Boris Karloff & Bela Lugosi Horror Classics

Boris Karloff Bela Lugosi Horror Classics

Boris Karloff & Bela Lugosi horror classics

“With a few exceptions,” wrote Andrew Sarris in You Ain't Heard Nothin' Yet, “The Bride of Frankenstein represented the last gasp of the horror film as a serious genre.  The creeping disease of facetiousness crippled the genre even more distressingly than it had the gangster film.  The dilution of creativity proceeded apace in both genres with anachronistic wise-cracking, farcical reactions, low-brow skepticism, and 'darky' caricatures.  Warners even promoted the miscegenation of genres with gangsters and ghouls, electric chairs, and haunted graveyards…” 

If those lines rouse your curiosity as to just what those films from the horror genre's declining years might have been like, let me direct your attention to Warner's new “Karloff & Lugosi Horror Classics” two-disc box.  Divided into a Boris Karloff-themed disc and a Bela Lugosi-themed disc, this set digs up some of the stars' lesser-known films.  Unfortunately, sometimes obscure films are obscure for a reason – none of the movies in this Horror Classics set are exactly essential, and only one of them is really worth seeing at all. 

The Karloff disc starts off with The Walking Dead (1936), a slight but fun curiosity in the lively, streetwise Warner Bros. style.  Directed by Michael Curtiz and borrowing equally from the gangster, horror, and nascent sci-fi genres (something which bothers me much less than it apparently does Sarris), the film follows John Ellman (Karloff), a pianist sent to the electric chair for a crime he didn't commit.  His innocence is proven literally seconds after the switch is thrown, but he's brought back to life thanks to the timely intervention of Dr. Beaumont (Edmund Gwenn). 

Initially amnesiac, Ellman's memory is jogged when he plays a piece of music from his past, and he then stalks the criminals responsible for setting him up.  They all meet with various fear-inspired deaths (one has a heart attack, one stumbles backward out of a window, and so forth) and Ellman himself is eventually sent back to the grave by the last of his dying victims.  The whole thing ends with the doctor being chastened for bringing Ellman back in the first place with the “how dare we meddle in God's affairs?” nonsense typical of that era's horror movies. 

Boris Karloff in The Walking DeadCurtiz keeps things lean and snappy, breaking from his workmanlike style for just one great midpoint scene in which Ellman recognizes his antagonists for the first time – the camera ominously pushes in on the guilty men and a sudden intensification of the lighting illuminates the very sweat of their brows.  Karloff is excellent as the initially put-upon and bewildered, then menacing and spooky sad sack of the title.  Although The Walking Dead is no masterpiece, fans of either Karloff or of 30s' films won't want to miss this one.

To say that Frankenstein 1970 is also no masterpiece is putting it charitably.  Too bad, since its central premise is actually kind of intriguing.  The last surviving descendant of the Frankenstein name (Karloff again) agrees to allow a television crew to shoot a program in the family castle; he, of course, plans to use the money from this deal to replicate his ancestor's famous experiment.  It's never made clear if the story is supposed to be taking place in 1970 – the film was released in 1958 – but Frankenstein 1970 does try to update the familiar mythology by mixing its gothic trappings with references to the Holocaust and atomic technology. But details like these will probably only stick in your mind if you're watching with a pen and notebook in your hand; otherwise, the entire snail-paced mush is likely to put you to sleep. 

Too much of Frankenstein 1970 consists of long scenes of Karloff hobbling confusedly around his lab; his attempts to liven things up by constantly grimacing and scowling and gnawing on scenery don't amount to much.  The monster appears to have an overturned bucket on his head and spends the film wrapped in bandages, resembling the Mummy more than the classic Jack Pierce-designed creature immortalized by Karloff.  The whole thing seems to last much longer than its 80 minutes and is recommended to completists only.

Darby Jones, Bela Lugosi in Zombies on Broadway
Darby Jones, Bela Lugosi in Zombies on Broadway

Matters do not improve much over on Bela Lugosi's disc.  Horror enthusiasts will likely experience a gargantuan case of buyer's remorse during the first scenes of You'll Find Out (1940).  What they'll find out is that this movie is a vehicle not for Bela Lugosi, but for comedian/bandleader Kay Kyser and his Kollege of Musical Knowledge band, featuring Ginny Simms, Sully Mason and Ish Kabibble (who appears to have been the visual inspiration for Jim Carrey's Lloyd character in Dumb and Dumber). 

Kyser and company's style of comedy has, shall we say, not aged well, but this is partially atoned for by the casting of not only Lugosi, but also Karloff and a surprisingly dapper Peter Lorre.  The three play con artists in a conspiracy to bilk a superstitious heiress out of her fortune and eliminate a niece who stands to inherit the loot.  They might succeed, too, if not for a certain meddling big-band novelty act…

You'll Find Out does contain a genuinely spooky séance scene, featuring an early use of “talk box” technology (made famous decades later by Peter Frampton and his “talking guitar”).  More of this sort of thing, plus larger roles for Lugosi, Karloff and Lorre, might have resulted in a minor horror classic.  As it is, this one just barely rises above “historical curiosity” status.

I'm not sure I can muster even that much enthusiasm for Zombies on Broadway (1945).  While the title is admittedly impossible to live up to, this is just another goofy comedy, this time starring the forgotten team of Alan Carney and Wally Brown as two press agents who promise a gangster that they can produce a real zombie for the opening of his new nightclub – and thus travel to the Virgin Islands to find one. 

There are some fine short musical numbers, and this To Have and Have Not fan enjoyed the 1940s' Caribbean setting. On the other hand, there are too many endless scenes of the two leads wandering around in the jungle, and their poor man's Abbott-and-Costello routine wears out its welcome very quickly.  Worst of all, Lugosi has only about 10 minutes of screen time, less even than Darby Jones, here reprising a role from RKO's earlier I Walked With a Zombie

I must say that Zombies on Broadway is an odd and not terribly satisfying choice for inclusion in a Lugosi-themed set, especially considering the number of his films out there that have never seen a proper DVD release. (The Paramount release Island of Lost Souls is just the first one that comes to mind.)

I can't quite recommend the “Boris Karloff & Bela Lugosi Horror Classics,” at least not to horror fans.  Try to see The Walking Dead, but the rest of the movies on offer, particularly on the Lugosi disc, are better as examples of the typical Hollywood product of its Golden Age than anything that genre fans would care about – and there's something shady about Warner's attempt to market it as though it were the latter.  Poor Bela – dead for 50 years and he still can't get a fair shake!

© Dan Erdman

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3 Comments to Boris Karloff & Bela Lugosi Horror Classics

  1. DrMoreau32

    I have the Karloff/Lugosi collection- and I couldn't agree more. These are some pretty dreadful films, barely made watchable by Karloff/Lugosi.

  2. Sweaty Palms

    Well I think that is a bit harsh on Boris he does a good monster movie. It was late in his career and you play what you get.

  3. Cyndi

    Darby Jones looks scary enough.