Originally published August 15th, 2012
Finally back on track with a film review, this time getting prepped for Halloween a few months early (although I have a pretty awesome theme of Halloween movies for the blog). Today’s film is the 1934 Edgar G. Ulmer film The Black Cat which made my TCM Top Twelve in June. The Black Cat was the first of seven films where horror icons Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff would make together and while its cheesy sentimentality overwhelms at certain points, the sparring between Dracula and Frankenstein’s monster respectively elevates the flaws in the narrative.
Honeymooners Peter and Joan Allison (David Manners and Jacqueline Wells) are trapped in a spooky mansion after a carriage they’re riding in crashes. Before the accident the couple meet with Dr. Vitus Werdegast (Lugosi) on his way to reunite with old friend, architect Hjalmar Poelzig (Karloff). With the couple trapped in Poelzig’s mansion they’re unaware that Werdesgast plans on seeking revenge on Poelzig and that the architect is a Satanist bent on sacrificing Joan.
A bit of trivia before we start courtesy of Film Site (which was a lifesaver in helping me with this film for reasons I’ll explain in a second). The opening credits make mention of the film being “suggested” by an Edgar Allen Poe story. I love the way studios name drop source material to class up their films from “based on a novel by” all the way to “Thought up by.” Here we have “suggested” and according to Film Site the story was actually written by Ulmer and the only pieces of the Poe story are the title and the eponymous black cat (who let’s just say doesn’t last long). The Black Cat is also cited as the first American psychological horror film dealing with a slew of aberrant sexual behavior at the time include rape and incest and for a 1934 film, it’s shockingly obvious.
The film itself sets the creepy tone from minute one with the introduction of Dr. Werdegast who I’ll be calling Vitus for the rest of the review (Poelzig will also be used to discuss Karloff’s character). First off, let’s say that this film is all about Lugosi! He’s not the crazy, campy Dracula you know but instead a heartfelt, broken soul bent on revenge and probably suffering from madness after being trapped in a POW camp for fifteen years. Not only is he planning on killing the man who wronged him, but he also hopes to gain information on where his wife and daughter are. Lugosi gives 100% of himself in this role and every expression of grief feels genuine. That’s not to say that Lugosi doesn’t get some chance to be a creeper like when he starts lovingly stroking Joan’s hair on the train…and no one says anything.
I had to roll my eyes during this film because with all the craziness that happens through the 65 minutes of The Black Cat, the cast remain cool as cucumbers. Nothing fazes Joan and Peter, well aside from the whole human sacrifice part. I mean Vitus actually guns down a cat in the middle of a group of people and not only does Peter wait about two minutes to mention it he says it about as calmly as one saying “So how about those Mets?” Peter just strides up and says “Wow, that cat must have been a right bastard for you to gun him down in cold blood?” I’m paraphrasing obviously.
Let’s get this out-of-the-way and say that the Allison’s are the blandest couple in the history of couples. Their sole purpose is to be confused and out-of-the-way until the plot needs them as their literally confined to their rooms for the majority of the narrative. While Jacqueline Wells is gorgeous, she just lays around or gets carried places. David Manners as Peter is just a pest. He’s weak in a fight and gets bonked over the head so many times that I figured the story would end with him revealing he’s got a fatal aneurysm from all those head wounds! The ending of course is equally cheesy as the two read a book review of Peter’s latest book (he’s a mystery writer who writes books “of no importance” before). He’s obviously written the events of the film and the reviewer mentions his story is unbelievable. It’s ironic and tries to make the audience laugh after all the darkness they’ve seen but it’s a cheap cop-out to leave the audience with the beautiful couple smiling at each other and us knowing it was all true!
So screw the Allison’s, let’s talk about Karloff and Lugosi, the true reason to check out The Black Cat. Karloff himself arrives as the master of THE ENTRANCE! He makes standing creepily outside a doorway Van Gogh levels of art and throughout the film he makes you hate him. Not only is he a Nazi substitute despite the film being made before WWII, but he’s a Satanist and an incestuous jerk! We soon discover he’s married to his step-daughter Karen (Lucille Lund) and he even kills the girl after she disobeys him and leaves her bedroom! Talk about controlling. With all the depravity we witness him doing its only right he gets an equally horrific death which we get when Vitus actually starts to skin Poelzig which I’ve included above. I’ve praised Lugosi already but he gets the best last lines I’ve seen in a long time with “It’s been a good game.” The emphasis on the events of the film, much like life itself, being a game is used throughout the entire film and the look of happiness and resolution on Vitus’ face before he flips the switch killing both men is earned.
The film is best analyzed for how it depicts the horrors of war. Poelzig ran a prison camp holding Vitus and questions are raised because of this. How does one move on from their horrific past? Is it right to rebuild over the remains of the dead as Poelzig’s house overlooks the largest cemetery in Hungary holding the corpses of men he’s killed? The idea of life and death becomes as arbitrary and easily strategize like a game of chess the two men play for the lives of the Allison’s (although I don’t think their lives were worth such high stakes).
There’s some great silent film qualities to this movie complete with sped-up film stock and the general appearance of the sets and characters. Ulmer expertly combines elements of the Gothic with German expressionism and Art Deco turning every staircase and hallway into a mystery. The only major issue I had with The Black Cat involves the way I viewed it. The accents of Lugosi and Karloff are heavy and the film stock wasn’t perfect (the TCM picture was great but the sound was muffled). Combined with no subtitles I found myself completely lost anytime heavy exchanges happened between our two leads. If it weren’t for Film Site going in-depth into the plot I would have found the story, aside from the sacrifice, incomprehensible. Universal really needs to restore this if they haven’t already.
I can’t say there aren’t better classic horror movies out there. Cat People is a superior film boasting cats in the title to me, but the star power of Lugosi and Karloff makes this a worthy watch. Just try to have great speakers or subtitles when watching.
A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.