Directed by Edgar G. Ulmer
Produced by E.M. Asher
Screenplay by Peter Ruric
Story by Edgar G. Ulmer/Peter Ruric
You want to know how twisted 1934’s THE BLACK CAT is? Besides the Satanism cult, human sacrifice and necrophilia fetishism? Mollyfoggin’ Bela Lugosi is the hero of this movie. Seriously. When you’re a character in a movie and you have to depend on Bela Lugosi to save your ass then you know the situation has gotten so far out of control it ain’t even funny. But then again, considering that the bad guy in THE BLACK CAT is Boris Karloff, maybe it is appropriate that Bela be the one to come to your rescue.
Bela Lugosi actually did play the hero in the 12 chapter cliffhanger “The Return of Chandu” but it’s this movie that I always point to as his best performance in a heroic role and it’s a shame he didn’t get to do it more because Bela Lugosi plays a very sympathetic hero in THE BLACK CAT. But he also is able to project an air of menace that makes even the American couple he befriends shy away from him. He may be the good guy but that doesn’t mean he’s a good guy.
The American couple caught in the middle of the bizarre hijinks to come is newlyweds Peter and Joan Alison (David Manners and Julie Bishop). They’re on honeymoon in Hungary (was Hungary the honeymoon destination for American newlyweds in 1934?) and share their train compartment with the mysterious Hungarian psychiatrist Dr. Vitus Werdegast (Bela Lugosi.)
During a curiously touching moment where Werdegast lovingly strokes the hair of the sleeping Joan, he’s caught by Peter who sensing the despair in the older man says nothing and instead listens to his story of how he went to war, leaving his wife, who looked very much like Joan behind at home. Werdegast has spent the last 15 years in a prison camp and is on his way to see his old friend, the brilliant architect Hjalmar Poelzig (Boris Karloff). Poelzig has built his futuristic Art Deco mansion on the ruins of Fort Marmorus which Poelzig commanded during the war and where Werdegast served.
After leaving the train, Werdegast, his servant and the Alisons share a bus which crashes and they all end up at Poelzig’s mansion. It’s here that the plot really kicks in as Werdegast informs Poelzig that he knows Poelzig betrayed the fort to the Russians and intends to avenge their dead comrades. If that wasn’t enough, Poelzig also stole Werdegast’s wife Karen while Werdegast was a prisoner of war. And it gets way kinkier than that. Karen Werdegast died two years after Poelzig married her, telling her that her husband was dead. Poelzig then raised her daughter, also named Karen (Lucille Lund) until she was of age and then he married her.
Werdegast informs Poelzig that he will wait until the Alisons have left and then they will settle their score. Poelzig offers his old friend a new game: they’ll play chess for Joan Alison. If Werdegast loses, she’ll become a human sacrifice for Poelzig’s Satanic cult. If Werdegast wins he can take the Alisons and Karen away with him. The two men sit down to play but the game will end in a conclusion far stranger and horrifying than either of them could ever imagine…
Even though this movie claims to be inspired by Edgar Allan Poe’s; “The Black Cat” there’s absolutely nothing of that tale in here. Werdegast has a phobic horror of cats and no matter how many he kills (by my count he kills at least three) Poelzig always seems to have another prowling around. I remember watching this movie when I was a kid on PBS. Thank Odin there was somebody there in Programming who apparently loved Universal horror movies, “Dr. Who” and samurai movies. THE BLACK CAT had a profound effect on me because even though we never see anything truly horrifying, the aberrant behavior demonstrated throughout the film is disturbing enough. There’s a lot of dark, twisted psychological horror here, backed up with outstanding visual design and terrific B&W photography that looks even better in HD. I recently watched this movie on Turner Classic Movies and it was like watching a movie that had been made this year. The soundtrack is also memorable as it’s made up entirely of classic music selections, the most notable being the use of ‘Dies Irae’ during a scene where Poelzig leads Werdegast through the lower levels of his mansion and details the rules of the game they will play.
If you’ve never seen it before and you call yourself a horror movie fan then you need to see THE BLACK CAT at your earliest opportunity. It stars two true Icons of the genre and it teams them in one of the best horror movies ever made. It doesn’t have blood or gore but it has atmosphere, character and intense psychological fears and terrors that I really will believe will stay with you long after you finished watching it. Far as I’m concerned, THE BLACK CAT is a masterpiece of the genre.