Three Edgar Allan Poe Adaptations Starring Bela Lugosi: Murders in the Rue Morgue [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray B - United Kingdom - Eureka
Review written by and copyright: Eric Cotenas (13th July 2020).
The Film

"This trio of classic 1930s horror films—Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Black Cat, and The Raven—is also distinguished by a trio of factors regarding their production. Most notably, each film is based on a work by master of the macabre Edgar Allan Poe. Part of the legendary wave of horror films made by Universal Pictures in the 30s, all three feature dynamic performances from Dracula‘s Bela Lugosi, with two of them also enlivened by the appearance of Frankenstein's Boris Karloff. And finally, all three benefit from being rare examples of Pre-Code studio horror, their sometimes startling depictions of sadism and shock a result of being crafted during that brief period in Hollywood before the enforcement of the Motion Picture Production Code’s rigid guidelines for moral content."

Following the successes of Tod Browning's Dracula and James Whale's Frankenstein that made stars of Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff respectively, their careers diverged significantly. While Karloff proved his ability in mainstream efforts for other studios while also starring in Universal's The Mask of Fu Manchu and The Mummy, Lugosi was exploited as a horror star in Universal's Murders in the Rue Morgue. Losing out on the role that made Karloff a star, Lugosi threw his all into the Poe adaptation as Dr. Mirakle whose wharf-side carnival attraction of Erik the ape is a front for his search for a "bride of science" to mate with the intelligent beast. The victims who do not measure up and die either of fright or being injected with Erik's blood are unceremoniously dumped into the Sienne by fellow carnival performer Janos the Black One (The Most Dangerous Game's Noble Johnson). The only person to find a connection between the three latest victims is anatomy student/amateur detective Pierre Dupin (Tora! Tora! Tora!'s Leon Ames) whose pretty fiancée Camille (The Bad Sister's Sidney Fox) has caught the eye of Mirakle and the nose of Erik. When Camille mysteriously vanishes and her mother (Love Finds Andy Hardy's Betty Ross Clarke) is found dead, Pierre is the prime suspect but also the only person who can prove that the crime is even more sinister in nature with the help of comic relief roommate Paul (Bird of Paradise's Bert Roach).

Somewhat of a consolation prize for director Robert Florey (The Crooked Way) who shot Lugosi's test footage for Frankenstein and was to have been its director, The Murders in the Rue Morgue has some indelible Pre-Code gruesomeness like the ghastly screams of crucified "woman of the streets" Arlene Francis (One, Two, Three) whose incompatible "rotten blood" causes Mirakle to howl "Your beauty was a lie!" His affection for Erik the ape and quest to find him a mate is far more moving than anything between dull detective lead Ames and baby-voiced Fox (only slightly less annoying than whiny Roach), and the scenes devoted to depicting the domestic bliss of the latter couple – including a short musical number – dilute the film's atmosphere and potential for perversion. The running time is not much shorter than either Dracula or Frankenstein, but the construction feels both padded and cut to the bone, having really only Lugosi's ferocity to recommend for viewers. The Edgar Allan Poe source story was mined again for Warner's Phantom of the Rue Morgue, American International's Spanish co-production The Murders in the Rue Morgue, and a 1986 TV movie starring George C. Scott as Dupin and directed by Jeannot Szwarc (Somewhere in Time).

After a series of lesser independent films for Poverty Row studios (as well as a memorable supporting role in Paramount's Island of Lost Souls), Lugosi was attracted along with Karloff back to Universal who had the idea of pairing their two horror stars in the first of five genre collaborations for the studio. The first of their collaborations was The Black Cat in which American honeymooning couple Peter (The Mystery of Edwin Drood's David Manners) and Joan Allison (Northern Pursuit's Jacqueline Wells) are on a train bound for Visegrád, Hungary when a mix-up with the booking finds them sharing a compartment with Dr. Vitus Werdegast (Lugosi) who is headed in the same direction to visit an "old friend." The trio share a bus along with his majordomo (Rebecca's Egon Brecher) but they get into a crash when the road crumbles away and the four seek shelter in the home of architect Hjalmar Poelzig (Karloff) who built his Bauhaus ultra-modern monstrosity atop the ruins of Fort Marmaris which he once commanded and where are entombed the bodies of ten thousand men killed during the first World War. With Joan sedated and Peter tucked in for the night, we learn that there is no friendship between Werdergast and Poelzig who betrayed the fort to the Russians leading to Werdergast's imprisonment for fifteen years during which Poelzig made off with his wife and daughter both named Karen (Blake of Scotland Yard's Lucille Lund). Poelzig reveals not only that Werdergast's wife and child are dead but also that he has preserved Karen's beauty through embalming. Werdergast means to kill Poelzig but he must bide his time, even if it means that the Satanist might make Joan the centerpiece of a midnight Black Mass.

Made just before the Hayes Production Code became more of a limiting factor in Hollywood films, The Black Cat is one of the studio's darkest works of the Golden Age thanks primarily to the direction of Edgar G. Ulmer (Detour), a German immigrant who had studied under theater director Max Reinhardt and worked as an uncredited set designer on a number of German expressionist films including Metropolis, M., and The Golem during the Weimar Republic when a combination of artistic experimentation and production budgets allowed for creative free reign. The Black Cat is an art-directed movie with every shot a striking compositional arrangement of performers, props, decoration as well as shadows creating geometric patterns slashing across the frame vertically or diagonally. Sometimes the film dispenses with characters altogether and explores the sets through moving camera carried along by Karloff's voice alone. The Black Mass is a wonderful set-piece that surely must have influenced later cinematic visualizations including one such sequence in Sergio Martino's All the Colors of the Dark. While the film follows Universal's practice of scoring with arrangements of classical music, The Black Cat extends the scoring beyond credits accompaniment to mood and thematic commentary. Rather than featuring two monsters, the film positions Lugosi atypically as a sympathetic character, hell-bent on violent retribution but concerned for the safety and survival of the honeymooners while Karloff conveys a modicum of sympathy in his own obsession with Werdergast's wife and what the loss of her has lead him with his occult interests. Wells is hamstrung by the script which allows her moments of mysteriousness early on but falls back upon a lot of screaming, while Manners on the other hand gets to be a more active hero than Dracula's Harker. While Ulmer had enough of a budget to realize the impressive sets, he proved equally adept at using the most minimalist elements of set design to convey atmosphere in his Poverty Row features and even lower budget films that came later. The film's concession to the Poe story is Werdergast's crippling fear of cats which on one occasion saves Poelzig's life. Lugosi would have a smaller guest role in Universal's later comic mystery version of The Black Cat (which bore more of a resemblance to The Cat and the Canary than even Ulmer's Poe adaptation).

After the theatrical success of The Black Cat, Universal was eager to put Lugosi and Karloff in another Poe venture with The Raven, but various production troubles including multiple rewrites of the script pushed the production back a year. In the film, retired surgeon Dr. Richard Vollin (Lugosi) is a Poe aficionado who has a valuable collection of his works and has even gone so far as to build devices of torture described in the stories and poems for display in the basement of his isolated mansion. He is contacted by Judge Thatcher (It's a Wonderful Life's Samuel S. Hinds) when his dancer daughter Jean (Orient Express's Irene Ware) is injured in a car accident and needs a life-saving operation. Vollin initially refuses until his ego is stroked by the desperation of Thatcher and Jean's surgeon fiancé Jerry Halden (The Son of Dr. Jekyll's Lester Matthews) that he is the only one capable of saving her. Jean dedicates a Poe-inspired dance to him, but she does not return his affection in spite of her fervent admiration for him. Thatcher becomes concerned about Vollin's interest in his daughter and tries to warn her and Jerry away from him. Thatcher's threats to Vollin to stay away from Jean coincide with the arrival of escaped murderer Edmond Bateman (Karloff) who appeals to Vollin to change his face so he will not be recognizable. Vollin offers to do so if Bateman will commit a murder for him. When Bateman refuses, Vollin still carries through with Bateman's request, doing so without plastic surgery by surgically manipulating the nerve endings in his face, disfiguring Bateman and refusing to fix him until he meets his demands. Vollin invites Jean and Jerry to a weekend house party with some other guests, including Thatcher who comes at his daughter's request. Thatcher remains suspicious of Vollin, and Jerry's and Jean's efforts to humor the older man result in them stumbling upon the true nature of Vollin's madness as he submits them to the horrors of his Poe-inspired high tech dungeon.

Having nothing to do with Poe's poem other than Lugosi's frequent quotation of it throughout, The Raven is in some ways a much more conventionally gothic but less compelling film than The Black Cat. Directed by serial specialist Lew Landers – whose only other horror films were the Poverty Row quickie The Mask of Dijon and his final feature Terrified for Crown International – the film is at its best in scenes between Lugosi and Karloff or those in which Lugosi's mad doctor dominates while the dull romantic leads are less interesting than Hinds' paternal character, the comic relief is stilted, and the climax is not so much horrific as reminiscent of an action serial. When Universal returned to horror in the fifties, they announced a remake of The Raven which may or may not have evolved into the Robert Louis Stevenson adaptation The Strange Door as conjectured by the commentators on Kino Lorber's Blu-ray of that title.

Video

Released theatrically by Universal and reissued a handful of times after that by ReelArt, The Black Cat and The Raven first arrived on home video as an MCA double feature VHS and then an Encore Edition double feature laserdisc with in the mid-eighties and then both as individual sell-through Universal VHS editions in the nineties. The same goes for Murders in the Rue Morgue which was issued on an Encore Edition laserdisc double feature with Island of Lost Souls. The three films first appeare don DVD as part of the Bela Lugosi Collection in 2005 pairing the films with The Invisible Ray and Black Friday while the 2018 Boris Karloff & Bela Lugosi 4-Movie Horror Collection understandably dropped Murders in the Rue Morgue. On Shout! Factory's Scream Factory Universal Horror Collection Volume 1, The Black Cat was the only title in the set not to have received a new 2K scan because an HD master already existed, and that master has also been used by Eureka for their 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.33:1 pillarboxed fullscreen. The image sports some instances of speckling but looks cleaner and crisper than the DVD transfer, so much so that the stock footage no longer seamlessly blends with the original footage when it comes to the opening montage. The heightened resolution reveals rock steady focus during the tracking shots while the bottomless blacks are no longer just shadows but major sections of some of the set backdrops like the room used for the Black Mass. The Raven's 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.33:1 pillarboxed fullscreen transfer came from a newer 2K scan and benefits from the HD resolution in lending the more blandly-lensed film a greater sense of texture and depth to the blacks of the set design and the less frequent shadows and gobos aiding the atmosphere. The Universal logo is preceded by a production code approval card. Murders in the Rue Morgue first appeared on Blu-ray in France from Elephant Films followed by the Scream Factory. The same master has been used for Eureka's 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.33:1 pillarboxed fullscreen transfer and apart from some light wear and infrequent marks, it is quite beautiful-looking, revealing not only the texture of the sets but lines in Lugosi's face behind the foundation make-up and folds and wrinkles in the mens' white shirts that were all but obliterated on DVD with only some highlights perhaps have lost detail in however many iterations this film material is away from the original negative.

Audio

The LPCM 2.0 mono tracks are almost as "noiseless" as the advertised Westrex recording during silences while the dialogue remains clear and the scoring is free of distortion. It should be noted that there are two audio tracks for Murders in the Rue Morgue, the original which only featured the use of "Swan Lake" during the credits, and a later track created by Universal that added music cues in places not intended. It was this track that made the French Blu-ray less desirable despite it being the earliest edition and region free. Eureka includes both tracks in LPCM 2.0 mono. Fans may not like the track, but it is nice to include the option. Exclusive to The Raven is an isolated music & effects track in LPCM 2.0 mono. Optional English HoH subtitles are provided for all three films.

Extras

For Murders in the Rue Morge, Eureka has ported over the audio commentary by author/film historian Gregory William Mank who gleefully describes the film as "unbridled Bela Lugosi in a Pre-Code horror" and quotes one of the reviews of the time that called it "sex up to the limit." He discusses the context of Florey shooting the Lugosi test footage for Frankenstein and being ousted when the studio courted James Whale who had his pick of the current productions, and Lugosi being quoted as claiming he rejected the role because he had no dialogue and his desire to outdo Karloff's monster with his role here. In discussing the Pre-Code elements, he notes the censors reactions to gyrations of the carnival's dancing girls and what would have to be removed for reissues once the Hayes Code was in place, how the later added inserts of a real ape hindered the believability of the ape suit worn by Charles Gemora – who had donned the gorilla suit for Island of Lost Souls, Africa Screams, Road to Zanzibar, At the Circus, and Phantom of the Rue Morgue among others – and cuts to the film before release (the second track by Gary D. Rhodes has not been ported over). Exclusive to this release is an interview with critic Kim Newman (28:49) covering all three of the films in which he provides context with the silent Poe adaptation antecedents, including Jean Epstein's experimental adaptation of The Fall of the House of Usher, and the challenges of adapting Poe; indeed, Newman points out that Florey's film is more of a remake of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari than an adaptation of Poe's locked room mystery with a side of Svengali. Of The Black Cat and The Raven, he notes the crediting of Karloff over Lugosi and that the former finds them on even ground while in the latter Lugosi "dominates" Karloff not only as characters but as actors with Karloff in a role more suited to Dwight Frye (Dracula's Renfield). He discusses the influence of Aleister Crowley in Karloff's characterization and suggests that Kiss of the Vampire is a virtual remake of the Ulmer film. Of The Raven, Newman states that the film "talks a bigger talk" than it delivers, with many a victim menaced but more on the level of director Landers' serials with only two actual deaths (those of the villains), and suggests that Lugosi's intense and "straight" performance hinders the film that could have used a strain of humor. The disc also ports from the Scream Factory disc of The Raven the "Bela Lugosi Reads The Tell-Tale Heart” audio recording (13:21) and the film's theatrical trailer (1:35), and also includes a still gallery.

For The Black Cat, Eureka ports over the Scream Factory Blu-ray audio commentary by author/film historian Gregory William Mank who provides a linear history of the production from conception to reception, providing details on the fifteen day shoot (at a quarter of the budget of Dracula and a third of that of Frankenstein), Lund's horrific experience on the set, identifies the source of the opening stock footage in the Conrad Veidt film Rome Express, and the various classical cues rearranged by music director Heinz Roemheld, Ulmer's contributions to the sets and costumes – the surname of Karloff's character is a reference to Hans Poelzig, production designer of The Golem – as well as the contributions of others like cameraman John J. Mescall (Not of this Earth) and uncredited make-up artist Jack Pierce (The Brain from Planet Arous). Most interesting are his descriptions of the screenplay including scenes shot but cut to introduce Lugosi and Karloff as early as possible, vivid descriptions that sometimes differ from what is onscreen – as well as Joan's character as "hypervirginal" – as well as producer-mandated reshoots to the film the cast Lugosi's character in a more positive light as he had originally wished (Eureka has not ported over the second commentary by Steve Haberman but early press releases for the Eureka set mentioned a second commentary by Amy Simmons which is not present here). New to this release is "Cats in Horror" (12:47), video essay by film historian Lee Gambin which seems like it would be more suited to a release of The Uncanny since is contrasts the cats of that film which avenge their masters – contradicting the assertion of the film's protagonist who relates the tales that cats are the devil incarnate – with other films about killer cats like Uninvited and Strays as well as films like the Stephen King adaptations Pet Sematary (and the remake) and Cat's Eye, as well as the made-for-TV The Cat Creature in which cats are symbolic of the dangers of dabbling with the unknown. Also exclusive to the Eureka release is the 1947 "Mystery in the Air" radio adaptation (26:02) with Peter Lorre, "The Black Cat Contest" (0:49) vintage footage also included on the Scream Factory disc, and a still gallery.

For The Raven, Eureka ports over the audio commentary by author/film historian Gary D. Rhodes from the Scream Factory disc which posits itself as a continuation of the Mank track from The Black Cat, once again having more of a linear structure starting with the origins of the film as an intended combined adaptation of "The Raven" and "The Gold Bug" and a script that went through multiple drafts and writers – including Guy Endore who was adapting his novel "The Werewolf of Paris" for the screen (it would not be filmed until 1961 by Hammer as The Curse of the Werewolf) – and the studio's intention to mount it as an A-class production with a star cast and Kurt Neumann (The Fly) in the director's chair. Once the final script by David Boehm (Golddiggers of 1933) was approved, production was further delayed by the Hayes Code office's concerns. The Haberman track has not been ported over but Eureka has included a new audio commentary by film historian Samm Deighan who notes its position in the final phase of early Universal horror, and that it out of all of their Pre-Code works was the one to upset the censors – leading to a virtual ban of horror in Britain – that sent the studio in different directions until the next decade, contrasts the challenge of "grappling with adaptation" of Poe's works by the Universal writers and later by Roger Corman with his sixties Vincent Price cycle, and discusses the metafictional conceit of Lugosi's mad doctor as a Poe fanatic. Deighan's "Daughters of Darkness" podcast partner Kat Ellinger contributes to the disc in the video eessay "American Gothic" (14:59) in which she contrasts British and American Gothic, noting that Poe did tend to mine the European model for his stories, as well as his spin on the genres themes. The disc also includes the "Inner Sanctum" radio adaptation of “The Tell-Tale Heart” (26:42) starring Karloff – previously included on the Scream Factory Blu-ray of Black Friday – and a still gallery.

Packaging

Included in the limited edition package is 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. In "Béla Lugosi and the Masque of the Mad Doctor", Alexandra Heller-Nicholas compares Lugosi's mad doctor roles not only in the three films – Lugosi's doc is driven to madness in The Black Cat – but also his other roles and how they embody the period's concerns about medical science and how those with knowledge of it can be corrupted or misuse it, while in "Full of Fiendish and Diabolical Doings: Making and Censoring The Black Cat (1934) and The Raven (1935)", Jon Towlson discusses the rise of the B-feature in major studios and the birth of "Poverty Row" studios, and how the two Karloff/Lugosi-starrers came about as B-features, as well as the issues they encountered with the Hays Office at the scripting and rough cut stage, and the reception of the Canadian and British censors. Of most value is "Re-arranging Murders in the Rue Morgue" which includes excerpts from Mank's writing on the film's post-production, the entirety of Tim Lucas' Video Watchdog article positing the original structure of the film, and Gary L. Prange's written response – in which he discusses his attempt to reconstruct the original sequence of scenes based on Lucas' article and adds his own findings – and liner notes Prange wrote for his reconstruction when it was screened at WonderFest. The booklet also includes credits for all three films, viewing notes, and Blu-ray credits.

Overall

Eureka's Blu-ray set of Three Edgar Allan Poe Adaptations Starring Bela Lugosi gives audiences editorial context to the lesser-seen Murders in the Rue Morgue and the much-maligned The Raven couching the masterwork that is The Black Cat.

 


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