Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The Corpse Vanishes (1942) - MST3K Review

Time for another dose of Commander Cody (George Wallace) and his battle against The Radar Men from the Moon. When we last left Cody and his buddies they were on the moon and in some serious peril as molten rock oozed toward them. Luckily the heroes are able to escape to their rocket and return to earth. Once there Cody and his pals put their heads together to determine how to stop the radar men from completing their earthbound plans. This all climaxes to a scene where Cody drives his car over a booby-trapped bridge that explodes under him. Hence the title of this episode – The Bridge of Death.

In the feature film, Doctor George Lorenz is evil because he is portrayed by Bela Lugosi. He lives in a isolated house with a group of demented henchman (including a dwarf!). He and his wife, the Countess (Elizabeth Russell) sleep in coffins. See, it doesn’t get any more evil than that. Well actually it does.

Nosy reporter Patricia Hunter (Luana Walters) is looking into a series of dead brides who all collapse at the alter. She is convinced that it is not a coincidence. She starts to put together the pieces and they point to Dr. Lorenz and his laboratory. With some pointless help from the Countess’ medical doctor, Foster (Tristram Coffin) Patricia finds herself about to crack the biggest new story of her carrier. But can she be certain that the next corpse that vanishes won’t be her own?

Movie Review:
Pumpkin boy and lantern head in peril!
So Radar Men from the Moon hurtles forward with more crazy escapes, fisticuffs and gangsters working with moon men in a secret cave. In this episode the lunar action only takes up about the first third. The rest of the story takes place on earth, so some of the creativity we got from the previous episodes drops a bit. The gangsters take center stage and their explosive plan reminded me of something you’d see in the old Superman series from the 1950s. Which isn’t too far from the fact since this was created in 1952.

As far as serials go, this one has some entertaining moments, some silly moments and all in all meets the basic entertainment needs. The reused footage of Cody flying around in his rocket suit is good for some chuckles, and I love some of the oh-so-ripe dialogue that permeates the series. This also contains the scene which had to inspire the rant about serials in the film and book Misery. When I saw the car fall off the cliff I had to mumble, “He didn’t get out of the caca-doody car!”  The Bridge of Death episode isn’t something special, but it makes for a good appetizer for the film to follow.

Bela looms alarmingly.
I’ve got to be honest and say most of my exposure to Bela Lugosi is limited to his work with infamous director Ed Wood Jr. You know films like Plan 9 From Outer Space and Bride of the Monster. I have seen Dracula but found it very dull and slow moving (especially compared to Frankenstein and The Mummy from the same era). But Lugosi did a lot of work in 30s and 40s that folks seem to like, so I’m willing to ignore stuff like ThePhantom Creeps (although he wasn’t bad in that serial). Truth be told, Lugosi may be playing the same sinister role in The Corpse Vanishes but he does it pretty well.

I think the thing that works with this film is that the character of Dr. Lorenz is driven by his love for his wife, the Countess. From the start of the film, it is pretty darn obvious he is at the heart of the plot to kill young women and abduct them. His goal is to suck the vitality from their body and place it into his ill wife. The treatment works of course, and both become driven to keep her young and alive. The Countess is a shrill disturbing woman, but we can sympathize a bit with Lorenz. A good deal of that comes from Lugosi’s performance.

Wait, what am I doing in this movie again?
In an interesting twist, our hero is the dogged reporter Patricia Hunter. Luana Walters takes the stereotype of the cub reporter and makes it work. She’s clever enough that you hope she puts the pieces together. But she’s also annoying enough that you kinda hope Lorenz scares her pretty good.

Of course The Corpse Vanishes was made in the 1940s, so you can’t have a female lead get in and out of peril on her own. Enter Dr. Foster played by Tris Coffin. The part is underwritten, and really feels like it was added at the last minute because someone realized they needed a man to save Patricia. Coffin does what he can with the flat character, but he doesn’t seem too invested in the role (can’t say I blame him). There isn’t much chemistry between the two. So when the two start spouting lines about how deeply in love they are and how they can’t wait for their marriage in the last 10 minutes of the film… well you’ll do a spit take if you’re drinking anything. You have been warned. Don’t blame me for wet floors on this one.

The cub reporter and the grumpy editor? Two
more cliches checked off the list.
Atmosphere and pacing are the name of the game here. For the most part the film moves along pretty well. The creepy mansion where Lorenz lives is filled with shadowy hallways and macabre lighting. His minions are sufficiently odd and disturbing. I especially like his unsettling housekeeper played by Minerva Urecal. Her anger bubbles up higher and higher and drives her to commit the final act murder. Also worth noting is the ranting and raving newspaper editor Keenan played with gusto by Kenneth Harlan. I’m telling you now that this performance inspired John Mahoney to rant and rave in his role as editor and Chief in The Hudsucker Proxy. Hell, Patricia Hunter could have been the inspiration for Amy Archer in that film as well.

But if you want to see a film that really took inspiration from The Corpse Vanishes then you really don’t need to look any further than the Ed Wood masterpiece Bride of the Monster. No, seriously they are almost the same film, but with a different driving force behind them. Ed Wood had Lugosi’s mad man attempting to “create a race of atomic supermen who would conquer the world”, instead of attempting to keep his wife alive. But the story beats are the same. Mysterious events lead a cub reporter to a creepy mansion. She meets Lugosi and interviews him. She’s convinced he is involved but has no proof. So she joins forces with a dull man, and together they kinda sorta put it all together.

At least he isn't welcoming you to Fantasy
, right?
The later film has that outrageous Ed Wood touch that can’t be beat when it comes to bad movies. I think Bride of the Monster is one of his most entertaining films (not a good film by any means, but entertaining as hell). The Corpse Vanishes is less crazy, but I liked the angle of using the orchid to knock out the brides. And director Wallace Fox does a better job of creating some building dread in his film. So for creepy value The Corpse Vanishes wins. Not to say it’s a scary movie, it’s not. But spooky atmosphere was never something Wood really got right.

Eventually Joel and bots would come face to face with Wood’s opus. But before that, they would face Lugosi in their first season with The Corpse Vanishes.

Episode Review:
He's only mostly dead.
So we are, still in the early portion of the first season of Mystery Science Theater 3000 and it kinda shows. It was going to take another couple episodes for the crew to really hit their Season One stride. So what you get with The Corpse Vanishes is an episode with some laughs, but not nearly as many as what you’ll find next season, or hell even in any episode from Robot Monster forward.

But lets take a look at what we do have. First up is part three of Radar Men from the Moon. Joel and the bots are still having a bit of fun with the serial (although the writing crew admitted that the whole thing was starting to wear thin for them at this point). But the level of energy in the riffing of this serial is still pretty high, and it gives some of the best riffing the episode.

Would you take orders from a guy dressed like that?
Some of funniest riffs occur when Cody and his pals make their escape from the moon and head toward earth. Crow asks them to “mind the space cushion” as the rocket hurtles into the void. Tom is puzzled by the remark and Crow replies, “It’s what they are sitting on.” In a later shot Tom wants to know why earth has a shadow and Crow is concerned that there are clouds just floating around in space. But I also like when Crow and Tom give a full fashion commentary of Commando Cody’s outfit. And when Joel asks if Cody ever lands on his head, to which Tom replies, “He’d stick like a lawn dart!”

As is typical of Season One episodes, the riffing during The Corpse Vanishes is laid back and meandering. There are a lot of quiet moments where the boys just watch the film and maybe chuckle a bit at what is going on. But there are some funny quips to enjoy.

Essence of bride... with a twist of lime.
When a concerned father of the bride is confiding in his fears to the newspaper editor, he says, “My daughter needs protection.” To which Tom replies, “Shouldn’t you have discussed that before the wedding?” Later when Bela is extracting the vital essence of the girl in his laboratory, Joel says in his best Lugosi imitation, “Now we can have the rich taste of bride any time we need it.” To which Crow adds, “It’s not just for breakfast any more.”

Most of the funnier moments in The Corpse Vanishes occur in the spooky mansion. A “secret” door allows the mad doctor’s hearse to enter undetected. This door is opened by the hunchback servant, who the boys dub Stanley after the garage door opener. Another secret door in a closet allows Bela to sneak into a bedroom and stare menacingly at Luana. Tom tries his Lugosi accent and says, “This is much better than my old door in the sock drawer.”

One thing the boys avoid here is any jokes based on Lugosi's drug problems. They do hammer on those a bit in their riff of Bride of the Monster, and the gents at Rifftrax go even further in their riff on Plan 9 From Outer Space. It is rare that I feel they go too far, but Lugosi's drug issues were tragic and to use them in the riffing leaves a bad taste in my mouth, especially after seeing Ed Wood and how Tim Burton handled the issue. Anyway...

As the movie wraps with our two protagonists tying the knot without a fear of mad doctors, Joel tells the bots “Don’t cry guys, its not a real wedding. “ Crow replies with “It’s the script that is upsetting us.”

Sorry Joel, but I wouldn't trust Crow with sharp
Like most of the early host segments you get some funny moments and some just plain oddball ones. The invention exchange starts with Joel showing off his chiro-gyro, a device to twist your head around for some at home chiropractic action. The mad scientists show off their flame thrower boutonniere. The first break has the bots chatting about the latest issue of the magazine Tigerbot, which features a full schematic of Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation. The next break has Joel and the bots playing tag. It’s pretty silly. When we next join them, Joel is letting Crow give him a haircut, while Tom peruses Tigerbot some more. Crow’s banter gets stranger and stranger, ending up with a clown car crash. When the movie ends, Joel challenges the bots to think of one good thing and one bad thing from the movie. Tom tries to think of one good thing… but his head explodes (and not for the last time).

All in all, The Corpse Vanishes isn’t a horrible film, and it offers enough for the boys to riff on. But the slow pace of the riffing is the detriment here. The frantic pacing of Radar Men From the Moon helps the riffing there move a lot faster. As a result the episode starts out fairly strong, but peters out before the end. Like all my season one reviews, I’ll rate this as compared to other episodes this season, but I’d deduct one point when compared to any other episode from season 2 forward.

Either he's been stabbed or just heard he's playing
Karloff's sidekick.

I give it 3 poisonous orchids out of five.

This episode is available on the Mystery Science Theater 3000 Volume XVI.


  1. I loved the Commando Cody serials, which aired on Saturday mornings when I was a kid. I wanted one of those rocket packs. Maybe I still do. The character was, of course, the inspiration for Disney's 1991 The Rocketeer.

    Odds are that I saw The Corpse Vanishes, also as a kid, but I remember nothing about it. I do remember Bride of the Monster. Sounds fun, even if the 'bots had not yet hit their stride. Doesn't everyone sleep in coffins? They're comfy. They're also a great time saver in case ... you know.

    1. Cody is blast to watch. Not only did he inspire the Rocketeer (which makes me immediately think of how super hot Jennifer Connelly is in that movie), but he was also the inspiration for Boba Fett of "Star Wars" fame. Lucas even included a character in the prequels named Commander Cody for a chuckle or two.

      Yeah the coffins looks very snuggly in this film. Very plush and comfortable. I'm sure the doctor and his wife slept very well. :)

  2. I remember watching these as a kid too, but was too young to remember any plots. I eventually bought the first series, King of the Rocket Men off eBay, as a boot. I don't know if it ever had a legit release. In it, however, Professor Millard works with Jeff King (Rocket Man) to make a prototype jet-pack. They are trying to stop Dr. Vulcan and a group of scientist from taking over the world with their Sonic Decimator (sounds like something out of Calvin & Hobbs). At any rate, it is what it is, and enjoyable on some level.

    I didn't know that about Boba Fett. I have a friend that created a web comic strip modeled after Commando Cody called Captain Spectre:

    1. The Sonic Decimator is totally something Spaceman Spiff would be facing. :)