Hot on the heels of his “31 Days of Hammer” in January, his “31 Days of British Horror” in March and his “31 More Days of British Horror” in May, Jules is travelling across the pond this July with… you guessed it… 31 Days of American Horror!
Director: Edgar G. Ulmer
Starring: Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, David Manners, Julie Bishop
“Did we not both die here in Marmaros 15 years ago? Are we any the less victims of the war than those whose bodies were torn asunder? Are we not both the living dead?”
Pairing horror superstars Karloff and Lugosi in a film together must have seemed like the most obvious box office gold back in the early ’30s.
The Black Cat though, is far from a commercial film. Taking only the name and the occasional appearance of a feline from Edgar Allan Poe’s 1843 short story, its themes and ideas are dark, intense and bordering on transgressive at times. It’s not an easy or even fun watch at times, such is the level of twisted, psychological horror going on.
Despite this, it would go on to be Universal’s biggest hit of the year.
Newlyweds Peter (David Manners) and Joan Alison (Julie Bishop), on their honeymoon in Hungary, find themselves sharing a train compartment with Dr. Vitus Werdegast (Béla Lugosi), a Hungarian psychiatrist, who they learn has recently been released after spending 15 years as a prisoner of war in an infamous Siberian jail.
Werdegast tells them he is travelling to see to see an old friend, Hjalmar Poelzig (Boris Karloff), an Austrian architect, but there is more to the man’s story. The trio end up in a bus crash and all end up at Poelzig’s mansion, built on the site of a notorious massacre of 10,000 Austro-Hungarian troops by the Russians during the Great War.
Werdegast not only accuses his “friend” of being responsible for the massacre by betraying his people to the enemy, but of stealing his wife and daughter during the years he has been locked away.
Poelzig has done much worse than steal his wife though and he has plans for Joan too, as the architect is also a Satanist and the newlywed is to be his next sacrifice to Lucifer…
Even if it was made in 2018, The Black Cat would still be challenging stuff. Right from the off, it’s all about subverting your expectations of morality with its complex plot.
Lugosi, so often associated with arch-villainy already is the hero. Well, of sorts. A hero that creepily caresses Joan’s hair when she sleeps (and rapes her in the original script), but fights for the honeymooners throughout against his old friend. It’s not the most heroic of characters and Bela’s casting immediately gives a different edge to it, but it’s clear he’s been a good man at one point, he’s just been driven a tad insane by what he’s endured. In another film that would be enough for him to be the black hat, but here he looks like an angel when he’s up against Karloff’s Poelzig.
The great man looks like he’s made of stone when he first enters the film, radiating intensity and menace before he’s even said a word. Once he starts talking though, dear lord he’s disturbing. Yes, he married Werdegast’s wife after telling her that her husband was dead. But since then she’s “died” too and he’s had her body preserved and hung in a glass case along with a bunch of other dead women. Oh and he’s now married Werdegast’s daughter, who he’s apparently been attracted to since she was a child. Brrrr.
All of this would be twisted enough, but when you throw in the Satanism angle, you know you’re in some seriously dark territory and Karloff is exactly the actor you want bringing this monster to life. He’s utterly evil, no doubt about it, but in Karloff’a capable hands there’s glimmers of humanity shining through, of empathy, remorse and sadness. He’s a monster, but he knows he is.
The battle between Poelzig and Werdegast is fascinating and played out like the chess game the two play for Joan at one point. They were friends and are now far from it, but at times you’d struggle to tell, as both are playing their cards very close to their chest. It’s riveting to watch, but at times the tension is almost unbearable. Both these men have been damaged irreparably by the horrors of the Great War and the scars run deep. By the time of their final, horrifying confrontation, told mainly in shadowplay, you know just how destroyed both men are and it’s devastating.
It’s one of horror cinema’s great two-handers, but if there was to be a third character of note, it wouldn’t be the bland Peter and Joan, it would be Poelzig’s house itself. Designed and built on the ruins of a massacre he himself was the architect of, it’s a visually dazzling example of Art Deco styling, all angles and sharp lines, but given an undefinable, unsettling edge by what’s going on inside it.
Poelzig’s gallery of dead women is strangely beautiful, while the Satanic altar in the basement is one of the most stylish committed to film.
That’s another thing: there’s nothing obviously supernatural about any of this, which for a film involving Satanic cults, is quite unusual. The horrors of man’s inhumanity to man is perhaps enough here without going down that route. But…during the ceremony, just what does the Satanist see that causes her to scream so much she faints? Did her real master make an appearance and director Edgar G. Ulmer just not show us? It’s a lovely idea, but one that is definitely best left ambiguous.
There’s only one real criticism I can make of The Black Cat and that’s the almost-constant classical score is far too overbearing. Recognisable pieces by a host of famous composers layered over almost every minute of a film just isn’t a good idea, especially one so characterful as this one.
That’s it though. One grumble. For the most part, The Black Cat is unbelievably good and as entertaining as it is disturbing. It’s challenging stuff, but it’s also a film that’s almost impossible to tear your eyes away from. A dark, dark classic.
The Writer of this piece was: Jules Boyle
Jules tweets from @Captain_Howdy