Film: The Black Cat
Format: Internet video on laptop.
It’s interesting to look at movies that are 80 years or so old. Some of them translate really well and others just flat out don’t. I’ve been told by a few sources in the past that The Black Cat is a film that belongs in the pantheon. It’s the first time that Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff appeared on screen together—sort of like a Freddy Vs. Jason for the Depression set. But I’ve also been told that it brings the creeps in a big way. Maybe it did in 1934, but today, well…
We have a young American couple that is, for some reason, honeymooning in Hungary, because evidently nothing says the culmination of romance like Carpathia. Peter Alison (David Manners) is a writer of detective novels and his wife Joan (Julie Bishop) seems to have no personality aside from him. In fact, through most of the film, she is merely referred to as “Mrs. Alison.” Regardless, they are cuddling close in the train when they are interrupted by the entrance of a new passenger, Dr. Vitus Werdegast (Lugosi). As it turns out, the couple and the doctor are traveling to a similar location.
They later share a cab/trolley/vehicle which suffers an accident. Joan is hurt in the crash, and they are forced to seek shelter at the nearest house, which stands on the site of an old battlefield. Living in the house is Hjalmar Poelzig (Karloff), the man Werdegast holds responsible for his own long imprisonment and a few other tortures as well as the architect of the house they are in. There’s evident bad blood between the two which soon is made obvious. Werdegast belives that Poelzig forced him into imprisonment to steal his wife and daughter. Poelzig doesn’t deny this, and in fact takes his old friend/enemy to see his wife. Naturally, she’s dead, but Poelzig has preserved her, lending a sort of necrophilia vibe to the proceedings.
And a few more things become evident. First, Werdegast’s daughter is not dead. In fact, after marrying the mother, Poelzig married the daughter, Karen (Lucille Lund), but he is not going to share this fact with her father. Second, Poelzig worships the black goat of hell. Yep! He’s a Satanist, because that’s what bad guys do in old movies. We discover this when he goes to bed one night and tucks himself in with a little light reading about a ritual performed to honor Lucifer. Me? I prefer a little non-fiction.
Anyway, everything starts to come to a head when Joan Alison becomes a pawn in the game played by the two men. Poelzig wants to sacrifice her, and Werdegast would prefer that she live, making this a rare film in which Lugosi plays something more akin to a hero than a villain. And through it all, black cats appear at opportune times, particularly because Werdegast is an ailurophobe.
So let’s get down to the nitty gritty on this one. I know this is a film from 1934 and I really shouldn’t judge it on modern film principles, but in some cases, I have to wonder what Edgar G. Ulmer was thinking when he made this. Claiming that this film was in some way connected with the Edgar Allan Poe story is at best a joke. The director’s name being the same as the author’s and the presence of a black cat are all that connect the two.
And there are other problems, too. Lugosi’s character is perhaps the only one who really sounds like he is from the region in question. Karloff’s accent is decidedly British despite his trying to be passed off as Hungarian here. And Karen Werdegast Poelzig sounds like she’s from Kansas despite having spent her entire life in Hungary.
I’ll admit that the ending is pretty good. There’s a real sense of maliciousness and sadism in the last few minutes of the film. It’s surprisingly gruesome for the time. But that’s really about the only thing that works here. When the better of the creepy, scary dudes is willing to torture someone to death for revenge, you know there’s quality involved.
This is a morbid little film, but it’s not one that I’m convinced begs to be watched. Then again, it was the biggest money maker in 1934, so what the hell do I know?
The biggest innovation in the film is that it has an almost continuous musical score, which was rare for the time. That score, though, often feels completely inappropriate for what is on the screen. While Poelzig reads his Big Book O’ Satanic Witchcraft, for instance, the music is rather jaunty and light. Much of the rest of the time, the music feels like it belongs in a Little Rascals short.
Sadly, The Black Cat fails on almost all fronts for me. The male hero is pasty, stupid, and aggressively wrong, his wife is a virtual non-entity, and the two creepy “foreign” guys do little but glower at each other until the end, and then get into a fist fight. I was bored through most of it, and that’s saying something for a film that runs only an hour.
Why to watch The Black Cat: Lugosi and Karloff on the same screen.
Why not to watch: The promise versus the reality is sort of like the promise versus the reality of an old comic book advertisement.