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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.
- John Ulmer
Other commentaries will fill you in on the nearly-incomprehensible plot
(if that's possible) but, as has been pointed out, you don't watch a
film like this for plot.
Despite the story inconsistencies and implausibilities, everything here just seems to "jell:" the fabulous sets, elegant photography, evocative music (drawing heavily from Schubert, among others) and the downright creepy atmosphere woven from the themes of jealousy, lust, revenge, murder, sadism.....all sounds delightfully sick, doesn't it? Truly, it's nowhere near as threatening as it sounds; indeed, if Astaire and Rogers had ever made a spooky thriller, it might have looked and felt something like this one. THE BLACK CAT possesses a lyrical, rhythmic quality, upon which we drift through a sleek, ultra-modern nightmare world.
One of the reasons it all works is its ability to pull us into a sort of parallel universe which, though it looks more or less like reality as we know it, glides along on a barely-concealed undercurrent - an "atmosphere of death," as Lugosi's character puts it - where things happen that "could never actually happen" (an inside reference for those who know the film).
There are some wonderful set-pieces, such as Karloff's tour through a most unusual basement mausoleum/museum memorializing all of his dearly departed earlier "wives." And of course, Boris and Bela deliver, with their restrained but full-bodied performances. Karloff conveys menace just entering a room, and Lugosi has an all-too-rare opportunity to display some tenderness; notice the single tear that rolls down his face as he learns - and sees - what became of the wife that Karloff stole from him years before.
A very stylized - and stylish - film which grants us the unusual treat of seeing Lugosi play a (more or less) "good guy," and the unique one of hearing him pronounce the word "baloney," as only he could.
THE BLACK CAT (1934)
Starring Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, David Manners, Julie
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.
The best of the collaborations between Karloff & Lugosi. The production values are high and Karloff's makeup is excellent. There is a lot going on it the script-- perhaps too much, as the script is a bit confusing and sometimes pointless. But the atmosphere is thick and the "aura" hangs over the movie like a dense mist. There is more horror implied than actually seen. This movie has black magic, a man skinned alive, treachery, phobia, and a chess game with lives at stake. Mostly, it has great performances by Karloff and Lugosi in their one and only film appearance as equals (without one dominating the other). Truly, this is one of the finest Universal horror classics and will deliver everything a fan of such fare could possibly want.
"The Black Cat" (Universal, 1934), directed by Edgar G. Ulmer, marks
the first scream, or should I say, screen teaming of Boris
("Frankenstein") Karloff, billed in the credits only as KARLOFF, and
Bela ("Dracula") Lugosi.
Suggested on the immortal story by Edgar Allan Poe, the plot, compliments of screenwriter Paul Ruric, set in Hungary, gets right down to business with Doctor Vitus Werdegast (Bela Lugosi) returning home by train after serving 15 long years in a military prison. He finds himself sharing a compartment with mystery writer Peter Allison (David Manners) and his wife, Joan (Jacqueline Wells), on their honeymoon. Vitus introduces himself to the Allisons, talks about himself and of his mission to visit a "very old friend." The couple later accompany Werdegast on a bus to their destination, which meets with an accident during a rainstorm, killing the driver. Vitus accompanies Peter by taking the injured Joan through the rain and winds until they reach the home of Hjalmar Poelzig (KARLOFF), an architect of his futuristic mansion. As Vitus treats the unconscious Joan, Hjalmar, who makes his grand entrance, immediately takes notice on the young girl with intentions that are not too honorable. As the story progresses, the viewer learns that Vitus had been betrayed by Hjalmar during the World War and left to die at a military prison, and for this, Vitus, who survived those long dark years, returns to seek revenge, but first must learn what has happened to his wife and daughter. Peter and Joan become house guests in the home of Poelzig, unaware that they are his prisoners, with Poelzig, who holds Black Masses in a devil's cult ceremony, intending on using Joan as his next subject and hold Peter in a dungeon below. Besides trying to learn the whereabouts of his wife and daughter, Vitus tries to set Joan free by playing a game of chess, or a "game of death," with Hjalmar. Tension builds up to a very suspenseful climax not to be missed.
What does this have to do with a black cat? Well, Vitus fears cats and finds himself being confronted with one in two separate scenes, compliments of Hjalmar, who has cats roaming about. Karloff and Lugosi are evenly matched here, and as bitter enemies, they must present themselves in a "gentlemanly manner" whenever confronted by the young guest or guests. Also presented in the cast are Lucille Lund as Karen Poelzig; the evil looking Harry Cording as Thalmar, Hjalmar's servant; and John Carradine as one of the members of the cult during the Black Mass sequence.
Although produced in Hollywood, "The Black Cat" looks very much like a European production with futuristic sets which features a digital clock, etc. Karloff, dressed in black garments with a feline haircut, is very creepy, especially using gestures with his evil eyes (which do everything but glow in the dark!); Lugosi, in a rare sympathetic role, is actually the stronger character, giving one of his best performances in his career, next to "Dracula" (1931). Fortunately, "The Black Cat" was released shortly before the Production Code took effect, otherwise the horror drama, with many scenes quite questionable then and now, would never have reached the theaters unless severely edited to a point of confusion. Chances are the movie itself was edited prior to release, but at 66 minutes, it's tight and fast-paced, never a dull moment. A big plus in this production is the underscoring montage of classical compositions by various composers, lavish sets and the teaming of two horror greats, Karloff and Lugosi.
Aside from Fright Nights on commercial television back in the 1960s and 70s, "The Black Cat" formerly played on the Sci-Fi Channel in the 1990s, and later on American Movie Classics from 2000 to 2001. To date, "The Black Cat" can be seen on Turner Classic Movies where it premiered on January 24, 2003, becoming one of this cable channel's most revived horror films. Probably by request. "The Black Cat" is also available on video cassette either as part of the double feature along with "The Raven" (1935), another Karloff and Lugosi thriller, or as a solo package. A gem for fans of this genre. (***)
Made in 1934 by the then 30 year old Director Edgar Ulmer and with the
stunning set design by Charles D. Hall the film paired Boris Karloff and
Bela Lugosi for the first time together on the screen. This was to cement
the two icons together in a screen partnership that would last for several
Set in the modern house of Hjalmar Poelzig (no creepy old castle's here) whose home is one of the most stunning modern houses of our time this is a dark story about Devil worship. Poelzig has a room set aside for his evil black masses and has a penchant for the ladies, but only when they are being put to the devil's business. Into this walks a young couple who due to circumstances out of their control end up having to stay the night at his home. They arrive with Dr.Verdegast (Lugosi) who is returning after a absence of many years to settle some unfinished business with his old friend. This is the set up for an explosive encounter between the two into which the young honeymooning couple are thrown.
Truly a masterpiece it should be viewed over and over again.
Watch out for the finale Black Mass in which Karloff spout's authentic sounding incantation's to raise the Devil, he says Latin phrases "Cave Canium" (Beware of the Dog), "In Vito Veritas" (In Wine there if truth) and Cum Grano Salis (with a grain of salt). I could'nt put it better myself.
I can't imaging how this movie would have been without both Bela Lugosi
and Boris Karloff, probably very very bad. The chemistry between the
two is amazing.
This is one of those movies in which the story absolutely doesn't matter. The story is totally absurd and very simple (The black cat storyline has absolutely nothing to do with the movie and serves no purpose at all) but yet that is what maybe makes this movie extremely fun and easy to watch.
Watching this movie made me realize something; Bela Lugosi actually was a very good actor that was ahead of his time. The way he delivers his lines and his eye for details shows that acting was a great passion for him. Yes I think I can now be considered one of his fans.
Another great thing were the sets that were wonderful and even now 70 years later they still look very modern.
Don't expect a movie with ghouls and monsters, it rather is more fun to watch then it is scary and the Lugosi/Karloff combination is what makes this movie a real classic.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
The Black Cat is, quite simply, a horror masterpiece. Almost everything
about this film is perfect. I'm not going to go into detail on the
story, because if you haven't seen it, you should.
The acting is some of the best you'll ever see in a horror film. Lugosi is at the top of his game. His portrayal of Ygor in Son of Frankenstein may be Lugosi's only better performance. Karloff is wonderfully creepy and mysterious (and has some of the most bizarre hair I've ever seen). Seeing the two work together in The Black Cat is a real pleasure. Although Karloff gets top billing, this is Lugosi's film and he makes the most of it. David Manners and the rest of the cast are more than adequate.
The futuristic house in which the film is set is a departure from the more Gothic, Victorian settings of most of the Universal films. And it works. Thanks to some terrific set design, lighting, and cinematography, the modern house exudes as much atmosphere as any old castle, dungeon, tower, etc.
The Black Cat contains some of the most unsettling scenes of any classic Universal horror film. It is, IMO, the darkest of any of these films. I just wonder how it was viewed by audiences in 1934. Two scenes that immediately come to mind are the black mass performed by Karloff and the torture scene at the end of the film. These scenes are not typical of the Universal classics. They have the power to stick with you long after the movie is over.
But what I really like is the way the story unfolds. At the beginning, you know nothing of what's really going on. Bit by bit, the story unfolds. Many of the plot points are revealed by Lugosi. In fact, if it weren't for Lugosi's monologues, I wonder if anyone would have any idea of what was taking place.
There's a lot of story to tell in about 65 minutes, so this movie could
be considered perhaps a bit incoherent. But the larger themes --
revenge, lust and innocents caught in the grip of forces beyond their
sheltered experience -- have been central themes in horror tales for
Karloff is a delight as usual, and there are many fine details to his performance -- including a brief but outrageously lustful stare at the half-dressed young wife of the innocent couple and the strangely gentle way his brutal character handles a cat. (Nice tall, dark and handsome kitty in the title role, for the cat people.)
And this movie also shows once again that Bela Lugosi was a better actor than he ever got credit for. He handles his overwrought dialogue with taste and good cheer, and he's a marvel. And he even gets to speak a few rare lines of Hungarian here.
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
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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