Sunday, October 16, 2011

1934 - The Black Cat

Movie Poster, The Black Cat (1934)

It was the during the brutal days of the Great War, when all of powers of the world fell upon each other in a drawn out display of horror, destruction and death that Hungarian psychiatrist Vitus Werdegast met architect Hjalmar Poelzig, then commander of Fort Maemorus. The outpost would fall to the Russians, causing the death of thousands and leading to Werdegast’s spending 15 years enslaved in a Soviet Gulag, losing his wife to Poelzig in the process.

18 later, and recently freed, Werdegasts plans for a reunion with his “old friend” Poelzig. Vitus however, finds his plot complicated by the unexpected intrusion of a young married couple from America, Joan and Peter Alison. Circumstances force the trio into uneasy traveling companions, arriving together at Poelzig’s brilliantly designed estate.

Title Card Sequence, The Black Cat (1934)

After the huge success of both Dracula and Frankenstein, Universal Pictures was anxious to team their two great horror stars in several films, sometimes with mixed results. Luckily, 1934’s, The Black Cat is a near perfect combination of stylish direction, tight scripting, spooky sets, plus Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, two fantastic actors at the very top of their game.

Bela Lugosi, Jacqueline Wells and David Manners
The Black Cat (1934)
The Black Cat is not actually based on the classic story by Edgar Allen Poe. Written by pulp novelist, Peter Cain, under the name of PeterRuric, produced by the great Carl Laemmle and directed by Edgar G. Ulmer, the film uses Poe's title, but the story is completely original.

One of the best of the early talkie horror films, The Black Cat is a story of cruelty, necrophilia, sadism and revenge. Taking place during the bitter years between the Wars, The Black Cat has a style and slow moving yet real horror that has rarely been matched in the near 80 years since it’s release.

Honeymooning in Europe, American couple Peter and Joan Alison, Dracula's, David Manners and actress Jacqueline Wells are asked to share their train compartment with the mysterious Dr. Vitus Werdegast (Lugosi). Despite Joan’s initial hesitation the young couple find Werdegast to be a friendly and courteous traveling companion. Telling the pair stories about Hungary before the war and generally setting the two at ease with his personable manner.

Later as the couple dozes, Werdegast looks across at the sleeping girl and with a sorrowful expression on his face quietly reaches out and ever so gently brushes his hand across a sleeping Joan’s hair.

Looking over at the now awake Peter, Werdegast quietly begins to speak, telling Peter how he had left for war 18 years before, leaving behind a wife, who looked very much like Joan. and then how because of treachery, he had been captured and kept imprisoned in a Russian camp for the last 15 years.

Werdegast speaks to Peter about the horrors he saw in the prison camp and how few had ever managed to escape, how few had ever returned, but with sudden strength in his voice and steel in his eyes, he looks at Peter and tell's him that despite every hardship, he has returned.

Lugosi really shines in the scene, reflecting the loss and despair, along with the thirst to survive, it's really an outstanding piece of work from an actor who is often accused of overacting.

After leaving the train the three take a transport bus for the last part of their journey, joined by Thamal (Harry Cording), Werdegast’s imposing man servant. Later as their bus races through a typical Universal Pictures violent thunderstorm, the comic relief bus driver misses a turn and rolls the small bus, injuring Joan.

Leaving the bus, the three men with Thamal carrying Joan in his arms quickly make their way to the palatial estate of brilliant architect, Hjalmar Poelzig. Arriving at a late hour Poelzig’s butler informs the group that his master has already gone to bed and to come back the next day, but Werdegast steps inside informing the servant of his identity and telling him that Poelzig should be expecting them.

While Werdegast cares for Joan’s injuries, the butler using an oddly futuristic, at least for 1934, looking intercom system, places a call to his masters private chamber, letting him know that he has company and that one of the guests is Vitus Werdegast.

Rising from his bed, with the silhouette of a woman laying beside him, Poelzig makes his appearance.

Boris Karloff and Lucille Lund, The Black Cat (1934)

Entering the room were Werdegast and Peter are caring for the sedated Joan, Poelzig is obviously shocked to see his old "friend" standing in front of him. But as Werdegast explains the situation Poelzig quickly recovers and begins looking at Joan in a way very much like Werdegast had on the train awhile before. After letting Peter know that he and his wife are welcome, he invites Werdegast to speak to him in private.

Jacqueline Wells in The Black Cat (1934)

Once alone Werdegast wastes no time in accusing Poelzig of betraying his command, murdering his own men and causing the few survivors to be enslaved by the Russians. And more importantly to Werdegast he is aware that Hjalmar told his wife he was dead, and took her and his young daughter into his home.

Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi in The Black Cat (1934)

Ignoring the accusations of treason and murder Poelzig instead denies having had Poelzig's wife and tells him he is insane. But before the conversation can continue Peter enters the room as suddenly the two men become all smiles and happy conversation.

David Manner, Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, The Black Cat (1934)

Unexpectedly though when a small black house cat enters the room, Werdegast reacts with terror, throwing the closest object he can reach at the animal, and having what can only be described as a complete panic attack

The Black Cat (1934)

Werdegast's fear both amuses Poelzig and helps to portray him to Peter as possibly mad, meanwhile Poelzig continues to be all smiles and good humor to Peter and Joan, who is dazed from medication, who joins them..

Boris Karloff in the Black Cat (1934)

After the Alison's and Werdegast go to bed, Poelzig makes his way to his basement where it seems that along with his other collections he is keeping the dead body of Werdegast's wife in a glass display case.

Polezig with Werdegast's deceased wife

Poelzig sits with the corpse for some time seeming to gain if not strength but resolve. Polezig makes his way to Werdegasts room and confronts him only to discover that he is in the wrong room and has woken Peter instead. Again all smiles and good manners, Poelzig makes his apologies and heads into Werdegast where the psychiatrist demands to know what happened to his wife.

Werdegast and Poelzig, The Black Cat (1934)

Finally giving in to Werdegast's demands, Poelzig agrees to take Vitus to his wife, as long as it is just him coming. Hjalmar takes him to his basement and shows him the body of his dead wife.

Lucile Lund as Karen Werdegast Poelzig, the Black Cat (1934)

As Vitus looks on in horror Poelzig explains that she had died of influenza only two years after the end of the war, and that he had kept her preserved just the way she had been the day she died, because after all, he loved her too.

Boris Karloff as Hjalmar Poelzig, The Black Cat (1934)

A stunned Werdegast demands to know the fate of his daughter, only to be told by Poelzig that she died as well. Enraged at the desecration of the woman he loved, Werdegast pulls out a revolver and prepares to shoot Poelzig, only to be thrown into another panic attack when Hjalmar's cat comes into the room.

Bela Lugosi as Vitus Werdegast, The Black Cat (1934)

Crushed and defeated, Werdegast allows Poelzig to lead him back to his room all the while Poelzig describes to Vitus how they both in their own way have been dead these past 15 years, and it is now time for Vitus to accept that fate.

Returning to his room in victory, Poelzig is met by the woman in his bed who we only glimpsed earlier, telling her only that there had been an accident.

Boris Karloff and Lucille Lund, The Black Cat (1934)

Though much younger then Werdegast's late wife, the girl in the bed is the spitting image of the woman in the glass case. Looking deeply into her eyes, Hjalmar reaches out and gently brushes his hand against the girls face in much the same way the Vitus had with Joan on the train.

Calling her Karen, the same name as Werdegasts wife, Poelzig lies down next to her and tells her she means everything to him and that he will never let anyone take her from him, not even her father.

Boris Karloff and Lucille Lund, The Black Cat (1934)

It seems that Poelzig has not been as completely honest with Vitus about their mutual loss as we might have believed.

Henry Cording and Bela Lugosi, The Black Cat (1934)

Meanwhile back in his room Werdegast is not as destroyed as he has led Poelzig to believe. His servant Thamal prepares to go and kill Poelzig in his sleep but is stopped by Vitus who informs him that the estate is packed with explosives and if they are not careful they could end up killing everyone.

Back in his room with Karen beside him Poelzig begins to read up on certain Satanic rituals, involving the sacrifice of a young woman.

Poelzig's reading material, The Black Cat (1934)

Smiling knowingly, Hjalmar turns out the light, and turns toward his "wife" as the scene goes to black..

Jacqueline Wells, The Black Cat (1934)

The next morning Joan wakes up without much memory of the night before and is visited by both Werdegast and Poelzig, who is friendly and charismatic, but still somehow frightens Joan.

Leaving the girl to dress, the two men go off for another confrontation, this time with Vitus demanding that Hjalmar leave Joan alone. taking up the bait Poelzig tells Werdegast that he plans to use Joan that night as part of a Satanic Ritual and challenges Vitus to a game of chess to determine the girls fate.

Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff in The Black Cat (1934)

Throughout the day the two men play their game of chess, all the while Peter and Joan become more uncomfortable, sensing that something is not right with either men and that they may very well be in danger.Peter asks Poelzig to provide the couple transportation into the nearest village which Poelzig agrees too.

While the couple packs their bags, Hjalmar smile at Vitus and makes his final move of the game, declaring checkmate.

As the couple start for the door they are met by Werdegasts servant Thamal, who prevents them from leaving, knocking Peter unconscious in the process.

David Manners, Jacqueline Wells and Harry Cording in The Black Cat (1934)

Keeping his end of the bargain the defeated Werdegast orders his servant to take the now unconscious Joan back to her room, and to keep her there until time for Poelzig's ceremony that night.

Later that evening as Hjalmar plays the organ in preparation for the nights events, Vitus is overcome with guilt and decides to break his work and to help Peter and Joan to escape.

Werdegast warns Joan of the danger she faces, The Black Cat (1934)

Shortly after Werdegast leaves to prepare their escape, Karen wanders into Joan's room and the two talk about her past, with Joan telling her she knows her father and Karen insisting that can't be true as her father died in prison.

Karen speaks with Joan, The Black Cat (1934)

Joan tries to convince Karen about her father, but before she really can, Poelzig comes into the room stopping the conversation cold.

Boris Karloff, Lucille Lund and Jacqueline Wells, The Black Cat (1934)

After angrily sending Karen back to their room, Poelzig sends up his loyal followers who have gathered at the estate to prepare Joan for what is looking more and more like a human sacrifice.

The Black Mass, The Black Cat (1934)

With his followers gather Hjalmar begins his rite to use Joan as a sacrifice to bring wealth and power to his followers and to return the original Karen to life.

Members of Poelzig's Satanic Cult, The Black Cat (1934)

As his followers look on, Poelzig prepares to kill Joan, but at the last minute Werdegast and Thamal stop the ceremony causing all sorts f chaos and saving Joan.

Poelzig's Black Mass, The Black Cat (1934)

Meanwhile Peter has managed to escape from his cell in the basement and is soon joined by Werdegast, Thamal and Joan.

Joan tells Werdegast that his daughter is alive and the bride of his greatest enemy.

Werdegast runs to his daughters side only to find her dead, killed by Poelzig as part of his plan to resurrect her mother.

The sight of his dead child, sends Werdegast finally and completely over the edge.

Poelzig and Werdegast over the corpse of Karen Poelzig
The Black Cat (1934)

All pretense of gentility stripped away the two men fall into battle with each other trying to kill each other with their bare hands. With both

Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, The Black Cat (1934)

Just has it appears that Poelzig has won, a badly injured Thamal arrives on the scene and before dying himself, helps Vitus chain Hjalmar onto a hanging rack in his basement chamber of horrors.

Vitus and Hjalmar have one final conversation, The Black Cat (1934)

Now totally mad Werdegast happily describes how to go about skinning an animal.

The end of Hjalmar Poelzig, The Black Cat (1934)
And then shows him.

After a very long time, Poelzig dies, and seeing Vitus trying to help Joan, Peter thinks she is being attacked and shoots Werdegast.

Dying, Vitus gives the couple time to get away and then with his last bit of strength pulls the lever setting off the explosives in the building.

Poelzig victorious, The Black Cat (1934)

The Black Cat is not a film with tons of gore or violence, but instead slowly builds the tension between the two foes as they politely battle to the death.

In a rare switch of roles from their normal team-up's Lugosi is the "hero" with Karloff clearly playing the villian.

What is interesting about Lugosi's Werdegast is that while the situation makes him the person who we want to win, with his henchman and willingness to place both Peter and Joan in danger, Vitus could easily be the villain in a some other picture.

And Karloff is simply hypnotic as Poelzig, who is clearly based to a degree on Alister Crowley, Britain's "Most Evil Man Alive". Charming, funny, charismatic, Karloff is totally believable as man who would steal a person's wife and then sleep with her daughter.

He is a total bastard, but somehow a bastard that you can't help but like, even as he does some truly perverse and twisted things.

The Black Cat is one of the greats of the 1930's and if you haven't seen it, even after my spoiling it, you should give it the time,

It's all up on YouTube in 10 minute chunks, but even that way, it's well worth a look....

1 comment:

  1. Would love to read this however, unable to work the terrible interface! Are you aware that the long black thing ("About Me" etc) at top right interferes with proper scrolling down so that chunks of your page are missing when hitting PG DWN?
    Cannot do it, impossible to read.
    Get rid of this silly template. The scroll bar completely disappears under the black thing top right. (Would be nice if you had tested your own blog before hitting submit. This is very frustrating!)