June 07, 2007

The Black Cat (1934)

Whenever someone talks about Universal classic horror films, two names always tend to show up in the course of the conversation: Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff, two very different yet still similar persons who in 1931 shared the privilegue of becoming the first monsters of the sound era in two enormously influential films. In Tod Browning's "Dracula", Hungarian actor Bela Lugosi took the role of the immortal vampire while at the same time, English born Boris Karloff became the legendary manmade creature of James Whale's "Frankenstein". While both actors had different lives offscreen, they would appear together many times on the silver screen thanks to their status as "horror icons" and their enormous talent and screen presences. Among the many movies the two legends made together, Edgar G. Ulmer's "The Black Cat" has a definitive place among the most memorable ones.

"The Black Cat" is the story of the Peter and Joan Alison (David Manners and Julie Bishop), a young American couple on their honeymoon trip through Hungary. On the train to Visegrád, the couple meets Dr. Vitus Werdegast (Bela Lugosi), a charming yet strange man who like them, will take a bus to Gömbös as he is planning to visit an old friend. However, the bus has a terrible accident and only Werdegast and the Alisons survive. Joan is in a bad condition, so Werdegast suggest to take her to his friend's house in order to heal her wounds. The three arrive to a marvelous mansion on the top of a hill, where they are received by Werdegast's mysterious friend, Hjalmar Poelzig (Boris Karloff). The couple thanks the hospitality of their eerie host, but they don't know that they are now pawns in a death game between Werdegast and Poelzig, a death game between two rivals that started many years before.

While the film was announced as an adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe's 1843 story of the same name, "inspired by Poe" would be a better way to describe it, as the screenplay by director Edgar G. Ulmer and writer Peter Ruric has almost no relation to Poe's classic. While Poe's story was about a murderer, the screenplay for "The Black Cat" is about the final duel between two bitter enemies and the two innocents who get caught in the middle. What makes "The Black Cat" to stand out among the other Universal Horror classics, is the incredible care taken in the development of the two main characters. Through powerful exchanges of dialogs, we discover the dark pasts of both men, and how behind their apparently normal faces are secrets far more shocking than any monster. While the plot is certainly contrived and a bit too fast paced, the dialog written is definitely some of the best from that era.

In "The Black Cat", director Edgar G. Ulmer shows a lot of the influence he received from German expressionism during his years as an aprentice to legendary filmmaker F.W. Murnau, as by giving good use to John J. Mescall's brilliant cinematography, Ulmer manages to create an ominous and haunting atmosphere out of extremely modernist art deco sets. This highly atypical and visually striking style that Ulmer uses for the film enhances that sense of impending doom that the couple feels as they enter Werdegast and Poelzig's dark world, giving the film an atmosphere of strange and otherwordly beauty that makes it very different to other horror films of that time. Another of the elements that make this movie special is its highly innovative use of Heinz Roemheld's music, as unlike most of the films made on those years, here it is used widely through the film as another device to creat atmosphere.

Of course, what truly makes this film attractive is the chance to see Lugosi and Karloff together for the first time, and certainly the two icons do not dissapoint. Boris Karloff is delightfully evil in his role as the sinister Hjalmar Poelzig, filling the screen with that powerful presence that made him shine in "Frankenstein". However, while Karloff makes a terrific job as Poelzig, the highlight of the film is certainly Bela Lugosi, who in this movie proves that he was truly a remarkable actor and delivers what probably is the best performance of his career. As the film's "hero", Lugosi shows his acting range and makes the perfect match for Karloff's performance. As the young couple, David Manners (who was Lugosi's costar in "Dracula") and Julie Bishop are nothing surprising, but still are very effective in their performances considering that the spotlight is not on them.

If there is a flaw in this marvelous horror film, is definitely the fact that it has a very short runtime (barely 66 minutes), and this forces a very fast pace that in turn makes a bit difficult to expand on the movie's plot. That's the reason why some critics have criticized the film for having a story a bit too complex, as the extremely fast pace force the events to happen too quickly. There are several rumors about the film having originally a runtime of 80 minutes, where it expanded on several parts of the plot that were left unexplained in the final version; but that this scenes ended up cut because they were considered too disturbing for its time. While nobody can truly prove this, a more likely possibility for this is the fact that "The Black Cat" was a low-budget film, and therefore forced to have a shorter runtime.

While flawed, "The Black Cat" is still one of the best horror films from the 30s, and certainly one of the best (and definitely the darkest) of the ones produced by Universal. It is also one of the best among the movies that paired Lugosi and Karloff ("The Body Snatcher" is another great one), and as written above, Lugosi's best performance ever. Despite being short, this is one of those forgotten horror masterpieces that deserve more attention, if only for having the best of both legends.


Buy "The Black Cat" (1934)

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