Horror and comedy might seem like opposites but the fact is that the two have been mixed in films ever since the silent film era. Perhaps it’s the theory that you can take the edge off the horror with a little bit of funny business. Monogram Pictures was one of the most successful of the low-budget Poverty Row film producers in the 1940s, cranking out movies in as little as one week and for under $50,000. Monogram made the ingenious decision to pair up two of their biggest stars, Bela Lugosi, and comedy team the East Side Kids in two films, Spooks Run Wild and Ghosts on the Loose.
Lugosi of course had become a horror icon in 1931’s Dracula but the role left him typecast in the genre and most of his roles of the 1940s came in low-budget productions from Monogram and other studios. The East Side Kids got their start as the Dead End kids in the 1937 melodrama “Dead End”. Their name was changed in 1940 to the East Side kids and later in 1946 to the Bowery Boys. Between 1940 and 1958 the team made a whopping 70 films. The team had a revolving cast but nearly all of them featured Leo Gorcey and Huntz Hall.
This week we take a look at when Bela Lugosi met The East Side Kids
Spooks Run Wild
Monogram Pictures 1941
Cast: Bela Lugosi, The East Side Kids
Running Time: 65 Minutes
Spooks Run Wild is the first meeting of the Kids and Bela Lugosi. The Kids find themselves sent to a summer camp in the middle of nowhere for delinquent kids and immediately begin to plan their escape. The kids sneak out of their cabin in the middle of the night to go exploring. The Kids are already spooked by radio reports they heard of a “monster killer” who is on the loose in the area. Cutting through a cemetery Pee Wee (David Gorcey) is shot with buckshot by the cemetery’s night watchman. The rest of the boys quickly haul Pee Wee to a mysterious old mansion on top of a hill.
The mansion just happens to be home of Nardo the Magician (Lugosi) and his midget assistant Luigi (played by Freaks star Angelo Rossitto). Nardo treats Pee Wee but leaves him in a trance. The rest of the gang is convinced that Nardo is the killer and chaos ensues as they scramble about the old mansion, running away from Nardo and trying to find Pee Wee with their usual blend of slapstick humor that includes Muggs (Leo Gorcey) bossing around the rest and Scruo (Sammy Morrison, the only African American member of the team) stealing the show with his wide-eyed panic routine.
Of course, Lugosi would turn out to be (once again) the red-herring and the real killer is later revealed as the kids save the day and catch the fiend. Good fun and just over an hour so it's not a great commitment. Lugosi is his usual menacing self who somehow doesn't remember to tell the kids he's a magician just to make it even more menacing. Lugosi gets to deliver a play on his famous line from Dracula when he proclaims, "City of the dead. Do they too hear the howling of the fighting dogs?" Check out the original trailer below!
Ghosts on the Loose
Monogram Pictures 1943
Cast: Bela Lugosi, The East Side Kids
Running Time: 67 minutes
If Spooks Run Wild was a bit of false advertising when it comes to the “spook” part, Ghosts on the Loose should be arrested and tossed in prison. The second team-up between Lugosi and The East Side Kids is even lighter on horror elements and Lugosi gets far less screen time here. One can imagine that he did all of his scenes in a single day.
The sister of Glimpy (Huntz Hall) is getting married so the kids, always with good intentions on their mind, decide to drive out to the suburb and cleanup the newlywed’s new house. The problem is that the kids pick the wrong house and end up at the “haunted house” next door. As they go about cleaning the house the boys start experiencing strange happenings leading to bouts of terrified panic.
As it turns out the ghosts are actually nothing more than Nazi spies led by the ringleader Emil (Lugosi) and they are using the house to print out Nazi propaganda. When the kids mistakenly stumble into the house, the spies do their best to make the kids believe the house is haunted to scare them off. The film is chock full of old dark house motifs like paintings with moving eyes, secret passages, and eerie sounds.
As usual, Ernie “Sunshine Sammy” Morrison steals the show as the easily spooked Scruno. While some of his bits might be considered a little less than politically correct by today’s standards, there’s no doubt that Morrison gets some of the film’s best lines. A young Ava Gardner, still a couple of years away from becoming a major Hollywood star, plays Glimpy’s sister.
Like Spooks Run Wild, Ghosts on the Loose was Directed by William Beaudine. Beaudine earned the nickname “one-shot” for his penchant on filming scenes in a single take. Ghosts on the Loose is a rather flat East Side Kids film in terms of laughs and it’s certainly not aided by a rather small part played by Lugosi.
Tim Janson is a columnist and reviewer for Mania Entertainment. He writes Level Up, the weekly look at videogames; From the Vault, a look at classic genre films; and the horror dedicated column, Tuesday Terrors. Tim has written for Fangoria Magazine, Newsarama, City Slab Magazine, Twitch Film, and Cinefantastique. He is a member of the Horror Writers Association (HWA). Be sure to follow him on Facebook and Twitter.
Mania is the premiere online destination for fans of science fiction, fantasy, horror, and anime entertainment. It is the largest community offering profiles, video, science fiction movies, sci fi TV, art, sci fi comics, photos, cheats, blogs, science fiction books, forums and feedback. Mania offers insider entertainment industry info and original content for science fiction, fantasy, and horror entertainment genres including: video games, comics, gadgets, movies, television, toys, music, books, DVDs and more.