1931 was an epochal year for the horror genre. It saw the release of Dracula, then Frankenstein, arguably the most important one-two punch in horror history. These two films lit the fuse on the horror boom of the 1930s and established Universal as the predominant studio for supernatural thrills and chills. Perhaps more importantly, it introduced the world at large to Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff, the most monumental icons the genre ever has or ever will see.
Both blessed with enthralling screen presence, they gave off entirely different vibes and sported uniquely haunted appearances. In 1934, Universal got the bright idea to team up these contracted superstar boogeymen for a purported adaptation of Edgar Allen Poe‘s short story, “The Black Cat” (read it here). A take on the tale in name only, The Black Cat stands eight decades later as the most stylish and controversial genre film released by any big studio during that frightfully fertile era.
With their morose European settings and pronounced fear of the other, the Universal horror films of the early ’30s derived the bulk of their subtextual power from the physical and psychological scars left by World War I. Even though that conflagration ended in late 1918, those who fought in it and the families that lost members, or welcomed home wounded participants, still struggled with its fallout. Frankenstein and Dracula dealt with these painful issues in a very circumstantial fashion. The Black Cat confronted the trauma of the “Great War” head on, sprinkling in some subversive sexuality and shocking (for its time) violence for good measure.
The narrative through line of The Black Cat is a baffling assemblage of contrivances and bewildering choices made by characters that could charitably be described as thinly drawn. The story begins with Peter and Joan, a couple on their honeymoon in Hungary sharing a train compartment with Dr. Vitus Werdegast (Lugosi). Werdegast explains that he has been recently released from a prison internment camp and is on his way to visit his former comrade in arms, Hjalmar Poelzig (Karloff). When the bus they’re all on crashes, killing its driver, the put upon troupe make their way to Poelzig’s bizarre, art-deco mansion for respite from the storm and medical attention for Joan.
It turns out that Poelzig’s architecturally resplendent home is built on the ruins of Fort Marmarous, which he betrayed to Russian invaders while under his command, resulting in the deaths of many Hungarians and in Werdegast’s imprisonment. Sadistically adding insult to injury, Poelzig has taken possession of Werdegast’s wife and daughter in his absence. The wife, now dead, is oddly preserved in a glass case in the basement while the daughter has taken up residence by Poelzig’s side as a perpetually drugged concubine. Werdegast reveals to Poelzig his intention to exact revenge and thus initiates a chess game of life and death between these bitter rivals with the dumbfounded American couple’s lives powerlessly hanging in the balance.
On top of all this perplexing insanity, the Poelzig character is partly modeled on real world English Occultist Aleister Crowley and plans to sacrifice Joan to Satan during a black mass unless Werdegast intervenes. I’m not going to lie, the film doesn’t make a hell of a lot of sense and I spend most of the runtime with my brow quizzically furrowed while watching it. One gets the impression several writers were commissioned to contribute scenarios for a horror film, then once they were turned in, the studio haphazardly assembled them and rushed it into production.
The Poe connection is tenuous and tacked on, the performances all over the place and the characters behave without a shred of agency. It seems throughout that all the peril could be avoided if characters would simply walk out of a room or leave the house. But the magic of the horror genre is how it regularly triumphs over such stumbling blocks, succeeding on feel and visceral impact alone. The Black Cat‘s script surely could have used several more rewrites, but to streamline its story and more properly define its characters choices and motivations would be to rob it of its dream-like ambience and inexplicable dread.
Karloff and Lugosi are in fine form here. Lugosi especially delivers one of the more intensely operatic performances of his career. It’s hammy, yet truly affecting with palpable emotional honesty and deeply wounded gravitas. Karloff is simply incredible to behold. With his skeletal frame accentuated by cinch-waisted priest robes and a severe, demonic coiffure, he mesmerizes from start to finish. He delivers the films standout soliloquy concerning the lasting, dehumanizing effect of WWI (watch the scene to the right).
He poetically paints it as a post-traumatic stress disorder afflicting his and Lugosi’s characters, and symbolically, the entire world. His silken, signature lisp elegantly intertwining with Beethoven 7th Symphony as the camera roams disembodied through the house. It suggests the ghosts of past conflicts silently watching over us, and the living ghosts that war makes of those who survive it.
The Black Cat‘s director is the brilliant Edgar G. Ulmer who came to Hollywood from Austria with F.W. Murnau and purportedly worked on some of Fritz Lang’s more cherished masterpieces such as Metropolis (1927) and M (1931). Ulmer was brought on the film because of his incredible visual style and the picture went on to be the most successful Universal had all year. But during its production he began an illicit affair with Shirley Alexander who was then married to independent producer Max Alexander, a close personal friend of Universal head Carl Laemmle. Sadly, this adulterous activity led to Ulmer being blacklisted from working for any big studio for the remainder of his career.
Perhaps this affair weighing heavily on his mind during filming is why The Black Cat is infused with so many instances of covetous imagery. From the first moment on the train when Peter wakes to discover Werdegast desirously stroking the hair of his sleeping bride to the fetishistic manner Poelzig revels in physically owning the mate and female offspring of poor Vitus, this film fixates on lusting after forbidden fruit. For further evidence of this subtext, consider the famous forced perspective shot of Poelzig clutching a feminine statue as he heatedly studies the embrace of Peter and Joan.
Much in the way Steven Spielberg testing the limits of the PG rating in the early ’80s occasioned the creation of the PG-13, The Black Cat’s outrageous preponderance of suggested sexuality, overt blasphemy and stunning violence likely brought about a more stringent application of The Hays Code. Very loosely referred to since its inception in 1930, the Hays Code was formulated and formally adopted by the Motion Picture Producers Association in March of 1930 and sought to insure movies did not lower the moral code of those who witnessed them.
With its Satanic cults, implied necrophilia and shadowy depiction of a character being skinned alive, The Black Cat was the straw that broke the camel’s back as far as censorial permissiveness was concerned. Horror had been viewed as a childish fad sweeping the nation, a fun house ride of silly monsters for kiddie matinee’s. But the very adult and unsettling The Black Cat was another matter entirely. Horror films were put on notice and began to wane in popularity under the scrutiny imposed thanks to Ulmer’s transgressive scare show. It wasn’t until The Wolfman and America’s involvement in WWII in 1941 that the genre became popular again.
Horror thrives on global unrest and societal upheaval. In times of strife, the culture at large embraces it as an escape from reality and a way to exorcise societal demons in a controlled environment. Unlike Texas Chain Saw Massacre, The Black Cat is not a timeless film. Its concerns and preoccupations are not relevant to today, its storytelling approach hopelessly outdated. Our wars are fought differently, internalized differently. Our modern sensibilities will doubtless find the formerly salacious attributes of The Black Cat quaint in light of today’s exploitative and gore filled horror offerings.
But it is an important distant relative on the horror family tree, to be treated with reverence and respect. It is a stylish slice of subversive mainstream genre film that still manages to entrance. It might not make a lick of sense from a story standpoint or be even moderately shocking to a current audience, but it is marvelously evocative. Horror should transport you to a world similar to our own, but slightly off kilter. The Black Cat does this while also serving as a somber reminder of a previous generations anxieties.