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Rowland V. Lee
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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When Edgar G. Ulmer's "The Black Cat" was released in 1934, it was the first film to feature famed Universal horror actors Bela Lugosi ("Dracula") and Boris Karloff ("Frankenstein") in the same film together, which may explain part of its continually fueled cult popularity today.
The film is dark and forthright and disturbing, even by today's standards. The bad guy character is a Satan worshiper who murders women as sacrifices and keeps their preserved bodies locked up in a dungeon beneath his creepy Hungarian mansion, situated on the remains of a battlefield where men under his command once fought.
The key of the film, and what surges us forward with exceeding momentum, is an American couple honeymooning in Hungary. While traveling via train, a mysterious man named Dr. Vitus Verdegast (Lugosi) shares their compartment and tells them of an old friend he plans on meeting after some 15 years of being held captive in a prisoner of war camp.
The American couple is comprised of Peter Alison (David Manners), a pulp mystery writer, and his newly wed bride, Joan (Julie Bishop, credited as Jacqueline Wells). They feel uncomfortable around the pleasant yet strange man, and are eager to continue their tour of Hungary, when tragedy befalls Joan and Peter in an automobile accident and Verdegast and Peter are both forced to take her to the residence of Hjalmar Poelzig (Karloff), the very man Verdegast is expecting to drop in on.
Joan is put to bed and given rest after the fright of the accident, and Poelzig greets them all with warm hospitality. However, it does not last for long, because it is soon revealed that Verdegast has come back after 15 years to claim his wife and daughter from the clutches of Poelzig. Poelzig informs him that his family has passed, but Verdegast believes that Poelzig murdered them both and seeks vengeance on the Satan worshiper, who plans on making Joan his next sacrifice.
There were lots of Universal horror films made during the 30s and 40s, some better than the others. "The Black Cat" is still considered one of the best to this very day, and it has not dated nearly as much as some of the other horror stories. It is still as disturbing as it was in 1934, with its villain not only creepy but literally evil, right down to Boris Karloff's eerie first appearance.
To be dreadfully honest, the film's only flaw is that it is often too quick to follow in chronological order. The film is only 66 minutes long, and I wouldn't be surprised if someone told me it was even shorter. It flies by quickly. Good for repeated viewings, yes, but sometimes the cuts are too rapid and all over the place.
That's a single flaw. The rest is pieced together perfectly. It was one of Lugosi's few heroic roles, and as Verdegast we are never sure if he is a good guy or bad guy until the very end, when the two arch enemies have a climatic showdown, which is as poetic as justice can be.
Karloff, credited as simply that in the movie, is perfect as Poelzig, and this was one of Lugosi's highlights before he sunk deeper and deeper into drugs and alcohol and eventually died before Edward D. Wood, Jr.'s tragic film "Plan 9 from Outer Space" was released, which didn't stop Wood from using old footage of Lugosi filmed prior to the scriptwriting process for the film (often considered the worst ever made). Wood credited him in the title role, yet Lugosi didn't even technically star in the film at all.
The movie is visibly filmed with a low budget and many technical imperfections. But its director, Edgar G. Ulmer (1904-1972), was a man whose films were often flawed but nevertheless quite haunting. "Detour," often regarded as his finest moment, was shot in six days with a band of B-actors, yet it still remains a cult classic today, even finding a spot in Roger Ebert's Great Movies compilation.
Ulmer was a refugee from Hitler, and no, I am not related to him as far as I know. Ulmer was an assistant to F. Murnau Abraham on various films, and presented the German link between American cinema of the time and German cinema, which was much more exaggerated with its filming.
It's very evident in "The Black Cat," but I don't think I'd want it any other way. It was most assuredly a breakthrough in the art of fast-paced filmmaking, and even by today's standards it is incredibly short. "The Black Cat" is one of the quickest film experiences you will ever have, but also one of the most disturbing and enjoyable, too.
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