Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, together for the first time!!
Stealing it’s title from an Edgar Allen Poe tale, the film actually has nothing to do with the story, despite saying it’s based on it.
Two honeymooners visiting Hungary get caught up in a a life and death struggle between the two horror icons. Lugosi is a returning prisoner of war, and shares a train carriage and transportation with the young couple.
An accident, injuring the young Allison, forces the trio to take refuge at the fortress-like home of Karloff’s Poelzig. A person with whom Lugosi’s Werdegast has a history. Poelzig betrayed his comrades in the war for profit. In a disturbing thought, Poelzig has built his modern fortress on the site of his betrayal – one of the bloodiest battles of the war.
Karloff, is not only a war-profiteer, but a Satanist as well, and plans to sacrifice the injured Allison to stave off his own death.
We also learn that while Werdegast was in prison, Poelzig stole and married his wife. When she died, after embalming her to preserver her, as well as countless others he’s sacrificed to preserve his own life, he married Werdegast’s daughter, whom Lugosi believed was dead.
Learning of Poelzig’s plan to sacrifice Allison, cat-phobe Werdegast plays chess against Werdegast to save her life.
The final sequences in which Lugosi wreaks his vengeance on Karloff, and learns of his daughter’s continued existence, is pretty disturbing. And though you do not see Werdegast truly flailing and skinning Poelzig alive, you see the shadow, and hear some troubling sound effects. I can only imagine the effect that this horror movie had on its viewing audience at the time.
Despite the addition of the Satanist storyline, the film deals with some pretty heavy themes, the ideas of death, revenge, betrayal, war profiteering, and not to mention the ick factor knowing Poelzig married Werdegast’s wife, and then his daughter. GAH!
Watching Karloff’s brooding brow face off against Lugosi’s domineering gaze is a lot of fun as they go mano a mano not only physically but intellectually as well over the chess board was a great.
While not the strongest entry in the 101 Horror Movies, the combination of these two giants and the themes makes it a worthwhile watch.