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The Black Cat (1934)

The importance of this 65 minute thriller from director Edgar G. Ulmer must never be overlooked when discussing the history of movies. It’s the first teaming of two actors whose names one could argue are the biggest in the history of horror cinema. Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. Or should we say Karloff vs. Lugosi.

black cat poster

Both Kristina over at Speakeasy and myself wanted to feature a horror flavored title from the thirties and specifically Universal Studios so we signed on to the Universal Blogathon kindly hosted by Silver Scenes.

Outside of the classic monsters that Universal brought to life in the thirties I have always felt this bizarre tale of murder, revenge, satanic cults and the hint of necrophilia among other terrors awaiting poor David Manners and Jacqueline Wells to be the best of the Universal Studios horrors from the golden age.

Over the opening credits you’ll see the nod to it’s inspiration, “Inspired by the immortal Edgar Allan Poe classic.” Other than the title and a black cat being pampered by Dear Boris and causing Poor Bela to perspire there’s not much inspiration going on here. But don’t let that stop you from delving into this delicious romp of sadism and ultra cool architecture.

blackcat

Our young couple who are to be caught up in the Boris-Bela death trip as played by Canadian David Manners and Miss Wells are taking a train through Austria where they find themselves sharing a compartment with a dapper looking Lugosi. Bela seems genuinely happy for the newly weds and his expressions recall a fonder time though he carries about him a look of impending doom. “I go to visit an old friend.”

black cat lobby

When sharing a taxi after exiting the train the driver sends the car crashing through a guard rail in a storm leaving Bela no choice but to take the young lovers with him to the place of his destiny. Karloff’s stylish home atop the ruins of a battlefield.

The music reaches a crescendo as Karloff rises in the shadows from his bed where a beautiful young woman lays beside him as if in a trance. At first Boris is all grim and menacing upon seeing Bela and Manners but his facial features turn to one of the friendly Boris when he spies the young and attractive Wells.

From here the film turns into a struggle for the young woman’s future as Boris and Bela begin to play cat and mouse. And so the game begins.

black_cat1

Bela wants answers to where his wife and child are who were lost to him during the war. He blames Karloff for his imprisonment and their whereabouts which he is to learn from Boris. Far below the home of Karloff in the catacombs are the bodies of several women encased in glass including the wife of Bela. Boris has kept there beauty in tact by not allowing them to age and whither. They are as they once were only inanimate. You may say Boris has been keeping a trophy case full of beautiful women.

boris and glass cage

I really don’t want to spoil anything here but let’s say the plot will twist it’s way to a more than satisfactory conclusion and include a black mass, attempted blood sacrifices and if you have a reel keen eye, John Carradine as a member of Karloff’s cult of worshippers.

Bela Lugosi delivers one of his best performances this time out and isn’t quite as stiff in his delivery as he could be at times making him an easy mark for lampooning. Another notable thing for Bela is that his role is that of the good guy and elicits sympathy for one of the only times in his career. On more than one occasion he is nearing tears as he longingly wishes for the past and happier times. He definitely has the viewing audience on his side.

boris in black cat

Karloff is majestically evil in his portrayal of Hjalmar Poelzig. The outfits and hair style applied to Boris give him a decidedly satanic aura. Everyone in his world are dealt with as pawns as he goes about playing his “game” of life and death as if it was a chessboard.

It’s around this point Boris has the film’s best line, “The phone is dead. Do you hear that, Vitus? Even the phone is dead. ”

It’s actually a chessboard that figures prominently in the battle between our icons of horror and cinema in general. Take a look at them here poking fun at their images over a chess board.

As the film draws to it’s maniacal ending Bela reminds Boris, “It has been a good game.”

bela and boris

Be sure to check out more titles in the Universal Blogathon celebrations currently featured over at the home of Silver Scenes which will also include Kristina focusing on a tale of terror featuring two icons of horror and another actor who dabbled a number of times in the genre before and after his lengthy tenure as the world’s greatest detective.

The Black Cat has been part of my ongoing feature titled Why Horror? Why Not?

16 Comments »

  1. Yes! A great one worth seeing repeatedly. Boris was always great but sometimes people need reminding how good Bela was here, which you do. Not only have I quoted the “phone is dead” line, I even knew someone named Hjalmar (only one of those things is true).

    • lol. Bela does get the short end and comes thru strongly here and when he does chew the scene up a bit it’s understandable as his sanity comes in question as his mind snaps towards the end. Karloff the pro as always. A true classic of horror films.

  2. This is not only a pretty creepy flick, it’s also REALLY funny. I have friends that can quote entire speeches from this one because we used to gather ’round the TV and watch it together. Not what I’d call a “family” film unless your last name is Frankenstein, ha!

      • Oh, I agree! Taken on modern terms (or even back in the early 80’s when we sat around memorizing lines), a lot of the film can be seen as somewhat amusing and even campy. But like much of Universal’s (and other studios) horror films, I’m betting people of the era were shocked under the seats at all that debauchery taking place.

        Also, I will admit to hating straight razors after seeing this one!

  3. Easily, the best collaboration between Karloff and Lugosi and one of the best Universal horrors, right behind Whale’s work. Although a tragedy that Ulmer’s “Black Cat” was excised and tampered with, it’s a flawed masterpiece even in its truncated form. Reportedly, in the original script, Lugosi’s Verdegast was not quite so heroic, having raped the heroine (who literally transformed into a cat, so there was a hint of bestiality as well). I’ve read conflicting reports that the scenes were actually shot and they weren’t shot, merely scripted (either way,Carl Jr put a stop to it) Lugosi, for once, is almost the equal of Karloff. Curiously, it’s one of Karloff’s most erotic roles, together with “The Mummy” and “The Mask Of Fu Manchu.” That’s usually not a quality we associate with Karloff. As for the ancient debated re: the two titans of horror, again it’s a case of both/and as opposed to either/or, but there’s no contest: Karloff wasn’t just a great genre actor, he was a great actor-period. Lugosi was a vibrant screen personality, but apart from very few roles (this, Ygor, Roxor, to a certain degree-Dracula, and his character bits in the Wolfman and The Body Snatcher), he was best when he was actually being directed, instead of just placed in front of a camera and told to “be Bela Lugosi.”

    • Nice write up yourself right here! Karloff for my money was the best actor of all the horror stars . I include the second wave in that comment as well meaning Lee and Cushing and Price. The guy was a pro. I go back and watch Black Cat once every couple of years. It’s just a wonderful film to look at. Ultra cool designs and depraved plot lines. Look fast for Carradine!

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