The Black Cat (1934) Review

The Black Cat (1934) Director: Edgar G. Ulmer

“It has been a good game.”

Rating: 4 out of 5.

The first in a string of movies to feature Universal’s classic horror duo, Bela Lugosi (of Dracula repute) and Boris Karloff (of Frankenstein fame), The Black Cat is another remarkable addition to the 1930s “Monster Movies” franchise craze. It was very loosely premised on Edgar Allen Poe’s 1843 story “The Black Cat,” though in truth, the film has very little in common with the original story. It is a bit unique among Universal’s legendary string of monster movies, and its controversial subject matter to significantly revisions by studio editors. An ominous, brooding sense of evil pervades the tone of The Black Cat –it was appropriately released in between the world wars. It was Edgar Ulmer’s first major production after a career’s worth of B-films. The film is rife with expressionist allusions to its classic German forebears and it also features an oddly Romantic classical score, with motifs from Chopin, Brahms, Liszt, and Schumann in the vein of old Hollywood –though it sometimes feels as if the music should switch its tone at certain points from ethereal to more horrific.

At any rate, The Black Cat is a Pre-Code film and, as such, it was not yet compelled to hold back its controversial matter –there are numerous sexual innuendos and it features an ambiguously evil villain who is otherworldly, hellish, and even satanic. Despite having a somewhat stilted and slightly surrealist plot, The Black Cat offers a minor acting duel between the two chief horror assets at Universal –Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff. It follows newlyweds Peter and Joan Alison while on their honeymoon in Hungary (Peter is an American mystery writer). On the train, they are asked to share a compartment with Dr. Vitus Werdegast (Bela Lugosi), a mysterious Hungarian psychiatrist who fought in World War I but was betrayed and forced to rot in an infamous Siberian prison camp for fifteen years (“Kurgaal”). When the trio arrives at their stop, they enter a bus which crashes near the ruins of an old castle called Fort Marmorus (which amusingly appears in Art Deco fashion). This is the home of Austrian architect Hjalmar Poelzig (Boris Karloff).

As it turns out, this is a decades-old tale of revenge as Werdegast intends to exact vengeance on Poelzig for betraying him, his wife (Karen), and daughter (also Karen) of the Austro-Hungarians to the Russians. But every time Werdegast attempts to kill Poelzig a black cat suddenly interrupts and spooks him (he apparently suffers from ailurophobia). Later, we learn that Poelzig has actually taken Werdegast’s young daughter, Karen, as his secret wife. Meanwhile, Poelzig strolls casually through an austere, sanitized basement filled with bodies suspended upright. He reads a book on the Rites of Lucifer (“In the night, in the dark of the moon, the High Priest assembles his disciples for the sacrifice. The chosen maiden is garbed in white…”). Werdegast and Poelzig decide to wait until the Alisons leave before dueling one another –they play chess to pass the time. Meanwhile, Joan Alison encounters Karen and attempts to connect her with Werdegast, her father.

In the end, there is a satanic cult ceremony (complete with a double sideways crucifix), there are killings and imprisonments, Karen is killed, Alison is nearly sacrificed, Poelzig is strung up and threatened with being skinned alive, and the Alisons flee while Werdegast detonates the castle killing Poelzig. In a brief epilogue, at some point in the future Peter Alison is reading a review of his latest book, which is critiqued for being a bit too far-fetched (I loved this bit of self-deprecating, self-referential humor to close the film).

As with other Universal horror flicks, The Black Cat is not particularly scary, but there is something intriguing about this strange picture. Boris Karloff plays a familiar malevolent, demonic cult-like figure (a war criminal who is perhaps a disturbed necrophiliac) however it was impressive to see Bela Lugosi in the role of the hero –all Werdegast truly desires is for his wife and daughter returned to him. In my view, this is a great Universal horror film though its atmosphere and art direction is superseded by its script in the end. Considering the studio’s string of horror successes, it makes sense that The Black Cat was Universal’s biggest box office windfall of 1934, even if today it is endlessly contrasted with The Raven (1935) which also featured Karloff and Lugosi. Indeed, the two legends enjoyed working together so much, that they would go on to appear in a total of eight horror films together (including six with Universal).

1 thought on “The Black Cat (1934) Review

  1. It just occurred to me, in reading your last paragraph, that it’s true that Universal horror films are not particularly scary. Even The Thing, which I’m a fan of for the psychological dramas, as with a lot of horror films. In my own reflections of enjoying classic horror from the times of Karloff and Lugosi, the excitement of seeing such iconic actors carrying the weight of the film may have been most predominating as opposed to now. So it’s always interesting to reflect on those glory days in WordPress reviews. Thank you for this one.

    Liked by 2 people

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