Lost in the Movies: The Black Cat

The Black Cat

The Black Cat (1934/United States/directed by Edgar G. Ulmer)
stars Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi

written by Edgar G. Ulmer, Peter Ruric, and Tom Kilpatrick from Edgar Allan Poe's story • photographed by John J. Mescall • designed by Charles D. Hall • music by Heinz Roemheld • makeup by Jack P. Pierce

The StoryOn a dark and stormy night, the Allisons, a honeymooning couple, find themselves sidetracked by an auto accident. Dr. Vitus Werdegast (Lugosi), whom they met on the train, takes them the home of architect Hjalmar Poelzig (Karloff), a camp commandant who mistreated Werdegast during World War I. The two men fight a battle of will and wit, with the hapless newlyweds caught in the middle.

What do secluded mansions, wartime prison camps, violent fear of black cats, modernist architecture, satanic cults, semi-incestuous marriages, floating corpses, and sadomasochistic feuds have to do with one another? Not very much, come to think of it. Except that you can find them all in The Black Cat, along with wickedly stylized sets, idiosyncratic classical music, and - in their first pairing - two pitch-perfect larger-than-life performances from Universal’s biggest horror stars. Neither one cracks a smile or lets a wink betray that they’re in on the joke (though Karloff’s arched eyebrow occasionally suggests a saucy self-awareness), leading us to wonder if it is a joke at all. As he would later with the noir Detour, Edgar G. Ulmer twists genre conventions, stylistic norms, and tonal expectations into perfect pretzels, until we're left wondering whether the result is subversively brilliant or merely ridiculous.

This ambiguity sets The Black Cat apart from some of the other great Universal films, like Bride of Frankenstein or The Old Dark House, where we know we’re watching something just as much a comedy as a horror film. The Black Cat has a sense of humor, but it’s a very dark, deadpan, sardonic sense. We laugh at certain exaggerated reactions (Lugosi’s ferocious screech and knife-hurling hysterics whenever he sees a black cat), chuckle along with some of the more bizarre lines and line readings (“Baloney? Perhaps not” and just about everything Karloff lisps), and grin ear-to-ear at the out-of-left-field plot developments (I always love the moment when Karloff casually picks up a satanic text, as if the movie didn’t already have enough strangeness going for it).

Yet we also marvel at the sheer bravado of the film, admiring its sleek art direction (what a brilliant, bizarre stroke to turn “the old dark house” of horror lore into an Art Deco palace), cool-as-shit shots (my favorite being the rack-focus as Karloff fondles a small statue while the young lovers embrace) and iconically charismatic performances, especially Karloff’s. There’s a nice moment when the amiable square Mr. Allison (David Manners) tries to ingratiate himself with Poelzig. The contemptuous architect asks him, “Do you play chess?” The American wisecracks about playing a good hand of poker and Poelzig responds with aloof impatience, “Well, if you don’t mind, I think we’ll go on with our game.” Translation: “Back off buddy, we’re chewing scenery here, and you’re spoiling our appetite.”

Most of all, the movie is fantastically weird. That aforementioned statue-fondling is only one of many moments where a dark, demented sexuality swims to the surface. There’s Poelzig's disturbing co-option of Dr. Werdegast’s wife, whose murder is insinuated, and then his daughter, whose murder is suggested offscreen in one of the film’s more disturbing moments. There’s the intense smoldering gaze Poelzig fixes upon Mrs. Allison (Jacqueline Wells, cute as a button and quite foxy when narcoticized); this only become creepier when he reveals that his interest is primarily “spiritual” (i.e. he wants to carve her up in a Luciferian rite amongst tuxedoed acolytes). Then there’s the salacious way the good doctor ties his nemesis to a rack at the end of the movie, ripping Poelzig's shirt off with righteous fury (Lugosi looks positively possessed while hissing, “Have you ever seen an animal skinned alive? That’s what I’m going to do to you!”). The bare-chested Karloff’s nearly indifferent reaction, as if he’s quietly awaiting a pain he will savor, sells the whole act as some kind of bizarre kinky blood ritual, the logical conclusion to the night’s Black Mass, perhaps even planned all along.

Ultimately, Werdegast gets shot by the clueless Mr. Allison, and it’s no wonder. From the moment he ominously and unwelcomely steps into the train car, Werdegast's motives are suspect, his manner suspicious, and his bearing unsettling. Nobody seems to trust that he’s actually one of the good guys, and though the narrative bears him out, we know at heart he’s just as demented as Poelzig. And we wouldn’t want them any other way. The Allisons can have their honeymoon on the Orient Express; we’ll stay on at Chez Poelzig and dig our dance with the Devil.

Read the comments on Wonders in the Dark, where this review was originally published.

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