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.
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?
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.
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.
“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
- 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.
“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.”