Movies Till Dawn: More Thrills and Chills in Black and White

Note: films marked with an asterisk are included in Shout! Factory’s “Universal Horror Collection: Volume 1.

* The Black Cat” (1934) An accident on a desolate stretch of road in Hungary brings three travelers to the cavernous home of architect Boris Karloff: newlyweds David Manners (the ’31 “Dracula”) and Julie Bishop, and psychiatrist Bela Lugosi, who has a score to settle with Karloff. The first and arguably the best of six screen showdowns between Universal’s leading horror stars (two more are listed below, and “Black Friday” can be found here), and unquestionably one of the most morbid, doom-steeped horror films ever made. Director Edgar G. Ulmer, whose vast c.v. includes the delirious cult noir “Detour,” and cinematographer John Mescall (“Bride of Frankenstein”) layer the material – which bears no resemblance to the Edgar Allan Poe short story (save for a passing mention of Lugosi’s ailurophobia)– with towering and severe Bauhaus sets and slow-creeping camera movements suggesting a dream state that only partly obscures some truly horrible notions, including Satanic rituals, a castle built on a mass grave, fetishism, torture and even whiffs of necrophilia. Karloff, sepulchral in black pajamas and lipstick (!), and Lugosi, who shifts smoothly between Old World gentility and menace, circle each other like elegant panthers until the film’s frenzied finale; the result is truly unsettling, even after 85 years. Shout’s Blu-ray includes two commentaries (historians Gregory William Mank and Steve Haberman), and the first part of a Karloff-Lugosi documentary that’s spread over the four films in the set, and here details the actors’ careers prior to filming on “Black Cat.” An hour-long look at film adaptations of Poe (narrated by “Hellraiser’s” Doug Bradley) and a collection of promotional material round out the disc.

The Gorilla Man” (1943, Warner Archives Collection) Not a horror film, but rather a B-thriller with John Loder as a British commando sent to a hospital to recover from wounds incurred during a raid on an Axis stronghold. Loder – nicknamed “The Gorilla Man” for his remarkable climbing skills (!) – soon discovers that the doctors in charge of the facility are actually Nazis who claim that his wounds have turned him into a homicidal maniac! Briskly paced and agreeably absurd wartime potboiler, directed in characteristic hurry-up fashion by Western serial vet D. Ross Lederman. Loder was a real POW during World War I who turned to acting after the war, playing well-bred men in Hitchcock’s “Sabotage” and “How Green Was My Valley” while also finding time to marry Hedy Lamarr.

* “The Raven” (1935) Spurned by the father (Samuel S. Hinds) of a patient (Irene Ware) he loves, surgeon Bela Lugosi plans gruesome revenge by subjecting the pair to his collection of torture instruments inspired by the works of Poe. Second Universal team-up of Lugosi and Boris Karloff, who plays an escaped murderer disfigured by Lugosi to do his bidding; like “The Black Cat,” it has little to do with the titular poem (though Lugosi recites a few lines) but that matters little in the face of Lugosi’s performance, who details the horrors that await his victims with lip-smacking relish; the top-billed Karloff again succeeds in finding sympathy for his monstrous-looking role. The Shout Factory Blu-ray – a 2K scan of the original film elements – includes commentaries by authors Gary D. Rhodes and Steve Haberman, as well as the second part of the Karloff/Lugosi doc, this time detailing the film’s production. A recording of Lugosi reading “The Tell-Tale Heart” is a stand-out extra.

South of Suez” (1940, Warner Archives Collection) Myopic creep George Tobias murders dipsomaniacal Miles Mander for the deed to his African diamond mine and pins the crime on nice guy foreman George Brent, who flees to England and adopts a new identity. But things get hot for Brent again in a hurry: he meets and falls in love with Mander’s daughter, Kit (Brenda Marshall), , and crosses paths with Tobias, who threatens to blow his cover. The whole affair winds up in court, where it reaches a satisfying (if patently absurd) conclusion. Enjoyable if over-plotted B-adventure/mystery by Lewis Seiler, a one-time specialist in crime-doesn’t-pay dramas for WB (“Hell’s Kitchen,” 1939), who proves adept at both exotic intrigue (with Randsburg standing in for Africa) and courtroom histrionics. George Tobias, who appeared in “Yankee Doodle Dandy” and “Mildred Pierce,” later played Gladys Kravitz’s husband Abner on “Bewitched.”

* “The Invisible Ray” (1936) Scientist Boris Karloff discovers Radium X, a element in a meteorite that exudes rays that can heal and destroy, as well causing those exposed to the rays to kill any living thing they touch. Impressive visual effects from John P. Fulton (who oversaw equally impressive photographic effects in “The Invisible Man,” “Bride of Frankenstein” and “The Black Cat”) are a highlight of this pulp science fiction thriller with horrific overtones from Lambert Hillyer, an prolific director of Westerns whose occasional forays into horror (“Dracula’s Daughter” 1936) had an A-picture’s veneer; Karloff and Lugosi, in their third pairing for Universal, essentially reverse their usual screen roles, with Karloff as the well-intentioned scientist turned operatically mad monster and Lugosi again underplaying as his concerned associate. Shout Factory’s Blu-ray features another 2K scan from original film elements, commentary (by Tom Weaver and Randall Larson) and the third part of the Karloff-Lugosi doc, highlighting here Karloff’s rising fame and the film’s sizable budget.

(All Karloff/Lugosi images are believed to be the copyrighted property of Universal Pictures.)

About Paul Gaita

Paul Gaita lives in Sherman Oaks, California with his lovely wife and daughter. He has written for The Los Angeles Times, LA Weekly, Variety and The Fix, among many other publications, and was a home video reviewer for Amazon.com from 1998 to 2014. He has interviewed countless entertainment figures from both the A and Z lists, but his favorites remain Elmore Leonard, Ray Bradbury and George Newall, who created both Schoolhouse Rock and the Hai Karate aftershave commercials. He once shared a Thanksgiving dinner with celebrity astrologer Joyce Jillson, and regrettably, still owes the late character actor Charles Napier a dollar.
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