By BOB MADISON
Horror films are celebrated for the many famous pairings that
bring a double-dose of fun to genre films. Think of Karloff
and Lugosi, Cushing and Lee, Fay Wray and Kong, and, of course,
Bela Lugosi and Tor Johnson. What? You never considered Hungary's
gift to horror films and Sweden's gift to ... well, Sweden's
gift, to be a horror film combo? Think again, as Lugosi and
Johnson teamed to make three films that were, in a word, unforgettable.
Perhaps no other horror film personality is more recognized
for his voice than Bela Lugosi, so it is interesting that
in two of these films the great man was mute. And Johnson,
who is famous himself for going through most of his films
silently (go ahead, let's hear you imitate him!)
speaks only in the last of the triptych. I don't
know if this means anything, but it seems significant, doesn't
At any rate, Lugosi and Johnson first teamed for Bride
of the Monster (1955), arguably Edward D. Wood Jr.'s
best film. (I know, I know -- that's not saying much.) In
Bride, Lugosi gives his all as Dr. Vornoff -- a brilliant,
though quite mad, scientist living in the swamplands just
outside some major metropolitan city. (Internal evidence
suggests Vornoff's headquarters to be in the badlands of
New Jersey.) There, he dreams of building a race of atomic
supermen. Of course, as all of his subjects are unwilling,
one wonders why a scientist -- no matter how crazed -- would
create a superman who was really angry with him. But, that's
a topic the film never addresses.
Johnson shines as Lugosi's mute assistant. Okay, he doesn't
shine, but he's totally adequate. Johnson isn't asked to
do much, and he delivers in spades. He lumbers, he grunts
and he fondles angora like a man who ... well, who lumbers,
grunts and fondles. Lugosi, on the other hand, takes the
ramshackle material and runs with it. Gaunt and feeble from
age and illness, Lugosi recites his nonsense dialogue as
if they were the closing scenes of Lear. He incorporates
little bits of business that we've seen in other films --
the hand gestures from Dracula and White Zombie,
for example -- and Lugosi stands tall above the poverty
of his surroundings. Vornoff's laboratory includes a refrigerator,
a film-developer and a Tesla coil: if his killer, rubber
octopus worked correctly, he would really be in business.
Bride of the Monster is really not much worse (and
sometimes better) than many of Lugosi's Monogram films from
the 40s. Bride may be running on half cylinders,
but Lugosi himself goes full throttle. This is Lugosi's
final speaking role and it is, in many ways, a fitting sendoff,
and, the film is representative of much of Lugosi's career
-- he's terrific in a truly execrable film. While not exactly
a guilty pleasure, a passion for Bride of the Monster
is nothing to brag about, either.
Lugosi and Johnson merged again for their best picture
(and one of the finest horror films of the 1950s), The
Black Sleep. Both Lugosi and Johnson played mute this
time around, Johnson effectively and Lugosi ... well, Lugosi
played it mute. The real star of The Black Sleep
is Basil Rathbone, who shines as the villainous Dr. Cadman.
Rathbone, one of the finest actors of his generation, plays
Cadman with a real fire-and-ice mix: his icy deliberation
while dishing out pain and suffering is counter-balanced
by his passion for his wife and her recovery. Rathbone often
considered his horror film roles to be slumming, but he
need not have. His Wolf von Frankenstein in Son of Frankenstein
is one of the finest performances in the series, and his
supporting roles in Tales of Terror and The Comedy
of Terrors are vigorous and fun.
Johnson is in fine form (predominantly round) in Black
Sleep, effectively creepy as one of Cadman's many failed
experiments. Lugosi seems dazed and confused -- convincing
as a survivor of brain surgery, but lacking any of the celebrated
Lugosi charm. Historians report that Lugosi was difficult
on the set, and not always in the mental and physical shape
necessary to deliver any kind of performance. Sadly, that's
all too evident in the finished product.
both Johnson and Lugosi are merely filler -- almost everyone
else in the cast does a better job than they do. Even poor
old Lon Chaney, often horrordom's most heinous repeat offender,
manages to make something of his role as the mute Mungo.
(Hmm ... So many mute roles, so few horror film actors.)
After Rathbone, the acting honors go to John Carradine,
who rants convincingly as another Cadman victim. In fact,
Carradine is so stentorian and energetic, that one wonders
if he was merely having fun or riotously drunk. Film historian
Tom Weaver likens The Black Sleep to the early Hammer
Films ... only good. It's hard to challenge this assertion,
though, in retrospect, it would've made a fabulous color
extravaganza, and a swell sendoff to the first era of the
American horror film.
From the fabulous to the fatuous we move onto Ed Wood's
infamous Plan Nine From Outer Space (1959). Much
has been written about this film, and, at this late date,
there is little to add. Suffice it to say that Lugosi's
scenes, shot shortly before his death, look like little
more than home movie outtakes, and Tor, as the police inspector-turned
ghoul, has all the dialogue. I have seen Plan Nine
more times than is prudent to mention in polite company,
and I still have no idea what Johnson says in it. Lugosi's
accent was thick ... Johnson's was outrageous.
Most of Lugosi's "scenes" were shot using a
double obviously much younger than the deceased Hungarian.
The scenes that actually use Lugosi seem as if they were
shot without sound, but the old actor's sincere emoting
(at his wife's funeral and before his own death) have a
tragic quality doubly meaningful in both real and reel life.
Johnson, however, has managed to emerge from this mess as
a horror film icon. The shots of Johnson and Vampira (as
Lugosi's reanimated bride ... which immediately brings to
mind questions of their marriage) traipsing through Wood's
plywood cemetery have entered the iconography of cheesy
50s cinema, and become folklore among horror movie buffs.
Plan Nine is a bad film when measured by almost any
conventional yardstick, but it's never dull. It has all
the dangerous allure of watching a tragic car wreck, or
catching four-year olds play with matches and gasoline --
it leaves you shaking your head in what-were-they-thinking
Not convinced that Lugosi and Johnson made a spectacular
team? The team's two Ed Wood films have been seen in major
retrospectives the world over, and covered (sometimes obsessively)
in fantasy film journals and books. Tim Burton dramatized
all of this to comedic effect in his own masterpiece, Ed
Wood (1994), and Martin Landau won an Oscar for his
portrayal of Lugosi during this period of the actor's life.
More tellingly, remember this -- more people are familiar
with the intimate details of the making of Bride of the
Monster and Plan Nine From Outer Space, than
are familiar with the making of The Grapes of Wrath.
The mind reels ...
Bob Madison is the editor of Dracula: The First Hundred
Years (1997, Midnight Marquee Press) and American
Horror Writers (1999, Enslow). Both are available through
He is currently writing a book about Buffalo Bill Cody.