Old Mother Riley Meets the Vampire / Mother Riley Meets the Vampire / Mother Riley Runs Riot / My Son the Vampire / Vampire Over London (1952) -*
Itís common enough for people to describe something memorably terrible as a train wreck, but the well-worn metaphor seems especially appropriate in the case of Old Mother Riley Meets the Vampire. This dismal British horror comedy derives whatever sick fascination it holds from the spectacle of a calamitous head-on collision between two careers that were already well along the way to final ruination individually.
By the early 1950ís, there was simply no getting around itó Bela Lugosi was officially a has-been. 70 years old, nearly deaf, and addicted to morphine, Lugosi hadnít had really steady employment in the movie industry since 1944, nor indeed any film-business gig at all since 1948. Significantly, that last job had been a parodic take on a role heíd been playing in one form or another for some twenty years, and while Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein had done wonders for the two fading comedians whose names appeared in the title, it hadnít done a fucking thing for Lugosi. Even a return to the stage meant trading off humiliation against a paycheck, for the most prestigious part he was able to land was in an embarrassingly underfunded production of Arsenic and Old Lace, in which Lugosi found himself cast in the role originally written foró thatís rightó Boris Karloff. It was while he was thus once again serving as the poor manís Karloff that Lugosi crossed paths with a young man named Richard Gordon. Gordon would later become a movie producer of some significance (his credits include Devil Doll and Island of Terror), but in those days, he was merely a promoter working for George Minter, the mastermind of an obscure, cheapjack distribution company by the rather ironic name of Renown. Gordon was also a longtime admirer of Lugosiís, and when the two men met, the conversation quickly turned to the prospect of bringing the old star to London for a career-revitalizing West End revival of Dracula. The plan backfired catastrophically. Routledge and White, the partnership that produced the new stage Dracula, were skinflints fully the equal of anyone Lugosi had worked for on Hollywoodís Poverty Row, and the play was even chintzier than that cut-rate Arsenic and Old Lace. Nevertheless, it managed to lose money on a shocking scale, and by the time Routledge and White pulled the plug (well before their contracted engagement had elapsed), Lugosiís finances were so thoroughly fucked that he couldnít even afford the air fare home for him and his wife.
Meanwhile, Arthur Lucan had reached and surpassed the point of diminishing returns on a uniquely dire brand of class-conscious slapstick. For nearly as long as Lugosi had been skulking about in his black opera cape, Lucan had been dressing up in drag and making a complete ass of himself as a hard-drinking Irish washer-woman called Old Mother Riley. He had brought the act to the screen for the first time in 1937, and although heíd been successful enough to get a total of fifteen Old Mother Riley movies made by 1952, the wheels had pretty well fallen off the bus after the mid-1940ís. By far the darkest portent for the future of Old Mother Riley was Lucanís scorched-earth war of a separation from Kitty McShane, his wife of 38 years, who had played Rileyís daughter since the coupleís music-hall days. It happened that Minterís company had distributed Lucanís last three movies (Old Mother Rileyís New Venture, Old Mother Riley, Headmistress, and Old Mother Rileyís Jungle Treasure), and Gordon saw an opportunity to solve Lucanís problems and Lugosiís at the same time. Taking the hint from Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, Gordon pitched an idea for a film pitting Old Mother Riley against a diabolical horror-movie villain. Horror comedies had accounted for about a third of Abbott and Costelloís cinematic work during the preceding three years, so it must have seemed like a pretty safe gamble that such a film could induce people to give a shit about Arthur Lucan again while simultaneously putting at least enough money into Lugosiís pocket to send him back to the States. However, I imagine that nobody who has seen Old Mother Riley Meets the Vampire will be terribly surprised to hear that the venture achieved only the more modest of the aforementioned goals.
This being a good three years before The Creeping Unknown, it is similarly unsurprising that the titular vampire is actually nothing of the kind. Although he makes his entrance emerging from a coffin just after sundown, clad in an instantly recognizable costume, and although he is identified as the descendant of a man who was rumored to have risen from the dead with an unquenchable thirst for human blood, Baron Van Housen (Lugosi, obviously) is merely a mad scientist who has adopted vampirism as his supervillain theme. Van Housen is working on an army of killer robots (the Mysterious Dr. Satan would heartily approve of the prototype), but before the mass-production effort can get underway, the Vampire will have to gain access to ďan almost unlimited quantity of uranium.Ē Thatís where Julia Loretti (Maria Mercedes) comes in. Her geologist father has discovered just such a uranium vein somewhere in South America, and when she arrives in London bearing a map of the site, Van Housenís assistant, Anton Daschomb (Philip Leaver, from Spaceways and The Flesh and the Fiends), kidnaps both her and her merchant mariner boyfriend, Douglas (So Evil My Loveís Roderick Lovell).
Actually, the Vampire and his agents have been abducting girls left and right during the six weeks since they set up shop in Great Britain, and the story is all over the newspapers. Supposedly, Van Housen has been feeding on the kidnapped girlsí blood, and weíll eventually see reason to suspect that the stories are true. In any event, the one woman in all the land who ought to have nothing to worry about is Old Mother Riley (Lucan), who is the diametric opposite of practically everything the Vampire seems to look for in a victim. However, Mrs. Riley is expecting a rather huge package in the mail, the first installment on a vast bequest from her recently deceased Uncle Jeremiah. It just so happens that that crate is on the same delivery truck as Van Housenís prototype robot, and it further just so happens that the assumed name under which the Vampire has been operating in England is ďDr. Riley.Ē Yes indeed. The robot goes to Old Mother Rileyís place, while Van Housen ends up with about 60 cubic feet of Uncle Jeremiahís housewares. Luckily for Van Housen, the robotís vacuum-tube brain is on standby, and he is able to summon it to his leased mansion by radio control. And just to be on the safe side, he has the mechanical killer abduct Mrs. Riley, preventing her thereby from telling anyone about the mistaken delivery.
Van Housen maintains an unusually large household for an evil genius. In addition to Anton, his staff includes a rather ineffectual thug named Mugsy (David Hurst, of The Boys from Brazil), a sadistic, Renfieldian butler called Hitchcock (bit-part regular Ian Wilson, who also played blink-and-youíll-miss-them roles in The Phantom of the Opera and The Day of the Triffids), and a sullen, extremely butch woman by the name of Freda (Judith Furse), who seems to be in charge of keeping the rest of the help in line. (Given the Vampireís habit of kidnapping girls, we might perhaps look at Freda as a straitlaced British precursor to 42nd Streetís Madame Olga.) Then thereís Tilly the maid (Dora Bryan, from Hands of the Ripper), who appears to have entered Van Housenís employ only recently. Ordinarily, Tilly would represent the major weak point in the Vampireís arrangements, for her boyfriend, Freddie (Richard Wattis, of Stolen Face and The Abominable Snowman), is a cop. This is a dumb-ass comedy, though, so Freddie is the kind of cop you can unload a truck full of anesthetized, mummy-wrapped girls in front of without arousing in him any more than the very vaguest of suspicions. No, the real weak point is going to be Old Mother Riley, whom the Vampire foolishly decides to hang onto once he figures out that she has his favorite blood type.
Iím as fond of British comedy as anybody, but Old Mother Riley Meets the Vampire is about as funny as the Khmer Rouge. Its comedic sensibility (assuming that it can be said to have anything as coherent as a sensibility) approaches absurdism without ever quite getting there, hints vaguely at social satire without having any recognizable point to make, and wallows torpidly in the notion that anything done by a man in a dress becomes automatically funny, simply because heís a man in a dress. The writing is also scatterbrained nearly (but crucially not quite) on the level of a Ray Dennis Steckler production, with things happening almost at random, seemingly in whatever order they occurred to anyone. That by itself does create just a few faint glimmers of amusement, but not enough to justify sitting through the whole film. If anything manages that (and thatís a very big ďifĒ), itís Bela Lugosiís curiously dissonant performance. On the one hand, he might as well be holding up a big cardboard sign with ďWill work for plane ticketsĒ scrawled on it in magic marker, and he pretty obviously knows it. But on the other hand, itís equally plain that heís giving Old Mother Riley Meets the Vampire whatever passed for his all at that point in his life. Strange as it may seem, this is the last movie I know of in which Lugosi doesnít come across as a pitiable, broken-down wreck. He looks much healthier than he probably was, his acting still has most of its accustomed force, and his comic timing is a hell of a lot better than Arthur Lucanís. He may be awfully close to bottoming out here, but he does an impressive job of pretending otherwise.