Bela Lugosi

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DAY 8 OF 31: THE WOLF MAN (1941)

Published October 8, 2019 by Philip Ivory

Universal made an early attempt at a werewolf film in 1935, with WEREWOLF OF LONDON starring Henry Hull. The film didn’t quite hit the mark, seeming more like a Jekyll and Hyde variation than a full-blooded supernatural horror. Hull’s werewolf was a semi-civilized monster, who donned a sporty looking cap before going out for a night’s stalking. Something stronger was needed.

Their second attempt, 1941’s THE WOLFMAN, which gave us the ever tormented Lawrence Talbot, remains for many the definitive werewolf film. Not drawing upon any literary source, screenwriter Curt Siodmak basically invented his own mythology, including the famous poem:

Even a man who is pure in heart 

And says his prayers by night

May become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms

And the autumn moon is bright.

Stars such as Lugosi and Karloff had dominated horror during the 30s, but it was a new decade and time for new blood. Universal recruited Lon Chaney Jr., son of the legendary silent star known as “The Man of  a Thousand Faces,” to play Talbot. Chaney, fresh off a triumphant turn as the intellectually challenged but physically powerful Lennie in 1939’s classic OF MICE AND MEN, was groomed by Universal as a new horror attraction and his father’s successor.

Lon Chaney Jr. as the doomed Lawrence Talbot.

Lawrence Talbot, returning to his ancestral Welsh estate after 18 years of (largely unexplained) exile in America, is a role neither Lugosi or Karloff could have played. In fact, the part seems tailor made for Chaney. Talbot, as the story begins, is an amiable, American-bred galoot, unsophisticated and humble but ready to help his father, Sir John Talbot (Claude Rains of INVISIBLE MAN fame), manage the estate after the tragic death of an older brother.

There’s some kind of unresolved tension between the reserved and proper Sir John and the much more down to earth Larry, and that tension will provide a dramatic spark for the tragedy that’s about to unfold.

Larry tried to fit into village life by taking a pretty local girl, Gwen Conliffe (Evelyn Ankers), out for an evening stroll to have her fortune read at a gypsy camp.

Shopkeeper’s daughter and the object of Lawrence Talbot’s affection, Gwen Conliffe (Evelyn Ankers), threatened by a looming lupine apparition.

As fate would have it, fortune teller Bela, played by Bela Lugosi, is a werewolf who transforms and attacks Larry, biting but not killing him. Larry kill his attacker with a silver tipped cane, but is shocked to be told next morning that no dead wolf was found at the scene, only the dead gypsy.

Soon Larry is transforming into a full-blown wolf creature himself, in fearsome makeup devised by the great Jack Pierce. Unlike Henry Hull’s character, Talbot loses all semblance of humanity in his lupine guise. It’s an utterly bestial performance, benefiting from Chaney’s imposing size and the great relish he seems to bring to his performance as a remorseless predator.

Siodmak claimed he was following the lead of Greek tragedians in imposing a dire fate upon a man who neither asked for nor deserved it. At any rate, our hearts go out to Larry, who begs for anyone, including his stiff-necked dad and the local medical man, to believe that something supernatural is going on. All he gets in return are some half-baked Freudian homilies and lectures about the responsibility of being a Talbot.

It turns out that Talbot’s two important relationships in the film — his budding romance with Gwen and his desire to reconnect with this father — are both thwarted by his werewolf curse.

Only Maleva (Maria Ouspenskaya), the wise gypsy woman and mother to the late Bela, understands what’s happening to Larry, but she can offer little help.

Claude Rains as Sir John Talbot discovers he has killed his own son, not a wolf.

Larry finds peace, but only through death, via a beating from his own silver-tipped cane, now wielded by this father, who is devastated to find he has not killed a wolf but his own son. (Rains’ look of shocked horror elevates the tragedy of the scene.)

It was to be a short rest, for THE WOLFMAN, issued within days of the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, was a huge success. Lawrence Talbot would be resurrected four times, first in 1943’s FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLFMAN, and finally in the 1948 monster romp, ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN.

DIALOGUE

“The way you walked was thorny, through no fault of your own, but as the rain enters the soil, the river enters the sea, so tears run to a predestined end. Your suffering is over, Bela my son. Now you will find peace.” — Maleva

 

UP NEXT:

“A Kiss Could Change Her Into A Monstrous Fang-and-Claw Killer!”

DAY 7 OF 31: THE BLACK CAT (1934)

Published October 7, 2019 by Philip Ivory

Murder. Betrayal. Necrophilia. Satanism. A man being skinned alive!

Okay, you won’t actually see all of these things happening in Universal’s 1934 horror entry, THE BLACK CAT. But some of those things happen on screen, while some are more or less referred to. It’s a heady dark goulash, but with only a tangential relation to Edgar Allan Poe, whose story “The Black Cat” is the putative source. As with many, many Poe adaptations, little of the original story remains, and the master’s name is being used for his macabre marquee value.

Two other names helped sell THE BLACK CAT to a public still willing to lap up elegantly produced horrors in the midst of the Great Depression. Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi were Universal’s poster boys of horror in the 30s. Here they are teamed together for the first, and probably the best, of the chillers they costarred in during the 30s and 40s. (If we leave their iconic costarring performances in SON OF FRANKENSTEIN out of the equation.) In their other pairings, one or the other tends to dominate the proceedings, but here they are on equal footing throughout.

“We shall play a little game, Vitus. A game of death, if you like.” — Hjalmar Poelzig (Boris Karloff)

The horrors of World War I hover in the background of THE BLACK CAT.  Lugosi for once gets to play a heroic if flawed figure, Dr. Vitus Werdegast. Since the war, he’s been unjustly locked in a ghastly prison, but has emerged to confront his old “friend,” architect Hjalmar Poelzig, played by Karloff, for crimes against Werdegast and humanity.

Karloff as Poelzig, in sinister widow’s peak makeup, is a bad guy writ large. He betrayed thousands during the war, and now resides in an art deco masterpiece constructed upon their graves. Which some might deem a tacky move on his part. Plus he keeps the corpse of Werdegast’s wife in a glass case, for reasons not fully explained, but probably not good ones. Oh, and did I mention he conducts black masses in his spare time?

Dr. Werdegast (Bela Lugosi) is none too pleased with his wife’s treatment by his “friend,” Hjalmar Poelzig (Boris Karloff).

Other ingredients include an innocent pair of stranded newlyweds, Peter and Joan Alison, who get more than they bargained for at chez Poelzig. They’re played by Universal’s obligatory romantic lead David Manners and Julie Bishop.

Werdegast and Poelzig trade elegantly crafted barbs and play chess. We learn that Werdegast’s daughter is also on the premises, alive until Poelzig decides it’s glass case time for her, too.

It all culminates in a zestily macabre climax in which Werdegast, edged over to the loony side by all the goings on and who can blame him, pins his rival to a rack and proceeds to skin him like an animal, offscreen. Then the heavily mined fortress is blown to smithereens, killing them both. Needless to say, the two young lovers escape unscathed, enjoying a jokey fadeout.

An example of the art deco stylings of THE BLACK CAT.

Moodily directed by Edgar G. Ulmer and with striking modernist art design, THE BLACK CAT is marred by some plot holes (what does Werdegast’s fear of cats really have to do with anything, other than throwing a lifeline to Poe?) and some dated comic relief. Sometimes it seems more like a collection of interesting incidents — what does the chess game really accomplish? — than a coherent story.

Nonetheless, taken as a whole, THE BLACK CAT remains a feast of the bizarre and a prime showcase for Universal’s two greatest horror stars at the height of their powers.

DIALOGUE

“It all sounds like a lot of supernatural baloney to me.” — Peter Allison
“Supernatural, perhaps. Baloney, perhaps not. There are many things under the sun.” — Dr. VItus Werdegast

“Come, Vitus, are we men or are we children? Of what use are all these melodramatic gestures? You say your soul was killed and that you have been dead all these years. And what of me? Did we not both die here in Marmorus fifteen years ago? Are we any the less victims of the war than those whose bodies were torn asunder? Are we not both the living dead? And now you come to me, playing at being an avenging angel – childishly thirsty for my blood. We understand each other too well. We know too much of life.” — Hjalmar Poelzig

 INTERESTING FACTS

  • The modernist architecture makes THE BLACK CAT stand out from other Gothic horrors of the period.
  • English occultist Aleister Crowley seems to have been the inspiration for Poelzig’s satanist architect.
  • The film was Universal’s biggest hit of 1934. The following year, Universal would reteam Karloff and Lugosi in THE RAVEN, another chiller loosely inspired by Poe.

UP NEXT:

“Even a man who is pure in heart and says his prayers by night may become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright.”

DAY 1 OF 31: DRACULA (1931)

Published October 1, 2019 by Philip Ivory

 

The first supernatural drama of the sound era, DRACULA was unleashed by Universal on Valentine’s Day 1931 with the tag line “The Strangest Love Story Ever Told,” perhaps signalling the studio’s unease at peddling such a bloodcurdling tale to a nation in the grips of the great depression. They need not have worried. The film provided a kind of rich Gothic escapism, paving the way for a whole cycle of 30s atmospheric chillers made with artistry and care that drew healthy box office and crowned Universal the king of horror. 

An adaptation of Bram Stoker’s 1887 classic, DRACULA also had its roots in a successful stage version, from which the play’s star, Bela Lugosi, was recruited to play the lead. The familiar tale tells of the vampire king’s migration from his native Transylvania … an exotic locale seen to great effect in one of the most eerie opening sequences of any horror film … to London’s teeming metropolis.

The cast of DRACULA: Bela Lugosi, David Manners, Dwight Frye, Edward Van Sloan and Helen Chandler.

The Count insinuates himself into the company of a group of unsuspecting Londoners, including the wise and virtuous Mina and her perhaps less wise best friend Lucy, who thrills to Dracula’s grand manner and exotic accent.

Lucy is attacked, dies and is resurrected as a vampire herself only to end up on the fatal end of a stake driven into her heart by intrepid and learned expert on the supernatural, Dr. Van Helsing, in a sequence that should have been a horror highlight but takes place off screen. (The film is too reticent in many places, conveying important plot points second hand through dialogue, when we would much rather have seen them directly.) 

Dracula sets his sites on Mina, who is defended by her boyish fiance, Jonathan, sanitarium director Dr. Seward, and Van Helsing, who warns his friends, “The strength of the vampire is that people will not believe in him.” In the end, Van Helsing and Co. track Dracula to his London hideout and good prevails.

HIGH POINTS

The film offers a classic performance by Lugosi himself, whose authentic accent, strange bearing and bizarre, halting cadences (“I never drink … wine.”) contribute to an unforgettable portrait of evil. I remember being particularly perturbed at the disembodied way Dracula drifts through a London street scene, before settling on a poor flower girl for an evening bite. He conveys the aspect of someone controlled from afar, perhaps an expression of how Dracula is held in thrall to a greater infernal power.  I’ve never seen any other actor in the part hint at this particularly eerie quality.

And while no more than a drop of blood is scene in the film, Lugosi achieves a heightened sense of horror through body language — he’s like a stylized vulture in a bedroom scene as he descends upon his victim –and facial expression. His striking mix of bestial hunger and a kind of pained self-revulsion while in the predatory moment is unforgettable.

Also memorable are Van Sloan as the anti vampire crusader Van Helsing, and Dwight Frye (like Lugosi and Van Sloan, repeating his performance from the stage) as the pathetic fly-eating mental patient who has fallen under Dracula’s sway. Frye in particular has some wonderful moments, including his eerie demented laughter issuing from the hold of a deathship full of Dracula’s victims, and his “Rats, rats, rats” monologue in which he describes the vision of teeming life offered to him in return for faithful service to his master.

“A red mist spread over the lawn, coming on like a flame of fire … Rat, rats, rats. Thousand of them. Millions of them. All red blood.”

DRACULA is memorable for its elegant dialogue, these three tidbits all coming from the Count himself:

(hearing the howling of wolves) “Listen to them. The children of the night. What music they make.”

“I never drink … wine.”

“To die, to be really dead. That must be glorious … There are far worse things awaiting man than death.”

DEFICITS

The film is justly slated for being stagey, not taking advantage of the adventurous sweep of Stoker’s saga, which ends in a desperate race back to Dracula’s castle, a sequence which held great filmic possibilities but wasn’t used. And while I think Helen Chandler is fine as Mina, particularly in a scene in which her eyes light up with bloodlust as she battles to restrain herself from attacking her fiance’s handsome throat, I think David Manners is stiff and awkward as her reliable lover. Comic relief provided by a cockney sanitarium attendant mostly falls flat today.

Director Todd Browning seems a bit sloppy in places, as when those little spotlights for Lugosi’s eyes don’t quite find their mark:

And if you’re really into the minutiae of classic films, check out this ten minute youtube exploration of why an ugly, jagged piece of cardboard can repeatedly be spotted in some of the bedroom scenes:

Caveats and technical deficiencies aside, DRACULA still has wonderful moments of poetic dread and horror, and remains a classic and standard bearer for all monster movies that followed in its wake.

UP NEXT:

“You have created a monster, and it will destroy you!”