Halloween Blitz ’17: Cheapers’ Creepers

One can never heap enough praise upon the Hungarian dome belonging to the great Bela Lugosi.  The actor, who has become synonymous with Dracula, has remained a much-adored screen giant since his passing more than sixty years ago.  And his legend looms larger every year.

While Bela’s career certainly had its share of ups and downs – sadly, more in the latter column – his cinematic forays onto Poverty Row actually prove a testament to the man’s prowess as a leading genre figure.  Would there be any OTHER reason to keep some of these celluloid dregs active, and on Blu-Ray yet, if it wasn’t for the actor who made the term “children of the night” a permanent part of classic movie slang?  Methinks not.

Indeed, Lugosi’s participation in these less-than-lofty Bijou excursions would be deemed unworthy and  unwatchable even if they were enacted by some of his admirable contemporaries.  The fact that Bela is the glue that holds (or rather, splices) these strips of film into not only palatable experiences but royally entertaining ones again pay homage to the thesp’s formidable presence.

Two of Lugosi’s lower-rung pics have recently made it to Blu-Ray, thanks to the folks at Kino-Lorber Studio Classics (in conjunction with the Library of Congress and Paramount Home Entertainment), and they’re worthy additions to any Golden Age flicker library.  I must say, though, that discussing these particular two items is a bit deceptive, as they’re really not bad movies at all; in fact, they likely represent the best of the worst:  1932’s THE DEATH KISS and 1941’s INVISIBLE GHOST.  So leave us start unspooling the ghouling.

 

The pre-Code 1932 corker THE DEATH KISS has, on the surface, all the elements that horror fans are looking for.  Except for horror.  It’s not a fright flick at all, but a mystery-thriller, albeit a clever and compelling one.  So don’t throw your talons up in frustration.  Give it a shot.  In fact, that’s how the movie opens, with a literal bang.

THE DEATH KISS is about Hollywood and scandal.  It fades in with the murder of a high-hat swell that is, in actuality, a movie within a movie.  The routine of doing a fairly simple scene all changes when the blanks turn out to be real, followed by the discovery that the actor in question was a scumbag extraordinaire.

Made for Tiffany Studios, the company that tried to make the break from Poverty Row to the majors (they produced James Whale’s stunning 1930 debut Journey’s End and the 1930 all-Technicolor Mamba), THE DEATH KISS takes place at the fictitious Worldwide Tone-Art Pictures (possibly a snap on the actual low-budget outfit World-Wide-Sono-Art).  The script (by Gordon Kahn and Barry Barringer, from a book by Madelon St. Denis) is often genuinely witty, taking much glib picture-making/fast-talking lingo and obvious influence from Once in a Lifetime, The Front Page and other more noted efforts.

The pic features Bela in one of his many red-herring roles, as he had already been pegged (no pun on his Dracula fate) as the “monster man.”  He’s quite congenial, sophisticated and resourceful as Joseph Steiner, the studio manager.  Hilarity reigns via the Goldwynesque language-killing head suit, the perfectly named Leon A. Grossmith (“Oy, that’s gonna cost!” is his first response to the murder), ably enacted by Alexander Carr (can’t say the same, however, about the lowbrow hijinks of studio guard Vince Barnett, save a little goes a long way).

What elevates this entry way above Poverty Row fare isn’t merely the script.  The direction by Edwin L. Marin is crisp, the photography by the masterful d.p. Norbert Brodine quite excellent, and the music by Arthur Lange and Val Burton (the latter soon to make a name for himself at Universal) suitably professional.  The real attraction to THE DEATH KISS is the cast.  Tiffany went all out, trying to recruit as many alumni from the previous year’s Dracula smash as possible.  Supporting Bela are David Manners as a heroic screenwriter Franklyn Drew and Edward van Sloan as Thomas Avery, the director of the jinxed flick.  Replacing Helen Chandler is Adrienne Ames (on loan from Paramount), perhaps the most beautiful of early 1930s starlets (her real-life horror would be realized via her mercifully short marriage to Bruce Cabot).  Rounding out the acting roster are such wonderful usual suspects as John Ray, Barbara Bedford, Al Hill, Wade Boteler, former director King Baggot (in a bit), Paul Porcasi, Spec O’Donnell and Mona Maris.

While THE DEATH KISS has been in P.D. purgatory for decades, it’s sufficient to mention that this mostly fine Blu-Ray transfer comes from a majority of cannibalized elements, restored by the Library of Congress.  Occasionally there are some glitches, notably during a slight sound dip (but nothing to prevent one from adding this to a pre-Code and/or Bela collection).  This print also features my favorite early 1930s color alternative, the Gustav Brock Process, hand-colored frames that accentuate the action and narrative.  While not as effective as in The Vampire Bat, the process does startle and entertain in key sequences in a projection room (including a burning film frame), plus search flashlights, and, not surprisingly, gun shots.  The disc also contains a supplemental audio commentary by film historian Richard Harland Smith.

As indicated, the mystery is a fetching one with the killer being a double-take shock.  And there’s a neat wink-wink-nudge-nudge between Manners and Lugosi with the former chiding the latter with “I could have sworn it was you.”

 

Unlike THE DEATH KISS, which infrequently surfaced in okay renditions, 1941’s INVISIBLE GHOST has NEVER looked good (especially since the advent of home video).  At least, until now.  While still a bit dodgy here and there, there is enough 35MM (a first for this title) to send its supporters into movie-swoon heaven.

The debut of Bela’s much-heralded Monogram 9 – a series of “classics” ground out by notorious schlockmeiser Sam Katzman – INVISIBLE GHOST soars to the top of the studio’s celluloid pile, as unquestionably the pick of the litter.  The reason transcends the interesting cast and certifiably loopy script; the credit for making this pic watchable is nearly 100% due to the director, the amazing Joseph H. Lewis, still in his salad days (although he never quite made it to the main course, he just the same created movie history with his brilliant “B”s, My Name is Julia Ross, The Big Combo and, most significantly, Gun Crazy).  The direction is taut and the effects creepily unnerving.

The plot is about as outlandish as the ridiculous title.  Charles Kessler (Bela) is a revered doctor, living in a desolate mansion on the outskirts of a small town.  Still agonizing over losing his beautiful, adulterous wife, he fawns over the one positive result of their doomed union, the couple’s daughter Virginia (Polly Ann Young).

Of course, there are the murders.

Yep, Bela is kinda Cocoa Puffs coo-coo, seeing visions of his ex that send him into homicidal rages.  This makes finding local help rather difficult, save the dignified head servant Evans, a remarkable portrayal by the great Clarence Muse (in fact, Evans is the most reasonable and intelligent character in the piece, another positive WTF perk for a Poverty Row pic, never exactly sympathetic to African-American actors).

By like the 230th killing, the town lunkhead dicks (George Pembroke, and, what a shock, Fred Kelsey) are wondering if something strange is going on at the old Kessler place.  It’s mind-numbing (or skull-numbing).

It’s even more bizarre than it seems.  The former Mrs. Kessler was ditched by her paramour early-on, and went batshit crazy, living in a cottage on the property and attended by the groundskeeper and his wife (Ernie Adams and Ottols Nesmith).  They let her out at night where she roams the grounds, peering into windows and sending Bela into maniac mode.  This is really goose-bump stuff, I mean, visually, as the shots of the crazed Mrs. Kessler glaring through rain-streaked windows are truly disturbing.  Of course, this is helped by the actress playing the demented woman, the one-time silent screen goddess Betty Compson, who knows how to convey all kinds of emotion sans dialog.

As if you didn’t need any more side plots, Virginia’s fiancé is accused of one of the murders, found guilty and promptly electrocuted.  Hey, it’s John McGuire, who apparently made a mini-career out of playing death row-sentenced innocents (he played almost the same part in 1940’s Stranger on the Third Floor).  Everyone practically plotzes when McGuire returns to the manse after his execution; alas, it’s his twin brother.  Only at Monogram (well, and maybe PRC).

While Lewis does the best he can with material (that, frankly, with better writers, could have been an amazing psychological noir), ya can’t stop the corner-cutting once the Katzman is out of the bag.  Case in point: the decent photography (by house d.p. Marcel Picard, with extra assist by Harvey Gould) being compromised by boom-mike shadows.

Suffice to say, the pros absolutely outweigh the cons, and, without a doubt, there’s no logical reason for owning any other edition of INVISIBLE GHOST than this Kino Blu-Ray.  Admittedly, there is a hefty chunk of 16MM footage, but, we should mention that it’s all watchable (and this version, culled mostly from an Astor Pictures re-issue print, runs 64 minutes, about three minutes longer than most of the abysmal p.d. copies on the market).

Extras include trailers, plus commentary by Tom Weaver, Gary Rhodes and Dr. Robert J. Kiss.  Until the unlikely apparition of a complete mint 35MM print materializes, the Kino INVISIBLE GHOST is the must-have Blu-Ray for your Lugosi jones.

THE DEATH KISS.  Black and white w/color inserts.  Full frame [1.33:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA.  Kino Classics/The Library of Congress.  CAT# K1273.  SRP:  $29.95.

INVISIBLE GHOST.  Black and white.  Full frame [1.33:1; 1080p High Definition].  Kino-Lorber Studio Classics/Paramount Home Entertainment.  CAT# K21136.  SRP:  $24.95.

 

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