Black Dragons (1942) -**
Virtually all of the propagandistic horror and mystery films of the World War II era were ludicrous, but it was in the hands of Monogram Pictures that the phenomenon reached its pinnacle of absurdity. Remarkably bad to begin with, the typical Monogram mad scientist/evil genius plot collapsed into a heap of mismatched garbage when asked to shoulder the additional burden of activist patriotism. 1942’s Black Dragons, released just a couple of months after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, occupies a position in Monogram’s anti-Axis horror catalogue analogous to the studio’s own in relation to the rest of Hollywood— even among movies like King of the Zombies and Revenge of the Zombies, Black Dragons stands out as a uniquely irrational piece of shit.
In the immediate aftermath of Japan’s rapid and seemingly inexorable assault on America’s holdings in the Pacific Ocean, a wave of sabotage attacks against key industrial centers rolls across the continental United States. The authorities don’t seem to realize this, but we soon see that the fifth-columnists are being controlled by a group of highly influential American businessmen associated with a physician by the name of William Saunders (George Pembroke, from The Invisible Ghost and Bluebeard). Then one night, when Saunders and his cronies are gathered at his mansion to discuss the next phase of their plans, they are intruded upon by a man calling himself Colomb (Bela Lugosi), who insists upon seeing the doctor. Colomb says that he’s a very sick man, and that his meeting with Saunders is a matter of life and death. Saunders grudgingly agrees to see Colomb, and while the two of them are locked away together in the parlor, the other guests hear the sounds of a struggle. When Stevens the butler (Joseph Eggenton, who also played a butler in You’ll Find Out) opens up the parlor door, however, both men are seated comfortably and talking quietly; the only indication that something isn’t right is the doctor’s slow and somewhat slurred speech. Saunders tells his guests that he is very tired and doesn’t feel well, bids them goodnight, and has Stevens show them to the door.
Not long thereafter, Kearney (Max Hoffman Jr.), one of the members of Saunders’s cabal of saboteurs, turns up dead on the front steps of the Japanese embassy in Washington DC. The coroner believes heart failure was the cause of death, but it seems significant that Kearney was found with a “Japanese dagger” (it looks more like a dime-store letter opener) clutched in his hand. Agent Colton of the FBI (Kenneth Harlan, from The Mysterious Dr. Satan and The Walking Dead), who knows that Kearney was a longtime associate of Dr. Saunders, sends one of his men, Detective Dick Martin (Clayton Moore, best known for playing the Lone Ranger on television, although he was also in serials like Perils of Nyoka and The Crimson Ghost), to talk to the doctor and see if he knows anything potentially useful. But if Saunders claims to be too ill even to see his niece, Alice (Joan Barclay, of The Corpse Vanishes and The Seventh Victim), who has just returned from several years abroad, there’s no way in hell he’s going to leave the seclusion of his room to talk to a G-man. Martin will have to content himself with pumping Alice, Stevens, and Colomb (who is now living at the Saunders place, and who doesn’t seem ill at all, despite his earlier claims) for what little information they can provide.
Dick and Alice aren’t the only ones who want to see the doctor tonight, either. Shortly after the detective leaves, another Saunders hanger-on named Wallace (The Return of Chandu’s Edward Peil Sr.) comes by on what he says is urgent business. Saunders gives him the same brush-off he gave Martin and his niece, however, and Wallace leaves having accomplished nothing. Or at any rate, he pretends to leave. After being escorted out, Wallace sneaks around the side of the mansion and lets himself in through the open window to the doctor’s study. Wallace immediately begins ransacking the contents of a desk drawer, and gets so engrossed in his snooping that he fails to notice Colomb creeping up behind him. After a short struggle, Colomb gets the better of the intruder, and hides the body in a closet just in time to plop his butt down in an easy chair and pick up a book before Alice and Stevens come in to see what the ruckus was about. They’re none the wiser about the murder they just narrowly missed witnessing when the newspapers report the following morning that Wallace has joined Kearney in being found dead on the Japanese embassy steps with a chintzy letter opener in his hand.
The same fate befalls Ryder (Robert Fiske) and Van Dyke (Irving Mitchell) a few days later, when they too seek out Saunders, having become alarmed by the remarkable rate of attrition among their fellow conspirators of late. This time, however, Colomb is not so successful at covering his tracks. Alice overhears her uncle (who is obviously being manipulated somehow by his mysterious houseguest) telling Ryder to meet him in the cellar, and she sneaks down to have a look right after Colomb has murdered both Ryder and Van Dyke. Alice sees one of the men’s bodies, and she immediately calls upon Martin for assistance. The corpse may be gone by the time the detective reaches the cellar to investigate, but Dick nevertheless takes Alice’s word for it that something suspicious is afoot. Those suspicions only increase when Colomb and Stevens both disappear without a trace. On the theory that Hanlin (Robert Frazer, from White Zombie and The Vampire Bat), the last of the guests from the ill-fated dinner party, is Colomb’s next target, Martin arranges for him to come see Saunders, essentially acting as bait in an effort to trap the killer. When that happens, it triggers a series of flashbacks that reveal at last the full story— I won’t go into detail, but suffice it to say that literally nobody in this movie is really who they appear to be, the conspirators’ motive for sabotaging America’s war effort is both utterly predictable and extremely silly, and Colomb’s motive for killing them off, while not predictable in the slightest, strains credibility well beyond the breaking point.
It’s hard to talk about what a gigantic mess Black Dragons is without giving away the ending, and I don’t want to do that because something so utterly illogical, that comes so completely out of left field, really ought to be experienced cold for maximum impact. What I can safely say is that it really feels as though the script for Black Dragons did not originally include the axis-espionage angle upon which it now theoretically hinges, and that the lunatic ending was written as a desperate gambit to rework a fairly standard murder mystery into a hysterical and paranoid propaganda piece. The actions of the various bad guys are seriously that far out of synch with the motives that supposedly drive them. The main consequence, of course, is that the dishonest quality which mars so many very old B-mysteries is heightened here to a level that borders on the insulting— Black Dragons rings the bullshit alarm even more urgently than the monkey business at the end of Poe’s “Murders in the Rue Morgue.”
This movie is also notable for the sheer number of plot threads it leaves dangling. With a running time that just barely cracks the hour mark, you’d think it wouldn’t be possible to stockpile very many loose ends, but Black Dragons is here to tell you different. What was Wallace looking for in Saunders’s study? Who knows? Was it supposed to be important that Stevens only recently entered the doctor’s employ? You got me. And most of all, what in the hell is up with those hints early on of a romance developing between Alice and Colomb? It comes up in just about every scene that the two characters share, but then vanishes without a trace about halfway through the film.
Unfortunately, for all its undeniable madness, Black Dragons just isn’t very entertaining. For the most part, it merely stumbles along in the mystery formula rut for a bit more than 50 minutes before dropping that ending on us out of nowhere and then firing up the closing credits. In fact, for a disheartening proportion of its length, the most fun to be had from Black Dragons lies in seeing what detail changes the decorators have made to the old mansion sets from The Invisible Ghost. It’s the kind of movie that makes you pine for William Beaudine or Jean Yarborough— for a director, in other words, who knows how to suck with panache.