Saturday, October 4, 2014

The Black Cat (1934)



Boris Karloff!  Bela Lugosi!  Together in what might be the finest picture that pits the two against each other, a story about a Satanic cult, "inspired by" Edgar Allan Poe's The Black Cat.  Read all about it after the break.




A House Built on the Graves of Thousands of Dead Men

In The Black Cat, Bela Lugosi plays Dr. Vitus Werdegast, a war veteran who spent 15 years in a  brutal POW camp.  Now free, he is seeking revenge against the corrupt military commander who he blames for his imprisonment.

Karloff Challenges Lugosi to a Game of Chess to Determine the Female Victim's Fate.


Boris Karloff plays  Hjalmar Poelzig, the former military commander.  In the years since the war, he has become one of Europe's greatest architects (not to mention the leader of a Satanic cult).  Poelzig's crowning achievement of architecture is his own home, which he has built on top of the remains of the military base he once commanded.  The house is revealed to the audience in typical Universal Horror fashion: It's a rainy night, lit only by flashes of lightning.  On a dark and forbidding hill, covered in hundreds of makeshift graves for the soldiers who are buried there, stands a house.  But rather than the typical ancient castle or haunted mansion that you would expect to see in a film like this, the house is of ultra modern design, all straight angles, steel, and glass.  The contrast is striking.

Interior of Poelzig's Modern Home

Karloff and Lugosi's characters reflect this contrast as well.   Lugosi's Dr.  Werdegast believes that Hjalmar Poelzig sold out the military men under his command to the Russians, and is thus responsible for thousands of deaths.  He also believes that Poelzig lied to Werdegast's wife, telling her that he died in the war, even though he knew that Werdegast was in prison, so that he could have Werdegsat's wife for himself.  Lugosi is ostensibly the hero of the picture, but his years of torture in the prison camp have left him twisted up on the inside, teetering on the brink of madness.   He often behaves inappropriately.  He is incredibly frightened of cats, and kills Poelzig's pet cat when it crosses his path.   At another point he pervs out and fondles an innocent woman's hair (another man's wife) while she is sleeping.  and his ultimate desire is to chain Karloff up and flay him alive.  So he's a pretty odd sort of hero.

Lugosi Prepares to Flay Karloff Alive

Karloff is the villain, but his character is always calm and in control, and his clothing and hairstyle match the clean lines of his architecture.  In fact, early in the film, it's not really clear who the real villain is, at least not until we see Karloff's collection of glass encased dead women he keeps in his basement (including Lugosi's now dead wife), or his choice of "Rites of Lucifer" as his bedtime reading material. The contrasting style also comes into play when we meet the members of Karloff's coven of Devil worshipers, who all dress in tuxedos and elegant evening gowns (although the actors in the elegant clothes all look slightly "off" in very subtle ways, such as having unusual facial hair, or oddly composed features).

Dead Woman Preserved Under Glass

Rites of Lucifer

The situation evolves into a bizarre battle of wills between the two men, with Lugosi staying as a guest in Karloff's house, waiting for the perfect time to torture him, while Karloff is perfectly aware of Lugosi's intentions, but seems more amused by them than alarmed.  Also in the mix is a pair of American newlyweds on their honeymoon, who also become guests at Karloff's home after a roadside accident leaves them stranded.  The wife soon becomes a new fixation for Karloff, who seems to be planning on sacrificing her to Satan.  Lugosi is aware of this, but is so focused on his own revenge that he doesn't really do anything to stop it from happening.  The newlywed husband tries to stop it, but he's basically a good-natured, but ineffective, bumbler who keeps getting knocked out, or locked in the basement.  The dude is just not in the same league as Karloff and Lugosi.

Lugosi and Karloff Share a Drink With Joe Blow

Seeing Karloff and Lugosi onscreen together is a real joy to watch.  Both actors give intense performances, and play off each other beautifully.  The costume and set design are really great in this movie too.  The classic Universal Horror movies almost always have great sets and costumes, but thanks to Hjalmar Poelzig's being a modern architect, this film has a very different look to it than most of the Universal Horror pictures.  This film also takes part in the grand cinema tradition of being an adaptation of an Edgar Allan Poe story that has absolutely nothing to do with the story in question at all.  Basically, they just took the name, "The Black Cat," tossed a couple of scenes into the script with Lugosi being afraid of cats to justify it, and called it a day.

Quothe the kitty, 'Nevermore'

These days this film isn't remembered the same way the monster flicks like Frankenstein, Dracula, or the Mummy are, but it was enormously popular when it was released, and was Universal's highest grossing film of the year.  It's also one of the few films after Dracula where Lugosi got to play the hero, as he was usually typecast as the villain (Karloff never really had this problem, and played lots of different types of roles during his career).  All in all, while this may not be my favorite Boris Karloff or Bela Lugosi picture, it's my favorite of the handful of films in which the two of them starred together.   It's stylish, and creepy, and some of the satanism and torture still seem a little extreme, even by today's standards.  I HIGHLY recommend this film to anyone who is a fan of classic horror movies.

Karloff Begins The Satanic Rites























































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