Friday, August 16, 2013

Review: "The Black Cat" Offers First Pairing of Karloff and Lugosi (Remembering Bela Lugosi)

TRASH IN MY EYE No. 213 (of 2004) by Leroy Douresseaux

The Black Cat (1934)
Also known as: The Vanishing Body (1953)
Running time:  65 minutes (1 hour, 5 minutes)
DIRECTOR:  Edgar G. Ulmer
WRITERS:  Peter Ruric; from a screen story by Peter Ruric and Edgar G. Ulmer (based upon a story by Edgar Allen Poe)
EDITOR:  Ray Curtiss


Starring:  Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, David Manners, Jacqueline Wells, Lucille Lund, Egon Brecher, and Harry Cording

The subject of this movie review is The Black Cat, a 1934 film that blends the genres of crime, horror, and mystery.  The film was released by Universal Pictures and produced by Carl Laemmle, Jr.  The Black Cat was re-released in 1953 as The Vanishing Body.  This was the first of eight movies that paired actors, Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff.  This is apparently one of the first movies to have an almost continuous movie score, which was composed by Heinz Roemheld.

The Black Cat takes its name from the Edgar Allen Poe short story, “The Black Cat” (first published in 1843), but little else.  Television and screenwriter Tom Kilpatrick contributed to the writing of this movie’s screenplay, but did not receive a screen credit.  The Black Cat the movie follows an American couple, honeymooning in Hungary, who becomes trapped in the home of a Satan- worshiping priest.

Peter Alison (David Manners) and his wife Joan (Jacqueline Wells) are American honeymooners vacationing in Hungary when they encounter a peculiar psychiatrist, Dr. Vitus Werdegast (Bela Lugosi) on a passenger train.  Later, the couple shares a taxi with him.  After the taxi accident is involved in an accident, the trio is trapped in the home of a Satan-worshipping priest, Hjalmar Poelzig (Boris Karloff).  Poelzig, an accomplished architect, desires Joan for a satanic ritual.  Unbeknownst to Peter and Joan, Poelzig and Dr. Werdegast are old acquaintances with a bitter history together.

I love gorgeous black and white movies, especially the beautiful horror films Universal produced in the 1930’s and 40’s.  The Black Cat is a superb example; the photography is excellent and the film has an eerie, but handsome dream-like quality.  A hip hop artist once commented on how films from Hollywood’s golden era of studio films had such class because everyone dressed so well, even the characters who weren’t wealthy.  The cast of this film wear the finest suits, in particular Lugosi’s Werdegast and Manners’ Peter Alison.  Lugosi’s ultra sharp suits add some kind of peculiar quality to his character that I just can’t explain; he looks so good in them that I can call him a mack.  Lugosi’s lounge attire:  smoking jackets, bathrobes, and top quality pajamas defy reason; they fit him like a tuxedo and would seem quite appropriate as formal dinner wear.

The most prominent element of The Black Cat is the art deco flavored art direction.  It does seem out of place in rural Hungary, but the mansion’s interiors add a special quality to movie.  Watching the story unfold in this art deco museum reminded me of a black and white version of a David Lynch creation like “Twin Peaks”.  It’s surreal, real, and dreamy, an atmosphere that I couldn’t ignore.  This is wonderful work by art director Charles D. Hall and set designer, director Edgar G. Ulmer.

Yes, the acting is a bit forced at times, but this kind of movie is special.  No one makes this kind of film anymore.  A kooky story, two famed, cult horror movie stars doing their shtick, exquisite costume design and the sleek designs of an art deco set are things too good to be miss.  This is perfect for Halloween, or just whenever you’re in the mood to see a kind of movie lost in time to us – gone, but not forgotten because quite a few gems like this still exist.  The Black Cat is also the first of eight screen parings of Karloff and Lugosi.

6 of 10

Updated:  Friday, August 16, 2013


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