The Corpse Vanishes/The Case of the Missing Brides (1942) -***˝
It’s a real point of distinction to be able to say that you made the screwiest of all the Monogram Pictures 1940’s horror movies. Competition within that category is fierce indeed, so much so that the most off-the-wall efforts of more reputable studios look positively tame by comparison. But producer Sam Katzman, director Wallace Fox, and screenwriter Harvey Gates would seem to have an unassailable claim to that honor, for they were the creative forces behind The Corpse Vanishes, perhaps the most batshit insane fright flick of the entire decade.
The Corpse Vanishes lets you know it’s something special right out of the gate. No sooner have the credits wrapped up than it establishes that somebody— or more properly, a pair of somebodies (Bela Lugosi and George Eldridge, from The Living Ghost and The Mad Magician)— is poisoning brides in such a way that they drop dead right at the altar. They then use a phenomenally clever arsenal of tricks to spirit the young women’s bodies away to who knows where for who knows what ungodly purpose. The insidiously bizarre crime wave is the talk of the town, and the parents of would-be society brides are going to great lengths to see that their daughters are kept safe. For example, the mother (Gladys Tate) of one Alice Wentworth (Joan Barclay, of Black Dragons) has even attempted to enlist the local district attorney (Eddie Kane, from The Bowery at Midnight and Devil Bat’s Daughter) to provide protection for Alice’s upcoming wedding. Alice herself thinks her mom is overreacting, and that there’s nothing whatsoever to worry about. She finds out differently, though, for even despite all the plainclothes cops prowling around the chapel, the killers get to her, and even despite the heavy police escort for her hearse, they find a way to abscond with her body. The authorities are at a loss, but I’m thinking the key to the whole strange business lies with the strange-looking orchid corsage that someone— everyone assumed it was the groom, but nobody really knows— had delivered to Alice just moments before she was due to walk down the aisle.
I’m guessing you’ve become extremely curious by this point as to just what Lugosi and his accomplice are doing with all those dead brides. Well then, I’ll tell you— but you’d better make sure you’re seated comfortably first, because it’s so goddamned goofy your mind may not be able to handle the strain. The murderer/body-snatcher’s name is Dr. Lorenz, and he lives in a secluded mansion with his insane wife (Elizabeth Russell, of Weird Woman and Bedlam), who is apparently the countess of something or other, and a staff of wacko servants, of whom Mike (the man who drives Lorenz around on his errands of crime) is far and away the most normal. Toby the butler (Angelo Rossitto, from Daughter of Horror and Brain of Blood) is a sadistic dwarf. Fagah the maid (Minerva Urecal, from The Ape Man and 7 Faces of Dr. Lao) is just generally nuts. Her son, Angel the handyman (Frank Moran, of Ghosts on the Loose), is retarded, disfigured, and apparently a necrophiliac. And all of these people are united in their commitment to keeping the really quite ancient countess from looking her age by periodically injecting her with a serum derived from the hormones of young virgins. How they all got started on said project is anybody’s guess. Lorenz’s poison orchids, you see, don’t kill the girls who inhale their perfume, but merely put them into a more or less permanent cataleptic trance. The doctor has a mausoleum-like chamber in his cellar, where he stashes several of his victims at a time, and every so often he wheels one of the girls out and extracts the secretions of her glands so as to prepare another dose of his wife’s meds. Since the police have thus far proven worse than useless, the only thing he really has to worry about is Angel, who likes to sneak into the mausoleum to molest the seemingly dead girls, and who the countess believes is likely to damage them one of these days.
Now seeing as we’ve already effectively eliminated the girl who looked like she was going to be the heroine, we’re going to need a new bunch of good guys around here. Enter wise-cracking rookie reporter Patricia Hunter (Luana Walters, who was also in the long-lost queersploitation picture The Third Sex) and her photographer partner, Sandy (Vince Barnett)… Oh God, not a wise-cracking female cub reporter with a comic relief sidekick! Anything but that!!!! Patricia’s been pushing hard to be released from the journalistic limbo of the society page, and since she was on the scene covering Alice Wentworth’s wedding for one of her usual puff-pieces, she thinks the bride-snatching case might just be her golden ticket. She goes to her stereotypically curmudgeonly editor, Mr. Keenan (Kenneth Harlan, of Phantom Killer and The Walking Dead), and secures the usual 40’s B-movie “dig up some real news or you’re fired” bargain. Then, with her one clue (that weird-ass orchid) in hand, she heads out to see what she can find.
A visit to the neighborhood florist turns up the important detail that Alice Wentworth’s orchid is even more unusual than it looks. It is an extremely rare hybrid of two South American strains, and the only person the florist can think of who might know anything about is the botanist who first bred it. At first that sounds awfully daunting, but then the florist mentions that the man in question is relatively close by— he lives in a mansion on the outskirts of a small town in the hinterland of whatever city this is supposed to be, and his name is (wait for it) Dr. Lorenz. The next thing we know, Patricia is roaming around the little hamlet, trying to find somebody who’ll take her out to the Lorenz place; the way the locals react, you’d think she were asking for a ride to Castle Dracula. Eventually, a cabbie points her in the direction of Mike and Toby, who have just come to the train station to pick up a package (evidently a crated-up coffin) for their boss, and Patricia tries to hitch a ride with them. Knowing that Lorenz wants as little attention as he can get, they refuse, and Patricia has no recourse but to jump into the bed of their truck while they’re not looking. Even then, she doesn’t get far before Toby spots her hiding beside the crate, and Mike pulls the truck over to dump her by the roadside. Patricia’s just lucky that the next car she sees belongs to a man named Dr. Foster (Tristam Coffin, from Flight to Mars and Creature with the Atom Brain), an old colleague of Lorenz’s, who is even then on his way to the mansion. Foster has been helping Lorenz treat his wife, under the assumption that her condition is the result of some rare glandular disease, rather than her body’s stubborn efforts to age naturally despite the doctor’s ministrations.
You know, considering that neither Patricia nor anybody else suspects Lorenz yet of having anything to do with the case of the disappearing brides, the doctor really would be better off just to answer Patricia’s questions about the orchid and send her on her way. Instead, though, he inexplicably keeps her around all night, giving her the opportunity to meet every one of his shady cohorts; to see him and his wife sleeping in matching his-and-hers coffins; to find her room’s entrance to the network of secret passages that predictably riddles the mansion; and to catch Angel in the act when he sneaks down to the mausoleum to feel up the cataleptic brides. And since the one Angel is most interested in is Alice Wentworth, Patricia gets a good enough look to recognize her, and realizes that she has actually solved the mystery which she thought she was just beginning to investigate. She’s also still watching a few minutes later, when Lorenz, at his wife’s instigation, strangles Angel to keep him from messing with the girls anymore.
The next morning, Patricia tells Foster about everything she saw during the night. Initially, he believes she has merely had a string of very bad dreams, but then he witnesses some strange goings-on himself, and begins to suspect that the reporter might have known what she was talking about. A few days later, he comes to the newspaper’s offices to back Patricia up as she recounts the story for the incredulous Keenan. Foster also helps Patricia and Keenan devise a trap to catch Lorenz and his accomplices. Patricia has a friend named Peggy Woods (Gwen Kenyon), an aspiring actress, and she talks her into posing as the bride in a fake high-society wedding designed to sucker Lorenz into striking again. Patricia figures Peggy will be quite safe, as they already know that the poisonous orchids are the foundation of Lorenz’s scheme, and as long as she wears a fake one instead, the mad doctor should never be able to get his hands on her. What nobody has taken into consideration, however, is that Peggy won’t be the only attractive young woman at the church that day. Patricia, after all, has a perfectly good set of glands in her, too.
Right from the beginning, Monogram’s horror movies always favored outrageousness over coherence, and that pattern would hold true all the way up to 1946, when the last of the bunch, The Face of Marble, made its debut. The Corpse Vanishes, however, really is in a league all by itself. While the plot isn’t quite as bewildering in its step-by-step progression as, say, The Invisible Ghost’s, the sheer lunacy of the ideas driving it more than makes up for the slight increase in narrative clarity. The Corpse Vanishes really is the apotheosis of the old-school house-full-of-crazies movie, assembling a grab-bag of manias, perversions, deformities, and mental deficiencies that would not be matched until the deliberately campy Spider Baby, or The Maddest Story Ever Told more than twenty years later. But unlike Spider Baby, this movie isn’t toying with or sending up a tradition— to all appearances, its creators looked at it as just another cheap horror flick, and took such a cavalier attitude toward the story that they simply bundled a bunch of the most obvious genre cliches together with no real regard for whether they meshed in any remotely sensible way. The resulting concoction is then dressed up even more with some flamboyantly awful dialogue (Bela Lugosi explains his curious sleeping habits: “I find a coffin much more comfortable than a bed— many people do so.”) and some of the broadest, most unrestrained performances in horror movie history. Countess Lorenz in particular is a hoot. She’s demanding, high-strung, and generally just about the biggest imaginable bitch, and Elizabeth Russell pulls out absolutely all the stops in playing her. It’s a tall order indeed to steal a scene from Bela Lugosi and Angelo Rossitto simultaneously, but Russell pulls it off on several occasions. As for Lugosi, the previous performance which this one most closely resembles is probably “kindly Dr. Carruthers” from The Devil Bat, though there’s a bit of the mad doctor from The Raven in here too. He’s as far out of control as he’s ever been, and it looks as though he’s having the time of his life. And why not? If you can’t have fun on a production like The Corpse Vanishes, I’d have a hard time imagining you ever having any fun at all.