AKA: Black Friday (1940) [Original title]
AKA: Viernes 13 (1940) [Spanish language title]
AKA: Vendredi 13 (1940) [French language title]
AKA: Sexta-Feira 13 (1940) [Portuguese language title]
AKA: Fekete pÚntek (1940) [Hungary]
AKA: Svarta fredagen (1940) [Sweden]
AKA: Schwarzer Freitag (1940) [West Germany]
(Premiere Date: February 29, 1940 Chicago, Illinois)
(Release Date: April 12, 1940)
That's kind of how I felt when I realized I had run out of Jason movies to review after I promised readers that I'd give them a Friday the 13th review every Friday the 13th without fail. Thus I had to start reviewing flicks like Saturday the 14th, Friday the 13th: The Orphan, Shriek If You Know What I Did Last Friday the Thirteenth and Friday the Thirteenth. But in the case of this Friday the 13th's epic review, a 1940 horror film, the working title of which was Friday the 13th it was most assuredly a bad luck day for the second billed "star" Bela Lugosi.
The erstwhile Dracula was originally cast as the lead in this film, Doctor Ernest Sovac while Boris Karloff (the erstwhile Frankenstein) was cast as the second biggest character in the film, Professor George Kingsley. Thus the horror greats were reunited on screen once again.
Except for one thing... Karloff was reportedly very unconvincing in the role of Kingsley and was replaced by actor Stanley Ridges. Too bad for Karloff, right? Wrong. Too bad for Lugosi, because Universal Studios gave Karloff the part Lugosi had been playing and demoted Lugosi to the much, much smaller role of gangster Eric Marnay.
While it's true that they could've simply traded parts, anyone familiar with just how Karloff became the star of Frankenstein (instead of Lugosi) knows that Lugosi just didn't have very good luck on Friday the 13th or any other day.
Thus, the movie, eventually renamed Black Friday (though it kept the "Friday the 13th" moniker throughout the rest of the world) was released with Lugosi still second billed (under Karloff), but in a greatly reduced capacity. That said, those who call Lugosi's part of Marnay "a minor role" are somewhere between the extremes of "Whistlin' Dixie" and "just plain full of bullshit. Sure Lugosi might not be up to second billing status here, but his role is nothing if not pivotal and vital to the plot. Take that Haters.
That said, in spite of the fact that this film was directed by Arthur Lubin (1943's Phantom of the Opera) and written by the prolific scripters Edmund L. Hartmann, Eric Taylor and most notably, Universal's go-to horror author Curt Siodmak (best known for 1941's The Wolf Man and many of its sequels and associated films), Black Friday is a relatively far-fetched and underwhelmingexperiment in shocking and suspenseful storytelling.
Yes, there is a pretty damned good reason that Black Friday (by any name) isn't exactly known as one of the big Universal Studios Classic Horror films. Oh, hey, don't get me wrong, it's not that bad and there are some shining moments here, but there are also a lot of missed opportunities and flat moments.
Check this premise out... a mild-mannered English Professor (Kingsley) is killed when a gangster shootout causes the evil mobster Red Cannon to run him over (in an admittedly fantastic stunt), Kingsley's best friend Dr. Sovac (Karloff) is assigned to care for both patients as they barely cling to life.
So what does Sovac do? Well, the star of Frankenstein decides on a BRAIN TRANSPLANT in order to save his buddy's life. That's right... a brain transplant. He puts the evil mobster's brain into the nice guy professor's head in order to save the nice guy professor. Now, correct me if I'm wrong, but wouldn't that pretty much kill the professor and give the gangster his life back in a new body?
Well, yeah, that's pretty much what happens, but that's totally unexpected to Karloff. Maybe it's because he only replaced part of the brain. Weird, huh?
Well before too long good old Kingsley develops a split personality with Cannon taking over at inopportune times. Meanwhile, the illegally experimenting surgeon doesn't fight these transformations and, in fact, encourages them so that he can get his hands on the bad guy's hidden $500,000 stash. He figures that with that kind of money he could create his own laboratory and continue his own illegal experiments.
So, yeah, nice guy, good best friend to have, provided that you like your best friends cutting into your brain and possessing you with evil dead guys.
In short... he's kind of a dick.
Aside from that really good quality (and sadly uncredited) stunt toward the beginning of the film, the real standout here is the acting of Stanley Ridges. With only a change in hairstyle and the removal of his glasses, Ridges becomes a completely different person when the poetic and proper Kingsley morphs into the sadistic and violent Cannon. Toward the beginning of this Jekyll and Hyde-like saga, I actually believed that the roles were being played by two different actors.
Karloff does a typically dignified and fine job (though not his best work) as the "good doctor" and Lugosi is remarkably convincing as the menacing and brutal rival Gang boss, but the fact that Ridges' name isn't billed higher than Lugosi is something of a crime in and of itself.
Black Friday (the 13?) is also unique in its portrayals of the transformation between separate personalities. Although far fetched (why the hell does Ridges' hair suddenly turn slick and greasy when he becomes Cannon, but goes back to curly and wild spontaneously when Kingsley takes over?), the transformation itself is interesting and is far from merely a snap of the fingers.
The "horror" in this film is much more in the vein of suspense and gangster-style action. Surely this film qualifies as "horror" at least in the somewhat supernatural (or, at least, creepy) premise. Further, the violence and cruelty we see on screen is, in itself, pretty disturbing. That said, this is a far cry from the Slasher/ Splatter flicks of the films that share a title with this black and white 1940 film.
Crystal Lake, this is not. Then again, the acting here is overall much better than what you'd expect to get from the namesake hockey mask franchise. Three Stars out of Five for Friday the 13th, AKA Black Friday.
This may not be Lugosi or Karloff's best, but watching Ridges go from Kingsley to Cannon and back (and never knowing when this transformation might happen and what might be at stake) is a real pleasure to watch and have fun with. So until Siodmak's estate revises Frankenstein meets the Wolf Man as a vehicle for the hairy moon howler to face off with constantly transforming Cannon, I'll see you in THE NEXT REEL.
for Friday the 13th of February 2015.
Next Friday the 13th I'll be in Argentina with my baby.
Come to think of it, the next Friday the 13th is next month, so... I'd better start packing, man!
If you miss me, click HERE for more reviews.
reviewed by J.C. Mašek III
Who is solely responsible for his reviews
And for the fact that he thinks a movie called "Friday the 13th" that actually stars Dracula and Frankenstein should be a bit more terrifying.
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I'll see you in just two weeks, mi amor!