Like many horror nerds out there, I’m a huge fan of Bela Lugosi. That’s an exhausting thing to be sometimes, as so much of Lugosi’s career was relegated to hitting the same notes over & over again. Whether working for a major studio or slumming it on poverty row, Lugosi’s icon status as the definitive Dracula typecast him only as villainous monsters for the majority of his career. No matter how much you love his screen presence, it can be tiring to see Lugosi appear over & over again as vampires, mad scientists, and mad-scientist vampires in the only roles he could land post-Dracula. The problem only got worse as time went on and traditional Famous Monsters work dried up like a temporary fad. Lugosi suffered long periods of working only in dirt-cheap indie productions far below his punching weight and, worse yet, periods of not working at all. That’s what makes 1933’s The Death Kiss such a welcome deviation from the usual public-domain Lugosi cheapies I’ll pick up on a whim whenever I run across them. Reuniting the three main leads of Universal’s Dracula a year after that film’s massive success, The Death Kiss invites the expectation of being yet another Lugosi vampire pic (which can be fun for its own sake), but instead delivers something entirely different. Lugosi somehow doesn’t play a vampire or a mad scientist or a mutant ape man or an eccentric millionaire sadist or anything. No, he plays something much scarier: a movie studio executive.
Instead of relying on Lugosi’s notoriously ghoulish presence for its thrills, The Death Kiss instead reaches for a more novel conceit. Set during the production of a fictional film also titled The Death Kiss, it’s a playfully meta murder mystery that veers away from Lugosi’s usual realm of horror to pursue something resembling a police procedural. As a result, Lugosi himself isn’t often onscreen, as he’s cast as a potential suspect in the case – a studio executive – instead of one of the investigators. The murder in question takes place during a film shoot where an actor is struck down by a gun that was supposed to fire blanks for effect but fired a real bullet instead. The actor died seemingly well-beloved, but homicide detectives soon find plenty of costars & studio employees who quietly hated his guts behind the scenes (including saboteurs who continually undermine & muddle their evidence as they investigate). From there, The Death Kiss delivers exactly what you’d expect from a murder mystery thriller of its era: stark noir lighting, superfluous romance, wisecracking one-liners delivered at a machine gun pace, etc. The novelty of the studio lot setting is its most exciting attribute, especially in scenes where clues are derived from stage makeup or police gather in a screening room to look for evidence in the dailies or the killer is framed in the reflective surface of a stage light. There’s also novelty to seeing Lugosi fade into the background a little bit as just another human subject, as opposed to a bloodthirsty ghoul who’s obviously guilty of murder from frame one.
Despite the overlaps in casting, I’m not sure that superfans of Lugosi or Dracula would be the immediate audience I would think to recommend The Death Kiss to. The film is much more satisfying as a meta movie-industry murder mystery than a rearrangement of that horror classic’s essential pieces. There’s lot of the care & craft that went into its staging that you don’t always get with these early minor-studio Lugosi thrillers, as evidenced by the cleverness of its premise and the few major scenes of action featuring hand-tinted film cells from master colorist Gustav Brock. Seeing Lugosi act out of archetype in a well-crafted non-horror is only lagniappe to the film’s other accomplishments, and something you can only truly appreciate if you’ve already suffered through titles like The Ape Man, Zombies on Broadway, and Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla.