Directed by Edgar G. Ulmer. Starring Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, David Manners, Jacqueline Wells, Lucille Lund.
Let us ring in the New Year with a fresh round of madness and death!
The next film in The Bela Lugosi Collection is the best of the set, and a highlight for Lugosi and co-star Boris Karloff. The Black Cat is a landmark as the first meeting between the titans of 1930s horror cinema. It’s also one of the finest horror films of the decade, and a gorgeous piece of pre-Production Code madness.
(The Black Cat is also available as a stand-alone DVD through Universal’s manufacture-on-Demand service, Universal Vault.)
Like Murders in the Rue Morgue, another Poe-inspired horror movie, The Black Cat borrows from the German Expressionist movement, a product of its Austrian director, Edgar G. Ulmer. The screenplay takes even less material from its Poe-source than Murders in the Rue Morgue; aside from occasional appearances of a black feline to justify its title, the movie has no connection to the short story about a man who murders his wife in a fit of madness and has his crime revealed through a possibly supernatural ebony house cat. But if the short story “The Black Cat” doesn’t show up on screen, plenty of Poe’s themes—necrophilia, torture, burial alive, revenge—make themselves felt. It’s much more Poe than many films that adapt his material more directly.
The screenplay’s story involves two rivals, Satan-worshipping architect Hjalmar Poelzig (Karloff) and vengeful Dr. Vitus Werdergast (Lugosi), in a duel to the death in a house of horrors while a young couple on their honeymoon tries to escape. It might have transitioned to a Weird Menace pulp without trouble. There isn’t much more “story” than that—mostly themes and ideas—but I’ll try to sketch out some of what occurs during its sixty-one minutes.
We open with a convivial holiday atmosphere as folks board the Orient Express for their vacations into Danube Country. The newlywed Alisons (David Manners and Jacqueline Wells) get cozy in their train compartment on their way to honeymoon in Visegrad. They nuzzle and share sweet talk, and bright jazz suitable for an early Marx Bros. films plays behind them.
This concludes our scheduled moment of happiness and good feeling. Enjoy the rest of the ghoulishness.
Bela Lugosi as Dr. Vitus Wedergast makes a striking first appearance, photographed initially as a hat emerging in the train corridor before he follows behind it. Lugosi is dapper, handsome, and immediately sinister as a man who needs to share the Alisons’ compartment for his trip to “visit an old friend.” Lugosi’s inflection tells us what sort of visit, and what sort of friend, await him at the end of this trip along the Orient Express.
Wedergast delivers an intense monologue that sets the mood, and much of the story, when Peter Alison catches the doctor stroking his wife’s hair with otherworldly tenderness:
I beg your indulgence my friend. Eighteen years ago I left a girl, so like your lovely wife, to go to war. Kaiser and Country, you know. She was my wife. Have you ever heard of Kurgaal? It is a prison below Amsk on Lake Baikal. Many men have gone there. Few have returned. I have returned. After fifteen years—I have returned.Lugosi’s performance here is intense, and it probably connects to his own war experience. He also fought for “Kaiser and Country” in World War I (he was wounded and received a Purple Heart) and the horror of that conflict must speak personally for him here. And it will speak through the whole film, which takes the atrocities of war as its backdrop. It gives a harsh edge to Lugosi’s character, and helps him deliver arguably the best performance of his career. Dracula is more famous, but I don’t think Lugosi ever received another such pure acting opportunity during his time in American films.
The Alisons disembark from the train to ride by bus to Gömbös, along with Wedergast, who is on his way to the house of engineer Hjalmar Poelzig. But the bus crashes in the storm, killing the driver and leaving the Alisons to follow Wedergast to Poelzig’s ghastly ultra-modern mansion on the hilltop.
Poelzig’s engineering masterpiece is built on the site of Fort Marmorus, “the Greatest Graveyard in the World.” And it is Hjalmar Poelzig, played with a feline coldness by Boris Karloff, who created that graveyard. The costume and make-up on Karloff make it seem as if he might be the true Black Cat of the title, deathless and a symbol of evil.
This Balhaus look for Poelzig’s abode will surprise many viewers, who would expect a Gothic mansion or castle in a Universal horror film. But Poelzig’s palace looks like a James Bond set drenched in gloomy shadow. It’s chilling and frigid, and considering that it was built over a place of war atrocity, it creates an aura of mechanistic menace and heartlessness.
According to Wedergast, Poelzig sold Marmorus to Russians and left him and its other defenders to die. Wedergast wants back his wife Karen, whom he is certain Poelzig has stolen from him during the time Wedergast was imprisoned in Kurgaal, “where the soul is killed slowly.” As we will find out, the truth is much more horrifying than even Wedergast imagines.
Poelzig takes Wedergast down into the lower levels of the old fortress, where he keeps a gallery of embalmed beauties at whom he makes staring tours. (This isn’t a healthy man.) Wedergast’s wife Karen hangs in a case as well, dead two years after the war. Poelzig has preserved her beauty, for he loved her too. Poelzig’s creepy necophilia starts to emerge:
You say your soul was killed, 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 not any less victims 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 thirsting for my blood. We understand each other too well. We know too much of life. We shall play a little game, Vitus. A game of death, if you like.All this plays out in a POV tracking shot through the stone chambers of this fortress of death and its persistence.
These confrontations between Poelzig and Wedergast are electric—seeing not only these two great icons of horror meeting, but the clash of the intense hatred their characters feel and how deeply its is imbedded in the horror of the recent war. Lugosi and Karloff would have other films together, but this is the best work they ever did facing each other. Both men are superlative, and this is a rare chance for Lugosi to have the juicier role with the larger character arc.
Caught between this clash of titans are the innocent Alisons. Manners appears overwhelmed against this cast, but Wells as Joan Alison starts to fall into a strange illness and under the avaricious stare of Poelzig.
The Game of Death now begins, and most of it is plotless oddness. “Plot” in general isn’t much on director Ulmer’s mind. Things get increasingly weird. Poelzig pours over Satanic rituals, and he has a leering eye for Joan which he plans to act on at a full moon ceremony. Wedergast and Poelzing get involved in a chess match for the Alisons’ fate: if Wedergast wins, they may go. Otherwise, Poelzig will work whatever horrible plan he has on Joan.
Karloff is wonderful in the way he politely blocks the Alisons every attempt to get away from the mansion while he and Wedergast play chess for their fate. Karloff turns more and more saturnine with each moment. (“Did you hear that Vitus? The phone is dead. Even the phone is dead.”) Lugosi, meanwhile, pushes his characterization of Wedergast closer to completely snapping.
The Alisons finally get the hint that they should get the hell out of this demented place and away from these two lethal nuts. Poelzig wins the chess match, and Joan Alison is imprisoned for Poelzig’s ritual, with Peter locked in a bizarre basement chamber which I believe was borrowed from “The Pit and the Pendulum.” After this the film completes flies off the rails: incest, an off-screen killing that I really don’t want to imagine, a Satanic sacrifice in full regalia before twisted expressionist obelisks, and a man’s flesh ripped from his skin using the array of tools from Hostel. Yes, we see the instruments, we hear the screams, we see the shadows on the wall. “Tear the skin from your body. Slowly, bit by bit!” Cripes, what was up with 1934?
I’ve seen this film a number of times, and I still can’t believe Universal got away with it. How did this get pulled off in the 1930s? The Satanic ritual alone would qualify the Production Code prudes to shred this thing to confetti, and we haven’t gotten into the torture, necrophilia, incest, and overall sadism yet. Legend holds that studio executive Carl Laemmle Jr. produced the film while his father was on vacation, and turned down no opportunity to push the movie to the extremes while daddy wasn’t looking over his shoulder.
Black Cat is nearly without a story, but I think it’s damned brilliant. It’s sixty-one minutes of beautiful 1930s lunacy, showing that the decade—the era so-called “Great Generation”—was one bleak, hopeless place. The way it makes World War I and the mechanization of death into a theme makes it much more than some spook show. It’s an engrossing piece of twentieth-century history. The only place where the movie stumbles is in an argument between two gendarmes officers about where the best place to vacation; it’s a rare moment of comedy and quite inappropriate.
Director Edgar Ulmer should have gone on to a celebrated career in Hollywood filmmaking, but he ended up on low-budget movies for the Poverty Row studios. Even there he managed to create impressive work, such as the film noir classic made on loose change, Detour. The Black Cat is Ulmer’s masterwork, an example of what he could do given the budget, and what Hollywood should have continued to do if the prudish Production Code hadn’t shuttered up anything that wasn’t “moral.”
I’ll let Bela take us out: “Five minutes. Marmorus, you and I and your rotten cult will be no more. It has been a good game.”
Oh hell yeah, it has.
Universal later made another horror film with the title The Black Cat, which also featured Bela Lugosi, but this time they opted for a horror-comedy in the “Old Dark House” mode, and it’s a very minor fil.
Up next for The Bela Lugosi Collection: More Poe-fun, and another meeting with Karloff, in The Raven.