The Black Cat (1934 film)

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Theatrical poster for The Black Cat.

The Black Cat is a 1934 film produced by Universal Pictures, nominally based on the 1843 short story of the same name by Edgar Allan Poe. It is notable as the first of eight films to feature both Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff.[1][2]

Plot

Following their wedding, Peter Alison (David Jones) and his wife Joan (Julie Bishop) ride the Orient Express en route to Budapest. While travelling, they meet a Hungarian psychiatrist named Dr. Vitus Werdegast (Bela Lugosi). He tells them about how he had to leave his wife to fight in the Great War, and ended up being incarcerated in a prison camp for fifteen years.

The three leave the train and take a cab to their next destination. The vehicle crashes, killing the driver and injuring Joan; Werdegast takes the Alisons to a nearby mansion, built on the ruins of a wartime fort. It is owned by an architect named Hjalmer Poelzig, who turns out to know Werdegast.

There is bad blood between the two men: during the war Poelzig sold his fort to the Russians, allowing Werdegast to be taken as a prisoner of war. Werdegast then sees a black cat walking through the building; the sight terrifies him so much that he throws a knife at the animal. Poelzig explains to Peter that the doctor suffers from an acute fear of cats.

Alone, Poelzig goes down to his basement, which turns out to be filled with the embalmed bodies of various young women, suspended in glass cases. He then invites Werdegast down to examine one of the bodies: it is Werdegast's wife, Karen. Poelzig tells him that she died two years after the war, and that the Werdegasts' daughter died as well. However, the doctor accuses Poelzig of murdering both of them. He pulls a gun on the architect, but is startled by another sight of the cat.

Poelzig tells Werdegast to accept that both men have been irreparably damaged by the war: they are now the living dead.

Both Peter and Werdegast realise that they are being held captive by Poelzig. Peter tries to escape, but is knocked unconscious by a servant. Werdegast reveals to Joan that Karloff is a Satanist, and aims to use her in a rite of Lucifer.

While locked in a bedroom, Joan meets a young woman (Thamal Lucille Lund) who introduces herself as Poelzig's wife. She reveals that she is the daughter of Dr. Werdegast, and shares her late mother's name of Karen. She believes her father to be dead; Joan tells her the truth, but Poelzig overhears the conversation and responds by murdering his wife.

Poelzig then takes Joan to his ritual alongside a group of acolytes. However, Werdegast interrupts the proceedings and rescues her. While fleeing, Werdegast comes across the body of his daughter Karen; distraught, the doctor attacks Poelzig and eventually succeeds in trapping him in his own embalming rack. Werdegast then proceeds to skin Poelzig alive.

Peter, who has recovered, mistakenly believes that Werdegast has designs on Joan, and shoots him. Fatally injured, Werdegast struggles to reach a lever on the wall and pulls it, activating some dynamite that lies beneath the mansion. The Alisons narrowly escape as the building is blown to pieces, taking Poelzig's cult with it.

Cast

Boris Karloff – Hjalmar Poelzig
Béla Lugosi – Dr. Vitus Werdegast
David Manners - Peter Alison
Julie Bishop (credited as Jacqueline Wells) – Joan Alison
Egon Brecher – The Majordomo
Harry Cording – Thamal
Lucille Lund – Karen Werdegast (both mother and daughter)
Henry Armetta – Police Sergeant
Albert Conti – Police Lieutenant
John Carradine - Satanist[2]

Background

Director Edgar G. Ulmer and screenwriter Peter Ruric worked on the story draft for The Black Cat together in February 1934, with Ruric going on to pen the script. The film was shot from 28 February to 17 March, with an additional three and a half days taken up by retakes.[3]

The character of Poelzig is widely thought to have been partly inspired by real-life occultist Aleister Crowley,[4][5][6] although his name is a reference to architect Hans Poelzig.[7]

The film was released in the months before the Production Code Administration became officially enforced, and so was able to avoid a number of calls for censorship.[8] However, certain parts of the film were removed: "we had come up with some very interesting, very supernatural undertones that had to be cut... people couldn't take things like the character of Karen resembling the physical characteristics of a cat", said Ulmer.[9] The portrayal of a Satanic ritual was boundary-pushing at the time, although Karloff's dialogue during the scene consists largely of such innocuous phrases as "beware of dog" and "with a grain of salt" translated into Latin.[2]

Universal also made a 1941 film entitled The Black Cat, but aside from sharing the same title this was not a remake of the 1934 film.[2]

Reception

The Black Cat was released on 7 May 1934 and made a profit of $140,000, becoming Universal's highest-grossing film of the year.[9]

A number of critics commented on the film's scant relation to the Poe story after which it was named, and questioned the worth of Ruric's script. The New York Daily News printed a negative review, declaring that "the new story that was written to fit the title is so fantastically unreal that it is more apt to make one laugh at its absurdities than quake from the effects of its horror", while the Hollywood Reporter found the film dull.[3] Variety spoke approvingly of Karloff and Lugosi, but regarded the film as substandard overall.[9]

Later critics were more favourable. William K. Everson included The Black Cat in his 1974 book Classics of the Horror Film, writing that "It may be considered one of the most successful attempts to transfer Poe to the screen, even though it transfers only a mood and not a plot"; he acknowledges the weaknesses in the script, but argues that these ultimately "add to the perversity of the film."[10]

In 2007, Philip French called The Black Cat "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."[1] Writer Alison Peirse has written at length on the visual style of The Black Cat, arguing that the film's aesthetic shows a European influence: director Ulmer, who was born in Czechoslovakia and grew up in Vienna, had previously worked as a set designer on German films such as Der Golem.[11]

The film sometimes turns up on "best" lists. It made number 67 on Bravo's 100 Scariest Movie Moments,[12] while a Time Out London list of the top 100 horror films, as voted for by over a hundred experts in the field, named The Black Cat as number 84.[13]

References

  1. 1.0 1.1 Philip French's DVD club, No 92, The Observer 4 November 2007
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 Mallory, Michael (2007). Universal Studios Monsters: A Legacy of Horror. New York: Universe. pp.180-3
  3. 3.0 3.1 Peirse, Alison (2013). After Dracula: The 1930s Horror Film. London: I.B. Tauris. pp.103-4
  4. Newman, Kim (1996). "Crowley, Aleister." The BFI Companion to Horror. London: BFI
  5. Blackthorne Draconis. Malefick Media. p.60
  6. Wilt, David E. Hardboiled in Hollywood. p.101
  7. Cantor, Paul Arthur. The Invisible Hand in Popular Culture: Liberty Vs. Authority in American Film and TV. p.407
  8. Peirse, Alison (2013). After Dracula: The 1930s Horror Film. London: I.B. Tauris. p. 119
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 Rigby, Jonathan (2007). American Gothic: Sixty Years of Horror Cinema. London: Reynolds & Hearn. pp.144-6
  10. Everson, William K. (1974). Classics of the Horror Film. Secaucus: Citadel. p.122
  11. Peirse, Alison (2013). After Dracula: The 1930s Horror Film. London: I.B. Tauris. p.104
  12. The Film Spectrum: Bravo's 100 Scariest Movie Moments
  13. Time Out London: The 100 Best Horror Films