Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Horror Movie Review: The Black Cat

The Black Cat

Starring: Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, David Manners, and Julie Bishop

Directed by: Edgar G. Ulmer

Written by: Edgar G. Ulmer, Peter Ruric, and Tom Kilpatrick

Production Company: Universal Pictures

Release Date: May 3, 1934

Horror movies have changed a lot in the almost 80 years since Universal Pictures released The Black Cat. It's almost difficult to see the horror in the old Karloff and Lugosi films. Horror was more cerebral. The viewer had to consider what was going on, often off screen, and be relieved that the camera man cut away. Compared to a Rob Zombie horror film, they are Gothic dramas. But they are great fun to watch.

The Black Cat, billed as an adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe's tale, has nothing to do with its source material other than a black cat. Newlyweds Peter and Joan Alison (David Manners and Julie Bishop) are honeymooning in Hungary and encounter Dr. Vitus Werdegast (Lugosi) on a trip to visit an old friend. When the bus carrying both the Alisons and Werdegast has an accident, they trek to a nearby mansion to care for the injured Joan. The mansion turns out to be the home of Hjalmer Poelzig (Karloff), Werdegast's old friend.

It's not long before creepy things begin to occur, originally disregarded as unusual but harmless locals, and the Alisons soon find the benevolent doctor and host may not be as harmless as originally thought. Poelzig betrayed Werdegast telling his wife and daughter that Werdegast had died and married them. No, that's not poor grammar...Poelzig married Werdegast's wife. Then when she died, he married Werdegast's daughter.

So where's the titular cat? Werdegast has Ailurophobia, an extreme fear of cats. Poelzig uses this fear against Werdegast by setting a black cat loose. An interesting, but ignored, plot device in the film includes Werdegast killing the cat only for it to return. Did the cat return from the dead, or did Poelzig have a stock of black cats to use in the event that Werdegast returned?

Writers Ulmer and Ruric weren't afraid to mine some dark topics for this first pairing of monster movie greats Lugosi and Karloff. Poelzig shows a bit of necrophilia in the preservation of his many dead ex-wives. A character gets his skinned flayed and Ulmer even lets us watch...the shadows of the attack...but that's heavy stuff for 1934. All that's missing is a satanic mass...oh...wait, nope, we have that too.

These days people tend to criticize Lugosi's acting, which I don't understand...but here, in a more heroic role, he does an impressive job. I would say he outshines Karloff in this first pairing.

The Black Cat has a number of elements similar to modern horror, making it ahead of its time...the only difference is that nowadays when we are shown everything, in 1934 we were only given glimpses and shadows. Neither way is better than the other, but it is a difference many modern viewers are unable to cope with. But if you can, check out The Black Cat.

Related Trailers

The Bride of Frankenstein - Boris Karloff followed his role as Poelzig with a return to the famous monster make-up in The Bride of Frankenstein. After vowing to step away from his dark experiments, Dr. Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) is blackmailed into creating another fiend (Elsa Lanchester) -- this time, in female form -- who will serve as a ghoulish bride for his infamous monster (Boris Karloff). Ernest Thesiger co-stars as Frankenstein's deranged mentor, Dr. Septimus Pretorius, who forces the doctor's hand by kidnapping his wife (Valerie Hobson).

The Return of Chandu - Bela Lugosi followed his role as Werdegast as Chandu in The Return of Chandu. Bela Lugosi plays Frank Chandler, a mysterious man who moonlights as the mystic Chandu, in this 1934 film that's part of a series showcasing the supernatural powers of the good-hearted magician. This time around, Chandu's betrothed, the Egyptian princess Nadji (Maria Alba), is kidnapped by a priestess who believes Nadji holds the key to the resurrection of a cult goddess. Can Chandu get to Nadji in time? Or is he, for once, too late?

The Mummy David Manners had previously workd with Boris Karloff in The Mummy. When British archaeologists uncover the ancient sarcophagus of a mummified Egyptian priest (Boris Karloff), they foolishly ignore its warning not to open the box, and the mummy is brought back to life. Taking the form of a modern Egyptian, he quickly begins his quest to resurrect the soul of his love, which he believes has been reincarnated in a modern woman (Zita Johann).

The Man From Planet X - Edgar Ulmer also directed The Man From Planet X. Planet X is on a collision course with Earth, and Prof. Elliott (Raymond Bond) is monitoring the action from his Scotland observatory. But when a spacecraft from the planet finally lands, the visitor inside falls into the clutches of Mears (William Schallert), an evil scientist. As the alien moves on to terrorize innocent Earthlings and turn them into zombies, reporter John (Robert Clarke) tries to get the real scoop.

Dr. CyclopsDr. Cyclops. After developing a method to shrink people to one-fifth their normal size, mad scientist Dr. Thorkel (Albert Dekker) invites a panel of experts to his jungle lab, where he proceeds to miniaturize his guests. Now, the pint-size group must battle their way to freedom. Thomas Coley, Janice Logan, Charles Halton and Victor Kilian play the hapless quartet of tiny heroes in this sci-fi horror classic.