02
Nov
14

The Black Cat (1934)

Note: Hi! This is Mike Q, and I’m not the one who usually writes here. I got this guest-spot because Katy’s fallen behind in writing up movies of late, so I’ve been called in to do some of the titles she doesn’t especially want to deal with.

The Black Cat is one of my favorite horror gems to share. It’s strange, unsettling, and moves at an extremely brisk pace, and while it gets mentioned in reverent tones by the bought-in, it just as often seems to have flown beneath the radar for many. Its current availability speaks to this: it’s one of six movies on the budget Bela Lugosi Legacy Collection DVD set, and is there without fanfare. One wouldn’t think to pick it up, unless one knew what treasure awaits. That’s a pity, since this is one of the finest horror films Universal released during their 1930s heyday. Thus, this movie was night 28 of our 31 Days of Horror for 2014.

The Alisons are happy young newlyweds taking the Orient Express to Hungary for their honeymoon. They are bland and normal, but oh so much in love. It’s a drag when overbooking forces them to share their private compartment with Dr. Vitus Werdegast (Béla Lugosi), and that drag turns creepy when he starts petting a sleeping Mrs. Alison. It’s OK. though — she just reminds him of his dead wife. See, the good doctor has been in a terrible prison for many years, and he’s making his pilgrimage back to where he fought in one of the bloodiest battles of World War I so that he can visit his old friend, the battle’s commanding general, who has built himself a house right at the site of the old fort… a location that happens to be right on the way to where the Alisons are themselves headed.

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The Poelzig place. It may not be much, but it’s home!

They all share a ride, which inconveniently crashes miles from everywhere but Dr. Werdegast’s friend’s house, an imposing Art Deco manse that looms on the mountain. Werdegast sweeps in like he owns the place, and he and Alison work on tending to the injured Mrs. Alison before the formal introduction to their inadvertent host. Hjalmar Poelzig (Boris Karloff, as a character reportedly inspired by Aleister Crowley, and with a look that supposedly inspired Steve Ditko’s initial depictions of Dr. Strange) is far more than what he seems, though: not only the turncoat commanding general of one of the worst battles of the war, he also is one of Europe’s finest architects: he designed and built the house himself, using elements from the old fort. He’s also got a basement full of female corpses suspended in glass cases. All involved find out rather quickly that Werdegast isn’t there for as friendly a visit as it at first appeared — Poelzig stole his wife and daughter while he was in jail, and might even have had set him up to go there. Werdegast is bound and determined to get the women in his life back from Poelzig, and grows all the more concerned as Poelzig seems to have sinister plans in store for Mrs. Alison…

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Werdegast, Poelzig, and a decorative floating corpse

This movie is great for all sorts of reasons. One is it fantastic look — though decidedly Gothic in its story and execution, much of this movie’s horror is rooted in its invocation of modernity rather than in the aesthetics of the distant past. Here, Poelzig’s malignant evil is expressed in the vocabulary of German Expressionism so popular in the Universal horrors, but by way of the clean lines and large empty spaces of contemporary architecture. Poelzig’s crime seems, in part, to stem from his efforts to erase the past, and in the monumental scale of his own ego, both as manifested in the icy beauty of his domicile. Also imminently compelling is that the two feuding men are so extremely civil to one another, but in that civility always have a heavy weight of latent menace. The boring Alisons are trapped in the midst of this, and while we perhaps have some sense of concern about their situation, I know my attentions are always on how — and when — the smouldering hatred of the big names will finally explode.

boris-karloff black cat mass

Did I mention that Poelzig has a meeting room for his Satanic cult in the basement?

By the time we really get down to it — when Poelzig’s Satanic cult comes a-calling, and when Werdegast finally exacts his horrifyingly under-stated revenge — the movie seems like it is simultaneously completely off the rails and also exactingly, minutely in control of its every action. We’ve been building to this, but have come such a long, strange way from those opening moments aboard the Orient Express that when in the movie’s final moments, we return there again it’s awfully jarring. How can we return unfazed to the exotic but decidedly middle-class trappings we came from after the curious, sinister, fascinating world that we’ve just been privy to? To some degree, that’s The Alisons’ problem — viewers I know seem to remain too haunted by the deliberate, frosty manipulations of Karloff’s Poelzig and Lugosi’s equally sympathetic and alienating Werdegast to really be placated by the efforts at a light ending. The two men are so driven, and so locked together, that it’s easy to read a kind of fascinating queerness underlying their relationship (at least, Henry Benshoff seems to see it too). That and the broad strokes of the plot have led many to credit this (along with James Whale’s Old Dark House) as one of the primary inspirations for The Rocky Horror Picture Show. I suppose it’s also worth saying that while the credits and period advertising materials credit Edgar Allan Poe’s famous story as inspiration, there’s as much Poe here as there is in Corman’s Haunted Castle or the AIP Conqueror Worm cut of Witchfinder General — that is to say not much at all. That’s not a bad thing, but it’s a thing worth noting.

black cat 3Anyway, for such a short movie (only 65 minutes!) there’s lots going on, and lots to recommend it.  If you have the chance, you should check this one out. Heck, don’t wait for the chance, go ahead and seek it out; I doubt you’ll be disappointed.

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