The Bela Lugosi Collection(Universal Home Video, 9.6.2005)
For fans of classic horror, this collection is the bargain of the year. For 25 bucks (and actually far less at some locations), you get five films, each starring Bela Lugosi -- including four in which he teams up with Boris Karloff -- when he was in the prime of his career, before bad choices and drug addiction turned him into the campy muse of Ed Wood.
For starters, The Black Cat, the first film in which he was paired with Karloff and widely considered by many (including this writer) as one of the greatest horror fantasies ever put on celluloid, is worth the price of the set on its own. An in-name-only film version of Poe's classic tale -- in fact, three of the films in this set are "based", very loosely, on tales by Poe -- The Black Cat is chock full of weird visuals (a dead woman is perfectly preserved and encased in glass with wild blonde hair pointing out like the Bride of Frankenstein).
We also get satanism (a black mass is performed, complete with weird organ music and black-robed cult members), wild scene transitions (check out the scene in which the back of a man's suit jacket dissolves to a blanket being pulled over the same actor), and ghoulish bodyguards, all courtesy of low-budget auteur Edgar G. Ulmer. Even if you find old horror films to be silly, I guarantee this maniacal masterpiece will get more than a few spins in your DVD player.
Almost as effective is The Murders in the Rue Morgue, a Caligari-like vision of Paris brought to life by the underrated Robert Florey, in which Bela turns his killer ape loose on the streets of the city of love in search of unwilling female spinal fluid donors. The film boasts smart dialogue (John Huston is credited, in one of his earliest writing assignments, with some of the screenplay), imaginative design, and shadow-laden cinematography by the great Karl Freund, who filmed Metropolis and The Last Laugh in Germany before emigrating to Hollywood in the 30's. Lugosi's performance as Dr. Mirakle is one of his best mad scientist roles and some imaginative shots (check out a sequence in which a man is pushing his girlfriend on a park swing) elevate this one well above B-level.
Filling out the set are three more films. In addition to the two mentioned above, side A of this two-sided disc also includes The Raven, another Karloff-Lugosi pairing in which a Poe-obsessed surgeon played by Bela goes off the deep end when a woman whose life he saves fails to fall under the sway of the Florence Nightingale effect (one can hardly blame her when we see the various torture devices he keeps stashed in his basement). While not as effective as the other two films on this side of the disc, it still has its fair share of macabre set pieces and is still a great deal of fun.
On side B are another pair of vehicles for Karloff and Lugosi: The Invisible Ray (probably most well known now as the film that inspires Lugosi's four-letter rant in Tim Burton's Ed Wood) a science fiction thriller about duelling scientists with some imaginative special effects, and Black Friday, in which Lugosi is amusingly mis-cast as a Jimmy Cagney-esque gangster (a scene of him with his gang driving in a car can't help but recall White Heat to fans of old gangster movies).
All the films have been cleaned up, even if they still show the inevitable signs of age, and look great on screen. For Universal horror at Alpha Video prices, this disc can't be beat. -- Christopher Hyatt