October 25, 2011

The Black Cat (1934)

I’VE BEEN MEANING to see Edgar G. Ulmer’s The Black Cat ever since it was part of Bravo’s 100 Scariest Movie Moments several years ago.

And even though the clip shown of The Black Cat on that special gave away the ending, it was such a horrifying image for its time that I felt compelled to see the entire film – and find out if Ulmer had pushed the envelope in other areas as well.

Honeymooning in Hungary, Joan (Julie Bishop) and Peter (David Manners) share their train compartment with Dr. Vitus Verdegast (Bela Lugosi), a courtly but tragic man returning to the remains of the town he defended before becoming a prisoner of war for fifteen years and losing contact with his wife and daughter. When their hotel-bound bus crashes in a mountain storm and Joan is injured, the travelers seek refuge with famed architect Hjalmar Poelzig (Boris Karloff), whose house is built fortress-like upon the site of the bloody battlefield where Verdegast was captured. It turns out Verdegast and Poelzig share a past: Poelzig had coveted Verdegast’s wife, and Verdegast believes that Poelzig knows what happened to her and his daughter. Meanwhile, Poelzig has several creepy secrets of his own…and a hidden agenda.


Lugosi and Karloff were two of Universal’s heavy hitters when they made The Black Cat – having starred, respectively, in Dracula and Frankenstein three years earlier. This was their first pairing together, and it’s exhilarating – almost surreal – to see them share screen time if you’ve never done so.

The ghoulish Karloff – clothed in black robes and constantly looking up at his guests from a downward tilted head – is the creepier of the two. He’s even introduced rising slowly in silhouette from his bed, making comparisons to his Frankenstein monster rising from the lab table impossible to ignore. Lugosi largely plays it straight as Verdegast, a wronged man bent on revenge. He’s so methodical about plotting his vengeance, at one point he even sides with Poelzig to prevent Joan and Peter from leaving. (The scene of the symbolic chess match between Poelzig and Verdegast is also a nice touch.)

However, The Black Cat is disappointing for anyone hoping to see true horror unfold. The first half is very pedestrian, with only an occasional dash of creepiness. That leaves roughly a half hour in this 65-minute film, and Ulmer (working from a script by Peter Ruric) doesn’t ratchet up the action or terror until it’s too late. Everything starts to come together in the last quarter of the film, but it feels like Ulmer’s racing to the end and merely touching on key story points so they’re resolved before the credits.

Other elements also tarnish any chance at The Black Cat delivering true scares. The dated, melodramatic, and sometimes inappropriate score by Heinz Roemheld often spoils what could be perfect scenes of tension or suspense. Poor editing reveals several continuity errors. And that horrifying scene mentioned earlier? The glimpse shown on Bravo is actually, and sadly, the entire shot – its shocking effect gone as quickly as the scene itself.

Revenge, secrets, betrayal, devil worship, necrophilia, incest – one would think all these topics rolled into one film would make for a shocking story to watch. But with the exception of a couple of moments and the final, frenetic fifteen minutes, The Black Cat is more drama than horror. It’s exciting to see two legends of the genre square off, but the pacing and payoff of the film are lacking.


Is it suitable for your kids?
In The Black Cat, several people are shot, with one person dripping blood from their mouth; a driver is killed in a bus accident; two people are choked unconscious; Poelzig walks past a collection of dead (yet immaculately preserved) women suspended in glass cases; and a person is skinned alive in silhouette for several seconds.

Will your FilmMother want to watch it?
Unless she’s a devout fan of classic Universal monsters, or the careers of Lugosi and Karloff, I doubt it. And if she’s a fan of Edgar Allan Poe, be forewarned: The Black Cat is Poe in title only.

"I like her hair. It reminds me of this bride I used to know..."

The Black Cat
* Director: Edgar G. Ulmer
* Screenwriter: Peter Ruric
* Stars: Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, Julie Bishop, David Manners, Harry Cording, Lucille Lund
* MPAA Rating: N/A

Rent The Black Cat from Netflix >>

1 comment:

Retro Hound said...

Drama instead of horror is not a problem with me, but it is good to know going in. I still intend to watch it someday.


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