Monday, October 2, 2017

Springmill Drive-In: Classic Horror Films from the 1940s

Cody went to a drive-in for a quadruple feature of 1940s horror movies.

Last October, I went the horror marathons at the Springmill Drive-In for three weekends in a row, taking in quadruple features at their '50s Horror Film Festival, '60s Horror Film Festival, and '70s Horror Film Festival. The drive-in is back in the marathon game this year, and they have doubled the amount of marathons they'll be having to six. One weekend for '40s horror films, followed by a weekend of '50s horror films, then '60s, '70s, '80s, and finishing up with a quadruple feature of classic zombie movies. I doubt I'll even be able to attend each of these marathons, but I was there for the first weekend of horror films. The "Classic Horror Films from the 1940s" lineup.

I arrived at the drive-in around 7:30 with two friends - my dachshund Zeppelin, who I have been taking to the drive-in with me for years, and my chihuahua Mr. Jeeves, who my mom rescued from an animal shelter last year. With them settled in the car, I headed to the concession stand to get a drink and a large bucket of popcorn. I hadn't eaten much that day so I was really hungry, and I proceeded to wipe out that entire bucket over the course of the night, eating more popcorn than any human being probably should within such a short time period.

Soon after my arrival at the drive-in, while a double feature of The LEGO Ninjago Movie and It got started on the other screen, a quadruple feature of 70+ year old horror films began to play out on screen 1.

7:55pm - VOODOO MAN (1944)

"Classic" is more a term that all of these films picked up with age rather than earning through their quality. They were all solid, entertaining little B-movies, but I wouldn't call them classics in the way I would call something like Frankenstein '31, Night of the Living Dead, or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre a classic. Regardless, the four of them together made for a fun night at the movies, starting with Voodoo Man.

Directed by William Beaudine from a screenplay by Robert Charles, the film stars Bela Lugosi as the titular villain, Dr. Richard Marlowe, a man who abducts women off a lonely country road with the help of a gas station attendant / voodoo practitioner played by George Zucco and a couple of dim-witted lackeys played by John Carradine and Pat McKee. Zucco's character sends the women down the road when they stop at his gas station, then when their cars break down Carradine and McKee grab the women and take them to Lugosi's place. Lugosi has a camera installed on the road so he can watch the abductions live from his home - quite a set-up for a private citizen to have in 1944.

Voodoo rituals are performed that turn the women into mindless zombies... and we'll come to find out that Marlowe is doing this all in the name of love. His wife Evelyn (Ellen Hall) died long ago, and he still has her body around, looking just as she did the day she passed away. He is trying to bring her back to life, and to do so he needs to transfer the life force of young women into his dead bride.

Enter a meta element in the form of Tod Andrews as Ralph Dawson, a Hollywood screenwriter who ends up on the trail of the voodoo man when his fiancée's cousin becomes the latest captive. It's quite a coincidence, because a studio head had just asked Dawson to put together a story inspired by all these disappearances. After coming face-to-face with the perpetrator, Dawson does indeed write a screenplay inspired by it - the script is titled Voodoo Man, and he recommends that Bela Lugosi be cast as the title character. Oh, hijinks. That's sort of fun, but the Dawson character is kind of a jerk otherwise, especially when he gets extremely mad that a gas station attendant - not Zucco, but a kindly fellow played by Ralph Littlefield - didn't gas up his car, even though it's his own fault that he drove away without confirming that the gas had been pumped. You can't get that pissed at Ralph Littlefield and still be a likeable character.

Quick, simple, and short (all of these movies were right around 60 minutes), Voodoo Man is a breezy watch, and a film that features Lugosi, Zucco, and Carradine all together is one that definitely must be seen.

9:05pm - THE FLYING SERPENT (1946)

George Zucco returned to terrorize more people in the second movie of the night, and even though the other characters in the film treat it as if this is a mystery, director Sam Newfield and writer John T. Neville chose to give away Zucco's villainy right up front with a scene that shows he has the titular creature locked up in a cage. That seems an odd choice, and somewhat insulting to the flying serpent - this is Quetzalcoatl, worshipped as a god by the Aztecs, and this old dude is treating it like an exotic pet.

Zucco plays Andrew Forbes, an archaeologist who has discovered the lost treasure of Emperor Montezuma hidden within Aztec ruins in San Juan, New Mexico, and he uses Quetzalcoatl to guard his discovery, having the flying serpent kill anyone who might thwart his plan to keep the treasure for himself. He controls the ancient creature by plucking a feather from its body and planting it on the person he wants dead. He then sets Quetzalcoatl free, the creature kills the person who has its feather, retrieves the feather, and goes back to its cage.

And so it goes. While radio show host Dick Thorpe (Ralph Lewis) investigates these strange deaths in New Mexico and romances Forbes' daughter Mary (Hope Kramer), Forbes sends Quetzalcoatl out to kill person after person.

The concept of The Flying Serpent could have been used to make a better movie - either they could have actually played it like a mystery, or even better they could have had Quetzalcoatl protecting the treasure and attacking people without being manipulated by some old man. It's not all it could have been, but as it is it's a fine way to spend an hour.

10:10pm - INVISIBLE GHOST (1941) 

The title of this movie is baffling to me, for a couple reasons. First, what ghost isn't invisible, at least most of the time? And secondly, the story doesn't involve any ghosts, invisible or not.

Directed by Joseph H. Lewis and written by Al and Helen Martin, Invisible Ghost stars Bela Lugosi as a doctor who is a widower, just like his Voodoo Man character, minus the voodoo. He is Dr. Charles Kessler (no relation to Charles Bronson's 10 to Midnight character), and his wife was killed in a car accident while running away with another man... Or at least that's what Kessler and his daughter Virginia (Polly Ann Young) believe happened. Mrs. Kessler (Betty Compson) isn't actually dead. She was a car accident, but she survived it, left with severe brain damage. This is information that Kessler's gardener Jules (Ernie Adams) knows very well, because he and his wife have been hiding Mrs. Kessler away in a cellar on the Kessler property for years, taking care of her in secret instead of letting her husband and daughter know that she's still alive.

If that weren't weird enough, occasionally Mrs. Kessler gets out of her room, wanders over to the main house, and looks into her husband's bedroom window. When Kessler spots his supposedly deceased wife, he falls into a trance - and goes on to murder somebody. This happens again and again over the course of the film. Kessler spots his wife, goes into a trance, and kills somebody. Or he attempts to kill somebody and something causes him to snap out of his trance just in time.

Virginia's boyfriend, an innocent man, is executed for one of Kessler's crimes, and afterward the man's twin brother Paul (John McGuire plays both brothers) shows up to figure out who the real killer was. The truth eventually does come to light, but it's not because of Paul's investigative skills. It just kind of happens, and even when the killer's identity is revealed, we still don't get an explanation for why the sight of his wife puts Kessler into a murderous trance.

This movie is nonsensical, but entertaining. The best character is Clarence Muse as Kessler's butler Evans, who is a very fun presence in the film.

11:20pm - SPOOKS RUN WILD (1941) 

The Bowery Boys, a.k.a. The Dead End Kids, The Little Tough Guys, and The East Side Kids, were a comedy group that made nearly 50 movies over the course of 21 years, which makes interesting the fact that the only movies I've ever seen these characters in were movies that had some kind of horror element, like The Bowery Boys Meet the Monsters. In fact, the first time I ever saw one of their movies (Mr. Hex) was at an all-night theatrical horror marathon back in 2006.

Mr. Hex was the last movie shown at that marathon, and the Bowery Boys brought this marathon to an end with Spooks Run Wild, which sends the city kids out to the countryside to stay at a camp... which turns out to be close to the mansion that a strange fellow played by Bela Lugosi has just taken up residence in. Radio reports say that there's a "monster killer" on the loose, and Lugosi's Nardo becomes suspect #1 for anyone who crosses his path. Especially when they see him wandering around at night, accompanied by his little person assistant Luigi (future Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome star Angelo Rossitto).

Wandering away from the camp, the boys end up in Nardo's house, where they experience a night full of spooky occurrences.

The Bowery Boys are a fun bunch to hang out with, and this movie coasts entirely on their charisma and the presence of Lugosi. There's nothing to this movie other than the guys stumbling around in Nardo's place, getting scared and having misunderstandings. Director Phil Rosen and writers Carl Foreman, Charles R. Marion, and Jack Henley just dropped them into this scenario and let them go.

Spooks Run Wild is a good time, and it was a nice way to the end the night at the marathon.

As the film came to an end, I drove out of the drive-in just about exactly five hours after I got there, having watched four movies within that time. That's the great thing about those old, short running times.

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