Ol’ Scream Factory are unleashing a slew of second tier terror tales featuring two of the grand champions of the horror biz; Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff in one handy package dubbed Universal Horror Collection Volume 1. The set contains four fearsome features which I will be setting my eerie eyeballs on post haste!
First up comes:
The Black Cat (1934): Young newlyweds Peter (David Manners) and Joan Alison (Julie Bishop), are on their honeymoon in Hungary, where they meet the most Hungarian of Hungarians Dr. Vitus Werdegast (Béla Lugosi), who explains he’s been locked up for 15 years in a Siberian prison and is travelling to visit an old friend; one Hjalmar Poelzig (Boris Karloff), an Austrian architect.
Soon all become stranded at Poelzig’s art deco mansion, where Werdegast accuses ol’ P-dawg of stealing his wife while he was in prison, and just for shits (and because his terrified of pussies) kills his host’s black cat…good thing Poelzig has a spare, and that’s not all he has as he possesses a collection of dead women on display in glass cases…including Karen.
Naturally Poelzig plans to sacrifice Joan in a nocturnal satanic ritual (as he is a Satanist as well as one hell of a swell building designer), and it’s up to our heroes to put the kibosh on all those satanic shenanigans…if they can!
Filled with raging thunderstorms, Gothic tropes mixed with sleek modern (for the time) set-decoration (and a dollop of Expressionist visuals strewn about), a strong occult storyline, and one hell (pun always intended) of a stellar cast; The Black Cat is an irresistible, and aesthetically gorgeous supernatural shocker that pits our fav horror icons in a game of wits in a universe filled with midnight black shadows, outre characters, arcane rites, and even some flourishes of comedy…and the film deserves far more recognition than it gets, as it can easily stand (severed) head and shoulders with Universal’s more famous fright flick output.
Adding to the ghoulish goings-on; there is some choice bonus material present on this release as well! First up we get part one of a continuing documentary that examines Karloff and Lugosi’s careers at Universal Pictures, followed by a nearly hour-long, completely fascinating look at cinema based on the writings of Edgar Allan Poe (upon who’s eponymous story this flick was extremely loosely based…I mean they both feature black cats, so there’s that…), a short archival piece documenting a contest that ran in conjunction with the film’s release, and a still gallery. After that comes two audio commentaries; one with author/film historian Gregory William Mank, and the other featuring author/film historian Steve Haberman. Both of these are scholarly looks at the film’s production and themes, and both provide ample entertainment thanks to their knowledgeable and engaging speakers!
Next up is another Poe in name only fright flick:
The Raven (1935): Jean Thatcher (Irene Ware) gets seriously fucked up (professional medical term) in a car crash. In order to try and get her right as rain, her father, Judge Thatcher (Samuel S.Hinds), and boyfriend Jerry (Lester Matthews), implore retired surgeon and Edgar Allan Poe groupie Dr. Richard Vollin (Lugosi) to lay down the slicin’ and dicin’ to restore her to the picture of health.
Ol’ V-baby works his magic, and soon makes fast friends with our heroine, and decides to make an honest woman of her (because fuck you Jerry), to which the Judge makes like Winehouse and says “no, no, no!”. So like any reasonable dude would do, Vollin cons (via promising to repair a surgery performed on the criminal which he intentionally fucked up six ways to Sunday) Edmond Bateman (Karloff), a murderer on the lam, to help him get revenge on Jean and the fam. This goes smooth as shit from a duck’s ass…or not; I’ll never tell!
While not the masterpiece that The Black Cat is, The Raven is by no means a disappointment…not even close! Lugosi is absolutely off the charts incredible as the deranged, lovelorn, Poe fanboy Vollin, and Karloff brings his amazing ability to generate honest, heartfelt pathos to a monstrous being.
Off course the scenes with our beloved icons interacting are the highlight of the picture, and though not as visually exciting as the aforementioned fright flick, this film does have some great sequences; with the revealing of Bateman’s newly deformed visage, and subsequent mirror set piece, a real showstopper…as well as the utilization of Poe-inspired props to put the murder biz on folks!
This flick too has plenty of bonus material, which includes: part two of the Karloff and Lugosi doc, an audio recording of Lugosi reading Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart (a real terror treat!), and a still gallery. Following all that comes two audio commentaries; one by author/film historian Gary D. Rhodes, the other by a returning Haberman. Both are loaded with facts, an amazingly enough contain almost completely different info!
Following that we have a non-Poe piece titled:
The Invisible Ray (1936):
From his observatory located within a castle home that Dracula would find cozy; Dr. Janos Rukh (Boris Karloff) has cooked a telescope that can peer into the Andromeda Galaxy, and photograph light rays that can show the past (because scientific realism was the number one goal in the creation of this film). His peers Dr. Benet (Bela Lugosi) and Sir Francis Stevens (Walter Kingsford) call bullshit, but soon change their tune when they see a meteorite smash into Africa a bazillionity (an accurate measurement provided by your’s cruelly).
For shits the giggle gang schlep down Burundi-way and locate the raucous rock which immediately infects Rukh with Radium X which has the side effect of a four hour erection and screaming diarrhea…I’m just fucking with you; it makes him glow in the dark and kill any living thing with but a touch. Oh, and it makes him batshit insane.
Good thing ol’ Benet develops a serum that keeps that nonsense in check…but for how long is anybody’s guess…and when it wears off there will be hell to pay from anyone in Rukh’s way!
The Invisible Ray is definitely a departure from the first two fright flicks in this set. For starters, it’s definitely more of a somber slow burn (not for nothing this feature runs around twenty minutes longer than the rather brief flicks on discs one and two), and takes it’s time setting up Rukh; his motivations and conflicted personality.
Speaking of Rukh, there are moments where Karloff exhibits great tenderness and compassion, especially in the sequences involving his interactions with his mother (a great performance from Violet Kemble Cooper)…but at the same time he’s not afraid to become, for want of a better term, a complete asshole either…threatening the indigenous population (and be forewarned, this film was a product of it’s time so expect a cringe or two) that do his manual labor in excavating the meteorite, and sparring with Lugosi’s Benet to great effect.
Finally, the luminous gags are fun and well done, and provide the film with a memorable visual hook that helps it stand out, at least aesthetically, from the other pics in the “mad scientist” genre.
As for extras, we get: part three of that continuing doc, the film’s theatrical trailer, and a still gallery. Also included is an audio commentary by film historian Tom Weaver (joined by author Randall Larson and actors Larry Blamire and Jennifer Blaire). This is the usual brutally honest and scholarly examination that Weaver always delivers and is a ton of fun to listen to!
Finally we come to:
Black Friday (1940): Dr. Ernest Sovac’s (Karloff) ol’ pal, college prof George Kingsley (Stanley Ridges), is smashed to shit and back while crossing a street. So what does that daffy doc do? Why implants part of another man’s brain into Georgie naturally…and not just any brain, but the grey matter of a gangster…which has our bookworm scholar becoming more like the thug in his noggin by the minute! Add in a large sum of hidden loot and the stage is set for weird science and a desperate race for the cash in equal measure!
While of course featuring performances from Karloff and Lugosi (who plays a gangster in search of the aforementioned ill-gotten gains)…and damn good ones too (although they share no scenes together); Black Friday is absolutely owned by the amazing acting of Stanley Ridges. This dude plays both a mild mannered scholar, and a gun-totin’ madmen with equal skill and aplomb; and he does so by changes of voice and mannerisms so completely convincing you will often find yourself in disbelief that this is the same actor playing both sides of the character! This gives the film it’s hook and unique flavor in lieu of lavish production design or special effects wizardry, and definitely makes it a must see!
On the bonus features front we get: the final part of that doc I keep mentioning, an episode of the Inner Sanctum radio show featuring Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart starring Karloff, the film’s theatrical trailer, and a stills gallery. We also get an audio commentary from Constantine Nasr that is an info packed and engaging listen…you know, totally in line with the rest of the commentaries on this set!
If you adore Karloff, Lugosi, or Universal horror (and honestly, how could you not), this set is going to be an absolute must have for your creepy collection; these fright flicks are tons of fearsome fun, and the extras present only make the putrid package that much more irresistible!