Sunday, June 18, 2017

The Ape Man -- Lugosi elevates Poverty Row again

The Ape Man, 64 minutes, 1943, Monogram, Directed by William Beaudine. Starring Bela Lugosi as Dr. James Brewster, Louise Currie as Billie Mason, Wallace Ford as Jeff Carter, Henry Hall as Dr. George Randall, Emil Van Horn as the ape, J. Farrell McDonald as Police Captain O'Brien and Minerva Urecal as Agatha Brewster. Schlock-meter rating: Seven stars out of 10.

Review by Doug Gibson

This is a screwball horror film, but a lot more entertaining than most viewers will expect. It's sheer pulp horror that doesn't take itself too seriously. The plot of The Ape Man involves a scientist (Lugosi) who for unexplained reasons accidentally turns himself into an ape man. Not trusting his sanity, he frequently locks himself up with an ill-tempered ape (Van Horn in a campy performance). Lugosi's ape man needs human spinal fluid to have even a chance to regain his former appearance and posture. This involves murder and when a colleague (Hall) refuses to help, Lugosi literally goes ape, and commits several murders. He's encouraged by his creepy sister (Urecal) a noted spiritualist who records the groans of ghosts. Lugosi's nemesis are a reporter/photographer duo who soon become wise to all the creepy occurrences.

Of such bizarre plots were Monogram cheapies of the 1940s created. It's a lot of fun to watch, even if the production values are predictably low. Lugosi, as usual, acts far above the product he's pitching, and he manages to make the audience feel sympathy for his plight. His ferocious temper tantrums are effective. He nearly strangles his sister in one scene. Urecal, by the way, is great as the slightly creepy sister. In an Los Angeles Times review (the paper actually liked the film) the reviewer suggested Urecal be given her own horror film to star in. So far as I know, it never happened, although she was also very good in the Lugosi vehicle The Corpse Vanishes. Currie and Ford as the wisecracking journalists have strong chemistry. B movie veteran actor McDonald is also an asset to the film. In a bit part is Earnest Morrison, better known as Sunshine Sammy Morrison of The East Side Kids.

The film is slightly marred by a truly goofy character who acts as a red herring, cutting into scenes for no reason and offering cryptic comments and warnings. At the end, he reveals himself to be the author of the tale. As The End is flashed on the screen, he remarks "Screwy, isn't it?"

Like any low-budget film, there are amusing contradictions. Why does Lugosi have an accent, and his sister doesn't? Also, why doesn't anyone seem to notice the ape-like Lugosi and his pet ape traipsing through the city? Of course, suspension of disbelief is a requirement to fully enjoy a Monogram film. So just sit back and take in the show. It's a fun hour of escapism and a great treat for those who enjoy the old C and B horror films. Notes: The film's shooting title was They Creep in the Night. In England, it was titled Lock Your Doors. There is a nostalgic reference to the times when Currie chides Ford for being 4F, and consequently not serving in World War II. He retorts that he's scheduled to enlist at the end.

The Ape Man plays occasionally on UEN's (Utah Educational Network) Sci Fi Friday and has a podcast to go along with it. There are many versions of the film. It is free to watch on the Web. Hopefully, Turner Classic Movies will air a pristine print of the film soon. Watch it below

Saturday, June 10, 2017

The Charley Chase Scrapbook details a bittersweet life with laughter

Review by Doug Gibson

A while back I reviewed "... The Harry Langdon Scrapbook," a fascinating visual treat of the comic's life and career. It was a treat from small publishing house Walker and Anthony and it prompted me to want to read and review another vintage comic scrapbook subject, Charley Chase. It's "The Charley Chase Scrapbook."

Chase, with an iconic face, worked very had to build his career as Charles Parrott, comic actor. Once living in poverty, he moved himself into prominence as a vaudevillian and early silent comedy actor. He gained initial acting stature, starting as an extra, with movie man Al Christie, and moved to Keystone and Mack Sennett, mostly as a director and writer. Pay disputes prompted him to freelance a while, again directing more often. He worked, among others, with Fox-Films and Bulls-Eye, mostly behind the camera, often directing Billy West, a Chaplin imitator who was popular.

During these years he married a dancer and English teacher named BeBe Eltinge, and two girls were added over a few years, Polly, who later acted with her father, and June, many of whom's recollections were gathered and eventually used in the Scrapbook. Charley's marriage with BeBe was a strong union that remained until his death.

Chase eventually gained stardom with Hal Roach studios. About that time he took the "Chase" last name, selecting it out of a phone book. His younger brother, James Parrott, who acted as Paul Parrott, came to Hal Roach a little before Charley and was a director, writer and briefly an actor. By 1926, Chase's career was rolling; but James', due to poor health, was slowly receding The rise of Laurel and Hardy and Our Gang comedy teams would eventually eclipse Charley Chase's stature at Roach's studio.

Concern over his brother, and a problem with alcoholism, would plague Chase the rest of his life. In the early days of sound, a medium he was well equipped for with a great singing voice, a bad ulcer nearly killed Chase. He rebounded with Roach studios working consistently for the first several years of the 1930s.

In my opinion, and many may disagree, Chase was at his best in the sound era. He was a very talented silent comedian, among the Top 10, but his voice and mannerisms work well with sound, and are well suited to talkies. In the Laurel and Hardy feature, "Sons of the Desert," Chase is superb as a pushy but likable prankster with the boys at a lodge convention. And although he did his best work overall with Roach studios, The Heckler, a Columbia comedy short he made late in life, captures Chase's talent so well as he plays an abrasive, jokester fan at a tennis match. He's great with an outraged Vernon Dent.

Eventually, Chase left Hal Roach studios. A note from Chase in The Scrapbook shows that he took his disappointing departure with humor and grace. Chase stayed busy, soon signing with Columbia's comedy shorts department, and doing what he was best at, acting, directing and writing. One of his better-known directed shorts is "Violent is the Word For Curly," from 1938.

Concern over the health of his deteriorating brother, James, wore Chase down in the 1930s. Before drug addiction literally destroyed his career, James directed the classic Laurel and Hardy short "The Music Box" and some Chase's films as well. But drug abuse demolished James' career, and eventually cost him his life in May 1939.

According to the Scrapbook, Chase blamed himself for his brother's death, and continued to drink heavily. Although he had a loving family and a still-strong career with Columbia, the excess drinking contributed to the heart attack that killed Charley Chase 13 months later, on June 20, 1940. He died in his home.

The Scrapbook is designed much like the Langdon one, with stills, posters, writings, drawings, family photos, handwritten entries, newspaper interviews, drawings, articles, and other communications providing a montage of his life. These scrapbooks provide readers glimpses into the personalities of the subjects. You witness Chase's drive and love of his craft. In this case, the picture is worth at least hundreds of words.

Many of the Scrapbook items are from Chase's personal collections, preserved by his grandson Charley Preshaw. The pictures of Chase, late in life, holding grandson Preshaw as an infant, provide a warm, human look at the comedy legend.

Chase rubbed acting shoulders with the best of his era. The book serves as a history of his era, a glimpse into a time capsule that fits on a coffee table. "The Charley Chase Scrapbook" is not inexpensive. It's a small press labor of love. It's a must for Chase fans, or fans of Hal Roach's vintage comedy. I recommend it for early film comedy fans as a fitting  inclusion in your genre bookcase.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Talking about A Werewolf Remembers with Frank Dello Stritto

Frank J. Dello Stritto has written some great books, essays and articles on classic horror films. I place him with Gary Rhodes and Arthur Lennig as the finest scholars chronicling the career of Bela Lugosi. Like his peers, Dello Stritto has written essays on many genre subjects, including King Kong, Svengali, The Phantom of the Opera, etc.

He's published a book of essays, "A Quaint and Curious Volume of Forgotten Lore," full of genre articles, many of which were published in Cult Movies Magazine. He, along with the best Bela Lugosi blogger Andi Brooks, broke new research ground with "Vampire Over London: Bela Lugosi in Britain," that detailed Lugosi's last major Dracula tour as well as provide strong overviews of his British films. The first edition was superb; a longer second edition even better.

Several years ago Frank published a memoir, "I Saw What I Saw When I Saw It" that recalled his life as a child, a Monster Boomer, becoming familiar with the films children loved in the "shock theater" TV days. As interesting is his account of how these films, particularly "Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein," extended their influence into adulthood, prompting him to search for films of that era he missed, leading him into fandom, and eventually scholarship.

Frank's latest book has just been released. It's "A Werewolf Remembers: The Testament of Lawrence Stewart Talbot." It's a fascinating pseudo non-fiction "documentary" account of the "Wolf Man's life," and how it interacts with much of the monster genre of almost two generations of films. "A Werewolf Remembers" also contains the the "journal" of Talbot, detailing the many journeys of his existence. Frank introduced the book at the recent Monster Bash.

This is a work only a scholar could weave together. I plan to review it in a few weeks. I was fortunate enough to help proof a draft of the book six months ago. I'm happy to announce its publication on our blog and interview the author. This is a lengthy interview, but it's well worth your time and will whet your appetite for "A Werewolf Remembers."

Readers will be able to purchase "A Werewolf Remembers" very soon (we'll let you know when). It will be at Amazon, as well as the Cult Movies Press website where his other books are available.

In the meantime, enjoy this interview with Frank Dello Stritto, about "A Werewolf Remembers."

-- Doug Gibson


Why was Lawrence Talbot the primary individual to focus on? Is it his ubiquity in the films and his relationship to so many aspects of the genre?

DELLO STRITTO: Talbot certainly gets around. He is always searching, and thus crosses paths with a lot of people. In my book, he meets everyone seen in his movies, and he meets a lot more.
When I began the book, I did not plan that Lawrence’s tale would span so many of the horror and monster movies of the 1930s and 1940s, but that’s what happened. When I needed a character to advance the plot, or an adventure for him to have, I found them ready and waiting for me in movies, whether Lawrence appeared in them or not. In his movies, the only werewolf that Lawrence meets is Bela the Gypsy, who infects him. In my book, he encounters many characters from The Undying Monster, Return of the Vampire, Werewolf of London, The Mad Monster, The Cat People, and so on. He even meets Carl Denham. Lawrence is a real wanderer, and having so many characters cross his path was not hard.
I hope readers will enjoy the challenge of identifying the movies from where I plucked each character. Some are easy to spot, some are really hard.
Lawrence befriends the real-life writer Jack London. I could not resist bringing him into Talbot’s tale. The real London took the name of his stepfather. His birth father was (probably) an astrologer named William Chaney. With London’s tie to Talbot (played in his five films by Lon Chaney), and his apparent fixation on wolves (Call of the Wild, White Fang, The Sea Wolf), I had to bring him in. In my book, Talbot meets a few other real-life figures as well.
I can’t say that I was looking for excuses to bring other movie monsters into Talbot’s story, but when the chance arose, I jumped on it.
Talbot’s travels are not why he is the center of the story. Lawrence is a character whose story begs to be told. We know something about him from his movies, and my book fills in the gaps. From the films, we know that he is the son of a Welsh aristocrat, and that he left home at age 13. We know that young Lawrence went to America where he did a lot of jobs working with his hands. He worked at Mount Wilson Observatory in Southern California. At age 31, he is summoned home. His older brother has died, and Lawrence is now heir to the Talbot estate. The first part of my book fleshes out the life of young Lawrence.
The theme of his life, before and after becoming a werewolf, is resolving his issues with his father. The doctors from whom he seeks help are surrogates for his father. But their real goal is to revive Frankenstein’s Monster, just as Sir John Talbot would bring back his older son if he could.

What kind of research was necessary, in both studies of the films and the first half of the 20th century, to create both parts of the book, the diary and the historical narration? 

DELLO STRITTO: I had to stay consistent with Talbot’s story as told in his five movies. When he meets a character from the real world, like Jack London, or from other movies, like Carl Denham, the narrative has to be consistent with their lives as well. So, I watched the movies a lot, and studied up on the real world figures to be sure that I got their stories straight. And from that I got a lot of ideas for the plot.
The big challenge is that I had to place those stories on a timeline consistent with the real world. Talbot’s last film appearance, in Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein, was in 1948. So, I anchored his last (known) day on Earth as February 25, 1948, and worked backed from there. That involved both World Wars, the Great Depression, and basically all of early 20th Century history. Sir John Talbot was an astronomer, and I involved him to the hunt to prove Einstein’s Relativity Theory. The Talbots live in Wales, so I read up on Welsh history. In The Wolf Man Sir John mentions a distant ancestor, “Red Talbot,” and so I made him the founder of the Talbot line. That was important, because in my book, Lawrence’s family history weighs heavily on him.

As I developed the narrative, I always knew what the Moon was doing. Fortunately, the dates of the Full Moons going back centuries are easy to find online. Also, lunar eclipses figure in Talbot’s tale, and their dates are also pretty easy to find. In my book, when the Moon is full, or when an eclipse occurs, it occurred in real life.
Of course, some things in the movies are really hard to reconcile with reality. In Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein, Talbot takes an airplane from London—after Full Moon sets—and arrives in La Mirada, Florida before the Moon rises again. Not easy to do now, and all but impossible in 1948. I managed to explain that in my book, but I can’t blame any readers who say “I don’t think so.”

I'm intrigued by your explanation for the immortality of Talbot, the Frankenstein Monster, and Dracula. It helps to explain the many deaths and resurrections of these characters. Explain your reasons for making Dracula the supreme evil and the monster a more sympathetic character? 

DELLO STRITTO: The Universal monsters—The Wolf Man, Frankenstein’s Monster, Dracula, and—though he’s not in my book, The Mummy—are immortals. Thanks to super science or the supernatural, they are not bound by the same laws of life and death that we are. But they do go to apparent “deaths” for long periods until they return to “life.” For my book, I had to have Talbot go somewhere—which he calls “The Deep Darkness”—and I got a bit creative with that. I hope readers will be intrigued by those segments of the story when Talbot is supposedly “dead.”
It is Talbot who makes Dracula the supreme evil. One of the unexplained elements of Talbot’s tale as told in the movies is his drive to hunt down and destroy Dracula in Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein. In my book, I give Talbot a personal motive for hunting Dracula, and the vampire became more and more evil as the story developed. Another unexplained feature of Talbot’s movies is his return to lycanthropy after being cured at the end of House of Dracula. My story ties those loose ends together, but still leaves some mysteries for the reader to ponder.
I don’t think that I made The Monster more sympathetic than he is in the films. Dracula and The Wolf Man hunt for victims, but The Monster rarely acts for any other reason than self-defense. He is a tragic figure, an outcast, a victim of mad doctors who create and revive him with no regard for The Monster himself. Before he meets Talbot, he can be a murderer, particularly in Ghost of Frankenstein, but with Talbot he is quite a sympathetic figure.

Besides Universal, of course, other studios' efforts are included. I particularly enjoy The Cat People references and think it's great that even The Alligator People are included. What was the research process of tying so many films together? Did you need a solid outline to write this book?

DELLO STRITTO: I needed an outline for the first part of Talbot’s life, before the movies pick up his tale with The Wolf Man. And I needed an outline for the gap between the end of House of Dracula and the beginning of Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein. The outline between those two segments really came from the plots of The Wolf Man movies, because I had to stay consistent with them.
Once assembled, think of the outline as a Christmas tree, and then you start hanging the ornaments. That’s the fun part. Talbot passes through New York City, on the way home to Wales (which is the start of The Wolf Man). So, I have him meet some characters from The Cat People (which takes place in New York).  Later, Talbot searches for a doctor to cure his lycanthropy. In the movies, he goes straight to Dr. Frankenstein (who dies before Talbot reaches him), but I had him go to a few others first: Lady Jane Ainsley (from Return of the Vampire) and Dr. Yogami (from Werewolf of London).
When I bring in those characters, I have to create lives for them outside of their movies. Since the actress who played Lady Jane (Frieda Inescort) also played the doctor in The Alligator People (which also stars Lon Chaney), I brought some of that movie into my story. I do that throughout the book with a lot of characters and movies.

Personally, who were some of the characters you enjoyed fleshing out beyond their activities in the actual films?

DELLO STRITTO: Almost every character had to be fleshed out quite a bit, particularly Lawrence’s father, Sir John. But the character who almost wrote himself was Vollaz Yogami. I gave him that first name, or maybe he gave it to me. Once I brought in Dr. Yogami, the writing took on a life of its own. Nothing like that has ever happened to me before. It was as if I were not writing, but taking dictation. I am not a fast writer, but the chapters with Yogami wrote themselves very quickly.

As a Monster Boomer, do you have satisfaction in creating a narrative that brings the films together and works to solve so many continuity problems?

DELLO STRITTO: Definitely. When I first watched the movies as a child, any inconsistencies in the plots—and there are plenty—nagged at me. So did any plot disconnects between movies, and there are a lot of those, too. Of course, as I developed the plot for my book in detail, I uncovered more (like Talbot’s flight from London to La Mirada). A lot of these had to do with the timeline. Keeping the story consistent with the movies, and with a chronology that made sense was a challenge.
One of the inconsistencies is geography. The Frankenstein and Wolf Man movies confuse the villages of Frankenstein, Vasaria and Visaria. I resolved that, I think.
As a kid, I was always trying to resolve the discrepancies within the movies and between the movies, and it was fun to do it again in my book.

Do you think the book provides more than just a tale of Lawrence Talbot and his many interconnected experiences? Is there an intention to comment on any issue beyond the monster genre?

DELLO STRITTO: At face value, the book is, I hope, an exciting tale and a homage to the horror and monster movies of the 1930s and 1940s. The book’s dedication is “To Second Sons Everywhere, And Their Older Brothers.” Talbot’s relationship with his father, and his older brother is at the core of Talbot’s story, and at the core of my book. I expanded on it when I could, and I tried not to hammer the reader with it. If the book is any more than the tale it tells, it is how our closest blood relations, dead or alive, are never far from us. In the book, those relations are all male because in Talbot’s movies they are all male. I bring plenty of female characters into the story, including Talbot’s mother, but the basic tale is fathers, sons and brothers.  

How will the book be publicized? Do you have another one in mind?

DELLO STRITTO: A Werewolf Remembers is my fourth book. Whenever I finish one, I always think: that’s it, I have no more to say. That’s how I feel now, and have no plans to do another book. Time will tell. Whether or not I write another one may depend on another mode of writing. My first book (Vampire Over London – Bela Lugosi in Britain) is non-fiction history. My second one (A Quaint & Curious Volume of Forgotten Lore – The Mythology & History of Classic Horror Films) is analysis and criticism. My third one (I Saw What I Saw When I Saw It – Growing Up in the 1950s & 1960s with Television Reruns and Old Movies) is a memoir. And A Werewolf Remembers – The Testament of Lawrence Stewart Talbot is fiction.
I did not set out to write on the same topic in different ways, but that’s what happened. I suppose a new mode is what I need to get the creativity. But I really don’t know—we will see.
Publicizing the book: well, I will go to movie conferences where the likely readers congregate. I will be getting my website ( overhauled soon. I will have to become more active and savvy in social media to get the word out. Honestly, I am not looking forward to that.

What's an issue I missed, something that you'd like readers to know about your book?

DELLO STRITTO: I would like to make the premise of the book clear.
Lawrence Talbot was last seen on Feburary 25, 1948 when he went off to confront Count Dracula. A few weeks later a steamer trunk arrived at the apartment house where he had rented a room. The landlord put it in storage room, and there it stayed for 30 years.
That landlord was my Uncle Joe. When he died, the trunk passed to me, and in it I found Lawrence Talbot’s journals. I read them, and thought them the fantasies of a delusional man. Yet, the deeper I looked into his story, the more it squared with any facts that I could uncover.

So, the book is both Lawrence Talbot’s story, and my investigations into his claims. It is a journey for me as well as for him.
ONE MORE THING: Enjoy this recent chat with Frank at Plan9Crunch that deals with Bela Lugosi's "Poverty Row" films.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

The Conqueror Worm -- not 'worse' than Multiple Maniacs

The Conqueror Worm (Also known as Witchfinder General)1968, United Kingdom, American International release, Color, about 88 minutes. Stars: Vincent Price as Matthew Hopkins, Hilary Dwyer as Sara, Rupert Davies as John Lowes, Robert Russell as John Stearne and Ian Ogilvy as Richard Marshall. Schlock-Meter rating: 9 and 1/2 stars out of 10.

By Doug Gibson

(I was watching a couple of interviews (recent) with the great John Waters on YouTube and one comment he made, when discussing "Multiple Maniacs," tickled my funny bone. Reminiscing about the outraged reviews his films would receive in the 1970s, Waters recalled that one review called "Multiple Maniacs" even worse than "The Conqueror Worm."

Waters admitted he's never seen "The Conqueror Worm," but said he thought he'd like it.

He would; it's a great film and here's a review:)

Ever wanted to see how really evil a person Vincent Price could portray in a film? Go rent, or buy, the Conqueror Worm. This is a magnificent film about 17th Century England and witch hunter Matthew Hopkins (Price) who is the law in a war-torn land. The plot: The sadistic Hopkins and his henchman Stearne (Russell) terrorize towns by executing “witches” and collecting cash for their services. In Brandiston, they torture an aged preacher. In order to save the preacher’s life, his niece Sara (Dwyer) agrees to be Hopkins’ sex slave. But after Stearne rapes Sara, Hopkins loses interest in Sara and kills her uncle.

Back from the wars arrives Sara’s intended Richard Marshall (Ogilvy) and when he finds out how his fiance has been treated, he swears vengeance and goes after the witch hunter, who lays a trap for Marshall. I won’t give away the climax, except to say that the intensity of the last scene has been matched by few cult films.

Atmosphere keeps The Conqueror Worm moving at a fast pace. The characters seem believable, whether they are in a pub, at war or witnessing the execution of a “witch.” Critic Danny Peary describes Price as never having been better. Peary also talks about the triumph of evil, which “will emerge victorious” despite whether Hopkins or Marshall kills the other. In the film, the viewer is jolted into a sense of overwhelming pessimism of the situation. One wonders at the end if the protagonist (Marshall) is really any better than Hopkins.

Credit to the gloomy but effective mood of Conqueror Worm goes to the director Michael Reeves. He was a major new talent in Britain in the 1960s. Besides Conqueror, he directed The Castle of the Living Dead, 1964, and The Sorcerers, 1967, with Boris Karloff. Sadly, Reeves took his own life in 1969.