It was a rainy morning in 1932 when Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, the men behind two of the most legendary screen monsters, would official...

Clash of the Titans: Karloff and Lugosi in The Raven and The Black Cat

It was a rainy morning in 1932 when Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, the men behind two of the most legendary screen monsters, would officially meet at Universal City. The two posed for publicity stills in their dapper tuxedos, bandied words and finally made a wager as to who could scare the other to death. While the tone was subdued, the meeting would hit on the palpable rivalry that would exist between Karloff and Lugosi for years to come; a rivalry clearly displayed in their collaboration on Universal's The Black Cat and The Raven.

In The Black Cat, Karloff plays Hjalmar Poelzig, a satanic cult leader who plays a game of chess with Lugosi’s Dr. Werdegast for the soul of a young woman Poelzig wants to sacrifice to Satan. Dr. Werdegast wants his wife Karen, who Poelzig ran off with, and his daughter.

It is revealed that though Karen is dead, Poelzig has made her daughter (also named Karen) his wife. The film ends with a startling clash between Karloff ad Lugosi, as Dr. Werdegast flays Poelzig alive for killing his daughter Karen.

In their next feature, The Raven, Lugosi would play Dr. Richard Vollen, an eccentric surgeon with a taste for Poe. Vollen has built Poe’s various contraptions of torture and death, including a pendulum and room where the walls come together to crush the unlucky inhabitant.

Karloff plays Edmond Bateman, a criminal on the run who comes to Dr. Vollin for a new face. The film from here on out plays strangely like a retelling of Frankentstein, as Dr. Vollen severs Bateman’s facial nerves, turning him into a hideous monster. It is here where the success of the film can be found, as Lugosi once again takes up his Dracula hat and Karloff brings back a touch of the monster audiences had grown to love.

Both The Black Cat and The Raven reveal the essential difference between Karloff and Lugosi that would lead to one’s stardom and the other’s downfall. What separated Karloff from Lugosi was his “uncanny” ability to change characters from film to film. Karloff could play the broken voiced gangster of The Raven or the haunting Satanist of The Black Cat without a trace of the creature he was so famous for portraying on the silver screen. In essence Karloff could separate himself from the character of Frankenstein in a way Bela Lugosi could not leave Dracula behind.
Both Dr. Werdegast of The Black Cat and Dr. Richard Vollin of The Raven are essentially Dracula. As Dr. Vollin recites the opening lines of Poe’s “The Raven”, the viewer is reminded of Dracula’s dulcet tones exhorting Jonathan Harker to enjoy the “ children of the night [and the] sweet music they make” The majority of Lugosi’s film roles have him ghosting Dracula in the tradition of personality actors like Woody Allen or Christopher Walken. This might be why several posters for The Raven bill Boris Karloff as simply “Karloff” and Lugosi as “Bela (Dracula) Lugosi”

The difference between Karloff as character actor and Lugosi as personality actor can best be seen through the eyes of Mary Sharon who interviewed both men. Sharon was anxious about her interview with Karloff and felt that based on his portrayal Frankenstein’s monster their encounter would be “repellant” and “aloof” But counter to her expectations, Sharon found Karloff to the be “the most amazing man in Hollywood…because he can play the most abnormal, horrible characterizations without being affected by them

Conversely Sharon’s interview with Bela Lugosi had the opposite effect: “Bela Lugosi, who played Dracula, was Dracula at heart. Meeting him under normal circumstances did not destroy that sinister something that enabled him to play his weird character so convincingly”

Further Reading:
George William Mank. Karloff and Lugosi: The Story of a Haunting Collaboration. McFarland and Company: London, 1990.

1 comment:

  1. Fascinating... I dig all the movies these two did together, but my favorite is The Body Snatcher.