Eureka Entertainment has released a trilogy of horror films starring Bela Lugosi as part of their Masters of Cinema series. They are all adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe stories.
The films included on this 2-disc set are Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932), The Black Cat (1934) and The Raven (1935). One major draw is that two out of the three (The Black Cat and The Raven) team up Bela Lugosi with Boris Karloff – one of the most celebrated pairings in cinema history.
Films of this age which predate the golden age of cinema are an intriguing viewing experience. At a distance of almost a century, contemporary viewers are inevitably being entertained entirely by the deceased. Fashions come and go, and the acting methods on display are considerably more theatrical than we’re used to now. And yet these titles and their long-gone stars keep calling us back, enthralling new generations with their creepy, atmospheric tales. Watching them in quick succession, it’s easy to see the appeal.
The first movie in the release is Murders in the Rue Morgue, which runs to only an hour. The story rattles along at a fast pace. A young scientist, Pierre (Leon Ames – who is credited as Leon Waycoff) and his fiancee Camille (Sidney Fox) visit a carnival, where they witness the sideshow of Dr Mirakle (Bela Lugosi – fresh from his success as Dracula), who exhibits an ape and lectures on its close evolutionary relation to humans. The ape is aggressive towards Pierre but takes a shine to Camille.
It turns out that several young women have gone missing – and Pierre uses forensic evidence to work out the nefarious plot of Dr Mirakle. The film shares some similarities with King Kong, which would be released the following year, but its main influence is the German film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920). Director Robert Florey uses flourishes of German Expressionism to create and sustain a sinister atmosphere, and some of the special effects achieved by mixing model work with studio sets are highly impressive. Less successfully, it inevitably jars when close-up footage of a real ape is intercut with an actor in a costume for the long shots. The performances are broad. Sidney Fox, playing the heroine, is best remembered for her tragic personal life rather than her acting range. Leon Ames, who lived until 1993, would later be embarrassed by his work on it. That’s perhaps a touch modest of Ames, but certainly it’s Lugosi who steals the show.
The Black Cat was the first feature film to pair Bela Lugosi with the lugubrious Boris Karloff (celebrated for his portrayal of Frankenstein’s monster), and it’s immediately obvious that it’s cinematic magic. The film is known for a chess match between the two in which they play for the lives of an innocent young couple caught up in their drama following a motorcar accident. Edgar Allan Poe’s short story is updated to give the two leads a backstory involving WWI, as Werdegast (Lugosi) emerges from a Siberian prison camp. Poelzig (Karloff) is his former friend, but skeletons in the closet (almost literally) reveal that the relationship is never going to return to its cordial roots. The film is notable for some vivid sets and for the sustained tension between the two stars.
The final release in this collection, The Raven, is perhaps the most gruesome. It has everything from torture chambers to monstrously botched facial reconstruction surgery and a dinner party from hell. This time, the roles are reversed, and Karloff is the more sympathetic of the two beloved screen villains, whilst Lugosi plays an outright psychopath. In one scene, he uses his skills as a surgeon to skin alive one of his guests. There’s more than a touch of the Grand Guignol about it. Once again, the studio sets are on a large scale and impressive – much like the acting.
If you enjoy melodramatic horror films and the unsettling shadows created by black and white film stock, then you’ll be thoroughly entertained by this Bela Lugosi Edgar Allan Poe collection. All of the films are short – running to little over an hour at most, so they are easy to digest in one sitting. This release on Blu-ray has given a surprising crispness to the picture quality, though there are some sequences in low-light in Murders in the Rue Morgue that are notably less focussed, but this only makes the rest of the restoration work the more impressive. With film stock of that age, there is inevitably some grain to the picture, and the audio, whilst sharp, doesn’t have the same resonance as modern films. But most viewers used to the general quality of the era will be impressed by the restoration which brings vividly to life an era of cinema long gone but much treasured and fondly remembered.
Cast: Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, Sidney Fox, Leon Ames, Lester Matthews, David Manners Directors: Robert Florey, Edgar G Ulmer, Lew Landers Writers: Tom Reed, Dale Van Every, Peter Ruric, David Boehm Certificate: 15 Duration: 189 mins Released by: Eureka Entertainment Release date: 20th July 2020 buy now