GORE IN THE STORE
THREE EDGAR ALLAN POE ADAPTATIONS STARRING BELA LUGOSI *****
Directed by Robert Florey, Edgar G Ulmer, Lew Landers.
Starring Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, Sidney Fox, Jacqueline Wells, David Manners, Lester Matthews,
Irene Ware, Inez Courtney.
USA 1932/34/35 Certificate: 15 189 mins.
Released on Blu Ray Limited Edition by Eureka Entertainment on July 20th 2020
Thanks partly to Tim Burton’s ED WOOD (still by some way his best film, incidentally) and the enduring cult film infamy of PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE, Bela Lugosi has, in recent decades, become remembered less for the vibrant, theatrical screen presence of 1930s Hollywood horror – and more for the melancholic, physically ailing old man from the inventively bizarre but cash-starved films he made in his final years. A rewatch of much-mocked late-period Lugosi films like BRIDE OF THE MONSTER reveals the declining legend still valiantly attempting to rise above laughable dialogue and craft a three-dimensional, tragically misguided antagonist. There’s a chance that more people of a certain age know more about Lugosi’s bleak end than they do the fascinating horror films he made in the wake of his star-making role in DRACULA (1931), the picture that kick started Universal’s monster movie cycle. The three Poe-inspired movies collected in this glorious set from Eureka, all making their UK Blu-ray debut, are afforded the respect they deserve via beautiful restorations and extra features that contextualise their place in both Lugosi’s prolific, turbulent career and in the evolution of the American horror film leading up to WWII.
Released just two months after Universal’s FRANKENSTEIN (1931), MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE is described by Kim Newman on the disc as a “consolation prize” for its two central collaborators. Director Robert Florey famously directed poorly received test footage for what would become James Whale’s interpretation of the Mary Shelley text, at the point where it was intended as a follow-up star vehicle for newly minted DRACULA star Lugosi. When, instead, Whale made Karloff Universal’s premiere horror star, the Florey-Lugosi team had to make do with the less prestigious, lower budget RUE MORGUE. The fall-out from the star’s loss of the coveted Monster role would loom over a career spent (on paper at least) playing second fiddle to the better-paid Karloff, who maintained higher on screen billing, but this set highlights how, while Karloff was indisputably the smartest choice for FRANKENSTEIN, Lugosi’s complex character parts in the 1930s were often just as compelling as his genre rival’s higher profile roles.
Opening, like its fellow early talkie contemporaries DRACULA and FRANKENSTEIN, with a musical burst of “Swan Lake” for the opening titles (but otherwise lacking a music score), RUE MORGUE remains an astonishingly grim and perverse slice of pre-code Hollywood horror. Whenever modern critics with a dim view of the horror genre throw around meaningless, condescending terms like “torture porn”, and look through rose tinted glasses at a more “innocent” time for horror, it’s worth reminding them of how 1932 alone unleashed the still-startling Depression-era likes of ISLAND OF THE LOST SOULS, THE MASK OF FU MANCHU and FREAKS. FU MANCHU and the 1935 THE RAVEN from this set are, to name but two, major influences on the physical horrors and plot machinations of the SAW franchise.
MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE opens with the kind of self-aware commentary on its own potential audience that would quickly become a trend in 1930s horror: at a 19th century Parisian carnival, a typical paying crowd lap up the “bloodthirsty savages” on display and lech over the belly-dancing wenches (“Do they bite?” “Yes, but you have to pay extra for that!”) while mocking the accent of Lugosi’s magnetic, monobrowed host Dr. Mirakle (“Never heard one like it!”). Mirakle showcases an intelligent ape named Erik, captured in the African jungle and now central for his plans to prove the human kinship with simians by mixing its blood with that of man. While local tramps act as a grim Greek chorus (“Three women this week / Always small, always young”) and bodies are pulled out of the river on a regular basis, the capital is currently host to a serial killer preying on Parisian prostitutes – though the stabbings are given so little serious attention by the authorities that med student Leon Ames and his rotund comic relief pal Bert Roach step in to investigate themselves. Ames’ fiancée (Sidney Fox), meanwhile, attracts the attention of Mirakle when Erik steals her bonnet.
Although weakened by the insert shots of a real ape (against Florey’s wishes) awkwardly juxtaposed with Universal’s ape suit, this appropriation of Poe’s 1841 short tale (often referred to as the first modern detective story) is morbidly funny and often shocking. Visually, it’s one of the stand out Expressionist American horror films from the period, with a remarkable early sequence on a foggy nocturnal street involving Lugosi walking toward the camera and a screaming prostitute. Its horrific centrepiece offers both shadowy suggestion and graphic (for the time) on screen violence: Lugosi strings up a woman on a giant cross, sticking her with needles and, when her blood proves “rotten”, callously dropping her to her doom through the trap door underneath. Florey’s mobile camera work, nimble cutting and use of light and shade lend it pace and atmosphere, while the potent undertones of bestiality and gruesome murder are balanced by deftly played gallows humour. D’Arcy Corrigan is one of the genre’s finest hilarious / creepy morgue attendants, salivating over Roach’s lunch in between jokes about his “quiet guests”. The comically inept police investigation ropes in a succession of unreliable witnesses, culminating with the only scene lifted directly from Poe’s story (and reworked for Warner’s 3D 1954 remake PHANTOM OF THE RUE MORGUE), in which a German, Italian and Dutch man bicker in their native language. Lugosi relishes his charismatic madman and the highly influential, iconic climax sees Erik taking to the Parisian rooftops with Fox in his clutches.
THE BLACK CAT (1934) was the historic first teaming of Karloff and Lugosi, with Universal working itself into a frenzy to sell the crowd-pleasing union: “the monster of FRANKENSTEIN plus the monster of DRACULA, plus the ‘monstrousness of Edgar Allan Poe” bragged the posters. In the event it became one of the studio’s biggest hits of 1934, though Karloff’s top billing (for substantially less screen time) and allegedly double salary were, according to some accounts, the source of some enduring bitterness for Lugosi. The film itself, however, is the liveliest of this delightful trio – a fabulously warped, blackly comic extended game of one-upmanship between the two horror maestros, shot through with a sense of self-awareness that would be heightened further by THE RAVEN and Todd Browning’s spoofy Lugosi vehicle MARK OF THE VAMPIRE a year later. Handsome star David Manners had already encountered Lugosi and Karloff separately in DRACULA and THE MUMMY respectively, and here brings an infectious smile and zest to the role of a mystery writer whose work (“The Purple Spot”, “The 69th Crime”) has been slammed for melodrama and credibility lapses. He’s honeymooning with bride Jacqueline Wells when they encounter the former POW Lugosi; we know there’s something wrong from the way he bleakly talks of 15 years spent “rotting in the darkness” and his sneaky stroking of Wells’ hair while she sleeps. All three escape a traditional Universal Pictures thunderstorm and take refuge at the imposing home of Satan-worshipping war criminal Boris Karloff, a castle built on a notorious battlefield and dubbed “a masterpiece of construction built upon the ruins of the masterpiece of destruction”.
Harbouring an intense fear of cats and desperately seeking the truth about his estranged, presumably dead wife and daughter, Lugosi brings considerable pathos to his role as one of Hungary’s greatest psychiatrists – while Karloff oozes menace as one of Austria’s greatest architects and the curator of enormous carnage during the final months of the Great War. “Are we not both the living dead?” muses Karloff, considering himself and Lugosi like-minded souls in a game of death from which neither will emerge triumphant. Sporting perhaps the best haircut of his horror career and leering lasciviously at Wells in her nightwear, Karloff plans Satanic rituals in between playing Bach on his organ. A relatively rare venture into full-strength horror for revered B movie maker Edgar G Ulmer, this peppers its brisk, busy plot with undertones of necrophilia, torture scenes and humour both throwaway (local cops debating the hospitality hotspots in the Carpathian mountains) and morbidly witty (“Even the phone is dead…”). The climax is among the strongest of the period, as the sympathetic, grief-stricken Lugosi finally gets to string up his nemesis on his own embalming rack, the ensuing horror captured mostly by his embittered line delivery (“Did you ever see an animal skinned…?”). With typically timely use of one of those convenient Universal horror levers -the red switch ignites the dynamite – this is an ageless meld of inventively gimmicky set design, ghoulish jokes and the all too real ghosts of the war.
Despite a screaming Irene Ware driving off a cliff in the very first scene, THE RAVEN is the lightest of the three. Lugosi offers a characteristically vigorous reading of the titular Poe(m) – “death is my talisman, the one certain thing” seldom sounded so potent- and sets up his role as a retired surgeon / avid Poe collector. Later echoed by Peter Cushing’s character in a segment of Amicus anthology TORTURE GARDEN, his obsession with the writer extends to building torture devices from Poe’s most horrific tales. Lugosi also becomes infatuated with Ware while easing her back to health following a nearly fatal brain injury and, by his own admission, is completely mad. Top-billed but not appearing until a third of the way through, bank robber Karloff has fled jail and strikes a deal with an unlikely partner: if he kills Ware’s father (Samuel L Hinds), the major object between Lugosi and the object of his desire, the brilliant surgeon will give the career criminal a new face.
What follows is a startling act of cruelty, as Karloff’s makeover ditches his vagrant beard but renders half his face hideously disfigured. In a reversal of character types from THE BLACK CAT, it’s Karloff that amps up the pathos as a guy desperate for a new life, having been stuck in a lifelong rut and now waking up with a monstrous visage in a room full of mirrors – while Lugosi maniacally laughs at the misfortune he has crafted. Karloff’s poignant fate is balanced with a humorous portrait of buffoonish high society (“I say, what is ‘The Raven’?”) including Ian Wolfe as a guest who falls asleep standing up and is oblivious to danger. In a film with at least two set pieces that both found their way into SAW V, THE RAVEN provides Lugosi’s finest screen showcase since DRACULA. “I’m the sanest man who ever lived” he cackles while strapping Hinds into an authentic recreation of “The Pit and the Pendulum”. Viewing himself as a brilliant, tragic Poe character come to life, Lugosi’s mad surgeon goes full tilt bonkers for the extended, suspenseful finale, yelling “What delicious torture! Greater than Poe!” as multiple close ups reveal him getting off on his own carefully curated sadism and the pendulum swings ever closer.
In an age in which WICKER MAN homages and superhero movies have running times of three hours, this set offers a sobering reminder that witty, still-shocking genre greatness can be found in three separate hour-long movies made almost 90 years ago and showcasing long-dead stars whose company remains a pleasure. These movies are as worthy of their place in horror history as the more famous Universal monster epics that have seen multiple reissues on various formats over the years – and, at last, now get their time in the (shiny disc) spotlight.
Extras - All three movies have been lovingly restored: MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE, which hasn’t had a home video UK release since the start of the century, is a particular revelation. If we look this good when we’re almost 90, it is presumably the result of some successful pact with Lucifer himself.
All three films are adorned with at least one audio commentary from a knowledgeable scholar. The drily witty Gregory Mank has perhaps the best, a full-length chat over MURDERS ripe with anecdotes about lawsuits, scandals and the MPAA, alongside general trivia (the 25 year old John Huston had a hand in the script) and an insight into how Florey considered the film would be better off without the Mirakle character, despite the magnificent entrances the director affords his star. Mank is especially engaging in his dissection of the intended opening sequence and convincingly considers the fate of the prostitute the most sadistic pre-code Hollywood sequence.
Elsewhere, Kim Newman has a typically lively half hour chat about the three films within the context of Universal horror and the evolving careers of Karloff and Lugosi – plus the decades of arguments that ensued about them. He outlines how THE RAVEN brought about a ban on horror films in the UK and effectively shut down the genre until Universal returned with the much safer SON OF FRANKENSTEIN at the end of the decade – and notes how, ironically, it’s the tamest of the three films in this set, complete with a lack of fatalities. He also considers the influence of THE BLACK CAT on later films as diverse as Hammer’s KISS OF THE VAMPIRE and Richard O’Brien’s ROCKY HORROR SHOW – in addition to setting an unofficial template for Bond movies.
Lee Gambin proffers a 12 minute video essay about cats in horror cinema, both as victimised bystanders, a boo device and as figures of protection. Pleasingly, the demented genetically altered moggy of UNINVITED gets name checked. “American Gothic” is Kat Ellinger’s characteristically engaging breeze through Gothic literature and the ways in which all three films in this set, despite their major diversions from their namesakes, retain the spirit and themes of Poe. Additionally, Eureka’s set contains valuable archival material including Poe radio adaptations of “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Black Cat” starring Karloff and Peter Lorre respectively, alongside Lugosi reading the former. The 48 page accompanying booklet contains further valuable analysis from Jon Towlson (a detailed insight into the production and censorship of THE BLACK CAT and THE RAVEN) and Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, who offers an overview of Lugosi’s prolific work in the field of mad science.