Saturday, February 26, 2011

The Black Cat (1934)

Without a doubt the most unusual horror film to come out of Hollywood in the 1930s was Universal Studio's’ The Black Cat (1934). How does one go about creating such a unique film? You take two renowned horror stars (Dracula himself, Bela Lugosi, and Frankenstein’s monster, Boris Karloff—in the first of seven films they would appear in together), add a dash of a director (Edgar G. Ulmer) heavily influenced by German expressionism, and then you mix in some strange amalgamation of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Black Cat” and “The Fall of the House of Usher” with necrophilia and satanism, and , finally, you top it off with an an eye-catching art deco set design by Charles D. Hall. Never mind that the story is difficult to understand (Universal ordered massive changes to the original cut due to its risqué plot),this is just too bizarre a film to miss.

Predating The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) by more than 40-years, The Black Cat finds two young lovers caught in the middle of a sadistic chess match between a mad architect/scientist and a depressed doctor. Dr. Vitus Werdegast (Lugosi) is returning home to Vizhegrad (Hungary) after spending the last 15 years in a Russian prison camp (Kurgaal). On the Orient Express (no Poirot doesn’t show up), Dr. Werdegast meets Joan (Jacqueline Wells) and Peter (David Manners) and immediately notices that Joan looks a lot like his lost wife. He tells them that he is on his way to visit an old friend, famed architect Hjalmar Poelzig (Karloff), at his mansion, which just happens to be built on a cliff overlooking the “greatest graveyard in the world” at Fort Marmorus. Really? Could there be a more ominous setting?

Later, when the bus they are travelling on crashes into a ravine, Joan is injured and it is determined that the couple should accompany Dr. Werdegast and his servant Thamal (Harry Cording) to the mansion. And this brings us to the best part of the film—the set design of Poelzig’s digs. Everything is ultra-modern, from the lighting (entire walls light up) to the super-sleek curved staircase.  Photographer John J. Mescall uses every inch of the set design and beyond-clever lighting to create some outstanding visual elements—you have to see it to truly appreciate it.

In a rather strange poke at Dracula (and Lugosi?), Poelzig is first introduced to the audience rising rigidly from his bed.  With a widow’s peak and dramatic sense of style (he wears a priest’s robe), Poelzig looks like the kind of man who would commune with the devil. It soon becomes apparent that Werdegast and Poelzig aren’t really BFF’s. Evidently Poelzig betrayed his countrymen in WWI and ran off when the Russians came. What Werdegast really wants is to find his wife (Karen) and daughter, and he thinks Poelzig might know where they are. Well, yeah, he does—he married Karen after telling her Werdegast was dead. Ah, the plot thickens…

As if this news wasn’t enough, Werdegast must deal with a reappearing black cat. For a normal person this wouldn’t be a big deal, but Werdegast is deathly afraid of them—did I mention he’s a psychiatrist…yeah, you’d think he could engage in some self-analysis to overcome this fear. Nope…instead he chooses to regard them as, and I quote, “the living embodiment of evil.” Ah, Werdegast, there are eviler things in the world—just ask Poelzig, who has a cellar full of dead women encased in glass. One of these women happens to be Karen (Lucille Lund) and when Poelzig reintroduces the “couple” it is not a happy time. Werdegast attempts to shoot Poelzig, but before he can pull the trigger another black cat saunters in and immobilizes the doctor.

Later, we learn that the doctor’s daughter, Karen (Lucille Lund…yeah, just go with it) is now Poelzig’s wife…a secret he chooses to keep from the doctor. One secret he doesn’t have a problem sharing, though, is that he plans to use Joan in a satanic black mass ritual. Of course, he is willing to challenge the doctor to a game of chess for Joan’s soul. Too bad for Joan that the doctor isn’t Bobby Fisher… Ah, and so let the Bach toccatas begin—really, Poelzig plays them on his creepy organ right before he kills Karen for sassing him. And, then the fun really begins!

Although it isn’t Halloween, Poelzig decides to host a satanic cult party at the fortress and Joan is the guest of honor. Organ music, broken Latin, black-tie attire, and a human sacrifice as the ultimate party game—who’d want to miss out on that! Well, Joan for one…I won’t spoil the ending for you, but lets just say it is a blast.

Unique in every sense, The Black Cat is high camp without being a camp film (is that possible?). Lugosi and Karloff play well off one another, but I wasn’t shocked to learn that neither received an Academy Award nomination for their performances in this film.  Still, I was a bit miffed that neither Charles D. Hall or John J. Mescall were recognized for their outstanding set design and photography.


  1. I don't know how I've missed this film but after your write up it sounds very appealing!
    I loved Bela Lugosi so much regardless of what he was in.
    This series has been so much fun to read so far I don't want it to end.

  2. Kim, I always link this film to THE RAVEN, which also paired Karloff & Lugosi and was made around the same time. THE BLACK CAT is the better of the two films. Although short, it's not a fast-paced movie and Lugosi has a tendency to overact at times (I always thought Karloff was the much better actor of the two). Still, as you noted, the set design and photography are brilliant. They give the film a unique look and provide a genuinely chilling atmosphere. Your pics from the film are awesome!

  3. I love Universal's horror films. The studio churned out wonderful fright flicks on a budget, and I've always admired the heavy use of shadows, which adds atmosphere but was also to cover up the fact that there was no more set to be seen. I agree with Rick that Boris Karloff was a better actor than his frequent co-star. In fact, Karloff was quite good. If you haven't seen it, I'd recommend watching him in Val Lewton's THE BODY SNATCHER, as his performance is memorable. Thanks, Kim, for a supremely enjoyable read of a classic studio's movie with classic actors!

  4. Kim I have always LOVED The Black Cat. Whenever it's on, I'm psychologically forced to watch it...It is hard to believe that the Oscars ignored the set designer. It is a marvel, like a spooky Frank Lloyd Wright. It is one of the few sets that is ominous and frightening without being an a creepy old castle with a moat.

    I think both Lugosi and Karloff looked so dashing in this film (well, up until the end). Both were dressed and styled beautifully. And the storyline -- I'm surprised the censors allowed what was LEFT of the original, but it was good for us! Such as stealing Lugosi's wife, then using the daughter for the same dastardly purpose (I love the word "dastardly" - there aren't many opportunities to use it). The scene with the dead women is kind of a foreshadowing of modern, much less classy, too-bloody-for-words movies of serial killers. Too bad these modern movies depend upon grossness rather than the tools of the classic masters.

    Wonderful review of a favorite of mine!

  5. This is very high on my list of favourite old Universal horror films. It isn't often Lugosi could play the hero - somewhat twisted hero - but he does save the day. Great GREAT movie!

  6. great salute to poor EDGAR..up there with other early 30s horror films like DRACULA...THE MUMMMY...FRANKENSTEIN...thanx

  7. Kim, this is an excellent review of a classic Universal entry. I was struck again with the beauty of the black and white cinematography. Shadow and light are key to setting the right tone in a horror film. The photos you posted speak volumes about that. Awesome post!

  8. Glad everyone enjoyed the post.

    Rick & Toto, I'm glad you noticed the photos--I thought they were excellent examples of the great photography & lighting in the film.

    I haven't seen either The Raven or The Body Snatcher. I agree that Karloff was most probably the better of the two actors--though I like Lugosi in Ninotchka. Universal did make some classic monster/horror films. They got a nod this year at the Academy Awards for their work on the remake of the Wolf Man--though I haven't seen it, they did what looked like an awesome job with makeup and costumes.

    Again, glad you enjoyed the post!

  9. THE BLACK CAT is probably B&B's best pairing; they're really on equal footing here (which is not so true in their subsequent teamings). Boris' Goth look is wonderful; his fashions would be current even today. The Bauhaus-influenced set design is stunning and really quite avant-garde. Probably the reason this film would not have received an Oscar nod is because of its genre (horror) and its low budget. But it's probably more watchable today than many 1930s Oscar winners. Enjoyed your excellent post!

  10. "The Black Cat" is one of my favorite horror films; I watch it every Halloween (I have the movie poster on my wall above me as I write). As chilling as it is, I'm always amused by Karloff's lisp when he says 'catsh,' but the film is otherwise atmospheric (and the best of the Karloff/Lugosi films). I have an abiding affection for Karloff (and I agree with the other writers that he is a better actor than Lugosi) but it is a treat to see Bela as the good (?)guy in this one. I recommend it to anyone who hasn't seen it and am proud to have it in my collection.

  11. I definitely would add this flick as the 2nd great horror film that I would own on Bluray...along with Tournier's "Night Of The Demon" as these are my favorites...along with "Bride Of Frankenstein"

    I think "The Black Cat" may have been ahead of it's time.