Honeymooning in Hungary, Joan and Peter Allison share their train compartment with Dr. Vitus Verdegast, a courtly but tragic man who is returning to the remains of the town he defended before becoming a prisoner of war for fifteen years. When their hotel-bound bus crashes in a mountain storm and Joan is injured, the travellers seek refuge in the home, built fortress-like upon the site of a bloody battlefield, of famed architect Hjalmar Poelzig. There, cat-phobic Verdegast learns his wife's fate, grieves for his lost daughter, and must play a game of chess for Allison's life. Written by
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Travelling across Eastern Europe, Peter and Joan Allison meet Dr Werdegast on the train. When the bus taking them to their destination crashes, the Allisons go with Werdegast and stay with him at the foreboding castle of Hjalmar Poelzig. However the Allisons find themselves in danger when it becomes apparent that Werdegast and Poelzig have a deadly history with each other.
Although it carries the title of his book and a credit for him on the titles, this film has little to do with Poe's work. In fact, in terms of plotting, it owes very little to anybody because, aside from the actual set up, the plot just goes all to hell very quickly. The set up is interesting and I wanted to know more about the history between these two men, then there is the thing about the black cat and Werdegast, not to mention the fact that Poelzig seems to be very interested in reading about satanic cults! However, none of this is really fully explained - this is partly due to the short run time and so much material, but it must also be blamed on the film not having a strong focus other than atmosphere.
The film still works well as the plot crumbles, but it is a little unsatisfying as it leaves so many half stories and unanswered questions. What it does do well though is atmosphere, the direction is cheap but effective and the lighting works wonders in a cheap set! The cast also contribute to this focus on atmosphere (or style) over plot (or substance). Karloff overdoes things, but he overdoes them very well! There is no real need for him to be as ominous as he is at the start but it is what we have come to expect from him. Lugosi may have tarnished his reputation towards the end of his career, but he is good here. It's hard not to laugh when seeing him convulsed with fear over the cat but he plays it well for the most part. Manners and Wells are both OK but are very much the onscreen representation of the audience and simply have to act shocked by everything and run away lots!
Overall this is a good film but only because of the atmosphere and the influence of two legendary stars in the cast. The plot had potential but not enough time is allowed for it to be explored and the focus is more on the atmosphere than the construction.
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