Tuesday, October 26, 2010

DR. SHOCK'S HALLOWEENIE MOVIE OF THE DAY: KING OF THE ZOMBIES (1941). Justly famous as one of the best Monograms ever -- and that rest solely on the capable shoulders of the magnificent Mantan Moreland; who simply steals the film. Now, I'm not saying that KING OF THE ZOMBIES wouldn't be a good movie without Mantan; it's actually one of the more competently-made Monogram B-pictures in the stable: Jean Yarbrough's direction is snappy and eliminates all draggy bits. However, it's debatable whether the film would be what it is now -- a horror comedy -- without the virtuoso performance of Mantan Moreland. And surely the director and the studio knew what gold they had because they gave Moreland free reign in KING OF THE ZOMBIES to become it's de facto star. Naval intelligence agent Bill Summers (John Archer), his valet Jefferson Jackson (Mantan Moreland) and pilot "Mac" McCarthy (Dick Purcell) are flying to the baHAYmas (that's the way they pronounce it) searching for a missing admiral when they hear a mysterious radio broadcast in a foreign language eminating from a tropical island below. When they go lower to investigate, the plane crashes -- into a creepy cemetery! Nearby is the equally creepy house of Dr. Miklos Sangre (Henry Victor) -- yes, the name means "blood" -- who offers the crash survivors lodging until the next boat to the island arrives in two weeks' time. There is a cadaverous butler Momba (Leigh Whipper), a cackling witch-like voodoo woman Tahama (Madame Sul-Te-Wan), a beautiful and sassy servant Samantha (Marguerite Whitten), Dr. Sangre's somnambulistic wife (Patricia Stacye) and Sangre's lovely niece Barbara (Joan Woodbury). There is also, as Jeff soon learns, a passle of zombies trudging around the house. Of course, we know Dr. Sangre is up to no good and he's actually "cultivating" zombies for the Nazis as an unending supply of cannon fodder. Wacky as it seems, certain Nazis actually considered such an option: the term for it was "todenkorps". But of course we're not watching the movie for the plot, really, are we??? No, we're watching it for the sheer joy of Mantan Moreland; whose wisecracks and putdowns lift the movie to another level. It really is a showcase for the comedian and everyone seems to have realized that and let Moreland run with it. For a particular treat, click here to listen to a medley of Mantan's "loquacious" quips!
The film has a particularly strong cast before you fold Mantan Moreland into the mix. Top-billed Dick Purcell was the first actor ever to portray Captain America on screen in the 1944 serial. He also appeared alongside Mantan Moreland and Joan Woodbury in 1942's PHANTOM KILLER as well as with Mantan and Frankie Darro in their first buddy film together: 1939's IRISH LUCK. KING OF THE ZOMBIES' ingenue Joan Woodbury, besides appearing in the aforementioned PHANTOM KILLER also appeared alongside Mantan Moreland in CHARLIE CHAN IN THE CHINESE CAT as well as BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (she was the uncredited little queen in the jar), ROGUES TAVERN (1936), ALGIERS (1938) alongside Charles Boyer and Hedy Lamarr, THE LIVING GHOST (1942), BRENDA STARR REPORTER (1945) in the lead role, DeMille's 1956 THE TEN COMMANDMENTS and 1964's THE TIME TRAVELERS. KING OF THE ZOMBIES co-hero John Archer appears oddly far down in the credit list considering his leading role here. Archer, in addition to appearing on radio as THE SHADOW for about a year or so also featured in the films BOWERY AT MIDNIGHT (1942) with Bela Lugosi, SHERLOCK HOLMES IN WASHINGTON (1943) with Basil Rathbone, THE EVE OF ST. MARK (1944) with Vincent Price, WHITE HEAT (1949) with James Cagney, DESTINATION MOON (1950), and Budd Boeticcher's 1957 western DECISION AT SUNDOWN with Randolph Scott. The role of Dr. Sangre was actually originally meant for Bela Lugosi -- and imagine what a treat KING OF THE ZOMBIES would've been with both Moreland AND Lugosi vying for screen time! However, Lugosi instead was shunted off into THE INVISIBLE GHOST and Henry Victor replaced him. Having said that, Victor is no disappointment and plays the role rather well; he plays it completely straight with real Nazi menace. Victor, of course, appeared as the nasty strongman in Tod Browning's FREAKS (1932) as well as NICK CARTER MASTER DETECTIVE (1939), TO BE OR NOT TO BE (1942) with Jack Benny and Carole Lombard (in her final film) and SHERLOCK HOLMES AND THE SECRET WEAPON (1943). Director Jean Yarbrough is no stranger to genre features as well: his credits include THE DEVIL BAT (1940) with Bela Lugosi, THE GANG'S ALL HERE (1941) with Mantan Moreland and Frankie Darro, FRECKLES COMES HOME (1942) and LAW OF THE JUNGLE (1942) both with Mantan Moreland, several Abbott & Costello comedies, Universal's HOUSE OF HORRORS (1946) with Rondo Hatton and Martin Kosleck, SHE-WOLF OF LONDON (1946) the worst Universal horror film ever made, THE BRUTE MAN (1946) and THE CREEPER (1948) both with Rondo Hatton as "The Creeper" and the abyssmal HILLBILLYS IN A HAUNTED HOUSE (1967). As I've said repeatedly, KING OF THE ZOMBIES (which you may watch in its entirety by clicking here for the Internet Archives) may be an above-average Monogram B-picture that would've been worth watching in its own right but with the addition of Mantan Moreland the film becomes a star vehicle for a comedian who took the limitations of war-time Hollywood and eliminated them with nothing but his talent, his charm and his great humour.


Weaverman said...

By a weird coincidence I just bought this. It is a gem thanks to Mantan and a pretty fast paced story. I believe that inbetween Lugosi and Victor that Peter Lorre was considered for the role of Sangre.

Deijore81510 said...

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