All over town, new brides are mysteriously dropping dead at the alter — their bodies disappearing en route to the morgue! Although the police remain baffled, Patricia Hunter (Luana Walters), a sassy reporter for a local rag, is soon on the trail of the culprit when she discovers that every single victim wore a sample of exactly the same species of orchid, although no-one seems to know who provided the unfortunate brides with this unusual adornment. Despite her editor's total lack of interest in the subject, Pat takes on the case and resolves to find out more from a local authority in orchids, who just happens to live in the area: the eccentric Dr Lorenz (Bela Lugosi). After meeting an associate of Lorenz called Dr Foster (Tristram Coffin) — a newly arrived doctor struggling to establish a practice in the locale — the two end up staying the night in the peculiar doctor Lorenz's rather bizarre household. Lorenz lives with his strange wife, The Countess (Elizabeth Russell): a reclusive grim-faced woman who first welcomes Pat to her household by slapping her full in the face! The Lorenz's share their home with a family of grisly freaks who live in their dank basement. These include a dwarf servant and a toothless old crone & her troglodyte son, Angel (Frank Moran).
Dr Lorenz is, of course, behind the whole mystery. The missing brides are not actually dead, but are being kept in the basement in a semi-comatose state whilst being regularly 'milked' by the good doctor for glandular fluids — special hormones that keep his aged wife looking youthful! Soon, Pat discovers Lorenz's bizarre secret, but (naturally) no one believes her. And soon enough, she becomes another potential victim when her plan to trap Dr. Lorenz in the act of abduction goes drastically wrong.
"The Corpse Vanishes" is a peculiar low-budget, poverty-row horror movie made by Monogram films in 1942. Bela Lugosi's career was already in the doldrums by this period, the glory days of his post-Dracula co-billings with Boris Karloff in the '30s (such as "The Black Cat" and "The Raven") were but a memory. The elaborately contrived plot of this low budget efforts allowed Lugosi to maintain top billing, though, while essaying his usual repertoire of semi operatic grimaces and shadowy, capped flourishes.
The plot is absurd on every level; there is simply no attempt to have the film make even a lick of sense. Why would a doctor who wished to kidnap women, do so via the very public method of poisoning brides just as they arrived at the alter, and then stage an elaborate diversion to enable him to kidnap the body from the ambulance before it got to the morgue (and how come the police fall for the same trick again and again). Surely you would pick on people who wouldn't be missed, and at least vary your modus operandi in apprehending them every now and then!
This fundamental absurdity and the random strangeness of the outrageous cast of characters that make up the Lugosi household adds a pleasing charge of camp surrealism to this sixty-five minute b-feature. Lugosi and his bride sleep side-by-side in coffins, for no better reason than that is the sort of thing you expect a Lugosi character to do — not because it makes any sense! His family of cellar-dwelling freaks are regularly beaten or whipped, while one of them is eventually throttled by the good doctor — again, because Lugosi has to be evil, even if there is no good reason for it. This anarchic quality to the story, actually elevates it in the end into a kind of mad, unpredictable freak show of semi-surrealist oddness!
Luana Walters as reporter Pat Hunter, is an unusually capable heroine for this period, in which female leads are usually required only to look pretty and be saved by a suave leading man. Things revert to that template in the final reel, but Walters is the only intelligent character in the film before the inevitable moment when she gets herself kidnapped and has to be rescued by dull-but-nice hero Dr. Foster (who'd previously suspected nothing amiss about the good doctor Lorenz until Hunter filled him in on the case!)
The only thing that really makes this minor flick noteworthy for me personally, though, is not the appearance of Lugosi, but the presence of the actress who plays his wife, the magnificent Elizabeth Russell. This beguiling, mysterious actress is mainly known for a handful of appearances in the horror films of Val Lewton, the first of which, "Cat People" (in which she has only a walk-on part), was released in the same year as this film. Russell always brought a sepulchral elegance to all her work, most notably in her role as the tragic, bitter and lonely Barbara Farren in the masterful follow-up to "Cat People", "Curse of the Cat People". But even here, in a ridiculous and trashy role as a half-mad Countess kept youthful only by hormone injections from the comatose victims kept in the cellar of her house, she stands out — still with the same haunting, slightly tragic air, and still displaying a gracefully fragile quality of beauty.
Network Films bring the film to DVD in a bare-bones but agreeably budget-priced edition that will painlessly add itself to Lugosi fans' collections.