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THE BELA LUGOSI COLLECTION

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff
Directors: Robert Florey, Edgar Ulmer, Louis Friedlander, Lambert Hillyer, Arthur Lubin
Audio: English monaural
Subtitles: English, Spanish, French
Video: Black & white, full-screen
Studio: Universal
Features: Trailers
Length: 336 minutes
Release Date: September 5, 2005

"Vampire!  Vulture!  Body snatcher!"

Films ***

The name "Bela Lugosi" is virtually synonymous with classic horror.  Almost overnight, his 1931 film Dracula established the stage actor as a cinematic master of the macabre.  Certainly, Lugosi’s mystique - with that piercing gaze, that thick Hungarian accent, that menacing physical presence - made the actor ideally suited for the horror genre.  While his stature as an icon may have led to eventual typecasting which hindered Lugosi’s development as a serious film actor, in his horror roles, he could always be counted on to deliver commanding performances.

Most viewers are familiar with Lugosi through his various interpretations of vampires, but he also appeared in a myriad of noteworthy suspense-thrillers, too.  The Bela Lugosi Collection assembles five such Lugosi films together for the first time.  Listed below are synopses for these vintage treasures from the Universal vault.  Better yet, four of these films include that other iconic figure of horror, Boris Karloff!  So, it’s the best of worlds for fans of Lugosi and Karloff alike!

1) Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932, 61 min.)

"Why are you always visiting that horrid old place?"

Based on an Edgar Allan Poe story, Murders in the Rue Morgue opens in Paris circa 1845.  Dr. Mirakle (Bela Lugosi), maestro of a carnival sideshow, narrates the tale of his captive gorilla.  As a disbelieving audience listens, the fanatical doctor postulates Man's evolutionary lineage from apes.  Later, determined to prove the truth of his beliefs, the doctor plans to conduct diabolical experiments on human guinea pigs, and what better subject to prey upon in a horror film than the proverbial damsel-in-distress?  Dr. Mirakle's ultimate goal is the creation of an ape-human hybrid!

Soon, Parisian women begin to disappear in the night, only later to turn up dead and disfigured.  Surely this is Dr. Mirakle's deed!  Can he be apprehended before his experimental killing spree claims yet another victim?  The film's finale involves a desperate chase amongst the rooftops of Paris between Mirakle's latest chosen victim Camille L'Espanaye (Sidney Fox), Mirakle’s love-sick ape, and Camille's suitor Pierre Dupin (Leon Ames).

Consider this film a cross between King Kong, Frankenstein, and any number of Jack the Ripper-style narratives.  Murders in the Rue Morgue is lightweight, plot-wise, but benefits immensely from Lugosi's presence, as the actor was fresh from his success in Dracula.

2) The Black Cat (1934, 65 min.)

"Fifteen years I've rotted in the darkness.  Waited.  Not to kill you.  To kill your soul slowly."

Generally considered the best of the eight Lugosi-Karloff collaborations, The Black Cat is a very loose adaptation of another Edgar Allan Poe story.  In this film, embittered Dr. Vitus Werdegast (Bela Lugosi) has returned to his Hungarian homeland after fifteen years' imprisonment in Kurgaal, "where the soul is killed slowly."  Werdegast's intention is to confront an old "friend," Herr Hjalmar Poelzig (Boris Karloff), the man who betrayed him during the first world war and who then took Werdegast's wife and child for his own.

Poelzig's new manor has been erected upon the site of a massacre at Marmorus, every stone in its existence exhuming the stench of death and despair.  Through its corridors, black cats wander undeterred.  In the basement stands an eerie procession of dead women, arranged like statues in a gallery of the macabre.

Werdegast has come to this dreaded place seeking vengeance.  But he must first bide his time, for caught in the midst of the struggle between Werdegast and Poelzig are hesitant houseguests Peter and Joan Alison, two newlyweds stranded for the evening and seeking shelter.

The film's title is a reference to Werdegast's foible, an "intense and all-consuming horror of cats."  The Black Cat’s sinister dialogue oozes with deliciously atmospheric talk of evil and darkness and sacrificial rites.  Also, no Lugosi-Karloff film would be complete without a climactic fisticuff between the two horror icons, and The Black Cat certainly delivers with a finale that includes murder, torture, and a gathering of satanic cultists in the "dark of the moon."

3) The Raven (1935, 61 minutes)

"Suddenly there came a tapping, as of someone gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door..."

The Raven is the third Edgar Allan Poe adaptation included in this collection.  Bela Lugosi portrays another mad and arrogant scientist, this time Dr. Richard Vollin.  When Jean Thatcher, a judge's daughter, is rendered comatose following an accident, her only hope of survival is Dr. Vollin.  After much begging from the judge, the retired Vollin decides to operate once again, saving Jean's life.  However, in the process of doing so, Vollin falls in love with his patient, rather to the objections of Judge Thatcher now.  Never mind that Jean Thatcher is also engaged to another man.  Such ingratitude!

What the judge doesn't know is that Vollin is a Poe enthusiast and in his cellar has recreated a number of heinous torture and horror devices as described in Poe's stories.  Was that a pendulum in the cellar, too?  Surely Vollin might find a use for it!  How far will this lovelorn surgeon go to assure that Jean is his alone and no one else’s?

Boris Karloff plays Edmond Bateman, a murderous fugitive on the lam who is taken in by Vollin on the condition that Bateman discreetly disposes of the offending judge.  To assure Bateman’s compliance (or perhaps to ascertain that the murderer doesn’t just kill Vollin, too), the doctor surgically mars Bateman’s face, promising to restore it only after the deed is done.  Vollin is clearly off his rocker, but Lugosi turns in one of his finest performances as the insane (and insanely jealous) doctor.

4) The Invisible Ray (1936, 79 min.)

"Power!  More  power than man has ever known!"

Following 1936, Lugosi through no fault of his own would find himself relegated to mostly B-films.  A British ban on horror films at the time reflected a shift in film audiences' tastes.  Furthermore, new management at Universal opted to move away from producing strict horror films.  As a result, for the remainder of his career, Lugosi would appear mostly in minor films for "name value" only.

The Invisible Ray is one of Lugosi's latter B-films for Universal.  Furthermore, his role this time, as scientific rival Felix Benet, is essentially in support of Boris Karloff's own turn as mad scientist Janos Rukh.  The hokey plot involves powerful light emanations from the Andromeda galaxy.  When viewed properly, they provide a glimpse into Earth's past as viewed from afar.  Rukh manipulates these rays to reveal the location of a powerful meteorite that struck the Earth millions of years ago.

Benet joins Rukh on an expedition to Africa to uncover physical proof of this discovery.  The result is Radium X, an element more powerful than anything native on Earth.  In a controlled setting, Radium X has wondrous healing properties.  Used improperly, Radium X can kill.  Rukh is driven stark raving mad by his initial exposure to the element.  He literally glows in the dark, and his touch becomes lethal.  Disgraced, Rukh goes into hiding.

When Benet takes Rukh’s discovery and exploits it to make a financial killing, the angered Rukh strikes out to do some killing of his own…but of a bloodier sort.  Soon, former members of the African expedition begin to die horribly, all with the tell-tale glow of a radioactive hand print upon them.  Will Benet’s turn be next, or can someone stop Rukh in time?

5) Black Friday (1940, 70 min.)

"Transplanted human brain cells will live and function!"

Black Friday is the black sheep of this collection.  This film is a crime caper, not the usual Lugosi horror flick.  That said, Black Friday does operate with a familiar  horror concept - what would happen if the brain of a criminal were transplanted into the body of another man?

This Frankenstein variant serves as the basis for the film’s crime thriller plot.  Dr. Ernest Sovac (Boris Karloff) is a brilliant neurosurgeon living in the town of Newcastle.  When his best friend and college professor George Kingsley (Stanley Ridges) is struck by a runaway car, Sovac can think of only one way to save his friend’s life - take brain tissue from the car’s driver, notorious gangster Red Cannon, and secretly transplant it into his friend’s body.

Kingsley makes a full recovery.  However, there is an unexpected effect - the Red Cannon brain tissue begins to awaken, and soon, Kingsley’s body is home to two disparate and widely divergent minds.  In this Jekyll-and-Hyde power struggle, the Kingsley persona simply wants to return to his sedate life as a professor.   However, the Cannon persona wants to recover a hidden stash of money and to seek revenge on former gang members who had tried to kill him.  Among those traitors are hoodlum Eric Marnay (Bela Lugosi in a minor supporting role).

Soon, there is a trail of dead bodies in Kingsley’s wake.  Naturally, no one suspects the mousy little professor, and only Sovac knows the truth.  Regrettably, greed has blinded the good doctor’s conscience, and he loses his professional integrity when he begins to blackmail the Cannon persona for the hidden money.  Whose personality will win out in the end, Kingsley’s or Cannon’s?  And, will Sovac get his money, or will he become the next victim on Cannon’s war path of vengeance?

The five films in The Bela Lugosi Collection offer a different side of Bela Lugosi for fans accustomed to regarding him as only Dracula.  While these films are not as famous as Lugosi's vampire flicks, they are nevertheless entertaining and just the right remedy for a midnight malady on a dark and stormy night!

Video ** ½

The video quality varies per film.  The prints have a generally grainy texture with the usual dust speckles, minor scratches, and emulsion scuffs common to these early films.  Not surprisingly, the older films in this collection have more age-associated defects than the newer films.  A few scenes, mostly those involving stock footage, are even washed out with poor contrast levels or focus.  However, the overall picture quality is generally sharp and detailed, and the transfers themselves are quite decent, relatively speaking.

Audio **

Don't expect anything revolutionary here.  These are extremely old films from the birth of sound cinema, so the audio quality of these films is quite rudimentary.  The sound is hollow and thin with a very narrow dynamic range.  The reedy tonality renders some dialogue difficult to comprehend (more so in the earliest films), but subtitles are always available.

Heinz Eric Roemheld's memorable score for The Black Cat was quite notable in its day for drawing heavily from classical music repertoire.

Features ½*

This is a flipper disc.  Side A holds Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Black Cat, and The Raven.  Side B holds The Invisible Ray and Black Friday.  There are trailers for Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Invisible Ray, and Black Friday.

Summary:

The Bela Lugosi Collection is ideal for Lugosi fans who wish to see the actor demonstrate his range beyond the usual confines of the vampire film.

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