November 6, 2010


With the recent release of the Fantomas collection from Kino International, Halloween last weekend, and a new Richard Sala book around the corner, It's been macabre mystery mania here at the Spy Vibe lair. I unfortunately missed the debut of the new Sherlock Holmes, but I have been busy enjoying the thrills and intrigue of classic French characters like Fantomas and Judex. Fans familiar with the penny dreadful tradition of serialized pulp fiction will hopefully recognize this rogue's gallery of mystery villains and avengers. If you have made the leap to an eReader, you might want to check out one of the many original Fantomas novels available on-line (many are priced around $1.00). You can even read them on your smart phone with Kindle's free app!

Spy Vibe wraps up Macabre Mystery Week with clips from two excellent film adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe starring Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff. In addition to the wonderfully dark storytelling and the charisma of these two classic Horror stars, both films feature imaginative and modern set designs. In The Raven (1935), Lugosi plays a surgeon who is driven mad by his love for a young woman he saved. His character is obsessed with Poe and a hidden lair of traps and chambers lies just behind the secret door in his bookcase. The mad doctor has built a working pendulum from The Pit and the Pendulum, and, while the contractors were there anyway, he went the extra distance to install one of those little rooms with walls that come crushing in. Throw Boris Karloff into the mix as a disfigured henchman and you have quite a nasty little treasure of a movie for the Halloween season.

Architecture fans will be even more excited to see The Black Cat (1934). In this story, Karloff plays an evil designer who has constructed a vast, modern home on the site of his old camp from WWI. The rooms sport contrasting curves and geometric lines, as well as Star Trek-like sliding doors. Down a spiral staircase below this marvel, however, lies hidden, angular chambers that resemble the bomb-shelter inspired designs of Ken Adam (James Bond series). The space is made creepier by its war-time roots, not to mention Karloff's collection of ladies preserved in glass cases (including the wife of Lugosi's character!). Well, you can imagine they have a lot to talk about. Did I mention the mad designer is also a satanist cult leader? This movie has it all. The film's production team included designer Edgar Ulmer, who also worked on Fritz Lang's M, Spies, Metropolis, and on Murnau's Sunrise. The art director of The Black Cat was Charles Hall, well-known for his many moody projects for Universal, including The Cat and the Canary, The Old Dark House, Dracula, Frankenstein, The Invisible Man, and The Bride of Frankenstein.

Here is a useful overview of the films from Monster Madness. I think Spy Vibers will enjoy the overall style of both movies and their use of adventure/thriller conventions. The Black Cat stairway photo still is from designer Quang Truong's post on modernism, The Black Cat, and Jacques Tati. More about set design and Ken Adam at Spy Vibe's article Set For Adventure here.

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