After the successes of Dracula (1931) and Frankenstein (1931) Universal Studios and Carl Laemmle, Jr. became anxious to produce vehicles for Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff. After seeing unsatisfactory test footage for an early run at Frankenstein, Laemmle had sacked both director Robert Florey and actor Lugosi from that project. To make amends, Laemmle assigned Florey and Lugosi Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932) and teamed them with cinematographer Karl Freund, who had done extensive work in German Expressionist cinema, including The Golem (1920, d. Paul Wegener), The Last Laugh (1924, d. F.W. Murnau) and Metropolis (1927, d. Fritz Lang).
Murders in the Rue Morgue was the first of an Edgar Allan Poe-inspired trilogy starring Lugosi, followed by The Black Cat (1934, d. Edgar G.Ulmer) and The Raven (1935, d. Lew Landers). The star and Freund’s camera (barely) save the film from Florey’s banal touch. Lugosi’s Dr. Mirakle is a far cry from the Count in his evening tux. Adorned in curly top, unibrow, and carnivalesque mad scientist duds, Mirakle is a Darwinist pervert who seeks to mate a young woman with his Adam-like Ape, Erik, through some kind of mumbo-jumbo blood transfusion. Of course, Mirakle really gets his jollies by tying attractive, barely legal-aged girls to a king’s cross before penetrating them with a needle. Naturally, there are failed experiments before Mirakle thinks he has found Eve in Sidney Fox. Fox, a delicate, saccharine actress, is pure decor. No doubt she got the role via her engagement to a Universal Executive, whom she wedded later that year (it proved to be a stormy marriage, ending in the actress’ suicide in 1934).
A lurid, ludicrous plot is made worse by excessive babbling from a wretched supporting cast. Lugosi supplies an essential touch of rudimentary European mystery through non-acting tricks and his bewitching deconstruction of the English language. A Cabinet of Dr. Calagri-eque chase scene across the Paris rooftops and a brutal knife fight over a prostitute (with the startling visage of a voyeuristic Mirakle descending from the fog) are stylishly executed. Florey lacked James Whale‘s narrative rhythm and Tod Browning‘s authentic empathy. The result is a case of style over substance, with the style supplied by others.
“When I first met Karloff, I felt this incredible wave of sadness. His eyes were like shattered mirrors. Whatever his pain was, it was very deep and very much a part of his soul. I never intruded and he was always a perfect gentleman.” Zita Johann on Boris Karloff
Meanwhile, Karl Freund was finally given the chance to direct. His The Mummy (1932) is saddled with an almost equally silly plot, but in Freund’s hands, it comes across as pure grand-guignol poetry. It was made by most of the same team who worked on Dracula, and is, essentially, a reworking of that story by the same writer, John L. Balderstein. Crusty Edward Van Sloan (who played Van Helsing) and chiseled David Manners (Harker) virtually reprise their roles. Like Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Mummy opens with Dracula‘s curious theme music: Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake.”
Freund creates an ominous, ambiguous, and static mood, which is refreshingly anti-commercial. Universal thought so as well. This was his first and last directorial assignment for them. Karloff’s Imhotep exudes eroticism, even through 3,000 years of masterfully stretched flesh courtesy of makeup genius Jack Pierce, perfectly caught in the film’s gorgeously lit black and white. The actor’s performance is nuanced, menacing and simultaneously sympathetic. His yearning for the tenebrous, commanding Zita Johann is entirely convincing. Johann is Karloff’s most perfect female lead. Despite the doomed setup, their chemistry elevates us past the hokum. Unfortunately, they only worked together once, but they do constitute one the silver screen’s most original couples; a sort of Grimm’s Valentine. Several scenes, depicting the history of the lovers was excised and, unfortunately lost. Rather, we are saddled with too much of that suburban bore; David Manners. Universal, as per the norm, sadistically allows him to live and get the girl.