I'm gobsmacked. I bought this almost at random and it blew me out of the water.
It's the first of Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi's eight films together, claiming to be based on an Edgar Allen Poe story but in fact the original work of its writer-director Edgar G. Ulmer. It feels Poe-ish, mind you. It's also not to be confused with the 1941 film of the same name starring Basil Rathbone and, curiously, also Bela Lugosi.
Quite a few things are special about it. Firstly, its stars. They're the reason I bought it in the first place and I'll be talking about them at some length later. However the film they're in is imaginative and extreme enough to be genuinely shocking even today. I can hardly imagine a better Poe adaptation, despite the fact that the only thing it borrows from him is its title. It's clearly written by a director, but somehow its atmosphere is so powerful that this becomes a strength. Nothing's properly foreshadowed. Like an E.C. horror comic, it'll throw in all kinds of macabre details and plot twists simply because they're cool. This should have been rubbish, yet in fact it makes it brilliant. It makes the film seem almost dreamlike, a nightmare world in which anything can happen and the usual laws of storytelling don't quite apply.
This came out in the year they introduced the Hays Code, but I can't believe that the censors ever got a chance to go over it. I've since been informed that I'm right and that this was indeed one of the last pre-Code films. Admittedly the number of things that are kept offscreen makes this clearly the 1930s rather than in-your-face George Romero or something, but even so there were at least two scenes which shocked me. I don't mean cheap jump scares, gore shots or anything like that, but plot developments that are simply evil. Ulmer, you're a sick man.
Bela Lugosi is playing a vengeance-crazed doctor who was captured by the Russians after World War One and put in a labour camp for fifteen years. He says they killed his soul. As a result, he now lives only for the torture, degradation and death of Boris Karloff, the man he blames for his imprisonment. Oh, and did I mention that Lugosi's the good guy? Well, sort of. The film likes to keep you wondering about that one. At one point he makes an appalling bet with Karloff and then doesn't welch on it. One of the most chilling moments in the film for me was seeing those two calmly walk downstairs together after one of those aforementioned evil plot developments. Brrrr.
Near the climax of the film, Lugosi ties up Karloff and threatens to skin him alive. Fair enough, I thought. Extreme, but it's not as if he's... BLOODY HELL, HE'S REALLY DOING IT! We never get a clear look, but even in silhouette that's taking things a good deal further than you'd expect in 1934. What's more, that's not even the real climax. There's a further development after that, just in case things weren't already intense enough.
At another point Karloff takes a tour of his beautiful dead women hanging in glass cases. I hope you're starting to see what I mean about "dreamlike".
So we have all kinds of lurid horror ingredients, thrown together by someone who doesn't have much grasp of how to tell a story. This is a short film, barely more than an hour, but it doesn't feel like it. When the credits finally roll, you'll have seen enough plot for a movie twice that length. What's more, as well as its two superstars you've also got some remarkable direction. Ulmer had worked with German Expressionists like Fritz Lang back when he was part of the German-Austrian film scene and he's trying all kinds of imaginative things here. For instance there's a background score almost throughout, in an era when music normally played only for the titles and credits. Some of the set design reminded me of Metropolis. Ulmer works miracles with this goofy script, realising it as something surreal and eerie.
However his secret weapon is his cast. Karloff and Lugosi both have their limitations, but this film makes them look like gods. Crucially there's nothing naturalistic about it. This feverish script demands larger-than-life theatrical performances and if that's what you're looking for, you'll hardly find a better pairing in all of cinema history.
Lugosi is delicious. He can be sinister just by walking into a room. The film opens with two newlyweds in a train compartment, but then the guard brings in Lugosi and his Dracula accent and you're already convinced you wouldn't want to be in their shoes. He's friendly with them, but even here he's simmeringly intense underneath. Technically he's not the best actor, with occasionally odd line deliveries, but he's got so much screen presence that it doesn't matter.
Even more interesting is Karloff. It's a laugh to see how he's introduced, getting out of bed in a manner clearly meant to remind us of Frankenstein's monster. It works, too. Karloff's first five minutes in the film are basically the Monster but with more urbane dialogue, sometimes grunted out in near-monosyllables and yet at other times unfurled so smoothly that it's startling. However even leaving aside this hat-tipping, what he gives is still a fascinating performance. Karloff has one great gift, in which regard the only actor I've noticed coming close to him is Laurence Olivier. He talks through his physicality. He completely transforms himself, in this case becoming at once the perfect host and one of the ghastliest monsters in cinema. I love the smile he uses here. He makes every line he says seem heavy with importance, although it must be said that he's been given some gems.
- "Are we not both the living dead?"
- "We will play a little game, Vitus, a game of death."
- "You hear that, Vitus? The phone is dead. Even the phone is dead."
This is an actor with the stage in his bones, but wow, am I glad he got the chance to put work like this in films as well. I was astonished to see that he's shorter than Lugosi, though.
You might remember that I mentioned some newlyweds. They're played by Julie Bishop (aka. Jacqueline Wells) and David Manners, also seen in Dracula and The Mummy. He didn't have a long career, but he certainly got into some landmark movies. I thought I also remembered him from Frankenstein meets the Wolf Man, but I was confusing him with Patric Knowles. What's interesting about the newlyweds is that they're the kind of innocent hero figures who'd be rubbish in a Hammer movie, yet they manage to seem important even opposite Karloff and Lugosi. The bride in particular gets a surreal scene in which one of Lugosi's narcotics seems to give her psychic powers. The film does nothing with this and shortly afterwards forgets about it, but it still gives Julie Bishop a chance to overturn her character's personality for a minute or two and steal a scene from the big boys.
The movie has a lot of sexuality. Karloff's character in particular seems driven by it. There's a scene where Lugosi comes in on Julie Bishop in her nightclothes and she doesn't think twice about it, but after Karloff's come in and given her his special look, she's pulling her gown closed. He's a sick man. However on the other hand there's also the sexuality of two newlyweds on their honeymoon. They're surprisingly chaste, all things considered, but it's definitely there even if it's only in a couple of scenes.
This a film you'd want either to watch twice or rewind a lot. I quite often missed things, since Ulmer's storytelling isn't always clear. There's a bit where Lugosi throws something at a cat and makes it yowl, but later there's a reference to him having killed it. Rewinding, I discovered that he'd thrown a knife. His character has a cat phobia, you see, although this has nothing to do with anything else and would seem to be there only to justify the title and Poe connection. I was also wondering if I'd missed the explanation of what was going on with that servant.
This isn't a matter of story clarity, but I was also surprised by how little they got out of the chess game.
Oh, and the production isn't flawless. One of the corpses is visibly breathing, while there's a bit where someone hits the wall and shows that it's a painted backdrop.
This was a huge surprise for me, a film that hardly seems to belong to the 1930s. It's a miracle that it's even watchable, yet somehow it manages to be extraordinary. There's also nothing else out there like it, since all the films that tried to follow it (e.g. The Raven) would be working under the aegis of the Hays Code and wouldn't have been able to go this far even if they'd been able to catch the same lightning in a bottle. If the world were a righteous place, this would be better remembered than it is. It may not have Frankenstein or Dracula in the title, but what it has instead is even better!