This limited edition Blu-Ray set includes three Universal movies that came out in the aftermath of Dracula and Frankenstein, which of course starred Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff. After their initial few films, Poe was Universal’s first stop for horror film material—although these days the Poe movies are often left out of lists of Universal horror classics, with the ‘Universal monsters’ dominating the conversation.
None of these films have much to do with the Edgar Allan Poe stories they are based on, which is common with Poe-based films. His stories were usually quite short, so you have to take what’s there and expand on it. The first film, Murders in the Rue Morgue, is very loosely based on the story of the same name, which is often billed as the first modern detective story in fiction (it predates Sherlock Holmes by 40 years). However, the whole detective aspect doesn’t show up much here, although there are murders of two women.
The film was basically a consolation prize for Robert Florey and Lugosi. They were supposed to be the star and director of Frankenstein, and after that was a smash hit they got extra money for this project. It’s easily the worst film in the set, but the sets look great, and there’s a clear influence of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. The script is pretty hokey. It was constantly rewritten—even John Huston rewrote some of it. Huston who was a staff writer at Universal at the time, wanted to put more of his own dialogue in. Lugosi plays a mad scientist guy who runs a sideshow that features Erik the Ape (played half of the time by an actual ape, half the time by a man in an ape suit). He abducts women and injects them with ape blood. The climax is pretty damn goofy.
The Black Cat is the most interesting film in the set, and probably the best. It was a big deal, because it was the first film to feature both Lugosi and Karloff. They weren’t friends but the rivalry was overblown in the press, starting with Lugosi’s resentment over Karloff getting Frankenstein. It’s basically the same set-up as The Rocky Horror Picture Show: Honeymooners seeks shelter from the rain (and in this case medical help) after a accident and stumble upon a gothic castle owned by a crazy person. Lugosi plays a surgeon, and Karloff plays the Aleister Crowley-type character. The plot is convoluted and doesn’t really make any logical sense. It doesn’t matter, it’s so fucking bizarre. It’s a pre-Code movie, so it has drugs, necrophilia, a game of chess that becomes deadly, someone being skinned alive, human sacrifice, and ailurophobia (cat phobia): all the things you want in a film.
It’s directed by Edgar G. Ulmer, who also directed Detour. At this point Ulmer was still a studio director. This one was so out there that he ended up doing Yiddish films and then landed on Hollywood’s ‘poverty row,’ where the low-budget stuff was made. Ulmer always claimed that he had worked on all these great German expressionist movies, but that’s highly disputed.
The other thing that’s interesting about The Black Cat is that Lugosi and Karloff had relatively even billing and their parts were more or less just as important. In later films, Lugosi always got the short end of the stick when working with Karloff, or in competition with him.
The Raven is inspired by Poe’s poem, with Lugosi playing an Edgar Allan Poe-obsessed doctor. It was the last horror movie to be allowed a UK release for a few years, as the UK instituted an outright ban for a few years afterwards. That’s ironic, because The Black Cat is a much more disturbing movie. It’s also one of several films based on Poe’s work in which Poe appears as a character in his own story, including a couple of D.W. Griffith silents. Poe’s life was very interesting, so there was a lot of stuff there to draw on.
Lugosi’s character is called to help save a woman who has been injured in a car accident. We find out that he has all these torture devices inspired by Edgar Allan Poe, including a pit with a pendulum. The doctor becomes infatuated with his patient, and would do anything to get her to be with him. He cooks up a plan to kidnap her, and wants to kill her fiancée and her father in his dungeon. Interestingly, Karloff plays a disfigured convict who ends up being Bela’s servant, the reverse of their typical collaborations. The convict came to see the doctor to get a new face, but ends up being more of a disfigured monster instead.
All of these films are around one hour long, though sometimes you wish there had been an extra 15 minutes to flesh to story out a little more. Frankenstein and Dracula benefitted from their slightly longer lengths. But if you like these movies—and there’s no reason you shouldn’t—it’s a very nice set, with high-definition versions of all three films, and loads of extras added. It includes 48-page booklet with archival images and ephemera plus writing from critic Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, audio commentaries for all three films (plus an extra one for The Raven), a video essay called Cats in Horror by film historian Lee Gambin, another video essay by critic Kat Ellinger called American Gothic, an interview about the Universal Poe films with Kim Newman, and vintage footage. Also on the discs are an episode of radio series Mystery In the Air based on “The Black Cat,” an Inner Sanctum radio show episode starring Karloff and based on “The Tell-Tale Heart,” and Lugosi reading that same Poe story.