Sunday, September 18, 2016


In 1931, flush from the box office and critical success of Tod Browning's DRACULA, Universal Studios, headed by Carl Laemmle, Jr., decided to put another horror film into production as quickly as possible. In the silent era, the studios' go-to-guy was the late, great Lon Chaney. But the actor had recently passed away and it was Hungarian transplant Bela Lugosi who became the first horror star of the sound era by playing Count Dracula in the film version of the stage play in which he had defined the role.

The next project being prepped was an adaptation of Mary Shelley's classic novel FRANKENSTEIN, to be directed by Robert Florey. Lugosi was considered for the part of the mute, man-made monster but a screen test was required. Make up wizard Jack Pierce applied his skills to Lugosi with somewhat questionable results. When the test reels were shown to Laemmele, Florey and Lugosi (along with other studio executives), they all knew that what was on the screen simply wouldn't work. Florey and Lugosi were out as director and star of FRANKENSTEIN, James Whale and Boris Karloff were in. The rest is history.

Florey and Lugosi did work together on a different horror film at Universal, MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE (1932), based on the story by Edgar Allen Poe. And, ironically enough, Lugosi would eventually play the Frankenstein monster in FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLFMAN (1942) and only play Count Dracula on screen one more time in ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN (1948).

But what about that disastrous screen test? It is, to date, lost, a bit of Hollywood history that has never been seen since that fateful day in 1931. No print of it has ever surfaced and it remains one of the great lost treasures of the great golden age of horror films. It ranks up there with Tod Browning's silent horror film LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT (1927), as one of the holy grails of lost horror films. At this date, it's likely that we will never see the Lugosi Frankenstein screen test but then again, who would have ever believed that a nearly complete print of Fritz Lang's monumental METROPOLIS (1927) would surface in, of all places, Argentina, as it did a few years ago. Never say never seem to be the bywords here but I would also offer this addendum: Don't Hold Your Breath Waiting.

That legendary lost Lugosi screen test is the object of desire in ALIVE! (2013) by Loren D. Estleman. It's the third mystery involving Valentino, a film fanatic who works for the UCLA department of film preservation tracking down rare and obscure treasures. Valentino searches out both actual films as well as movie related artifacts such as screenplays, posters, promotional materials, props and costumes.  He's also up to his neck in debt restoring a vintage Los Angeles movie theater (he lives in the projection booth). Valentino's quests inevitably lead to murder and when that occurs, he plays amateur sleuth to solve the crimes and recover the prize.

That's pretty much the set-up here. A washed-up, alcoholic former action star, Craig Hunter, calls Valentino late one night claiming to have the Lugosi film. Hunter turns up dead, a victim of murder. The film is missing (if he ever really did have it) and the evidence points to a crime boss whose father worked at Universal Studios back in the day. Valentino's efforts to solve the murder of his friend and find the missing film brings him into contact with J. Arthur Greenwood, a famous Hollywood collector and publisher of HORRORWOOD magazine. Greenwood, is, of course, a stand-in for Forrest J. Ackerman, the legendary editor of FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND.

Valentino is also aided in his quest by a student intern and his gang of steam punks. The suspects are many, there's a fair amount of danger and a ton of film history contained within the narrative, all of which is told with a mixture of genuine respect and reverence for film history and a slightly comic, tongue-in-cheek tone. This Valentino mystery reminds me a great deal of the Toby Peters series by Stuart Kaminsky. Peters was a Hollywood based private detective whose cases involved various players in the movie industry during the '30s and '40s. They were light weight, breezy and fun, full of affection for the Golden Age of Hollywood.

That's the vibe I get here. ALIVE! is a fun, fast read. It's not a great mystery by any stretch but I did enjoy it and got a few chuckles out of it. Of course what really pushed my buttons was the Lugosi film and all of the stuff about the Universal horror films (which are my all-time favorites). If you like classic monster movies, you'll definitely enjoy ALIVE! If you're not a fan, it's still a nice, PG-13 (brief nudity and violence)  rated murder mystery.

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