Tuesday, November 24, 2009
THE BOOGIE MAN WILL GET YOU (1942)
The 2009 Boris Karloff Blogathon is underway!
During this week, over 100 blogs around the world are posting about the life and art of one of filmdom's most famous fiends, Boris Karloff. Click here to see a complete list of participating blogs at the Frankensteinia site.
Here at SCARED SILLY: CLASSIC HOLLYWOOD HORROR-COMEDIES, we're taking a look at some of "Uncle Boris"'s funniest features. Today we highlight…
**& 1/2 out of ****
PLOT: Winnie, a lively divorcee whose every step is dogged by her antsy, meddling ex-husband Bill buys a rustic inn from dotty Professor Billings (Boris Karloff)… and allows him and his servants to continue living on the premises. Which is a good thing, because the professor’s got a lot of bodies stashed in the basement, not to mention a “mad scientist” lab that would do Dr. Frankenstein proud. The professor is hard at work trying to perfect an army of indestructible supermen to fight the Axis powers (this being a film set and released during World War 2). Unfortunately, it appears all the traveling salesmen the professor experiments on end up as lifeless as a rose garden in winter. Meanwhile, after several unusual occurrences – a cupboard mysteriously falls on Winnie, a blood-curdling scream attributed to a ghost is heard, and the housekeeper roams the halls in the middle of the night spouting gibberish – Bill is convinced it’s all a racket to have Winnie sell back the place at a loss. When Bill wanders into the basement and discovers one of the stiffs, he calls in the town sheriff (and mayor, lawyer, justice of the peace, phony hair tonic hawker, etc.) Dr. Lorentz (Peter Lorre). But once Lorentz gets wise to Billings’ plans, he smells a potential financial windfall and wants in. Complications arise when a dim-witted, hard-headed peddler (“Slapsie” Maxie Rosenbloom) won’t respond to the experiments; a hotel guest turns out to be more than he seems; and a kamikaze bomber with his sights set on the nearby munitions plant invades the place. It all leads to a surprise ending that softens the edge of the black comedy that preceded it, while maintaining its wackiness and loopy charm.
REVIEW: “The Boogie Man Will Get You” is a classic example of a film with a wayward script and unevenly matched performers that somehow gets by on the sheer good will of its lead performers, in this case Boris Karloff and Peter Lorre, with game support from “Slapsie” Maxie Rosenbloom. They are the reasons this film gets an “above average” review from me rather than “average,” but it was a close call.
When you know the backstory of the film, it’s easy to see how it doesn’t quite hit the mark. The film is clearly inspired by the 1939 play “Arsenic & Old Lace.” The play was a farce involving little old ladies putting poor lonely souls out of their misery, with one straight-laced nephew trying to put the morbid pieces together, another nephew convinced he is Teddy Roosevelt while yet another nephew, butchered by plastic surgery to look like Boris Karloff, arrives unexpectedly with nefarious notions of his own. Karloff was a hit in the original Broadway version of this play, but the rights to a movie version were snapped up by Warner Brothers. The film adaptation didn’t hit screens until 1944, but since Columbia Pictures had Karloff under a five-picture contract, perhaps they thought they’d cash in on the play’s popularity and make a pre-emptive strike at the same time, beating Warner Brothers to the cinema with their own Arsenic-like lark. Like a photocopy of a photocopy, however, “Boogie Man” is Arsenic-light – highly diluted!
When I say diluted I mean it. The “horror” elements here are slight at best. It retains some horror-comedy trappings (a futuristic lab, secret passageways, bodies piling up… and the mere presence of Karloff and Lorre) but no real sense of terror as there are no dark shadows or “boo”-type scares as in many other horror-comedies. It is black comedy shot in bright lighting, very much the other side of the coin when compared to the film version of “Arsenic & Old Lace.”
What’s more the pity is that when Warner Brothers got around to filming “Arsenic & Old Lace” they were able to use some of the original Broadway players in the cast… except Boris, who was committed to touring with a road-show version of the play! So in place of Boris delightfully scheming with slimy Peter Lorre, the movie version of “Arsenic” serves up Raymond Massey playing off Lorre instead. Meanwhile “The Boogie Man Will Get You” offers a hint of what the “Arsenic” film could have been if Boris had been available, supplying as it does another teaming with Lorre (their second after “You’ll Find Out”), although Boris is playing a much more gentle character in “Boogie Man” than the truly vicious and unrepentant Jonathan Brewster of “Arsenic.”
In fact, it is a quite kindly Boris we find running the inn in “Boogie Man” – a foreshadow of his image as ambassador to all “monster kids” during the 1960s monster resurgence, not to mention a cousin to the “Baron Boris von Frankenstein” character he voiced in the stop-motion animation classic, "Mad Monster Party.” His character has more in common with Aunts Martha and Abby Brewster from “Arsenic” – like the altruistic aunts, he’s on a mission of mercy – he chooses door-to-door salesman for his experiments since “they never have any friends, poor fellows!” He’s completely convinced that his actions are justified and that he is not a murderer. In fact, he objects to violence in general, let alone murder! Case in point: a scene where Karloff and Lorre are contemplating experimenting on Bill. Lorre says they don’t need an anesthetic – rather they can just hit him over the head. In a brilliant line that works beautifully in a black comedy, Boris objects, saying that would be violent (never mind the collection of corpses in the wine closet)!
Peter Lorre counters cuddly Karloff with his usual sly performance as a master conman. Lorre is a master at portraying endearing scoundrels, and his Dr. Lorentz is no exception. The fact that one man in town is in control of so many things – being the mayor, sheriff, justice of the peace, etc. – yet also hawks phony hair tonic – clues the audience in that this world they’ve entered is an off-kilter one indeed, and there is no more reason to consider Lorre a legitimate town official than there is to consider him sane. He proves as much when he totally overlooks the moral and ethical issues inherent in Karloff’s experiments. On the surface it appears his desire to profit from any riches the successful execution of the experiments may provide are his driving motivation, but to look the other way also signals that he’s got as many screws loose as Karloff. “And to think I accused you – that I was under the impression that your experiment was harebrained,” Lorre assures Karloff.
Around the time the third act begins we are introduced to the powder puff salesman… which is a joke in itself, as this peddler is played by “Slapsie” Maxie Rosenbloom, a hulking former boxer-turned-comic actor who specialized in punch-drunk characters (think Lenny from “Of Mice & Men”). There are some performers from classic comedies who are acquired tastes, rendering the ability of a person to enjoy a given film commensurate with their tolerance of said performers. Rosenbloom falls into that category along with Hugh Herbert, Shemp Howard (with whom Rosenbloom co-starred in another horror-comedy called “Crazy Knights”) and others. For me, I enjoy Rosenbloom when he’s being used correctly (in a way that makes sense to the plot) and in measured doses. I’m happy to report that is the case in “Boogie Man.” In fact, Rosenbloom’s scenes provide a few of the film’s highlights. He is ticklish on top of his head, so Boris can’t place his contraption’s helmet on him. He has sinus problems, so he can’t be knocked out by sniffing the anesthetic (this leads to two hilarious instances where he convinces others – first Karloff and Lorre and then the divorced couple – to take a sniff to see if the stuff is strong enough, effectively rendering them all unconscious)!
So the great to be had here comes courtesy of Boris, Peter & Maxie. Any time Karloff and Lorre are on the screen without the other performers the film is a delight. When Rosenbloom joins the daffy duo a rib-tickling trio is formed. These actors have an easy rapport with one another and it shows onscreen. Consequently, these are the scenes to which you’ll want to fast-forward should you decide to watch the film.
The dialogue in the Karloff/Lorre and Karloff/Lorre/Rosenbloom scenes seems better as well. Elsewhere the film’s dialogue causes the film to wear its stage origins like a badge – there is entirely too much exposition, and much of it is overwritten. Even the seasoned performers trip over some of it. Its dialogue that’s best suited to the stage, further backing up the notion that this film was written as a direct knockoff of Arsenic.
Despite the schizophrenic nature of the script, there is some choice dialogue given to Karloff, especially this passage that foreshadows fellow boogeyman Bela Lugosi’s famous speeches from “Bela Lugosi Meets a Brookyln Gorilla” (where he goes on about apes, evolution and embryonic metamorphosis) and “Bride of the Monster” (where Bela waxes rhapsodic about the race of atomic supermen that he wants to create):
“I who am revolutionizing evolution, circumambulating it at one fell swoop. Creating by inductive rays and biochemistry the ultimate specimen of human perfection. Eternally young, immune from disease – the super superman himself.”
There is a supporting cast who toils to diminishing returns with the roles the script hands them. The housekeeper Amelia (Maude Eburn) and groundskeeper Ebenezer (George McKay) come across as an off-kilter Ma & Pa Kettle, by way of the Addams Family. They are suitably bizarre, although not as endearing as the above description sounds. Rather they alternate between amusing and annoying, but thankfully delivered in small doses. Brampton, a guest who claims to be a choreographer (played by Don Beddoe, veteran of comedy films with The Three Stooges and Abbott & Costello plus the horror-comedies “Beware Spooks” with Joe E. Brown and “The Spook Speaks” with Buster Keaton) is flamboyant and genteel, played in exclamation points like a grand actor (and as we’ll find out, he is indeed acting). And of course what would a horror-comedy be without the requisite bit parts (here a couple of policemen and a trooper) deftly handled by character actors.
Unfortunately the film suffers from the romantic leads, the aforementioned divorced couple whose screen time nearly equals that of Karloff and Lugosi. Their constant bickering is meant to remind audiences of the snappy banter to be found in the screwball comedies of Preston Sturges and Frank Capra (who would go on to direct “Arsenic & Old Lace”) but it just comes off as annoying at best and wearying at worst. The fault really lies at the feet of a miscast Larry Parks playing Bill. Not hateful enough to outright despise but such a nagging worry wart as to be obnoxious, you wonder why Karloff and Lorre don’t start and end their experiments by altering Bill’s noggin. As Winnie, Miss Jeff Donnell is actually okay, but she’s lessened by being paired with Parks. Dragged down by having to spar with him, trading witless dialogue with a witless character.
So some bad dialogue more suited to the stage and an uneven supporting cast are clear demerits here, but more than anything the script is what keeps this from being better than it could (and should) be. In particular, what little of a plot there is falls completely off the rails once the fascist suicide bomber arrives on the scene, demanding to be taken to the nearby munitions plant. Even for a loopy black comedy, this is an outlandish, absurd turn that nearly causes the film to collapse completely.
Thankfully, the script makes a bit of a recovery at the end to send the audience out on a happier, if still slightly bewildered note.
Normally I don’t like giving away the endings of the films as I’d prefer my readers to experience the endings for themselves, but after describing the pitfalls of this plot, I feel it is my duty to describe how this plummeting feline finally found its footing.
Faced with the prospect of being blown to smithereens by the mad bomber, Boris and Lorre knock out Rosenbloom for one final attempt at creating a “superman.” Once again, the experiment doesn’t work – Maxie’s lifeless body falls out of the machine.
Just then, some ghostly figures appear to frighten the bomber who is quickly dispatched. The “ghosts” turn out to be all the salesmen Boris previously “experimented” on, still covered in the sheets Boris placed over them when storing them in the wine closet.
Apparently, they weren’t dead after all… and neither is Slapsie Maxie, who soon rises to join the party. Lorre declares, “They must have been in a state of suspended animation. We invented a method to preserve life!”
Meanwhile, Brampton reveals that he’s not a choreographer after all, but actually works for the beureau of historic landmarks… and offers a sum for the inn many times over the price Winnie paid.
The police on the scene are having none of this – they threaten to put everyone in the building into an asylum, but Lorre, offering the final punchline says not to worry – he’s the chairman of the asylum’s board of directors!
BEST DIALOGUE EXCHANGES:
KARLOFF (after Bill asks him to confirm if a blood-curdling scream came from a ghost): “The pros and cons of survival after death are so confusing I prefer not to think about it.”
KARLOFF: “Doctor, you’re giving me just what I needed!”
LORRE: “Yes, a jab in the lassitude!”
BEST GAGS: This film is very dialogue and character-driven, without a lot of sight gags or slapstick. What there is of such tomfoolery comes primarily from the “Slapsie” Maxie scenes where he displays his ticklishness and accidentally knocks out others with the anesthesia that was meant for him
Other than that, the scenes in the lab provide overall comical visuals as opposed to any one standout sight gag. For example, it doesn’t take long to realize something completely wacked-out is going on in Boris’s basement. We see him conducting an experiment – a man sits in a contraption that looks like a cockpit, Boris flips a switch and all manner of electricity dances through the air as in a vintage Frankenstein film. When the light show is over and Boris opens the cockpit door, the man falls lifeless to the floor! “Cold as a mackerel,” the disappointed Karloff sighs. He removes a wrench from the man’s pocket, theorizing that it probably deflected his machine’s rays.
SPOTTED IN THE CAST: The trooper is played by James C. Morton, who appeared in many small but memorable parts in several Laurel & Hardy shorts and features and Three Stooges shorts (including the classic horror-comedy, “We Want Our Mummy”), as well as some W.C. Fields features and the classic Our Gang/Little Rascals short “Mike Fright” as the radio station manager.
BUY THE FILM: This film is part of a four-film DVD collection that also includes the Karloff horror classics “Before I Hang,” “The Black Room” and “The Man They Could Not Hang.” You can order the set here:
FURTHER READING: A couple of good blog reviews of this movie appear on the Mystery File and Spinning Image blogs.
I couldn’t find a trailer for this one, but here is an exemplary scene of Karloff and Lorre plotting to do away with Bill, and their attempt at the same:
BE SURE TO COME BACK TOMORROW FOR MY REVIEW OF “ABBOTT & COSTELLO MEET THE KILLER, BORIS KARLOFF!”