20th July 2020 (UK Blu-Ray Release)
A trio of classic 1930s horror films—Murders in the Rue Morgue (1931), The Black Cat (1934), and The Raven (1935) - based on the works of Edgar Allen Poe.
Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, Sidney Fox, Leon Ames, David Manners, Julie Bishop, Lester Matthews
189 mins (combined)
When you think ‘Dracula’, chances are the unmistakable face of Bela Lugosi pops up in your mind.
Now, for the first time ever in the UK, a trio of terrifying tales starring the icon of classic horror and from the stories of prolific author of the macabre Edgar Allan Poe are collected on Blu-Ray thanks to Eureka Releasing.
Part of the legendary wave of horror films made in the early 1930’s by Universal Pictures, the films are notably more startling in their depictions of violence than those made later in the decade. This is due to them being created in a period known as ‘Pre-Code Hollywood’, a brief time between the widespread introduction of sound in film from 1929 to the enforcement of the Motion Picture Production Code in 1934. The Code’s intent was to bring a level of morals to films, their characters and events which occur within them. The gap between its introduction and its stern enforcement contains some of the most boundary-pushing cinema of the early 20th century – with the three films in this set firmly being included in that category.
Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932)
Dir: Robert Florey | Stars: Bela Lugosi, Sidney Fox, Leon Ames
Based on the 1841 short story, Murders in the Rue Morgue is thought to be the very first detective story and serves as inspiration for Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. The adaptation, a considerably altered story from its source material, is set in Paris during the 19th Century. Lugosi plays the twisted Dr Mirakle (pronounced Mi-RA-Cull), a scientist who is killing women in an attempt to find a mate for his primate sideshow attraction Erik. During a visit to the carnival where Mirakle is presenting his talking ape, Erik takes a shine to audience member Camille (Sidney Fox). Her boyfried Pierre, a medical student, is independently investigating the deaths of women being found in the river. When Camille goes missing, will he solve the blood-curdling mystery in time?
Lugosi is least on show here from the selection, but no less impactful. A far cry from the slicked back hair and outward charm displayed in Dracula, Lugosi has uncontrollable curly hair, eyebrows like fox’s tails and a maniacal smile, proving he’s more than a one-trick pony. Sidney Fox makes for a sweet, innocent damsel in distress as Camille and a determined Leon Ames in his feature film debut is a believable hero. The film is possibly the most stylish of three, having the benefit of famed German cinematographer Karl Freund lend his talents to the film. Freund was an innovator of camerawork and most notably photographing 1927’s Metropolis but also worked with Lugosi on the actor’s most famous role, 1931’s Dracula. Freund’s fingers of Expressionism can be felt all over Murders, with shadows entering scenes long before the actors themselves do and artistically designed sets. One of my favourite shots though is a nauseating depiction of Camille on a swing. It may seem simplistic now, but I imagine the effort to attach a primitive camera to a swing was a mean feat. As for its hairy foe in Erik, well, you have to consider the year it was made. The long shots and those showing its movements are very clearly a man in a suit – and not a very convincing one at that – but it’s easily forgivable.
The Black Cat (1934)
Dir: Edgar G. Ulmer | Starring: Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, David Manners, Julie Bishop
Honeymooners Peter and Joan Alison are on a train to explore Hungary. A mix up with tickets means their train carriage has been sold to another man named Dr Vitus Werdegast (Bela Lugosi). No bother, they say, and the group share the cabin. He tells them he’s meeting his long-time friend and Austrian architect Hjalmar Poelzig (Boris Karloff)The kindness continues after the train as they all take the same car. Due to the dreadful weather, however, the car crashes, killing the driver. Joan is gravely injured too and Werdegast suggests they all head to Poelzig’s house. From here, the newly married couple experience an unbelievable and potentially deadly turn of events as Poelzig’s real intentions become clear.
The Black Cat marks the first of eight films in which Lugosi and Karloff star together and their on-screen chemistry is overwhelming. Karloff, who’s name is etched in horror history as much as Lugosi’s having featured as the titular monsters in 1931’s Frankenstein and 1932’s The Mummy, is skin-crawlingly sinister as the ominous host Poelzig. Lugosi, who subverts the audience expectation of being the antagonist with his good-guy turn as Werdegast takes on his former friend in a literal and figurative game of chess for the lives of the couple.
For me, The Black Cat is the weakest of the three films in terms of story. It ambles along at a leisurely pace, not revealing much for extended periods and feels a little too long even at a brisk 65 minutes. It would have greatly benefited from having Karl Freund’s knack for exploiting sharp corners and unnatural edges to really amplify the unusual abode in which the film takes place. There’s the occasional stylistic flair – the steps leading to Poelzig’s lair being a good example – but these feel like imitations rather than innovations. Undoubtedly, it’s the combined talents of Karloff and Lugosi and the importance of it being their first film collectively which makes it a must-see and the blasphemous subject matter most likely raised more than a few eyebrows upon its 1934 release. Not that it seemed to affect its Box Office takings; The Black Cat would close the year out as being Universal’s biggest hit.
The Raven (1935)
Dir: Lew Landers (as Louis Friedlander) | Starring: Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, Lester Matthews, Irene Ware
Retired Doctor Richard Vollin (Lugosi) is obsessed with Edgar Allan Poe. So much so that his talisman is a raven, which doubles as an omen for death. More disturbingly, he’s taken it upon himself to create the traps and torture devices described in Poe’s stories. Following a near-fatal car accident, Vollin is forced out of retirement to operate on local Judge’s daughter, Jean (Irene Ware) Thatcher. The operation is a success and Vollin immediately falls in love. Jean’s already engaged to be wed though, but he concocts a dastardly scheme to kidnap and torture Jean’s fiance and father using the traps he made. Meanwhile, escaped convict Edmond Bateman (Boris Karloff) comes to Vollin asking for help in changing his face in an attempt to evade police. Turning him into a hideous monster, the deranged doctor hangs the promise of fixing his appearance over Bateman’s head so long as he does Vollin’s bidding in capturing the Thatcher’s.
Easily the most shocking of the tales, The Raven is also my personal favourite from the set. From a candid and blunt Bela Lugosi performance for the ages to its ethics-shattering finale, The Raven has it all. It’s a rich narrative that is self-aware but never pretentious, seamlessly weaving a variety of Poe’s traps and, indeed, trappings into an enormously enjoyable yarn. Karloff’s character may be a sidekick, even with his name getting top billing on the poster, but the man himself still shines brightly in the spotlight. I can hear them now: the fearful gasps of the unprepared audience as Bateman’s face is revealed to the world. An early horror movie as essential as the Universal Monster pictures, The Raven boasts two genre behemoths at their very best.
Each film comes presented in 1080p High-Definition, with The Raven enjoying a presentation from a 2K scan of the original film elements. It’s a noticeable upgrade, especially on Lugosi’s Act Three dinner jacket which at times looks extraordinarily black. There’s the option for English subtitles which, naturally, I opted in to. Each film comes with an Audio Commentary track; Film Historian Gregory William Mank provides insight into Rue Morgue and The Black Cat with Critic Amy Simmons giving the latter another Commentary too. The Raven comes with two Commentaries too, one from Associate Editor of Diabolique Magazine Sam Deighan and the other courtesy of writer and biographer of Lugosi Gary D. Rhodes.
A video essay on the depiction of Cats in Horror over the years by writer Lee Gambin is a somewhat diverting 12 minute feature. There are a few good points made, but I felt it was trying to find deeper meanings that weren’t there for some of the little known, straight-to-TV titles. Still, it gave me a few films I’d not heard of to check out so all in all, a worthwhile watch. Another minor gripe with this extra is it sounds like it was recorded through a tin can, with no Pop filter.
A second video essay titled American Gothic, on the other hand, is an invaluable companion piece to the films. This 15 minute analysis looks at the early years of Gothic literature, both European and American. It then comes to the defence of The Black Cat and The Raven from those who dismiss it as being nothing like their namesake stories from Poe. A well researched and thoroughly informative feature. A new 30 minute interview with Kim Newman is full of trivia too.
The highlights though are Radio Plays. Casablanca and Fritz Lang’s M star Peter Lorre reads The Black Cat, while there are two separate tellings of The Tell-Tale Heart from Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff. Stills and Vintage footage round out the visual extras, but the Limited Edition – strictly to only 2000 copies – comes with a 48 page collectors booklet and contains new writing by film critic and writers Jon Towlson & Alexandra Heller-Nichloas.
Overall then, this really is a must-buy for anyone even remotely interested in classic horror. It’s just as much as Karloff’s set as it is Lugosi’s and to see the two on screen together is electric.
Three Edgar Allen Poe Tales Starring Bela Lugosi is available to order from Eureka Store and Amazon
SPECIAL TWO-DISC BLU-RAY EDITION
- High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentations for all three films, with The Raven presented from a 2K scan of the original film elements
- Uncompressed LPCM monaural audio tracks
- Optional English SDH subtitles
- Murders in the Rue Morgue – Audio commentary by Gregory William Mank
- The Black Cat – Audio commentary by Gregory William Mank
- The Black Cat – Audio commentary by Amy Simmons
- The Raven – Audio commentary by Gary D. Rhodes
- The Raven – Audio commentary by Samm Deighan
- Cats In Horror – a video essay by writer and film historian Lee Gambin
- American Gothic – a video essay by critic Kat Ellinger
- “The Black Cat” episode of radio series Mystery In The Air, starring Peter Lorre
- “The Tell-Tale Heart” episode of radio series Inner Sanctum Mysteries, starring Boris Karloff
- Bela Lugosi reads “The Tell-Tale Heart”
- Vintage footage
- New Interview With Critic And Author Kim Newman
- PLUS: A 48-PAGE collector’s booklet featuring new writing by film critic and writer Jon Towlson; a new essay by film critic and writer Alexandra Heller-Nicholas; and rare archival imagery and ephemera
A variety of spellbinding performances from both Bela Lugosi & Boris Karloff
The Raven is a set highlight
Rue Morgue mixes German Expressionism with American Filmmaking to great effect
The Black Cat is the weakest story