Saturday, July 10, 1971: My Son the Vampire a.k.a. Mother Riley Meets the Vampire (1952) / The Face Behind the Mask (1941)

Synopsis: Scotland Yard is searching frantically for a man known as “The Vampire”, a scientist by the name of Van Housen (Bela Lugosi), who is descended from Transylvanian nobility and who is believed to drink the blood of young women in order to extend his lifespan.

Van Housen sleeps in a coffin and affects the dress and manner of a vampire, but what he really wants to do is to build an army of robots that will take over the world.  So far, he has built only one prototype, which he calls Mark 1.

Van Housen orders Mark 1 delivered to his laboratory (apparently through a conventional shipping company)  but by accident the crate containing it is mixed up with another crate meant for an Irish washerwoman known as Old Mother Riley (Arthur Lucan).  Soon Van Housen discovers the mix-up and orders Mark 1 to come to the lab and bring Riley along as well.  Seeing an opportunity for fresh blood, the scientist gives Riley a light housekeeping job, but insists on fattening her up with fresh steak and liver.

 In order to build his army, Van Housen needs large quantities of uranium.  In order to secure the uranium, he needs a map in the possession of Julia Loretti (Maria Mercedes), who has recently returned from an expedition to South America.  Even though he has Loretti in his laboratory and in a trance, Van Housen has been unable to discover where the map is hidden.

Discovering that not only Loretti but all the missing women are being held captive by Van Housen, Riley escapes from the mansion and runs to the nearest police station to report the crime.  However,  because a clumsy drunkard at the police station has accidentally doused her with gin, the hysterical Riley reeks of alcohol, and the police decide to arrest her for disorderly conduct….

Comments: The genesis of this bizarre little film has been discussed at length elsewhere; according to El Santo, Bela Lugosi was in England for a stage revival of Arsenic and Old Lace, but the under-financed production collapsed.*   This left Lugosi in dire straits financially, without even enough money to return home.  As luck would have it, he was offered $5,000 to appear in a low-brow comedy to be called Old Mother Riley Meets the Vampire.

Old Mother Riley was a drag act cooked up by a music-hall comic named Arthur Lucan.  The character was Irish, which for English audiences signaled that she was lazy, dim-witted and always ready for a drink.  The first Old Mother Riley film was released in 1937.  By 1952 the series had been more than played out,  and the novelty of man in a dress wasn’t enough to lure audiences anymore; presumably it was felt that the novelty of a man in a dress interacting with Lugosi in a cape would pack ’em into the theaters.  In the U.S.,  which had been heretofore deprived of Old Mother Riley’s antics, it was released as Vampire Over London.  

The version we’re seeing tonight was titled My Son the Vampire for a 1963 re-release.  Novelty songster Allen Sherman was at the peak of his (mercifully brief) fame at this point, and his new single “My Son the Vampire” played over the opening credits.  As a promotional gimmick it doesn’t seem to have done much good — the title doesn’t really match the movie.  Even worse, Sherman’s song is awful, and it never charted.

The good news about the film itself is that it isn’t quite as dreadful as I imagined it might be.  I went into it fearful of the humiliations that Bela Lugosi would have to endure in order to get a paycheck.  But the surprise is that Lugosi is the best thing about the movie.  He seems to be enjoying himself a great deal, and displays an unexpected knack for comedy.

I don’t think anyone would argue the film is laugh riot (El Santo describes it as “funny as the Khmer Rouge”) but there are a few amusing moments, all of them from Lugosi himself, who seems quite at ease and worth every penny the ironically-named Renown Pictures paid him.

I’d been expecting Lugosi to look desperate and humiliated, but that honor actually goes to Arthur Lucan himself.  His Old Mother Riley act is so dreadfully cheap and moth-eaten that it’s hard to believe that anyone — anywhere — ever found it funny.   Humor is subjective, of course, and the world contains an alarming number of people who think a man wearing a dress is inherently funny. Nevertheless, it seems incredible that the Old Mother Riley films endured as long as they did.

The movie is made so carelessly that a badly-dubbed musical number is thrown in at around the ten-minute mark, presumably to pad the running time (in fact, this might be the only musical in the history of cinema to have just one song).  As it was, I was grateful that I didn’t have to hear any more of them.  One was bad enough.

The Face Behind the Mask

SynopsisImmigrant Janos Szabo (Peter Lorre) is fresh off the boat from Hungary. He’s a nice guy, and on his first day in America he befriends a police detective named Jim O’Hara (Don Beddoe). O’Hara recommends a cold-water flat nearby that he can stay at. Before the day is out, he lands a job as a dishwasher, and he is sure that before long he will be able to find work as a watchmaker. Janos is thrilled at all America has to offer, but that night tragedy strikes: his apartment building catches fire and his face is hideously disfigured.

Even though he is a skilled watchmaker and machinist, Janos now finds he can’t get a job anywhere because of his grotesque appearance. Soon he falls in with a friendly thief named Dinky (George E. Stone). Janos is reluctant to pursue a life of crime, but when Dinky becomes ill, Janos takes a safecracking job in his stead.

It turns out that Janos excels at crime, and when he discovers that he can get a detailed rubber mask made of his old face, he is determined to get the money it takes to have it made. When the mask is completed it gives Janos a waxy, heavy-lidded appearance, but women no longer scream when they see him.

Soon Janos is the leader of Dinky’s gang, but when he becomes involved with Helen Williams (Evelyn Keyes), a beautiful and good-hearted blind woman, he is determined to quit the gang and lead an honest life. The only problem is, his new friends would rather see him dead than let him go….

Comments:  I had noted previously that this Robert Florey-directed thriller is a bit hard to pin down.  It’s not quite a horror film, not quite a crime picture and not quite a melodrama.  Nevertheless, it holds our attention and benefits from an exceptional cast, from Peter Lorre himself to George E. Stone as the sympathetic thief Dinky and Evelyn Keyes as good girl Helen.  

In fact its horror credentials are so slight that there’s little reason for it to be routinely assigned to that category at all, aside from its inclusion in Screen Gems’ Son of Shock! TV package.  Its inclusion in Son of Shock was more desperation than anything else; with the exception of the Karloff mad scientist flicks from 1939 – 1940, Columbia had a notable dearth of horror titles.  A few movies were apparently thrown in just to round out the numbers, and this appears to be one of them.

In July of 2011 The Face Behind the Mask was nominated for entry into the National Film Registry.  Brian Taves’ introduction argues that The Face Behind the Mask is a minor masterpiece of Expressionism, a fact partially obscured by its rushed shooting schedule:

THE FACE BEHIND THE MASK was unquestionably a “B” picture, a film shot quickly on a low budget for exhibition on a double bill. Despite these modest origins, THE FACE BEHIND THE MASK is widely acknowledged to be among the greatest “B” films ever made, and one of the few to offer profundity and depth in theme and characterization, as well as artistry in its writing, direction, and acting. While containing elements of several genres–horror, social consciousness, gangster, and romance–the film transcends all of them. THE FACE BEHIND THE MASK won favor from both critics and audiences, and a small following in its time that has grown in the intervening years, an exceptional record of success for a movie made so inexpensively. The film remained in continuous showing for two years after it was released in 1941, and was later theatrically reissued on numerous occasions, as late as 1955, before it began to be shown on television.

The movie seems a bit too scattershot to be regarded as “one of the greatest “B” films ever made” — that covers a lot of territory, after all — but it’s good to see that The Face Behind the Mask  hasn’t been forgotten.  Maybe adding it to the National Film Registry will lead to a decent home video release; this effort certainly deserves it.
*It should be noted, however, that in a TV interview shortly after his return to America, Lugosi says that he was in England for a stage revival of Dracula.

One comment

  1. Lugosi was 69 at the time but doesn't look it, while a few months later in BELA LUGOSI MEETS A BROOKLYN GORILLA, he appears older and worn out. He obviously enjoyed spoofing his image in MY SON THE VAMPIRE, while being required to do a tired mad scientist in the other. I actually taped Allan Sherman's on screen introduction back in 1982, which seems to have been clipped from current prints (“based on this upside down book here”). Peter Lorre's leading lady was Evelyn Keyes, who had just played Karloff's daughter in BEFORE I HANG (she was attractive, but neither character was anything to write home about).


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