Masters of Horror and Children of the Night—”What music they make!”

Thoughts on Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff for the All Hallow’s season.

Prone to recognizing birthdays on social media as I do, a major part of the enterprise is finding interesting images to accompany my posts. Media is very important in the whole endeavor. The right frame can give a telescopic glimpse into an entire persona, career, and life, and it is a choice that should not be rushed or compromised. (Lotte Lenya was a recent challenge.) Time, energy, and the usable fruits of Google searches are all constituent hurdles, but all is worth it when the right picture turns up.

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A post for the birthday of actor Bela Lugosi (1882–1956) last week led me to some new images of cinema’s most dashing Hungarian (pace the Gabor sisters). Among these were a few staged shots of Lugosi with his erstwhile rival in the horror market, Boris Karloff (1887–1969). The familiar snaps of the tuxedoed gents hefting steins at each other from the mid-30s appeared, along with a few I hadn’t seen before. One in its turn led me to another blog that has a particularly virulent axe to grind with Karloff, including exposés of putative pedophilia on the part of the lisping Englishman. I shan’t provide any further details about said site at the risk of rousing discontent—such instances of petulant dislike I personally find abhorrent—but I must admit I found it a wasted opportunity that more capital was not made of Karloff’s role in Tower of London, where he infamously presides over the murder of the cherubic nephews of King Richard III. (But, then again, I am an admitted Karloff fan…)

The end result of this experience brought back the silliness and worthlessness of the whole Lugosi/Karloff feud, a phenomenon that is more the sin of the fans than the fathers. Biographers of both take different tacks, from finger pointing to more measured obfuscation of the whole issue. It can’t be denied that the two men were not exactly best friends and that Lugosi’s career got the short stick, but it does actors them a disservice to paint one side black at the expense of the other. Gossip, the trades, and the studio archives will have their say about who took which role from whom, but ultimately, as these films creep slowly to their centenaries the task should be one of celebration and contemplation, not fruitless speculation and recrimination. Both were incredibly talented and remain indelibly iconic through their villainous familiars. Whose Dracula could ever match the suave and operatic elegance of Lugosi, and what Monster will ever trump the flat-topped pathos of Karloff’s pantomimic grace? Not enough can be said about their voices as well, Karloff’s velvet bass clarinet forming an ideal complement to Lugosi’s wicked bassoon. To quote Lugosi’s Dracula, “what music they make!”

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Shades of Bluebeard in The Black Cat (1934).

The chance to pair two of the most compelling screen stars of the era made for some unusual projects. Perhaps the most adventurous film of horror’s so-called “golden age” is fittingly the one which has no supernatural or scientific fantasy at its core, but rather the rotten heart of the depths of humanity. The Black Cat is also the best of Lugosi and Karloff’s joint efforts, fruits more of contractual than outright artistic collaboration. Regardless of billing, the main arc of The Black Cat is all Lugosi’s—and all revenge. It is always a treat to see him with strong material, which he always interpreted with equal parts aplomb and passion. The character of Vitus Werdegast is the moral compass of the movie, desperately trying not to be pulled towards the abyssal amoral pole of Karloff’s delightfully irredeemable Hjalmar Poelzig. The melodramatic subplot of the young vacationing couple caught in the battle of wills self-consciously does to the film what it does to the story. It keeps the two heavies restrained and (relatively) well-behaved until the pressure cooker of the action can no longer contain the boil within and all bets are off.

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“This is place of the dead. We’re all dead here!”

The balance the two achieve under Edgar G. Ulmer’s underrated direction in The Black Cat is still a masterclass, only surpassed by their subsequent co-appearance in Son of Frankenstein under Rowland V. Lee. In Son, the meat is all Lugosi’s in the plum role of Ygor, and, with the broken-necked blacksmith’s snaggle-toothed leer, he never once gives it up. Ygor succeeds as a characterization perhaps because he is externally everything Lugosi was not, but internally, however, there is a more of a resonance than might be expected. Ygor’s primary objective in the film is, once more, one of revenge, to destroy the institutions which destroyed him, in this case the smug world of arrogant burghers in the nightmare-neverland of Universal’s Germanic countryside. I’ve never been able to shake the tragic implications of Ygor’s description of his hanging and ignominious disposal to Basil Rathbone—“They hanged me once, Frankenstein. They broke my neck. They said I was dead, then they cut me down.” The metaphoric parallels to Lugosi’s cyclical fate of exploitation, abandonment, and repeated “resurrection” by the studio heads whose coffers he helped fill are still eerie.

Ygor, along with Dr. Pretorius in Bride of Frankenstein, remains one of the best character interpolations by Universal into the narrative world spun over a century earlier by Mary Shelley. (Ygor’s entrance into the franchise is all the more notable since his character was not in Wyllis Cooper’s original shooting script at all.) Both Pretorius and Ygor are Mephistophelean foils for the occasionally blander matinee-level tragedy of the films’ doctorly protagonists. They stand outside of the worlds they inhabit while simultaneously tearing them down. Had Pretorius survived in the world of Son, what heinous music he and Ygor would have made.

And yet one is prompted to explain the presence of Karloff in these outings. His character in The Black Cat is a veritable black hole, consuming all and sundry in his negation of life and morality. Karloff’s scene-stealing delivery of “The phone is dead. Even the phone is dead!” during the chess game highlights one of the best lines in any horror film. (A chess game would also be the set piece for their tongue-in-cheek meeting in 1934’s short Screen Snapshots #11.) In Son, as in The Raven some four years earlier, Karloff is little more than a prop for Lugosi’s manipulation, a contained object of suffering to be exploited in its own way. Here the tragic contours of Karloff’s performance as victim-turned-victimizer scramble the balance of power in Lugosi’s favor. This formula was too often sloppily reversed in their other outings, particularly in instances where the writing for Lugosi, or his health, compromised the power he would normally exert. This is perhaps most notable in The Body Snatcher were the outcome of the duel of wills, despite what is easily the best Karloff performance of the 1940s, is woefully obvious from the start. Lugosi’s servile Joseph is no match for the malice of Karloff’s John Gray. Indeed, had Lugosi had a role of comparable weight to Henry Daniell’s Dr. MacFarlane, the situation would have been much different.

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“I’ll show you how they did it, Joseph. I’ll show you how they Burked them…”

But this, alas, topples over into supposition. It also distracts from the duo’s solo performances, which are deserving of greater attention than their joint ventures. Here they succeed—and fail—on their own terms and no others, relatively speaking. One reveres the titans for themselves, and not just their clashes. And so we return to the images, both the fixed and the moving, the nightmares that thrill, and the dreams they awake.

Author: Ryan M. Prendergast

Ph.D. Candidate @ the University of Illinois. Theater, opera, music, media, art, history, detritus. I smile, of course, and go on drinking tea.

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