Edgar G. Ulmer, 1941
Starring: Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, David Manners
“Come, Vitus, are we men or are we children? Of what use are all these melodramatic gestures? You say your soul was killed and that you have been dead all these years. And what of me? Did we not both die here in Marmorus fifteen years ago? Are we any the less victims of the war than those whose bodies were torn asunder? Are we not both the living dead?”
Edgar G. Ulmer’s 1934 film The Black Cat is not really based on the Poe tale of the same name, but has much more sinister and unexpected delights including torture, necrophilia, skin flaying, and a satanic cult. This is one of the most unique, original, and controversial horror films of the ‘30s, though it may not be the most coherent work, and represents the heights Universal was able to reach before the Hays Code was locked into place. This was Universal’s biggest hit of the year and marks the first time their two most important horror stars, Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff, would appear together. Though they would appear together in eight films total, this is their finest film together and possibly Lugosi’s best work.
A newly wed American couple, Peter and Joan, are honeymooning in Hungary when they get stuck sharing transportation with the sinister Dr. Vitus Werdegast (Lugosi). When their car breaks down in the countryside, the doctor suggests that they go to the near-by home of an old friend, so that he can treat Joan’s injuries. His friend, Hjalmar Poelzig (Karloff), an architect who has spent the last fifteen years in a prisoner of war camp, now lives in a terrifying looking mansion built on top of an old fortress they fought in together during World War I. After Werdegast sees to Joan, he and Poelzig begin to argue and it comes to light that Poelzig stole Werdegast’s wife and was responsible for the deaths of thousands of Hungarians during the war. Werdegast suffers from a paralyzing fear of cats and covets Joan. Poelzig, meanwhile, plans to sacrifice her during one of the meetings of his secret Satanic cult and keeps women beautiful preserved in glass cases throughout his mansion.
Though this is only loosely inspired by Poe’s story — namely the wife’s death and plenty of ghostly cat imagery — Universal did what American International Pictures would do a few decades later with the Roger Corman and Vincent Price series of Poe-inspired films and capitalize on their own success. After the Lugosi-vehicle Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932), Universal encouaged Ulmer to use the title of a Poe story, though the plot is mostly his own. The Black Cat is also one of the last truly successful horror films of the mid-‘30s that rode on the coattails of Dracula and Frankenstein.
Lugosi and Karloff are at the height of their powers here. Lugosi is loosely given the role of protagonist, though that is not quite an accurate description of Werdegast’s complex character. Lugosi is more charismatic than ever, but his character here is far more disturbing than Dracula or the slew of mad scientists he played during the ‘30s and ‘40s. Karloff nearly steals the film out from under him with his depiction of Poelzig, an indisputably sinister man whose every moment on screen exudes evil and perversity. Statue-like, his shadow and silhouette looms large over many scenes. The rest of the cast pales in comparison to him, particularly David Manners as Peter Alison. Manners made somewhat of a career of playing bland leading men with a lot of dialogue, but little action. Here he is essentially repeating the role he played in both Dracula and The Mummy. Much like the women in Poelzig’s glass coffins, Julie Bishop (Sands of Iwo Jima, listed in this film as Jacqueline Wells) is little more than a set piece, though she has a few disturbing exchanges with Lugosi.
Weregast is not what could really be described as a hero (or even an anti-hero). He slips Joan a hallucinogen when supposedly treating her injuries, slaughters a cat simply because it frightened him, and grows more unhinged and more obsessed with Joan through the course of the film. He is, of course, nothing compared to Poelzig, whose betrayal cost the death of thousands of Hungarians. Seemingly worse is his past manipulation of Werdegast’s wife. He married her, but eventually murdered her in order to marry Werdegast’s daughter. He keeps women suspended in glass coffins and the specter of necrophilia and rape looms large. His wife and Werdegast’s daughter is only briefly seen in the film and seems to spend most of her time in a drug induced haze. She wakes long enough for Poelzig to murder her.
The satanism is relatively subdued compared to later films, but is the most powerful depiction of a satanic cult on screen in the ‘30s. Poelzig reads a book called The Rites of Lucifer and his large group of black robed satanists gather for a sacrificial ritual where Joan is the intended victim. The intense, almost blank expressions of devotion from most of the cult are deeply disturbing and creepily foreshadow the rise of Nazism, which was in full swing by 1934. In addition to the events unfolding at Poelzig’s mansion, the architecture is a claustrophic, hellish wasteland of dark angles, threatening shadows, and dizzying geometry. Not to mention the fact that it was the location of a military fortress and is built on top of a mass grave containing thousands of bodies, bodies presumably put there by Poelzig.
Poelzig’s character was inspired by two real life men. The first is The Great Beast 666, British occultist Aleister Crowley. Though it is unfair to call Crowley a satanist, he became the leader of a ceremonial occult society, the Ordo Templi Orientis, an offshoot of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. The secretive Order included such well known writers of horror and/or the supernatural as Algernon Blackwood, Arthur Machen, and Irish poet W.B Yeats. Crowley was also known for his libertine lifestyle, drug use, bisexuality, and helped spread the claim that he was “the wickedest man in the world.” The second and perhaps more influential figure actually gave Poelzig his name. Hans Poelzig was a German architect and set designer that mentored Ulmer during his early years working on the sets of German expressionist films. According to Ulmer, they worked on Paul Wegener’s expressionist horror classic The Golem together.
Ulmer’s use of German expressionist sets, light, shadow, and camera angles are one of the film’s strongest points. In terms of pure visual power, The Black Cat can easily be ranked alongside other Universal horror classics like Frankenstein and The Mummy. Ulmer got his start working with the major directors of German expressionism, such as F.W. Murnau, Fritz Lang, and Paul Wegener. By the time he moved to the U.S. and began a career as a director with Universal, he made enough of a name for himself that Universal gave him almost free rein on The Black Cat. Ulmer, whose career promised at least minor greatness, was nearly blacklisted after The Black Cat, due to its highly controversial subject matter and Ulmer’s affair with the wife of a studio head. He had a few other interesting films, such as Bluebeard (1944) and Detour (1945), before being completely relegated to the world of B-movies in the ‘50s, with such fare as The Man from Planet X (1951) and Daughter of Dr. Jekyll (1957).
One of the most frustrating things about The Black Cat is the effect of censorship on the film. Some of the action is difficult to follow because certain scenes were cut by Universal. There was a supernatural subplot about Joan Alison transforming into a black cat, which was removed but can loosely be followed for the second half of the film. In many of the scenes were Joan appears, a black cat was on screen nearly seconds before. There is also allegedly a scene where Werdegast rapes her. Though there is little evidence of this in the remaining print, it is not difficult to image due to the constant, almost oppressive subtext of sexual covetousness. Though the plot is often a confusing mess full of unexplained actions and unanswered questions, this disorienting aspect gives the film a surreal, nightmarish feel. The abrupt, often cut-up feel of the editing emphasizes this.
The Black Cat is a testament to the connection between public consumption of horror and the looming specter of war, both past and future. Alongside its themes of satanism, sacrifice, murder, rape, necrophilia, torture, incest, and revenge, this is a deeply psychological film, one that attempts to deal with the horrors of war. Werdegast and Poelzig both deal with unresolved trauma and grief that manifests itself as madness, sexual repression, unhealthy familial relationships, perversion, and blood lust. Though the Alisons are fairly empty characters, they provide an important hetero-normative, American counterpoint for the foreign Werdegast and Poelzig, an entry way into understanding how the war effected Europeans in a way that it would never affect Americans.
The Black Cat is available to watch on YouTube and a number of cheap DVD editions, the best of which is the Bela Lugosi Collection. This includes Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Raven, The Invisible Ray, and Black Friday. Lugosi was also in another film called The Black Cat from 1941, not to be confused with Ulmer’s far superior effort.