It’s fair to say Universal Pictures dominated the horror movie genre in the 1930s. They found success with a few horror melodramas in the previous decade, particularly The Phantom of the Opera and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, but they truly hit it out of the park in 1931 with the double-whammy of Dracula and Frankenstein. Universal were quick to capitalise on the success of these and churned out dozens of horror movies throughout the decade. Most notably, they established their ‘Classic Monsters’ series, with the aforementioned creatures followed by The Mummy and The Invisible Man. This collection of iconic horror creations would be expanded over the coming decades and multiple sequels and spin-offs were made.
Among this early boom of Universal horror was a handful of Edgar Allan Poe adaptations that didn’t fit the Classic Monster mould, so haven’t been as widely discussed and redistributed over the years. Three of them did, however, star Dracula himself, Bela Lugosi (as well as Boris Karloff in a couple of titles) and Eureka have packaged them together in an excellent Blu-ray box-set, lengthily titled Murders in the Rue Morgue/The Black Cat/The Raven: Three Edgar Allan Poe Adaptations Starring Bela Lugosi, so they can be rediscovered. I turned out the lights and braved the trio of terror to provide my thoughts on the set.
Murders in the Rue Morgue
Director: Robert Florey
Screenplay: Robert Florey
Based on a Story by: Edgar Allan Poe
Starring: Bela Lugosi, Sidney Fox, Leon Ames, Bert Roach, Betty Ross Clarke, Brandon Hurst, D’Arcy Corrigan, Noble Johnson
Running Time: 61 min
In Murders in the Rue Morgue, Lugosi plays Dr. Mirakle, a mad scientist who we first meet at a circus where he shows off his ape-man, Erik, who he can communicate with and claims is a missing link between man and ape. The audience at the sideshow balk at this (the film is set in 19th Century Paris, before Darwinism was more commonly accepted) and largely leave in disgust. Medical student Pierre Dupin (Leon Ames) and his girlfriend Camille L’Espanaye (Sidney Fox) are invited up to see Erik face-to-face and the beast seems to take a shine to Camille before assaulting Pierre.
After the show, Mirakle becomes obsessed with proving his ape-man link by mixing the blood of Erik with a woman’s. He kills several in the process before fixating on making Camille the next ingredient for his experiments, due to Erik’s fascination with her.
Murders in the Rue Morgue was sort of a ‘consolation prize’ for Lugosi and writer-director Robert Florey. Florey had requested to write and direct Universal’s adaptation of Frankenstein with Lugosi as the lead actor, and this was initially accepted. However, producer Carl Laemmle Jr. wasn’t happy with Lugosi’s make-up for the monster, and Lugosi himself didn’t like the idea of not having any dialogue. So, ultimately, the film went to James Whale and Boris Karloff. Universal gave Florey Murders in the Rue Morgue to make instead and once again Lugosi was cast. The result it a lesser film to Frankenstein, but it’s not without its merits.
Most effective in the film is its visual style. Famed cinematographer Karl Freund was behind the camera and brought a German expressionist look, aided by some equally atmospheric production design by Charles D. Hall and an un-credited Herman Rosse. There’s an interesting swing-mounted shot at one point too.
Lugosi is wonderful, veering just to the right side of over-the-top. He’s very creepy but has the charm and charisma he was famous for in his classic Dracula role. There are also some fun performances from character actors in side-roles, such as the morgue attendant played by D’Arcy Corrigan and ‘Janos The Black One’, played by Noble Johnson, who doesn’t say much but has a great Igor-esque look.
Erik the ape-man is less impressive though. In wide shots, he looks OK and the ‘man-in-a-suit’ physical performance isn’t bad, but it’s just not a very intimidating creature when compared to some of Universal’s better-known creations. It’s not helped by some glaringly obvious insert close-ups of a real monkey that shatter the illusion.
The film’s momentum is spoiled towards the end too. Like all the films in this set, it’s only a little over an hour in length, so there isn’t too much filler or time to get bored, but there is an extended comedy sequence near the end that grinds the potentially exciting finale to a halt and isn’t particularly funny either. Other splashes of black comedy in the occasionally quite witty dialogue are more effective though.
Also effective is the film’s dark edge. Made before the Motion Picture Production Code kicked into action, Murders in the Rue Morgue was able to get away with some pretty disturbing content for the time. A scene where a woman is tied to a cross and tortured before being killed is particularly shocking.
It’s not the greatest of Universal’s classic horror movies by any stretch, but it’s very atmospheric and boasts an enjoyable central performance from Legosi, so it’s still worth a look.
The Black Cat
Director: Edgar G. Ulmer
Screenplay: Peter Ruric, Edgar G. Ulmer
Based on a Story by: Edgar Allan Poe
Starring: Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, David Manners, Julie Bishop
Running Time: 65 min
The Black Cat begins with honeymooners Joan (Julie Bishop) and Peter Allison (David Manners) having to share their private train compartment with Dr. Vitus Verdegast (Lugosi) as they travel into Hungary. Verdegast is travelling home after being a prisoner of war for the past 15 years. They all share a bus to the hotel but it crashes and they end up heading to the nearby house of Hjalmar Poelzig (Karloff) to help treat Joan’s injuries.
It soon turns out that Verdegast and Poelzig are bitter enemies though and the former was planning to go there anyway, to exact revenge for Poelzig’s part in the tragic battle that led him to becoming a prisoner-of-war, as well as for stealing his now-dead wife. Poelzig did indeed take Verdegast’s wife and, unbeknownst to Verdegast, married his daughter, who he believed to be dead too. The audience also discover Poelzig’s disturbing ‘collection’ of women that he has suspended in glass cabinets in his dungeon.
Joan and Peter sense something is not right with both their host and travel companion, so try to leave, but Poelzig stops them and keeps them prisoner in his house. You see, he has his sights on Joan as his next victim. Not only would she look nice in another cabinet, but the ‘dark of the moon’ is coming and she would make a great sacrifice for his satanic ceremony taking place soon. Verdegast does his best to try and save them, whilst getting the revenge he desires.
So, here we get both Lugosi and Karloff sharing top-billing and their scenes together are among the best in the film. It’s great to see them verbally spar, each trying to outdo the other, but thankfully without either lurching too far into hammy territories. There was a supposed feud between them off-camera, though this is believed to have been hyped up by the studios for publicity. In reality, Lugosi reportedly was resentful of Karloff’s skyrocketing fame whilst he didn’t capitalise on his Dracula success to the same extent. Karloff supposedly admired Lugosi as an actor though, so it was hardly a case of the pair being at constant loggerheads.
Once again, the film is very atmospheric. There’s less expressionism here, but it’s still stylishly shot and lit, with some great production design. Most of the film is set in Poelzig’s house, but its interesting ‘modern’ yet creepy design keeps the film from feeling too stagey.
As a Poe adaptation, the script veers wildly away from the source material. Rue Morgue made many changes, but this practically does away with the short story entirely. The film still has an air of Poe in its themes though.
The Black Cat is also quite disturbing. The Code was beginning to be put into action now, but Universal was able to get away with a tale of Satanism, murder and hints of necrophilia. One scene even has a character start to skin another alive. It’s off-camera of course, but still horrific enough.
Again, I’m not sure it reaches the heights of something like Frankenstein though. It’s fairly flimsy on the whole and has some clunky moments. With some pretty twisted content and a tantalisingly unravelled story it’s largely effective as a horror movie though. It’s also handsomely mounted and boasts two of classic-era horror’s greatest stars in one film, so I’d still recommend it.
Director: Lew Landers
Screenplay: David Boehm
Based on a Story by: Edgar Allan Poe
Starring: Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Lester Matthews, Irene Ware, Samuel S. Hinds
Running Time: 61 min
Once again ignoring the original Poe story for the most part and crafting an original story around little more than the title, The Raven sees Lugosi star as Dr. Richard Vollin, a brilliant but retired surgeon who’s contacted by Judge Thatcher (Samuel S. Hinds) to save the life of his injured daughter, Jean (Irene Ware). Vollin is initially reluctant but is talked into coming out of retirement for this one case. He manages to bring Jean back to good health, but in the process falls in love with her and wishes to marry her. Due to a considerable age difference and the fact she is engaged to Jerry Halden (Lester Matthews) already though, Thatcher forbids it.
An enraged Vollin subsequently plots a convoluted way to get revenge and the woman he loves. After notorious escaped convict Edmond Bateman (Karloff) arrives at his doorstep, asking for plastic surgery to hide his identity, Vollin agrees but horribly scars him and says he will only repair the damage if the killer assists with his fiendish plot.
This plot involves inviting Thatcher, Jean, Jerry and a few other friends around for an evening before imprisoning them in his Poe-inspired torture chamber. Bateman is used as the heavy to make this possible, but kindness shown to him by Jean softens his heart a little. Will it be enough to stop him carrying out Vollin’s orders though?
This shares most of the pros and cons of the rest of the films in this set. It’s atmospherically presented with some excellent production design, particularly the wonderful series of torture devices, which include a pit and pendulum (from Poe’s short story of course) and a room with contracting walls to crush whoever’s inside.
It’s more than a little twisted too, with Lugosi playing a particularly sadistic villain here, obsessed with Poe and all the grisly details of his work. Lugosi does a top-notch job as usual, though it’s ridiculous that he took second-billing to Karloff in the film, as he has far more screen time. Karloff was the bigger star then, I guess, and, to be fair, is particularly good in the film. His character is more three-dimensional than Lugosi’s, as Batemen has more of a battle with his conscience to deal with.
Karloff’s make-up job is less impressive though. The scarring isn’t too bad, but the droopy eye is clearly painted and stuck on, so doesn’t look convincing, particularly in this lovely 2K remastered presentation.
Once again, there are a couple of awkward, stilted moments and ill-placed comic-relief sequences, so I wouldn’t give it my highest recommendation, but the film is suitably grim and gamely performed by Lugosi and Karloff. So it remains a ghoulish treat for fans of classic horror.
Three Edgar Allan Poe Adaptations Starring Bela Lugosi is out on 20th July on Blu-Ray in the UK, released by Eureka as part of their Masters of Cinema series. The picture quality on Murders in the Rue Morgue is excellent. I noticed a little bit of a striped haze/cast on one shot, but, for the most part, the picture is relatively free of damage and sharp with a high dynamic range. The Black Cat also looks good for its age and The Raven is not bad but appears a little softer than the other titles.
Audio on Rue Morgue is a little inconsistent and I found the dialogue hard to make out at times, but this is likely to be a source problem. These were relatively early days in the sound era, to be fair. The Black Cat also doesn’t sound brilliantly clear, but is a slight improvement and The Raven goes a step further to be the most impressive-sounding film of the trio.
There are plenty of special features included in the package:
– Limited Edition Set [2000 copies]
– O-Card Slipcase
– 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
– 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 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
– New interview with critic and author Kim Newman
– 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”
– Vintage footage
The commentaries are all recommended. Gregory William Mank’s is particularly enjoyable, with a nice mix of facts and fun anecdotes. I appreciated Samm Deighan’s more general thoughts on Poe adaptations on screen too.
The ‘Cats in Horror’ essay only briefly mentions The Black Cat but is a fun look at how the animals have been portrayed on screen over the years. Similarly, Kat Ellinger’s piece on gothic horror has a more broad spread.
Kim Newman’s interview is a little more directly focused on the films included in the set, though he does diverge a few times. It’s fairly illuminating, like the rest of the critic contributions here.
The vintage footage is brief and rather odd, showing clips from a black cat ‘parade’ designed to cast the titular creature.
The various radio episodes and poem readings are a nice touch too.
The booklet is wonderful, as always. It’s packed to the gills with fascinating essays and archive stills.