Vampire Over London (1952)
Pam here, and do I ever have a treat for you! Today I'm reviewing a low-budget black-and-white movie made in England in 1952, featuring a dingy postwar London and starring an over-age music-hall comic with a moronic routine. Have you gone out of your mind, you may be asking? That's always a possibility, but this movie has more going for it: (sort of) Vampires! Robots! A man in (ugly) drag! And Bela Lugosi!!!
To give you a little more background on this movie, it stars Arthur Lucan, an English actor who had logged many a weary mile before he starred in the little gem I am bestowing my attention upon. He was about 67 when he made this movie, and most of his career was spent in drag, but not the glamorous kind of drag. Early on, he developed a character called "Old Mother Riley," who unsurprisingly turns out to be an elderly Irishwoman. He mined this character relentlessly for the rest of his career, which by 1952 was nearly over (he died in 1954). Old Mother Riley had been around for many, many years by 1952, and by the time she got to this movie, she was as worn-out as her creator. Something which, by the way, is also true of the locale in which this movie is set. Although we aren't shown bombed-out ruins, in 1952, London, and England in general, was far from completely recovered from World War II. The city looks rundown, and its inhabitants are all dressed in drab, practical clothing. There won't be a hint of fashion or glamour throughout this movie, except for Bela Lugosi's usual evening attire. This is quite a contrast to the American approach to moviemaking. Even in the cheapest American movies of the time, the actresses were given fashionable hairstyles and stylish wardrobes, even if the "wardrobe" consisted of only one dress for the whole movie. Then again, English movie actresses usually aren't as glammed-up as American movie actresses; has anybody else noticed this?
Indeed, young lady, beware.
The movie does start out rather interestingly, with a young woman getting off a ship and being forced into a car, which drives off to some unknown location. Both the young woman and the man who forced her into the car have foreign, Slavic-sounding accents. Oh, no, are the dirty Commies at work in London? No, it doesn't look like it. The police believe the culprit is actually a foreign scientist named Dr. von Housen, who claims to be a vampire. The movie instantly becomes a little less interesting when the police make it clear that he isn't really a vampire, he's only pretending. Oh, please let them be wrong, please let this be a movie where the skeptics persist in denying what's so obviously happening right in front of them! I want real vampires!
What's with the opium pipe on the police commissioner's desk?
It seems Dr. von Housen has been a busy little fake vampire. He's been in England for only six weeks, but he's suspected to be involved in the disappearance of 30 women. What could he want with so many women? That's close to one a day! The police don't bother to speculate on that, and they don't seem nearly as concerned at the disappearance of 30 women as they ought to be, since so far they don't seem to be making any effort to actually find Dr. von Housen. However, they introduce a little plot twist -- it seems the last woman who disappeared, the one we saw being forced into a car, had a map showing uranium deposits in South America, and the police think that Dr. von Housen wants to get his hands on this map. A vampire who wants to build an atomic bomb or something...Now do you see why I wanted to review this movie?
Nice how random kidnapped girls all have such pretty casting agency head shots.
Well, we've got the Vampire, when do we get Old Mother Riley? Right now. Wikipedia suggests that Mother Riley's occupation varied throughout the years according to plot demands, but in this movie she's running a small Mom-and-Pop grocery store in a poorish part of London. Mother Riley is a lot more worried about the vampire than the police are. However, she's not at all worried about being behind on the rent, and she breaks forth in a little song to express her lack of concern. I've never seen this in any other Bela Lugosi movie, and I can't say that the innovation is an improvement. By 1952, Bela Lugosi's career had declined to the point where he had to take what work he could get, and obviously he wasn't able to get much. By the way, Arthur Lucan doesn't do too bad a job of portraying an old woman, at least as long as the camera keeps its distance. In closeups, it's clearly a man wearing that old-fashioned bonnet, but the voice could be an old woman's voice. As far as the rest of his act is concerned, his attempts at faking an Irish accent come and go, mostly go. I haven't seen any other Old Mother Riley movies, so I don't know if his jokes were always as lame as they are in this one, but I feel safe in saying that they could never have been any worse. But to get back to the action, Mother Riley feels the need to give us a little more slapstick humor, and I'm beginning to lose patience when the scene mercifully shifts to a spooky old mansion with an owl hooting in the background. Ahh, this is more like it.
Lucan's singing voice is an acquired taste.
This, it seems, is the current home of the afore-mentioned Vampire, also known as Dr. von Housen. Postwar shortages don't seem to have affected Dr. von Housen any. The house is large and luxuriously furnished, and he has at least three servants. We see one of them sitting in a dark room next to a coffin, but the spookiness of the scene is unfortunately spoiled by faint snoring emanating from the coffin. The coffin lid opens to reveal the good doctor himself, who emerges to say it's time he was getting to his lab. He's clad in full formal evening dress, and the servant asks him something I've been wondering, which is, "Why are you sleeping in your evening clothes?" Dr. von Housen chuckles and says it's because he was buried in them. What a card!
Lots of practice for him.
I'm entertained by the thought of seeing a scientist pouring chemicals and doing analyses in white tie and tails, but it seems I'm to be disappointed. Dr. von Housen changes into something slightly more practical but still mad-scientist-appropriate, dark pants and what appears to be a high-necked black satin blouse (the print's not the greatest). By 1952, Bela Lugosi was 70 years old and suffering from serious health problems, including a long-term addiction to morphine that helps explain why he was reduced to acting in movies like this one, but he looks and sounds pretty good. However, the camera doesn't get too close to him, and also, as I mentioned, the print's a little blurry. In addition, he's got a thick coating of makeup on his face, and I think there's a miniature spotlight trained on his face to minimize his wrinkles. But for a 70-year-old morphine addict, he looks good. We learn that Dr. von Housen is a true scientific genius, with accomplishments all the other scientists in the world can only dream about. He's made a machine that can destroy 1,000 airplanes and ten battleships with the turn of a knob and fits nicely on a tabletop, to boot. Best of all, it has a robot control that can control 50,000 robots at once. Rather disappointingly, however, he currently has only one robot. Hey, now, don't you go laughing at him! How many scientists do you know who have even one robot? I bet none!
Bad lighting is not Lugosi's friend.
The machine must be a very recent invention, otherwise I can't imagine why he's living in a remote if impressive house instead of ruling the whole world. But it seems that his shortage of robots is somehow a handicap, one that he expects will shortly be remedied once he gets his hands on that young woman's map (remember her?) and thus obtains an unlimited supply of uranium. I'm wondering why he needs uranium for the robots and also what the other 29 girls are for, but for now I'm waiting to see what the one robot he does have looks like, since it's being shipped to him and is scheduled to arrive shortly. For some reason, maybe he thinks the police are actually going to look for him, it's being sent to a "Dr. Riley." Ho, ho, ho. I bet everybody can guess what's going to happen next.
An entire scene filmed with a stand-up beaker rack in front of Lugosi, really.
And you are so right. Some drunken sailors end up switching shipping tags (don't ask, it isn't very funny anyway), and the robot is duly delivered to our Mother Riley. She's remarkably unsurprised when she opens the box and sees the robot, even though she thinks it's something a dead relative willed to her. Actually, she thinks it's her dead relative himself, canned. She must come from an interesting family. But there's poor Dr. von Housen, what's he going to do without his robot? Not to worry, the robot is equipped with some useful options: a locator that tells the Doctor where the robot is, and a communication device that lets him give the robot orders. It's the work of but a moment to tell the robot to get going, and also to bring Old Mother Riley along with him. I think the Doctor somehow checked to see who lived at the address the locator identified, but I'm not sure and really don't want to go back and check. This movie is so dumb at times it's painful to watch, and this was one of those times. I assume he wants Mrs. Riley so she can't tell anybody about the robot (although since there was a roomful of friends and neighbors present at the box opening, this won't do much good).
The robot's control panel is very utilitarian.
We learn that Mrs. Riley sleeps with her hat and shoes on when the robot gets up, grabs her, and puts her in a bag. Dr. von Housen has dispatched a car and one of his servants to pick up the robot and Mrs. Riley, but unfortunately a policeman (with an American accent, no less) decides that he looks suspicious and tells him to go away. The robot can't walk fast, and he's got Mrs. Riley to drag along. Not the most inconspicuous of couples, and it'll take them a long, long time to get to Dr. von Hausen's house. Is our Vampire's plan for world domination about to be derailed?
A twopence for a paper? Robbery!
Not to worry, luck is with him. Our odd couple is spotted by a very drunk driver who sees nothing at all odd about the pair. He seems to be a happy drunk, and he kindly offers them a lift. The doctor broadcasts a beam for the robot to home in on, and somehow the driver discerns the desired destination from Mrs. Riley's garbled protests from the bag. And then -- ouch, ouch, ouch, this is so stupid my brain is hurting -- one of Dr. von Housen's servants, who must be sleepwalking, brushes by the switch that controls the beam and flips it, causing the beam to reverse itself. Does this send the robot back to Old Mother Riley's house? No, that would make some sense, something which this movie seems determined to avoid at all cost. Instead it reverses the action: the servant backs up the stairs and into her bed, and the traffic through which the robot, the drunk, and Mrs. Riley are driving goes backward. And as though that wasn't idiotic enough, the beam also apparently reverses everything right-to-left. At least the drunk, who had been sitting behind the steering wheel on the right-hand side with the robot sitting on his left, ends up on the left with the robot on the right driving. Although this is a good thing from a safety standpoint, since the robot is a much better driver, I'm wondering why the steering wheel didn't switch along with the drunk. Dr. von Housen notices that the switch is facing the wrong way and flips it back, which allows the car to move forward but inexplicably leaves the driver still sitting on the left. Why, movie, why did you do this? You went from being dumb to being idiotic! Do you hate your audience this much?
Yes, yes it does.
Ahem. Back to the robot. He is, as I said, a much better driver than the drunk, and after stopping to let the drunk out, he proceeds to Dr. von Hausen's house, with Mrs. Riley still tied up in the bag, protesting noisily. Dr. von Housen seems surprisingly glad to see her, and in fact he seems to like her so much he tries to get her to stay. He entices her to stay by promising her steak and liver, which just seemed weird until it occurred to me that in 1952, meat was still in short supply in England. She seems to like the idea, and he sweetens the offer still further by offering to pay her lavishly. He doesn't tell her what the job entails, and she doesn't ask, but she seems to be staying not just for food and money alone. In fact, she's firmly convinced he's fallen in love with her. They make quite the couple, but at least it's an age-appropriate pairing.
Time will tell if she's right or wrong about the doctor's affections, but the job, whatever it is, doesn't seem to be the managerial type, since Mrs. Riley is assigned to share a room with one of the maids. However, she doesn't seem to mind, and the next day she's gobbling down a thick slice of liver when the decidedly mannish-looking housekeeper gives her a feather duster and assigns her to dust the dining room.
The other maid is comically oblivious to everything.
Mrs. Riley continues to dust, but the housekeeper interrupts her periodically to give her more liver, telling her it's the doctor's orders that she eat it. The doctor's sinister little assistant laughs frequently and tells Mrs. Riley she's being "got ready," something which Mrs. Riley assumes means the Doctor wants her to be better-looking. However, we get hints that something's going on. The housekeeper remarks often that it's better not to look too closely into what the doctor's doing, and we see several well-wrapped bundles that look suspiciously like bodies being carried into the house. So does a passing policeman, but he sees no reason to investigate further.
This movie is too dark, can I get a few kleig lights, please?
Mrs. Riley's cleaning activities eventually take her into a room in which several of the wrapped bundles lie. You have to give her credit for having a good work ethic, because she continues to dust the bundles even though she's pretty sure they're really bodies. We learn that she's right when we see that one of the bundles isn't fully wrapped but instead leaves a face open to view. We also learn that at least one of the bodies isn't dead, when Mrs. Riley runs her feather duster over its face and the body sneezes and sits up. Mrs. Riley's understandably quite upset, and I don't blame her for jumping out of the nearest window, which in fact seems to be the sensible thing to do under the circumstances. Mrs. Riley is also civic-minded enough to find a bicycle somewhere and hurry off to notify the police. There's a bunch of unfunny would-be jokes before Mrs. Riley manages to communicate her news to the police, and the police never do grasp the fact that the Vampire is holed up nearby. Fortunately Mrs. Riley is willing to go back to rescue the victims and save the day.
Mrs. Riley has seen better days.
She does a better job doing this than I would have expected. When she gets back, the Doctor is in the process of reviving the body, who turns out to be the girl we saw abducted in the first scene. Mrs. Riley at least isn't a coward, because she pops in and out of the room despite the fact that the Doctor is quite harsh with her, and finally shoves her out roughly. When she goes to the kitchen to rest a little, she sees an article in the newspaper about the abducted girl, and from the photograph she realizes that this is the girl the Doctor's working on. The Doctor, though, isn't having much luck. The girl is certainly alive, but she seems half-asleep and doesn't remember where the map of the uranium deposits is.
What, no Facebook feed?
Meanwhile, the mannish housekeeper has become suspicious of Mrs. Riley and decides it's a good idea to lock her up in the kitchen so she can't get away. Mrs. Riley fortuitously discovers an entrance to a secret passage in the kitchen floor (she may have X-ray vision since there doesn't seem to be any other way she could have found it). She and the maid, who also seems quite brave and willing to help Mrs. Riley rescue the victims (or maybe she just wants to get away from the house), grope their way through the passage. They find an entrance into the main part of the house, and we are treated to several minutes of shrieks, mistaken identities, chases, and lots and lots of vases, flashlights, lamps, potted plants, etc. being knocked over, thrown, and smashed over people's heads.
The Doctor is super creepy.
This was obviously meant to be hilarious, but I'm not laughing and neither is the Doctor, who's beginning to get more than a little cross over his inability to get the girl to tell where the map is. The bad guys who are chasing Mrs. Riley prove to be all laughably inept, and once Mrs. Riley and the maid get tired of throwing things, they're able to escape without too much trouble. They're creeping along looking for a way out of the walled garden when they just happen to pass by an open window, one that leads to the room where the Doctor is questioning the girl, and they just happen to get there at the exact time when the girl finally remembers that she left the map in the purser's safe (you'll recall she had just gotten off a ship when she was abducted). This seems to be astonishing carelessness on her part, but I guess it's a piece of luck for the good guys, which I suppose would be the English government, or maybe for the girls the Doctor would have continued to kidnap.
Poor girl all tied up.
They hear the Doctor telling the girl he'll have to kill her. It appears that she's still mostly drugged, so she doesn't protest, but Mrs. Riley sends the maid off to have another go at convincing the police that there's something going on at this house that requires their attention. Man, the police in this movie all seem to be a bunch of lazy imbeciles. Mrs. Riley herself stays there to see what she can do to help the girl, and I must say that she's braver than I probably would be. The Doctor and his henchpeople go off to retrieve the map, taking the robot with them, but not before the Doctor, in his traditional mad-scientist way, has rigged up a complicated apparatus that will kill the girl shortly. There must be something in the Mad Scientist Code of Conduct that prevents mad scientists from just shooting or stabbing somebody they want dead. Presumably none of them watch movies like this one, otherwise they'd learn that fancy ways of killing people just don't work. In the meantime, the maid has been trying to convince a policeman that something bad is happening in the house. He doesn't believe her and says he can't go in without a search warrant (true, but when did movie policemen ever let that stop them?), but finally he grudgingly agrees to take her to the police station and let her talk to the sergeant.
The Doctor's henchmen leave much to be desired.
Fortunately Mrs. Riley is still hanging around, trying to rescue the girl. Unfortunately she doesn't seem to know how to, and she's wandering around the house aimlessly when she stumbles across her old buddy, the robot. Somehow she turns the robot on, and we get to see a brief chase through the house, although in view of the fact that the robot lurches along at much slower than a normal walking rate, I don't see how even an old woman couldn't outrun it easily. However, when the robot finally corners her, she manages to take it apart quite easily, and once finished with that, she goes back to the girl and does what she should have done in the first place, namely untie her and get her away from the Doctor's little contraption. So all is well, especially as the girl's boyfriend, whom apparently the Doctor also abducted, wanders in and starts kissing her. The maid chooses this moment to return with the policeman and his sergeant, who is even dumber than the policeman. Neither one seems to be able to figure out what's going on, but the maid manages to convince the sergeant to call his superiors, who seem to have a few functioning brain cells and are willing to do something. Mrs. Riley, meanwhile, seems to be trying to stop the Doctor, although possibly she's just panicking, because she helps herself to the police car, a pre-World-War-I relic that has to be cranked by hand (!), and drives off in it.
To summarize the current action, the Doctor's still on the loose, heading toward the docks to get the map out of the purser's safe. The police are finally (finally!) also speeding toward the docks (in a modern-for-1952 car, if you were wondering). Mrs. Riley is driving around in the stolen police car, identified as such by a sign saying "Police" tacked on one side. She's by no means a good driver, although she certainly knows how to use the gas pedal, and she has many high-speed near-misses with death. Fortunately for public safety, these are achieved with the liberal use of back projection. As a matter of fact, I'm not sure if she's chasing the Doctor or if she's just driving around aimlessly. In what is a piece of luck for her, she crashes the car and must continue on bicycle. She then crashes the bicycle into a policeman on a motorcycle and rides off on the motorcycle while he rides away on the bicycle. Feel free to laugh uproariously.
Back projection at its finest.
During all this, the Doctor's rifling the purser's safe, and the police are speeding toward the docks. The Doctor has found the map, the police have arrived at the ship, shots are being fired, and the Doctor has just run out of bullets when Mrs. Riley steers the motorcycle up the gangplank, hits a wall, flies off the motorcycle and into the water, and surfaces into a life ring inscribed, "This Is The End.” Which thankfully it is.
I have no words for this.
This movie is JUST...PLAIN...DUMB. Whoever wrote it clearly was concentrating on lots of slam-bang action and didn't pay much attention to the plot itself, since there are many loose ends left dangling and questions left unanswered. For instance: Why was the Doctor pretending to be a vampire? Why did he want uranium? What was he planning to do with the other girls he kidnapped, and why did he bother to kidnap Mrs. Riley? Why was he stuffing Mrs. Riley with liver? And the most important question of all, Were there ever people anywhere who were simple-minded enough to find this kind of thing funny? Well...yes, there were and are. This movie is one of a long line of slapstick movies, which in turn are part of a long line of slapstick performances dating certainly back to Shakespeare's time and possibly back to pre-Christian Greek theater. Slapstick is noted for sacrificing believability to action, which is why I don't usually like it. However, many quite intelligent people do. But there's well-done slapstick (Buster Keaton) and dumb slapstick (most of Mack Sennett's movies), and this is pretty much the worst, being quite a bit below the Three Stooges level as far as inventiveness, funny dialogue, and general coherency are concerned. Then there's the title character, Bela Lugosi himself. Bela Lugosi leers, chuckles sinisterly, mugs, and overacts in here the way he does in most of his movies. His morphine addiction, attributed to the pain of an old war wound by his fans, is usually blamed for the way his once-promising career got derailed so drastically, but I suspect limited acting skills also helped do his career in. The only two non-horror movies I've seen him in are International House and Ninotchka, and although he avoided overacting and did a good job with both (small) parts, he didn't depart too far from his Dracula character in either role.
This is how we'd all like to remember Lugosi.
Anyway, if you're a real fan of slapstick, you might enjoy this movie, if only to see how it fits into the traditional slapstick genre. If you're not, don't bother to watch it.
Rebuttal by MMT's intern Kelby: I am appalled by the lack of cats in this movie. And hookers, where were the hookers? That Mother Riley was pretty cute, you know, for a human.
Written in August 2013 by Pam Burda and edited by Kelby the drunken intern.
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