Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Titles by Poe, Everything Else by Universal

Bela Lugosi appeared in a trio of very loose Edgar Allan Poe adaptations for Universal in the wake of his success in "Dracula". They're interesting films, but I wouldn't recommend them as shortcuts when writing that report for English class.

(For that, you click here to visit the Poe section of my Fiction Archive. There you'll find the story that "Muders in the Rue Morgue" is supposedly based on, along with many other of my favorite works by Poe.)

Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932)
Starring: Bela Lugosi, Leon Ames and Sidney Fox
Director: Robert Florey
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

When Pierre Dupin (Ames) and his gorgeous girlfriend, Camille (Fox), visit a traveling carnival, they attract the attention of the insane Dr. Mirakle (Lugosi). Mirakle is attempting to prove that man evolved from apes by injecting beautiful women with blood drawn from his strange pet ape, Erik. Will Pierre manage to protect the love of his life from Erik, Mirakle, and Mirakle's menacing unibrow?!

"Murders in Rue Morgue" is a VERY loose adaptation of the Poe mystery tale that is goofy from beginning to end. Although well-filmed, the way the film uses close-ups of a cimpanzee to supposedly represent Erik, who in long and medium shots is a guy in a gorilla suit, is giggle-inspiring, and the silent-movie-esque acting and make-up used thoughout the movie is also excessively stylized for the modern viewer. (I found myself wondering at times if this film started out as a silent movie, and was then converted to a "talkie" ala what Hitchcock did with "Murder.")

On the upside, however, there are a several chilling moments in this brief horror film, foremost among them being when the audience is first exposed to the nature of Mirakle's "experiments"; and when Mirakle and Erik later invade the home of Camille and her mother.

One of the most worthwhile reasons to watch "Murders in the Rue Morgue" is that this movie is a great example of Lugosi's acting talent. During the 40s, it seemed almost as if he fell into a rut, and every character he portrayed seemed to be flat and identical to every other... but here, he displays a range of emotions and can convey a wide range of emotions with just facial expressions and gestures. He even manages to be supremely menacing, despite a rather amuing hairdo and the unibrow that he sports.

I'm not sure this film is all that suitable for most modern viewers, but I think that if you've liked Lugosi in other movies, you owe it to yourself (and to his memory) to view him in this short film. I think you'll be amazed at the range he displayed early in his film career.

The Black Cat (aka "The House of Doom" and "The Vanishing Body") (1934)
Starring: Bela Lugosi, David Manners, Boris Karloff, and Jacqueline Wells
Director: Edgar G. Ulmer
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

Honeymooners Peter and Joan Allison (Manners and Wells) are stranded in an isolated house in a Hungarian backwater. Here, they become drawn into the evil Satanist Hjaldmar Poelzig (Karloff) and the revenge-plans of his one-time friend Dr. Vitus Werdegast (Lugosi). As the story unfolds, the depth of Poelzig's evil and perversion is revealed in its fullest, and it seems there will be no escape for anyone.

"The Black Cat" is a stylish, incredibly creepy B-movie. It takes place almost entirely within a house built upon the site of a ruined WWI fortress, with the lower levels being the decaying remains of the original structure and the upper floors consisting of a sleek, ultra-modern home. Both sections of the structure lend to the tone of dread that permeates the entire film--with the well-lit, clean rooms of the upper levels of Poelzig's home being even creepier than that the shadow-haunted lower levels thanks to some fine camera work--although the revelation of Poelzig's "exhibit" of beautiful women below has got to be the most terrifying moment of the film. (In fact, I'm hard-pressed to think of a more evil and perverted character present anywhere in these classic horror films than Poelzig: Satanism, treachery, mass-murder, pedophelia... you name it, Poelzig's done it/is into it. (Karloff doesn't have a lot to do acting-wise, other than to just be sinister... but, boy, does he do that in spades here!)

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this film is Lugosi. First, those who watch "The Black Cat" will get to see that he was, in fact, a great actor at one time. The pain Dr. Werdegast feels when he is told his wife and daughter died while he languished in a Russian prison is conveyed with incredible strength, as is the mixture of pain and rage when he later learns the truth about their fates, as he and the Allisons manage to seize the initiative from Poelzig and his cultists. Second, it's interesting to see Lugosi playing a hero for once, even if a deeply flawed hero.

On a quirky note, I often complain that horror movies from 30s through the 60s and early 70s often just end: The story resolves and the credits roll without providing the audience with the nicety of a denoument. "The Black Cat" DOES provide what I wish more films would, yet here I almost wish that last minute or so hadn't been included. This is a film that probably should have ended while still in darkness.

While "The Black Cat" has absolutely nothing to do with the Poe tale that "suggested" it--it's got more in common with "The Fall of the House of Usher", I'd say--I think it represents a high point of the horror films that Universal was making in the 30s. I don't see it mentioned often, and I think it's a shame. It's a film that's worth seeing.

The Raven (1934)
Starring: Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, and Irene Ware
Director: Lew Landers
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

After saving young dancer Jean Thatcher (Ware) from certain death through a miraculous feat of neurosurgery, the mentally unstable Dr. Vollin (Lugosi) becomes obsessed with her. When her powerful father makes it clear that Vollin is to stay away from her, Vollin forces a wanted murderer (Karloff) into assisting him in eliminating Jean, her fiance, and her father in hideous death-traps modeled after gruesome scenes from the writing of Edgar Allan Poe.

"The Raven" isn't really an adaptation of the Poe work by that name, but is instead the tale of a thoroughly evil and utterly insane man so rich and so obssessed that he's built a house full of secret doors, secret basements, and entire rooms that serve as elevators... all so he can reinact scenes from Poe's writings.

There is plenty of potential in this B-movie, but tepid direction and mostly uninspired lighting and set design leave most of it unrealized. Lugosi is completely over the top in this film, taking center stage as the perfect image of a raving madman. He is ably supported by co-star Karloff who plays the role of the tortured, remorse-filled murderer trapped into serving Vollin with the promise of a new life in the exact opposite direction of Lugosi--remaining subdued as he slinks through each scene he's in. Ware is very attractive in the scenes she's in, but that's about all she is. In fact, the only actors in the film who aren't just so much set decoration are Lugosi and Karloff.

The "torture room" is nifty, and the climax where Dr. Vollin has houseguests trapped in a Poe-world of his making is excellent. All in all, an entertaining film, but it would have been much better with a more inspired supporting cast and more creativity on the technical side of the camera.

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