Judge Brett Cullum vants to suck your blood... and disabuse you of the notion that Bela Lugosi was a one-note vampiric actor.
Our reviews of Fright Pack: Man's Worst Friends (published October 21st, 2005), The Raven (2012) (Blu-ray) (published November 5th, 2012), and The Vincent Price Collection II (Blu-ray) (published October 14th, 2014) are also available.
"He'll be back!"
Bela Lugosi was born on October 20th, 1882 in the small Hungarian (now Romanian) village of Lugos. Be'la Ferenc Dezso Blasko was his given name. He was the youngest of four children in an upper-middle-class family, which he ran away from when he was twelve. He wanted to act, but found himself working in mines and on railroads instead. He began to appear in Hungarian theatre productions at night, despite a lack of training. He was a workhorse of an actor, often appearing in as many as forty plays in a year. He was known for his marvelous singing voice, and appeared in diverse roles from Jesus to Romeo. In 1911 he was asked to join the National Theatre of Hungary in Budapest. By this time he had simplified his stage name to "Bela Lugosi," which simply meant "Bela from the town of Lugos." During the war years, Bela served in the military. He had to flee his home country due to political unrest, and arrived in New York City (after a short period in Germany) in December of 1921. He worked steadily in silent films and in the theatre, and then in 1927 he was cast in a Broadway production of a Bram Stoker novel that would change his life forever. The play—Dracula—ran for years, and during its national tour stop in California, Lugosi was noticed by the major film studios. In 1930, Todd Browning cast him in the film version of Dracula, and Lugosi—like his vampire alter ego—became immortal.
The Bela Lugosi Collection presents five films Lugosi made in the decade following the runaway success of Dracula. Not all of the movies feature Bela as the headliner; in fact, this collection showcases Boris Karloff of Frankenstein fame almost as much as Lugosi. I've heard rumors Universal was planning a Lugosi/Karloff collection, but negotiations with the Karloff estate didn't go smoothly. As a result, we have The Bela Lugosi Collection, with a couple of films where he plays second fiddle to Karloff. It's an odd move when you consider they could have included titles such as White Zombie, where Lugosi is featured more prominently. Yet the films here are all good quality, and offer fans a rare look at some of Lugosi's finest performances outside that vampire role for which he will forever be remembered.
Facts of the Case
The films showcased in The Bela Lugosi Collection include:
• Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932)
• The Black Cat (1934)
• The Raven (1935)
• The Invisible Ray (1936)
• Black Friday (1940)
Five creepy old black-and-white movies featuring my favorite horror actor, The Bela Lugosi Set is irresistible. The man is an icon, and his enduring legacy is richly deserved. Bela is the American dream made flesh. He was a struggling immigrant who came to this country with aspirations to make it big, and he did. Despite a thick Hungarian accent, he became a top box office draw during the Depression. Like Greta Garbo or John Wayne, he never acted so much as he transformed every role he played into his own unmistakable persona. I may be a freak, but I have a framed picture of Bela that looks over me in my living room at all times. He's watched me type hundreds of DVD reviews, so I leapt at the chance to take on this one.
These five movies are all atmospheric and well done for what they are—simple popcorn fare meant to capitalize on the success of horror classics like Dracula and Frankenstein. Each of them are accessible crowd pleasers with much entertainment value to recommend them. Oddly, Bela Lugosi is really the star of only two out of the five films contained in The Bela Lugosi Collection, but he makes the most of his screen time no matter how small the role. Lugosi had a grace and charisma few actors could ever duplicate.
Murders in the Rue Morgue was Universal's first attempt to exploit Lugosi's growing fame after Dracula. It owes much to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and was helmed by Robert Florey—whom rumor states was the original intended director of Frankenstein before James Whale entered. Here style takes over an impossibly silly story about a mad doctor trying to find the perfect mate for his highly evolved monkey sideshow attraction. The film has a black little heart which takes swipes at the raging debate about religion and evolution. It's also surprisingly kinky, featuring many scenes of morbid sexuality, played out with women tied up on crosses with the potential of having to copulate with a gorilla. In other words, it's a whole mess of fun. Bela's Dr. Mirakle is picking up whores off the street, performing blood tests on them, and discovering they are unsuitable. They never explain why, but the subtext is a not-so-subtle reference to venereal disease. Of course these ill "women of the night" aren't even good enough to be ravaged by a monkey. And then you have to wonder what Mirakle is ultimately doing. What would the child of this unholy union be? Even more than just a mixed race baby, it would be of two species. Could the movie be railing against a prejudice that still exists today? It's all hokey good fun, with excellent production design and some blasphemous subtext. The movie is surreal to the point that it looks like it could be a contemporary of the German Expressionist films it pays homage to.
The Black Cat is the real gem of the set. Rumor has it the film was produced while studio head Carl Laemmle was off in Europe; his son let the director, Edgar G. Ulmer, run wild without interference. When Dad returned, he demanded that certain alterations and cuts be made to the film to soften its brutality. Although rumors continue that someday the lost footage will see the light of day, what we have here is the traditional studio cut. Karloff and Lugosi do some of their best work in this film as rivals, and it is probably responsible for the continuing stories of the two competing with each other on-screen. Lugosi plays Dr. Vitus Werdegast, a man who has lived as a prisoner waiting to find his wife. Karloff appears as Hjalmar Poelzig, an architect who has built a house on the site where thousands of men met their death because of a betrayal he committed. The architect married Werdegast's wife, and when she died put her on display in an underground mausoleum. Karloff is a Satan worshipper who has an entire collection of corpses hidden away. The movie must have given censors fits, and it is deliriously trippy and a true classic to discover.
The Raven is a silly follow up to The Black Cat, with Lugosi appearing as Dr. Vollin. He is a torture fanatic who seems to be living out the fantasies of the Marquis de Sade more than Poe, but it's still a rather fun film. Karloff shows up as Lugosi's servant, and both actors seem to be having a blast with the twisted story that has practically nothing to do with the source material. It's a classic of campy fun. Not bad for a Fall night in anticipation of Halloween.
The Invisible Ray is a curious little sci fi tale that really is a showcase for Boris Karloff, with Lugosi in a supporting role. But Bela fans will appreciate that the actor took to second billing quite well, and delivered one of his finest, most subdued performances in the film. The Invisible Ray presents a mysterious substance called "Radium-X" which has the power to cure and destroy. Not all that random or out there. But the film starts off as an African safari search for the alien chemical, and then turns into a murder mystery in Paris. It becomes scatological at best. The movie feels like a patchwork quilt of many disparate elements, but all the actors seem to hold this messy affair together nicely. Lugosi in particular does fine work, and shows a surprising soft side which alludes to his possible diversity.
The last movie in the set is Black Friday, which finds Bela miscast in a supporting role as a New York gangster. The film itself is interesting, a more medically-minded Jekyll and Hyde tale about a kindly college professor who finds himself with a gangster's brain after a car accident. Karloff was initially approached to play the professor, but he backed away from the role and asked for the part of the doctor. It's ironic that Karloff feared branching out into new territory, and Lugosi cried foul at always being typecast. But there you have it. So Karloff and Lugosi both play second fiddle to Stanley Ridges. Black Friday is interesting, but (alas) hardly belongs in this collection, considering it is a bit off for poor Bela.
What surprises me is how good these features look on DVD. Universal has restored these little films from the '30s and '40s and made them look shiny and new. The black and white looks incredible on DVD, especially when the transfers are this good. And that's important, because the artistic direction of these films are what stands out the most. Blurry 16mm prints are what most people have seen, but these are glorious looks at the films. For the first time you can see deeply into the sets which created so much of the mood and atmosphere for these creepy tales. The sound on each movie is also vastly improved, which helps immensely given that Bela Lugosi had a thick Hungarian accent. All around, the film restoration work is amazing.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Originally this set was going to be marketed as a Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi collection, but negotiations with Karloff's estate proved to be problematic. Family members control the use of the respective actors' images, and apparently Karloff's daughter wanted too much money to produce the product as planned. This may explain why the films featured here don't all have Lugosi as the lead. I would have loved to see White Zombie, The Corpse Vanishes, or Bela's color feature Scared to Death included. Alas, we have to settle for what we have here.
And extras? There are some great old trailers, but where is anything biographical about the star? No commentaries, no features, no nothing. I really hate it when we get a long-awaited set of old movies, and they are treated as second class citizens with nothing but a trailer to support them. Inane box office comedy flops from the past year get multiple commentaries and extensive behind-the-scenes featurettes, while the real gems of the '30s and '40s get bargain basement bare-bones treatment. It's a real crime against classic cinema, and insures that younger generations will learn little about the films that influenced what they are seeing today. These classic Universal movies influenced modern day horror movies like The Ring (both the Japanese and American versions), and almost any Gothic-themed movie Hollywood cranks out. They deserve better treatment with supplements.
When Universal released their Monster Legacy sets featuring Dracula and Frankenstein, many people found their DVD players froze at certain points during the movies. This was because the studio used four layers instead of the usual two to pack as much movie onto one disc as they possibly could. The problem has reared its head once again with The Bela Lugosi Collection. Seems some players will freeze up—most likely during The Raven about halfway through the movie—when the layer change occurs. If you find this problem on your player, you might try switching to an alternate machine. Exchanging your copy for a new one will probably not remedy the situation. Even though it's great to save space on my overcrowded shelf, I would prefer a disc that plays easily as opposed to one that might cause problems. Let's hope Universal realizes this on future sets.
Bela Lugosi may have lived the American dream by coming to New York an immigrant and turning into a star, but by the end of his life he was living in a nightmare. Roles became harder to find, as many people could not divorce him from Dracula. He had a series of failed marriages, and began to slide into drug addiction to numb his personal and professional woes. The man who was once considered the national treasure of Hungary had slid down into a deep depression and addled state. Ed Wood captured it perfectly. Lugosi wanted to keep working until he died, and appeared in any movie that wanted him. When he died in 1956 he was buried in his cape from Dracula—the role he loved and felt trapped by. The nice thing about The Bela Lugosi Collection is it offers a glimpse of the man's talent beyond the vampire that made him famous. All the films are fun, a little spooky, and beautifully restored. It's a set that would have made Lugosi proud. His legacy lives on. He is immortal, and he will always be back.
Not guilty on all charges. Even though Bela wanted to force women to mate with monkeys, gain revenge on the man who stole his wife, torture a motley group of party guests, save Karloff from radiation poisoning, and pass himself off as a New York mobster, he's never guilty of doing anything more than dreaming. And thanks to Universal, we can dream with him. Cue the gypsy violins, and never fade.
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What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice, Murders In The Rue Morgue
Perp Profile, Murders In The Rue Morgue
Distinguishing Marks, Murders In The Rue Morgue
Scales of Justice, The Black Cat
Perp Profile, The Black Cat
Distinguishing Marks, The Black Cat
Scales of Justice, The Raven
Perp Profile, The Raven
Distinguishing Marks, The Raven
Scales of Justice, The Invisible Ray
Perp Profile, The Invisible Ray
Distinguishing Marks, The Invisible Ray
Scales of Justice, Black Friday
Perp Profile, Black Friday
Distinguishing Marks, Black Friday
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