The Black Cat (1934) starring Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi
Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi appeared together in eight different horror films–but very likely, the best of them was the first, The Black Cat – a monster movie where the monsters are all too human.
Synopsis of The Black Cat
A young American couple traveling by train on their honeymoon meet Dr. Vitus Werdegast (Bela Lugosi) where they are both going to the same destination. Lugosi is returning home after a fifteen-year absence, having been a prisoner of war. Which we later learn was due to the betrayal of his commanding officer, Hjalmar Poelzig (Boris Karloff). This resulted in the death of thousands of his own men. After a driving accident, they are all the “guests” of Karloff. Who doesn’t seem eager for any of them to leave …
Review of The Black Cat
Most people who read this will already know that Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff are two of the seminal actors in the American horror film genre. This film gives an excellent example of why. Lugosi is, mostly, a sympathetic character. He’s a man who was wrongly convicted of war crimes. Then he was sent to serve his term in a prison that could be referred to as a hell hole. Fifteen years later, he finally regains his freedom and has two desires. Revenge on the former “friend” who set him up to serve the sentence for the crimes that this “friend” committed. And to be reunited with his loving wife and daughter.
Karloff, however …
Karloff is the false friend, who has orchestrated Lugosi’s plight, lying to Karloff’s wife. He made her think that Lugosi has died, and married her himself. Karloff has even preserved the beautiful wife’s lovely body — for his own bizarre purposes. In addition, he has been lying to Lugosi’s daughter as well, marrying her after her mother’s death. If you begin to get the idea that Karloff’s character isn’t very nice, you’d be right. And that’s before we mention his plan to use a strange woman as a sacrifice in a Satanic cult that he heads. You would think from that description that there’s no subtlety here …. But Karloff does a masterful job of lying to the various individuals. And through them, to the audience — almost coming across as someone likable.
The film comes to a final conflict between Lugosi and Karloff, with Lugosi as the tragic hero. He’s desperately trying to save the life of the woman on her honeymoon. A total stranger, who Lugosi strives to rescue at the risk of his own life. In addition, he’s striving to rescue his daughter from the clutches of his deceitful, murderous “friend”. Karloff, who is willing to risk anything, including his young bride.
It should be mentioned that The Black Cat is supposedly based on the short story of the same name by Edgar Allen Poe. In truth, the only similarity is actually the title. Although the film makes a weak attempt at including it by making up a fear of cats by Lugosi, who doesn’t like Karloff’s black cat.
The Black Cat is an excellent horror film, with two great actors at their prime, and I strongly recommend it.
Editorial review of The Black Cat (1934) starring Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, courtesy of Amazon.com
Edgar Ulmer’s baroque masterpiece is the pinnacle of expressionism of Hollywood, a beautiful melding of gothic antiquity and modernity in the shadow of World War I. Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff square off in their finest film together as decades-old nemeses who meet for a fateful showdown on the very battlefield where Karloff’s devilish dark priest sacrificed his own army and framed Lugosi’s good doctor for the crime. Karloff plays the most evil character of his career, a mesmerizingly demonic architect (inspired by the notorious real-life Satanist Aleister Crowley) who stole Lugosi’s wife and daughter and built his shrine-like home, a stunning piece of Bauhaus-inspired glass and steel architecture, on the graves of his victims.
His intensity and hypnotic understatement is a revelation, a genuine monster in human guise far more insidious and evil than the creatures of Universal’s more famous horror classics. Lugosi delivers his finest performance ever as a Van Helsing-like hero whose simmering hatred and rage finally boils over into madness and sadistic revenge. A pair of silly American honeymooners become but two more pawns in their game of vengeance. John Mescall, who shot the gorgeous Bride of Frankenstein, beautifully delivers eerie unease and sinister imagery, from the Caligari-like black church of slanting beams and slashing shadows to the tomb of glass-lined caskets displaying victims held in suspended animation. One of the finest horror films to emerge from Universal’s golden age of horror. —Sean Axmaker
Movie quotes from The Black Cat
The Lieutenant: [looking over Joan’s passport] Mr. and Mrs. Alison, Car 96, Compartment F. Orient Express, Budapest, Visegrad.
Peter Allison: This is a very interesting house you have here, Herr Poelzig. Has an atmosphere — kind of uh …
Dr. Vitus Verdegast: It is indeed hard to describe. As hard to describe as life — or death? It might well be an atmosphere of death. This place was built upon the ruins of the same Ft. Marmorus that our unfortunate friend, the driver, described so vividly. Herr Poelzig commanded Marmorus during the last years of the war. He is perhaps sentimental about this spot.
Dr. Vitus Verdegast: You sold Marmorus to the Russians. You scurried away in the night and left us to die. Is it to be wondered that you should choose this place to build your house? A masterpiece of construction built upon the ruins of the masterpiece of destruction – a masterpiece of murder.[laughs hideously
Dr. Vitus Verdegast: The murderer of 10,000 men returns to the place of his crime. Those who died were fortunate. I was taken prisoner to Kurgaal. Kurgaal, where the soul is killed, slowly. Fifteen years I’ve rotted in the darkness — waited. Not to kill you, but to kill your soul – slowly.
Peter Allison: Strange about the cat. Joan seemed so curiously affected when you killed it.
Hjalmar Poelzig: You must be indulgent of Dr. Verdegast’s weakness. He is the unfortunate victim of one of the commoner phobias, but in an extreme form. He has an intense and all-consuming horror of cats.
Peter Allison: If I wanted to build a nice, cozy, unpretentious insane asylum, he’d be the man for it.
Dr. Vitus Verdegast: Have you ever heard of Kurgaal? It is a prison below Amsk. Many men have gone there. Few have returned. I have returned. After fifteen years … I have returned.
Dr. Vitus Verdegast: Do you mind if I keep this door open?
Peter Allison: I’d sleep in a cold sweat if you didn’t. You know”¦ this is a very tricky house. The kind of place where I’d like to have company.
Hjalmar Poelzig: Do you dare play chess with me for her?
Dr. Vitus Verdegast: Yes. I will even play you chess for her. Provided if I win, they are free to go.
Hjalmar Poelzig: You won’t win, Vitus.
Dr. Vitus Verdegast: Don’t pretend, Hjalmar. There was nothing spiritual in your eyes when you looked at that girl.
Hjalmar Poelzig: You say your soul was killed, that you have been dead all these years. And what of me? Did we not both die here in Marmorus 15 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? And now you come to me, playing at being an avenging angel, childishly thirsting for my blood. We understand each other too well. We know too much of life.
Dr. Vitus Verdegast: Did you ever hear of Satanism, the worship of the devil, of evil? Herr Poelzig is a great modern priest of that ancient cult. And tonight in dark of the moon the rites of Lucifer are celebrated. And if I’m not mistaken he intends you to play a part in that ritual”¦ a very important part.
Joan Alison: Oh! [breaks down crying and rushes to Vitus for consolation]
Dr. Vitus Verdegast: There, child. Be brave. No matter how hopeless it all seems.
Hjalmar Poelzig: Vitus! Your are mad.
Hjalmar Poelzig: Come, Vitus, are we men or are we children?
Peter Allison: I don’t know. It all sounds like a lot of supernatural baloney to me.
Dr. Vitus Verdegast: Supernatural, perhaps. Baloney, perhaps not. There are many things under the sun.
Hjalmar Poelzig: The phone is dead. Do you hear that, Vitus? Even the phone is dead.
Dr. Vitus Werdegast: It has been a good game.
Cast of characters
- Boris Karloff (The Ghoul) … Hjalmar Poelzig (as Karloff)
- Bela Lugosi (The Devil Bat) … Dr. Vitus Werdegast
- David Manners (The Mummy (1932)) … Peter Alison
- Julie Bishop (The Bohemian Girl) … Joan Alison (as Jacqueline Wells)
- Egon Brecher (The Three Musketeers 1939) … The Majordomo
- Harry Cording (Prelude to Murder) … Thamal
- Lucille Lund (Healthy, Wealthy and Dumb) … Karen
- Henry Armetta (Anchors Aweigh) … The Sergeant
- Albert Conti Albert Conti … The Lieutenant
- Virginia Ainsworth … Cultist (uncredited)
- Luis Alberni (Svengali) … Train Steward (uncredited)
- King Baggot … Cultist (uncredited)
- Herman Bing … Car Steward (uncredited)
- Symona Boniface (Beware of Blondie; Vagabond Loafers) … Cultist (uncredited)
- John Carradine (Les Miserables (1935)) … Cult Organist (uncredited)
Trivia for The Black Cat
- Director Edgar G. Ulmer admitted in an interview that Edgar Allan Poe’s story was credited to draw public attention. Despite the fact it had nothing to do with the story in the movie.
- This was Universal’s biggest hit of 1934.
- The first of eight movies to pair Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi.
- Director Edgar G. Ulmer, when writing this film, loosely based the villain Hjalmar Poelzig, played by Boris Karloff, on director Fritz Lang. Ulmer knew Lang from the German-Austrian film scene. Though he was a huge admirer of Lang’s films, felt Lang to be a sadist as a director.
- The first film collaboration of Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff. At the time they were unquestionably the two biggest stars of horror film. Despite rumors that the two were very competitive, this marked the beginning of a pleasant working relationship between them. While Lugosi and Karloff never became close personal friends, they were quite amicable to each other and enjoyed working together.
- Among the unconventional elements of this film was the soundtrack. At a time (early 1930s) when movie music was usually limited to the titles and credits, Edgar G. Ulmer had an almost continuous background score throughout the entire film.