“These young girls, whether dead or alive, are being used by Lorenz, in some manner, as human guinea-pigs, to sustain his wife in a youthful state!”
Director: Wallace Fox
Starring: Bela Lugosi, Luana Walters, Elizabeth Russell, Tristram Coffin, Angelo Rossitto, Minerva Urecal, Frank Moran, George Eldredge, Kenneth Harlan, Vince Barnett, Joan Barclay, Gladys Faye, Eddie Kane
Screenplay: Harvey Gates and Sam Robins, based upon a story by Sam Robins and Gerald Schnitzer
Synopsis: A bride suddenly dies during her wedding ceremony. The body is wheeled out of the church and into the back of a waiting hearse, which drives away—only minutes before the men from the funeral parlour arrive to collect it. Two interested spectators of these shocking events are society reporter Patricia Hunter (Luana Walters) and her photographer, Sandy (Vince Barnett), who rush back to their paper with the news that a fourth bride has collapsed and died at the altar and that, like the others, her body has been stolen. Days later, the Distract Attorney (Eddie Kane) assures the understandably nervous Mrs Wentworth (Gladys Faye) that he will make certain nothing goes wrong at the wedding of her daughter, Alice (Joan Barclay). Meanwhile, Patricia is dismayed to be handed yet another “society” assignment, covering the Wentworth wedding: she had hoped that her story on the most recent death and abduction would get her reassigned. Her editor, Keenan (Kenneth Harlan), tells her tersely to concentrate on the dress and the guest list: that he will have real reporters on hand, in case anything does happen. As Alice prepares for her wedding, a strange but beautiful orchid is delivered to her. Assuming it’s from the groom, she does as the card asks and pins it to her dress. However, barely has the ceremony begun than Alice collapses… Outside the church, Sandy shows Patricia an orchid that fell from Alice’s dress. Patricia is puzzled by the fact that it has a strange, pungent scent. She sniffs the flower suspiciously—and is suddenly overcome by dizziness… Along the road, the policemen escorting the hearse spot a car on fire and pull over to investigate. As they do, a second hearse pulls up behind the first and two men steal Alice’s body… At her paper, Patricia shows Keenan the orchid, revealing that not only did none of the wedding-party send it to Alice, but that all of the dead, abducted brides wore one just like it. Grudgingly, the editor allows her to follow her lead. The second hearse arrives at the country estate of Dr Lorenz (Bela Lugosi), and the body is carried into Lorenz’s laboratory, where the Countess Lorenz (Elizabeth Russell) weeps and wails as she hides her face, demanding that Lorenz hurry. Using a syringe, Lorenz extracts a glandular fluid from Alice’s body, which he mixes with another compound and injects into the Countess. In moments, the aged woman is again young and beautiful…
Comments: Is it just me, or these days am I starting a lot of my Roundtable reviews by saying, “Okay, this one’s a bit of a cheat, but…”? The Corpse Vanishes is one of the three films that Bela Lugosi and Angelo Rossitto made together around this time, and while Angelo is certainly memorable, his role is probably a little too minor to clearly qualify this film for inclusion. However, with that cursed real life closing in on me again, I wanted to make sure I got something reviewed, and so picked a film that is short and sweet.
Kind of like Angelo.
The early 1940s found the B-movie on an odd slippery slope. Except for RKO, which chose this moment to give Val Lewton his head, the major studios had sharply reined in their production of genre films, and were releasing movies that tended to be “thrillers” rather than “horror”, even when the horror elements were left in place. It was left to the minor studios to fill the genre gap, and during these years those twin terrors, PRC and Monogram, built any number of slapdash horror and science fiction films around Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi.
Cheap, threadbare and without anything resembling style or artistry, these little films are nevertheless often unexpectedly entertaining—particularly those from Monogram, which seem to take place in some kind of parallel universe that is bereft of both logic and commonsense, and where the utterly bizarre intrudes upon the everyday as a matter of course, and apparently without anyone noticing anything untoward, least of all the producers, directors, screenwriters and actors involved. They’re like the cinematic equivalent of a game of Mad Libs.
The Corpse Vanishes, if not perhaps the most bizarre of the Monogram inverse epics – I tend to think that The Invisible Ghost takes that prize – nevertheless makes a wholehearted run at the title. Reviewing this film back to back with Doctor X has turned out to be an amusing experience, as it deploys essentially the same tactics, using the standard reporter-on-the-case framework as an excuse for the mounting weirdness. The main difference between the two films is that while Warners approached Doctor X with reluctance and some distaste, it is clear that pretty much everyone involved in the making of The Corpse Vanishes was having a ball—including, I am very pleased to be able to report, Bela Lugosi; and that in spite of the fact that he goes very close to having the show stolen from under his nose. But more on that presently.
The Corpse Vanishes runs a brisk sixty-four minutes, and sensibly wastes not a second in getting down to business. We open with a wedding already in progress, and immediately the perverse charm of the Monogram style is apparent: the “groom” could not be more obviously waiting for his cue in the form of the collapse of his “bride” to spring into action; while as for the three nameless starlets playing the bridesmaids, this was obviously their big break in pictures and they were determined to make the most of it—reacting with exaggerated shock calculated to draw the viewer’s eye when, sure enough, the bride does collapse and is pronounced dead by a doctor who was a guest at the wedding.
Shortly afterwards, two men wheel the sheet-covered body out to a waiting hearse, where—uh-oh! Bela Lugosi is waiting inside. That can’t be good. We won’t know it for some time, but Bela is playing a certain Doctor – or Professor; the usual assumption of interchangeability is evident – Lorenz. The hearse drives off, just as two men from the local funeral parlour arrive to pick up the body.
Two interested spectators of all this are Patricia Hunter, society reporter, and her photographer, Sandy. No-one connected with the tragedy seems to have any qualms about allowing Pat and Sandy to hang around, so they are on the spot when the theft of the bride’s body is discovered—much to their unconcealed, albeit profoundly tactless, glee. But then, we’ve already seen Sandy rushing in for close-ups of the dead bride, so I guess the standard has been set.
To give the devil her due, by the standards of these sorts of films – or even by the standards of spunky-girl-reporter-makes good films – Patricia Hunter isn’t nearly as irritating as many of her silver screen colleagues. She’s not much of a wisecracker, for one thing, and that counts for a great deal. This is not to say, however, that Pat isn’t au fait with the traditions and rituals of her profession:
Patricia: “It’s sensational! Another kidnapping of a dead bride! What a story!”
And indeed, this turns out to be the fourth case of a “society bride” dropping dead in the middle of her wedding, and her body subsequently being stolen. (After the first three, you’d think they might have tightened security about #4, but not in the world of Monogram.) We’re filled in on these details by—well, actually not by the usual newspaper mock-ups; that would cost money. Instead, we watch stock footage of newspapers being printed while some headlines are superimposed on the screen.
The police pick up one of the two men who carried away the body, but he turns out to be a vagrant offered “a couple of bucks” to lend a hand, and can give no more information. More superimposed headlines follow, including DISTRICT ATTORNEY TAKES ACTION—although what that is we never find out. When we actually meet the District Attorney, he’s been bailed up by Society Mother, Mrs Wentworth, and her Society Daughter, Alice, soon to be a Society Bride. Alice thinks her mother is in a fuss over nothing, as she never felt better in her life, but an understandably anxious Mrs Wentworth demands “protection”, and succeeds in wringing from the DA a promise that he will have his men planted around the church.
The Wenthworths are, of course, supposed to be very poignant figures, the happy bride going unknowingly to her doom, yada-yada; but Joan Barclay so overdoes the, “Oh, I just couldn’t be any more perfectly happy!” routine that she begins to suggest Alice has been calming her pre-wedding jitters with a snootful of something illegal; while we can only admire the fortitude – if fortitude is the right word – that she displays in her attitude towards her four predecessors:
Alice: “Well, Mother—you’re about to lose me!”
Mrs Wentworth: “I hope not forever!”
Alice: “What are you talking about?”
Mrs Wentworth: “Do you feel all right, dear?”
Alice [laughing]: “Certainly! I never felt better in my life! You should forget all that silly nonsense about those brides dropping dead!”
Meanwhile, Patricia has been discovering to her dismay that not even her on-the-spot report on the death of the fourth bride is enough to get her promoted from the society beat:
Patricia: “What if the Wentworth girl drops dead too?”
Keenan: “You’ll still tell me what she’s wearing, along with all the other fancy-pants!”
Back at the church, Alice’s last minute primping is interrupted by the delivery of a strange orchid. “It’s from Dwight—no doubt,” Mrs Wentworth enunciates carefully, while Alice responds to the unsigned card’s prompting to wear the orchid next to her heart by pinning it over her clavicle. And from this anatomically dubious location it is subsequently dislodged when Alice slumps to the ground before the ceremony has even properly started. (In fact, in a typical piece of Monogram economy, Alice / Joan Barclay detaches it and then collapses.)
Well, the District Attorney’s men might not have been able to stop Alice dropping dead – and to be fair, I guess he didn’t strictly promise that – but there’ll be no body-snatching this time! The real hearse pulls out with its grim cargo, surrounded by motorcycle cops. However, no sooner have they started crossing an appropriately lonely stretch of road – or what’s meant to be a lonely stretch of road: some insufficiently tight angles reveal that this episode of arson and body-snatching is being perpetrated on a suburban street – than the cops spot a burning car and speed off to investigate, snapping, “You stay here!” at the hearse driver.
Instantly, a second hearse pulls up, travelling in reverse. Mike, the lead body-snatcher, is behind the wheel, and Lorenz in the back. The two climb out and creep out of shot, where presumably they either kill or knock out the men in the first hearse, who are subsequently found slumped down in the front seat. Mike and Lorenz then transfer Alice’s remains from one hearse to the other, Lorenz with a big, beaming smile plastered across his dial the whole time. He climbs into the back with the body, and Mike speeds off.
Back at the church, Patricia and Sandy compare notes, she having phoned the news to Keenan and he having taken as many bad-taste snapshots as he could manage. He also snabbled a souvenir: Alice’s orchid. Patricia recognises it, and reacts to the fact that it has a strange, sweet, pungent smell. She sniffs it again apprehensively, and immediately feels dizzy—although being in the open air, the spell passes off momentarily.
The motorcycle cops report in, and soon all local law enforcement is on the look-out, with orders to stop all hearses, and vans and trucks of appropriate dimensions: Calling all cars! Calling all cars! Another abduction of a girl’s corpse! Brunette, twenty-two years of age—
Uh, it’s a dead girl in a wedding-dress. I’m pretty sure you don’t need to be specific about the hair colour. (“Sure, I got a dead bride in the back—but she’s a blonde!” “Oh, well, off you go, then!”)
Sure enough, Mike is pulled over. The cops insist on inspecting the contents of the coffin the the back, which turns out to be not so much lined as filled with satin ruffles, and contains, ahem, a man’s body, which is—not exactly in the eyes closed, peaceful posture that custom dictates. Evidently Death took this gentleman by surprise. It may even have leapt out from behind the curtains wearing a Halloween mask and shouting, “BOOGA-BOOGA!!” The cops notice nothing amiss, however, and allow Mike to go on his way.
Back at the office, Patricia is getting chewed out for failing to notice what the fancy-pantses were wearing, just because a fifth bride dropped dead. But Pat has been doing some pretty impressive sleuthing, enough to make even Keenan pay attention—if only in the traditional, “Get me a story or you’re fired!” kind of way.
“I knew I shouldn’t have insisted on ‘obey’!”
Using Sandy’s pictures, she points out that all five dead brides were wearing the same kind of orchid—and that in the case of the Wentworths at least, no-one knows who sent it. Then there’s the orchid’s strange scent, when it shouldn’t have a scent in the first place…
Meanwhile, Mike is pulling up at Casa de Lorenz, a charming crumbling mansion perched on the top of a hill and surrounded by blasted vegetation, at least in this quick establishing shot. And in a rapid series of revelations, we learn that Mike the chauffeur / body-snatcher is the most normal member of the Lorenz household by a distance of—
Hmm. Just how long is a piece of string?
First, of course, there’s Lorenz himself, yawning and stretching as he sits up in the coffin in the back of the hearse. (We never learn, by the way, whether that coffin has a false bottom, or whether— Well, perhaps it’s best not to inquire.) Then we meet Angel, the mute, vaguely deformed, not so vaguely retarded, quite possibly necrophilial handyman – or something – the kind of guy who walks hunched over even when he doesn’t have a hunch, because really, he should have a hunch. Then we catch a quick glimpse of Toby, the butler (played by our Main Man, Angelo Rossitto), who is wheeled in on a gurney by the housekeeper, Fagah, who’s just plain nuts. It will subsequently be revealed that Angel and Toby are brothers, and Fagah their mother; so apparently we’ve got some sort of Dunwich Horror thing going on here. Or an Ivan Reitman thing. One or the other.
And you know what the best part of all this is? We haven’t even met the really batty one yet.
“My little family!” beams Lorenz, glancing around affectionately. “You’re all so very faithful!”
On behalf of cranks everywhere, I protest!
But Fagah isn’t in an affectionate mood. “Master!” she gasps, in the voice of someone announcing the most ominous of tidings. “The Countess is waiting!”
“Upstairs?” responds Lorenz, instantly becoming grave. “We must hurry!”
He and Mike lift Alice’s body out of the coffin and place it on the gurney, as Angel looks on with a disturbingly avid expression…and possibly a little drooling. The gurney is wheeled into a laboratory, where Lorenz obviously does SCIENCE!! – so we gather from the test tube racks, and flasks full of Mysterious Coloured Fluids.
There is the sound of sobbing and wailing in the laboratory, which means it’s time to meet The Countess…and to pause for a moment to doff our hats to Elizabeth Russell, who manages the not inconsiderable task of stealing this film away from her assorted-nuts co-stars. Russell was, perhaps, more of a presence than an actress: amusingly enough, it seems to have been her over-the-top performance and scene-stealing here that caught the eye of Val Lewton, who put her to infinitely better, and infinitely more subtle, use, in Cat People – “Moya sestra! Moya sestra!” – The Curse Of The Cat People, and Bedlam. (And Youth Runs Wild, which…somehow doesn’t count.)
Many of the people in these Monogram marvels overact, for one reason or another – lack of direction, perhaps, or lack of talent – but with Elizabeth Russell we tend to get the sense that she was channelling her resentment at ending up in this sort of film through her character. The end product is a wonder worth seeing. The Countess Lorenz, not to put too fine a point upon the matter, is a right bee-yotch, and as the film goes on her household’s devotion to her grows increasingly inexplicable, and increasingly hilarious.
“…and as I have told Alice repeatedly, if there’s one thing she’ll need on her wedding-night, it’s lots and lots of protection!”
And oddly—Bela as the devoted husband of a completely undeserving woman was something of a recurrent theme in these Monogram films where, sure, he might be a complete psychopath and a mass murderer, but you just know he never forgot a birthday or an anniversary.
It’s all a matter of priorities.
The Countess, her fists clenched and held up so as to hide her face, rocks back and forth and mutters aspersions as Lorenz prepares himself for some SCIENCE!!, donning one of those old-fashioned lab-coats that has its ties threaded through and around and knotted at the front.
Lorenz might be devoted, but he’s also reached the point of automatic answering when his wife goes into one of her tirades—or so we judge from his perfunctory tone during the following exchange:
Lorenz: “Are you suffering, my beloved?”
Countess [sobbing]: “Terribly! You must hurry!”
Lorenz: “I’m so sorry, but I was detained. Please forgive me.”
Countess: “Forgive you!? You loiter and waste time while I wait here dying—dying!”
Lorenz: “Courage, courage. I will not let you die.”
Countess: “Better death than agony like this! [Uncovering her face] Look at me! Look at me!!”
Lorenz: “Calm yourself, my dear.”
Countess: “Hurry, hurry! Will you hurry!?”
“This is the most uncomfortable dead bride I’ve ever slept on!”
But it is in the most leisurely manner that Lorenz turns away from his hysterical wife and wanders over to the gurney. Fagah, assisting, helps him on with a pair of rubber gloves. Lorenz then turns Alice Wentworth’s head and wipes her neck with alcohol, before inserting a syringe and withdrawing something, which he subsequently releases into a flask held by Fagah. He then pours into the flask the contents of a test tube, and the two fluids are mixed together. Lorenz refills the syringe with the result, and injects it into the Countess—who instantaneously looks about thirty years younger.
While this is going on, Angel slinks out of the shadows and starts hovering over Alice with a most unnerving grin on his face. After a moment, he begins stroking her hair. Lorenz notices, and switching in a second from Devoted Husband to Mad Scientist mode, he snatches up a double-tongued whip from a nearby cupboard – a laboratory accessory surely ranking second only to the machete in The Astro-Zombies – and begins plying it with a will. His arms held up unavailingly, Angel slinks away, while Toby rubs his hands and chortles gleefully to himself, and Fagah voices an objection—although not too strenuously:
Fagah: “Why do you beat my son so hard?”
Lorenz: “Because he is a beast! An animal! And some day I will have to destroy him!”
SCIENCE!! being over for the moment, Lorenz naturally starts removing his lab-coat; while Fagah shakes her head and utters mournfully, “My poor son! Why was he ever born?”
Well, you see, it’s like this: when a mummy and an Elder God love each other very much…
Meanwhile, the Countess is admiring herself in a mirror, and understandably so. As Lorenz, back in Devoted Husband mode, sidles up to her, she murmurs, “Can you bear to look at me now?”
“Of course—you’re beautiful!” Lorenz tells her. “And I shall always keep you this way!”
“…and name her ‘George’!”
The Lorenzes then wander over for a look at Alice. The Countess asks whether she will live, and Lorenz assures her that she will—for as long as she can be of any use. The Countess, anything but pity in her voice, comments on how young and pretty Alice is; to which Lorenz agrees, adding, “All of them must be.” He then guides the Countess out of the laboratory, ordering Fagah to look after the girl—to which of course she responds, “Yes, master!”
Now, before we go any further, we’d better stop and examine the implications of all this. Firstly, no, the girls aren’t dead, they’re in a catatonic state brought on by the orchid—although it’s never quite clear if the flower has been drugged, or bred to be that way; probably the latter. Of course, this begs the question of why so many girls are needed. Even if the Countess must have regular shots, if the girls are alive you’d think Lorenz wouldn’t have to keep abducting more, and more…although there’s a nice addiction allegory hidden in there, I guess.
As for the Countess’s obsession with youth and beauty, and her conviction that no-one could love her unless she was beautiful, sadly, we can only say that in that respect, nothing much seems to have changed over the past eighty years or so; although at least these days no-one resorts to Essence of Bride in order to keep their looks. Now we just pump botulism toxin into our faces—so much more civilised and sensible.
The Countess’s, “She’s pretty…and very young” speech is as close as the film ever gets to actually voicing its premise, which is of course (as was traditional from the time of that other Countess, Countess Bathory, onwards) that these sorts of donors have to be virgins; and since the kidnapped girls were on the verge of marriage but not quite there, they must fit the bill—right?
Another attraction of these Monogram films is their charming naivety.
Of course, if you think about it, the odds would not only be equal but in fact rather better if Lorenz just grabbed any young girl off the street. There would also be no need for poisoned orchids or body-snatching…but then, where would be the fun in that?
Speaking of poisoned orchids, our friend Pat has just finished up an exhausting round of visits to the city florists, none of whom were able to help her, and is currently interrogating a botanist. He recognises Alice’s orchid as a very rare species, and advises her to contact the man who hybridised it – “Over in Europe somewhere” – but who currently just happens to be living upstate; a man called Lorenz…
So Pat sets out, but she arrives at the nearest train station, her request for the local cabbie to take her to “the Lorenz place” provokes the standard Borgo Pass response. Fortunately, there’s a delivery for Dr Lorenz – a coffin – and Mike the chauffeur / body-snatcher / truck-driver arrives to pick it up. Pat hurries over to try and negotiate a lift—only to recoil at the sight of Toby sitting alongside Mike in the front seat. She pulls herself together and persists, but as soon as Mike hears she doesn’t have an appointment, he drives off.
Not to be thwarted, Pat manages to run after the truck and jump into the back unseen, next to the coffin. And considering that she’s carrying a suitcase and wearing a confining 1940s skirt and high heels, that, my friends, is no mean feat.
Alas for Pat, however, about halfway along the road Toby spots her through the back window. Mike instantly pulls up, drags her out, and drives off—with her suitcase. Pat starts the long walk after them, thus setting in motion perhaps the most perfunctory and inexplicable love sub-plot in any 40s B-movie…which, as those with experience of the genre would know, is saying something.
“Oh, darling—you remembered our anniversary!”
At length, Pat manages to flag down the car of one Dr Foster, who just happens to be going to see Lorenz himself. Foster reveals that he has been working with Lorenz, who is, “A doctor himself, but has no licence to practise”; the two of them are trying to “cure” Lorenz’s wife. Foster assures Pat that she’ll find the Lorenzes “very interesting”, adding that Lorenz is a man of “unusual accomplishments” – I’ll say! – but that his wife is “rather peculiar”.
Good luck, by the way, figuring out Foster’s role in all this, until the film spells it out for you. Most of the time it looks like he’s Lorenz’s accomplice, and I actually suspect that this is how the character was written, until it suddenly dawned on someone that the script had no love interest, and a hasty re-write was done. As things stand, we’re forced to remove him from the “secret bad guy” column, and place him instead over in “incredibly thick”.
When Foster and Pat arrive, Lorenz is playing the organ for the Countess’s pleasure; and amusingly, her chair is on a dais above his, just to ensure that the proper order of things is maintained. Toby opens the front door, and as she steps through Pat once again baulks and gives Toby that look…and although, upon the whole, I don’t dislike Pat, this particular reaction made me want to slap her across the face, hard.
Foster, unperturbed, orders Toby to tell his “master” that they have arrived; but intriguingly, it is the Countess he reports to, by patting her hand. Her response is to spit, “Get out, you gargoyle! Get out!”, while Lorenz smiles delightedly at her.
Here we get the first instance of a technical shortcoming that will plague the rest of the film: bad blocking. From this point onwards it becomes increasingly difficult to be sure who is standing where with respect to whom, and who saw or heard what. In this case, Foster and Pat must have witnessed that little scene, but neither of them bats an eyelid. I’m hoping they’re just trying to be polite, rather than that they think that’s an acceptable way for Toby to be treated.
“Why, what a coincidence! – my standards are really low too!”
Foster introduces Pat. Lorenz observes that they’ve been expecting her, on account of the suitcase. Pat elaborates about her profession, and explains that she’s hoping for an interview. During this exchange of pleasantries, the Countess draws closer and closer to Pat, obviously outraged by her twin offenses of being young and pretty; and here she snarls, “No-one asked you to come here! You’re not welcome!” And with that, she hauls off and slaps Pat across the face!
“Control yourself, my dear!” urges Lorenz in a soothing, speaking-to-an-invalid voice, as Pat rubs her cheek and stares, slack-jawed, at her assailant. Lorenz encourages the Countess to go upstairs and lie down, which she does, exiting with a muttered, “I do not like that girl! She is here for no good!” Meanwhile, Pat herself is muttering to Foster, “So that’s what you call ‘eccentric’!”
And then, a violent thunderstorm breaks. Naturally. Lorenz invites Pat to sit down and ask her questions, but gets twitchy when she does. Of course, he knows her assertion that a friend gave her the rare orchid is a lie; but instead of just playing along, he cuts her short and abruptly insists that he can’t spare the time to talk to her.
Now— Bear in mind that at this point Pat has no idea that Lorenz is involved in the abductions. Possibly he thinks she knows more than she does, particularly in view of her lie. Or possibly, his guilty conscience is in control. Or possibly again, the screenwriters fell into a common B-movie trap, and forgot that not all the characters know what we know. In any event, it would at all points have been more sensible if Lorenz had just answered Pat’s questions about the orchid, instead of behaving with overtly suspicious reluctance to do so.
“Child of the night…what music you make!”
And even more peculiar is that, having rebuffed Pat, he then insists upon her staying the night rather than venturing out into the storm, to which she reluctantly agrees. Lorenz summons Toby, and has him carry Pat’s suitcase upstairs, which…well, I think if Pat really couldn’t do that herself, Foster might have done it for her.
As Pat and Foster exit upstairs, a panel under the staircase swings open and admits the Countess, who as you might recall exited up the staircase herself. To Lorenz she hisses, “Why did you ask her to spend the night here?” Lorenz beams at her, patting her hand in a loving way. “For a very special reason,” he replies.
Upstairs, Pat actually remembers to thank Toby for his help, although she still won’t stop staring at him. To this point Toby has not uttered a word, but here he speaks his first line, and a beauty it is, too: “I guess you sleep very well—maybe.” He then wanders off, chuckling to himself.
Foster tries to reassure Pat by telling her that whenever he’s stayed the night, he’s always slept unusually well. “Must be wonderful to have nerves like that,” observes Pat wryly. Or no nerves at all. Or sense, or reason…
Pat locks her door carefully, but she needn’t have bothered. No sooner has she stepped into the bathroom (presumably) to remove her hat than the Countess looms up behind her. Ignoring Pat’s demand to know how she got in, the Countess invades her personal space once again, purring, “You are beautiful! So young! Such lovely skin!” So round. So firm. So fully-packed.
The Countess reaches out and runs her hand over Pat’s shoulder in a manner that suggests that any second now, she’s going to be calling her, “Moya sestra.” Her hand then drops—and although we can’t see where it goes, Pat certainly reacts like she’s been goosed. She runs across the room and unlocks the door, presumably in order to throw the Countess out, but when she turns to do it, she is quite alone…
“How dare you treat Toby like dirt? That’s my job!”
But that’s not all. When Pat opens her suitcase to unpack, she finds that her orchid has disappeared. Yeah, way to focus her suspicions, Lorenz! The way that poor thing had been dragged all over town, it was only a matter of time before it disintegrated on its own.
That night, as Pat sleeps, the secret panel in her room swings open again. This time it is Lorenz who slinks in. He stands over Pat and gives her a long, long – lo-oo-ong – look. I think it’s supposed to suggest he’s feeling reluctance, or remorse; but in the end, he backs away to the panel, glancing back once more with a twist of the lips that bodes ill for our heroine.
Downstairs, we find the Fagah family a-bed – or at least a-chair – a-gurney? Angel sits up and, after glancing around cautiously, starts to put his shoes on. Toby wakes up too, and startles his brother by saying softly, “I know where you’re going! Someday the master will catch you. Then you’ll be sorry!” Angel, who can only grunt, signals Toby to be quiet, and slinks away.
Meanwhile, Lorenz’s night-time perambulation has taken him into Foster’s room. There, too, he hovers over the sleeping doctor, giving him an intense look, before backing off with a silent laugh.
I really have no idea what’s going on here.
And meanwhile again, Angel is in Pat’s room, orchid in hand. He puts it down on her sleeping form, but then without giving it time to work, starts stroking her hair. Not surprisingly, this wakes her, and even less surprisingly, she screams.
Angel flees. Pat, being a girl, has to stop, put on her dressing-gown, then turn on the light, then put on her shoes, before she can take any action. Her bedroom door is still locked, we note. She runs across the hall to Foster’s room and starts pounding on his door. There’s no response, so she hurries to the next door along and repeats the process. This, of all the doors, is unlocked. She opens it—staring in horrified disbelief at the Lorenzes, apparently sound asleep, side by side in matching coffins.
“I’m too much man for you, sister! You’d better stick to this bottle of pills!”
(While this is, of course, the great indelible Moment of The Corpse Vanishes, I can’t actually imagine the age-obsessed Countess going anywhere near a coffin.)
Pat turns to find that Foster has finally answered her call, and tells him there was someone in her room. Showing exactly the same lack of response with which he has greeted every other event so far, he wanders in to investigate. He looks listlessly around, and then suggests that Pat may have been dreaming. She strenuously denies it, telling him about the Countess. “Do you suppose there’s another entrance to this room?”
“I doubt it,” replies Foster. “Why don’t you go back to sleep? No-one’s going to harm you. I’m sure it was just a nightmare.”
“This whole place is a nightmare!” retorts Pat. “Professor Lorenz and his wife were actually sleeping in coffins—I saw them!”
“We often find it difficult to explain the peculiarities of some people,” replies Foster, unmoved by this revelation as by everything else.
“I guess so,” concedes Pat grudgingly. The script then remembers that for some reason she’s supposed to be attracted to this putz, and putting on a fluttery, little-girl voice, she adds breathily, “I’m awfully sorry to have bothered you.”
Lorenz has been eavesdropping again, and now reports to the Countess that Angel has disturbed Pat. The two of them agree that he may, finally, have outlived his usefulness…whatever that was.
When she found out what ‘moya sestra‘ meant, Pat decided she didn’t want to join the sorority.
Back in her room, Pat has declined to take Foster’s disinterested denial of a secret way in as definitive – yeah, you’d think – and after a little poking around, she finds the secret door in the back of her wardrobe. Naturally, she sets out to investigate on her own, creeping down the hidden staircase beyond.
(Weirdly, the sequence that follows is accompanied by stock “travelling across the desert” music.)
Here the awful blocking really begins. As a panel slides back to reveal Pat, Angel gapes in delighted astonishment. He, apparently, is looking straight at her—but she, apparently, can’t see him. She even looks around when she steps through and still sees nothing, even though Angel has picked up a candle and is closing in on her. Finally she does glance back and see him, and with a little gasp runs into a darkened corridor, which he obligingly passes by.
Thwarted in his search for Pat, Angel settles for pressing a lever and opening the door of a secret room. (Why someone would need a secret room when they already have a secret basement is a question you might like to ponder.) Inside is a storage facility such as you would find in a morgue, and Angel pulls out one of the drawers. It appears that he has had free access all along to the catatonic brides; and although we’re forced to witness again his eager stroking of Alice Wentworth’s hair, the question of what else he might have been stroking is mercifully left to our imaginations.
Pat has, by this time, crept up and gotten a good eyeful. She bumps into something and makes a noise, though, and for several minutes has to dodge Angel. She manages to elude him, hurrying into the laboratory and staring in disbelief at Alice, before pulling out another sliding drawer and revealing another bride. By this time, unnoticed by Pat, Angel has returned—and perhaps contrary to our expectations, he looks delighted at the prospect of a living playmate.
Under the Production Code, even married couples had to sleep in separate coffins.
But then, unfortunately for Angel, Lorenz looms up out of the darkness—and although he can’t see Pat, she can see him. She hides herself, and is therefore not actually a witness of Angel’s murder by strangulation. Lorenz steps away from the body, washing his hands fastidiously, as Pat emerges somewhat prematurely from her hiding-place. She walks into the doorway, stares in horror at Angel’s body, gives a loud gasp, and faints—hitting the floor with an even louder thump….
…and then wakes up in her bed. The hell – ?? If Lorenz was going to drain her, why didn’t he just do it? – or at least put her on tap until later? – or kill her? – or something!?
But no. Foster knocks on her door, and she almost drags him in, spilling over with her adventure. Outside, Lorenz is eavesdropping again; but if he’s so worried about what she might say, why didn’t he just kill her?? Or something. Anyway, Lorenz barges in and he and Pat fence for a while, until Foster insists that he doesn’t remember Pat calling for him the night before.
Once two men start telling her she’s wrong, Pat starts to believe it—naturally. Lorenz smirks, observing condescendingly, “Our minds play strange tricks upon us sometimes.” Sinking fast but still game, Pat throws it at Lorenz that the orchid she brought to show him has disappeared from her bag, but this only allows him to suggest that she forgot to pack it in the first place.
No sooner have the two men left, however, than Pat discovers the other orchid, the one Angel brought to her room. This restores her confidence, and in a brisk and decisive manner she presently heads downstairs, excusing herself to the Countess, refusing Lorenz’s offer of breakfast, and begging a lift to the station from Foster. She pauses only for a parting shot: “ By the way, Professor, do you also make a hobby of collecting coffins?”
“But on the plus side, at least they’re married.”
Which of course sets up the film’s signature line of dialogue:
Lorenz: “Why, yes! – in a manner of speaking. I find a coffin much more comfortable than a bed. Many people do so, my dear! Is it so strange, that I accept one while waiting for eternal rest?”
No, no, not strange at all. Move along folks. Nothing to see here.
Something to see outside, though, where Mike the chauffeur / body-snatcher / truck-driver is adding yet another page to his résumé by digging a hole of suspicious shape and depth. Pat points this out, and draws perhaps my favourite of all of Foster’s increasingly fatuous “explanations”:
“He’s real, all right, but I hardly think he’s a grave-digger. More likely he’s laying a foundation for a house.”
Yes, that’s right, Dr Foster: Dr Lorenz’s employee is digging a six-foot-deep hole about ten yards from Lorenz’s front door, on Lorenz’s property, because he’s laying a foundation for a house.
At the station, Foster expresses his hope that he’ll see Pat again, and finally thinks to ask what she was doing there in the first place? – unless it’s a secret. Pat concedes that it is, but tells him anyway – “Somehow I have the feeling I can trust you.” Because he’s too stupid to lie? So Pat tells him all about it, and in the end they agree that when the two of them met in the corridor, Foster must have been either asleep – I assume they mean sleepwalking – or hypnotised. And having come to that conclusion, they bid each other a cheerful and unconcerned goodbye and go their separate ways.
“Is it so strange, that while waiting for eternal rest a couple should have his-and-hers graves dug ten feet from their front door?”
Pat confronts an agitated Keenan, and suddenly she’s not sure she wasn’t dreaming again. What? In the middle of this, Foster turns up, and astonishingly he does something helpful. After Pat’s departure, he discovered that Lorenz had another delivery waiting at the station for pickup: a special kind of moss used in the cultivation of orchids. Keenan is swayed but not convinced, bringing up the fact that Foster himself didn’t remember his conversation with Pat. Foster argues that it could have taken place while he was, “In a somnambulistic state—under the influence of hypnotism!” What, both? Well, I guess that would explain his lively demeanour and razor-sharp intellect. Keenan is taken aback by the implications of this suggestion:
Keenan: “Aw, now, wait a minute! Are you trying to tell me that this Professor Lorenz is a hypnotist as well as a horticulturalist!?”
Oh, my God! The man must be an insane criminal genius! As well as a hypnotist and a horticulturalist. But that’s not all! Now that he’s had time to think about it, Foster has, in fact, noticed one or two other things about Lorenz:
Foster: “He’s a man of unlimited talents. He’s strange – peculiar – I’ve even suspected him of being insane! But the fact remains, he’s not only a doctor, but a physicist, and a scientist of great abilities!”
Whoa, a physicist and a scientist!?
Keenan then asks about the Countess. Foster is reluctant to discuss her – “Professional ethics, you know!” – but with a little more prompting, spills his guts. We learn that although the Countess has the appearance of a young woman, she has the “heart and arteries” of a seventy- or eighty-year-old. Which gives her a good twenty years on her loving husband. So perhaps it’s not surprising that she’s a little bit…sensitive. Keenan protests that this doesn’t explain the dead brides, upon which Foster suggests that they might still be alive, but in a cataleptic state.
“I could have been hypnotised, or in a somnambulistic state. Or I could have been my normal self. It’s kind of hard to tell.”
Or maybe hypnotised. Or somnambulistic. Or all three.
Foster, for whom leaping to wild conclusions is apparently a lot easier than seeing what’s right in front of him, then speculates about the whole Essence of Bride project. There is some topical debate on the subject of glands and hormones before Keenan says flatly that he couldn’t possibly print such an outrageous story. He does, however, agree to start an investigation, but Foster warns him that Lorenz is clever enough to withstand any investigation, and to hide any evidence. Like the body under the mound ten yards from his front door. Pat then pipes up with a plan to trap him: a fake wedding, with a fake society bride.
(So what did Lorenz and Foster’s attempt to “cure” the Countess consist of? – and is Foster’s “speculation” here actually the result of a belatedly dropping penny? “Ohhh…so that’s what we were doing with those dead brides! Well, I did wonder…”)
Pat and Foster visit a nightclub, where Peggy Woods, an aspiring actress, is making ends meet working as a cigarette-girl. At the sight of her, Foster actually shows signs of life. Pat takes Peggy to her dressing-room – dressing-room? – and pitches the plan to her. Peggy is understandably reluctant, but is finally won over by the prospect of having her picture on the front page of every newspaper in the country.
Soon, the Lorenzes, that loving couple, are catalogue-shopping—I mean, reading the society pages together. They are interrupted by Fagah, who’s a bit miffed over the whole you-strangled-my-son-and-planted-him-in-the-front-garden thing. Lorenz, although in the running for Husband Of The Year, clearly isn’t going to win Employer Of The Year any time soon: he barks at Fagah for coming into this part of the house and orders her out. She, as always, intones, “Yes, master!”, but gives him an Ominous Look before she goes.
And all of a sudden, Dr Foster woke up.
Soon, as a private chapel fills with “ham actors” (according to Keenan; Monogram were never shy about breaking the fourth wall) and Pat gives Peggy last-minute instructions about her fake orchid, a real one is delivered, much to everyone’s relief: now they’re sure Lorenz will show up. The “ceremony” starts (more starlets getting their big break), with Pat and Foster standing right out there in the open. Oh, that’ll help sustain the illusion—as will Peggy’s broad wink at Pat on the way past.
Then, in a film full of abductions, bizarre scientific experiments, murder and necrophilia, comes the single most horrifying moment:
Patricia: “It’s just like a real wedding, isn’t it?”
Foster: “Too bad it isn’t—ours!”
This nauseating exchange is mercifully interrupted by a message that the minister wants to see Pat in his study. After a blank moment, Pat realises he means the real minister, not his ham replacement, and excuses herself to Foster. She enters…and finds an old acquaintance waiting for her. Pat gets off one scream before being overpowered, but no-one hears. Lorenz picks up her unconscious form – after stopping to put his hat on, of course – and carries her out and down a staircase.
Okay, so that was easier than just hanging onto her while she was in your house – in your secret underground storage facility – unconscious – how, exactly?
Eventually, Foster’s brontosaurus brain begins to mull over the fact that Pat’s been with the minister for a strangely long time. He goes out to the study, where there is no answer to his knock or his call, and performs the least convincing “breaking open a locked door” moment in film history (hey, locks cost money!). Inside, the real minister – as opposed to the fake minister – as opposed to the other fake minister – is just coming to, and rubbing his aching head.
“Dr Lorenz! Does this mean you’re a minister? As well as a scientist, and a physicist? And a hypnotist, and a horticulturalist!?”
Outside, Toby is acting as lookout. He signals to Lorenz that the coast is clear, which proves to be a slight miscalculation on his part. We see no sign of the “men everywhere” that Peggy was promised, but as Lorenz is stuffing Pat into his car, a beat cop wanders around a corner. He ponders the scene for a moment, and then – without a word of warning – draws his gun and fires!
And who does he hit? Toby, of course; a piece of marksmanship made all the more remarkable by the fact that while firing, the cop held his gun level at approximately eye-height.
It would, I imagine, take a physicist like Lorenz to explain the logistics of that to us.
Toby reels, clutching at his back. The cop fires again, and this time it isn’t clear whether he misses altogether, or hits Toby again. Either way, Lorenz makes a plunge into his car, thrusting away both Toby’s desperately clutching hand and his plea not to be left behind. Lorenz drives off, with the dying Toby left sprawling in the road, face down.
Of course, apart from being a thoroughly rotten thing to do, Lorenz’s abandonment of Toby is also an incredibly stupid thing to do: not only Foster but half “the village” knows Toby works for Lorenz—who has therefore left behind the first piece of incontrovertible evidence against him.
The cop then hurries over to inspect Toby’s body, which you might think would be an embarrassing moment for him, but he gives no sign of it.
Lorenz arrives home with Pat still in one of those Conveniently Lengthy Movie Faints. As Lorenz unloads his cargo, Fagah looms up, understandably apprehensive, and Lorenz breaks the bad tidings about Toby, insisting there was nothing he could do. Fagah looks, shall we say, unconvinced. Lorenz asks after the Countess and is told that she is waiting—as usual.
“No-one ever…picks on someone…their own…size…!”
So Pat is wheeled into the secret laboratory, where we find the Countess hiding her face again, and in her usual sunny good humour:
Countess: “There was trouble?”
Lorenz [donning his lab-coat]: “Yes. But we will flee before anyone finds us.”
Countess: “But the brides! What will we do without them!?”
Lorenz: “We’ll have to leave them here.”
Countess: “Which means I will perish!!”
Lorenz: “Oh, we always can find other girls. In the meantime, we take this one with us.”
Countess: “WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR!!??”
Lorenz strolls back to the gurney, where Pat is just regaining consciousness. “So, my dear, again we meet—only under different circumstances. I would prefer that you would be a bride, but it really doesn’t matter. You serve our purpose just as well.”
Sooo…it’s not a matter, then, of bride-dom signifying virginity? – but rather, simply a case of Lorenz being one sick, sick puppy?
Or maybe that remark was meant as a slur on Foster, who – let’s face it – isn’t exactly likely to have, um, swept Pat off her feet.
Fagah wanders in to air her grievances once again. “Now both of my sons are gone! You betrayed me, master!” Lorenz’s response is a slap across the face with a rubber glove. “I’ve heard enough! There’s work to do.”
Fagah quails, and begins to help Lorenz prepare for the tapping of Pat; but as soon as his back is turned—
“…and we never got that dental plan you promised, either!”
Whoa! Nifty dagger!
As the Countess shrieks, “No! No!!”, and Lorenz clutches at his back – just like Toby, mwuh-ha-ha! – Fagah gloats, “You betrayed me, master! You shouldn’t have done it!”
But Lorenz is a tough old bird. Despite the dagger stuck in his back, he reels around and staggers after Fagah, literally playing catchem-dodgem around the laboratory equipment before he grabs her, after which she goes the way of Angel. And then, a trickle of blood issuing from the corner of his mouth and his life ebbing rapidly away, Lorenz totters back to Pat, to finish preparing just one more treatment for his wife…
As Lorenz extends the syringe, the Countess joins him. “Your hand is unsteady!” she snaps. Well, that might possibly be because of THE FATAL KNIFE WOUND IN HIS BACK. Of course, to the Countess that’s no excuse. But alas, game as he is, those sweet nothings from his wife will be the last Lorenz ever hears, as he finally keels over.
Now, while this has been going on, Foster, Keenan and the cops have arrived, and we get a completely unconvincing Action Hero moment for Foster, as he takes out Mike. The rescue-party then pours into the house. Foster leads them up to Pat’s erstwhile bedroom and through the panel in the wardrobe.
Downstairs, the Countess isn’t giving up her dreams of youth and beauty just because of a little thing like a dead husband. As Pat sits up groggily, the Countess shoves her back again, and goes for her neck with the syringe. Pat manages to fight her off, knocking her to the ground, where—oh! Fagah isn’t completely dead after all. And in fact, her last act is to pick the dagger up again and finish off the Countess, too.
Awww…! His ‘n’ hers matching fatal knife wounds in the back—how romantic!
“…and when you’ve drained this girl of her essence, I want you to finish putting up those shelves, and then cut the lawn, and then…are you listening to me!?”
And Pat, having just regained consciousness, faints.
Foster and the others turn up, with Foster gathering Pat up into his arms. This faint doesn’t last quite as long as the other one did, so when Keenan, in a speaking-gruffly-to-hide-his-emotions kind of way orders the two of them to break it up because, “We’ve got headlines to write!”, she is able to respond:
Patricia: “Do I get a by-line?”
Keenan: “After this you can have a clothesline—with my shirt on it!”
After which Pat and Foster beam at one another and embrace.
Don’t ask me.
And then we cut to another wedding, with Keenan grumbling about having gone to all that trouble to make a newspaperwoman out of Pat, only to have her quit on him. And for Foster. Okay, he didn’t say that, I said that. And then we get the traditional, stupid, unfunny, punchline ending, as Sandy – remember Sandy? – sniffs an orchid and keels over.
So what happened to the abducted brides?
Script don’t know. Script don’t care.
Want a second opinion of The Corpse Vanishes? Visit 1000 Misspent Hours – And Counting.
This review is part of the B-Masters’ tribute to some of the biggest stars of the silver screen. Click here for more!