Black Cat, The (1934)


What is up with all that WHOOSHING and glaring?
What is up with all that WHOOSHING and glaring?

Genre: Horror Thriller

Starring: Boris Karloff (FrankensteinThe Mummy), Bela Lugosi (Plan 9 from Outer SpaceDracula)

Directed By: Edgar G. Ulmer (The Amazing Transparent ManThe Man from Planet X)

Overview: A couple honeymooning in Hungary meet Dr. Vitus Werdegast. When all three have a bad accident while travelling, they are taken to the castle of the nefarious architect Hjalmar Poelzig. The couple is there to rest up and heal. Dr. Vitus Werdegast is there for revenge. 

With their respective successes in Frankenstein and Dracula in 1931, it seems like an obvious choice to have Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi starring in horror films together. Well that's exactly what happened in 1934, when Universal pictures decided to see what the duo would do for box offices, and they began with The Black Catwith Edgar Allan Poe's short story credited. This was the first of the six films they would star in together, including The Raven in 1935, The Son of Frankenstein in '39, and The Body Snatcher in '45. Not only was The Black Cat a popular Horror film, but it was Universal's biggest box office money-maker for 1934. So either I have no contextual understanding of what's hot in 1934, or people coming off the Great Depression are really, really easy to please, because The Black Cat was nothing more than a rote B-Grade horror film that obviously milked what was hip at the time, and a film that can certainly be passed over in lieu of the other 1000 Movies You Might Wanna Check Out Before You Check Out.

The story starts with a couple in a train on their way to a rockin' Hungarian honeymoon. They share a cabin with a doctor on his way to a fancy castle, imparting them with the tale of his past and how he left to join the war. Today he's going back to his homeland after being in a prison camp for 15 years. They soon share a carriage ride in the storm, get into an accident and take the poor injured wife to the nearby castle, which is of course the doctor's destination. There the three meet up with a very nice old architect by the name of Poelzig who built his manse on the ruins of the very fort Poelzig commanded so many years ago. Go figure the good doctor's a little miffed at said architect, the man responsible for his wartime experiences. Enter the vengeance plot with a cultist twist - no spoiler, roll credits. 
What makes The Black Cat enjoyable is this 'kindred enemies' dynamic - Karloff and Lugosi, under the same roof, built from the ashes of the old war, in a rather gentlemanly struggle with potentially ungentlemanly consequences. This almost honour-bound battle, complete with games of chess, is interestingly played out. Sadly this plot's development is a scant 10 minutes of cool amidst a film rather rote in its storytelling. 
Here's what makes Universal smart for using what's chic to draw crowds, while at the same time conning people out of their cash from all the misrepresentation, or to quote Jean Renoir, "Is it possible to succeed without any act of betrayal?":
  • Psychiatry is totally hip this year, let's make Bela Lugosi's character a psychiatrist, but without actually including anything about his field.
  • Edgar Allan Poe is perfect for this 'Horror Talkie' fad going on. So what if this story has absolutely nothing to do with the original tale. They'll never suspect a thing. 
  • Let's put in a couple of black cats, firstly, well, because it's called The Black Cat. Singular, I know, but we'll have a couple. Secondly, we'll sandwich the kitty bits into the plot so seamlessly that every scene the cats are in will be injections of pure awkwardness since our writers won't have any idea how to make the characters work around the obvious late addition of the kitty content in the script. It's ok, we'll just have the cast standing around wondering what the hell happened. 
  • Hey wait! Aleister Crowley is a freak people are talking about! Can we toss that cult-esque twist in there somewhere, somehow? Great!
Earlier I said that The Black Cat was nothing more than a rote B-Grade horror film. When looking at the talent that helped make it, we begin with the screenplay, written by Peter Ruric, a man whose career was mostly pulp fiction short stories. Next we look over at our director Edgar G. Ulmer, a true auteur distinguished for his subtle and artistic films with such titles as Daughter of Dr. Jekyll, The Man from Planet X and The Amazing Transparent Man. Yes, The Black Cat is nothing more than a movie that was big once, and yes sometimes that makes it worth being on The List., but not this time. Yes, The Black Cat is a film first, combining the two Horror powerhouse actors Karloff and Lugosi, but again, not enough to warrant The List's attention, nor yours. 
 "Pawn to your decapitated mother." "As a psychiatrist, I believe you may have some unresolved issues." "Really? Bishop to your diseboweled sister."
"Pawn to your decapitated mother."
"As a psychiatrist, I believe you may have some unresolved issues."
"Really? Bishop to your disemboweled sister."

Performance: 7 Cinematography: 6 Script: 5 Plot: 5 Mood: 5

Overall Rating: 56% (Paint It Black)

My favourite part of the film, as it certainly wasn't the Horror, was trying to figure out exactly what's kind of injury the woman was suffering from. Treated by the good doctor after a flipped carriage accident, clues to her condition included being passed out, receiving a bandage on her collarbone, walking around in a dazed and confused fugue state complete with memory loss. The doctor assures the husband that she should be fine to leave tomorrow. "All she needs is a good night's sleep." 1934, where concussions are treated with deadly sleep and are healed as quickly as 80s Television bullets in the shoulder. Just shake it off!

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