Wallace Fox, 1942
Starring: Bela Lugosi, Luana Walters, Tristram Coffin, Elizabeth Russell
“Up? I’ve been up all night with dead people!”
Young brides are dying and their corpses are being stolen by the mysterious Dr. Lorenz. Lorenz is using the virginal spinal fluid of these unfortunate young ladies to revive his wife, the Countess, who is determined not to age. He sends each of them a rare, poisoned orchid on their wedding day, which is noticed by reporter Patricia Hunter. Desperate to get out of covering weddings, she begs her editor to let her follow the lead. It takes her to Lorenz’s home, as he is the only person known to create the orchid hybrids, despite the locals insistence that she should not go there. She meets the kindly Dr. Foster, an associate of Lorenz’s, who gives her a ride.
Due to a storm, they are forced to spend the night. Patricia is terrified by the Countess, one of their servants, and finds corpses in the basement. The next morning Lorenz and Foster insist it was a nightmare, though Foster later admits that he may have been sleepwalking. She returns to her editor, who almost fires her, but eventuallys believe her story. They set up a trap for Lorenz in the form of a fake wedding. It goes awry and Lorenz kidnaps Patricia, intending to use her as his next victim. Can Foster and the police save her in time?
Monogram, one of several poverty row horror studios operating in the ‘40s, made a number of completely ridiculous films, but The Corpse Vanishes really takes the cake. A lot of the ideas make no sense (Lorenz is somehow a doctor, physicist, and botanist, for example), but the movie plods through them all with glee and it is clear that much of the cast, Lugosi in particular, is having a great time. He is delightful, as always, particularly when he is convincing Patricia that she imaged the horrors in his home. My favorite line of the film is when he is explaining why he collects coffins and why she saw him sleeping in one. “I find coffins much more comfortable than a bed. Many people do.”
This is one of the few films where other actors are able to outdo Lugosi at times, namely Elizabeth Russell, one of my favorite underrated actresses and Lugosi’s wife here. She appeared in Cat People, Curse of the Cat People, Weird Woman, and other horror films from the era. Though Russell was a very beautiful woman, there is something undeniably creepy and menacing about her that makes her perfect for these sorts of roles. And I don’t think anyone saw it coming when she unexpectedly slapped Patricia in the face.
Then there is the rest of Lugosi’s household, made up of a decrepit old servant and her two sons, a dwarf (Angelo Rossito from Brain of Blood) and lumbering pervert Angel (Frank Moran). Angel pets Patricia’s hair to wake her up, in total creep fashion, and it is hinted at that he might be a necrophiliac. He also wanders the dark house chewing on what I think was a chicken leg. Lorenz’s house is also quite a wonder, full of secret passages and laboratories, as well as a mausoleum in the basement full of comatose women and a master bedroom outfitted with coffins.
Luana Walters is surprisingly good as Patricia, though she borders on irritating a number of times. Fortunately she is given some pretty hilarious dialogue and more agency than women typically had in ‘40s horror. She does wind up being a damsel in distress in the final act of the film, but is the only one smart enough to realize Lorenz is suspicious. Her character borrows some elements from reporter tropes of the period, such as those found in The Return of Doctor X and Mystery of the Wax Museum, where she is almost fired unless she comes up with a great story. Tristram Coffin (Creature with the Atom Brain), despite his excellent name, is almost a total dud as Dr. Foster, but his amusing dialogue again makes up for some of this.
B-horror from the ‘30s and ‘40s is undoubtedly an acquired taste, but this film is so much fun that it comes highly recommended. The Corpse Vanishes is available on an incredibly cheap DVD from Alpha Video. Hopefully someone like Scream Factory or Kino will rescue it and restore it for Blu-ray, as Kino has recently done with another entertaining Lugosi poverty row feature, The Devil Bat.