Three Edgar Allan Poe Adaptations Starring Bela Lugosi.
Directed by Robert Florey/Edgar G. Ulmer/Lew Landers.
Starring Bela Lugosi, Sidney Fox, Leon Ames, Boris Karloff, David Manners, Lester Matthews, and Irene Ware.
Limited edition Blu-ray set featuring three classic Edgar Allan Poe adaptations from the 1930s starring the legendary Bela Lugosi.
Never has Eureka Entertainment’s Masters of Cinema label been quite so apt, as in this set you not only get three films featuring legendary horror icon Bela Lugosi – hence the title – but also three movies that are (very) loosely based on works by Edgar Allan Poe (again with that title), himself a cinematic master by this point, based purely on the amount of his works that have been adapted for the screen. Add to that the appearance of the equally iconic Boris Karloff in two of the films – given his star status at the time he is actually credited above Lugosi in both of them – and you could say that you really getting your money’s worth when it comes to cinematic masters with this set.
But Bela Lugosi is the focus here and rightly so, because despite his most famous role as the titular count in Todd Browning’s 1931 Dracula for Universal – a role he reprised in 1948 for the spoof Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein – and turning in several standout performances throughout his career – his best arguably as the mischievous Ygor in Son of Frankenstein – he never quite reached the same lofty heights as Boris Karloff thanks to his accent limiting his options and causing him to be typecast, but there was a lot more to the Hungarian actor than embodying the common perception of Dracula – seriously, give a child a pencil and ask them to draw Dracula and chances are they’ll draw a figure not unlike Bela Lugosi.
The three non-franchise Universal movies in this set show Lugosi not trying very hard to get away from type, although all three of the characters he plays are all human and not undead monsters, so he’s off to a good start. The first of the movies is Murders in the Rue Morgue from 1932, with Lugosi fresh off the success of Dracula and playing the very strange Dr. Mirakle, a mad scientist and carnival showman (it was set in the 19th century, when scientists could apparently moonlight, or vice versa) who kidnaps women and injects them with blood from his caged ape Erik in the hope of creating a mate and proving how closely related apes and humans are.
The second movie is The Black Cat from 1934, where Lugosi plays Dr. Vitus Werdegast (note – another doctor) who is travelling across Europe on his way to the home of Hjalmar Poelzig (Boris Karloff) to confront the strange architect in his futuristic home built on the site of a bloody WWI battle as to the whereabouts of his missing wife and daughter. On the way he meets a honeymooning couple who end up coming along for the ride after an accident means they are stranded, setting the scene for a battle of wits between Werdegast and Poelzig, who is not only an architect but also a Satan-worshipping priest. That won’t end well…
The Raven from 1935 sees Lugosi and Karloff team up again as Lugosi plays Dr. Richard Vollin, a brilliant surgeon who comes out of retirement to save the life of a dancer who becomes the object of Vollins’s Edgar Allan Poe obsession when he kidnaps her and tries to kill her family in his torture dungeon. Karloff plays Bateman, a deformed criminal who goes to Vollin for help to change his appearance, becoming Vollins’s slave under blackmail from the surgeon after he makes Bateman’s face even uglier and threatens not to correct him until his plan has been carried out.
Of the three films it is Murders in the Rue Morgue that is the least interesting, despite being the closest to the original source material. It is well known that director Robert Florey wanted to make Frankenstein but James Whale was offered it first and so Florey was left with this odd tale and he does do a decent job with most of the set pieces, although studio interference meant that harsh edits between an actor in an ape costume and a real primate (that wasn’t an ape) take away from the serious story that the filmmaker was trying to tell. One could also argue that, despite Lugosi being a little more energetic here than in the other two films, it is the lack of Boris Karloff for Lugosi to bounce off (or against, depending on how you look at it) that deprives the film of the extra spark that could lift the material away from the schlocky action scenes.
However, The Black Cat and The Raven are two excellent examples of pre-Hays Code horror that feature the occult, murder, torture, flaying and sadism, wrapped up in the guise of literary adaptations but are really Poe stories in name only, although The Raven is an early example of meta storytelling as Lugosi’s Dr. Vollin is obsessed with the writer, quoting Poe’s original poem and featuring a stage performance based on it. To be honest, despite Bela Lugosi adding huge doses of charisma and otherworldly charm it is Karloff – or perhaps the combination of the two – that brings the movies to life, in the same way that Hammer’s Brides of Dracula and Dracula: Prince of Darkness are both good movies that feature Peter Cushing being magnificent in the former and Christopher Lee in fine form in the latter, but just how great would those movies have been if both actors had appeared in them? That is how electric Lugosi and Karloff are together and when they are on-screen at the same time you cannot take your eyes off either of them.
Enough has been written about Bela Lugosi, Edgar Allan Poe and their association with the Hollywood of that era, and no doubt will again, but Eureka have provided a ton of extra features to guide you through these three movies that makes this set worth the purchase. There are audio commentaries provided for all three movies from various academics to give you all the info you may need as you go through the films – which you can do in one sitting as they are all around an hour long – but the best features are an extensive interview with critic and author Kim Newman, who provides an invaluable insight into all three films as well as Bela Lugosi himself, and two video essays; one by film historian Lee Gambin about cats in horror movies and the other by author Kat Ellinger, who gives a fascinating talk on American Gothic and how the US struggled to find its own identity in the wake of European Gothic literature. However, the cream of the crop is the audio content that Eureka have included, featuring Bela Lugosi reading Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart, a reading of the same from the Inner Sanctum Mysteries radio series by Boris Karloff and an episode of Mystery in the Air featuring The Black Cat read by Karloff and Lugosi’s contemporary Peter Lorre (who appeared in the 1963 version of The Raven with Boris Karloff and Vincent Price). In a weird link to past, it is wonderful to hear all three actors lending their voices to Poe’s poems in a Blu-ray set that celebrates this era of filmmaking, as if they were giving their blessing to include them.
Needless to say, if vintage black and white horror movies from a bygone age aren’t your thing then this set will pass you by without bothering you in the slightest but if you are a fan or have yet to indulge in the monochrome chills of yesteryear then this is an essential purchase. Limited to 2000 copies you’ll have to get in quick but what you’ll get are three movies that prove Bela Lugosi was more than just Dracula and that Edgar Allan Poe’s stories and poems are more adaptable than first thought, although completely faithful adaptations of any of these – or any Poe – stories have yet to emerge. Nevertheless, as well as entertainment value this excellent package also proves useful as a history lesson and will continue to delight viewers in years to come, and given that the movies are nearly 90 years old already that says something about the enduring legacy of the films and those involved in making them. Classy stuff.
Flickering Myth Rating – Murders in the Rue Morgue – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Flickering Myth Rating – The Black Cat – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Flickering Myth Rating – The Raven – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★