Thursday, 6 October 2011

The Black Cat (1934)

Any film that stars Bela Lugosi as the hero is prepared to descend to ever deeper depths of horror, abomination and depravity. This unlikely casting of Dracula himself in such a role was forced by his costar, the even more monstrous Boris Karloff. The Black Cat of 1934 is the first film to pair the two horror icons, who to this point had starred separately in Universal's Dracula, Murders in the Rue Morgue, Frankenstein, The Old Dark House and The Mummy (as well as the non-Universal films White Zombie, Island of Lost Souls). Each actor was a hot Hollywood commodity in the burgeoning Golden Age of cinematic horror, and it was only a matter of time before Universal teamed them together in what became the studio's top-grossing film that year.

Ostensibly the film is "suggested by" the so-named story by Edgar Allan Poe, and Lugosi's character is saddled with an irrational and irrelevant feline phobia. The connection is contrived, a movie executive's attempt to stack the deck even further with some name recognition coming off of Murders in the Rue Morgue. This Black Cat has nothing to do with Poe or cats and would have done just as nicely without them.

Universal's first Black Cat opens with Peter and Joan Allison on their European honeymoon. Just as they settle into their private cabin on the Orient Express, a scheduling mix-up forces them to share with Dr. Vitus Werdegast, played by Lugosi. The amiable psychiatrist is on his way, so he says, to visit his old friend Hjalmar Poelzig in Hungary. At night he also gets a little too familiar, surreptitiously stroking Joan's hair. Peter, played by Dracula alumni David Manners, sees this but Werdegast tries to put him at ease with an explanation. Joan looks very much like the wife he lost 18 years before when he was called away to serve the Austro-Hungarian Empire in The Great War. At the very end of the war he was captured in the Massacre of Fort Marmorus, during which thousands of Hungarians, soldiers and civilians alike, were brutally murdered. The valleys were piled flush with bodies and the rivers ran thick and red. They were the lucky ones. Werdegast explains how he was sent to the prison camp where he remained for 15 years, his soul destroyed though his body survived. Now free, he is returning to his homeland to find his wife and child.

Arriving at their stop, the trio embark by cab, the honeymooners to their next destination and Werdegast to the home of Poelzig, an avant-garde architect. An accident kills the cab driver and injures Joan, so the whole troupe must shelter at Poelzig's mansion. Unusual for Universal, it is not a decrepit old manor house full of cobwebs and Gothic arches. On the contrary, it is a sleek, new, ultra-modern abode in the Bauhaus style. After all the commotion, Werdegast and Poelzig, who is Karloff of course, meet and the truth is revealed: it was Poelzig, as commanding officer, who betrayed the fort to the Russians and became the architect of genocide. His brightly-lit, polished chrome house of the future is built upon the very ruins of the fallen outpost, the scene of his crime, overlooking thousands of rudely carved crosses. The reason for his atrocity was a shared, jealous love for Werdegast's wife... An infatuation that caused him to preserve her corpse under glass when she died more than a decade before, possibly by his own hand. To top things off, Poelzig lies about Werdegast's daughter, for she is not dead. She is now Poelzig's wife.

Between the two men is a mutual hatred so deep that it would not be satiated with merely killing one another. Poelzig wants to obliterate what's left of Werdegast's fractured soul and Werdegast would like nothing more than to strap Poelzig in and flay him alive. Revenge becomes an intricate game of living chess with the American honeymooners caught in the middle. Every maneuver comes to a head on the following night, in the dark of the moon when Poelzig gathers his followers for a dark, Satanic mass with Joan as the intended ritual sacrifice.

All of this in one Universal Monster film of the Thirties. Karloff as the utterly unsympathetic villain, Lugosi as the murderous hero, evil Satanic rites, Bauhaus architecture, the first direct reference to the horrors of World War I that did much to inspire the whole series, and overtones of necrophilia and incest... The Black Cat is definitely a pre-Code feature that no doubt did its part, despite its success, to provoke a negative reaction out of audiences. Eventually Universal would push too hard and the series would go on hiatus after the next Karloff-Lugosi outing. Thereafter, The Black Cat was remade in 1941, also with Lugosi playing a bit-part opposite Basil Rathbone in a somewhat disappointing Old Dark House murder mystery.

Quite possibly one of the time's most inappropriate advertising gimmicks.

1 comment:

grouchomarxist said...

What a bizarre gem of a movie! Edgar G. Ulmer at his very finest.

The line "I am going to skin you alive!" as delivered in this film by Lugosi, absolutely sends chills down my spine every time. And for all that he's a sympathetic character, after what precedes this moment in the film you really, really, really believe he's going to do just exactly that. A truly intense, gruesome and disturbing scene, magnified by the fact that you see nothing but shadows on a wall.

When I first saw this on AMC back in the 80s, my stunned response was "They actually made a movie like this, back in the early 30s?!?" Unusual subject matter indeed. (Although you must admit, that's probably the most impeccably tailored and well-mannered bunch of Satanists ever to hit the silver screen.)

Still, Karloff's "Engineer Poelzig" is superbly ghoulish, building the foundations of his Bauhaus palace literally on the bodies of those he betrayed. IMO, this one stands with his Cabman Gray in The Body Snatcher as one of his greatest villains. What an inspired piece of art direction that palace was, too, on so many levels.

So yeah, I guess you could say this is one of my favorite Universals from the Golden Age.