The Black Cat (1934 film)
The Black Cat is a 1934 American pre-Code horror film directed by Edgar G. Ulmer and starring Boris Karloff and Béla Lugosi. The picture was the first of eight movies (six of which were produced by Universal) to pair the two iconic actors. It became Universal Pictures' biggest box office hit of the year, and was one of the first movies with an almost continuous music score. Lugosi also appeared in the 1941 film with the same title. The Black Cat is considered by many to be the one that created and popularized the psychological horror subgenre, emphasising on atmosphere, eerie sounds, the darker side of the human psyche, and emotions like fear and guilt to deliver its scares, something that was not used in the horror genre.
|The Black Cat|
Original 1934 theatrical poster
|Directed by||Edgar G. Ulmer|
|Screenplay by||Peter Ruric|
|Based on||The Black Cat|
by Edgar Allan Poe
|Music by||Heinz Eric Roemheld|
|Cinematography||John J. Mescall|
|Edited by||Ray Curtiss|
|Distributed by||Universal Pictures|
Newlyweds Peter (David Manners) and Joan Alison (Julie Bishop), on their honeymoon in Hungary, learn that due to a mixup, they must share a train compartment with Dr. Vitus Werdegast (Béla Lugosi), a Hungarian psychiatrist. Eighteen years before, Werdegast went to war, never seeing his wife again. He has spent the last 15 years in an infamous prison camp in Siberia. On the train, the doctor explains that he is traveling to see an old friend, Hjalmar Poelzig (Boris Karloff), an Austrian architect.
Later, the doctor, Peter, and Joan, share a bus, which crashes on a desolate, rain-swept road. Joan is injured, and the doctor and Peter take her to Poelzig's home, built upon the ruins of Fort Marmorus, which Poelzig commanded during the war. Werdegast treats Joan's injury, administering the tranquilizing drug hyoscine, causing her to behave erratically. While Peter puts her to bed, Werdegast accuses Poelzig of betraying the fort during the war to the Russians, resulting in the death of thousands of Austro-Hungarian soldiers. He also accuses Poelzig of stealing his wife Karen while he was in prison. Early on in the movie, Werdegast kills Poelzig's black cat, and Poelzig explains that Werdegast has a strong fear of the animals. Poelzig carries a second black cat around the house with him while he oversees his "collection" of dead women on display in glass cases – including Karen.
Poelzig plans to sacrifice Joan in a satanic ritual during the dark of the moon. He is seen reading a book called The Rites of Lucifer, while a beautiful blonde woman sleeps next to him. The blonde is Werdegast's daughter – thus, Poelzig's stepdaughter – also named Karen (Lucille Lund). It's shown later that Poelzig married Werdegast's wife, and when she died, he married his daughter (who was told her real father died in prison). Werdegast, who is unaware of his daughter's presence, bides his time, waiting for the right moment to strike down the mad architect. He also tries to persuade his foe to spare Peter and Joan, at one point literally gambling with their lives by playing a game of chess with Poelzig – which he loses.
That moment comes during the beginning of the satanists' service, when a female acolyte sees something which causes her to scream and faint. Werdegast and his servant Thamal (Harry Cording) snatch Joan from the sacrificial altar and carry her into the catacombs beneath the house, where Peter is rendered unconscious by Poelzig's servant. Joan tells Werdegast his daughter is alive in the building somewhere. He discovers that Poelzig has killed his daughter and, in an insane rage, shackles him to an embalming rack, where he proceeds to literally skin Poelzig alive. As Joan tries to tear a key from the dead hand of Poelzig's servant, Peter, regaining consciousness, mistakes Werdegast's attempt to help her as an attack and shoots him. Fatally wounded, Werdegast blows up the house, first letting the couple escape but with Poelzig's "rotten cult" still upstairs. "It has been a good game," he says before he dies.
- Boris Karloff as Hjalmar Poelzig (billed as Karloff)
- Béla Lugosi as Dr. Vitus Werdegast
- David Manners as Peter Alison
- Julie Bishop (billed as Jacqueline Wells) as Joan Alison
- Egon Brecher as The Majordomo
- Harry Cording as Thamal
- Lucille Lund as Karen Werdegast
- Henry Armetta as Police Sergeant
- Albert Conti as Police Lieutenant
- John Carradine as Organist (uncredited)
- Lund also plays the elder Karen Werdegast.
The Black Cat was the biggest box office hit of the year for Universal and was the first of eight movies (six of which were produced by Universal) to pair actors Béla Lugosi and Boris Karloff. Director Edgar G. Ulmer's film was part of a boom in horror "talkies" following the release of Dracula and Frankenstein in 1931.
The film has little to do with Edgar Allan Poe's short story "The Black Cat", though Poe's name is listed in the credits. The film exploited a sudden public interest in psychiatry. Peter Ruric (better known as pulp writer "Paul Cain") wrote the screenplay.
The film was originally released in UK cinemas under the title House of Doom.
The film – and by extension, the character of Hjalmar Poelzig – draws inspiration from the life of occultist Aleister Crowley. The name Poelzig was borrowed from architect Hans Poelzig, whom Ulmer claimed to have worked with on the sets for Paul Wegener's silent film The Golem.
Upon the film's original 1934 release, The New York Times reviewer wrote: "The Black Cat is more foolish than horrible. The story and dialogue pile the agony on too thick to give the audience a reasonable scare."
On the movie review aggregation site Rotten Tomatoes, the film received has a rating from critics of 87%. It was also ranked #68 on Bravo's 100 Scariest Movie Moments for its "skinning" scene. ("Karloff gets skinned alive at the end," noted Cramps guitarist and horror aficionado Poison Ivy, "but they show the shadow of it and somehow that's more gruesome.")
The critic Philip French called it "the first (and best) of seven Karloff/Lugosi joint appearances. The movie unfolds like a nightmare that involves necrophilia, ailurophobia, drugs, a deadly game of chess, torture, flaying, and a black mass with a human sacrifice. This bizarre, utterly irrational masterpiece, lasting little more than an hour, has images that bury themselves in the mind."
In the 2010s, Time Out polled authors, directors, actors and critics who had worked in the horror genre to vote for their top horror films. Time Out placed The Black Cat at number 89 on the top 100.
- The Black Cat at the American Film Institute Catalog
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- "Bravo's "100 Scariest Movie Moments"". Archived from the original on 2013-11-04. Cite uses deprecated parameter
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- Philip French's DVD club, No 92, The Observer 4 November 2007
- Clarke, Cath; Calhoun, Dave; Huddleston, Tom (August 19, 2015). "The 100 best horror films: the list". Time Out. Retrieved October 30, 2015.
- Mank, Gregory W. (2009). Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff : the expanded story of a haunting collaboration, with a complete filmography of their films together. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Co., Publishers. ISBN 9780786434800. OCLC 607553826.