It's an awkward one. You couldn't call this a top-drawer Universal horror, but it would be equally wrong to call it mediocre. It did poorly at the box office and it's obviously not as iconic as something like Whale's Frankenstein or Browning's Dracula, but it's still a pre-Code horror film with great cinematography and Bela Lugosi at full blast.
Universal did their best to wreck it, mind you. Robert Florey had been going to direct Frankenstein and did a fair bit of work on it, but then got replaced by James Whale and was given this instead. Unfortunately just as it entered pre-production, Carl Laemmle decided that Dracula's success was a fluke, Frankenstein was going to flop and that they'd made a mistake in going into the horror business in the first place. Firstly he cut Florey's budget by a third. Secondly he demanded rewrites to make it a contemporary film, at which Florey resigned and refused to come back until he'd been allowed his 19th century setting. Thirdly he overruled his director's choice of lead actress, regarding Bette Davis as "lacking any real screen presence" and insisting on Sidney Fox instead. Who?
That wasn't the half of it, though. Florey disliked the script as full of overblown speeches and was personally working on rewrites throughout filming. The producer (Laemmle Jr) disliked the rough cut and reordered all the scenes in the film's first act. Finally came the mixed blessing of Frankenstein going ballistic at the box office in November, which caused Carl Laemmle to start throwing money at the project he'd earlier been undermining. This meant reshoots. The silliest aspect of these was that Laemmle hired a real chimpanzee for the orang-utan's scenes, despite the fact that this would clash with all the existing footage of a man in a gorilla costume. The critics at the time had particular fun with that last one.
It's a miracle that the film's watchable. Apart from anything else, it's only three-quarters the length of Florey's earlier 80-minute cut.
However all that said, the film's no throwaway. It's got star power, despite its flaws, and it certainly doesn't feel like filler. It has good pace and energy, loads of personality and most importantly Bela Lugosi. The man's a star. He can make any line of dialogue at all seem sinister, while there's something particularly evil about that lemon-sucking grin of his. He's chewing the scenery with as much Hungarian flair as ever. Blessed by the make-up department with a fright wig and a caterpillar-like monobrow, he's playing a sort of Frankenstein figure, except that his schemes for creating new life don't involve grave-robbing but instead a disturbing take on evolution. This is theoretically anachronistic since the film's set in 1845, fourteen years before Darwin, but somehow I don't think Darwin would have taken kindly to having his theories associated with Lugosi's Dr Mirakle. "My life is consecrated to a great experiment. I tell you, I will prove your kinship with the ape! Erik's blood shall be mixed with the blood of man!"
The question now becomes whether even a pre-Code movie would take us where Lugosi's implying. The answer is "not explicitly". The movie invites us to believe that he's only doing blood transfusions, but it seems improbable that his ambitions ended there. If that's all he planned to insert into his victims, why were they all female and beautiful? Besides, in a film so clearly deliberate in its symbolism (much of it religious), it seems more reasonable to read significance into things like a prostitute's blood being "rotten, black as your sins" while our virginal heroine's in contrast is "perfect". The ape is so attracted to Fox that it's jealous of her beau, Leon Ames. Finally and most dubiously, there's the fact that the motion in the murder scene looks an awful lot to a modern audience like rutting.
This is rich subtext, although never more than that. Even pre-1934, there were certain things Hollywood didn't put in a movie.
Then there's the religious context. Visually it's inescapable, with the film positively getting drunk on the iconography, e.g. twenty-foot crucifixes as people assume the prayer position. However there's also a theme of the conflict between faith and modern reason, the latter being embodied in both Lugosi's mad scientist and our crime-solving pathologist hero. In support of the latter, this is after all an adaptation of an Edgar Allen Poe tale that's often called the first detective story. It's not, but it's the most famous claimant to the title and a clear forerunner of the likes of Sherlock Holmes. I'm fascinated by the thinking that led to this adaptation. Note that those most closely identified with religion here are those who get attacked by Lugosi, either physically as his victims or verbally through assault on their belief systems. The anachronistic lecture on evolution is explicitly staged as an attack on the religious sensibilities of his audience, who call it "heresy".
It wasn't only startling to fictional Frenchmen, either. That was one of the many scenes to fall under the Hays Office when the film got reissued a few years later. 1932 was after all only seven years after the Scopes Monkey Trial, with that high school biology teacher in Tennessee getting prosecuted for teaching evolution.
All this attains its greatest intensity in Lugosi's scene with the prostitute tied to the cross. It's bad enough in silhouette, but then the camera moves back and... oh my God. I went through three or four different theories to how that poor girl died, including crucifixion. It's not really gory, especially in black and white, but it gets your imagination working to be trying to decide if Lugosi was merely using a scalpel there or else something worse. The most jaw-dropping thing though is how far they've taken the religious symbolism. It's as if Bela Lugosi kills both Jesus and the Virgin Mary in a single feverish sequence.
You might have guessed by now that the visuals are pretty good too. The cinematographer, Karl Freund, was the one man whose reputation was enhanced here, getting promoted next by Universal to direct Karloff in The Mummy (1932). As far as I can tell, everyone seems to like the look of this film. It never tips over the edge into Tim Burton Land, but it's borrowing from German Expressionism to create a stylised Paris that's full of angles, character and symbolism. Sometimes it feels like a scratchy Victorian illustration, or perhaps an etching. It even manages to have some French flavour, which is nice too.
So with all this good stuff in the film, what's my problem with it? Well, for a start, the story. It's the least unfaithful of Universal's little run of alleged Edgar Allen Poe adaptations around then, but in plot terms it's also the least coherent of them. The ending in particular doesn't work, looking today like nothing so much as a primitive precursor to the following year's King Kong. (I wonder if it was, albeit negatively, an influence? After all, they were both by Universal.) That said I'd have probably adored this ending if we'd been given a chance to get to know the poor ape, but as it was it just felt to me like men hunting down an animal and killing it. Personally I don't even think it's dead! Try telling me there's even a 50% chance in a movie of that fall being fatal. Do we see the body? I think not.
Oh, and a fairer (and surprisingly close) comparison for that rooftop chase scene would perhaps be The Cabinet of Dr Caligari.
Another dodgy thing is the hero's Fat Comedy Friend. He's only annoying in the dinner scene and even there only mildly so, but if there's one thing a film like this doesn't need, it's a Fat Comedy Friend. None of the actors playing the good guys makes a huge impact, sad to say, but there are quite a few delicious turns of ham in semi-cameo roles. The cadaverous morgue guy has a wonderful face, while I'm not ashamed to say that the three squabbling national stereotypes made me laugh. Oh, and I was astonished to learn that Noble Johnson was playing Lugosi's not-a-hunchback lab assistant, since it had never occurred to me that the actor might be black as instead they've made him up to look simian. He'd have made an awesome Mr Hyde.
Overall, this is one of those films that's awesome if you can get into the swing of it, but on analysis proves to be less than the sum of its parts. What's great about it is Bela Lugosi, more Bela Lugosi and the insane, feverish themes and symbolism that should have been schlocky except that the production team are all convinced that they're making a proper movie. The visuals are downright classy. Oh, and did I mention Bela Lugosi? If nothing else, everyone should watch this movie to learn the Bela Lugosi chat-up technique.
Storywise though, it's something different every time you turn around. It's the messiest of Universal's three (ahem) Edgar Allen Poe adaptations around this time. It's an intellectual companion piece for The Island of Dr Moreau. It's a carnival movie that you'd love them to have given to Tod Browning. It's Lugosi playing Baron Frankenstein. It's a French historical, with soldiers in Napoleon hats and the kind of ghouls you imagine around the guillotine. It's dealing in Darwinism. It's also not coherent enough to really be doing anything with its themes or its story, while even its best friends couldn't accuse it of living up to its detective antecedents. Oh, and the mismatched ape footage is silly.
Me though, I liked it a lot and I'd happily watch it again. There's one reason for this, really. You know his name.