James Rolfe: It's Cinemassacre's "Monster Madness". Okay, this is gonna be a fun one – today we have a double-feature. In the 30's Universal made three films based on the stories of Edgar Allan Poe. The first was "Murders in the Rue Morgue" starring Belá Lugosi. A film which owed a lot to the German expressionist era, like "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari".
But the two movies I wanna discuss are "The Black Cat" and "The Raven". It's impossible to talk about one without talking about the other. They both star Belá Lugosi and Boris Karloff and for each actor it's one of their best performances.
"The Black Cat" was the first movie to star them together. Lugosi plays Dr. Vitus Werdegast who just got out of a horrible prison camp where he says his soul was killed slowly. So he's basically insane and out for revenge against the man responsible; Poelzig, played by Karloff. He's a devil worshipper who likes to keep the bodies of dead girls in glass cases. His first appearance in the movie just shows his distinct silhouette and in his first scenes barely says a word. It lets you know how seriously badass he is and it's a great introduction.
Poelzig stole Werdegast's wife, killed her and then married Werdegast's daughter, so there's no reason not to consider him his enemy. These men hate each others guts and just wanna rip each other to shreds. But there's one thing slowing them down… There's innocent honeymooners staying at the house who just happen to have the bad luck of being caught up in the whole mess. Furthermore, Poelzig wants to sacrifice the poor girl to Satan. Werdegast wants to fight for the girl's freedom and it all slowly escalates into a struggle to the death.
Dr. Vitus Werdegast: Hehehehe… That's what I'm going to do to you now. Tear the skin from your body! Slowly, bit by bit…
James: Both performances are outstanding. Lugosi has a lot of haunting monologues. He communicates so well with his eyes and savors every line spoken. Karloff always got that shit-eating grin with his commanding presence. He asks for no sympathy, like in "Frankenstein" or even "The Mummy". Here he's just a bad motherfucking epitome of evil in its dirtiest and most un-pussyfied form. The architecture of Poelzig's home is so surreal we believe that we're inside his world.
The most misleading aspect to the whole film is that it really has nothing to do with the Poe story. There is a black cat in the film, but it has little to do with the plot. However, the idea of a black cat as the symbol of evil sorta sets the mood for the whole film.
Hjalmar Poelzig: He has an intense and an all-consuming horror… of cats.
James: With all its implications of torture, rape, necrophilia, and satanism it's no wonder why this movie was so shocking in 1934.
Next came "The Raven" in 1935. Lugosi plays a surgeon named Dr. Vollin who's obsessed with the writings of Poe, particularly "The Raven" – again, the symbol of death, which he describes as his talisman. Essentially Vollin is a hero; he saves lives. When a young woman Jean is brought to his care after suffering a near fatal car crash, Vollin is the only doctor skilled enough to save her. But with the great genius comes great ambitions.
Vollin falls in love with her, the father tells him to stay away and respect her happiness, but Vollin feels betrayed that they owe him for saving Jean's life. So what happens? He goes mad. All he wants now is to torture the father and potential husband using a swinging axe. It's inspired by yet another Poe story "The Pit and the Pendulum".
But to capture his victim he enlists the help of a criminal named Edmond Bateman and that's where Karloff comes in. Bateman wants the doctor to change his face. Vollin agrees, but it's only part of his evil plan. He ruins half of Bateman's face and promises only to fix it if he helps him carry out his vile scheme. So it's like the roles are reversed. Like in "Black Cat" both characters are bad, but Lugosi this time is the real villain. Both actors reenact some of their most famous trademarks; Lugosi's demented facial expressions and Karloff even does the Frankenstein Monster growl.
The reason why this movie is worth seeing so much is because of Lugosi. He's at his best when he's playing over-the-top, maniacal villains.
Judge Thatcher: What are you trying to do to me?
Dr. Richard Vollin: Torture you…
Judge: Oh… Try to be sane, Vollin.
Vollin: I'm the sanest man who ever lived. But I will not be tortured. I tear torture out of myself by torturing you! Hehehehe…
James: I really think this is his best performance – yep, even better than Dracula. He makes you feel what he's going through. He's not just a bad guy who does bad things just because he's evil.
Vollin: I like to torture!
James: Dracula or even Poelzig from "The Black Cat" are evil characters that do horrible things. Dr. Vollin is just a frustrated psychopath who can't control his emotions. It doesn't justify the things he does, but it makes you accept that there's no limits to how over-the-top he can act. You just believe "Sure, he's out of his mind" and I think it's a clever way to take the poem and turn it into a feature film. The story of the raven, "The Longing for the Lost Lenore", is personified in Dr. Vollin. He has to go through the same torment that Poe went through.
One great thing about these two 'Lugosi-Karloff' Poe films is the runtime. "The Black Cat" is only 1 hour and 5 minutes, and "The Raven" is 1 hour and 1 minute. So there you go; you can watch both of them in the same amount of time as it usually takes to watch one single movie nowadays. So check them out.
(Dr. Vollin laughs maniacally)