Just a few weeks back, Universal released its Universal Classic Monsters: The Essential Collection, an incredible set featuring 8 of Universal’s most iconic horror films. No one can argue with the films that were included but If I had my way, the set would have included a few more entrie. Call these the Universal Edgar Allan Poe trilogy, three films produced from 1932 and 1935 based (albeit very loosely) on the works of Poe. This week in From the Vault we take a look at three more classic Universal horror films…Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Black Cat, and The Raven.
Murders in the Rue Morgue
Universal Studios 1932
Cast: Bela Lugosi, Leon Ames, Arlene Francis
Running Time 60 minutes
As the story goes, Director Robert Florey was all set to direct Frankenstein. But James Whale who had directed the critically acclaimed films Journey's End and Waterloo was allowed by Universal Studios to choose any film he wanted for his next project and he chose Frankenstein, leaving Florey the door prize of Murders in the Rue Morgue. It wasn't all a consolation prize however. Florey got himself a solid cast with Bela Lugosi playing the bushy-haired, uni-browed Dr. Mirakle and Leon Ames playing medical student Pierre Dupin. Ames was a credible actor who made over 100 films and worked in TV including a three year stint on "Mr. Ed." Also in the cast was a young Arlene Francis who plays one of Mirakle’s early, torture victims.
Set in Paris of the 1800's, the plot concerns the crazy Mirakle's plan to inject females with the blood of a gorilla to prove his theory that man evolved from the ape. While never specifically mentioned, he needs the subject to be a virgin. After one female doesn't work out Mirakle proclaims that it's because her blood was tainted by sin. Wow! Talk about preaching celibacy! Mirakle uses a sideshow and his pet ape Eric to scout for new victims when he finds the beautiful Camille in the crowd with her boyfriend Pierre. Eric is attracted to Camille and even tries to choke Pierre when he gets too close to the cage.
Pierre begins investigating the mysterious bodies of women found floating in a river (after Mirakle dumps them through a trap door) and uncovers the devilish plot. This all leads to the standard, town mob hunting the monster as Eric kidnaps Camille and races across the Paris rooftops with her, leading to the climax.
Besides a good cast, Florey also had Karl Freund along as cinematographer who held the same position on "Dracula" and who directed the Mummy, also in 1932. Freund's foggy, mist-shrouded sets lend a potent atmosphere to the film. Oddly, the film uses the same music at the opening credits as "The Mummy".
The film has its flaws though. There was a short, but completely out of place song in the middle of the film. Can you imagine the villagers breaking into song in "Frankenstein" or "Dracula"? It completely throws the tone of the movie off. Then there are close up shots of the gorialla where they cut in actual footage of a gorilla that looks nothing like the guy in the suit. Overall, however, The film has enough going for it and Lugosi is always a treat to watch.
The Black Cat
Universal Studios 1934
Cast: Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, David Manners
Running time: 65 Minutes
Without a doubt, The Black Cast has got to get the award for the most sinister and subtly depraved horror films of the 1930s. Peter (Manners) and his wife Joan are vacationing in Hungary where they share a train compartment with Dr. Vitus Werdegast who tells them he is on the way to meet an old friend, Hjalmar Poelzig (Karloff), an Austrian architect. Werdegast explains that he had spent the past 15 years in a prison camp after World War I.
When the bus they are on crashes, Joan is severely injured and they take her to the home of Poelzig who has built his elaborate, German Expressionist period home on the site the ruins of Fort Marmorus, which Poelzig commanded during the war, and where he left his soldiers to die, including Werdegast, years earlier.
Karloff may have played the Frankenstein monster and the Mummy, but he was never a bigger fiend than in The Black Cat. Poelzig leads a satantic cult. He keeps his former wives, including Veregast’s wife whom he stole while Vitus was imprisoned, encased in glass coffins and hung on the wall as display pieces. Furthermore, he’s now taken Vitus’ daughter as his new wife and how that incestuous overtone ever made it to the final print is a miracle.
The tension between Vitus and Hjalmar is palpable as they play a seemingly friendly game of chess yet you know the pieces they are playing for our each other’s lives as well as those of Peter and Joan. Poelzig becomes more and more obsessed with Joan and abducts her to his cellar below where the plans to sacrifice her in a black ceremony. While Director Edgar G. Ulmer didn’t go so far as to use an upside down crucifix, he did have one tilting at an angle instead of straight up and again…wow this was 1934.
In the end, Vitus, like an avenging angel, rescues Joan and captures Poelzig where he begins to skin him alive which you actually see in shadows. Without question this was the best teaming up Karloff and Lugosi, as they trade blows like two heavyweight fighters, each trying to knock the other out. Karloff never looked more evil than with his close-cropped hair and extended widow’s peak, and his extravagant wardrobe. Great performances, great set pieces, and an incredibly morbid story make The Black Cat one of Universal’s best horror films.
Universal Studios 1935
Cast: Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff
Running time: 61 minutes
Make no mistake about it...this was Lugosi's film. Maybe the only time he would get the better of Karloff in terms of having the juiciest role.. In most of their team-ups all Lugosi could hope to do was try and equal Karloff for screen time. But not here…Lugosi is truly as mad as a hatter and fully mesmerizing as egomaniacal, off-kilter Doctor Vollin.
When Judge Hatcher's (Samuel s. Hinds) daughter Jean (Irene Ware) is in a terrible accident, the only doctor with the skill to operate on her is the reclusive, mysterious, and eccentric Doctor Vollin. He at first refuses saying he is only interested in research now. But when the Judge makes an in-person plea, Vollin relents and saves the girl. But now Vollin becomes uncomfortably obsessed with Jean until the Judge has to warn him to stay away. Vollin vows revenge and finds it in the form of Bateman (Karloff) an escaped con who comes to Vollin so the Doctor can change his face. And change it he does...horribly disfiguring Bateman and saying he will only fix his face if he agrees to help him. Bateman screams in rage as he is locked in Vollin's dungeon as Vollin laughs with glee in a memorable scene.
Volling invites Jean, her fiancée and other guests to his home for a party where he plots his revenge. Vollin rambles on about his passion for Edgar Allen Poe and how he's studied various torture means. Bateman kidnaps the Judge and Vollin plans to kill him and the other guests until Bateman eventually turns the tables on him in the end.
Lugosi is simply magnificent in this film. So mesmerizing and so completely off his rocker. After trapping the Judge he screams bizarrely, "Poe! You are Avenged!" Avenged for what? It's this kind of pure ham acting that made Lugosi so wonderful in this film. He was unapologetic in his over-the-top performance and played it with full vim and vigor. Contrarily, Karloff is perfectly reserved in his portrayal as the somewhat sympathetic criminal. You know he's a bad guy, wanted by the law, but you still feel sorry for him for what Lugosi did to him. Truly a fabulous movie!
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