October is here so I may as well confess I recently got the Universal Horror Classics Blu-ray box (avail. for $40 if you know how to look): Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, Bride of Frankenstein, The Invisible Man, The Wolf Man, Creature from the Black Lagoon, Phantom of the Opera- I admit it and I'm ashamed- they look great, brand new--they're like totally different movies, like seeing them all over again for the first time, as if one's quaffed the kind nepenthe Poe craves in The Raven so that he might forget his lost Lenore; which if you've seen most of these over and over so many damn times as an alienated monster enthusiast, over and over on tapes one made off local TV, you're most grateful to have this second chance, the nepenthe quaff memory wipe of uber-HD Blu-ray, cleaned and enhanced to the point of 3D. Now I can see the brush strokes in the painted rocks of Henry Frankenstein's crumbling phallic tower interior, the brush lines of make-up on Hull and Karloff; the reflection of black greasepaint under the eyes of Frye and the shimmer on Mae Clarke's wedding dress; Whale's camera stalking and puttering and winding staircase through a 3-D expressionistic vertical maze of black and grey. In Dracula, the clarity of HD Bela Lugosi--once in London--seems shorter, his hair oilier, his complexion steamed from the klieg lights, as if he needed the mirakle of celluloid grain, the early sound ether, even the UHF ghosting, in which to materialize his full unearthly measure of malevolence. In the earlier scenes in Transylvania there's a strange sense of Natural History Museum diorama interiority, as if all of the village where Renfield is told not to venture on to Borgo Pass is about five feet deep, the black and white of Freund's camera like an alien technology window into some human third eye fever dream dimension.
|"whom d'angels name Lanorre"|
Not all of the eight films belong in the set: Phantom of the Opera is just a lavish, well-made 40s musical-romance with a disappointing unmasking (more like a localized skin rash than a hideous countenance to glut one's senses). It and Creature from the Black Lagoon (great, but belonging to a whole different period/genre than the others, it would go well with It Came From Outer Space, Tarantula, Incredible Shrinking Man... etc.) seem included purely for their name recognition. The rest of the films hum with expressionistic atmosphere and delirious alchemy of light and shadow, such care should go to the lesser knows but just as delirious and alchemical.
No, friends. In order to truly be a cohesive, lovely package, the Universal horror Blu-ray set should include some of the other 30s Universal gems that fit the sound expressionist black magic of Whale, Freund, Browning.... The Raven, The Black Cat, Murders in the Rue Morgue and Werewolf of London and The Old Dark House. Rich in the kind of expressionist atmospherics that would really send a brother on a crisp Blu-ray. So consider this humble post my arc of triumphant piss against the wind of Universal big wig indifference. For the purposes of this post, though, I'll focus on two from 1935, The Raven, and Werewolf of London (which I prefer... heresy I know... to the Wolf Man).
In THE RAVEN (1935), 'Karloff' gets top billing even though Lugosi's really the whole show as a totally insane Poe devotee who's actually built, you know, some of the torture devices described in Poe's stories in his basement. Afforded a rare chance to be the whole show in a relative-for-him A List project, Bela does not waste a single syllable. He's a brain surgeon and contented genius, obsessed with the Divine Edgar but when coerced into saving modern dance artist Jean Thatcher (Irene Ware) she starts sending him mixed signals while he plays that eerie Toccata fugue by Bach (Karloff played the same tune in the previous year's The Black Cat) and suddenly Poe isn't enough for him.
He misreads her coyness, or rather he doesn't --she's being a tease. And well I know the weird obsessive shame and confusion when a girl pulls that nonsense. You know what I mean: moving from being flirty and coy to shocked when a brother closes in for the kill. After all she's engaged to young Jerry (Lester Matthews, a constant at Scotland Yard and legions of 30s-40s Universal horrors).
But unlike the bulk of the 'normal' rivals in Universal horrors, played by David Manners or John Boles, Jerry's a bit of all right. His response when learning Bela's sweet on his lady is, "Well, what of it?" We like him, and wonder what he has that Bela doesn't, youth aside, that makes her father think marrying Bela would be worse than death. He's rich and cultured and saved her life, so who cares if he's older? He's a catch, especially if you're into the macabre and want to dance for a 'living' rather than work. Damn it, Bela never gets the girl, except in Return of Chandu and Black Dragons... but those don't even count.
Maybe it's because Lugosi doesn't know how to be romantic, only tortured for the equivalent of the lost Lenore. It's all right if he had a wife.... but that was long ago... to have one now is... what, somehow not scary?
The previous year's big Karloff-Lugosi-Poe duel The Black Cat is more widely hailed by fans and critics do to the poetic hand of that other divine Edgar, G. Ulmer, but the two films are like mirrored bookends to each other, and of the two, Raven sends me into movie heaven while Black Cat is more enervating. But they need each other with their distorted reflections: in one Karloff plays a sympathetic prison escapee who redeems himself by killing Lugosi; in the other, Lugosi is a former POW who gets revenge and redeems himself by killing Karloff. Either way, they are well-matched and both die, the evil one subjected to a bizarre torture by the other after he makes his dark coded move against the girl, whose 'normie' husband is way-too over-civilized and young to not seem buffeted by the wind of superior malevolence. In each the woman is endangered in a sense only by the censor; because even if they're newlyweds the couple aren't allowed to sleep in the same room when staying over at these strange mansions. If they bucked convention and shacked up together, then these two devilish titans wouldn't be able to take such a free hand.
With its weird Satanic morning chess game and policeman on bicycle next morning comedy, a weird deathly pall settles over Black Cat that The Raven (which never really reaches the next day) lacks; and with the incessant clanging endlessly cycling motifs in the score playing seemingly at random, it's more proof horror never works well in the morning. That's why Dracula goes to sleep at dawn (and in the summer, so do I). Part of The Raven's appeal lies in that sense of the coming night, which I think I've always equated with very cool slumber parties I attended in the 70s, watching late night UHF horror movies while playing Ouija and 'stiff as a board' while our parents played bridge and wife-swapped below. Vollin's party with Dr. Thatcher as the sensible adult, trying to warn the lovers away, is very like those parties. There's even an electric pony race track! It's like air hockey or 'Pong.' Dr. Thatcher is 'the adult' and Vollin waits til he's asleep to begin the real party, the sneaking downstairs to explore forbidden basements.' In Cat, Peter Allison becomes the de facto adult - they wait until he's asleep to resume their struggles, a struggle neither is in such a hurry to accelerate.
I love them both, but what makes The Raven so much more enjoyable in a totally new and unusual way (especially for 1935 when the code was in effect) is that it isn't mired by any extraneous comic relief, or at least not any 'stand alone' bits ala the two bicycle riding local cops (Italian-esque for some reason) competing over praise for their hometowns: "gaiety if you want a gaiety!" Instead the comedy comes from the relish with which Lugosi lets loose. He's so over the top it's like he smashes the roof of the sky through the sheer oversize scenery chewing grandeur of his crazy Poe sadism. It's my favorite Lugosi performance ever, this oversize Poe-loving maniac is Lugosi's Oscar Jaffe in Twentieth Century.
WEREWOLF OF LONDON (1935) follows the Frankenstein via Whale aesthetic and subtextual template with an added layer of drug addiction: The only cure for botanist Henry Hull's lycanthropy is to stick the stem of this special eastern "orchid" into his vein. It blooms only under a full moon and there's only one other guy in London with his special "problem," the guy who gave it to him, like Hep C from a dirty orchid stem or.... other. A very very telling detail as when the wife gives a tea party in his greenhouse, Hull and Oland share some conspiratorial alienation that's very what the gay subculture must have been like in those dim times when homosexuality was deep underground, probably with a whole array of secret meetings and code words not unlike the French resistance (and guys who work with flowers a secret gay signifier, as in the papa bear type florist whose little boytoy steals Delambre's recipe in The Return of the Fly). And the heroin addiction analogy works just as well With a whole flower needed per wolf per night of the full moon, there's just not enough to go around, so the two jones over each bud like fiends in the grip of a very hairy withdrawal.
But the real reason it all works so well is Henry Hull. The most believable of all the Universal scientists, Hull's buttoned-up angular Britishness --his clothes are too small; he seems uncomfortable in his gawky body. It's easy to imagine him boring you in a lecture while fumbling nervously through his texts, his sleeves ink-stained and frayed. His slavish devotion to science makes his obligations to conform to British upper class decorum a challenge he is just not up to. Hull seems like the real thing. And his face, all angles and eyebrows, looks half wolf all ready, and that's the genius of this particular wolf make-up here as opposed to the 1941 Wolf Man's, pouffy hair and doggie nose. The script for Wolf Man is all about whether Lon's imagining his affliction or not, and the subtext reflected America's anxiety about getting sucked back into another European conflict it doesn't quite understand. Werewolf of London on the other hand is about science and drug addiction, the pain (I can vouch for the latter) of watching powerless from deep within the prison of your madness as your beautiful, warm sweet wife settles for her consolation prize of a doting rebound male. I've been through it many, many times and it's seldom been done so well, except maybe in Corman's The Trip or Mike Nichols' Closer. The way the first person she hooks up with after you've gone is invariably everything you're not, as if she's trying to find ballast for her heaving ship, the way the drug's not a cure but a temporary relief, good only for a single night. Oh yeah, I know how that feels. Between the pills and powders, booze and spliffs, a single night's surcease of sorrow, the grand total of that nepenthe to quaff can crest the triple digits.
Lastly - a great reason all these old gems need Blu-ray upgrades: they're hitherto available only jammed onto discs (Raven is jammed in with The Black Cat and Murders in the Rue Morgue on one side of a double Bela Lugosi Collection disc, though they all look great anyway- though they're all avail. separately as DVRs) and Werewolf of London is only on a double-sided disc on the old OOP Wolfman Legacy Collection (though I see it is on Amazon Instant Video in HD!). At any rate they deserve love and care, certainly more than old Phantom of the Opera does. Never did like Phantom of the Opera or understand why they pushed it on kids as part of the pantheon right down to having an Aurora monster model of it. (which I admit I got, mainly for the prisoner down in the sewer). I mean, kids HATE opera. Whatever. Even my brother loved The Raven and Werewolf of London, back when we'd watch old weird movies I'd taped over and over after the parents went to sleep in the mid-80s. Times never change... for me anyway. I'm losing track of my point because I have an October cold, but oh yeah, get it together Universal, and make this collection:
Universal Horror Blu-Ray Collection Vol. II
1. Old Dark House (1932)
2. Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932)
3. The Black Cat (1934)
4. The Raven (1935)
5. Werewolf of London (1935)
6. Son of Frankenstein (1936)
7. Dracula's Daughter (1935)
8. The Invisible Ray (1936)