Well, okay. Turns out, not every movie I picked was, strictly speaking, a “monster movie,” but to hell with it, right? There’s Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff and, like, a black cat or two running around. Also, post-traumatic stress and revenge. Also, chess. Also, Satanism.
I mean, really. What more do you need, right?
Director: Edgar G. Ulmer
First Watch or Re-Watch: First Watch
Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, or Other: Amazon
First things first: if you’re looking for a faithful adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Black Cat,” kids, this ain’t it. Near as I can tell, both stories have a black cat, and . . . that’s about all. Honestly, the cats in this movie seem to serve little actual purpose except to provide a minor obstacle for Dr. Vitus Werdegast (Bela Lugosi), who is intensely frightened of them. Otherwise, I can only presume we have cats running around so that Universal could name drop Edgar Allan Poe. Man. You know it’s a bad sign when they use the words “suggested by” rather than “based on” in the opening credits.
Surprisingly, though, I actually like this movie quite a bit. The story itself is messy, no doubt. Those cats, for instance: initially, I’d assumed they could either steal souls or possess people, as this would explain why our leading damsel, Joan, uncharacteristically becomes all slinky and seductive and shit for one scene. But Joan’s behavior is shiftily explained away by pain meds, and the idea is never brought up again. Also, it turns out that our bad guy, Hjalmar Poelzig (Boris Karloff), is not just a dude who betrayed thousands of Hungarians during WWI and built himself a beautiful house of horrors on their mass grave; he’s also the leader of a Satanic cult that occasionally gathers to perform human sacrifices. This is all well and good, but when you bring Satanic cultists into your film, like, do something with them. Don’t just leave them milling around upstairs, forgotten, while the story takes place in the basement!
And even for 1934, the female agency in this movie leaves a lot to be desired. Like, Joan can definitely walk, but you’d barely know it by how many times a dude feels the need to literally sweep her off her feet. And Karen, I mean, damn. Karen’s got problems. See, along with betraying the Hungarians, Poelzig stole Werdegast’s wife, Karen, while our boy W was trapped in a prison camp; after Karen died, Poelzig married his stepdaughter, also named Karen. Neither Werdegast nor Daughter Karen know the other’s alive, but when DK finds out, Poelzig kills her. And like . . . that’s a lot: supposed dead dad comes back to life, actual dead mom on display in the basement (we’ll get there), married to her creepy ass stepfather and trapped her whole life in this house . . . and yet Daughter Karen doesn’t get a shred of interiority, not one second of it, before she’s quickly murdered off-screen.
All that being said, there’s something about The Black Cat that’s interesting, that lingers. Most of the actors are just kinda there, but Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff are fantastic, especially Karloff, who plays a surprisingly polished and exceedingly creepy villain. My very favorite scene in this movie is when Poelzig takes Werdegast to the room where he keeps all his dead, preserved wives on display, like a museum exhibit for necrophiliacs, like Mr. Freeze’s frozen mermaid wife–but sinister AF. Karloff’s line deliveries are so fantastic, not just in this scene but throughout the movie. I particularly adore this moment of pure sadistic glee. Karloff is absolutely my MVP here; still, Lugosi’s quite good, too: the emotion in his face as he stares at his dead wife is pretty powerful. Also, according to IMDb trivia, the whole “dead wife museum” was added as a special fuck you to Universal, who wanted the film to be less scary. I’m sure they were thrilled with the final product.
Honestly, every scene where Karloff and Lugosi square off is wonderful, whether it’s over a high stakes game of chess (an overused narrative device, sure, but not so much in 1934), or when Werdegast kills Poelzig by flaying him alive. (We don’t see the gore, of course, but for 1934, this is pretty grim shit.) The Black Cat deals with a lot of dark themes and real world terror that most American horror movies weren’t touching at the time: the atrocities of war, the psychological toll of being a POW, etc. I know it’s the earliest film I can think of to feature a character with a debilitating phobia–which is interesting, although I’m afraid it doesn’t make Lugosi’s fear of cats any easier to take seriously–and it’s considered by many to be the first American psychological horror film. (It is also, sayeth IMDb trivia, the first film to kick off the whole “Satanic cult” sub-genre.) And while this movie is undoubtedly more chaotic than Creature from the Black Lagoon, I also felt a bit more invested in it, more likely to return for repeat viewings. I would be genuinely interested in seeing an arthouse reboot someday. Not by Luca Guadagnino. Don’t anyone suggest it.
Finally, a bunch more side notes:
1. As far as reboots go, Danny Huston has a certain Karloff look that could make him a candidate, but unfortunately, I’ve always found him kind of a middling villain. Maybe I’m just watching the wrong movies. In terms of music, though, I’d be very curious to see what Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross could come up with, assuming you went a more modern route. You could also stick to the classics, as this film does. I actually quite like all the music here, particularly Schumann’s “Quintet in E flat major, Op. 44,” or, as Mekaela and I know it, that music from Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992). (Music begins at the 34 second mark. Also, uh, SPOILERS for an almost 30-year-old teen comedy, oh God, oh God, I’m so old.)
2. This is another film we decided to watch with subtitles, and thank God for it. Between my rapidly aging ears, the accents of the various cast members, and the sound quality of an 86-year-old movie, I definitely needed them.
3. I’m usually pretty skeptical of any dude talking about how someone “stole” his woman, but in this case . . . yeah, it seems pretty likely Momma Karen didn’t go along willingly.
4. The Satanic cult appears to be equal opportunity when it comes to gender, which is obviously thoughtful; however, at a critical moment, one of the lady cult members screams, and I have absolutely no idea why. I know why it happens for plot purposes, of course: this is the distraction Werdegast uses to rescue Joan. But I can’t recall any indication to suggest this woman is an undercover agent, and nothing particularly scream-worthy seems to be happening at this point, so . . . I’m a bit at a loss. Classic horror fans, do you have the answer? What have I missed?
5. The Rites of Lucifer is, of course, the best bedtime reading.
6. I feel bad for Thamal, Werdegast’s manservant. He doesn’t make it, naturally–no one does, except boring Joan and her boring husband–but he’s so loyal, fatally wounded and still saving Werdegast’s life by taking down Poelzig. Does W acknowledge this? Does he spare even a moment when his faithful servant falls over and dies? Nope, W’s a bit of a creepy asshole. Like, I feel bad for the dude, but also, he strokes Joan’s hair while she’s asleep cause she reminds him of his dead wife, which, like, ew. Joan’s husband is pretty chill about this, BTW, because he’s worthless. I would absolutely not be chill.
7. Finally, be warned, animal lovers: the titular black cat doesn’t make it through the movie. Werdegast throws his knife at the first one, killing it off screen so quickly that I didn’t even realize what had happened at first. (Poelzig is vaguely amused by the incident, which is how you know he’s really a monster.) We don’t see the second cat die, either, but I can’t imagine it survives the random ass dynamite, so. Farewell, pretty kitties. RIP.
The Current Ranking
1. The Black Cat
2. Creature from the Black Lagoon