A forbidding castle, a mad professor, a creepy servant, diabolical music being played on a pipe organ, maniacal laughter ringing through the cobweb-encrusted secret passages… We all know the features of a classic horror movie. We’ve seen them parodied often enough that it’s hard to remember if these things were ever actually scary in the first place.
Well, here’s your chance. Spirit Entertainment have released three horror films from the vaults that give us Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi together, in full swing, giving their all to the kind of role that nobody did better. Seeing them on screen is a great reminder of the foundations of cinema horror. But it’s not just a pleasant walk down memory lane – there are genuine chills to be found in these films, as Lugosi gives his hooded stare and Karloff’s slow, menacing voice relates a story of blackest cruelty.
These films aren’t their most famous roles, but it’s good to see that horror of the 1930s was not just about Dracula and Frankenstein. For instance, The Black Cat (1934) doesn’t feature a monster at all. Some really nasty business gets carried out by Karloff, an architect who has lived through the atrocities of World War I and has been driven insane. Keeping dead ladies in display cases and leading satanic rituals is just part of his charm.
An innocent honeymooning couple in Austria are involved in a car crash, and seek shelter at Karloff’s self-designed house, along with his old friend Dr Vitus Werdegast (Bela Lugosi, being quite a pleasant character to begin with). But there are old scores to be settled, and the couple end up being entangled in a feud that leads to a really horrible, painful-to-watch ending. Being the 1930s, you don’t see any gruesomeness, but the noises Karloff makes as Lugosi enacts his revenge are more than enough. Brrrrrrrr. There is a black cat in there, but it’s really not important except as a link to the idea that an Edgar Allen Poe story is involved. Which it isn’t.
The Black Cat was the first film Karloff and Lugosi made together, and it was a huge success at the time being the biggest box-office hit of the year for Universal. You can see why. It’s twisted, and grotesque, and the honeymooning couple (played very well by David Manners and Julie Bishop) look like they really do fancy each other. It definitely turns out to be not much of a honeymoon, but at least they got to see Karloff in absolutely commanding form, standing tall, intoning that, “there is death in the air…”. Excellent stuff.
Karloff and Lugosi never really acted together in these films. They tried to suck up as much of the camera’s attention as possible for themselves, so it’s not like watching a double act so much as a competition. This electric rivalry works well in The Black Cat, and also in The Raven (1935) where excess is the watchword. If The Black Cat was Karloff’s show, then The Raven belongs to Lugosi. This time the Edgar Allen Poe connection blossoms into the tale of a sociopathic surgeon, Dr Richard Vollin (Lugosi). He covets the Mayor’s daughter and is prepared to use a poor ugly criminal (played by Karloff) to do his dirty work. There follows a lot of disfigurement, torture, and pipe organ playing.
The Raven is a really unpleasant film. It glories in its horribleness. It wasn’t a box office success, and was considered to be too shocking for the 1935 audience. Soon afterwards US horror films were banned in Britain and, with the profitability of these macabre movies in question, Universal became less interested in both this kind of plot and in Lugosi. His reputation suffered because of this role, and that’s a great shame, because he’s brilliant in it. He contains so much malevolence and malice that it gives you the shivers. He tortures Karloff with utter glee, and there’s an amazing sequence involving mirrors in an operating theatre that deserves to be remembered as a classic of horror cinema. Even though Karloff got top billing for this film, it’s Lugosi’s show all the way.
By the time Black Friday (1940) came along, Lugosi’s career was definitely on the wane. He has only a small role as a gangster, and no screen time with Karloff at all. Karloff plays Dr Ernest Sovac, a surgeon who saves the life of his best friend by performing a partial brain transplant. But the brain in question belonged to a gangster who hid a large amount of money before his death. Karloff attempts to awaken the gangster part of the brain in order to find out the location of the money, and that leads to all kinds of unpleasant complications. It’s an interesting mash-up of horror, sci-fi and gangster tropes, and neither Karloff nor Lugosi are really very memorable in it. Instead the film belongs to Stanley Ridges, a character actor who took on the role of the best friend who gets a new brain. He gives a fascinating split performance as both; his accent changes along with his hairstyle, his body language, and the look in his eyes. Ridges goes from trusting to suspicious in a heartbeat. He even manages to look younger. So if you’re going to watch Black Friday, watch it for his performance. It’s worth seeing for that reason alone.
None of the DVDs come with any extras, which is a missed opportunity to look more closely into the relationship between Lugosi and Karloff, and the decline of the Universal horror film. The Black Cat and The Raven in particular were great examples of that genre – relishing in the macabre, the unspeakable, the downright sickening. They go as far as modern horror films, but without showing a thing. It’s all in the performance. And what performers Karloff and Lugosi were.
The Black Cat, The Raven, Black Friday were released on DVD by Spirit Entertainment on 27 May 2013.
Follow our Twitter feed for faster news and bad jokes right here. And be our Facebook chum here.