I teased you with the movie version of The Black Cat that you weren’t looking for, the 1941 semi-comedy and barely entertaining one from Universal. But no teasing this time. Universal’s 1934 movie The Black Cat is a stone-cold, brutal classic of early horror cinema—and it features the first and best pairing of legends Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi.
The first Universal horror cycle had already used Poe for material with a loose adaptation of Murders in the Rue Morgue in 1932, which starred Bela Lugosi as a mad doctor with a killer ape. Director Robert Florey, who was originally slated to helm Frankenstein (along with Lugosi as the monster), gave Murders in the Rue Morgue plenty of expressionist visual flair, but it’s only a tiny scratch compared what Austrian director Edgar G. Ulmer pulls off in The Black Cat.
The screenplay for The Black Cat (by Peter Ruric, a.k.a. Paul Cain, author of the insane hard-boiled nightmare novel Fast One) takes even less material from its Poe-source than Murders in the Rue Morgue. As in “pretty much nothing at all.” Aside from the occasional appearances of a black feline to justify the title, the movie has no connection to Poe’s 1934 short story about a man who murders his wife in a fit of madness and has his crime revealed through a possibly supernatural house cat. But if the Poe’s story doesn’t show up on screen, plenty of Poe’s themes—necrophilia, torture, burial alive, revenge—certainly do. It contains much more Poe than many films that adapt his material more directly.
The story involves two rivals, Satan-worshiping architect Hjalmar Poelzig (Karloff) and vengeful war veteran Dr. Vitus Werdergast (Lugosi), in a duel to the death in a house of horrors while a young couple on their honeymoon tries to escape from their mutual destruction. There isn’t much more “story” than that—it’s mostly themes and ideas—but I’ll try to sketch out some of what occurs during its sixty-one minutes.
The film opens with a convivial holiday atmosphere as travelers board the Orient Express for vacations into Danube Country. The newlywed Alisons (David Manners and Jacqueline Wells) get cozy in their train compartment on their way to honeymoon in Visegrad. They nuzzle and share sweet talk, and bright jazz suitable for an early Marx Bros. films plays.
This concludes our scheduled moment of happiness and good feeling. Enjoy the rest of the ghoulishness, which would fit well into one of the “Weird Menace” pulps of the day.
Bela Lugosi as Dr. Vitus Wedergast makes a striking first appearance, photographed initially as a hat emerging in the train corridor before he follows. Lugosi is dapper, handsome, and immediately sinister as the man who needs to share the Alisons’ compartment for his trip to “visit an old friend.” Lugosi’s inflection tells us what sort of visit, and what sort of friend, awaits him at the end of this trip along the Orient Express.
Wedergast delivers an intense monologue to set the mood and much of the story when Peter Alison catches the doctor stroking his wife’s hair with remorseful tenderness:
I beg your indulgence my friend. Eighteen years ago I left a girl, so like your lovely wife, to go to war. Kaiser and Country, you know. She was my wife. Have you ever heard of Kurgaal? It is a prison below Amsk on Lake Baikal. Many men have gone there. Few have returned. I have returned. After fifteen years—I have returned.
Lugosi’s performance here is intense and probably connects to his own war experience. He also fought for “Kaiser and Country” in World War I (he was wounded and received a Purple Heart) and the horror of that conflict must speak personally for him here. And it will speak through the whole film, which uses the atrocities of war as its backdrop. It gives a harsh edge to Lugosi’s character and helps him deliver arguably the best performance of his career. Dracula is more famous, but I don’t think Lugosi ever received another such pure acting opportunity during his time in Hollywood.
The Alisons disembark from the train to ride by bus to Gömbös, along with Wedergast, who is on his way to the house of engineer Hjalmar Poelzig. The bus crashes in the storm, killing the driver and leaving the Alisons to follow Wedergast to Poelzig’s ghastly ultra-modern mansion on the hilltop.
Poelzig’s engineering masterpiece is built on the site of Fort Marmorus, “The Greatest Graveyard in the World.” It is Hjalmar Poelzig, played by Boris Karloff with feline aloofness, who created that graveyard. The costume and make-up on Karloff make it seem as if he might be the true black cat of the title, deathless and a symbol of evil.
This Balhaus look for Poelzig’s abode will surprise many viewers, who would expect a Gothic mansion or castle in a Universal horror film. But Poelzig’s palace looks like a James Bond set drenched in gloomy shadow. It’s chilling and frigid, and considering it was built over a place of war atrocity, it creates an aura of mechanistic menace and heartlessness.
According to Wedergast, Poelzig sold Marmorus to Russians and left him and its other defenders to die. Wedergast wants back his wife Karen, whom he’s certain Poelzig stolen from him during the time Wedergast was imprisoned in Kurgaal, “where the soul is killed slowly.” As we will find out, the truth is more horrifying than Wederast imagines it.
Poelzig takes Wedergast into the lower levels of the old fortress, where he keeps a gallery of embalmed beauties at whom he makes staring tours. (This isn’t a healthy man.) Wedergast’s wife Karen hangs in a case as well, dead two years after the war. Poelzig has preserved her beauty, for he loved her too. Poelzig’s creepy necrophilia starts to come through:
You say your soul was killed, that you have been dead all these years. And what of me? Did we not both die here in Marmorus fifteen years ago? Are we not any less victims than those whose bodies were torn asunder? Are we not both the living dead? And now you come to me, playing at being an avenging angel, childishly thirsting for my blood. We understand each other too well. We know too much of life. We shall play a little game, Vitus. A game of death, if you like.
This plays out over a POV tacking shot through the stone chambers of this fortress of death and its memories.
These confrontations between Poelzig and Wedergast are electric—seeing not only two great icons of horror meeting, but the clash of the intense hatred their characters feel and how deeply it’s embedded in the horror of the recent war. Lugosi and Karloff would have other films together, but this is the best work they ever did facing each other. Both men are superlative, and this is a rare chance for Lugosi to have the juicer role with the larger character arc.
The Game of Death now begins, and most of it is plotless oddness. “Plot” in general isn’t much on director Ulmer’s mind. Things get increasingly weird. Poelzig pours over Satanic rituals, and he has a leering eye for Joan which he plans to act on at a full moon ceremony. Wedergast and Poelzing get involved in a chess match for the Alisons’ fate: if Wedergast wins, they may go. Otherwise, Poelzig will work whatever horrible plan he has on Joan.
Karloff is wonderful in the way he politely blocks the Alisons every attempt to get away from the mansion while he and Wedergast play chess for their fate. Karloff turns more saturnine with each moment. (“Did you hear that Vitus? The phone is dead. Even the phone is dead.”) Lugosi, meanwhile, pushes his characterization of Wedergast closer to completely snapping.
The Alisons finally get the hint they should get the hell out of this demented place and away from these two lethal nuts. Poelzig wins the chess match, and Joan Alison is imprisoned for Poelzig’s ritual, with Peter Alison locked in a bizarre basement chamber which I believe was borrowed from “The Pit and the Pendulum.” The film now flies off the rails: incest, an off-screen killing that I don’t want to imagine, a Satanic sacrifice in full regalia before twisted expressionist obelisks, and a man’s flesh ripped from his skin using the array of tools from the Hostel movies. Yes, we see the instruments, we hear the screams, we see the shadows on the wall. “Tear the skin from your body. Slowly, bit by bit!” Cripes, what was up with 1934?
I’ve seen this film a number of times, and I still can’t believe Universal got away with it. How did this get pulled off in the 1930s, even in the pre-code days? The Satanic ritual alone would qualify the Production Code prudes to shred this this thing, and we haven’t gotten into the torture, necrophilia, incest, and overall sadism yet. Legend holds that studio executive Carl Laemmle Jr. produced the film while his father was on vacation, and turned down no opportunity to push the movie to the extremes while daddy wasn’t looking over his shoulder.
The Black Cat is nearly plotless, but it’s damned brilliant. It’s sixty-one minutes of lustrous 1930s lunacy, showing that the decade—the era of the so-called “Great Generation”—was one bleak, hopeless place. The way it turns World War I and the mechanization of death into a theme makes it much more than some spook show, but a telling piece of twentieth-century history. The only place where the movie stumbles is in an argument between two gendarmes officers about where the best place to vacation; it’s a rare moment of comedy and quite inappropriate.
Director Edgar Ulmer should have gone on to a celebrated career in Hollywood filmmaking, but he ended up on low-budget movies for the Poverty Row studios. Even there he managed to create impressive work, such as Detour, a film noir classic made on loose change. The Black Cat is Ulmer’s masterwork, an example of what he could do given the budget, and what Hollywood should have continued to do if the prudish Production Code hadn’t shuttered up anything that wasn’t “moral.”
I’ll let Bela take us out of the movie: “Five minutes. Marmorus, you and I and your rotten cult will be no more. It has been a good game.”
Oh hell yeah, it has.