The Scoop: 1934 NR, direct by Edgar G. Ulmer and starring Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi
Tagline: Things you never said before or even dreamed of!
Summary Capsule: A young couple find themselves trapped in two creepy guys’ chess game.
Eunice’s Rating: Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?
Eunice’s Review: Young newlyweds Joan and Peter are honeymooning in Hungary when they meet a strange individual. Dr. Vitus Werdegast (Bela Lugosi) is a war prisoner coming home after a fifteen year stint. A strange, even creepy, man he takes a mysterious interest in Joan, she reminds him of the wife he left behind. Accompanied by his mute manservant, he and the couple travel together until a car accident requires them to get help from the nearest house. Unfortunately, the nearest house is the mansion/fortress of architect Hjalmar Poelzig (Boris Karloff). The man it just so happens Dr. Werdegast has traveled to see.
When comparing classic horror The Black Cat stands alone from its Universal Pictures brethren. Not taking the paranormal or scifi approach like The Wolfman or The Invisible Man, Cat is about human monsters driven by human lusts and emotions.
It turns out Vitus went to prison because he was betrayed by Hjalmar. Hjalmar then stole Vitus’ wife and daughter, who both died a few years later. Now Vitus has returned to kill Hjalmar. They both know this. But with the complication of the young couple being present they agree to wait for the kids to leave before playing their “game of death.”
At least Hjalmar tells him the wife and daughter died. Actually Mrs. Vitus is the first in a long line of murdered wives that Hjalmar keeps preserved and suspended in his basement so he can “have [their] beauty always,” and his current wife is none other than Vitus’ daughter/Hjalmar’s stepdaughter Karen.
Karloff and Lugosi were in several movies together, but this is the only one where they both really starred. Also, while Karloff would go on to several decent roles, this is probably the best one for Lugosi where he doesn’t wear a cape. Seeing them together playing two tactical madmen who completely hate each other is really interesting to watch. Lugosi plays Vitus as a man who’s rage is barely held in check under the surface, and this for the safety of the young couple. There’s a scene where Lugosi cries out in pain and his moment of grief is probably the best acting of his I’ve seen. While Karloff is both coldly calculating and at turns afraid of and superior to Vitus. The chess game scene where the men decide to play for the fate of the couple is chilling in its black and white thriller way.
The thing that really stands out, in a good way, for Cat though is its direction. Edgar G. Ulmer apprenticed with F. W. Murnau (Nosferatu) and the Expressionist fingerprints are on it, from the architecture of Hjalmar’s mansion to the contrasts of lights and shadows and camera angles. The style makes for memorable images like the hanging wives, or Hjalmar grasping a female nude sculpture the first time he sees Joan, Karen’s hair fanned out over her pillows. The restraints of the time means that subtlety is used to convey dark sexual themes like necrophilia, pseudo-incest, and rape, but is still pretty skin crawly. It’s a little less subtle when it veers off into a Satanist cult storyline near the end, and the skinning scene is still pretty gruesome (oh it is all about the skinning scene).
The biggest drawback, for me, is the inclusion of the young couple. Like Dracula or The Mummy, they come off as more of a McGuffin with the meat of the story being the sparring between the wise doctor and the monster. And the story is weak and something you shouldn’t think too hard about, like the henchmen, or the cat, or the randomness of the cops. Just enjoy the Karloff vs. Lugosi-ness of it all. And the final scene is way too happy and jarring.
The Black Cat is a visually pleasing strange tale of revenge and madness, where the innocents must depend on the lesser of two evils to escape.
- I absolutely love those old style opening credits.
- This is the first movie Karloff and Lugosi appeared in together.
- The Black Cat is the last of the Pre-Code Universal horror pictures, and Universal’s highest grossing film of 1934.
- This is probably the loosest adaptation of an Edgar Allan Poe story, which is saying something.
The original short story is a first person narrative of a condemned man about how his life, more especially his marriage, declines after he becomes an alcoholic. After killing his black cat, he takes in another black cat that looks exactly the same except for a patch of fur shaped like a gallows. Haunted by the cat, he ends up murdering his wife in a rage and walling up her body, along with the live cat, in the basement. When the police come to investigate her disappearance, they are alerted by the cat’s yowls and find her.
Peter: I don’t know. It all sounds like a lot of supernatural baloney to me.
Dr. Verdegast: Supernatural, perhaps. Baloney, perhaps not. There are many things under the sun.
Hjalmar Poelzig: Those same books, if I’m not mistaken, teach that the black cat is deathless. Deathless as evil.
Dr. Verdegast: Do you mind if I keep this door open?
Peter: I’d sleep in a cold sweat if you didn’t. You know, this is a very tricky house. The kind of place where I’d like to have company.
Hjalmar Poelzig: Come, Vitus, are we men or are we children?
Hjalmar Poelzig: Are we not both the living dead? And now you come to me, playing at being an avenging angel, childishly thirsting for my blood. We understand each other too well. We know too much of life.
Dr. Verdegast: Don’t pretend, Hjalmar. There was nothing spiritual in your eyes when you looked at that girl.
Hjalmar Poelzig: The phone is dead. Do you hear that, Vitus? Even the phone is dead.
Dr. Verdegast: You poor fool, I only tried to help.
If you liked this movie, try these:
- The Body Snatcher
- The Mummy