❉ A three-part review of classic Edgar Allan Poe adaptations starring Bela Lugosi, out now on Blu-ray.
“It’s always nice to see clean HD transfers of these sorts of films because the fogbound, black and white cinematography by no less than Karl Freund (Metropolis, Dracula) is absolutely stunning”
A visit to the deliriously eye-browed Dr Mirakle (Bela Lugosi, naturally) at his carnival side show where he lectures on the evolution of man (still a controversial subject in 1932) and displays his pet gorilla Erik plunges a pair of star-crossed lovers into a Poe-inspired nightmare world of wacky blood experiments and monkey sex in this glossy, above-average-going-on-spectacular-at-times Carl Laemmle Jr produced Universal programmer.
Lugosi, of course, hams it up wonderfully, bringing the entire pig farm to the proceedings. However, he does still squeeze in a few moments of startlingly good acting; when the first on-screen victim of his experiments dies (no doubt due to him carrying out his experiments in a BDSM dungeon, and the fact that he’s just attempted to transfuse ape blood into her veins), he looks genuinely horrified, yet, as the camera pulls out to reveal the full extent of the magnificent set in which he performs his atrocities, he looks down into the gaping trapdoor into which he and his assistant have callously dropped the body and asks, “Vill my zearch ever end?” which makes you wonder, is he really devastated by the death of this innocent woman he’s horrifically mistreated, or because another one of his “experiments” has proven fruitless? In the very next scene, during the recovery of the body, we learn she’s the third one in a week.
As is to be expected with this sort of thing, the boring romantic leads are the least interesting aspect of the whole thing. It doesn’t matter anyway, since we’re only really here for Lugosi and a bloke in a gorilla outfit (bafflingly replaced by a chimpanzee in close-ups) but it’s an awful shame that Poe’s detective hero C. August Dupin is nowhere to be found. True, the medical student hero is named Pierre Dupin (Leon Ames, credited as Leon Waycoff), and he is an amateur sleuth, but he’s by no means Poe’s creation (a major inspiration behind Sherlock Holmes to the point where Dupin and Holmes often pulled the same parlour trick; seeming to read their biographer/sidekick’s minds and then proceed to explain the deductive reasoning behind it). To those who are avid readers of gothic literature, this is like having the hero of The Hound of the Baskervilles be some random bloke named Barry Holmes or Sherlock Bungalow.
He also has the usual, food-obsessed comedy sidekick named Paul (Bert Roach) who naturally is the worst thing about the whole enterprise, and if he, too, is a medical student, he must be a very mature one, though judging by the graffiti on the wall of his room, he’s more likely a starving artist. Top-billed Sidney Fox as Mademoiselle Camille L’Espanaye has little to do by lie around as this “Dupin” geezer whispers sweet nothings about May Day in her ear, get her bonnet stolen by a primate and, of course, scream. Oh, and if you’re wondering if she ends up unconscious whilst being carried around by said simian at the film’s climax, then you clearly don’t know that it’s in the nature of these sorts of films to oblige you with said scenario. I make fun, or course, but the rooftop dénouement is superbly staged with extremely impressive matte and process work.
Actually, what with Lugosi making such a marvellous villain, the real heroes to match him are the production design and photography. It’s always nice to see clean HD transfers of these sorts of films because the fogbound, black and white cinematography by no less than Karl Freund (the man who shot goddamn Metropolis as well as Lugosi’s most famous film Dracula) is absolutely stunning, and the weird twisted version of Paris (by an uncredited Herman Rosse) looks like a naturalistic variant on the town from The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920); Mirakle’s obligatory lurky assistant even resembles Caligari’s Somnambulist. During the balcony-set scene in which our two star cross lovers bask upon a chaise longue you’ll find yourself paying more attention to the marvellous cityscape behind them than listening to their corny romantic schmaltz.
Director Robert Florey conjures up a marvellous sense of atmosphere reminiscent of the weird, nightmarish German expressionist silents from which the film took obvious inspiration. He even manages to enliven the romantic scenes (there’s a shot of Camille on a swing during which the camera assumes the same pendulous motion that’s worthy of Dario Argento at his finest), and even elicits a chilling moment from Pierre as his silent expression of delight at matching a blood sample from a murder victim to the corpuscles of a gorilla gives way to a look of horror as the implication of what this means dawns on him.
This isn’t to say there aren’t missteps, the most egregious of which being the scenes just after Camille’s kidnapping and her mother’s murder (during which the gorilla does God knows what to her, but we know from the sounds and the faces of those listening from the stairwell it ain’t pretty), where we have to sit through some overlong, police-interviewing-unfunny-comedy-witnesses shtick at a time when the narrative should be going full steam ahead. Instead, it’s all daft accents. This contributes nothing, where a master like, say, Fritz Lang always used the authorities-grill-eccentric-weirdoes ploy as both misanthropic world building and to deliver exposition, and with better narrative placement to boot.
Here, it seems to an attempt to pay lip service to the short story, where no one can accurately describe the culprit, but since we already know it were a gorilla wot dun it, one can only conclude all this dithering is there to pad the run time, which is unforgivable since the film’s only an hour long. It doesn’t even build tension, because all Pierre has to do is tell the police the instant they enter the room where the missing girl very likely is, since he’s already tracked Mirakle down to his Paris headquarters. At least it pays off with the obligatory mum-up-the-chimney reveal.
Yet, overall, the film holds interest because it’s actually quite perverse, with pre-code Hollywood tropes in full effect. We’re not even sure if Mirakle has obsessive designs upon Camille for himself, or, as is strongly implied by him explicitly stating monkeyboy Erik’s attraction to her at the carnival and his insistence that he has a “message” from Erik when attempting to force his way into her home, that he wants her for something far, far worse. It’s no Dwain Esper movie, but it’s sure weird in that Freudian psychosexual way you’d expect from an era before the censors held any real power but decorum forced film makers to plant unsettling concepts in viewer’s minds through implication, and it’s one of those films that, long after it’s over, gets better and better the more it haunts your mind.
The Eureka release under consideration is part of a limited edition Blu-ray set of just 2000 copies, so get it while it’s hot. Also included are The Black Cat (1934) and The Raven (1935) both of which also feature Boris Karloff. The impressive collection includes High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentations for all three films, with The Raven presented from a 2K scan of the original film elements. Extras include a host of audio commentaries, Radio series episodes & vintage footage, along with a 48 page collectors booklet featuring new writing by film critic & writer Jon Towlson & Alexandra Heller-Nicholas.
SPECIAL TWO-DISC BLU-RAY CONTENTS:
❉ 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 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 regular contributor to We Are Cult, Jonathan Sisson studied Moving Image at the University of Central Lancashire and produced several short films. After that, he became an actor and has appeared in several film and television productions. Visit his website.