The Mystery of Edwin Drood

Nov 12, 2021
Web Exclusive

By Jason Wilson

The Mystery of Edwin Drood, an adaptation of Charles Dickens’ unfinished novel of the same name, is a bit of a curiosity within the context of Universal Pictures’ horror and horror-adjacent films of the era. While the central conceit could certainly fit within those genre pitfalls, the execution only dips its toe in those waters. It’s far more of a melodrama with occasional genre shading, particularly in the film’s superior second half.

Choirmaster John Jasper (Claude Rains) is infatuated with his student Rosa Bud (Heather Angel), who also happens to be his nephew Edwin Drood’s (David Manners) fiance. He even has a portrait of questionable quality painted by Edwin hanging above his fireplace. Jasper’s obsession with his young student manifests in ways undetected by his nephew as he maintains a respectable face in public.

When Neville Landless (Douglass Montgomery), a temperamental orphan who is quick to anger, comes to town and also forms a bond with Rosa while running afoul her fiance, Jasper sees an opportunity and concocts a plan. He will murder his nephew and frame the violent newcomer all while somehow winning Rosa’s heart in the process.

Now, whether Jasper’s plan to steal his student away from his nephew makes even an iota of sense or not is immaterial. He’s not exactly thinking straight. While it may even be ingenious how he gets his nephew out of the way, he’s not really accounting for how Rosa feels about him – she recoils from his very presence.

What he also fails to realize is that Edwin and Rosa mutually decided to call off their engagement, which had been in place since they were children, because there is no actual romantic connection between the pair.

Jasper bribes Durdles, the local cryptkeeper, with a bottle of hooch to show him around the various tombs until he finds an empty one fit for a fresh burial. An impish kid throws rocks at Durdles, he’s apparently supposed to help keep him straight, and Jasper threatens him. The kid vows his revenge and sets in motion the choirmaster’s comeuppance.

The Mystery of Edwin Drood is a plot-heavy endeavor that is perfectly fine entertainment from its era while also not reaching necessary heights for it to be an iconic entry to the Universal Horror pantheon the way, say, The Invisible Man – also starring Rains – was just a few years earlier. And it doesn’t feature eternal monsters like Dracula, Frankenstein (the creature, not the doctor), Wolf Man, or Creature From the Black Lagoon to transcend, either. Even a lesser-known vehicle like The Black Cat has indelible performances by Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff – and a wackadoo climax – that elevate it to something slightly more memorable and appealing than the more scaled-back thrills of Drood.

But, despite its somewhat pedestrian and dull plotting, Drood gradually gets more compelling as it moves. The opulent and detailed sets help give it a distinct sense of time and place, and Jasper’s addiction to opium feels daring while also informative for his delusional state of mind.

The Kino Lorber disc is sadly thin with only a feature-length commentary by film historian David Del Valle to sink your teeth into. While this provides an informative look into the history of the film, commentaries – even good ones – are not everyone’s cup of tea. So, this release feels particularly niche for those interested in the era of filmmaking and Universal completists.


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