Thursday, December 4, 2014

Carry on Screaming! British Horror Week - The Sequel! Three for Thursday - Bela Lugosi in Britain

As much love and respect as I have for Karloff, I've always gravitated more towards Lugosi for some reason. I'm not gonna say Bela is better than Boris of course, them being different actors, both adept at bringing particular things to the table (of course there's an element of overlap too). For whatever reason though, I'll watch anything with Lugosi in it... and I do mean anything. There's just something utterly wonderful about watching him throw himself into every role, no matter how potentially ridiculous it is (The Ape Man and The Devil Bat both spring to mind) and going for it with full body and soul, treating B movies as if they were Shakespeare. Now this isn't to say the silliness of some of these movies was missed on the actor (just check out either The Devil Bat or Mother Riley Meets the Vampire for evidence that he was sometimes in on the joke too), I'm just saying I feel like he played every part as if it might be his last.

We've looked at a couple of Karloff's British horror films recently (and there's one more we might discuss soon if time permits) so I thought it'd be good to also talk briefly about three of Lugosi's. They're the only ones Bela made in Britain that I'm aware of and a bit of a mixed bunch, but all worth checking out for fans I'd say. Anyway, enough pre-rambling, on to the films!

The Mystery of the Mary Celeste (Denison Clift, 1935)

Linking back to my last post, this first film is actually one of Hammer's earliest and probably the best of these three Lugosi pictures. I saw it courtesy of an upload on Hammer's Youtube channel under the title The Phantom Ship, which is shorter than the original version. Sadly it seems that full length cut is now lost but I suppose film cans are found all the time so fingers crossed!

As the title should suggest, the film centres round the famous maritime mystery and imagines a solution. I won't say any more than that but  Bela is on board for a Hammer movie so what else do you need?

A bit more arm twisting required? Okay then. First and foremost, Lugosi gives one of his best performances here, proving he can be subtle when he needs to and evoking pathos a plenty in certain key scenes.

That aside, I found it generally engrossing and well acted, with an ensemble of interesting, reasonably defined characters. And despite it being an early Hammer film (and talkies being a relatively recent invention) I thought it had some good production values and atmosphere.

Hammer and Lugosi enthusiasts should definitely check this one out. Oh and one last tidbit I forgot to mention. Perhaps in a cheeky nod to his film (with Karloff) from the previous year, Bela brings a black cat on board! So am sure y'all have surmised (and this really isn't giving anything away) that he doesn't hope for the Mary Celeste to fare well on its voyage!

The Dark Eyes of London (Walter Summers, 1939)

Based on the 1924 Edgar Wallace novel of the same name, this film is also a notable one historically, being "the first British film to receive the 'H' [for Horrific] rating and the last British horror film to receive the rating" (thanks Wikipedia! By way of Tom Johnson's book Censored Screams: The British Ban on Hollywood Horror in the Thirties (2006) apparently).

Lugosi plays Dr. Orloff, who runs an insurance agency (are your alarm bells ringing yet?) and Scotland Yard starts finding bodies in the Thames. Don't think you need to be Sherlock Holmes to figure out what might be transpiring. Admittedly there's a bit more to it than that but as usual I don't want to spoil anything.

On a first pass I didn't think this was tremendously memorable but it was still an engaging and entertaining mystery. And those inclined should certainly find it worth at least one watch for a few stand out scenes. For one thing, any movie that has a line like "I'm not a foreigner doc, I'm an American" can never be a complete waste of time.

Mother Riley Meets the Vampire (John Gilling, 1952)

Taking us somewhat full circle, this final film was directed by a man who also made movies for Hammer (including The Reptile and The Plague of the Zombies, produced back to back in '66 apparently). The most overtly comedic movie I've seen from Lugosi, he seems to be having a ball here, perhaps in good spirits due to coming off a British theatrical revival of Dracula he had hoped would jump start his career but sadly didn't.

In some ways this might have been the beginning of the end movie for Bela and bizarrely its cross dressing protagonist (Arthur Lucan playing an old Irish washerwoman) sort of anticipates Glen or Glenda, the first movie he made with Ed Wood Jr. the following year.

Lugosi plays a criminal mastermind known as "The Vampire" and he's attempting to create an army of robots to take over the world. Things don't exactly start off too well though when his prototype ends up being mailed to Mother Riley (Lucan) by mistake. And then hilarity ensues. Or does it? I'll leave you to be the judge there. It has its moments for sure and it's a joy to see Bela having so much fun (as much as what's to come makes that sadly poignant) but to be honest I'm not sure what to make of the music hall/pantomime dressing in drag shenanigans... it was probably a bit old hat even back in an early fifties cinema... but that whole sort of thing is admittedly a part of British comedy and cultural tradition so I guess it as its place. Plus it's a bit of a lark. All of which is a long winded way of saying that while I enjoyed watching the film, I would't be in a rush to revisit it.

So, in summation, I'd recommend all the above to Lugosi fans but in descending order... so if you're craving a bit of Bela (as it were), I'd go for Mystery of the Marie Celeste, then Dark Eyes of London and then, if you're starting to get a bit stuck, Mother Riley Meets the Vampire.

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