Bela Lugosi Scholar Frank J. Dello Stritto is Monster Kid of the Year!

Frank J Dello Stritto (1)

I’m delighted that my Vampire Over London: Bela Lugosi in Britain co-author Frank J. Dello Stritto has been voted “Monster Kid of the Year” in this year’s Rondo Hatton Classic Horror Awards. Frank has been researching and writing about horror films since the 1960s. Hailed as one of the “most eloquent chroniclers of horror films,” he has earned a dedicated following among both his peers and fans of vintage monster and horror films through his many articles in Cult Movies Magazine, his contributions to books by Bob Brier, Bob Madison and Gary Don Rhodes’ Lugosi, and his own books, Vampire Over London: Bela Lugosi in Britain, A Quaint & Curious Volume of Forgotten Lore – The Mythology & History of Classic Horror Films, and I Saw What I Saw When I Saw It – Growing Up in the 1950s & 1960s with Television Reruns & Old Movies. In addition to his writing, Frank is a popular speaker on the film convention circuit, a frequent guest on Joe Viglione’s Visual Radio.

Announcing Frank’s award, the Rondo Awards’ David Colton wrote, ”Growing up in New Jersey in the 50s with Cold War jitters and a black-and-white TV as companions is usually all it takes to create a ‘Monster Kid.’ That’s exactly what happened to Frank J. Dello Stritto. The experience, happily and smartly documented in his book, ‘I Saw What I Saw When I Saw It,’ led Frank to a lifetime of horror research and writings, especially about Bela Lugosi and the edges of the Monster Boom. But few books capture so perfectly what it was like to grow up surrounded by monsters, Mickey Mantle, and nuclear madness. For his month-by-month chronicle of a time that shaped us all (whether you were born yet or not), Frank J. Dello Stritto is our Monster Kid of the Year.”

Bat Head 3

I Saw What I Saw When I Saw It

I Saw What I Saw When I Saw It – Growing Up in the 1950s & 1960s with Television Reruns & Old Movies, is divided into five sections. Book 1 is Frank’s first eight years: fitting his real life into what he saw on children’s television, his hero worship of characters like Walt Disney’s Davy Crockett and New York Yankee Mickey Mantle, and his discovery that television and movies were two faces of the same industry. Book 2 sees Frank and his family moving to the suburbs, where he discovers the joys of Saturday afternoons at the movies, and of 1940s movies on after-school television. Also, the discovery, thanks mainly to the Cuban Missile Crisis, that the real world could be as scary as any horror movie. Book 3 describes the rise and fall of television shows like The Twlight Zone, Thriller, and The Outer Limits. In Book 4 Frank first sees, at age 11, Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein, and forever becomes a monster movie fan. Finally, in Book 5, Frank focuses on his lifelong fandom of Bela Lugosi. That Book’s first chapter is appropriately entitled:

 OBSESSION

Dwight FryeDwight Frye as Renfield in Dracula (1931)

He came and stood beneath my window in the moonlight. And he promised me things. Not in words, but by doing them. By making them happen…  – Renfield in Dracula

Even vampires  know the dangers of obsession. In Dracula, the vampire’s slave becomes so obsessed with his master that he puts the vampire hunters on Dracula’s trail. In Return of the Vampire, the werewolf slave is devoted until betrayed. Then he turns on his master. In Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein Lawrence Talbot is obsessed with Count Dracula, and travels the world to destroy him.

My search for Bela Lugosi is not the search for Bela Lugosi. Through a half century of fandom, I have met many people with varying degrees of obsession over movies stars dead many years before they were born. More than a few obsess over a horror movie actor who made a handful of fine movies, a lot of bad movies, and died in relative obscurity when I was six years old. My search is exactly that: mine, a personal adventure that I explain to others only with difficulty. My obsession with Lugosi fills something inside me.

Bat Head 3Bela Lugosi in Abbott and Costello Meet FrankensteinBela Lugosi as Dracula in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)

My Saturday afternoons watching old movies make me a fan of Johnny Weissmuller’s Tarzan, Basil Rathbone’s Holmes, and Nigel Bruce’s Watson; of Lon Chaney’s lonely souls and the mad doctors of Boris Karloff, Lionel Atwill, and George Zucco; of the bizarre characters portrayed by Sidney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre. Of many comedians: Laurel & Hardy, Abbott & Costello, Olsen & Johnson, and The Marx Brothers. None approach the impact of Bela Lugosi. On seeing his Count Dracula in Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein, I become something more than a fan.

I have no memory of Lugosi before seeing Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein in 1961. Sometime in my earliest years, I had seen You’ll Find Out and The Body Snatcher, and have only vague recollections of Lugosi. His swami in You’ll Find Out delivers an eerie touch in a séance scene. In The Body Snatcher, Lugosi does little more than die, but his body is pulled from a vat of brine in the movie’s grisly scene. Such moments stay with a child, and might have made the same impression had another actor played the roles.

I have a primordial memory of Lugosi from Chandu on the Magic Island. A tiger in a pit threatens a man dressed in white. That image is all that I remember. I am very young, and sketch the scene in crayon for Momma’s approval. A tiger’s paw, talons cocked, ready to dig into the heel of the fleeing man in white. My masterpiece is long gone; but I remember it clearly. Lugosi inspired it, as he races through the catacombs of lost Lemuria. Does my life-long fascination with Lugosi spring from nothing more than an ancient memory of terrors that my little self had to capture in a drawing? I will never know.    

Bat Head 3Bela Lugosi in Return of the Vampire“He always played vampires.” Bela Lugosi in The Return of the Vampire (1943)

Before Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein begins at 2:00 pm on June 24, 1961, I am already a big fan of the comedy team. That afternoon I become a fan of the classic monsters, and devoted follower of anything Lugosi. I leave that hour and a half in front of the television with a resolve not only to see all of Lugosi’s movies, but to know more about his life. That very afternoon, as Momma prepares supper, I ask her about Lugosi. Momma is a font of all things Hollywood, but for Lugosi she only says “he always played vampires.” I look forward to all these great vampire movies, but soon learn that they were very few. Lugosi plays “real” vampires in only three movies, and in two other films plays characters who turn out not to be vampires at all. That disappointment proves one of many as I embarked on my quest.

The monster magazines often publish biographies of Lugosi. I read them all, but they are basically the same short pieces, maybe with different photos. Lugosi is a big reason that I start reading monster magazines, and a big reason that I stop. I want more than the typical fan magazine bios. When I learn that research libraries and newspaper archives exist, I descend on them convinced of the Lugosi arcania to be found. After my first visits, I suspect that archived facts of Lugosi’s life are as few as his vampire movies. The libraries hold many treasures, but yield their secrets slowly and only after many painstaking hours.  

Bat Head 3Mark of the Vampire 1 by Clarence Sinclair BullHe could be frightening in a way that other actors in horror never achieved.” Bela Lugosi in Mark of the Vampire (1935)

Why Lugosi? Why anyone? What are fans like me looking for?

Obsessive fandom is now part of popular culture. Supermarket tabloids regularly feature stories of celebrity-stalkers, and of fans who turn to plastic surgery to look like—in their own minds, to become—their idols. In the 1980s, the movies exploit the dark side of fandom in The Man With Bogart’s Face, The Seduction, King of Comedy, Garbo Talks, Misery. In Fade to Black, a killer stalks his victims dressed as his movie idols. One of them is Lugosi’s Dracula.

I have met many ardent fans of celebrities. For most, the shrines are part of their youths, abandoned long ago. Since 1961, I have always had a shrine of sorts to Lugosi in my home. First, a modest wall space in my brother David’s and my bedroom that Momma lets me use, then my half of my college dorm room, and finally the better part of my bachelor apartment. Marriage and reality in general temper my expansive ways, but at least a small part of where I live is dedicated to Lugosi’s memory.

Boys need heroes, but I have no need of a new one. In June 1961, Mickey Mantle, my great idol, races with Roger Maris towards Babe Ruth’s home run record. Mantle, like Davy Crockett and Superman, is for me adolescent hero worship. My fascination with Lugosi is more. I see beyond Dracula, and wonder about the actor who portrays him.

Not that I have no desire to be like Dracula. I would love to have Superman’s strength, Mantle’s home run swing, Crockett’s marksmanship. And to control minds and transform into a bat like Dracula. Soon, I am watching Lugosi’s mad doctor movies, and covet his crazy scientists’ creating monsters, and raising the dead. Yet always Lugosi, and not his characters, sparks my curiosity.      

Many years after 1961, I read in The Biographical Dictionary of Film a passage that for me comes close to explaining the Lugosi mystique:

His acting was so florid and yet so macabre that only some fanciful notion of Hungarian mythology could explain it. He could be frightening in a way that other actors in horror never achieved: because he appeared to believe in the literal meaning of the films.

About the same time, I read in The Vampire in the Cinema that Lugosi is:

The living tableau of a silent stage actor trapped in modern sound movies. It is precisely because Lugosi was an anachronism, allowed to flourish by an accident of genre history, that he exercises such a fascination.

Not bad. I admire both passages; but neither explains Lugosi’s hold on me.

Bat Head 3

Perhaps an accident in timing explains my fascination. About the time that I discover Lugosi, I am beginning to understand that not everything in print is true. As Mantle and Maris hit home run after home run, the broader media covers their drama. A lot of misinformation, especially about Babe Ruth, appears in newspapers and on television. As a long-time watcher of Yankee broadcasts, I learned the saga of the team’s great players from the men who witnessed it. In 1961 I know more than a lot of the reporters about the home run race.

No better place to grasp the limitations of the print media than in what is available on Lugosi. The Lugosi biographies in the monster magazines get the big picture right: born in Hungary, emigrates to America after World War I, hits the big time in Dracula, then is typecast in horror movies for the rest of his life. On the details, the magazines often falter, mainly through sins of omission. Much of Lugosi’s last years are lonely treks looking for paydays between film roles that became ever harder to land. In a short time, I know at least as much about Lugosi as anyone writing on him. In the early 1960s, not a hard plateau to scale.

Mastering a subject, even one as obscure as the life of Bela Lugosi, generates its own inertia. The more I learn, the more I want to learn. For the first time in my life, the better I get at something, the better I want to be. Being an expert on horror films and Lugosi—being an expert on anything—becomes important to me.

Bat Head 3Dracula Still 4“A corny Valentino imitation.” Bela Lugosi in a publicity still for Dracula (1931)

My Lugosi quest sometimes casts me as a defender of a Lugosi who can no longer defend himself. His stardom even after death rises and falls and rises. Through the 1960s, Lugosi morphs from an almost forgotten actor to a cult hero, then to a figure easy to mock. Whenever he is attacked, I plead his case, to the monster magazines (in letters never published), to adults and classmates less than entranced with the great man.

Lugosi detractors have some good points: a lot of Lugosi movies are pretty bad. Through the 1960s, I watch dozens. Simply seeing a new Lugosi title thrills me. For too many movies, the thrill ends there. Still, I watch them again and again. More than once, when Momma pauses to watch a few minutes of a movie with me, and says “God, he was a lousy actor.” I do not agree. He is just an actor in a lousy movie. His attempts to breathe life into the most hopeless productions are part of his lore.

Disdain for bad movies translates into a disdain for their star, which can extend even to his better films. “A corny Valentino imitation,” writes horror author Stephen King on Lugosi’s Dracula, “which even hardened horror aficionados and cinema buffs cannot help giggling over.” King voices an opinion that grows more common as the 1960s progress.

Through the 1960s, Lugosi’s supremacy as Dracula has a strong challenger. His vampire rises from the dead in October 1957 on television’s Shock Theater. Christopher Lee’s Dracula bursts into theaters seven months later. By 1973, Lee plays Dracula eight times, and through the 1960s, his growing fan base often insists on his superiority over Lugosi. I see my first Lee vampire movie in the late 1960s. My opinion: Lee vampire movies are lousy, and Lee isn’t much better. Less debatable is how little Lee is in them.

For young boys, Dracula can be a test of manhood. To see Lugosi, we stay up late and watch a shadowy film alone in the dark. For Lee, kids in theaters sit through an explicitness cutting edge in its day. Perhaps the preference for Lugosi or Lee depends on which test a boy passes; or which he fails. On first try, I fail both. A coming attraction of Horror of Dracula plays at Lincoln matinees. It terrifies me and I have no desire to see the movie. No matter, Horror of Dracula never plays the day time show. Lugosi comes on too late, and I could not have stayed awake to see him even if my parents allowed.

Lugosi wins the race to catch my attention. His movies migrate to more godly hours long before I have a chance at Christopher Lee. By the time that I catch up with Lee, the great war of 20th century vampires, for me at least, is long settled.

Bat Head 3

Chandu The Magician (Paul Seiler Collection)Bela Lugosi in Chandu the Magician (1932) – Still courtesy of Paul Seiler

On 1960s television, the Lugosi canon is about three dozen films that air with varying regularity on television. They range from classics of the 1930s to schlock of the 1950s. I watch these over and over. Those most often televised are low-budget mad doctor epics of the early 1940s. At least one plays every week. On New Year’s Day 1962, I bet my brother David $1.00 that a Bela Lugosi movie will play on television at least once a week through the whole year. As a child, I am prone to such stupid wagers. For about a month, we check the weekly television listings each Sunday, and a Bela Lugosi movie is always among them. David loses interest; but I keep checking for the movies. After 13 weeks the streak breaks. I say nothing to David, never pay the bet.

About two dozen other Lugosi movies pop up rarely or not at all. I read often of these in the monster magazines, and know a lot about them. One by one most appear. For some—White Zombie, Chandu the Magician, or Mark of the Vampire—I have to wait until my college years of haunting revival cinemas in New York to see them.

The Lugosi movies repetitively broadcast through the 1960s total less than 50 hours of running time. Lugosi’s actual time on screen is less than 10 hours. I have watched those 10-something hours more times than I can count. Some performances I greatly enjoy, and will no doubt see them many times yet to come. The older I get, the less patience I have with Lugosi’s “bad” movies, but the more I admire his “good” ones. Those few films, the canon within the canon, sustain my love of the actor; but something more than acting talent or onscreen charisma attracts me to Lugosi.

Bat Head 3Bela Lugosi photographed by Preston Duncan in the 1930s“Expect great things.” Bela Lugosi photographed by Preston Duncan in the 1930s

In my 60 plus years, I have had few dreams that I remember. One dream I vividly recall comes within a year after seeing Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein. It stars Bela Lugosi and my sixth grade teacher, Mrs. Ruggles.

My first afternoon with Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein comes just after my fifth grade ends in Woodrow Wilson Elementary School. I always dread the terrible teacher that I will face in September. The older kids impress on the younger ones the horrors that lie ahead. The tales always portray next year’s teacher as a decaying crone devising ways to make life hell. At Wilson School, the legends have some basis. As we move up in grade, the teachers get older, grayer, and meaner (except my fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Finelli, who is a saint).

Warnings of all our earlier teachers pale before the legend of Mrs. Ruggles. Not only does she teach the highest grade in Wilson School, but she is also the Principal. Her double job forces her to stern discipline. When principal duties call, she has to leave the class, and only fear keeps us in line. Principal’s duties force Mrs. Ruggles to enlist her more trusted students as aides: delivering messages to teachers, getting visitors to the right places, minor clerical duties. By sixth grade, I have clawed my way back from the third reading group to the first, and am among those tapped. I do my share of time in her office. Thus, the dream.

The dream comes in early 1962. Mrs. Ruggles pokes her head in the classroom, and calls me into her office. There, dressed in a pin-striped suit, is a benevolent-looking Bela Lugosi. He looks directly at me, and smiles, exactly as he smiled in real life, showing no teeth. Lugosi, like a lot of his generation, had lousy teeth, and rarely showed them. I do not know that in 1962, but I must have seen a photo of him in one of the monster magazines and the image stays with me. Lugosi and Mrs. Ruggles are discussing me. He assures her that I am a fine boy, to trust me, and to expect great things for me. That is the dream, all of it. Perhaps a minute of “dream time,” certainly no more; but I remember it clearly when I wake up the next morning.

I often think back on the dream, but never probe it until I began reading serious essays on movie horror. The Wolf Man and Frankenstein’s Monster, I learn, are sons with issues. Dracula is always the father, the devouring parent, trapping young people forever as the Undead. In Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein, Dracula targets Wilbur Gray (Lou Costello). For Gray, Dracula’s plot means swapping badgering by Bud Abbott for servitude to Dracula.

Pop, my own father, is in no way a devouring parent. In my school years, I see devouring parents in action, who set out to ensure that their children never leave home. That’s not Pop, who beams at even the most trivial achievement of his children. I tell him little about my doings because he cannot wait to tell his huge family. I did not relish them knowing my business. My never leaving home would never occur to Pop. He dreams of our launching ourselves into the world from our first breaths. His only dictum is that we go to college.

I am not the best son for such a father. Pop never pushes. He has relatives who drive their sons onward but rarely upward, and has no intention of being like them. I like staying at home. Part of me probably yearns for a father like Lugosi’s Dracula, who would both keep me in the family fold, and demand standards that I should meet. That’s not Pop.

Does my fascination with Lugosi fill a void in my relationship with Pop? What strikes me about the dream, and why I remember it so well, is its utter serenity. Lugosi radiates parental warmth. I feel great hearing him tell Mrs. Ruggles what a good kid I am. Maybe I want Pop to do that; but even in my dreams cannot envision him doing something so out of character. I know that he says great things about me, but never in my presence or outside the family.

Bat Head 3Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein Photo

Lou Costello & Bela Lugosi in Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)

In 1958, Abbott & Costello make me a Saturday matinee kid when their movies lure me into The Lincoln. Three years later, they make me a Bela Lugosi fan via Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein. The link between Lou Costello to Bela Lugosi is not coincidental.

Costello’s movie characters lead much more difficult lives than I do. No one slaps me around, berates my intelligence, or misinterprets innocent mischief. Maybe I suffer a little of all of that, and identify with Costello. Until I am eight years old, I am the baby of the family, and a natural homebody. How could I not identify with a hapless little man who struggles through a world that he barely understands? Millions of Baby Boomer boys agree with me, and Costello is beloved by my young generation. We might want to grow up to be Davy Crockett or Superman; but for the time being, we are Lou Costello. When Dracula turns his gaze on Wilbur Gray, Lugosi turns his on me.

That gaze comes when Wilbur stumbles into a dilemma common to Lou Costello characters, and common to kids like me: he accidentally breaks something, and is now “in trouble.” The ghoulish exhibits in McDougal’s House of Horrors terrify Wilbur. He backs into a guillotine, which falls and lops off the head of a manikin. “Now you’ve done it,” chides Chick. Older brothers always distance themselves from the second born’s mishaps. McDougal is outside, fumbling in the fuse box. “Get rid of that,” says Chick, and goes outside.

I identify with Wilbur. I would hide the head rather than hand it to short-fused McDougal. Wilbur swings open a coffin lid to ditch it; and up sits Dracula. Wilbur is caught red-handed, as Dracula rivets him with a stare of parental displeasure. I know that stare well. From the death ray in War of the Worlds, to the slow-burn rages of Mrs. Ruggles: I know the unblinking eye that sizes up its prey before it strikes. That eye comes often from Dracula in Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein. He saves his most penetrating looks for Wilbur.

Dracula paralyzes Wilbur, revives The Monster, and escapes before McDougal restores the lights. No one believes Wilbur’s claims of the dead walking. Pleas of the young and naïve are easily dismissed or ignored. No wonder millions of little boys identify with Lou Costello.

I am as mesmerized as Wilbur by Dracula’s stare. My identification with Costello transfers to a fascination with Lugosi. I am still enthralled by the scene, though I have now watched it hundreds of times. Dracula rises from his coffin, and waves his fluid fingers before Wilbur’s eyes. “Eye to eye,” Wilbur later recalls, “Eye to eye! Staring! I never saw anything like it.” Neither had I. In a wonderful touch, Dracula ever so gently taps his victim to make sure that the little man is completely under his spell, and steps back to admire his handiwork.

Bat Head 3 Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (PS)“Look into my eyes.” Lenore Aubert & Bela Lugosi in Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)

A boy might identify with Wilbur, but must admire Dracula, the master of every situation.  Sandra warns that her assistant is asking too many questions: “Leave that to me.” Insurance investor Joan Raymond is on the trail of the missing exhibits: “I’ll take care of the girl.” Wilbur escapes: “I’ll take care of our fat friend.” Lawrence Talbot is a formidable foe; but Dracula belittles his insistent warnings. “What an odd hallucination, but the human mind is often inflamed with strange complexes.” He brushes Talbot aside, and leads Joan to the dance floor. He is most formidable when his plans are disrupted:

Sandra:   This thing is too dangerous. We ought to wait.

Dracula:  And jeopardize the success of the operation? Never! I must warn you my dear Sandra, I am accustomed to having my orders obeyed. Especially by women with a price on their heads.

Sandra:   Don’t try to scare me, Count Dracula. Here, The Secrets of Life & Death by Dr. Frankenstein. Memorize them. Operate yourself if you’re in such a hurry.

Dracula:  I have other means of securing your cooperation.

Sandra:   You’re wasting your time. My will is as strong as yours.

Dracula:  Are you sure? Look into my eyes.

She does and is soon Dracula’s slave. Wilbur, Joan, Chick and The Monster also fall under Dracula’s spell. What boy could resist looking up to him?

Bat Head 3

Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein parallels the monsters and the comedians throughout the story. Scenes often shift between The Monster and Dracula, and Abbott & Costello. The movie consistently bridges Wilbur to Dracula. In cutting between monsters and funny men, Wilbur and Dracula are in similar poses. Both men are dwarfed by their taller cohorts: Chick for Wilbur, The Monster for Dracula. The two women in the movie both kiss Wilbur, and both in turn receive the vampire’s kiss from Dracula.

Lugosi would never be heavier than he is in Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein. Wilbur and Dracula are two round men, with slicked back hair. Costello could never be mistaken for Lugosi; but their appearances would never be more similar than when Wilbur and Dracula meet. The finale has extreme close-ups, in which the two appear to be imitating each other. Wilbur is struggling in the stockade where Dracula has stowed him. A few minutes later, Dracula is in a death duel with The Wolf Man. The grimaces on both Wilbur and Dracula make them look very much alike.

The links between Wilbur and Dracula, between Costello and Lugosi, may be coincidental. Intentionally or not, Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein is crafted to make a Costello fan into a Lugosi fan. That is what happens to me.

Bat Head 3Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein PhotoObsession! Bela Lugosi in Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)

The climax of Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein ties the threads of the plot together. The Monster disposes of Sandra, who would have removed his brain, and pursues Wilbur, who would have supplied a new one. The Wolf Man, loose in a castle filled with potential prey, immediately attacks Dracula. At age 11, I have yet to learn the history of Talbot and his fellow monsters, but obviously a showdown between werewolf and vampire has long simmered. I am unaware of the subtexts; but I feel the power of myth taking hold of me. The charms of the movie and of Lugosi’s performance, and of whatever psychic forces lie within me, conspire to make me a monster fan forever, and start me on a quest to learn all that I can about Bela Lugosi.

Bat Head 2

I Saw What I Saw When I Saw It – Growing Up in the 1950s & 1960s with Television Reruns & Old Movies, and Frank’s previous books, A Quaint & Curious Volume Of Forgotten Lore,The Mythology & History of Classic Horror Films and (with Andi Brooks) Vampire Over London: Bela Lugosi in Britain, are available from Cult Movies Press at http://www.cultmoviespress.com

Bat Head 3Reviews

Standard Examiner

http://www.standard.net/Books/2014/08/10/Monster-boomer-expert-details-growing-up-with-Dracula-Frankenstein-the-Mummy.html

Mondo Cult

http://www.mondocult.com/articles/Copner/frank.html

*

An interview with Frank J. Dello Stritto

Plan 9 Crunch

http://planninecrunch.blogspot.jp/2014/08/an-interview-with-cult-films-author.html

Bat Head 3

Related Pages

A Quaint And Curious Volume Of Forgotten Lore by Frank J. Dello Stritto

Three Tales – One Story by Frank J. Dello Stritto

Dracula’s Coffin: The Story of Bela Lugosi’s Steamer Trunk by Frank J. Dello Stritto

Whatever Happened To Beatrice Weeks? The Unhappy Story of the Third Mrs. Bela Lugosi by Frank J. Dello Stritto

Mystery of the Gróf Tisza Istvan: Bela Lugosi Arrives in America by Frank J. Dello Stritto.

Advertisements

I Saw What I Saw When I Saw It by Frank J. Dello Stritto

I Saw What I Saw When I Saw It

The book that I began writing some years ago was quite different than the one finally published. I had been writing about classic horror movies for many years. I was not raised on the classics, but on the schlock. Those low-budget movies, mostly from the 1950s, played constantly on television and at Saturday matinees, and I knew them well before I ever saw the great films of 1930s and 1940s. As my writing progressed, the book became less about the movies than about my seeing them. About staying up past my bedtime to see if a movie lived up to its provocative title, or about trying to pay attention to the screen at a crowded matinee while horsing around with my friends. As the narrative developed, it kept forcing me to push my reminiscences back further and further. Before I could write about movies, I had to write about the Kids TV I watch constantly as a small child. The Little Rascals, Abbot & Costello and George Reeves’ Superman demanded that their stories be told. Then came the TV of the fantastic–Twilight Zone, Thriller, Outer Limits–that I watched as I first discovered old movies.
 
While I watched television, the wider world unfolded, from something as mundane as my family’s move from the city to the suburbs (for me, a very traumatic event), to the launching to Sputnik (which changed my life forever), to the Cuban Missile Crisis (which almost ended everybody’s  life). I watched events on television just as I watched “Wagon Train” or “The Untouchables,” and wove everything together in my view of the world. 
 
My book, “I Saw What I Saw When I Saw It” (an oft-repeated line in my all-time favorite movie, “Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein”) is divided into five parts. Not until Book 4 do I focus on horror movies–Schlock and Classic–and only in Book 5 do I pay homage to my great movie hero. The chapter below opens Book 5, and is appropriately titled “Obsession.”

*

Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein Spanish Photo 2

Bud Abbott, Bela Lugosi and Lou Costello in Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)

*

Before Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein begins at 2:00 pm on June 24, 1961, I am already a big fan of the comedy team. That afternoon I become a fan of the classic monsters, and devoted follower of anything Lugosi. I leave that hour and a half in front of the television with a resolve not only to see all of Lugosi’s movies, but to know more about his life. That very afternoon, as Momma prepares supper, I ask her about Lugosi. Momma is a font of all things Hollywood, but for Lugosi she only says “he always played vampires.” I look forward to all these great vampire movies, but soon learn that they were very few. Lugosi plays “real” vampires in only three movies, and in two other films plays characters who turn out not to be vampires at all. That disappointment proves one of many as I embarked on my quest.

The monster magazines often publish biographies of Lugosi. I read them all, but they are basically the same short pieces, maybe with different photos. Lugosi is a big reason that I start reading monster magazines, and a big reason that I stop. I want more than the typical fan magazine bios. When I learn that research libraries and newspaper archives exist, I descend on them convinced of the Lugosi arcania to be found. After my first visits, I suspect that archived facts of Lugosi’s life are as few as his vampire movies. The libraries hold many treasures, but yield their secrets slowly and only after many painstaking hours.   

*

Bela as Dracula in Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein

Bela Lugosi as he appeared in Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein

*

Why Lugosi? Why anyone? What are fans like me looking for?

Obsessive fandom is now part of popular culture. Supermarket tabloids regularly feature stories of celebrity-stalkers, and of fans who turn to plastic surgery to look like—in their own minds, to become—their idols. In the 1980s, the movies exploit the dark side of fandom in The Man With Bogart’s Face, The Seduction, King of Comedy, Garbo Talks, Misery. In Fade to Black, a killer stalks his victims dressed as his movie idols. One of them is Lugosi’s Dracula.

I have met many ardent fans of celebrities. For most, the shrines are part of their youths, abandoned long ago. Since 1961, I have always had a shrine of sorts to Lugosi in my home. First, a modest wall space in David’s and my bedroom that Momma lets me use, then my half of my college dorm room, and finally the better part of my bachelor apartment. Marriage and reality in general temper my expansive ways, but at least a small part of where I live is dedicated to Lugosi’s memory.

Boys need heroes, but I have no need of a new one. In June 1961, Mickey Mantle, my great idol, races with Roger Maris towards Babe Ruth’s home run record. Mantle, like Davy Crockett and Superman, is for me adolescent hero worship. My fascination with Lugosi is more. I see beyond Dracula, and wonder about the actor who portrays him.

Not that I have no desire to be like Dracula. I would love to have Superman’s strength, Mantle’s home run swing, Crockett’s marksmanship. And to control minds and transform into a bat like Dracula. Soon, I am watching Lugosi’s mad doctor movies, and covet his crazy scientists’ creating monsters, and raising the dead. Yet always Lugosi, and not his characters, sparks my curiosity.       

Many years after 1961, I read in The Biographical Dictionary of Film a passage that for me comes close to explaining the Lugosi mystique:

His acting was so florid and yet so macabre that only some fanciful notion of Hungarian mythology could explain it. He could be frightening in a way that other actors in horror never achieved: because he appeared to believe in the literal meaning of the films.

About the same time, I read in The Vampire in the Cinema that Lugosi is:

The living tableau of a silent stage actor trapped in modern sound movies. It is precisely because Lugosi was an anachronism, allowed to flourish by an accident of genre history, that he exercises such a fascination.

Not bad. I admire both passages; but neither explains Lugosi’s hold on me.

*

Mickey Mantle & Roger Maris on the cover of Life magazine, August 18 1961

Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle & Roger Maris on the cover of Life magazine, August 18, 1961

*

Perhaps an accident in timing explains my fascination. About the time that I discover Lugosi, I am beginning to understand that not everything in print is true. As Mantle and Maris hit home run after home run, the broader media covers their drama. A lot of misinformation, especially about Babe Ruth, appears in newspapers and on television. As a long-time watcher of Yankee broadcasts, I learned the saga of the team’s great players from the men who witnessed it. In 1961 I know more than a lot of the reporters about the home run race.

No better place to grasp the limitations of the print media than in what is available on Lugosi. The Lugosi biographies in the monster magazines get the big picture right: born in Hungary, emigrates to America after World War I, hits the big time in Dracula, then is typecast in horror movies for the rest of his life. On the details, the magazines often falter, mainly through sins of omission. Much of Lugosi’s last years are lonely treks looking for paydays between film roles that became ever harder to land. In a short time, I know at least as much about Lugosi as anyone writing on him. In the early 1960s, not a hard plateau to scale.

Mastering a subject, even one as obscure as the life of Bela Lugosi, generates its own inertia. The more I learn, the more I want to learn. For the first time in my life, the better I get at something, the better I want to be. Being an expert on horror films and Lugosi—being an expert on anything—becomes important to me.

*

Dracula Still 5

Bela Lugosi as he appeared in Dracula (1931)

My Lugosi quest sometimes casts me as a defender of a Lugosi who can no longer defend himself. His stardom even after death rises and falls and rises. Through the 1960s, Lugosi morphs from an almost forgotten actor to a cult hero, then to a figure easy to mock. Whenever he is attacked, I plead his case, to the monster magazines (in letters never published), to adults and classmates less than entranced with the great man.

Lugosi detractors have some good points: a lot of Lugosi movies are pretty bad. Through the 1960s, I watch dozens. Simply seeing a new Lugosi title thrills me. For too many movies, the thrill ends there. Still, I watch them again and again. More than once, when Momma pauses to watch a few minutes of a movie with me, and says “God, he was a lousy actor.” I do not agree. He is just an actor in a lousy movie. His attempts to breathe life into the most hopeless productions are part of his lore.

Disdain for bad movies translates into a disdain for their star, which can extend even to his better films. “A corny Valentino imitation,” writes horror author Stephen King on Lugosi’s Dracula, “which even hardened horror aficionados and cinema buffs cannot help giggling over.” King voices an opinion that grows more common as the 1960s progress.

Through the 1960s, Lugosi’s supremacy as Dracula has a strong challenger. His vampire rises from the dead in October 1957 on television’s Shock Theater. Christopher Lee’s Dracula bursts into theaters seven months later. By 1973, Lee plays Dracula eight times, and through the 1960s, his growing fan base often insists on his superiority over Lugosi. I see my first Lee vampire movie in the late 1960s. My opinion: Lee vampire movies are lousy, AND Lee isn’t much better. Less debatable is how little Lee is in them.

For young boys, Dracula can be a test of manhood. To see Lugosi, we stay up late and watch a shadowy film alone in the dark. For Lee, kids in theaters sit through an explicitness cutting edge in its day. Perhaps the preference for Lugosi or Lee depends on which test a boy passes; or which he fails. On first try, I fail both. A coming attraction of Horror of Dracula plays at Lincoln matinees. It terrifies me and I have no desire to see the movie. No matter, Horror of Dracula never plays the day time show. Lugosi comes on too late, and I could not have stayed awake to see him even if my parents allowed.

Lugosi wins the race to catch my attention. His movies migrate to more godly hours long before I have a chance at Christopher Lee. By the time that I catch up with Lee, the great war of 20th century vampires, for me at least, is long settled. 

*

Chandu The Magician Still 3

Bela Lugosi as Roxor in Chandu The Magician (1932)

*

On 1960s television, the Lugosi canon is about three dozen films that air with varying regularity on television. They range from classics of the 1930s to schlock of the 1950s. I watch these over and over. Those most often televised are low-budget mad doctor epics of the early 1940s. At least one plays every week. On New Year’s Day 1962, I bet my brother David $1.00 that a Bela Lugosi movie will play on television at least once a week through the whole year. As a child, I am prone to such stupid wagers. For about a month, we check the weekly television listings each Sunday, and a Bela Lugosi movie is always among them. David loses interest; but I keep checking for the movies. After 13 weeks the streak breaks. I say nothing to David, never pay the bet.

About two dozen other Lugosi movies pop up rarely or not at all. I read often of these in the monster magazines, and know a lot about them. One by one most appear. For some—White Zombie, Chandu the Magician, or Mark of the Vampire—I have to wait until my college years of haunting revival cinemas in New York to see them.

The Lugosi movies repetitively broadcast through the 1960s total less than 50 hours of running time. Lugosi’s actual time on screen is less than 10 hours. I have watched those 10-something hours more times than I can count. Some performances I greatly enjoy, and will no doubt see them many times yet to come. The older I get, the less patience I have with Lugosi’s “bad” movies, but the more I admire his “good” ones. Those few films, the canon within the canon, sustain my love of the actor; but something more than acting talent or onscreen charisma attracts me to Lugosi.

*

Lugosi toothless smile

Bela Lugosi’s toothless smile

*

In my 60 plus years, I have had few dreams that I remember. One dream I vividly recall comes within a year after seeing Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein. It stars Bela Lugosi and my sixth grade teacher, Mrs. Ruggles.

My first afternoon with Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein comes just after my fifth grade ends in Woodrow Wilson Elementary School. I always dread the terrible teacher that I will face in September. The older kids impress on the younger ones the horrors that lie ahead. The tales always portray next year’s teacher as a decaying crone devising ways to make life hell. At Wilson School, the legends have some basis. As we move up in grade, the teachers get older, grayer, and meaner (except my fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Finelli, who is a saint).

Warnings of all our earlier teachers pale before the legend of Mrs. Ruggles. Not only does she teach the highest grade in Wilson School, but she is also the Principal. Her double job forces her to stern discipline. When principal duties call, she has to leave the class, and only fear keeps us in line. Principal’s duties force Mrs. Ruggles to enlist her more trusted students as aides: delivering messages to teachers, getting visitors to the right places, minor clerical duties. By sixth grade, I have clawed my way back from the third reading group to the first, and am among those tapped. I do my share of time in her office. Thus, the dream.

The dream comes in early 1962. Mrs. Ruggles pokes her head in the classroom, and calls me into her office. There, dressed in a pin-striped suit, is a benevolent-looking Bela Lugosi. He looks directly at me, and smiles, exactly as he smiled in real life, showing no teeth. Lugosi, like a lot of his generation, had lousy teeth, and rarely showed them. I do not know that in 1962, but I must have seen a photo of him in one of the monster magazines and the image stays with me. Lugosi and Mrs. Ruggles are discussing me. He assures her that I am a fine boy, to trust me, and to expect great things for me. That is the dream, all of it. Perhaps a minute of “dream time,” certainly no more; but I remember it clearly when I wake up the next morning.

I often think back on the dream, but never probe it until I began reading serious essays on movie horror. The Wolf Man and Frankenstein’s Monster, I learn, are sons with issues.  Dracula is always the father, the devouring parent, trapping young people forever as the Undead. In Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein, Dracula targets Wilbur Gray (Lou Costello). For Gray, Dracula’s plot means swapping badgering by Bud Abbott for servitude to Dracula.

Pop, my own father, is in no way a devouring parent. In my school years, I see devouring parents in action, who set out to ensure that their children never leave home. That’s not Pop, who beams at even the most trivial achievement of his children. I tell him little about my doings because he cannot wait to tell his huge family. I did not relish them knowing my business. My never leaving home would never occur to Pop. He dreams of our launching ourselves into the world from our first breaths. His only dictum is that we go to college.

I am not the best son for such a father. Pop never pushes. He has relatives who drive their sons onward but rarely upward, and has no intention of being like them. I like staying at home. Part of me probably yearns for a father like Lugosi’s Dracula, who would both keep me in the family fold, and demand standards that I should meet. That’s not Pop.

Does my fascination with Lugosi fill a void in my relationship with Pop? What strikes me about the dream, and why I remember it so well, is its utter serenity. Lugosi radiates parental warmth. I feel great hearing him tell Mrs. Ruggles what a good kid I am. Maybe I want Pop to do that; but even in my dreams cannot envision him doing something so out of character. I know that he says great things about me, but never in my presence or outside the family.

*

Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein Photo

Lou Costello and Bela Lugosi in Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein

*

In 1958, Abbott & Costello make me a Saturday matinee kid when their movies lure me into The Lincoln. Three years later, they make me a Bela Lugosi fan via Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein. The link between Lou Costello to Bela Lugosi is not coincidental.

Costello’s movie characters lead much more difficult lives than I do. No one slaps me around, berates my intelligence, or misinterprets innocent mischief. Maybe I suffer a little of all of that, and identify with Costello. Until I am eight years old, I am the baby of the family, and a natural homebody. How could I not identify with a hapless little man who struggles  through a world that he barely understands? Millions of Baby Boomer boys agree with me, and Costello is beloved by my young generation. We might want to grow up to be Davy Crockett or Superman; but for the time being, we are Lou Costello. When Dracula turns his gaze on Wilbur Gray, Lugosi turns his on me.

That gaze comes when Wilbur stumbles into a dilemma common to Lou Costello characters, and common to kids like me: he accidentally breaks something, and is now “in trouble.” The ghoulish exhibits in McDougal’s House of Horrors terrify Wilbur. He backs into a guillotine, which falls and lops off the head of a manikin. “Now you’ve done it,” chides Chick. Older brothers always distance themselves from the second born’s mishaps. McDougal is outside, fumbling in the fuse box. “Get rid of that,” says Chick, and goes outside.

I identify with Wilbur. I would hide the head rather than hand it to short-fused McDougal. Wilbur swings open a coffin lid to ditch it; and up sits Dracula. Wilbur is caught red-handed, as Dracula rivets him with a stare of parental displeasure. I know that stare well. From the death ray in War of the Worlds, to the slow-burn rages of Mrs. Ruggles: I know the unblinking eye that sizes up its prey before it strikes. That eye comes often from Dracula in Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein.  He saves his most penetrating looks for Wilbur.

Dracula paralyzes Wilbur, revives The Monster, and escapes before McDougal restores the lights. No one believes Wilbur’s claims of the dead walking. Pleas of the young and naïve are easily dismissed or ignored. No wonder millions of little boys identify with Lou Costello.

I am as mesmerized as Wilbur by Dracula’s stare. My identification with Costello transfers to a fascination with Lugosi. I am still enthralled by the scene, though I have now watched it hundreds of times. Dracula rises from his coffin, and waves his fluid fingers before Wilbur’s eyes. “Eye to eye,” Wilbur later recalls, “Eye to eye! Staring! I never saw anything like it.” Neither had I. In a wonderful touch, Dracula ever so gently taps his victim to make sure that the little man is completely under his spell, and steps back to admire his handiwork.

*

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (PS)

Lenore Aubert (as Sandra Mornay) and Bela Lugosi in Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein

(Still courtesy of Paul Seiler)

*

A boy might identify with Wilbur, but must admire Dracula, the master of every situation.   Sandra warns that her assistant is asking too many questions: “Leave that to me.” Joan is on the trail of the missing exhibits: “I’ll take care of the girl.” Wilbur escapes: “I’ll take care of our fat friend.” Lawrence Talbot is a formidable foe; but Dracula belittles his insistent warnings. “What an odd hallucination, but the human mind is often inflamed with strange complexes.” He brushes Talbot aside, and leads Joan to the dance floor. He is most formidable when his plans are disrupted:

Sandra:   This thing is too dangerous. We ought to wait.

Dracula:  And jeopardize the success of the operation? Never! I must warn you my dear Sandra, I am accustomed to having my orders obeyed. Especially by women with a price on their heads.

Sandra:   Don’t try to scare me, Count Dracula. Here, The Secrets of Life & Death by Dr. Frankenstein. Memorize them. Operate yourself if you’re in such a hurry.

Dracula:  I have other means of securing your cooperation.

Sandra:   You’re wasting your time. My will is as strong as yours.

Dracula:  Are you sure? Look into my eyes.

She does and is soon Dracula’s slave. Wilbur, Joan, Chick and The Monster also fall under Dracula’s spell. What boy could resist looking up to him?

*

Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein Spanish Photo 6

Bela Lugosi and Lou Costello

*

Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein parallels the monsters and the comedians throughout the story. Scenes often shift between The Monster and Dracula, and Abbott & Costello. The movie consistently bridges Wilbur to Dracula. In cutting between monsters and funny men, Wilbur and Dracula are in similar poses. Both men are dwarfed by their taller cohorts: Chick for Wilbur, The Monster for Dracula. The two women in the movie both kiss Wilbur, and both in turn receive the vampire’s kiss from Dracula.

Lugosi would never be heavier than he is in Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein. Wilbur and Dracula are two round men, with slicked back hair. Costello would never be mistaken for Lugosi; but their appearances would never be more similar than when Wilbur and Dracula meet. The finale has extreme close-ups, in which the two appear to be imitating each other. Wilbur is struggling in the stockade where Dracula has stowed him. A few minutes later, Dracula is in a death duel with The Wolf Man. The grimaces on both Wilbur and Dracula make them look very much alike.

The links between Wilbur and Dracula, between Costello and Lugosi, may be coincidental. Intentionally or not, Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein is crafted to make a Costello fan into a Lugosi fan. That is what happens to me.

*

Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein Photo

Lou Costello, Bud Abbott, Glen Strange, Bela Lugosi and Lon Chaney Jr.

*

The climax of Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein ties the threads of the plot together. The Monster disposes of Sandra, who would have removed his brain, and pursues Wilbur, who would have supplied a new one. The Wolf Man, loose in a castle filled with potential prey, immediately attacks Dracula. At age 11, I have yet to learn the history of Talbot and his fellow monsters, but obviously a showdown between werewolf and vampire has long simmered. I am unaware of the subtexts; but I feel the power of myth taking hold of me. The charms of the movie and of Lugosi’s performance, and of whatever psychic forces lie within me, conspire to make me a monster fan forever, and start me on a quest to learn all that I can about Bela Lugosi.

Bat Head 3

I Saw What I Saw When I Saw It – Growing Up in the 1950s & 1960s with Television Reruns & Old Movies, and Frank’s previous books, A Quaint & Curious Volume Of Forgotten Lore,The Mythology & History of Classic Horror Films and (with Andi Brooks) Vampire Over London: Bela Lugosi in Britain, are available from Cult Movies Press at http://www.cultmoviespress.com

Bat Head 3Reviews

Standard Examiner

http://www.standard.net/Books/2014/08/10/Monster-boomer-expert-details-growing-up-with-Dracula-Frankenstein-the-Mummy.html

Mondo Cult

http://www.mondocult.com/articles/Copner/frank.html

*

Interview with Frank J. Dello Stritto

Plan 9 Crunch

http://planninecrunch.blogspot.jp/2014/08/an-interview-with-cult-films-author.html

 Bat Head 3

Related Pages

A Quaint And Curious Volume Of Forgotten Lore by Frank J. Dello Stritto

Three Tales – One Story by Frank J. Dello Stritto

Dracula’s Coffin: The Story of Bela Lugosi’s Steamer Trunk by Frank J. Dello Stritto

Whatever Happened To Beatrice Weeks? The Unhappy Story of the Third Mrs. Bela Lugosi by Frank J. Dello Stritto

Mystery of the Gróf Tisza Istvan: Bela Lugosi Arrives in America by Frank J. Dello Stritto.

Bela Lugosi Movie Cape Found in Yard Sale

There was much excitement and consternation amongst fans when Bela Lugosi Jr. mysteriously, but unsuccessfully, tried to auction the cape worn by his father in Universal’s 1931 adaptation of Dracula. The asking price of  $1,200,000 scared off any potential buyers in the Icons of Hollywood auction at Profiles in History on December 16th, 2011.

Now another cape said to have once been worn by Lugosi is being offered for sale. Perhaps befitting its uncertain provenance and rather poor condition, it is being auctioned not in the rarefied atmosphere of a famous auction house, but on eBay. It is still likely, however, to cause a great deal of excitement amongst fans and potential buyers. This previously unknown cape was found in a lot of costumes purchased by the vendor at a Hollywood yard sale a year ago. When investigating the possibility of relining the “dusty old cape,” the vendor discovered a United Costumers, Inc. label bearing the faded name of Bela Lugosi sewn into it the seams.

Following some research into the cape’s history, the vendor has established that it was not used in either Universal’s Dracula or Abbott and Costello Meets Frankenstein, both of which starred Lugosi as Count Dracula. It is currently unknown exactly in which movie Lugosi could have worn it. The vendor has suggested White Zombie (1932), which would make it a very interesting piece, or perhaps Spooks Run Wild, which he made for Monogram Pictures in 1941. As he wore a cape in several other movies, some solid research will have to be conducted to establish its history.  

*

Could the cape be the one worn by Lugosi in White Zombie in 1932?

*

The cape itself is in need of some preservation to prevent further deterioration. The cream lining is described as “badly worn, stained and distressed through its many decades of use and storage” and “coming away from the bottom seams.” The dark velvet collar is faded and splitting at the seams, while the heavy black woollen material of the cape is “heavily stained and faded with various little tears and holes due to its age and obvious deterioration from warehouse storage.”

*

Lugosi wore a cape in several films, including Spooks Run Wild in 1941

*

Despite its condition and currently unverifiable history, the chance to own a cape once worn by Lugosi  is a tantalising one. The current bid, with five days to go, is $560. The vendors minimum asking price is unknown, but it will certainly be within the range of more people than the $1,200,000 sought for the Dracula cape. The vendor expressed the hope that the cape “will go to a Lugosi collector who can really appreciate the value of its origins.” (Andi Brooks)

You can place your bid at:

http://www.ebay.com.au/itm/320940103071?ssPageName=STRK%3AMEWAX%3AIT&_trksid=p3984.m1438.l2649

Bat Head 2

Related articles

Bela Lugosi Yard Sale Cape Pulled From Auction

Bela Lugosi’s Legendary 1931 “Dracula” Cape To Be Auctioned By Son

Bela Lugosi’s Dracula Cape Fails To Sell At Auction

The Return Of The “Mother Riley Meets The Vampire” Robot

“Mother Riley Meets The Vampire” Robot Fails To Sell At Auction

A Quaint And Curious Volume Of Forgotten Lore by Frank J. Dello Stritto

Frank J. Dello Stritto

Beginning his writing career in the pages of the 1960s amateur magazine, Photon, Frank J. Dello Stritto has built up an enviable reputation as one of the “most eloquent chroniclers of horror films. His many articles in Cult Movies Magazine, as well as his chapters in Bob Brier’s Egyptian Mummies, Bob Madison’s Dracula – The First 100 Years, Gary Don Rhodes’ Lugosi, and, of course, our own Vampire Over London: Bela Lugosi In Britain have earned him a dedicated following among both his peers and fans of vintage monster and horror films. In addition to his writing, Frank is a popular speaker on the film convention circuit, a frequent guest on Joe Viglione’s Visual Radio and appeared in Gary Don Rhode’s documentary Lugosi – Hollywood’s Dracula.

For A Quaint & Curious Volume of Forgotten Lore – The Mythology & History of Classic Horror Films (Cult Movies Press), his follow-up to Vampire Over London, Frank has collected together revised and updated versions of eight of his best articles from Cult Movies Magazine, The Vampire Strikes Back from Dracula – The First 100 Years, the transcript of his talk at the 1997 Dracula Centennial Conference in Los Angeles, and four previously unpublished essays.

The book highlights Frank’s talent for combining meticulously researched historical detail with incisive interpretation of hidden meanings. The films covered are the 1930s and 1940s monster and horror films that he saw on TV as a young boy. It is therefore perhaps unsurprising that he sees parallels in them with fairy tales and classical mythology. Many writers have found themselves getting carried away when analyzing the subtexts of vintage horror films, but Frank is too skilled a writer to fall into that trap. Where one viewer sees Count Dracula as the personification of eternal evil which each new generation must defeat and all that he represents, Frank wisely concedes that he may indeed be nothing more than “a count in a cape sleeping in a coffin.”

In the introduction to his book, which is reproduced in full below, Frank traces the origin of his lifelong fascination with vintage horror films and Bela Lugosi. He also recounts how the unlikely duo of Abbott and Costello were unwittingly responsible not only for initiating the after-school TV addicts of the 1950s and 60s into the mythology of those horror films, but also for priming a whole generation for life.

Just a count in a cape sleeping in a coffin?

For anyone interested in the films and the personalities, both in front of and behind the cameras, of the golden age of horror movies, Frank’s book is essential reading. The book itself is as physically impressive as the writing. Hardbound and wonderfully illustrated throughout, with cover art by renowned artist and filmmaker Haig Demarjian, it is of a quality seldom seen these days. (Andi Brooks)

To order an individually numbered and signed copy of A Quaint & Curios Volume of Forgotten Lore – The Mythology & History of Classic Horror Films, please contact Frank at: fdellostritto@hotmail.com

ONCE UPON A MIDNIGHT DREARY…

I can date the birth of my fixation on horror movies almost exactly. In the fall of 1957 Screen Gems, which had purchased broadcast rights for Universal Pictures, packaged some of Universal’s 1930s and 1940s horror movies into Shock Theatre, which it leased to television stations across America. My family lived in Hoboken, New Jersey, and our television broadcasts came from New York City where Shock Theatre played late on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights, well after the bedtimes of seven year-olds like myself. Some Fridays, while I slept soundly, my nine year-old brother crept out of bed and talked my parents into letting him stay up. On Saturday mornings, he would tell me the wonders that he had seen.

On January 14, 1958 Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man aired, and the next morning I listened in awe to my brother’s description of the two monsters’ climactic battle. At that moment—sometime before lunch on Saturday the 15th—I knew that I must see this movie and all the late-night horrors for myself. I did not know that I would see them over and over again, read all that I could about them, write about them, lecture about them. And still, like Frankenstein’s Monster, The Wolf Man and Count Dracula, I would find no rest. At the time I could not appreciate that my mission had a few of the trappings of the gothic melodramas that would captivate me: a nocturnal quest driven by familial tensions, a search for arcane lore, and an obsession with a terrifying and fascinating past.

Until that Saturday morning, I was not a likely candidate to be a “monster boomer,” one of the post-World War II generation obsessed with old monster movies. Four years earlier my mother had taken me to a matinée of War of the Worlds. Science fiction was then the rage and had temporarily pushed the gothic monsters out of the limelight. When the aliens zapped a few locals with a death ray, I screamed. I continued screaming and crying for the rest of the film. This outburst led to a decree in our household that I not be exposed to such terrors in the future, either at the movies or on television. Dismissed out of hand was my request a short time later to see Rodan, a Japanese epic about gargantuan flying reptiles.

My scheme to master the lore of movie monsters took some time to launch, and I received help from an unexpected quarter. In my earliest years, my favorite television program was The Abbott & Costello Show. In their comic banter, Lou Costello—the short, fat, stupid one—is constantly browbeat and conned by Bud Abbott. Circumstances often let Costello triumph, but only after Abbott had either berated the hapless little man or done his best to explain the real world to him. Abbott in his exasperation with Costello became one of the unsung educators to my generation. Week after week, Abbott parried with Costello on topics as diverse as playing baseball or craps, paying or dodging the rent, dealing with lawyers, judges and police, visiting doctors and dentists, caring for the very young and the very old. Poor Lou never quite grasped what Abbott was talking about, but we kids did. For their young audiences, the genius of Abbott & Costello was that explaining their jokes was part of telling them.

By 1960 Abbott & Costello’s television series had long been in re-runs, but the comedy team’s feature films from the 1940s were regularly shown on Saturday afternoons at 2:00. On one such afternoon—I believe it was a sunny day and I felt some guilt that I was not outside playing—I first saw Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein. Bud and Lou deliver two large crates to McDougal’s House of Horrors. The crates contain “the remains of the original Count Dracula and the body of Frankenstein’s Monster.” The first crate is opened; Abbott pulls away a canvas shroud to reveal a coffin. “The Dracula Crest!” he says on seeing the emblem on the coffin lid. Did everyone know this insignia except Costello and me? Was this something I was supposed to recognize?

Lou understands enough to be terrified. Exhibit posters in the museum tell him a bit more. With a few fits and starts, he and Abbott work through the first one:

Dracula’s Legend

Count Dracula sleeps in this coffin but rises every night at sunset. Dracula can change himself at will into a vampire bat flying about the countryside. He keeps himself alive by drinking the blood of his victims. Count Dracula must return to his coffin before sunrise where he lies helpless during the day.

Abbott then reads the second poster:

 Frankenstein’s Monster

A scientist named Frankenstein made a monster by sewing together parts of old dead bodies. He gave the Monster eternal life by shooting it full of electricity. Some people claim it is not dead even now—just dormant.

 Purists might argue with the wording, but I had at last all the information I needed to start my quest. Even at this early point in the movie, Lawrence Talbot had already transformed into The Wolf Man. A few scenes later he explains: “Years ago I was bitten by a werewolf. Now, when the moon is full, I become a wolf, too.” The eternal question about vampires and werewolves—if you have to be bitten by one to become one, how did the first one become one—already nagged at me, but I left that issue to later musings.

Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein was once dismissed as juvenile fare. Into the 1960s it became a guilty pleasure, and as the years pass it is increasingly acknowledged as the witty thriller it is. Whatever its merits, Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein introduced many baby boomers like myself to American horror and monster movies of the 1930s and 1940s. This brilliant little movie encapsulates all the virtues of far more ambitious gothic tales: a quest for eternal life, a tortured protagonist, a death struggle between intractable foes, a forbidden text with unholy knowledge. And even this movie blatantly aimed at a young audience has a curious subtext, especially in relation to the monster films that precede it.

“Lugosi’s Dracula was the most awesome and magical figure I had ever seen”

In the film, soon after Abbott & Costello read the primers for the two great movie monsters, came the moment which sealed my fate. The pivotal character in the story is Count Dracula, whose plot to revive Frankenstein’s Monster drives the other characters’ actions. I did not know then that Bela Lugosi’s portrayal of Dracula was legendary, or that his long association with the role had come to dominate his career and his legacy. All I knew as I watched Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein was that Lugosi’s Dracula was the most awesome and magical figure I had ever seen. Lugosi’s first scene in the film is without dialogue. From his coffin, Dracula locks on Costello a stare more than human, rises and waves his hand and fingers with amazing fluidity. The vampire gently taps Costello’s chest to be sure that his victim is fully under his spell, and steps back to admire his handiwork. Costello was literally dumbfounded and so was I. The comedian shakes off the trance in a few minutes. I proved not so strong—more than 40 years later I am still under Lugosi’s spell. I had yet to hear him speak, to hear that magnificent voice.

By the time that I saw Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein, I had television programming on my side in my plot to see all the old horror films. By the early 1960s, the old black & white horrors were no longer deemed a threat to the young, and the airwaves were flooded with them at all times. Saturdays were saturated with 1930s and 1940s monster movies. Before the weekly Abbott & Costello movie at 2:00 on Channel 5 came a horror film at 1:00. At 7:30 on Channel 11 came Chiller Theater, and late night Saturdays usually had at least one horror. I first saw the early horrors of Universal and the German expressionists on Silents Please, a short-lived television series that played abbreviated versions of old silent films. The less specialized movie anthology programs had their share of monsters. Million Dollar Movie on Channel 9 played a single film repeatedly for a week—twice or three times each week night, and almost continuously on Saturday and Sunday—and gave the pre-video generation the opportunity to watch the same movie over and over.

“The first hardcover book I ever bought”

Within a few years I was something of an expert on 1930s and 1940s monster movies. I read all the monster movie magazines. The first hardcover book I ever bought was William K. Everson’s The Bad Guys, about movie villains. The first poems and short stories that I read of my own volition were the works of Edgar Allan Poe. The first novels I chose to read were Dracula and Frankenstein. My first sojourns from New Jersey to New York City were to museum auditoriums and revival theatres to see obscure horror movies that had yet to be released to television. My first use of a reference library was to lookup reviews and articles of horror movies in old newspapers. Horror movies, in short, were always there as I grew up, and shaped my first forays into the world beyond my home.

 By the late 1960s, I had written a few articles on old horror films for Photon, an amateur magazine. In the late 1970s, I drafted five essays on Bela Lugosi, with the intent of collecting them into a book for his centennial in 1982. But adult life caught up with me—marriage and family, a house, a lawn to mow, a career—and I abandoned the project. I remained a fan of old monster movies, but nothing more.

*          *          *

“The Man of 1,000 Faces”

Fast forward to Christmas morning, 1991. Like countless divorced dads, I puttered around my apartment, waiting for my assigned time to gather up my sons. As I ironed my shirts, I watched a documentary about philosopher and historian Joseph Campbell, author of Hero With A Thousand Faces. I pondered as I folded a shirt that the great silent movie star and master of makeup, Lon Chaney, was known as “The Man of 1,000 Faces.” Campbell explained that everyone believes in a mythology, whether its basis is historical or folklore, religious or political. He described how a mythology is necessary to fit the real world into a comprehensible pattern based on some values and tenets. I believed Campbell, but could not identify my own mythology. Time had come to fetch my sons, and I tossed the question into the heap with the unironed shirts.

*          *          *

About a year later, I first saw a copy of Cult Movies Magazine. Inside was an ad for a video, On the Trail of Bela Lugosi. The Cult Movies gang had taken a video recorder and visited “Lugosi sites” around Los Angeles: homes and apartments where he had lived; theatres where he had appeared; studios and outdoor locations where he had filmed. Not bad for $9.95, so I ordered one. The video soon arrived, and on its heels came a letter from Mike Copner, editor of Cult Movies:

I remember your name as a Lugosi fan who wrote a Karloff/Lugosi piece for Photon magazine about 20 years ago or so. I thought that was a great piece, and hope that some of our stuff will live up to your high standard…Are you doing any writing these days? I haven’t seen your name lately, but then I don’t read all the zines available, since there are so many out there these days. We don’t pay much, but if you had an article or something related to any variety of cult films, I’d sure be honored to run it in our magazine.

Cult Movies #27: The Lugosi Curse

I was stunned. The article he remembered so well had been published in Photon more than 20 years before. In my job—I was then an engineer in the oil industry—my memos and reports were forgotten almost immediately, as were the dozen or so technical articles I had co-written. Mike vividly remembered something I had written a generation before. I dug out my draft articles on Lugosi—four of the five had survived, all handwritten—and read them for the first time in many years. Still pretty good, I thought. I sent one to Mike, telling him that I would type it into a word processor after I had revised it. I was sure some of its ideas and information would be dated. After perusing recent writings on Lugosi and horror films, I was surprised that my articles still seemed rather fresh. Over the next year, Mike had published all of them in Cult Movies Magazine. In the meantime, I had recreated my fifth article on Britain’s so-called ban of horror films in 1937. Unlike the first four pieces, which are basically historical—new facts that I had unearthed on Lugosi’s life and career—the fifth article strayed into horror films’ subtext, into what may lurk just beneath the surface. Or, perhaps more accurately in the case of 1930s horrors, into what the filmmakers might have included in their works that censorship pressures of the day forced them to mask. 

Karloff  “The Uncanny” in The Mummy

I had no plans to do anything more until a friend, Egyptologist Bob Brier, asked me to look at his chapter on mummy movies in a manuscript for his new book. I had little to offer until a strange epiphany came over me. A co-worker had just returned from a business trip to China, carrying with him the latest strain of influenza. I caught it and for a week had no strength for anything more demanding than downing cold remedies and popping videos in my home machine before collapsing in bed to watch them. Universal’s four Kharis movies of the early 1940s have a combined running time of just over four hours. I watched them in sequence, again and again. Perhaps it was my near-delirium, perhaps I was unconsciously looking for something fresh to offer Bob, but I found meanings and themes that I had never seen before. It occurred to me that this is how Poe might have conceived his stories—half-asleep and half-demented from drugs. At last I had something unique to give Bob. Bob loved my rewrite. His publisher and editor did not, and deleted it. Mike Copner thought it manna from heaven and printed it immediately. I recovered from the flu, but perhaps not from the delirium. Since then, about 1994, whenever I watch an old horror film I think of something I want to write about. Some of my ideas are in the pieces which follow.

 *          *          *

In the late 20th century, interest in old horror and monster movies rapidly grew into a legitimate field of study. Renewed interest in horror films gained momentum long before I re-entered the field. In the 1960s, histories of horror films rarely rose above juvenile fare. By the 1990s, research into the making of the old horror films and the lives of the people associated with them was well established. Thanks to many dedicated film lovers, dozens of people who worked on the old monster movies have had their memories recorded; old newspaper features, trade journals and diverse documents have been digested; “lost” and unavailable films have been brought to light.

Carl Denham’s map of Skull Island

As the history behind the films was slowly documented, speculations on what might be within the films themselves multiplied rapidly. The growth of home video made such musings inevitable. For the first time, a wide viewership could watch movies often and closely, could freeze frames to study minute details (such as the contents of Dr. Frankenstein’s journal, or Carl Denham’s map of Skull Island in King Kong), and could replay garbled dialogue until it was deciphered (such as the German-accented Latin read by Van Helsing’s assistant in Dracula). In short, thanks to video, film could be studied as thoroughly as painting. And just as some meaning could be found in every detail of a Renaissance masterpiece, so could film students search for some overlooked gem in a film frame.

Many 1930s and 40s horror films have proven particularly fertile ground for interpretative analyses. Is Frankenstein’s Monster a stand-in for the unwanted child; is the doctor a classic case of womb envy? Is Dracula’s duel with Van Helsing actually between the devouring and the nurturing parent? Is King Kong the avenging black man who has broken his chains, or the natural world lashing out against technology? Or perhaps, as King Kong’s creator once said, “sometimes a black gorilla is just a black gorilla.”

Just a black gorilla?

Over the past 30 years, horror and monster films have been proposed as allegories for sexual and gender anxieties, intergenerational and familial tensions, racial and class struggles, economic and political instabilities, and fears over aging—both growing up and growing old. Whether a viewer sees any such ideas in the shadows or just a big black gorilla is entirely a personal choice. But whether one relishes the subtexts or simply cannot accept them, these films achieve a rare blend of entertainment and myth.

*          *          *

The popularity of 1930s and 1940s horror films with the post-war baby boomers may be an accident of timing. Universal’s old monster movies hit the ariwaves en masse just as the boomers began to outgrow children’s fairy tales. The monster boomers replaced one set of myths with another. Fairy tales and monster movies can be cast as sequential mythologies for young people. In their original forms, neither was intended primarily for the young. In time target audiences for fairy tales became those not too far from the womb, and for horror movies those not too far from puberty.

Target audiences for horror movies were those not too far from puberty

Fairy tales and horror both invite a wide range of interpretations, but at the cores of the perennial favorites are familial dramas. Long before the 1950s, those dramas might be quite diverse. In early variants of Cinderella’s tale, the villain is as often the father as the stepmother. Tallies of 19th century vampire stories show undead women outnumbering men. By the time the baby boomers arrived, the evildoers in fairy tales were mostly women, while in horror movies they were almost exclusively men. Portraying fairy tales as basically about bad mommies and horror movies as about bad daddies is a simplification, but not one that is trivially dismissed.

Many fairy tales open with a family in crisis. Snow White lives with a murderous stepmother; Cinderella with a sadistic one. Rather than feed Hansel and Gretel, yet another stepmother drives them from their home. By the end of the tales, the evil stepmothers are dead or vanquished, and the children are living happily everafter. Not quite, for horror movies then pick up their stories. The movies often begin with young people somewhat older than in the fairy tales, living in that promised everafter. But young Dr. Frankensteins and Dr. Jekylls are compelled to abandon comfortable lives to pursue strange and dangerous quests. The happy unions of young Mina Sewards to young Jonathan Harkers are threatened when Count Draculas come a-calling. Evil is again defeated, but not all the young people find a new happy-everafter, and some do not survive.

“compelled to abandon comfortable lives to pursue strange and dangerous quests”

Persistent themes in fairy tales are that obstacles in life must be confronted, and that young people must master their weaknesses and summon their strengths to prevail. The same is true of horror movies, but with a new concern. The dangers often include actually becoming the evil that must be destroyed. Those who confront vampires and werewolves may join their ranks. Universal’s mummy series begins and ends with the same plot: a young woman learns she is the reincarnation of an Egyptian princess and may become a living mummy. Anyone can become a Mr. Hyde or an Invisible Man. Frankenstein’s Monster is literally an amalgamation of victims. Four of the eight Universal Frankenstein movies involve a new brain going into The Monster. Only one comes from a willing donor.

Varied and scholarly interpretations abound, but fairy tales are essentially a mythology for those entering adolescent life and horror movies for those entering adult life. Horror films with their more varied plots and complex characters may be much more. Just as fairy tales are not great literature, most 1930s and 40s horror films are not great cinema. Taken as a whole, they are a rich and detailed mythology.

*          *          *

Makers of Monsters, Makers of Men…and Women!

The subtitle of this book is “The Mythology & History of Classic Horror Films.” History and mythology are inseparable. Delving into what is on screen means delving into what happened off it. All the chapters in this book combine mythology and history. A few, such “Makers of Monsters, Makers of Men,” and “Monstrous Ambition” are primarily histories. Each chapter has a historical postscript with an anecdote in some way related to the main text: incidents in the lives of the people how made the films, events from outside the world of film that either influenced the movies or were influenced by them.

Movie horror’s first surges in popularity coincide with the Great Depression and World War II, when real-life presumably offered terrors that more than matched those in the movies. The early horror films owe as much to the coming of sound films in the 1920s and the aftermath of World War I as to the headlines of their own decades. Horror and monster films certainly appeared before the advent of sound in the late 1920s; but the first sustained craze for the genre came a short time after the cinema found its voice. Sound also brought increased outcries from the reformers on the evils of the movies. Pressures from the censors soon followed. Some studio bosses ignored or opposed the objections of the watchdogs, but most eventually ceded the fight.

Peter Lorre in Mad Love, pushing the boundaries to the limit

Horror films were sometimes in the forefront of the never-ending debates on film content, but by any measure of explicit content they were hardly the most daring. Yet movie censors, particularly in Britain, singled out horror for special scrutiny. That scrutiny led to a virtual ban on movie horror from 1936 to 1938. The next-to-last essay in this book, “‘H’ Is For ‘Horrific’,” deals with the protracted battle in Britain over horror films.

Many of the movie monsters—Dracula, Frankenstein, Jekyll & Hyde, Svengali, The Invisible Man—were born in 19th century novels. The 19th century saw the Industrial Revolution, the Darwinian revolution and the Freudian revolution. The horror novels reflect anxieties over technology, and over questions of what is man and what is self. Each of the monsters embodied the new tensions introduced by the then-modern world. Horror movies took those characters, simplified them, and served them up to the movie-going public of the 1930s and 1940s.

“..somewhere in the world, all the animals known only through fossil records must thrive.’

Among the advances in 19th century science was the inescapable conclusion that the earth had seen the extinction of countless species. “Science” long resisted the notion of extinction. Many scholars of the time, Thomas Jefferson among them, contended that somewhere in the world, all the animals known only through fossil records must thrive.  Science would drop the idea, but popular culture never did, and conjured mythical lands over the horizon.  Thus literature produced The Lost World, and the movies produced King Kong.

*          *          *

This book collects my essays on the horror and monster films that I first saw on television in my youth. Most of the pieces have been previously published in Cult Movies Magazine, but I have never stopped writing them. None of the movies that I write about ever frightened me, but they captivated me at an early age, and have never let go. Like my obsession with old black & white horror films, the writing of my essays never ends. The essays may be read individually, but have been sequenced and edited to allow a smooth progression and to remove unnecessary repetition.

The collection begins with the character and the actor who for me started it all.

“The Dracula That Never Ends”

*

Related articles

I Saw What I Saw When I Saw It by Frank J. Dello Stritto

Three Tales – One Story by Frank J. Dello Stritto

Dracula’s Coffin: The Story of Bela Lugosi’s Steamer Trunk by Frank J. Dello Stritto

Whatever Happened To Beatrice Weeks? The Unhappy Story of the Third Mrs. Bela Lugosi by Frank J. Dello Stritto

Mystery of the Gróf Tisza Istvan: Bela Lugosi Arrives in America by Frank J. Dello Stritto.