The Black Cat August 31, 2016
An old-fashioned mix-up is certainly not the horror genre’s best friend, and The Black Cat’s innocent newlyweds, Peter and Joan Alison (David Manners and Julie Bishop), might agree with that sentiment more than anyone. Bright-eyed and taken with one another, these chipper twenty-somethings want nothing more than to have a pleasant honeymoon in Hungary, the first country that comes to mind when a romantic getaway is in the midst of being planned. But as they’re boarding their destination bound train as The Black Cat opens, that good old-fashioned mix-up leaves them in the same compartment as Dr. Vitus Werdegast (Béla Lugosi), a feline fearing Hungarian psychiatrist who’s spent the last fifteen years imprisoned in a Siberian internment camp.
In light of his dark past few years, he’s friendly and seemingly in high spirits - he’s visiting an old friend, Austrian architect Hjalmar Poelzig (Boris Karloff), and appears to be overjoyed at the thought of re-acquainting himself with someone who meant a lot to him before WWI took over his life. Peter and Joan, naive and eager to please, take up his offer to share a bus following arrival. They’re going in the same direction, after all, and it’d be a shame to cut their bonding with such a nice man short.
But alas, the roads are slick and the weather is low-rent Vincent Price movie rainy, and the bus crashes, leaving Joan injured. Fortunately, Poelzig’s enormous manor, styled with futuristic fetishism, is nearby, and this Brad and Janet of 1934 realize they’ve got to make the most of a bad situation or live to regret it. With Werdegast by their side, they crash the place, hoping to resume their vacation before their host can dramatically enter another room carrying the intense stare of a Falcon Crest villain.
When one lives in the middle of nowhere in a mansion in Hungary, has a name like Hjalmar Poelzig, and looks and acts quite a bit like occultist Aleister Crowley, though, things are not bound to be as quick and easy as Peter and Joan would hope for. Much to our amusement, Werdegast and Poelzig are not old friends at all; Werdesgast is, rather, intent on avenging the death of his wife and daughter, whom he believes to have been murdered by Poelzig.
But Poelzig hardly seems bothered by Werdesgast’s wanting to brutally off him. Perhaps a man seeking revenge shows up on his doorstep regularly; a normal stormy evening it is to him. Poelzig, anyway, is more gaga over Joan, whose nubile desirability leaves her as a perfect candidate for Satanic sacrifice.
All that occurs in the sixty-five minute The Black Cat takes place over a hard day’s night, and because it’s imperiously eccentric and palatably histrionic, it’d make more sense to view it as a bad dream translated onto nitrate simply because it doesn’t make sense. As it goes with movies that use nonsensical terror as fuel for their inescapable fires of ghoulishness, from Suspiria to Carnival of Souls, The Black Cat uses blatant outlandishness as a weapon. In no way would American newlyweds be happily honeymooning in Hungary and in no way would anyone set foot into Poelzig’s eerie mansion and not sprint in the opposite direction.
But such matters are totally capable of happening in the scope of a night terror, and that’s precisely the point. The film is a nightmare made mostly real, and the screenwriter Peter Ruric evidently enjoys throwing various insanities (from Poelzig’s keeping of female cadavers in glass cases around the home to the movie’s wild finale that finds someone skinning someone else alive) left and right. Edgar G. Ulmer (Detour, The Strange Woman) directs with supple artistry that suggests he’s seen at least a couple Fritz Lang films in his lifetime, and Karloff and Lugosi are fiendishly wonderful as they play off each other with animated pedigree.
Unsurprisingly, The Black Cat was Universal’s highest earner of 1934 - the horror genre was red hot after Karloff and Lugosi respectively made it cool again in 1931 with Frankenstein and Dracula - and was the first of eight successful collaborations between its pioneering leads. As time as shown time and time again, firsts are generally better, and because The Black Cat seems to be so in on the joke that every single thing about it thoroughly bizarre, I find it impossible to disagree, though I’d like to be harder on a movie that finds victimized characters so merry just hours after almost being killed by Satanists and after witnessing a man being filleted while he screams in anguish. 1934 was a crazier time than 2016, I guess. B