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For several years now, Universal Studios has been unleashing its valuable classic monster films in boxed sets under “The Franchise Collection” banner, paying tribute to such timeless characters as Frankenstein, Dracula, The Wolf Man, The Mummy, The Invisible Man and The Creature From the Black Lagoon. Now Universal has put out a five-film set in honor of one of the men who put their horrors on the map – Bela Lugosi. If you tossed out one film here, this could easily have been called “The Karloff/Lugosi Collection,” as four out of the five embody acting collaborations featuring the two legends. As welcomed as this set is, we hope that it was not a mistake jamming five movies on to one disc (even though most run only a little over an hour) since the copy we received to review was defective (read more below). As far as an actor, Bela Lugosi is far more than just Dracula, and this collection of films presents him in an array of charismatic performances to prove it.

The first film on Side A is MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE, based on the story by Edgar Allan Poe. Directed by the man originally set to do 1931's FRANKENSTEIN, Robert Florey, this was the genre film Universal produced after FRANKENSTEIN and DRACULA. With wild hair and a unibrow, Lugosi stars as Dr. Mirakle (Bela Lugosi) a nutty scientist who hosts a gorilla in a sideshow. Mirakle is conducting some bizarre experiments in his lab, injecting pretty females with the gorilla’s blood in the name of science! When he sets eyes on a beautiful brunette (Sidney Fox), he plans to mate her with the ape unless her handsome fiancé (Leon Ames) can save the day.

In terms of the “golden age” of Universal horror, MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE is one of the lesser entries by far. Beefed up with interesting sets that recall German Expressionist horrors of the silent era, the film is mostly badly acted and poorly written, with Lugosi’s eccentric performance being the sole ingredient that makes if of interest today. The gorilla is mainly an actor in a laughable furry suit and mask, but when it comes time to seeing his mug, close-ups of a real grimacing orangutan are unconvincingly substituted! It's amusing to see future TV game show panel staple Arlene Francis as the “Woman of the Streets,” Mirakle’s first victim, and Noble Johnson (KING KONG) as his humble assistant, in what appears to be white-face make-up!

Like all the films on this set, MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE looks better than its previous video incarnations. Presented in full frame Academy ratio, the black and white image looks quite crisp with nice contrasts, and for the most part, the picture is very clean, though there are some patches where the image is scratched or shows blemishes. The 2.0 mono track is very clear, without any significant background hiss. Optional French and Spanish subtitles are included. The Realart re-release trailer is also included.

The next film on Side A, THE BLACK CAT, also takes its inspiration from Poe, and was actually the first screen pairing of Karloff and Lugosi. In it, an automobile accident lands young honeymooners Joan (Jacqueline Wells) and Peter Alison (David Manners, co-star of DRACULA and THE MUMMY) at the mysterious house of Herr Poelzig (Karloff), a strange character who’s also hosting his enemy Dr. Werdegast (Lugosi), who has a great fear of black cats. The couple gets caught in the feud as they try to escape, but in his quest for revenge against Poelzig, Werdegast discovers that his late wife is preserved in a glass case, and later that his daughter (Lucille Lund) is alive and well and married to his adversary. The two duel it out in a chess game for Joan’s soul, and she soon becomes the would-be sacrifice in a devil-worshipping ceremony.

Having very little to do with Poe in actuality, THE BLACK CAT is directed by Hungarian-born Edgar G. Ulmer with great style. Ulmer would go on to helm a number of B movies in America, but THE BLACK CAT remains one of his most memorable efforts, with a number of interesting camera angles and lots of memorable imagery. With themes of Satanism, torture and necrophilia at hand, Universal demanded that some changes and cuts be made before it was released to theaters, but what remains is a unique genre picture, filled with gothic art deco sets, and a very sinister-looking and evil Karloff against a very energetic and tormented Lugosi, showcasing why the two worked so well on the screen together. Their dialogue is as juicy as can be, and their final confrontation is quite shocking for the time.

THE BLACK CAT is presented full frame Academy ratio, and the black and white image looks pleasing. There’s fine grain in the picture, but the detail is very sharp making for excellent clarity, and blacks are deep, while white levels remain stable, and grays look sufficient. A few speckles and light lines intrude the image now and then but is never too irritating. The mono track has no significant hiss or crackles, and dialogue maintains clear and comprehendible. Optional French and Spanish subtitles are included.

Like the two aforementioned films, 1935’s THE RAVEN – the third feature on Side A – is also based on Poe, and presents the second screen coupling of Karloff and Lugosi. Dr. Richard Vollin (Lugosi) is a brilliant surgeon who saves the life of Jean Thatcher (Irene Ware), a beautiful theater dancer who was seriously injured in a car crash. Vollin becomes increasingly obsessed with the woman but is refused any romantic favors. Due to the rejection, he invites her and her father, Judge Thatcher (Samuel S. Hinds), and a few friends to his home for some friendly socializing, but he has something rather wicked in mind. In the meantime, an escaped murderer (Karloff) runs into Vollin, asking that he surgicaly alter his face as a disguise from authorities. Vollin double crosses him, creating a monstrous disfigured mug and promising to restore it only if he follows his demands. When Vollin’s party guest arrives, he has nasty fates in store for them, with functioning instruments of torture in a secret dungeon, modeled after the writings of Poe!

Directed as a “quickie” by Louis Friedlander, THE RAVEN has always stood in the shadow of THE BLACK CAT, which is almost always considered the superior of the two. Again straying from its literary source, the film's plotline about a madman obsessed with Poe’s methods of torture is a most entertaining one, especially with Lugosi in the lead, playing it up for all it worth. Karloff’s thug turned sympathetic monster is a supporting role (even though his salary was higher than that of his co-star), but a good one at that, with Jack Pierce’s terrific make-up giving him a frightfully disturbing appearance. With top notch Karloff and Lugosi performances in check, lots of melodrama, and a fully-operating pendulum swinging back and forth, what more could you ask for from a 30s horror flick?

Presented full frame, THE RAVEN has pretty solid black levels that are quite stable and the contrast on the black and white image looks very good. A coat of fine grain covers the picture from start to finish, but it isn't a serious dilemma. There is a large amount of white specks and film dirt that plague the print source, making it the most inferior transfer on the set. With the mono audio track, dialogue is crisp and pretty sharp sounding. Optional French and Spanish subtitles are included. The worst part here -- and hopefully we got a bum copy and this is an isolated case -- is that after about 35 minutes into the film, the disc freezes, pixilates and sometimes jumps to the next chapter, making THE RAVEN barely watchable. We tried this on four different players of four different brands (Panasonic, Toshiba, Sony, Siempo), and still the same defect. Hopefully if there is a widespread problem with this release, Universal will correct it and replace it (this was the only movie on the set that had playback issues).

Flipping over to Side B is 1936’s THE INVISIBLE RAY, directed by Lambert Hillyer. Dr. Janos Rukh (Karloff) is a brilliant scientist who theorizes that a giant meteor hit Africa centuries ago, bringing with it an element far stronger than radium. With colleagues Dr. Felix Benet (Lugosi), Sir Francis Stevens (Walter Kingsford) and a few others, Rukh travels to the Dark Continent to prove his theory correct. There, Rukh discovers the crash location on his own, still blazing from the ages-old collision on earth. Unfortunately, he becomes contaminated from the exposure and his body begins to glow brightly in the dark, allowing him to kill with just a simple touch. Benet is able to find an antidote for Rukh’s affliction, but it’s not without side effects. When Rukh returns to his home in the Carpathian Mountains, he goes insane and on a murderous revenge spree.

With an unusual and sometimes convoluted plot tinged with science fiction themes, THE INVSIBLE RAY makes good use of Karloff as the tortured, yet rather unsympathetic scientist (with frizzy hair and moustache) and Lugosi (in goatee and slick-backed hair) in a strong supporting role. The film allows for some innovative special effects, including Karloff’s glowing hands and face after being exposed to “Radium X,” as well as some bits with a ray gun that can melt objects in a single blast. Reportedly, some of the machinery was borrowed from Universal's first "Flash Gordon" serial, produced the same year.

Presented full frame (though beginning and end titles, as well as some newspaper clippings are shown windowboxed), THE INVISIBLE RAY’s transfer has strong blacks, excellent detail and a level of fine grain which has an agreeable film look without being too excessive. There is film dirt in the form of specs, light lines and slight flickering, but nothing to really detract from the viewing enjoyment. With the mono audio track, dialogue is eminently clear and music and sound effects comes across well too. Optional French and Spanish subtitles are included, as is the Realart re-release trailer.

The last film in the set, and the second one on Side B brings us into the 1940s with BLACK FRIDAY, directed by Arthur Lubin. A car accident leaves gangster Red Cannon badly injured and kindly Professor Kingsley (Stanley Ridges) near death. Surgeon Dr. Sovac (Karloff) realizes the only way to save pal Kingsley is to transplant the criminal’s brain into his body. He initially does it to safe his life, but when Sovac learns of $500,000 in hidden cash, he brings Kingsley to New York to jolt Cannon’s mind inside him and get a piece of the loot. Now with a dual personality that changes back and forth, Kinglsey enters the sleazy underworld, killing off his gang members that double-crossed him and left him for dead, including Eric Marnay, played by Bela Lugosi.

BLACK FRIDAY may have been produced as second tier B movie fodder, but it sure is a fun mix of gangsters and horror and sci-fi motifs. Some casting switches left Lugosi on the short end of the stick and ending up in a smaller role which he's miscast in, but still a treat to see (Karloff and Lugosi have no scenes together, and this is their last co-starring feature at Universal). So the more complex dual part of Kingsley/Cannon eventually went to Stanley Ridges, who is marvelous. With just a slight altering of his facial appearance, Ridges juggles the balance between gentle scholar and streetwise maniac effortlessly, making the far-fetched concept easy to except, and he works off Karloff very well. This was co-written by legendary scribe Curt Siodmak (THE WOLF MAN) showing his fascination for tampering with brains, a theme repeated in many of his screenplays. Fine female support is provided by Anne Nagel (MAN MADE MONSTER) and Ann Gwynne (HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN).

The full frame transfer for BLACK FRIDAY is sharply rendered, with gray scales looking proper, blacks looking deep, and whites being nice and bright. On a whole, the quality is very impressive, and only some light abrasions are visible on top of the screen for a few minutes towards the beginning of the film. Otherwise, there’s very little in the way of blemishes and film dirt. There’s a solid mono audio track, as well as optional French and Spanish subtitles. The Realart re-release trailer is also here, and it’s a delight since it shows part of the promotional gimmick that had Lugosi hypnotized on the set!

“The Bela Lugosi Collection” is a fine collection of vintage Universal horror films, and it would be great if more of its ilk are in the works for DVD. Hopefully the kink in this disc, which is bound to be present in other copies out there, can be brought to Universal’s attention and fixed so that we may rest easy and properly enjoy this set for years to come. (George R. Reis)