Fourteen years ago Universal released a Bela Lugosi Collection on DVD, featuring five much-desired horror items not aligned with any of the studio's 'name' monster franchises. Four out of the five starred both Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff, and those four have been restored, remastered and reunited for this Universal Horror Collection Vol. 1. But that doesn't mean that the equally classic Murders in the Rue Morgue, a Lugosi solo effort, will top-line an eventual Vol. 2.. The titles tagged for that are The Mad Ghoul, The Strange Case Of Dr. Rx, The Mad Doctor Of Market Street and Murders In The Zoo. The last film in the list is actually a Paramount Picture, however.
Scream Factory initially announced that the disc set would be called the 'Karloff and Lugosi Collection,' but somebody stepped in to insist the the studio name be the top flag on the pole, even though Universal would rather license out these fun pictures than market them in-house. That's actually a good thing, because Universal would never have produced the excellent extras that Scream/Shout has provided. Scream has certainly done its utmost to corner the market in horror and sci-fi, and in almost every case they've taken the high road in quality.
The individual titles in this grouping are not really united in theme; one show is a proto- Science Fiction mad doctor movie. Not long after their respective breakthrough appearances in Dracula and Frankenstein, Lugosi and Karloff became a marquee pairing, mostly with Karloff in a superior position both in billing and salary. Horror fans have been debating the relative merits of the two actors ever since. It's a real (black?) cat-fight in those trenches, so I'll steer clear.
The fact is that both actors are consistently entertaining. If John Wayne and Greta Garbo can get away with playing the same kind of character most of the time, why can't Bela Lugosi? And as far as limited range goes, one of the movies in this series was badly hampered by Boris Karloff's fear (or self-knowledge) that he couldn't play a convincing American.
The good news is the high quality of the encodings for these great pictures. None appear to have been destroyed by over-printing, or harmed by being farmed out to sub-distributors.
The Black Cat
1934 / B&W / 66 min.
Starring Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, David Manners, Jacqueline Wells
Cinematography John J. Mescall
Written by Edgar G. Ulmer, Peter Ruric suggested by the story by Edgar Allan Poe
Produced by Carl Laemmle Jr.
Directed by Edgar G. Ulmer
The undisputed classic in the collection, The Black Cat is constructed almost completely of dark themes and sick ideas. The old 'taking refuge in a haunted house' story is here but the tale is structured so weirdly that even the cast seems to wait patiently for the lame comedy relief moments to pass. Unlike other bizarro tales lacking motivation and logic, this show is kept on course by an overpowering mood of morbidity. Karloff and Lugosi are for once well-cast; this is surely their all-around best movie together.
Freed from a Russian prison after seventeen years, ex-soldier Dr. Vitus Werdegast (Bela Lugosi) returns to his old battlefield, now a cemetery, to gain revenge against Hjalmar Poelzig (Boris Karloff). The traitor Poelzig betrayed an entire army and built a modern house on the foundations of the old fortress. Werdegast can't begin to imagine what has become of his wife and his daughter Karen (Lucille Lund) - among Poelzig's other unspeakable vices, he's the leader of a bizarre Satanic cult. On his way, Werdegast's bus has an accident and the doctor shows up at Poelzig's door with his servant Thamal (Harry Cording) and two newlyweds. Peter Alison (David Manners) is a mystery writer and his slightly injured bride Joan (Jacqueline Wells) has already captured Werdegast's interest.
The Black Cat was filmed literally 'while the cat was away.' According to historian Paul Mandell, young Universal director Edgar Ulmer put it together while Laemmle senior was off in Germany (importing more 'relatives?') and good pal Laemmle Jr. let Ulmer film the show without interference. The final product is so weird that many people don't pick up on Dr. Werdegast's unfathomable character inconsistencies. He's drawn to the beautiful Joan as she sleeps on the train, a moment made uncomfortable by husband Peter's awareness of Werdegast's dark feelings. Later on, Werdegast is willing to play a game of chess with Poelzig for 'possession' of Joan, a statement inconsistent with Werdegast's later insistence that he merely wants to protect her from Poelzig. Knowing both she and Peter are in great danger, Werdegast doesn't tell them to escape, yet he later risks his life to save them.
When Laemmle Jr. saw what Ulmer had made, he realized immediately that a movie with such extreme content could not be released. As originally shot and edited, Werdegast was equally as crazy as Poelzig -- his fear of black cats isn't just an isolated foible. Werdegast wants Joan for himself, and allows Poelzig's evil plans to progress only so he can take her from him at the last moment. In footage we'll never see, the two perverts exchange leers over Joan's frequently unconscious form. Werdegast actually helps with the reception before the Black Mass. He finally goes completely berserk when he discovers what has become of his daughter Karen.
Ulmer's studio-mandated reshoots partially redeem Lugosi's character. Werdegast tells his menacing servant Thamal only to pretend to obey Poelzig, and assures Joan that he wants to help her. More specific references to what was supposed to happen at the Black Mass were dropped. Both Werdegast and the wraith-like daughter Karen originally alluded to Poelzig's desire to rape and murder Joan at the altar, so she can be added to Poelzig's display of embalmed female corpses. If the original film were ever shown, Ulmer would have become the most famous subversive director ever: for sheer audacity The Black Cat far outdoes Luis Buñuel's suppressed L'age d'or. Karloff was supposed to have been shown crawling across a floor, partially skinned alive! The original show might have caused horror film productions to be banned outright!(Some Spoilers)
Even butchered, The Black Cat overflows with perverse ideas, all converging on the concept of death as a haunting weight of guilt and remorse. It may not be true Poe, but it is 100% morbid. Two men from opposite ends of the spectrum of suffering and cruelty meet as kinsmen; they've progressed beyond petty ideas of retribution, at least initially. Dr. Vitus Werdegast has lived a wasted life as a prisoner, knowing his wife was at the mercy of his mortal enemy. Hjalmar Poelzig has built a home on the very place where he betrayed thousands to their deaths; he has confronted his demons by literally joining them in worship of the satanic force that, in his experience, truly rules the world. He has wed and murdered Werdegast's wife and put her on display in a subterranean mausoleum, along with other victims of his Satanic cult. Here are women truly objectified: Beautiful corpses that Poelzig can appreciate forever, while reveling in his ultimate control over them.
The dialogue goes overboard in stressing the theme of death, with Poelzig and Werdegast constantly turning back to the same idea: "We're the living dead" "Even the phone is dead." With John Mescall's camera creeping through corridors and shooting Karloff through shroud-like curtains, the repetition creates a mood comparable to Poe's alliterative use of the syllable '-ore' in his poetry.
Some things are just jokes -- like Peter's lame attempts at levity. But many odd moments add to the cumulative morbidity. The bus driver suddenly joins the thousands of dead he was telling his passengers about. Werdegast's frantic reaction to Poelzig's cat betrays his own standing as a psychologist.
(Spoilers next paragraph)
Some events still seem a bit confused. Joan's personality inexplicably changes (to that of a black cat?) for one sequence. That transformation into a momentarily seductive mode can only be explained as a supernatural phenomenon (possession by the spirit of the cat), when the movie has no other strict supernatural content. Joan faints (again) when Poelzig does something terrible to Karen in the next room, but we don't necessarily think that he might be killing her -- his only previous line of dialogue to Karen is about how precious she is. The Black Mass is interrupted by a coven member screaming for no particular reason, which unaccountably creates a distraction large enough for Joan's escape. In the script the woman was supposed to go into an orgasmic fit over the thought of Joan raped before her eyes, a scene that Paul Mandell tells us Ulmer understandably did not shoot. Werdegast is shocked to find Karen's body lying on a slab, but the direction fails to underscore the full, awful irony of the moment. And perhaps for the first time we have a house with a self-destruct lever ... does Poelzig keep it handy just in case he might feel suicidal, like Jacqueline and her hangman's noose in The Seventh Victim?
Apparently Ulmer allowed his morbid imagination to run wild, perhaps expecting 90% of the film's excesses to be curbed by studio overseers that never intervened, at least not during filming. We're told that the script described a silhouette angle of Karloff's face being peeled away, and then shots of his skeletal, flayed body trying to reach for the auto-destruct lever while Lugosi howled with laughter. Apparently the only people who really knew what was to be filmed were Ulmer and his script people! Whatever happened, Paul Mandell's research gives us an inkling of an awesome morbid sex and gore fest that could never have been released ... if only Ulmer and Laemmle Jr. had conspired to hide the original cut somewhere!
Bela is good in The Black Cat and Boris is excellent. The flip-flop reshoots militate against Bela building a coherent Vitus Werdegast, but he's genuinely frightening when he comes unglued at the climax. Boris knows that his appearance does a large part of his work for him, and uses deliberate and stiff movements to make Hjalmar Poelzig seem like a candidate for the walking dead.
The Black Cat we see is of course the final version that was completed and distributed, making it one of those fascinating movies that need to be discussed in the negative subjunctive: What never was, but might have been, if. . . The show was Universal's top grosser for 1934.
Werdegast: "Supernatural, perhaps. Baloney, perhaps not!"
1935 / B&W / 61 min.
Starring Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Lester Matthews, Irene Ware, Samuel S. Hinds
Cinematography Charles Stumar
Makeup Jack P. Pierce
Written by David Boehm from the poem by Edgar Allan Poe
Associate Producer David Diamond
Directed by Louis Friedlander (Lew Landers)
Reportedly made as a follow-up to The Black Cat, The Raven is a hammy grab-bag of ideas thrown together as a pretext to re-team Lugosi and Karloff. Bela has the main role while Boris toils in a glorified bit, yet Karloff received top billing and a much larger salary. The plot dispenses with complicated conflict and simply has Lugosi as a warped Poe figure (or a screenwriter's sensational idea of a Poe figure) compensating for a female he cannot possess by warming up a collection of gruesome torture machines. Bela lets his approach to character go wild, resulting in an undeniably entertaining spectacle. The whole enterprise is so lightweight we can't help but be amused: the vicious Dr. Vollin does everything but froth at the mouth in anticipation of delicious tortures. "Poe, you are avenged!
Retired Dr. Richard Vollin (Bela Lugosi) is both a brilliant brain surgeon and an utterly mad follower of the morbid legacy of Edgar Allan Poe. Begged by Judge Thatcher (Samuel S. Hinds) to save his daughter Jean (Irene Ware), Vollin cures her injuries but then becomes obsessed with her as his 'lost Lenore.' Vollin also secures the domestic services of escaped criminal Edmond Bateman (Boris Karloff) by mutilating the man's face and then promising to repair it only if Bateman kills and tortures for him. Judge Thatcher tries to intervene before Vollin disturbs Jean's engagement to Dr. Jerry Holden (Lester Matthews), but Vollin beats him to the draw: He invites the young couple to his house, and when the Judge follows, traps all three of them in his torture dungeon built to the specifications of Poe's The Pit and the Pendulum!
Lugosi's Dr. Vollin stumbles through a reading of a line or two from the poem The Raven and we're off and running on a thoroughly silly story. The mad doctor saves a woman's life but goes totally insane when she rebuffs his advances. He somehow decides that mass murder will square things and keep faith with the spirit of his master, Edgar A.. Nobody ever raises the point that Poe's writings were rarely if ever on the side of the torturer, so Vollin actually seems to be more tripped out on the collected wit and wisdom of the Marquis de Sade or perhaps Torquemada. This is Universal gore Horror-Lite: Some nasty things are threatened but all of the upstanding square citizens come out with a full skin. (Spoiler sentence:) ... although none of the survivors consider saving Dr. Vollin's life, if for no reason but to obtain the number of the contractor that designed the complicated killing devices built-in to Vollin's ordinary house. And don't forget the entire room that moves like an elevator. The guy's an engineering genius, and discreet, too!
The story moves mechanically through the setup scenes, with Irene Ware decent as a dancer foolish enough to dedicate a performance to the crazy Vollin and Lester Matthews as a beau so vacant, The Black Cat's David Manners comes off as soulful and perceptive. It looks as if Samuel S. Hinds (Papa Bailey in It's a Wonderful Life) is the best actor in the cast until Karloff shows up in a subordinate but flashy character role as the unlucky Bateman.
Equating ugliness with evil, the story has Vollin surgically mutilate Bateman and then blackmail him to function as a murdering henchman -- when not serving drinks at parties. Bateman's real name must be Lurch, Sr.. For some reason, Vollin invites a houseful of forgettable unfunny comic relief characters to witness his killings. He then subjects his 'betrayers' to the pendulum blade and a room with walls that close in to crush them. And they can't call R2D2 to shut it down, either.
Silly and predictable, The Raven is good fun and a classic of its kind; I enjoy it because Bela Lugosi's uncomplicated sadist seems to be having so much FUN being a villain. His career never really bloomed after turning down Frankenstein, and providing Boris Karloff with a path to immortality. Lugosi had unrealistic notions of a future as a leading man in a variety of roles. Here at least he rules the roost with his undiluted overplaying. He's screen center in a classy production, something that will never really happen for him again.
The Invisible Ray
1936 / B&W / 79 min.
Starring Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Frances Drake, Frank Lawton, Violet Kemble Cooper, Beulah Bondi
Cinematography George Robinson
Special Effects John P. Fulton
Original Music Franz Waxman
Written by Howard Higgin, Douglas Hodges, John Colton
Produced by Edmund Grainger
Directed by Lambert Hillyer
The next shared billing of Karloff and Lugosi turns the tables completely. This time Boris is the main character while Bela plays second banana as a benign doctor with good intentions. The casting works well for Lugosi, whose rational philanthopist is actually underplayed -- perhaps Lambert Hillyer convinced Bela to calm down and take direction. Karloff is good but predictable in a basically uninteresting mad scientist role. When altruism becomes obsessive mania, everyone ends in mincemeat, Universal horror-style. Sadly, this being 1936 when horror pix were under extra scrutiny, almost all the murderous violence happens off-screen.
Genius scientist Janos Rukh (Boris Karloff) invents a machine that traces light from the distant Andromeda galaxy and uses it to determine that a meteorite made of 'Radium-X' struck Africa eons ago. A group of scientists, doctors and benefactors convince him to go to Africa against the wishes of his mother (Violet Kemble Cooper), who was made blind by the light from Andromeda. In Africa, Rukh ignores his wife Diana (Frances Drake) and his faithful friend Dr. Felix Benet (Bela Lugosi) and goes off alone to the meteorite site. He takes samples of the amazing Radium-X - which gives off rays that have the power to both heal and destroy - but is contaminated by the new element. Glowing in the dark, he returns secretly to Benet, asking for his help in developing an antidote to the deadly rays.
The Invisible Ray is certainly an odd film out, another crazy production cobbled together from a bunch of predigested elements. There's the scientist who dares trespass on God's domain, along the lines of Claude Rains in The Invisible Man. Rukh hunts down and exterminates a list of expedition members he believes betrayed him, like the avenging 'curse' that wiped out the violators of King Tut's tomb. Dr Rukh's 'touch of death' is so easy to film, it became a recurring motif in thrillers about scientifically-deranged killers -- Man Made Monster, 4D Man, Hand of Death.
The Invisible Ray is a perfect example of how science was abused in ordinary thrillers before the Sci-Fi boom of the 1950s. Astronomers intuit that light from distant stars originated millions of years ago, a concept that Universal's writers use to concoct an absurd fantasy. Rukh's super-telescope doubles as a time machine/television set, enabling his guests to see views originating far out in space and long, long ago. After one perfect television view of a meteor striking Africa, a room of doubting scientificos are convinced that Rukh has made a terrific breakthrough. Never underestimate the efficacy of a good visual aid for group presentations.
The new element 'Radium-X' underscores the irony that normal radiation can both kill and cure. The curing part of ordinary radium is really the selective killing of diseased tissue, but this new alien element can be put into a simple focusing box and used to either melt solid rock (an excellent effect) or instantly cure any old thing that ails thee, like blindness. It's all so simple! The gaggle of concerned experts behind Dr. Benet's all-healing Radium-X projector must be needed to assure that the machine is set to CLG (cure the little girl) and not DB (disintegrate the boulder).
After an extended safari sequence complete with savage natives given even less respect than in Tarzan films, the story ends up as a serial killer murder mystery in Paris. Rukh's exposure to Radium-X turns him into a deranged paranoid, although he seemed unaccountably unhinged earlier as well: refusing to let his partners come to the meteor site, for instance. The picture plays out with Dr. Benet and eventually Rukh's own mother working to find a way to put an end to his killings. Science is simply BAD, the film says; mess around with things you shouldn't and you'll come to a sorry end.
'Radium-X' is oddly prophetic about the then-obscure idea of nuclear energy, and a good case can be made that it inspired the radio writers of Superman to invent the concept of Kryptonite. The outer space animations of the moon, Saturn and the galaxies are fairly sophisticated for 1936, when the only point of comparison would have been Flash Gordon and perhaps Fritz Lang's Woman in the Moon.
Lugosi is suave and likeable as Dr. Benet, and almost convincing when he diagnoses Rukh's radiation ailment and concocts a handy liquid counteractive to keep it in check. That's pretty good for a single night of work in a tent in darkest Africa. Frances Drake is excellent as Rukh's abandoned wife, holding up the film's otherwise sagging middle section. Violet Kemble Cooper and Beulah Bondi have interesting roles as an ethereal mother and a nosy expedition member.
1940 / B&W / 70 min.
Starring Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Stanley Ridges, Anne Nagel, Anne Gwynne
Cinematography Elwood Bredell
Written by Kurt Siodmak, Eric Taylor
Directed by Arthur Lubin
Yet another oddball movie, the seldom-screened Black Friday takes an unpromising idea and makes it the best-ever chiller starring that immortal horror icon Stanley Ridges. The character actor is front-and-center in a showy Jekyll-Hyde role that he pulls off with style and flair. Lugosi and Karloff? Who? Boris Karloff has yet another middling part as a supposedly benign doctor who unaccountably double-crosses his beloved colleague and commits illegal surgery in search of a fortune. Bela Lugosi is completely wasted in laughably bad casting, as a tough New York gangster with a thick Hungarian accent. I know, I know, I'll regret saying that when the Hungarian Mafia catches up with me.
Ambushed by rivals, gangster Red Cannon (?) smashes his car into kindly old English Lit professor George Kingsley (Stanley Ridges). Cannon's back is broken and Kingsley will soon die of a crushed skull, but Dr. Ernest Sovac (Boris Karloff), hearing that Cannon has $500,000 in loot stashed somewhere, performs a brain operation. Kingsley's body ends up sharing the personalities of Kingsley and Cannon. Still after the money, Sovac takes the recovering Kingsley to Cannon's old haunts in New York. The Cannon identity reasserts itself, bringing on a spate of vengeance killings. New gang boss Eric Marnay (Bela Lugosi) can't figure it out - the mystery killer is acting like Cannon - but Cannon is known to be dead.
Various critics of Black Friday have concluded that it ended up the way it did because Boris Karloff didn't think he could handle a role that required him to play two American types -- a sweet college professor and a tough Manhattan mob boss. He must not have been able to picture himself in the role, because audiences would surely have accepted whatever style he might come up with to play a ruthless racketeer. Why not just stretch things and call Red Cannon an English immigrant?
So Karloff stepped back to take the complimentary doctor Sovac part, which he could do in his sleep. That meant that Lugosi got demoted to playing a truly inappropriate role -- another gangster. He's not very convincing. When third-tier hood Paul Fix defers to Lugosi's orders, we just don't believe it. Is the ruthless Eric Marnay going to bite him on neck, or something? The publicity wags invented a bit of whimsy about Lugosi being hypnotized on the set for one shot; it's the lead hook in the trailer.
The movie is certainly one of a kind. Stalwart character actor Stanley Ridges, normally seen in small roles as sober businessmen or soldiers, is given an opportunity to shine. With a little makeup, glasses and different hair, Ridges transforms from a completely harmless poetry-quoting professor into the snarling and pushy Red Cannon, feared tiger of the underworld. It works like a charm.
The plot is a little muddled. Although he now has a perfect disguise and alibi, Kingsley/Cannon immediately parades his new self around town, allowing his enemies to eventually figure out his game. We never get straight exactly why his mental transformations take place. Police sirens bring out the brutal Cannon, but other identity switches seem to happen to the convenience of the plot. Ridges does a fine job making each change convincing, and we believe him to the end.
Of course, the brain transplant idea sounds ludicrous. Kurt (Curt) Siodmak pioneered movies about brains bouncing from one cranium to another and taking on lives of their own, as in Donovan's Brain. This half & half brain deal becomes sort of a cerebral time-share arrangement. Sovac intends to humor the 'Cannon' part of Kingsley until he gets his hands on the loot, and then let the dominant Kingsley part take over. But have we ever seen Boris Karloff as a mad scientist, get ANYTHING right?
The story is framed with the confessional diary of a man condemned to the electric chair, which allows for frequent calendar montages and pace-accelerating story leaps. Arthur Lubin's direction is brisk and some of the gangster action sharply rendered. Perhaps Karloff did have a point about avoiding the role, if his character would still be required to leap onto fire escapes and scamper across rooftops, besting bruiser thugs in fistfights, etc. Just the same, the script could have been altered.
Scream Factory's Blu-ray set of the Universal Horror Collection Vol. 1 is just the ticket for horror fans looking to get into the 'odd stuff' away from the franchise monsters everybody's seen ten times. All the pictures are remastered, with image quality that pulls everything out of the 'original' film elements. That's a fuzzy qualifier -- unless they are saying that the actual original negative survives, an unoriginal film element would have to belong to a different movie.
There are some fluctuations in density, but few sags in quality -- the images are consistently good throughout. I can finally see that some 'metallic' surfaces in the strange art direction for The Black Cat appear to be achieved through contact paper. The added stability of HD scans will make one forget the flaws in old 16mm presentations. A real surprise is the quality of the audio -- solid old-school monaural with a strong lower end.
Universal's Blu-rays for its franchise monster movies re-used ten-year old extras from the early DVD days, when studios invested in quality documentaries (they paid well too, for which I was grateful). And Uni never did much for titles below the classic line. Happily, Scream/Shout has gone to the extra trouble of producing plenty of new content. All four shows have commentaries commissioned from a lively pack of experts, and classic The Black Cat and The Raven carry two squawk tracks apiece. Each title features a thorough dedicated docu, and The Black Cat carries a special piece about Edgar Allan Poe in the movies, back to the early silent era. Its choice of film clips is impressive, and the narration is written at a high academic pitch and spoken well by Doug Bradley. The Black Cat Contest is the fun newsreel item with Karloff and Lugosi in costume that showed up on YouTube a while back. Two Radio shows based on The Tell-Tale Heart are present, recited in turn by both horror stars.
Two book recommendations: Tom Weaver's Universal Horrors: The Studio's Classic Films 1931-1946 with Michael Brunas and John Brunas, McFarland, North Carolina 1990, is highly recommended as a well-researched and fair-minded look at the first Universal monster cycle. And the full story of The Black Cat can be read in fascinating detail in Paul Mandell's chapter in George E. Turner's highly entertaining The Cinema of Adventure, Romance and Terror, ASC Press, Hollywood, 1989.
Universal Horror Collection Vol. 1
Text (c) Copyright 2019 Glenn Erickson