The Phantom of the Opera (1943)

There have been countless adaptations of Gaston Leroux’s Turn of the Century novel Le Fantome de l’Opera on stage and screen, but it’s hard to argue that any have been as influential as the 1920s silent film starring Lon Chaney. Along with Chaney’s turn in the silent horror adaptation of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, the 1925 Phantom of the Opera was a massive hit for Universal Pictures, launching a decades-long moneymaker in the studio’s Famous Monster’s brand. Before Lugosi & Karloff would come to define the Universal Monsters look, Chaney was the (hideously disfigured) face of the production company’s horror division. The ripple effect of the silent Phantom of the Opera’s success achieved a far-ranging influence (from Lugosi & Karloff to, disastrously, Dario Argento), not even matched by the name-recognition commanding stage musical from Andrew Lloyd Weber. Not to shatter any illusions to the contrary, but shameless remakes & reissues of lucrative intellectual properties are far from new to Hollywood, so the Lon Chaney Phantom’s success meant it would be a well Universal returned to often – first in a 1933 reissue of the original film with a (since lost) soundtrack that mutated into a talkie, then as this 1943 Technicolor remake. Graduating to sound & color wasn’t the only cinematic adjustments Fantame de l’Opera had to make in those first couple of decades either. As much as the 1940s remake is obviously indebted to the Lon Chaney original, its aesthetic is so current to its time that it rarely shows its silent horror roots – or even resembles horror at all.

The basic plot of a standard Phantom of the Opera adaptation remains intact in this Technicolor remake, with Claude Rains taking over from Chaney as the titular Phantom. Here, the distantly admiring, disfigured creep who haunts the Paris Opera house and promotes the career of his favorite singer under threat of violence to those who might block her way to success starts the film as a violinist in the orchestra before being burned with acid & retreating to the shadows. Most of his subsequent kills in the periphery are lightly handled: off-screen stranglings, attempted poisonings, a recreation of the falling chandelier stunt from the previous version, etc. Even the reveal of the Phantom’s purplish acid burn scars feels delicately handled in comparison to Long Chaney’s genuinely horrific makeup in the original film. Some of the stark silent era horror influences of the original echo in this remake, especially evident in shots where the Phantom appears only as a menacing shadow on the wall. For the most part, however, this remake plays much more like a dramatic “women’s picture” of its era, focusing more on the opera singer’s choice between pursuing operatic career opportunities or a “normal” life as a housewife. It’s like The Red Shoes by way of Douglas Sirk’s Technicolor melodramas in that way, with the Phantom’s role being relegated to a side character in the female lead’s A-plot. This is more of a comedic drama about a woman at a professional crossroads than it is a shock-a-minute monster movie about a crazed, disfigured violinist.

In a 2010s update to this version of the Phantom tale, it’s likely the opera singer herself who would have been driven mad to the point of monstrous transformation, but actor Susanna Foster is never afforded her own proper freak-out in the style of a Red Shoes or a Black Swan or a Perfect Blue (so many colors!). That’s not to say that Claude Rains’s secret, murderous admirer of her work is entirely detached from the themes of her professional/romantic dilemma either. His menacing, pushy presence just out of eyesight in the opera singer’s professional life is in some ways a pitch-perfect representation of how all the men around her apply too plentiful & too intense romantic pressure she doesn’t ask for or need in the early days of her professional career. The Phantom is only one of three men in the singer’s life, joining the ranks of a police officer & a fellow musical performer, both of whom wish to court her into marriage. Just as the Phantom pressures the singer into making bold leaps in her still-early career at the opera house by threatening & murdering higher-ups on her behalf, the two suitors pressure her to choose romance over fame & art, giving up the stage for “a normal life.” The general mood of the film is light & flavored with comedy, especially as the suitors trip over each other in dual proclamations of love, but there’s also an underlying tragedy throughout in this poor woman being pressured to make choices between art & romance instead of being allowed to live as she pleases. It’s a very Sirkian conflict, one that’s handled with appropriate visual beauty & emotional melodrama.

Like with Sirk or The Red Shoes to follow, the Technicolor Phantom remake is at the very least worth seeing for its staging, especially for the intense use of rich, bold color in its costuming & lighting. Even if the trading in of silent era horrors for love triangle humor & one woman’s professional indecision is not what you’re looking for in a Phantom of the Opera adaptation, the film is still worthwhile for the visual pleasures & emotional payoffs therein. Even though it chooses to conclude on a comedic note, its adaption of the Phantom’s lingering, unwanted threats & pressures to its central narrative of a woman stuck between competing men’s designs on her life’s plan is also a new angle on the material that justifies the impulse for a remake in the first place, no matter how light on horror. There would be plenty of pointless Phantom of the Opera remakes to come in the decades following this big studio Technicolor melodrama as filmmakers grappled with the original film’s influence on horror at large. It’s doubtful there are many that are this purposeful in their modernity-minded updates to the source material, however. 1943’s Phantom of the Opera seamlessly incorporates the basic elements & structure of the original silent work into a genuine participation in the “women’s pictures” of its own day, to great artistic & thematic payoff. A brief glance at the disparity in terror between Lon Chaney & Claude Rains’s makeup as the unmasked Phantom is alone enough to indicate the differences in those film’s basic intent, but what the Rains version loses in horror it more than makes up for in another, unexpected genre.

-Brandon Ledet

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

The Black Cat (1934)

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“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