The Black Cat
Director: Edgar G. Ulmer
Starring: Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, David Manners, Julie Bishop
It’s good for me to watch a movie like The Black Cat every now and then. Sometimes I get really caught up in watching the great Hollywood classics, or I’ll only want to rewatch films I love from the Golden Age. As such, I tend to have a very rosy view of Old Hollywood. For that reason, then, it’s good for me to see something like The Black Cat, because it reminds me that classic Hollywood made just as much crap as modern Hollywood.
Dr. Vitus Werdegast (Lugosi) is in a bus crash with a honeymooning couple (Manners and Bishop). Wounded, they go to Werdegast’s old friend’s house, Poelzig (Karloff). But Poelzig isn’t exactly an old friend, and Werdegast’s visit isn’t exactly innocent in its intentions. Enter some story about the house being built on a WWI battle site, a hellish prison, and, of course, satanic cultists, and the movie wraps up.
Oh yeah, and they mention black cats. Like, twice.
When watching this movie, look out for plot holes. If you’re not paying attention, you could trip and seriously hurt yourself. I suppose the plot doesn’t really matter, but even if you end up disregarding most of it, like I did, you’ll still sit there wondering, “Wait, what the hell is going on now?” There’s a backstory of Werdegast’s wife, who Poelzig also loved, that seems to be the central driving force of the narrative. Which, of course, means, that there are dead bodies of young women seemingly suspended from midair in Poelzig’s dungeon. Well, naturally. And why the hell was the young wife walking around in a trance? That’s never explained; no one even remotely tries to explain it.
I’m really torn about Lugosi and Karloff’s performances. At times, I found them rather enjoyable. Lugosi’s natural Hungarian accent lends him an automatic air of creepiness when delivering eloquent speeches. He speaks slowly and deliberately, and has the ability to entrance through his words. On the other hand, he has no concept of when his performance stops being slightly creepy and starts being incredibly cheesy. Watch him recoil from the sight of a black cat and I dare you not to laugh. Cackling maniacally toward the end of the film is too far gone for me. It’s just so damn silly. Furthermore, Lugosi’s character is supposed to be “good.” That is to say, this is *supposedly* a horror film, and Dr. Werdegast is fighting with the real baddie in order to help save the innocents. I’m not sure if anyone told this to Lugosi, though, because sometimes he can’t seem to decide which side he’s on.
Karloff doesn’t fare much better, but his woes seem to be due to incredibly poor scriptwriting and character development, things which were more out of his control. His character swings back and forth between staring evilly from under his brow and having long, protracted silences, to conversing fluidly and easily in his sophisticated British accent, often in the same scene. I don’t get it. Is he supposed to be a smarmy charming evil genius, or some sort of supernatural being? The film can’t seem to make up its mind, because it plays him as both of these. As far as I know, the script makes no mention about him being a schizophrenic, yet he clearly appears to have a split personality.
Julie Bishop as the young wife is one of the silliest horror movie heroines ever. She is constantly inept and incredibly useless. She screams and passes out far too easily. I know for a fact that women of the thirties were not all wilting flowers, but you wouldn’t think it based on this film. I hate how helpless she is. Her entire function in the film is to smile wanly and look pretty. The men prance around her as if they are frightened that if they speak with too many multisyllabic words, she’ll suffer a brain aneurism and keel over on the spot. When Dr. Werdegast describes her condition as “delicate” after the bus accident, I think I actually snorted with disgust.
Ridiculous plot and all-over-the-place performances aside, the film does have a couple of redeeming features. The most prominent is the set design. This is, at its core, a haunted house story. Everyone, once they get to Poelzig’s house, is trapped there and cannot escape. As such, the house takes on its own role in the film. It’s an odd example of art deco design in a horror movie. The clean lines and modern design extend beautifully throughout all the sets, even in the basement dungeon. The shiny metal spiral staircase leading down to the dungeon, coupled with the angled stone walls, at the very least makes The Black Cat a very interesting movie to look at.
I also enjoyed the music in the film. It’s almost entirely a mash-up of classical music themes, but strung together to make a convincing soundtrack. When we watch our young married couple, we hear a variant of Tchaikovsky’s “Romeo and Juliet” overture. When there’s some guff in the narrative about old World War I gun barracks, we hear Beethoven’s 7th Symphony, Movement 2. There’s a ton of Liszt and a smattering of Schubert, both of which work incredibly well as somewhat schlocky soundtrack pieces. (I’m not a huge fan of Liszt.) Most exciting, I think this may be the film where the affiliation of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue and horror movies began. Karloff’s Poelzig plays the piece on his in-home organ, because sure, what evil genius DOESN’T have an in-home organ? I did a little bit of checking around, and I couldn’t find a mention of Toccata and Fugue being used in a horror film prior to 1934. So, if nothing else, I’m giving The Black Cat credit for the establishing this classic association.
Last little thought: the honeymooning couple alludes to just being married in the afternoon when the movie starts. Their first night in Poelzig’s house, she is unconscious after the bus accident and he sleeps in the adjoining room. The next day, shit hits the fan and they try to escape with their lives. The only thing I kept thinking was, “When are they going to get to have sex?” It actually started being funny for me; the poor young husband kept being stymied in his attempts to consummate his marriage. It became a running gag.
With most movies from 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, even if I don’t like them, I can understand and/or appreciate why they are considered “must-see.” I grant a pretty wide berth in this, too; I think I’m pretty damn understanding. I tried. I really tried, but I can’t understand why this one made the list. It’s not remotely scary. It’s very very silly. If that’s what you’re looking for, you’ll enjoy this as a schlocky, campy B-movie. Not for me, though; far too many flaws. Somehow, at 65 minutes in length, it even managed to feel tedious.
Oh yeah, and Bela Lugosi kills a black cat. I own two black cats, man. Stop hating on my pets!
Arbitrary Rating: 4/10