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Subj: Creature Feature 171: The Black Cat(1934)
Posted: Sat Aug 31, 2019 at 07:12:06 pm EDT (Viewed 413 times)
The Black Cat (1934) was the first movie to team horror legends Boris Karloff (Frankenstein) and Bela Lugosi (Dracula). Other stars include David Manners (John Harker in Dracula) and Julie Bishop (Action In The North Atlantic-1943). Carl Laemmle Jr., produced as he did for most of the early '30s Universal horror classics and Edgar G. Ulmer (The Man From Planet X) directed. The story is very loosely based on the short story The Black Cat (1843) by Edgar Allan Poe, basically just borrowing the title.
Newlyweds Peter(Manners) and Joan(Bishop) run into Dr. Vitus Werdegast (Lugosi) on a train in Hungary. They share a bus afterwards, which crashes near the home of Hjalmar Poelzig (Karloff), a rival of Werdegast from before the War. They go to Poelzig's home, built on a bloody WWI battlefield, to treat Joan's injuries. Peter and Joan get caught in the middle of a game of cat and mouse between the pair as it's revealed that while Werdegast spent 15 years in a concentration camp, Poelzig stole his wife, Karen. Themes of necrophilia, torture, and satanism are touched on as the two feel each other out with Poelzig planing to sacrifice Joan in a black mass. When Werdegast learns that his daughter is alive, and that Poelzig married her, his step-daughter, after Karen died (Poelzig keeps her body in a glass case), he's enraged. He finds her dead by Poelzig's hand causing Werdegast to bind him to a wall and skin him alive, while allowing Peter and Joan to escape before blowing up the house.
The Black Cat is a dark movie that wouldn't have been allowed to be released a few weeks later as enforcement of the Hayes Code became more strict . I was first drawn to it because of Lugosi and Karloff. Ulmer's expressionist direction, the dark themes, and the noir-ish atmosphere have long made this movie a favorite of mine.
As a kid, I loved the weirdness of the story and setting. As an adult, I really appreciate how the horror in this film reflects how effected Europeans were by the horrors of WWI. The great monster movies of the 20s and 30s were influenced by the injuries of soldiers returning from The Great War, but The Black Cat shows the psychological effects. Lugosi's "I...have returned" is a powerful scene of a man determined to right a wrong after 15 years imprisoned.
Lugosi and Karloff are at their peak. It's great watching these two giants playing off of each other. Karloff is so evil. I can't decide which performance I like better. The "futuristic" architecture, psychological horror, and classical music soundtrack help make The Black Cat an eerie, unsettling, and thoroughly enjoyable 69 minutes of classic Universal horror.
The train and bus scenes. I must’ve first seen this movie at an impressionable age because the minor twist of fate of the couple meeting Lugosi due to an overbooking and turning their honeymoon into a nightmare stuck with me through the years. Lugosi's performance is uncomfortable and sympathetic.
Lugosi killing the cat. This scene comes out of nowhere and doesn’t have much relevance to the plot. He cowers at the sight of the cats and quickly throws a knife at it, killing it. Karloff tells of Lugosi’s intense fear of cats, but the scene doesn't fit. It and the movie title were used due to Poe’s popularity at the time.
Karloff. He’s at his polite-yet-malevolent best. He’s so accommodating to his guests, but when he ambushes Peter not knowing that he and Lugosi switched rooms, his true self is exposed. I also love how by the time of the chess game, you can tell that Karloff has tired of trying to fool Peter.
The black mass and flaying. The whole story comes to a head as the satanists try to sacrifice Joan and Lugosi has his revenge. (It’s just easier to use the actors’ names rather than the characters). Though the hero, Lugosi is quite sadistic.
"The Black Cat", a story of an alcoholic's guilt, was first published in the August 19, 1843, issue of The Saturday Evening Post. It tells of a man who, when drunk and angry, gouges out the eye of his beloved cat. He later hangs the cat but then seems to be haunted by a similar cat. When he tries to kill this cat with an ax, he accidentally kills his wife and bricks her up in the wall of the basement. The police investigate, and, upon hearing a wailing, break through the wall and find the wife's corpse with the black cat sitting on her head. Nothing like this movie at all!
Carl Laemmle Jr was the son of Carl Laemmle, who founded Universal Studios. He produced early talkies like the WWI classic All Quiet On The Western Front(1930), Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Old Dark House(1932), The Invisible Man, and Bride Of Frankenstein.
Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff appeared in 8 movies together. Some of these movies are The Raven(1935), Son Of Frankenstein, You'll Find Out and The Body Snatcher(1945).
You can watch The Black Cat here:
Next time: The Raven
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