This Month's Featured Equipment Reviews
Bela Lugosi Collection, The
Written by Bill Warren
Tuesday, 06 September 2005
|The Bela Lugosi Collection
||"Murders in the Rue Morgue"
(1932) with Bela Lugosi, Leon Waycoff (Ames), Bert Roach, Betty Ross
Clarke, Brandon Hurst, D’Arcy Corrigan, Noble Johnson, Arlene Francis
||Three and a Half Stars
||"The Black Cat" (1934) with Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, David Manners, Julie Bishop, Egon Brecher, Harry Cording, Lucille Lund, Henry Armetta
||Edgar G. Ulmer
||"The Raven" (1935) with Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, Lester Matthews, Irene Ware, Samuel S. Hinds, Spencer Charters, Inez Courtney, Ian Wolfe
||Louis Friedlander (Lew Landers)
||"The Invisible Ray" (1936) with Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Frances Drake, Frank Lawton, Violet Kemble Cooper, Walter Kingsford, Beulah Bondi
||Three and a Half Stars
||"Black Friday" (1940) with Boris Karloff, Stanley Ridges, Anne Nagel, Bela Lugosi, Anne Gwynne, Virginia Brissac, Edmund MacDonald, Paul Fix.
||Two and a Half Stars
|DVD release year:
Bela Lugosi became an instant star with the success of “Dracula”
(1931), but unlike his contemporary (and sometimes compatriot) Boris
Karloff, his star faded very quickly. He worked on until the mid-50s,
sometimes starring in low-budget films, sometimes in supporting roles
in major films (he unexpectedly turned up in “Ninotchka” as Garbo’s
Soviet boss). His thick Hungarian accent and unusual features, plus
type-casting in horror films, severely limited his roles. But he
soldiered on, in serials, thrillers, an occasional comedy (never a
Western), always sincere, always giving the role all it called for and
sometimes much more.
It’s likely a lot of people today know Lugosi mostly, or even
exclusively, for being one of the central characters in Tim Burton’s
“Ed Wood.” The heart of the film is the relationship between aging,
forgotten Lugosi (Martin Landau) and eager-beaver but talentless
would-be movie giant Ed Wood (Johnny Depp). Burton’s movie got right
some of the details of Lugosi’s sad later life, and Martin Landau’s
Oscar-winning performance as Bela was the tribute of one sometimes
extravagant actor to another. Landau’s dignified, honest portrait
brought Lugosi some very belated fame. Even before it was released, as
noted in the movie itself, Lugosi memorabilia has outsold that
associated with Boris Karloff. In later years, Karloff rarely referred
to Lugosi without a regretful sigh and a murmured “poor Bela.” And he
never failed to praise Lugosi’s dedicated, even dogged, professionalism.
Lugosi’s small latter-day triumph over Karloff continues with this DVD
set. It’s called “The Bela Lugosi Collection,” and indeed Bela appears
in all five films included. But Karloff also appears in four of them,
and is the unquestioned star of two, “The Invisible Ray” and “Black
Friday.” In the latter, though Lugosi got prominent billing, he played
the relatively minor role of a tough—but not tough enough—gangster.
This set includes essentially all of the movies Lugosi made for
Universal that have not turned up in the earlier Universal “Legacy”
collections. If you’re fond of “poor Bela,” you simply cannot miss
buying this set.
Universal cheaped out to a degree; all five of the movies are included
on just two sides of one DVD. There have been complaints from some that
their DVD players refuse to play all of the films, usually giving up
the ghost on “Black Friday,” the last film in the set. The set I have,
however, played fine all the way through.
The prints chosen are generally very sharp and handsome, though “The
Raven” in particular displays a lot of white flecking; it’s also less
crisp and clear than the others, perhaps from a 16mm print. “The Black
Cat” and “The Invisible Ray” are especially fine transfers, which is
suitable as they’re the best films in the set.
“Murders in the Rue Morgue” (with some dialogue by John Huston!) is the
most elaborately produced of the films, made when it looked like
Lugosi’s fame might match Karloff’s. Although Bela isn’t on screen as
much as you might like, he’s unquestionably the lead here. Based on
Edgar Allan Poe’s short story, it’s set in mid-19th century Paris
(though you couldn’t tell it from the accents). The sets are elaborate
and stylized; the buildings look as though they’ve been crumpled. The
entrance to the sideshow of Dr. Mirakle (Lugosi) is through the crotch
of a huge painting of a gorilla (years before gorillas were well known
to the Western world). The sets are elaborate, twisted, gothic and
Lugosi is splendid as Dr. Mirakle, with his hair in elaborate oiled
curls. He lords it over the spectators, demonstrating that he can talk
to his caged ape. (Charles Gemora in a gorilla suit in long shots, a
chimpanzee in closeups.) His show is entirely about evolution and the
kinship of humans and apes. This, of course, is well before DNA was
identified, so Mirakle bases his evidence on the intermingling of ape
and human blood. Unknown to his patrons, his research requires
injecting kidnapped streetwalkers with ape blood. This quickly kills
them, so he dumps their bodies in the Thames and continues on looking
for the “perfect” blood.
The bodies are rousing interest in the police and in energetic young
medical student Pierre Dupin (Leon Waycoff—before he changed his last
name to Ames). His girlfriend (Sidney Fox, billed above Lugosi) has
caught the eye of Dr. Mirakle’s ape Eric, as well as that of the
sinister scientist himself.
“Murders” is a physically beautiful film, though the beauty is of a
dark and moody kind. The trouble is that its structure is way off,
spending more time with the hero than the villain, and wrapping
everything up much too swiftly. Director Robert Florey makes great use
of closeups for punctuation, and includes some of the oddball humor
found in the original Poe story, but also some less effective jokes as
well. The movie gives evidence of post-production alteration, and runs
only 61 minutes. It was not successful at the boxoffice; some feel it
marks the downturn in audience interest in horror movies. (But they’ll
“The Black Cat” is a magnificent movie, completely unlike anything
else—not just anything else in this set, but anything else at all. It’s
one of the few major studio movies directed by Edgar G. Ulmer, whose
reputation rests largely on this movie and on the later “Detour;”
though many of his other B movies were quite good, such as “Bluebeard”
with John Carradine and “The Man from Planet X.”
The only connection to Poe is the title; the plot is entirely original,
though it does fall into the long-established (even then) horror
tradition of “the bridge is out, you’ll have to spend the night,” later
sent up in “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” An auto wreck in the
Carpathian Mountains forces a newlywed couple to accompany mysterious
Vitus Verdegast (Lugosi) to a nearby mansion built on a mass
grave/prison from World War I.
Verdegast’s former friend Hjalmar Poelzig (Karloff) lives in the
mansion, and keeps the bodies of some women preserved in glass cases in
the basement. Although Verdegast doesn’t know it as early as the
audience, one of these trophies is his late wife. He has come to this
former prison seeking word of her and of their missing daughter.
Verdegast has an all-consuming fear of cats, which Poelzig exploits.
The sinister architect—he designed this art moderne building—is also
into devil worship.
The movie is elegant and intelligent, but builds to a particularly
blood-curdling climax wherein Verdegast finally gets the upper hand
over Poelzig—and skins him alive. (Offscreen, fortunately.)
Both Karloff and Lugosi are especially good here. As often with
Karloff, his hair is given interesting treatment—an iron gray crewcut
this time. He dresses in soft robes of black with white highlights.
Never has his slight lisp been but to better use than in his whispers
and murmurs about Verdegast. Lugosi here is essentially heroic, but
he’s a dark and twisted man, a barely-recovering victim of the war who
spent time in prison. He’s dedicated to revenge himself on Poelzig—but
there’s his terror of cats to contend with.
“The Black Cat” looks like it was made ten years after “The Raven”
rather than the year before. Yes, it’s dated—show me a movie from the
1930s that isn’t—but it’s sleek, modern and even witty at times. “Do
you hear that, Vitus?” whispers Karloff. “Even the phone is dead!”
“The Raven” is florid and brief, an essentially plotless showcase for
Lugosi unleashed. He’s mad brain surgeon Dr. Vollin, with a passion for
Poe. He wants to devote himself to research, but Judge Thatcher (Samuel
S. Hinds) convinces the reclusive Vollin to operate on his seriously
injured daughter Jean (Irene Ware).
The surgery is successful, but there’s a side effect: Vollin, who seems
to overreact to everything, has fallen passionately in love with Jean,
who herself is the sweetie of young Dr. Jerry Holden (Lester Matthews).
When Judge Thatcher tells Vollin never to see his daughter again, the
mad medico’s loose grasp on sanity fails completely.
In the meantime, he’s been approached by regretful career criminal
Bateman (Karloff), who’s formed a dim theory that if you’re ugly, you
do ugly things. Maybe if Dr. Vollin could make him better looking, he’d
be a nice guy. “You are saying something profound, Bateman,” Vollin
responds speculatively. But instead of improving Bateman’s looks,
Vollin makes him look even worse. Jack Pierce’s makeup here is both
limited and particularly creative: the right half of Karloff’s face is
gray, lined and immobile; his eye is withered and useless. Vollin
promises he’ll put everything back if Bateman will be his servant.
Bateman, evidently not the brightest candle on the birthday cake of
life, goes along with Vollin’s plans.
These include luring the Thatchers, Dr. Jerry and some friends to his
house for an ostensible party. Vollin knocks out two with drugs, then
shows the Judge his greatest tribute to Poe: a working knife-edged
pendulum, under which he straps the judge to watch his death slowly
descend. Meanwhile, he puts Jean and Jerry in a room whose walls slowly
come together. Unfortunately, Vollin didn’t notice Bateman becoming
pathetically devoted to the young woman….
“The Raven” is fast-paced and energetic, but the dialogue is stilted
and overdone (“Poe, you are avenged!” exults Bela). In later years,
Lugosi was often regarded as an actor who knew no limits, who
overplayed everything. This simply isn’t true; he was usually
controlled, though not understated. His critics probably had his
performance in “The Raven” in mind when making their claims. Lugosi not
only chews the scenery, he builds new scenery to chew. “Energetic” does
not begin to describe his performance; unfortunately, neither does
“good.” Karloff comes off only slightly better; he’s not over the top,
but the role is so limited that there simply is no character for him to
play. But they both get a good moment when Vollin has Bateman remove
his bandages after surgery—in a room lined with mirrors.
“The Invisible Ray” is a lot of fun, but this is Karloff’s turn to
overplay. He’s Janos Rukh, brilliant scientist who lives in a
Carpathian castle with his blind mother (Violet Kemble Cooper) and much
younger wife Diana (Frances Drake). Long scorned by the scientific
establishment, Rukh invites a few to the castle to see him
demonstrate—with an impressive telescope—his ability to use an
invisible ray from the great nebula in Andromeda the ability to look
into Earth’s past. He demonstrates via movie (with sound) a giant
glowing meteor falling into ancient Africa. This, he says, contains a
radioactive element otherwise unknown on Earth that can “heal—or
destroy.” (He says this repeatedly.)
Longtime rival Dr. Felix Benet (Lugosi) invites Rukh to accompany this
group that Rukh invited on an expedition in Africa. Despite his
mother’s warnings, he agrees and brings along Diana. He doesn’t notice
that she and Ronald Drake (Frank Lawton) are eyeing each other. In
Africa, on his own Rukh finds the fallen meteor in an impressive scene
shot, unlike most horror movies of the period, outside and in the
daylight. However, the specimen he retrieves poisons his body; he glows
in the dark and kills with a mere touch.
Benet warns Rukh that the radioactivity will kill him unless every
night he takes a drug that Benet devises. Rukh is deeply suspicious of
everyone, particularly Benet, and furious when he realizes Diana and
Frank are sweet on each other. He fakes his death while the others
return to Paris. Back at his castle, Rukh uses the Radium X (as it’s
been dubbed) to cure his mother’s blindness, then follows the others to
Paris. Rukh begins killing them one by one—with just that glowing
touch—and successively melts a series of statues to indicate his
triumph over a foe. But Rukh’s mother shows up….
“The Invisible Ray” is a rare example of out-and-out science fiction
from the 1930s, not unlike stories found in the more sensational SF
magazines of the day. The iconography is Gothic—a castle in the
Carpathians, for example—but the movie is brighter and more sunlit than
other horror movies. The sight of Karloff, eerily glowing, is unusual
and effective. The movie itself is brisk and efficient, with a larger
cast than most of its type, and several good performances, including
Lugosi’s. Here, he’s a dignified and respectable, not really an enemy
to Rukh, though Rukh doesn’t believe this. Lugosi is fine, but Karloff
is a bit too much.
In “Black Friday,” it was back to the other way around. Karloff is
respected scientist Dr. Ernest Sovac (the British Karloff is often
saddled with Slavic names, but he started it) who lives in a small
university town with his daughter Jean (Anne Gwynne). His best friend
is Prof. George Kingsley (Stanley Ridges), a mild, pince-nez-wearing
professor of English literature. A car driven by fleeing gangster Red
Cannon strikes Kingsley down; the gangster is slightly injured, while
Kingsley is dying of brain injuries. Sovac sees his opportunity: he
operates on both, transplanting part of Cannon’s brain into Kingsley’s
skull. Cannon is left dead, but Kingsley seemingly returns to normal.
Sovac becomes determined to learn if any of Cannon’s memories survive,
and lo and behold, they do. Cannon’s mind takes over completely (his
hair turns dark) and tries to get revenge on his gang, the ones chasing
him earlier. He also has a lot of money stashed away, but only he knows
where. The plot works itself out in standard format, but it’s
consistently interesting, and Stanley Ridges is excellent.
Initially, Karloff was to have played Kingsley and Lugosi Dr. Sovac. By
1940, Lugosi’s star had fallen far enough that, despite a great
performance in Universal’s “Son of Frankenstein,” the studio didn’t
trust him with this larger role. Instead, he plays one of Cannon’s
gang, the principal betrayer and now leader of the dwindling gang.
Lugosi is fine in the role, but anyone could have played it. Karloff
made a lot of movies of this nature around this time, primarily for
Columbia, but he doesn’t walk through the role. Ridges is outstanding
in the Jekyll-Hyde-like role, so good that it’s curious he rarely had
other significant roles.
“Black Friday” is respectable and fast-paced with plenty of action. It
resembles entries in Karloff’s “Mad Doctor” series he made at Columbia
around this time than it does other Universal movies.
“The Bela Lugosi Collection” is an outstanding DVD set for those with
an interest in horror movies, Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff or any
combination. It’s not likely there’ll be a matching collection of
Karloff titles from Universal, as all of his major films for the studio
are out in one DVD set or another. But this is undoubtedly the only
Lugosi set Universal will—or can—release. These things do go out of
print, so if you’ve been putting off a purchase, delay no longer
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