Old Mother Riley Meets the Vampire / Old Mother Riley Headmistress Review
As though determined to demonstrate the erratic nature of the Old Mother Riley series this particular double bill from DDVideo is markedly superior to their other selection of tail-end movies. Whereas that release, a pairing of Old Mother Riley’s New Venture and …Jungle Treasure, gave us an old and tired Arthur Lucan (the creator of Riley, a music hall success for nearly thirty years) going through old and tired routines, these particular instalments – the thirteen and fifteenth (also the last) in the series – prove surprisingly snappy and in possession of a great sense of fun. It’s true that within the wider context of screen comedies, British or otherwise, they are perhaps unexceptional, yet seen purely as Old Mother Riley movies they can be classed as successes.
The earlier of the two, Old Mother Riley, Headmistress, is also the more familiar, albeit with hints towards Will Hay and St. Trinian’s. With the usual disregard for plotting we find the standard unexpected inheritance cropping up as well as an assortment of foreign villains (in this case the French, getting up to “that double-crossing froggy business” no less!), here combined and barely stretched beyond the 70-minute mark. Indeed, whilst the idea of Old Mother Riley owning her own girls’ school should provide plenty of comic mileage, we’re still faced with some pointless musical numbers to pad things out, plus far too much reliance on a truly abysmal performance from Lucan’s wife and (near) regular onscreen partner Kitty McShane.
Yet when it does get down to business there’s a chirpiness and a punch in the screenplay which is hard not to enjoy. Of course, any level of sophistication is kept at a bare minimum (Lucan was never the subtlest of actors; he performed for the camera just as he did on the stage), but in its own way …Headmistress has an energy equal to that of, say, Hellzapoppin’ or the Marx Brothers’ A Night in Casablanca, even if both are far superior and much funnier. There’s a non-stop quality to the gags which, whilst the film may ultimately be forgettable, amounts to great deal of fun. Certainly, for a thirteenth entry in a big screen franchise (and one made almost as many years after the first), it’s far better than we should rightfully expect.
Remarkably Lucan also bowed out on a relative high note, Old Mother Riley Meets the Vampire being one of the series’ most interesting efforts. There’s no McShane for a start (this being her only instance of absenteeism), rather in her stead we find one Bela Lugosi. Of course, by 1952 he’d begun collaborating with Edward D. Wood Jr. and as such his casting isn’t quite the coup that it once would have been, but his presence nonetheless still adds up to some campy fun. After all, he’s done this kind of thing before, in 1940 with You’ll Find Out (alongside Kay Kyser) and a just a few years previous with Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.
As is the norm with such quickie comedy-horrors, the plotting is neither here nor there – certainly nothing to which director John Gilling can lend the qualities he imbued in later Hammer assignments The Plague of the Zombies and The Reptile. Essentially we have Lugosi as a fanatical scientist in the Fu Manchu mode, here dubbed ‘the Vampire’. Young girls have been disappearing throughout London, plus there’s the usual talk of uranium not to mention a crude robot with a mind of its own. The important thing is that it gives Old Mother Riley plenty to do; in fact the film gets along just fine even when Lucan’s not onscreen. This may be British comedy-horror not too far removed from Frankie Howerd’s The House in Nightmare Park or Kenny Everett’s Bloodbath at the House of Death, but it ambles along pleasantly enough and come with a delightfully knowing turn from Lugosi.
Not that the Romanian is the only trick up the film’s sleeve. Amongst the supporting cast we find a fine display of familiar British talent including Graham Moffatt, Hattie Jacques and Dandy Nichols (and, apparently, an uncredited John Le Mesurier). The standout turn, however, comes from a youthful Dora Bryan, here transforming an essentially thankless role (she’s perhaps the nearest the film gets to a surrogate Kitty) into a wonderful comic performance. Indeed, much the same is true of …Meets the Vampire as a whole: it has only various disparate pieces of business to hang onto yet somehow manages to add up to a hugely entertaining hour and a bit. Again, it’s ultimately forgettable, but great fun whilst it lasts.
Though by no means perfect, the presentation on this disc is certainly superior to those of …New Venture and …Jungle Treasure on DDVideo’s other tail-end double bill. The clarity of the image is most certainly improved, as is the contrast. There’s still a wealth of grain to contend with on occasion, and you’ve no doubt seen much, much better, but both films remain watchable throughout. The soundtracks also seen much better, with the background noise and crackle kept to a minimum and the scoring much less harsh on the ears. Again, they’re by no means perfect, but at the very least watchable. As for special features, this disc follows the pattern of DD’s other Old Mother Riley releases and offers simply the films.