Revenge of the Zombies (1943)

Directed by Steve Sekely [Other horror films: The Day of the Triffids (1963)]

There’s not really that much interesting going on in this early 1940’s zombie flick. Sure, there are some okay performances (most notably John Carradine, sporting a mustache), and a few humorous lines, courtesy of Mantan Moreland, but otherwise, I can’t think of a reason to really give this film much time.

Of course, it’s not really horrible, by any means, just rather generic and derivative, even for the time. I enjoyed a few of the twists (regarding Bob Steele’s character), but the story ultimately wasn’t too different from an earlier zombie comedy, King of the Zombies (interesting note: this film is sometimes considered a sequel to King of the Zombies, but aside from Moreland’s character, there seems to be little connection, and in fact, Madame Sul-Te-Wan, who also appears in both, is a different character here).

John Carradine does well for himself here, though his performance isn’t going to win any awards. Gale Storm was okay, though not overly relevant to the story. The aforementioned Madame Sul-Te-Wan was a bit over-the-top, but still worked well with James Baskett. Of course, Moreland is both humorous and unfortunately not helpful to racial stereotypes. A solid performance, but marred in that he didn’t get any different a storyline than from King of the Zombies. Robert Lowery, Barry Macollum, and Mauritz Hugo all do fine, but none of the three will be overly memorable once the movie’s done.

Ultimately, Revenge of the Zombies isn’t a great zombie film, nor a great horror film, nor a great film of any kind. It’s not even necessarily worth a watch – it certainly wouldn’t hurt, but I don’t see any reason for it, unless it’s due to being a large fan of Carradine. Really, while some of the settings are cool, such as the swamp, and a few aspects of the story are decent, in that war-time, mistaken identity, the bad-guys-are-Nazis-type-of-way, but I’ve seen this twice now, and I can about guarantee I’ll not be seeing it a third time. It’s just not worth it.

5.5/10

The Body Snatcher (1945)

Directed by Robert Wise [Other horror films: The Curse of the Cat People (1944), The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), The Haunting (1963), Audrey Rose (1977)]

This classic film is one that’s heavily bolstered by solid performances and a rather entertaining story. While somewhat light on what you might traditionally expect from a horror film, I think The Body Snatcher has a lot going for it.

One thing about this film that I rather enjoy is the fact that it’s easy to use this as a companion piece to the 1960 release The Flesh and the Fiends. If one were somewhat daring, you could even call The Flesh and the Fiends a prequel to The Body Snatcher. At the very least, the two films work together well, and as both are rather decent films, there’s possibilities there.

The Body Snatcher’s cast is probably the best part about the film. Bela Lugosi is somewhat underused, but both Henry Daniell and Boris Karloff are used to great effect. Daniell has that aura of a dignified man with a rather torrid past, while Karloff oozes sleaziness in virtually every second of screen-time. Daniell and Karloff are definitely the most memorable performances here, because while the audience’s moral center, played by Russell Wade, is decent, he’s ultimately somewhat forgettable by the time the story wraps up.

Speaking of which, while at first I was hesitant toward the final ten minutes of the film (they struck me as unnecessary, given the death of the antagonist that had already happened), I found them masterful (important to note that while I’ve seen this one before, it’s been quite a long while, so many of the details were forgotten). The final carriage ride is just fantastic, both introspective and somber, turning into a manic, thrilling conclusion.

While it’s light on some horror aspects (which is something I didn’t really notice at the time, but seems clear when thinking back to the film), The Body Snatcher is a lot of fun, and it really does have a lot going for. Definitely give it a watch, as it’s one of the high-lights of the often lackluster decade that was the 1940’s.

8/10

Cry of the Werewolf (1944)

Directed by Henry Levin [Other horror films: The Unknown (1946)]

I saw this one once before, and it didn’t do much for me. I didn’t hate it, it just came across as pretty generic and unmemorable. Unfortunately, not much has changed.

Part of this consistent disappointment comes from the fact that the title of the film is a bit misleading. There’s a woman in the film who can turn into a wolf, but there’s no werewolf whatsoever, so if you’re looking for The Wolf Man or Werewolf of London, you won’t find it here.

Honestly, this isn’t a film that there’s a lot to say about. The lead performance of Stephen Crane was pretty underwhelming, and while both Nina Foch and Osa Massen were okay, I don’t think either one particularly stood out, partially because of the script.

While the movie itself isn’t necessarily dull (given it’s just over an hour, there’s not really much time to mess around with anyway), the story is just sort of meh. There are some interesting elements, but I also can’t deny that it strikes me as occasionally xenophobic in regards to the gypsies.

Really, much of the film just feels pretty weak and tepid. There was a single suspenseful scene which didn’t go anywhere, but hey, it was something. The kills, though, are pretty much all uninspiring, and overall, Cry of the Werewolf doesn’t really have a hell of a lot going for it, even for a fan of older horror films such as myself.

If there’s one positive thing I can say about it, the plot, while I personally didn’t much care for it, was moderately unique. There’s sort of a nice mysterious vibe to portions of the film, and while, as an audience, there’s nothing that we don’t really know, it’s still almost okay. But having seen this twice, I just don’t think there’s much to it. Might be worth checking out, but I don’t know how much someone would get from this one, even if they’re into the classics of the genre.

5/10

Bluebeard (1944)

Directed by Edgar G. Ulmer [Other horror films: The Black Cat (1934), The Man from Planet X (1951), Daughter of Dr. Jekyll (1957), The Amazing Transparent Man (1960)]

Having seen this one about three times now, I have to admit that it’s never done much for me. The story is fine, and John Carradine does particularly well in it, but overall, Bluebeard just doesn’t impress me.

Generally, the plot’s perfectly enjoyable. I sort of like the brief side-step they took with the portrait subplot, which added a bit more meat to the film, and the conclusion’s pretty decent also. Carrdine’s presence here really brings life to the antagonist of the film, so that’s a plus.

Somewhat unfortunately, Carradine’s about the only performance here who really glowed. Jean Parker and Teala Loring were virtually indistinguishable to me, and Ludwig Stössel, while an interesting character, had a bit of an accent to him, and was hard, at times, to really decipher.

Which may not really be his fault, as the audio and visual quality of this film has somewhat faltered over the last eighty years. The most common print has pretty bad audio, and it’s not uncommon for some of the dialogue to be drowned out by background music. The black-and-white is a bit muddled, and while it’s not overly distracting, it is noticeable. Even if you can look past that, though, I’m not convinced that the film is all that enthralling.

Bluebeard is a story that’s been made multiple times within the genre, the earliest version, titled Barbe-bleue, is from 1901 (and, for a short from such an early period of cinematic history, it’s not that bad). Maybe that’s part of the issue – this movie, at 70 minutes, just feels too drawn out, and while some of the film is perfectly solid, after having seen it multiple times, it’s continually let me down.

If you see this for any reason, let it be for Carradine, who is fantastic, especially toward the end of the film. His character’s sanity toppling toward the end as he recounts the origins of his crimes was pretty spectacular, in a Povery Row type of way.

This said, ultimately, Bluebeard isn’t one of those 40’s movies I’d go out of my way to recommend. It might be okay for a single viewing, but I don’t think multiple viewings will do much for you, no matter how fun Carradine is here. By no means a god-awful film, I do feel it’s below average, and pretty much always have.

6/10

The Mysterious Doctor (1943)

Directed by Benjamin Stoloff [Other horror films: Night of Terror (1933), The Hidden Hand (1942)]

This short quickie (hovers around 57 minutes in total) is a delightful little film with a pretty fun premise (headless ghost haunts a tin mine, while a mysterious doctor arrive in town and arouses suspicions of the townsfolk), and while certainly a lower-budget film, I thought it was appropriately atmospheric.

Most of the performances hovered around average, with not many individuals standing out. Matt Willis did a pretty decent job with his sympathetic character, whereas Lester Matthews and John Loder (both some of the main actors) felt pretty cookie-cutter. I did appreciate Elanor Parker’s strong female character, which wasn’t necessarily common for the time period.

For some reason or another, though, I can’t think of too much to say for this one. I loved both the atmosphere and much of the setting (the ground mist over the moors was always a fun look to me), and the headless ghost, while obviously fake, had charm to the design.

The whole movie, despite it’s lower budget, had a lot of charm, in fact. It’s a shame that The Mysterious Doctor isn’t more widely available, because while it’s not a great movie, I do think that it’s a minor classic for the time period, and I will admit to really enjoying the entirely anticipated conclusion. I’ve seen this before, but it’s been so long, much of it felt new to me, so the ending had the punch I was hoping for. It’s nothing amazing, guys, but it may well be worth a look.

7.5/10

The Leopard Man (1943)

Directed by Jacques Tourneur [Other horror films: Cat People (1942), I Walked with a Zombie (1943), Night of the Demon (1957), The Comedy of Terrors (1963), War-Gods of the Deep (1965)]

Often moody and rather atmospheric, this early 40’s film has a lot to offer fans of classic horror. There’s a plot that keeps you guessing, some characters who actually feel human, and great suspenseful sequences throughout.

While I suspect nothing about the film would shock fans of the genre today, the plot overall is pretty fun, and also a bit unique, what with the main characters (Dennis O’Keefe and Jean Brooks) feeling guilty about the escape of a leopard in their possession, subsequently causing the death of a teenage girl. It gives the film a pretty somber tone, which pretty much lasts the whole of the film, including the conclusion.

Speaking of which, the conclusion was damn fun, especially the scene during the procession of monks, which including chanting and pretty intimidating men in hoods. Pretty much everything about the ending was a lot of fun, though I sort of wish there was a bit more oompf.

The suspense was great in this one, and we even got what’s now the ordinary shot of a person yelling, banging on a door, then seconds later, blood pouring from the bottom of the door. It definitely wasn’t shocking by today’s standards, but for 1943, that struck me as surprisingly racy.

I saw this for the first time something like five years ago, perhaps as many as seven or eight, and it always stuck with me, because it certainly seems like a movie ahead of it’s time. Very little around this same time period had the same feel as this one, so The Leopard Man is definitely a memorable film.

Aside from O’Keefe (who also starred in You’ll Find Out, from 1940, which I saw just a few days before this writing) and Brooks, the only other performance to really stand out here was James Bell, who played a somewhat interesting character. From the face alone, Bell isn’t an actor I know that well, though he did appear in another horror classic, I Walked with a Zombie, which is a film I’ve not actually seen up to this point [edit: though I have now]. Abner Biberman was decent, as was Margaret Landry in her short sequence, but ultimately, O’Keefe, Brooks, and Bell are the only three who really made a difference.

The only downside of The Leopard Man was that some of the padding (which itself is somewhat amusing, given the film’s just an hour and six minutes) struck me as a bit much. One of the final kills, while certainly welcomed, had a longer set-up than I was hoping for, and I felt just a bit bored during that sequence.

This said, otherwise The Leopard Man is a pretty enjoyable and forward-thinking film, and I think that from a modern-day perspective, this has a lot to offer horror fans. If this one has escaped your notice, I’d certainly recommend taking a look.

8/10

The Mad Monster (1942)

Directed by Sam Newfield [Other horror films: Dead Men Walk (1943), The Monster Maker (1944), The Flying Serpent (1946)]

I think I was much too harsh on this when I first saw it. The Mad Monster’s certainly on the lower spectrum of 40’s horror flicks, but I don’t know if it’s entirely bottom of the barrel, and you could still get some entertainment value out of it.

Being an early werewolf movie (released a year after the classic The Wolf Man), this film lacks the more supernatural origin of the werewolf (such as a curse) and instead relies on a scientifically-created wolf man: a simple-minded handyman (played by Glenn Strange), who a scientist (George Zucco) uses to extract revenge on those who deemed his scientific ideas mad.

In all fairness, as Zucco’s first scene has the scientist seeing visions of the four scientists scorning him for these same ideas, and Zucco replies to them in a tone that reaches shouting before long, one could probably forgive those who find Zucco’s character mentally unbalanced.

Zucco gives a pretty good performance here, as it is. Zucco appeared in a fair amount of B-level horror films in the 1940’s before his retirement from acting, and while this performance isn’t his most memorable, it is a good portrayal of a truly mad scientist. Glenn Strange did great in his simple-minded role, and I thought he was perhaps the real stand-out here. Anne Nagel and Johnny Downs were both decent in their roles, though Downs didn’t really have all that much to do until the ending, and Nagel almost never had anything to do.

Another thing that positively stood out were portions of the setting, especially the mist-covered marshlands where some of the action took place. It had a suitably creepy vibe, despite the cheapness of the film, and I’ve personally always liked how swamps look, especially in black-and-white. I wish more of the horror sequences had taken place in such a setting, though.

When all’s said and done, The Mad Monster certainly pales in comparison to some of the classics of the 1940’s, and really, would probably only appeal to fans of the lower-end B movies of the time period (such as The Monster Maker, coincidentally directed by the same guy). I enjoyed it more this time around than when I first saw it, but ultimately, there’s so many more memorable and just plain better movies out there than this one. I did appreciate the victim choices, though, so kudos there.

6/10

King of the Zombies (1941)

Directed by Jean Yarbrough [Other horror films: The Devil Bat (1940), House of Horrors (1946), She-Wolf of London (1946), The Brute Man (1946), The Creeper (1948), Master Minds (1949), Hillbillys in a Haunted House (1967)]

For a low-budget early zombie comedy, I think King of the Zombies has a lot of charm. It’s definitely flawed, it’s definitely cheap, and it’s certainly racist concerning Mantan Moreland’s character, but it still possesses charm, and after seeing it three times at least, that’s consistently accurate, as far as I’m concerned.

When watching the film, you can tell by the rather limited sets and general quality that the film didn’t have the highest budget, but I don’t think it’s as bad as some other films from around the same time period, and at the same time, the somewhat scratchy version we have now feels somewhat more enjoyable because of it.

The plot’s not too dissimilar from other horror films, what with a mystery in a mansion, various different parties sneaking around (though to be fair, we pretty much know from the beginning who the truly bad individual here is), and secret passageways, only they threw in zombies of the voodoo variety, hypnotism, and hit-and-miss comedy.

Personally, I find a fair amount of Moreland’s lines amusing, perhaps the one that tickled me the most being about how his feet ‘done took root.’ The ending line (“If there’s anything I wouldn’t want to be twice, a zombie’s both of them”) always got me also, but it’s obvious that Moreland’s jittery persona is rife with racist undertones (perhaps overtones), so it’s somewhat a challenge to watch from today’s perspective. Still, Moreland’s performance is pretty solid, and while occasionally his antics are a bit over-the-top, he’s more mellow than others around the same time (such as Willie Best’s character from The Monster Walks).

Other actors worth mentioning include Henry Victor, who played a competent, yet somewhat uninspired, antagonist, John Archer, who played a more action-orientated protagonist, and the main character, Dick Purcell (though I’d argue that Archer’s character was more likable). Joan Woodbury (who was previously in The Rogues’ Tavern) was decent, though I didn’t think the story gave her that much to do. Marguerite Whitten was pretty good as a sassy cook, playing well off Moreland, and Leigh Whipper definitely had a pretty imposing presence, though it’s rarely used to great effect.

As it is, King of the Zombies clocks in at just about an hour and eight minutes, so if it’s not your cup of tea, at least you’re not losing that much time. That said, I’ve consistently had a solid amount of fun with it, though I think I’ve somewhat cooled on it with this most recent re-watch, because while I do think it’s above average, I don’t think it’s much more than that. Worth a look if one is into early zombie flicks, if only to see how far they’ve come.

7.5/10

You’ll Find Out (1940)

Directed by David Butler [Other horror films: N/A]

While generally inconsequential, this rarely-spoken about film is a lot of fun, and it’s cast alone definitely makes it one that any fan of classic horror should set some time aside for, as You’ll Find Out has a damn good cast.

The story isn’t anything overly new – large mansion, stormy night, a young woman (Helen Parrish) facing constant danger from mysterious would-be killers (they don’t stay mysterious long, and truth be told, I was going to reveal their identities later in the review), it’s pretty typical of 30’s and 40’s horror. The musical and comedic additions add a bit more zest, but fundamentally, the plot isn’t worth writing home about.

What they did, though, with the plot, no matter how derivative it is, was pretty fun. The seance sequences were great, and I personally loved the second seance, what with the protagonists attempting to set a trap for the antagonists, not knowing the antagonists are anticipating it. I had a lot of fun with it, and thought it was pretty swell, as they’d say in those days.

So much of this tired plot works due to the inclusion of actors Bela Lugosi, Peter Lorre, and Boris Karloff, all of whom are involved in criminal conspiracy to kill Parrish’s character. None of this is really kept under wraps, so it’s not that much a surprise, and because of that, we got a few scenes of two or three of these masters scheming together, which was a treat.

All three of these people, Lugosi, Lorre, and Karloff, are extraordinarily important to the horror genre. I won’t list the extensive resumes, but Lugosi is perhaps best well-known for his portrayal of Dracula, the Universal classic. Likewise, Karloff portrayed Frankenstein’s monster in Frankenstein, one of my personal favorite Universal movies. Peter Lorre, while many might recognize more from The Beast with Five Fingers (1946) or M (1931) starred in the criminally underrated Mad Love (1935), a movie I absolutely, dare I say, love madly. The three of them starring in this film brought to it far more flair than You’ll Find Out otherwise would have dreamed of attaining.

None of that is to say that the other performances were under par, but none of them have the star power of those three legends. Kay Kyser was a bandleader and radio personality during the 1930’s and 1940’s, and while I’m not familiar with him or his music, I’m not a stranger to big band/swing, as I give Glenn Miller and his orchestra a whirl or two somewhat often. As such, Kyser was often a bit too peppy for me, but he did grow on me as the film went on (and given his almost Woody Allen appearance, made for an interesting protagonist).

The twice aforementioned Helen Parrish was a pretty face for the role, and did a good job with what she had to work with, but ultimately didn’t leave a huge impression on me either way. The same could be said for Dennis O’Keefe, who was the far more typical protagonist of these types of films, and while certainly not a bad actor, it’s not his efforts here that made the film memorable.

What did help with that, though, were the musical pieces. Like I said, I’ve occasionally listened to big band music before, and this stuff was certainly catchy and enjoyable, though I personally prefer more vocals in my music. Luckily, we have some vocal pieces, and the two that stood out most positively were ‘I’d Know You Anywhere’ and ‘I’ve Got a One Track Mind,’ both sung by Ginny Simms. Simms’ isn’t someone I’m familiar with, but I personally got an Ella Fitzgerald feel from her, and really loved her singing. ‘The Bad Humor Man’ was another piece that stood out, because it’s just as much a theater play as a song, and I thought that was pretty cool.

You’ll Find Out isn’t the type of movie that would wow people who go in looking for cheap thrills, as there aren’t a whole lot of them here. Sure, there were some good detective scenes in multiple hidden passages, and the seances were both somewhat spooky (in a very hooky way), but the comedy somewhat emasculates any of the real potential terror to be felt in this flick, and I admit, the music doesn’t do a lot to help either. Still, with the star power in this movie, I thought it was a lot of fun, and definitely a movie that was worth seeing.

8.5/10

The Devil Bat (1940)

Devil Bat

Directed by Jean Yarbrough [Other horror films: King of the Zombies (1941), House of Horrors (1946), She-Wolf of London (1946), The Brute Man (1946), The Creeper (1948), Master Minds (1949), Hillbillys in a Haunted House (1967)]

Having seen this low-level classic around four times now, I have to say that, while definitely hokey, The Devil Bat is a lot of fun, much of it coming from the somewhat ludicrous plot and Bela Lugosi’s great performance.

Of course, Bela Lugosi, even by this point, was an old hand with the genre (before this film, he appeared in at least 15 other horror films), and it’s clear to see why. I utterly love his mad scientist routine here – his facial expressions and exuberance crack me up.

There’s a running gag here, in which after the doctor gives some shaving lotion to an intended victim (the lotion in question, due to it’s properties, will attract an over-grown bat to attack the wearer) in which the to-be victim says “Good night, doctor.”

And Lugosi’s reply, every single time? “Goodbye.” The first time, it was funny. The fourth time, I was laughing my ass off, as his tone was just perfectly somber (and almost no one caught on). So I love Lugosi in this film, and if you’re a Bela fan, I’d recommend seeing this for his presence alone.

Everyone else does pretty admirably also, though. Dave O’Brien (who, on IMDb, racks up an impressive 243 acting credits) did great as the lead protagonist (despite not appearing until around 18 minutes into the movie), and given that he had flaws (such as concocting that stupid fake bat picture), came across as a multi-layered character, which I appreciated. Donald Kerr (who has an even more impressive 511 credits) gave some good comic relief, and Suzanne Kaaren did just as good as you could expect, given actresses’ often-limited roles in these movies.

The revenge plot of Lugosi’s is so absurdly fun that it makes up for the failure of the special effects (close up, there’s a real bat squeaking, but from far-off, it’s one of the fakest-looking animals you’ll ever see), but honestly, when it comes to movies from around this time, I think most of the questionable special effects can be brushed off, especially if you’re getting a kick out of the movie regardless.

Director Jean Yarbrough did fantastic for only his third full-length feature, and actually did a lot for horror, as he later directed, among others, films such as King of the Zombies (1941), House of Horrors (1946), The Brute Man (1946), The Creeper (1948), and Master Minds (1949). I’ve only seen a handful of these (King of the Zombies and House of Horrors), but generally, I know many of these, while not overly well-known, are enjoyed by other fans of the genre.

There’s not necessarily a lot to this movie (though at an hour and eight minutes long, it’s a bit lengthier than some other flicks from this time), but what we do get is pretty good. The Devil Bat has long been a favorite of mine, and while overall, I think the 1940’s is probably one of the worst decades for the horror genre, this will always be one of those classics I go back to.

8.5/10