The Black Cat (1934)
The basic plot: Upon being released from a military prison after serving 15 years, Dr. Vitus Werdegast (Bela Lugosi) stumbles upon newlyweds Peter (David Manners) and Joan Allison (Julie Bishop; credited here as “Jacqueline Wells”) while on his way to visit “old friend” former architect Hjalmar Poelzig (Boris Karloff). After a near-fatal bus accident, the trusting Peter, the injured Joan, and the cat-phobic Dr. Werdegast all become stranded at Poelzig’s imposing fortress-like home and the real, terrifying history between Dr. Werdegast and cat-like Poelzig is slowly revealed.
Det. Abilene’s rating: 4 (out of 5)
Analysis: Universal Studios began cranking out monster movies and thrillers on a regular basis for over 20 years after the massive success of Dracula (1931) and Frankenstein (1931). These Universal thrillers have never seemed to be out of circulation, and their popularity has only seemed to grow over the decades through repeated television broadcasts, theatrical reissues, and home video releases. These Universal chillers made world-famous household names out of actors Bela Lugosi as Dracula and Boris Karloff as Frankenstein’s monster, so it was only natural that Universal would seek to pair them in a series of co-staring vehicles. The first film to pair Lugosi and Karloff was this seemingly unrelated adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s 1843 short story of the same title and The Black Cat proved to be a massive success, becoming Universal’s biggest moneymaker of 1934 and paving the way for seven (7!) future films that would feature Karloff and Lugosi (though not all featured the duo starring roles).
As directed by Austria-born Edgar G. Ulmer - director of exquisitely-shot masterpieces such as People on Sunday (1930) and Detour (1945) – The Black Cat is one of the most beautiful and elaborate of all Universal Horror films with Poelzig’s Gothic-like mansion remaining a true masterwork of awe-inspiring art design and set decoration for art director Charles D. Hall and director Ulmer who impressively doubled as set designer. The “satanic worship/revenge” screenplay by Peter Ruric is surprisingly perverse and kinky for a film released after the enforcement of the production code (and allegedly required numerous edits to the finished film), including Poelzig creepily preserving his deceased wives’ bodies in some sort of suspended animation, the hooded satanic rituals taking place at the Poelzig home, and especially Poelzig forcibly marrying both the wife and the daughter of Dr. Werdegast. This cumulates in the bizarre and jolting finale [Begin SPOILER] in which Dr. Werdegast strips the shackled Poelzig shirtless and prepares to skin him alive, a gruesome act that naturally occurs off-screen [End SPOILER]. These memorably shocking images have remained etched in viewers’ minds even decades after first seeing the film and have since awarded the film classic status among genre fans and critics.
The film is also interesting for fans not only because it is the first film to pair Lugosi and Karloff, but also because both icons are cast against type with Lugosi as the hero and Karloff as the unsympathetic villain here. For the record, Karloff excels as Poelzig portraying true villainy without even a hint of camp but, on the other hand, the ever-handsome Lugosi is sadly rather bland as Dr. Werdegast – though it’s still a treat to see him at this stage in his career in a rare heroic role. The sexy David Manners is also in good form as second-string hero Peter Allison, and it’s great fun to see Manners in yet another classic Universal thriller with Lugosi and Karloff, as Manners memorably portrayed Jonathan Harker opposite Lugosi in 1931’s Dracula, and squared off as the leading man against Karloff in 1932’s The Mummy. Julie Bishop (here credited as “Jacqueline Wells”) is serviceable but unremarkable, although the beautiful Lucille Lund is affecting and touching in a sadly underused role as the true victim of the piece.
The most bizarre aspect of The Black Cat is that it is completely unrelated to Poe’s 1843 short story, of which the film claims itself as being “suggested by” in the opening credits. Poe’s “The Black Cat” was not among his best work (it is basically a rewrite of his own superior “The Tell-Tale Heart” which was published a few months earlier in 1843), but basically depicted a man who – after killing his wife and concealing her body behind the cellar wall – accidently seals the family cat inside the wall and the cat’s wailing leads to the discovery of the wife’s corpse and gives away his crime. Poe’s short stories were often too thin to be adapted into feature-length films without additional padding, but most of them – including Universal’s proceeding 1932 Poe adaption Murders in the Rue Morgue and 1935’s follow up The Raven – contain enough elements of the stories to justify their claim as being Poe adaptations. Seeing that The Black Cat features absolutely no elements of Poe’s short story, one cannot help but wonder why the filmmakers even bothered crediting Poe’s story as their source.
Bottom Line: Universal’s second Edgar Allan Poe adaption may have absolutely nothing to do with its source material, but director Edgar G. Ulmer and screenwriter Peter Ruric have created a stylish and gripping thriller that has achieved classic status on its own. The combination of horror icons Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff proved irresistible for film audiences and led to a whole series of starring vehicles for the duo.