Directors: William Nigh, William Beaudine

Retromedia presents a double-dose of Monogram programmers with its Blu-ray combo of William Nigh’ s THE MYSTERIOUS MR. WONG and William Beaudine’s THE LIVING GHOST. Another mad oriental villain bent on power and a casing detective among a house full of murder suspects are the subjects of this creaky combo from the glory days of poverty row horror and mystery.

THE MYSTERIOUS MR. WONG: In New York’s Chinatown, Mr. Wong (Bela Lugosi, THE GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN) is a friendly shopkeeper who is actually the ruthless pursuer of Twelve Coins of Confucius. Possession of the coins will allow him to be supreme ruler of a large Chinese province. In his dastardly efforts to obtain these coins (he ends up one short), Wong leaves behind a string of murder victims and has wisecracking newspaper reporter Jason Barton (Wallace Ford, FREAKS) and the gal-pal he’s courting (Arline Judge, THE CRAWLING HAND) on his trail. With major talk of city Tong Wars, their investigation leads them to Wong’s shop where they are captured by his henchmen and thrown into his secret torture chamber and forced to reveal the whereabouts of the 12th coin (the screenplay was suggested by the story "The Twelve Coins of Confucius").

Not to be confused with the later “Mr. Wong” detective films featuring Boris Karloff, THE MYSTERIOUS MR. WONG marks Bela Lugosi’s first association with Monogram Pictures (though not considered one of the “Monogram Nine” he would later star in for producer Sam Katzman), with his Asian mastermind coming off as a poor man’s Fu Manchu, even borrowing his mustache (this is several years after the superior THE MASK OF FU MANCHU with Karloff). Although played mostly for laughs, the film contains all the usual ingredients you’d expect from a Monogram picture including the charming threadbare sets (it was shot on the RKO-Pathe lot) with Wallace Ford attempting to be comical throughout, especially when he’s wooing Arline Judge from a competing reporter (Ford would play a similar role in 1943’s THE APE MAN, again opposite Lugosi). The film’s plot is thin as could be, and its stereotyping of Asian culture in America (as well as Irish cops) provides an interesting politically incorrect time capsule, albeit nothing we haven’t seen in countless other B movies from this period. The film does nothing for Lugosi’s career except give him a paycheck outside Universal Studios, but let’s face it, he’s always a hoot to watch. Yes, he’s totally miscast in the unconvincing make-up and his heavy Hungarian accent is on display when he’s in villain mode (when he’s pretending to be the kindly, bespectacled shopkeeper, he does a faux Chinese accent over his own European one, making matters more nonsensical). Director William Nigh would later direct the aforementioned, unrelated Karloff “Mr. Wong” films, as well as reunite with Lugosi for the confusingly wonderful BLACK DRAGONS (all for Monogram).

In THE LIVING GHOST, wealthy banker Walter Craig (Gus Glassmire, THE MAD GHOUL) goes missing and there’s a house full of likely suspects. Nick Trayne (James Dunn, A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN) is a former private detective who is now a professional listener (a phony psychic), dressing like a swami and seeing nutcase patients for $2 an hour. He is coaxed out of retirement to take the case and search for the missing man. Nick is teamed with classy dame Billie Hilton (Joan Woodbury, KING OF THE ZOMBIES) and they are always getting on each other’s nerves. Nick and Billie enter the Craig family house, question a lot of suspicious relatives and associates (like the too-tall gloomy butler) and then the missing patriarch Walter shows up in a catatonic state and pretty much zombie-like. George Phillips (J. Arthur Young, ‘NEATH BROOKLYN BRIDGE) is found stabbed to death in the garden, and zombified Walter is considered the culprit. But Nick doesn’t buy this theory and believes the killers is still out there; the investigation leads him and Billie to a dilapidated old house where another zombified, speechless roamer is found lurking about.

THE LIVING GHOST is a typical bottom-of-the-barrel whodunit from Monogram with the usual workmanlike direction by William “One Shot” Beaudine. A mystery/comedy with only the slightest of horror overtones, its one-hour running time makes it sitthroughable enough, with Dunn providing a likable wisecracking private dick character with all the best lines (“Insomnia huh? I bet he doesn't even go to sleep when it's time to get up” and “How much do you charge to haunt a house?”) and the bumpy budding romance between him and Woodbury being fun to watch (as her character can’t stand him for most of their teaming). The best scenes take place in an old dark abandoned house (the familiar Monogram sets we know and love) where familiar character actor Frank Moran (THE CORPSE VANISHES, THE RETURN OF THE APE MAN) shows up as gruesome ghouly.

Being in public domain, THE MYSTERIOUS MR. WONG has had significant exposure on DVD, the most notable one being the disc released by The Roan Group. But this 1080p HD full frame presentation is indeed an improvement. Although the black and white print source has the expected blemishes in the form of some lines and speckling, detail remains fairly sharp, the black levels are properly deep, and the grayscale is acceptable (with whites levels being a bit overblown on occasion). The print source used here doesn’t have the opening Monogram Pictures “airplane” logo (it can be seen on the Roan DVD). THE LIVING GHOST was released on DVD-R through MGM’s “Limited Edition Collection” which we don’t have at hand to compare to. The Retromedia Blu-ray has acceptable quality, with the print source having some specs, lines and cue marks, as well as the occasional splice. The 1080p HD full frame image has decent textures and detail on the whole, even though this may not be the film you want to show off your state-of-the-art media set-up with. Dolby Digital 2.0 English tracks are offered for both films, with no major detectable problems (some slight scratchiness perhaps); dialogue is pretty clear throughout, and when there is music, it never sounds distorted. No subtitle options are included, nor are there any extras. (George R. Reis)