Directed by Edgar Ulmer
Produced by Carl Laemmle, Jr.
Screenplay by Peter Ruric
Suggested by the story by Edgar Allan Poe
Cinematography: John Mescall
Production Design: Edgar G. Ulmer
Music Supervisor: Heinz Roemheld
Cast: Boris Karloff (Hjalmar Poelzig), Bela Lugosi (Vitus Verdegast), DavidManners (Peter Alison), Jacqueline Wells (Joan Alison), Harry Cording(Thamal)
When it comes to the creepy weirdness of 30s Horror, it’s hard to beat Edgar G. Ulmer’s The Black Cat (1934). It makes almost no sense, piling depravity upon depravity (Karloff marries his step-daughter and has a basement full of dead women in glass cases; Lugosi skins Karloff alive) into some sort of Impressionist fever dream of a haunted house movie that’s absolutely original in every way. The posters screamed “STRANGER THINGS THAN YOU HAVE EVER SEEN… or even dreamed of!” — and, for once, they’re weren’t kidding.
It opens like about 157 movies you’ve already seen, however. A group of travelers wind up in a creepy house in the middle of nowhere after their bus crashes during a storm. Anything but original, right? But from then on, things get plenty weird, fast.
Lugosi is there to settle a score with Karloff, who was responsible for the deaths of thousands of men during the war — and made off with Lugosi’s wife and daughter while he was a prisoner of war. If that isn’t enough, Karloff chose to build his Art Deco home on top of the ruins of the fort he commanded — the scene of all those deaths.
Hjalmar Poelzig (Boris Karloff): The phone is dead. Do you hear that, Vitus? Even the phone is dead.
Before its crazed 65 minutes are over, ailurophobia (the fear of cats), a satanic sacrifice, drugs, the basement full of dead women in glass cases and Karloff being skinned are added to the mix. Something for everyone!
Edgar G. Ulmer was a master at making something out of nothing, and today he’s known for his quickie noir masterpiece Detour (1945). But here, Universal gave him two of their biggest stars, Frankenstein and Dracula themselves, and he created Universal’s biggest hit of the year. He also worked on the screenplay and designed the sets.) After a scandal (an affair with a producer’s wife), Ulmer was blackballed by the major studios, and he spent the rest of his career working largely on Poverty Row.
Only once did a movie creep me out so bad that I checked out. That was Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932), which I have no intention of revisiting. But as a kid, The Black Cat really got to me, and I bring that creeped-out memory to it every time I see it. It’s a very weird movie, dealing with some very heavy stuff — a sense of doom and evil is burned into every frame.
The Black Cat is the first of four Karloff-Lugosi films in the Scream Factory’s Universal Horror Classics Vol. 1. The Others are The Raven (1935), The Invisible Ray (1936) and Black Friday (1940). Are all given the real Cadillac treatment and all look wonderful — with a healthy batch of extras. With Gary Don Rhodes, Gregory William Mank and Tom Weaver involved in commentaries and documentaries, you know you’re in good hands.
I first saw The Black Cat on the late show. The station ran a pretty battered 16mm print with murky contrast, a few scratches and some changeover cues where previous stations had marked where they wanted their commercials to go. To see it on high-definition is a revelation. I rarely freeze movies as I watch them, but I stopped this one several time to study Ulmer’s sets and just take in the striking quality of the transfer.
This thing is an absolute must.