*This review contains mild spoilers.
Joan (Julie Bishop) and Peter Alison (David Manners) are on a honeymoon train in Hungary when a ticket mix-up causes them to have to share their compartment with Dr. Vitus Werdegast (Bela Lugosi), a psychiatrist who is returning to his hometown after spending fifteen years as a prisoner of war.
But small tragedy strikes when the bus bound for their hotel crashes. Joan is injured in the crash, and the three head to the nearby home of Hjalmar Poelzig (Boris Karloff), a famous architect, to sleep off the shock.
But Werdegast and Poelzig are no strangers. Werdegast mentioned to the couple while on the train that his purpose in coming back to town was to visit his “old friend,” the famed architect. Upon arrival at the fortress (which is built upon war ruins), Werdegast treat’s Joan’s injury, but she isn’t out of the woods yet.
Conflict arises between Werdegast and Poelzig when Werdegast accuses his “friend” of betraying Hungary and causing the deaths of thousands of countrymen, in addition to stealing his wife while he was imprisoned as POW. And then Poelzig makes known his sinister plan of sacrificing Joan in a satanic ritual.
Edgar G. Ulmer directs 1934’s The Black Cat, a film very loosely inspired by Edgar Allan Poe. The film takes its name from a Poe story, but the similarities end there. Ulmer is said to have admitted that Poe’s name was attached only to drum up publicity, and it worked: The Black Cat was Universal’s biggest hit that year. The film marks the first of eight movies that paired horror legends Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff in co-starring roles.
There are many improbabilities at play, but isn’t that the beauty of the horror-mystery genre? The plot itself is interesting and the shocks thrown in definitely draw a big reaction from the viewer. Satan worship seems to be a sure-fire way to freak the audience out, but I would definitely consider this film to be driven by its characters, especially in its moments of fright.
These characters are a bit typical of horror films – a normal and sweet couple trapped in a scary place by a few super-creeps – but the actors in these roles are so great that these characters are still the driving force. The stereotypical nature of the characters does take away a bit of the unpredictability that the premise has potential for, but the film is still very exciting.
I think it’s safe to say that Bela Lugosi is the quintessential creep. He gives off such an eerie vibe, even when he’s sharing a normal conversation on screen with his fellow actors. This sets the mood perfectly for the rest of the film as soon as Lugosi’s character is introduced, even though he arguably plays the “good guy” here. He gives the best performance of the film, leaving the audience unsure of whether to trust him throughout most of the film. (He does get to display a bit of a soft side eventually!)
Karloff definitely gives him a run for his money. These two as a pair are what really steals the show, making it easy to see why they made so many brilliant films together. With their magnetic screen presences working in combination with the rivalry between their characters, all other performances in the film fall by the wayside.
Visually, The Black Cat is stunning. Beautiful art deco sets, the use of light and shadow, and a perfectly selected wardrobe for each character all work together perfectly to create a very stylized and aesthetically pleasing piece of work.
The Black Cat is a film that is definitely more creepy than scary, though there are a few gripping moments of terror, including a surprising and suspenseful ending. It’s elevated in leaps and bounds by the fantastic performances from Karloff and Lugosi, both individually and paired against each other. The score: 3.8/5