"Have you ever seen an animal... skinned alive?"
Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff provide an interesting counterpoint to each other. Both actors found fame late in their careers, both in iconic roles in horror films (in Dracula and Frankenstein, respectively) - both eternally typecast for the remainder of their lives. You could say they were the victims of their own fame, but consider the lasting impact of the two on popular culture and you begin to see how far-reaching their influence actually goes. Ask any child to draw the Frankenstein monster, and they’ll sketch the square-headed Karloff. Ask them to talk like Dracula, and they’ll speak in Lugosi’s distinct Hungarian accent. Having two such titans in their employ, it wasn’t long before Universal Studios decided to pair the two of them together. Put them in a story “suggested” by Edgar Allan Poe, the father of mystery and terror himself, and you have 1934’s The Black Cat.
“Suggested” is a very loose descriptor, as the film has virtually nothing in common with Poe’s tale of an unreliable narrator tormented by a black cat. But it does owe much to Poe (as all horror films do) with it’s brooding psychodrama of two tortured madmen seeking vengeance on each other. The Universal films were extremely important to the genre’s development, as much of them would provide the language which horror films would be copying and expanding upon for years to come. The Black Cat is different from the others however, in that its gothic atmosphere isn’t relegated to haunted castles or old European villages. The Black Cat’s action takes place almost entirely within a thoroughly modern house, built over an old Hungarian fort from World War I.
Architecture is extremely important in Edgar G. Ulmer’s film, from the house of Karloff’s character Hjalmar Poelzig to his very look itself. Poelzig is all right angles, from his triangular robes to his perfectly coiffed widow’s peak; there are pentagrams hidden throughout - fitting, as Poelzig is a Satanic high priest. Karloff’s character was heavily influenced by Aleister Crowley - the supposed “wickedest man in the world” - one of the most controversial figures of his (or any) era, helping to popularize occultism in the early part of the 20th century. Karloff plays the character with his special brand of otherworldliness - even though we see nothing “supernatural” transpire, even at the end it is hard to be sure whether or not Poelzig is entirely human.
Plotting revenge against him is Lugosi’s Dr. Vitus Werdegast, a Hungarian psychiatrist and war veteran who has spent the last fifteen years rotting away in a prison camp. Finally free, Werdegast travels to seek vengeance on Poelzig for his dead wife and daughter, and for betraying Hungary to the Russians during the war, thus allowing him to build his home over the old fort. The only trouble is his deathly fear of black cats, of which Poelzig has several and uses often to delay his demise at the hands of Werdegast. Lugosi gets to play the hero for a change, but that doesn’t make him any less frightening - such as the film’s most famous scene, where Werdegast strings Poelzig up and describes how he will soon be skinned alive.
Also delaying Poelzig’s death at Werdegast’s hands are the writer Peter Alison and his wife Joan (David Manners and Jacqueline Wells), an otherwise normal couple who had the misfortune of sharing a cab with Dr. Werdegast when they crash not far from Poelzig’s home. Injured in the accident, the couple are stranded out in the middle of nowhere between a violent game of damaged individuals. Making matters worse, Poelzig becomes obsessed with Joan, and plans to sacrifice her at an upcoming ritual. The characters are clearly meant to be our window into the world of these two disturbed individuals, but in comparison come off as far too bland to leave any sort of impact. Any scene focusing on them lacks the immediacy of those between Karloff and Lugosi - we want to see those two interact with each other, not against two cherub-faced newlyweds.
There are a few details keeping the film from being a true masterpiece - for instance, a woefully underdeveloped subplot involving Werdegast’s daughter, whom Poelzig has secretly raised and taken as a wife. Most of the film comes across as half-baked, perhaps because it’s filled with just too much. There are Satanic cults, figurative and literal games of chess - the film threatens to be swallowed up by all the details. Even thematically the film fails to truly develop, setting up interesting ideas but failing to properly explore them. For instance, the end of the film sees Peter Alison publish a story of his experience at the Poelzig house, one that is derided by critics as far too sensational to be the truth. There is an opportunity to tie here into the themes of Poe's short story, a depiction of a man attempting to shape the reality of his life into forms that remove his own responsibility: an exercise in self-delusion. Another theme present in Poe's story is the struggle between instinct and reason - evident in the film through the internal conflict of Dr. Werdegast alternatively wanting to kill Poelzig and keep the young couple safe. Yet the film never brings anything more than what's on the screen, leaving the whole production a little undercooked.
But the underlying sense of macabre is what makes it special, and a classic amongst several in the Universal horror line-up. Ulmer’s obsession with detail fills the movie with several memorable scenes, such as when Karloff waltzes through his “collection” of wives preserved under glass. No subject is too taboo for the film: Satanism, necrophilia, and torture lurk just beneath the surface of every frame, making for a wonderfully atmospheric and creepy film.
The Black Cat was a huge success for Universal, and Karloff and Lugosi would star in seven more pictures together. Each never truly escaped the trappings of the horror genre, a fact both were bitter about at one point or another (Lugosi moreso than Karloff). But the two live on because of their association to the horror classics that made them famous - more than they would have if they’d gotten the parts they really wanted, anyway.