The Black Cat (1932)
“Did you ever hear of Satanism, the worship of the devil, of evil?”
Today’s black and white classic is the horror-thriller The Black Cat from Universal Pictures. Horror icons Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff square off for the first time in a movie about a traumatized doctor with a cat phobia named Werdegast and an American newlywed couple, who seek medical aid at the home of the doctor’s nemesis, Hjalmar Poelzig, the dark high priest of a devil-worshipping cult. The doctor’s original plans of revenge on Poelzig are changed when it is revealed the priest plans to sacrifice the young bride at the dark of the moon.
Produced by Carl Laemmle, Jr., the young studio head believed in director Edgar G. Ulmer’s vision enough so the man had free rein over the pic. Although presumed to be loosely based on the story by Edgar Allan Poe, there are not too many similarities here. It’s a bit strange really because the movie is good enough to stand on its own merits. This perhaps one of my favorite classic films. The story is excellent, with strong performances from the entire cast. David Manners and Julie Bishop pile on the melodrama with their romance, which is now part of the charm in some of these old films, but let’s be honest, they weren’t who we’re here to see anyway. Lugosi playing the tortured Werdegast against Karloff’s evil Poelzig in a battle for screen supremacy is one of the best horror face-offs ever found in horror. I’d say Lugosi is the clear winner, due to a more fully fleshed-out character and more dialogue to offer, but Karloff does manage to say quite a lot with just a creepy stare. Madness and secret motivations are the whole reason why this film is so scary. Clearly, something evil has hold of these men.
The film escaped the Pre-code guidelines but Ulmer’s first cut of the film, which included several scenes of satanic worship and skinning alive of Herr Poelzig, was deemed too dark and violent for the Laemmles (father and son). Between that and Bela Lugosi’s complaints that he appeared to be too villainous, Ulmer reshot several scenes, downplaying the gruesome last scene, and added some sprinkling of humanity in the tragic Dr. Werdegast. In a touch of irony, while cleaning up the film’s ending, Ulmer snuck in some extra shots of Poelzig’s necrophilic menagerie. Already heavy with a dark look and satanic theme, studio execs managed to miss The Black’s Cat’s seriously taboo subject matter, or perhaps they ignored it.
The eerie movie score runs 80 minutes contains many classical selections, including the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, only the second time a horror film featured the now cliched song. The set of Poelzig’s mansion is considered somewhat of a masterpiece in the industry, part art deco, part haunted house. In contrast to The Old Dark House, this film is well-lit, casting defined shadows in a way that you’re unsure if you’re watching a horror film at all.
The Black Cat is considered to be the first movie to use psychological horror, capitalizing on public interest in psychiatry at that time. Despite the audience’s distaste for the dark subject matter, it was the biggest box office hit for Universal that year, due in part to the popularity of its stars. What didn’t work then is exactly why it works now. The Black Cat is creepy, scary, and a masterclass in great classic horror.