Old Mother Riley meets Bela Lugosi
Bela Lugosi had seen better days. In the early 1930s, he was in all his glory, cruising on his amazing triumph in Dracula, both on the stage and screen. He threw lavish parties, smoked fine Cuban cigars, and had a string of affairs and marriages.
But he was never too good with money. Desperate to play the part in the feature, Lugosi agreed to a salary on Dracula smaller than what the romantic leads were making. A year later, he was bankrupt. He made a series of comebacks, but the money always slipped through his fingers. His addiction to morphine made working difficult, and he accepted roles in cheaper and cheaper productions, but he carried on. He managed another triumph, playing Dracula again in Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein, but the money didn’t last.
When he was offered a chance to revive Dracula yet again in 1951, this time in England, he leaped at the chance. The producers gave him a decent salary for the first time in years, and paid his passage overseas.
However, the revival was a disaster. The producers had spent all their cash securing Lugosi for the lead, and the rest of the cast was filled with amateurs, the sets composed of a few sticks of furniture. In order to earn his ticket home, Lugosi agreed to send up the Count in this vampire comedy.
His co-star, Arthur Lucan, had seen better days as well. He’d been dressing up in drag, to bring his stage character “Old Mother Riley” to the screen for fifteen years already. But the series was fading, and Lucan was tired of playing Riley. Co-starring with the Hungarian actor who had become America’s second best bogeyman was a desperate move to breathe some life into the series. But hey, it had worked wonders for Abbott and Costello, hadn’t it?
This DVD transfer comes from a Columbia 1961 reissue of the film. Columbia tried to sell it as a camp contemporary horror send-up like Roger Corman’s hits A Bucket of Blood and Little Shop of Horrors, not a ten-year-old Lugosi picture. The main titles, accompanied by a novelty theme song by Allan Sherman, play over Charles Addams/Edward Gorey style cartoons. However, it originally opened under the title Old Mother Riley Meets the Vampire. It was also reissued at various times and places under the titles Vampire Over London, Dracula’s Desire and Mother Riley Runs Riot.
The film opens with government agents discussing the situation of criminal scientist Baron Von Heusen (Lugosi) — alias “The Vampire” — invading London. Julia Lorreti, the Italian uranium heiress (played by Maria Mercedes, a veteran of the previous series entry Old Mother Riley’s Jungle Treasure and a future regular on The Prisoner), has been kidnapped from her cruise ship.
Meanwhile, Old Mother Riley is being threatened by a vampire of another sort — the landlord, come to collect rent on her corner grocery. She fights back with a musical number that should have sent him running. Just then, a telegram arrives, telling the old maid about an inheritance she’s come into.
In his hideout, Bela snores in his coffin. He appears to have brought his own wardrobe to the production, as he’s seen wearing his Dracula tux and cape, and later the duds he wore in some of his serial features.
In general, Lugosi plays his public persona here — the vampire mad scientist — just as he had in previous horror comedies like Ghosts on the Loose and Bela Lugosi Meets A Brooklyn Gorilla. This is ample evidence against the notion that the man lacked a sense of humor, since he seems delighted to ridicule his old vampire gimmick at every opportunity.
Von Heusen is having a robot of his own design shipped to him from his “secret robot factory” under the name Dr. Riley. Of course, the mechanical man is sent to Mother Riley by mistake and the junk she inherited goes to the Vampire. The robot, which looks like a bubble-domed Darth Vader, is actually pretty cool in a ’50s retro way. At the Vampire’s radioed command, it kidnaps Riley and takes her to the Vampire’s haunted house loony bin.
More silly nonsense ensues, with Lugosi funnier than anyone else in the cast. He also gets all the best close-ups.
After this fiasco, Lugosi bought his ticket home, and went back to work with another transvestite — Ed Wood, Jr. Director John Gilling escaped to make quite a few British genre features, including The Gamma People, Shadow of the Cat, Night Caller From Outer Space and The Mummy’s Shroud.
Image’s transfer of the film looks pretty good, but may have overcooked its digital clean up, as highlights burn hot, losing detail. There are no subtitle options.
The disc includes the American theatrical trailer, which features Allan Sherman talking about his theme song and lacks any footage from the film or mention of the stars at all.