‘The Black Cat’ (1934)

The second of three Edgar Allan Poe adaptations starring Bela Lugosi, reviewed by Jonathan Sisson.

The Black Cat falls into one of my least favourite genres; that of the roaring-rampage-of-revenge thriller and yet, it’s one of my favourite films of the 1930s, and by far my favourite featuring either Lugosi or Karloff, and this shindig has both!”

Edgar Allan Poe’s 1843 story “The Black Cat” is a nightmarish little number in which the first person narrator succumbs to the evils of alcoholism under the influence of which he—once a good man—becomes a complete monster, gouging out his beloved cat’s eye and eventually torturing it to death before being forced to flee a house fire with his wife and servants. Sometime later, he takes in a new cat, found at a local tavern, and resembling the old (including its unique mono-optical arrangement) in every way bar a white mark on its chest resembling a gallows. During another one of his rages brought about by the new feline, the narrator bloodily murders his wife and walls her up in the cellar. The police investigate, but find nothing until they hear an unearthly wailing from behind the wall and discover a rotting female corpse with a cat sat upon her head…

Edgar G. Ulmer’s film takes this macabre concept and absolutely runs with it… straight to the nearest window where it chucks it out as far as it can throw it, then opens a can of Bauhaus-inspired nightmare fuel all over your ass. And this despite claiming to be “Suggested by the Immortal Story by Edgar Allan Poe.” In reality this is as much a Poe adaptation as Freddy Got Fingered (2001) is an adaptation of Jane Austin’s Sense and Sensibility. Indeed, Ulmer, who co-wrote the original story with pulp fiction author and screenwriter Peter Ruric freely admitted that Poe’s name was used merely to lure people into theatres (a ploy Roger Corman is still pulling off to this day). It’s hard to articulate just how downright weird and disturbing the end result is.

The Black Cat falls into one of my least favourite genres; that of the roaring-rampage-of-revenge thriller and yet, it’s one of my favourite films of the 1930s, and by far my favourite featuring either Lugosi or Karloff, and this shindig has both! While most modern revenge thrillers take the form of action movies and follow a formula usually involving the protagonist’s lover being horrifically killed (a trope I find deeply tiresome) and the “hero” extracting his revenge by committing acts of violence against the perpetrators without a care in the world of how much mayhem ensues or how much collateral damage he inflicts, The Black Cat appreciates that such a concept is genuinely horrific and has no place outside of the horror genre to be genuinely impactful rather than unintentionally horrific.

Karloff is topped billed (as just “Karloff,” since he was a massive star by this point), but it’s Lugosi we meet first, sharing a train carriage with previously established innocent newlyweds Peter—a pulp novelist—and Joan Alison (David Manners and Julie Bishop, billed under her real name of Jacqueline Wells). Lugosi plays Dr Vitus Werdegast, who at first comes across as creepy, unsubtly staring at Joan, but he then explains it’s only because he reminds her of his wife, whom he left 18 years ago to go to war (“Keiser und country und all dat!”), and that he’s on his way to see “an old friend.” Those expecting Lugosi to deliver his usual hammy sneering will be disappointed. It’s actually disarming how normal he seems, and quite refreshing. This may actually be not only one of his most subtle performances, but also his best and most sympathetic.

The “old friend” Werdegast is on his way to see is Engineer Hjalmar Poelzig (Karloff, as if you couldn’t guess, whose character’s name is not, in fact, a reference to Poe, but the German art director and architect Hans Poelzig). Poelzig has designed and built an enormous modernist house upon the foundations of the fort he commanded during the First World War. It looks like the sort of place Howard Roak from Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead might have knocked up, with a cold, Bauhaus interior reminiscent of a hospital, or as Peter alludes to at one point, an insane asylum. Frighteningly — and unusually for this type of film — Poelzig is not, in fact off his absolute rocker, but just plain evil.

Upon first viewing, it’s actually pretty shocking just how much of a sadistic, calculating asshole the chap actually is, and unfortunately for the Alisons, the road upon which the bus taking them and Werdegast from the station collapses during a storm and Werdegast has no choice but to take them to Poelzig’s home, since the driver is killed and Joan is injured. It turns out, Werdegast, who was bungled off to a Russian concentration camp after Poelzig betrayed him and every other man under his command, is looking for his wife, whom he has traced back to Poelzig, who informed her that Werdegast was dead then married her himself. Unfortunately, Poelzig now keeps her corpse on display in a glass case in the fortress deep beneath his lair, along with a huge leftover stash of dynamite that was meant to be used as a last resort self-destruct weapon should the stronghold be overrun by enemy soldiers, along with a gun room now converted into a handy cell and a cavern for his adventures in Satanism. Yep; the guy even has his own cult. Poelzig’s depravity does not stop there, but there’s a wonderful wham line about the nature of another character that I shall not spoil.

The Black Cat was something of a troubled production. Ulmer was by no means an easy man to work for and the fact that he was having an affair with Shirley Castle (later Ulmer) who was the wife of studio executive Max Alexander (and nephew of Carl Laemmle) caused control of the project to be wrestled away from him and put an end to his career as a major studio director. Studio interference caused the title-justifying subplot — in which a black cat apparently transfers its soul into Joan due to Werdegast administering a narcotic — to be cut down to a brief discussion on the supernatural and leaving Werdegast’s intense phobia and murderous hatred of cats unjustified.

Nevertheless, what remains is still masterful, scored throughout by disconcerting uses of the likes of Beethoven, Liszt and Brahms, and even though Werdegast’s ultimate act of vengeance upon Poelzig was trimmed by the studio simply because of just how bloody horrific it is, the very idea is enough to send shivers down the spine of even modern viewers. Apparently one of the deleted shots was a brief insert of what was left of the still living Poelzig, and it’s probably merciful that we didn’t get to see it, and perhaps even strengthens the impact by leaving everything up to the imagination.

Both Karloff and Lugosi are at the height of their powers here, and it says a lot for both actors and the power of the film making that not only do we end up feeling that Poelzig fully deserves his nightmarish fate, but that we still remain on the morally ambiguous Werdegast’s side even whilst he is perpetrating it.

“It has been a good game!”

The Eureka release under consideration is part of a limited edition Blu-ray set of just 2000 copies, so get it while it’s hot. Also included are Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932) and The Raven (1935).

The impressive collection includes High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentations for all three films, with The Raven presented from a 2K scan of the original film elements. Extras include a host of audio commentaries, Radio series episodes & vintage footage, along with a 48 page collectors booklet featuring new writing by film critic & writer Jon Towlson & Alexandra Heller-Nicholas.

SPECIAL TWO-DISC BLU-RAY CONTENTS:

High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentations for all three films, with The Raven presented from a 2K scan of the original film elements
Uncompressed LPCM monaural audio tracks
Optional English SDH subtitles
Murders in the Rue Morgue – Audio commentary by Gregory William Mank
The Black Cat – Audio commentary by Gregory William Mank
The Raven – Audio commentary by Gary D. Rhodes
The Raven – Audio commentary by Samm Deighan
Cats In Horror – a video essay by writer and film historian Lee Gambin
American Gothic – a video essay by critic Kat Ellinger
“The Black Cat” episode of radio series Mystery In The Air, starring Peter Lorre
“The Tell-Tale Heart” episode of radio series Inner Sanctum Mysteries, starring Boris Karloff
Bela Lugosi reads “The Tell-Tale Heart”
Vintage footage
New Interview With Critic And Author Kim Newman
PLUS: A 48-PAGE  collector’s booklet featuring new writing by film critic and writer Jon Towlson; a new essay by film critic and writer Alexandra Heller-Nicholas; and rare archival imagery and ephemera


❉ Eureka Entertainment present THREE EDGAR ALLAN POE ADAPTATIONS STARRING BELA LUGOSI (Masters of Cinema), released 20 July 2020. Available to order from: Eureka Store | Amazon 

❉ A regular contributor to We Are Cult, Jonathan Sisson studied Moving Image at the University of Central Lancashire and produced several short films. After that, he became an actor and has appeared in several film and television productions. Visit his website.

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