Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi for Halloween. Need we say more? We love these guys. They’re the Garbo and Dietrich of Hollywood horror. And they’re just as mesmerizing to watch as those ladies. We even detect a Garbo-Dietrich resemblance here. Boris has the sadness, the reserve, and the taut cheekbones of the former, Bela the self-absorbed flamboyance and pouty lips of the latter. Bela had an actual Garbo connection: He acted with the Divine Swede in Ninotchka (Bela is a commissar in one scene with her, and he plays it straight, deliberately; he’s very funny). Boris’ connection is more intangible: Like Garbo at MGM, he was often given one-word billing by his studio, Universal. KARLOFF—just that; simple, stark, complete. Sometimes he was billed more grandly as KARLOFF THE UNCANNY. That’s a king’s title; like Alfred the Great or Ethelred the Unready. Even Garbo didn’t rate that.
Karloff and Lugosi’s cinematic teaming is poetically fitting. There’s Boris, gaunt, saturnine, ascetic, his gaze burning like a laser via those sunken, melancholy eyes—he looks like a monk who’s broken his vows and can’t atone for it. He’s a man with a haunted past, he suffers. In contrast is sleek, slick-haired Bela, frequently as white-tied and -tailed as Astaire. With his slight, stiff bow from the hips, like a diplomat addressing a monarch, he emanates Old-World courtliness; yet those glittering-onyx eyes, that Cupid’s-bow mouth, the long, febrile fingers, and, of course, that rococo accent, exude the louche decadence of a Continental libertine. You know he’s a fellow who enjoys beautiful women, good food, and fine wines (even if he never drinks any). It’s the monk of Apollo versus the emissary of Dionysus—the meeting and clash of the Spartan Yin and the Voluptuous Yang.
The Abstemious Monk and the Voluptuous Emissary were first paired in Universal’s The Black Cat (1934) and The Raven (1935), two films that manage to take the horror genre’s well-known motifs and pull and stretch them into shapes of which you’d never dream. Such as, for example, that familiar trope of What’s In The Basement. Norman Bates may stash his mother in the fruit cellar, but he’s a piker compared to Boris in The Black Cat, who uses his basement as a vast female storage facility. They’re all his dead ladies whom he can’t bear to get rid of; so he preserves them in glass boxes, like glazed fruit. And Bela’s basement in The Raven displays his assortment of Edgar Allan Poe torture devices. Bela plays a Poe fanatic here, and he devises torture machines based on objects in Poe’s stories, including a knife-edged pendulum and a room with crushing walls. One scene features a squirrelly little museum representative salivating over the thought of acquiring this grisly trove (who runs this museum, Hannibal Lecter?), and who dubs Bela’s cache “the Poe Collection.”
Just pause and contemplate that phrase: The Poe Collection. The latest in madness and morbidity arriving for Spring. One man bottles ladies instead of cider in his cellar; the other is furnishing a Sadean rumpus room. In terms of human behavior, these two men are on that place on the map that warns of dragons. It’s the sort of fun and games you’ll find in the films of Lionel Atwill, one of the great, unsung classic-film horror stars, and Hollywood’s go-to guy for everything depraved. Lionel was the 1930s-40s’ exemplar of what might be called the Cinema of Cruelty. It’s not the horror of supernatural vampires or man-made monsters, but of unseemly pleasures. And Lionel exulted in it; he seemed never happier than when leering over his latest deliciously deviant vice. In Murders in the Zoo (you can read about that film in our post here), he bumps off his wife’s lover and then excitedly gropes his reluctant spouse; he gives you the nasty feeling that the first action serves as foreplay to the second. In The Sphinx he lures a young woman to his isolated mansion and ties her up in his den (Fifty Shades of Gray fans: why aren’t you watching Lionel’s movies?). And in The Mystery of the Wax Museum, he tries to dip Fay Wray into a vat of boiling wax. Why so glaze the beauteous Miss Wray? He’s doing it for the sake of art. The Marquis would understand.
You’ll find quite a few similar dragons romping through the celluloid crypts of The Black Cat and The Raven. Both films are based loosely (very) on the same-titled works by Edgar Allan Poe. When we were kids, we used to hold séances in which we would call on the spirit of the late Mr. Poe to appear. If not Poe, then Jack the Ripper; we weren’t fussy. That’s the kind of reputation Poe had amongst us youngsters. And in what we think is a Poe-ishly perverse touch on Universal’s part, these two films are essentially reverse-mirror-imaged master-slave relationships. In The Black Cat, Boris is a Satanic high priest forcing Bela to do his bidding under threat of virgin-sacrificing the plumply alluring Jacquelyn Wells, David Manners’ barely touched bride (it almost seemed bad etiquette if a Universal horror film didn’t include the proper Mr. Manners). In The Raven, Bela is a doctor who grossly disfigures Boris so that the latter will do his bidding (torturing the doctor’s enemies) in hopes that the former will restore his looks. In each case, the put-upon victim turns and delivers a fitting comeuppance: Bela flays Boris alive in a grotesquely macabre scene in The Black Cat, while Boris in The Raven tosses a screaming Bela into the room with crushing walls. We imagine partisan fans of each actor must keep score while they watch.
Mark one for Boris in the first film. Although Bela gives a fine, subdued (for him) performance as Boris’ vengeance-seeking opponent, Boris dominates The Black Cat. Its narrative has nothing to do with Poe’s original story; and cats have little to do with the plot save to frighten poor Bela, whose character has a dread fear of felines. “He has an intense and all-consuming horror of cats,” says Boris, dropping his voice on the final word and exhaling it with sibilant malice. If you needed any persuading what a great actor Karloff was, watch him in this film. He plays Hjalmar Poelzing, an avant-garde architect (when not practicing the Rites of Lucifer in his off-hours), and he seems to have conceived his character also as a piece of architecture, as solid and imposing as a dreadful monument. Boris doesn’t walk, he strides; yet he never hurries. He keeps his arms hanging straight down and his head balanced rock-still on his neck; he’s an ambulatory pillar, an unstoppable force. And his physique and make-up are sheer geometry, a series of downward-pointing triangles, from his haircut with its exaggerated widow’s peak, to his high-angled cheek bones sloping down to his chin, to his T-bar shoulders narrowing to a pinched waist. He also sports an all-black wardrobe, which fits him like paint and which contains simply the most beautiful male costumes we’ve ever seen.
Boris’ faceted look is reflected in the film’s actual architecture, the famous Bauhaus-influenced set design that’s like slice-n-dice Art Deco. Its riot of stark, slashing diagonals and jaggedy angles surges into a feverishly moderne and luridly staged Satanic Black Mass sequence. The scene is truly (to borrow some wording from Universal) Uncanny; it’s like something out of Huysmans. Per Greg Mank in his invaluable study, Karloff and Lugosi, The Story of a Haunting Collaboration, the film’s brilliant director, Edgar Ulmer, based Poelzig and his rites in part on Aleister Crowley, though there’s nothing of Crowley’s orgiastically pagan frolics going on here. Ulmer choreographs the sequence with grim austerity, as if clocking it to a metronome. The camera cuts between segregated groups of men and women and then between their gargoylish faces; the editing echoes and builds on itself, in rhythmic waves, like a visual fugue. Boris, in jet-black robes, stands at the altar, between a skewed Lorraine cross and what looks like a cluster of Cubist stalagmites, his cavernous echo-chamber voice reciting the catechism in Latin. Note that—in Latin. Smack dab in a commercial B-film. Once waiting in line at a revival theater to see this movie, we stood next to a business-suited, briefcase-carrying gentleman who recited its Mass scene to us. Also in Latin. We were impressed. This movie doesn’t attract your average horror fan.
In a gesture of fair play, Universal made The Raven into Bela’s film through and through. And Bela grabs his chance here; he does about the most uninhibited acting we’ve seen this side of Timothy Carey. It’s a parachute jump into the wild blue yonder, without the parachute. We can try to give you a sense of what his performance is like by noting how the film’s DVD subtitles describe his laughter in the utterly demented finalé, in which Bela variously binds, drugs, imprisons, and torments a group of victims: First he laughs “fiendishly,” and then “maniacally,” progressing from the merely demonic to the totally unhinged. It all climaxes when, in a splendid emotion-hurled-to-the-heavens bit, Bela raises his arms and howls (“maniacally,” per the subtitle), “Poe! You’re avenged!!!” Avenged for what?, we invariably think. But no matter. This is Bela’s moment; and he plays it like grand opera, just at the point when the tenor goes down belting out the high-C.
Bela’s vengeance quest seems driven by his own Poe-ian obsession for an unobtainable woman. At least this lady, unlike Boris’ potted damsels, is alive and moving, a young dancer (Irene Ware) whom Bela, as Dr. Vollin, a crackpot medical genius, has cured of a seemingly inoperable brain injury. In gratitude, she performs a dance based on “The Raven,” a choreographic frenzy of backbends, flung arms, and whirls of black chiffon. “Whom the angels call Lenore,” a witnessing Vollin breathes in critical rapture. But his Lenore is engaged to another, and Vollin’s thwarted passion drives him into another obsession with what he calls “Toahrrchurre.” “I’ll soon be rid of my toahrrchurre,” he typically rants, “and then I’ll be the sanest man that ever lived!” He actually means “torture,” but we were so fascinated with Bela’s pronunciation (which he repeats, like scattered birdseed, throughout the film) that we’ve tried reproducing it with the meager resources of the English alphabet. We’ve also tried pronouncing for ourselves Bela’s grandiloquently rolling R’s that vibrate like timpani in a Beethoven symphony; but so far we’ve only managed a noise like a bubble-gum card rattling against the spokes of a bicycle wheel. If you try it yourselves, please let us know if you get better results.
After so much of Bela in this film, dear Boris seems almost an afterthought, sidling onscreen after about twenty minutes or so, in a Walt Whitman beard and slouch hat (this film really covers the ground in 19th-century American poets). As Bateman, an escaped murderer seeking plastic surgery who’s unfortunate enough to seek it from Vollin, Karloff doesn’t have much to do except slink around in gruesome make-up and cast forlorn glances at the comely Miss Ware. But he’s in one striking scene, when a freshly mutilated Bateman, locked by Vollin inside a mirrored room and seeing his reflection for the first time, frenziedly shoots the glass, which shatters in a sound-and-image cascade of shards and crashes. The whole thing plays like a surreally sadistic preliminary to the famous funhouse-mirror-shooting sequence in The Lady From Shanghai; could Welles have seen this? Meanwhile, Vollin can be heard offscreen, giggling maniacally (or fiendishly). “I fix you, Bateman,” he later gloats with bloodcurdling relish, “I fix you gude!” You can’t help but wonder, in light of Lugosi’s career-long obsession with Karloff’s greater cinematic success and earnings, if Bela’s only acting here.
The inevitable question arises when watching these actors: How do they compare? Mank writes that the two “complemented each other dynamically,” but perceptively notes that Lugosi’s intensity onscreen “seemed all too real, all too much of the man himself; and this…made him all the more difficult to take seriously.” Bela “didn’t really grow with the times,” Mank quotes Karloff as saying, and that’s apparent in their acting styles. Boris understood the camera and how to work with it. He pulls in his effects, and he pulls the viewer in with him; it makes his quiet moments loom large. Whereas Bela …“poor Bela,” as Karloff said. Lugosi’s acting resonates with the frustration of the ex-matinee idol denied the great parts. He’s Hamlet, Lear, Faustus, all rolled up into a seething ball of fury, a big actor trapped in little roles in little films. But he was also a chunk of uncured ham. While Boris acted in the 20th century, Bela was going for baroque in the 19th. Or maybe he goes back even further, to the solo performer in the ancient Greek amphitheater, booming out to the spectators at the farthest rim. Bela was large, he contained multitudes. Whitman would have understood.
But as it’s Halloween, we want Boris and, especially, Bela raw and straight like whiskey. Take away that bland shot of Twilight-wine cooler and give us the ghoulishness, the craziness, and the grandeur. That’s what Horror should be. And that was what these two lovely, accomplished gentlemen offered to us, so generously. Forget what a certain literary bird once said—Boris and Bela will, for us, be evermore.
BONUS CLIP 1: Bela meets Boris in The Raven and has a proposition to offer—something right in Boris’ line: “Torture [or “Toahrrchurre”]. And Murder.”
BONUS CLIP 2: The Black Mass scene from The Black Cat, with Boris as High Priest and Bela in attendance. Jacquelyn Wells is the fainting sacrifice; David Manners is trapped in the cellar: