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Link Dump: #57

This kitty participates in a classic cat scare, midway through Friday the 13th: A New Beginning. Jumping around, knocking down pans in a small diner, distracting us before the real danger arrives. Thanks for that, kitty. This week, we’ve got a treasure trove of links, every one of them a goodie. Enjoy!

Finally, we have a pair of baffling search terms: “film eurotic la madre con la sou fill,” which seems like a jumble of 2-3 languages with the word “erotic” misspelled, and “brazil pussy sex with animels,” which I assume was written by someone with minimal knowledge of Brazil. With by own minimal knowledge, I will point out that Brazil is not known for its pussy sex with animels. Harmful stereotypes, people.

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More Faces of Bela Lugosi

Long ago, I started a movie-by-movie tribute to Bela Lugosi. Now, as we conclude what would’ve been his 128th birthday, I’d finally like to continue this series with a few more roles. (For what it’s worth, I learned that The Vault of Horror had a post with the exact same name as mine, four months earlier. Great minds think alike…?) Tracing the path of Lugosi’s career through his landmark roles is really revelatory, since it not only shows the highs and lows of his professional life, but also maps out the anatomy of studio-era Hollywood. He moved from dizzying stardom at Universal in the 1930s to decades of typecasting, painkillers, and undignified appearances in Poverty Row garbage, followed by a brief resurrection with Ed Wood. It’s a strange story worthy of a horror movie itself. So, on to the faces…

White Zombie (1932)

This is less a film than an hour-long fever dream; it observes a pair of newlyweds in Haiti who fall under the sway of Murder Legendre, an enigmatic spellbinder who creates zombies to slave in the local sugar mill. At the behest of the couple’s rich host, Legendre reduces the bride (Madge Bellamy) to a pliant, mindless body, triggering a series of angry confrontations in a seaside castle. White Zombie is slow-paced and impressionistic, giving Bela enough room to work his spell on the bride and the audience. As Legendre, he’s malevolent but also cryptic, going methodically about his dark business without any wasted words. Although he’s neither the film’s prime mover nor its hero, he’s still its main focus – the deep, foreign presence at its center. It was in White Zombie that Bela originated the hypnotic hand gesture of which he later said, according to Ed Wood, “you must be double-jointed. And you must be Hungarian.”

The Black Cat (1934)

In the first of his many pairings with fellow legend Boris Karloff, Bela played a Hungarian veteran bent on revenge. Although he initially seems normal enough to the American couple he travels with, Bela’s Dr. Werdegast is actually a little mad – understandable given that Karloff’s Hjalmar Poelzig stole away his wife and daughter while he was stuck in a prison camp. Bela’s eccentric, erratic performance fits right into this truly oneiric film, as scenes of relative quiet gives way to Black Masses and cat mutilations, and Karloff matches him tic for tic. When Vitus finally exacts his grisly revenge, it’s both satisfying and terrifying, a worthy culmination of a bizarre 65 minutes and a subtle but white-hot performance.

The Corpse Vanishes (1942)

Easily one of Bela’s most compelling Poverty Row vehicles (in this case, for Monogram), The Corpse Vanishes is defined by its eruptions of weirdness. For example: although they’re not vampires, Bela and his insane wife (the “sister” from Cat People, Elizabeth Russell) still sleep in coffins. The film pads its one-hour running time with a subplot about a plucky investigative reporter and the doctor she loves, but at its core is Bela as a mass-murdering flower expert who dwells in a house of horrors – including secret passageways, corpses, and a family of henchmen whose matriarch eventually turns on him. As usual, Bela’s character has a tragic wrinkle: he has been forced into his bizarre, deadly racket in order to scientifically preserve his wife’s beauty. Oh, Bela, always the gentleman.

Glen or Glenda (1953)

Generations of Ed Wood cultists have tried and failed to figure out what, exactly, Bela is doing in Glen or Glenda. The film is already a no-budget, quasi-documentary dream narrative about transvestites in the ultra-conservative 1950s. But Bela’s narration – if “narration” is the appropriate word – adds the extra, unquantifiable ingredient that throws the film into another territory altogether. Inexplicably surrounded by skeletons, bookshelves, and liquid-filled beakers that summon up a horror film milieu, Bela comments vaguely on the follies of mankind: “One is wrong, because he does right; one is right, because he does wrong. Pull the string!” He delivers these lines with such emphasis that you assume there must be rich, philosophical meaning behind them. And, well, maybe there is.

In each of his performances, Bela elevated the film he was in with his mystical, alien persona. With his thick accent, the fierce look in his eyes, and the subtle curve of his eyebrows, Bela could turn the most routine, cheap mad scientist movie into a vortex of mounting weirdness. And in a film like The Black Cat or Glen or Glenda, where the weirdness was implicit in the director’s vision, Bela could eradicate what little sanity was left and transform the film into a sublime if confusing experience. His beautiful Hungarian voice took Ed Wood’s out-of-this-world screenplay for Glen or Glenda and turned its hallucinogenic dialogue into cult film scripture. Happy birthday, Bela.

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The Many Faces of Bela Lugosi

I love Bela Lugosi. He was a towering, menacing icon of horror, yet so tragically human in every performance and his dark personal life. He had the sadness of poverty and addiction inscribed on his face as he played ghouls and mad scientists; he was the missing link between the twin horrors of B-movies and the real world. And now several generations, myself included, have grown up watching his revelatory performances broadcast late at night on local TV. So even though he may have been relegated to Hollywood’s underworld for most of his career, he’s been a cult figure since shortly after his death. Bela has meant so much to so many, from goth rockers to Tim Burton to every stripe of horror fan, and it makes me wonder: who is Bela, what is he?

So, in keeping with our new desire to make more visually-oriented posts, I want to look at some of Bela Lugosi’s faces. He may not have had the superhuman versatility of Lon Chaney, Sr., but Bela nonetheless darted from role to role – often several within a single year – playing villains, antiheroes, monsters, and confused old men. Bela’s screen persona is prismatic, reflecting different meanings and attitudes depending on how you examine it. Let’s see what a few screen shots can tell us about this fascinating, shadowy man.

The Island of Lost Souls (1933)

Moreau: “What is the law?” Sayer of the law: “Not to spill blood, that is the law. Are we not men?” Who could’ve been more appropriate as the leader of the humanimals in Paramount’s adaptation of The Island of Dr. Moreau? Despite spending 25 years as a villain in horror movies, Bela was rarely covered in makeup; instead he relied on his intensely expressive face and thick accent. (Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man being a notable exception.) But as one of the bad doctor’s half-human creations, he gave a powerful voice to their suffering and rebellion. He only appears briefly in the film, yet his performance totally overwhelms the majority of his human co-stars; only Charles Laughton makes anywhere near the same impression. Bela’s presence, as a star in a non-star role, adds worlds to the film’s horror, and shows an artist of fear at work.

The Devil Bat (1940)

I’ve seen this movie an unreasonable amount of times, especially considering that it’s an ultra-cheap, nonsensical quickie from the Poverty Row studio PRC. Yet for all its intrinsic absurdity, The Devil Bat (one of many bat-themed titles made up to that point) is bizarrely compelling. The main – OK, sole point of interest is Bela’s performance as a perfume researcher who’s cheated by his employers. As revenge, naturally, he sets his flock of trained killer bats on them. The film overflows with hilarious badness, right down to a newspaper headline that messes up the name of the reporter protagonist, but at its heart, it’s all about Bela. He retains his gravitas in the most embarrassing films, somehow elevating his scenes beyond the low-budget monotony surrounding them. Even as a mass murderer, he’s a beacon of wounded humanity in the unlikeliest of places.

The Wolf Man (1941)

A latecomer to the Universal horror cycle, The Wolf Man is most often remembered for Jack Pierce’s makeup, Curt Siodmak’s mythology-defining screenplay, and Maria Ouspenskaya’s performance as the gypsy sage Maleva. But Bela also appears for one scene, playing Maleva’s cursed son, who mauls a woman before being struck down by Lon Chaney, Jr.’s silver cane. With sorrow in his eyes, he’s fittingly the bearer of Old World magic and fatalism who infects the once-happy Chaney. His brief presence here is strange, considering that he was by then a hard-working horror mainstay (he’d literally been in dozens of movies and serials since Dracula). But somehow with only a couple minutes of screen time, he makes the existence of werewolves plausible, and with Ouspenskaya’s help, provides the emotional impetus for the film’s central conflict. Bela could make bad movies entertaining, and good movies even better.

Bride of the Monster (1955)

Infamously, Bela’s last years of acting were spent largely at the side of reputed “worst director of all time” Edward D. Wood, Jr. Bride of the Monster is the second and least-known of their collaborations, and offers up just as many nuggets of incompetence as the others. In the midst of this silly, overwrought cinematic maelstrom is, as usual, Bela’s mad scientist with an axe to grind and a flair for soliloquies. Lugosi started out doing Shakespeare in pre-WWI Budapest, and in his own twisted way, he was the Olivier of monster movies, with his own Z-grade Macbeth and Richard III. In Bride, he’s the cherry on top of Wood’s hysterically nonsensical Cold War concoction. He bosses around the behemoth Lobo (Tor Johnson); he waxes poetic about building a “race of atomic supermen”; and he faces his own nuclear demise. Yet at the film’s core is a sad, elderly man giving it one more go. Maybe this was Lugosi’s King Lear.

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My Favorite Movies: Glen or Glenda

Favorite movies don’t always overlap with the canon of great movies. Sometimes they’re not even good. I wouldn’t call this selection a “guilty pleasure,” really; instead, it’s a movie made with so little talent and so much enthusiasm that I can spend hours pondering its mysteries. It’s Glen or Glenda (1953), the first feature film directed the infamous Edward D. Wood, Jr. I don’t remember when I first learned of this film. It’s hidden deep within the recesses of my childhood.

Coming from a family of devoted B movie fans, Ed Wood was of course in our pantheon along with Roger Corman, William Castle, and Inoshiro Honda of Godzilla fame. I saw Plan 9 at any early age (and many, many times since), as well as Tim Burton’s Ed Wood. (I think my father was disconcerted by how many times Martin Landau says “fuck.”) And somewhere along the line, I learned that Wood, the reputed “worst director of all time,” had made a movie about crossdressers. Some years ago, I turned up a DVD copy at the public library; my initial response was a mix of amazement, shock, and some third adjective involving surprise at the film’s low quality. Plenty more viewings would follow.

Glen or Glenda is a curious animal. On the one hand, it follows in the long tradition of classical exploitation filmmaking: movies made starting after WWI that pretend to educate while attempting to titillate. Glenda producer George Weiss had already attached his name to such movies as Test Tube Babies and Racket Girls, the latter of which has been in MST3K, and is probably the least sexy movie about female wrestling. Glen or Glenda was intended follow in this long-standing mold by ostensibly telling the public about sex-change operations while actually providing a teasing glimpse of taboo sexuality. All the trappings are visible, but with Wood at the helm, the film took off in several very strange directions at once.

Initially, Glen or Glenda looks like your usual exploitation movie. It has a topic, its selling point, and it’s even got what Eric Schaefer (writing in Bold! Daring! Shocking! True!: A History of Exploitation Films) calls the “square up”: the title card at the beginning justifying its existence, and warning that “this is a picture of stark realism”—generally code for “There might be some stock footage of a woman giving birth that shows her vagina.” However, for reasons unknown to anyone, the film then jumps to an aged, morphine-addicted Bela Lugosi sitting in a room full of skeletons and holding a book. His incomprehensible, long-winded monologue, all delivered in Lugosi’s inimitable Hungarian drawl, sets up the unpredictable, inexplicable structure of what is to come.

As Lugosi’s monologue demonstrates, it’s largely Wood’s script which keeps this from being just another bad exploitation movie. His dialogue is often redundant, usually stilted, and never good, yet grows increasingly strange, as if Wood had been drifting in and out of touch with reality (and the art of writing) while creating it. Similarly, the narrative as a whole makes stabs at being conventional, but consistently misses its mark, as if Wood’s internal compass were driving him toward the avant-garde.

Sure, a story starts up: a transvestite named Patrick commits suicide, a dim-witted police inspector goes to talk with a psychiatrist, and the psychiatrist launches into the usual “Let me tell you a story…” spiel that frames many exploitation films, Reefer Madness being a well-known example. But no sooner does he attempt to narrate the life of Glen/Glenda than Bela interrupts, signaled (as always) by a flash of stock footage lightning, and begins commenting on the psychiatrist in the vaguest terms possible: “There is no mistaking the thoughts in man’s mind… the story is begun…”

Lugosi’s presence is one of the film’s true mysteries. The obvious answer is that Wood was friends with Lugosi, and wanted to give the ailing veteran some work. Furthermore, Lugosi’s (somewhat faded) star power could potentially lend the movie some slight mainstream credibility; hell, he gets top billing. Even so, why locate him so undecipherably within the movie, intruding on the actual narrative, and generally making the entire film inaccessible to ordinary moviegoers? Both his dialogue and milieu feel drawn from another, even weirder movie, perhaps some uneasy mesh of fatalism, mysticism, and mad science.

Even without Lugosi, Glen or Glenda would be an outlier among exploitation films. Not only does it deviate heavily from its intended sex-change subject matter, but at times it feels uncertain what its subject matter is. Transvestites, or modern man’s inability to overcome destiny (albeit phrased much less coherently)? While most exploitation films let their morality tale plots flow unhindered, the psychiatrist frequently stops his own story to meditate on sexuality and tolerance. At one point, Glen visits his friend Johnny for advice, and Johnny tells his story, within a story, within a story.

All of this is exacerbated by the production values, which are even lower than those in Bride of the Monster and Plan 9. During the psychiatrist’s digressions, the film resorts to merely suggesting the existence of a set: a sign reading “BUS STOP” indicates a bus stop, and a water cooler evokes an office. Wood’s extreme dependence on stock footage also has its consequences: many scenes are reduced to voiceovers underscored by the same few seconds of cars on a freeway, or people on a busy sidewalk, and over a minute and a half of the Alan/Anne story consists of WWII battle footage (this, in a film that’s barely an hour long). Other uses are total non sequiturs, most infamously the buffalo herd stampeding while Lugosi chants, “Pull the string!”

Granted, pointing out badness in an Ed Wood movie may be like shooting poorly executed scenes in a barrel, but I think these examples help show why this movie is worth all the attention I give it. Many of these creative choices weren’t just bad, but unnecessary, and not really justifiable. I’d say this willingness to do the wrong thing, even if the only effect is undercutting traditional narrative cinema, sets Wood apart from the bulk of exploitation craftsmen, who were content merely to film their hackneyed story and maybe inject it with a few minutes of burlesque shows.

Glen or Glenda does have the requisite burlesque padding—inserted, may I add, right in the middle of the movie, with no narrative context whatsoever—but it has so much more going on that the drawn-out stripteases and softcore bondage porn feel like an interruption from the normal outside world of ’50s sleaze, in opposition to the ascended gibberish Wood’s been serving up. This padding is also sandwiched inside Glen/Glenda’s nightmare, the point in the movie where the main narrative (the psychiatrist’s story) intersects with the oneiric horror movie atmosphere of the Lugosi interludes.

This is a movie that takes its subconscious’s noctural soliloquies and puts them on the surface for the audience for the audience to puzzle over. During the nightmare sequence, both the visuals and the sinister, cackling dialogue become completely opaque, and you wonder, if this was transcribed and psychoanalyzed, would some new truth about gender identity be revealed? Or is there no meaning, just intimations toward one? Also, is that guy the devil?

It really is a movie brimming with mysteries, possibly wrapped in additional riddles and enigmas. Its incessantly tangential structure doesn’t help, as the movie repeatedly doubles back on itself, leading the viewer down stories and lines of argument that look eerily familiar. A few salient points can be gleaned from these many approaches, however, and the clearest of these is a plea for tolerance. Ultimately, this is a movie rooted in autobiography and personal interest—Wood’s own transvestism. And it’s remarkably progressive, in its own surreal way, asking (sometimes) for an acceptance of all gender and sexual identities.

Admittedly, the film does make more than a few self-contradictory statements and engages in some obviously false reasoning, but what emerges from the majority of the viewpoints presented is an internal consensus: if a man feels more comfortable in woman’s clothes (or a woman’s body) then those options should be available to him. (Unsurprisingly, female transvestites and transsexuals aren’t even considered.) The film’s one mention of homosexuals comes when the psychiatrist specifies that Glen is not one, but it’s not a condemnation by any means, itself a minor triumph for an era when the word “homosexual” was verboten in mainstream cinema.

Of course, Glen or Glenda doesn’t even come close to being a systematic or intelligible defense of transvestism, but that’s hardly its purpose. Instead, I see it as Ed Wood personally expressing, under the only circumstances he could, his feelings about crossdressing and gender identity. And amid a flurry of hysterical expressionism, he manages to say that people should accept ideas even if they seem strange at first. If Ed Wood had had a shred of talent or artistry, he might’ve been Jack Smith or Kenneth Anger. But he didn’t, thank God, and thus he was Ed Wood. With its indecisively multifaceted narrative, its manic mix of genres and messages, and its wildly idiosyncratic take on human sexuality, Glen or Glenda is one of my favorite movies.

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