“In early 1940s Hollywood,” writes Robert Guffey, “you had to go out of your way to descend any lower than Monogram Studios.”¹
Monogram was one of the small Hollywood studios – collectively known as Poverty Row – that produced low-budget “B” films. Monogram specialized in action and adventure; one of their stars in the early-to-mid 1930s was a young John Wayne.
Among the films Monogram released in the early 1940s, nine were made with former Hollywood legend, Bela Lugosi. Lugosi, best known for his portrayal of Dracula both on stage and in the 1931 film, was really Up Against It in life. In addition to his morphine addiction (the result of a WWI injury), he had a troubled personal life and was unable to expand his career beyond the horror genre. His time at Monogram screams Reduced Circumstances.
Lugosi made nine films at Monogram between 1941-1944, known today as “The Monogram 9”. In their study of these films, Bela Lugosi and the Monogram 9, authors Gary D. Rhodes and Robert Guffey quote film historians’ dismissals of these movies which include such ripe phrases as “barely adequate”, “tasteless” and “a professional embarrassment”.²
With titles like Voodoo Man (1944), Return of the Ape Man (1944), and The Corpse Vanishes (1942), you can’t blame a person for adopting a cynical view before seeing any of these movies.
However, the authors beg to Differ. As they analyze each film, they explore the philosophic subtexts and artistic merits lurking therein.
Like the Monogram 9, this book presents more than you might expect.
Confession: We expected this book to be an irreverent, tongue-in-cheek look at 1940s B horror movies. What we didn’t expect was a scholarly-yet-amusing work that helped us dissect these films. We treated the book like a study guide: After watching each film, we read the analysis and became a fan of the Monogram 9.
For example, author Guffey explains “slipstream” film and says Bowery at Midnight (1942), could be one of the earliest examples in Hollywood cinema. Slipstream is defined as a genre that “crosses the divide between mainstream and speculative literatures of science fiction, fantasy and horror. … Physical laws are broken but no one wonders about them.”³
Or look at the analysis of Invisible Ghost (1941). Author Rhodes explores the issue of “controlling the space” in a scene, specifically the approach to closeups. “The result offers an uncomfortable series of closeups, one after the other, edited with straight cuts,” he writes, “resulting in a sequence that is somewhat outside of the norms of the classical Hollywood style.”4 He then labels each shot A through K, examines them, and tells us why they are important.
In other words, Rhodes and Guffey challenge us to read film and interpret it, not to be a passive observer.
They also ask the tantalizing question: “What is it about these low budget B-films that speaks to the twenty-first century mind?”5
Now, you may be asking if perhaps the authors read too much into the Monogram 9. Are they over-intellectualizing? After all, while discussing these B horror films, the authors delve into surrealism, syncretism, and the works of Stanislav Szukalski.
It’s possible, but we don’t think so. Their analyses help us see these movies – and Bela Lugosi as Actor – differently. What emerges is a portrait of a studio that may have been more savvy and experimental than we thought.
Whether or not you agree with their conclusions, these well-crafted essays will leave you a more knowledgeable film viewer and a Monogram 9 smarty pants.