BORDERLINE WEIRD: THE BLACK CAT (1934)

The Black Cat has been promoted onto the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies ever made. Please make comments general comments about the film on the official Certified Weird entry.

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DIRECTED BY: Edgar G. Ulmer

FEATURING: , Bela Lugosi

PLOT: A young couple find themselves caught between the machinations of a doctor bent on revenge and a mad engineer in the latter’s Art Deco mansion, built on the graves of the soldiers he sold out in a World War I battle.

Still from The Black Cat (1934)
WHY IT’S ON THE BORDERLINEThe Black Cat has the cadence of a nightmare.  Its shadows haunt the mind long after the DVD clatters out of the tray. Still, as impressive as the movie’s evocation of corruption masked by civility is, it’s highly creepy but only mildly weird; it remains to be seen whether it’s eccentric excellence will overcome it’s somewhat suspect surreality and catapult it onto the List.

COMMENTS:  Today, The Black Cat looks like a cult film.  In the popular memory it’s almost never mentioned alongside the Universal horror classics Frankenstein (1931), Dracula (1932), and The Wolf Man (1941), but “those in the know” sing its praises to the uninitiated: The Black Cat is a forgotten Expressionist classic, too cool for the masses, a film that had to be resurrected from oblivion by the cinematic savants at Cahiers du Cinema who recognized its neglected genius.  Truth be told, however, The Black Cat, which teamed up terror titans Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff for the first time, was a huge box office hit in 1934.  Despite reviews from The New York Times, Variety,and Time that ranged from dismissive to near-scathing, the film was a blockbuster, Universal’s highest-grossing release of the year.  Through modern eyes—with its daring pre-code perversity and its disjointed, dreamlike rhythms—The Black Cat looks like an ahead-of-its-time oddity we assume musty old timers would have misunderstood, but perhaps audiences in 1934 were hipper than we give them credit for.

At the time, the two rising horror stars were the main draw, and they acquit themselves admirably.  Returning to wreak revenge on the man who wronged him after spending 15 years in a WWI prisoner-of-war camp, Lugosi’s Dr. Vitus Werdegast makes an unlikely, suspect hero.  He’s a raw and damaged bundle of obsessions and phobias hidden underneath a suave, aristocratic exterior and filtered through a thick Hungarian accent.  Lugosi has his impressive moments, as when he loses his mind (and, temporarily, his grasp of the English language) in the film’s startling climax, but Karloff outshines him, turning in one of his finest performances as villainous architect Hjalmar Poelzig.  Initially glimpsed as a menacing shadow rising mechanically from his bed, when he steps into the light we see a frowning, grim faced man with a diabolically angular haircut, draped in black robes.  Karloff’s every motion is cold and calculated, detached and almost inhuman: he hangs back, animated only by the occasional spasm of evil (as when he reveals his hidden lust for the heroine by thrusting forth his hand and tightly gripping a nude figurine in the foreground while watching her kiss her husband).

Vitus and Poelzig play a cat-and-mouse game, dramatically demonstrated in an oddly conceived chess match for the soul of the heroine.  The backdrop before which they fence—Poelzig’s gleaming Bauhaus mansion, full of odd angles, deep shadows, and hidden rooms, including one with twisted crosses and jutting angular pillars before which he conducts his rites dedicated to Lucifer—lends their jousting an aura of  strangeness.  Karloff’s haircut is almost an Expressionist set of its own.  There’s no literary connection to Edgar Allan Poe’s psychological horror story “The Black Cat,” but the beautiful, flitting imagery and tone of repressed evil evokes Poe’s opiated style, and there is a literal black cat who pops up inexplicably on occasion, almost as an afterthought, to terrify the phobic Lugosi.

The Black Cat is full of arresting images: corpses preserved and encased in glass boxes, Lugosi recoiling before the giant shadow of the black cat, Karloff conducting a Black Mass.  The plot, on the other hand, is fragmented; it lurches forward without clear explanation  (the company hardly reacts when Lugosi launches a conveniently placed throwing knife at the pesky feline; the unexplained swoon of a female Satanist allows Lugosi to turn the tables on Karloff).   At one point Poelzig asks Vitus, “of what use are all these melodramatic gestures?,” a question he could well address to the movie itself.  The answer, of course, is to provide pure atmosphere: an atmosphere of psychic repression and elegant perversity, full of hints of necrophilia, sex slavery, incest, mass murder, and other European decadences.  The combination of powerful images and loose narrative connections gives the film a choppy, nightmarish feel that works even better in the memory than it does while you are watching it, and accounts for the weird feeling The Black Cat generates in susceptible viewers.

Director Edgar G. Ulmer apprenticed under F.W. Murnau and worked as an uncredited set designer for Fritz Lang on Metropolis, among other projects.  Set to be a big name helmer after the success of The Black Cat, rumor has it that Ulmer indulged in an affair with the wife of a powerful Universal producer and was exiled to the poverty row studio PRC.  There, he turned out workmanlike B-movies with titles like Girls in Chains and Isle of Forgotten Sins before creating another minor classic, the grimy and effective low-budget noir Detour (1945).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…nutty, nightmarish melange… a crepehanger’s ball.”–Pauline Kael, The New Yorker (retrospective)

For another opinion and further background on the film, see Alfred Eaker’s Edgar G. Ulmer’s The Black Cat.

One thought on “BORDERLINE WEIRD: THE BLACK CAT (1934)”

  1. I love this movie. It’s so overpacked with grotesque touches – war trauma, sexual obsession, satanism, mutilation – while the “normal” American couple in the middle of it barely notice, making it feel that much stranger.

    To have all of this fit into just over an hour, inside the beautifully expressionistic set design (honestly, the architecture feels like an additional character), and complete with two great performances by horror legends… I definitely feel like this should eventually get onto the List.

    Also, it has to be easily one of the weirdest movies that either Karloff or Lugosi was ever in. Great review; I especially loved the dead-on note about Karloff’s haircut.

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