Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Black Cat (1934)

Two of horror film’s greatest names are united for the first time in Universal’s 1934 production of The Black Cat. For the past few years Universal had produced many of the most notable horror films ever to grace the silver screen making house hold names of Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi in films such as Frankenstein and Dracula. Now for the first time these two giants for the horror genre are brought together in the same motion picture, a sure way to draw up attention for movie going audiences, and continuing the popular trend of horror movies by Universal.

The Black Cat is a horror picture following young honeymooners on a trip to Hungry being caught up in a battle between a vengeful satanic madman and his rival, a psychiatrist who had lost his wife and daughter to this the sadistic acts of this trader to all things good. Peter (David Manners) and Joan Alison (Jacqueline Wells) on their way to a town in Hungary meet Dr. Vitus Werdergast, a strange yet kind psychiatrist. When their bus overturns, injuring Joan, Vitus takes in the young couple at the home of his old friend Hjalmar Poelzig (Boris Karloff) to tend to the young lady’s wounds and allow for recovery. Vitus is revealed to be a rivals of their host, Hjalmar, who is in fact responsible to deaths of thousands during the Great War for turning his back on his own army and stole Vitus’ wife while he was fighting elsewhere. Hjalmar’s dark side includes satanic worship, and plans to use young Joan as his next sacrifice. Vitus is set out to stop is old friend. After losing a chess match for Joan’s life with Hjalmar, Vitus rises up to stop the evil madman, destroying his house that stands on the foundation of the fort Hjalmar surrendered during the war, resting Hjalmar with the countless bodies that died there because of him.

A psychological thriller that struggles to make little sense at times, no doubt the film was a draw with the two infamous stars of the picture. With unique stylized shooting and editing more common in Europe than America, the film has a taste of something exotic and different from the usual fare of the Hollywood screen. With a title that shares a name with the short story by Edgar Allen Poe, for which it claims to have inspired the film, the picture was huge draw for Universal, adding the famous name of the nineteenth century author with the two stars. The film struggles with idea of what importance a black cat plays in the picture, but this inconvenience is easily brushed aside in a feature film that spans a mere 65 minutes. The film includes one of the most grotesque scenes of film that is never really seen as Karloff’s character is being skinned alive, making for a seat squirming moment as our minds fill in the blanks of the actions happening off screen. Despite some stale moments of lacking, the picture is actually rather masterful at points.


Lugosi and Karloff appear on screen together for the first time.
The obvious first major note of the picture is that it is the first union of the two horror stars Karloff and Lugosi; a first of what would eight pairings. Both had made their names known by now in the annals of time in the horror genre, most notably Lugosi’s Dracula and Karloff’s Frankenstein.  However the two’s careers would be very different for their successes. Karloff, an English gentleman, was a well rounded actor with various roles through many genres and studios. Lugosi, and Hungarian actor, seemed to have gotten typecasted as the horror villain, something he wished mightily to shake. Lugosi in some way despised the greatness of Karloff, who was credited by just his last name alone, and thought he was trying to outstage himself. That was not the case, and as they worked together, Lugosi’s resentment would fade into mutual respect. This film however does portray Lugosi in a different light as he is the film’s hero, and not the villain, a case he pleaded for a long time.

The young honeymooners, for which the film’s action is surrounding, is played by David Manner and Jacqueline Wells. Manners was a gentleman actor, well liked by directors, actors, and studios alike. Although he would never quite become a large player, he did find himself in many of Universal’s horror films leading up to The Black Cat in similar style roles, including Dracula and The Mummy. Wells (who would one day change her stage name to Julie Bishop) was an actress mainly associated with B-movies at this point in her career.

Despite stating the claim that the film was based on the short story of the same name by famous author Edgar Allen Poe, the two shared next to no similarities to each other, a fact writer/director Edgar G. Ulmer was reluctant to reveal. In fact the statement was no more than a stunt to get more interest in the picture as Poe’s works were popular at this point in the 1930s. Ulmer was a Hungarian filmmaker that claimed to have worked on a handful of Fitz Lang pictures before moving to America. Claims of working on Metropolis and M are disputable, but he did come to America and aided fellow director F.W. Murau before getting his own work as a director. The Black Cat was his first honest feature film as director after an exploitation film entitled Damaged Lives, about venereal diseases. Ulmer brought with him to the picture a stylized, almost expressionistic, technique to the film. With moment s of quick editing and Dutch angle shots, the movie felt inspired by the European films that Ulmer and seen in his homeland.

The film featured a unique aspect that pictures at the time were not common for, it had near wall to wall music in the background. With the exception of a few moments of silent dialogue, classical music overlaid the picture throughout.  Primarily tracks from the Universal library of recorded classical music was used, and a keen ear will note the same music used in Dracula.

With big names like Lugosi and Karloff and the attached name of Edgar Allen Poe, though wrongfully used, the film was Universal’s biggest hit of the year, bringing in more money than any other Universal feature in 1934. Even though the only thing that a black cat has to do with this film is that it appears a few times and frightens Vitus (a fact never truly explained) the picture was is relatively good compared to the cheaper horror films of the era. Now the film is a quite note in the library of the studio. The picture does in fact have one of the scariest moment in motion picture history according to a few critics with the human skinning scene. Shot masterfully with suggested movement and shadows, Ulmer surprisingly does a good job in a film he created nearly from the ground up. Universal was still the horror king of Hollywood and to bring the two biggest names of the genre together paid off handsomely.

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