189 min (length)
20 July 2020 (released)
14 July 2020
This box set features three titles from the 1930’s Universal Horror catalogue and is a handsome acquisition for fans of Bela Lugosi and to a lesser extent Edgar Allan Poe. All three films are rare examples of Pre-Code studio horror before the enforcement of the Motion Picture Production Code almost laughable guidelines put a serious clamper on creative outputs.
First up is Robert Florey's 1932 MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE, a film that was offered as some kind of compensation to Florey and his star Lugosi as it was this duo that Universal originally had in mind for their 1931 adaptation of 'Frankenstein'. It is arguably the weakest of the three films on offer here (the other two feature Boris Karloff as an adversary) but possibly the closest to Poe. Lugosi is Dr. Mirakle, a mad scientist and the mesmerizing proprietor of a circus sideshow attraction in 19th century Paris. He informs his audience that he intends to prove man's relation to ape (his ape Erik is in a cage on stage) though most of the audience are appalled by this 'Darwinian nonsense' and walk off in disgust, which makes one wonder how Mirakle manages to keep the show on the road. However, four members of the audience are a little more intrigued - namely Camille L'Espanaye (Sidney Fox), her fiancé Pierre Dupin (Leon Ames) - a young medical student/detective, and their friends Paul and Mignette. Both Mirakle and Erik are smitten by the allure of Camille and Erik steals her bonnet while attempting to strangle Pierre when he tries to retrieve it. The 'kindly' but obviously unhinged Mirakle offers to replace the damaged goods and return it to the petite Mademoiselle later - but Pierre is suspicious about giving out Camille's address and rightly so, seeing how he is none other than the scientist who’s behind the recent spate of kidnappings and killings of young women… his goal is to inject them with ape blood so that Erik may get his mate (Frankenstein, anyone?). Not tiring of looking for the perfect donor he soon manages to track down Camille’s lodgings which she shares with her mother. Meanwhile Pierre, who knows the local pathologist and examines the blood of one female victim, eventually puts two and two together. By this time Mirakle (or Erik, rather) has managed to abduct Camille but not before having murdered her unfortunate mother whose lifeless body is shoved up the chimney. Now a frantic race against time unfolds across the rooftops of Paris… This film, like many others of it's ilk at that time, has Tchaikovsky's 'Swan Lake' played over the opening credits is remarkably static and slow paced (befitting in a way to Lugosi's delivery) – not helped by the absence of any incidental music (though a version with music is available among the Bonus Features). A major plus with this film is that it is photographed by none other than the great German cinematographer Karl Freund, meaning we get an almost overpowering dose of Caligari-like Expressionist atmosphere pervading throughout.
We move on to 1934 and to director Edgar G. Ulmer's THE BLACK CAT (which has nothing whatsoever to do with Poe's famous short story). Here we have Lugosi beautifully matched with Boris Karloff. The film begins at a busy Hungarian railway station where newlyweds Peter and Joan Allison are asked to share their carriage with psychiatrist Dr. Vitus Werdegast (Lugosi). During the train journey Werdegast explains that he is on his way to visit an old friend, Austrian architect Hjalmar Poelzig (Karloff). The travellers then board the same bus which overturns on a rain-swept road, leaving Joan slightly injured with a concussion. The Bauhaus-style architectural 'masterpiece' that is now Poelzig's home has a grim history: formerly called Fort Marmorus, Poelzig was in charge of the building and now stands accused by Werdegast of having betrayed the Fort to the Russians, resulting in the death of countless Austro-Hungarian soldiers and Werdegast’s 15-year confinement in a Siberian prison camp. Soon the stranded honeymooners and Werdegast arrive at the architect’s lair where Joan is given a strong sedative which causes her to act irrationally. During a heated conversation Werdegast accuses Poelzig of having stolen his wife Karin and their daughter while he was imprisoned, in turn Poelzig accuses Werdegast of having killed his black cat thanks to his irrational fear of cats. The outwardly charming Poelzig (in truth a nasty piece of work) knows full well that Werdegast’s sudden visit is not down to friendship but pure revenge! Stringing his guests along, it soon transpires that host Poelzig is not only a master architect but also the leader of a sinister cult. He keeps beautiful women (one of whom is Werdegast's late wife Karen) preserved in glass cases in his basement. As if it weren’t creepy enough he also shares his marital bed with Werdegast’s daughter who has no idea who she is. No prices for guessing that Poelzig has no intention of letting the Alison's go free either - in fact Joan is to be a live sacrifice to the covens’ dark god. However, he has a more than formidable opponent in the shape of Werdegast to contend with and soon the stage is set for a showdown in true Grand Guignol spectacle. This is really the only time these two men are equally matched. Despite Lugosi's heavily accented English his presence was never less than telling and his facial expressions were always an added bonus, here they are particularly effective. Karloff’s ‘Hjalmar Poelzig’ - with his bizarre hairstyle (though not quite as bizarre as Egon Brecher who plays Poelzig’s valet Majordomo) and exaggerated make-up (to say nothing of his costumes) is at his campest ever. Heinz Eric Roemheld's music is not an original composition and instead comprises Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Liszt and others. By contrast to MURDERS IN THE… were we had a complete lack of music we have far too much music here though this is only a minor distraction.
Finally, THE RAVEN (1935) is not exactly an improvement on The Black Cat but has its high points nonetheless. The film is competently directed by Lew Landers, with a screenplay by David Boehm (just how many writers Universal originally hired for this project you can read up on). Here we see Lugosi in one of his best parts as Dr. Richard Vollin, an insane and Poe-loving surgeon brilliant in his profession. Karloff once again gets top billing as Edmond Bateman, a criminal on the run though here his role is nowhere near on par with Lugosi's. When young Jean Thatcher is injured following a car accident both her beau Jerry and her father Judge Thatcher persuade Vollin to operate on Jean as he seems to be the only one who can save her... oh, dear! It goes without saying that Vollin falls in love although she is betrothed to Jerry (though that won’t stop Vollin from having his wicked way). Bateman has come to the master surgeon to ask him to alter his face so that he won’t be recognised. You can imagine the outcome and it is not pretty one! Now Vollin blackmails Bateman into helping him to get his murky hands on the poor lass via a dinner party with Jean, Jerry and Judge Thatcher among the guests. The madman that is their dubious host has no end of terrors lined up for his unfortunate guests thanks to his very own torture chamber installed in the basement… he even has a functioning pendulum! Who will survive the night and who will die?
This Limited Edition 2-Disc Blu-ray set sees all three films restored with countless Extras including various audio options, docus (‘American Gothic’ / ‘Cats in Horror’), The Tale-Tale-Heart read by Karloff, Lugosi and Peter Lorre for various radio series, archive material, interviews and Collector’s Booklet.