To remake or not to remake? The question on rebooting classic film.

by Paul Batters

remake_poster_20

Recently, Harrison Ford made an interesting declaration regarding one of his most iconic characters, which is also part of one cinema’s most financially successful franchises – Indiana Jones. Famously close-mouthed about previous roles, the actor made the comment in anticipation of the Disney announcement that a 5th instalment of the Indiana Jones franchise would be released in July 2021. Basically, Ford claimed the role as permanently his, stating:

‘Nobody else is gonna be Indiana Jones! Don’t you get it? I’m Indiana Jones. When I’m gone, he’s gone…’

Whether this declaration is tongue-in-cheek or serious, I cannot ascertain nor does it particularly matter for the purpose of this article. The vast majority of fans would probably agree with Ford, as Indiana Jones is one of cinema’s most loved action heroes. (If his friend George Lucas is anything to go by, there is little to be held sacred in remaking or re-hashing films. Star Wars, anyone?)

But it does raise an interesting question – are there screen characters which should never be re-visited?

It’s also a polarising question and one which probably raises another more divisive question – should classic films be re-made? Cinema is certainly in a strange place at the moment, and there have been consistent attacks on the state of film-making with criticism aimed at the lack of creativity, the focus on special effects and CGI and particularly the obsession on re-makes. The Marvel and DC domination has been discussed ad nauseam and the recent Godzilla movie speaks to this issue as well. (What’s the current tally of Godzilla movies since the 1954 original?)

godzilla-1954-train-featured.png

The criticisms are not unfounded, and this reviewer certainly agrees with the aforementioned sentiments regarding cinema’s current sins. However, are these problems simply a contemporary phenomenon? Or has Hollywood been re-making films and re-casting iconic roles since its’ earliest days? 

Indeed, the ‘re-make’ has been a part of entertainment that goes back to ancient times. Initially, the ancient Greeks, who created the concept of drama, would see performances only the once and their plays were unique, one-off experiences. However, over time, those plays were performed again and again, particularly during the Hellenistic period. It was also meant that those plays stayed alive and they are still with us today. Consider the plays of Shakespeare. They have been performed, interpreted and even changed (depending on context) since Elizabethan times. King Lear has been interpreted through a whole range of approaches from a medieval Japan context to one set with 1950s Eastern Bloc /Cold War aesthetics! The richness of these stories in language, theme, character and emotion are still alive because they have been performed for hundreds of years. And of course, the Bard’s stories have been interpreted for the screen. Think Olivier’s 1945 film version of Henry V, which is often considered one of the finest screen interpretations of the play. Does this become the one and only version, never to be remade? What of Baz Lurhman’s Romeo And Juliet (1995)? It is not the first nor will it be the last telling of the tragic story of two star-crossed lovers.

The truth is that some of our most loved, revered and celebrated films are remakes, whether we realise it or not. We often chide Hollywood for remaking films within only a few years of each other but actually it’s been a practice since the silent days. By the time, Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde was made in 1932 at Paramount, the story had been filmed at least 8 times, with three versions being made in one year! (1920 to be precise, two in the U.S and one in Germany).  John Barrymore’s 1920 turn as the infamous dual personality was a benchmark performance but March as the doomed doctor is perhaps the most superb in sound film history, with even the great Spencer Tracy unable to reach audiences in the 1941 version with Ingrid Bergman.

The same is true for quite a number of films based on classic literature such as A Tale Of Two Cities, Treasure Island, The Three Musketeers and A Christmas Carol – all being filmed numerous times. By the 1935 MGM version, David Copperfield had been made 3 times. The story of Oliver Twist was on its’ 8thversion in the loved 1968 musical Oliver!(with the film being made 6 times during the silent era!).  William Wyler’s Ben Hur is often cited as the greatest epic ever made and a standard by which other ‘big films’ are measured. Yet it too is a remake of the 1925 silent epic starring Roman Navarro and Francis X. Bushman. (Ironically, the recent remake of Ben Hur was critically panned and financially an unmitigated disaster).

Interestingly enough, Cecil B. deMille is an example of a director who revisited earlier films he had made and gave them a new perspective. The Squaw Man (1914) would be remade two more times in 1918 and 1931! Of all the films he made, his most celebrated, known and loved is his final film, The Ten Commandments (1956), a far superior remake of his own 1923 silent version. In this case, the original is not the best. The 1956 version is the quintessential epic tale, resplendent in Technicolor, with all the kitsch, pageantry and excitement of Biblical proportions that are synonymous with deMille and the epic film.

But not only have epics and tales from classic literature been remade to great or greater success. Contemporary stories have been revisited as well. In the world of film noir, one film which justifiably makes every top five list was on its third remake when it was redone by John Huston. The Maltese Falcon (1941) remains one of the greatest films ever made, far out-pacing it’s prior two incarnations which would have become little more than a footnote in cinema history. The previous 1931 same-titled version starring Ricardo Cortez and Bebe Daniels is a little stilted, whilst its’ 1936 remake, Satan Met A Lady, starring William Warren and Bette Davis feels more like a typical Warner Bros. programmer and was even considered by critics at the time, such as Bosley Crowther, as ‘inferior to the original’. Neither are remarkable and again, the original is not the best. Huston’s version of the Dashiell Hammett pulp fiction novel, would help to create the tropes and cinematic expression for film noir, and Bogart’s performance as private eye, Sam Spade has become legendary and would make him a star.

MalteseFalcon1931_1764_677x381_05032017092823

satanmetalady1936_053120131002

maltese_falcon_-_h_-_1941

Unfortunately, there is sometimes an element of exploitation that comes with the remake. But Hollywood is a business and driven by profit. If an audience responds, then it the film is deemed a success. The horror genre is one where the remake is a constant, driven by the profit margin rather than artistic merit. That has certainly been the impression felt with Universal’s recent attempt at ‘re-booting’ the classic Universal monsters with disastrous results. (This writer feels that Universal was making an attempt to trash its’ legacy!) The classic monsters were first seen in monochrome but would be remade in the 1950s and 1960s in Britain by Hammer Studios, complete with full-blown colour, gore and sex. Exploitive? Perhaps. Yet audiences saw a new interpretation of the undead Transylvanian count – from a dream-like, hypnotic and slow-speaking Lugosi to an animalistic and vivid Christopher Lee, complete with bloodied fangs. Horror fans often find it difficult to choose, with the character of Dracula ‘belonging’ to both actors. Yet Lee would be less successful with the Frankenstein monster, as would many who preceded and followed Lee, and the monster has been firmly associated with the brilliant performance of Boris Karloff in the original 1932 film and its’ two sequels. Still, the Hammer remakes resonated with audiences, offering something new and exciting.

Lugosi vs. Lee.png

Yet there are characters that belong to certain actors and actresses and their ownership of those performances are complete. It is impossible to think of anyone else but Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara or for that matter, Clark Gable as Rhett Butler. And of course, Gone With The Wind is a film that no-one would dare remake. The same could be said for Casablanca,again a film with iconic performances from Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, a song that had stood the test of time in its’ poignant definition of love and of course some of cinema’s most famous lines. How could it be remade? The story of Robin Hood has been told numerous times, with mixed results and mixed reviews. Arguably, the role was firmly identified with Douglas Fairbanks Snr, one of the great silent stars, after his 1922 film was a huge hit; until Warner Bros. remade the film in full colour in 1938, with Errol Flynn. A natural for the role, Flynn has owned the role since, despite numerous A-listers taking on the role over the decades.

Vivien-Leigh-MGM--440670

There are countless other roles and films which, if recast or remade, would results in loud cries of protest. And perhaps rightfully so. Could The Wizard Of Oz be remade? (Actually, it, too is a remake!) How about Edward G. Robinson as ‘Little’ Caesar Bandello? Imagine a ‘reboot’ of Chaplin’s work. Or Hitchcock’s films. (It’s been done!) Singin’ In The RainDouble Indemnity? The Godfather? Metropolis? Duck Soup? Some Like It Hot?

In the end, a remake will work or fail if it resonates with the audience. For better or for worse, that’s the lowest common denominator that determines a film’s eventual worth andif it will stand the test of time. For silent films (and indeed even some sound films from the golden years of Hollywood), this has proved difficult. Aside from cinephiles and classic film lovers, silent films find difficulty in gaining traction in a mainstream market and for audiences not exposed to silent film. Additionally, we have audiences trained to expect blockbuster films over-cooked with CGI and action every 30 seconds. A silent film, without sound, colour and very different contexts finds it difficult to gain a foothold.

But all the technological advancements in the world cannot replicate, re-design or replace the impact of story.

It takes a fair amount of courage and risk when a remake is given the green light. It means big shoes to fill and an attempt to draw out a performance from under the giant shadow of its’ predecessor. Cinematic history shows that it does happen. But there are films that are like classic works of art. Can a work by Monet or Dali be redone? Should a piece of music by Mozart or Brahms be re-written? And the importance of textual integrity cannot be over-stated either. The recent tragedy of the near destruction of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, will see deep discussion and debate on how to ‘remake’ what has been lost or damaged. Will it be in keeping with the historic and architectural integrity of the building? Will it be true to the cathedral’s past whilst reflecting the modern era (or does it have to)? And how will people react in the present and in the future to any change or lack of change?

The remaking of classic film shares a similar dilemma.

There are advantages to classic films being remade. It sounds almost unthinkable but Nosferatu (1922) would be successfully remade by Werner Herzog (in an English AND German version!) in 1979 with the famed Klaus Kinski in the title role, to great critical and commercial success. It is an impressive film, with stunning visuals, incredibly deep pathos and emotion, and Kinski is outstanding as the vampire. As a result, it also brought new interest in the original 1922 film. If remakes can arouse interest, educate audiences and broaden the experience of cinema, whilst offering a new and exciting perspective/interpretation, then it serves a great purpose.

nosferatu-bfi-00n-2r5

image

But just because classic films can be remade, does not mean that they shouldbe. As already mentioned, Universal came close to trashing their own legacy with the attempted (and hopefully permanently aborted) reboot of the classic horror monsters, which felt watching someone take fluorescent spray cans to the Sistine Chapel. But as audiences, we do need to set aside prejudged notions and allow for new interpretations of stories. This is what provides a richness to cinema and art. Multiple and contemporary readings offer greater insights and new interpretations offer inclusivity to modern and future audiences – and there is great value in that prospect.

But new is not enough. ‘New’ for the sake of ‘new’ does not do justice to a work of art. Nor does new mean better. What is also important to recognise is that masterpieces do not and cannot be replicated. Nor do they need to be. We can already enjoy what exists, revisit them time and time again and walk away re-spirited, revitalised and emotionally moved.

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.

Dracula, Prince Of Darkness (1966): Hammer Horror In Full Colour

by Paul Batters

Dracula-Prince-of-Darkness-featured

During the classic era of cinema, it is indisputable that Universal was the master of the horror film. They would introduced to audiences iconic monsters that are known and loved and in Lugosi, Karloff and Chaney (Snr and Jnr) gave us wonderful actors who themselves became deserved icons of the silver screen. When the first cycle of horror films began in the early 1930s, high production values and story development were key with directors such as James Whale and Tod Browning, as well as the cinematography of the brilliant Karl Freund, shaping now classic films. By the 1940s, however, not only had production values changed but audiences had as well, and what were initially quality films became arguably less so, with more of an exploitive approach that sought to capitalise on ‘monster combinations’. The final nail in the coffin (excuse the pun) was the Universal pantheon of monsters becoming comedic foils for Abbott And Costello.

Sci-fi, aliens and giant bugs seemed to be the new order of things in horror cinema. It also seemed that the classic monsters had been put to rest, by audience demand and studio design rather than the powers of good over evil. And so it remained for around a decade.

Until Hammer films emerged.

If Universal in the 1930s and 1940s gave us dark fairy tales with haunting camera work in shades of silver, Hammer splashed the screen with vibrant colour, kept us on edge with dramatic action and titillated us with overt sexuality. Hammer would re-define the horror film and the familiar monsters that had become predictable would be given a make-over. Perhaps the classic monster that be re-identified best would be the Carpathian count and king of vampires – Dracula.

Hammer’s now classic Horror Of Dracula (1958) would bring Christopher Lee to the role of the Count. Unlike the hypnotic portrayal of Lugosi, Lee brought not only a regal and commanding presence to the role but a bestial creature baring fangs when taking his victims. Women swooned and there was no off-screen ending to cheat audiences of the vampire’s death. Instead, a battle to the end ensued between the formidable Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) and the Count, with an unforgettable ending, which stunned audiences.

Despite the film becoming a huge success and launching Hammer into the stratosphere, it would be eight years before Lee would re-appear as the Count in Terence Fisher’s Dracula – Prince Of Darkness (1966). As David Pirie points out in his book The Vampire Cinema, it would be a far more explicit film than its’ 1958 predecessor.

The film begins with a flashback to the exciting and shockingly explicit demise of the Count from the 1958 film. The narrator speaks of Van Helsing’s triumph over ‘the obscene cult of vampirism’. But as we will soon discover, the triumph will not be permanent and even after years of Dracula turned to dust, the village and surrounding countryside are still living in the shadows of Dracula’s evil. Their fears come to the fore as the story proper begins, with the funeral of a young woman and her mother crying over the treatment of her dead daughter. The local priest wants her impaled but the tense moment is broken by a gunshot and Father Sandor appears, scolding the local priest and the others for their superstition and blasphemy. Fisher’s opening scene is nicely constructed, acting twofold as an introduction to the climate of fear in the village as well as the authority who will combat Dracula, Father Sandor (Andrew Keir).

The story then focuses on the Kents, two English gentlemen and their respective wives who are travelling and stop at the village. As they visit a local inn, they happen to meet Father Sandor, who warns them against visiting Karlsbad but of course they dismiss the warnings. After an argument with their carriage driver, which gets very heated indeed, they end up making their way to the castle in a driverless carriage. However, unlike the broken battlements of the 1931 film, the Kents find themselves in well-kept though seemingly lonely castle. The table is strangely set and they find their baggage has been taken to their ‘rooms’. Yet this doesn’t seem to unduly put them off, although Helen Kent (Barbara Shelley) continually feels that something is wrong and warns the others that they should leave. Yet her husband Alan (Bud Tingwell) and his brother Charles (Francis Matthews) wave away her concerns. Here, Fisher again builds the tension when a strange dark figure emerges from the shadows, to a scream from Helen, only to discover that is a servant named Klove (Phillip Latham).

Klove explains that his master stated that guests should always be made welcome, even though his master was dead. The Kents enjoy the dinner, though Helen less so, and they do remark at the lack of servants that would be expected to manage the running of such a castle. As they move around, the wind howls outside, heightening the loneliness of the place and perhaps suggestive of the death that will come. The Kents toasting Dracula at dinner and hoping ‘may he rest in peace’ is an equally ominous and ironic statement!

At nightfall, Alan makes the ill-fated decision to poke around and becomes a victim of Klove. Here, the Hammer touch makes its’ mark as Klove hangs Alan upside down and slashes his victim’s throat. Thick litres of ultra-red blood pours out to mix with Dracula’s ashes, reviving the Count who will begin to wreak havoc on the Kents. His first victim will be the prim and proper Helen, whose warnings were ignored. Her turn into a vampire is a proto-type for future vampirised female victims; hair flowing, almost sheer night-gown and breasts billowing. The moment is pure Hammer horror – over-the-top colour and gruesome to behold.

The surviving Kents almost become victims but manage to escape by chance when Diana (Suzan Farmer) discovers one of vampire lore’s most time-honoured tropes; the power of the crucifix. Dracula and the now- vampirised Helen can only look on, with Dracula throwing Helen aside in disgust and rage as the Kents escape. They finally make the way into the safe hands of Father Sandor at the monastery.

At this point, this review will leave the story for the reader to discover. Nonetheless, it is impossible not to mention some interesting turns in the story. Unlike previous vampire films, the audience is treated to the explicitness that would become staples in future Hammer movies. Lee’s Dracula bares his fangs, hissing at his victims and those who transgress his commands and Fisher was not averse to showing Lee use his fangs either! Additionally, a powerful scene straight from Stoker’s novel shows the Count opening a wound in his chest, enticing Diana to drink from him. It is interesting to see Stoker being mined for story points. Even the minor character of Ludwig, as a plot device for Klove to smuggle Dracula and Helen into the monastery is clearly the mad Renfield appropriated for the said purpose.

dpd

Christopher Lee plays a different vampire to his portrayal of eight years previous. The noblesse charm of the 1958 film gives way to a Dracula that no longer needs any pretence. Lee’s vampire leaps at his victims as well, cruel and inhuman in every way. His black cape is lined in red to amplify Dracula’s bloodlust but also as Lee quipped because Hammer like a lot of colour. Strangely enough, Lee’s screen time is fairly limited and there is no dialogue at all, save for some hissing and a yell at the end! There is some dispute over the lack of dialogue that has Lee and script-writer Jimmy Sangster in dispute. Nonetheless, Lee is a terrifying Dracula and despite some critics’ concerns (and Lee’s own reluctance to play the Count), Hearn and Barnes point out in their book ‘The Hammer Story’ that the Christopher Lee Fan Club were delighted. Lee’s portrayal is one of a supernatural creature, animal in every way, and dominates the screen whenever he appears. He menaces his victims with incredible strength and it is only the crucifix that mutes his powers.

The demise of Helen is perhaps one of Hammer’s films most publicised and famous images. As a group of monks hold Helen down, she writhes around before a large stake is placed over heart and plunged into her. The scene could be interpreted in a number of ways – and the sexual overtones of the scene are obvious and highly suggestive. The camera captures the entire moment in full view and it still shocks and stuns today. Helen’s vampirisation also suggests the sensual and sexual qualities of the vampire. Helen’s transformation from a gentile lady into sexual creature also suggests the repressive nature of Victorian gender roles, as well as the connection of sexual freedom with bestial desire. Hammer certainly exploited this factor in their films.

The film’s ending will not be given away here but it should be noted that it is not the ending audiences would expect and delves into a little known aspect of vampire lore, which is rarely if ever considered.

Today there are many mixed reviews regarding Dracula, Prince Of Darkness. Empire Magazine makes a fair criticism that ‘once Dracula is up and about, the script can’t find much for him to do’. Fisher’s direction becomes stilted and the story loses some of its’ earlier effectiveness once the surviving Kents escape. The cast, whilst solid in performances, is perhaps missing some firepower. Keir is admirable as the authoritative Father Sandor but he is no Peter Cushing, perhaps the best Van Helsing the screen has yet to see. The usually talented Phillip Latham is not impressive as Klove and Bud Tingwell is a far better actor who is underused and actually has very little to do.

Yet there is still plenty to enjoy and all the familiar tropes and iconography of both the vampire story and Hammer productions are ever present. It’s still a great deal of fun and any opportunity to see Christopher Lee as the evil Count Dracula, eyes blazing red as he is about to strike, should never be missed.

dracula-prince-of-darkness-movie-poster-1966-1020315206

This article has been submitted for the 2018 Great Hammer-Amicus Blogathon, hosted by Gill at RealWidgieMidget and Barry from Cinematic Catharsis. Please click on the following links for access to more articles for this blogathon – http://cinematiccatharsis.blogspot.com/2018/06/the-great-hammer-amicus-blogathon-is_3.html?_sm_au_=iVVTjWN25qfkZ7QQ and https://weegiemidget.wordpress.com/2018/06/02/and-theres-more-in-hammer-amicus-blogathon-day-2/

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.

The Top Five Great Performances Of Bela Lugosi

Bela-Lugosi-biography_main1

by Paul Batters

‘To die, to be really dead…that must be glorious’ Bela Lugosi Dracula (1931)

Halloween is upon us! And without a doubt, film fans are finalising their viewing lists for the evening. I’m always interested in the carefully chosen lists of film buffs – lists that often stay thematic (or within a sub-genre) or offer a smorgasbord of horror delights or are even look quite eclectic.

For fans of classic film, the horror genre is rich with great films to enjoy, particularly during Halloween. And of course there are countless B-features and horror schlock quickies that are guilty pleasures, as well as the great classic films that broke ground and established two of horror’s greatest stars in the early 1930s – Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi.

Of these two, Karloff’s career was perhaps the more successful and long lasting. While typecast in the horror genre, Karloff was able to eventually embrace it. Lugosi was not so fortunate and perhaps did not manage his career as well as Karloff did. Despite starring in some successful film, Lugosi would sadly find a career relegated to Poverty Row films, which would dwindle in his final years to films remembered for the wrong reasons.

Despite Lugosi’s less than glamorous final years, he is immortal amongst classic horror film fans. Yes there may have been some clunkers in which he starred but Lugosi alone often pulled the film out of the doldrums simply due to his presence.

So when considering your Halloween viewing lists, consider the following performances, which I feel are his best.

Just for the record, the aim here is not to critique the films per se but Lugosi’s performances. Even a bad film can have an interesting and/or fantastic performance.

  1. Murder Legendre – White Zombie (1932)

White Zombie was an independent production by the Halperin brothers, which was not kindly received by critics at the time. Despite harsh criticism of the film’s ‘woeful acting’, most critics were positive about Lugosi’s performance and it is still the best thing about White Zombie. Since its’ initial release, it has seen in a different light and revived to some degree. At best, White Zombie is interesting with its’ creepy atmosphere and strange storyline. If it has any life in it, it’s due to the Bela Lugosi’s commanding charisma.

Looking Satanic in his goatee, with wild eyes and imposing stature, Lugosi plays the master of his domain to the hilt. The camera attempts to exploit Lugosi’s hand gestures, emphasising the use of his power over others with close-ups. Lugosi’s voice is also commanding, delivering with intimidation as his eyes burn into those upon whom he fixes his gaze. Sean Axmaker in his Jan. 2013 review of the Kino Blu-ray release of White Zombie for Parallax View makes the following observation of Lugosi:

‘…a languorous hypnotist and voodoo master who dominates the film with his assured bearing and cruel control. Not just menacing, he is ferociously vindictive, supplying the local mills with an army of zombie laborers and turning his enemies into his personal zombie servants…’

The fact that Kino has gone to the trouble of releasing a Blu-ray version of White Zombie is testament to its’ lasting success as a cult film and the fact that it still stands as one of Lugosi’s best performances.

  1. Armand Tesla – The Return Of The Vampire (1943)

 Directed by Lew Landers and released by Columbia Pictures, The Return Of The Vampire was made during a period where Columbia dabbled in a number of supernatural/horror releases. Most critics make it clear that Lugosi is obviously playing Dracula but for legal reasons (namely Universal owning the rights) the character was re-named Armand Tesla.

The Return Of The Vampire feels stranded between an A and B-feature and it is the last time Lugosi would work in such a quality picture for a major studio, not counting his last turn as Dracula for Universal in 1948’s comedy/horror Abbott And Costello Meet Frankenstein. The plot, set in London, tells of Lady Jane Ainsley (Frieda Inescort), who is being pursued by a vampire named Armand Tesla (Bela Lugosi). After wreaking havoc on her household, he is eventually pursued and a stake driven into his heart by Lady Jane and Professor Walter Saunders (Gilbert Emery). However, during World War Two, the cemetery is disturbed by air raids and gravediggers who have been ordered to re-bury the disturbed bodies find Tesla’s body and remove the stake. Tesla is revived and aided by his werewolf servant Andreas (Matt Willis), seeks out Lady Jane and the daughter of Saunders, Nikki (Nina Foch).

Despite a fairly run of the mill vampire story and, I feel, some unfair criticism, the film has some effective scenes and fairly solid production value. True, Tesla is no Dracula but Lugosi is forever the effective vampire and convincing in the role. Lugosi presents a vampire hell-bent on survival, impatient and raw in emotion, unlike the smooth, measured count of his greatest role. Better dialogue is found wanting but Lugosi makes the most with what he has and gives a strong performance.

Lugosi had always hoped for a follow-up to Dracula. There was disappointment for him with Dracula’s Daughter (1936) and though he played his famous role in Abbott And Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), Lugosi’s best days were behind him. The Return Of The Vampire was the closest he was ever going to get to a follow-up.

The final scene showing Tesla’s final demise exhibits some gruesome horror, befitting the last starring role, which Lugosi would hold for a top line studio.

  1. Dr. Vitus Werdegast – The Black Cat (1934)

When Karloff and Lugosi became stars in the early 1930s, it made sense that Universal would cash in on their success and bring the two stars together. In total, Karloff and Lugosi would work together in seven films. However, the first film they made stands as their best. Both would later add that the film stands as a personal favourite for each man.

The Black Cat (1934) is a masterpiece of the macabre. As a piece of dark poetry, it delves into the realm of perversion far more than the cornerstones of the Universal horror cycle ever did. It descends down a long staircase into the bowels of the bizarre, further darkened by themes which would not be tampered with again for many years in cinema, such as Satanism, torture, human sacrifice and necrophilia (just to name a few).

True, the film has some plot holes an ocean liner could sail through and many critics have stated how little the film resembles Edgar Allen Poe’s original story, despite the advertising using Poe’s name in promotions. But don’t let that distract you. The incredible art deco set alone is an attention-grabber and director Edgar G Ulmer creates an eerie and trance-like atmosphere, in which the young honeymooning couple Peter (David Manners) and Joan Alison (Julie Bishop) find themselves entangled. But they become a plot device for the duel between archenemies Hjalmar Poelzig (Boris Karloff) and Dr. Vitus Werdegast (Bela Lugosi), meeting again after 15 years.

Werdegast (Lugosi) is ostensibly the hero of the film, returning to seek revenge on the diabolical Poelzig (Karloff) for his terrible crimes of the past. What follows becomes a game of chess where the two pit their wits against each other, with a horrific climax to the duel that still shocks today.

Lugosi is commanding, showing the perfect balance between restraint and zeal as the revenge-seeking doctor. His channelling of Wedegast’s inner torment is well balanced by his ability to gain our sympathy, whilst his rage bubbles underneath. His first moments in the film are impressive, as Lugosi carries himself with class and charm as he meets the young couple. Early in the film, Wedegast says little in terms of his experiences as a former P.O.W but the weighting that Lugosi carefully places on each word combined with his anguished eyes is enough for the audience to understand what horrors he has survived. Not long afterwards, as the young couple and Wedegast travel on the bus from the station, the driver tells the story of the place they are heading to:

‘All of this country was one of the greatest battlefields of the war. Tens of thousands of men died here. The ravine down there was piled twelve deep with dead and wounded men. The little river below was swollen red, a raging torrent of blood. And that high hill yonder where Engineer Poelzig now lives, was the site of Fort Marmorus. He built his home on its very foundations. Marmorus, the greatest graveyard in the world!’

As the driver tells his story, Wedegast re-lives the horror of war and the personal tragedies faced, which Lugosi expresses by simply closing his eyes. Wedegast is a man who has suffered terribly and Lugosi brilliantly conveys that anguish, particularly in the final scenes of the film, where his rage bursts through and the time for masks is over. His glee is unconfined and Lugosi holds nothing back. Whilst there are moments that are disturbing, such as his caressing of Jane as she sleeps and of course the film’s climax, the audience cannot help but feel for Wedegast and the horrors he has endured.

Lugosi’s performance was in need of some tempering by Ulmer. Indeed, the moments when Lugosi encounters the black cat are hammy. According to Bret Wood in his review on TCM:

Ulmer cleverly moderated Lugosi’s performance by limiting his screen time, focusing more on reaction shots of other characters. “You had to cut away from Lugosi continuously,” Ulmer said, “to cut him down.”

I would add that if that is the case, it speaks more for Lugosi who gave Ulmer plenty to work with.

  1. Ygor – Son Of Frankenstein (1939)

Son Of Frankenstein (1939) was the last time Karloff would take on the role of the Monster and whilst an interesting and still entertaining film, it does not have the quality of the prior two and pales in comparison to James Whale’s 1935 classic The Bride Of Frankenstein. Whilst there is no doubt of its’ A-film status, there are hints of the B-films to come in the early 1940s, particularly evident in moments which show the Monster as a mindless brute following Ygor’s orders.

But for all intents and purposes, it’s a valued member of the original Frankenstein trilogy. The premise is simple enough. Baron Wolf von Frankenstein (Basil Rathbone), son of Henry Frankenstein returns to his ancestral home with his wife and son and finds the village haunted by the past and still living in fear. The Baron, also a scientist, seeks to rehabilitate his father’s memory and prove his father was correct. Exploring the castle, he discovers the evil Ygor who leads him to the Monster’s body, in a coma in the family crypt. The Baron is ecstatic but as his father before him discovered, things will not go well!

Other than his most iconic role, Lugosi as Ygor is perhaps his best. Lugosi is creepy and unsettling in his portrayal of the demented blacksmith who has survived a hanging. Our first encounter with him eerily playing his flute and then re-telling the story of his escaped execution is thoroughly memorable and off-putting. The audience’s lack of trust in Ygor is confirmed when we finally see his intentions in bringing the Monster back.

Ygor’s plan is to take revenge on those who sentenced him to death by hanging. As demented as Ygor is, he is not foolish enough to execute his plan without careful planning. He bides his time and finds the perfect tool in the Monster. In one particular scene, inflected with a touch of humour, Ygor fakes a coughing fit in order to spit in the eye of one of his accusers. It is an ominous moment, as he will enact revenge on the same man in a far more horrific way.

It is no wonder that Ygor and the Monster form a connection. Both are outcasts and like the Monster, Ygor has cheated death and hates the people of the village. Lugosi’s hideous smile barely hides his evil intentions, leaving the audience feeling uncomfortable. For all the charges made about Lugosi’s heavy accent and lack of versatility, here he uses his voice exceptionally well. Harsh, gruff and menacing in tone, Lugosi makes Ygor a fuller and meatier villain in great part due to the effective use of his voice.

Son Of Frankenstein is a high point in Lugosi’s career and arguably he would never again have such a strong role in an A-film production. J. Hoberman in the Village Voice makes the valid claim that Lugosi ‘steals the movie in his last really juicy role’.

  1. Title Role – Dracula (1931)

Dracula (1931) is the film that truly started it all. Not only would it make Lugosi a star but it would also begin the classic horror cycle and take audiences into the world of the supernatural.

Today, Dracula feels dated and even stagey, due to its’ script being based on the stage version, as well as the clunky directing by Tod Browning. The oft-repeated criticism is that it is crying out for a soundtrack and is often stilted. The climax of the film is particularly disappointing and Browning blew a great opportunity for an exciting finish.

The cast has its’ strengths. Edward Van Sloan projects authority and wisdom as the brilliant Dr Van Helsing and I would challenge anyone to find a more disturbing Renfield than the one created here by Dwight Frye, who is exceptional and haunting as the deranged slave to the vampire.

But the true strength of the film is none other than Bela Lugosi. He is supreme with authority as the commanding vampire and uses his gaze to full effect. The supposed weaknesses of his voice are at full advantage when he speaks, with the deliberation and control of one who need not rush for anyone.

The first scenes of the film are amongst its’ best. From the first appearance of Dracula himself in the decrepit bowels of his castle, as he emerges from his coffin along with his vampire wives, the audience is transported into a dark fairy tale where time seems immaterial. When Renfield arrives, he is met by the aristocratic count descending the broken staircase and speaking the cinematically immortal words, ‘I am Dracula…I bid you welcome’. Measuring Renfield carefully like a ‘spider spinning his web for the unwary fly’, Lugosi exudes menace and power as speaks of the ‘children of the night’. Every phrase spoken by Lugosi is just as measured and though he speaks seldom, Lugosi does so with purpose and he is arresting at every word.

C-9cNegW0AErNiD

The film starts to slide away when the setting steps into modern London but Lugosi still dominates and his commanding presence is fitting as a count who has lived through the ages. His psychological dual with Van Helsing still impresses and whilst his seduction of his victims is assuaged to some degree, Lugosi still brings controlled energy to each scene.

The love/hate relationship with the character would remain for Lugosi throughout his life. It would typecast him and yet it gave Lugosi his fame. It launched yet also destroy his career, although Lugosi’s choice of roles would certainly play its’ role in impacting on his career.

As wonderful as Christopher Lee and others have been in playing the infamous vampire, they are always measured against the still-haunting and mesmerising performance of Bela Lugosi.

There are quite a number of B-films, serials and even worse that Lugosi made for Poverty Row studios and independent producers. Many of them lack the production value that Lugosi was more deserving of and in some cases the films are outright terrible. Yet many of them still entertain and deserve a little more respect than what is often afforded them. In all the productions Bela Lugosi was involved with, he was the consummate professional. Most of all, he was the first true horror star, sparking off the classic horror cycle and remaining long after his passing as the Dark Prince haunting the broken battlements of his castle.

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history