“Monstrosity” is a film that has a great deal on its plate but none of it worth doing as it has already all been done better. And worse. Hence we are privy to a narration (spoken by Bradford Dillman) postulating the wonders of brain transplantation and its connection to vampiric legend (don’t ask) as well as a sexy corpse, a mad scientist, a nocturnal prowling man-beast, a murder and grave robbing. And that’s only in the first four minutes. Unfortunately, sheer quantity of borrowed horror movie elements does not necessarily guarantee a better film, but there is always the promise of a creative traffic jam.
Cleverly named scientist Dr. Frank (Frank Gerstle) is experimenting with brain transplantation using the bodies of recently deceased, very healthy looking young women. Regardless of the fact that there is no explanation as to the availability of so much freshy departed female meat in such a desolate location, the experiments proceed with the usual monstrous blunders (hence the title of the film) present in every mad scientist film, including the aforementioned man-beast; the product of an animal brain placed inside a human body (though why this makes the subject suddenly look like a denizen of Dr. Moreau’s summer cottage is another unexplained mystery of science). Frank’s research is funded by a miserly old woman, Mrs. March (Marjorie Eaton) whose interest is motivated by her own desire to have her brain transplanted into the body of a nubile young woman. Also in her employ is Victor (Frank Fowler), a toady who practically salivates at the prospect of grabbing onto Mrs. March’s money (though Mr. Dillman reminds us that the unsavory rewards of romantic attachment to a twenty-something pin-up girl only for her to have the mind of a crotchety octogenarian). The scheme nears fruition with the importation of three foreign domestics- Nina (Erika Peters), Beatrice (Judy Bamber) and Anita (Lisa Lang) -who, unlike most women in peril in horror films, seem acutely aware that something is amiss from the very start, but feel powerless to take countermeasures.
As previously stated, there is barely a scene, concept or that is not derivative of better films, yet there is a distinctly disturbing tone to the film that elevates its more recognizable (and often ridiculous) elements into moments of genuine horror; much of which has to do with the reconfiguring of the usual mad scientist formula where in “Monstrosity”, the emphasis is on- despite the deranged science setting -a human element which asserts itself in small revelations exposing insecurities, bitterness and pathological anxieties fueling their horrific actions, but making them all the more heinous as their individual motivations are steeped in a banality of evil; though the three villains of the piece are insensitive to the monstrous horrors they inflict upon their three captives, they are almost childishly self-absorbed in their own petty neuroses. (Meanwhile, the narration is almost breezily inconsequential to the more lurid aspects of the film, which makes the events all the more nightmarishly removed from reality.) “Monstrosity” may serve up all of the familiar tropes of the horror genre (and then some), but its reminds the viewer that true horror is only possible in the absence of the human heart.
“Dance Hall Racket” (1953)
Critics have been arguing for decades over the genius/mediocrity of the late comedian Lenny Bruce, but with scant direct filmed evidence to make a case either way (certainly the horribly miscast Bob Fosse directed biopic “Lenny” did not help in any way), the verdict may perpetually be unresolved. “Dance Hall Racket”, the only extended feature film appearance of the late comic as an actor will only further roadblock the cause for cultural canonization as Bruce is awkward, hesitant and often physically unable to spit out his admittedly horrible dialogue. The situation may be worse than first imagined, however, as Bruce is also credited with writing the same admittedly horrible dialogue.
Directed by Phil Tucker between his work on the notorious SF hiccup “Robot Monster” and one of his sociological treatises on ecdysiasts, “Tijuana After Midnight”, “Dance Hall Racket” is the kind of backyard production that might have resulted when Mickey and Judy decided to “put on a show”, if their intention was imitate the tried and true gangster film by divesting themselves of every healthy creative instinct, all the while emphasizing the nickel and dime production values (and having change left over) that would make any PRC production look like a Cecil B. DeMille opus by comparison.
Low level racketeer Umberto Scalli (Timothy Farrell) runs a run down dance hall while running a diamond smuggling operation in his office. His hot-tempered flunky Vincent (Lenny Bruce) kills one of his contacts- a off-duty sailor -in the crowded hall, but as in keeping with the traditions of bad movie convenience, no one notices, and Vinnie and an associate easily dispose of the body. Enter the authorities, who send an undercover man to solve the mystery, but whose genuine function only seems to be to contain the story within the confines of the film’s few crummy sets. Oddly, none of this will have any relevance to the outcome of the movie.
“Dance Hall Racket” is the last of what was an unofficial “Umberto Scalli trilogy”, with Farrell repeating the character, even though he was supposedly gunned down in the second film “Racket Girls”. There is little plotting in the film, with what there is stretched out to interminable lengths by director Tucker, who never misses an opportunity for an awkward pause or a slow pick-up in a line of dialogue if it will extend the film to an additional reel (had the film been judiciously pruned to include only pertinent narrative scenes, the running time might have been a scant six or seven minutes). Bruce’s script is an example of narrative laxness of the most extreme form; a crime drama which forgets about its main characters (though, supposedly, identified as main character, there are huge gaps in the film where Scalli is both unseen and unmentioned) or the minor crumbs which merely suggest the bare bones of a plot. “Dance Hall Racket” treats plot progression as an alien concept, especially as the story approaches its “climax”, when the movie is suddenly infused with a puzzling profusion of unrelated scenes involving catfights (a signature of the trilogy), romantic scenes with previously unseen characters and a lengthy and irrelevant distraction concerning with a dance hall customer who hordes tickets.
However, the film’s most bizarre invention is that of a character named Punky (Bernie Jones), who is meant to be a Swedish sailor but floats throughout the film acting like an amalgam of bad impressions of Pinky Lee, Jerry Lewis and Stan Laurel. His obnoxious antics may only be equaled in jaw-dropping unnecessary novelty by Bruce’s mother Sally Marr, who as Hostess Maxine performs what is meant to be the Charleston but can perhaps be more accurately described as a bout of spastic colon.