This brilliant pre-code horror film pits the iconic Boris Karloff against the incomparable Bela Lugosi in their first screen pairing, with Karloff playing the personification of Lucifer while Lugosi as a man obsessed with revenge, but this film not only stars two of Hollywood’s greatest screen icons it’s also has a plot that deals with Satanism, necrophilia, and torture, which were not subject matters normally seen in Hollywood movies of the time.
The plot centres around a young honeymooning couple, Peter Alison (David Manners) and his newly wedded bride Joan (Julie Bishop), whose fateful encounter with Dr. Vitus Werdegast (Bela Lugosi) aboard the Orient Express leads to disaster when their bus loses control and drives off the road. They are forced to take the injured Joan on to the home of Hjalmar Poelzig (Boris Karloff), the man who Werdegast has come seeking revenge, and our two love birds are now caught in a web of murder and betrayal. Turns out that during the war Poelzig betrayed his command which resulted in the deaths of thousands of Austro-Hungarian soldiers and Werdegast’s imprisonment, not to mention the fact that he also stole Werdegast’s wife and daughter, both named Karen (Lucille Lund), after telling them he was dead. Fifteen years later, Werdegast has come to find out what happened to his family and to get finally get his revenge on Poelzig, unfortunately, as it is the “Dark of the Moon” our newlyweds have arrived just in time to become part of a Satanic ritual and thus revenge is put on hold.
One of the film’s standout aspects is its exploration of psychological horror as the plot of The Black Cat delves deep into the darkest corners of the human psyche, exploring themes of guilt, madness and the consequences of wartime atrocities. It challenges the audience’s notions of good and evil, blurring the lines between protagonist and antagonist in a way that was quite daring for its time. Lugosi’s Dr. Vitus Werdegast is quite the complicated character because even though he’s come to get revenge upon Poelzig, who not only stole the man’s wife but later married his daughter – and that’s not getting into the whole Satanic cult thing and the fact he has a hallway of victims persevered in all their beauty within glass cases – yet Werdegast is no hero as he’s willing to jeopardize the lives of both Peter and Joan so that his plans for revenge can play out.
• An American mystery novelist going on his honeymoon in Europe is almost guaranteed to end badly, people in certain careers should know what locations to avoid, in fact, Peter later reflects “Next time, I go to Niagara Falls!”
• Sharing a train compartment with Bela Lugosi is a pretty big red flag that you are travelling into danger, and while Lugosi is not the villain of this picture his plans for revenge make him complicit in the horrifying events that follow.
• Boris Karloff’s diabolic satanist doesn’t live in some spooky castle or Gothic manor, instead, his home is something more akin to the modernistic style of Frank Lloyd Wright.
• Peter and Joan are newlyweds but Poelzig gives them separate rooms, I’ll never understand how a film that deals with torture, incest and necrophilia will still have a problem showing two people sleeping together.
• Poelzig plays Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor on a pipe organ because that’s one horror cliché that never goes out of style, of course, this film wins points for being only the second feature to utilize this piece, the first one being the 1931 adaptation of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
• The Satanic prayer Poelzig chants during the black mass scene contains random phrases in Latin including “cum grano salis” which means “with a grain of salt” which is a fair comment on Satanism.
• On the film’s title card it states “Suggested by the immortal Edgar Allan Poe Classic” but this movie has absolutely nothing to do with Poe’s story about a cat being accidentally bricked up with a murdered spouse.
Director Edgar G. Ulmer later admitted that the story was credited as an adaptation of the Edgar Allen Poe story of the same name simply to draw public attention, despite the fact it had nothing to do with the plot of this movie, and this kicks off a long line of movies based on the Poe’s works that have little to do with the source material and being “In Name Only” adaptations. Despite being only “loosely based” on Edgar Allan Poe’s story – it does feature a black cat but no one gets walled up – the movie immerses viewers in a sinister world of hidden secrets and twisted obsessions. Lugosi and Karloff both deliver powerful and magnetic performances, their on-screen chemistry adding an extra layer of intensity to an already gripping narrative.
Ulmer’s direction in The Black Cat is a masterclass in atmospheric storytelling. The film effectively uses shadowy visuals, stunning production design, and hauntingly beautiful cinematography to create an oppressive and foreboding atmosphere. Every scene is meticulously crafted, revealing the director’s keen eye for detail and his ability to create tension through subtlety. The performances by Lugosi and Karloff are nothing short of mesmerizing and Lugosi’s portrayal of Dr. Werdegast is hauntingly tragic, with his signature charm and commanding presence. Karloff, on the other hand, delivers a chilling and enigmatic performance as the enigmatic Poelzig, his screen presence oozing with malevolence and menace.
The Black Cat is one seriously dark piece of filmmaking, with director Edgar G. Ulmer and cinematographer John J. Mescall creating a world of creepy atmosphere and building dread, with our two hapless honeymooners caught in the crossfire of an old feud between bitter enemies, a feud that threatens ritualistic rape and human sacrifice. This is a truly horrifying tale and one can’t help but be appalled by Karloff’s menacing Satanist, especially when he admires his hallway of preserved corpses. And one can even sympathize with Lugosi’s emotionally tortured psychiatrist, a man who is pushed to the brink of madness, despite dangers his plans will have on his innocent companions. Over the years Lugosi and Karloff teamed up in eight films but The Black Cat is easily their greatest partnership as both actors give fantastic performances in a movie that pushed the limits as to the level of horror that could be brought to the screen.
In conclusion, The Black Cat is an enduring cinematic achievement that stands the test of time. It showcases the immense talents of Lugosi, Karloff and Ulmer, pushing the boundaries of the horror genre in the 1930s. If you’re a fan of atmospheric and psychologically-driven storytelling, this film is a must-watch, offering a haunting journey into the depths of darkness that will leave you captivated until the very end.
The Black Cat (1934)
Movie Rank - 8/10
Edgar G. Ulmer’s The Black Cat is a remarkable cinematic gem that remains a true testament to the genius of the director and the unforgettable performances of Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff in a film that combines elements of horror, mystery, and psychological thrills. This entry from Universal Pictures stands out as a dark and chilling tale that captivates audiences even after nearly nine decades.