I’m back! I know you’ve been waiting with bated breath, but I had … important … things to … stuff.
The Black Cat! How can you go wrong with Karloff and Lugosi? The answer is that you cannot, but there are times when filmmakers do try. The Black Cat is supposedly based on Edgar Allan Poe’s short story of the same title, but the only resemblance is just that: the title. There is a black cat that shows up at regular intervals – supposedly a representative of undying evil – but that piece of the plot drifts away and never comes back. So the only thing going for it are the presences of Karloff and Lugosi, and the might of Universal horror in the early 1930s.
Which, let’s face it, is all this film really needs. Lugosi is Dr. Vitus Werdegast, recently released from a prison he languished in for 15 years as a prisoner or war and returning home to find out what has become of the wife and daughter he left behind. He’s joined by sweet honeymooning couple the Alisons (David Manners and Julie Bishop), the two most boring and useless people on the planet. The fun starts, though, when circumstances land them all at the high modern home of Hjalmar Poelzig (Karloff), Werdegast’s sworn enemy, a murderer, sadist and Satanist. Let the games begin!
This film is simply delicious. From the instant that Lugosi asks to share the Alisons’ train compartment, you want to start screaming “Holy God, no!” But for once, Bela is not the one we need to be worried about. He actually plays Werdegast with great subtlety, as a man possessed by revenge but likewise desperate to pick up his life where he left off. All he really wants are his wife and daughter back. One has the impression that he would leave vengeance behind.
The film exploits horror’s roots in German Expressionism, particularly through Poelzig, a villain made up of sinister angles. Karloff imbues The Black Cat with its menace. His costuming and style match the high modern house that has become a tomb for past horrors. He’s a war criminal who escaped judgement, causing the deaths of thousands, and then returning to build his home on their graveyard. But of course he has not stopped there – the ground below the house is the site of Satanist rituals, and the place where Poelzig keeps his female victims preserved for all eternity; including, of course, Werdegast’s wife. If all that wasn’t enough to convince you that this guy is seriously fucked up, try this: after marrying Werdegast’s wife, Poelzig went on to marry her daughter too. Ew.
I will avoid spoiling the ending, except to say that it’s shockingly violent for the time period. It’s also rushed, which is the biggest problem with The Black Cat. The film sets up a number of plot threads and conflicts, then speeds through resolving them. Blink and you’ll miss salient plot points. Let your attention wander for an instant and characters are suddenly dead. If it were not for Lugosi and Karloff anchoring the film, it would float off into space.
Both Karloff and Lugosi made better films, but perhaps none pitted them so marvelously against each other as The Black Cat. Despite dropping some of the more interesting elements – the backdrop of World War I, Satanism and possession – the film succeeds in what it sets out to do. It wants to give us an hour of two of cinema’s greatest monsters glaring at each other across a chess board, framed in a doorway, or cackling in each other’s faces. Lugosi and Karloff are possessed of two of the most wonderful voices in early cinema and they dwell on every word of their dialogue, vying for screen-time. Pleasure in cinema can be found in the weirdest places, and The Black Cat remains one of the more pleasurable experiences for this horror fan.