The Black Cat (1934)

Starring: Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff
Second Sight
RRP: 15.99
Certificate: 15
Available 29 October 2007

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...

What 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 screenwriter).

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.

Boris 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.

A competent thriller, but not the classic the back cover quotes would have you believe.

Ty Power

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