Directed by Edgar G Ulmer.
“It’s been a good game.”
Why Did I Get This?
As I’ve mentioned before, this was a bit of a treat to myself a few years ago when Eureka released a collection of three pre-code horrors based on the works of Edgar Allan Poe.
I love a bit of Lugosi and Karloff was far and away the best ever Boris, so I splurged and took a punt on three very old movies I’d never seen.
I also liked how well-made they were, but as with most pre-code movies, the grim elements surprised me – this one in particular ends with a flourish that would still be pretty shocking (though likely more graphic), if it featured in a modern movie.
Weirdly, I can’t find a good trailer for this on YouTube, but there are a couple of fan-made ones.
The Late Review
As always, the Late Review will go into detail about the film from start to finish, so if you’re looking to avoid potential spoilers, scroll down to the next heading.
Newlyweds Peter and Joan Alison (David Manners and Jacqueline Wells), share a bus journey with WWI veteran Dr Vitus Werdegast (Bela Lugosi). When the bus crashes, they take shelter at the home of architect and former friend of Werdegast, Hjalmar Poelzig (Boris Karloff), but soon discover the house and their companions have a great many secrets which could cost them their lives.
Bit of an odd one, this, in that it only runs to 60-odd minutes but feels just a little bit longer than the other two movies in the collection.
The pacing isn’t bad, as it rattles along at a clip, but part of that is doubtless due to the majority of the conflict between Lugosi and Karloff taking place mentally – not through telekinesis, but through conversation and a game of chess. Each knows the other’s weakness and intends to exploit it, but neither risks making a move until they’re certain of a victory.
I find something very comforting about the 1930s Universal logo, as the little plane orbits the globe, usually accompanied by a slightly tinny recording of Swan Lake. That comfort kicks up a notch when you know Bela Lugosi and/or Karloff (note the surname only credit!), is starring, and in the case of these movies, even better still when the credit includes “Suggested by the immortal Edgar Allan Poe classic”.
Saying that, the knowledge that you’re going to see Karloff and Lugosi go head to head is a double-edged sword – you’re looking forward to it so much that everything else sort of gets in the way. Such is the fate of David and Joan Alison – we meet them on the train, engrossed in a little in-joke about not really being hungry, but suddenly relieved when the conductor knocks on the carriage door and apologises that they’ll now have to share it with a strange. Enter Lugosi, and now we’ve started.
Lugosi is great here, reminiscing about the life and family he lost during the First World War. There’s a real sadness about him, even when he’s chewing lines like “I go to visit an old friend” – these are almost played up for the silent audiences, but his story about seeing men killed at their eventual destination is genuinely sombre.
This, followed by a lurid description of the local slaughter by the coach driver en route from the station, must have been difficult for some audiences to take. It’s not impossible to imagine a lot of former servicemen sitting in the theatres suffering undiagnosed PTSD as tales of the massacre are told.
The design of Poelzig’s mansion – built on the fort in which so many of his men were killed – is wonderful too. All sweeping staircases, futuristic doors and lighting on top, but the cellars are vast, dark and shadowy, concealing secrets that must never be revealed.
It’s not a subtle metaphor for Karloff’s immaculate appearance, but there’s no denying it works.
And he does look immaculate – his movement is stiff but somehow lithe, and his hair and costumes (including a magnificent smoking jacket), make him look like an Ed Wood alien crossed with The Sopranos’ Paulie Walnuts. Lugosi looks great here too, in fairness – I think it’s the first time I’ve seen him wearing tweed, but he pulls it off nicely!
There’s a grudging respect between the two former friends which is played really nicely, albeit with a lot of explanation to the Alisons (and us, the audience), about how and why they grew to hate each other, as well as Werdegast’s irrational fear of cats. This first occurs in a way that got an unexpected laugh from me, as an innocent cat strolls into the room, causing Lugosi to wail and clutch his face before hurling a knife at it, killing the thing off-screen.
Through these information dumps and a very clear insert shot of Poelzig reading about Satanic sacrifice while in bed next to a woman who turns out to be Werdegast’s daughter, we discover he’s planning to murder someone with his cult during the new moon and, wouldn’t you know it, Mrs Alison’s caught his eye.
What follows is a game of chess for the lives of the Alisons, imprisonment in the most easily-escaped dungeon in cinema history, the murder of two henchmen/butlers, before Werdegast corners Poelzig in his basement and straps him to a couple of beams before gleefully announcing that he’s going to flay the skin from his body.
While implied through shadows and off-screen screams, it’s an effective and brutal end for Poelzig while Joan looks on and tries not to faint. David, meanwhile, shows up while Werdegast’s cutting and shoots him, unaware that he’s actually been trying to help them escape the whole time.
Lugosi gets a great death here, cursing David’s foolishness, then accepting that he’s got nothing left to live for and he’s had his revenge, so he might as well blow the whole mansion to smithereens. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve seen him die on screen, but he goes out with some sort of dignity here, and it’s a fitting end to the film.
Or it would be if we didn’t then cut to Mr and Mrs Alison on another train seemingly unaffected by their ordeal and laughing at a review of David’s book in the newspaper, thereby undercutting the gravity of everything we’ve just seen.
Like I said, there’s something of the ‘comfort blanket’ about this film, so I’m inclined to look past its faults and enjoy it.
There’s a nearly-continuous soundtrack of royalty-free classical music throughout the film, which feels odd once you notice it, but it adds to creating more of a drama than a horror. That being said, the darker elements are genuinely horrific, and I’d love to know how it went down with audiences at the time.
Anyone who loves an old horror will dig this, likewise anyone who enjoys seeing Karloff and Lugosi together is going to have a good time. It might not be the best they did together (answers on a postcard with suggestions what that might be), but it’s a good way to pass a cold, dark night (or in my case, a lunch break).