Friday, November 19, 2010

East Side Kids, No. 7 - Spooks Run Wild (1941)

While I was none too impressed with Huntz Hall’s addition to the “East Side Kids” lineup in Bowery Blitzkrieg, it would seem I was in the minority, as Hall’s added star wattage was enough to rocket the Blitzkrieg up to the franchise’s highest grosser to date. (Whatever the grosses of most 1940s movies are, who’s nowadays to say?) Now riding high, notorious cheapjack producer Sam Katzman decided to pull out all the stops and realize the finest box office extravaganza the East Side Kids series was capable of. In fact, this would be Monogram’s finest hour, a pooling together of their biggest and best talent!

Such a combination, though not technically a crossover, feels like nothing more than the very first step in the hallowed tradition of monster mash-ups that would soon yield Universal’s Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (in turn influencing the whole of 1940s Universal horror). This moment, this Monogram meeting of the minds, paved the way for cinematic masterpieces such as King Kong Vs. Godzilla, Freddy Vs. Jason, Alien Vs. Predator

And just who did Katzman pair his beloved “East Side Kids” up with?

None other than Béla Ferenc Dezső Blaskó, better known as…BELA LUGOSI!

Lugosi, everyone’s favorite Hungarian morphine addict (a story to be told when I get on to the Universal cycle), is of course known for cementing Hollywood horror with 1931’s seminal Dracula. In fact, so known was Lugosi for that very role, he was sadly typecast in similar, but more limited roles throughout the ‘30s. (His thick accent didn’t help expanding his repertoire, nor did the fact that Lugosi was in fact not a particularly good actor – though a hambone of the highest caliber, a man even the mighty Vincent Price could respect.)

Lugosi’s horror roles eventually dried up, notably in 1936 when Universal temporarily suspended its spook shows in response to new management, spineless British censorship, and societal distaste for overt supernaturalism. Son of Frankenstein in 1939 proposed a brief resurgence for the vampiric thespian, but it wasn’t to be. Instead, Lugosi found himself making ends meet under the employ of Katzman and other Poverty Row producers. And Lugosi was still popular with audiences – who doesn’t love the sonorous tones of a shame-challenged Easter European? See the success of Invisible Ghost, Monogram riding the coattails Universal had created and discarded.

And thus Spooks Run Wild, formerly Ghosts in the Night, a product of director Phil Rosen – surely one of the best B-filmmakers available. It’s Bela Lugosi Meets the East Side Kids…as it were, necessitating the sort of horror and comedy combination one would expect. In fact, this sort of pure horror-comedy even anticipates Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein – Ye gods, did Monogram dictate every ‘40s decision Universal’s monsters would make?!

And a comedy it is, thanks to the “East Side Kids,” far more so than anything they’d done to date – surely none of that melodramatic awfulness Bowery Blitzkrieg wallowed in. This is thanks in large part to the improved rapport amongst the six central “East Side Kids,” most notably Huntz Hall’s Glimpy (nee Limpy – and why the change?). Now he’s shaken off all that aggravatin’ Little Tough Guys faux-toughness he sullied Bowery Blitzkrieg with, and instead runs with the mini-Marx Bros. craziness enjoyed by former Dead End cast mates Leo Gorcey (as Muggs) and Bobby Jordan (as Danny). Around the start of Spooks Run Wild, this trio really comes into their own, evincing the natural rhythms of a classic comedy partnership, bantering effortlessly back and forth even if that nasal Jersey twinge remains.

The first 10 minutes of Spooks Run Wild really just exist to get both the “East Side Kids” and Bela Lugosi into one place so that shenanigans can thusly ensue. So let us not pay much attention to the early proceedings, how Dave O’Brien (now playing a character called Jeff Dixon, for as little difference as it makes) escorts the East Side sextet to the countryside, essentially to juvie. It isn’t called that, but rather the kids are put on a “bus” for “camp.” The U.S. didn’t know it yet, but thanks to Germany, 1941 is not the year you wanna use that euphemism. Of note are the three remaining “East Side Kids,” Ernie Morrison (as Scruno), David Gorcey (as Peewee) and Donald Haines (as Skinny), quite overshadowed now by Hall’s increased screen presence.

(With the kids is also an attractive nurse named Linda, dressed in a nurse’s outfit for no reason other than – What, you need a reason for that?! Monogram owned a nurse costume, bless ‘em, and it’s one of their greatest assets. Mmm…)

What of Bela? Radio announcements proclaim the escape of the dreaded “Monster Killer,” a dread murderer now roaming the bowers (but not Bowery). (One really amazing detail – this “Killer” preys mostly on young women, which is the dead closest any 1941 movie can get to saying “Our villain is a serial rapist!” In a children’s horror-comedy, no less!)

No matter, once we’ve grown good and heeby-jeebied by this, Bela Lugosi makes his inimitable presence known as Nardo, a man who is a bit too obsessed with the local abandoned Billings Estate. Lugosi behaves as much like Dracula as Monogram could legally get away with, and is even referred to as a bloodsucker – the word “vampire” must never be uttered, for it seems Universal actually trademarked the term back then, so rather Nardo is instead called a “vulture.” Okay, whatever. Another wonderful detail to Nardo is his manservant, Luigi (Angelo Rossitto, of Freaks, surely the Warwick Davis of the Golden Age). Yes, Luigi is a midget, and he goes unnamed for long enough that I’d given to calling him “Nick Nack,” in honor of The Man With the Golden Gun (seeing as that film is another former-Dracula/small person team up, with Christopher Lee).

Also in town is an ersatz Dr. Van Helsing, Dr. Van Grosch (Dennis Moore, the actor, not the U.S. Representative), in all his pointy-bearded, Coffin Joe-like glory. When queried, Van Grosch claims to be on the trail of the killer, but let us simply forget about him for now.

The East Side Kids escape from “camp” on their very first wolf howl-filled night, knowing the plot lies elsewhere. They rampage through the forest, exchanging witticisms and malapropisms in equal measure. Meanwhile, Nardo and little Luigi make residence at the Billings house, passing through the estate’s de rigueur cemetery (Hillside Cemetery, sadly not Morningside). “The city of the dead. Do they hear too the howling of the frightened dogs? Mwah hah hah!” Lugosi gets the best lines!

Nardo makes it through the cemetery before the East Side Kids do. This explains why the gravedigger there is so spooked, he is inclined to fire his shotgun willy-nilly at the teens and ask questions later. Peewee is struck in the leg, because it seems Peewee’s only purpose in this franchise is to suffer painful injury on a regular basis (he’s their Kenny). Because of this hilarious wound (to me, anyway), the East Side Kids have no choice but to seek shelter – up at Billings [thunder crackle!].

This is it! The superstars meet! Heavens rejoice! Having gotten to the meat of the thing, the rest of Spooks Run Wild is content to let Bela and the “East Side Kids” bounce their separate schticks off each other, with neither rhyme nor reason asked for nor offered. Boiled down, it is the same exact haunted house tableau one finds littered all over the lesser filmscapes of the 1940s. Hell, the East Side Kids themselves already did such a flick, with Boys of the City. But this is Boys of the City writ large, with Bela, the best such a film can be. (It also greatly reduces the “me is scared o’ de ‘ghos’ses” racial “humor” Scruno parlayed previously, thank Pazuzu!) And considering how well the results turn out, it is easy to forgive such repetition. This is easily the best East Side Kids film so far, and I suspect it shall not be bettered.

“Come vith me – bwah!” Nardo sees Peewee to a bed, offering his own care in lieu of a doctor (there being no telephone, electricity, cellular technology half a century off). Peewee is sedated, as the other East Side Kids pair off in separate bedrooms. (Scruno is left alone with the unconscious Peewee, mostly because Morrison’s comedic stylings do not require a partner.) Legitimately funny lines get uttered, e.g. “A very charming room, in a repulsive sort of way.” Bela even gets some laffs in, though I’m not sure if his are intentional (see also his career with Ed Wood).

The rule of pretty much all haunted house movies of the ‘40s is a certain strange pace. Spooks Run Wild does not deviate from the mold. Suspicions and faux-frights grow steadily, as characters slowly wander the scant sets and encounter any number of isolated scare gags. This pattern allows the various “East Side Kids” to reshuffle their order around in ones, twos and threes, allowing pretty much every combination of the six imaginable. It’s hard to keep track of, and the house’s geography/logic is highly suspect, but that does not matter. Even as a purely formal experiment of the group’s actorly skills, this is successful, and of all the cheapskate ghost house cheapies I’ve seen for this blog, this is by far the most effective. (It’s even – dare I say? – just a tad scary. Like Ghostbusters.)

Of actual importance, such as it is, Peewee eventually comes to, and walks off as if under some sort of a trance, precisely in the fashion of a pre-Romero zombie. The word “zombie” is even uttered, in this “vampire”-phobic picture. Peewee’s disappearance provides the grist for the group’s random wanderings, wanderings which grant our heroes more and more coincidental hints that Nardo just might be the sexual predator everyone fears so.

Some of the assorted nuttiness they get up to:

- Multiple Kids separately vanish down darkened corridors and secret passageways. In a missed opportunity, there is strangely not a single rotating bookcase in this house. What a shame!

- Thinking each other “monsters,” our heroes hide in innumerable comfy coffins.

- Scruno is scared by a very fake but amusing spider, and also a tiny, floating skull.

- Two of the kids wrestle poor Luigi, and let us not act superior, for the Austin Powers sequels prove even modern man is not immune to the charms of physically browbeating a midget.

- First one, then two suits of armor attack. Of course, it turns out to simply be the kids fucking with each other, and these weak sauce explanations don’t matter when the craziness is as good as this.

- Oh, and Danny sees a bobbing skeleton! This right here is 1940s gold!

The spookiness climaxes with a Lugosi Special, as he does his classic glare which frightens Americans and seduces the nighties off of Europeans.

It’s all very “Scooby Doo,” naturally, in a good way, for as senseless as it is. As in any “Scooby Doo”-like story, of course it will end with anything remotely supernatural explained away through reason – this is a commonplace fact of ‘40s ghost movies, a culture-wide aversion to anything “unnatural.” Not only do the East Side Kids start to suspect the Nard Dog might simply be a perfect, everyday Lugosi, but they plan to get the better of him with likeminded false spookery. So the five of them (Peewee still East Sida non grata) form into a single bedraped mound, playing as a phantom with a rubbery skull, in a moment that would make William Castle proud. In this manner, they “haunt” Nardo, and even get in a quasi-vulgar line at Hays’ expense: “You – you – YOU scared the health out of me!” HA!

Slapstick ensues, a new high water mark in series comedy, that chintzy skull knocking Nardo flat on his cape. But he comes to, and “lurks” the East Side Kids into an upstairs corner, closing in with classic Lugosi flair. Now the Kids are all petrified, until –

The townsfolk burst into the mansion, wielding pitchforks and shotguns as are townsfolk’s wont. This posse actually broke up the various haunting scenes throughout the film, but there was no point in commenting upon it, as it involved no one we care about. This is the closing of Spooks Run Wild, where fun is abandoned and further explanations are handed out, to “justify” all which transpired. It turns out Nardo is simply a fantastic magician, and now a buddy of the Kids, having terrified them all night long simply to test out some of his latest tricks. This is a substantially poor explanation, but once again – we do not care! All seems over, but –

Scream! Scream! It turns out Van Grosch has lured that sexy nurse up to the attic, where he proves to be the dastardly rapist everyone was so keen on lynching. Well, duh! Van Grosch’s assault is astoundingly obscene, considering the film’s date, as he pretty much just Van Gropes away on the nurse until Muggs can sneak in and rescue her. One final palate-cleansing epilogue gag later, and the film is complete.

Spooks Run Wild was released just in time for Halloween, 1941, and was as much a success as Katzman had hoped for – I mean, witness its influence upon the whole path of 1940s horror, for one. Within the confines of Monogram, this started a minor string of films between Lugosi and the “East Side Kids” (and later, the “Bowery Boys”) – not a consistent string, but whenever a box office salve on the order of Spooks Run Wild was needed. This really isn’t a good thing for Lugosi’s career, all things told, but it is work, and it’s a damn sight better than Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla.

All in all, not bad for a little cheapie, really. Monogram’s best!

Related posts:
• No. 1 East Side Kids (1940)
• No. 2 Boys of the City (1940)
• No. 3 That Gang of Mine (1940)
• No. 4 Pride of the Bowery (1940)
• No. 5 Flying Wild (1941)
• No. 6 Bowery Blitzkrieg (1941)
• No. 8 Mr. Wise Guy (1942)
• No. 9 Let's Get Tough! (1942)
• No. 10 Smart Alecks (1942)
• No. 11 'Neath Brooklyn Bridge (1942)
• No. 12 Kid Dynamite (1942)
• No. 13 Clancy Street Boys (1943)
• No. 14 Ghosts on the Loose (1943)
• No. 16 Million Dollar Kid (1944)

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