|In the Hollywood of the nineteen-thirties, the studio Universal created horror movies, and had a collection of stars who became associated with them. The most prominent of those were Bela Lugosi, who hit big in the title role of Dracula (1931), and Boris Karloff, who did likewise with Frankenstein (also 1931), but what could they do with them once those successes were box office bonanzas? Universal had experience in horror pictures as Lon Chaney had made The Phantom of the Opera for them in the twenties and made a huge impact, but he had passed away prematurely just as sound came in, so they were not about to allow Karloff and Lugosi escape.
Karloff became the go-to-guy for a selection of chiller villains - The Mummy, The Mask of Fu Manchu, and so forth - yet Lugosi was more difficult to cast thanks to his thick Hungarian accent, both his trademark and a drawback for the range his rival Karloff was able to display. But Universal had an idea: the major name in American horror was Edgar Allan Poe, so how about casting him in films drawn from Poe's literature? The first was Murders in the Rue Morgue, the Paris-set, mid-nineteenth century yarn of murders committed by a mysterious figure which we find out at the end is an ape. Obviously, director Robert Florey, thrown this as compensation for losing Frankenstein, wasn't about to keep his cards close to his chest.
Therefore we see immediately post-Dracula Lugosi - as Dr Mirakle - with his pet ape early on, in a carnival sideshow, as he expounds on his theories of evolution the small audience rejects as the ravings of a madman. Although this 1932 effort was loosely based on Poe, it did hew closer to his text than Lugosi's other movies drawn from his work, including the detail that the witnesses who heard a murder cannot agree on which language the killer was speaking (because it is an ape), which should have satisfied at least some of the Poe diehards in the audience. But Florey, wanting a full-blooded telling, amplified the violence so much that the studio got cold feet and edited almost twenty minutes from the film.
Nevertheless, one scene is intact that illustrates how nasty the director (a rising star who did not rise much further) was willing to go: where the prostitute Arlene Francis is tied to an X-shaped cross and experimented on by Mirakle. It remains strong stuff even now, and makes one lament what might have been had Universal not meddled; otherwise, it's a reminder of leading lady Sidney Fox, who gets kidnapped by Erik the orang-utan (actually a man in a suit, except in closeups where it's a chimpanzee) in the dramatic climax. Her career petered out in a mire of tabloid gossip and she ended up committing suicide a few years later, so remember her this way, bright but delicate and a style of acting that went out of fashion pretty quickly. Still, an atmospheric Pre-Code horror.
However, Lugosi's defining non-Dracula Pre-Code chiller would have to be 1934's The Black Cat, a popular choice of title, but back then alluding once again to Poe, though a cat phobia crowbarred in was the only real connection aside from a necrophilia theme. A huge hit in its day, the teaming of Lugosi with his fellow Universal horror star Boris Karloff proved an enormous draw at the box office, and audiences were not disappointed for it was one of the most gruesome movies Hollywood released during the nineteen-thirties. The plot had it that Lugosi was travelling through Central Europe in search of Karloff, who had engineered mass atrocities during the Great War and enjoyed them so much he built a mansion on top of the casualties.
There he stays, practicing his Satanic rites - this was the first horror movie to feature Satanism as a guiding force for the villainy, inspired by the then-infamy of Aleister Crowley, the self-styled "Wickedest Man in the World", and Karloff played the role with relish as he planned the sacrifice of the female half of the couple Lugosi has with him, a pair of American tourists in the area to visit family. So is Lugosi, but he doesn't know it - Karloff married his wife when they believed he was dead, but then she passed away, and now the Satanist has married his daughter who Lugosi has no idea has survived. It was all diabolically convoluted, and all played out in a rich, Gothic ambience amid ultra-modern sets.
The thrills came from seeing the two European stars, embodying ancient evil, play chess (literally and figuratively) for the soul of the young woman (Jacqueline Wells, later Julie Bishop) while her husband (early horror goodie David Manners) uselessly tries to prevent them. Edgar G. Ulmer was the director, a curious man who never quite found his niche but still commands a significant cult following, and he was in his element pitting Old Europe against the New World, especially as the Americans are helpless in the face of something so innate to the continent's character, almost as if the film can tell that evil is about to emerge once again for another World War. Full of quotable lines and possibly Lugosi's best screen performance, there was nothing quite like it, then or now.
The Black Cat connected itself to Poe merely by borrowing the title and putting an actual black cat in there somewhere, but 1935's controversial The Raven was more engaged with the writer, not that this was an adaptation of his poem of the same name, no matter that it is recited at least twice. The premise had it that Lugosi was a brilliant surgeon who has retired from the operating room in favour of research, but his time away in his office appears to have sent him quite mad, exhibiting itself in his obsessive love of Poe's literature. This superfan has convinced himself he is "The sanest man in the world!" and to prove it, rather than devote his life to saving lives, he is dead keen on torture, and the way his hero Edgar depicted it.
Karloff was there too, as a criminal who goes to Lugosi so he can perform that old cliché, the identity-altering plastic surgery gambit: it's no surprise that the mad doctor mutilates him and forces him to perform his bidding in return for changing him back (which we're not convinced he will ever do). That bidding is wrapped up in Lugosi's love for Irene Ware, a lead dancer in a Poe-themed ballet (!) whose life he came out of retirement to save after she crashed her car. It was all very overheated and, once it gets going, more than borderline hysterical, but it did do more with the nineteenth century author's output than many more supposedly faithful adaptations as well as a parody of toxic fandom before that concept was conceived of.
Lugosi was genuinely entertaining as the villain, ranging from brooding to laughing in crazed viciousness, a man who has built his own tribute to The Pit and the Pendulum in his basement and is itching to use it on someone (Ware's judge father will fit the bill). It was evidence why the star generated so much affection among horror fans, he didn't condescend to the material and played it with utmost intensity and sincerity, and that was why he and indeed Karloff commanded such respect. Thanks to Tim Burton's fanciful classic Ed Wood (1994), the myth is that the two actors didn't like each other, but although they were never fast friends, they enjoyed working together; when asked about Lugosi in his later years, however, Karloff would only say "Poor, poor Bela", a mark of how their careers diverged eventually. Remember Lugosi this way, in these Poe movies of his heyday, at the height of his powers.
[Released on Blu-ray by Eureka, this is a wonderful set of all three Poe/Lugosi titles looking far better than movies of this vintage have any right to. Those features in full:
High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentations for all three films, with The Raven presented from a 2K scan of the original film elements
Uncompressed LPCM monaural audio tracks
Optional English SDH subtitles
Murders in the Rue Morgue Audio commentary by Gregory William Mank
The Black Cat Audio commentary by Gregory William Mank
The Black Cat Audio commentary by Amy Simmons
The Raven Audio commentary by Gary D. Rhodes
The Raven Audio commentary by Samm Deighan
Cats In Horror a video essay by writer and film historian Lee Gambin
American Gothic a video essay by critic Kat Ellinger
"The Black Cat" episode of radio series Mystery In The Air, starring Peter Lorre
"The Tell-Tale Heart" episode of radio series Inner Sanctum Mysteries, starring Boris Karloff
Bela Lugosi reads "The Tell-Tale Heart"
New Interview with Critic And Author Kim Newman
PLUS: A 48-PAGE collector's booklet featuring new writing by film critic and writer Jon Towlson; a new essay by film critic and writer Alexandra Heller-Nicholas; and rare archival imagery and ephemera.]