For one of the most prolific and influential horror writers of all time, Edgar Allan Poe has made relatively little impact on Hollywood. Even among the surge of B-Movie adaptations by Roger Corman, the only adaptation that has proved especially durable is The Masque Of The Red Death. However, in the 1930s, after the success of Dracula and Frankenstein, Universal selected Poe as the next viable horror property to adapt, and released a trilogy of films starring Bela Lugosi, presented here as part of Eureka’s Masters Of Cinema series.
These films were made prior to the Hays Production Code, which means the directors had much more leeway to be nasty in their depictions of violence. If nothing else, the films retain their ability to shock, with some memorably nightmarish moments in each of them.
The Murders in the Rue Morgue (★★★☆☆) is the most faithful to its source material, but is complicated by the addition of an evil madman and the removal of the central mystery. It also reposition’s Dupin (arguably the first ever literary detective) as a misjudged romantic lead, making him a lot less interesting than Lugosi’s sinister Dr Mirakle. Lugosi himself is intensely creepy as the villain, clearly based in part on the eponymous character of The Cabinet Of Dr Caligari – only this time sending a psychotic orangutan to do his bidding.
It’s an interesting film, with beautiful foggy cinematography, and some genuinely creepy moments, including the chilling image of one victim unceremoniously stuffed up a chimney. This, combined with the climactic rooftop chase and Lugosi’s performance make it worth a watch, despite some very ropey monster effects.
The Raven (★★☆☆☆) is the worst film in the trilogy; a muddled film that has nothing to do with Poe’s poem, instead following a mad surgeon who is obsessed with the author, who constructs a deathtrap in his cellar based on Poe’s work. Decried as tasteless and lurid at the time, it’s – perhaps unsurprisingly – tame by today’s standards, and the story just feels a little bland and aimless.
Lugosi hams it up, and is outshone by Boris Karloff in an oddly poignant role – as a fugitive who gets horrifically disfigured by Lugosi in order to ensure his loyalty. It’s not a terrible film, but very forgettable, and shows how the cracks were beginning to show in Lugosi’s relationship with the studio.
The jewel in the crown of this boxset is The Black Cat (★★★★☆). Featuring excellent direction from Edgar G Ulmer and stylish set design, it has a unique personality and macabre sense of humour which are largely absent from the other films.
The story – of two maniacal doctors locked in a fatal game of chess, playing for the lives of an unfortunate young couple – bears no resemblance to the source material, but this hardly matters when both Lugosi and Karloff are this good. Karloff gets top billing here, showing Lugosi’s waning influence with the studio. This is sadly the only film where the two actors are on close to equal footing, and the way they bounce off each other is a pleasure to watch. Karloff is wonderfully sinister – Ulmer emphasises his creepy, heavy lidded eyes to spellbinding effect, but it’s Lugosi who dominates the film. Despite being driven by obsessive revenge his character is full of pathos, and he plausibly flips between tragedy and insanity.
A much more cinematic and satisfying change of pace from the other films in the collection, The Black Cat recalls other classic horrors like the films of James Whale and The Most Dangerous Game, especially the vault of ‘trophies’ Karloff keeps in his dungeon. It has beautifully gothic cinematography, heavily influenced by German Expressionism, and several disturbing moments, most notably the vividly nasty scene where one character is flayed alive.
Overall, this is boxset is a treat for fans of Gothic Horror, but only The Black Cat stands up as a true classic of the genre. The others are entertaining enough, but more interesting is the context of when they were made, documenting the decline of Lugosi, the rise of Karloff, and the myriad pitfalls of adapting Poe’s work.
While the films themselves are a mixed bag, the special features are something else entirely. Kim Newman‘s evaluation of the films is entertaining and informative, as is the booklet included with the Blu-ray, which make excellent introductions to the films. The boxset also features various commentaries, two video essays, audio versions of Poe’s stories, and a reading of The Telltale Heart by Lugosi himself.