HMM Day 10 – The Black Cat

You know what you should never get involved with? A cult. God only knows what kind of lunacy you’ll end up being part of. It all starts off nicely. You’re given good hospitality. Food, shelter and some new clothing. Maybe a couple good palm readings, people wearing fancy robes. An orgy here and there and before you know it, you’re being sacrificed to the devil! Wo wo wo, there was nothing in the brochure about this. But what do you do if you were caught in a web of devilry and revenge? That is something our good friends Peter and Joan Alison soon discover for themselves.

The Black Cat

The Black Cat is a 1934 horror film released by Universal Pictures. The film was directed by Edgar G. Ulmer and stars Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, David Manners and Julie Bishop. It was part of a trilogy of films loosely based on the works of Edgar Allan Poe. The first film was Murders in the Rue Morgue released in 1932 and The Raven released in 1935. All three films starred Bela Lugosi but only The Raven and The Black Cat starred both Lugosi and Karloff together. The Black Cat was the highest grossing film of 1934 and was a huge part of Universal’s ten year ride of their success in horror pictures.

The Story

A young newlywed couple named Peter and Joan Alison are on their honeymoon in Hungary. After the couple get into a car accident a doctor Dr. Vitus Werdegast brings them to a house owned by an architect named Hjalmar Poelzig, The couple soon end up in a world of peril as Poelzig plans to sacrifice Joan to the devil! But not before Dr. Werdegast can seek his revenge!

Two Titans

Lugosi and Karloff were two legends of early horror pictures. With 1931’s Dracula and Frankenstein, the two were already massive successes and continuously used in horror movies. Together they both starred in eight films but out of those eight, 1932’s The Raven and our featured filmThe Black Cat are my most favorite.

This might be the greatest acting the two have ever performed. Lugosi is (like always), dominating with every line and rich in presentation as Dr. Vitus Werdegast. He holds a grudge against Poelzig and after fifteen years in a Serbian prison camp, is seeking sweet bloody revenge for stealing his wife. Lugosi’s presence demands constant attention and respect. Lugosi was always known for his engrossing stare. Guy could make anyone of us melt in fear.

Karloff as Poelzig is balls to the wall evil! The guy is a satanist and reads from a book called Rites of Lucifer as if he were your mother reading Chicken Soup For Horny Middle Aged Housewife. His house is decorated in a modernistic way and is home to a satanic cult. He keeps dead women preserved on display in cases. Holy shit is he bad. But Karloff is perfect at delivering a sick and devilish Poelzig. Our very first shot of Karloff is a silhouette shape behind a transparent wall. Clearly depicting his iconic shape of a head that we all come to love and admire as Frankenstein.

The very moment this bad ass walks in the room you know he’s sinister as can be. What I love most about Karloff is his expressions and delivery with each line. He seems to have a slight lisp which draws out his “s” sounds and that wide curling grin is mesmerizing. Every word spoken from his lips is flawless and malicious. He’s your ideal satanist that you wouldn’t mind living next door to.

So here we have these two titans going head to head. Werdegast wants to murder this prick satanist. Poelzig wants to sacrifice Joan to the devil. But with everything going on this young stupid American couple are caught in the turmoil. They’re the dumbest couple, never suspecting the scheming and plots of death that are at stake. But hey, they’re in love and maybe being Americans has something to do with it. Then again their ignorance could be seen more as innocence. After all, they are young newlyweds and that is meant to be a time of innocence and romance. They’re new love is caught in a long going conflict, one in which they can’t comprehend. Which is kind of funny because with all the satanism, flaying a human skin, cults and pagan idols. The couple get away and just go on with their honeymoon as if they just left Disney World! Establishing that through all evils and acts of vengeance… love and innocence will prevail perhaps?

I say this because I don’t have a clue why it’s called The Black Cat. There is a black cat in the film and Werdegast is deathly afraid of them. But I don’t know why. A black cat may stand for a black soul or possibly how in Edgar Allan Poe’s short narrator talks about how he was once a good man but become dark through alcohol. The only thing the man admires and treats nicely is a black cat. Well until the cat bites him and the narrator then plucks the cats eye out. Geeesh! I hate cats and that seems a little too much. Which could all be reflected through our character Hjalmar Poelzig. Giving his life to Satan and sacrificing women shows he cares for nothing. Even his wife is more a possession than something to cherish and love.

It’s an enjoyable movie that leaves you intrigued, especially if its the first time you see it. You can never find a more amazing movie starring both Lugosi and Karloff. The film is dark and twisted and in some parts jovial. This could be because of my deep fondness of both Karloff and Lugosi. Their presence and lines make me smile. Like watching Darth Vader battle or Hannibal Lecter analyze a moron. At one point Dr. Werdegast succeeds in his revenge on Poelzig by flaying the skin from his body! Starting with his face! We only see it in shadow form but damn that’s pretty hardcore for 1930’s cinema! Of course, this was before the code system dictated movies. Even though Werdegast turns out to be the hero, he unfortunately dies. Succumbing to his gun shot wombs, but at the same time ending Poelzig and his cults reign of sacrificial terror.

Either way The Black Cat is a delightful horror flick and a shining beacon of the golden age of horror. I love the contrast between the upstairs modern home and basement cult lair. It’s superb and delivers quite an appealing tone. Of course something about the 1930’s black and white naturally does this. It’s a movie you watch late at night as the dim lighting is the only means of illumination. The film is like Poe’s work in that it too deals with truth and justice. Werdegast could relate to the writings narrator in that he seeks justice from Poelzigs and his crimes. Yet in the end Werdegast is just another madman seeking the pleasure of torture and equally as evil. This is why 1934’s The Black Cat is chosen for day ten of Horror Movie Marathon.

Further Note

For anyone else that loves this movie and would like to read about the other film starring Lugosi and Karloff then check out last years marathon choice The Raven!

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