It’s January. It’s friggin’ cold. Let’s heat things up a bit with a good old-fashioned Grade Z horror movie starring Bela Lugosi.
My favorite part of any Grade Z Lugosi flick is that in spite of the awful acting, writing, and production values which often accompanied these films, Lugosi would always bring his “A” game, the result being a masterful horrific performance in an otherwise forgettable movie.
Take today’s movie, for instance. THE CORPSE VANISHES (1942) would no doubt be a forgotten film if not for the presence of Bela Lugosi. And while there are a few other parts about this movie that I like, Lugosi’s the reason to see it, and as he almost always does, he delivers a commanding performance.
It seems that it’s not a good time to get married. Yup, in THE CORPSE VANISHES, every time there’s a wedding, the bride drops dead at the altar, and to make matters even more horrifying, her body is then stolen by phony morticians and whisked away to some unknown destination, leaving the grieving families shell-shocked and devastated.
That’s because Dr. George Lorenz (Bela Lugosi) has a wife who, for reasons that are not entirely explained, needs a special serum made from the gland fluid of virginal brides to keep herself young. It’s a good thing for her that she’s married to Dr. Lorenz, because he’s only too happy to accommodate her, and so it’s Lorenz and his weird housemates who are busy killing and stealing the brides’ bodies so Lorenz can extract their fluids back in his secret laboratory in his home.
While the police are baffled, young newspaper reporter Patricia Hunter (Luana Walters), trying to make a name for herself, vows to investigate and solve the case on her own.
And that’s the plot of THE CORPSE VANISHES. The best parts, of course, involve Lugosi. One of my favorite scenes has the police searching the hearse which contains one of those dead brides. When they open the coffin, rather than find the dead bride, they find Lorenz pretending to be a corpse. The officer says “it’s a corpse all right, but not the one we’re looking for.” The scene’s a hoot because the audience expects to see the deceased newlywed but instead it’s Lugosi inside the coffin, and of course since it is Lugosi, you half-expect him to sit up and declare, “I am—Dracula.”
Speaking of Lugosi and coffins, when Patricia searches his house and discovers both the doctor and his wife sleeping in coffins, she calls him on it the next day. His response? “I find a coffin much more comfortable than a bed.” Only Bela Lugosi can utter that line and make it seem so matter of fact that it is completely believable.
And what Bela Lugosi “mad scientist” movie would be complete without him grabbing a whip and beating on his mute assistant. And while it’s not Tor Johnson, the guy is still rather creepy. In fact, one of the creepiest scenes in the movie occurs when Patricia searches the secret tunnels under the house, and the mute assistant Angel (Frank Moran) slowly pursues her, munching on a humongous turkey drumstick, no less! This scene also features some neat music, and the whole film, for a grade Z flick, has a pretty decent music score.
But make no mistake. This is definitely a grade Z movie, with absolutely no production values whatsoever. Directed by Wallace Fox, THE CORPSE VANISHES does have the aforementioned creepy scene in the secret corridor, and it does have Bela Lugosi, but other than this, there’s not much that makes this one all that horrifying.
The screenplay by Harvey Gates tells a rather ridiculous story, but in a movie like this, that’s half the fun.
And Lugosi isn’t the only actor in this film who turns in a decent effort. Luana Walters is very good as reporter Patricia Hunter. She’s smart, sexy, and feisty, the perfect female heroine.
Tristram Coffin—yes, that’s right, Coffin—is very good as well as the likable Dr. Foster, a doctor who ends up helping Patricia with her investigation.
As already mentioned, Frank Moran makes for a creepy mute henchman, while diminutive Angelo Rossitto plays Lugosi’s other assistant, the very little Toby. Rossitto also starred in Tod Browning‘s FREAKS (1932) and would co-star with Bela Lugosi again in Lugosi’s only color film, SCARED TO DEATH (1947). Rossitto remained active as an actor until 1987. He died in 1991 at the age of 83.
Also in the cast as Dr. Lorenz’ wife, the Countess Lorenz, is Elizabeth Russell, familiar to horror fans for her role as the Cat Woman in the original CAT PEOPLE (1942). Russell also appeared in the classic ghost story movie THE UNINVITED (1944) with Ray Milland, WEIRD WOMAN (1944) with Lon Chaney Jr., THE CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE (1944), and BEDLAM (1946) with Boris Karloff.
But the main reason to see THE CORPSE VANISHES is Bela Lugosi. In these frigid icy nights in January, heat things up by watching Lugosi chew up the scenery as he steals the bodies of dead brides, drains fluids from their glands to make a serum to keep his wife young, whips his mute servant into obedience, and settles in for a good night’s sleep inside his comfy coffin alongside his now youthful beautiful wife.
Sure, there are a lot of classic “A” list horror films featuring Lugosi, from DRACULA (1931) to THE BLACK CAT (1934) to SON OF FRANKENSTEIN (1939), but just as fun and just as memorable for Lugosi fans, are the plethora of low-budget horror flicks he made, adding his distinctive presence to films that would otherwise be long forgotten.
One last piece of advice. If you find yourself unable to sleep after viewing this movie, consider trading in your mattress—for the latest designer coffin.