A young married couple share a train carriage with an unusual
gentleman called Doctor Werdegast. When he offers them a ride
in his car they crash near a large secluded house built on
the site of an old fortress. The couple soon discover it is
not by chance they are here. Werdegast wants revenge on his
old "friend" Hjalmar Poelzig, who was responsible
for his imprisonment there and the deaths of many other men
during the war. Most importantly he seeks information on the
status and whereabouts of his beloved wife and daughter. When
they are discovered in the house, Werdegast attempts to play
games of manipulation to defeat and ultimately kill his enemy,
but Poelzig is an old hand at this and reveals himself to
be the leader of a satanic cult. Meanwhile, the couple find
it impossible to leave...
could be a stronger foundation for a film than to base it
on a tale by master horror writer Edgar Allan Poe. I've read
Poe's short story The Black Cat, and this Universal
film from 1934 doesn't even vaguely resemble it. In Poe's
original the narrator tells of a cat he is cruel to and appears
to keep returning from the dead, particularly as a macabre
witness to the murder of his wife at his own hands. As you'll
have noticed from the synopsis above, using his name could
only have been a marketing ploy, particularly as studying
the credits reveals that this story is based on an original
idea by Edgar G. Ulmer (the director) and Peter Ruric (the
black cat of the title makes only two very brief appearances
to show that Werdegast has an intense fear of them, regarding
the animal as not only bad luck but as a representation of
death itself. I naturally assumed that it would return at
a pivotal scene near the end, but the idea is entirely wasted,
as is the revelation of the daughter's presence only to have
her quickly and illogically seen-off by Poelzig.
Karloff and Bela Lugosi both use their intensity to considerable
effect here, but Karloff (Poelzig) manages it to greater aplomb,
probably because he has significantly less lines and therefore
can practice his stare more often. As you would expect from
this era, the female characters scream and faint with next
to no provocation, and the score consists of constantly loud
orchestral music with no sense of mood and suspense-building.
It only relents slightly in order for Karloff to play with
his organ, so to speak, Phantom of the Opera style.
Didn't anyone tell him that's the job of Claude Raines.
competent thriller, but not the classic the back cover quotes
would have you believe.