Of the myriad Poverty Row horror cheapies, 1942's BOWERY AT MIDNIGHT remains one of the most accomplished (a dubious compliment to be sure), thanks to an incredibly busy storyline--which crams an awful lot into 61 minutes--and the always-welcome presence of Bela Lugosi. While it's somewhat of a disappointment for the purposes of this blog, it's still an enjoyable relic from a bygone era.
This convoluted crime melodrama features Lugosi as a professor who uses a soup kitchen as a front for his organized gang of crooks (maybe it's the indelible impression he made as Dracula, but Lugosi's menacing even when ladling out soup for the homeless); Lugosi also has a memorable calling card, offing an accomplice during each heist to leave at the scene--a rather novel conceit, but one that's got to affect employee turnaround. Various subplots abound--from the student in Lugosi's class (KING OF THE ZOMBIES's John Archer) who just so happens to date the soup kitchen's nurse to the rather non-urgent police investigation (led by Dave O'Brien of THE DEVIL BAT)--including one about a doctor lackey of Lugosi's (Lew Kelly) who hoards the corpses of the murdered hoods in the kitchen's basement and has somehow brought them back to life, easily the most interesting plot thread and thus given the least amount of screen time, disclosed in the last quarter of the picture.
Even though it's referenced in only two scenes, one being the closing minute of the film, and used really as a fitting punishment for Lugosi's misdeeds, the living dead element remains one of BOWERY's strongest points. The initial reveal as the doctor lifts a trapdoor (concealed in a burial mound, no less) for the zombified crooks to shuffle into view is understated yet undeniably eerie and it's a shame director Wallace Fox didn't use them more--though in a story this complicated I'm sure that would've muted their impact. And while I'm sure an upbeat ending was the order of the day during WWII-era cinema, the epilogue is particularly confounding, as the recently-reanimated Archer discusses his upcoming nuptials with his fiancee, seemingly no worse for wear.
Filmed in the same stagebound style as most Poverty Row pics, which to me's as comfortable as beat-up pair of sneakers, this should please fans of vintage horror, even if the dialogue lacks the usual rat-a-tat delivery common to the period (though a few minor zingers sneak in). A perfect companion piece to Lugosi's other penny-ante zombie classic WHITE ZOMBIE.
(Couldn't find a trailer for this one, but you can watch the film in its entirety on YouTube.)