A sleepwalking strangler

Released 25 April 1941, Invisible Ghost was the first of Béla Lugosi’s nine films with Poverty Row studio Monogram Pictures. Despite Monogram’s lack of financial resources, however, they produced a lot of solid films, managed to lure a lot of stars (both current and former) from other studios, and launched a number of new stars. They also won an Academy for Best Short Subject (Two Reeler) in 1947, and were nominated for a number of other Academy Awards.

Lugosi went to work for them when his career was in the doldrums, a consequence of the restrictive Hays Code coupled with a British ban on horror films.

Charles Kessler (Lugosi) seems for all intents and purposes a very nice, respectable man, except for one big flaw—he went half-mad after his wife left him for his best friend a few years ago. She and her lover are believed to have died in a terrible car accident, and now every year on the Kesslers’ wedding anniversary, Mr. Kessler pretends she’s alive. The butler Evans (Clarence Muse) sets the table for two, and Mr. Kessler talks to this invisible presence.

Mr. Kessler’s daughter Virginia (Polly Ann Young, older sister of Loretta Young) is aghast when her serious beau Ralph Dickson (John McGuire) visits on this very evening and witnesses the bizarre spectacle. In embarrassment, she draws him aside and explains what’s going on.

Ralph was also secretly seeing the Kesslers’ maid Cecile Mannix (Terry Walker), but broke it off with her because he fell in love with Virginia. Now Cecile won’t accept the fact that it’s over and that Ralph’s heart is no longer hers. After they quarrel that night, Ralph drives off and Cecile retreats to her room.

We then learn Mrs. Kessler (Betty Compson) is alive, albeit not very well, and living in the cellar, where the gardener (not her lover) takes care of her. She’s terrified to come home, believing her husband will kill her, and anybody else as well. However, she regularly prowls through the grounds at night to appear below Mr. Kessler’s window.

And when he sees her, he goes into a trance and indeed kills someone.

That night, Mr. Kessler strangles Cecile with his overcoat (to avoid fingerprints). Evans discovers her corpse in the morning, and Ralph is accused of the crime. Though he heartily pleads his innocence, it seems an open and shut case of guilt due to the lovers’ quarrel Evans overheard. Ralph gets the death penalty.

Shortly afterwards, a dead ringer for Ralph visits and becomes a longterm houseguest—his twin brother Paul (also John McGuire). Paul is determined to get to the bottom of what really happened. While he believes Ralph was innocent on account of their being brothers, he also is highly suspicious of how several other servants in the household were murdered before that.

The next victim is the gardener, who’s also found by Evans. This time, Evans is accused of the crime, despite having no motive or suspicious behaviour. Mr. Kessler and Virginia also fully stand behind his innocence and good moral character.

Paul is also still determined to get to the bottom of all these mysterious murders, and some unexpected twists and turns may just expose what’s really been going on.

Invisible Ghost was very positively reviewed by The Los Angeles Times, which called it “head and shoulders above the average horror picture” and praised it for evoking a creepy mood more through psychological and psychopathic situations instead of directly showing the horror. They also loved Lugosi’s acting.

Another wonderful aspect of this film is the character of Evans. Clarence Muse always imbued his characters with such fully-realised humanity, dignity, and intelligence, whether they were servants or leading roles. Evans is a very important secondary character, and is never once cast as a stereotype or used for cheap laughs. This was quite refreshingly unusual for the era.

An invisible menace from the mists of time

Released 20 January 1936, The Invisible Ray was the third of the eight films Boris Karloff and Béla Lugosi made together. Initially, their next teaming had been planned as Bluebeard, but the script wasn’t ready in time. The powers that be put Bluebeard on the back burner and instead found a different film.

Director Stuart Walker didn’t like John Colton’s script for The Invisible Ray, and asked for a three-day break to fix it. When Universal refused, Mr. Walker left, and was replaced by Lambert Hillyer.

The initial budget was $166,875, considered fairly lavish for a B-movie. The production went over by $68,000, as well as going over schedule (17 September–25 October 1935). According to Stuart, “The director who did the picture started nine or ten days after I was ordered to start and finished 25 or more days after I was ordered to finish.”

Dr. Janos Rukh, like many mad scientists in the tradition before him, is widely seen as a crank whose obsessive research and unusual theories are an embarrassment and ridiculous vanity project. However, he’s bound and determined to prove his work is on the level and that he’s on the verge of the next great scientific breakthrough.

Towards that end, he convinces two such naysayers, Dr. Felix Benet (Lugosi) and Sir Dr. Francis Stevens (Walter Kingsford), to come to his home for a demonstration of a fascinating new telescope. Francis also brings his wife, Lady Arabella Stevens (Beulah Bondi), and his nephew Ronald Drake (Frank Lawton).

Predictably, Dr. Rukh’s much-younger and very pretty wife of three years, Diana (Frances Drake), has an immediate and mutual attraction to Ronald. Diana’s father was Dr. Rukh’s assistant, and when he passed away, she dutifully married Dr. Rukh. However, she’s never felt romantic love for him.

When everyone is seated, Dr. Rukh gives a marvellous demonstration of a new telescope, along with narration. The telescope not only gives a great planetarium show, it also projects images from millions of years ago. One of these images is a meteorite striking somewhere in Africa.

Drs. Benet and Stevens are so impressed by this magical telescope, they abandon their former hardened skepticism and agree to accompany Dr. Rukh on an expedition to find the impact site and harvest the material in this ancient meteorite.

The African quest takes far longer than expected, and nothing has been found. Though the others are starting to have second thoughts and planning to return to England soon, Dr. Rukh insists on staying just a bit longer. He feels he’s on the verge of a breakthrough in discovering the impact site, and with it incredible scientific secrets.

Find it he does, with the help of a bunch of natives. As per the unfortunate standards of most films of this era, they’re depicted as easily-spooked and having really cartoonish reactions to their fear.

Though Dr. Rukh is delighted to discover not only the impact site but the actual meteorite itself, his excitement is short-lived. When the meteorite is exposed to daylight again, it explodes and sends out dangerous radiation which sickens him quite badly. Dr. Rukh now glows in the dark, and his touch is deadly.

Dr. Benet compassionately creates an antidote which Dr. Rukh must take at the same time every day. If he doesn’t inject himself religiously, he’ll go back to his fully radioactive state. However, the newly-discovered element Radium X may have permanently altered his brain, and eventual madness may descend. The antidote also isn’t a cure, just a means of keeping the worst effects under control.

After Dr. Rukh returns to base camp, Dr. Benet tells him of the secret romance between Diana and Ronald. Knowing full well Diana never loved him, Dr. Rukh fakes his own death shortly after coming to Paris. He finds a man who very much resembles him, murders him, and makes him look like he died of radiation poisoning.

Dr. Benet returns to Europe with a piece of the meteorite and uses its powers for good. His procedure for curing blindness is embraced as a miracle. He also cures other ailments with a modified form of Radium X.

Though Dr. Rukh also uses Radium X to cure his mother’s blindness, his altruism doesn’t last for long. He presently sets his mind firmly upon revenge, and takes up residence in a boardinghouse across the street from a church with six statues. Each figure represents to him one member of the African expedition, and thus the people he believes ruined his life by getting rich and famous off of his discovery and hard work.

And thus begins a reign of terror from a mysterious invisible force.

Grisly grave-robbing in Edinburgh

Released 25 May 1945, The Body Snatcher was based on Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1884 short story of the same name. It was the first of three films Boris Karloff did with RKO Radio Pictures after leaving Universal, and the final film in which he co-starred with Béla Lugosi.

Though Karloff continued doing horror pictures, he felt the Frankenstein’s Monster franchise had run out of steam, and didn’t want to be involved with it in any capacity any longer, even though he no longer played the Monster in these films. He lauded RKO producer Val Lewton as “the man who rescued him from the living dead and restored, so to speak, his soul.”

In 1831 Edinburgh, cabman John Gray (Karloff) drops Mrs. Marsh (Rita Corday) and her young daughter Georgina (Sharyn Moffett, now 84 years old) off at the home of the esteemed Dr. Wolfe “Toddy” MacFarlane (Henry Daniell). Little Georgina was paralysed after a carriage rolled on top of her, an accident which took the life of her father. She seemed to be recovering at first, but then her condition worsened.

Mrs. Marsh says all the other doctors recommended Dr. MacFarlane very highly, and feels he’s their final hope. The consultation doesn’t seem to be getting anywhere, since Georgina can’t even tell him where exactly it hurts, but everything changes when Dr. MacFarlane’s student Donald Fettes (Russell Wade) comes in.

Georgina immediately warms to him, and lets him pick her up and put her on a table in another room. Without even trying, Fettes gets all the preliminary information needed. He calls Dr. MacFarlane in to take a look at the bony tumour at the base of Georgina’s spine, and surgery is suggested.

Dr. MacFarlane bears no ill will towards the Marshes, but begs off performing surgery. He’s far too busy with his teaching duties, and isn’t sure if he’s still as good of a physician as he is a med school teacher. If he operated on all the desperate people who come to him, he’d have no time to teach.

After the Marshes leave, Fettes announces he’s quitting med school because he hasn’t enough funds. Dr. MacFarlane, loath to lose one of his best students, offers him a paid position as a lab assistant for a very important research project.

At night, Gray arrives with a fresh corpse for Dr. MacFarlane’s anatomy class, and tells Fettes to unlock a desk where the money is kept. His fee for this service is £10. Fettes doesn’t think too much of it until he discovers just where this body came from.

Fettes is horrified to discover the body was the victim of grave robbery, and that the young man’s loyal little dog was murdered while standing watch over his lost master. He understands the importance of human vivisection for teaching med students, but doesn’t feel it’s right to obtain the bodies by robbing graves.

Mrs. Marsh returns to beg Fettes for Dr. MacFarlane to operate on Georgina. Initially Dr. MacFarlane agrees, but soon walks back to his fear of no longer being a good enough surgeon and better-suited to the classroom.

Gray and Fettes manage to convince Dr. MacFarlane to do the operation. Fettes appeals to his humanitarian side, while Gray reminds him there’s a dark secret in his past. It would be a shame if that secret were revealed.

Not realizing what kind of trouble he’s about to wade into, Fettes asks Gray to get another body for anatomy class. He assumes Gray will dig up a grave, but instead is delivered the fresh corpse of someone who was alive and healthy just that night.

When Fettes shares his suspicions with Dr. MacFarlane, he’s told he might be arrested as an accomplice to murder if he reports Gray to the cops.

Georgina’s operation appears to be a success, but she doesn’t think she can stand up and walk. Dr. MacFarlane did everything right, but Georgina insists it’s impossible. As someone who couldn’t walk for eleven months following my car accident, I know all too well that powerful mind-body connection.

Dr. MacFarlane goes to the local tavern to drink away his disappointment, and Gray once again taunts him about that dark secret from his past.

Then Dr. MacFarlane’s servant Joseph (Lugosi) pays a visit to Gray and attempts to blackmail him, which sets in motion a thick and fast parade of horrors.

 

A horrific commingling of bats and aftershave

Released 13 December 1940, The Devil Bat was the very first horror film made by then-new Poverty Row studio Producers Releasing Corporation (which went on to make many quality films which earned high praise). This film was also part of Béla Lugosi’s comeback after his career had gone into decline (due to new Universal management and the U.K.’s ban on horror films).

Dr. Paul Carruthers (Lugosi) of Heathville is a beloved citizen and respected research scientist for Heath-Morton Cosmetics, Ltd. Little do the villagers know what dark, twisted secrets are lurking in his hidden lab overlooking Martin Heath’s impressive estate.

Dr. Carruthers is keeping a bat whom he greatly increased in size, and training it to attack anyone wearing his Oriental aftershave.

Dr. Carruthers is invited to a party at the Heath estate, but begs off attending because he’s working so hard on a new formula. Everyone is disappointed he’s a no-show, since they planned to surprise him with a $5,000 bonus check.

Roy Heath visits him to deliver the check in person, and is talked into trying out the new aftershave. Dr. Carruthers tells him goodbye instead of goodnight when he takes his leave.

Instead of seeing that check as a generous gift, Dr. Carruthers feels insulted. He’s worked so hard for that company and helped to make them rich, while they expect him to be grateful with peanuts in return. Enraged, he sends his bat into the night.

The bat swoops from the sky to attack Roy when he arrives home, as his sister Mary (Suzanne Kaaren) and her friend Don Morton (the co-founder’s son) look on in horror. Dr. Carruthers is called to the scene and pronounces it a hopeless case.

The local newspaper immediately jumps on this mysterious unsolved murder, with young reporter Johnny Layton (Dave O’Brien) and cameraman One Shot McGuire (Donald Kerr) leading the investigation. Despite their boss Joe’s natural skepticism, they believe Dr. Carruthers’s theory that the culprit was a bat.

Tommy Heath tests the aftershave next, and once again Dr. Carruthers tells him goodbye instead of goodnight before releasing the giant bat. In full view of a horrified Mary, Johnny, and McGuire, Tommy is attacked and killed.

All of Heathville now lives in terror of the Devil Bat. This fear increases when the bat attacks a third victim, Don Morton.

All three victims had the same aftershave, leading to suspicions that a disgruntled factory employee is the one offing people in the Heath and Morton families.

Johnny and McGuire are fired when it comes out the Devil Bat they photographed was made in Japan, but that doesn’t deter them in the least. They continue the investigation on their own.

Dr. Carruthers cordially cooperates with the police chief and Johnny when they question him about the ingredients of his aftershave and why the three victims were wearing it. The chief begs off trying the aftershave, for fear his wife would suspect another woman, but Johnny takes a sample to use later. Yet again, Dr. Carruthers says goodbye instead of goodnight.

While Johnny and McGuire are waiting for the bat that night, their big chance arrives. They shoot it dead, a  development which is immediately the subject of many news stories.

Not one to be deterred easily, Dr. Carruthers gets another bat. His next victim, co-founder Henry Morton, takes more convincing than the others to put the aftershave on his face then and there instead of waiting till morning.

Dr. Carruthers is enraged when Henry reminds him he sold his first formula for only $10,000 and gave up his partnership stake, while the company has made over a million dollars. He once more says goodbye instead of goodnight.

With the second Devil Bat on the loose, Heathville once again lives in terror. Now Johnny, who’s been rehired, makes his move to prove once and for all who’s really behind these attacks.

A mad surgeon seeks revenge

Released 8 July 1935, The Raven is, as might be expected from the title, inspired by Edgar Allan Poe’s famous poem. But just as with the previous year’s The Black Cat, it has very little to do with the source material. TPTB also once again insulted Béla Lugosi by billing him second to Boris Karloff, despite being the main character. To make it even worse, Lugosi only earned $5,000 for the film vs. Karloff’s $10,000.

At least seven people worked on the script from August 1934–March 1935. To avoid “running the risk of excessive horror,” the Production Code Administration forbade Universal from showing operation scenes, as well as much more horrific makeup for Karloff’s character.

The Netherlands, Ontario, British Columbia, and China were among the places which banned the film. The Raven was the final horror film approved by the British Board of Film Censors.

The Raven was also the last film in Universal’s trilogy of Poe-inspired films, the others being Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932) and The Black Cat.

Young dancer Jean Thatcher (Irene Ware) is injured in a horrible car accident, and all her doctors pronounce her too far gone to save. Her dad, Judge Thatcher (Samuel Hinds), and her fiancé Jerry Halden (Lester Matthews), however, refuse to abandon hope, and beg retired Dr. Richard Vollin (Lugosi) to operate.

Dr. Vollin has many reservations, and doesn’t think they should fear the natural, inevitable process of death, but finally is compelled into operating.

Jean and Dr. Vollin become close friends after the surgery, and Jean sees him as more of a god than a man. In the course of their friendship, Dr. Vollin tells Jean about his love of Edgar Allan Poe and shows her his macabre collection of torture devices. They’ve become so attached to one another, they want to marry.

Judge Thatcher is none too pleased to learn of their plans, particularly since Jean’s already engaged to another man. Dr. Vollin exchanges harsh words with Judge Thatcher before taking his leave in a huff.

Dr. Vollin sees a perfect window of opportunity for twisted revenge when a fugitive, Edmond Bateman (Karloff), comes to him and begs for surgery to disguise his appearance. No one will nab him for murder, bank robbery, and escaping prison if he looks nothing like his old self.

Dr. Vollin says he’s not a plastic surgeon, but asks Bateman for help in getting revenge on the Thatchers. Bateman refuses, saying he believes his anti-social behaviour is the result of being called ugly his entire life. A brand-new face is the perfect chance to turn over a new leaf.

Sorry about the obnoxious watermark on a public domain image!

Bateman is horrified to see the results of his surgery. The left side of his face is normal, but the right side is utterly deformed. Dr. Vollin cackles maniacally, from his observation post just above the operating room, as Bateman shoots at all the mirrors which emerge from behind curtains. Bateman tries to shoot Dr. Vollin next, but is out of ammo.

Having little choice, Bateman agrees to help Dr. Vollin in getting revenge. Dr. Vollin promises to fix his face if he does this.

Jean, Jerry, and Judge Thatcher are among the guests at a dinner party Dr. Vollin presently throws. When Jean goes to her guestroom to fix her hair, she sees Bateman standing behind her and is terrified. She rushes back downstairs, where Dr. Vollin calmly explains Bateman is his servant, and makes up a story about how his face came to be mutilated. Dr. Vollin also claims it’s natural for doctors to love death and torture.

Judge Thatcher has serious reservations about spending the night in Dr. Vollin’s house, but Jean and Jerry laugh off his fears.

With all the guests retired for the night, Dr. Vollin shows Bateman his dungeon, full of torture instruments from Poe’s work. While Dr. Vollin is lying on a torture slab from “The Pit and the Pendulum” to demonstrate how it works, Bateman throws the switch to manacle his hands and feet and start the swinging pendulum.

Dr. Vollin persuades Bateman to release him by saying Bateman’s face will remain disfigured if he dies.

As a thunderstorm rages, Dr. Vollin intensifies his Poeian plan for revenge, which grows more and more deranged by the minute.

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