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|Black Cat, The
by Doug Bentin
“The Black Cat” is one of those pictures that, because of its miniscule budget, could get away with things the big boys wouldn’t dream of attempting. You can find elements of sadism and Satanism in films made before 1934, but locating one with those things plus pedophilia, incest, and necrophilia would make a tougher search. The only title that comes immediately to mind is “Alice in Wonderland.” Just kidding.The film opens in a train station in Mitel Europe. Geography is as blurred in this film as are other elements, but the setting is Austria. Newlywed couple Peter and Joan Alison (David Manners and Jacqueline Wells) are asked to share their train compartment with Dr. Vitus Werdegast (Bela Lugosi) who is on his way to visit a man he has hated since World War I. With a hint of reluctance, the couple agrees.
"Karloff and Lugosi co-starred for the first time in this subversive gem."
As Joan sleeps, Werdegast, who has alternated between being mysterious and icily polite, stares at her, finally reaching out to move his hand over her hair in a phantom stroking gesture. Peter catches him at this and the doctor apologizes with the explanation that she reminds him of his own wife, lost to him during his stay in a prisoner of war camp. Not for the last time, Peter looks at Werdegast with suspicion.
Arriving at the next station, the three travelers discover that they will now have to share a bus ride. As they roll on through a wicked thunder storm, their driver tells them that the country around them was one of the most horrific battlefields of the late war. Suddenly, he loses control of the vehicle and it crashes, killing him and knocking Joan unconscious. Carrying his wife, Peter follows Werdegast to the home of the man he has traveled to see, Hjalmar Poelzig, Austria’s greatest architect.
At the house, a stark, sterile Bauhaus monstrosity, we see Karloff (as he is billed, with no first name given) for the first time since the cast was introduced before the story began. Then, we just saw the back of his head as he sat at the organ. Now, we see him lying in bed next to a young woman. She is between Karloff and the camera, and the image is blurred slightly as we are looking at the figures through an opaque curtain.
Both figures are on their backs, looking stiff as death. We will be reminded repeatedly that Poelzig is death personified. When he awakens, he sits straight up, like a corpse in a John Carpenter movie. He rises from the bed, wearing black pajamas. It may not be subtle, but it ladles on the atmosphere.
Wedergast introduces Peter and the still unconscious Joan, and explains about the accident. Poelzig, who constantly looks as if he knows something the others don’t—and it isn’t warm and fuzzy—shows Peter where he can deposit Joan for the night. The three men engage in some stiffly polite pleasantries and we learn that Poelzig’s house is built on the ruins of a fort that he commanded during the war, and then turned over to the Russians. His men were left as prisoners, Wedergast included. The doctor then spent 15 years behind bars. This is the treason that he has journeyed so far to avenge.
Suddenly, Joan appears in the room. She is wandering about in a light trance, not indicating too much interest in where she is or how she got there. Peter rushes to her side and, before leaving the room, kisses her.
This action gives us one of the most memorable moments in the picture. The couple is standing upstage in a medium shot. In the immediate foreground is the out-of-focus figurine of a nude woman, seated and with her arms stretched behind her to the base of the figure. The pose is sexually charged, as if the woman were inviting a lover to come to her. Suddenly, the camera focuses on the figure and the couple goes blurry. When Poelzig’s hand grasps the figure tightly, the image on screen is a certain representation of lust.
At this point the story by screenwriter Peter Ruric begins to turn blurry as well. We’ve had the sense of being in some gothic Cloud Coo-Coo Land all along, but now Ruric and director Edgar G. Ulmer twist the entire enterprise a couple of notches above normal.
We discover that Poelzig is the high priest of a cult of devil worshippers and that on the night of the dark of the moon he intends to sacrifice Joan to his lord. We learn that after betraying Wedergast to the enemy, Poelzig ran off with the doctor’s wife to America, then Spain, than back to Austria. She died and a few years later he married Wedergast’s daughter Karen (Lucille Lund), and she was the young woman we first saw him sleeping beside.
As Poelzig tells Wedergast his history for the 18 years since the end of the war, he takes the doctor into the bowels of the old fortress. They move downward into the former gun turret room and we see the source of the film’s true horror.
Poelzig has had more women than Wedergast’s in his life, and all but Karen have died. The architect has preserved their bodies and but them on display in glass coffins. But the corpses are not lying on their backs. He has found a way to suspend them, surrounded by glass, so he can visit them and see their preserved beauty from any angle. Unger has lit the scene as only a German trained in Expressionism could. We see Poelzig’s face reflected back at him from the glass, as if his own spirit were also entrapped with his late wives.
The two rivals for the dead play a game of chess for the Alisons. Wedergast loses and it seems like Joan will be sacrificed at the Black Mass. Poelzig’s acolytes have gathered—watch the crowd carefully for a quick look at an uncredited John Carradine—but, of course, there is a rescue.
After finding out that Poelzig has murdered Karen for trying to make friends with Joan—no, it doesn’t make a bit of sense, but by this time we’d be surprised if it did—Wedergast manages to overcome his enemy and prepares to skin him alive. Misunderstanding Wedergast’s attempt to help Joan, Peter shoots the doctor, who concludes that he will have to forego a slow death for Poelzig. He gives the Alisons five minutes to get to the road before he pulls the inevitable lever that blasts the house and its guests to hell.
It’s remarkable to think that the Peolzig house was decorated for a mere $1500, but Ulmer’s set design and the art direction of Charles D. Hall were photographed by John J. Mescall to look both rich and Spartan as a tomb.
An uncredited Jack Pierce worked on makeup. Only Karloff’s is notable, and Pierce has him looking Satanic from head to tow.
Karloff is thin to the point of gauntness as Poelzig, and he moves with perhaps more grace and fluidity than he ever will again. He also emphasizes his natural lisp and the impediment becomes another indicator of the character’s flawed emotional state.
Lugosi had the hero—at least, the anti-hero—role so he is less interesting here than he would be a year later when re-teamed with Karloff in “The Raven.” In that one he would play the madman, and play it to the hilt. He does have one affecting moment in “The Black Cat,” however, when he sees the displayed corpse of his wife. The sorrow and pain Wedergast expresses is well acted and quite touching.
One last observation. No, the film has absolutely nothing to do with Edgar Allan Poe, despite the title. That was just to make the picture more commercial. And it worked, a lesson that wouldn’t be lost on Nicholson and Arkoff at American-International a quarter-century later.“The Black Cat” is one of the most unusual horror films to ever come out of Universal. It touches on sub rosa themes that horror movies even today tend to avoid. It’s also the best film Karloff and Lugosi made as equal co-stars and, I’m pleased to say, it is also a fine showcase for the much-maligned David Manners, who also played it straight in “Dracula” and “The Mummy.” This is one of best of the Universal thrillers.
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originally posted: 07/22/05 09:55:47