The Black Cat (1934 film)
|The Black Cat|
Original 1934 theatrical poster
|Directed by||Edgar G. Ulmer|
|Written by||Peter Ruric, screenplay, based on Ulmer's scenario|
|Music by||Heinz Eric Roemheld|
|Distributed by||Universal Pictures|
The Black Cat is a 1934 horror film that became Universal Pictures' biggest box office hit of the year. The picture was the first of eight movies (six of which were produced by Universal) to pair actors Béla Lugosi and Boris Karloff. Edgar G. Ulmer directed the film, which was also notable for being one of the first movies with an almost continuous music score. Lugosi also appears in a 1941 film with the same title.
Newlyweds Peter and Joan Alison, on their honeymoon in Hungary, learn that due to a mixup, they must share a train compartment with Dr. Vitus Werdegast (Béla Lugosi), a Hungarian psychiatrist. Eighteen years before, Werdegast went to war, never seeing his wife again. He has spent the last 15 years in an infamous prison camp. On the train, the doctor explains that he is traveling to see an old friend, Hjalmar Poelzig (Boris Karloff), an Austrian architect.
Later, the doctor, Peter, and Joan, share a bus, which crashes on a desolate, rain-swept road. Joan is injured, and the doctor and Peter take her to Poelzig's home, built upon the ruins of Fort Marmorus, which Poelzig commanded during the war. Werdegast treats Joan's injury, administering the hallucinogen hyoscine, causing the woman to behave erratically. While Peter puts her to bed, Werdegast accuses Poelzig of betraying the fort during the war to the Russians, resulting in the death of thousands of Austro-Hungarian soldiers. He also accuses Poelzig of stealing his wife Karen while he was in prison. Early on in the movie, Werdegast kills Poelzig's black cat, but Poelzig, who keeps dead women on display in glass cases, carries a second black cat around the house with him while he oversees other preserved dead women.
Poelzig plans to sacrifice Joan Alison in a satanic ritual during the dark of the moon. He is seen reading a book called The Rites of Lucifer, while a beautiful blonde woman sleeps next to him. The blonde is Werdegast's daughter, also named Karen; one of the women in the glass cases is Werdegast's wife. Werdegast bides his time, waiting for the right moment to strike down the mad architect who used to be his friend.
Unfortunately, Peter mangles everything up. When Poelzig is killed and Joan tries to tear a key from the dead man's hand, he mistakes Werdegast's attempt to help her as an attack. Fatally wounded, Werdegast blows up the house, letting the lovers escape. "It has been a good game," he says before he dies.
- Boris Karloff – Hjalmar Poelzig (billed as KARLOFF)
- Béla Lugosi – Dr. Vitus Werdegast
- David Manners - Peter Alison
- Julie Bishop – Joan Alison (as Jacqueline Wells)
- Egon Brecher – The Majordomo
- Harry Cording – Thamal
- Lucille Lund – Karen Werdegast (Lund also plays the elder Karen Werdegast)
- Henry Armetta – Police Sergeant
- Albert Conti – Police Lieutenant
- John Carradine – Organist (uncredited)
The Black Cat was the biggest box office hit of the year for Universal and was the first of eight movies (six of which were produced by Universal) to pair actors Béla Lugosi and Boris Karloff. Director Edgar G. Ulmer's film was part of a boom in horror "talkies" following the release of Dracula and Frankenstein in 1931. The film exploited the popularity of Poe and the horror genre, as well as a sudden public interest in psychiatry.
The film was originally released in UK cinemas under the title House of Doom.
The film – and by extension, the character of Hjalmar Poelzig – draws inspiration from the life of occultist Aleister Crowley. The name Poelzig was borrowed from architect Hans Poelzig, whom Ulmer claimed to have worked with on the sets for Paul Wegener's silent film The Golem.
Critical reception and impact
The film was well received by critics and the public. On the movie review aggregation site Rotten Tomatoes, the film received an average rating from critics of 85%. The film was also ranked #68 on Bravo's 100 Scariest Movie Moments for its "skinning" scene. The critic Philip French has called it "the first (and best) of seven Karloff/Lugosi joint appearances. The movie unfolds like a nightmare that involves necrophilia, ailurophobia, drugs, a deadly game of chess, torture, flaying, and a black mass with a human sacrifice. This bizarre, utterly irrational masterpiece, lasting little more than an hour, has images that bury themselves in the mind."
In the early 2010s, Time Out conducted a poll with several authors, directors, actors and critics who have worked within the horror genre to vote for their top horror films. The Black Cat placed at number 89 on their top 100 list.
- Brown, Gene (1995). Movie Time: A Chronology of Hollywood and the Movie Industry from Its Beginnings to the Present. New York: Macmillan. p. 119. ISBN 0-02-860429-6. In New York, the film opened at the Roxy Theatre, the location of numerous Universal film premieres.
- Michael Brunas, John Brunas & Tom Weaver, Universal Horrors: The Studios Classic Films, 1931-46, McFarland, 1990 p83
- Stephen Jacobs, Boris Karloff: More Than a Monster, Tomohawk Press 2011 p 155
- Rovin, Jeff (1977), The Supernatural Movie Quizbook, Drake Publishers, ISBN 0847315037, 9780847315031
- Neimeyer, Mark. "Poe and popular culture" as collected in The Cambridge Companion to Edgar Allan Poe, Kevin J. Hayes, editor. Cambridge University Press, 2002. ISBN 0-521-79727-6 pp. 216-7
- Everson, William K. (1974). Classics of the Horror Film. Citadel Press. pp. 121–124. ISBN 0-8065-0595-8.
- "Bravo's "100 Scariest Movie Moments"".
- Philip French's DVD club, No 92, The Observer 4 November 2007
- "The 100 best horror films". Time Out. Retrieved April 13, 2014.
- NF. "The 100 best horror films: the list". Time Out. Retrieved April 13, 2014.
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