17 September 2005 | GulyJimson
Starring that Master of Horror, Stanley Ridges! Oh, and Karloff and Lugosi are in it too.
This is not a bad film; it's a serviceable "B" thriller. In fact it is very reminiscent of the fine Columbia Studios Boris Karloff mad doctor/gangster/horror films of the late Thirties and early Forties. Curt Siodmak collaborated with Eric Taylor on a script variation of his "Donavan's Brain" theme. It has the polished look of some of Universal Studio's best "B" movies. Arthur Lubin's direction is competent-he keeps it moving along-but lacks the zest he would bring to the 1943 remake of "The Phantom of The Opera" starring Claude Rains. It has a good supporting cast that includes the lovely Anne Nagel, Paul Fix, Stanley Ridges, and in a brief role as the reporter who is the recipient of Dr. Sovac's notes, James Craig. Most important of all, and this cannot be overstated, it stars Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, the greatest horror team the cinema has produced. At least that is what the credits would have us believe. And this is where the film unfortunately goes all wrong. Karloff and Lugosi were a team with a fine pedigree; "The Black Cat" (1934) "The Raven" (1935) "The Invisable Ray" (1936) and their greatest collaboration, "Son of Frankenstein" (1939). They even did bits together in two slight films, "The Gift of Gab" (1935) and "You'll Find Out" (1940) with Peter Lorre. The chemistry the two generated in their scenes together in their horror films was terrific. Lugosi with his daemonic will to power and Karloff with his unique ability to combine the sinister with the sympathetic have delighted audiences for over seventy years. So it is not unnatural that devotees of their films would approach "Black Friday" with extremely high expectations. And for those expecting another Karloff-Lugosi teaming the disappointment, the sense of being cheated, is enormous. "Black Friday" is not a Karloff-Lugosi film despite what the opening credits suggest. Not only do they not share any scenes together, but Bela is relegated to the perfunctory, unimportant role of Marnay with very little to do except to try to look and act like an American gangster, who coincidently just happens to sound like Count Dracula. So what happened?
It has long been rumored that Karloff was originally going to play the duel role of Prof. Kingsley/Red Cannon-the best part in the film-and Lugosi was to play Dr. Ernest Sovac-the part Karloff eventually took. This would make sense. Sovac has a Hungarian name, so Lugosi's accent would not have seemed out of place and also his daughter makes reference to his being in the process of gaining American citizenship while the Kingsley/Cannon part would have provided Karloff with a nice variation of the type of roles he had been playing at Columbia. Instead for reasons that remain a mystery, Karloff got bumped to the Sovac role-Hungarian name still intact, Lugosi got the thankless part of Marnay while Stanley Ridges, an actor no one wanted to see got the plum role of Kingsley/Cannon! Who was responsible for this ineptitude? Ridges was a good actor with a fine speaking voice, and he had a career in supporting roles, usually playing minor officials or bureaucrats but no one in their right mind would ever think about building a film around him, certainly not a horror film. Not from a box-office point of view. Not when you have the talents of BOTH Karloff and Lugosi on the payroll. Then to add insult to injury when the film didn't perform to expectations instead of blaming it's failure on the moronic casting-imagine MGM casting Marie Dressler to play Juliet and then wondering what went wrong-the studio heads chose instead to believe the Karloff-Lugosi team was no longer box-office. It was a sad end to a great horror collaboration, and the disappointment of Karloff and Lugosi fans is thoroughly understandable.
Unfortunately while the miscasting is the most grievous flaw, it is not the only one. There are other problems at work undermining the film. The most serious being it completely lacks any atmosphere of horror. Like many of Universal's Forties fare the film is slick and professional but utterly lacking in any style. This can be deadly in a horror film. As mentioned before the direction is serviceable while the score-always one of the strong points of the Universal horror films-is simply stock music and forgettable, except when it recycles some of Hans J. Salter's themes from earlier horror films. The same might be said of Elwood Bredell's cinematography-its serviceable but nothing more. And that pretty much sums up this last teaming of Karloff and Lugosi in a Universal horror film. Its serviceable and nothing more and thats sad because with a little more thought and care-and more intelligent casting-it could have been quite good. It is somewhat ironic that RKO Pictures, Universals great horror competitor of the Forties actually provided a more fitting coda for the Karloff-Lugosi team in the beautifully atmospheric 1945 Val Lewton production of "The Body Snatcher". They have only one real scene together but it showcases both stars. And it gives Lugosi, in ill health and drug-ridden as he was, one last chance to show the world he was a fine actor and not just a flamboyant personality.