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Wednesday, October 10, 2012

October 10- The Black Cat (1934)

Here's a movie based on an Edgar Allan Poe story by the same name. The film, however, has very little to do with the Poe story other than the fact that there is a black cat involved. Nonetheless, the film stars horror stars Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff (which will be a trend for the next couple days).

Karloff as Poelzig. Lugosi as Werdegast

The movie starts with a young couple on a train in Eastern Europe. Peter and Joan Alison (played by David Manners and Julie Bishop, respectively), are joined by Dr. Vitus Werdegast (played by Lugosi). On the train, Lugosi explains that he spent 15 years in a prison camp after fighting in the war. He left his wife, who died while he was gone. Lugosi also explains that he is on the way to seeing a friend nearby, Hjalmar Poelzig, an Austrian architect (played by Karloff), though he doesn't say why.

David Manners and Julie Bishop as the Alisons

The train crashes and Joan is slightly injured, giving the group no choice but to seek shelter at the house of Poelzig. Shortly after arriving to the house, it is revealed that the house was built on the ruins of Fort Marmorus, a fortress that Poelzig commanded during the war. In a private conversation, Werdegast blames Poelzig for the deaths of thousands of Hungarians and also for stealing Werdegast's wife while her husband was in the prison camp. Throughout this whole ordeal, the Alisons are unsuspectingly in the middle when Poelzig decides, instead of just letting the Alisons leave unharmed, he intends to sacrifice Joan in a satanic ritual.

They actually play a game of chess to decide Joan's fate. Werdegast loses.

The next scene shows a large gathering of satanic worshippers arriving at Poelzig's house awaiting the event. Just before Joan is sacrifice, Werdegast prevents this from occurring, getting into a fight with Poelzig. Poelzig ends up shooting Vitus' manservant as well as the doctor himself. Werdegast manages to defeat Poelzig, then ties him up and says, "I am going to skin you alive, bit by bit," which he subsequently does (off camera of course). Having already been shot, Werdegast tells Peter and Joan to escape the house, while he uses a self-destruct switch to destroy the entire fortress.

My favorite thing about this film was the star power of Lugosi and Karloff. This is the first of eight times they would both be featured in the same film and one of the very few times that Lugosi actually performed better than Karloff and actually got the best of him. Although it has almost nothing to do with the Poe story, it's a movie that's well made and for it's length (just 65 minutes long) has a complex story that will keep you watching until the very end.

1 comment:

  1. The Black Cat is a weird and tasty cookie indeed. I don't know that I would say that Lugosi out-performs Karloff. His role is a bit more emotional. after all, he;s returning from being betrayed by Karloff and in a dungeon for the last 15 years. and in pursuit of his wife and daughter, whom he is convinced have been stolen by Karloff. And he's right about it all. And Lugosi does play it for all it is worth, as he usually does. Which isn't a knock on Lugosi. He's accused of always over acting or hamming it up, but Lugosi could be very subtle and down play as well. See The Invisible Ray, an understated, controlled performance with a sense of nobility and gravitas.
    But back to Black Cat. Karloff underplays his role to perfection, I think. He's like an evil presence as much as a living character within the film. The whole back story is compelling enough, and then we find out he is the high priest of a satan cult? Wow. Strong stuff for 1934. And a really neat plot twist.
    And how creepy is it when we see all of the sacrificial victims propped up in glass cases, Lugosi's wife one of them. that is seriously creepy stuff.
    The Black Cat, like most of the Universal horror classics have great moments or aspects about them that I love. For instance, the swell of the music and shot of Karloff's house lit up on the top of the hill as the little group scampers up the hill in the pouring rain. It isn't the usual gothic castle, but a modernistic structure that is just as mysterious. How about the lighting of the film? Another departure for a Universal production. Ulmer's direction is nearly perfect. I loved how Harry Cording is directed when he gets shot. I really believed he not only got shot, but is in the last moments of life as he hangs on just long enough to help Lugosi. I got his whole past as a soldier and as Lugosi's sergeant at arms with out any dialogue.
    But the center of the film is, of course, seeing Lugosi and Karloff together. It is one of Lugosi's best performances, nuanced, tragic, heroic, dark - the voice of reason and totally insane at the same time. Karloff is like the cat he constantly petting, like
    Don Corleone and his cat. It is designed to make him seem harmless. But he is the most dangerous guy in the joint. And was David Manners ever more limp as a leading man? A perfect foil to the masters of horror, Bela and Boris.