Who’s in it?: Bela Lugosi; Luana Walters (Superman’s mom in the Superman serial); Tris Coffin (King of the Rocket Men)
What’s it about?: A girl reporter investigates the mysterious deaths and disappearing bodies of society brides.
How is it?: People come up to me and say, “Mike, I like Bela Lugosi in Dracula, but I what I really want to do is explore his crappy, B-movie horror films. Where should I start?”
Okay, no they don’t. But if they did, I’d point them towards The Corpse Vanishes. It’s full of bad actors and cornball sequences, but it’s also got a some legitimately great moments and an excellent main character in Patricia Hunter (Walters) to take us through them.
The cheesy stuff is super cheesy, starting with the very first scene at a wedding in which the actor playing the groom has no idea where to look or what to do with himself during the ceremony. Hunter gets off to a shaky start too. She’s callously exuberant in front of grieving family members because a dead bride means a huge story for her. I usually gloss past that kind of sloppy characterization in these movies, because I know that the filmmakers just couldn’t be bothered to do something human and realistic. I think the first time I saw The Corpse Vanishes I just rolled my eyes and thought, “Oh, THAT’S what kind of movie this is.”
What’s surprising about The Corpse Vanishes though is that it doesn’t stay that way. At least, Hunter doesn’t. She turns out to be quite smart and resourceful. Lugosi’s Dr. Lorenz is an incompetent body-snatcher and does a horrible job of covering his trail, but he’s still smarter than the local authorities and has gotten away with several murders/corpse-thefts before the movie even begins. Hunter puts it all together though and chases down the story, seeing it as her way off the newspaper’s society page where she’s been stuck for a while.
Gender politics are all unspoken in the movie, but they’re present. No one ever says why Hunter’s been stuck covering weddings, but it’s obvious that her editor doesn’t have a lot of confidence in her, even when she comes up with reasonable theories about what’s going on with the missing brides. He shoos her off on her story mostly to get rid of her and later seems to forget that he gave her permission to investigate. Because of how little he supports her, I almost forgive her for her early, inappropriate excitement over the opportunity to report a real story.
It leads her of course to Lorenz’ creepy house full of misfits, hidden tunnels, and secret laboratories. Things get silly there – I especially love the part where a mute necrophiliac stalks Hunter while eating a turkey leg – but Hunter keeps it all grounded enough that it never goes off the rails. I also like her relationship with Dr. Foster (Coffin), a local physician helping Lorenz try to cure his wife. Foster is kind and appropriately concerned for Hunter’s safety, but he never tries to swoop in and take over. She’s the star and he supportively lets her be it. That’s pretty refreshing for 1942.