Hands down the best film in the Bela Lugosi Collection. The Edgar Ulmer directed film, “The Black Cat” is an outright masterpiece of low-budget filmmaking. Influenced by the German Expressionist movement, the film contains an unremitting strange eeriness and a constant sense of looming danger. Financially, the film was a huge hit in 1934 claiming the title of the highest grossing film of the year for the studio. As with most films based on Edgar Allan Poe, it has little to do with its original source. Lugosi’s character Poelzig is supposedly based on satanic occultist Aleister Crowley. Ulmer threw everything in the pot, expressionistic lighting, art deco sets, stark black and white photography, classical music, Satanism, orgies, incest and other strange behaviors all rolled up, shaked and baked into an original work of psychological horror.
We are in Hungary, on board the Orient Express, as we meet Peter and Joan Alison (Jacqueline Wells and David Manners), an attractive young couple just married and on their Honeymoon. In what they at first believe is their own private compartment they snuggle together romantically as young lovers do. However, due to a mix up, they are interrupted and are asked to share the compartment with Doctor Vitus Werdergast (Lugosi) who has just been released from a prisoner of war camp after 15 years. He informs the young couple that he is on his way to visit an ‘old friend.’
The couple fall asleep. Werdergast stares at the young woman. He gently strokes her hair, her husband wakes up catching him. Werdergast begs the man’s understanding and explains to him how he had a wife and daughter he left behind and went to a prison few men ever return from.
When they get off the train, the honeymooning couple share a bus ride with the doctor. The drive is treacherous, stormy weather has made the roads dangerous. The bus swerves off the road and crashes. The driver is dead and Joan is injured. The Doctor suggest they join him at his friend’s house, which is nearby so he can attend to the injured woman.
The house, or should I say mansion is a strange futuristic fortress belonging to Haljmar Poelzig (Boris Karloff), a satanic worshipping mass murderer. The fortress rest upon the remains of Fort Marmorus and the many graves of dead soldiers. Werdergast accuses Poelzig, who commandeered the Fort during the war, of betraying the Hungarians to the Russians, leaving him and the others to die or be captured defending it. Werdergast also believes that Poelzig, during his incarceration took his wife and child, and that they are somewhere in the fortress. The film becomes a battle of wits including a chess match with the young couple as pawns in the game.
Poelzig wins the chess game and David is locked in a dungeon in chains. Joan is locked in another room to wait her faith; a sacrifice upon the altar during a satanic mass.
And that’s not all folks! Before the film ends, we will see embalmed women enclosed in glass displays that seem to be hanging in mid-air, including Werdergast’s wife who apparently died two years after his was imprisoned. Poelzig also informs Werdergast that his daughter, Karen (Lucille Lund) is dead but we soon find out she is alive and has replaced her mother as Poelzig’s wife. Strange enough? Wait there’s more! Incest, butchery, torture, necrophilia, and all other kinds of aberrant activities are tossed in before this dark perverse masterpiece is over.
The film was made just prior to the enforcement of the Production Code. Subsequently, the filmmakers got away with plenty, much more than they would have just a few months later when the guardians of celluloid sin would have come smashing down on their fiendish work. Still, one does have to wonder if there were scenes cut out considering the short running time of the film.
The film can arguably be considered Ulmer’s greatest work as well as one of Universal’s best in the horror genre. Ulmer not only directed but co-wrote the screenplay as well. Assisted by the stark shadowy photography of John Mescall (The Bride of Frankenstein) and the futuristic sets creating sharp eerie geometric angles in Poelzig’s mansion, Ulmer gets the most out of it all with his expressionistic and stylish camerawork. In his early days in Germany, Ulmer worked for Fritz Lang in at least five films including “Metropolis” and “M.” He also worked with F.W. Murnau on “Sunrise.”
“The Black Cat” was the first teaming of Karloff and Lugosi on screen and their best. Karloff and that wonderful voice of his has never been more menacing than he is here and Lugosi, with his overacting in check, gives a tension-ridden performance that may arguably be his best. While their styles differ, the two men are on a even playing field, part wise, here and they consume the screen with a passion.
While the film, as previously mentioned, was huge financial success, Ulmer’s career began to spiral downward toward poverty row hell. This was due to a love affair and eventual marriage to Shirley Castle Alexander who was married at the time to a nephew (and a producer) of Carl Laemmle, head of Universal Studios. Effectively blackballed, Ulmer and his now wife Shirley Ulmer moved to NYC and he spent some years working on low –budget independent productions making all black cast films (Moon Over Harlem) and Yiddish films (The Light Ahead, The Singing Blacksmith). In the 1940’s he would slowly make his way back west but was resigned to poverty row productions with films like “Bluebeard”, “Strange Illusion” and the classic film noir “Detour.”