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Posts Tagged ‘bela lugosi’

The Invisible Ghost (1941) Blu-Ray Review

Tuesday, March 14th, 2017

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Stars – Bela Lugosi, Polly Ann Young, Betty Compson, John McGuire, Clarence Muse
Director – Joseph H. Lewis

Released by Kino Studio Classics

Reviewed by Steven Ruskin

If you have a taste for Poverty Row films this is a classic with much to recommend about it. The first major draw is Lugosi’s performance. He plays a delightful man whose wife has cheated on him and disappeared. Whether she is dead or gone we do not really know. It has broken his heart. Though she has been gone for three years he still has a fancy dinner on their anniversary. Her plate is set and he engages in imaginary conversation with the empty chair. Later on he is visited by a ghostly image of her. She puts the whammy on him. Director Lewis has a light placed underneath the frame just in front of Lugosi. As he moves closer his face gets brighter. The excessive glare accentuates his features. He extends his hand in a classic chocking posture and affects a limp as he goes after someone to do away with. He seems to settle for anyone who is available in the house. It’s a good thing his daughter and boyfriend came over because Lugosi was running out of people to kill. There is no devious plot behind the killings. We know who done it from the start. The why seems to be just bonkers if you think about it at all. Even though Lugosi is the killer we can see it is not his fault. He is so nice to the butler. At one point he reassures the new cook who is about to quit. It is a tender moment. So while Bela is still the mysterious strangler he gets to play a good guy in a rare sympathetic role.

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Early on we see that the gardener has Lugosi’s wife hidden away in a secret room down in the basement. He took her down there after a car accident. She’s not quite herself so rather than trouble anyone upstairs he figures he’ll let her regain her composure before returning her. But it’s been three years! That’s a long time to smuggle turkey legs and scraps from the dinner table downstairs to this lady. She’s got a small bed and a nightstand and that’s about it. This gardener could well be the father of the creepy kidnapping guy in The Vanishing (1988).

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With all these murders why do people keep staying in this house? While the plot and mystery are just nuts, director Joseph H. Lewis elevates this film with his considerable talents. His frequent use of interesting shadows enhanes the look of many sequences. He’ll often put something in the foreground with his actors in the middle area to give his shots an amazing amount of depth. When Lugosi sits down at his favorite chair by the fireplace he has the camera shoot from behind the flames looking up at Lugosi. It’s a great shot. He uses the gimmick of having Bela put his hands inside his coat when he strangles his victims. It eliminates fingerprints but also allows for some close ups of Bela’s eyes burning out over the collar of the coat as he holds it up. It is a bit reminiscent of Dracula peering over his cape. There are a few times when the camera trucks slowly toward an actor. It makes a strong impact as the camera doesn’t move around much in this soundstage. Any fan of horror films will appreciate the beauty shot he gives Lugosi’s wife as she peers in from the rain soaked window. When talented directors worked at this level they may have had low budgets but their innovation and creativity had full reign. There were no Darryl F. Zanucks or Harry Warners checking in on them. Lewis went on to make Gun Crazy, The Big Combo and other great films but his style is easily recognized here.

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This is an old dark house style mystery-thriller-horror picture. There is Lugosi, his daughter, the boyfriend, the cook, the gardener and the butler. We also get a visits from two detectives. It’s a small cast and one location to keep the budget down. When the boyfriend is killed his twin brother arrives. Now that’s getting two roles out of one actor Poverty Row style. It is worth noting that Clarence Muse’s butler is a very likeable character. There is none of the exaggerated frightened antics that were usually the norm for black actors then. The film runs 64 minutes which was normal for a B film like this.  Between Bela’s performance and the style of director Joseph Lewis The Invisible Ghost is one of the better Poverty Row films out there.

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Video – 1.33:1
After a bit of a rocky start with the credits the picture looks exceptional for the next twenty five minutes or so. Detail is quite strong. Black levels all behave with no noise chatter. The close ups of Lugosi reveal texture in the skin. Shadows have nice contrast. The shot of the wife through the rain soaked window is a classic horror portrait. However about a half hour in we get a shift in quality as if other elements were then used. There are scratches. Some of the lighter scenes feel a bit too bright with a few facial shots bordering on washing out. But then we’ll see strong detail in the background and people.  The enhancing benefits of the transfer seem to hold their own throughout. The varying quality has to be down to condition of the film materials that were available. What is good about this picture remains fabulous. Yes it is not consistent but more than enough of this looks great. Much is good and the rest is always entirely viewable despite the scratches and lines.

Audio – Mono track with subtitles offered in English
All dialogue is easy to follow. The music has plenty of recognizable cues that fans may have heard in many films before.

Extras – Commentary with Tom Weaver, Gary Rhodes, and Dr. Robert Kiss, Trailers
The inside cover sports a very nice two sided spread of promotional art from the film.

Tom Weaver and his pals bring a Steamer trunk full of information to this fun commentary track. Gary Rhodes gives a nice infatuated tribute to the old Dark House sub genre. Weaver doles out plenty of background on the film and the stars. We learn that Polly Ann Young is Loretta Young’s older sister. Despite admitting that the film’s plotline is Looney Tunes all three bring a real appreciation of the film to the table.

On a scale of Poor, Fair, Good, Excellent, Classic :

Blu-Ray – Good / Excellent

Movie – Good / Excellent

The Trail Of Dracula From Folklore To Screen (2016) DVD Review

Saturday, November 5th, 2016

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Stars – featuring Bela Lugosi, John Carradine and Christopher Lee
Director – David Mitchell, Jamie Lockhart

Released by Intervision

Reviewed by Steven Ruskin

Produced by Severin, Trail of Dracula presents as a documentary styled addition to a feature film set or perhaps something you’d see on The History Channel or Biography.  The feature is only 63 minutes long. The early portion that concerns myths, legends and the cultural background of the vampire comes across as rather dull. Many of those interviews may indeed be learned experts but most come off awkwardly on camera.  Kim Newman and a few others clearly have a lot of experience and are a dependable lot to listen to. When we get to the part where Bram Stoker creates the famous novel things pick up considerably. There is a good deal of background on his influences. We get a picture of the man himself. Apparently the book did not sell well enough to afford him any kind of comfortable living.

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Once the film starts to cover Dracula in the movies most if not all of the material will be familiar to any die hard horror buffs worth their fangs. The story about how the film Nosferatu was clearly drawn from the Dracula novel which resulted in the film being taken out of circulation only to be revived years later as a cult treat is well known. Bela Lugosi is a welcome presence. His climb from the stage production to the screen is a nice one. While there are some archival stills and a some interesting footage the majority of the visuals are taken from the trailers from the spate of vampire movies that followed. The documentary does restrict itself to Dracula films so there is no examination of the many unusual types of vampire features that broke the mold.

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We get to hears some interesting tales of how Christopher Lee became the goto actor for Dracula for Hammer films. We hear about the dance that Lee and Hammer studios did as they tried to get him to do one more role as the legendary vampire. As much as he protested the typecasting and may have complained about the scripts some say that he would have been gravely insulted if anyone else had been given those parts. We do get a boatload of trailers included with the extras. It was disappointing to see that after hearing about the film we do not get to see the trailer for Andy Warhol’s Blood For Dracula. The Trail of Dracula is much more entertaining once it gets going though it does cover very familiar ground.

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Video – 1.78:1
From a wide variety of sources. Most of the recent interviews are done in a 1.78:1 format and look fine. The quality of the trailer sources varies quite a bit.

Audio – Dolby 2.0 Stereo
The recent interviews are all fine.

Extras – Dracula Trailer Reel – 94 minutes of Dracula movie trailers, Audio Interviews With Christopher Lee, Audio Interview With Francis Lederer (Return of Dracula), Nosferatu Interview With Werner Herzog, Blood For Udo: Interview with Udo Kier

On a scale of Poor, Fair, Good, Excellent, Classic :

DVD – Good

Movie – Fair / Good

The Black Sleep Blu -Ray Review (1956) Blu-ray Review

Sunday, February 14th, 2016

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Stars – Basil Rathbone, Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney, Jr., John Carradine, Tor Johnson, Akim Tamiroff
Director – Reginald Le Borg

Released by Kino Lorber Studio Classics

Reviewed by Steven Ruskin

The memory of looking forward to seeing this one is so vivid. Monster magazines like Famous Monsters would always run the gag pictures with the monsters from the film clowning around on the set and eating together in full costume. Everybody was in this one. It was the all star game of horror films. Lon Chaney (The Wolfman), John Carradine (House of Frankenstein), Bela Lugosi (Dracula), Tor Johnson (Plan Nine from Outer Space), and Basil Rathbone (Son of Frankenstein) were in it. The role that Akim Tamiroff played was supposed to go to Peter Lorre. Seeing this as a young monster fan was a bit of a let down as you had to wait until the last part when all the monsters would come up from the basement and start going on the rampage in the creepy house where Basil Rathbone practiced his experiments. However revisiting this a few years ago and again on this new Blu-ray revealed a decent mad doctor story that has good characters in a compelling B level film.

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The film begins with a somber voice over about the West Indian powder that can induce a state that looks and behaves just like death. The imbiber can fool a doctor. Revival must be done within twelve hours to bring the subject back to life. The powder is known as the black sleep! Sounds like the stuff of voodoo legends. Dr. Ramsay an innocent man is saved from being hung by the kindly Dr. Cadman (Basil Rathbone). He uses the black sleep to rob the hangman and save this doctor so he can assist him with his experiments. Slowly but surely Cadman appears to have a very ruthless agenda. He employs Akim Tamiroff as an amusing gypsy fellow who has a talent for providing live subjects for the experiments. Tamiroff plays the role with a conniving sense of dark humor. You can see that it was written with Peter Lorre in mind. During the film there are shadings of Val Lewton’s film The Body Snatcher (1945) that centered around a kind doctor paying grave robbers for subjects so that he may learn how to heal a young girl. As this film goes on though Rathbone’s portrayal of the doctor reminded me of the way that Peter Cushing in Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1970). This is one ruthless scientist. Cadman has an agenda to save his comatose wife and he will continue operating on live subjects until he can master the art of brain surgery so he can bring her back .

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There are scenes with Cadman and Ramsey carefully discussing which parts of a brain. illustrated on a large map control which functions of the body. In an operation on a subject Cadman inserts a probe into the uncovered brain to drive each of these responses. A poke and the eyes close. Another and an arm raises. Ramsey is taken aback and leaves the room. He wonders what happens to all of these subjects. Later on he learns from the lovely nurse Laurie that Mungo the killer with a limp that wanders the hall is actually her father. He was an experiment that allowed him to walk again but turned him into a mute homicidal maniac. They sneak down to the basement together and find a menagerie of failed experiments chained to the walls. We know it is only a matter of time till these guys get loose and seek out some retribution.

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Rathbone plays this role very well. We can see his distain for having to deal with a man like the one played by Tamiroff. We can see how he seduces Dr. Ramsey by saving his life so he’ll feel compelled to help with the experiments lest the police find him alive and want to hang him. Herbert Rudley gives a nice turn as the manipulated doctor, He and Patricia Blake as Mungo’s daughter are the only real good folks in the film. They are guaranteed that closing shot running away from the evil house clinging to each other as the end title appears. Chaney and Lugosi move through their roles without any dialogue at all. John Carradine shines as one of the denizens of the basement who calls on his fellow brethren to rise up with him as he intones, “Death to the infidels”

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Even in 1956 The Black Sleep in kind of a throwback film. It is played almost like a dark drama about a brilliant and kind doctor revealed to be a ruthless manipulator. The majority of the film unfolds letting us see who the real monster is. Rathbone takes it seriously and pulls the role off so well. Tamiroff supplies comic relief in his part as the unscrupulous gypsy. Director Reginald Le Borg lets the monsters out of the box in the last section of the film. Chaney and the fellow in the striped shirt with chains do a lot of choking. Carradine swings that crutch of his with a vengeance. People are knocked into the large fireplace. That last sequence features a woman running down the hall on fire as the monsters take over the house killing everyone in sight. Justice is served.

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Video – 1.85:1
Presented in its widescreen ration this shots have a lot more room to breathe than they did on all those TV showings. We get a better sense of the interior of the creepy house with its hidden passageway in the fireplace that lead to the secret operating room. The Blu-ray looks terrific. There is lots of detail, strong black levels. There is grain to be seen as it should be. It is so nice to see a film of this supposedly second class status get a first class treatment.

Audio – DTS Mono Track
Everything comes across very clear including the ominous score.

Extras – Commentary by film historians Tom Weaver & David Schecter, “Trailers From Hell” with Joe Dante, Trailers

Tom Weaver seems to have interviewed everyone alive that had anything to do with this film. He’s got a wealth of information to impart. Though much of his commentary is not scene specific he fills us in on how the film came to be and how the various players became attached. In a particularly amusing moment he admits how he lost out on getting an interview with Patricia Blake who had lots of juicy Black Sleep stories. He also bemoans how this film seems to always be identified as The Black Sheep. Weaver’s commentaries are always welcome. Loads of good information from a man who is as crazy about these films as we are.

On a scale of Poor, Fair, Good, Excellent, Classic :

Blu-Ray – Excellent

Movie – Good

White Zombie (1932) Blu-Ray Review

Sunday, February 10th, 2013

Stars: Bela Lugosi, Madge Bellamy, Joseph Cawthorn, Robert Frazer, John Harron
Director: Victor Halperin
Released by Kino Lorber

Reviewed by Steven Ruskin

Made in the Pre-Code days when motion pictures could be a little more daring, salacious and trashy, the original movie poster proclaimed, “With these zombie eyes he rendered her powerless. With this zombie grip he made her perform his every desire!” Clearly someone was going to turn some hot young flapper girl into his personal zombie love slave. Well not quite.

This horror film has none of the reputation of the other thirties classics including the Universals that dominated the beginning of the decade. There were tantalizing stills in Famous Monster and film books but it comes across as creaky. The acting is pretty stiff. The plot is not much. Boy wants girl. Boy has zombie master turns girl into zombie. Boy no longer wants girl. Zombie master is upset with boy. That’s really about it. There are some early scenes with the young couple riding a carriage toward the plantation that have wonderful atmosphere, especially the shot of the lumbering zombies walking along the twilight horizon line. There is some kind of grist mill operated by the walking dead. Their purpose here is simply as free labor to run the mill. One of them loses his footing and tumbles into the wooden blades presumably to be sliced and diced. We don’t see any of that; not even a scream since he is already dead. Much was shot on sets rented from Universal. One can easily recognize many interiors and even some props. There are even hallways from Dracula in here. Though credited as the first zombie film it has none of the class or even scares to be found in Val Lewton’s I Walked With A Zombie (1943).

Curiously the production team gets their names on the screen before the stars in the opening credits. The music doesn’t quite fit. Rather than adapting to the emotions on display it merely plays underneath the scenes. Sometimes it a matches and others times not. Much of it was from public domain classical pieces with newly recorded orchestrations. It’s a pale candle compared to the work that Franz Waxman was doing at the time. However the opening zombie chant is terrific. It sets the scene and puts us right in the locale of the film.

Today, as then, the film’s main draw is the presence of Bela Lugosi. He plays Murder Legendre the zombie master. He wears a wide brimmed hat and sometimes a cape. Jack Pierce has fashioned him a very Satan-like Van Dyke beard, knitted eye brows and a sharply cut window’s peak. He looks great here. Fresh from his huge success with Dracula (1931) he’s got center stage and dominates the film. Enjoyable as he can be, he never had the acting chops or good fortune of other horror stars of the time. He had recently starred in Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932) but that one, like White Zombie failed to ignite a string of starring roles. He would later shine in supporting roles like Island of The Lost Souls (1932) and Son of Frankenstein (1939). Occasionally there would be a vehicle that truly suited his unusual over the top acting style. Edgar G. Ulmer’s The Black Cat (1934) was a darkly perverted tale that featured Lugosi playing the part of Dr. Vitus Werdegast . He simply kills in that film.

As a horror film White Zombie, once you get past the look of the film and borrowed sets, doesn’t have much actual horror to offer. Lugosi has some zombie powder that he uses on his victims but the mainstay of his horror repertoire here is his manic stare. Director Halperin frequently superimposed a close up of Lugosi’s eyes over other scenes or characters to show his dominance of them. The other horror move that Bela has here is the hand clasp. When he needs to exert his will over someone in his power he grabs his fingers together is a kind of Masonic handshake mannerism. It’s oddly effective, but clearly horror fans expecting some real thrills will be disappointed by this shabby bag of tricks. It is a must see for Bela Lugosi fans and an important part of the dawn of motion picture horror in America. After so many years of inferior public domain prints, VHS and DVD presentations this is not quite the hoped for rescue. Still it’s likely to be the best shape you’ll see the film in if you choose to watch it in the raw. (See below)

Video – 1.31:1
Kino presents us with two transfers. The prime choice is one that has been overdone to say the least. Much of the detail that provides the film’s atmosphere has been ironed out of it. It’s simply been cleaned past the point of necessity. Frustratingly there are more than a few instances when it looks terrific. However on the whole it has the sheen of something that’s been in the wash cycle too long. The “raw, unenhanced film transfer” is much more pleasing. The grain and contrast is back on display giving the film its proper gloomy shadowy look. There’s a great deal more detail at hand than was presented in the many VHS and DVD editions that were struck from less than perfect sources due to the film’s public domain status. The source has not been cleaned up in any way so there are quite a few scratches and imperfections. Naturally the process shots or opticals that are comprised of two shots put together are weaker in appearance. With these two versions, those who are not familiar with the technical aspects of a transfer can view both and see where they stand.

Rather than focusing on how the transfer was done or what new devices and applications can be applied, there is an awareness here of who did the transfers. Much of this, aside from the tremendous cost involved in a full restoration, comes down to a matter of taste and aesthetics. Should an older film be worked on so it looks as much like what people are used to seeing now or should care be taken to let it look as much like it was when it was first presented on the screen. Most diehard film fans can argue their side of this but what is nicely afforded here is for the novice to experience each method and see what feels right to them. This reviewer much prefers the raw to the overcooked. Though like Goldilocks who got to choose which porridge, chair and bed she preferred there should be a third choice that is just right.

Audio –
2.0 Mono track as it should be. The primary version has been cleaned up quite a bit eliminating many of the pops and crackles. The muffled dialogue has been improved. The Raw version has its share of those pops and crackles back in place, though they make it feel like watching one of those old beat up prints on TV again.

Extras –
Commentary with film historian Frank Thompson, 1951 re-issue trailer, stills gallery and Intimate Interview from1932. The period magazine style interview is a hoot! Lugosi answers questions for a bubbly reporter. This is a rare look at Bela the ladies man. He is suave and dressed to the nines. He tosses of his new found American slang and has a good time with the set up playfulness of the interview. He’s a good sport about it and quite a charming guy, if a bit overdone. This was a real treat to see.

On a scale of Poor, Fair, Good, Excellent, Classic

Blu-Ray – Fair
Blu-Ray – Raw – Fair / Good

Movie – Fair / Good