THE BLACK CAT. (1934) REVIEW BY SANDRA HARRIS. ©

black cat skinning

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:

http://www.amazon.com/-/e/B015GDE5RO

You can contact Sandra at:

https://www.facebook.com/SandraHarrisPureFilthPoetry

https://sandrafirstruleoffilmclubharris.wordpress.com

http://sexysandieblog.wordpress.com

http://serenaharker.wordpress.com

sandrasandraharris@gmail.com

https://twitter.com/SandraAuthor

THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME. (1923) REVIEW BY SANDRA HARRIS.©

hunchback esmeralda

THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME. (1923) BASED ON THE NOVEL BY VICTOR HUGO. DIRECTED BY WALLACE WORSLEY. PRODUCED BY CARL LAEMMLE.

STARRING LON CHANEY, PATSY RUTH MILLER AND NORMAN KERRY.

REVIEW BY SANDRA HARRIS. ©

‘Swift run the sands of life, except in the hour of pain.’

Lon Chaney’s performance in this film is positively staggeringly good. He throws himself into it to the extent that he doesn’t mind at all that his creation is repugnant to lay eyes on. That’s a good thing, as far as he’s concerned, and it’s damned realistic too.

He doesn’t mind his character looking hideous and he doesn’t mind enduring a bit of physical suffering to achieve the right look. I think he thought that the suffering was a good thing too, lol. If you suffered for your art, you were obviously getting it right. And he got it so right with his Hunchback.

The Hunchback is a tragic figure, certainly unappealing to look upon but never comic, even if he does start the movie being crowned the King of the Fools during the festival of the same name. We’re in Paris, France ‘ten years before Christopher Columbus discovered America,’ so I make that 1472 by my watch.

The Middle Ages were so unsanitary with their rats, their plagues and their open sewers with filthy sewerage flowing down the streets that it’s a wonder anyone ever lived through them at all. Downright disgusting, they were.

Louis the Eleventh was the King of France during this era and you can bet your bottom dollar that he didn’t have to walk through sewerage on his way to buy a carton of milk and a packet of fags. One law for the rich and another for the poor, that’s how it was back then.

There were dire mutterings behind the scene amongst the lower classes though, and talk of uprisings and of overthrowing the King and distributing the wealth a little more evenly. I’m a little sketchy on my French history so I don’t know what happened in France between 1472 and the French Revolution of 1789 (‘Off with their heads!’ and suchlike) but the peasants were frequently revolting anyway, and you couldn’t really blame them as conditions for the poor were so appalling.

Rickets, ticks in the straw, the plague every five bloody minutes, boils and sores, infestations of this or that, no proper toilet or washing facilities, absolutely no Internet access, etc., etc. I couldn’t be doing with any of that type of thing. Give me modern times any day.

Lon Chaney’s character is Quasimodo the Hunchback, an orphaned, disfigured pauper brought up by the Church within the confines of the magnificent Notre Dame Cathedral, the other star of the film. Whaddya mean you don’t remember Quasimodo? Surely his face at least rings a bell? Ba-dum-tish, lol. Bad joke. Forgive me.

He’s the bell-ringer at the Cathedral, which job has rendered him half-deaf if not wholly deaf after years of enduring the tremendous noise at close range. He loves the bells though, and at one point we see him expressing his ‘wild joy’ at something that’s happened by ringing the bejeesus out of those bells till the whole city is quivering from the reverberations.

Quasimodo is ordered by the Archdeacon’s lecherous and distinctly unholy brother Jehan to kidnap Esmeralda, the beautiful Gypsy girl who can be seen dancing and twirling like a sexy dervish in the streets during the festival. The kidnapping goes awry and Quasimodo is sentenced to a terrible public lashing, ‘not by any means the first time a servant was punished in place of its master.’

The poor Hunchback falls hopelessly in love with Esmeralda when she is the only person to take pity on him after this whipping and bring him a drink to quench his awful thirst. But Esmeralda is head-over-heels in love with Phoebus de Chateaupers, a ringleted and twirly-moustachioed popinjay who goes by the title of the Captain of the Guards.

The wicked Jehan stabs Phoebus while he- Phoebus- is engaged in embracing the lovesick Esmeralda, then he legs it and lets Esmeralda take the blame. Poor Esmeralda is ‘put to the question’ by the men of the Court, by which of course I mean she was tortured by these master torturers until she ‘confessed’ to the crime she didn’t commit, that of stabbing her lover Phoebus. These were the times of the Inquisition and witch-burnings and people being accused of sorcery if they were found to be able to add two plus two together and get four. That’s right, those were the bad old days.

On foot of her forced ‘confession,’ Esmeralda is sentenced to be hanged. On her way to the gallows, she is seen by Quasimodo, who is horrified by the implications of what he’s observed. His beautiful kind-hearted angel Esmeralda, sentenced to death? He kidnaps her away from the Guards and hops it with her into the Church. Methinks it’s time for a little Sanctuary, lol.

Can a gypsy girl really receive justice when she’s only a poor lowborn female while her accusers are all male and more powerful than she? And on whom will she bestow her love, the dashing nincompoop Phoebus or her rescuer Quasimodo who, alas, is no more pleasing to look on than last night’s curry leftovers after the dog’s been at ’em…? Whatever she does, someone’s bound to get hurt.

There’s also the intriguing mystery of Esmeralda’s parentage. Who is the girl’s mother, and is there a chance of a reunion between mother and daughter before one of them dies? Esmeralda has never been more alone in the world than she is now. She could use some good news.

The Court of Miracles, so-called because ‘here the blind can see and the lame walk,’ is a very interesting place too. Here lives Esmeralda’s ‘adopted’ father, Clopin, the King of Thieves, with the other downtrodden peasants of Paris, and here it is also that a word from Esmeralda saves Gringoire the poet, a minor character, from being hanged for wandering into the wrong part of town. Will Clopin rally his own troops when he hears of Esmeralda’s intended fate? He jolly well ought to, anyway.

The siege of the Cathedral is the most exciting bit. Look at the way Quasimodo leaps in glee and triumph when he thinks he’s gotten one over on those who are trying to force an entrance! He’s positively alive with mischief and impish malice, like the bad fairy at the party or something.

Lon Chaney, who also stars in the superb film adaptation of Gaston Leroux’s THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA in 1925, puts his heart and soul into the performance and into the mannerisms of the poor Hunchback.

There have been other Hunchbacks since his- the brilliant Charles Laughton, for example, and even Anthony Hopkins had a go at it- but his to me will always be the most poignant and the most moving. Lon Chaney, the Man With A Million Faces, has done it again, has pulled off another master-stroke with his bag of tricks. Hats off to you, Mr. Chaney. Hats off to you.

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:

http://www.amazon.com/-/e/B015GDE5RO

You can contact Sandra at:

https://www.facebook.com/SandraHarrisPureFilthPoetry

https://sandrafirstruleoffilmclubharris.wordpress.com

http://sexysandieblog.wordpress.com

http://serenaharker.wordpress.com

sandrasandraharris@gmail.com

https://twitter.com/SandraAuthor