Where can one start with Bela Lugosi? Well, for film fans the answer is likely to be the 1931 version of Dracula where Lugosi played the infamous, villainous Count. His native Hungarian accent fitted the title role perfectly and became so synonymous with Lugosi and Dracula that it helped make the titular vampire character a cultural icon. Lugosi’s version of Dracula became so iconic it was even parodied in long running children’s television show Sesame Street from 1972 with the character Count Von Count. When Lugosi died in 1956 he was buried in one of Dracula‘s cape costumes, proving once and for all how much meaning that role had for the actor.
But that iconic role wasn’t all that Bela Lugosi was about as an actor. Before Dracula, Lugosi had roles stretching back to the 1910s, so had plenty of experience, on stage and screen, before being offered the Dracula role. After 1931 Lugosi can also be credited for starring in the first ever zombie movie, 1932’s White Zombie (and yes, that’s also where the popular US metal band got their name!) and although different to the zombies we know and love now, it’s definitely a credit to Bela Lugosi that he is known in the film world as one of most iconic Draculas and a star in the first ever zombie movie. But these roles, if anything, proved that Lugosi had a flair for tackling dark and perhaps little known subject matter, and had the ability and bravery to suspend disbelief to take on a variety of roles that have made him become recognised as a truly great and versatile actor.
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Which takes us nicely to 1932 and the first of three films starring Bela Lugosi that are all based on works by gothic literary legend Edgar Allan Poe. Murders in the Rue Morgue has Lugosi as mad scientist Dr Mirakle who runs a carnival sideshow in 19th-century Paris. Mirakle’s main attraction is his talking ape that he claims is human. Of course, the Dr isn’t taken seriously, but what his audiences and the people around him don’t know is that Mirakle has sinister plans involving his ape and the young women of Paris.
Murders in the Rue Morgue is something of a murder/detective thriller that sees Lugosi clearly enjoying his role as the devious scientist. The film also has an air of mystery concerning the ape character that must have been interesting and possibly quite scary, especially during its exciting final act which sees the ape scaling buildings with beautiful female lead Sidney Fox, which now can’t help but bring to mind King Kong – but at the time King Kong wasn’t to be released until 1933, so Murders in the Rue Morgue‘s final scenes must have been exciting for viewers back in 1932, with director Richard Foley doing a very good job in bringing this offbeat tale to life.
The next time Bela Lugosi tackled the work of Poe was in 1934 with The Black Cat. The film also saw Lugosi teaming up with Boris Karloff (Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein) for the first time in what became Universal Pictures’ biggest hit of 1934, which is no surprise considering its main cast, with Boris Karloff a big enough name at this point to simply be billed as Karloff in the opening and closing credits.
Edgar G. Ulmer directs what is probably the best of this trio of Poe/Lugosi films with this dark tale of an evil architect (Karloff) locked in a battle of wits against an old friend (Lugosi) in search of his family. When a newly wed couple share a train coach with Dr Vitus (Lugosi) they find out some history on this interesting character. Later, a bus they are also sharing crashes, killing the driver. The three end up running to the nearest building, a fortress-like house owned by Hjalmer Poelzig (Karloff). It’s quite clear from the off that Poelzig isn’t a normal character and something sinister is afoot. As The Black Cat progresses we learn that Poelzig isn’t just a Satanist but a necrophiliac who is also in charge of a sinister cult.
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Where The Black Cat succeeds is in its odd and offbeat air, that feels weird now let alone in 1934. But not only that, you can seen how influential The Black Cat has been over the years. From a couple being led to a house run by a sinister cult or group, to the battle of wits between the two leads and Karloff’s Bond-like villain, The Black Cat certainly has its share of nods to films that would later become classics or cult classics. And its great performances from its cast, not just Lugosi and Karloff, meant that this nightmarish tale is considered a highlight of both Karloff and Lugosi’s respective careers and a must see film of the era.
Last but not least in this trio of terror is 1935’s The Raven. Made by B-movie director Lew Landers and the second pairing of Lugosi and Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi plays the bad guy as Dr Richard Vollin, a plastic surgeon obsessed with Poe, who appears to help fleeing murderer Edmond Bateman (Karloff) initially, but it soon becomes torture for Bateman as he is used in Vollin’s evil medical experiments. Specifically referencing Poe throughout, Dr Vollin appears well known, respected and popular but his true sinister nature is as dark as Edgar Allan Poe’s tales themselves, the Dr noting that the raven he keeps in his office is a symbol of death.
Landers made The Raven so dark and grotesque that all American horror films were banned in the UK for two years after its release. Now, watching The Raven in 2020 might leave you wondering why, but in 1935, the film’s eerie feel, the make-up effects on Karloff’s character’s face after Vollins’ work, views of torture devices, and Lugosi’s genuinely quite scary, maniacal at times, performance would have been shocking for a lot of viewers, and although it might not be seen as the best of this bunch, it’s certainly entertaining.
These films were made by Universal Pictures, who were making a legendary wave of horror films in the 30s, such as the aforementioned Dracula and Frankenstein (both 1931), as well as The Mummy (1932), The Invisible Man (1933) and later the likes of The Wolf Man (1941), but the three films in the Poe/Lugosi box set are examples of Pre-code studio filmmaking; before guidelines were set for films containing shocking or sadistic scenes and immoral content. So it’s a great that Eureka have put together this set, part of their The Masters of Cinema Series, for film fans young and old to get a taste of these type of films from the 30s and how they influenced modern film and filmmakers.
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The extras for this limited edition set include audio commentaries on all three films; ‘American Gothic’, a video essay by critic Kat Ellinger; ‘Cats in Horror’, a video essay by writer and film historian Lee Gambin; ‘The Black Cat’ episode of the radio series Mystery in the Air; Bela Lugosi reading ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’; a new interview with author and critic Kim Newman; vintage footage; plus a 48-page booklet featuring new writing by film critic and writer Jon Towlson, and a new essay by film critic and writer Alexandra Heller-Nicholas. The booklet also has archival imagery from the films, with on set photos, posters and pictures.
Overall, a brilliant document of a very creative, if somewhat controversial, time in Hollywood that showed how much talent and effort went into making films as interesting, thought-provoking and, in this case and the case of Universal Pictures horror films, as dark and daring as possible. As well as recognising Edgar Allan Poe as one of the most important writers of gothic literature and Bela Lugosi as perhaps the perfect bedfellow for that particular writer’s sinister words. An essential purchase for film fans, particularly those interested in the history of cinema, horror or otherwise.
Murders in the Rue Morgue/The Black Cat/The Raven: Three Edgar Allan Poe Adaptations Starring Bela Lugosi is out now on Limited Edition Blu-ray from Eureka Entertainment.