Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi in The Raven (1935)

Edgar Allan Poe Drives Bela Lugosi Mad in These 3 Horror Films

1930s-era horror films Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Black Cat. and The Raven see Edgar Allan Poe’s dark heart driving the menacing Bela Lugosi mad.

Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Black Cat, The Raven
Louis Friedlander
Eureka Entertainment
20 July 2020

Most film fans tend to be familiar with the roles that Bela Lugosi played in a handful of films from three key periods in his career: his star-making turn as the eponymous vampire in Tod Browning’s Dracula (1931), his appearances in a couple of later-period Frankenstein movies (Erle C. Kenton’s The Ghost of Frankenstein [1942] and Roy William Neill’s Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man [1943]) and his “twilight years” roles in the cult films of Edward D. Wood Jr. (Glen or Glenda [1953], Bride of the Monster [1955] and Plan 9 from Outer Space [1957]).

For this new release, Eureka Entertainment has gathered three of the quite excellent post-
Dracula horror films that Lugosi made for Universal during the early 1930s. The films are linked by their loose connections to source stories written by Edgar Allan Poe.

Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932) Directed by Robert Florey

Paris, 1845: A medical student, Pierre (Leon Waycoff), and his girlfriend, Camille (Sidney Fox), visit a carnival where they meet Dr. Mirakle (Bela Lugosi) and his super-intelligent ape, Erik. When Erik takes a shine to Camille, Mirakle becomes keen to know where she lives. Pierre has dealings with the local morgue, and on his next visit there, he’s alarmed to discover that the bodies of an inordinate number of young women have been found in the river Seine of late. It transpires that Mirakle is trying to prove that man and ape are essentially the same species, and the dead women are abductees he has been experimenting on. Unfortunately, it seems that Camille has been selected to be the unwilling participant in Mirakle’s next twisted experiment.

If you’re into dark horror films and German Expressionism’s cinematic iterations, this is the film for you. As countless other commentators have noted, at a narrative and a stylistic level Murders in the Rue Morgue is essentially a re-run of Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920). Murders in the Rue Morgue replaces Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauss) with Dr. Mirakle, while the strange somnambulist Cesare (Conrad Veidt) is replaced by a super-intelligent ape. Rue Morgue’s sets and art direction aren’t as obviously abstract as those seen in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, but the influence of German Expressionism is easily detected in the warped angles and strong shadows that litter Rue Morgue‘s mise-en-scène.

Rue Morgue‘s mise-en-scène also possesses some decidedly gothic aspects. They are perhaps best realized in the scenes where Mirakle prowls the fog-shrouded streets of Paris after dark in his search for new victims, the scenes set in the cold and gloomy morgue that a somewhat eccentric overseer runs, and the scenes set in Mirakle’s grand but sparsely furnished abode: its interior is all old stone walls, grilled windows, stone steps, and big heavy wooden doors. When Mirakle’s fairly grand laboratory is thrown into the mix, we’re left thinking that Dr. Frankenstein would be quite at home there.

Lugosi’s turn as the sinister Dr. Mirakle is pretty much pitch-perfect and this creepy character’s strange appearance, particularly his mop of unkempt wavy hair and wildly enhanced eyebrows (which are virtually a mono-brow), adds to the pervasive feeling of unease that director Robert Florey successfully imbues in the film. This film, like the others in this set, was produced before the prescriptive and censorious constraints of the Hays Code were fully enforced and it features some really dark and upsetting content.

Sure, there’s a bit of comedy relief here courtesy of Pierre’s always-hungry flatmate and a nice trip to the countryside for the local medical students and their girlfriends to enjoy, but Mirakle remains a wholly deviant, devious, and dangerous individual who casts a long shadow over all of the film’s main characters. His despicable actions and attitudes are genuinely disturbing, and nobody in Paris is safe while Erik can understand and carry out Mirakle’s every instruction.

The murderous ape and a silly scene in which a variety of foreign citizens come into conflict with each other when reporting Camille’s disappearance are the only real links to Edgar Allan Poe’s original story, but truth be told, it doesn’t really matter. Rue Morgue remains a good-looking, well-acted, atmospheric, and highly involving period chiller.

Extra Features: An audio commentary by Gregory William Mank, an alternate soundtrack that adds music to some scenes, an interview with Kim Newman, The Tell Tale Heart read by Bela Lugosi, trailer, and an image gallery

The Black Cat (1934), Directed by Edgar G. Ulmer

Peter and Joan Alison (David Manners and Jacqueline Wells) are honeymooning in Hungary when they run into Dr. Vitus Werdegast (Bela Lugosi). After 15 years of incarceration in a military prison, the vengeful Werdegast is travelling to the grand modernist home of a brilliant architect, Hjalmar Poelzig (Boris Karloff), for a final reckoning. Years earlier, Poelzig had secretly betrayed Werdegast’s military unit to enemy troops before stealing his wife. A road accident results in Peter and Joan having to accompany Werdegast to Poelzig’s estate, but this turn of events is unfortunate: Poelzig is a Satanist, and he soon determines that Joan should be sacrificed at his sect’s next ritual gathering.

Universal struck pay dirt when it decided to pair Lugosi with one of its other horror icons, Boris Karloff (who had, of course, found fame in James Whale’s Frankenstein [1931]). Both actors possess commanding screen presences and play against each other well. Poelzig is an ominous-looking and obviously guarded character, but his cocksure nature results in him letting his true intentions be known little by little. By contrast, Werdegast tries to hide his intense hatred of Poelzig by projecting an image of geniality that he hopes will enable him to discover what has happened to his wife and daughter. However, it’s quite clear from the outset that each man wants to kill the other, and they’re both astute enough to know this.

In one masterful scene, the pair’s battle of wits is condensed into an intense game of chess. By the time that they’ve done batting coded verbal threats and assertions of superiority across the chessboard, Joan Alison’s life has come to depend upon the outcome of the game. Much like the chess game scene, The Black Cat features a fair amount of expository dialogue but it’s needed to grant the viewer essential knowledge relating to Werdegast and Poelzig’s shared history and details of events that have occurred since they last met.

Furthermore, the dialogue is delivered magnificently by two master thespians at the top of their respective games. All of the supporting actors rise to the occasion accordingly, too, and Egon Brecher and Harry Cording turn in particularly effective performances as Poelzig’s sinister majordomo and Werdegast’s loyal manservant.

This is a great-looking film, thanks primarily to Charles D. Hall’s art direction and director Edgar G. Ulmer’s set design work. Poelzig’s self-designed house is a marvel of modernity, and its sterile grayscale walls and metal and glass partitions provide a strange and eerie atmosphere of their own. The house is built upon the foundations of the fort where Werdegast and his massacred comrades were stationed, which allows gothic aesthetics (primarily stone walls and spiral staircases) to be employed in the underground rooms where strange things are happening.

For example, the fort’s gigantic former gun turrets are used as holding cells at one point, while another room contains the bodies of dead women that Poelzig somehow keeps preserved within hi-tech glass cases. The room in which Poelzig’s Satanic gathering takes place features a few stylistic nods towards German Expressionism.

While this film is billed as being “suggested” by Edgar Allan Poe’s The Black Cat, any link to the source story is pretty tenuous, but as with Murders in the Rue Morgue, this hardly matters. Werdegast has a severe phobia of cats and Poelzig’s magnificent house is host to a number of wandering felines. This narrative contrivance results in a couple of interesting scenes where Werdegast’s quest for justice becomes derailed due to the calamitous effect that simply seeing a cat has on him.

It’s clear that Werdegast and Poelzig are equals in every way and this fact – along with Werdegast’s debilitating phobia – makes it impossible to guess who will win out in the end. This, in turn, generates a laudable degree of tension and suspense.

At a visual and narrative level, The Black Cat is, without doubt, the most original and distinctive film in this collection. Indeed, it remains one of the most original and distinctive films in the history of horror cinema.

Extra Features: An audio commentary by Gregory William Mank, a Cats in Horror audio essay by Lee Gambin, a radio adaptation of The Black Cat featuring Peter Lorre, vintage footage of Lugosi and Karloff and an image gallery

The Raven (1935), Directed by Louis Friedlander

When Jean Thatcher (Irene Ware) crashes her car, the young theatrical performer’s life hangs in the balance. Her fiancé, Dr. Jerry Holden (Lester Matthews), is ready to operate on Jean. Her influential father, Judge Thatcher (Samuel S. Hinds), implores a brilliant-but-retired surgeon, Dr. Richard Vollin (Bela Lugosi), to operate instead. Vollin’s work is successful, and Jean’s open displays of gratitude result in the surgeon becoming infatuated with his patient, which leads to her father warning him off.

However, Vollin is a psychopath and a sadist who is obsessed with the torture devices that appear in the works of Edgar Allan Poe. As such, he soon coerces an escaped convict, Edmond Bateman (Boris Karloff), into assisting him with his diabolical plans to torture and kill Judge Thatcher and Dr. Holden.

The Raven is a film in which appearances are deeply deceptive. Dr. Vollin is outwardly respectable, and he’s the toast of the high society types that he mingles with. But his inner psychopath is just waiting to be unleashed. What Vollin takes to be love and affection (Jean’s performance of The Raven on stage and her enthusiastic participation in post-op check-ups) is merely an actress doing her day job in a professional manner and a patient expressing genuine gratitude to her surgeon.

Similarly, his grand home appears to be just a townhouse, but he has rigged the place with secret doors and hidden rooms that sport gothic aesthetics (stone walls, heavy wooden doors, grilled windows, and candelabra lighting). These rooms include an operating theatre and a vast torture chamber.

Vollin’s reluctant partner, the escaped criminal Bateman, is actually an inversion of him. Vollin is supposed to conduct plastic surgery that will change Bateman’s face to assist him in his flight from the police officers who are searching for him. However, Vollin gives the hapless Bateman the outward appearance of a monster instead and the jail-breaker is thus forced to do Vollin’s wicked bidding in the hope that the calamitous surgery will be reversed once Vollin’s diabolical plans have come to fruition. Bateman might look like a monster now but inside he is a man who wants to be a reformed character.

The Raven brings two of Universal’s biggest horror icons – Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff – together again. It’s a wholly enthralling film, but it doesn’t quite measure up to the absolute excellence of The Black Cat. Lugosi is in great form as the super slick sadist Vollin, but the prickly dynamism between Lugosi and Karloff in The Black Cat isn’t repeated here because Karloff’s Bateman is supposed to be inferior to Vollin at an intellectual, cultural, and financial level. Consequently, Karloff is in a different acting mode: there’s an element of pathos about Bateman and the awful predicament he finds himself in, and Karloff appears to be channeling aspects of his earlier iconic role as the Frankenstein Monster in a couple of scenes.

Of the three films presented here, The Raven is the one that most obviously resembles a straightforward horror film at a visual and a narrative level. It feels like the Hays Code was beginning to bite here and, apart from a bit of pulpy business during the film’s finalé that involves the use of novel torture devices, this film is cast firmly in the mould of a classical Hollywood film. That said, The Raven‘s content still managed to rattle the cage of the British censor when Universal sought to release the film in the UK.

As far as connections to Edgar Allan Poe’s source material goes, Vollin is a self-proclaimed Poe expert who recites part of The Raven to a stuffed raven and Jean also performs an interpretation of the same poem on stage. All told, The Raven is a satisfying enough film to bring the curtain down on this collection of exquisite Bela Lugosi horror films produced by Universal during the 1930s.

Extra Features: An isolated music and effects audio track, an audio commentary by Gary D. Rhodes, an audio commentary by Samm Deighan, an audio essay on American Gothic by Kat Ellinger, a radio adaptation of The Tell Tale Heart featuring Boris Karloff and an image gallery.

* * *

Given their age, the picture and sound quality of all three presentations are nearly perfect. This limited edition of 2,000 units comes housed in a slipcase and also features a 48 page booklet containing writing by critics Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, Jon Towlson, Tim Lucas, and Gary L. Prange.