An island mansion full of secrets and zombies

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Released 14 May 1941, King of the Zombies was intended as a vehicle for Béla Lugosi (a role for which he would’ve been perfect). Unfortunately, he was unavailable at the time, and Monogram tried to negotiate for Peter Lorre (who also would’ve been great). Finally, Henry Victor was signed shortly before filming commenced. Because of Mr. Victor’s heavy German accent, he was unable to be a leading man, and instead established himself as a character actor.

James McCarthy (Mac) (Dick Purcell), his buddy Bill Summers (John Archer), and his very funny valet Jefferson Jackson (Jeff) (Mantan Moreland) are flying from Cuba to Puerto Rico when their plane blows off-course and crashes in a storm. The trio end up on a strange island, right in the middle of a cemetery.

With nowhere else to go, they enter the first house which presents itself and meet the acquaintance of owner Dr. Miklos Sangre (Henry Victor). Though they heard a faint radio signal while still in the air, Dr. Sangre denies any radio stations on the island. He instead claims they must’ve heard something from one of the many ships passing through, and says the next ship won’t arrive for about two more weeks.

Despite Jeff’s fears and suspicions, particularly regarding creepy butler Momba (Leigh Whipper), Bill and Mac accept the offer to stay as longterm guests. Jeff meanwhile is banished to the servants’ quarters in the cellar, which connects to the kitchen. He’s delighted to make the acquaintance of pretty maid Samantha (Marguerite Whitten), but newly frightened by the ancient cook Tahama (Madame Sul-Te-Wan).

Other residents of the mansion are Dr. Sangre’s wife Alyce (Patricia Stacey) and niece Barbara Winslow (Joan Woodbury). Jeff, who’s already wise to the existence of the household’s zombies and refuses to believe Dr. Sangre’s rebuttals of their true nature, is even more alarmed by Mrs. Sangre. As Dr. Sangre explains, “She lives, yet walks in the land of those beyond.”

Everyone then gets settled for the night, but Jeff still can’t relax. When a few zombies try to attack him, he flees upstairs and tells his friends what happened. The commotion gets Dr. Sangre’s attention, and he once more insists there are no zombies and that Jeff is just imagining things. However, he does finally permit Jeff to stay in the same room as Mac and Bill.

Jeff freaks out again when he sees Mrs. Sangre coming through a wall. Mac and Bill are finally convinced he’s on the level when Jeff finds an earring she dropped on the bed, and they go to investigate. During the course of the investigation, Mac finds Barbara in the library, researching how to break her aunt’s hypnotic state.

This time, no one believes Dr. Sangre when he finds them and tries to set their minds at ease. They’re determined to get off this island as soon as possible.

These plans, however, are thrown into jeopardy when the zombies come calling again. Will they be able to escape without joining the ranks of the undead?

A sleepwalking strangler

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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.

When the wolfsbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright

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Released 12 December 1941, The Wolf Man introduced moviegoers to a brand-new monster from Universal. For years, many of the studio’s horror films had been sequels and spin-offs with Frankenstein’s Monster, Dracula, the Mummy, and the Invisible Man. Now, with the addition of the Wolf Man, the Universal horror franchise got a breath of fresh air.

Werewolf films were nothing new, but The Wolf Man was the very first film to fully realize such a story and richly develop the tortured character. The film widely considered the first werewolf film, the 1913 short The Werewolf, was sadly lost in a 1924 fire at Universal Studios.

The earliest surviving werewolf film, 1925’s Wolf Blood, takes forever to broach the idea of a man transmogrifying into a wolf, and shows no transformation at all. The filmmaking is also said to be awful even in the context of that era. And in the first proper werewolf film, Werewolf of London (1935), the character doesn’t evoke much sympathy or human warmth.

All that changed with The Wolf Man.

Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney, Jr.) returns to the family castle in Wales after 18 years in California. As much as he enjoyed his life in the U.S., duty obliges him to assume the position of heir after his older brother John’s death in a hunting accident. Larry also needs to rebuild his relationship with his estranged father, Sir John Talbot (Claude Rains).

One of Larry’s interests is astronomy, and he wastes no time in testing out a new telescopic lens in the big telescope in the top-floor observatory. While looking around at the surrounding buildings and streets, he gets an eyeful of pretty Gwen Conliffe (Evelyn Ankers) in her bedroom directly across the way.

Larry likes what he sees very much, and sets out to visit the Conliffes’ antique store (which is run out of their house, like many businesses used to be). He first asks to see some earrings, but rejects all the beautiful jewelry Evelyn shows him. Though Larry is always depicted as a genuinely nice guy, it’s pretty creepy how he asks to see the pair of earrings he saw Gwen putting on in her room while he was spying on her (fully-clothed).

Larry settles for buying a cane, though he initially balks at the price of £3 ($15). Gwen showed him a number of nice canes, but Larry was only interested in one with a large silver handle in the shape of a werewolf’s head, with a pentagram on the side. (Side note: The so-called pentagrams which occur throughout this film are just ordinary five-point stars without any lines forming an upside-down pentagon in the middle.)

Larry then tries to make a date with Gwen for eight that night, and she repeatedly refuses. He leaves in good spirits, assured no really means yes and that she’ll be there waiting.

Gwen does happen to be standing outside when Larry returns, but this is to be no true date. There’s a third wheel, Gwen’s friend Jenny (Fay Helm), who goes along with them to get her fortune told by some Gypsies passing through.

Jenny goes into the tent first, but this fortunetelling session doesn’t last long. A pentagram appears on her hand, which makes Bela (Béla Lugosi) freak out and order her to leave. Shortly afterwards, Jenny is attacked by a wolf, and Larry kills it with his new cane. Before the wolf dies, it bites Larry.

The wounded Larry is carried home with help from Bela’s mother Maleva (Maria Ouspenskaya), who mysteriously vanishes as soon as he’s safe with his father. 

The morning after, Larry discovers in astonishment that the bite wound on his chest is fully healed. Not a trace of it is left. Though everyone saw the blood and how injured he was, Larry’s story now falls into question. Particularly when it comes out that Bela was killed, with no wolf’s body in sight. Larry’s father and other people believe he may have been confused and overexcited in the dark and fog.

Larry goes back to the Gypsy camp to try to get answers, and Maleva tells him Bela was a werewolf. She also says Larry is now a werewolf, and gives him a pentagram necklace to wear over his heart for protection.

Larry has already heard a bunch of werewolf lore from other locals, including Gwen, and tries his best to brush it off as nonsense and fairytales.

But then Larry starts changing into a werewolf and sneaking out of the house to prowl through the night, leaving a lot of mayhem in his wake and causing him to doubt everything he thinks he knows about science and reality.

Can Larry’s lycanthropism be cured before he goes on another deadly rampage, or will he forever be cursed with this strange sickness?

WeWriWa—An unpopular costume choice

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Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors and Snippet Sunday, weekly Sunday hops where writers share 8–10 sentences from a book or WIP. The rules have now been relaxed to allow a few more sentences if merited, so long as they’re clearly indicated, to avoid the creative punctuation many of us have used to stay within the limit.

This year’s Halloween-themed excerpts come from the eighth book in my Saga of the Sewards series (formerly known as Max’s House). It needs a great deal of editing, rewriting, and revision, along with a new title, so I’m doing preliminary edits and fleshing it out as I go this month.

The Sewards are now at a costume store, and Mr. Seward, who has very rigid ideas about almost everything, decides for his youngest children, 20-month-old quints, what they’re going to dress as.

“Clown,” Susie said.

“Ghost,” Andrew said.

“Peanut,” Paula said.

“Marshmallow,” Amy said.

“Seal,” Peggy said.

“Oh, no, you five will all be clowns,” Mr. Seward said.

“Clowns scare me, Daddy!” Amy bawled.

“No want face paint!” Peggy wept.

“Itchy pants!” Andrew said.

“Itchy wig!” Paula sobbed.

The ten lines end here. A few more follow to finish the scene.

Mr. Seward found five matching clown outfits in the quints’ size.

“Peanut, peanut!” Paula wept.

Tiffany glared at their father. “Why do you treat them like one person with five bodies? At least your attempt to make them as famous and exploited as the Dionnes didn’t last long.”

Mr. Seward glared right back. “Multiples are supposed to always do everything exactly alike. If quints weren’t so rare, I’d demand they marry another set of quints too. Elaine, would you check the costumes out while I take the younger children to the limo? The other patrons don’t deserve to be subjected to this tantrum.” 

The moment her uncle left the store, Elaine put four of the clown outfits back on the rack. She then got the other four desired costumes.

A Vampyric femme fatale stalks London

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Released 11 May 1936, Dracula’s Daughter was the last of Universal’s classic horror films until the franchise restarted in 1939. It was very loosely based upon Bram Stoker’s 1897 short story “Dracula’s Guest,” originally intended as the first chapter of Dracula. Some scholars also believe it was loosely based upon Sheridan Le Fanu’s 1872 Gothic novella Carmilla.

Béla Lugosi, Boris Karloff, Jane Wyatt, Colin Clive, and Cesar Romero were slated to star in this film, but the only one who ended up appearing in any capacity was Lugosi, in the form of a wax dummy seen near the beginning. Of the Dracula cast, the only one to reappear was Edward Van Sloan as Prof. Von Helsing (yes, his name was changed from Van Helsing).

Prof. Von Helsing is arrested for the murder of Count Dracula, which he admits he did and passionately defends. At Scotland Yard, he further explains his reasoning, and adds that since Dracula has been dead for over 500 years, it’s not real murder. He also decides to enlist the services of psychiatrist Dr. Jeffrey Garth (Otto Kruger) instead of getting a lawyer. Jeffrey was one of his best students, and Von Helsing feels a kinship with him.

There was another body discovered near Dracula’s, a murder Von Helsing says was committed by Dracula. Both of these bodies are moved to the police station for overnight watch, but one of the cops is called away on official business. The remaining officer is hypnotized by the ring of a femme fatale (Gloria Holden). The next day, he’s found dead and in a trance.

The strange woman, meanwhile, made off with Dracula’s corpse and ritualistically burnt it in the woods, throwing salt on the fire. She’s desperate to be cured of Vampyrism, an unusual theme we also find in the dreadful House of Dracula. Since when do Vampyres feel unhappy or conflicted about their integral nature?!

Of course, there wouldn’t be much of a story if she immediately got her wish. Sandor (Irving Pichel), a servant who assisted her in the corpse theft, tells her Death is in her eyes, and that she shouldn’t try to resist who she was created to be. She soon succumbs to temptation and goes on the hunt for fresh victims.

Dracula’s daughter introduces herself to society as Countess Marya Zaleska. Jeffrey attends one of her parties, and is quite taken with her. His fiancée and secretary Janet Blake (Marguerite Churchill), however, isn’t very happy to see the obvious mutual attraction, and begins scheming to try to nip this affair in the bud.

Jeffrey pays no heed to Janet’s objections, and goes to meet the Countess at her home at night. She claims she needs his expert psychological help for a terrible influence being exerted over her from beyond the grave.

While in the house, Jeffrey notices in surprise that there are no mirrors. He’s used to ladies having mirrors all over, and makes a joke about Vampyres not seeing their own reflection. Jeffrey also tells her about how people with addictions can overcome them by being close to the source of their weakness and summoning up the willpower to ignore it. We must confront our demons and become masters of ourselves.

Towards that end, the Countess dispatches Sandor to find a would-be victim. He spots a young woman, Lili (Nan Gray), about to take her own life by jumping into the river, and tells her to come with him for some money, a warm house, and food. At first, Lili thinks he wants to take her into white slavery, but Sandor convinces her this is on the level, that his mistress wants a model to paint.

The scene that follows is famous for its quite overt lesbian overtones, so much so it was among the films featured in the 1995 documentary The Celluloid Closet. While it’s shocking this slipped past the strict Hays Code, it also portrays the Countess’s lesbian desires as predatory and perverse, and Lili as a sweet little victim who bravely resists. Sadly, this was par for the course in mainstream films with gay or lesbian characters or overtones for decades.

The Countess hypnotizes Lili with her ring and sucks blood from her neck. Lili ends up in hospital, unable to remember anything about the attack. To try to get to the bottom of this, Jeffrey puts her into a trance and takes her back to the night of the incident. Lili gives enough testimony for him to figure out the Countess did it.

Then the Countess hypnotizes Janet, absconding with her to Transylvania. There are more lesbian overtones in a scene of Janet lying dazed on a bed as the Countess hovers over her, described as “the longest kiss never filmed.”

By now, Jeffrey’s skepticism at Von Helsing’s claims has completely melted away, and he believes Vampyres do indeed exist. Towards that end, he sets out for Transylvania to confront the Countess and bring an end to her reign of terror.