Black Dragons, 1942
First off, even though this is included in various Mill Creek Entertainment horror packs, it isn’t a horror movie. What it turns out to be is an eccentric spy thriller. But, of course, it stars Bela Lugosi, so it gets labeled as horror.
After Black Dragons opens on a dinner party involving a number of America’s heads of industry ((With at least two comely ladies in lovely late-1930s fashions. )), a Mysterious Stranger (Lugosi) arrives, and even though nobody seems to know him, he gets himself invited to stay as a houseguest of the bigwig whose house it is.
That night, one of the bigwigs is murdered with a Japanese dagger, his body left on the steps of the vacant Japanese embassy in Washington, D.C.
For the bulk of this short movie (it clocks in just over an hour), the master of the house remains indisposed in his room, under Lugosi’s control, and the other heads of industry keep getting kacked, most of them in the same manner — Japanese dagger, dumped on the steps of the vacant embassy — while the police, the house-bigwig’s daughter, and her boring fiancé try to work out just what the heck is going on.
It’s clear from the beginning that the heads of industry are actually Axis spies, up to no good. Until the big reveal and flashback explaining what the heck was going on, I was getting all jazzed about Bela playing a (rather dark) good guy. Alas, that’s not what’s going on.
What is going on is a good deal sillier.
The deal is that Lugosi is a German plastic surgeon, and that he helped out the Japanese government several years ago. They had kidnapped various American heads of industry and trained a secret society to take their places (the Black Dragons of the title). Lugosi performed some rather amazing surgery on them, changing them not only from Japanese to incredibly white, but also their eye colors, hair color, and removing any trace of accent from their English. ((From what I understand, that’s pretty much impossible — Japanese is so different from any non-Asian language, and even from most Asian languages, that if you know nothing but Japanese until adulthood, you can never lose your accent. )) Oh, and he changes their heights and weights while he’s at it.
Once he did that deed, the Japanese government repaid him by tossing him in a dungeon, so that he could not possibly give their secret away. In the interim between the flashback and the movie, of course, he escaped and set out to revenge himself.
Needless to say, by the end he has not only revenged himself, but has himself died (because he was evil, too, after all), leaving all the most boring characters to carry on after the end credits.
What’s interesting is that this could actually have been a pretty decent thriller, but it sabotages itself in its story structure. ((I’m leaving aside the dopier aspects of the plastic surgery and the ability of Japanese nationals to assume extremely American identities seamlessly. These aspects of the story could have been altered to be more believable without harming the story, but the structure is what kills it. )) For most of the running time, guys are getting knifed for no apparent reason ((They’re clearly not good at the beginning of the movie, but how bad they are is much less clear until late in the film. )), and the apparent culprit has no motive of which the audience is aware. Everyone driving the plot is a cipher, and there’s little reason to get invested in the proceedings, as we have little idea what the stakes in the story are until the story is nearly over.
It might be very profitable, as a writing exercise, to try restructuring this tale in order to improve it, making at least part of the backstory clear from the beginning, and giving the audience an idea early on of what is at stake. That alone would improve it, I think. Also, I have a certain affection for Bela Lugosi, so I’d probably also try to make him more of a good guy, or at least not a Nazi, so that the opposition of forces would give the audience someone to side with, instead of watching passively and not really caring who wins or loses.
I’m not sorry I watched it, but I doubt that I’ll ever watch it again. The only really good thing in it was, of course, Lugosi himself. He was great, as ever. Everything else is pretty much of a loss.