‘Bowery at Midnight‘ is a US horror/crime film that was directed by Wallace Fox, written by Gerald Schnitzer, and released in 1942. The film starred horror legend Bela Lugosi and it was released with the gripping tagline: “The monster and the ghoul! One deals in wholesale murder…the other serves as a torture-master of the living dead! See it and shudder! “
For those who don’t know, the ‘Bowery’ of the title is a neighbourhood in New York and it’s here that kindly old Karl Wagner runs a soup kitchen for the homeless. But since kindly old Karl Wagner is played by Bela Lugosi, you can be relatively sure that there’s more to it than meets the eye.
Bowery at Midnight is one of 9 films Bela Lugosi made for Monogram Pictures and is one of the oddest of a pretty odd bunch. At first it seems like a relatively normal B-movie crime thriller; Wagner uses his kitchen as a front to recruit down on their luck criminals into his organisation. He uses them for one job then has them killed, or just pushes them off a roof to create a diversion while the actual crime is committed! It’s actually a pretty clever set up as it gives Lugosi a constant source of new blood and ensures that he never has to worry about anybody squealing. And that’s good because he has a lot to lose, he has another life as a loving husband and psychology professor named Professor Brenner.
Unfortunately for Wagner/Brenner, his two lives cross when a student happens upon his soup kitchen and nearly gives the game away, forcing Lugosi to have him killed. If that all still seems too normal then hang on because it’s the next part which makes the film more typically Lugosi-esque. Down in his basement Wagner keeps a disgraced doctor who, unbeknownst to his employer, has perfected a way of bringing the dead back to life. He has in fact resurrected all the ex-employees Lugosi went to he trouble of killing and keeps them beneath a trapdoor in a secret room.
That’s a lot of plot to tie up (there’s also the police and a love interest for the dead student) and the film is only 61 minutes long. As a consequence the last five minutes of the movie is an unseemly rush to get everything sorted out and it leaves some major plot holes gaping, most of them involving the doctor in the basement. For starters, no one seems remotely surprised by or interested in the fact that he seems to have cured death, which really ought to be front page news. Secondly the nature of what he does seems very vague. The resurrected men beneath the trapdoor initially seem to have no real will of their own, just standing around waiting to be fed, much like zombies. That seems pretty reasonable and ties in with the end where Lugosi tries to hide under the trap door and is killed by the resurrected men. But the student whom Lugosi killed earlier, and who was resurrected by the doctor like all the others, appears in the final scene with his girlfriend and would seem to be completely back to normal and planning marriage. So if the doctor has brought all these men back to life 100% successfully then why are they content to just live in a hole in the ground? Why do they tear Lugosi to pieces? And why do the police seem so completely uninterested in either?
Those are important questions but the biggest one is; why is this nice girl dating the student who tells her to give up her ‘silly job’ (she works in the soup kitchen), then adds ‘Saving humanity, it’s ridiculous’. I really don’t think he deserves a happy ending, I was happier when he got shot.
Modern zombie movie fans will not find much to satisfy their craving here, as the film plays out more like a crime drama as opposed to a zombie horror – the zombies here are not scary and for the most part just stand around like dumb pets. That said, the film has a dark heart that beats throughout the entire movie and the humans here are pretty evil creatures doing the darkest of self-serving deeds.
But you do not watch this film nor any of Lugosi’s Monogram releases (which include other such dubious titles as The Ape Man and Spooks Run Wild) for the cohesion of the plot, you watch for their star. Fair enough, this is not Lugosi at his best, but he’s worth watching in anything and never fails to rise above the material. Besides, while this film doesn’t come close to being scary, it is hilarious in it badness.
Watch ‘Bowery at Midnight’ below:
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Written by: Robin Bailes.