The Black Cat Review
Poe's story of The Black Cat has made its way onto film on numerous occasions with Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci being but two of the film-makers who've had a go at the ailurophobic tale. This 1934 Universal horror bears only the name of Poe's story and a single character who hates moggies as any link to the literary source, but it is a film with an interesting concept as it is set in the aftermath of war crimes in the first world war. Further interest is provided by the unusual casting of Bela Lugosi as a kind of Van Helsing figure, an early representation of cinematic Satanism, and some expressionist touches in the films design and décor.
We join a honeymooning couple, Peter and Joan Allison, whose sweet nothings are interrupted by having to share their train compartment with a twinkling Lugosi as they make their way through central Europe. Lugosi, as the gooseberry Dr Verdegast, tells them the sorry recent history of the aftermath of the war and his own miraculous escape from a gulag. He mentions that he is visiting an "old friend", the architect, and traitor, Poelzig. At the station, the travellers journey on by bus in a fearful storm and a crash kills the driver and injures Joan. They make their way through the downpour to find help at Poelzig's house, and Dr Verdegast tends to the newly-wed's wounds. We learn that Poelzig and Verdegast knew each other in the war and that the eminent psychiatrist has come to settle scores involving his dead wife and lost daughter. He will soon learn that Poelzig is ready for him and has plans to use the virginal Joan as a sacrifice in a demonic ceremony.
The director's experience in the set and costume design of films like Murnau's Sunrise and Lang's M, Metropolis and Spione is clearly a huge influence on this early Universal horror film. The setting of The Black Cat becomes remarkable once we enter the domain of Karloff's Poelzig as this evil architect has designed a peculiar house of expressionistic terror. From the elaborate staircases to the modern sliding doors the innovation is striking, but these fashionable walls are sited on the location of a war time massacre and beneath them lies a mausoleum where his victims are displayed in glass cases, torture chambers are ready for victims, and a Satanic temple awaits his guests. This is as twisted and evil an environment that a horror movie has ever been set in, and the set-pieces and style of the film are truly revolutionary for their time. The staging of Poelzig's black mass is one of the very first examples of Satanism on film and the costuming of Karloff as the devil's minister is iconic with his mannered hair, strange jewellery, and curious black clothing.
The story develops along the lines of the two horror icons locked in a battle of wills with Lugosi biding his time to rescue the innocent and to get his revenge. When that moment comes, Lugosi's civilised and urbane exterior is forsaken for an exuberant barbarity that even all these years later is quite shocking. This nastiness is merited in the sheer depravity of his foe Poelzig, a man who steals another man's wife with lies and hypnosis, brainwashes her, murders her, and then marries her daughter. Lugosi's right to foul vengeance is justified by his enemy's crimes and the horror of Poelzig's monster and Verdegast's revenge is the film's Yin to the saccharin sweet honeymooners' Yang. By the film's conclusion, love is back on track, war is just a memory and the evil of men has been destroyed.
Despite its reassuring ending, The Black Cat is as creepy and unpleasant as early horror cinema got. It exceeds its commercial origins with dark imagination and excellent staging to become one of the best of the Universal horror films.
Second Sight offer this very short film on a single layer bare-bones disc. The transfer shows that the original print has a fair degree of wear and tear and some contrast boosting has happened which means there is quite a lot of speckling in the shades. Despite this, the transfer is a good one for a film which is almost three quarters of a century old and the remedial work with the contrast and edge enhancement does not detract from the picture overall, even on the largest screens. The single mono track has some background noise, but the voices and dialogue remain clear even if the music has minor distortion when it swells in dramatic moments. Again, for the age of the film this is rather good quality.
The menu uses poster art which frames Karloff's introductory scene in the right hand corner of the screen, and offers the choices of playing the film or scene select. The disc art is presented in sympathetic monochrome with use of stills from the film and publicity materials.
A horror classic which shows the impact of German expressionism on Universal horror. This is a budget disc, which if you shop around you can get for around a tenner.