Director: Edgar G. Ulmer
Starring: Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, David Manners, Julie Bishop
Starring: Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, David Manners, Julie Bishop
While Peter and Joan Alison are traveling in a train across Eastern Europe on their honeymoon, they by chance meet Dr. Vitus Verdegast. All of the other rooms on the train are overly occupied, so the two newlyweds agree to let the peculiar man to stay in theirs for the trip. After they both drift off to sleep, Peter awakens to Vitus gently running his palm over Joan's head. Once he realizes he has been caught, Vitus tells Peter of how he had to leave his wife and go to war for fifteen years.
The night brings a violent storm, and once out of the train, Peter, Joan and Vitus get on a bus to meet their destinations, which they never make. The storm causes the driver to spin out of control, tipping the bus over just off the windy, narrow and muddy road. The driver is killed from the accident, and Joan is injured and unconscious. Vitus tells Peter of someone he knows close-by where they can take Joan to safety.
They arrive at a massive mansion atop of hill, with some sickeningly creative and ahead of its time architecture on the inside, and Vitus claims it has the atmosphere of death about it. The owner is Hjalmar Poelzig, who has a past with Vitus that seems less than healthy. After Peter and Joan situated for the night, Vitus and Hjalmar have a few things to talk about, such as the whereabouts of his wife and child.
Vitus already knows that his wife was led to believe of his death while at war, due to Hjalmar always having love for her, wanting to steal her away. Well, Poelzig says that the wife and child died 3 years after the war, and takes Vitus down into a grainy dungeon like room to prove it; which is where the wife's body is preserved in a glass like coffin, along with a few other lovely dead women. Vitus loses his cool and begins tossing threats. However, there's a few things that he doesn't know about that happened while he was away, nor does he know about the sinister plans Hjalmar has in store for the new visitors in his house that bleeds with the aura of death.
The introduction of Karloff and Lugosi's characters (Hjalmar and Vitus) is damn brilliant, as is the secret style twists of good and evil of them both as the film progresses. For a very long time, you are not sure which one of them is good or crazy, or if both of them are the farthest from good and in fact, completely insane.
Lugosi, at first glance, looks to be the more normal of the two; dressed up kindly, with a usual face and a soft, beautiful accent. We learn later that he has the highest form of cat phobia known. At when seeing one, he cringes up into a state of fright, disgust and madness, and will do anything to get it out of his site, even killing it.
Karloff's entrance into the film is amazing, as in the shadows of his room, he rises from the bed like lifting from a coffin. As Hjalmar enters the room where Vitus is giving Joan a shot, the door opens and he walks in looking like walking death and evil. Yet, he does seem to have a strange, perhaps forbidden charm about himself. One of the most genuine moments takes place outside, where we get a beautiful shot of clouds pouring through a full moon on one of the most blasphemous nights in history. Then the camera brilliantly drops down ever so slowly to a side shot of Karloff looking into the night sky, appearing just as evil as the devilish deeds he's about to conduct. Fantastic filmmaking.
Of course, this is one film where both actors dish out pure magic and madness for the fans, and there's not one moment of disappointment anytime either of them are onscreen. But every moment they are shown together is attention-grabbing full on intensity, whether it is dialogue or the brawl between the two in the finale. I was expecting a bit more during the battle of concentration and wits between the two over a match of chess to determine a certain outcome. It just kind of happens, and then it is over with. But this is when Peter learns that Hjalmar has no intensions of letting he and his wife leave his house, as the car is broken down, the phone is dead (brilliant line from Karloff here "You see, Vitus, even the phone... is dead.") and the two servants block the door during an attempted escape.
David Manners and Julie Bishop show true sincerity and affection towards each other as newlyweds, Peter and Joan Alison. One particular charming moment between them takes place early on, in the train before Vitus makes his appearance. Peter asks Joan if she is hungry. Not wanting to seem needy or a hassle, she says no. He agrees he is not either, and after a few seconds of staring and comfortable silence, they burst out giggling to each other, both confessing they are starving. Maybe it sounds cheesy, but moments like this are genuine, and are sadly forgotten.
Unfortunately, neither Manners nor Bishop are given a whole lot to do in a film that is just five minutes over an hour long. Once Karloff and Lugosi are fully presented, they become the main element of the plot (Bishop's character more so than Manners), but nearly as vague as the other intriguing yet, small characters. The Lt. and Sergeant that show up to Hjalmar's house with questions about the bus accident are terrific filler, though, and they are only in the film for about five minutes. Nevertheless, it is a nice pause for some comic relief.
The scene of Hjalmar walking through his dimly lit dungeon-esque lair underneath the mansion is without doubt, the most eerie moment here (aside from Karloff's truly terrifying gazing looks). He walks slowly, holding a black cat firmly in his arms petting it ever so gently, going up to each glass coffin staring at his female corpses as if they were the most beautiful forms of art ever conceived. The creepiest point about this moment is observing the scenery closely; a few times, you can catch a glance of the well-preserved women swaying back in forth in their small glass cages. Goosebump inducing.
The movie has an ultra slick change of atmosphere from the rainy night storm, to the brightly lit modern looking house, to the bleak and damp dungeon. Lots of nice scenery, and a couple of really cool shots. To note one, on the ride in the bus we get a nice POV sequence from outside the front window on the hood, straight ahead with the main focus being speckled raindrops and the muddy road. It only lasts for a few seconds, but it was highly effective; not to mention the same style shots are emulated today on a much higher scale budget,
I definitely give a high recommendation on this gem of a film, especially for Uni fans and Karloff/Lugosi enthusiasts. It barely resembles the Poe story, which I honestly have not gazed upon since middle school. What it does accomplish, though, is frame by frame plunging deeper and deeper into evil setting and plot. Not to be missed.