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DAY 7 OF 31: THE BLACK CAT (1934)

Published October 7, 2019 by Philip Ivory

Murder. Betrayal. Necrophilia. Satanism. A man being skinned alive!

Okay, you won’t actually see all of these things happening in Universal’s 1934 horror entry, THE BLACK CAT. But some of those things happen on screen, while some are more or less referred to. It’s a heady dark goulash, but with only a tangential relation to Edgar Allan Poe, whose story “The Black Cat” is the putative source. As with many, many Poe adaptations, little of the original story remains, and the master’s name is being used for his macabre marquee value.

Two other names helped sell THE BLACK CAT to a public still willing to lap up elegantly produced horrors in the midst of the Great Depression. Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi were Universal’s poster boys of horror in the 30s. Here they are teamed together for the first, and probably the best, of the chillers they costarred in during the 30s and 40s. (If we leave their iconic costarring performances in SON OF FRANKENSTEIN out of the equation.) In their other pairings, one or the other tends to dominate the proceedings, but here they are on equal footing throughout.

“We shall play a little game, Vitus. A game of death, if you like.” — Hjalmar Poelzig (Boris Karloff)

The horrors of World War I hover in the background of THE BLACK CAT.  Lugosi for once gets to play a heroic if flawed figure, Dr. Vitus Werdegast. Since the war, he’s been unjustly locked in a ghastly prison, but has emerged to confront his old “friend,” architect Hjalmar Poelzig, played by Karloff, for crimes against Werdegast and humanity.

Karloff as Poelzig, in sinister widow’s peak makeup, is a bad guy writ large. He betrayed thousands during the war, and now resides in an art deco masterpiece constructed upon their graves. Which some might deem a tacky move on his part. Plus he keeps the corpse of Werdegast’s wife in a glass case, for reasons not fully explained, but probably not good ones. Oh, and did I mention he conducts black masses in his spare time?

Dr. Werdegast (Bela Lugosi) is none too pleased with his wife’s treatment by his “friend,” Hjalmar Poelzig (Boris Karloff).

Other ingredients include an innocent pair of stranded newlyweds, Peter and Joan Alison, who get more than they bargained for at chez Poelzig. They’re played by Universal’s obligatory romantic lead David Manners and Julie Bishop.

Werdegast and Poelzig trade elegantly crafted barbs and play chess. We learn that Werdegast’s daughter is also on the premises, alive until Poelzig decides it’s glass case time for her, too.

It all culminates in a zestily macabre climax in which Werdegast, edged over to the loony side by all the goings on and who can blame him, pins his rival to a rack and proceeds to skin him like an animal, offscreen. Then the heavily mined fortress is blown to smithereens, killing them both. Needless to say, the two young lovers escape unscathed, enjoying a jokey fadeout.

An example of the art deco stylings of THE BLACK CAT.

Moodily directed by Edgar G. Ulmer and with striking modernist art design, THE BLACK CAT is marred by some plot holes (what does Werdegast’s fear of cats really have to do with anything, other than throwing a lifeline to Poe?) and some dated comic relief. Sometimes it seems more like a collection of interesting incidents — what does the chess game really accomplish? — than a coherent story.

Nonetheless, taken as a whole, THE BLACK CAT remains a feast of the bizarre and a prime showcase for Universal’s two greatest horror stars at the height of their powers.

DIALOGUE

“It all sounds like a lot of supernatural baloney to me.” — Peter Allison
“Supernatural, perhaps. Baloney, perhaps not. There are many things under the sun.” — Dr. VItus Werdegast

“Come, Vitus, are we men or are we children? Of what use are all these melodramatic gestures? You say your soul was killed and that you have been dead all these years. And what of me? Did we not both die here in Marmorus fifteen years ago? Are we any the less victims of the war than those whose bodies were torn asunder? Are we not both the living dead? And now you come to me, playing at being an avenging angel – childishly thirsty for my blood. We understand each other too well. We know too much of life.” — Hjalmar Poelzig

 INTERESTING FACTS

  • The modernist architecture makes THE BLACK CAT stand out from other Gothic horrors of the period.
  • English occultist Aleister Crowley seems to have been the inspiration for Poelzig’s satanist architect.
  • The film was Universal’s biggest hit of 1934. The following year, Universal would reteam Karloff and Lugosi in THE RAVEN, another chiller loosely inspired by Poe.

UP NEXT:

“Even a man who is pure in heart and says his prayers by night may become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright.”

DAY 4 OF 31: THE MUMMY (1932)

Published October 4, 2019 by Philip Ivory

 

Modern viewers might be surprised by THE MUMMY’s slow pace and the fact that the titular character, played by Boris Karloff, only appears in his familiar shambling, bandaged guise for one scene, before reappearing for the bulk of the film as a sinister, wizened Egyptian scholar. But THE MUMMY, directed by Karl Freund, offers many rewards, achieving a tone of moody, poetic horror that has seldom been matched.

The opening sequence is unforgettable. An enthusiastic young archeologist, played by Bramwell Fletcher, accidentally brings an unearthed mummy, Imhotep, to life by reading aloud a forbidden incantation from an ancient parchment. As the scholar pores over the text, mumbling and deciphering, we get tiny glimpses of the figure in the sarcophagus. A bandaged hand that starts to descend from the chest. An almost imperceptible glint of light in one eye. Freund frames the action carefully so that we see very little and imagine much.

We get a closeup of a dusty, withered hand seizing the parchment as the scholar wheels in horror. His colleagues return to find the mummy and parchment gone and the scholar having gone stark, raving mad, laughing uncontrollably. “He went for a little walk! You should have seen his face!” Outside of Dwight Frye’s Renfield, it’s the most frightening depiction of madness in classic horror.

Cut to years later, and the mummy has reinvented himself as the mysterious Ardath Bey, a strange man who is obsessed with a new expedition to recover the mummy of an ancient Egyptian princess, Ankh-es-en-amon, once the beloved of Imhotep. Bey is astonished to meet Helen Grosvenor, played by Zita Johann, who he believes to be the modern reincarnation of Ankh-es-en-amon. She in turn feels mysteriously drawn to Bey, who has designs to make her an immortal mummy like himself, a process that will required that she submit to a forbidden ritual that will culminate in her death.

Boris Karloff as Ardath Bey/Imhotep, with Zita Johann.

Somewhat cut in the mold of Lugosi’s Dracula, Karloff’s Imhotep is a demonic figure who can wield dark Egyptian spells to kill his enemies from afar. What makes him interesting is that he is also a forlorn lover, who has endured great horrors, including burial alive, in the name of his devotion to his long-lost princess. A wonderfully eerie flashback sequence to ancient Egypt shows us the tragic love story, unfolding like a mesmerizing dream from another time.

DIALOGUE

“Anck-es-en-Amon, my love has lasted longer than the temples of our gods. No man ever suffered as I did for you.”

“You will not remember what I show you now, and yet I shall awaken memories of love… and crime… and death…”

INTERESTING FACTS

  • The story line was inspired not by a classic novel but by a contemporary craze for all things Egyptian, sparked by the discovery of King Tutankhamen’s tomb in 1922.
  • Universal produced a series of sequels, discarding the mood and poetry and the Ardath Bey character, opting for straight forward scares with a full-fledged bandaged and mute mummy (renamed Kharis) stalking victims throughout. Despite these changes, THE MUMMY’s flashback sequence to ancient Egypt would be extensively reused in the sequels.
  • In addition to some story elements, THE MUMMY inherited from DRACULA two of its principal actors, Edward Van Sloan and David Manners in similar roles as, respectively, the wise mentor figure and the heroine’s devoted boyfriend.

UP NEXT:

“Are we not men?”

 

DAY 2 OF 31: FRANKENSTEIN (1931)

Published October 2, 2019 by Philip Ivory

 

After Universal Studio’s success with DRACULA in early 1931, what could be more natural for a followup than to turn to Mary Shelley’s 1818 classic? 

The novel is about a young Swiss scientist who bestows life upon a body he created by appropriating parts from rifled graves and other sources, only to have his creation turn against him and destroy all the scientist holds dear. A couple of silent film adaptations had been done, most notably one produced by Thomas Edison in 1910.

That Universal’s blood and thunder sound version of ’31 was released in November of seems appropriate, since that is the month of the monster’s creation in the novel:

“It was  on a dreary night of November that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils. With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony, collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet. It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs.”

But what would the filmic monster look like? How would he be brought to life? (Shelley’s narrative provides few details on the procedure.) Director James Whale and electrical effects artist Kenneth Strickfaden contrived to stage an exciting creation sequence, with the table-bound monster being raised to the roof to receive the lightning’s gift of the mysterious life-giving ray that the scientist has discovered. The sequence is a cinematic triumph, its dazzling pyrotechnics effectively “selling” us on the unholy miracle of the monster’s birth.

Meanwhile, makeup artist Jack Pierce, also in consultation with director Whale, created a monster visage that audiences would fear and pity for generations to come. The genius of the makeup was to allow as much as possible for an actor’s expressive face to remain exposed. Struggling actor Boris Karloff won the role of the monster, partly on the basis of the unusual bone structure in his face and his large liquid eyes.

“Karloff’s eyes mirrored the suffering we needed,” said Universal exec Carl Laemmle.

Colin Clive, an actor who specialized in sensitive, high-strung roles, was a perfect fit for the scientist, Henry Frankenstein. (The name is inexplicably changed from the novel’s “Victor.”) His frenzied performance in the creation scene, accompanied by terrifying peals of thunder and an orgy of electrical sparks and buzzes, is unforgettable. (Note: as in DRACULA and other examples of early sound cinema, there is no musical score. These films breathe with eerie stretches of silence, helped by sound effects.)

“It’s moving! It’s alive!”

HIGH POINTS

The creation scene remains a knockout to this day, as does the haunting vignette in which Karloff’s newly born creation reaches above his head for the light descending  from a skylight as if he could grip it in his hands.

Karloff’s monster, quick, agile, clearly not sound of mind, immensely strong and unpredictable, with heavily lidded dead man’s eyes, is instantly frightening, making us feel we are looking upon a thing that should not be alive, but unaccountably is.

And yet the creature is immensely sympathetic, an unwanted child abandoned by his only parent, hated and feared by everyone else based on his grotesque appearance. In his ill fitting black, funereal suit , he carries with him the aura of the grave, evoking a universal dread. With his spasmodic movements, shuffling gate and pathetic, pleading hand gestures, he is one of horror’s supreme characterizations, simultaneously frightening and poignant. Other actors, including Christopher Lee, Michael Sarrazin, and Robert DeNiro have made sincere attempts to portray the monster. With respect, no one even comes close.

The film is a tragedy. Frankenstein, reduced to a nervous wreck by the shattering of his great dream, becomes  a shell of the confident visionary we see in the early scenes. The monster is hounded to a horrifying death, caught in the inferno of a blazing mill.

Clive and Karloff are ably assisted by two holdovers from DRACULA, Edward Van Sloan as Professor Waldman and Dwight Frye as Frankenstein’s hunchback assistant, Fritz. Also helping out are Mae Clarke as Frankenstein’s fiance, Elizabeth, John Boles as his friend, Victor, and Frederick Kerr as his father, the harrumphing old Baron.

The monster of course remains mute throughout the film. Most of the best dialogue belongs to the scientist:

(caressing the coffin of a stolen body) “He’s Just Resting, Waiting For A New Life To Come.”

“The brain you stole, Fritz. Think of it. The brain of a dead man waiting to live again in a body I made with my own hands!”

“Have you never wanted to do anything that was dangerous? Where should we be if no one tried to find out what lies beyond? Have your never wanted to look beyond the clouds and the stars, or to know what causes the trees to bud? And what changes the darkness into light? But if you talk like that, people call you crazy. Well, if I could discover just one of these things, what eternity is, for example, I wouldn’t care if they did think I was crazy.

DEFICITS

FRANKENSTEIN might not seem shocking today. Its monster makeup and Gothic trappings have been absorbed into the culture, its iconography made comfortable by parodies, pop songs and use in Saturday morning cartoons and breakfast cereals. But Whale’s Gothic extravaganza was considered unfamiliar, strong meat when first issued, with its corpse like monster, graveyard scenes, multiple murders and grim, fairy tale like setting.

Some cuts made at the preview stage, designed to protect delicate sensibilities, hurt the film for decades. For many of us who grew up watching it on television, the fabulous creation scene was marred by a jump cut at its climax, where a crucial but potentially blasphemous bit of the scientist’s dialogue — “Oh, in the name of God, now I know what it feels like to be God!” — was crudely excised. (Hey, it only expressed a major theme of the film.)

Similarly, the famous (or infamous) scene in which Karloff’s monster befriends a little girl, but ends up unintentionally drowning her, was truncated, cutting abruptly as Karloff reaches for her, which allowed for even worse implications than what was intended.  The scene, fully restored a few decades ago along with Clive’s censored line and a few other bits and pieces, remains a touching, heartbreaking episode in the monster’s lonely existence, one tranquil moment of friendship and peace before tragedy and horror reassert themselves.

Despite one or two stuffy performances, including some weak comic relief from the Baron, and a few bits of unexplained plot construction (How does the monster know where Frankenstein lives?), the film remains a powerful experience, maybe not as shocking as it once was, but largely undiminished in its impact.

INTERESTING FACTS

  • Karloff suffered severe back pains the rest of his life that may have resulted from the rigors of his performance, particularly the scenes in which he has to carry Clive on his back through the mountainous countryside.
  • DRACULA star Bela Lugosi was originally assigned the monster role, even trying out his own makeup, before Karloff was (wisely) brought in.
  • Karloff, protective of the monster, played him in two sequels but stopped when he thought the character was being cheapened. He called the monster “my best friend.”

UP NEXT:

“My analysis of this soul , the human psyche, leads me to believe that man is not truly one – but, truly two. One of him strives for the nobilities of life. This we call his good self. The other, seeks an expression of impulses that bind him to some dim animal relation with the earth.”