Take a trip back with Bloody-Disgusting and MySpace Horror reporter Chris Eggertsen to April 1940, in the latest entry in our ongoing “This Month in Horror” series. Among other things, that month saw the release of the final Universal-era Karloff/Lugosi pairing, a new mad scientist film from King Kong co-director Ernest B. Schoedsack, and the birth of a well-known author who would go on to pen two controversial books on the Demon Barber of Fleet Street.
Period song to take you back:
“Scramble Two”, The Will Bradley/Ray McKinley Orchestra
Release Date: April 1940
Film: Black Friday
Release Date: April 12, 1940
Distributor: Universal Pictures
Box-office gross: N/A
The Plot: When Professor George Kingsley is run over in a tragic accident, his friend, famed surgeon Dr. Ernest Sovac, transplants part of a gangster’s brain into the professor’s in order to save his life. The operation has unintended consequences when Kingsley begins to intermittently take on the personality and memories of the gangster, and Sovac soon learns of the whereabouts of an ill-gotten $500,000 fortune.
Production & Reception: The fifth and final teaming of horror stars Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi at Universal, the Arthur Lubin-directed Black Friday was also indicative of the declining popularity of the latter actor, who was relegated to a minor supporting role as a rival gangster racing to find the hidden money before Sovac and Kingsley. Originally intended to play the role of Sovac, Lugosi was demoted to the smaller part when Karloff, initially cast as Kingsley, didn’t feel he possessed the chops to pull of the difficult dual role. Instead of a simple switch (and clearly uncertain of Lugosi’s own ability to pull off the part), the studio decided to cast actor Stanley Ridges as the Professor instead.
The film proved unpopular with audiences, despite Universal’s best attempts at trumping up the pairing of Karloff and Lugosi, who in reality shared not a single scene in the entire film. Universal also attempted to drum up interest by contending that Lugosi had actually been hypnotized on set to film his death scene, although this was merely a marketing ploy and had no basis in reality.
Legacy: The “Jekyll & Hyde”-esque film, a minor one in Universal’s horror canon, now mostly serves as a sad reminder of the downward spiral of Lugosi’s career following his Dracula heyday in the early `30s. It was yet another step in the actor’s long, painful descent towards eventual “has-been” status, a fact made even more sobering when you consider that Karloff, Lugosi’s main rival, continued to enjoy top-billing in major studio films well into the 1940s. Interestingly, Karloff never would have enjoyed such an illustrious career had Lugosi, Universal’s first choice for the role of Frankenstein’s Monster, not turned down the part. In a quote now bitter in its irony, upon hearing it was a non-speaking role Lugosi huffed that it was a part “any half-wit extra” could play. Turns out the joke was on him.
Film: Dr. Cyclops
Release Date: April 12, 1940
Distributor: Paramount Pictures
Box-office gross: N/A
The Plot: Brilliant, power-mad scientist Dr. Alexander Thorkel, who has set up a remote laboratory in the South American jungle, physically shrinks a group of fellow scientists when they begin questioning the ethics of his experiments in radiation.
Production & Reception: Helmed by King Kong co-director Ernest B. Schoedsack, the glossy Technicolor production was well-received on its release (more for its technical credits than for the artistic merits of its mad scientist story), even earning an Oscar nomination for its impressive special effects of the foot-tall shrunken scientists making their escape through a perilous jungle landscape.
Legacy: Now mostly notable for being one of character actor Albert Dekker’s most famous roles as Dr. Cyclops, it was also the first sci-fi film to be shot in three-color Technicolor. Interestingly, it also echoes some of the same themes of Schoedsack’s earlier effort King Kong (for which he was uncredited as co-director). Some have also noted the atypically non-sexist portrayal of the film’s sole female scientist, Dr. Mary Robinson (Janice Logan), who is depicted as being strong and intelligent rather than a shrieking damsel in distress. Girl power!
Comic: Weird Comics #1
Publishing Date: April 3, 1940
Publisher: Fox Features
The Plot: A sci-fi/horror/fantasy anthology series. Stories include: “The Man Who Made Monsters”, about a mad scientist whose niece discovers his penchant for creating various monsters in his lab; “The Voodoo Man Cometh”, about a doctor who travels to Haiti and gets mixed up with an evil voodoo master; and “The Coming of the Sorceress”, about an evil sorceress who rules the cloud city Zoom and uses the magical creatures that are her subjects to invade Earth.
Production & Reception: This Golden Age comic series from eccentric Fox Features founder Victor Fox boasted some cool cover art by newbie George Tuska, but inside the panels were crudely drawn, and the mix of genre and superhero stories were strictly B-grade fare. That being said, this first issue featured the first-ever comic book incarnation of Thor, in an origin story that deviated from the original mythology by making him an ordinary man given superpowers after getting struck by lightning. Unfortunately the series didn’t prove as durable as that character, and it ended after a 20-issue run.
Legacy: Weird Comics has been almost completely forgotten in the intervening years, now known only to the most ardent Golden Age comic book enthusiasts. However, it did feature some of the earliest work by prolific, well-known Marvel Comics artist Tuska, who died of a stroke last October.
Short Story: The Callistan Menace by Isaac Asimov
Publishing Date: The April 1940 issue of Astonishing Stories
The Plot: A spaceship is sent to scout Callisto, the outermost of Jupiter’s moons, to investigate the disappearance of seven previous spacecrafts that had ventured there. They arrive to find one of the crafts covered in green slime and the crewmembers dead, and are themselves attacked by strange slug-like creatures who are able to use magnetic fields as weapons.
Production & Reception: After being rejected by several other publications and doing several rewrites on the story (originally titled “Stowaway”), famed sci-fi writer Isaac Asimov finally had it accepted by Astonishing Stories in late 1939, when he was only nineteen years old. This, along with the sale of several of his other short stories during the same period, would serve as a gateway for the young writer’s future as a master of popular science and science fiction. The story showed early signs of Asimov’s ability to blend real scientific concepts with thrilling, fantastical narratives.
Legacy: While in the scheme of Asimov’s illustrious career The Callistan Menace is but a footnote, it is the author’s oldest story still in existence today (it was his second overall).
Peter Haining, Author
Date of Birth: April 2, 1940 (died November 19, 2007)
British journalist and author Peter Haining started his career as the editor of several horror and fantasy anthologies, with names like Detours into the Macabre and The Mammoth Book of True Hauntings, before authoring several books of his own, including two controversial tomes claiming that Sweeney Todd was in fact a real-life historical figure (although no hard evidence was ever presented to bolster his case). A lifelong student of all things occult and supernatural, Haining also compiled several well-received reference books on fictional characters such as Doctor Who and Sherlock Holmes.
Photo of Haining in 1967: