Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Bela-thon: pt 1

In honor of one of the most iconic actor of the Universal horror era, Bela Lugosi, I have watched a handful of his coolest performances in order to write some brief reviews of those films.

The Romanian actor was born in what was then Austria-Hungary in a town called Lugos. His was born 20 October, 1882, with the incredible name combination Béla Ferenc Dezsõ Blaskó. (I dare you to pronounce it!) He obviously took his stage name from the name of his home town.

He began his career on the stage in 1901 and fought in WWI, being wounded three times. He had to flee to Germany in 1919 after having organized a left-wing actors' union. Next year he emigrated to America and continued his career as a character actor. His breakthrough came with his interpretation of Bram Stoker's Count Dracula on Broadway in 1927 (running for three years), and even more so with Tod Browning's film adaption of the novel in 1931.

Unfortunately Lugosi's career quickly declined; partly because of his habit of taking on any role offered to him, partly because of rivalry with other successful Universal actors like Boris Karloff and Lon Chaney Jr. His performances were still magical though, they were just not as appreciated as before. Before his death in 1956 he had become a forgotten drug addicted actor, only appreciated by the legendary B-director (or even C-director?) Edward D. Wood Jr. He had been married five times, and was buried dressed in his original Dracula cape.

On the very day of his birth 127 years ago I post three of my intended six Bela Lugosi film reviews: The Black Cat (1934), The Mystery of the Mary Celeste (1935) and The Raven (1935).

Director: Edgar G. Ulmer
USA 1934
65 min
Starring: Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, David Manners, Julie Bishop, Egon Brecher and Lucille Lund, among others.

This is a typical example of earning money of a famous title, but not having anything to do with the original - in this case a tale by Edgar Allan Poe. (Notice that his name is misspelled on the poster above!) The only thing reminiscent of the original tale is the black cat as a symbol to forebode danger or bad luck.

What The Black Cat is not a typical example of is a 1930's horror film. If you have seen Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (1920), you will agree with me on a striking visual resemblance between the two. German expressionism influenced Hollywood during the 1920's and 1930's, and the Art Deco sets here are a great example.

Okay, that didn't explain my statement of The Black Cat not being a typical Universal horror film. What makes it different is the insane plot, its insane characters and daring pre-code ingredients like satanism and necrophilia.

The two typical horror actors Lugosi and Karloff do not have typical roles, and they seem to enjoy their characterizations; Karloff shines as the madman Hjalmar Poelzig and Lugosi fascinates as revenge seeking Dr. Vitus Verdegast, all the way from the first scene in the train cabin to his unusual fate in the last one.

I won't clear up the plot for you, it's not interesting. The visual elements are - sets, lighting, camera angles, shadows. The actors are - Karloff, Lugosi, the weird servant and the only sane people in the movie: the newly weds staying at Poelzig's house after a car accident. Just watch it, if you haven't.

Hjalmar Poelzig: The phone is dead. Do you hear that, Vitus? Even the phone is dead.

The Mystery of the Mary Celeste aka The Phantom Ship
Director: Denis Clift
USA 1935
80 min
Starring: Bela Lugosi, Shirley Grey, Arthur Margetson, Edmund Willard and Dennis Hoey, among others.

On board the Mary Celeste the crew, thrown together in the last minute, realize that there is a murderer among them - killing them off one by one. Based on a true story.

The idea for the film is great, but the result was a pretty mediocre mystery film which is mostly entertaining for only two reasons: a brilliant Bela Lugosi as an old drunkard and the crew's jolly songs, the Whiskey song being my favorite. I had to keep myself from clapping my hands.

Aside from the film being an early Hammer production with a lot of unknown and bad actors, and therefore not surprisingly isn't of the best quality, there is one thing that bothered me. Bela Lugosi is the only famous name in the cast list - I just wonder who the murderer is...? I bet he will go on playing a drunk old man who likes to feed the black cat on board (yes, he brought along a black cat).

The boring leading man and the leading lady with a horrible singing voice. Seriously, buy ear plugs if you are going to watch this film.

I bet this film would be much better if the censor scissors hadn't gotten their way with it. We barely see the murders being committed, there are many brutal cuts (the director must have cried blood) - and there supposedly is a twist ending that got removed from the final print. Lugosi is even dubbed in one scene explaining the escape of two of the crew members (sorry, I spoiled something you probably had figured out by just looking at the poster), obviously a desperate attempt to change the ending of the film in the last minute.

Perhaps another print will be found in some vault somewhere? I would love to see that. The existing print is - I said it before, and I will say it again - mediocre.

Director: Lew Landers
USA 1935
61 min
Starring: Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, Lester Matthews, Irene Ware and Samuel S. Hinds, among others.

The Raven and The Black Cat have a lot of things in common. The most obvious thing is the Poe title and the two main actors, but also the fact that there are innocent people finding themselves imprisoned in a weird house. But this time the story has a little more to do with Poe.

Lugosi plays Dr. Richard Vollin, who is obsessed with Edgar Allan Poe's writing, and especially the torture devises we wrote about. Karloff is a man who has escaped from jail and wants to undergo plastic surgery to change his appearance. Vollin disfigures him on purpose, with the promise to fix him if he helps him with something horrible.

Vollin has fallen in love, in the way mentally unstable persons do, with a woman he saved the life of after a car accident. (The lady in question is played by the beautiful Irene Ware.) He invites her, her fiancée, her father Thatcher who resents Vollin's interest in his daughter (I can't understand why!) and some other guest to his mansion to stay the night, only for them to end up in a hidden torture chamber in his cellar.

This is one of the few roles where Lugosi got a really good chance to show off his acting skills, and I think his interpretation of Dr. Vollin influenced a lot of the now cliché mad doctors in many horror films yet to come.

Vollin: A knife.
Thatcher: What's it doing?
Vollin: Descending.
Thatcher: What are you trying to do to me?
Vollin: Torture you.
Stay tuned for White Zombie (1932), Son of Frankenstein (1939), and Glen or Glenda (1953)!


Christopher said...

I watched The Black Cat again 2 nights ago for about the 50th time!.Its long held a fascination with me ,having grown up a traveler with my family and what one could possibly expect,having to make a drastic overnight stay in some strange land,at the mercy of seemingly kind hosts,who might have deadly interior motives driving them.In this case,just crossing from western europe into "The Land beyond the Forest"Where wars were different.(Lugosi actually fought in the war that karloff and he reminisce about in this film)and where you never know who in town is part of Karloffs satanic cult!

Lolita said...

Oh, so you're a Bela Lugosi fan too! Great! It is a really freaky movie, I love it. I read that Lugosi was in the war, but I did not know that it was that one they talked about! Thanks for the comment :)

Keith said...

This is amazing. I love Bela. I've been a fan of his since I was a kid. I love so many of his films. He was incredible. I really enjoyed this post.

Lolita said...

Wow, thanks! I think you either adore Lugosi or think he is ridiculous. Obviously, I worship him! There will be three more Bela reviews soon :)

Sebina C. said...

I love Bela Lugosi and I really look forward to kick-starting my horror watching this weekend. Great post, sweetie :)

I always find it special to watch Bela and Boris when cast together - what a dynamic duo!

Sebina C. said...

... and I look very much forward to your part 2 :=D

Lolita said...

I have been in quite a horror film mood myself! And I am just about to finish the next part ;)

Sebina C. said...

It must have been fantastic - I can (almost) only watch movies in the weekends because of education.

*goes to check out part 2*

Sebina C. said...

and I need to see, 'The Mystery of the Mary Celeste' which I still haven't seen. Though I doubt I'll have time to watch it together with everything else I've got planned to watch *sigh*.

Lolita said...

Yes, see it! It's definitively worth watching - Lugosi is great as usual!