The Corpse Vanishes

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(3/10) Bela Lugosi is kidnapping brides from the altar in order to extract their precious bodily fluids, which he uses to keep his 80-year old wife young and beautiful. This Monogram cheapo from 1942 could have been batshit crazy fun but tries too hard to be a snappy Warner crime thriller. 

The Corpse Vanishes. 1942, USA. Directed by Wallace Fox. Written by Harvey Gates, Gerald Schnitzer, Sam Robins. Starring: Bela Lugosi, Luana Walters, Tristram Coffin, Elizabeth Russell, Angelo Rossetti, Frank Moran, Minerva Urecal. Produced by Jack Dietz & Sam Katzman. IMDb: 4.5/10. Rotten Tomatoes: N/A. Metacritic: N/A. 

1942_corpse_vanishes_007The Corpse Vanishes is a gruesome offering aimed at out-horroring all horror pictures”, writes Richard Bojarski in his book The Films of Bela Lugosi. And sure enough, you might want to fasten your seat belts, because this is a strange ride. This 1942 cheapo from Poverty Row studio Monogram concerns the dealings of one Bela Lugosi, or as he is called in this instance, Dr. George Lorenz. Lorenz is a mad botanist who sends poisonous orchids to brides on their wedding day, making them fall into a state of suspended animation at the altar — and are declared dead on the spot. Using a number of devious tricks, Lorenz and his henchmman Mike (George Eldgredge) snatch the bodies, bringing them to the remote estate of Lorenz and his eccentric wife Countess Lorenz (Elizabeth Russell).

The reason for the bride-snatching is that Dr. Lorenz needs a steady supply of young women whose vital fluids he extracts, injecting them into his 80-year-old wife in order for her to keep her unnaturally youthful appearance. All of this he does with the help of his three servants, a hulking idiot called Angel (Frank Moran), a gleefully evil dwarf (Angelo Rossitto) and an ominous maid called Fagah (Minerva Urecal), who also happens to be the mother of Angel. The mute Angel is regularly whipped by Dr. Lorenz in front of his mother, usually for acting out on his morbid fetish with the “dead” girls’ hair. Not to be out-weirded by their servants, the Lorenz couple choose to sleep in coffins.

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Bela Lugosi.

But the Lorenz’ plans are interrupted by the intrepid socialite reporter Patricia Hunter (Luana Walters), who traces the strange orchids found on the brides to Dr. Lorenz, and decides to pay a visit. She arrives on a stormy night, by chance at the same time as the family doctor, Dr. Foster (Tristram Coffin). At this point Patricia doesn’t suspect Lorenz’ involvement in the deaths, but seeks out the doctor because of his expertise in orchids. But instead of politely answering her questions and sending her on her way no wiser, Lorenz brusquely brushes her off, and invites her to stay the night, apparently because he has some evil plan in mind. However, whatever plans he might have had, he never acts on them. Instead what happens is that Angel sneaks into her room at night to touch her hair and leave an orchid, thus revealing the secret passage that leads to his basement quarters and Dr. Lorenz’ lab. She secretly follows Angel to the basement, where he conveniently leads her to Lorenz’ stash of dead and half-dead women. Not only this, but Lorenz himself turns up and strangles Angel. Later, Patricia also discovers the unusual sleeping habits of the Lorenzes. When she wakes Dr. Foster, he convinces her she had a bad dream, and she goes back to sleep. Upon the morning, he has no memory of speaking with her during the night, assuring her she dreamt it all up. It later turns out he was somehow hypnotised. Because apparently our good botanist is also a hypnotist.

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Bela Lugosi, Luana Walters and Tristram Coffin.

However, Patricia’s not that easily convinced, and is determined to get to the bottom of it all. Of course, after having discovered a room full of bodies and witnessed a murder first-hand, she rushes to the police telling them all she knows. No, actually, she goes to her boss and tries to convince him to let her stay on the story, and along with Dr. Foster and a actress friend she stages a fake wedding in order to catch Dr. Lorenz red handed. Only, Dr. Lorenz is two steps ahead, and foregoes the fake bride, instead abducting Patricia. Naturally, this leads to a creepy showdown at the mad botanist’s lab. And while I don’t usually reveal the endings of the films I review, I feel it is important in this case to point out that despite being drugged, Patricia manages to fight her way free all by herself, with a little aid from Fagah, who is naturally a little pissed at Dr. Lorenz for strangling her son. I have seen some reviews stating that Patricia is “saved” by Dr. Foster in the end, but this is bunk. When Dr. Foster arrives the whole thing is over, rendering this already bland character completely redundant.

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Angelo Rossetti and Bela Lugosi.

This is the fourth film of Bela Lugosi’s infamous “Monogram Nine”, a string of Z-movie clunkers that he made for the Poverty Row studio between 1941 and 1944. The other masterpieces in this collection are Invisible Ghost and Spooks Run Wild (1941), Black Dragons, Bowery at Midnight (1942), The Ape Man, Ghosts on the Loose (1943), and Voodoo Man as well as Return of the Ape Man (1944).  Four of them were directed by William “One-Shot” Beaudine, two by Phil Rosen and two by Wallace Fox — including The Corpse Vanishes. Fox was a prolific B-movie hack who usually specialised in westerns, and his unfamiliarity with the horror genre shows in this movie, that’s directed without much atmosphere, other than the fact that much of the shots in Lorenz’ basement are shot in low lighting.

Technically the movie is inept. Most shots are carelessly framed and almost without exception static. Half of the film seems to consist of people getting in to or out of cars, and all scenes feel cramped and staged. The editing is ghastly and the canned music mostly inappropriate and dull. Everything has a rushed and amateurish feel to it, which is no surprise, seeing as the movie hit the theatres a mere two months after principal photography commenced.

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Lugosi, Rossetti, Walters, Coffin.

What is exceptionally striking, though, is how elaborately contrived the script is. Just think about it. Dr. Lorenz seems to need new bodies of young women on almost a weekly basis to keep his wife young. But why the elaborate and highly publicised stunts? Why all the drama of killing women on their wedding days? Why the orchids and the death at the altar, the meticulous trickery needed to snatch the bodies from a public place with up to hundreds of people in attendance, sometimes needing to trick and evade police officers? As far as the script informs us, he only needs young women. Why not just drag them from a back alley somewhere? Furthermore, why does he insist on keeping Patricia at his estate over night, without even bothering to lock the bloody door of his bedroom WHERE HE IS SLEEPING IN A COFFIN? And after Patricia informs him of basically having all the information she needs to put him behind bars for life, he is simply satisfied with his half-baked assurance that she dreamed everything, and lets her go without a second thought. His only saving grace is that everyone else in the movie are even more inept than he is. Despite the fact that everyone knows that he will be along to “kill” and snatch the bride at weddings, the police fall for the same stupid tricks every time. The reason Patricia gives for not going to the police with her story is that Dr. Lorenz would just “destroy all the evidence” if the police started digging around. But he has a basement filled with half-dead or dead bodies! What is he going to do with them between the time the police knock on his door and they reach the bottom of the stairs? And just out of interest — what happened to all the sedated girls in the basemen? As Lyz Kingsley at AYCYAS puts it “Script doesn’t know. Script doesn’t care.”

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Lugosi and Elizabeth Russell.

Not that the logic of the script matters much in a film like this, that is so clearly made simply in order to cater to an audience going to the cinema to see Bela Lugosi being creepy.

Monogram was one of the bigger Poverty Row studios, and while its output was cheap and often rushed, it was in possession of a studio and studio resources, which meant that at least its productions weren’t completely haphazard, as was the case with some of the smallest independent studios. What this meant was that the Monogram films at least had the resemblance of movies that could play at a theatre. The Corpse Vanishes is generally considered to be one of the best of the Monogram Nine — not that that is saying much.

According to Gerald Schnitzer, who receives story credit along with Sam Robins, it was co-producer Jack Dietz who came up with the idea for the film. He is quoted in Gary Rhodes’ and Robert Guffey’s book Bela Lugosi and the Monogram Nine: “I vaguely remember discussing the idea with Sam Dietz, who claimed that he had read about a socialite bride being kidnapped, headlined in the tabloids”. According to the book, “little else is known about the film’s production”.

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Luana Walters and Frank Moran.

Of course, nobody watches a Bela Lugosi Monogram film expecting masterclass filmmaking. And if we’re being honest, the only people who will seek this movie out are Bela Lugosi fans and horror movie completists. So the only honest way to judge this movie is whether or not you enjoy it for what it is. And of course this will depend. Lugosi fans tend to enjoy almost anything he is in. I personally do not feel that this is one of his stronger roles, though. This is the kind of film where he would have had the opportunity to ham things up to eleven, surrounded as he is by a menagerie of bizarre characters. But instead he chooses to play things fairly straight – whatever that counts for in Lugosi Land. The result of this is that his Dr. Lorenz comes off as a rather bland character, despite Dr. Foster’s warning to Patricia about his eccentricity. Urecal, Rossitto and Moran are all a lot more eccentric than Lugosi in this picture, but unfortunately their limited screen time and scarcity of lines (Moran: 0, Rossitto: 2) don’t quite give them the opportunity to pick up Lugosi’s slack.

The real star of the movie is Elizabeth Russell as the deranged Countess Lorenz, who is so good you’d think she was in the wrong movie. She has no problem out-creeping Lugosi, and it’s a damned shame that she isn’t featured heavier this film. Still, this was one of the largest roles of her career. While she is credited with appearing in 30 films, most of Russell’s roles were little more than extra parts. The appearance she is best remembered for is no more than perhaps 30 seconds and four words long, as the beautiful, but spine-chillingly creepy Cat Woman in Val Lewton’s cult classic Cat People, which she made after The Corpse Vanishes.

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Elizabeth Russell as the Cat Woman in Val Lewton’s Cat People (1942).

I have no problem with Luana Walters in the lead. A seasoned B-western starlet, she has the spunk and the chops to pull off the role of the headstrong reporter, despite some unspeakably bad dialogue. Tristram Coffin, sporting a pencil moustache, is the epitome of blandness as Dr. Foster, and he isn’t aided in any way by the fact that he doesn’t do anything of value in the film except give Patricia a ride to the Lorenz mansion.

The prevailing attitude among modern critics seem to be to put The Corpse Vanishes in the very middle of the scale, with 2,5/5 stars. This is the rating given by The Terror Trap, which gives the movie points for “some unabashedly offbeat casting, a leering performance from Bela, and solid support from Walters and Coffin“. Richard Scheib at Moria follows along the same lines, calling the movie “moderately better than most others of its ilk from the same era”. But then there’s also someone like Scott Ashlin at 1,000 Misspent Hours, who gives the movie 3,5/5 stars, and such a glowing review that I’m not sure we’ve watched the same film. For example Ashlin writes that Lugosi is “as far out of control as he’s ever been, and it looks as though he’s having the time of his life”, whereas I thought he looked perpetually bored throughout the entire movie. More established outlets give the film a lower rating, with AllMovie’s Hans Wollstein awarding it 1,5/5 stars, and TV Guide 1/4.

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Lugosi, Elizabeth Russell and Minerva Urecal.

One point that frequently comes up in discussions of the film’s merits is its perceived “outrageousness”. I have a problem with this categorisation, as I fail to see in which way this movie would be particularly outrageous, even for the time it was made. The plot, although weird, is pretty much old hat in 1942. Grave robbery, bride snatchery, and fluid extratery had been done in countless movies. The hulking servant is a callback to both Dwight Frye’s Renfield and Fritz (1931) and to Boris Karloff’s Morgan in The Old Dark House (1932). The dwarf servant was another regular trope, and Rossitto had done a number of roles more interesting and macabre than the one on The Corpse Vanishes. The horror content of the movie is quite tame, even by Hays Code standards. If you want outrageous films, I can direct you toward Luis Bunuel’s and Salvador Dalí’s The Golden Age (1930), Fritz Lang’s M (1931), Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932) or why not Erle C. Kenton’s Island of Lost Souls (1932, review). Or you might check out Maya Deren’s short movie Meshes of the Afternoon, made a year after The Corpse Vanishes. Or if by outrageous you mean that the film is just batshit crazy, I might agree, but it’s a craziness derived more from lazy screenwriting than anything else. Just because things don’t make sense doesn’t mean the film is outrageous in a good way.

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Posters.

This said, a friend of the sort of horror films churned out by Monogram and PRC in the forties will certainly find this film at least intriguing, even enjoyable. The supporting cast in particular is a hoot. Urecal, Rossitto and Moran would all turn up in a number of Monogram horror cheapos, some in which Lugosi was also present.

Angelo Rossitto had a long and awe-inspiring movie career spanning 60 years, from 1927 to 1987. He appeared in a dozen science fiction films, from playing an underwater creature in The Mysterious Island (1929, review), to appearing as the shorter half of the Master Blaster tag team in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985). Rossitto had roles in some of the most terrible SF films in movie history, including Mesa of Lost Women (1953), Brain of Blood (1971) and Dracula vs. Frankenstein (1971). He was also one of the Freaks in Tod Brownings legendary cult movie, appeared as a munchkin in The Wizard of Oz (1939), an Arena midget in Cecil B. Demille’s Samson and Delilah (1949) and was a voice actor for Ralph Bakshi’s The Lord of the Rings (1978). Interestingly enough, he also worked as a stunt double for Shirley Temple. The small roles he was able to secure in films were not enough to sustain him, and his steady income came from running a news stand in Hollywood. Because of the haphazard nature of his role in The Corpse Vanishes, I suspect that it wasn’t written into the script. The fact is that Lugosi loved him after working with him in Spooks Run Wild, and talked producer Sam Katzman into putting him in two more of his films.

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Tristram Coffin. Luana Walters, Frank Moran and Lugosi.

“Leading man” Tristram Coffin was a B-movie workhorse, with credits in over 200 films or TV series. He is probably best known for playing the titular hero in the film serial King of the Rocket Men (1949). His leading man roles were few and far between, more often he played heavies in cheap westerns, bit parts in crime movies or military supporting types. He did do a co-lead in Columbia’s 1957 earthquake SF movie The Night the World Exploded. However, he was pushed down to small supporting roles in his other sci-fi outings, Flight to Mars (1951), Creature with the Atom Brain (1955), The Crawling Hand (1963) and the Leslie Nielsen vehicle The Resurrection of Zachary Wheeler (1971). He also appeared in the first all-out science fiction TV show, Captain Video, Master of the Stratosphere (1951) and had a number of different roles in the original Superman TV show (1952-1958). He became famous as the “corpse that got up and walked off screen” in 1954 during the first episode of the live-aired TV show Climax! According to Coffin himself, the gaffe was blown out of proportion, especially by Johnny Carson, who repeatedly recounted the story of how a actor named Coffin played a corpse that “got up from its stretcher and leisurely strolled off screen”. In fact, what happened, said Coffin, was that he was lying on the floor and was supposed to crawl away — under the camera — to make room for a boom shot on lead actor Dick Powell. But because his cue came too early, he was still visible in camera as he shimmied away with his blanket.

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Frank Moran, Bela Lugosi, Angelo Rossetti and Minerva Urecal.

Another B sci-fi bit-part staple was George Eldredge who appeared in The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942, review), Return of the Ape Man, Fury of the Congo (1951), Jungle Jim in the Forbidden Land (1952), Monkey Business (1952), It Came from Outer Space (1953) and Riders to the Stars (1954). By the way, Fury of the Congo has the best IMDb plot synopsis ever: “Jungle Jim must protect rare pony-like animals whose glands produce a powerful narcotic. On the way, he fights a giant spider.” Gold.

Sound recordist Glen Glenn must have hated his parents.

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Russell, Rossetti, Lugosi.

Bela Lugosi fans will no doubt feel that my 3/10 star rating of The Corpse Vanishes is unnecessary low, and perhaps I just don’t know how to get into the spirit of it all. For me, however, the sum of the parts don’t add up. This film had all the ingredients for an outrageously fun B-movie roller coaster, but almost all of them are underused and underplayed. The creepy henchmen and -women could have been the salt of the movie, but they are merely used as props. More material should have been written for Elizabeth Russell and Lugosi had no business holding back on his weirdness in this film. It’s like the film’s too busy trying to be a snappy Warner crime thriller to ever really acknowledge the batshit crazy of it all. It doesn’t help that the cinematography is flat, dull and rushed. But obviously the film has its charm and its fans, and I would have liked to like it better than I did.

The movie was released in Britain under the sherlockholmesian title The Case of the Missing Brides.

Janne Wass

The Corpse Vanishes. 1942, USA. Directed by Wallace Fox. Written by Harvey Gates, Gerald Schnitzer, Sam Robins. Starring: Bela Lugosi, Luana Walters, Tristram Coffin, Elizabeth Russell, Angelo Rossetti, Frank Moran, Minerva Urecal, Joan Barclay, Kenneth Harlan, Gwen Kenyon, Vince Barnett, George Eldregde. Cinematography: Arthur Reed. Editing: Robert Golden. Art direction: Dave Milton. Sound: Glen Glenn. Produced by Jack Dietz and Sam Katzman for Sam Katzman Productions and Monogram. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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