The Invisible Ray (1936)

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three star

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One thing Universal Pictures definitely got right in their series of Boris Karloff & Bela Lugosi collaborations was allowing the two actors to stray from their legendary roles as the Frankenstein monster & Count Dracula. Unfortunately for Lugosi, the 1936 picture The Invisible Ray only allowed him to stray as far as the role of a mad scientist, something he had played almost as often as he portrayed the world’s most famous vampire. Fortunately for the audience, the film made enough room for two mad scientists, so Karloff & Lugosi could continue living their offscreen professional rivalry in meta, fictional contests. Karloff always gets top billing in these pictures, which I’m sure drove Lugosi mad, but in their first few movies together they typically traded the narrative spotlight back & forth. In The Black Cat they shared it. In The Raven Lugosi stole the show. In The Invisible Ray Karloff actually earns his top billing, playing the more interesting, omnipresent mad scientist of the pair.

The best The Invisible Ray has to offer is in the spooky mad scientist sci-fi horror in the the two segments that bookend the duller half of the film. The promise of this antiquated sci-fi horror glory is apparent as soon as the film’s “Forward”: “Every science fact accepted today once burned as a fantastic fire in the mind of someone called mad. Who are we on this youngest of planets to say that the INVISIBLE RAY is impossible to science? That which you are now to see is a theory whispered in the cloisters of science. Tomorrow these theories may startle the universe as a fact.” So what “science fact” are we to look forward to in the future? Apparently an alien element known as Radium X, delivered to Earth via a “few thousand millions of years” old asteroid crash has been discovered by Karloff’s maddest-of-all scientist. Karloff has a million & ten different uses for Radium X that range from curing blindness to the creation of a sort of death ray. Too bad exposure to the element causes his skin to glow in the dark & the gentlest of his touches to kill on contact. Lugosi’s less-mad scientist wants to use Radium X to help prove his vague theories about how “the Sun is the mother of us all,” and although the two men work together on the element’s discovery & procurement, they disagree on its practical applications, something that gives Lugosi’s dissenter the moral high ground once Karloff’s touch becomes luminous & deadly. In a lot of ways this reflects their real life professional rivalry, seeing how they both had a distaste for one another, but worked on eight feature films together anyway.

I’ve skipped over a lot of the film’s second act shenanigans, which involve a lengthy expedition to Africa in the quest to harvest Radium X from the asteroid crash site. This being a 1930’s film, there’s a lot of unseemly representation of black characters in these scenes as subservient, easily frightened native tribesmen, but if nothing else this is the first instance I’ve seen of a non-white character having a speaking role in any Karloff/Lugosi collaboration so far. There’s also some thought given to how women’s contributions to the scientific community, represented here in Karloff’s much-suffering wife & mother, are often attributed to men. Of course, these instances of non-white, non-male representation are a little thin & undercooked. At best, it’s a modest start & not much more. As I said before, the best The Invisible Ray has to offer is in its mad scientist spookiness. Early scenes featuring a Frankenstein-esque castle being repurposed as a planetarium provide some great, oldschool outer space weirdness, which combined with Karloff’s transformation into The Very Visible Man supplies The Invisible Ray with its most memorable elements. Karloff is particularly captivating in the film, whether he’s donning a stunning welding mask & cape combo (complete with rubber gloves), glowing like a nightlight, or dispensing of his enemies with the simple act of a genteel handshake. By comparison, Lugosi’s presence is far more understated, distinguished only by a goatee that makes him look like a mid-90s alt bro. The Invisible Ray was far from the pair’s best collaboration at the time of its release (that would be The Black Cat), but it’s also far from their nadir. In short, it’ll do.

-Brandon Ledet

The Raven (1935)

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fourstar

Although it’s difficult to imagine a more perfect collaboration between between spooky superstars Bela Lugosi & Boris Karloff than their first film together, The Black Cat, their next tribute to the work of Edgar Allan Poe at least comes close to matching it. After making a brief appearance in the vaudevillian trifle of a romantic comedy Gift of Gab, Lugosi & Karloff returned to what they do best: being generally creepy & making meta references to their offscreen professional rivalry. The Raven doesn’t alter much of the pair’s The Black Cat dynamic. They merely switch roles as victim & villain, this time with Lugosi taking the reins as the film’s murderous creep with a spooky mansion & Karloff talking a backseat as the bitter, broken prey. Otherwise, it’s essentially just more of the same. When then “the same” is as great of a benchmark as The Black Cat, though, that’s not exactly a problem.

Much like with The Black Cat, The Raven starts with a car crash that leaves a young woman in Lugosi’s medical care. This time Lugosi plays a surgeon, Dr. Richard Vollin, instead of a psychiatrist, but the dynamic is still remarkably similar. In The Black Cat, Lugosi’s doctor falls for his patient because of her resemblance to his deceased wife. In The Raven, he falls for his patient because she portrays the (deceased wife) character Lenore in a staged performance of Poe’s “The Raven” (an especially beautiful one that looks like a sequined masquerade). Vollin is a Poe collector & enthusiast to an obsessive degree, something he calls “more than a hobby”, so the possibility of seducing a real life Lenore is too tempting to pass up. He lures his faux Lenore, along with her father & her beau, to his spooky mansion as part of a plan to not only live out the tragic love story of Poe’s “The Raven”, but also the torture chamber antics of the Poe story “The Pit & The Pendulum.” To help him with this dastardly plan, Vollin volunteers to perform plastic surgery on an escaped convict (played by Boris Karloff, of course) only to physically maim the poor lout & turn him into a monster. Lugosi intones to Karloff, “Monstrous ugliness brings monstrous hate. Good! I could use your hate,” and essentially turns the mangled convict into his own personal Igor (perhaps as a nod to Karloff’s long history of playing Frankenstein’s monster).

Although Karloff receives top billing for The Raven, something he was also awarded in The Black Cat, this is unmistakably Bela Lugosi’s show. Watching the horror legend recite Poe’s “The Raven” in front of an exaggerated raven’s shadow, don surgical gear to apply a knockout gas to the camera lens, gleefully give tours of his torture chamber, and recite lines like “Death is my talisman, Mr Chapman. The one indestructible force, the one certain thing in an uncertain universe. Death!” are all priceless moments for oldschool horror fans. I like to think that Vincent Price was a fan of this specific Lugosi performance & modeled his own effete murderers in Roger Corman’s Poe productions, particularly in The Pit & The Pendulum and The Masque of the Red Death, after the horror icon.

As for the film itself, it didn’t do so well financially & seemed to ruffle a few feathers with its playfully morbid atmosphere, despite it being very much toned down from what was delivered in The Black Cat. This reception reportedly lead to a temporary ban on the horror genre in England & just a general slump in production of major studio horror films for a long time to come, much to the detriment of Lugosi’s & Karloff’s careers. This shift in attitude is even detectable in the film’s press kit which asks, “Was Edgar Allan Poe a mental derelict?” and goes on to suggest that Poe’s characters were “but a reflection of himself.” It’s a shame that the film mostly fell flat with audiences, since another success like The Black Cat could’ve lead to more work for Lugosi & Karloff where they didn’t have to play Count Dracula & the Frankenstein monster every damn film. The Raven is a pretty great alternative to that overwhelming portion of their work, one that continues the meta-rivalry of the chess game in The Black Cat in yet another great, loose tribute to Poe. I’d say that even though Karloff had the upper hand this round in receiving top billing, it was Lugosi who scored the victory. He’s just so much fun to watch here & all of the movie’s best moments are dependent upon his performance.

-Brandon Ledet

Gift of Gab (1934)

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twostar

Although it was pretty apparent from the get-go that The Black Cat, the first collaboration between rival horror legends Bela Lugosi & Boris Karloff, would be the pair’s best & most significant work together, it was not so apparent that their very next picture would be of no significance at all. A vague comedy about a slick-talking radio announcer, Gift of Gab has the everything but the kitchen sink, vaudeville style of yuck-it-up humor of the old Hollywood studio system when it simply wasn’t tyring. True to oldschool major studio comedy form, the film is more like a variety show than a work with any consistent tone or purpose. At various times it aims for romance, comedy, death-defying action, intrigue, musical performances, and (the reason why I tuned in) a little bit of spookiness to boot, all with no attempts to connect with one another. In trying to be everything to everyone, Gift of Gab ended up being nothing to anyone at all, a trifle of no consequence.

Should I even bother you with the plot to this movie? I’ll at least try to keep it quick. A fast-talking snake oil salesman named Phillip “Gift of Gab” Gabney cons his way off the streets & into “the radio racket” as the successful host of a kind of variety show meant to promote a rich drunk’s failing brand of chicken livers. Gabney also cons his way into the heart of the radio station’s “working girl” program director. And somewhere in there we’re treated to an obnoxiously long sequence about sneaking radio equipment into a football game for a pirate broadcast. There’s also some antics involving someone parachuting out of an airplane. None of it matters. The film’s plot is mostly a vague pretense meant to provide a structure for the film’s musical performances & painfully stale vaudeville routines. My favorite synopsis of Gift of Gab is this concise, one-sentence take on IMDb: “Conceited radio announcer irritates everyone else at the station.” That about sums it up.

As for Bela Lugosi’s & Boris Karloff’s contribution to this forgotten “treasure”, the two horror giants are relegated to the roles of bit players in the film’s long list of on-air radio performers. In a four minute radio sketch (which is for some reason staged like a play), Lugosi & Karloff appear as threatening, ghoulish rogues in a goofy short-form murder mystery. Lugosi’s entire contribution in this scene is to appear from behind a closet door, hold a gun, and ask “What time is it?” (which I’m sure played great on the radio) and Karloff tops him merely by having two lines, taking time to light a cigarette, and laughing maniacally upon his exit. There are some cute touches to the sketch, especially in the way that murderous, knife-wielding arms appear from offscreen (again, on the radio) to threaten the goofball detectives who can’t quite solve the murder, despite Karloff announcing himself as The Phantom & donning a Jack the Ripper-like costume of a cape & a top hat. The whole thing more or less amounts to one of those Saturday Night Live sketches where a politician pops in for a quick cameo as themselves to get a cheap pop from the audience.

The story goes that The Three Stooges were originally scheduled to appear in Gift of Gab & I assume that they were going to play the bonehead detectives in this scene, a sort of a short-form precursor to Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein.  Alas, that didn’t happen and what’s left isn’t much to speak of. If you’re morbidly curious about watching Karloff & Lugosi appear in a brief bout of broad comedy, do yourself a favor & skip the other 66 minutes of Gift of Gab. Instead, just watch this low-quality YouTube clip of their contribution to the shoddy variety show comedy. It’s for time savers like these that YouTube was launched in the first place.

-Brandon Ledet

The Black Cat (1934)

fourhalfstar

“Suggested by the immortal Edgar Allan Poe classic” (to borrow the title card’s language) that inspired later adaptations by none other than Roger Corman in the Tales of Terror anthology film & Dario Argento in his segment of Two Evil Eyes, 1934’s The Black Cat is about as loose as a literary adaptation can get. The only element the film shares in common with Poe’s short story is the appearance of a black cat that is murdered in a fearful rage, then reappears unharmed. If you’re looking for a (slightly) more faithful cinematic adaptation of the story, I’d suggest looking to Corman’s Tales of Terror (which also features versions of Poe’s “Morella” & “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar”). 1934’s Unversial Pictures production of The Black Cat is fascinating not because it’s a loose, full-length adaptation of a Poe short story, but because it features the first of many onscreen collaborations between horror movie legends & professional rivals Bela Lugosi & Boris Karloff. Lugosi & Karloff are a match made in horror nerd heaven, especially in this gorgeous, alarmingly violent film that allows them to stray from their usual typecast roles as Count Dracula & the Frankenstein monster. Although there are eight Lugosi/Karloff collaborations in total, it’s difficult to imagine that any of them could possibly match the delicious old school horror aesthetic achieved in The Black Cat. It’s an incredible work.

The Black Cat begins with a young, couple meeting a recently imprisoned psychiatrist, Dr. Vitus Verdegast (Lugosi), while honeymooning in Hungary, In a scene typical to the film’s unnerving violence, the trio suddenly find their plans derailed in a gruesome bus crash. Lugosi’s Verdergast lays on the creep factor early, gently stroking the hair of the sleeping female passenger because she reminds him of his deceased wife. After the bus crash, he leads the unsuspecting couple to recover at the spooky mansion of his bitter rival, the mentally unhinged architect Hjalmar Poelzig (Karloff). As the situation gradually sours, it becomes apparent that Poelzig is, in fact, the true villain of the story. He traps Vendergast & the newlyweds in his (gorgeous Art Deco) home, planning to include them in an elaborate Satanic ceremony at an celestial event dubbed “The Dark of the Moon”. Karloff’s Poelzig is an intense dude. Among other strange traits, he’s known to brood in a darkened dungeon stocked with the bodies of deceased women he keeps pristinely preserved in glass cases, all the while stroking his titular black cat (who curiously appears alive in the film even after Lugosi’s Verdergast kills it in a frightened rage). When Poelzig’s plans of a Satanic ritual finally come to fruition (after being thoroughly researched in a book helpfully titled The Rites of Lucifer), he brings to a head a decades old rivalry he’s enjoyed with Verdergast, ending it once & for all in an alarmingly dark, violent display that threatens the lives of all four parties involved.

Although, as I said, Lugosi & Karloff are allowed to stray from their infamous roles as Dracula & the Frankenstein monster here, there are of course slight nods to those hallmarks of their careers in the film. Lugosi’s psychiatrist is for the most part a sympathetic, broken man, but before this gentleness is revealed his early actions towards his wife’s young dead ringer recall Dracula’s modes of hypnosis & seduction. Karloff’s architect also shows shades of the Frankenstein monster in his earliest scenes, especially when he’s introduced as a gigantic, lumbering silhouette. Otherwise, they’re spooky in a way that’s divorced almost entirely from the “famous monsters” they were asked to play time & time again. One of the best aspects of the film is watching Karloff & Lugosi trade ominous spooky phrasings back & forth, like “Death is in the air,” “We shall play a little game, a little game of death,” and – in response to the accusation “Sounds like a lot of supernatural baloney to me” – “Supernatural, perhaps. Baloney, perhaps not.” Both their onscreen & offscreen rivalries are intensely palpable throughout the film, even represented in the heavily-acknowledged metaphor of a longterm game of chess, a rare meta treat for fans.

Perhaps what’s so surprisingly enjoyable about The Black Cat is that it has a lot more to offer beyond the obvious pleasures of Lugosi & Karloff spookiness & rivalry. The Art Deco set design is not quite Metropolis-sized in its opulence, but it is still a sight to behold. The way the camera glides throughout its crisp, cramped corridors reminded me of the simple visual effectiveness of this year’s Ex Machina. This is not a half-assed horror film Universal Pictures slapped together on a quick shooting schedule. It’s an elaborate production that proved to be the studio’s biggest box office hit of 1934, one that was boldly violent & sacrilegious for its time. The Black Cat is a short, simple film with only a few moving parts to work with, but it still makes room for stabbings, car crashes, torture, shootings, a murdered pet, a robed Satanic ceremony, a gigantic special effects explosion, and one of the two main players being skinned alive (!!!!!). All of this mayhem is set to a constant old school horror soundtrack that gets deeply satisfying once it devolves into relentless onslaught of heavy organs. To wrap it up at The Black Cat‘s conclusion, a character reads a movie review in the newspaper about how a (fictional) director should stay away from horror as a genre & stick to things that could actually happen, perhaps allowing the film to preemptively scoff at potential critics. It’s hard to imagine critics either now or 80 years ago brushing The Black Cat off so easily, anyway. Considering the time of its release as well as the strength & rarity of its Lugosi & Karloff performances, the film is near perfect,. faithfulness to Poe be damned.

-Brandon Ledet