THE CORPSE VANISHES
(1942)



Hi, it's Pam again. Today's movie stars none other than Dracula himself, Bela Lugosi, who's the only actor in the movie you've probably heard of. Bela Lugosi was around sixty when he made this movie, but although he's definitely showing his age, he's still in decent shape, not the wreck he would be in Vampire Over London ten years later. Alcohol and morphine don't seem to have taken the toll on him that they would later.

For a horror movie, it starts out on a remarkably cheerful note. It opens in a church, where a young couple are getting married - evidently a well-to-do couple, judging from their clothes and those of the guests.


The happy couple

However, joy turns to tragedy almost at once, for immediately after saying "I do," the bride collapses onto the floor. And she's in as serious a condition as she can be, because after a cursory examination, one of the guests who is a doctor says that she is dead.

As I said, the couple and the guests appear to be fairly well-off, and this is further confirmed by the fact that this wedding rated the presence of a reporter, a dark-haired women who introduces herself as "Pat Hunter from the Chronicle." She wants to know what happened, but the doctor brushes her off firmly. Pat Hunter is played by the brunette actress Luana Walters, an actress you may have seen if you've watched a lot of Western movies made in the 1930s. She had a long but not very successful career, acting mostly in Westerns and low-budget movies like this one, with some bit parts in better movies. She had her own issues with alcohol and would die of alcohol-related causes at the age of 50.
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The poor bride is conveyed into what appears to be an undertaker's hearse, but we suspect that it is not what it appears to be, for sitting inside is none other than Bela Lugosi, grinning from ear to ear.


This doesn't look good

We are right to be suspicious, because in the next scene, the real undertaker's men turn up, only to be told that somebody already picked up the body. Pat Hunter is still hanging around, and we learn that this isn't the first time the body of a bride has disappeared, as she exclaims happily if tactlessly, "It's sensational! Another kidnapping of a dead bride! What a story!" Fortunately neither the groom nor any of the bride's family is present.


Pat Hunter, lady reporter, plus her photographer

Pat is clearly one of the resourceful, wisecracking, take-no-guff heroines that were so common in the movies of the 1930s and early 1940s and would disappear shortly after World War II. Although tact doesn't seem to be her strong point, you can't fault her work ethic. Not surprisingly for the time, she's a reporter for the society page, which is why she was at the wedding. She wants very much to be given more interesting assignments, and she sulks a little when her boss sends her to cover another wedding.

We cut to a scene of the bride in her wedding dress. Her bridesmaids and her mother are hovering around her, wishing her the best, but then we switch to the outdoors, where a black car is just pulling up. Another guest? Probably not. The car resembles the hearse that took away the previous bride, and the door in back opens briefly to reveal Bela Lugosi peering out. (We'll find out later that the character he plays is called Professor Lorenz.) He pulls his head back in, then we go back to the bride, who is pinning on an orchid corsage that's just been delivered. A present from the groom? We'll see...


All those pretty 1940s dresses and hairdos!

The wedding proceeds as scheduled, and the bride faints. As at the previous wedding, she's put on a stretcher and conveyed to a car, which seems to belong to a real undertaker. Two policemen on motorcycles escort it. Surely Professor Lorenz has been foiled? Possibly not, because he looks out of his car at the departing bride and grins, then off goes his car. In the meantime, Pat's photographer is bragging to her about all the photographs he got, and he gives her something else he got: the orchid from the bride's corsage. She notices that it has a smell and remarks that orchids don't normally have any scent. One deep whiff makes her dizzy. Is this mere coincidence? Again, we'll see.

As I just mentioned, the body of the bride is being taken to the undertaker's with two policemen escorting the car. However, on the way, they spot a burning car at the side of the road, and they order the driver of the bride's car to stop while they investigate. While they're busy with the burning car, Professor Lorenz and his henchman drive up to the bride's car, quietly extract her body, put it into their car, and drive off.

It seems that police cars had radios in 1942, which surprised me a little, and the police are informed of the abduction over the radio and told to stop any suspicious-looking cars. Bela Lugosi's car is stopped, but he evidently planned for this eventuality. When the policemen open the back, they see a coffin, all right, but when they open it, who should they see but Professor Lorenz.


Not a sight for sore eyes

We'll leave the bride for a while to turn to Pat. She's been busy since we saw her last, and she's in her editor's office telling him what she found. She looked at photographs of the brides who have disappeared mysteriously, and she found that they were all wearing an orchid that looked like the one the last bride was wearing. What's more, nobody admitted to sending the brides the orchid. Finally she points out that the orchid she got from the last bride has a peculiar odor. Her editor is none too impressed with her findings, but he grudgingly tells her to investigate.

Pat must have worked awfully fast, because in the new scene, Professor Lorenz' car is just arriving at its destination. He struggles out of his coffin and gets out of the car, to be greeted by a dwarf, a grinning man with a "hunchback" (he actually just stands and walks bent over), and an old woman who calls him "Master" and tells him the "Countess" is waiting. He says that they must hurry, and the bride is put on a cart and wheeled off to his laboratory.


Nice lab, if rather on the small side

The Countess is in the lab waiting for him, and she is in distress. She chews out Professor Lorenz for taking so long and moans that she's dying. Her pain seems to have something to do with her appearance, as she cries out, "Look at me!" She continues to moan and sob as Professor Lorenz takes a syringe and extracts something from the bride's neck and injects it into the Countess' neck. The sobs stop, and the Countess stands up, looks at herself in the mirror, and evidently likes what she sees. We are to assume that the Countess was old and ugly and whatever it was Professor Lorenz extracted from the bride made the Countess young and beautiful, but to be honest, the only thing wrong with her before is that she had her face all screwed up.


The "old" Countess

I suppose the movie budget didn't run to actual "old" makeup. One nice thing that happens is that we see that the bride isn't dead, merely unconscious, and Professor Lorenz remarks that he'll keep her alive as long as she's of use.

Meanwhile, Pat is hard at work. She's consulting a horticulturalist about the mysterious orchid, and he refers her to a man named Lorenz, who was the man who originally hybridized the orchid. Fortunately for the newspaper's budget, Professor Lorenz just happens to live nearby. Pat evidently doesn't believe in letting the grass grow under her feet, and she heads straight for the town where Professor Lorenz lives. She quickly runs into an unexpected obstacle: the driver of the only cab in town flatly refuses to take her to Professor Lorenz' house.


I love her hat and suit

However, he has a suggestion: the man sitting in a nearby pickup truck works for Professor Lorenz, and maybe he'll give her a ride. This man also refuses to give her a lift when he finds out that Professor Lorenz isn't expecting her, but Pat is undaunted. As the truck is pulling away, she runs after it and jumps into the truck bed. Yes, in her hat, pearls, skirt suit, and high heels. Women were tougher back then.

Pat doesn't get too far, though. The driver spots her from the truck's rear window, stops the truck, pulls her off, and drives away, leaving her standing in the road. Fortunately for her, the next car that comes along is driven by a man who's also going to the Lorenz house, and he gives her a lift. The man is Dr. Foster, who is working with Professor Lorenz to cure the Professor's wife's mysterious illness. He warns Pat that she may find the Lorenzes rather eccentric, which, judging by what we've already seen, is a dramatic understatement.

Pat is taken rather aback when the dwarf opens the front door, and she's shocked even more when the Countess yells at her that she's not welcome, then slaps her. Professor Lorenz calms his wife down and send her upstairs to bed, then he settles down with Pat and lets her interview him about his work with orchids. He seems cooperative at first, but when Pat mentions that she actually has one of his orchids, he freezes up and refuses to talk any more. In fact, he claims that he doesn't grow orchids anymore. Surprisingly, though, he offers to put up her and Dr. Foster for the night, since it's started to rain very hard and the drive back to the town might not be safe.

Pat must not have watched many horror movies, because she agrees to stay. There are signs that this wasn't a wise decision: the dwarf wishes her a good night's sleep in a very sinister way, Dr. Foster admits that he barely knows the Lorenzes, we see Professor Lorenz lurking and grinning, and Pat turns around in her bedroom to find the Countess right behind her, smiling and telling her that she'll be a lovely bride. The appearance of the Countess is especially unnerving, because Pat had locked her bedroom door, and as soon as Pat turns her back, the Countess disappears again.

However, as you'll recall, it's late at night and it's raining very hard, so although Pat looks worried, she goes to bed anyway. She should have tried to find out how the Countess managed to appear and disappear in her room before she fell asleep, but we soon find out ourselves. There's a large old-fashioned armoire against one of the wall, and as we watch, the doors swing open soundlessly, and out pops Professor Lorenz.


Sinister!

However, all he does is stare at Pat for a few seconds, then he retreats to the armoire and steps in. He reappears in Dr. Foster's room, and again just looks at him briefly, then leaves.

But Professor Lorenz isn't the only one prowling around the house. His bent-backed henchman is also restless.


The Professor doesn't believe in pampering his employees

He gets out of bed (and he's lucky to have one, because the old woman has to make do with a chair) and sneaks off to Pat's room, where he places an orchid beside the still-sleeping Pat.


Aw, how sweet?

He can't resist stroking her hair, and this is what finally wakes her up. She naturally screams and he runs away, but she doesn't cower in bed. She gets up, throws on her robe and shoes, and heads out of her bedroom. She's knocking on bedroom doors to try to find Dr. Foster, but has no luck until one door opens. But it's not Dr. Foster, it's...


Oh, boy, Pat's in trouble

Just then Dr. Foster comes out of his room. Pat, possibly deciding that the Lorenz' sleeping arrangements are none of her business, tells him that she just saw a horrible creature in her room. Dr. Foster checks the armoire but finds no sign of the intruder, and tells her she just had a bad dream.

Dr. Foster leaves, and Pat decides to explore further. She soon finds that the back of the armoire slides open when she touches a spot, revealing a secret passageway that she doesn't hesitate to explore. Spooky music plays, and unbeknownst to her, she's being followed by the bent-backed servant, who is grinning and gnawing on a piece of meat. Somehow he gets ahead of her, and she sees him go into a room, where he slides open a large drawer to reveal the bride. I can't tell if she's still alive, but if she is, she couldn't have been getting much oxygen inside that drawer. The servant strokes her hair, then Pat accidentally makes a small sound and distracts him. She hides as he moves around, then, once he's left the room, instead of sneaking out she goes over to the cabinet, looks at the bride, then opens another drawer to reveal another bride. (Both of them are still wearing their wedding dresses.) Pat has nerves of steel!


Just a normal day in the life of a reporter

As Pat's looking at the brides, she hears Professor Lorenz outside the room, telling the servant not to be afraid, he won't hurt him. We immediately learn that he's lying, as he grabs the servant by the neck and strangles him. The Professor overheard Pat telling Dr. Foster about the intruder, and he felt that the servant was causing too much trouble, so he decided to kill him. The Professor leaves his former servant lying on the floor, and Pat tiptoes up to the doorway to see what happened. Her nerves aren't completely impervious, because when she sees the servant lying on the ground, she faints.

The day dawns with Pat waking up back in her bed. She's regained her nerve, and when Dr. Foster knocks on her door, she proceeds to tell him of her night's adventures. If I were in her place, I think I'd keep quiet, sneak out of the house as soon as possible, and go to the police even if I had to walk all the way, but ace reporter Pat has other ideas. Professor Lorenz shows up just as she's telling Dr. Foster about the brides she saw in the basement, and he tells her that she must have had a bad dream. Then Dr. Foster denies that Pat told him about the servant coming into her room. It seems to me that this should upset her quite a bit, but she takes it right in stride, and after Dr. Foster and Professor Lorenz have left the room, she calmly proceeds to get dressed. As she does, she finds the orchid the servant left and pockets it.

It seems that Pat is not completely bereft of common sense, and after she's dressed, she comes downstairs and casually tells Professor Lorenz that she has an appointment back at her office and needs to leave immediately. Professor Lorenz doesn't argue, and Dr. Foster agrees to drive her to the train station. But just before they leave, Pat asks Professor Lorenz if he makes a hobby of collecting coffins, which seems to be pushing her luck way too far. However, he has an explanation: he finds coffins more comfortable to sleep in than beds. He says goodbye to her amiably, apparently not realizing that he pretty much confirmed to Pat that she wasn't dreaming about what she saw in the night.

Dr. Foster drives her to the station without any incident, and as she's about to leave, he asks her why she really came to see Professor Lorenz. Despite the fact that he denied that she told him about the servant who came into her bedroom, she tells him that she feels she can trust him (!), and she tells him that she thinks Professor Lorenz has something to do with the vanishing brides. She also tells him that she thinks he was hypnotized last night and that's why he can't remember talking to her. He promptly agrees that he must have been hypnotized.

Oh, Pat. What happened to the smart reporter? Isn't it a lot more likely that Dr. Foster is in cahoots with Professor Lorenz and is lying about not being able to remember talking to you? And you found the bodies of the missing brides in Professor Lorenz' basement, isn't that solid proof that Professor Lorenz had everything to do with the disappearance of the brides?

Once back at her office, Pat tells her editor about her suspicions, but it seems that now Pat isn't sure herself if she actually saw the brides, or if she dreamed the whole thing. Her editor naturally feels that Pat's trip was less than helpful, and as he's telling her so rather forcefully, Dr. Foster shows up. After Pat left on the train, he decided to ask at the station about any shipments sent to Professor Lorenz, and he found out that the Professor had been receiving a special type of moss used only for growing orchids.

I have no idea if there is such a moss, but Pat immediately and fairly reasonable deduces that the Professor is still growing orchids. She also deduces that the orchids he grows are the ones the brides were all wearing when they disappeared, which seems more of a stretch. Even if the orchids they wore were all the rare orchid, it seems unlikely that he's the only person in the world who grows it.

But Dr. Foster isn't finished imparting information. He goes on to say that although the Countess looks like a young woman, her heart and arteries are those of a 70- or 80-year-old. He makes the awesome leap to deduce that Professor Lorenz is keeping the brides alive in a cataleptic state to somehow keep his wife young.


Remember the days when people could smoke anywhere?

The editor doesn't really believe this, but he's willing to let Pat investigate further. How does Pat plan to proceed with her investigation? Well, you'll remember that all the kidnapped girls were brides. So is Pat planning to get married? No, because Professor Lorenz would recognize her. What then?

It seems that Pat knows a girl named Peggy, who is an aspiring actress who works at a nightclub as a cigarette girl - something I've heard about but have never seen in real life.


That dress is kind of racy for 1942

She asks Peggy to be the bride in a fake wedding intended to catch the person who has been kidnapping brides. I wouldn't have thought that anyone would be willing to do anything that dangerous, but Pat points out to Peggy that after the kidnapper is caught, Peggy will be famous and will have acting offers pouring in. Peggy, it seems, really wants to be an actress, and she agrees.

Peggy"s "engagement" is duly announced in the newspapers, and the announcement doesn't go unnoticed by the Professor and the Countess. The Professor promises to remember the date.

The big day duly arrives, and Pat presents Peggy with a bouquet and a fake orchid. Peggy is nervous, but Pat reassures her that the police have the wedding staked out and are watching for any potential kidnappers. The plan seems to be for Peggy to pretend to faint at the altar, then to wait for the kidnappers to try to get her. Pat, Dr. Foster, and the editor are conferring in the church when a deliveryman shows up with an orchid. A nearby policeman grabs the orchid and the deliveryman, and the "wedding" proceeds.

Peggy has been provided with fake bridesmaids, a fake father of the bride, and even a fake minister, and as Pat remarks to Dr. Foster, the whole thing looks completely real. Dr. Foster takes this opportunity to ask Pat to marry him, which seems quite sudden. However, we've seen that they do seem attracted to each other, and although we've seen them together only a handful of times, there had to have been some time gap between the engagement announcement and the wedding, so maybe they had a chance to get to know each other. Why am I concerning myself with the marriage plans of a couple of fictional characters, anyway?

To get back to the action, just as Dr. Foster proposes, someone tells Pat that the minister - the real one - would like to speak to her in his study. She goes into the study, but oh, no - it's not the minister, it's Professor Lorenz! He chloroforms Pat and carries her out to the waiting car, staggering a little as he does so. Bela Lugosi wasn't as young as he used to be. But one of the police guarding the church spots Professor Lorenz and without a word draws his pistol and shoots, hitting not the Professor but the Professor's dwarf servant.


Poor guy

The servant begs the Professor piteously not to leave him, but off the Professor drives.

Professor Lorenz appears to get away clean, but of course Dr. Foster is able to tell the police who kidnapped Pat and where he's taking her. At chez Lorenz, the Countess is waiting and is frantic. Professor Lorenz tells her that once he's transfused whatever it is he transfuses from Pat to the Countess, they'll leave and take Pat with them to provide a supply of fresh youth on demand. However, the old woman we've been seeing off and on has other ideas. It seems that both the dwarf and the bent-backed servant were her sons, and she's quite unhappy that the Professor has killed both of them. She expresses her displeasure with a large knife, and although the Professor is badly wounded, he expresses his displeasure by strangling her, after which he collapses. Pat revives briefly to see the not-quite-dead old woman stab the Countess, then she faints again. Dr. Foster and Pat's editor turn up immediately after that, and Pat revives enough to ask for a byline, to which her editor agrees.

The movie ends with Pat and Dr. Foster getting married, and quite unexpectedly we learn from a sour remark that her editor makes that Pat has decided to quit her job now she's married. I'm not sure why, by 1942 it wasn't that unusual for newly-married women to keep on working, at least until the first baby came along. I don't blame her editor for being put out, because as he says, she's quitting just as she's becoming a good reporter. However, Pat has made her choice, and we hope she and Dr. Foster live happily ever after.


All's well that ends well

I can't snark too hard on this movie. It is what it is, a low-budget horror movie, and for what it is, it was done well. It was made by Monogram, a studio famous for its cheapness, but Monogram generally did a decent job within its limited budget. I think the movie would have actually been scarier without all the by-now-stereotyped hints of Dracula which were often more funny than frightening, but I suppose that people who went to see Bela Lugosi movies expected to see him play some version of Dracula.

One question I have is, why did the girls Professor Lorenz used to keep his wife young have to be brides?

Written by Pam Burda in August, 2020.





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