THE MYSTERY OF BELA LUGOSI’S LOST FINAL FILM

In on March 26, 1959 review, the British trade journal Kinematography Weekly ran the following review of a new film that was being readied for theatrical release in the United Kingdom:

“Lock Up Your Daughters”

New Realm. American (X). Directed by Phil Rosen.  Featuring Bela Lugosi, Polly Ann Young and the Bowery Boys.  4,590 feet. Release not fixed.

Gimmick horrific, containing excerpts from Bela Lugosi’s most popular chillers.  Patrons are invited to name the films from which the clippings have been taken and cash prizes are offered for all correct entries.  If none is received, consolation gifts go to the ones nearest.  The ingenious “racket” a short answer to the TV Quiz shows, should definitely pay off.  Good stunt offering.

Production:  The picture, compered by Bela Lugosi, has a slight story about a vampire doctor who experiments on young women in order to bring back to life his lovely young wife and this produces legitimate excuses for the extract from Lugosi thrillers.  Its players range from the Bowery Boys to some of the great favourites of yesterday and spotting them in an entertainment in itself.  The money prizes, regulated by the capacity of the hall in which the film is shown are, however, its most compelling lure.  Incidentally, all possible snags have been avoided.

Points of appeal – Title and strong novelty and wide exploitation angles.

The review was somewhat puzzling, considering that Lugosi passed away in 1956 and director Phil Rosen died in 1951. And during their respective lifetimes, neither Lugosi nor Rosen worked on any project called “Locked Up Your Daughters.” Even more intriguing was the review’s passing mention of “some of the great favourites of yesterday” – if these performers were so beloved, then why did the review fail to make any mention of them?

(Two points of clarification on this review that may puzzle some readers. First, the “X” rating cited in this review was the British designation of a film that dealt with mature subject matter and was not suited for viewers under the age of 16 – it replaced the H Certificate that was put on horror films, which were traditionally off limits to youthful movie audiences, and it had no connection to the pornographic X rating introduced in American cinema a decade later. Second, the identification of Polly Ann Young as the female lead may raise a response of “Who?”  She was the younger sister of Oscar-winning actress Loretta Young, but her career was somewhat desultory and she retired from films after starring with Lugosi in the 1941 flick “Invisible Ghost.”)

In reality, “Lock Up Your Daughters” was the creation of E. J. Fancey Productions, a low-budget British operation that specialized in shorts and an occasional cheapjack feature, most notably the 1951 comedy “Down Among the Z Men” starring the cast of BBC Radio’s legendary The Goon Show, including a then-unknown Peter Sellers. Fancey owned the British theatrical rights to a number of Monogram Pictures productions from the 1940s, including the Lugosi-starring horror features “The Ape Man” and “Revenge of the Zombies” plus some of the Bowery Boys comedies. One might assume that Fancey’s editors slapped together these old films into a 50-minute distraction for audiences in Britain’s cinemas.

But the idea of giving away prizes for viewers that could guess the title of a half-forgotten Lugosi B-movie from a previous decade was clearly curious – quiz shows in a cinema setting were without precedent, and it doesn’t appear this idea was ever repeated. The Kinematography Weekly review offers no specific details on what prizes were being awarded.

Still, what do we make of the review’s claim that Lugosi “compered” (a British expression for “hosted”) this film? Did the great star shoot footage for inclusion in this production? Lugosi was last in the U.K. in 1951 for a regional theater tour of Dracula and an appearance in a dismal no-budget comedy “Mother Riley Meets the Vampire,” and there is no record of him doing any additional film work on this trip. And since the film was made in the U.K. and not the U.S., as per the Kinematography Weekly assertion, there is no reason to believe – and, indeed, no evidence – that Lugosi shot any footage in Hollywood.

A few sources claim that Lugosi narrated the prologue and described the film as his “obituary,” which is bizarre considering he died of an unexpected heart attack during the beginning of production on Edward D. Wood Jr.’s infamous “Plan 9 from Outer Space.” If there was a prologue with a Lugosi narration, then it obviously was the work of a sound-alike actor.

The obscurity of “Lock Up Your Daughters” – there is no evidence it ever played outside of the U.K. – has led to conspiracy theories regarding whether the film ever existed. This is a fairly odd notion, considering that the Kinematography Weekly was not in the habit of running phony reviews. And confirming its existence is documentation that it passed the British Board of Film Certificate.

Over the years, intrepid film scholars have located poster art that showed “Lock Up Your Daughters” played in British cinemas as the second half of a double feature opposite something called “The Neanderthal Man.” Also unearthed were press sheets that detailed how the film’s quiz show-style prizes were distributed: viewers would identify the films in question at the theater, then go home and write up the list of films that they could identify and mail their entries for consideration. There was a promise of more than £5,000 in prizes to anyone that could name all of the old films on display.

Furthermore, evidence has surfaced that “Lock Up Your Daughters” was distributed in 1961 to the British home entertainment market on 16mm film via a nontheatrical outfit called John King Films Ltd. And at least two reliable sources – French film critic Jean Boullet and British film collector Alan Dodd – have gone on record in confirming they saw “Lock Up Your Daughters” in the early 1960s.

What happened to “Lock Up Your Daughters?” The film’s thorough disappearance, both in the 35mm and 16mm formats, is highly curious. Lugosi biographer Gary Don Rhodes reported that a print was supposed part of a private collection belonging to a British film lover, but that individual passed away before the print’s existence could be confirmed.

One point that few film historians ever stopped to ask is this: why was “Lock Up Your Daughters” even made? As stated earlier, Lugosi died three years before the film’s release, and by that point in time there was no great public clamoring to see his films on either side of the Atlantic. (The aforementioned “Mother Riley Meets the Vampire,” shot in London in 1951, didn’t arrive in U.S. theaters until 1962.) One might assume that E.J. Fancey Productions wanted to squeeze whatever remaining profits it could make from the Lugosi-era Monogram films before their British theatrical rights expired. The company saved money by recycling the theatrical poster for Lugosi’s 1943 film “The Ape Man” (retitled “Lock Your Doors” for British release) as the poster art for “Lock Up Your Daughters.” And it certainly saved even more money on its quiz show gimmick – there is no evidence that any of the prize money was collected by viewers that could name all of the old Monogram films included in this weird little movie.

This article is adapted from Phil Hall’s upcoming book “In Search of Lost Films,” to be released later this year by BearManor Media.

Photo of “Lock Up Your Daughters” poster art courtesy of Horrorpedia.com.

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