next day, he’s rousted out of bed by the landlady and Detective Schaefer (Paiva), who has come to haul him down to the station. On the way out, the landlady hands him a letter that has just come in the mail. At the station, Larry meets Captain Burke (William), who informs him about an announcement in the previous day’s paper requesting Stanley’s customers to come down to the station to reclaim their possessions; Larry was the only one not to do so. Larry’s excuse is that he slept through the entire day and did not see the paper. While waiting on Burke, Larry opens his mail to discover a check for $1,000 from a periodical for an article he submitted. He tells Burke the news as he leaves, and heads for his favorite hangout to celebrate. There, he finds Eileen now working behind the counter. As they renew acquaintances, they decide to go on a picnic, but Schaefer enters with orders to bring Larry back to the station.

At the station, Burke compliments Larry on his article, “Men Above the Law,” in which he argues that if enough good results from an evil act, the act is justified. Burke questions Larry as to whether or not that is an argument or his personal philosophy: that some men are above the law. Larry states it's his personal philosophy and leaves to return to the restaurant. His friends inform him that the college has learned about his article and decided to renew his scholarship. He’s also going on that picnic with Eileen. Everything is going his way at last.

Now if only he could get Captain Burke out of his hair, for it seems that no matter which way he turns or where he goes, Larry keeps running into Detective Schaefer, who brings him to the office to confer with Burke. Burke tells Larry that he found clothing fibers clinging to the paint inside the vacant unit. Larry weasels his way out with a contrived explanation, but once he gets home, he makes sure to burn the incriminating jacket.

He eventually winds up at Eileen’s home, where he confesses all. She advises him to confess to the police and he agrees. But when he returns home, Burke is waiting there for him with a copy of that day’s newspaper. The headline? “Painter Confesses Murder.” Burke explains that innocent people sometimes confess to others’ crimes. He calmly asks Larry to drop by the station and Larry agrees, but once Burke leaves, Larry starts packing. He arranges to meet Eileen at a travel agency. When he sees her waiting, he is so anxious to get to her that he dashes across the street and is hit by a car.

Is this the end of Larry? Not so fast. Cut back to Larry’s room, awash in harp music and a swirling vortex. He’s sleeping. A knock at the door rouses him out of his slumber. It was all a dream! At the door is Professor Stanley, who gives Larry a loan of $120 and news that his scholarship has been renewed. As Larry step out of his apartment he bumps into Eileen in the hallway. Only her name isn’t Eileen, see? It’s Cathy, and she has tracked him down to repay his 60 cents before compound interest sets in. While she’s there, she decides to rent a room from Mrs. Williams, the landlady. As she repays him, he asks her out. And he also asks if he can call her “Eileen.” Creepy, huh? Completely unmoved, she remarks that “he sure must have been in love with that girl!” Larry responds by telling her he’ll tell her all about it one day as the movie fades to the end title.

Talk about disappointing. The movie, which already has a decent ending, decides to tack on a cheesy coda. Was director Zeisler trying to add on time to the film? Or, perhaps he was imitating his idol, Fritz Lang, by copying his trick ending from his 1944 film with Edward G. Robinson, The Woman In the Window. It’s now 1946, who’s going to remember a 1944 film? Or, just maybe, he was trying to leave the audience with something to talk about as they left the theater. If that was his intention, I’m sure he succeeded, for they probably muttered, “What a cheesy ending,” to each other as they walked up the aisles.


As mentioned before, Fear is the Poverty Row version of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Warren William, who does not make his appearance until almost one-third of the film is gone, is Porfiry. Peter Cookson is obviously Raskolnikov. One wonders why the studio does not acknowledge its debt to Dostoevsky. It’s not as if they had to pay any royalties. But then again, it just wouldn’t be a Monogram production if they resorted to that type of thing. Anne Gwynne got the worst deal playing an updated Sonia, as she was little more than window dressing.

As Crain, Cookson put in a decent, if unspectacular, performance, one that would be expected given his lack of acting experience at the time. He began his career at Universal and floated around the studios. His second appearance was an unbilled part in the Spencer Tracy-Irene Dunne wartime soaper, A Guy Named Joe, for MGM. He soon ended up at Monogram, which would be his home base until he left the Silver Screen later in 1946, his last appearance being a starring role in William Beaudine’s morality play, Don’t Gamble With Strangers. He moved to Broadway and made a name for himself starring in the original production of The Heiress. He later split his time between Broadway and the television studios of New York City, guest starring in assorted series and teleplays. In addition, he also became a producer of Broadway and off-Broadway plays. In 1949, he married fellow thespian Beatrice Straight, a marriage that lasted until his death in 1990 from bone cancer.

Of course, to the surprise of no one, it’s Warren William who steals the movie, even though, as mentioned before, we do not see him until the film is well underway. Born Warren William Krech in Atkin, Minnesota, in 1894, he was one of moviedom’s great, unappreciated actors, beginning his career as William Warren on Broadway in 1924, with a small role in the H.G. Wells play, The Wonderful Visit. He would go on to appear in 17 more Broadway productions, along with a couple of silent pictures under the name “Warren Kretch.” He joined Warner Bros. in 1931, assuming the role of the underhanded businessman in many a Pre-Code feature. His patrician looks and manners were showcased in Cecil B. DeMille’s production of Cleopatra, in 1934, where he played Julius Caesar to Claudette Colbert’s titular character. Also, while at Warner’s he gained fame as the screen’s first Perry Mason. After making Stage Struck in 1936, William left to join the rolls at MGM as a character actor. From there it was on to Columbia, where he was noted for his portrayal of Michael Lanyard in the long running “Lone Wolf” series. After his run in the series ended, William continued in character parts, but his failing health caused other major studios to avoid him, which is the reason why he landed at Monogram. He died in 1948 at age 53 from multiple myeloma, a form of cancer of the blood.

Although Fear was his next-to-last film before his death, as the cancer took its toll, he still managed to turn in a delightful performance as Burke - sly, yet most amiable, stroking Crain’s ego, making him feel more like a colleague than a suspect, all the while gathering information. He may have been deathly ill, but it didn’t show in his sprightly performance.

Gwynne, a Universal starlet who gained fame as a pin-up queen during the war, is given little to do as Eileen, becoming almost peripheral to the plot. Her only interaction is with Crain, and her scenes almost throwaway, as if the film could well go on without her presence. If she was meant to be a type as Joan Bennett played in The Woman in the Window, Zeisler needn’t have bothered.

The only other actor of note was Nestor Paiva, as lead detective Schaefer, whose character seemed to exist only to tell Larry that Burke wanted to see him. Paiva would turn up at Universal in the ‘50s, appearing in numerous science-fiction films. Also look for the unbilled Darren McGavin, in only his fifth film, as one of Larry’s fellow students congratulating him on the publication of his article.

Fear is typical of the Monogram output at the time, a forgettable thriller meant only as a diversion for its audience until the main attraction unspooled.

The Vampire Bat

By Ed Garea 

The Vampire Bat (Majestic Pictures, 1933) – Director: Frank R. Strayer. Writer: Edward T. Lowe, Jr. Cast: Melvyn Douglas, Lionel Atwill, Fay Wray, Dwight Frye, Maude Eburne, George E. Stone, Lionel Belmore, Robert Frazer, Rita Carlyle, Harrison Greene, & William Humphrey. Black and White, 65 minutes.

Following the introduction of sound, it was expected that the number of movie studios would decrease due to the cost and demands of the new technology. Yet that wasn’t the case; quite a few minor studios survived the transition to the new technology and, while they didn’t exactly thrive, they managed to make enough to stay afloat. By the mid-‘30s, most of them had disappeared due to mergers and bankruptcy. Yet, while they lived, they made their mark on Hollywood, even if it was merely a pen scratch.

One of these “Poverty Row” studios was Majestic Pictures, founded in 1930 by producers Harry Sherman and Jack Trop. Besides The Vampire Bat, the studio is best known for The Sin of Nora Moran (1934). The studio folded in 1935 owing to a huge debt to Herbert Yates and his Consolidated Film Industries, which processed Majestic’s product. Yates consolidated Majestic with several other failed studios to create Republic Pictures.

The European village of Kleinschloss (“Small Castle”), probably somewhere in Germany, has just suffered another mysterious murder. Each victim has been drained of blood through two puncture wounds on the neck near the jugular. Added to the fact that several large bats were seen in the vicinity as of late, and many townsfolk feared an outbreak of vampirism.

A town hall meeting is convened. Led by Burgermeister Gustave Schoen (Belmore), the villagers are convinced it’s the return of a period of vampirism. They point to records from 1643 that tell of an epidemic of death that was accompanied by sightings of giant bats in their town. Only police inspector Karl Brettschneider (Douglas) is skeptical of such claims, believing there is a rational explanation of it all. Brettschneider’s youth and mannerisms are in direct contrast to the older and more set in their ways villagers. He is a new man of reason, as opposed to the superstitions his elders have lived by for years.

The meeting ends inconclusively, with the inspector versus the townsfolk. Afterward, Brettschneider walks over to see his girlfriend Ruth Bertin (Wray) who lives with her Aunt Gussie, the family hypochondriac. Ruth works as secretary to Doctor Otto von Niemann (Atwill), who also lives in the same house as the two women, maintaining a well-equipped laboratory in the basement.

Dr. von Niemann is out caring for another victim of the bat, kindly old Martha Mueller (Carlyle). Also visiting Martha is village idiot Herman Gleib (Frye), who tells her he likes bats, because they are soft, like cats, and nice. On his way home, von Niemann runs into Kringen (Stone), one of the villagers. Kringen claims to have been attacked by a vampire in the form of a bat, but has kept quiet about the incident as not to spread fear. Von Niemann encourages Kringen to tell the story. Kringen relates his suspicions about Gleib to the doctor, believing that Gleib may be the vampire due to his obsession with bats – he keeps them as pets and collects them off the street.

Later that night, Martha is murdered. Upon examination of her body, both Dr. von Niemann, and Dr. Haupt (Humphrey), come to the conclusion that Martha died in the same way as the other victims: exsanguination accompanied by two marks on the neck made by razor sharp teeth. Herman enters the examination room, and seeing Martha’s body, runs off screaming.

No matter, for suspicion quickly builds towards Herman. Several witnesses tell Brettschneider that Gleib was among the last to see Martha alive, and that he made a point of giving her a flower before he left. They believe Herman gave Martha the flower as a kind of homing device to mark her as the vampire’s next victim. Kringen, on the other hand, contends that Herman is the vampire. Brettschneider and Schoen manage to stop Kringen from putting together a lynch mob to go after Herman and drive a stake through his heart.

Things go from bad to worse the next morning when Kringen is found dead in his home. And Herman Gleib is missing. As the cry to hunt Gleib down gets louder, Brettschneider decides to give the vampire theory a thorough vetting. One of the reasons for this comes from von Niemann, who assures the inspector that a man might exhibit vampiristic tendencies for purely natural reasons. Brettschneider authorizes a search party to find Gleib and bring him back to stand trial. But the mob chases Gleib through the countryside and into a cave (the old ‘villagers with torches’ bit), where Herman falls to his death.

Then comes a break in the case. Georgiana (Adams), von Niemann’s housekeeper, brings the doctor a crucifix that belonged to Martha. She tells the doctor she found it in the servant Emil’s (Frazer) room. Von Niemann assures her that he will question Emil. Later that night, we see von Niemann giving Emil a telepathic command to fetch the sleeping Georgiana and bring her to the laboratory. Once in the lab, von Niemann and Emil drain her blood.

Aunt Gussie discovers Georgiana’s body lying in her bed the next day. Von Niemann and Brettschneider examine the body and find Martha’s crucifix. Von Niemann tells the inspector that he saw Gelib handling it on the night the doctor visited her, the night of her death. Brettschneider is becoming more and more convinced of the presence of vampires in the village, as no other evidence is found and no other plausible explanation is forthcoming.

However, upon learning of Herman’s death, Brettschneider changes his mind. Von Niemann tells the inspector that he is overwrought and that he needs to get a good night’s sleep. To this end, the doctor hands Karl some sleeping pills, but unbeknownst to him, von Niemann has handed him poison instead. The plan is for Emil to fetch the inspector and bring him back top the lab to be drained.

While von Niemann is in the midst of sending Emil telepathic orders, Ruth enters the laboratory and discovers what the doctor is up to. He ties Ruth up while telling her that he has created life, pointing to what looks like a large bath sponge in a glass tank. As it needs blood to survive, his job is to make sure the organism gets it.

Emil now enters with the inspector’s body on a trolley. As von Niemann walks over to begin the operation, he finds it is Emil on the trolley. Brettschneider doffs his disguise, pulls a gun on the doctor, and explains that he didn’t take the pills, as he suspected the doctor was up to something. As the inspector goes to untie Ruth, von Niemann makes his move. As the inspector and the doctor struggle, the gun is knocked to the floor, where the revived Emil picks it up. Unfortunately for von Niemann, though, Emil had heard the doctor trying to pin the blame for the murders on him. He shoots von Niemann and then turns the gun on himself after shooting and shattering the tank that holds the organism.

Thanks to the “magic” of public domain, The Vampire Bat has survived over the years, becoming a popular staple on late-night television as well as appearing on VHS from several companies. Made to cash in on the horror trend begun by Universal with Dracula and Frankenstein, and continued by other studios, the film manages to feel original; an entertaining mixture of mystery and horror, with a little science fiction thrown in. It also looks as if more were spent on its budget thanks to the fact that it was shot at night on the backlot of Universal. For instance, the village is the same as the village in Frankenstein, while von Niemann’s residence was previously used as Femm Manor in James Whale’s The Old Dark House (1932).

Adding to our enjoyment is the excellent visual direction from Strayer. He sets the mood right at the beginning with a series of quick shots that culminate in a blood-curdling scream. As both Strayer and his photographer, Ira H. Morgan, began their career in the silents, they know how to make these sorts of shots highly effective, ratcheting up the atmosphere with plenty of swoops of the camera through the dark village streets. However, the lack of budget begins to do them in with slipshod editing from Otis Garrett and the haphazard continuity that occurs when stock footage is used to extend the running time. There are several mismatched shots that occur when new scenes are intercut with stock footage from unnamed silent films. Fortunately, as most of the scenes are dark, the mismatches are not readily apparent, but they are still there.

Another problem hindering Strayer is that The Vampire Bat is a talking picture, and in extended talking sequences, the film tends to plod and look extremely stagy. However, give Strayer credit for trying to minimize the damage by keeping his camera ever on the move – panning and zooming around the set instead of merely remaining motionless, as was often the case with early talkies. It keeps the film from becoming unnecessarily talky and breaking down into simply a series of static scenes glued together. Strayer is also good at using dialogue, especially in a graphic examination of the puncture wounds on the necks of the dead: “And in every case, a blood clot – eight inches from the victim’s neck. The mark of the feast – the Devil’s signature.”

Also give Strayer credit for realizing that romantic and comedy relief scenes don’t have to weigh the film down, as so often happens in other pictures of the genre. The hypochondriac Aunt Gussie has a wonderfully amusing – and yet disturbing – scene with Herman in her garden. When Herman shows her his pet rat, she turns away and screams. He steals her food, and, as if to compensate her for the loss of the food, he gives her one of his bats, which causes her to faint. She is awakened not by Herman, but by her slobbering Great Dane, which causes Gussie to believe that a vampire can assume the form of a dog as well as a bat. Karl, in his romantic interludes with Ruth, uses her as a sounding board to confirm and dispel theories, moving the plot forward rather than taking a few minutes out for a little necking. It’s as if Strayer realizes the film cannot withstand any lengthy diversion from the main direction of the plot.

Lastly, The Vampire Bat is immensely helped by the quality of its cast. As with the sets, it seems the cast was also borrowed from Universal, with the presence of Douglas, Frye and Belmore. The film also reunites the team of Atwill and Wray, who starred in Warner Brothers’ Technicolor thrillers, Doctor X (1932), and Mystery of The Wax Museum (1933). In fact, Atwill and Wray were signed right after Mystery wrapped, allowing Majestic to beat Warners on the release by almost a month.

Melvyn Douglas acquits himself quite nicely in the lead role, moving back and forth between skepticism to a reluctant acceptance of the vampire theory, and back to his earlier skepticism. But Douglas knows exactly what he’s in, and delivers some of his crazier lines almost with a knowing wink. His scenes with Wray, though, are lacking, mainly because, I think, she is not given enough to do in order to make a major mark on the proceedings. She doesn’t even get to scream, as Atwill binds and gags her near the end.

The always-colorful Lionel Atwill adds to our fun as the mad doctor. Atwill was a solid supporting actor in “A” list films and a lead in the “B” variety. Not that it mattered that much, though, for he always gave an entertaining performance no matter what the film and his billing. As Otto von Niemann, Atwill is at his slippery best as a vampire expert a la Van Helsing, but one with a couple of aces up his sleeve. When he’s revealed to be the heel, it’s a nice twist, for he has just gotten the hero to admit the possibility of vampires, taking him completely off the scent. We can say that it doesn’t come as a shock, but that’s only possible because we’ve seen enough Atwill performances to know instinctively that he has to be the villain. The weak point in his performance was not his fault, but that of the writer in portraying the doctor as a master hypnotist capable of total control, for it simply comes to us right out of the blue, as if the writer couldn’t think of any other way to get the victims bled. It’s a stretch, and one that adds nothing to the film.

In the end, von Niemann turns out to be just a mad scientist bent on creating a new life form (shades of Frankenstein). But it solves our question as to how a rational scientist can support a theory relying on the existence of vampires: von Niemann was simply distracting attention away from himself. Brettschneider has rejected the villagers’ belief in vampires as superstitious. But now a respected scientist, a man of reason, comes forward to back that very supposition. And he does so brilliantly, quoting to Brettschneider from a book written in French, telling him that “according to accepted theory,” an ordinary man can exhibit vampiric tendencies given the right circumstances. The doctor is seen reading a large book in French, Dissertations sur les apparitions des anges, des démons et des esprits, et sur les revenants et vampires de Hongrie, de Bohême, de Moravie, et de Silésie (Essays About the Apparitions of Angels, Demons and Spirits and Ghosts and Vampires of Hungary, Bohemia, Moravia, and Silesia) by Dom Augustin Calmet. It adds weight to his argument, and Atwill plays it beautifully. He almost makes us believe it. But once all is revealed, he’s then reduced to the role of the raving madman, tying up the pretty girl in the name of progress.

Atwill made the film while he was still feeling his way about in the business. Over the next few years he came to perfect his style in such films as Murders in the Zoo (Paramount, 1933), Captain Blood (WB, 1935), The Devil is a Woman (Paramount, 1935), To Be or Not to Be (UA, 1942), and Boom Town (MGM, 1940). Perhaps his best remembered role was that of one-armed Inspector Krogh in Universal’s Son of Frankenstein (1939).

But Dwight Frye is the real catch for the producers. If one is going to make a film that recalls the Universal horror hits, Frye is an absolute necessity. Herman Gleib is yet another bizarre character in a long list of such performances for Frye, and he is positioned in this film so as to remind viewers of his previous roles as Renfield in Dracula and Fritz in Frankenstein; for instance, his obsession with bats and blood. Though Frye’s horror performances may have especially endeared him to aficionados of early horror films, they ended up ruining any chance he may have had of a normal career, typecasting him mercilessly. The dialogue given to him in this film is terrible – he can’t deliver any of his muddled thoughts with any clarity or authenticity – and when an actor realizes the quality of his dialogue is that bad, the only thing left to do is to chew scenery. The result is that he comes off like a parody of Renfield or Fritz, and not as an authentic character in his own right. When I think of Frye’s performance as the torpedo monk in Doorway to Hell from Warner’s in 1930, and then think of him in the bit part of Karl in The Bride of Frankenstein in 1935, I can’t help but wince at what might have been.

As noted earlier, Fay Wray’s performance suffers from not being given enough to do. Her Ruth is Karl Brettschneider’s girlfriend, but there’s not nearly enough interaction between the two to sustain a believable romance. It seems that Wray was signed for her marquee value alone, and not for any possible contribution to the film.

As for the others, horror fans already knew Lionel Belmore as the Burgomeister in Frankenstein, and Maude Eburne as Aunt Gussie straddles the thin line of the comic relief between being interesting or merely annoying. She pulled off her role well, keeping viewers interested.

The final verdict on The Vampire Bat is that, despite its intention to cash in on the Universal horror films, it comes off better than some of them, thanks to an imaginative approach from director Frank Strayer, who made the best of the cards he was dealt. (Compare what he did in this film with Robert Florey’s direction of Universal’s 1932 Murders in the Rue Morgue.) The battle between reason and the supernatural would appear in several later films, such as MGM’s Mark of the Vampire (1935), Fox’s 1939 Hound of the Baskervilles (and its unofficial 1944 remake, Universal’s The Scarlet Claw), and the Hammer Dracula and Frankenstein films of the ‘60s and ‘70s, where the formula was reversed, and the hero had to accept the influence of the supernatural in order to defeat the forces of evil. (The best example of this is Dracula Has Risen From the Grave, 1968, where the atheist hero must accept religion in order to defeat Dracula.)

Where the film fails is in its tepid and stagnant dialogue and situations that threaten to derail the film, leading the audience to wonder what they’re talking about. Given a more involved script containing more realistic dialogue, The Vampire Bat may not have fallen into the obscurity it did.


Director Frank Strayer’s career began in 1925 with An Enemy of Men for Columbia and ended in 1951 with The Valparaiso Story, aka Venture of Faith, for the Lutheran Layman’s League. He was best known for directing many of the films in Columbia’s Blondie series, starring Penny Singleton as cartoonist Chic Young’s heroine.

Dillinger: His Story is Written in Bullets, Blood and Blondes!

By Ed Garea

Dillinger (Monogram, 1945) - Director: Max Nosseck. Screenplay: Philip Yordan. Cast: Lawrence Tierney, Edmund Lowe, Anne Jeffreys, Eduardo Ciannelli, Marc Lawrence, Elisha Cook, Jr., Ralph Lewis, Victor Kilian, Ludwig Stossel, & Constance Worth. B&W, 70 minutes.

John Dillinger was one of the most charismatic gangsters who ever lived. Because of his positive notoriety, the Hays Office banned any Hollywood studio from capitalizing on his name. This was well before Dillinger met his death outside in Biograph Theater in Chicago at the hands of the FBI. Adding strength to the ban, J. Edgar Hoover made it known to Hollywood that any studio making a Dillinger biopic would lose the cooperation of the FBI, which counted for a lot in those days. The studios, for their part, complied, even though a Dillinger-esque character might slip through every once in a while, such as Humphrey Bogart in The Petrified Forest (1936) and Bogart again in High Sierra (1940). Though Warner Brothers produced both films, the studio quickly disavowed any connection or resemblance between the characters and Dillinger.

But come the ‘40s, America was at war, fighting bigger gangsters. Independent producers Frank and Maurice King decided the time was right to take a chance, and secured the cooperation of Poverty Row studio Monogram Pictures. Upon learning of this, the Hays Office sent Monogram a reminder to keep their film within the established guidelines that were set forth in the special regulations regarding crime in motion pictures. Thus, the script by Philip Yordan (with unbilled assistance from the young William Castle) steered a wide berth from many of the known facts of Dillinger’s life and career. In fact, it could be said that any resemblance between the Dillinger of the film and the real Dillinger was only coincidental. The Dillinger of the film is a cold-blooded killer, a highly unpleasant person. The real Dillinger, by contrast, was a bank robber who was not a killer by nature, a charismatic Jesse James type who stole from the hated banks.

The original thought of the producers was to tell the story from the point of view of Ana “Anna Sage” Cumpanas, the Romanian madam who sold Dillinger out to the FBI in return for a promise not to be deported - a promise the government did not keep. She is renowned in popular culture as The Woman in Red, for the red dress she wore so the FBI could pick out Dillinger. In reality, her dress was orange; it only looked red under the lights of the theater marquee. In this way, they didn’t have to mention Dillinger by name, and could thus escape any interference from the censors. But Yordan thought Dillinger was the compelling character, and that patrons would prefer his story instead of a disguised gangster yarn.

For the role of Dillinger, Monogram head Steve Broidy wanted Chester Morris. But the King brothers pointed out that Morris would be too expensive and, if Broidy wanted him so badly, Monogram should pony up the required salary separate from the film’s budget. So there went Chester Morris. The King brothers wanted Lawrence Tierney, an unknown contract player from RKO, to play the title role. He had been signed by RKO in 1943 and had gone through five films without being credited. His best known of the bunch was his performance as a sailor in producer Val Lewton’s Ghost Ship, where he plays a luckless sailor crushed to death in the coils of the ship’s anchor chain. He finally received ninth billing in Lewton’s JD epic for RKO, Youth Runs Wild (1944). As he wasn’t used much at RKO, Tierney began to spend his time at Monogram, looking for parts, and that was where the King brothers met him. They wanted him right away for the title role. They liked his swagger and his tough guy persona, already established this early in his career. Broidy nixed the choice, not wanting to give top billing to an unknown. But the King Brothers were persuasive: Tierney cost less than half the salary of Morris and, if Broidy didn’t accept the choice, they would take the production elsewhere. Broidy liked the script and didn’t want to lose the picture. On the other hand, he didn’t want to commit a lot of money to what could well be a hard film to sell, so he budgeted the project at $65,000, which was fine by the King brothers, as they had a deal for a percentage of the gross. As he saw the dailies, Broidy’s enthusiasm for the project grew and he raised the budget to a final number of around $192,000.

The film opens with the conclusion of a newsreel detailing Dillinger’s criminal exploits. Dillinger’s father talks to the movie’s audience about his son, describing his youth as uneventful, but noting that John was headstrong and ambitious.

Cut to a speakeasy in Indianapolis, where John is drinking with his date. She wants another drink and John tells the waiter that he’s short of cash but can write a check. The waiter, a hard-ass, tells him it’s a cash-only joint. John wants to leave, but his date insists on ordering another drink. John excuses himself, telling her he’ll be right back with some money. He heads to a nearby grocery store and robs the owner, fooling him into believing he has a gun. On the way out he runs into two cops, who arrest him and note that he only got $7.20 in the heist.

Sentenced to prison, John gets off on the wrong foot by trying to bully his cellmate, who knocks him cold. Later, John learns that his cellmate is none other than “Specs” Green (Lowe), one of the nation’s premier bank robbers, and quickly makes up to Specs, who in turn, introduces him to his gang: Marco Minnelli (Cianelli), Doc Madison (Lawrence) and Kirk Otto (Cook, Jr.). Talk about an all-star roster of B-movie criminals. John, whose sentence is much shorter, vows to help them escape once he’s paroled.

As soon as he is freed, John holds up a movie theater box office, after flirting with the ticket seller, Helen Rogers (Jeffreys). Although Helen recognizes him from a mug shot, she says she cannot identify him during a line-up, and Dillinger goes free. Afterward, Helen goes out with John. Several more successful robberies give Dillinger the wherewithal to carry out his escape plan, which involves sneaking in a barrel carrying firearms to the gang while they’re working in the quarry. They shoot their way to freedom, and with Dillinger, commit a series of daring bank robberies.

But the gang learns that all but John have been identified by one of their victims. Specs sends John out to case their next target, the Farmers Trust Bank. On the way, however, Dillinger stops in at the speakeasy where the waiter had given him such a hard time during the movie’s opening scenes. Dillinger invites him to sit down for a drink, then breaks a bottle and shoves the bottle into the man’s face.

Posing as a customer, John checks out the bank, reporting to the gang that it has a sophisticated security system. Specs wants to bring in outside help, given the security and John’s trigger-happy disposition, but John convinces the crew that he has a better plan. The gang uses gas bombs to rob the bank and flee to their hideout, where John takes over leadership of the gang from Specs, taking his double-cut as well. The group splits up for a couple of weeks, reuniting at a lodge run by the Ottos, Kirk’s foster parents. Learning the law is closing in, the gang heads to the West, robbing banks there. In Tucson, Dillinger visits a dentist to see about a toothache. As John is about to be put under, the police burst in and arrest him.

This leads to a scene in prison, where we see Dillinger whittle the wooden gun he later uses to make his escape. Reunited with the gang, Dillinger’s first order of business is to kill Specs, who he has figured out betrayed him in Tucson. He then shows the boys his plan to rob a train with a huge payout. But during the robbery, John is wounded and Kirk is killed. The gang, with new member Tony (Lewis), flees back to the Otto’s lodge, where Helen is staying. With Kirk dead, the Ottos have no qualms about turning the gang in, but as they are making the call, Dillinger overheads them and kills them both. John then stops Helen from sneaking off with Tony, and as the police close in on the lodge, he and Helen escape in a car. The rest of the gang surrenders, but John and Helen make it to Chicago, where they find a place to lay low.

It’s July 1934. John is Public Enemy Number One and the authorities are offering a reward of $15,000, dead or alive. John, feeling antsy, decides to go to a movie with Helen. However, he is unaware that, in the meantime, she has sold him out to the FBI. As they exit the theater, FBI agents spot Helen, who is wearing a red dress for easy identification. As they close in, Dillinger tries to shoot his way out, but is gunned down. In the final irony, the agents go through his pockets and discover he has only $7.20 on him.

I mentioned before that the film played loose with the facts about Dillinger’s life. The part in the beginning with Dillinger’s father was true, as mentioned earlier. Dillinger did live in Indianapolis, and prison is where he met the men he joined later. He did help them escape - however, the names are all wrong, as the men he met at Indiana State Prison were Harry “Pete” Pierpont, Charles Makley, Red Hamilton, and Homer Van Meter. There was no recognized leader. Dillinger was arrested with the gang in Tucson, but not while going to the dentist. The lodge in Wisconsin existed, but the people who owned it were not related to any of Dillinger’s gang. And it was Anna Sage, not Dillinger’s girlfriend (Polly Hamilton), who wore the “red” dress. The theater was the Biograph, which viewers of the film would not have known, as they instead substituted a generic theater located on the lot. Not even the Biograph’s marquee was duplicated. The film Dillinger saw that night? Manhattan Melodrama, a 1934 MGM film staring Clark Gable, William Powell, and Myrna Loy.

The strong part of Dillinger is its cast, especially in the supporting parts. The casting of Edmund Lowe, Marc Lawrence, Eduardo Ciannelli, and Elisha Cook, Jr. made for quite the formidable gang. Anne Jeffreys, essentially playing “The Lady in Red,” was borrowed from RKO. She turned in an original, thoughtful performance as Dillinger’s girlfriend, almost walking away with the film. Selmer Jackson (as the dentist) and Ludwig Stossel (as Elisha Cook’s father) were fine in bit parts. But it was Lawrence Tierney’s movie, as he snarled, growled and spat his way through without resorting to his hambone. He was nothing short of brilliant as he portrayed a man whose violent rage always was simmering beneath the surface, ready to explode. This was Tierney’s big break, and to say he was anxious was a helluva an understatement. His frequent anxiety attacks during filming necessitated having a port-a-potty nearby to cut down his time away from the camera.

After the success of the film and the reception afforded his performance, Tierney returned to RKO as a star. He played a very credible Jesse James in the Randolph Scott oater, Badman’s Territory, in 1946, before going on to become America’s favorite psychopath in such films as The Devil Thumbs a Ride (1947), Born to Kill (1947), and The Hoodlum (1950). He would have been a major star if it weren’t for his rather raucous life off the set. Tierney seemed to be living up to his reputation in much publicized brawls, usually in bars and anywhere alcohol played a part. He found himself reduced to supporting status, and while jobs were available, they weren’t nearly as frequent or as substantial as before. Finding himself almost forgotten in the ‘80s, he had a reprieve when he was cast as Elaine Benes’s father in a memorable episode of Seinfeld. Plans were to make him a semi-regular character, but he so scared the producers with his ad-lib ideas (including one where he threatens Seinfeld with a knife), that the plans were quickly forgotten. In 1992, he engineered a comeback of sorts when he was cast in Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs as the aging gangster, Joe Cabot. But, again, the filming was far from peaceful due to Tierney’s temper. When word of his antics on the set got around, especially his near-fisticuffs with Tarantino, ideas of starring roles in major productions faded once again and he continued to work supporting parts and television guest shots. After his death in 2002 at the age of 82, Tierney is remembered in film history as a case of tremendous talent sabotaged by a borderline personality whose worst side was brought out by alcohol.

Dillinger was directed with a close eye toward the budget by Max Nosseck, a German actor-director who left after Hitler came to power, with stops in France and Spain before coming to America in 1940. His first directorial assignment was a Yiddish film titled Der viler Shtot Khazn (The Vilna Town Cantor), eventually being released as Overture to Glory. From there he signed on with Columbia’s B unit, directing Girls Under 21 in 1940 before eventually finding his way to RKO after assignments on Poverty Row. He returned to Germany in 1956, where he spent the rest of his life directing and acting. He died in 1972. While at Eagle-Lion, after his stint at RKO, Nosseck had the distinction of directing Tierney in Kill or Be Killed and The Hoodlum. To say they disliked each other was putting it mildly. They argued frequently and vociferously, with Tierney walking off the set several times before returning.

Given the small budget on Dillinger, Nosseck used whatever resources came his way, including liberal use of stock footage during the chase scenes, even in prominent scenes, and lifting the bank robbery scene from Fritz Lang’s 1937 drama, You Only Live Once (look closely and you’ll see that film’s star, Henry Fonda, looking out of the back of the getaway car). He also used still-framed backdrops for tighter angles. He also used reduced lighting to hide the shabby sets and spinning newspapers with bold headlines to advance Dillinger’s progress, saving valuable dollars in the process. Nosseck also made good use of a score by none other than Dimitri Tiomkin. The result was a film that combined aspects of both documentary and noir, even though it looked firmly within its low budget. Over the years, though, it has aged well and still packs something of a punch, thanks to Tierney.

Yet, despite the dilution of the subject matter, Dillinger still received strong condemnations at the time of its initial release in March 1945, including from the War Department in Washington, which refused to screen it for the troops overseas, and the Chicago censorship board, which for reasons all too obvious, banned it for two years. Still, it brought in over $4,000,000 at the box office, a remarkable sum given its budget of $193,000. In addition, screenwriter Philip Yordan garnered a 1946 Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay (losing out to Richard Schweizer for the Swiss import Marie-Louise). But most importantly, it proved that although Dillinger was dead and buried, he still retained the charisma he enjoyed during his brief lifetime.


During production, the film went through a slew of proposed titles, including John DillingerJohn Dillinger, Mobster and Killer D.

The film also marked the first appearance of John Dillinger in a Hollywood production. It would be followed by Don Siegel’s Baby Face Nelson in 1957, with Mickey Rooney as the star and Leo Gordon as Dillinger; Nick Adams as Young Dillinger (1965, with footage liberally lifted from Baby Face Nelson); Warren Oates in John Milius’ Dillinger (1973); Robert Conrad in The Lady in Red (1979, with script by John Sayles); and the most-recent effort by Johnny Depp in Michael Mann’s Public Enemies (2009). The best of the bunch? 1973’s Dillinger.

As for the real Dillinger, there is the classic account of his robbery of a bank. For the gang’s getaway, they placed customers as hostages on the getaway car’s running board to deter police pursuit. Dillinger assured the hostages they were in no danger and would be released once the gang reached the city limits. As they turned a corner onto a residential street, one of the hostages exclaimed she lived on the block. Dillinger, driving the car, asked where her residence was, stopped in front, releasing her, but not before she kissed him on the cheek and he gave her a $10 bill, saying that she would be able to tell her grandchildren she once rode with Dillinger. As the car sped away, he tipped his hat and smiled.

The Z Files: Night of the Lepus

By Ed Garea

Night of the Lepus (MGM, 1972) - Director: William F. Claxton. Writers: Don Holliday & Gene R. Kearney (s/p); Russell Braddon (novel, The Year of the Angry Rabbit). Cast: Stuart Whitman, Janet Leigh, Rory Calhoun, DeForest Kelley, Paul Fix, Melanie Fullerton, Chris Morrell, Chuck Hayward, Henry Wills, Francesca Jarvis, William Elliott, Jerry Dunphy, Frank Kennedy, & Bob Hardy. Color, 88 minutes.

Be vewwwy, vewwy quiet, we’re hunting wabbits. Actually, in Night of the Lepus, the wabbits are hunting us. And they’re not your usual garden-variety rabbits, either. No, these are giants, created supposedly through a scientist’s mistake, but in actuality, created through a combination of miniature sets, bad editing, and weird and confusing camerawork.

To get the audience in the right mood (we have to figure they’re already rolling their eyes before the movie even starts), the movie opens with a faux television news report. An anchorman (Dunphy), with a bright “special report” graphic on the screen behind him, begins with a rambling narrative about the environment and how man can upset its delicate balance. He then shows footage shot in Australia circa 1954 concerning the plague of rabbits there, which are still a threat. The footage shows farmers trying to round up herds of the fuzzy little bastards using fences and nets and hacking at their little carcasses with machetes. He tries to explain the rabbit plague as being introduced to the country as a new food source. We know that wasn’t the reason, but wait, there’s more. Dunphy then goes on to note that a new plague of rabbits has broken out in the American Southwest, “as shown in these color films just received from our news team in Arizona!” We then cut to some of the bunnies coming out of hole as the credits begin to roll; too bad, for the introduction is easily the scariest part of this movie.

Rancher Cole Hillman (Calhoun) has some serious wabbit twouble on his hands. The reason why he’s up to his navel in the little pests is because their natural enemies, the coyotes, were all killed off (or out hunting road runners). Cole turns to his friend, college president Elgin Clark (Kelley - Bones McCoy to you - in a bad orange turtleneck and some really tight pants) of Wattsamatta U., for help. Clark, in turn, passes the buck to his top scientists, the husband and wife team of Roy and Gerry Bennett (Whitman and Leigh), who suggest altering the rabbits’ breeding cycle, grabbing some rabbits off the ranch for experimentation.

We don’t know what’s scarier: Bones’ mustache, his tight pants, or the fact he’s the president of the college.

Now here’s where it gets silly. First off, the Bennetts are referred to several times in the film as “the young scientist couple.” Whitman was 44 when Lepus was filmed, and Leigh 45, and what’s more, they looked it. Of course they’re saddled with a young bratty daughter. This one is named Amanda (Fullerton) and she is from a long tradition of incredibly annoying children in sci-fi and horror movies. Not only does she whine and pout throughout the movie, but, like all other children of her ilk in sci-fi situations, she turns out to be the cause of the problem.

Roy and Gerry find this rabbit thing is not as easy as it looked. After considering and dismissing an idea to introduce a rabbit-specific disease to the area, they next try a hormonal approach, hoping to disrupt the rabbits’ breeding cycle. They work while Amanda runs around the laboratory playing with the rabbits, sort of a “bring your daughter to work” type of thing, we guess. However, be it as it may, the process is taking too long. The Bennetts are racing against time, as the other ranchers plan a mass poisoning if a solution is not found soon. So Roy turns to something completely experimental in the hopes that it will work. He comes up with a secret formula he obtained from a Professor Dirkson (Hardy) in the Public Health Department. The serum is supposed create genetic mutations that will disrupt the rabbits’ breeding cycle. Only one problem - it hasn’t been tested. But that’s no worry to old Roy. As he injects the serum into a test rabbit, Amanda whines “Not that one, Daddy! That’s my favorite!” Daddy ignores this heartfelt plea and injects the rabbit anyway, adding, “Gee, I wish I knew what the effects of this serum would be.” Is this meant to make us feel better? Maybe he could give them rabbititus.

Okay, that’s a bad idea on his part. But wait, it gets worse. While Roy and Gerry are on a teleconference with Cole, bratty Amanda switches the rabbit with another in a group not yet injected. After the conference is over, Roy notes that Cole said the rabbits are getting meaner and hungrier. It never occurs to our scientists that this could be a sign that their food supply is dwindling, and if left alone, the overpopulation will correct itself. (Nah, too easy.) Roy and Gerry return to the injected rabbits only to discover that Professor Dirkson’s magical, mystery serum is causing the rabbits to become larger.

Amanda, for her part, is whining about letting them give her one from the safe group as a pet. They agree - anything to shut her up. So what rabbit does she choose? You guessed it - the one she just placed in the group. Now our only concern is how long it will take until that rabbit gets loose - and bigger. Would you believe it happens in the very next scene? While visiting the Hillman’s farm, Hillman’s son, Jackie (Morrell) knocks the pet out of her arms and it scampers into a nearby hole.

A short while later (it’s never made clear how much time has elapsed), Hillman and the Bennetts are inspecting the rabbit’s old burrowing areas, and find a giant footprint. While they're out, Amanda and Jackie go to visit a nutty old codger named Billy, who’s working an old gold mine. However, Billy doesn’t seem to be home. Jackie finds more giant prints in Billy’s shed while Amanda goes into the mine to look for him. Once in the mine, she comes face to face with a humongous rabbit that’s busy feasting on what’s left of Billy. What’s more, he has blood on his face (or red coloring)! Amanda freaks out, going mute (the best thing that’s happened yet in the film). Jackie runs into the mine, picks her up and carries her back to the ranch.

A doctor is called in and diagnoses Amanda’s condition as mild shock. Billy is questioned as to what happened, but he says that it all happened so fast that he didn’t see anything. Later that night, a truck is driving on the highway near the ranch when it pulls over. The driver gets out and opens the back door. Why? So we can see that the truck is loaded with boxes labeled “carrots,” that’s why. And, as Elmer Fudd has told us, “Wabbits wove cawwots, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha.” Cut to a montage of rabbit faces. A low growling sound is heard. (Never mind the fact that rabbits have no vocal cords.) A rabbit (or the guy in the rabbit suit) leaps, the driver screams, we cut to the next morning, where the police find the truck, the empty boxes, and the dead driver. Enter Sheriff Cody (Fix). He has the trucker’s body removed for a postmortem to join the body of Billy, who was finally found in the mine.

The trucker’s body is sent to forensic scientist Dr. Leopold (Elliott), who finds that the damage was caused by something with a bite like a saber tooth tiger. Some help he is. Meanwhile, a radio call is received from a cop in a picnic ground. Seems a family of four has been killed and mutilated. Claxton pans slowly over the bodies, making sure we see the red paint on them.

Professor Dirkson reviews Leopold’s findings and concludes that one of the test rabbits must have escaped and spread himself among the general rabbit population. Clark (Kelley), worried about adverse publicity, suggests the rabbits be killed by any means necessary, so he, the Bennetts, and Cole, mosey on down to the mine, accompanied by Cole’s ranch hands, Jud and Frank. After checking for any other openings, they go into the mine to lay charges and to blow the mine’s entrance.

It’s then that Roy remembers something Dirkson said about getting one alive for study (another great idea), so he and Cole go down into the mine to see for themselves, and come upon the whole herd. We now see normal-sized rabbits jumping around on a miniature set. As Cole and Roy start to run, a guy in a bunny suit attacks Roy. Cole smacks the guy on the head with his rifle, and he and Roy just escape the mine before it blows.

But they’re not out of the woods, a short distance away, a giant rabbit burrows his way to the surface and looks around. (“I knew I should-a made that left turn at Albuquerque!”) He heads for the shack, where Jud is lunching on a sandwich. Gerry hears a scream and heads for the shack. It’s that guy in the bunny suit again, and he’s attacking Jud! Gerry starts shooting and the bunny-suited guy jumps out the window. Jud is bloodied, but alive.

A while later (we don’t know when as the filmmakers have a definite problem with time that occurs throughout the film), Roy, Gerry and Clark are examining the photos Roy took of the rabbits. (Why has no one asked how the infected rabbit got loose in the first place? Amanda isn’t talking.) They decide to tell the sheriff. (About time.) Roy has a brainstorm and tells Gerry to take the brat and get away to avoid the crowds, which will include hordes of the press. This leads to one of my favorite lines, as Gerry replies, “I suppose we’ll drive up to Wooddale and stay at the lodge.” I can almost hear her saying, “I know this little motel off the interstate run by some guy called Bates or something.”

Better move fast, because the rabbits have found their way out of the mine and are, as they say, hopping mad. Heading toward the Hillman ranch, they stop to attack a herd of horses on the way, smearing them with red food coloring. Jud takes a truck and makes tracks (can’t blame him), but drives right into the rabbits. He turns around and heads back with the rabbits in pursuit. Meanwhile, Hillman is getting everyone into the cellar, but as he tries to call out, Jud conveniently runs the truck into a telephone pole and knocks out the phone service. He runs out of the truck and the rabbits pounce on him - so much for Jud. Hillman fires his rifle at the rabbit mob, but it’s no good, as he’s firing at a process shot. He runs into the cellar as the bunnies break into his house and raid the fridge. As the kitchen is right above them, Hillman and Frank shoot through the ceiling at the rabbits, oblivious to the fact they may be weakening the ceiling enough so the rabbits will fall in on them. 

The rabbits hit the road and head towards town, stopping at the general store on the way so they can kill Mildred (Jarvis), the owner. The guy in the bunny suit jumps on her and slathers her with red food coloring.

The next morning, Clark arrives to tell them that the sheriff is on his way back from the crime lab, where they finally determined that rabbits are doing the killing. Smart, all the way to the top. They meet the sheriff at the airport, where they have a confab. As both Kelley and Fix worked with William Shatner in Star Trek, they know all about creatures that chew huge amounts of scenery. They and Roy go up in a helicopter and head for the mine. Why? The rabbits have all left. When they arrive at the mine, they find - the rabbits have all left. Duh. The sheriff calls his office and asks for the National Guard. Hillman calls to tell the sheriff that the rabbits have killed Jud and Mildred, and are heading toward the sheriff, but only move at night.

Now they know there’s only one option left to them: kill the wabbits . . . kill the wabbits . . . kill the wabbits.

But how? Fighter-bombers? Call in Elmer Fudd? There’s not enough time for evacuation and they determine that the rabbits are moving in too wide a front for the Guardsmen to shoot them all. But Roy’s got an idea (uh-oh): they’ll moves the rabbits toward a stretch of railroad tracks connected to an electrical source, and when they get right in the middle, juice them. Why can’t they just shoot the beasts? Because it’s easier for the process shots to electrocute them, that’s why. But how do we get them there? Hmmm. A-ha! A solution. There’s a nearby drive-in crammed to the gills with cars. A cop pulls in and delivers not only the best line in this film, but one of the best lines in the history of bad movies: “Attention, attention. Ladies and gentlemen, attention. There is a herd of killer rabbits headed this way and we desperately need your help.”

That no one laughs and everyone cooperates is one of the great mysteries in this film. The cop tells everyone to turn their headlights on and follow him. That they willingly do so is another mystery. Meanwhile, as Roy and the boys are running a power line to the tracks, Roy learns that Gerry and the brat never arrived at their destination. Roy grabs the helicopter and is off to the rescue. The cars from the drive-in arrive and are instructed to park in a straight line and shine their headlights. We cut to the rabbits, hopping around the miniature set that passes for the town. This shot will be used over and over again to save money.

Roy flies over to see that Gerry and the brat are stuck in the dirt and the rabbits are swarming all over. Gerry’s holding them off with a flare. Roy rescues the girls just in the nick of time as the rabbits swarm their RV. Whew. Roy flies back to see his plan in action, as the Guard fires on the rabbits and drives them towards the tracks. As they cross, the juice is turned on, and . . . hasenpfeffer is served!

Sometime later, when I don’t know, Hillman drops by the college to find Roy, Clark and the rest playing football. He tells Roy that he heard some coyotes, but the rabbits - normal sized this time, are still there, and invites Roy and the family out. As we fade to black, the brat and Jackie are playing as some normal-sized rabbits sit by and watch.


The original title of this turkey was “Rabbits,” but MGM figured that would scare no one, so they used the Latin name for Rabbit to make audiences think it was about something scary. Unfortunately, the publicity kits issued to theaters feature rabbits, and MGM obviously didn’t count on word-of-mouth.

After seeing this atrocity, you’re probably wondering why it was made in the first place. Lepus was the brainchild of producer A.C. Lyles, who toiled for many years at the same position for Paramount. In the ‘60s, he formed his own company and began producing a series of what were referred to as “geezer Westerns,” cheaply-shot Westerns using well-known actors who were now long in the tooth as stars. Lyles followed the same casting strategy for Lepus, using such faded stars as Stuart Whitman, Janet Leigh, Rory Calhoun, DeForrest Kelley, and Paul Fix, all of whom had seen better days - and movies.

A large part of the problem with the film is that the cast plays it straight; evidently laboring under the delusion they’re in a real movie. Whitman is the least charismatic sci-fi hero since Richard Travis in Missile to the Moon back in 1958. Leigh, who gave one of her reasons for appearing in this turkey being that it was shot close to home, is also wasted, playing a character that harkens back to the ‘50s, when women were looked upon as an unwanted novelty in sci-fi. In an interview with film historian Tom Weaver, she said, “How can you make a bunny rabbit menacing, what can you do? It just didn't work." She also admitted that, "No one twisted my arm and said I had to do it. It didn't dawn on anyone until - it took about four or five days before we realized we didn't have the ideal director. I've forgotten as much as I could about that picture." Kelley and Calhoun were also wasted in their roles, playing underwritten parts that allowed neither the opportunity to do or say something interesting. Last - and certainly least, Melanie Fullerton as Amanda is supposed to be 10-years old, but plays her part as if she were half that age and no one ever fixed it. What is interesting about the performances is that we can see the resentment of the stars as the picture goes on, as if they realize they’ve been played.

William Claxton, the director, besides working for Lyles, worked mainly in television, usually in Western television series, which is why Night of the Lepus plays like a made-for-television movie. Claxton is also a devotee of Replaying The Same Shot Over and Over Again technique, giving the film an eerie feeling of watching in slow motion, and doing absolutely nothing for the fright factor. However, the laugh factor is another story entirely.

In March 1972, AIP released Frogs, a nature-goes-wild-and-gets-revenge film. Made for a pittance, the film did quite well at the box office and inspired a series of “eco-horror” films, all made cheaply and none of which did as well at the box office. Looking for material for a similar vehicle, someone at Lyles’ office came across a novel titled The Year of the Angry Rabbit, written by Australian satirist Russell Braddon in 1964.

Like most good satires, Braddon based his work on historical fact. A British officer brought rabbits to Australia in the mid-19th century thinking they would make for good shooting. Because he didn’t get them all, the survivors bred, and within 10 years, the rabbit population numbered in the millions. As the rabbits didn’t have natural enemies in their new land, they ran amok, wiping out other mammalian species and devastating farmland.

To fight this natural apocalypse, the Australian government introduced a virus called myxomatosis, among other viral plagues, to combat the furry invaders. Though successful at first, those rabbits that didn’t succumb bred generations of rabbits immune to the virus. Braddon’s novel takes the government’s eradication process one step further. Scientists bio-engineer a new strain of myxomatosis, called Super-Myx, to combat the rabbit plague. However, the new virus fails to kill the pests, instead turning them into savage and carnivorous predators. What Super-Myx does kill is humans and the power-mad Australian prime minister uses this new weapon to conquer the world and establish a new totalitarian Australian empire. But as he builds his new state, the infected rabbits mutate into deadly monsters that not only bring down his empire, but wipes out human civilization as well. (The novel is great reading, but out-of-print and difficult to obtain. Try the local library; that’s where I obtained my copy years ago.)

Writers Holliday and Kearney took this inspired tale and converted it into one of the silliest films ever made because there was no way, given the time constraint and budget, Lyles could make the novel into a film. He took the easy way out, constructing it along the usual eco-horror route and hoping that a plague of killer bunnies would somehow make for a suspenseful thriller. And it might have had a small chance if he had been able to use wild rabbits and had more money in the kitty. But most of his estimated $900,000 budget went toward the stars, and his production staff brought in domesticated rabbits, the cute little buggers kids love to have for pets. Those couldn’t scare anyone. Another bad decision was to play it completely seriously. The rabbits destroyed any chance the film had to be taken seriously. 

As the gang from Rifftrax noted, “That Cadbury commercial where the rabbit clucks like a chicken is infinitely scarier. So is the mustache that DeForest Kelley sports in this movie.” I couldn’t agree more.

The good news about Night of the Lepus is that it’s only 88 minutes long. The bad news is that it’s 88 minutes you’ll never get back again.

- Edited by Steve Herte, rabbit lover (He says they’re delicious.)

It's a Small World

By Ed Garea

It's a Small World (Eagle-Lion, 1950) - Director: William Castle. Writers: William Castle, Otto Schreiber. Cast: Paul Dale, Lorraine Miller, Will Geer, Nina Koshetz, Steve Brodie, Anne Sholter, Todd Karns, Margaret Field, Shirley Mills, Thomas Browne Henry, Harry Harvey, Jacqui Snyder, & Lora Lee Michel. B&W, 74 minutes.

William Castle directed many an offbeat film, usually accompanied by loads of ballyhoo. But this is a film we usually don’t find in his oeuvre unless we look carefully.  It’s not mentioned in the wonderful documentary about him on TCM, and comes at a time when he decided to leave Columbia, tired of directing nothing but B’s while waiting for the “A” assignment that was promised, but never came.

And so he struck out on his own, pitching his talents to the ultra low-budget Eagle-Lion Films. Castle had a pretty good resume. He was a studio director for Columbia, turning out B-product such as The Whistler series and Boston Blackie films. But when a promised promotion to direct A-features failed to materialize, Castle bailed on his Columbia contract and signed with Universal-International. He was at large in the period between studios, so he pitched a couple of projects to Eagle-Lion. The studio, which was serving as the American distribution arm of England’s J. Arthur Rank Organization, produced B-features to accompany such noted British imports as Olivier’s Hamlet. Eagle-Lion established itself by absorbing the bankrupt Producers Releasing Corporation and its studio space on Gower Street.

Castle’s first pitch was for a science-fiction film along the lines of Destination Moon, basing the film on Robert Heinlein’s 1947 novel Rocket Ship Gibraltar, but Eagle-Lion honcho Arthur Krim turned it down, seeing the project as too expensive to mount. Castle’s next pitch was something along the lines of a epic Western, but that was rejected also as being too expensive for Eagle-Lion’s tastes and pocketbook, but Castle was not one to be deterred by rejection. Ever the salesman, he proposed a film in line with recent features such as Crossfire (1947), The Snake Pit (1948), and Home of the Brave (1949). Its plot would be about the life of a social “outsider” and stump for acceptance. Thus, It’s a Small World came into existence: a well-meaning look at a midget (Dale) and the problems he must overcome. An old saying is that the road to hell is paved with the best intentions, which is the case with this film. Castle made it as a serious commentary on the problems of little people in the world, but it comes off as an unintentional hoot.

To use the present PC parlance, “little people” have been employed as the subject of many an exploitation picture. It wasn’t always so, but finding a film that took such characters seriously is a difficult job. The best-known midget performer was Harry Earles, who had a substantial role in both the silent and sound versions of The Unholy Three (1925 and 1930), and a leading role in Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932). Other than that he appeared in shorts, (mainly unbilled), and as one of the Lollipop Guild in The Wizard of Oz (1939).

As a matter of fact, The Wizard of Oz was one of the few films not to use smaller performers as an exploitation device. Most films featuring smaller performers were low-budget atrocities such as Sam Newfield’s all-midget Western, The Terror of Tiny Town (Jed Buell Productions/Columbia, 1938).

As time passed, smaller performers slowly moved from the cellar of exploitation films to roles in mainstream productions, though the occasional exploitation film still managed to creep in. But in 1950, exploitation was still the norm; a norm Castle wished to change.

Castle approaches his subject with all the necessary sincerity and gravity his budget will allow, but what does the film in is the performance of his leading man, Paul Dale (real name Dale Paullin). Dale, whose only other acting credit was in The Wizard of Oz as one of the Lollipop Guild, was working in Des Moines as a disc jockey when Castle tapped him to star in this movie. His problem is the whipped-dog look he carries through most of the picture. It’s so obvious and affected that the natural sympathy we should feel for our protagonist dissolves instead into laughter and snarky remarks. It doesn’t help Dale that he can’t act, either. There are way too many scenes where he looks at a complete loss as what to do. However, I blame this on Castle, who obviously wasn’t used to directing non-professionals.

The film is divided into three parts. Part 1 is entitled “The Boy,” and it’s where we meet our protagonist, Harry Musk (Dale) of Santa Clara, California. As we open, poor Harry is getting the snot knocked out of him by a group of neatly-dressed thugs with crew-cuts who are joyfully beating Harry because he’s trying to convince them he’s 12.

Harry’s home life isn’t that much better. (Home is a really cheap set with fake trees outside.) Harry’s widower father (Geer) is a well-meaning clod who, when Harry comes into the kitchen looking as if he’s been through the wringer, artfully concludes that he’s been fighting and asks Harry why he never fights back. The answer should be obvious. There are four of them and Harry’s a midget. His eight-year old sister, Susan (Snyder), tells Dad that it wasn’t Harry’s fault; the other kids are just bigger than he is. This flummoxes Dad. “I can’t figure it out,” he says. “I’ve beat him and I’ve pampered him and he just says nothing.” Father of the Year he’s not. 

Dad then hauls Harry off, standing him up against the wall, where we see a clearly marked pencil line. Measuring Harry again, Dad realizes that he still hasn’t grown, despite the beatings and pamperings. Dad takes Harry to the family’s doctor. “All I can say is your boy will grow no bigger than he is right now.” Some help he is. What the doc does prescribe is a thick book titled Medical Almanac “that will help you understand it.” So Harry reads about his condition, arriving at the conclusion that the only way he will get taller is to stand on the book.

Dad now gets another brainstorm: he pulls Harry out of school, over the objections of Harry’s teacher. It’s better if no one sees you, he tells the lad. After all, they’ll only make fun of him. That night, Castle tries to get arty. Harry has tormenting dreams, which show themselves as shadows on his bedroom wall. It’s great that the shadow also has Harry’s squeaky, comical voice. It’s also wonderful that the shadow also takes delight in tormenting Harry, asking sarcastically if his condition also means that his shadow won’t grow, either. “You gotta grow,” the shadow tells him, “I won’t stay small.” Great, even the schlemiel’s shadow picks on him.

Harry now spends his days helping Dad on the farm. From the swelling crescendo, we come to believe that Harry and Dad are growing closer, or that Harry has found happiness. Or whatever.

But not everyone hates or makes fun of Harry. A young girl, Janie (Michel), comes by and plays with Harry and his farm animals. One arty montage of young animals later, we see Harry and Janie again. Only this time Janie is older, a teenager, though the actress playing her seems to be at least in her mid-20s (Field was 28 at the time of filming). She’s also taller than Harry. It seems they read together, and today she is reading to him a passage from Gulliver’s Travels. Subtle, huh? At any rate, Harry falls asleep. Maybe he’s bored. Perhaps he only likes short stories.

Later, she gives him a belated birthday present - a watch with “To My Best Friend” inscribed on the back. But before Harry can surmise that there’s something more to this, Janie cuts him to the quick by saying that she’s engaged to be married and will be moving away with her bridegroom. Harry is crushed; she’s the only friend he has. Her absence only makes life at home that much more intolerable. Dad is hiding him away, and Sis is really getting on his nerves, complaining that she can’t ask any of her dates over after they take her home. (This being a small community, they surely must have heard of Harry somewhere.)

Harry concludes that life on the family farm isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, and as he’s 21 years old, he tells Dad that it’s time he went out on his own. There’s not much he can do on the farm other than sit around due to his small stature. Harry sends a letter to a small-time carny named Jackson (Henry). Jackson takes the bait and pays Harry a visit. He’s pleased by Harry’s potential and agrees to take him on. This necessitates a sloppy goodbye scene between Harry and Dad. Dad goes so far as to hug his son and tell him that, if things go wrong, he can always come back home. For her part, Sis apologizes to Harry for the way she has treated him. Neither, however, tells Harry that they don’t want him leave.

Cut to Harry and Jackson on the road. By the look on his face, Harry is obviously regretting his decision. When they enter a diner, Jackson tries to get his new employee to perform for the customers. Harry begs off and heads for the bathroom. Locking the door, he opens the window and takes it on the lam. As Harry runs through the nighttime countryside, Castle entertains us with a trick he will use in his later horror films. No matter where Harry runs or turns, he is confronted with the superimposed image of Jackson’s laughing face. Reaching the highway, Harry thumbs a ride with a trucker who thinks Harry is a runaway child, and Harry accompanies the trucker to a vegetable market in the big city, where he disembarks and walks around the big city.

We have now reached Part Two of our story: “The Woman.” We quickly know where this is going thanks to a drawing of a woman standing under a streetlamp accompanying the title. But first, Harry has things to do. After leaving the market he walks around, allowing Castle to provide us with some location shooting. He ends up on a park bench, where he meets Sam (Karns). Sam, a hell of a nice guy, informs Harry that he’s an ex-serviceman who’s looking to live “free and easy” for a while. He makes his living shining shoes and, as he has an extra shoeshine kit, Harry can come in as his partner. Harry accepts and the next morning the two are busily shining shoes in the park. Because of his height, Harry proves something of a novelty; he quickly attracts a line of customers while Sam is ignored. “It’s a good thing we’re partners and not competitors,” Sam tells him as they pack up for the day.

In the meantime, Harry has rented a small room. Things are finally looking good for him, but we know this can’t go on forever. One night, Harry hears a noise in the hall. Looking out, he sees it's the woman who lives across the hall being smacked around by a man (obviously meant as a john). Harry tries to rescue her, but is knocked aside for his efforts. The man scrams and the woman, who introduces herself as Buttons (from the many buttons on her dress), joins Harry in his room, letting him play paramedic as he applies a damp cloth to her brand new shiner. Harry has never met anyone like her; his gaze travels up from her F-me shoes to her tight skirt to her cheap hairdo. For her part, she looks at him like a bird of prey looking at its next meal, sizing him up as easy pickings. They go to the sleazy neighborhood bar, where she introduces him to booze and beer. The next day is Sunday and Harry is heading out to work when Buttons tells him to take the day off - she knows how to spend it better. They go off on a date, strolling hand in hand as she helps Harry lavish his earnings on her. All the while, she’s talking about some plans she has for her and her little beau. Harry is totally smitten. We quickly surmise from Harry’s besotted persona that, even though it’s kept strictly off-camera, Buttons has been inducting him in the art of bedroom wrestling as well.

But all is not sunshine and roses. Harry is getting increasingly frustrated with her habit of keeping company with other men. (Doesn’t it dawn on him by now?) When she ditches their date in favor of another guy, Harry is mad. He looks out the window to the shadowy bar across the street. Failing to heed the all-too-obvious symbolism of Castle’s attempt at expressionism, Harry toddles there to drown his sorrows with a liquid dinner, chugging down beers, getting blotto. His resentment toward his erstwhile girlfriend grows as he sees a couple making out in the next booth. Worse, he sees the superimposed image of Buttons no matter where he turns. He climbs on top of a piano, trying to emulate Dietrich. When a female souse points out what a cute midget he is he throws his beer in the woman’s face.

The next morning, still nursing his wounds, plus a possible hangover, he’s back on the job, but surly as all get out. Sam asks Harry what’s wrong, but all he gets is hostility and surly silence. Sam presses for an answer. Harry’s answer is to walk away. He arrives back home after dark to find Buttons waiting for him. After buttering him up, she tells him she has found a “good job” for him, handing him a card. All he has to do is go to the address on the card. When he does so the next evening, it’s in a dingy apartment. He knocks and is met by a woman so fat Haystacks Calhoun looks skinny by comparison. She takes one look at him and laughs. He points at her and laughs. This could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship . . . well, maybe not.

Inviting him inside, she quickly gets down to business. Her name is Rose (Koshetz), and she’s the leader of a gang of pickpockets. Harry is the newest trainee; he will learn the art of picking pockets, and will delve into crowds disguised as a child. Buttons arrives, along with a guy named Charlie (Brodie) whose idea of camaraderie is to address Harry as “Shorty.” Here’s the plan: Buttons and Charlie will stroll around like a couple, and Harry will pose as their kid to ward off suspicion.

Sounds good, but Harry’s hesitant because this is a crooked scheme. The gang works on him to change his mind, with Buttons in the lead. She hits Harry with the classic “look at all I’ve done for you and this is how you repay me?” line. Harry’s still not won over, so Buttons dismisses Charlie and Rose from the room and turns on the charm - such as it is. She quickly turns the little guy’s head and he joins the gang. Rose trains him in what he needs to know in his new profession and Harry picks it up quickly (He’d better, there’s only 74 minutes in this film.), and soon the gang is on the street. We know this because Castle once more gives us an arty-farty montage of the four of them superimposed over various crowds. Hey, it saves both time and money (hiring extras), not to mentions lots of pages of script.

At any rate, the gang is successful, parlaying Harry’s smooth little digits into oodles of bucks. Harry's back at his place, hiding the loot as Sam visits and ask Harry why he hasn’t been around. Harry puts him off with a weak spiel. Who needs Sam and the bench when he’s got big bucks and a girl? However, unbeknownst to the little guy, he and Buttons are heading for the rocks. Having got what she wanted from the little guy, Buttons is losing interest. After Harry catches her making out with Charlie, he’s moved to declare his love and intention to marry. Her reaction is peals of derisive laughter accompanied by the question of why she should want a midget.

Harry finally realizes he’s been played and goes to Rose to announce that he’s giving his two-week notice. Furthermore, he’s going to the cops to make a clean break of everything. Rose’s answer to this announcement is to wrap her big fat mitts around Harry’s little neck, telling him to forget about quitting, and if he knows what’s good for him, he’ll show at the next gang meeting. 

Harry gets the message and shows for the gang’s meeting, but not before calling the cops and tipping them off. Seems the gang is planning a really big job this time - the filching of a payroll. (How a gang of pickpockets is going to pull this one off is laughingly preposterous to start.) As Rose outlines the plan, Charlie notices that Harry keeps looking at the door. Charlie smells a rat - a little one at that. Things are about to become rough for our little hero when, lo and behold, a couple of cops - including Castle himself in a cameo - break down the door and arrest everyone in the dump.

Harry, with the ever-loyal Sam at his side, is pleading his case with the judge. Since Harry ratted out the gang, and seeing that he’s not a hardened criminal, the judge decides to remand Harry to the custody of someone else, handing him a ticket to Miami. Sam offers to go along on the ride, telling Harry that he can shine shoes just as well in Florida as he can here, but Harry pulls a Garbo - he vants to be alone.

This brings us to part three: The Circus. Yes, that’s where the judge decided to send Harry: he’s ordered to the winter camp of the Cole Bros. Circus. This is a real circus. It’s still around, and obviously Castle decided to use it to save big bucks. The circus, in return, is under the belief that it will get free publicity from the throngs that come out to see Mr. Castle’s movie. Suckers. Harry is introduced to the manager, Mr. Winters. He’s soft-spoken and pleasant, almost the anti-Jackson of the carny. Harry’s not so sure he wants to stick around. Mr. Winters asks him to take a look around before making his decision, and Harry agrees.

As he makes the rounds, he sees that the circus is a close-knit family, where everyone has a place and everyone pitches in. The capper for Harry is when he’s introduced to Dolly (Sholter), a blonde midget who works a pony act. As time passes they grow closer. She presents him with a watch for his birthday. Why, it’s inscribed “To My Best Friend,” just like the one Janie gave him. Will wonders ever cease? The moral? Bad girls (Buttons) take your presents, while good girls like Janie and Dolly give you presents.

Later, Harry tells Dolly he has a surprise for her. He plays her a record to which he’s made up lyrics. The title of his tune? “It’s a Small World,” as if you didn’t know. Harry belts it out in a fashion that tells us Sinatra has nothing to worry about. But Dolly is tickled pink. After he finishes, he takes her in his arms and plants a manly kiss on her lips. The film ends with Harry and Dolly getting married. Yes, Harry’s going to stay with the circus, because they accept him for who he is rather than castigating him for what he can’t help. And the world has become so much the better for it.


-- Will Geer (Dad) was a stage and film actor whose film performances were few and of a supporting nature. The biggest thing in his life was being blacklisted in 1951 for refusing to name names. He survived by forming the “Theatricum Botanicum,” a repertory theater in Topanga Canyon, California, where he coached actors. He returned to Hollywood in 1962 with a supporting part in Advise and Consent. Geer kept busy with supporting roles in movies and guest shots on television before landing the role of Grandfather Walton, in The Waltons, the role he is best known for today.

-- Shirley Mills, who played Harry’s 16-year old sister, Susan, was best known for her starring role in the 1938 exploitation film, Child Bride, in which, at the age of 12, she played a blooming sexpot who is the object of leering by several creepy hillbillies. The “highlight” of the film was her extended skinny dipping scene - at the age of 12, yet. Despite having this on her resume, she was able to land a plum role as one of the Joad children in John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath. She also appeared (mostly unbilled) in movies directed by Alfred Hitchcock, Michael Curtiz, Allen Dwan, and George Cukor. By 1956, parts dried up and her last film was 1961’s Twist Around the Clock.

-- Lora Lee Michel, who played the 8-year old Janie, also played the younger version of heroine Jill Young (Terry Moore) in 1949’s Mighty Joe Young. Her career never lasted beyond the child stage.

-- Margaret Field, who played the 16-year old Janie, languished in B-moviedom before switching to television. She is most famous, however, as the mother of actress Sally Field.

-- The carny pro Jackson was played by Thomas Browne Henry. He went on to work mainly in television. His credited movie resume was mostly B to Z productions such as Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956), Blood of Dracula (1957), The Beginning of the End (1957), and The Brain From Planet Arous (1957).

-- Those who recognize Harry’s buddy, Sam, played by Todd Karns, probably remember him from his most famous role: that of George Bailey’s brother in Frank Capra’s 1946 holiday classic, It’s a Wonderful Life. He was never able to match the promise of that film and was out of Hollywood by 1956. He moved to Ajijic, Mexico in 1971 and started a English language theater called The Lakeside Little Theater, where he produced and directed shows up to his death in 2000.

-- Nina Koshetz (Rose) was a famous opera singer in her native Russia. She came to America in 1920, having fled the Communists. Besides becoming a highly respected vocal coach, she also appeared in a few films. Her most famous role was in 1938’s Algiers, with Charles Boyer and Hedy Lamarr.

-- Steve Brodie was the sleazy gangster Charlie. He went on to a long career as a guest star on television. His best movie roles were as Private Judson in A Walk in the Sun (1945), Floyd in 1947’s Crossfire, and as Chief Budge in The Caine Mutiny (1954). He also appeared in The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953), and the camp classics The Wild World of Batwoman (1966), The Giant Spider Invasion (1975), and the incredible Frankenstein Island (1981).

The Scarlet Clue

By Ed Garea

The Scarlet Clue (Monogram, 1945) - Director: Phil Rosen. Writers: George Callahan (s/p). Based on characters created by Earl Derr Biggers. Cast: Sidney Toler, Mantin Moreland, Ben Carter, Benson Fong, Virginia Brissac, Robert Homans, Jack Norton, Janet Shaw, Helen Devereaux, Victoria Faust, I. Stanford Jolley, & Charles Wagenheim. B&W, 65 minutes.

In 1942, 20th Century Fox pulled the plug on its long-running Charlie Chan films. A combination of below-par scripts and falling box office returns combined to convince studio execs to discontinue the once highly popular series. But Charlie Chan wasn’t done - not quite yet. Sidney Toler, who inherited the role of Chan after Warner Oland’s death in 1938, shopped the property around until he found a taker in Monogram Pictures. Beginning with Charlie Chan in the Secret Service in 1944, Toler would play Chan 11 times for Monogram before his death in 1947. Roland Winters would then take over the role of Chan for six additional films until the series finally ended in 1949.

While Fox regarded the Chan series as inexpensive “B” features, they nevertheless took a certain amount of care with their production. The plots may have been silly, but the direction (mainly by H. Bruce Humberston) was excellent, the pacing was sharp, the dialogue crisp and witty, and a most featured a good cast, including such actors as Boris Karloff, Ray Milland, Ricardo Cortez, and Cesar Romero. The result was a charming, comfortable series of films that go down in Hollywood history as one of the best “B” series, along with MGM’s Andy Hardy and Dr. Kildare films, and Universal’s Sherlock Holmes series.

Monogram, however, was a different story entirely. The studio had neither the time nor the finances to polish the Chan films. They were simply B-movies, average at best, nearly unwatchable at worst. The only change Monogram did make to the existing formula was to provide Charlie Chan with a chauffeur. Moreland was assigned the role of Birmingham Brown, Chan’s driver and added comic relief for Number Three son, Tommy (Fong).

This film opens with Chan now working for the federal government and on the trail of a spy ring after secret government radar plans, aided by Captain Flynn (Homans) of the NYPD. Unfortunately, Flynn tails Chan’s one lead to the ring, a scientist named Rausch (Wagenheim), a little too closely; the result being that Rausch’s mysterious, unknown boss has him knocked off.

Chan discovers that the killer has given the police the slip and escaped in a car. Getting the license plate number, he traces it to owner Diane Hall (Devereaux), a radio performer who had reported it stolen earlier that evening. Accompanied by assistants Birmingham Brown and son Tommy, Chan visits the Cosmo Radio Center, where he finds a bloody heelprint identical to that left at the crime scene. Meanwhile, studio manager Ralph Brett (Jolley) telephones the spies’ ringleader, who uses the Western Union telegram service to advise Brett to be more careful, lest he meet the same fate as Rausch.

Later, Chan visits the Hamilton Laboratory, located in the same building as the radio center. He is told of numerous failed attempts to break in and steal the radar plans from the laboratory’s safe. Chan informs then that he had placed phony radar plans in the safe, just in case the spies should succeed.

Meanwhile, actress Gloria Bayne (Shaw), having found Brett’s matches in the stolen car, deduces he’s the killer the police are looking for and tries to blackmail him into giving her better parts in the future. Shortly afterward, she is dispatched in front of witnesses, including Chan; her cause of death unknown. Realizing that Chan is onto him, Brett asks his boss for help in escaping. He is directed to a service elevator, where the spy kills him by activating a trap door. Upon finding Brett’s body on an upper floor (a nice touch, considering the trap door would send him right down to the basement), Chan has an impersonator call the spy leader. Thinking Brett is still alive, the leader once again directs him to the service elevator, where Chan discovers the trap door.

Chan goes on to question the people who worked with Brett and Gloria, including Diane, who is acting in a dreadful soap opera at the studio. The sponsor of the show, Mrs. Marsh (Brissac) resents Chan’s intrusions and lets him and the police know in no uncertain terms. She also spends her time giving the producers a hard time about the quality of the show, proving to be an obstacle to Chan because of her obstinacy.

Diane is the next to go, killed in the same mysterious way as Gloria. She is followed by performer Willie Rand (Norton), who is killed while taping a television show after telling Chan that he may have uncovered some information crucial to the case. Investigating further, Chan discovers that a poisonous gas, activated by nicotine when the victim lights a cigarette, is the cause of death for Gloria, Diane and Willie.

After a thorough search of the building, the spy leader's office is found. When the leader returns, Chan, Tommy, Birmingham and the police chase him through the radio studio, only to see the leader meet death by the trap door when trying to use the elevator to escape. In the basement of the building, they discover the dead body of Mrs. Marsh, the ruthless radio sponsor, who turns out to be the spy leader. Chan declares the case solved.

The Scarlet Clue is one of the better Chan films from Monogram, with a steady hand from director Rosen. The director simply used the sets from the previous Chan film, The Jade Mask (the weather chamber was used as a gas chamber in the earlier film). Rosen, who began his directorial career in 1915, worked mainly for independent studios such as Invincible, Mascot, and Republic before settling in at Monogram. In the ‘30s he directed good films like Dangerous Corner (1934) for RKO, and The President’s Mystery (1936) for Republic, with a story by FDR himself (!). Now he was directing B-level assembly line features for the bottom of the bill. His last feature was The Secret of St. Ives in 1949 for Columbia. He passed away in 1951.

George Callahan was a screenwriter who never graduated beyond the B’s before going into television. He wrote several other Monogram Chans in addition to this one. The rather unusual murder method - a toxic gas in a thin glass tube or (as here) a plastic capsule that kills the victim when the vessel is broken and the gas inhaled - goes back to Charlie Chan in Egypt (1935), although Callahan probably took the concept from Monogram’s 1938 Mr. Wong - Detective. However, he gives it a neat little twist in that the gas is harmless until the victim decides to smoke, in which case it interacts with nicotine to become fatal. Since practically everyone smoked back in the ‘40s, it was not out of the ordinary. But there are potential ideas in the script that go unrealized. Case in point is the charwoman Hulda Swenson (Faust, with a really rotten Swedish accent) for the radio station, who always seems to be around when something is going down. Is she the killer, or even a suspect? No, at the end it’s lamely revealed that in fact she is a British agent working with Chan to uncover the spy ring.

Another case in point is going to all the trouble to build a prop-laden laboratory and a studio with both a radio and television station that end up as merely background scenery. Much could have been done with these settings, but Monogram is content to use them merely as window dressing.

What it lacks in plot, it must make for with characters. Toler is his usual phlegmatic self, slower than in his Fox days, but not yet reaching the level when the intestinal cancer that killed him took hold, and he gets off his aphorisms with his usual verve. One of his best lines, courtesy of screenwriter Callahan, comes when son Tommy says he had an idea, “but it’s gone now.” Toler replies, “Possibly could not stand solitary confinement.” He also comes up with a quick ad lib after accidentally being shocked by the electrical equipment in the laboratory.

Fong, for his part, is adequate as Tommy, getting into trouble as he tries to solve the case for his father. He began his film career as in extra in 1936’s Charlie Chan at the Opera. Although he would play the role of Tommy Chan six times in the Monogram series, Fong also appeared in such notable films as Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944), Flower Drum Song (1961), Girls! Girls! Girls! (with Elvis Presley, 1962), Our Man Flint (1966), and S.O.B. (1981) in addition to innumerable guest appearances on television.

It’s Moreland, however, who walks away with this movie; not that there’s much to walk away with. He steals every scene he’s in, as his quick, witty repartee keeps us in the movie, especially when it begins to lag, which is to say, often. He also has a couple of splendid scenes with nightclub partner Carter, as the two of them perform a hilarious double-talk routine where one finishes the other’s sentence. It’s every bit as good as Abbott and Costello’s ”Who’s on First?” routine, and the tragedy is that we can only see it in a B-picture from a Poverty Row studio. Moreland, who appeared in all 15 Monogram Chans, saw his move career end when the series concluded in 1949. The emerging civil rights movement and its subsequent shift in America’s consciousness caused Moreland’s humor to be assigned to the trash bin as stereotyping and demeaning. It wasn’t until the 60s that he began to work regularly, appearing with such artists as Bill Cosby, Diahann Carroll and Melvin Van Peebles.

All in all, The Scarlet Clue is a decent time-passer, especially for hardcore Charlie Chan fans. It tends to be rather slow and dull at times, but there are some exciting moments and plot devices that should keep our interest. An entertaining chapter in the Chan saga, though well below the level of the Fox Chan movies.

The Ape

By Ed Garea

The Ape (Monogram, 1940)  Director: William Nigh. Writers: Adam Shirk (play). Curt Siodmak (adaptation and s/p), Richard Carroll (s/p). Cast: Boris Karloff, Maris Wrixon, Gene O’Donnell, Dorothy Vaughn, Gertrude Hoffman, Henry Hall, Selmer Jackson, & Philo McCollough. B&W, 62 minutes.

And you thought only Bela Lugosi made movies this dumb.”  Michael Weldon, The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film.

In 1938, Boris Karloff signed a six-film deal with Monogram Studios. The Ape was the final picture under the contract, and possibly the worst of Karloff’s career. The screenplay was co-written by Curt Siodmak, adapted from Adam Shirk’s 1927 play of the same name. We have one first-rate actor and screenwriter working on the film. So what went wrong? Simple, it was made by Monogram.

Karloff is Dr. Bernard Adrian, a kindly doctor in the town of Red Creek. But though he’s a very kindly doctor, he keeps to himself, immersed in research for a cure for polio. Because of his reclusive ways, the good folk of the town distrust him. Some proclaim that he should be run out of town and circulate rumors that he used his patients as guinea pigs for his experiments. In one scene, the good doctor is at a shop where the shopkeeper warns him that a mob is forming because of the missing dogs in the neighborhood and the constant rumors about his experiments. This is a scene from which we’re expecting some sort of action against the good doctor, but it just stops there and goes no further. The Ape is full of scenes such as this, which promise much and deliver nothing. Could it have been an editing of the original script, or just plain laziness? Who knows?

Even the kids in town despise the doc, throwing rocks through his windows when he’s not home. Now the doc doesn’t have many patients, but he does have one special patient. She’s Frances Clifford (Wrixon) and she’s suffering from polio, which the Doc has vowed to cure. He takes special interest in Frances, as she reminds him of his late daughter. On his latest visit, he gives her a jewelry case that belonged to his daughter, remarking that she would have turned 18 this very day and the jewelry case was to have been her birthday gift. Dr. Adrian lost both his wife and daughter to polio, hence his determination. Talking with both Frances and her mother (Vaughn), Adrian suggests that Frances get out more. A circus has recently come to town, and that would be perfect entertainment. At that moment, Frances’s boyfriend, Danny Foster (O’Donnell) shows and Frances suggests the excursion to him.

From the opening credits suggesting a circus, we are led to believe this is a film about a circus, but no such luck, as we’ll see. Actually, the real reason for the circus is to introduce our other main player. While Danny and Frances are enjoying the acts, we cut to another section, where we see a gorilla in a cage. It’s in the process of being taunted by its handler (the unbilled I. Stanford Jolley). Seems he hates the beast because it killed his father. As the handler is also drunk, we can quickly figure where this is going. You guessed it  the ape reaches through the bars and returns the favor. The cigar in the handler’s mouth drops into the nearby hay, starting a fire and enabling the gorilla to escape.

The injured handler is brought to the doctor’s place. Dr. Adrian has his maid, Jane (Hoffman), help him bring the wounded man back to his laboratory. After everyone else has left, the doc gets to work. While his patient is begging Doc not to let him die, Doc gives him a spiel about how he’s about to make history. Adrian then sticks a syringe into the man’s spine and draws out his spinal fluid, and that’s that for our handler. The next day, Adrian visits Frances, telling her that he has developed a radical new form of treatment. It’ll be painful, he warns, but when it’s all over she’ll be able once more to walk. She’s all for it and he injects her in the back.

Less than a day later, Frances tells Adrian that she feels heaviness in her legs, in which she never had any feeling since becoming ill years before. Adrian is ecstatic, and rejoices later in his lab. Unfortunately, in the midst of his reveries, the vial with the magic fluid rolls off the table and shatters on the floor. Uh-oh.

What to do? In such a film as this I need not remind anyone of the next twist in the plot. Of course  the ape, being hunted by Sheriff Halliday (Hall) and his posse, breaks into Adrian’s lab, probably looking for his ex-handler. In one of the great preposterous scenes in B-dom (or B-Dumb), the Doctor, who looks as if he’d have trouble punching his way out of a wet paper bag manages to outwrestle the ape, crack him on the noggin with a bottle of anesthetic, and when the monkey is three sheets to the wind, knife him in the heart from behind. Now, lest that seem unbelievable, what happens next will really boggle the mind. Adrian skins the ape and uses both the ape’s skin and head as a disguise in order to obtain more spinal fluid. Again, to quote Weldon, “What a brilliant idea! Nobody would notice a gorilla killing people!”

The first victim of the “ape” is an adulterous banker. Before his untimely demise we were introduced to him in what seems to be an attempt at a sub-plot. His villainy is played up during a scene with his wife, where he turns down her dinner of lamb stew and dumplings, telling her he’ll eat out. “I wish you wouldn’t keep on going here where we live,” she whines, knowing full well what he’s up to. She then tells him that she doesn’t want to be pitied; she has no one but him, no folks and nowhere to go  all of it falling on deaf ears. Of course, after his body is found, the townsfolk are saying how sorry they feel for his widow. The townsfolk also learn that the ape must be prowling nocturnally.

Meanwhile, Adrian gives Frances another shot of his newly obtained serum. But he has some problems. The first is Frances’s boyfriend, Danny. It seems he can’t get it through his thick skull how anything that causes Frances such pain could be helping her. "I don't like things I don't understand," he tells Frances. A bigger problem is another doctor from out of town, a Dr. McNulty (Jackson), who Sheriff Halliday has brought in as coroner and medical examiner in the gorilla case. McNulty notices the syringe marks on the backs of the victims. This gets him to thinking, and we learn that he and Adrian go way back together  back to a research foundation that expelled Adrian years ago for his questionable experiments. Even back then Adrian was consumed by the idea that spinal fluid from healthy people might just result in a cure, and it seems he was no more discerning where he obtained it than he is now.

So, is the jig up for Adrian? Of course not: this is a B-movie made by Monogram, so when shown evidence in the person of Frances, who can now move her foot slightly, that such a controversial experiment did work, McNulty just doesn’t back off. No, he offers to let Adrian return to his old job with the foundation, but Adrian blows him off, saying it’s too late.

However, there now arises one problem Adrian has failed to anticipate. It seems that the sheriff, despite all his dimwittedness, has figured out that his bloodhounds go nutzoid whenever they come near Adrian or his domicile. Adrian had earlier deflected the hounds’ suspicions by claiming they were sniffing his insect repellent, the late handler’s coat, it was that time of the month, yada, yada, yada. Nevertheless, the sheriff is certain that something is going on around Adrian’s house, so he stations his deputies where they can both keep a close watch on the house and the surrounding woods.

Adrian tries one more attack, but only gets knifed for his efforts. While running back to his house, he is shot on the doorstep, and everyone now learns it was Dr. Adrian in the ape suit all the time. Adrian raises his head to see Frances take her first steps and then dies. Frances and Danny share the final scene, as Frances can now walk and has burned her wheelchair.

As we have seen, the plot is nothing short of idiotic. So how about the acting? Considering the leads, Gene O’Donnell comes off as entirely wooden. Maris Wrixon is good, considering she doesn’t have much to do. But it’s Karloff who shines and makes this worth watching. It seems that no matter how lousy the film is, how utterly worthless, Karloff always gives his all. Were it John Carradine or Bela Lugosi trapped in such a mess, they would have mugged their way through, but not Karloff; he always gives a dignified performance and nothing less than 100%, even if the vehicle he’s in isn’t worth his time. And it’s the case here  Karloff plays Dr. Adrian not as mad, but with as single-minded with the best of intentions. He wants to cure Frances no matter what, and the people he kills along the way were not of the best moral fiber, not that it excuses killing, but the way the film positions its characters, it relieves Karloff of real malicious intent, instead presenting us with a totally misguided altruism.

The supporting roles are filled with Poverty Row veterans like Henry Hall (Kid Dynamite with the East Side Kids, The Ape ManGirls in ChainsThe Return of the Rangers, and Voodoo Man among his appearances) and Selmer Jackson (Bowery BoyDick Tracy vs. Crime, Inc.Paper BulletsDillinger, and Black Market Babies, among others). These were actors who gave average performances in below-average films. The man in the ape suit is none other than Ray “Crash” Corrigan, here in an unbilled role as both the ape and Dr. Adrian in the ape suit (it was too heavy for the slightly-built Karloff to don). Corrigan was both an actor, not famed for his Westerns, and a stuntman that owned his own ape suit. Other stuntmen famous for playing apes were Charles Gemora (Road to ZanzibarCharlie Chan at the CircusThe Monster and the Girl, and Africa Screams) and George Barrows (Gorilla at Large, and the unforgettable Robot Monster), who owned a gorilla costume which he rented to producers.

William Nigh, Monogram’s house director, helmed The Ape. To say he was prolific is somewhat of an understatement, as he directed 121 features in his career, which began with Salomy Jane in 1914 and ended with Stage Struck in 1948 (his retirement), mostly for Poverty Row studios. He was renowned for his assembly-line approach to film-making, and made movies in almost every genre, whether action, Westerns, musicals, comedies, dramas, war films, mysteries, and even film noir. (So much for auteur theory.) His films with Bela Lugosi and the East Side Kids have become cult classics, and he was familiar to Karloff as the only director the actor worked with while at Monogram. Ironically, his 1918 feature, My Four Years in Germany, was such a hit that it established Warner Brothers as a major player in Hollywood.

Faces In The Crowd: Maris Wrixon

Born Mary Alice Wrixon on December 28, 1916, in Pasco, Washington, Wrixon has 64 film and television credits to her name, yet she’s practically unknown today.

With only a bit of theatrical background, she signed with Warner Brothers in 1939. She had the necessary endowments and beauty to take her to stardom, yet her career at Warner’s never got off the ground. She appeared in 13 films in ’39, and 12 in ’40, mostly as an unbilled background character or given a line or two at best. When not in the studio, she modeled for numerous women’s magazines, such as Vogue, where she appeared on the cover. She was reportedly a favorite of George Hurrell, Sr., Hollywood’s premier glamour photographer.

Wrixon did eventually move up playing leads in such B-movies as The Case of the Black Parrot (1941, opposite William Lundigan) and Bullets for O’Hara (1941, with Roger Pryor and Anthony Quinn). She also had good roles in features such as Footsteps in the Dark (1941, starring Errol Flynn and Brenda Marshall) and Million Dollar Baby (1941, starring Priscilla Lane and Jeffrey Lynn). When not working at Warner Bros., she found herself loaned to Republic, where she worked with Gene Autry, Roy Rogers and the Weavers, and Monogram, which she described as “being in a foxhole.”

Warner Bros. released her in 1942, and except for a couple of films at Universal, she worked on Poverty Row. Her last film, As You Were, with William Tracy and Joe Sawyer, was made for R&L Productions and distributed by Lippert in 1951. She then worked guest spots in such television shows as The Cisco KidBoston BlackieSea Hunt, and The Untouchables until her retirement in 1963. Her personal life was more of a success: from January 28, 1940, until her death on October 6, 1999, from heart failure, she was married to German émigré film editor Rudi Fehr.

Trivia: Nigh had previously directed a version of The Ape as House of Mystery in 1934 (again for Monogram).

Jesse James Meets Frankenstein's Daughter

By Ed Garea

Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter (Circle Prod./Embassy, 1966) – Director: William Beaudine. Writer: Carl K. Hittleman (original story and s/p). Cast: John Lupton, Narda Onyx, Cal Bolder, Estelita Rodriguez, Jim Davis, Steven Geray, Nestor Paiva, Rayford Barnes, Roger Creed, Nestor Paiva, & William Fawcett. Color, 88 minutes.

This is it, the companion piece to Billy the Kid Versus Dracula, which played the drive-ins and second-run theaters. Billed as the first “Horror-Western,” it really wasn’t. The first “Horror-Western” was the 1926 silent, The Haunted Range, with Glenn Strange and Max Terhune. Other entries in the field include the 1932 John Wayne cheapie, Haunted Gold, and the 1938 Republic “Three Mesqueteers” film, Riders of the Whistling Skull. However, in all three films, the supernatural forces turn out to be quite natural, like something from a Scooby-Doo mystery. There’s also Gene Autry’s 1935 Republic serial, The Phantom Empire, which is concerned with a long lost underground civilization armed with ray guns and other superior technology, but perhaps that’s more in the realm of science fiction rather than horror.

In 1956, the Nassour Brothers released the low-budget Beast of Hollow Mountain. Rancher Guy Madison is being plagued with a slew of missing cattle. When he goes into the nearby mountains to investigate, he gets more than he bargained for in the form of an animated stop-motion Allosaurus. This, then, may be considered as the first legitimate Horror-Western.

Besides not being historically accurate, the title of the movie itself is a misnomer. The villainess of the piece, Maria Frankenstein, is actually Dr. Frankenstein’s granddaughter. However, as is the case with these sorts of films, the titles are dreamed up in advance and the screenplays fit in. Also, this is not exactly the sort of movie where critics would take the producers to task for this “mistake.” They were just grateful to see the words “The End” flashing on the screen.

Along with Billy the Kid Versus Dracula, this was the last film in the long career of 73-year old director William “One Shot” Beaudine. Beaudine’s name has become synonymous over the years with low-budget stinkers, but he was actually a director of merit in the silent days (such as Mary Pickford’s 1926 Sparrows). Virtually wiped out by the Crash of 1929, he found work directing B’s for Warner Brothers and other majors, but in 1937 he began a long association with Poverty Row for such studios as Monogram and PRC. His work in television in the ‘50s allowed him to set aside a nest egg, but the Depression ingrained in him a fear of retirement, lest his savings once again be wiped out. After helming these two turkeys, however, he realized there are worse things than retirement and handed over his director’s chair to son William Beaudine, Jr.

Produced by Carroll Case for Joe Levine’s Circle Productions, both films were envisioned as a package for the drive-in crowd. Like Billy the Kid Versus DraculaJesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter was shot at the ranch of former Western star Ray Corrigan in Simi Valley, California. While it doesn’t quite have the star power of Billy the Kid Versus Dracula (John Carradine), it can boast something better for aficionados of bad movies: Narda Onyx. Ms. Onyx is quite possibly the hammiest actor I’ve ever had the pleasure of watching in action. She gives an entirely new meaning to the term “over the top” with the way she spews every line of dialogue with a look of wild-eyed abandon and anticipation.

As the film opens, we are treated to a view of a small village with what has to be on the phoniest matte paintings of a rustic-style monastery. We then find ourselves in the house of the Lopez family as they take part in a family whine. It seems that many of the townspeople are fleeing, depressing real estate values in the town. They note that nothing but death and sorrow has come to their town since the two doctors moved into the phony matte painting on the hill. Daughter Juanita (Rodriguez) is especially perturbed about the deaths of the village children and the disappearance of her brother. Well, there goes the neighborhood.

Cut to an especially cheesy laboratory in the house on the hill. Doctors Maria and Rudolph Frankenstein (Onyx and Geray) are prepping for their latest experiment. Maria is the granddaughter of the Old Baron and Rudolph is her brother, though he looks old enough to be her father. Oh well, I guess these experiments can take a lot out of anyone. They get the audience up to speed on just why they’re here in the Southwest. Seems they got into a bit of trouble with the authorities in Vienna for their experiments and had to beat it out of town fast. Most people choose an area for the scenic view, the close availability of the railroad, but the Frankensteins chose this area for the strength of its thunderstorms, the electricity of which is needed to run their equipment. Looking around the lab we see an anatomical chart, electrical equipment (supplied by Ken Strickfadden, who designed the electrical equipment in the old Universal horror films), the ever-necessary medicine chest, and, of course, an operating table.

Now, it’s back to their experiment. Starring today on the operating table is none other than Francisco, Juanita’s brother. They strap on what looks to be a World War II helmet adorned in colorful bright thick stripes of red, yellow, and green, looking as if they use it as a piñata when they not performing an experiment. Protruding from the sides of the helmet are two plastic-looking antenna. Maria zaps Francisco, who sits up, but suddenly collapses. She tells Rudolph to inject him with digitalis, but unbeknownst to her, he injects the poor slob with poison. What went wrong? Maria is beside herself, hamming it up to the limit: "What a fool I've been! I've allowed the duothermic pulsator to be attached only to the body!" She decides to consult the only reference book that can help at a time like this: her grandfather’s account. (How I Did It?) She miraculously turns to just the right page (this is One-Shot Beaudine, after all) and reads. So, that’s it. Her eyes turn bright and she gets a funny look on her face – and it’s not gas. Duothermic pulsators aside, Grandpa’s notes clearly state that a living brain is required for the hook-up. (She didn’t know that? How long have they been experimenting?) Then they can have a servant “to do our bidding.” Good help is clearly hard to get. Rudolph protests, but Maria brushes him aside, calling him weak as she yanks out the last artificial brain Gramps has created. Apparently, either the secret died with him, or Maria and Rudolph are really incompetent.

Cut to a saloon, where two men are engaging in an improvised MMA contest, which is won by a shirtless man with a great physique and a really stupid look on his face. We learn this is Hank Tracy (Bolder), sidekick to none other than Jess James (Lupton) himself. Seems Jesse has won the bet placed on Hank but the saloon owner (Paiva) doesn’t want to pay up. Hank tells him that he’s welching on none other than Jesse James himself. Why, I thought you were killed at Northridge, says the saloon owner. Oh no, replies Jesse. The man’s at large with a price on his head, so what does he do? Why he broadcasts his presence, of course. Smart.

Jesse and Hank are in town to meet up with Butch (Creed) and brother Lonnie (Barnes), two of the last three Wild Bunch members left (the others have all been killed). Butch and Lonnie are having a disagreement over inviting the James Gang and the proposed cut of the loot: Lonnie still wants his third, but Butch demurs. When Butch discovers that only Jesse and Hank remain from the gang, he’s naturally disappointed, but a job is a job. The disgruntled Lonnie runs to the Marshal (Davis) to dime out everyone in the plot, and the Marshal, with Lonnie in tow, rounds up a posse to ambush the baddies. During the firefight, the two Wild Bunch boys are killed and Hank is wounded. On the run, Jesse and Hank come upon the Lopez camp, where Juanita looks over Hank's wound. The hospital is far away, she says, but I know of two doctors in the area. Great, just great. She was accusing the Frankensteins of murder, but is okay with taking the wound Hank to see them. What scriptwriting! On the way, an Indian comes from nowhere to capture Juanita. He attacks Jesse when he rides to the rescue, but Jesse turns the attacker’s knife against him, and no more Indian. My Hero, says the look in Juanita’s eyes as they embrace. Jesse works fast.

Over at the Frankenstein place, Jesse meets Maria: “You’re the doctor?” He gives her the tried and true “Hank shot himself while cleaning his gun” excuse, but Maria’s not buying it. Not that it matters – Maria is overjoyed, for she figures they have to be running from the law and are stuck. As for Hank, well, “what a brute he’ll make!” Indeed. The Marshal, meanwhile, is questioning the Lopez family at their campsite. They claim ignorance; after all, Jesse identified himself to them as “Mr. Howard.” Juanita reports the Marshal’s questioning to Jesse back at the Frankenstein ranch. They engage in as deep as “stay,” “no, I must go” scene as the film will allow, which ends with another embrace. After Juanita leaves, Maria makes her move on Jesse, telling him the reason the villagers all moved out is because they are ignorant and do not understand. She tells Jesse that she needs his strength and plants a big kiss on his lips. But Jesse is unmoved, which sends Maria right into a jealous snit. She gives a note to Rudolph, telling him to hand it to Jesse. It’s a prescription for Hank, who has suddenly taken a turn for the worse. In reality, the note tells the recipient that the bearer is none other than the notorious outlaw Jesse James. Amazingly, Jesse complies, taking the note to the town druggist without ever stopping to read it. Rudolph, for his part, thinks the whole thing hilarious. He accuses Maria of being jealous and has a good laugh at her “being human after all.” For his trouble, he gets smacked across the face.

Juanita, for her part, does not trust this “errand” her “Yesse” has been sent on for Hank, and decides to snoop over at the Frankenstein place. She’s just in time, for Maria is about to carve into Hank, despite Rudolph’s obligatory admonition that no one should tamper with the laws of God. She’s shaved his head, has his magic helmet affixed, and has swapped her grandfather’s artificial brain for Hank’s. It’s okay; he wasn’t using his, anyway. Now she puts on a duplicate helmet so he doesn’t look silly all by himself. She intones into a portable microphone that from now on, Hank, “You are Igor. You are Igor.” Hank/Igor begins to sit up, but collapses. Rudolph is quick to label this yet another failure and gets out the “digitalis.” But Maria insists that she should administer the shot, and while they jockey for control of the syringe, she cops a quick peek at the medicine chest and sees there, right on the shelf, is a flask labeled “Poison.” What kind of poison we don’t know; all we know is that it’s poison. She now goes berserk, accusing Rudolph of sabotaging her experiments from the beginning. They wrestle for the syringe; Rudolph gets the upper hand. Maria cries out, “Igor, Help me!” Igor dutifully arises from the table and puts the kibosh on Rudolph, while Juanita, who has witnessed the whole shebang, turns tail and gets the heck out of there.

Jesse, meanwhile, has arrived at the pharmacy, and hands the druggist the “prescription.” The druggist takes one look at it, claims that it’s a special mixture and ducks out the back to the marshal’s office, where he finds only Lonnie. Lonnie tries to ambush Jesse, but Jesse draws first and there’s no more Lonnie. Jesse reads the “prescription” and figures out that he’s been double-crossed. So, it’s back to the Frankenstein place – with a vengeance. (While this is going on, Juanita runs into the real Marshal and spills the beans, figuring it’s better than leaving him to the mercies of the Frankensteins.) Jesse enters the lab and gets a good view of what’s been happening while he was away. Maria blames her brother, distracting Jesse until Igor can conk him and lay him on the operating table. She straps him in with some bon mots, “We have something in common: we’re both outside the law.” She injects Jesse to knock him out as the Marshal comes in. Maria sics Igor on the Marshal, who crushes the Marshal out cold, or dead, and drags him into the back room. Juanita revives Jesse. Maria then tells Igor to kill Juanita. As Igor goes to do his duty he begins to mumble Juanita’s name. Then he turns on Maria, chanting “kill, kill,” and strangling her. He then goes after Jesse, but Juanita grabs Jesse’s gun and shoots Igor twice in the back, ending his short career as a monster.

In the film’s final scene, Jesse and Juanita are standing over Hank’s grave. Juanita pleads with him to stay with her, but Jesse’s a fugitive and rides off with the Marshal, who wasn’t killed after all. Over his career, William Beaudine directed 199 movies, including this one.

What makes Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter watchable is the miserable quality of the acting added to a ludicrous script. John Lupton, as Jesse James, is so wooden he should’ve been checked annually for termites. It’s difficult to fathom the attraction he has for the opposite sex, much less have two women fawning over him to the point of distraction. His film career began in 1951 with Edgar G. Ulmer’s St. Benny the Dip. Lupton’s career was mainly one of supporting roles. He may be best known among cinephiles for his portrayal of upright Marine Corporal Marion ‘Sister Mary’ Hotchkiss in 1955's Battle Cry. His few lead roles came in low-budget B’s and Z’s. Otherwise he kept busy guest-starring on television.

Cal Bolder (real name Earl C. Craver) played football at Wichita University and fought in the Korean War. After the war he settled in Southern California, where he joined the LAPD. The story goes that a talent agent whom he pulled over for speeding spotted him and convinced him to change careers. Bolder worked mainly in television; the only other film he acted in was George Cukor’s 1960 comedy-romance, Heller in Pink Tights, with Anthony Quinn and Sophia Loren. He retired at the end of the 1960s and moved to Washington, where he pursued a vocation as a novelist. He published “Last Reunion,” a novel about a serial killer, under the name E.C. Craven. (It’s available on Amazon for those who care.) As Hank Tracy, Cal wanders around as if he doesn’t have a clue – which he doesn’t.

Veteran actor Jim Davis somehow survived this turkey to go on to play Jock Ewing in Dallas. It was said Beaudine hired him because they worked together in television. At any rate, Davis practically sleepwalks through the film, looking disinterested to boot. Rayford Barnes was another supporting actor who worked mainly television and Westerns. Ironically, while in our film he played the last of the Wild Bunch, three years later he actually had a small part in Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch. He also had a small role in the 1973 psychotronic classic, Little Cigars, about a troupe of circus midgets whose sideline is robbing banks.

If anyone in the cast could be said to give a halfway passable performance, it would be Estelita Rodriguez as Juanita. Born in Cuba, she specialized in Hispanic “spitfires” at Republic Pictures, most notably with Roy Rogers. She also had a part in Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo (1959) as Consuelo, who, along with husband Carlos (Pedro Gonzalez Gonzalez, and no that's not a typo), runs the town’s hotel. Rodriguez was married four times; one of her husbands, actor Grant Withers, committed suicide a few years after their divorce. Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter was Estelita’s last film. She reportedly died of influenza while prepping to star in the life story of Lupe Velez.

But as I said before, it’s the completely over-the-top performance of second-billed Narda Onyx that makes this a Z-classic. She also appears to be the only one in the damn movie who’s excited to be there. Without her, this could easily sink to the level of Manos: The Hands of Fate, needing a MST 3000 treatment to make it watchable.

Onyx was a child actor in Estonia who fled with her family to Sweden in 1944, but was intercepted by the Germans and brought to Danzig. During the last months of the war, the Onyx family made their way to the American lines at Bonn and sought refuge with the Swedish Red Cross. After the war the family moved to Sweden, where Narda resumed her acting career. She later traveled to England, where she worked for the Old Vic Company, and later moved to Canada, where she worked on stage and television and married fellow Estonian refugee George Virand in 1961. The couple left for Hollywood shortly thereafter. This was Maria’s last credit – she turned to writing and penned a biography of Johnny Weissmuller titled Water, World and Weissmuller. (It can be found on Amazon.)


Rudolph: Maria, you've already caused the death of three children and violated the graves of others just to make the experiments.
Maria: My, you're a humanitarian! You should have stayed in Europe and given pink pills to sweet old ladies.

Maria (to Jesse): You have refused me, Maria Von Frankenstein, granddaughter of the count.

Maria: Igor, go to your room!


This was the last film shot at the Corrigan Ranch. Right after filming ended, Ray Corrigan sold his ranch to Bob Hope . . . Screenwriter Carl K. Hittleman had been associated with two previous films featuring Jesse James as the main character: I Shot Jesse James (Lippert, 1949) which Hittleman produced for director Sam Fuller, and The Return of Jesse James (Lippert, 1950), based on a story idea by Hittleman.

2-Headed Shark Attack

By Ed Garea

2-Headed Shark Attack (The Asylum, 2012) – Director: Christopher Ray. Writers: Edward DeRuiter (story), H. Perry Horton (s/p). Cast: Carmen Electra, Charlie O’Connell, Brooke Hogan, Christina Bach, Morgan Thompson, Anthony E. Valentin, Gerald Webb, David Gallegos, Geoff Ward, Ashley Bissing, & Mercedes Young. Color, 88 minutes.

There are good movies and there are bad movies. And then, there’s this atrocity, released direct to video for reasons that become obvious when one watches it. It seems the company that made this gem is in competition with the SyFy Channel to see who can make the worst shark movie, and, based on the terrifically cheesy graphics, I can say this one takes the cake (such as it is).

We know we’re in for a bad movie experience once we see the cast. With stalwarts such as Carmen Electra (the ex-Mrs. Dennis Rodman), Charlie O’Connell (brother of Jerry and whose career is pockmarked with other works of art on this level), and Brooke Hogan (who is every bit as good an actress and her father, Hulk, was a wrestler), all we need is a bad script and lousy direction. But wait! Included in this movie are some of the worst special effects I’ve ever seen.

As for direction, behind the camera is Christopher Ray, son of legendary Z-movie director Fred Olen Ray, and living proof that the acorn does not fall far from the tree. The screenwriter, Horton, received an MFA in Creative Writing from Naropa University’s (Colorado) Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, whatever that means. He could have saved himself a lot of trouble if he simply took a correspondence course in screenwriting instead.

We open with a group of young people wakeboarding (a combination of water skiing and snowboarding). Soon they become a tasty meal for our title creature. Cut to a boat called The Sea King, where a group of students, led by married professors Franklin and Anne Babish (Carmen and Charlie), are studying marine biology. Electra as a marine biologist. Now this is science fiction. From the dialogue she spouts in the movie one would surmise that Carmen thinks marine biology is studying the private parts of Marines. Not to worry, for this collection of students is even more brain dead than she.

The gang is cruising along merrily; Jerry points out the local sights in the ocean and the girls and guys relax on deck, showing off their abs and silicone. Suddenly, Anne, driving the ship, hits an object in the water. Professor Jerry spots it as a Megamouth shark. Wait a minute, he tells the students, Megamouths are deep-water sharks. Not only that, he’s also dead. This is an attempt, and a poor one, at creating some sort of early tension. They try to bring the shark carcass on board, but it drifts back and is sucked into the boat’s propeller, damaging the hull and causing the boat to take on water. (Things happen fast in a Z-movie.) This is where the cheesy special effects come into play. We do not actually see the shark torn apart, but rather something akin to a shadow cutout of a shark in front of the propeller and a lot of red water gushing forth.

Jerry ponders why all this is happening. Suddenly, our two-headed hero appears and attacks the boat as well, conveniently breaking the ship’s radio antenna. Co-captain Laura (Thompson) is prevented from summoning help. The group then spots a deserted atoll nearby, so Laura and Anne pilot the boat close enough to the shore as to allow Franklin to take the student to the atoll via a dinghy while Anne and Laura remain on the Sea King, along with the ships crew, Han (Webb) and Dikilla (Valentin).

While the Prof and the gang explore the atoll, looking for scrap metal with which to repair the hull, Laura enters the water to see if she can make repairs. This gives the shark an instant meal and a taste for silicone. Now, for reasons known only to the writer and director, three of the students decide to take a break and go skinny-dipping, giving our shark even more of a meal. Meanwhile, the group finds and repairs two small speedboats as an earthquake strikes the atoll, injuring the Prof, who is brought back to the Sea King by students who are later devoured.

After a few more students are eaten, Anne, the Prof and the crew leave the Sea King for the atoll. Suddenly, another earthquake hits, and Anne and the Prof begin to suspect that the island is collapsing on itself. What a plot device. In the meantime, Kate (Hogan) and Cole (Ward) return to the Sea King and fix the hull. Cole, a thoroughly disreputable sort, drives off in the Sea King, forcing Kate to swim back to the atoll. The two-headed shark attacks the Sea King and sinks it, causing it to send an automatic distress signal. Cole attempts to escape in a lifeboat, but the ringing of his cell phone attracts the shark, and exit Cole. Helping the atoll to rapidly sink is our shark, who is eating the atoll from below. The Prof and Anne then spot a small tsunami coming (What else?), which overtakes the atoll and leaves the Prof and Anne as a meal for the hungry fish. After all, he has two mouths to feed.

The survivors flee on the shrinking atoll to an abandoned hut, but the shark breaks in and devours another four. Now only three are left: Kate (Hogan), the nerdish Paul (Gallegos) and Kirsten (Bissing). By using a gasoline tank they found earlier, they manage to blow their visitor to kingdom come, but not before losing Kirsten. A helicopter rescues Kate and Paul, the only survivors in a group of 23 people, as the movie mercifully ends.

The only reason for a bad movie fanatic to want to see this is for camp value, but there’s precious little of that. Simply stated, it’s a movie that’s so bad, it’s bad. I’ve seen better special effects made with an Etch A Sketch; although most of the cast is devoured, it’s done in the same fashion as when the Megamouth hit the propeller. We never actually see the shark eat anyone. All we do see is their bodies in front of the shark, accompanied by a lot of blood fogging the water, and later perhaps a totally unconvincing hand or a leg. As for the shark, it’s predictably ridiculous, and seems to increase and decrease in size during the movie: one minute, the cast is being attacked in shallow water, while later they are safe because they are in shallow water. At one point the shark is big enough to smash against and sink the atoll, while in the next scene he’s small enough to fit in the tiny hut along with the surviving students.

As for the plot, it has more holes than a wheel of Swiss cheese. Students wander off and on, doing the dumbest things. The writers seem to have collected every obvious plot device and even a few more that defy logic. For instance, at the end, the gasoline bomb has a wet t-shirt for a fuse and Kate manages to light it anyway. Earlier, a crowd is standing in the water wondering what to do. “Why not climb the rocks behind you?” I say to myself. After all, even this shark cannot climb rocks. But no, they decide to swim for it instead. If your idea of dialogue is “Wait a minute! What was that?” or “Hurry up! Go, go, go!” then this is the movie for you.

2-Headed Shark Attack is meant for those who are either bad movie connoisseurs, or bored teenagers looking for something – anything – to watch. Otherwise, pass this one by. Any movie where the best performance comes from Brooke Hogan is a movie worth missing.

The Z Files: Billy the Kid vs. Dracula

By Ed Garea

Billy the Kid vs. Dracula (Embassy, 1966) – Director: William Beaudine. Writer: Carl K. Hittleman (story & s/p). Cast: John Carradine, Chuck Courtney, Melinda Plowman, Virginia Christine, Harry Carey Jr., Walter Janovitz, Hannie Landman, Bing Russell, Olive Carey, Roy Barcroft, Marjorie Bennett, William Forrest, George Cisar, & Charlita. Color, 73 minutes.

Wow. A vampire Western! Now there’s a genre. And yet, it’s not the first. Universal’s Curse of the Undead beat it to movie screens by eight years (and it’s a better film to boot). But the producers of this can take some comfort in the fact that this film is worse. Much worse.

In fact, for a film dependent on action, out of its 73-minute running time, only about two, or three at most, of those minutes contain any action. The rest of the time is spent building up to the action with some great establishing scenes that fall flat on their face, really crummy dialogue, a leading man with all the appeal of imitation lime Jello, and a villain who appears clearly swacked in most of his scenes.

The film was reputedly shot in about 5 days and looks like it. It was filmed at Ray “Crash” Corrigan’s spread in Simi Valley, the scene of many a B Western. In fact, look closely and you’ll notice the ranch house was the same house used in the Buster Crabbe/Al “Fuzzy” St. John Westerns for PRC. For those who like their acting bad and their vampire bats fake, this is one to see. Those who like their movies at least making a little sense would be wise to skip this one, if for no other reason than taste.

Our film opens with a really terrible day-for-night shot of a rubber bat, compete with wires, flying around. Cut to an obvious German immigrant family camping out for the night. By the look of their covered wagon we can tell this is the Old West. Mom and Dad Oster (Christine and Janovitz) are sleeping on one side of the camp while daughter Lisa (Landman) is asleep on the other. Suddenly, Lisa is awakened by the chirp of the bat (Chirp??) and proclaims, “It’s here!” Father reassures her that she’s only having a nightmare, but Mother places a cross in her hand for safety and they go back to sleep.

The bat ducks behind the wagon and out comes Drac (Carradine). Although the film never mentions Dracula by name (probably for legal reasons), since it’s used in the title, we’ll refer to him as such. Obviously famished from all that flying about, Drac decides to stop at Lisa’s for a quick meal. He puts the bite on her, but her hand opens, revealing the cross, which scares Drac off. Looking at her neck later we can see that Drac left four bite marks. Must’ve been using his bottom fangs as well.

Cut to a stagecoach, which has stopped to take on Drac as a passenger. He’s traveling light – just himself and no luggage. The other passengers are Mary Ann Bentley (Bennett), her brother James Underhill (Forrest), and an aptly-named liquor salesman Joe Flake (Cisar). Making conversation, Mary explains that her husband has passed and she went to Boston to bring back her brother to help her run the ranch, the Double Bar B. She shows Drac a picture of her daughter, Elizabeth (Plowman). Drac is quite taken with the photo, telling from his hammy expression. (He also seems inebriated as well; perhaps he’s been into Joe’s sample case.) My favorite quote in this scene is when Mary Ann mentions to Drac that she shouldn’t be traveling at night. Night? Hell, it looks like late afternoon out there, that’s just how bad the optical filter is. (Later on Beaudine just decides to dispense with it altogether rather than continue the farce. So we’re treated to the sight of Drac walking around in broad daylight. Oh well, perhaps he’s using industrial strength sunscreen.) The stage stops for a rest at an Indian village where Drac departs and later that night puts the bite on a lovely and stacked Indian maiden (Charlita), who’s fetching water from the village’s well. All through the film when Drac is about to do something really diabolical, his eyes bug out and a red light shines on his face. He also has the power to disappear and reappear at will. Backstage, most of his disappearing came at lunchtime, when he hauled himself down the street each day in full costume to a bar where he would enjoy a hearty liquid lunch. Afterward he would return well-roasted, and it shows in his performance at several points in the picture.

When the group is about to leave the next day, neither hide nor hair of Drac can be found. So they decide to go on without him. Bad move, for the other Indians have found the body of the maiden and conclude it was the passengers in the stage what done it. (Watch closely and you’ll see they get a cue to rise up and ride off after the stage.) They hunt it down and kill everyone abroad. Soon after, Drac appears in his bat disguise (complete with strings), ducks behind the stage and reappears in human form. He searches the deceased, taking James’ identity papers and the photo of Elizabeth. We can easily guess where he's going.

Cut to his next destination, the Double Bar B ranch, where Elizabeth (or “Betty”) is being taught to shoot by a handsome young man, who we shortly learn is Billy the Kid (Courtney). It seems Billy has reformed by turning himself into a Casper Milquetoast type. He wants to marry Betty, but is worried people will find out he’s really Billy the Kid. “But that’s all behind you,” Betty reassures him. Oh sure, everyone will forget all the murders he committed because he’s now a nice guy. But as the scene ends we see that Billy and Betty are being spied upon. The voyeur is Dan Thorpe (Russell), along with a couple of toadies, who fill in the missing plot hole with just one line – very economical: “That guy Bonney sure moved in on you. First your foreman’s job, then your girlfriend.” So we now know two things: Thorpe will be out for revenge, and Billy will eventually kill him. Later we’re treated to a little tension, Beaudine style, when Billy tells Betty he’s found a lamb with its throat neatly sliced open. Billy tells her that Indian Jim said he saw a large bat kill the lamb. Cue the eerie theremin music.

Drac, meanwhile, is now in town posing as Betty’s dead uncle. He’s taken a room at the hotel, begging the question of why he just doesn’t go out to the ranch, since he’s now the dead uncle. Drac informs anyone who’ll listen that he came on ahead of the stage. About a minute after this the townsfolk are informed of the stage’s fate. Cut to the threesome sitting at a table in the hotel. Why, it’s the immigrants! And they quickly point out that Drac is a vampire. Drac feigns ignorance; just because he’s running around in that silly looking costume with a pointed goatee doesn’t mean he’s one of the undead. The townsfolk, having never seen a vampire before, tend to agree.

Drac graciously gives his room at the hotel to the immigrants and goes out to the ranch. Later that night he visits the hotel to finish the job on their daughter, but when he returns to the ranch he finds he has company. Yes, it’s those pesky immigrants, who Billy has hired as household help. Frau Oster is determined to protect Betty from Drac’s evil designs. (Several times throughout the film, Mrs. Oster is referred to as “Mrs. Olson,” as Virginia Christine was famous for playing the character in Folgers ads. I guess Beaudine thought it was a natural mistake by the townsfolk or just didn’t want to do another take to get things right. Would it have mattered, anyway?)

Frau Olsen now decides to decorate Betty’s bedroom in various shades of wolfsbane, the equivalent of a cold shower to an amorous vampire. (If she had all this to start, then why did her daughter get killed? Just asking.) Billy, meanwhile, brings his concerns about Uncle James to the wrong fellow – Uncle James. Carradine tactfully tells to him stop prying and believing those German immigrants, or get the pink slip. Later, Billy is conducting a meeting about good employee relations with Thorpe, the outcome of which sends Billy running to Doc Hull (Carey). While getting patched up, he tells her his suspicions about the newly arrived Uncle, and discovers that the doc just happens to have a couple of books on the subject. I’m sure that part of every good country doctor’s library has a book or two on vampirism. One never knows when it’ll be needed. Billy pours out his suspicions, “You know that lamb I told you about? Its throat was ripped wide open. At least that's what the boys told me." When the doc asks him if he thinks it could be the work of a vampire, Billy turns thoughtful: "I hate to think it could be true but, well, I . . . I don't know about things like that. You know, I . . . I ain't had too much schoolin’."

It’s at this point the doc whips out her book and opens it right in the middle, miraculously landing on the right passage to answer the question. She begins to read: “According to an old European superstition, a vampire is a ghost which leaves its resting place at night to suck the blood of living victims; humans, when possible. Sometimes it kills its victims, other times it keeps them alive. Sometimes a vampire takes one of his victims as a mate and eventually turns her into a vampire . . . Now you know as much about it as I do, Billy.” Billy is dumbfounded. “Gosh . . . Well, how do you know of a person is a vampire? How can you tell?” Yes, how can you tell? Not to worry, for the doc says, “Well, there’s some footnotes here in German. My German's pretty bad. But one thing I can make out: A vampire . . . does not cast . . . a reflection . . . in a mirror." (Vampires fur Dummkopfs)

When Billy tells the sheriff (Barcroft) about his newly obtained knowledge, it sets off a light bulb in the sheriff’s empty head. Earlier he dismissed Frau Oster’s explanation for her daughter’s death. Now he a fount of wisdom: “Ah yeah, vampires. Seems to me I recollect that she said that’s who done the killin’!”

We now cut to Thorpe, who’s trying to score some brownie points with Uncle James. He comes into the office and says he want to see Uncle James. Carradine rises from his chair. Now, this scene must have been shot after lunch, because Carradine weaves his way over to see Thorpe, who proceeds to dime out Billy over his accusations about Unk. That’s it – Billy is out and Thorpe is in. In addition, Drac tells his new foreman that he wants Billy clean out of town. Being a conscientious brown-noser, Thorpe runs into Billy at the hotel bar and informs Billy that he (Thorpe) has come to make sure Billy leaves town. A fight breaks out and Thorpe draws, but Billy is faster and Thorpe has played his last scene.

While this is going on, Betty is sharing doubts about Billy’s recent behavior with Eva: “Oh, it’s Billy. He's been acting so strangely lately. Now he wants me to try some, some experiment on Uncle James.” Eva asks what sort of experiment it is, to which Betty replies that it’s done with a mirror. “Oh God, the vampire test!” Eva exclaims. No, not that! Cue the organ.

As Betty by this time has foolishly removed the wolfsbane from her room (something about it clashing with the wallpaper, I believe), Drac now makes his move. He mesmerizes Betty through a combination of bugging his eyes out and having the red light shining in his face. (Though, honestly, that red light makes it seem as if he’s standing behind a rotisserie chicken cooker.) The next day Billy arrives at the ranch to find Betty zonked on the bed with two large hickeys on her neck. Eva tells him to take Betty to the doctor. Although the doc can’t make heads or tails about what’s wrong, she is sure that it’s the work of vampires. At this point the sheriff waltzes in to tell Billy that he has to drag him off to the hoosegow until the matter of Thorpe’s killing can be put to rest.

Now that Billy’s cooling his heels in the cooler, Drac makes his big move. He comes to the doc’s office to take Betty home. In one of the great nonsensical scenes in film history, the doc decides to put the vampire test to the test. She takes down the wall mirror, places it behind the vampire, and then calmly stares into the thing. Drac’s reaction is to turn around and stare at her until he can remember his next cue. (At this point Drac is clearly feeling no pain.) He then walks out carrying Betty, looks back at the doc and makes a noise not unlike that of a poodle in heat. The great thing is that the entire scene is done in such a relaxed manner that it almost seems like a rehearsal for the real scene yet to be shot.

As if that wasn’t enough, here comes another great scene. (In fact, the entire film now becomes one laughable scene after another, as if all seeming pretense to make a decent picture has been tossed out the window.) As Drac has come for Betty, the doc is in a panic. What to do? I know – I’ll get Billy. He’ll know what to do! She goes to the jail to try and spring Billy, but the sheriff is a party pooper: Billy has to stay put until the trial. At this point, and it’s done so nonchalantly, the doc – a little old aging and overweight lady – completely disarms the sheriff by taking his pistol from its holster with little effort and giving it to Billy, whereupon the sheriff reluctantly releases Billy on his own recognizance.

Before Billy leaves to have it out with Drac we are treated to some of the most inane dialogue in the picture. The doc offers her scapel to Billy to do Drac in: “Billy!” she says. “Take this! That gun will do you no good against him!” Billy, as stone-headed as ever, simply replies that he’s never see a man yet that a bullet won’t stop. “But he’s not a man!” replies the doc. Billy shrugs, fingers his gun and simply says, “This’ll do.”

Now it’s time for the final confrontation. After taking Betty home, Drac has now moved her to the abandoned silver mine. Earlier he had been scoping out the mine, and now we know why: it’s a honeymoon hotel. Drac has a double bed set up and ready to go. In a mine, yet. But here comes Billy, yelling out Betty’s name so Drac can hear him. What does Drac do? He hides. Perhaps he intends to jump out and yell “Surprise!” But a few seconds later he comes out of hiding to do battle. Drac is kicking Billy‘s ass, knocking him down. Billy draws and fires, but as the doc said, bullets have no effect. So what does Billy do now? He throws his gun at Drac, of course (as if he’s been paying attention to television episodes of Superman), and from the sound Drac makes Billy has hit his target. In fact, the gun hits Drac right on the schnozz and I think Drac’s cry wasn’t in the script. Drac falls down and out. The sheriff and the doc have been following closely behind, of course, and the doc now hands Billy her scalpel, which Billy uses to drive into Drac’s heart. We now suddenly cut to a shot of the rubber bat flapping around outside on its string. Suddenly, it falls to the ground – dead. Wait, isn’t Drac the bat? Is Beuadine trying to go metaphysical on us with this bit of symbolism, as if Drac’s soul were trying to escape? Why are we even discussing this, anyway? Right before the movie ends, we cut back to Drac, who is nothing more than a pile of bones. Guess he won’t be troubling us anymore.

This film plays rather fast and loose with the vampire legend. Carradine walks around in the daylight, a no-no for a vampire, but considering the almost nonexistent day-for-night shots, it was just as well, anyway. Carradine also carries no coffin around with him. He also sits down to dinner later in the film: vampires aren’t supposed to eat, other than drinking blood for nourishment. As for some who feel that driving a metal stake into Carradine violates the custom of a wooden stake, I would point out that several films in the past have employed metal stakes.

Billy the Kid vs. Dracula is truly a laugh riot, but if it has one redeeming feature, it’s the plethora of good character actors that work in it. Besides the top-billed Carradine, we have Harry Carey Jr. as the stage driver and his mother, Olive, in her last film role as the doc. Virginia Christine, who gained undying fame as Mrs. Olsen in the Folger coffee commercials, is Eva Oster, and Walter Janovitz, best remembered by television fans for his turn as dog keeper Oscar Schnitzler in Hogan’s Heroes, is her husband Franz. Ex-foreman Thgrpe is played by Bing Russell, father of Kurt, and the sheriff is B-movie stalwart Roy Barcroft, famous for his appearance if the Republic serials of the ‘40s and early ‘50s. And Indian maiden Charlita Roeder (sometimes billed by just her first name) had previously worked for Beaudine in his 1952 classic, Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla.

If anyone could be said to fail in this film, it’s Chuck Courtney, whose Billy the Kid comes off like bland Marshmallow Fluff instead of a tough guy trying to reform. Perhaps he simply lost interest in the film, because Courtney had a quite a career forbore this as a solid actor. He had previously worked for Beaudine, getting critical plaudits for his role in Born to the Saddle (Astor, 1953). He played Dan Reid, nephew to Clayton Moore on the long-running hit The Lone Ranger. He was also a favorite of both John Wayne and Robert Conrad, who employed him in many of their vehicles. In 1994, he received The Golden Boot award for his contribution to Western films. A series of strokes that left him totally debilitated led him to take his own life in 2000 at the age of 69.

Memorable Dialogue: Billy runs into Betty outside the abandoned silver mine and asks what’s going on.

Billy: Where’s your uncle?
Betty: Inside.
Billy: What’s he doing in an abandoned mine?
Betty: That’s his business.
Billy: Maybe it’s my business, too.
Betty: (Breaks down) Oh, Billy, what’s happening to us? We’ve never quarreled like this before, ever!

Miscellany: This was Carradine’s first attempt at a vampire role since playing Dracula in Universal’s House of Dracula in 1945 . . . Billy the Kid vs. Dracula was originally slated to begin production in 1961 with Joe Breen as director . . . The film was shot in anywhere from 5 to 8 days . . . Interiors for the film were shot at The Producer's Studio in Hollywood and exteriors at Corriganville, Hollywood stuntman Ray "Crash" Corrigan's ranch in California's Simi Valley. The ranch was also used for King Vidor's Duel in the Sun (1946), John Ford's Fort Apache (1948), and Sam Fuller's The Baron of Arizona (1950) . . . In Universal’s The Mummy’s Ghost (1944), evil high priest Carradine stalks reincarnated Egyptian princess Ananka, played by none other than Virginia Christine.

The Z Files: Death by Invitation

By Ed Garea

This is the inaugural column dedicated to what are referred to by critics as “Z movies.” The Z movie is a product of the ‘50s (though the term wasn’t coined until the mid-‘60s), when the studio system collapsed and independent producers and newly-minted smaller studios jumped in to fill the market for what used to be known as “B” movies. 

Television also helped kill off the B-movie proper, and the advent of the drive-in and the rise of the grindhouse in urban areas gave low-budget producers a market for their films. The Z movie is low budget, but that alone does not make it bad. The quality standard for such a film must be well below that for a B movie and the producers are those on the fringes of the film industry. In the ‘30s and into the ‘40s, films from Hollywood’s “Poverty Row” could meet those standards, as they were poorly made, with shoddy scripts, decrepit sets and woeful acting, and marketed to independent theaters. Most Poverty Row productions focused on horror or mystery; the later Z movies first focused on horror and science friction, later going into the genres of gore, violence and soft-core pornography.

So what we get from all this is that Z movies are terrible. That is true, but it’s also why, in the vast majority of cases, they’re fun to watch. Otherwise, Mystery Science Theater 3000 wouldn’t even have come into existence.

Death by Invitation (Kirt Films, 1971) – Director: Ken Friedman. Writer: Ken Friedman. Cast: Shelby Leverington, Norman Paige, Aaron Phillips, Lesley Knight, Denver John Collins, Bruce Bentlinger, Tom Mahoney, Sarnell Ogus, Sylvia Pressler, & Rhonda Russell. Color, 81 minutes.

This low-budget slice of celluloid from producer Leornard Kirtman (Carnival of Blood – 1970 and Curse of the Headless Horseman – 1972) is so slow-moving it might as well be titled “Death by Boredom.” It works on the old horror standby of a centuries-old curse leading to modern-day revenge, but the execution is so poor and crudely done that it loses its audience. The plot execution is so poorly done that unless viewers have seen something like it before, they’re out of luck, for nothing is ever explained during the course of the movie.

We begin by being treated to a spectacularly clumsy opening where a group of villagers are about to burn a witch. Is this set in Salem, England, Holland? We’re not told. At any rate, it’s nice to see that the colonists of 17th century inhabitants lived in shingled houses with metal outdoor basement doors and concrete sidewalks. They’ve got their witch, but they don’t quite know what to do with her. Mainly they drag her around, dressed as one would at a low-budget Renaissance Festival. They tie her to a stake, but there’s no wood surrounding it, so they drag her to a basement where they slit her throat. But before dispatching her, she seems to place a curse on the family of the man that led the mob. All this is accompanied by some of the most annoying music I have ever heard in a picture.

Cut to the present day. We’re on Staten Island, I think, (it’s never made clear), and are dining with the Vroot family. Since that’s a Dutch name, one can assume our 17th century witch was dispatched either in New Amsterdam or Holland proper. The Vroot family, resided over by patriarch Peter (Phillips) is celebrating the engagement of daughter Carol (Russell) to Jake (Paige), whom Roger wants to join the family business. Among the invited guests is Lise (Leverington) who is a dead ringer for our dead witch. Uh-oh. Lise is late to the party and tries to make light by telling a story of how the cab gave her his number on the way over, but the strictly religious family won’t hear of it. However, no one seems to mind when Jake begins hitting on Lise right in front of everyone. Fiancée Carol just sits there in the background sporting a dress that looks like it was cut from the living room drapes.

Lise also seems to serve some sort of double duty as a visiting caregiver to Peter’s wife, Naomi (Ogus). At least I think this is the case; watching this film is like trying to solve a puzzle.

After Lise departs, son Roger (Collins), intrigued by her story (Why?) takes a cab ride to her place where she regales him with a monologue about how in a primitive tribe the women did the hunting and the men made them up and oiled them for the hunt. When the men try it themselves the women found out and killed them. All this is told at a pace that makes one want to cry out “Get to the point already!” But Roger is entranced by the speech, or bored out of his skull, I couldn’t tell. He takes off his top and kneels before Lise, and we think Roger is about to get lucky. But no, Lise proceeds to sink her nails into his throat and back, killing him as the stage blood oozes down.

Now, instead of celebrating an upcoming betrothal, the Vroot family is trying to find Roger. This leads to a very clumsy and contrived scene with a clueless detective who tries to steer the family into believing that Roger is probably somewhere pushing drugs. This must be Friedman’s attempt to ease the tension by inserting a comedy relief scene. The problem is that the cops merely come across as stupid and witless, and the Vroot family is left with just their hopes that Roger will eventually find his way home.

Two other scenes need mention here. One is where Jake visits Peter’s office to hear his offer of going into the family business. What is supposed to be a scene expanding and extending the plot turns into a cacophonous mess as the Muzak playing in the background at the office drowns out Peter and Jake’s dialogue. The scene just rambles on, leaving me with the impression that the director had decided to go to lunch and didn’t inform anyone else on the set. The other scene is where little Elly (Knight) is up in her room when we suddenly see Lise outside. Shortly after we learn that both Elly and sister Sara (Pressler) have been slain. The shot of Lise earlier seems to have been like an insert to let us know whatever it is that Friedman wants us to know. The only thing it has going for it is that it does come off as creepy and strangely effective – for once.

It’s been strongly telegraphed that Jake is hot for Lise and we know it’s just a matter of time before he gets his shot. We have already seen that, for someone who’s just gotten engaged, Jake spends as little time as possible with his future bride, who just remains in the background. He drops in on Lise at her place and she begins with the old monologue about the tribe of women who do the hunting while the men prepare them for the hunt, but Jake will have none of it; he’s horny. They proceed to have the required sex scene, although for a producer whose product includes a few softcore titles, the scene is somewhat muted. After the fun is over, Jake discovers blood dripping down. He follows the trail and discovers a hidden room Lise conveniently has in her apartment. Attached to the ceiling in that room is a bag with the chopped up remains of others in the Vroot family. Jake is horrified and the scene degenerates into a terrible fight scene with an ax-wielding Peter entering and accompanied by very poor sound. It ends here and we wonder what the point of the whole thing was to start.

What keeps the film from being totally unwatchable, besides the unintentionally hilarious script, is the performances of the leads, in particular Leverington and Paige. Both, unbelievably, went on to decent careers, mostly in television. This was actually the first film for Leverington, who also went on to strong roles in both The Long Riders (1980) and Cloak and Dagger (1984). Paige, later known as Norman Parker, has also appeared in Prince of the City (1981), Turk 182 (1985), The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990), and television series such as Family TiesFalcon Crest, and the soap As the World Turns.

Death by Invitation actually opened on October 21, 1971, at the Esquire Theater in St. Louis, which may have been chosen because of its proximity to Leverington’s alma mater of Southeast Missouri State. For his part, Friedman would only direct one more feature, Made in U.S.A. (1987), but made his mark as a screenwriter, with films such as White Line Fever (1975), Heart Like a Wheel (1983), Johnny Handsome (1989), and Cadillac Man (1990).

Although not a full-blown train wreck, Death By Invitation is more like a shaggy dog exercise, with great expectations and a zero payoff. It’s for late night viewing when anything will do, as long as it’s accompanied with a snack and some wine before hitting the hay.

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