Directed by Edgar G. Ulmer
This was the first film to pair Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, the two giants of horror cinema, together, and as such it was Universal’s highest grossing film of the year. Yet, it is somehow ironic that The Black Cat is not a traditional monster movie in the mould of either Dracula (1931) or Frankenstein (1931). It fails even to explore the same Gothic landscapes as those two films and it may be because of this, that it succeeds as being one of the most grimly shocking of all the pre-Code movies. Admittedly, its impact has dimmed, but every film is to some extent a time capsule and should be seen, with at least half an eye, on how it was received when originally released.
At first glance the plot seems simple enough. Peter and Joan Alison (David Manners and Jacqueline Wells), a newly married couple, are travelling by train through Hungary. Unfortunately, their compartment has been double-booked and they end up sharing with Dr Vitus Werdegast (Lugosi). He explains that he has been a prisoner of war in a Siberian camp for the past fifteen years but has finally returned to visit an ‘old friend’, Hjalmar Poelzig (Karloff).
Upon arriving at their destination, they all disembark the train (including Lugosi’s henchman Thamal, played by Harry Cording) and climb on board a bus. However, there is a landslide, the bus driver is killed, Joan is injured and the couple are forced to join Werdegast at Poelzig’s mansion; a bizarre, modernist structure built on the ruins of Fort Marmorus, which Poelzig commanded during World War One.
Once inside the mansion, Joan and Peter are trapped as Poelzig and Werdegast commence a psychological battle, with Werdegast accusing Poelzig of being a traitor for the Russians, leading to the deaths of thousands of soldiers as well as Werdegast’s own long imprisonment. Yet, at the root of Werdegast’s return to Fort Marmorus, is his belief that Poelzig used Werdegast’s internment as the excuse to steal away his wife and daughter.
The problem of detailing the plot of any film is how deep you should go into the convoluted twists and turns of the storyline. This issue is particularly true with The Black Cat because, once the bus crashes, a strong thread of insanity enters the plot which is difficult to unravel without listing every scene and shot. Instead it is best to treat the film as a waking nightmare, and even though the almost never-ending musical score tries its best to erase this aura of other-worldliness, it fortunately, does not succeed.
The prominent qualities of a mystical or transcendental arena are often its inherent contradictions, and this is where the visuals are most successful – in highlighting the bizarre juxtapositions within the film. Most notably, where you would expect the harsh chiaroscuro lighting effects, so prevalent in many horror films of the time, to be ever present here, they are not. Instead, in many instances, the lighting is almost bland. It is as if the smooth flow of Fort Marmorus’ interior, the curved walls, the lack of textured Gothic architecture, gives the shadows nothing to stick to. Indeed, one of the most famous scenes, where Werdegast and Poelzig play chess for the lives of the young couple could be set in a middle-England conservatory for all its lighting atmosphere. However, many other scenes do carry a fantastic atmospheric weight, the introduction of Poelzig being a good example. Starkly backlit, his silhouette rises out of bed from behind a curtain, like a vampire emerging from his coffin. An image made all the more potent when you realise he is sleeping with Werdegast’s daughter and, her mother is suspended in a glass coffin in the bowels of the fort.
Other contradictions abound, not the least of which is, barring the appearance of a couple of black cats and entombed wives, the film’s relationship with the Edgar Allen Poe short story is at best loose and at worst, non-existent. In addition, The Black Cat is, in all but name, an old dark house movie yet there is no old dark house. What we have instead is a modernist building, more Bauhaus then Gothic, complete with swooping staircases and sliding doors. But, if Lugosi had knocked on the door of Frankenstein’s castle there would not necessarily be a fundamental change to the narrative, yet the entire film would look and feel completely different. The sight of Poelzig’s futuristic mansion rising out of a sea of graves is a supremely powerful one, and the film would be a lesser experience without it.
Although Poelzig lives amongst the dead and rises like Dracula, he is not an actual vampire. However, he is a Satanist based somewhat loosely on Aleister Crowley. Possessing an ugly black smear for a mouth, he sleeps upon the graves of thousands, with the corpses of multiple women all lying beneath him. A necromancer maybe, a necrophiliac certainly, Poelzig’s dark desires quickly turn to Joan, an innocent who he constantly leers over, regarding her as the ideal sacrifice in an up and coming black mass.
Yet Werdegast is also far from untroubled. Trapped in the past and obsessed with revenge, like Poelzig, he too has desires on the innocent Joan. Even during the opening few scenes on the train, Peter catches Werdegast stroking his wife’s hair whilst she sleeps and Werdegast admits it is because she reminds him of his own, dead wife. However, in the end it is Werdegast (and his henchman) who help Joan escape her nightmarish ordeal, but in doing so they both pay with their lives. Werdegast’s death is particularly ironic in that Peter mistakes his attempts to help Joan as instead, a struggle to restrain her, so shoots him. And yet, you cannot help wondering if Werdegast would have been so kind to Joan, if he had not just experienced an ecstatic relief through his grotesque act of skinning Poelzig alive.
The Black Cat is a film obsessed with sex and death which is not unusual in the horror genre. But here, these two themes are worked and stretched to such an extent that it is no surprise when even the set begins to give way under the strain. This occurs when Werdegast is shown his dead wife, suspended in her glass coffin; Werdegast is driven to try and shoot Poelzig, only for a black cat to appear and send him crashing backwards into a huge glass chart. It is a striking image which both highlights Werdegast’s unstable grasp on reality and that reality, in Fort Marmorus at least, is not as solid as you may think, press it too hard and it may well shatter.
Between the scenes on board a train, which serve to bookend the entire film, the overall tone is almost operatic. An underlying sense of madness seems intent on unhinging the story at any moment. With this in mind it is particularly pertinent that the characters who represent normality (the Brad and Janet of the story) are themselves so bland. Peter’s one notable act is to shoot the very man who is helping his wife escape, whereas Joan only truly comes to life once she has been injected with an hallucinogenic opiate (for her injury), which acts as the doorway into a world of sex, Satanism and skinning. However, once the pair escape the mansion (just as Werdegast blows the entire building to kingdom come), they quickly sink back into their former, mundane existence, seemingly unaffected by anything they have experienced. Yet this is not a fault of the film, it is more the film being driven by the expectations of the time – monsters destroyed, conflict resolved, normal service resumed. It would be hard to imagine the central characters of a modern day remake ever escaping so unscathed.