The work of the horror maestro Edgar Allan Poe is, of course, a fertile ground for adaptation. Notably, even The Simpsons paid homage to the master with a brilliantly subdued take on The Raven in their first ever Treehouse of Horror special. Universal loved Poe so much in the 1930s that, following their beloved adaptations of Dracula and Frankenstein, they embraced the American Gothic with a trio of adaptations starring Bela Lugosi as various mad scientists. All three are now available in a terrific new Blu-ray set from the fine folks at Eureka.
Murders in the Rue Morgue casts Lugosi as the monobrowed menace Dr Mirakle, who’s seeking to find a human mate for his pet ape Erik. The Black Cat pits Lugosi’s psychiatrist Dr Werdegast against Boris Karloff’s satanist architect Poelzig in a battle of wits for the life of a young woman (Julie Bishop) held captive in the latter’s modernist home. Finally, The Raven embraces the possibilities of meta storytelling by featuring Lugosi as a surgeon who has been driven insane by his obsession with the work of Poe and dark affection for the beautiful ballet dancer (Irene Ware) whose life his medical brilliance saved.
Murders is, it’s fair to say, a deeply unoriginal pre-Code horror. By far the weakest of the trio, it’s effectively a remake of the far more imaginative The Cabinet of Dr Caligari which, at that time, was only around a decade old and would have been fresh in the minds of those with a love for the macabre side of cinema. Lugosi is fun as the deranged Dr Mirakle, but it’s a far less complex performance than he delivers in the other two movies. The main attraction is the surprisingly effective ape suit.
Far more stimulating is director Edgar G. Ulmer’s The Black Cat. It’s even less inspired by the specific Poe story than Murders, but delights in bringing Lugosi together with Universal’s other — and arguably bigger — genre star, billed mononymously as “Karloff”. Like Murders, it’s steeped in the iconography of German Expressionism, with the “very tricky house” of Karloff’s architect a terrifically atmospheric world of angular structures and foreboding shadows.
It’s a sinister, masterful tale that builds to a ludicrous conclusion in which Universal baited the enforcers of the Hays Code by depicting a scene of grotesque violence in silhouette. Almost a century later, it’s arguably more shocking in shadow than it would be if shown via Saw-like splatter. The face-off between Lugosi and Karloff — a dick-measuring contest for the insane — is a delight to behold, with the latter delivering one of his best ever performances. The Black Cat is a gem of 1930s horror.
The Raven exists somewhere between its two predecessors in terms of quality, but deserves considerable credit for embracing an unusual meta storyline. Lugosi delivers the most maniacal and broad of his three performances as the truly sadistic surgeon who has assembled a torture dungeon of Poe homages. Again, Universal baited the censors with this one and, particularly in Britain, it turned horror movies into a tabloid scare topic. Now, it lacks the outright fear factor of The Black Cat, but there’s plenty to enjoy in the madcap ambition of director Louis Friedlander’s bleak third act.
These three movies are a fascinating look at the state of a genre in the 1930s and are worth a look for their depictions of some of horror’s most iconic performers from the era. As fans of Eureka releases will expect, there’s a bountiful supply of special features — including commentary tracks, a handful of fascinating video essays and a standout booklet essay delving into the censorship history of these movies — to make a package that, despite the varying quality of the films themselves, is well worth adding to your collection.
Dir: Robert Florey, Edgar G. Ulmer, Louis Friedlander
Scr: Tom Reed, Dale Van Every, Peter Ruric, David Boehm
Cast: Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, Leon Ames, Sidney Fox, David Manners, Julie Bishop, Irene Ware, Lester Matthews, Samuel S. Hinds
Prd: Carl Laemmle Jr., E. M. Asher,
DOP: Karl W. Freund, John J. Mescall, Charles Stumar
Run time: 62 mins/69 mins/61 mins
All three Edgar Allan Poe adaptations starring Bela Lugosi are available via Eureka Video from today.