Director: Edgar G. Ulmer
Cast: Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, David Manners, Julie Bishop
Historic teaming of the horror genre's two greatest icons, Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, in what has to be one of the most disturbing motion pictures ever made. "Suggested" by the story by Edgar Allan Poe, this adaption instead loosely bases it's premise on the character of Aleister Crowley and his satantic cult, Karloff taking on the role of lead villain in the most sinister portrayal of his long and storied career. Lugosi, likewise, is given a role reversal, playing the hero, or the closest thing to a hero, in this dark and dreary film, one of the last of the pre-code masterpieces made in Hollywood.
The film begins with a young American couple(David Manners and Julie Bishop) on a train in Europe, honeymooning. They are joined by another passenger, Dr. Vitus Werdegast(Bela Lugosi) who is on route to see an "old friend" who actually was responsible for selling out his company of soldiers in World War One, and also succeeded in stealing his wife in the process. The couple and the doctor are involved in an accident when they leave the train and take a bus on a dark and stormy night, and are forced to go on foot to the home of Hjalmar Polezig(Boris Karloff), the man Werdegast bears a grudge against. Karloff is introduced in the most sinister of fashions, posed in a doorway, with a cue from the powerful classical music score. Immediately, Werdegast interrogates Polezig, but must hold back, due to the presence of the young couple. There's some great dialouge here, and a notable scene that ties in with the title, explaining Lugosi's fear of cats,as the tailsman of death! He even throws a knife at the unfortunate feline! There's also some really creepy stuff thrown in, like Karloff reading from his bedside, The Rites of Lucifer! And he's also sleeping with Lugosi's daughter, whom his character believes is dead. Make no mistake, Karloff is one bad dude in this flick.
Lugosi steals an automatic pistol from the young man and goes to kill Karloff, who reveals to him a basement full of his preserved wives, all standing upright in glass coffins! One of them is Lugosi's wife and Lugosi goes to shoot Karloff, but is stopped in his tracks by the appearance of a black cat. What follows is a beautifully read monolouge from Karloff, which is shot from his POV as he asks Lugosi, "Are we not both, the living dead?" The comic possibility of that line, reffering to Hollywood's Frankenstein Monster and Dracula, must have not been lost on the screenwriters.
Karloff challenges Lugosi to a game of chess to decide the fate of the young couple, whom Lugosi believes will play a part in Karloff's satantic ritual. Lugosi loses(which some dumb cluck had to inform us by dubbing in the line, "You Lose, Vitus", even after Karloff has declared checkmate, thinking audiences too dumb to understand the game.) and the young couple are taken captive. Karloff arranges for the girl to be sacrificed at his nightly gathering(complete with John Carradine on organ!) and the young man is knocked out and locked away. Lugosi bides his time and escapes with the girl, but not before discovering that his daughter is alive. He goes to find her and discovers that Karloff has killed her, after the daughter had been revealed the existence of her father. Lugosi lets out a cry of pain and engages in hand to hand combat with Karloff, with Lugosi gaining an upper hand from his mortally wounded, manservant(Harry Cording), who tie Karloff to an embalming rack, where Lugosi proceeds to skin Karloff alive. Meanwhile, the young man escapes, finds his pistol and mistaking Lugosi as an enemy, shoots him in the back(This scene pisses off alot of people) and Lugosi orders the couple to go, before the place destructs. The building was built on the old battlefield where Karloff and Lugosi fought and is rigged with dynamite, so Lugosi decides to send both he and Karloff to hell with a pull of the switch. "It has been a good game" Lugosi intones, and indeed it has been.
There's a real sense of evil surrounding this movie that i've rarely felt in any other film. No doubt, The Black Cat is a highly effective and disturbing motion picture, it's subject matter not being touched on again for over two decades. Of all the 30s horror masterpieces, The Black Cat has to be the strangest of the bunch. There's just so much going on here, from it's complex psychological stance to it's bizarre subject, including everything from satanism to necrophilia. The film's look is reminiscent of the German expressionist pictures, no small surprise being that Edgar G. Ulmer had worked on several of them. There's shadows lurking in seemingly every frame and the architectural design, based off the bauhaus movement, is both ultra-modern and gothic in it's style, Karloff's character design seeming to match this, being an angular and strange as the home in which he resides.
Of course, the chief reasons to see this film are for the brilliant performances of Karloff and Lugosi. Each actor delivers a performance that ranks among the best work they have ever done, and both atypical of what they were each known for. Karloff always relied on playing the sympathetic monster, while Lugosi oftentimes portrayed evil incarnate. Initially the script was to focus on both actors portraying psychotic villains, but the Universal front office were wary, so as a result, the story was toned down and it ended up giving Lugosi that all-too rare opportunity to portray a hero.
Lugosi really brings some wonderful subtle nuances to his character that it's doubtful anyone else could have done as effectively. He's portrayed as both a noble and warm man, but also one deeply conflicted and disturbed, due to his harsh treatment over the previous decades. In some ways, the character could be seen as a reflection of the actor himself, already being given the shaft by Hollywood, despite being a powerful performer. The actor is often known for his schtick of over-the-top line readings and wild gestures, but keeps most of his mannerisms to a minumum, and he's just an utter joy to watch. You really feel sorry for him when you learn of his plight and he plays well off of Karloff, who relishes the torment his character is going through. As twisted as that ending is, there's an almost insane logic in it, and i'll be damned if most of the audience isn't rooting for him.
Karloff, on the other hand, is at his most evil and sinister. Always a master of disguise, Karloff looks great in this, sporting some really far-out and nifty clothes, and a hairstyle that's really something. That smile that crosses his face, when he thinks of some evil-doing, is truly creepy. That smirk when he goes to murder Lugosi's daughter, or that sneer when he first catches a glimpse of Julie Bishop, remain long in the memory. Ulmer films the actor to full effectiveness, particularly in that great intro shot and the one right before the ritual, as the camera pans down and reveals the actor looking up at the full moon, while a strong wind blows through the trees. And who could forget that scene where Karloff strolls down a corridor, cat in hand, gazing at his long dead wives? There's no question, that Karloff's Polezig is one of the great gothic characters and one of the most diabolical to come out of the horror film.
The rest of the cast are merely adequate. David Manners gives his usual, likeable, but ineffectual leading man performance, no better or worse than he was in either Dracula(1931) or The Mummy(1932). He seems like a nice enough guy, but his character does little to endear himself to the viewer, and that ending really puts him in a bad light. Julie Bishop is a very cute heroine, and brings a subtly sensual quality to her role, and it was no surprise that she was a model, making Karloff's leers all the more understandable.
Lucille Lund has a small role as Karen, Lugosi's daughter and Karloff's wife, and brings a warm naivety to her lost character, who is caught in a really disturbing situation. Harry Cording has not much to do, besides look menacing, but that's what he was good at, playing the heavy in seemingly every other movie produced in the next two decades.
Ulmer handles this film with efficiency, creating a true artistic statement, combining all the best elements of expressionism, with a tasteful and haunting classical score and chilling performances from his leads. It's one of the most effective horror debuts ever and one of the great 1930s horror productions, but despite being a box-office smash, did not mean success for Ulmer, who was relegated to poverty row after a scandal at Universal. Ulmer was having an affair with the scriptgirl, who was married to a Laemmle, the family that owned the studio, and as a result he was let go. This was a great pity for movie fans, especially since he never again worked with neither Karloff or Lugosi. The film was also critically panned at the time, not to see reappraisal until several decades later, most early horror film reference books tossing it aside as well. Today, it is regarded as not just one of the finest horror films ever made, but one of the great movies of the 1930s and is praised for it's racy subject matter, that was so far ahead of it's time and the great acting of Karloff and Lugosi. It deserves nothing less than full praise from the film fan, this one included. I've always found myself drawn to this film and continue to find inspiration from it, for whatever reason, it intrigues me.
"Superstition, perhaps. Baloney? Perhaps not."