Erroneously ever typecast with his widow’s peak and vampire cape, Bela Lugosi actually made a surprising share of great horror. Here are five versatile Lugosi frights that aren’t vampires or his famed Dracula.
The Black Cat
Title aside, there isn’t much of the Edgar Allan Poe source material in this 1934 Universal horror hour starring Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff. Fortunately, a fun opening, novel bookends, great trains, wonderful shadows, Art Deco architecture, and classical cues accent the handsome, classy yet ferocious gentlemen in their smoking jackets. Each makes his entrance amid interwar consequences and sympathetic motives with nonetheless questionable, even sinister agendas. Vengeful justifications blur alongside pre-Code bedroom scenes, barely dressed ladies, and ambiguous implications between dead bodies, stolen wives, and daughters with the same name. Rather than capes and monster makeup, it’s excellent to see our horror heavyweights play psychological chess unencumbered as the occult stakes escalate. Though some may find Lugosi’s lengthy dialogue and Hungarian accent tough to understand, his torment over military trauma, tragic World War I betrayals, and lost love comes through in hefty, passionate debates before cults, secret rituals, and good old fashioned blows. Cat lovers may both enjoy the feline paranoia or be upset by the stereotypical ailurophobia fears, however this early horror classic is essential for fans of the cast.
Friday the 13th motifs, fedoras, spinning newspapers, and sweet roadsters accent the last rites, dead man walking, and murders for Doctor Boris Karloff in this 1940 mad science meets missing loot caper. Flashback frames, narration, swanky music, and inter title-esque notes match the brain swapping surgery, hidden panels, men in pursuit, and rooftop shootouts. The dames in peril and Jekyll and Hyde personality transformations caused by the preposterous medicine may be over the top, but guessing who’s next sets off our threatening gangster Lugosi. His continental suave and accent are unexplained and he has little screen time in this seventy minutes – leaving viewers to wonder what might have been had Lugosi played the mastermind doctor and Karloff gotten his murderous switch on as originally intended. Fortunately, Lugosi makes the most of his menace. This kind of science fiction meets criminal revenge could have been just another dated B production, however the surprising performances make for a pleasant thriller.
Murders in the Rue Morgue
Liberties are once again taken in this 1932 mystery inspired by Poe’s story of the same name thanks to Darwin debates, religious subtext, and saucy human/ape interactions toeing the censors. Editing cuts can make for some confusion; the pre-Code damsels screaming and animal hisses in the bedroom feel nasty. Fortunately, the storytelling is well paced, and fine shadow schemes accent the onscreen murders, blood experiments, and abductions. Although the ensemble is decent and real monkey footage compensates for the man in a monkey suit action, Lugosi’s twisted presence and delivery are missed when he’s off-screen. Unlike his alluring Count, Our Man Bela is a gloriously demented and wild-eyed showman in his torturous looking mad scientist laboratory. His obsession over angelic in white virginal victims is downright creepy! Despite some messy period production flaws and shades of King Kong in the finale, this is a great little hour for early horror fans.
Universal borrows from Poe again in this contemporaneous 1935 hour crammed with a bloated ensemble that makes it tough to tell who is who and precious little quotes from Edgar. We don’t see much of the Pit and the Pendulum inspired torture gear and violence either, but madcap brain surgeon Lugosi’s god complex obsession with Poe layers the desperate medicine and demented love. Organ music, furs, lighting, and screams set off the interwar atmosphere while car accidents and quick surgical science waste no time. Deformed by twisted Doctor Lugosi in his attempt to reform his criminal ways, Boris Karloff is bearded, raspy, and disturbed in the strong arming while Lugosi quotes death. He’s hammy yet creepy behind his doctor’s mask and somehow still suave and luring the ballerinas. Some of the comedic moments and flawed set pieces are uneven, but the wild contraptions, poignant scenes, haunted house mayhem, and gothic comeuppance make for an uncanny charm.
The acting in this 1932 seventy minute film is over the top. The plot is somewhat confusing thanks to tough to hear dialogue, and the obvious fly by night cheap production will be off putting to some viewers today. Using zombies as manual labor may also be questionable, as is drugging a woman with a love potion to force her to marry you, and the portrayal of Haiti and minorities is of the time stereotypical. Despite the datedness and technical flaws; buried alive camera angles, traditional voodoo, and the soullessly controlled frights anchor the zombie groundwork. Smashing frocks and suspenseful music set off the kinky pre-Code suggestions, killer love triangles, and innuendo. Famed monster makeup man Jack Pierce (Frankenstein) has Bela Lugosi looking smashing yet diabolical as our voodoo witch doctor causing undead trouble for the virginal ingenues. Compared to our contemporary run versus walk brain eating zombies, this fun little piece is a zombie education time capsule.