B&W, 1934, 65 mins. 32 secs.
Directed by Edgar G. Ulmer
Starring Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, David Manners, Jacqueline Wells

B&W, 1935, 61 mins. 17 secs.
Directed by Lew Landers
Starring Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Lester Matthews, Irene Ware

B&W, 1936, 79 mins. 13 secs.
Directed by Lambert Hillyer
Starring Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Frances Drake, Frank Lawton

B&W, 1940, 70 mins. 1 sec.
Directed by Arthur Lubin
Starring Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Stanley Ridges, Anne Nagel
Scream Factory (Blu-ray) (US RA HD), Universal (DVD) (US R1 NTSC)

Following The Black Catthe smash succession of Frankenstein and Dracula (among other monster tales), Universal Pictures The Black Catdidn’t need much convincing to put together two of its biggest box office draws, Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. Though Karloff consistently received top billing, the five films the pair made at the studio (with another two outside it) gave plenty of meaty material to both men with variations in how much villainy or (anti-)heroism they got to play. While their memorable teaming in 1939’s Son of Frankenstein has been readily available on Blu-ray for some time in an immaculate 4K restoration, the other four Universal pairings remained frustratingly out of reach in HD until the much-needed 2019 Scream Factory boxed set, Universal Horror Collection: Vol. 1 (originally announced as The Boris Karloff/Bela Lugosi Collection but changed due to estate issues).

First up is the most famous and requested title of the quartet, 1934’s The Black Cat, which is still important as the only bona fide studio film for the inventive director Edgar G. Ulmer and a particularly lurid example of how much horror could get away with in the waning hours of the permissive Pre-Code era. Shockingly, the film’s themes of Satanism, necrophilia, sadism, and other sordid activities didn’t turn out to be a problem when the Code kicked in full force (though the occult material was an issue overseas), presumably because it The Black Catwas all implied rather than explicitly shown. Nevertheless, it’s one of the most perverse studio horror films of the era and still twisted enough to raise an eyebrow The Black Cator two.  Suffused with the pain and dread of World War I as well as the public’s fascination with the dark antics of Aleister Crowley (and completely devoid of anything connected to Edgar Allan Poe), the story begins with two newlyweds, thriller writer Peter (Manners) and his wife Joan (Wells), sharing a train ride with Vitus Werdegast (Lugosi), a Hungarian psychologist and former solider recently released after years in prison. Werdegast is now on a mission to track down his missing wife and daughter as well as seek a confrontation with Hjalmar Poelzig (Karloff), who betrayed Werdegast’s platoon and has now built an ultra-modernist house on the site of the massacre. Following a vehicular accident, Werdegast and the couple end up at Poelzig’s fortress where they become entangled in a web of shocking secrets and devil worship.

At least on paper, The Black Cat could have easily tipped into total absurdity with such oft-quoted Lugosi lines as “Even the phone is dead” and “Supernatural, perhaps; baloney, perhaps not.” However, in the right hands it instead soars as a masterpiece of dark surrealism with every element piling up to create an atmosphere of damaged psyches and diseased sexuality. The film was famously reworked at the studio’s insistence with reshoots and edits tweaking Lugosi’s character and the nature of the climactic black mass scene (which is more than a little muddled in its final form), but somehow the illogical nature of it all doesn’t really hurt in the slightest. How much of the original script actually The Ravenwent before the cameras and made it past the workprint stage can’t be proven The Ravensince Ulmer’s first cut wasn’t saved, but what we have it still far beyond the palatable supernatural horrors that had become Universal’s bread and butter at the time.

Almost as beloved by classic horror fans and certainly more legitimately Poe-centric is the following year’s The Raven, which flips the dynamic with Lugosi taking charge as the main villain and Karloff cast as a more sympathetic, pitiable disfigured victim. A noted brain surgeon and raving Poe obsessive, Dr. Richard Vollin (Lugosi) becomes fixated on his latest patient, dancer Jean (Ware), whom he regards as his own personal Lenore. To have her all to himself he enlists the aid of convict Edmond Bateman (Karloff) by horrifically mutilating his face via surgery, promising to restore it only if the poor sap does all of the doctor’s dirty work. That includes holding a deranged house party for Jean and her friends and family where the doctor’s Poe obsession explodes into a cliffhanger-worthy series of death traps.

Pulpy and lovably ridiculous, The Raven moves very quickly through its one-hour running time and often anticipates the more low-rent thrills both stars The Ravenwould indulge in with Monogram Pictures and other quickie indies. That’s hardly a flaw though as it particularly allows Lugosi to gnash the scenery with gusto, and Karloff’s ghoulish appearance also goes a long way to establishing a tension between the two men that pays off during the lively, The Ravenover-the-top finale.

Far lesser known are the two other Universals in the set starting with The Invisible Ray, whose science fiction elements probably seemed at odds to audiences more accustomed to the traditional horror antics of the two stars. However, there’s a rich vein of dark fairy tale nastiness running through this one thanks to its rich visual style, and ultimately it’s one of the more underrated genre offerings from its era. At a mountain fortress, curly-haired Dr. Janos Rukh (Karloff) demonstrates to his peers including Dr. Felix Benet (Lugosi) his discovery of the titular ray, a powerful light beam that can cut through the time-bending nature of space itself to reveal major cosmic instances from the past. As proof he shows a powerful meteorite striking Africa millions of years ago, which is enough to generate interest in an expedition to the continent to find out where it landed. In the process they discover a powerful element dubbed Radium X, but its exposure to Rukh renders him deadly to the touch and afflicted with an unearthly glow. Benet manages The Invisible Rayto assuage the latter symptom and keeps Rukhl alive, but back home the contaminated doctor becomes increasingly unhinged over his psychotic delusions of betrayal including the infidelity of his wife, Diana (Drake), setting off a homicidal spree.

Like the prior film, this one is pulpy and episodic as Karloff steps into the leading man shoes again for a role that gets to play on the avenging scientist persona he perfected in several horror films from Columbia throughout the 1930s and ‘40s. It isn’t a film that tries to reinvent the wheel The Invisible Rayby any means, but it’s stylish and doesn’t feature any narrative fat at all as it bounces through multiple locations to chart the destructive effects of Karloff’s discovery. 

That brings us to the fourth and final film in the box, Black Friday, which also ties in to the Karloff Columbia films with its focus on brain switcheroos and personalities inhabiting the same body – this time within the framework of a gangster film. It’s an odd mix to be sure with Karloff in another of his unscrupulous scientist roles and Lugosi getting cast way against type as a feared Big Apple mobster; hey, at least it’s different. The mess begins when a car crash severely injures college professor George Kingsley (Ridges), who’s brought in for brain surgery at the hands of Dr. Ernest Sovac (Karloff). The catch is that the man who hit Kingsley, a fatally wounded The Invisible Raymobster named Red Cannon, is also wheeled in and supposedly had half a million in cash stashed away just before the accident. Figuring he can find the whereabouts of the money, Sovac dumps Cannon’s consciousness into Kingsley’s cranium, with the two men ultimately sharing the same body. Of course, the dead man soon turns out to have a score to settle against his rivals with former underling Eric Marnay (Lugosi) near the top of The Invisible Raythe list.

Black Friday is ultimately more satisfying as a weird gangster yarn than a traditional horror film, which isn’t too surprising since this was the first genre offering for Universal gun for hire Arthur Lubin (who would helm the studio’s colorful but very horror-lite remake of Phantom of the Opera three years later). Again this one is short and sweet, filling its programmer requirements ably enough with Karloff doing the heaviest lifting opposite a surprisingly interesting performance by Stanley Ridges, perhaps best known for playing Professor Siletsky in Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not To Be. Subsequent scholarship has revealed that Lugosi’s mostly thankless role is due to some last minute musical chairs with the casting, with Karloff originally cast at Cannon and Kingsley but opting to push Lugosi out in the role of Sovac instead. (Why the two stars didn’t just switch roles is Black Fridayanyone’s guess.) The film ultimately circulated on TV far less than its predecessors and was written about in monster magazines and books far more than it was actually seen, but the advent of home video has since allowed a greater opportunity to see this oddly compromised but fBlack Fridayascinating final entry in the Karloff-Lugosi Universal cycle.

All four films initially premiered on DVD in 2005 from Universal as The Bela Lugosi Collection (along with the non-Karloff Murders in the Rue Morgue) as one of those dreaded double-sided DVD-18 discs that glitched out on almost every player under the sun, with a four-film DVD set coming out in early 2018 as a Boris Karloff & Bela Lugosi 4-Movie Horror Collection. However, the Scream Factory edition easily zooms back both versions with a wealth of new extras that finally give these films their due and deliver a ton of historical info that makes them even more enjoyable to watch. New 2K scans of "original film elements" are used for all the films except The Black Cat, which has the most damage of the bunch but still looks vastly superior to its SD predecessor. Otherwise the film are all in fine shape (The Raven in particular has been cleaned up tremendously) with excellent film grain preservation and so much detail you can count the slicked-back hairs on Lugosi's head. The two later films are also several notches darker and look much moodier here, which is presumably closer to the theatrical source than the bright DVD presentations. The DTS-HD MA English mono tracks (with optional English SDH subtitles) are as good as the original elements will allow; they're clear and perfectly satisfying given the vintage. The Black Cat comes with two worthwhile commentaries; Gregory William Mank covers the opinions of the cast about the project, the little Black Fridaynuances in the performances, and great excerpts from his own interviews with Manners and Wells, while Steve Haberman tackles the film as a key entry in the early horror canon, an extension of German Expressionist classics, and a breakthrough in the presentation of World War I's horrific impact on the culture. Despite the absence of Poe in the story, the disc also includes the archival "Dreams Within a Dream: The Classic Cinema of Edgar Allan Poe" (56m2s) narrated by Hellraiser's Doug Bradley, Black Fridaysketching the author's impact on cinema with a focus on adaptations filled with surrealism and psychological torment including the Corman/Price cycle and several silent shorts. Also included is a snippet of newsreel footage of "The Black Cat Contest" (49s) to promote the film, with Lugosi greeting lots of little tykes caring around some very displeasing pussy cats. The Raven also sports two audio commentaries featuring Haberman and Gary D. Rhodes, who manage to cram in a lot of info given that there's really only an hour to fill for each of them. They go further into the Lugosi-Karloff chemistry and off-camera rapport, the film's role in a temporary ban on horror movies in the U.K., the state of Universal at the time, the Poe fixation at the studio, and more. Also included is an audio reading of Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart" (13m22s) with Lugosi giving a very enjoyable, dramatic performance. The Invisible Ray switches gears with a commentary by monster kid supreme Tom Weaver (with a lengthy cameo by Randall Larson about the score by Franz Waxman), who injects more comic relief than usual here with tricky editing in and out of the film as expounds on the film's sci-fi elements and its two stars while also working in notes on differences from the original script. Also included is a theatrical rerelease trailer. Finally Black Friday features an audio commentary by featurette veteran and horror fan Constantine Nasr, who's certainly honest about the film's flaws but appreciative of its merits and bizarre standing in both the Universal horror cycle and the careers of its two stars. That disc is rounded out with a theatrical trailer and another rendition of "The Tell-Tale Heart," this time an episode of the venerable radio show Inner Sanctum (26m45s) featuring Karloff. Divided among the discs is Nasr's excellent four-part "A Good Game: Karloff and Lugosi at Universal" (23m34s, 17m35s, 16m36s, and 17m4s), which features Mank and Rhodes charting the progression of the films including their relations to genre fads over the course of the decade, the novelty of some of the sets and locations (including L.A.'s Griffith Observatory), and the box office demands that led to the teamings of the two men over and over in wildly different iterations. Each film also gets a lengthy gallery (8m47s, 8m18s, 7m, and 6m37s) packed with stills and posters.

THE BLACK CAT: Scream Factory (Blu-ray)

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THE BLACK CAT: Universal (DVD)

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THE RAVEN: Scream Factory (Blu-ray)

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THE RAVEN: Universal (DVD)

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THE INVISIBLE RAY: Scream Factory (Blu-ray)

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BLACK FRIDAY: Scream Factory (Blu-ray)

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Reviewed on June 18, 2018.