Director: Edgar G. Ulmer
Cast: Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, David Manners, Julie Bishop
In the 1930’s Universal Studios was known for its lineup of great horror films. Best known, of course, are the Frankenstein, Dracula and The Wolf Man series. However, Universal put out a lot of other horror films and one of the most strange and unusual is The Black Cat co-starring Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. It was their first film together and probably one of their best. Directed by Edgar Ulmer (Detour, The Strange Woman) the film is loaded with erotic overtones, devil worshipping, and mass murder.
Very loosely based on an Edgar Allan Poe short story, the film takes place in Hungary and starts when a young honeymooning couple, Peter and Joan Alison, (Jacqueline Wells and David Manners) meet Doctor Vitus Werdergast (Lugosi) on a train traveling through the countryside. The Doctor, just released from a prisoner of war camp, tells them he is on his way to visit an old friend. After they depart from the train, the three share a cab ride to their next destination. The drive is during a heavy rainstorm and an unfortunate accident kills the driver and injures the wife. Since they are now close to Doctor Werdegast friend’s house he invites the couple to come with him so they can take care of the injured wife. The friend, of course, is Haljmar Poelzig (Karloff), a devil worshipping mass murder.
The house Poelzig lives in is a strange reconverted futuristic fortress that we soon will discover is built upon the mass graves of World War 1 soldiers. It soon comes to light that Dr. Werdergast has not come to see a friend but to seek revenge on Poelzig who betrayed him and managed to escape from the enemy during the war leaving Werdergast to be captured and held as a POW. Werdergast is also looking for his wife and daughter who he believes were kidnapped and being held captive by Haljmar. The young couple, Peter and Joan, have become prisoners of Haljmar who intends to sacrifice Joan in one of his satanic rituals while husband Peter is held captive chained in the dungeon below. The film becomes a battleground between Werdergast, trying to save Joan from being sacrificed and also trying to find his wife and daughter, and Haljmar attempting to proceed with his Black Mass rituals and sacrifice Joan.
This is one of the few films where Lugosi is on the side of good. His gives a performance that is actually quite good. Karloff is Karloff and he is actually billed that way in the credits.
Considering this film was made in 1934 it’s a pretty dark unsettling movie filled with satanic rituals, female victims displayed suspended from the ceiling upside down and the “skinning” of human beings. While it is not as graphic as today’s horror films it is unsettling and must have been even more so to the audience of its day. It is surprising that the studio was able to get away with some of the things included. Granted a lot is insinuated or is off screen or shown in shadows and this may make the film disappointing to some of todays gore oriented audiences.
Ulmer was influenced by the German Expressionist movement. He started out as a set designer and assisted on the set of F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise. According to IBDB his set designer credits include Metropolis, The Golem, M as well as The Black Cat. Ulmer and cinematographer John Mescall, who also filmed The Bride of Frankenstein, created a film full of strange eeriness and a deep sense of looming danger.
Available on DVD as part of the Bela Lugosi Collection and VHS.
By: John Greco