*. “Based on the immortal classic by Edgar Allan Poe.” Well, I guess. Though I’d have gone for “inspired by” or “suggested by” ahead of “based on.” There isn’t much Poe here. Even the character of Dupin (Leon Ames) isn’t a detective but only a medical student.
*. Poe has received indifferent treatment at the hands of filmmakers. This was to be the first of a trilogy of Poe-inspired horrors by Universal, the next two being The Black Cat (1934) and The Raven (1935). Neither of them had much to do with Poe. Nor did Roger Corman’s Poe cycle. Or the P.O.E. movies. He was really just a name to conjure an audience with. Much like Lovecraft.
*. This is a movie with an interesting back story. Originally Robert Florey was to direct Frankenstein, with Lugosi as the star. That fell through for various reasons and this movie became a kind of consolation prize. It was not as big a hit with audiences or critics, and today is far less well known. Nevertheless it does have some admirable qualities.
*. These come courtesy mainly of cinematographer Karl Freund. Freund was a pioneer of the moving camera, and that opening dolly shot taking us into the carnival is quite impressive. More than that, however, the movie ha a rich visual atmosphere that makes heavy use of strange sets, lighting, fog, and shadow. Strange, but not as exaggerated as in parts of Frankenstein, or, more obviously, that landmark of German expressionism The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.
*. In his book The Monster Show film historian David J. Skal calls this movie “the purest homage to the Caligari style that Hollywood would ever produce.” Yes, and it’s more than just style, which is expressionist but restrained. The story here is also far more Caligari than it is Poe, with a weirdo sideshow barker named Dr. Mirakle (Lugosi) being the master not of a homicidal somnambulist but an ape named Erik. This ape can be sent, like Cesare, off to kidnap women and carry them back to Dr. Mirakle to perform his experiments on.
*. The nature of these experiments is hard to figure out. As I understand it he wants to inject the kidnapped women with ape blood, which will then allow him to breed them (the women) with Erik as a way of demonstrating the truth of the theory of evolution. Strange, and more than a little sick. Though while censors objected to a lot of what was going on (this was pre-Code), I’m not sure they flagged this. Perhaps they didn’t understand any more of it than I did.
*. The absurdity of the plot should just be ignored though, as I think everyone ignores the plot of Caligari. This is a great movie to look at, much more so than Dracula or even Frankenstein. And the effects are up to snuff as well. The monkey business, for example, is rendered by mixing in close-ups of a chimp’s face with full-body shots of a man in a gorilla suit. I know it sounds silly, but it’s surprisingly effective. And the process work on the rooftop at the end is first-rate as well. Just as good as stuff being done decades later.
*. Bela Lugosi. I’m sorry, but I’m not a fan. I’ve read a lot of praise for his performance here but he only seems to me to be hamming it up as he usually does, this time behind a truly remarkable unibrow. (He’d have a similar brow as Murder Legendre in White Zombie, which came out the same year. I don’t know if he just kept it on.) Not that Dr. Mirakle is a character with any depth anyway.
*. Some interesting side notes. John Huston is credited with “added dialogue” but he later confessed that he only tried to give the script more of a period feel and that Florey rejected most of what he wrote as being too stilted. Bette Davis auditioned for the part of Camille but was rejected by Carl Laemmle Jr. due to her “lack of sex appeal.” So much for those Bette Davis eyes. The role would go to Sidney Fox, who is very good.
*. There have long been rumours that it was heavily cut but the AFI apparently looked into this and couldn’t find any proof that it ever ran any longer than 62 minutes, which is the version we have now. I found it quite a lot of fun, but as I’ve said it’s a movie to be looked at rather than followed for any kind of story or because any of the characters hold our interest. Definitely worth checking out, but you can see why it missed becoming a classic.