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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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THE BLACK CAT (1934) Starring Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, David Manners, Julie Bishop Directed by Edgar Ulmer
The first film to feature both Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, THE BLACK CAT was, and remains, innovative and strange. The opening credits claim the film was "suggested by" the Edgar Alan Poe story, but other than the title there is absolutely no connection.
Lugosi gets to play a good guy for a change and he handles it very well. In fact, I might venture to say that the role of Dr. Vitus Werdegast is Lugosi's finest performance, perhaps because it is so much of a departure from the role of Dracula. Karloff plays Hjalmar Poelzig, a Satanic architect with a really freaky hairdo. David Manners and Julie Bishop portray the Allisons, an American couple honeymooning in Hungary (doesn't everyone?).
The real star of this film, though, is the house. What an incredible set! The house, designed and built by Poelzig on the ruins of a WWI fort where thousands of soldiers are entombed, is an architectural marvel, even by today's standards. All glass and steel, the house consists of sharp angles that cast long, expressionistic shadows, which gives the film its extremely creepy atmosphere.
Werdegast (Lugosi) meets the Allisons on a train and later shares a cab with them. As they drive through a storm, he explains that he is going to visit an old friend after having spent 15 years as a prisoner of war. Not far from his friend's house the cab crashes, killing the driver and injuring Mrs. Allison. They carry her to Werdegast's friend's house. The friend, of course, is Poelzig (Karloff) and it soon becomes obvious that the term "friend" is applied very loosely. In fact, the men have become enemies due to the fact that Poelzig betrayed Werdegast during the war, which led to his long imprisonment. In the basement, Poelzig reunites Werdegast with his wife, now dead and whom Poelzig had married himself while Werdegast was in prison. The freaky architect has been keeping her preserved in some sort of suspended animation type thing. When Werdegast demands to know his daughter's whereabouts, Poelzig tells him that she, too, has died.
What follows is a bizarre tale of two men who are opposite sides of the coin. They engage in a chess match (literally and figuratively) with the soul of the injured Mrs. Allison up for grabs. THE BLACK CAT is incredibly creepy and has some real suspenseful moments. It also has some very disturbing scenes, especially for a film made in 1934. The scene of Karloff reciting the black mass in Latin is especially ominous. One cannot, however, help noticing some gaping holes in the plot. Dr. Werdegast is supposed to be Hungary's leading doctors, and yet he has just been released from 15 years of imprisonment. Huh? Also, there is a cruel scene where Lugosi's character kills a black cat (he has a phobia) and nobody seems to think anything about it...even though it appears to have been a pet in the household. These minor points do not take away from the overall viewing experience, though. THE BLACK CAT still looks great after all these years and it still has the ability to make you shudder.
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