Tuesday, 5 May 2009

What point would there be to life without Bela Lugosi films?

Believe it or not, dear reader, I am a single man. Hard to believe, I know, of a fellow of my obvious high calibre; yet there it is. I am a loose cannon; a gay blade, if you will.

One of the benefits (?) of the bachelor's life is the freedom to do precisely as you please; this means that you can pursue nerdy, ultra-male, often highly ridiculous pursuits to an absurd degree, unfettered by any need to pay visits to Ikea, or engage in extensive early-morning discussions about how the relationship might be "progressing".

One such pursuit is my current project: to collect and watch every film ever made by the legendary horror actor Bela Lugosi. Far more worthwhile than any relationship with a woman, don't you agree? Forever Dracula, frequently a Mad Scientist, eventually Ed D. Wood's mate, Bela's mannered performances, intensity and thickly accented delivery were unique. He would never have visited Ikea. He always gave the performance of his lifetime, regardless of whatever old tat he was appearing in, regardless of how little his genius was appreciated by the many infinitely less talented foolish hack film directors that ultimately controlled his fate. Things went so wrong for Bela, with his career falling to pieces by the 1940s, whereas things went so right, comparatively speaking, for his rival, (the equally brilliant, but luckier and more clearly spoken) Boris Karloff - hence I have a particular extra soft-spot for the underdog, Mr Lugosi.

I recently finished watching The Phantom Creeps, a 12 part late-thirties cliff-hanger Universal serial featuring the erstwhile Mr. Lugosi. I must confess it was a somewhat ramshackle production. Apparently, Mr. Lugosi was worried about remembering all his lines, and wrote them on bits of paper, secreted about the set. He need not have worried. He is, as always, majestic in his performance, and it would be hard to spot a fluffed line in this particular script. Unsurprisingly, he plays a mad scientist, Doctor Zorka. I think he may have planned to take over the world, perhaps - it wasn't entirely clear until episode 11, when a newspaper headline usefully clarified the situation: MAD GENIUS RUNNING WILD: DOCTOR ZORKA ALIVE. MAY BE INVISIBLE TO THE HUMAN EYE.  Ah yes, I see. Pass the marmalade, won't you, dear? What was clear was that this was one of Bela's most gleefully evil roles, and also that he was wearing one of his finest fake beards (later mimicked by the jazz musician, Manfred Mann, I reckon).

Sadly the beard disappears after Zorka fakes his own death around the third episode (perhaps it fell off, it looked rather fragile). Apart from the fact that Bela plays his role with the fervour of a deranged, homicidal schoolboy, one of the reasons this serial is so splendid is that Bela/Zorka has numerous superb wholly impractical gizmos, gadgets and weapons of mass destruction, none of which are put to any particularly useful effect. These include: 

1. An invisibility belt, which Bela often wears while he drives around town - cackling - in a huge station wagon. Actually, if he wants to travel incognito, the use of a car might be something of a schoolboy error. "Hey! who exactly is driving that huge station wagon? Why is there evil laughter drifting out of the windows? Yipes!" I guess even invisible mad geniuses need a solid, reliable, family car; but public transport may have been a better option.

2. A piece of a meteorite, which Bela is very proud of, which glows, and is kept in a secret cupboard in the lab. It is mentioned that this has something to do with Bela's power, but I couldn't figure out what. It is repeatedly stolen, then he steals it back, then it is stolen, ad infinitum. This, my friends, is the plot.

3. The spider/tablet bomb. This is particularly good. Pay attention, now. Bela has some white discs, in his pocket. If Uncle Bela drops a white disc in your pocket, then opens up a funny box that he carries in his other pocket (are you with me?), an electric spider will scurry out, go up your leg, and you will explode (and might be dead, or might be in suspended animation - the script, and Bela's superbly mannered incoherent delivery of the relevant lines, make this uncertain). I would imagine that when the scriptwriters came up with this particular concept it was a "high-five" moment.   

4. A buzzing death ray of some kind. You know the sort - crackle lines scratched into the emulsion of the film. All mad scientists worth their salt have one. But there are so many cool inventions in this particular serial, this almost pales into insignificance. So spare a thought for the buzzing death ray. 

5. A rather splendid giant robot, with an enormous, dome-like head. The best things about this are that Bela controls it using an armlet with some buttons on (like the one General Jumbo controlled his toy soldiers with in The Beano many years later), probably marked "STOP" "GO" "WAVE ARMS" and "DESTROY", it has long bendy-spring tube arms, and, best of all, it goes "kerzunk - kerzunk - kerzunk" whenever it is switched on. It looks like it was made with "My First Evil Robot Kit" and it is a proper robot. Incidentally, stored behind a sliding wall panel in Bela's house, it is brought out intermittently to lumber about unthreateningly until it is easily destroyed by a bullet around episode 12. Springs fly everywhere; Bela looks genuinely sad to see it go, and I was genuinely sad. I haven't got over it yet.

6. Test-tubes filled with "bomb liquid". Believe it or not, when the script runs out of steam (for about the third time) somewhere around episode 10, it's almost as if Bela said: "bugger this for a game of soldiers, my children of the night, how about if we stop all this 'stealing the meteorite' shtick and I fly around in a plane chucking bombs at things for the last couple of episodes?" And what a splendid idea it was. I have never seen Bela seem so joyously evil. He really looks like he's enjoying himself. And - thanks to the splendour of the Universal stock footage library - not only can he callously blow up ships and buildings, while he (and I) laugh like a drain (they all deserve it, the fools), he also blows up the Hindenberg, which we see in flames, in some genuine newsreel footage. Is this the first "snuff" movie? 

Come to think of it, the whole serial resonates with  a cheerful relish of death and destruction, and an appealingly carefree disregard for human life. I know that the cliffhanger serial should hardly be expected to be an arena for Bergmanesque ponderings on the frailty of humanity, and in B Pictures generally everybody gets over death - and every other trauma -  remarkably quickly, but usually there is some gesture made to signify compassion. Here, neither heroes nor villains seem to care much about anyone, or any thing, except the meteorite. Which is all rather entertaining. When a passenger train is horribly wrecked (presumably killing hundreds) somewhere about episode 8, our bland hero and heroine seem mostly unconcerned, as they stand amidst the flaming wreckage. 

He: The mystery box - did you find it? 
She (straightening her hat): What a horrible experience. 
He (wryly): Think what a swell story it'll make for your paper... (As an afterthought) feel strong enough to lend a hand with the first aid?  

The Phantom Creeps would not win any awards for subtlety. It wouldn't win any awards for anything, for that matter. Do I care? And to be honest, I didn't make any attempt to follow the details of the meteorite-stealing plot after the third or fourth snatch. But it matters not. It was certainly a useful macguffin for Universal's scriptwriters - the whole serial is based around "the mystery box" (there's a narrative archetype if ever I saw one) being stolen - by government agents - by foreign spies - then Bela turns invisible, and steals it back - then foreign spies steal it - then Bela turns invisible, and steals it back - then foreign spies steal it - then Bela turns invisible, and steals it back - and so on, forever and ever, amen. It seems that it is only the fact that there was a limit of 12 episodes that succeeds in bringing the cycle to a close; but it is a narrative loop of the purest kind that could have gone on forever. There's no pretension about it and it could quite easily have been continued endlessly in next week's thrilling episode, at this theater, for all eternity, perhaps with the children of the cast taking over the acting chores when their parents passed on. "It's a proud day, my boy: it's your turn to take over the family serial now, Bela Jnr.!"

The Phantom Creeps may be an empty, ephemeral entertainment, but I like to think it is also an acute allegory for all human experience. There are various glowing meteorites of uncertain significance in this world to be collected (Bela Lugosi DVDs? Relationships? Ikea furniture?); people covet them, they are stolen, they are stolen back; they are lost...meanwhile, confused, seeking narrative resolution, we wander about the earth, perhaps invisibly...there are things people say we don't understand, there are cliffhangers at regular intervals, perhaps some evil laughter, maybe your robot explodes, and then your personal 12 episodes are all over. The end. 

Yes, as I have demonstrated to you here, The Phantom Creeps is far more profound than anything Samuel Beckett ever wrote, and, besides, it features Bela Lugosi in a false beard. 

You will find this serial in THE HOUSE OF COBWEBS.

1 comment:

  1. Bela Jr. became a lawyer instead of following in his father's footsteps. Maybe he made his career choice after seeing this serial.