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Bela Lugosi Collection, The Print E-mail
Tuesday, 06 September 2005

The Bela Lugosi Collection
MPAA rating: Unrated
movie: "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
director: Robert Florey
film rating: Three and a Half Stars
sound/picture rating: Three Stars
movie: "The Black Cat" (1934) with Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, David Manners, Julie Bishop, Egon Brecher, Harry Cording, Lucille Lund, Henry Armetta
director: Edgar G. Ulmer
film rating: Four Stars
sound/picture rating: Three Stars
movie: "The Raven" (1935) with Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, Lester Matthews, Irene Ware, Samuel S. Hinds, Spencer Charters, Inez Courtney, Ian Wolfe
director: Louis Friedlander (Lew Landers)
film rating: Two Stars
sound/picture rating: Two Stars
movie: "The Invisible Ray" (1936) with Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Frances Drake, Frank Lawton, Violet Kemble Cooper, Walter Kingsford, Beulah Bondi
director: Lambert Hillyer
film rating: Three Stars
sound/picture rating: Three and a Half Stars
movie: "Black Friday" (1940) with Boris Karloff, Stanley Ridges, Anne Nagel, Bela Lugosi, Anne Gwynne, Virginia Brissac, Edmund MacDonald, Paul Fix.
director: Arthur Lubin
film rating: Two and a Half Stars
sound/picture rating: Three Stars
DVD release year: 2005
reviewed by: Bill Warren

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 eerie.

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 be back.)

“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

more details
sound format:
Dolby Digital mono 2.0
aspect ratio(s):
special features: Trailers
comments: email us here...
reference system
DVD player: Kenwood DV-403
receiver: Kenwood VR-407
main speakers: Paradigm Atom
center speaker: Paradigm CC-170
rear speakers: Paradigm ADP-70
subwoofer: Paradigm PDR-10
monitor: 36-inch Sony XBR

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