The only think-piece THE CORPSE VANISHES is ever likely to get

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I was watching THE CORPSE VANISHES (1942) again recently and I forgot to laugh. I understand that laughter is the proper response because just about every critic — even the ones predisposed to horror, to Bela Lugosi, and to the inconsistent charms of Poverty Row cinema — tell us that the movie is no good, that Lugosi is no good in it, that the celluloid used to make it would have been better used for guitar picks, and that the only proper response is yuks. Ask most people in their 30s and 40s if they’ve ever seen THE CORPSE VANISHES and they’re likely to tell you “Yeah, that was one of the best MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATRE 3000s ever!” 

imagesFor the uninitiated, I’ll back up a bit. THE CORPSE VANISHES is one of nine movies Bela Lugosi made for the Poverty Row studio Monogram Pictures. This was a decade after his career-defining success in DRACULA (1931) and a few years beyond his heyday as one of Universal Pictures’ horror kings and starring roles opposite Boris Karloff in THE BLACK CAT (1934), THE RAVEN (1935), and THE INVISIBLE RAY (1936). This was even beyond the point of his big comeback (following a few years of lamentable neglect) in SON OF FRANKENSTEIN (1939), which marked Lugosi’s diversion from leading man to character player. Never one to spend his money wisely, Lugosi had lived well even when he wasn’t working and by all accounts he was generous to a fault, the proverbial soft touch, forever palming greenbacks into the mitts of his dispossessed countrymen and of any friend he felt was in need. So he was broke more often than not and he was by 1938 the father of a young son and so he put on his good suit and he went to work where they were paying money, which meant down on Poverty Row. The movies Lugosi made on this level (THE DEVIL BAT for Producers Releasing Corporation; THE APE MAN, VOODOO MAN, GHOSTS ON THE LOOSE, and THE CORPSE VANISHES for Monogram, among others) tend to elicit snarky “so bad its good” accolades from the hurr-hurr demographic. But even those who should have been sticking up for Bela showed him the door when it came to his work for Monogram. “It’s a small miracle that the Golden Turkey crowd hasn’t gotten around to THE CORPSE VANISHES,” wrote Tom Weaver in POVERTY ROW HORRORS! MONOGRAM, PRC AND REPUBLIC HORROR FILMS OF THE FORTIES (McFarland Publishers, 1993). I bring this up not to pick in Tom, whom I know and like and respect the hell all out of, but rather to show you how little love there is for this particular movie, of which I am prepared today to say a few kind words.

Corpse Vanishes01You may be surprised to hear me say this, prone as I am to go to the mat for movies most people want to sweep under the carpet, but I’m not here today to tell you that THE CORPSE VANISHES is any better than its reputation. I’ll let you work out your own feelings — if you want to laugh, laugh; if you want to change the channel, knock yourself out. I’m only here to tell you how I feel when I watch THE CORPSE VANISHES and that that it’s one of those movies that, while everybody else seems to be laughing, I feel like crying. Other movies that movie me in the same way are invariably based around the idea of the family, the tragic family, the family that has fallen somehow off the grid, gotten lost in the cracks. Perhaps the family was ill-conceived, and as such doomed; or perhaps its members were once happy but have fallen on desperate times. Either way I often find myself queerly moved by these movies and THE CORPSE VANISHES is no different. The story itself is a familiar one to horror lifers: a doctor (Lugosi) desperate to prolong the life of his dying wife (Elizabeth Russell, the same year she appeared in CAT PEOPLE at RKO) abducts young women and uses glandular extracts to bring much-needed vitality to his better half. And to ensure that these young women are virgins — and their extracts untainted — he absconds with them on their wedding days, using the scent of a rare breed of orchid to knock them senseless at the altar and then, when their grief-stricken families have turned them over to the local mortuary, steal what seems to be no more than a cold corpse. (Hence the title.)

Corpse Vanishes04As we join Lugosi’s character in THE CORPSE VANISHES, he is attempting yet again to help his wife through a difficult patch… but the results are only temporary and soon he is back at square one while the missus claws at the walls like a hophead going cold turkey. We never are led to believe that Lugosi’s character might succeed, as we do with the character of Dr. Genessier in EYES WITHOUT A FACE (1960), whose idée fixe is not to restore his wife’s life but rather his daughter’s beauty following a disfiguring car accident. Genessier (as played by Pierre Brasseur in a repressed, block-like stolidity that is the polar opposite of Lugosi’s florid mad scientist) makes us believe he can do it and we nearly root for him to keep cutting the faces off of beautiful young Parisian tearaways so that Edith Scob can have her personality back… but with Lugosi’s pathetic George Lorenz we know he never will succeed, that his scheme is just a senseless waste of life. The pointlessness of Lorenz’s game plan is magnified by his choice of newlywed brides as subjects and his habit of snatching them directly out of the arms of their loved ones, on what should be the happiest days of their lives, the realization of their parents’ dreams and aspirations for them. The sudden death of brides all over the city becomes a media sensation and is afford epidemic proportions in the press… to the point that one anxious mother, on the cusp of marrying off what we take to be her only child, importunes the bride-to-be “Say a little prayer, darling…” for all the good it does. Lorenz’s desperation to prolong or improve the quality of his family comes at the necessary cost to members of other families, the dissolution of other families, the shattering of other families, and nothing good can come of that equation.

Corpse Vanishes02Though Lorenz is not averse to doing his own scutwork, he is reliant on an entire brood of helpmeets in order to achieve his goal. Minerva Urecal appears as Fagah, Lorenz’s servant and the matriarch of a family of morons:hulking Angel (Frank Moran) and dwarf Toby (Angelo Rossitto) are representative examples of her wobegotten issue. Fagah’s family is very much in the bloodline of the villains in THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE (1974) or THE HILLS HAVE EYES (1977) or MOTHER’S DAY (1980) or even in non-horror stuff like THE STORY OF TEMPLE DRAKE (1933) and MURDER, HE SAYS (1945) — atavistic creeps, sub-humans. And yet their mother loves them and when they die, both by Lorenz’s agency or neglect, Fagah’s grief is palpable. “My poor son,” the woman bemoans early in the film of the imbecilic Angel. “Why was he ever born?” It’s an odd line for what amounts to an evil assistant and yet Minerve Urecal gives it just the right spin so that we feel some sliver of her pain. All this while, to quote a newspaper editor who occupies a marginally happier corner of the film, “parents are calling The Chronicle frantically with tears in their voice…” What an horrific world THE CORPSE VANISHES presents us with, one in which all hopes for the future are dashed and families all over the place are succumbing to despair and horror.

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Yes, the film is undeniably cheap — more than half the scenes look as though they were filmed in a storage locker. Yes, it panders to Lugosi’s association with playing Dracula — to the point that both Dr. and Mrs. Lorenz sleep in side-by-side coffins and Lugosi treats his servants like Renfieldesque subalterns, bullwhipping them into docility or cruelly abandoning them when they no longer serve a purpose. But none of these Gothic curlicues is out of place in a story about a man who lives in denial of his failure to conquer death (Lorenz seems to have met it half way, living a morbid life to deflect his fears of morbidity) and the film’s meager budget only serves to underscore how small, how terribly petty all of this is. Clearly, Lorenz knows that he has no life ahead of him, he can only buy time, even as people all around him make happy plans for the future. He is driven by a wife who, if ever loving, is now only the shell of a human being, a shell filled with hatred and malice. When all of these strands come together in the final frames as Fagah, her children (such as they were) dead, goes after Lorenz with a shiv and Countess Lorenz shrieks with the awful understanding that this is the very end of the line, there is a kind of very cold comfort in the circularity of comeuppance. But it cannot undo what is truly horrific about this film, which is the consequence of corpses where once were possibilities.

20 Responses The only think-piece THE CORPSE VANISHES is ever likely to get
Posted By Qalice : March 28, 2014 10:04 pm

I’m sure I’d rather laugh at this movie (which I’ve never seen) than have your reaction. But sometimes I have the same mind-set you describe. Then even mild horror movies are unbearable for their depiction of human suffering, lost joy, the meaningless destruction of youth and beauty.

Posted By AL : March 28, 2014 10:54 pm

Richard–Unique; this one is a total delight; one of your best. Lugosi is my favorite actor because he never lets me down. He has never “walked through” a role. No matter how ****y the script or the working conditions, he always gave it his “All”. To see Bela in his prime, check out the beautifully restored CHARLIE CHAN IN HONOLULU. At 6’2″, with black hair and blue eyes, he was a handsome man. As Carol Borland said “He wasn’t just a “Ladies Man”. He was THE Ladies Man!” I feel affectionate towards all of his Poverty Row films, but I guess that THE CORPSE VANISHES is my fave…thank you, Richard. AL

Posted By george : March 29, 2014 1:44 am

AL said; “To see Bela in his prime, check out the beautifully restored CHARLIE CHAN IN HONOLULU.”

I think you mean THE BLACK CAMEL (1931), which has a Hawaii setting. It’s very much worth seeing.

CORPSE VANISHES is probably the best of Lugosi’s Monogram efforts. The worst: THE APE MAN, which is so laughable it edges near Ed Wood territory.

Posted By Jeffrey Ford : March 29, 2014 10:43 am

An excellent piece on a oddly absorbing Poverty Row Lugosi film. At its core, it helps to explain just why so many of us turn to the genre — both in its good films and bad — so often. It dares to tackle themes and touch on ideas — intentinally or not — that mainsteam cinema never quite has the nerve (or courage) to grapple with. Like a famous critic once said: “Every horror film seems to get sillier with the passage of time, and yet the horror remains.”

Posted By AL : March 29, 2014 9:33 pm

George–duh! thank you. You’re right.I think what confused me is the Hawaii setting. Glad you like BLACK CAMEL as much as I do; the print is a revelation. You may be correct about THE APE MAN; it really is amazing…and RETURN OF THE APE MAN? oy AL

Posted By James : March 29, 2014 10:19 pm

Jeffrey -

Absolutely. I think the appeal of the horror genre, for some people (including myself), is that it offers a “safe” context for dealing with personal trauma, as it’s being represented in an external art that isn’t inherently harmful.

Posted By Tim : March 29, 2014 11:18 pm

There’s much to love in Bela’s Monograms and PRCs, and for his fans, they are not so bad they’re good chucklefests, but pieces of film history to enjoy from the only studios who sadly likely would have been the only ones to give Bela starring turns at the time. I don’t see the “bad” in these movies when I watch them, and chuckle only at the scenes we’re intended to chuckle at, such as Frank Moran chewing on a chicken leg while pursuing Luana Walters through the dark basement.

Posted By AL : March 30, 2014 12:14 am

Is it true that all of the original negatives of these unique Gems were “destroyed by fire” years ago? Anybody know? AL

Posted By Doug : March 30, 2014 3:28 am

Here’s a thought-golden Hollywood big studios were akin to Broadway.
“B” movie studios were like off Broadway,
and the Monagrams, PRC, etc. were basically off, off Broadway and the local “out of town” theaters.
Former Broadway stars would begin their descent to the bottom first in off-Broadway, then off, off and when they had nothing left but a name,they might draw nostalgic crowds in Milwaukee or
Cincinnati- even Chicago would be too ‘big time’ to hire them.
I say all of this to note that Bela Lugosi’s eventual landing in PRC and at the last Ed Woods movies, while sad, wasn’t unique.
Sid Caesar in his autobiography “Where Have I Been?” detailed his fall from the top of Television due to his drinking-when most other producers refused to hire him, he depended on the loyalty of one of his former writers to keep him working-he toured the country in Neil Simon’s “The Last Of The Red Hot Lovers”…for over 20 years. In a fog. Hence the title.
I have no doubt about Richard’s assessment-I’m sure that Lugosi was a generous, good man. Remember that even the sharp guys such as Groucho Marx lost their whole bundle in 1929 and had to start over again.
You know who else you find in local or off, off Broadway houses or Monagram/PRC studios? Hungry, talented young guys and gals looking to break into the business, starting at the bottom as that is the only open door.
There’s no shame in doing what you can with what you have, and sometimes the smaller dark horse will come out of nowhere and show the thoroughbreds how it’s done.

Posted By george : March 30, 2014 3:39 am

Doug: B movies provided a training ground for young talent, while also serving as a resting place for veterans on their way down. Television took over some of that function in the ’50s, although AIP continued the B tradition by giving work to veterans (Price, Karloff, Lorre, Rathbone) and to newcomers (Nicholson, Hopper, Dern, Peter Fonda, etc.)

Miramax was sort of like that in the ’90s; it created new stars (Paltrow, Affleck, Damon) and hot directors (Tarantino and Kevin Smith). I’m not sure where the incubator of new talent is today. Cable TV? Movies based on YA novels?

Posted By James : March 30, 2014 11:17 am

It’s fun spotting a future A-level movie star, early in their career, in a Poverty Row film. A young Ava Gardner turns up in the East Side Kids movie Ghosts on the Loose…starring Bela Lugosi.

Posted By Richard Harland Smith : March 30, 2014 3:27 pm

“Is it true that all of the original negatives of these unique Gems were “destroyed by fire” years ago? Anybody know?”

The story as *I* understand it is that the Tiffany-Stahl library was acquired by David O. Selznick and the nitrate burned for the burning of Atlanta scene in GONE WITH THE WIND.

Posted By george : March 30, 2014 7:59 pm

James said: “It’s fun spotting a future A-level movie star, early in their career, in a Poverty Row film.”

Old TV shows offer the same fun. While watching the second season of ROUTE 66 (1961-62), I spotted Robert Redford, James Caan, Martin Sheen, Robert Duvall, Burt Reynolds, Tuesday Weld and Lee Marvin. (The latter two were well known by then, but weren’t yet movie stars.) And the directors included Robert Altman and Sam Peckinpah.

Posted By AL : March 30, 2014 8:34 pm

Richard–What is it with this NitrateDeal? Who can forgive the barbaric way Jack W.mutilated A STAR IS BORN–recalling every single print existing, making the same deletions on every one of them–then took all, including the ORIGINAL NEGATIVES of those scenes and “melted down” everything to “retrieve The silver nitrate”. He didn’t even keep ONE print for the archives! I’ll have to google “Tiffany-Stahl”–but remember that I was referring to the PRC-Monogram’s from the 40′s.
thanks for the info. AL

Posted By george : March 30, 2014 10:24 pm

Universal destroyed almost all their silent films in the late 1940s. Only about two dozen were preserved, mainly those with remake value. That’s why we still have the Chaney versions of PHANTOM and HUNCHBACK.

Posted By swac44 : April 1, 2014 12:21 pm

Al: I believe nitrate was no longer in use by the time they made A Star Is Born, its flammable properties were already notorious for quite some time. And the only reason Chaney’s Hunchback of Notre Dame survives is because of one 16mm print made from the camera negative, probably for “Show-At-Home” purposes, that is the source for all restored versions on home video.

I have a soft spot for this film too, but then again, any Lugosi outing looks good after you’ve watched Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla.

Posted By Ben Martin : April 1, 2014 3:30 pm

“Bela in his prime” is a theme brought in by Al and commented on by George and it made me yearn/beg/plead for TCM to make Bela the star of the month. In addition to the aforementioned The Black Camel, TCM has shown wonderful early Bela films such as The Thirteenth Chair (Tod Browning working with his future Dracula star who here plays a hero!) and the Joe E. Brown comedy Broad Minded where Bela is priceless, seemingly enjoying himself in the Joe E. Brown comedy, where he gets to woo the fabulous Thelma Todd, and spouts the immortal line “Look vat you’ve done to my strawberry shortcake.!”

Posted By AL : April 1, 2014 8:49 pm

swac44–I’ll have to check up on the nitrate issue. I attended the roadshow tour of the restored A STAR IS BORN (Paramount Theatre in Oakland). James Mason, Lillian Gish, Ron Haver appeared on stage along with Fay Kanin who said that when they first explored the WB vaults, the first thing they discovered was “a pristine three-strip Technicolor 35mm Cinemascpe print of the CUT version”, then they uncovered the UNCUT original stereo soundtrack and that’s what they used to begin the restoration…and I think I agree with you about BELA LUGOSI MEETS A BROOKLYN GORILLA–it’s really ghastly.

Posted By swac44 : April 1, 2014 9:19 pm

A cursory Google search tells me that nitrocellulose was phased out in favour of safety film around 1948. I once got to see a new LoC-made 35mm print of Tod Browning’s Iron Man (a 1931 Tod Browning boxing picture starring Lew Ayres and Jean Harlow) made from a nitrate negative, and the B&W image was spectacular, with glossy blacks and a silvery sheen. I’m sure the look can be recreated with modern lab and digital techniques, but I’d never seen anything quite like it at the time.

Posted By Bronxgirl48 : April 5, 2014 6:09 am

My favorite scene is that obnoxious girl reporter spooked by the sudden appearance of the great Elizabeth Russell, who hisses to her: “So young! So beautiful! Some day you too will be a bride!”

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