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Precious bodily fluids
A UK region 0 DVD review of THE CORPSE VANISHES by Gort
 

How's this for an opening set-up? A couple are getting married at one of those plush society weddings, and just after the young bride has agreed to take this man to be her lawfully wedded husband, she collapses on the spot. Fortunately there's a doctor on hand to examine her, one whose deep monotone voice could land him a job as a professional Professor of Doom. "Shall I telephone for the ambulance?" asks the vicar. "No," growls the doc, "the undertaker." The mortuary men are there in no time, but one of them, glimpsed only briefly, looks a little too enthusiastic about receiving that body. Wait a minute, I know that face... A few minutes later the real undertakers turn up and bemuse those still remaining. So who took the body? The only one happy at all this is Chronicle society reporter Patricia Hunter. "Another kidnapping of a dead bride!" she proclaims gleefully, "What a story!" Headlines spin towards the camera to expand on her claim. It's the fourth such victim! The police are baffled! And we're still only three minutes in to the film!

Cut to the preparations for another wedding and we can safely assume this is a build-up to the grabbing of victim number five. The bride-to-be's mother is worried, but not her upbeat daughter Alice. "I'm so afraid something will go wrong," frets mumsie. "Forget it," Alice assures her, "nothing can possibly happen." Honestly, can there a single viewer out there who buys that? I thought not. An orchid is delivered for Alice to wear, a beautiful one unlike any the pair have ever seen. As Alice prepares for the ceremony, the false undertakers from earlier (in a neat bit of cross-cutting) ready their hearse. The wedding begins, Alice collapses and the boys turn up to collect the body. Just what, you might reasonably ask, is going on here?

Answers are soon forthcoming. The brides are being kidnapped by one Dr. Lorenzo (Bela Lugosi) and kept in a state of waking death to allow him to extract fluid from their glands to inject into his ageing wife to keep her young and beautiful. Why brides? That's left to you to speculate. Eat your heart out, Elizabeth Bathory. He's aided in this task by a motley collection of cohorts, who include unhappy old woman Fagah (Minerva Urecal) and her two sons, frowning dwarf Toby (Angelo Rossitto, also Lugosi's companion in his only colour film, Scared to Death, and a key player in Tod Browing's masterpiece Freaks) and a salacious Igor stand-in known as The Angel (Frank Moran), who turns himself on by stroking the hair of the kidnapped girls. Lorenzo refers to them as his family, a bond that doesn't prevent him from taking a whip to Angel and marking him down for disposal if he doesn't pull his socks up, a little bit of foreshadowing for viewers wondering what form his eventual undoing might take.

Anyway, Pat's nose for a story soon leads her to the man who first hyberdized the type of orchid sent to the corpse brides, who turns out to be none other than Dr. Lorenzo. On her way to interview him she is picked up by Dr. Foster (played by the fabulously named Tris Coffin), a new-to-the-area medico who is helping Lorenzo search for a non-murderous cure for his wife. He immediately hits it off with our Pat and eventually becomes her partner-in-snoop in an effort to prove that the not-so-good doctor is behind the bride-naps.

In common with Lugosi's Scared to Death, also recently released on DVD by Network, The Corpse Vanishes (originally released in the UK under the Holmesian title of The Case of the Missing Brides) rarely pauses for breath, but the characters and their narrative roles more clearly defined here, resulting in a far more focussed film whose unwaveringly brisk pace invigorates rather than confuses the storytelling. Once Pat has been persuaded to spend the night at Lorenzo's place, we're in Old Dark House territory, as our heroine is exposed to peculiar sights, strange visitations and an underground catacomb accessible through a secret door in her wardrobe. A sizeable credibility hole (Foster accepts with incredulous ease the suggestion from Pat that he might have somehow been surreptitiously hypnotised) almost clobbers the last act, but it bounces back with a climactic twist that credits Lorenzo with the smarts he should logically have.

Like Michael Curtiz's 1933 Mystery of the Wax Museum, the horror elements are nested within the framework of a smart-talking journalistic drama, one whose good-guy characters are largely genre staples, from the wisecracking female reporter to the bullish and impossible-to-please editor. The dialogue may not spark as it does in Curtiz's movie (whose script was based on a play by mystery writer Charles Belden), but it's delivered with a gusto that's in-keeping with the pacing. Lugosi's the real draw, of course, and he's in good form here, reining in his renowned theatricality and creating in Lorenzo an enjoyable and nicely drama-free villain whose menace comes not from threatening leers and raised claws but a smilingly polite matter-of-factness.

It's never quite as witty as it tries to be, has a score that could be filed under "generic 30s horror music" and is certainly not going to give a modern audience any sleepless nights. But The Corpse Vanishes is still an enjoyable little mystery-horror crossover that has fun with its horror characters and even Lugosi's screen image, positioning him over the sleeping Foster's bed in the manner of Dracula surveying his prey and having Lorenzo and his wife sleep in coffins because they're more comfortable than a bed.

sound and vision

A 1.33:1 transfer that in many ways shows its age, although some effort has been made to clean up the still visible scratches and damage. The contrast range is pretty good, though black levels are just off, the shadow detail's not too good and whites burn out little. The detail level is reasonable given that this is an NTSC to PAL conversion, a process sometimes visible in character and camera movements, of which there are many. Dust is not a problem at all.

The mono 2.0 soundtrack is reasonably clear but bounces along on a sea of audible crackle which, though never really distracting given the film's vintage, is certainly audible.

extra features

Nothing here.

summary

An enjoyable mid-career Lugosi piece that trades well on his screen charisma and reveals a subtler side to his acting talents than the one more commonly seen. A bare bones disc from Network with an unexceptional transfer, but at £2.99 only the churlish would feel cheated

The Corpse Vanishes

USA 1942
64 mins
director
Wallace Fox
starring
Bela Lugosi
Luana Walters
Tristram Coffin
Elizabeth Russell
Angelo Rossitto

DVD details
Region 0
video
1.30:1
sound
Dolby 2.0 mono
languages
English
subtitles
none
extras
none
distributor
Network
release date
26 January 2009
review posted
24 January 2009

See all of Gort's reviews