A Hungarian actor who emigrated to the United States in 1920, Béla Lugosi made almost a hundred and twenty films in his career, his name becoming synonymous with the horror films he made for Universal in the thirties beginning with director Tod Browning’s adaptation of the stage play Dracula in which Lugosi recreated the title role which he had previously played on Broadway.
Despite Lugosi’s desire to avoid typecasting, it was to Universal horror he would repeatedly return, and within that sequence three times to works “suggested by the immortal works of Edgar Allan Poe,” as the title cards read, for Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Black Cat and The Raven, now gathered as a limited edition Blu-ray set as part of Eureka’s Masters of Cinema collection.
Most faithful to the source material, a 1841 short story, Murders in the Rue Morgue is set on the banks of the Seine in 1845 with Lugosi as the showman Doctor Mirakle who proposes revolutionary ideas which will come to be known as the theory of evolution for which he is branded a heretic by his audience, dangerous ideas which he intends to put into hideous practice.
With the aid of a trained gorilla named Erik (Charles Gemora), Mirakle kidnaps Mademoiselle Camille L’Espanaye (Sidney Fox) for his genetic experiments, but medical student Pierre Dupin (Leon Ames) is already gathering evidence from the bodies of other women pulled from the river whose deaths have already been declared accidents, if he can convince the police of his own innocence.
Directed by Robert Florey from a script by Tom Reed and Dale Van Every, Murders in the Rue Morgue is artistically and technically the most accomplished of the three, Poe’s tale considered one of the first modern detective stories and adventurously shot by Karl W Freund of The Golem and Metropolis, the 1931 production featuring much which would soon become taboo in Hollywood such as the flirting street prostitutes and the close friendship between Dupin and his flamboyant roommate Paul.
1934 saw Lugosi teamed with The Old Dark House’s Boris Karloff on The Black Cat, directed by Edgar G Ulmer from a script by Peter Ruric, taking nothing from Poe’s story of murder and madness but the title, instead creating a post-war tale of newlyweds held captive in a castle and witness to the rivalry between the psychiatrist Doctor Vitus Werdegast and architect Hjalmar Poelzig whom he blames for the death of his wife and child, both equally deranged in their own way.
A visual departure from the expectations of the genre despite the European location and the opening scenes of rural isolation, the principal setting is the art deco interiors of Poelzig’s luxurious home, built upon a former battlefield and with caverns beneath containing the body of the late Karen Werdegast, preserved in an upright glass coffin, and a chamber where Poelzig and his coven conduct black mass during the new moon.
Despite the introduction of the Motion Picture Production Code earlier in the year it was not immediately enforced, allowing The Black Cat to contain images of Satanic worship and of Poelzig sharing a bed with his unconscious wife, but released the following year The Raven fell fully under its auspices and is considerably more chaste, nor does director Lew Landers draw the best from David Boehm’s script of obsession and jealousy.
Reuniting Lugosi and Karloff, Doctor Richard Vollin is a reclusive surgeon and fan of Edgar Allan Poe, obsessed with a dancer whose life he saved who subsequently performed in a production of The Raven and whom he will lure to his home, complete with a dungeon of torture instruments inspired by the work of Poe with the help of Edmond Bateman, a murderer on the run whom Vollin has deliberately disfigured to ensure his complicity. Where in The Black Cat both protagonists were sympathetic, possibly redeemable, here Lugosi overacts while Karloff is understated, stealing the film with quiet tragedy.
Included in the set are commentaries on all three films, video essays from Lee Gambin on cats in horror, from Kat Ellinger on American Gothic and from Kim Newman on the production of the three features, entertainingly pointing out the structural similarities between The Raven and The Rocky Horror Show, vintage readings and radio shows starring Lugosi, Karloff and Peter Lorre and a booklet of archive material.