Universal Horror Collection, Volume 1 Blu-ray Review: Bela Lugosi Versus Boris Karloff

The year 1931 saw the release of both Dracula and Frankenstein. Both became absolute classics of the horror genre, cornerstones for the long-lasting Universal Monsters series, and made their stars, Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff, into cultural icons. If you’ve seen Tim Burton’s film Ed Wood, then you might be under the impression that the two stars were big rivals and rather hated each other. Certainly, the publicity departments surrounding their films gave off that impression as a means to sell more tickets. But family members of both actors have always stated that the two held no animosity towards one another. Every article I’ve read indicates that they weren’t exactly close friends, but were well acquainted and always behaved professionally towards each other. They starred in eight films together over the course of eleven years For the first volume of their Universal Horror Collection, Shout! Factory has collected four of those films – The Black CatThe RavenThe Invisible Ray, and Black Friday. It is an interesting, if not always a successful, collection of films that demonstrates both actors’ range and magnetic star power.

Made in 1934, The Black Cat is the first film to star both actors (and just as a point of reference, though it was made just three years after the premiere of their iconic roles, they collectively performed in 26 other movies during that short period). Edgar Allen Poe gets his name in the credits but the film has absolutely nothing to do with his story of the same name. In it, Lugosi plays Dr. Werdegast, a man returning from 15 years in a POW prison to enact revenge on the man who put him there. That man, Hjalmar Poelzig, is of course played by Karloff who also happens to be a satanic cult leader who keeps the corpses of the women he’s ritualistically murdered (including Werdegast’s wife whom Poelzig later married, which was before he also married Werdegast’s daughter) in frozen glass coffins so he can periodically gaze at them lovingly. It gets weirder from there.

The bulk of the film pits Werdegast against Poelzig in a psychological game played to the death. Amidst it all is a love story between two newlyweds who come to Werdegast’s castle after their carriage wrecks on a nearby street. They serve as audience surrogates and are ultimately put in danger, but the heart of the film is the psychological game being played by Karloff and Lugosi. The ending is surprisingly violent for a 1930s film, and the entire thing is filled with all sorts of debauchery one doesn’t expect from a film made in the early days of the Hays Code. Honestly, it’s a bit of a mess and not nearly as interesting or fun as the plot sounds. Lugosi and Karloff are a joy to watch and the gothic/art-deco sets are brilliant, but the story is all over the place and the romantic plot is just tedious.

One year (and seven films between them) later, the two teamed up for The Raven, yet another film that credits Poe but has nothing to do with his writing (though bits of the poem are read on-screen a couple of times). Though Karloff gets top billing (he was such a large star at the time they don’t even bother including “Boris” in the credits), it is Lugosi who is front and center for most of the film. He plays Dr. Richard Vollin, a retired surgeon who is enlisted to perform a delicate operation on a beautiful young woman who has been in a car accident. He saves her life and falls in love, but her father forces her to stay away. When an escaped murderer, Edmond Bateman (Karloff), shows up at his house wanting a new face, the good doctor agrees but instead deforms the man under the assumption that ugly people are more violent and thus super-deformed people must be real monsters. He then tells Bateman he’ll only get a pretty face if he enacts revenge on the girl and her father. It all ends in Vollin’s dungeon filled with Poe-inspired torture devices.

I seem to be on the opposite side of critical opinion on these two films as everyone seems to agree that The Black Cat is the better film, but I loved The Raven. It is great to see Lugosi tearing into a lead role, and Karloff is great as the deformed monster (with the fakest drooping eyeball I’ve ever seen). The set design is fantastic and the Poe-inspired dungeon is a hoot.

The Invisible Ray was made in 1936 (the two stars only made four other films between this one and The Raven – it’s nice to see them slowing down a bit) and finds Karloff playing Dr. Janos Rukh, a visionary scientist who has invented a telescope that can zoom in on the Andromeda Galaxy, capturing light rays that show Earth’s distant past (don’t question the science, it isn’t worth it). He demonstrates this to Dr. Felix Benet (Lugosi) and they see a large meteorite crash into Africa a billion years ago. Rukh rushes off to Africa to find this meteor and discover its special powers. He finds the rock which turns him into a psychotic, glowing, death machine who can kill anyone with just a touch. He enlists Benet into creating a cure which he does but also uses the meteor’s radiation (dubbed Radium X) into a super-powered cure-all. No glory for poor old Rukh means he travels back to London to enact revenge on various people who have scorned him with a healthy dose of the invisible ray. It is all b-movie fun with some hammy performances, a ridiculous plot, and not much else.

Last in this collection is Black Friday. Made in 1940, this one is more science-fiction/crime film than horror. Karloff plays Dr. Sovac, a brilliant surgeon who, in order to save his best friend’s life, transplants the brain of a violent gangster into his body. Naturally, the two personalities must now fight for control of the body. Realizing that the gangster hid half a million dollars somewhere before he was killed, Dr. Sovac courts that part of the brain to come out so he can find the money and build a research laboratory. Meanwhile, the gangster’s gang (led by Lugosi) is in hot pursuit.

Playing more like a noir than a classic Universal Horror film, Black Friday is super fun to watch. Lugosi’s career was on the long decline by this point so his gangster gets little screen time. Karloff is the star but its the friend/gangster played by Stanley Ridges who steals the show. As the friend, a mild-mannered English professor, he is shy and mousy, but then is instantly transformed into a brash wild man when the gangster takes over the personality. The story is total nonsense but it moves briskly and is good, pulpy fun.

Scream Factory has done well with this set. Each film is given its own disk so there are no overt compression issues to worry about. They’ve all been given a new 2K scan from the original film elements and contain new audio commentaries from film historians. Other extras include a nice short documentary on the shared film history between Lugosi and Karloff plus trailers, still galleries, radio shows, and a delightful reading of Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” by Bela Lugosi.

These four films are not the pinnacle of either star’s careers, nor even the films they starred in together (it would have been really nice to have had Son of Frankenstein included) but they are quite enjoyable in their own right and a fascinating look into two horror icons working together.

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Mat Brewster

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