on October 8, 2006
These represent the Universal films outside the "Dracula" and "Frankenstein" franchises that starred Bela Lugosi--or more accurately, Karloff and Lugosi in all but one. Once Karloff entered the Universal scene a few months after "Dracula" (1931) and created such a hit with the Frankenstein monster--eclipsing Lugosi's Dracula, the studio wasn't keen to feature Lugosi as their horror star any longer: very ungrateful of them. So it leaves a "Lugosi Collection" from Universal largely as pairings with Karloff. "Murders in the Rue Morgue" (1932) is exclusively a Lugosi vehicle. In "The Black Cat" (1934), the two are matched. Lugosi dominates in "The Raven" (1935), while "The Invisible Ray" (1936) is more a Karloff vehicle. "Black Friday' (1940), by far the weakest film, shouldn't be here at all, as Lugosi only has a small role.
Since others have already spoken at length about the films, and since most people buying this two-sided disc know what they're getting, I want to address the DVD mastering problems experienced. Many have noted that, regardless of player, films on the disc pixelate and freeze at random points. This is a problem with Universal's DVD-18 mastering process, which has flaws that have since caused Universal to return to their earlier, more reliable DVD-9 process.
In the meantime, both this disc and the 2-DVD "The Hammer Horror Series" have more than their share of bad discs. Contacting Universal itself will serve no purpose: even though they are aware of the problem, the pressings are out there and are not being remastered. You just have to be persistent and keep exchanging defective copies at retailers--even if you have to get a refund and start again with another dealer; the films are worth it. Eventually, you *will* get one without glitches. It took me three copies from two places for both this and "The Hammer Horror Series." Importantly, you don't have to play through all the films in real time to know if you have a flawed copy: just scan through the films in the player at 4x-10x speed (no faster), and if there is a glitch, the player will freeze at the spot. That way, you don't have to watch through eight 90-minute movies on every copy you try out; it will take only 10% of the time to check the set, and you don't even have to be in the room. If you come back and the image is frozen, rather than having finished the film being scanned and having returned to the menu, then you have a bad one.
on July 25, 2005
I have enjoyed the well-priced Universal Legacy Collections featuring their classic monster films of the 30s and 40s and have been waiting and hoping for them to release the balance of their classic horror titles. This DVD collection is the one I have been wishing for. Now I will finally have two of my favorite horror films of the 1930s, "The Black Cat" and "The Raven," on DVD.
As much as I am delighted by this set I find it an interesting and somewhat sad chronicle of Lugosi's early film career. The disc features an early 30s film following his success in "Dracula" where he is the main star ("Murders in the Rue Morgue" 1932), two films which team him in a role of equal stature with his rival, Boris Karloff ("The Black Cat" and "The Raven," 1934 and 35 respectively), a film which exploited the marquee value of his name but gave him a more minor role ("The Invisible Ray" 1937), and, finally, a film which saw him slip into a rather demeaning supporting role ("Black Friday" 1940) beside his old equal, Karloff.
Within eight years Lugosi had gone from full-fledged leading man to supporting actor. It must have compounded matters for Lugosi to have Karloff continue to receive leading roles while he was reduced to small supporting roles in Karloff's films. The duo would work again in 1945 in RKO's "The Body Snatchers" where Lugosi, again, played a minor role opposite Karloff's much meatier portrayal. Lugosi's career was on a steady downward slide by this point (with few exceptions like "Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein") and would continue to decline through the next decade until his death in the mid-1950s.
The best part of this collection are the earliest films (pre-1937) which represent Universal's golden age of horror. This era saw the original "Dracula" (1931), "Frankenstein" (1931), "The Invisible Man" (1933), and Universal's masterpiece "Bride of Frankenstein" (1935). In the early 30s Universal was a studio committed to making quality horror films. In fact, these horror films saved Universal from certain bankruptcy in the dark days of the Great Depression (Abbott and Costello and Deanna Durbin would do the same for the studio ten years later). With the support of Carl Leammle, Jr. they produced A films with good scripts, good directors (Tod Browning, James Whale, etc.), moody sets and photography, amazing makeup by Jack Pierce, and wonderful casts.
As mentioned earlier, "The Black Cat" and "The Raven" are the two films I will enjoy most on this set and they alone are well worth the $20 dollar price tag. Both films take their titles from the works of Edgar Allen Poe but, unlike "Murders in the Rue Morgue," that is where the connection ends. "The Black Cat" is a pre-code tale of revenge and Satanism set in a spectacular art deco mansion built on the site of a bloody World War I battlefield. Lugosi and Karloff are bitter enemies who meet for one final battle of wits. "The Raven" sees Lugosi as a demented, Poe loving, plastic surgeon who disfigures Karloff and blackmails him into aiding him in a plot to punish a woman who has scorned him. Both films are perfect vehicles for their two stars and represent the well-mounted, quality horror product Universal became famous for.
on September 23, 2010
Edgar G. Ulmer has a cult reputation, particularly in France. The late British film critic, Leslie Halliwell, believed that reputation to be wholly undeserved, since most of Ulmer's films ranged from B to Z status. Ulmer did not begin that way when, in 1934, he was handed "complete freedom" in an A (A-) production, teaming, for the first time, Universal Studio's reigning horror stars Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff in the Poe inspired The Black Cat. The resulting film, and Ulmer's affair with his employer's wife, quickly ended a promising top-notch studio career almost as quickly as it began.
This first Karloff/Lugosi teaming was also their best. That is because of their eight collaborations this was their only joint-starring project directed by a visionary auteur. In The Black Cat Lugosi was cast as protagonist Dr. Vitus Werdegast, and Karloff as antagonist Hjalmer Poelzig. In the original, uncut film, Lugosi's hero does some less than heroic things. Enough of Vitus' sinister quality remains that Lugosi gives us a hero we are never quite comfortable with. Under Ulmer's direction, Lugosi's performance is superb, an extreme rarity for this actor. As good as Lugosi is, Karloff is even better and, as unpopular as it may be to say now, Karloff was always a far better actor than his co-star.
Ulmer's "complete freedom" came to a screeching halt when universal execs saw the filmed footage and script. Lugosi's hero rapes the heroine, the heroine occasionally turns into a black cat, and Karloff's Poelzig is skinned alive and last seen crawling on the floor with his skin hanging from his body as Lugosi's mad hero laughs hysterically. All of these scenes were cut from the film and, par the course at that time, were destroyed. There are conflicting accounts as to whether the scenes were shot and then burned, or merely scripted and axed.
Regardless, what remains of The Black Cat is a flawed, baroque masterpiece, intoxicating to watch and simultaneously frustrating, especially in light of Ulmer's original intent. Lugosi's Hungarian psychiatrist Vitus is traveling by train, and he is on a journey of revenge and retaliation. Vitus meets two newlyweds--American novelist Peter Alison and his wife Joan (played by David Manners and Jaqueline Wells)--who are as bland a 30s couple as one is likely to find. Lugosi sees something in the young woman Joan and touches her hair as she sleeps. The Hays Code be damned, it's an erotic, sinister, yearning close-up moment, and Lugosi will never look as beautiful again. Vitus is heading towards Fort Marmorus, the scene of a great World War I battle, where he was captured and betrayed by his commander, Poelzig. Amazingly, Vitus has survived 15 years in a Serbian concentration camp, and is now intent on exacting revenge on Poelzig for this and for the additional betrayal of stealing Vitus' wife and child while he was in prison.
After departing the train, the newlyweds accompany Vitus by car, along with his creepy servant Thamal (played by Harry Cording of many a Sherlock Holmes movie). But, lo and behold, the car crashes in the rain (a badly executed and an unnecessary set-up) and the four are forced to find refuge in an old dark house. Of course, that house is none other than the home of Herr Poelzig, and what a house. Hardly the Gothic ruins of a Carfax Abbey, Poelzig's abode of the damned home looks like an art deco charnel house, designed by the Constructivists so that guests such as Franz Kafka and Edgar Munch might feel perfectly at home. When the group arrives, drenched at the front door, they are not greeted by Riff-Raff, but instead find themselves face to face with majordomo Egon Brecher (a horror film regular).
Frank-n-Furter does not appear either, but his spirit is there when the majordomo lets his master know, via a beautifully cracking and popping old intercom, that Dr. Werdegast and guests have arrived. Karloff's Poelzig sits straight up, silhouetted in a canopy bed, like an erect penis, which was certainly intentional and understandable as he was lying next to the sleeping form of the beautiful Lucille Lund (as, you guessed it, Karen Werdegast Poelzig, Karloff's wife & Lugosi's daughter).
Karloff's melodramatic appearance to the group is perfect. His Poelzig looks like he might have been designed by Oskar Schlemmer, with his satanic mane, broad shoulders, and black silk satanic pjs. Ulmer tailored Poelzig after the infamous Satan worshiper Aleister Crowley. When Poelzig meets his guests he arches an eyebrow, extends a gaunt, slithering, Grinch-like hand, smiles, and lisps precise, phony warmth--as he secretly intends for Joan to be his next sacrificial bride to almighty Lucifer. Karloff knows how to use his body to full advantage in The Black Cat. His hand grasps a statue of nude woman as he watches the Alisons kiss. He glides his finger seductively over a chess piece. Vitus knows how to read Poelzig's body language. Vitus is well aware of his rival's intent and plans to stop his diabolical scheme, while seemingly admiring Poelzig from afar.
After a bit of cat and mouse foreplay, Lugosi, with a deadly earnest delivery, utters a priceless line in response to Peter's proclamation that there is a lot of superstitious baloney afoot: "Superstitious, perhaps. Baloney, perhaps not." A little later, Poelzig takes Vitus to the cellar. A black cat appears and Vitus freaks out, crashing through an expressionistic paper sliding door. In the finished film, Vitus' paranoia of cats is embarrassingly ridiculous. In the original script, that paranoia was coupled with erotic fixation for the black cat. It may not be from Poe, but Edgar would have appreciated the bestiality references. As Poelzig and Vitus ascend up the stairs, it is to a macabre mix of Poelzig's narration juxtaposed against the Allegretto of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony (played here in the traditionally slow grand-guignol tempo, rather than as the rhythmic allegretto it was originally intended to be). The Black Cat is filled to the brim with art music. Brahms, Liszt, and Schubert accompany Ludwig on this film journey, and Ulmer probably knew how to juxtapose music better than any director until Kubrick came along.
A chess match (which pre-dates Bergman) between Poelzig and Vitus vying for the fate of Joan begins beautifully but is interrupted by awkward comedy relief from a pair of accident investigating constables. After the constables (thankfully) leave, Peter borrows the phone, only to find it is dead. "Did you hear that Vitus? The phone is dead! Even the phone is dead!," rolls Poelzig through a delightfully, self-congratulating, menacing grin. We empathize. Oddly, the chess match resumes and goes nowhere, ending with Poelzig's easy victory almost as quickly as it began. The chess match does reveal the obsessions of very similar characters. Poelzig is well aware that Vitus plans revenge, but he is also aware that Vitus is, potentially, equally perverse: "You better attend the ceremony tonight Vitus. It will interest you."
Poelzig waxes nostalgic with an occasional trip to the cellar downstairs (complete with trapezoid walls) to visit his murdered, ethereal brides, embalmed in glass coffins. The dead wives include Poelzig's late wife (also played by Lucille Lund). In a moment of Oedipal envy, we find Poelzig married the mother, killed her, then married the daughter. Tim Burton`s freakery rings trite and trendy in comparison (the Penguin's "You're just jealous because I am a genuine freak and you have to wear a mask!" to fellow freak Batman would apply here, Mr. Burton).
Ulmer's surreal expressionist Black Cat world is, aptly, a universe which does not and has never existed. In this world, things are only bound to become more perverse. Ulmer does not disappoint. Karen finds out Daddy is still alive. Hubby rapes and kills Karen. Daddy finds his dead baby girl when he attempts to free Joan from being a Satanic sacrifice in a black mass orgy. Vitus finds Poelzig and fights him in a beautifully lit struggle of stark, expressionist blacks and whites (shot mostly in close-ups). Vitus' servant is shot and killed by Poelzig's servant, but Thamal will not die until he helps his master defeat Poelzig and tie him to the embalming rack. Thamal drops dead. Vitus seems not to care at all. So much for loyalty. Vitus sadistically rips open Poelzig's shirt and begins to skin him alive (in silhouette): "Did you ever seen an animal skinned, Hjalmer? That's what I am going to do to you now! Vear the skin from your body, sssslooooowlyyyy, bit by bit." That dialogue rolls of Bela's tongue beautifully, insanely. This nightmare evil all ends with a martyred Vitus, mistakenly shot by Peter for, understandably, believing Vitus was having his way with Joan, an explosion which levels the hell house, and a now dead, "rotten" cult. Now, Mr. Alison is free write his new novel, a mystery. Unfortunately, it was Karloff and not Manners that was tortured, Lund raped and killed instead of Wells.
Ulmer learned his trade under F.W. Marnau and Fritz Lang. It shows. With this single film, even marred by studio tampering, Ulmer can be ranked alongside Whale, Browning and Tourneur as visionary directors within a limited genre. None of the remaining Karloff/Lugosi collaborations hold up as well. Both The Raven (1935) and Son of Frankenstein (1939) had impressive moments, but both were flawed by pedestrian direction. Only The Body Snatcher (1945) could be counted as a worthy follow-up, but Lugosi, quite on the down slide by then, was reduced to little more than a cameo appearance, albeit a highly effective one.
Ulmer certainly brought his visual flair to many of his projects, but it was rarely enough to save them. Bluebeard (1944), Detour (1945) and Strange Illusion (1946) are rightly considered cult classics, while Strange Woman (1946) has some admirers. For the most part, however, Ulmer got his studio-sponsored toy train set in the career-defining Black Cat. By all accounts, Ulmer had a hell of a lot of fun playing with his train set, and reflected on it proudly, even if it did do him in. But, in the words of Vitus Werdegast, "It's been a good game."
* MY REVIEW WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED AT 366 WEIRD MOVIES
on April 5, 2006
Out of courtesy, I usually don't take exception to other reviewers. But come on folks, let's lighten up! Universal has released on one DVD a number of commercially problematic films by the Great (and I do mean Great) Bela Lugosi. This disc played just fine on my dvd player (and it's far from top of the line) and both picture and sound looked fine. Only one film in this collection is a genuine classic, 1934's THE BLACK CAT. The others are interesting, fascinating, perhaps even minor classics but how many of us would risk OUR money issuing these films in DVD hoping to make a profit? So I commend Universal for making these minor gems available at all. Thanks to the miracles of modern technology, they look just fine.
The best of the remaining four is 1936's The Invisible Ray, an early attempt at sci-fi and an uncanny anticipation of the laser beam. I am surprised and disappointed with the number of reviewers here who have misstated the plot line, making it sound absurd as a result. The film starts off like a typical Universal Gothic horror film of the early 1930s, then morphs into an adventure film in deepest Africa. It's a hoot to see Karloff & Lugosi doing the safari routine but it works! The final third switches locales to Paris and becomes a murder mystery with a genuinely thrilling finale that rivals the best of the Universal horror classics. The special effects are remarkable, considering that the Universal horror films of this era had almost no special effects to begin with.
True, Karloff is THE star here and Lugosi plays in support - but I suggest that Lugosi has the more interesting role as a truly dedicated (and sympathetic) scientist. His character evolves as the plot develops - a good sign of a thoughtful performance. He is high handed at first but as he uses Karloff's discovery (for which he gives Karloff complete credit) to cure diseases, he transforms into a humanitarian. Karloff is fine too but in a rather predictable performance as the well-meaning but misunderstood (and ill-fated) scientist. It is Lugosi who is the surprise here, not Karloff. By the way, THE INVISIBLE RAY features a beautiful but neglected music score by Franz Waxman.
The remaining films are a mixed bag. 1932's MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE was Universal's followup to Lugosi's success in DRACULA. Very much an artsy film (to a fault I might add), the story is too bizarre for its own good. A starring vehicle for Lugosi, it anticipates his Monogram turkeys of a decade later such as THE APE MAN.
1935's THE RAVEN is the followup to THE BLACK CAT in this collection. If you're expecting another BLACK CAT, you'll be sorely disappointed. Lugosi plays a mad doctor in his worst, hammiest manner and Karloff is wasted in support. The film is amusing if one approaches it as Universal's attempt to spoof Lugosi's Monogram films of the 1940s. Obviously that could not have been the intention - but it sure looks that way!
1940's BLACK FRIDAY shows that somebody at Universal was trying to be original but there apparently wasn't time (or intelligence) to fully think this project out. The REAL star of this film is Stanley Ridges who plays a kindly professor who is given a gangster's brain by Dr. Karloff. Ridges manages to steal the film from Karloff (no small feat!) with his Jekyll/Hyde role but I'd love to peak at the studio's files for this film (if they still exist). I'll bet that Lugosi was meant for the Karloff role, and Karloff was meant for the Ridges role. Then Ridges, who was a respected stage actor who was just starting to appear in films, may have become available and the casting was changed with poor Bela, contracted for the film, given a bone with the minor gangster character.
Finally, I researched Mr. Lugosi for a potential bio some years ago and I wasn't pleased with what I learned about him. In many respects, he was his own worst enemy. He refused to learn English sufficiently well and lived in Hungarian communities where he didn't have to speak English. His command of the language was iffy and he didn't respond well to changes in dialogue in making films. Obviously, this didn't endear him to directors so despite Bela's talent, he slipped down fairly quickly. Lugosi was also a bad judge of scripts and did not distinguish between working for major studios and picking up a paycheck from poverty row studios. This hurt the value of his name perhaps more than he ever realized. At any rate, this Universal Collection offers Bela in some of his better films during his prime years in Hollywood and I for one am appreciative. Nice price too!