Day 5 of our 31 Days of Horror brings a double whammy in the form of the two great masters of horror cinema: Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff. 1934’s The Black Cat is very loosely adapted from Edgar Allan Poe’s story of the same name, and it is the first of seven Lugosi/Karloff pairings. When I say it leaves no holds barred, I mean it leaves no holds barred. Necrophilia, pedophilia, Satanic rituals, ailurophobia (a deathly fear of cats!), torture, flaying…they all come into play as the film unfolds in a nightmarish and truly disturbing fashion.
But first: a summary! The movie begins with two American newlyweds, the Alisons, boarding the Orient Express for a romantic (?) honeymoon in Hungary. Their train compartment canoodling is put to an end, however, when they learn that they’ll be sharing this conveyance to nuptial bliss with a certain Dr. Vitus Werdegast (Lugosi). Werdegast’s presence is at first an awkward and unwelcome intrusion into their banter about papier mache salads, but he earns his keep after preventing a suitcase from whomping Mrs. Alison over the top of the head. Per Dr. Werdegast’s insightful commentary on the incident: “It is better to be frightened than to be crushed.” Well put, doctor. Well put.
As the train hurtles onward through the Hungarian mist, Werdegast divulges a bit of his past to Mr. Alison, along with his reason for the trip. He is finally returning home after 18 years– 3 years at war, followed by 15 years in a Russian prison camp called Kurgaal (“where the soul is killed, slowly”). This information is vital to the story, as the rest of the movie is colored by Werdegast’s memories of the horrors of war and the grim betrayal that took place leading up to Kurgaal. We soon find out that not only was Werdegast delivered into the hands of the enemy by his friend and commander, Hjalmar Poelzig (Karloff), but Poelzig is also assumed to have stolen Werdegast’s wife, Karen. What a scumbag.
In fact, while we’re at it, let’s take a moment to add to Poelzig’s dirty coat of many colors. Through a series of unfortunate events (dare I say FATE?), Werdegast and the Alisons end up spending the night at Poelzig’s formidable, Art Deco mansion. Since being a wartime scoundrel of the highest order wouldn’t have been enough, we discover that Poelzig is also one of Austria’s most renowned architects, and he has designed/built his cliffside stronghold atop the burial ground of 10,000 Hungarian soldiers (in whose murder he was instrumental). Oh yeah, and he is ALSO the High Priest in a cult of Satan-worshippers, so there’s that as well.
Boris Karloff does an amazing job of being sinister AF throughout this entire film, and I’d call his performance a must-see for any classic horror fan. The haircut, the thin black lips, the organ-playing…it’s all incredibly iconic, while still managing to be different than any other Karloff movies I have seen so far. There is a scene towards the middle of The Black Cat where Poelzig tenderly, hauntingly walks among an array of embalmed female bodies in his cellar, which have been carefully suspended within metal cages so that their youthful beauty can be observed and appreciated (cough cough) forever. It is exceedingly creepy, and not something you can un-see.
Again, this movie is not for the faint of heart (what did I tell you about pre-code films?!). The psychological struggle between Werdegast and Poelzig is intense, as is Poelzig’s determination to sacrifice Mrs. Alison on the alter of the Black Mass. I won’t get into any more plot twists here, because it is my hope that you will all watch this movie and find out for yourselves! You can rent it from Netflix DVD or Amazon, and I seriously recommend that you do. If you like Lugosi’s Dracula and/or Karloff’s Frankenstein (or, hell, even if you’re new to the genre!), you need to add The Black Cat to your queue ASAP.
Tomorrow, Charles will close out our journey through the ’30s with 1935’s Werewolf of London (starring Henry Hull). Be sure to check it out, and keep coming back all month for more 31 Days of Horror!!