THE BLACK CAT. (1934) FROM THE STORY BY EDGAR ALLAN POE. DIRECTED BY EDGAR G. ULMER. PRODUCED BY CARL LAEMMLE, JR. DISTRIBUTED BY UNIVERSAL PICTURES.
STARRING BELA LUGOSI, BORIS KARLOFF, DAVID MANNERS, JULIE BISHOP, LUCILLE LUND, EGON BRECHER AND HARRY CORDING.
REVIEW BY SANDRA HARRIS. ©
This excellent old vintage horror classic has the distinction of being the first film ever to pair Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff together, so it’s a real case of Dracula versus the Mummy, isn’t? My money’s on the Fanged One rather than Mr. Bandages over there, but you never quite know how these things will pan out, do you?
The story begins on a train. American newly-weds Peter (a mystery writer, ironically enough) and Joan Allison are honeymooning in Hungary when they are asked to share their train compartment with a stranger, a handsome and charming Hungarian psychiatrist with an exotic accent by the name of Dr. Vitus Werdegast (Bela Lugosi). They’re put out, naturally, as they wanted to be alone, but graciously invite Dr. Werdegast to sit with them nonetheless.
Dr. Werdegast is not just a stranger, but also a strangely intense man with a dark past. He reveals some of it to Peter while Peter’s wife Joan is asleep. She’s every inch the early ‘Thirties starlet, by the way, this one, and she spends most of the film screeching in fear at everything she sees and swooning elegantly into the arms of the nearest man.
Peter is obviously the love of her life and he shouldn’t have any trouble whatsoever controlling this docile, biddable little woman. I imagine he’d only slap her as a result of extreme provocation and not as a matter of course, which is always nice to know.
Anyway, I digressed there, lol. Vitus, who’s en route to visit a friend, as yet un-named, reveals to Peter that he has spent the best years of his life rotting away in a horrible prison in Siberia.
He was captured as a POW during the Great War of 1914-1918 and incarcerated for nearly two whole decades, thanks to the betrayal of a friend. His physical body may have survived the ordeal but his soul is in pieces, such was the horror of the place. His eyes are haunted with the memory of it all, and maybe other memories too that we don’t yet know about.
The young couple and Vitus and his wordless servant Thamal seem to be travelling in the same direction, so they all opt to share a carriage. In the lashing rain, however, the carriage overturns in a mudslide.
The driver is killed and Mrs. Allison, the frail little flower-petal, is injured a tiny bit. Vitus says, well, the friend’s house that I’m going to visit is just up the road a piece, come with me and my friend will fix us all up. So that’s what they do…
The ‘friend’ isn’t really a friend at all but Vitus’s worst enemy, the man whose terrible betrayal led to Vitus’s imprisonment for so long. Boris Karloff plays Hjalmar Poelzig, or ‘Pigslowe,’ if you prefer. Just ask Mrs. Allison. She knows what I mean!
Anyway, Poelzig is an architect who has built a very strange, rather futuristic-looking house in a mountainy region on top of Fort Marmarus, which he commanded during the war. Dr. Werdegast was one of his men.
The odd-looking house is surrounded by the graves of hundreds of soldiers who died in the war. It’s a weird, mysterious and atmospheric place, and the perfect location for the dark events that are about to play out there.
Causing Vitus to be imprisoned for so long is only half of what this sinister Poelzig fella has done to poor Vitus. There’s at least one woman in Poelzig’s household who can testify to just what wrongs have been done to her and Vitus and one other party, who shall remain nameless. Vitus is here to revenge himself on Poelzig, but not until the very end of the film does he know to what extent Poelzig has wronged him.
There’s a supernatural element to the film, of course, as Poelzig is involved in some very dodgy practices with their basis in the occult. Mrs. Allison is in grave danger, as Poelzig has decided he likes the look of her and wants to use her in an upcoming ritual. Well, if he needs a bird who can do little else but squawk and swoon into the arms of the nearest bloke, she’ll do just fine.
There is a black cat in the film but he seems to be there only to give Boris the chance to remark sarcastically to a bemused Peter Allison that Bela has a terrible fear of cats. It’s not really integral to the plot.
However, a lot of these old movies liked to be able to say at the beginning of the credits that the movie was inspired by the works of Edgar Allan Poe, whereas in reality the connecting link was often quite tenuous, as it is here. Still, Poe was a popular fellow and, if his name got butts-on-seats, the producers were prepared to use it, see?
The handsome, suave and still young Bela isn’t the villain as such in this one, oddly enough. He wants to avenge himself against the evil Poelzig who is the real villain but, not only that, he’s taken a liking to the pleasant young couple who invited him to share their train compartment and they like him well enough too. (Even though the husband caught Bela stroking the wife’s hair while she was asleep, lol!)
He’s damned if he’s going to let the dastardly Poelzig and his queer V-shaped futuristic hairstyle ruin the young couples’ lives by taking the wife to use as a pawn in his deadly Satanic ritual. The stage is set for a terrific battle of wits between Bela and Boris which might just end in a big bang for someone, but we won’t of course say who. Or is it whom?
Either way, this film is a marvellous watch, with up-tempo classical music playing throughout just as if this were a silent film. Bela is wearing dark lippy and Boris is fully made-up in the style of the stars of silent cinema.
We’re only four years into the talkies by this stage, remember, so the film still retains the look and feel of a silent movie. Luckily for us, though, it’s a talkie and so we get to hear Boris’s charming lithp and Bela talking in his wonderful Dracula voice, which was actually his real accent.
Pre-Code but not, I believe, by much, the film features Satanism, the occult and the skinning alive of a human being and it also hints at abduction, necrophilia, rape and domestic abuse. For a film from the ‘Thirties that’s so old as to be almost a silent movie, it really kicks some serious ass.
What a delicious treat this old black-and-white movie is. It’s only one of a handful of films that were all released with the same title, lol, which must have been terribly confusing for the poor flummoxed viewer. Just how many movies called ‘The Black Cat’ were filmed, anyway? Never mind, dear reader. We don’t need to know. Maybe, as Bela himself remarks in the film, there are more things in heaven and earth…
AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY OF SANDRA HARRIS.
Sandra Harris is a Dublin-based novelist, film blogger, poet and book-and-movie reviewer. She has studied Creative Writing and Film-Making. She has published a number of e-books on the following topics: horror film reviews, multi-genre film reviews, womens’ fiction, erotic fiction, erotic horror fiction and erotic poetry. Several new books are currently in the pipeline. You can browse or buy any of Sandra’s books by following the link below straight to her Amazon Author Page:
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