Crappy old horror movie The Invisible Ghost is given the Arnold treatment. In this case it’s less time manipulation – there might be some but I’m not sure since this is the same length as the original film – than erasing dialogue and actors from the frame. The storyline of the original sounds nuts – there’s little sign of it here as Bela Lugosi, Clarence Muse, and our interchangeable young lovers roam a house, giving each other meaningful looks or having semi-conversations or just standing around looking haunted. Often the camera will just look through an empty room, and towards the second half, even the semi-conversations dry up, which is too bad since they were my favorite part. It’s more technically impressive than his other films, but it’s less of everything else. No credits because it was an installation – I should’ve guessed.

The catalog description says:

Death becomes the fury of disappearance which gives witness to an “unbearable transition beyond existence” (Georges Bataille). The madness has been inscribed into the faces. The ecstasy of effacement, the annihilation of being, the hypostatization of the inorganic,

and so on, because you don’t become a catalog description writer by saying “crappy movie is digitally altered, parts of the image and sound painstakingly erased, to create different crappy movie.”

I guess the title refers to the ultimate horror, that in darkest Haiti, not only the deceased natives are being resurrected as workhorse zombie slaves but… white people, too! Good evocative opening, the clueless foreigners arriving to encounter a burial in the middle of the road (to avoid grave robbing) then asking directions from local zombiemaster Bela Lugosi. Of course the Christian missionary has been here 30 years and insists all this zombie nonsense is primitive superstition, but even he comes around by the end.

How are hipsters not waxing their eyebrows like this?

Since all 1930’s movies are about two white people wanting to be married, we’ve got Neil (John Harron of Satan in Sables, Karloff’s The Invisible Menace): simple, impulsive, a very slow learner… and Madeline (Madge Bellamy, star of Lazybones, who would later become infamous for shooting her millionaire ex-lover)… who is also desired by local fancyman Beaumont (Robert Frazer of The Vampire Bat), who has hired Neil in order to get closer to Mads. Beau fails to woo her from Neil, so he poisons her at the wedding, then has Lugosi resurrect her to marry.

“Surely you don’t think she’s alive in the hands of natives? Oh no, better dead than that!”

Even dense Neil figures out what has happened, teaming up with the pipe-smoking missionary (Joseph Cawthorn, William Powell’s dad in The Great Ziegfeld) to meet Haitian Witch Doctor Pierre (played by a Brit) for advice, learning that houses of the living dead can be identified by nearby vultures (played by hawks or falcons). Meanwhile Beau is bummed that Zombie Mads has no facial expressions or speech or emotions (but can still play piano), gets zombified himself for daring to complain to Lugosi about it. After a couple of attempted murders and a slow-motion shove-fight atop a cliff, Lugosi falls dead and Mads awakens (so her resurrection was permanent, but her stupor-state was maintained by Lugosi’s will?). Mostly the movie seems important for its historical place as the first zombie film, and for its wealth of Bela Lugosi poses and expressions, silently controlling zombies with hand gestures like he’s playing a Wii game.

Beau and Mads:

Nice pose… but not a vulture:

Produced by Victor’s brother Edward, the two Halperins also made a loose sequel set in Cambodia, gangster KKK drama Nation Aflame, and the Carole Lombard ghost thriller Supernatural.

“Strange about the cat – Joan seemed so curiously affected when you killed it.”
“That was coincidence, I think.”

Another in the great tradition of Hollywood movies starting with great actors playing interesting characters in cool locations, then throwing a bland romantic couple into the middle of it. They’re not as bad as your usual bland romantic couple, these two. David Manners was Harker in Dracula and a main dude in The Mummy with Karloff, and Jacqueline Wells had just costarred in a Tarzan movie.

Lugosi is a Hungarian psychiatrist, a prisoner of war for 15 years, free again and visiting his old friend Karloff, a great Austrian architect. Lugosi plans to confront Karloff and demand back his wife and daughter, whom he suspects Karloff has stolen from him – but he brings along the couple, having just survived a car crash. Jacqueline stumbles in all dazed and woozy, and they give her a narcotic and tell her to sleep (“SLEEEEEP”), excellent medical advice.

“Are we not both the living dead?” Lugosi (whose character name sounds too much like Fetus) has “an intense and all-consuming horror of cats,” which I suspect will come up again later in the movie. Lugosi’s daughter turns out to be alive, 18 years old and sleeping with Karloff. Karloff is also a satanist, keeping Lugosi’s wife’s body suspended in his basement. So they sit down for a game of chess – winner gets to keep the body. It’s a ludicrous movie, and closes with a meta-joke about its own melodramatic craziness.

The beginning and end of Ulmer’s major-studio Hollywood career – he had a major hit but fell in love with the wrong girl and spent the rest of his life on the specialty and b-movie circuits. Before this, he’d done set design for Fritz Lang (Die Nibelungen, M, Metropolis, Spies) and production and art design for Murnau (Tabu, Last Laugh, Sunrise, 4 Devils) – so the expressionist look to The Black Cat wasn’t just Hollywood ripping off a hot trend, but a 20-year vet of great German cinema importing his own style.

Found a good article by “The Nitrate Diva” about the WWI references and emotional resonance within the film. The story was “suggested” by the Edgar Allen Poe story which was more faithfully adapted by Stuart Gordon recently.

“You’re an amazingly unscientific young man.”

“Are we not men?” Fun to imagine young Devo watching this in the 70’s and inverting the mad scientist’s intentions for their de-evolution theories. There’s even Devo-specific content on the Criterion disc, which I need to rent sometime.

Based on the HG Wells novel Island of Dr. Moreau which was remade a few times, with Burt Lancaster then Marlon Brando as Moreau. Here it’s Charles Laughton (same year as The Old Dark House), reveling in his role of the kindly accomodating villain, the calm and rational “mad” scientist with a whip. Laughton may have just invented camp in cinema, beating Bride of Frankenstein by a couple years. All the fun in the movie comes from Laughton along with the creatures whom he has forced to rapidly evolve in his surgical “house of pain”: slinky, sexy Lota the Panther Woman (Kathleen Burke, who next appeared in Murders in the Zoo) and fur-faced servants including M’ling (Tetsu Komai) and the Sayer Of The Law (Bela Lugosi, the year after Dracula).

Bela!

No fun at all comes from our obligatory decent romantic couple: Richard Arlen (also the obligatory romantic lead in Thunderbolt) and Leila Hyams (also the obligatory romantic lead in Freaks). He was hitching a ride on a trading ship when he argued with the captain and got dumped at Moreau’s, and after he’d failed to show up, his fiancee Hyams teams up with some other captain named Donahue and goes searching. Donahue doesn’t make it out, nor does “doctor” Montgomery, a morally grey character who works with Moreau. And Moreau has compared himself to God – never a good idea in a movie, so we know he’s doomed as well.

The movie’s pretty good overall, with cool creatures and a perfect dose of Laughton, but it also serves up a smarter ending than expected. Laughton has built his dominance over the semi-evolved creatures through intimidation (the whip, House of Pain) and The Law, which forbids killing. But when he orders one monster to kill the captain, the others have enough of a grasp of logic to realize that “law no more,” and go on a Moreau-and-island-destroying rampage.

Kenton also made some Lon Chaney Jr. horrors in the 1940’s. Adapted from the Wells story by Philip Wylie (who’d also work on Wells’ The Invisible Man) and Waldemar Young (Love Me Tonight, Desire) and shot by Karl Struss (Sunrise).