The Black Cat

US (1934) Dir. Edgar G. Ulmer

We all know black cats bring bad luck to those whose paths they cross which is why I am dog lover. Okay, that is an old superstition but black cats have a bad rap in fiction from being synonymous with witches and graveyards etc. In the hands of Edgar Allan Poe, the black cat was a symbol of the dangers of alcoholism – not that you’d know that from this film adaptation.

Newlywed couple Peter (David Manners) and Joan Alison (Julie Bishop) are travelling through Hungary, sharing a train compartment with Dr. Vitus Werdegast (Bela Lugosi), a psychiatrist returning home to see his wife and daughter. They also share a cab to their next stop but it crashes in the pouring rain and Joan suffers a minor injury. Fortunately, the friend Vitus was visiting is nearby and they stop at his home.

Arriving at the house of Austrian architect Hjalmar Poelzig (Boris Karloff), Vitus tends to Joan and she is put to bed whilst Poelzig allows the others to stay the night. However, there are long standing tensions between Poelzig and Vitus due to Poelzig having designs on Vitus’ wife Karen. Vitus plans to his revenge but things get darker when he realises Poelzig has something unpleasant in store for Joan.

Putting together Universal’s two biggest horror stars was a no brainer yet it surprisingly took four years to happen, since both were working on other projects. The result is The Black Cat, the second of three contracted adaptations of Poe’s works following on from 1932’s Murders In the Rue Morgue. But whilst that film took many liberties with Poe’s short story, this one only shares the title, hence the disclaimer that it was “suggested” by Poe’s writing.

Quite cheeky really but they seemed able to get away with this back in the day – try that now and they would be angry tweets and blog posts to contend with. The screenplay is by Peter Ruric, a pseudonym for pulp writer Paul Cain (real name George Sims), and this shows in many aspects of the story, but it real success was in creating an interest in psychology and psychiatry amongst the public.

That and of course having Karloff and Lugosi together on the screen which happened a further seven times, including Son Of Frankenstein in 1939. With both men known for playing the monster or antagonist, there was only room for one this time, and that fell to Karloff as Poelzig. However, Vitus has a dangerous edge to him in his quest for revenge and Lugosi’s brooding European visage and thick accent hardly lends itself to the hero role.

Vitus has quite the backstory – he had been held captive in a Siberian prison camp since the end of World War I, having not seen his wife and daughter prior to that, and had to live with news that they had been taken in by Poelzig. He clings to the hope he will be reunited with them but a lot has happened in 18 years, namely Poelzig told Karen and her daughter Vitus died in prison and they married; Karen later passed away from pneumonia, and the daughter not long after.

Except Poelzig is a bit weird and in his underground lair, he has a display of women in glass cases, perfectly preserved as they were, including Karen. Vitus would have shot Poelzig there and then if he wasn’t so afraid of black cats and Poelzig happens to own one. The history between these two is also personal on a different level, as Poelzig was a Austrian general who sold out many soldiers to the Russians and his hi-tech, art deco house is actually built on the very battlefield he made his betrayal.

Moving even further away from the source material, Vitus discovers Poelzig is a Satanist and plans to use Joan as a sacrifice in a ritual held at his house. Helpless to prevent it, Vitus challenges Poelzig to a chess match to secure her freedom – somewhere a young Ingmar Bergman was watching this and thought “now there’s an idea”. Unfortunately, Vitus loses and has to let Poelzig’s ritual commence but he is not quite done yet.

It is quite possible for modern audiences to wonder where the horror actually is in this film but in fact, it is there in spades, it is just very subtle, found in the atmosphere and the psychology of the characters. The film confused a lot of people in 1934 because of their expectations from the two actors but its pre-code themes of drugs, necrophilia, Satanism, and torture upset just as many as it did bemuse them.

Director Edgar G. Ulmer was from the German Expressionist school of filmmaking and this show in the eerie and effective use of shadows, including one with the titular cat and the disturbing flaying alive scene in the climax. This influence is also prominent in the architecture, an angular building with erratically placed staircases, and sterility in its white veneer, inadvertently informing the futuristic designs found in the sci-fi cliffhanger serials of the ‘30s and ‘40s.

Billed by just his surname, Karloff is as creepy as his congenial in portraying Poelzig, his dark silk robe and sharp haircut implying his Crowley-esque leanings ahead of time. Painfully thin and wan of complexion, Karloff exudes danger with just a movement of his eyes yet there is a sense he doesn’t realise how deranged he is. Lugosi is, well, Lugosi, a little hammy in his reactions but still a great foil for Karloff, whilst displaying his own ambiguity in how he covets Joan as she sleeps on the train at the start.   

The Black Cat may have naff all to do with Poe’s work but it is fair approximation of what he might have written had been alive in the 1930s. As a horror film, it appears slight and unadventurous but look beneath this and a very dark proto-psychodrama is found.