Archive for Bela Lugosi

Rising Vamp

Posted in FILM with tags , , , on October 29, 2022 by dcairns

Over at The Current, I’ve contributed the opening salvo to a series of pieces on the vampire — in what is known as august company, with Geoffrey O’Brien, Phoebe Chen, Angelica Jade Bastién, and Beatrice Loayza. I tackle Lugosi. Quite a challenge.

The pieces are here.

As a taster, here’s a passage I was sorry to cut, but to make the focus on Bela rather than Tod Browning, it had to be done:

“Browning’s best effects are all next-door to incompetence: he has a disconcerting way of undermining our comfortable certainty about how many characters are in a scene, using mirrors, occluding walls, and surprise angle changes, so that, when Dracula’s failure to appear in a mirror is first shown, the effect is familiar: every scene with a cut in it has had the same effect. When the very nervous Helen Chandler begins conversing telepathically with her undead suitor, the conversation has a disjointed quality we’ve already come to know well.”


Posted in FILM with tags , , on March 13, 2021 by dcairns

The penultimate episode of THE RETURN OF CHANDU is called The Upraised Knife and the final episode is called The Knife Descends which, given all that’s gone before, suggested to me an entire episode devoted to a knife being raised and one that’s all about it being lowered again.

Which isn’t what happened — the shows were slightly more eventful than that. The most surprising moment was when Princess Nadji was called upon to renounce her love for Chandu in exchange for him and his family/chums being freed — and she does. And so they just walk away. It feels really weird, like the makers decided not to have a climax at all, and just have everyone decide to live and let live (except the princess, who is to be merged, soul-wise, with the body of the late Lemurian cultist Ossana).

Then somehow or other the heroes get attacked by savages by the white witch with the white beard saves them, and now they go right back to the Ubasti temple to sort things out. As part of the ceremony, Nadki and Ossana have been dressed identically, so white beard man just waltzes in and swaps their prone forms around when nobody is looking. The ceremony starts and the wrong body — Ossana’s — is consigned to the sacrificial fire (the one Uncle Frank Chandu saw visions of previous episodes in. Are you getting all this?

A short while before, Uncle Chandu had a discussion with his discorporeal yogi about the possibility of invoking some kind of ultimate spell — one that dooms the speller if he acts selfishly. In order to circumvent this, Frankie C. renounces Nadja, then casts the spell and the roof falls in. The good guys escape, the bad guys don’t. The big stone statue of the cat-god Ubasti slowly topples forward, another Crushing Rock.

Then, having renounced their renunciation, Francis and Nadja can be together. I thought it was going to be like The End of the Affair, and they’d never be allowed to see each other again. But no: for perhaps the only time in screen history, unless you know of another case, Bela Lugosi gets the girl.

I believe THE RETURN OF CHANDU stands as an important example of how music can be used — slow music during fast scenes, to make them more slow and boring, and fast music during slow scenes, which has the counter-intuitive effect of making THEM more slow and boring. The fast music emphasises how slowly the action is progressing.

Of course, if things are in danger of getting too exciting even when the music has been larded on, you can always bring in Uncle Frank’s nephew and niece, who make everything tedious.


Posted in FILM with tags , , on March 12, 2021 by dcairns

Above is the foreword of Chapter Eight of THE RETURN OF CHANDU (The Edge of the Pit). Deathless prose. And below is the foreword of Chapter Nine (The Invisible Terror).

And here’s the foreword from Episode Ten (The Crushing Rock):

The makers of CHANDU seem to be economizing not only in props, sets and actors, but in forewords. In other (fore)words, NOTHING has been accomplished. Princess Nadji is still (patiently) awaiting the hour of her sacrifice and Chandu is still (tirelessly) striving to rescue her. How is this possible?

Well, in multiplying the traditional three (or arguably four) act structure to a dozen or so, most serials resort to what I call “running around.” Usually in corridors or tunnels. At the end of a corridor or a tunnel you might meet a friend or a foe and something might happen, but not something that changes the basic scenario. Keeping somebody captive and simply introducing side-quests or threats is a useful alternative to rescuing them only to have them get captured yet again. Stasis as a variation on repetition. You can see this pattern even in some purportedly high-class TV series.

True, in Episode Eight Frank “Chandu” Chandler makes a new friend, the White Witch, who he finds in a pit. For one exciting moment I thought the old fellow might be the Yogi with whom Uncle Frank has regular telepathic discourse. It would be really great if the patient discorporeal sage who regularly advises Unc Francis to “Have faith” had been captive in a dirty hole all this time. What a revelation! But no. But there is nevertheless a treat for connoisseurs of impoverished cinema: a very long conversation without a reverse angle. Admittedly, it’s a nice shot. And a good thing too, it’s about a minute and a half long, with brief cutaways.

Also in Episode Eight Chandu appears at the captive Princess’s window to reassure her. Probably the only case on record of Bela Lugosi appearing at somebody’s window being reassuring to them. Rather sweet. That sweetness is, I think, what we’re watching for. Another example is the way Bela sweats and puffs and looks seriously distraught in any “action” scene — I like to think this is Bela’s deliberate decision — Frank is a lover, not a fighter — and not just a regrettable consequence of the actor being out of shape.

If you enjoy the pit discussion, I have good news: it’s repeated in its entirety in the recap to Episode Nine, along with the very lengthy “swinging from a loose chain over a tiger pit” that forms the literal cliffhanger of Ep. 8. The chain snaps in 8 and in 9 Bela fails to fall into the pit, being caught by his long-bearded, long-winded pal, who is apparently of the lean-but-wiry persuasion. Almost half of Episode Nine is recap.

FULLY half of Episode Ten is a recap of Ep. 9‘s pendulum-blade suspense climax, but those responsible were not content with that: they then have Uncle captured and forced to gaze into a sacrificial/magic flame, which shows him visions — visions of things from previous episodes. It looks as if this is going to eat up the rest of the show, but they stop flashbacking around Episode Five or so and then get on with the plot: Bela is chained to the cave floor while a boulder is methodically lowered on to him, an action extended by editing to become virtual endless, a Sisyphean ordeal for both victim and torturer.

I can hardly wait for Episode Eleven, The Uplifted Knife, in this theater next week! I hotly anticipate “supervisor” Frank Melford, clearly asleep at the wheel, delivering an installment in which the recap begins three episodes back, eats up the full running time, and ends some place before the previous cliffhanger. This is already a meta-serial in the making, it just needs to go that extra mile (preferably in reverse).