The Black Cat (1934) – Film Reel Reviews

Karloff and Lugosi as rivals in a Satanic themed flick. Very nice! - Will

Two newlyweds are stranded at the house of a Satanist who has plans for the young bride.

Directed by – Edgar G. Ulmer

Written by – Edgar G. Ulmer, Peter Ruric, Tom Kilpatrick

Starring – Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, David Manners, Julie Bishop, Egon Brecher, Harry Cording, Lucille Lund, Henry Armetta, Albert Conti

There’s nothing better than seeing two of the greats of classic horror cinema in the same film together and watching Lugosi and Karloff was the highlight of my evening. (and part of the morning since I lapsed into unconsciousness while watching!) Karloff plays Hjalmar Poelzig, a practicing Satanist and viscious murderer from the war. Lugosi is Dr. Vitus Werdegast, a victim of Poelzig’s who has been in prison for 15 years. During that time Poelzig married Werdegast’s long love and Werdegast is back for revenge. He wants to know what happened to his former wife and daughter but what he finds at Poelzig’s house isn’t what he was hoping for.

Along for the ride, through no fault of their own, is Peter (David Manners) and Joan Alison (Julie Bishop). They’re on their honeymoon when they take a bus with Werdegast. The bus crashes, killing the driver and injuring Joan, and Werdegast takes them to Poelzig’s house so he can tend to Joan’s wounds. This gets them wrapped up in the rivalry between the two men as Poelzig wants to use Joan in a Satanic ritual while Werdegast just wants to save her since she reminds him of his wife. The majority of the film is taken up by Karloff and Lugosi’s characters squaring off against each other, each waiting for just the right moment to strike.

Karloff and Lugosi face off in The Black Cat.

While the two leads are a pleasure to watch, I was struck most by the setting of the film. Poelzig’s house is so modern looking for a film that was made in 1934 that I couldn’t help but marvel at its design. Like something out of the future with sliding doors and odd architectural designs, the house is a sight to behold. In stark contrast to its very modern look, the basement is part of an old base from the war, complete with dripping brick walls and stuffy feel. Not exactly the big, creepy house I’m used to from this era.

The entire theme of Satanism is really secondary to the rivalry between Karloff and Lugosi. That’s the more interesting story but it’s just not explored enough, relying on what was probably the shock value of Satanists instead. Poelzig has a collection of women seemingly floating in glass cases but you never really understand why. With Werdegast looking for his wife and daughter there’s an uncomfortable twist to their fates involving Poelzig that should elicit a reaction of ‘Ewww.’

It's a strangely modern home for a film in 1934.

Not quite as good as The Old Dark House was, The Black Cat is still a good time due mainly to Karloff and Lugosi. I honestly didn’t even care that anyone else was in the movie since watching the two of them scheme against each other was joy enough. Another pointless part to the film though is Lugosi’s character being deathly afraid of cats. It only happens twice in the film and doesn’t really add anything to the storyline at all. It’s not as if the cat prevented him from doing something so why even bother having it in there at all. Maybe the should have called the film The Black Robe of Satan, at least that would have made sense.

In the end the film seems more like a cash in on the figures of Karloff and Lugosi as everyone else is reduced to the simplest of roles. While not being particularly bad, nobody else is really that good either and the plot of Satanist’s trying to perform a ritual was only getting in the way of the best part of the film, the deep hatred that Lugosi has for Karloff. Now that movie would be worth watching. Instead that only plays a smaller part in the film taking the movie from a must watch to a probably should check out. Fans of either actor will surely find plenty to enjoy though so add it to your list if you happen to be one of those people.

Under the marquee – Will

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One Response to The Black Cat (1934) – Film Reel Reviews

  1. That shot you have of Karloff and Legosi is wickedly menacing. Reading what you said about this movie shows how much you hoped it would have focused on these two sparring Spy vs Spy style, and even though I’ve never heard of it, it does sound intriguing that way. It is unfortunate that it used the Satan angle for shock and attention, but who knows what happened from initial writing to movie script? Maybe there was something really good in there, but the censors made them take it out, thus leaving it feeling more as a wasted opportunity than anything.

    Also, does anyone else get a De Niro versus Pacino a la “Heat” vibe coming off of this movie? I suppose the Count of Monte Cristo would be a bit more accurate, but Heat was the first thing that came to mind.

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