Here’s my latest IN THE SPOOKLIGHT column, on the Boris Karloff/Bela Lugosi masterpiece THE BLACK CAT (1934), up now in the January 2015 edition of The Horror Writers Association Newsletter.
IN THE SPOOKLIGHT
THE BLACK CAT (1934) is my favorite teaming of Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. It’s also the first time these two horror stars appeared together in a movie.
THE BLACK CAT was made when both Karloff and Lugosi were at the height of their popularity, each coming off the success of their first horror hit, Lugosi with DRACULA (1931) and Karloff with FRANKENSTEIN (1931). Audiences definitely responded, as this was Universal’s biggest money maker at the box office in 1934.
Since the two play adversaries in THE BLACK CAT, it’s very easy to see this movie as Dracula vs. Frankenstein. This concept wasn’t lost on director Edgar G. Ulmer, as he takes full advantage of these two actors’ famous monster counterparts. Lugosi gets to spout haunting dialogue throughout, a la Dracula. When Karloff is introduced, it’s through a silhouette. We see his solid physique which in shadow strongly resembles the Frankenstein Monster, and Karloff’s first few minutes of screen time are spent in silence, as if, like the Monster, he cannot speak.
In THE BLACK CAT, Dr. Vitus Verdegast (Bela Lugosi) returns to Hungary in search of his wife. On his way there, he befriends two Americans on a train, author Peter Allison (David Manners) and his wife Joan (Jacqueline Wells) who for some reason are honeymooning in Hungary. Whose idea was that? When there is a car crash in a storm, and Joan is injured, Vitus brings the couple to the home of Hjalmar Poelzig (Boris Karloff), in order to treat her injuries. Poelzig is the man Vitus has come to see, believing that his wife is now living in Poelzig’s home.
The two men have a history. Poelzig was the commanding officer of the military unit in which Vitus served in World War I, and according to Vitus, Poelzig abandoned his men, leaving them to be killed or worse yet, captured, which is what happened to Vitus. After spending fifteen years in prison, Vitus has returned to claim his wife back from Poelzig. Vitus demands Poelzig bring him to his wife, and he does, but his wife is dead, her body preserved in a glass case.
It turns out, Poelzig is a Satanist, and he has set his sights on Joan as his latest sacrificial victim, unless Vitus can stop him.
THE BLACK CAT is one of the more interesting Universal horror movies of the 1930s. It has many things going for it. It has Karloff and Lugosi of course, and it also has an amazingly talented director at the helm, Edgar G. Ulmer, who does a phenomenal job with this movie.
Ulmer offers a lot of neat touches. There’s some nifty camerawork, offering creative transitions from scene to scene. Ulmer also made the unusual decision to include background music in nearly the entire film. Most films during this time period employed very little music other than during the opening and closing credits. Nearly all of THE BLACK CAT has music playing in the background.
It’s a compact little film. At 65 minutes, things move briskly and efficiently. There’s no time to daydream.
The screenplay by Peter Ruric tells a haunting story which was quite gruesome for its day. Karloff’s Poelzig keeps women—evidently his dead wives— preserved in glass cases in his own personal museum— talk about trophy wives! He most likely killed all these women, making him one of the earliest movie serial killers.
There’s also a very gruesome “skinning alive” scene that still makes me squirm each time I see it.
Poelzig’s ultra-modern house is incredibly cool. It has a modern design because Poelzig is supposedly his country’s most talented architect. The house is unlike anything else seen in the Universal monster movies. Usually the events in these movies take place in decrepit castles and laboratories, but here, we have revolving rooms, slick sliding doors, communication systems, and interior architecture which resembles something you’d find on STAR TREK.
Although the title THE BLACK CAT comes from the Edgar Allan Poe short story, the film has nothing at all to do with Poe’s tale. In fact, the only connection to the events in the movie and the black cat is that Vitus suffers from an intense fear of cats.
By far, the best part of THE BLACK CAT is Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi.
Lugosi is on top of his game throughout, and he gets to deliver one memorable line after another. For me, it’s always a treat listening to Lugosi speak in a movie, as his voice and his accent have a poetic quality about them that make his dialogue all the better, and he’s got some classic lines in this movie.
When speaking of Poelzig’s home, which was built on a massive battlefield graveyard, Vitus says, “The masterpiece of construction, built upon the ruins of the masterpiece of destruction.”
Karloff’s got some great lines as well. My favorite is when Peter Allison barks at him that the phone is dead, Poelzig turns to Vitus and says, “The phone is dead. Do you hear that, Vitus? Even the phone is dead!”
So, you have Lugosi strutting his stuff throughout, displaying all the skills which he used to create Dracula, and you think, there’s no way anyone in this film can be better, but then you get to Karloff, whose style is the antithesis of Lugosi’s. While Lugosi is commanding and authoritative, and all about the dialogue which he uses to great dramatic effect, Karloff is the opposite, seeming so relaxed and subtle. With Karloff, it’s a nuanced expression, the raising of an eyebrow, the clenching of a hand. He incites fear in his audience so effortlessly it’s amazing. His is a different style, and he not only holds his own against Lugosi, he surpasses him. The interactions of these two actors in this movie is a nice microcosm of how their careers played out in real life, with Karloff continuing to grow stronger over the years on his way to becoming the “King of Horror.”
There’s just a relaxed glee about Karloff, like when he comments on Lugosi’s fear of cats, lines he delivers with a devilish smile: “You must be indulgent of Dr. Verdegast’s weakness. He is the unfortunate victim of one of the commoner phobias, but in an extreme form. He has an intense and all-consuming horror of cats.”
Even David Manners, who’s usually the straight—and dull— leading man in such films as DRACULA and THE MUMMY (1932)— gets to display an edge here not always seen in his other roles.
Not only is THE BLACK CAT one of Universal’s best horror movies and the best of the Karloff/Lugosi pairings, it’s also one of the finest horror movies ever made, period.
Looking for a winter vacation destination? Check out Hjalmar Poelzig’s place. I’m not sure how the skiing is, but I hear the skinning is just fine. Ouch!