Bela on Poverty Row, munching away on Apple Pie
One of the more interesting films Bela Lugosi would ever make in his career. Which isn't too say that it's GOOD you understand; it sure is fascinating, though, mostly for all the wrong reasons but then, it does boast director Joseph H. Lewis, who went on to make Gun Crazy and The Big Combo, and not for nothin', but when you've got The Invisible Ghost on your resume, having Gun Crazy on there too sure doesn't hurt.
Bela is disturbed by the disappearance years ago of his wife, who ran off with some other guy who no doubt wasn't Hungarian. When I say 'disturbed', I don't mean 'annoyed' or 'vexed', I mean, oh, 'unhinged' and 'demented'. He sets a place for her at the table, has his faithful servant Clarence Muse serve her soup, compliments her on how particularly beautiful she looks on any given occasion, and is quite convinced that some day she'll return. Boy, is HE right, because she's actually living under the garage in a secret room; she'd been in an auto accident that gave her brain damage and she's cared for and fed by gardener Ernie Adams, and why he does that we'll never know, but 'abject stupidity' is part of the norm with Monogram Pictures scripts. The plot of the film, such as it is, is that Mrs. Lugosi (played by, of all people, Betty Compson, and if you just said to yourself, 'Surely not the Betty Compson from Docks of New York and the 1930 version of The Spoilers? Not the Betty Compson who was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress? SHE didn't end up on Poverty Row, did she? Please, tell me this is some OTHER Betty Compson! PLEASE TELL ME THAT!' To which I can only say, 'Life ain't easy, pal, life ain't easy.')
So Betty wanders around the grounds of Manor Lugosi, where her husband occasionally finds her peering in the window, which sets him off into a homicidal rage and he strangles one of the servants. Apparently, this has been going on for YEARS and (a) the police can't figure out who is behind this, and (b) he doesn't have any trouble whatsoever hiring new servants. Bela also has a daughter, Loretta Young's lookalike sister but not the one that's Sally Blane, no, this lookalike sister is Polly Ann Young, and she's engaged to a nice young man who used to sleep with the household's new maid, and so when she's murdered he's accused, despite the fact that nearly a hundred other servants have been strangled in the same house, and he's executed but his twin brother shows up to woo Polly Ann and figure out who REALLY killed the girl and I TOLD you Monogram pictures were stupid and by the way, both brothers are played by John McGuire and neither of them can act. Neither can Polly Ann or maid Terry Walker or police detective George Pembroke, who apparently was instructed to 'dress like a police detective' and so wears a trench coat and fedora and chomps on an unlit cigar in every scene he's in, no matter where or what he's doing. Seriously, this is one of the worst-acted films I've ever seen. Clearly, director Lewis was concentrating on other things, because it's terrific to look at, with a lot of unusual shots and camera angles and long takes and weird POVs and stuff like that, way above the Monogram Pictures norm.
And then there's that Lugosi fellow.
See, here's the thing... When that ol' debbil takes him over, he acts like a somnambulist, staggering around the house in a daze, arms outstretched, fingers flexing for a warm throat to crush. Lewis lights him from below, so his face is filled with the shadows of eerie madness. In 1941, in the gloom of a darkened theatre, I'm certain it was most horrifying, and worthy of the good name of Bela Lugosi, Master of Screen Terror. Seriously, it's scary. Um, well, that is to say in 1941 it was. Now? If you don't laugh out loud and think it's one of the stupidest things you've ever seen, it's because you fell asleep during the film, always a possibility with these things. It's a rip-snorter. And only Lugosi can say 'Apple Pie? My! That WILL be a treat!' and make it sound terrifying. But fret not, there's a lot of million-dollar stupid Monogram dialog in the film for EVERYONE to say.
Million-dollar stupid Monogram dialog:
Cop in trench coat and fedora, chomping on unlit cigar: 'All we want to know is if the fellow's crazy.'
Aged, wise psychiatrist guy: 'That's very easy to determine.'
Rotten actor twin brother man: 'Is it possible, doctor, for a man to be normal, say, for two or three months at a time and then go completely insane for an hour or two?'
Psychiatrist: 'Yes. Quite common!'
Bela: 'This should be most interesting.'
Yeah, it SHOULD be, huh?
Actually, as mentioned, the film IS interesting; director Lewis takes poop and makes a tasty omelet out of it (so to speak). There's also something to be said for letting Bela be Bela; none of this 'bill him prominently but have him play the red-herring butler or groundskeeper who's only in a few scenes' when Lugosi was at Monogram or PRC, peoples. How many of YOU have got to spend the better part of an hour wandering through a big, dark house with a flashlight under your chin? I mean, in a movie, not in real life.
I always wanted to give a shout out to Clarence Muse, who plays the Negro manservant with dignity and poise and is also one of the best things in the picture. Nice to see a character like this as something other than comic relief.