Hungarian-born actor Bela Lugosi is best remembered for his iconic role as the first proper screen Dracula in Tod Browning’s legendary 1931 Universal horror classic. His subsequent career was fairly undistinguished as he drifted through any number of forgettable horror B-movies, his career progress frustrated by his thick, often impenetrable Hungarian accent which limited his casting potential and the typecasting which inevitably followed in the wake of his career-defining role as Transylvania’s most notorious blood-sucker. His filmography is littered with films where he played second string to the more bankable (and understandable) Boris Karloff and by the mid-thirties he was reduced to appearing in forgettable low budget thrillers. Curiously enough, even though American studios didn’t seem to know what to do with Lugosi, he received better treatment when he came to the UK towards the end of the decade, starring in a couple of ersatz British horror thrillers; 1935’s The Mystery of the Mary Celeste (one of the earliest films from what would become Hammer studios) and 1939’s The Dark Eyes of London, based on the novel by Edgar Wallace, produced by Argyle Films and shot at the now long-gone Welwyn Studios.
The Dark Eyes of London (released in the USA under the more lurid title The Human Monster to capitalise on its horror movie trappings and Lugosi’s lingering appeal in the genre) was the first British film to receive an 'H' classification – Horrific for Public Exhibition and, of course, nearly 75 years later it’s very tame and tepid stuff indeed. The film is actually a curious combination of mystery thriller and horror movie. Lugosi plays Dr Orloff, a London life insurance agent who comes under suspicion from Scotland Yard - particularly the determinedly-RP Detective Inspector Larry Holt (Hugh Williams) - when corpses are found in the river Thames and it transpires that they were all insured by Orloff with the nearby Dearborn Home for the Blind as their sole beneficiary. The home is run by the soft-spoken, blind Dearborn – he seems strangely familiar – and one of the gloomy premises’ residents is the hideously-deformed Jake (Wilfred Walter). It’s only when Diane (Greta Gynt), daughter of one of the deceased men, secures employment at the home that Orloff and Dearborn’s secret becomes apparent but Diane is now herself in deadly danger as the extent of Orloff’s schemes is revealed.
The Dark Eyes of London is a nicely-mounted, well-paced little thriller with some satisfyingly lurid moments of suspense and melodrama. It’s good to see Lugosi being given more to do than usual (we won’t spoil the twist here even if it’s glaringly obvious from the outset) and he is suitably sinister as the plausible, oily Orloff and Greta Glynt glistens as the lively Diane and the scene where she is menaced by the looming Jake is still quite menacing. It’s the themes and plot contrivances that deliver the chills here and probably earned the film its 1939 H rating; it’s a morbid and macabre piece in its own way, a classic ‘penny dreadful’ thriller still capable of entertaining and diverting across its relatively brief running time and if nothing else it’s a reminder that Lugosi, given the right material, could really shine as a cold and calculating screen presence.
This new Network BluRay release finally gives the film the care and attention it deserves. The picture and sound are clean and crisp and the film is supported by a chatty commentary from Kim Newman and Stephen Jones who also deliver a competitive visual feature discussing ‘Lugosi in the UK.’ The package also includes a booklet written by Adrian Smith, poster postcards, trailers, image galleries and all the bells and whistles you could reasonably expect from a relatively-obscured film of this vintage.