by Mel Valentin
The first of eight collaborations between horror icons Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, "The Black Cat," is also probably one of their most bizarre. Written and directed by Edgar G. Ulmer and purportedly based on Edgar Allan Poe's short story of the same name (it's not), "The Black Cat," a horror melodrama that combined Satanism, necrophilia, superstition, neuroses, sadomasochism, and human sacrifice with Art Deco sets and a heavy revenge plot into an altogether unique genre entry, became Universal Studios' biggest hit of the year, thus guaranteeing that Karloff and Lugosi would work together again; none, however, as memorable "The Black Cat." Alas, Ulmer went on to direct exactly one more memorable film in a long career marked by mediocrity, a particularly nihilistic “Poverty Row” noir entry, "Detour."Usually cast as the villain, antagonist, or monster, Lugosi was given the rare opportunity to play the heroic lead role, but true to typecasting, the character he plays in The Black Cat, Dr. Vitus Werdegast, is more anti-hero than hero. Werdegast is a Hungarian psychiatrist returning home after fifteen years in a prison camp. While he appears rational and controlled, his body language suggests otherwise. Forced to share a train compartment with a young American couple, Peter (David Manners) and Joan Alison (Jacqueline Wells), on honeymoon in Central Europe, Werdegast does little to ingratiate himself with them, but when it turn out that they're traveling in the same direction, they decide to take a bus together. The bus crashes on a dark, winding road, injuring Joan. Werdegast and Peter take her to a modernist house sitting on top of a mountain, a house owned by Werdegast's former friend, Hjalmar Poelzig (Boris Karloff), a once-famous Austrian architect.
"Classic horror the Universal Studios way."
Dressed in an elegant robe, with his hair trimmed to emphasis the letter "V," Poelzig only has to look out from under his heavily lidded eyes to appear menacing. Still, Poelzig offers his hospitality to Werdegast and the Allisons. It's only the presence of the Allisons, however, that keeps Werdegast and Poelzig from revealing their hatred for each other. Werdegast accuses Poelzig of betraying a fort he commanded to the Russians, leaving hundreds if not thousands of Hungarians to die and Werdegast to suffer for fifteen years in the prison camp. Werdegast also accuses Poelzig of stealing his wife and daughter from him, but his unstable behavior makes him look like he's lost his mind. That theory is borne out by Werdegast's irrational fear of black cats that alternately freezes him and causes him to strike out violently.
Suffice it to say that it doesn't end well for Werdegast or Poelzig, not with all that history behind them and certainly not when Poelzig is revealed as a collector of beautiful objects, including the bodies of women he's perfectly preserved in floating glass coffins or the woman more than half his age he keeps locked up in his bedroom away from the prying eyes of his guests. As the game of wits and will between Werdegast and Poelzig reaches its climax in a Satanic midnight mass, Peter and Joan are forced to choose a side, only one of which will allow them the possibility of escaping Poelzig's prison-house.
Running a little over an hour long, The Black Cat leaves much that it could have shown, such as Werdegast and Poelzig’s past together, to often-clunky exposition delivered by one or the other character. We get exactly one exterior shot of Poelzig’s house before we relegated to interiors for the remainder of The Black Cat’s brief running time. Up top we get modernist, Art Deco sets, down below we get dungeons and secret passageways. We also learn that, as brilliant as Poelzig may have been, he built his new home on unexploded ordnance (dynamite to you and me), complete with a lever to send everything, including himself, sky high. And with not one, but two twisted characters, one consumed by revenge into a sadist and other driven by his monstrous egocentrism, neither is particularly relatable or sympathetic.
That job is left for the bland, underwritten American couple honeymooning in Hungary. He’s a pulp fiction writer and she’s a woman seemingly content with becoming a wife and mother (and, as the story dictates, a damsel in distress). At most, the Allisons are pawns in Werdegast and Poelzig’s deadly game, made all the more obvious by an actual game of chess the characters play for the lives of the Allisons, since Satanic rituals must have their human sacrifices as we learn from one particular character’s bedside reading (from the Book of Lucifer, no less). Alas, with so much going on, story wise and subtext wise, and with an obviously limited budget (The Black Cat was made during the Great Depression, after all), it’s hard not to feel like we’ve been shortchanged (because we have) when the promise was there for so much more.Still, any film that puts two horror icons in a serious horror/drama, leaving aside, of course, the seemingly endless parodies that followed in the early forties, can’t be all bad. Luckily, "The Black Cat" isn’t, bad that is. Sure, Ulmer doesn’t follow the classical Hollywood style of master shot/shot/reverse shot, instead lingering on medium shots or doing away altogether with close ups (they’re few and far between) and sure, the score by Heinz Eric Roemheld seems to have little to do with the action unfolding on screen, but it was innovative for its time (i.e., using music throughout an entire film after the end of the silent era), but with a little patience and a lot of indulgence, "The Black Cat" will prove rewarding for fans of old school horror done the Universal Studios way.
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originally posted: 11/13/07 15:11:52