Black Friday (1940)

Lugosi and Karloff don't even meet in Universal Horror's poor attempt to mix horror and gangster pictures. Universal R1 Lugosi boxset.

The Film

While Universal dominated the horror story during the 1930s, their rivals Warner were busy with Gangster pictures. Hoping to capitalise on this popular genre, Universal decided to put their two big horror stars into a horror themed gangster picture.

In the small US town of Newcastle where Dr. Ernest Sovac (Boris Karloff) offers a lift to his friend Professor George Kingsley, an absent minded professor at the local University. Driving through the town, tragedy strikes as Kingsley is run down during a drive-by gang shooting - Sovac takes Kingsley and the injured gangster, Red Cannon, to the hospital where he realises that the only way to save his friend is to transplant part of the crippled gangster's brain into Kingsley's head. Kingsley is recovering from the incident when Sovac discovers that parts of Reds's personality seem to be showing themselves in Kinsley; he also finds out that Red was an infamous New York gangster with $500,000 reportedly hidden away somewhere before he died. Hoping to reawaken that part of Red's brain that contained the whereabouts of the money, Sovac takes him to New York city where Kinsley starts to suffer from a Jekyll/Hyde effect as he switches personality between himself and the ruthless gangster. As Red, he sets out to track down the members of his gang that killed him, including Eric Marnay (Bela Lugosi), but as Kinsley he becomes weaker all the time. Sovac is forced to play his cards carefully as he tries to use Red to track down the money, without killing his friend or getting caught...

The trailer for this picture proudly declares that Bela Lugosi was hypnotised in his role so that his death scene would have a real authenticity as he was convinced that he was really suffocating to death - whether true or not seems to matter little as the scene in the final film is only a few seconds long. This was one of many missed opportunities in Black Friday - more notable is that this was the last time that Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff would be cast together under the Universal Studios banner and they never actually meet in the film.

The plot itself is a mixed bag, it has an interesting synopsis - a modern day mad scientist story with a gangster background - but suffers from clunky dialogue. On the plus side, characterisation is strong and although the plot drifts along slowly, the story does keep you hooked and it is interesting to find out how Dr. Sovac comes to be headed for the electric chair, as seen in the prologue. On the down side there are plenty of gaping plot holes (as Red, Kinsley no longer needs his glasses and becomes super fit?), a lack of good gangster shootouts and some of the dialogue is just terrible; when Sovac asks his daughter why she hasn't guessed yet that he transplanted the brain of a gangster in to that of his best friend, you know the film is lost.

The film's direction does little to lift the affair, director Arthur Lubin was more at home with comedy than horror and an overabundence of spinning newspapers will leave you dizzy. On the plus side, the generic mix of Universal studio music is fitted well to the film and works quite well to build up some excitement.

Although originally cast in the lead role, Karloff turned it down considering it too complex for his acting abilities. Character actor Stanley Ridges was cast in the role and plays it very well, managing to convince as both sides of his personality. Karloff moved into the role of Sovac, that Lugosi was originally to have played and with his experience of playing mad Frankensteinesque characters he fits the part well, starting as a friend, but becoming completely obsessed with finding the money. Lugosi was bumped off the top of the cast list and ends up in the role of gangster Marnay where he looks totally out of place alongside the three American fellow gangsters and gets too little screentime.

An interesting but flawed film. A good concept is let down by some gaping plot holes, a poor script and flat direction with far too many spinning newspapers. Universal Horror fans will find this worth watching once but are unlikely to want to revisit it often. Lugosi fans will likely be disappointed with the actor's awkward casting and lack of screentime.

In Brief
Anyone famous in it? Bela Lugosi - the most famous Hungarian export, best known for his leading role in Dracula (1931)
Boris Karloff - a legend of horror cinema and best known for his defining role in Frankenstein (1931)
Directed by anyone interesting? Arthur Lubin directed many of Universal's Abbott and Costello pictures in the 1940s.
Any gore or violence ? None.
Any sex or nudity? None.
Who is it for? Universal Horror fans might want to check this out, but it doesn't come recommended.

Visuals Original Aspect Ratio - 1.33:1 fullscreen. Black and White.
The print quality is okay, occasional speckles and scratches but never unwatchable. Not as good as some of Universal's other releases, but far superior to any public domain prints.
Audio English language original mono sound. Strong and clear.
Subtitles English HOH, French and Spanish.
Extras The disc includes:
  • Original trailer - 1m 58s - low quality, but containing some footage not used in the final film promoting the gimmick that Lugosi was hypnotised during filming to think he was really being killed.
Availability Only avaliable in The Bela Lugosi Collection boxset.
Region Region 1 (USA, North America) - NTSC
Other regions? None known.
Cuts? None known. The print is English language.



All text in this review written by Timothy Young - 24th May 2006.
Text from this review not to be used without authorization.

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