Directed by William Nigh, Black Dragons is a convoluted mess of a motion picture. The 1942 movie is little more than a wartime propaganda piece, puffing up a beyond-weird plot and jamming Bela Lugosi in the mix for star power. The film only runs a little over an hour, but feels like an eternity thanks to endless plot holes, wooden acting and a senseless reveal to close things off.
At this point in his career, Lugosi’s career was facing severe decline. He was sifting through a sea of B-movies and was addicted to painkillers, veering into what would be termed his “poverty row” era. Work was steady but pretty basic fare, although Lugosi still managed to draw. That was the logic behind putting him in Black Dragons, a departure from his horror releases that still tried to make the menace stick.
The film opens with the Japanese (almost always just the “Japs”) having bombed Pearl Harbor and a group of wealthy businessmen discussing a wave of sabotages across the United States. They insist that Americans are like children and have short memories. During one of these clandestine meetings, Dr. William Saunders (George Pembroke) is visited by a very sick patient by the name of Colomb (Lugosi).
Not long after the strange meeting, members of the group of businessmen start to turn up dead on the steps of the Japanese embassy. There are Japanese daggers in the hands of the victims and the mysterious Colomb appears to have something to do with it, as he’s always lurking in the shadows and seemingly controlling minds in the process. He appears to have Saunders under some sort of spell and Detective Dick Martin (Clayton Moore) is determined to crack the case.
The explanation of the events of Black Dragons is so inexplicably weird that it almost begs to be experienced on that basis alone. Almost. Of course, the arrival of Saunders’ niece (Joan Barclay) appears to dump in some potential romantic complications. Nothing is made of these angles and, like many of the movie’s plot strands, the issues are left hanging in the air.
Barclay’s role almost entirely consists of her sitting up in her bedroom, hearing a noise and rushing downstairs to find out what the matter is. Sometimes she comes across a body, while other instances find her discovering Colomb skulking around and acting strangely. When her true identity is revealed, her incompetence and ignorance is rendered all the more preposterous.
This isn’t a traditional horror movie or even a traditional spy thriller, but there are some elements of mind control and a little bit of mystery in the shadows to contribute to some sense of normalcy. Lugosi is kind of a curio at this point, however, and his delivery isn’t what it once was. His Colomb (and his Dr. Melcher, a Nazi-supporting plastic surgeon) is a basic, uninteresting character but for his penchant for strangulation.
If Black Dragons was remade today, it would centre on a sleeper cell of Muslims and might feature even more plastic surgery. It would play nicely into these paranoid times, for certain, and it might’ve had a similar effect in 1942 were it not for the ineptness and misery of the finished product.