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With: Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Jacqueline Wells, David Manners, Egon Brecher
Written by: Peter Ruric
Directed by: Edgar G. Ulmer
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 66
Date: 05/03/1934

The Black Cat (1934)

4 Stars (out of 4)

No Baloney

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Most may recognize The Black Cat (1934) as the first onscreen teaming of legendary horror stars Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff. But will anyone recognize it as a Hollywood extension of such expressionistic film classics as F.W. Murnau's Sunrise (1927)? Director Edgar G. Ulmer began working in movies with directors such as Murnau and Fritz Lang, and though he later worked in quickie low-budget films and genre films, he brought some of their visual flair with him. And thus The Black Cat is more than meets the eye.

Of course, The Black Cat is a superb horror film as well. It's said to be based on the Edgar Allan Poe story, but in fact is an almost completely original story (by Peter Ruric). It begins innocently with a newly married couple (Jacqueline Wells and David Manners) sharing a private car on a train. But their car has been accidentally double-booked, and Lugosi enters as Dr. Vitus Werdegast. This chance encounter and a bus accident will bring them to the evil mansion of Hjalmar Poelzig (Karloff). It turns out that Werdegast and Poelzig have an old-time rivalry. Poelzig has appropriated Werdegast's wife and daughter, telling them that he had died in prison. At the same time, Poelzig prepares for a Satanic ritual in which he will use the young wife for a sacrifice.

The plot is secondary next to watching the three great artists, Karloff, Lugosi, and Ulmer, at work. Karloff and Lugosi, despite their very different acting styles, both devour the screen. There's no question that Karloff was the better actor, but they both oozed presence and charisma. Seeing them go head-to-head is a great treat. Ulmer's powerful direction not only keeps the story going at the correct pace, but makes it look good. Poelzig's castle is full of all kinds of expressionist angles and corners that Ulmer uses to maximum efficiency.

The Black Cat was made before the Hays Code was established and so gets away with many unexpectedly brutal scenes. At one point, Lugosi rips Karloff's shirt off and begins flaying him (mostly off camera). The film is not particularly scary, but it creates a superb feeling of dread and darkness. Sometimes it's just the dialogue that gets to you, like the bus driver's speech just before the crash, describing the horrible carnage and bloodshed of a long-ago war. (The dialogue also gets silly, as with Lugosi's reply to: "Sounds like a lot of supernatural baloney to me," which goes: "Supernatural, perhaps. Baloney, perhaps not. There are many things under the sun.")

The Black Cat is often lumped in with the other Universal horror pictures of the era. It's difficult to say that it's the "best" of them, because we're comparing it with titles like Bride of Frankenstein, The Old Dark House, and Dracula. But it certainly is the most ambitious. It was one of the only times Ulmer had a reasonable budget to work with and it gives us a true idea of how much talent he really had. It's a great film.

In 2005, Universal released a terrific package of horror movies, The Bela Lugosi Collection, including the DVD debut of the aforementioned The Black Cat. I'd have to check, but I'm sure the disc sets some kind of record for cramming five films on one single disc. Admittedly, the films only run between 61 and 79 minutes, but it's still pretty cool. Strangely, four of the five films team Lugosi with Boris Karloff, so the set's title could be a bit misleading. Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932) is directed by the underrated Robert Florey, and stars Lugosi as a scientist who uses his killer ape to capture and experiment on young women. Lew Landers' The Raven (1935) is a truly remarkable little film with all kinds of gruesome details; it's nearly the equal of The Black Cat. Lambert Hillyer's The Invisible Ray (1936) is more of a vehicle for Karloff, playing a scientist infected by radiation from a meteor, and Arthur Lubin's Black Friday (1940) is the weakest of the set. The best, of course, and reason enough for buying the whole thing, is The Black Cat.

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