Happy Halloween

This one I recommend.

Lugosi and Karloff oppose each other in ‘The Black Cat’.

Charming; grim for its time

The two most influencal horror actors of all time are arguably Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff. Respectively, they gave us the versions we today normally associate with the monsters Dracula and Frankenstein’s monster. Largely worshipped today and greatly respected in their time, you can imagine what seeing them act together for the first time must have been like.

The Black Cat, based very loosely on Edgar Allan Poe‘s story of the same name, is a dark and disturbing 1934 picture and a morbidly grim picture for the time. Featuring two of the horror genre’s most fantastic actors and dealing with themes that probably would’ve gotten it banned back in the day, it is a very fascinating watch. The plot is focused on a couple, Peter (David Manners) and Joan Alison (Julie Bishop), on a vacation in Hungary, unaware that they are about to be entangled in a rivalry between two great minds.

They encounter a psychiatrist named Dr. Vitus Wertegast (Lugosi) with whom they end up in the home of his old friend Hjalmar Poelzig (Karloff), which he has built over an old fort, where he’s been working on bizarre things in the time Wertegast was in a prison camp. What Poelzig has been up to isn’t exactly something that makes Wertegast happy. It involves such charming themes as Satanism and human sacrfices and it only gets worse when Wertegast is pushed over the edge and the villainous Poelzig becomes the one who’s in danger.

It’s when the true nature of Poelzig is exposed and the rivalry reaches is peak that the film gets interesting. Lugosi and Karloff work off of each other beautifully. Scenes of them talking is enough to create a truly chilling moment and you’re left wondering which one’s going to emerge triumphant. Place your bets, ladies and gentlemen.

The black cat appears frequently, though not quite in the same role as in Poe’s tale.

It is the intense relationship between Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff that makes me wish the movie was just about the two of them. I’m not really sure why the two lovers were required, but I assume we needed characters who aren’t all evil or strange, which Lugosi and Karloff both are to an extent. Karloff, with his commanding expressions and ominous presence, is clearly the antagonist, but when Lugosi gets real mad and starts giving us his menacing eyes and crazed behaviour he too becomes an unsettling character. There’s probably still a forum on the web somewhere that has a thread as to which one of these actors is more creepy and talented.

As for the creep factor, the film is quite unusual in how dark and disturbing it gets. We can see skinning, animal cruelty and Satanic cults in numerous films today without a large deal of fuss, but in a 1934 movie, addressing these themes was a bold move. I would love to have seen the reactions from audiences back then. They must have thought the filmmakers were totally sick.

The music, as well, is unusually good for an early talkie movie. This was one of the first sound movies to have a near continous score and the fact that it consists of classical pieces – Ludvig van Beethoven‘s lovely “Seventh Symphony” and J.S. Bach‘s Toccata and “Fugue in D minor” come to mind – certainly doesn’t hurt any.

Even though the film has very little to do with Poe’s story – which I just recently read from beginning to end for the first time – The Black Cat is a truly chilling and enjoyable movie. True, if you were to take out the fantastic acting and interacting of Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, then the film wouldn’t have that much to it. It would still be spooky, sure, but it takes the presence of two great performers to make it a classic. For some time, this film and The Raven were the only films I could think of where the two of them were together, but I have recently found out that there are plenty more. Not too far from now, I hope, I’ll find the time to watch them all.

4/5 whatever