Posted by Richard Harland Smith on March 28, 2014
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!”
For 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.
You 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.)
As 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.
Though 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.
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.
Streamline is the official blog of FilmStruck, a new subscription service that offers film aficionados a comprehensive library of films including an eclectic mix of contemporary and classic art house, indie, foreign and cult films.
Actors Alfred Hitchcock Bela Lugosi Bette Davis Boris Karloff British Cinema Buster Keaton Cary Grant Charlie Chaplin Citizen Kane Comedy Criterion Dracula DVD Elizabeth Taylor Film Film Noir FilmStruck Frankenstein Fritz Lang Hammer Horror Horror horror films Horror Movies Humphrey Bogart James Bond Joan Crawford John Ford John Huston John Wayne Joseph Losey MGM Movie movies Night of the Living Dead Orson Welles Peter Lorre Psycho Roger Corman Screwball Comedy Steve McQueen TCM The Exorcist Warner Archive Westerns