Film Reviews:

The Black Cat

(Edgar G. Ulmer, US, 1934)

See a Hungarian psychiatrist and Austrian architect do battle in a Satanist's lair! 'Suggested by the immortal Poe classic', The Black Cat can lay claim to being the first film to team up two of Universal studios top stars - Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff. Young American honeymoon couple Joan (Jacqueline Wells) and Peter Allison (David Manners) are forced by a terrible storm to spend the night along with Dr Werdegast (Bela Lugosi), whom they met on the Orient Express, at the house of Hjalmar Poelzig (Boris Karloff) in a remote part of Austria.

Director Ulmer created a landmark of delirious cinema with The Black Cat. He lets Lugosi (as the Hungarian Dr Vitus Werdegast) run with a genuinely weird performance. Lugosi's portrayal is of a character full of odd mannerisms and unsettling facial ticks, all delivered with even stronger than usual intonation. Opposite him, Karloff as the mad Austrian architect Hjalmar Poelzig gets the chance to prove he can do more than scowl and look menacing (although there's plenty of that on offer). A relentless score combining classical pieces and period music adds to the dizzying mood, and despite being almost seventy years old Ulmer's film still packs an impressive, if baffling, punch. The crazy haircuts of some characters seem to have inspired an entire generation of Japanese anime artists. Karloff's costumes too are remarkable featuring huge collars and enormous cuffs, and most of proceedings take place amid striking Art Deco sets.

A trance-like atmosphere pervades the entire film. Karloff keeps dead women underground, preserved and suspended in glass coffins, walls have secret passages, floors have hidden trap doors and there's a Satanist ceremonial chamber in the basement. There are some terrific lines like Karloff's knowing "Of what use are all these melodramatic gestures?" and, commenting on Karloff's leering manner, my favourite Lugosi line: "There was nothing spiritual in your eyes when you looked at that girl!". Sitting down to chess to decide the fate of the young newly weds (and shouting at them when the game is interrupted) is typical of the hugely entertaining and wildly inventive script that puts Karloff and Lugosi at each other's throats (literally). Although off-screen, the denouement is a suitably horrific conclusion to this gem of a movie. Not one of Universal's headline horrors perhaps, but one of their most unique, entertaining and head-shakingly weird.

Rob Dyer

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