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Film / The Black Cat

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The Black Cat is a 1934 Universal Horror film starring Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff, the first of six movies to pair them together. It was written and directed by Edgar G. Ulmer.

Peter Alison (David Manners) and his new bride Joan (Jacqueline Wells) are on their honeymoon in Hungary when they discover that a mixup in train reservations has left them sharing a compartment with Dr. Vitus Werdegast (Lugosi), a psychiatrist traveling to see an old friend, Hjalmar Poelzig (Karloff). After leaving the train, they continue their journey on the same bus, since they are going in the same direction. When the bus crashes near Poelzig’s house and Joan is injured, however, the couple find themselves subject to the dubious hospitality of Poelzig, and discover that Werdegast seeks not friendship, but vengeance. Poelzig, for his part, is revealed to be the leader of a satanic cult, and plans to sacrifice Joan in a ritual.

A rare turn for Lugosi as a heroic character, The Black Cat was part of a wave of horror talkies in the 1930s, following the shared success of Dracula and Frankenstein. While Edgar Allan Poe's name is listed in the credits, the movie had little to do with his short story of the same name.

The film was well received by critics and the public. On the movie review aggregation site Rotten Tomatoes, The Black Cat received an average rating from critics of 85%. The film was also ranked #68 on Bravo's 100 Scariest Movie Moments for its "skinning" scene.

As this movie is more than eight decades old, unmarked spoilers are most certainly below.

The Black Cat contains examples of:

  • Art Deco: Pretty much everything in Poelzig's house.
  • Artistic License – Geography: Poelzig's house at Máramaros can not be that far from Viségrad in Hungary, since the police called to protocol the bus crash arrives from there, yet the real Máramaros note  is 350 km to the east in Romania and Ukraine note . Also, one of the officers tells he is from Pistyan, a town in Slovakia note  120 km to the northwest. This is probably not due to ignorance, since Edgar Ulmer was born in Austria-Hungary note .
  • Battle Butler: Poelzig’s majordomo actively helps his master’s nefarious deeds, including knocking out Peter and shooting Thamal.
  • Being Good Sucks: Poor Vitus. In the end, he has nothing left but the sadistic pleasure of subjecting the man who ruined his life to a prolonged, grisly death.
  • Bilingual Bonus: There's a surprisingly comical scene around the middle of the film that has Werdegast serving as an interpreter and translator for the police sergeant and police lieutenant that come to Poelzig's home to question him and the Alisons on the bus crash earlier. Most of the conversation is in English, but when the two policemen first enter the introductions are in Hungarian, with Werdegast having to tell them that the Alisons are Americans. It's actually a real treat to hear Béla in his native tongue, if only for a sentence.
  • The Blue Beard: Poelzig, though some of those women were probably his sacrifices.
  • Canis Latinicus: A variant. Poelzig's incantation is real Latin, but has nothing to do with the context in which it is spoken, so it is still effectively nonsense.
  • Cruel and Unusual Death: "That's what I'm going to do! Tear the skin from your body! Slowly! Bit - by - bit! ALIVE!"
  • Disposable Pilot: Having delivered his Info Dump about Máramaros, the bus driver is immediately killed in the bus crash that strands the protagonists at Poelzig's house.
  • Downer Ending: For some at least, and for Werdegast's sake. Werdegast learns that his daughter was still alive... right before he finds her corpse. With nothing left in his life, he straps Poelzig to his embalming rack, and the film ends as he begins to skin the man alive.
  • Fainting: Like a good 1930s female lead, Joan naturally does this when the mooks attack her husband. And again when she's being rigged up as the human sacrifice.
  • Fatal Flaw: "He has an intense, and all-consuming horror—of cats".
  • Flaying Alive: How Werdegast avenges himself against Poelzig.
  • Gratuitous Latin: The incantations during the ritual consist of Latin maxims and idioms, including "Beware of dog" and "With a grain of salt," probably to avoid accusations of blasphemy if actual liturgical phrases (altered or otherwise) were used.
  • Handicapped Badass: Thamal is mute but incredibly strong and agile. Even fatally wounded in the chest he manages to overpower Poelzig (who was about to strangle Werdegast) and his armed majordomo.
  • Haunted Castle: The establishing shot shows Máramaros illuminated by flashes of lightning, looming amid drifting fog above leaning crosses and twisted trees. However, it is an example of then-latest avant-garde architecture, “A masterpiece of construction built upon the ruins of the masterpiece of destruction.” Fittingly, in a variation of the mad scientist, Poelzig is a mad architect.
  • Hellhole Prison: The gulag where Vitus was locked away after the battle of Fort Máramaros.
  • Hollywood Satanism: Poelzig's cult is a very early example.
  • Hostile Weather: The bus crash is caused by a severe rainstorm.
  • In Name Only: The opening title actually says "Suggested by the immortal Edgar Allen Poe classic." The "Suggested by" credit should get more use, don't you think?
  • Karmic Death: Taxidermy enthusiast Poelzig is hung from his own skinning rack and flayed alive.
    Werdegast: How does it feel to be on your own embalming rack, Poelzig?
  • Living Doll Collector: Poelzig to a T, with his collection including Werdegast's beloved wife.
  • Match Cut: Peter is undressing for bed, and winds up throwing his jacket in front of the camera. The next shot is Peter pulling a bed sheet away from the camera.
  • Named After Somebody Famous: The Alisons intend to spend their honeymoon in Gömbös, “the pearl of the Carpathian Mountains”. There is no such place, however Gyula Gömbös de Jáfka was the Hungarian prime minister from 1932-36. This gives a whole new meaning to the line “Pistyan used to be all right 10, 15 years ago, but now...Gömbös is the place.”
  • Papa Wolf: In what is actually a very sad moment, Werdegast—only moments after being told by the resident damsel and potential sacrifice to Satan that his daughter was still alive (and married to Poelzig, but still alive)—finds the body of said daughter in the next room over and promptly loses it. How does he lose it, you ask? He skins Poelzig alive.
  • Public Domain Soundtrack: The entire soundtrack consists of a variety of classical music pieces, including works by Schubert, Bach, Beethoven and Chopin.
  • Right-Hand Cat: The black cat of the title, Poelzig's pet.
  • Roaring Rampage of Revenge: Vitus, and justified to all hell.
  • Shadow Discretion Shot: The flaying. Even pre-Code, you couldn't get away with having a man stripped of his skin on-camera in 1934; however, what little we do see (Werdegast placing his knife to a terrified Poelzig's neck just before he gets started) was enough to freak a number of critics out.
  • Shell-Shocked Veteran: Both Werdegast and Poelzig suffered horrible mental damage because of their experiences during World War I. Poelzig has a speech about it:
    "Are we any the less victims of the war than those whose bodies were torn asunder? Are we not both the living dead?"
  • Sinister Minister: Poelzig is a Satanic high priest.
  • The Speechless: Werdegast’s mute Mongolian servant Thamal.
  • Torture Technician: Again, Poelzig. What more can one say about a dude that likes keeping the bodies of women on display in glass cases?
  • Tuckerisation: According to himself, in 1920 Edgar Ulmer worked with architect Hans Poelzig on the set of Paul Wegener’s film The Golem.
  • 24-Hour Party People: A number of elegant people, none of whom are characterized or previously established, show up to attend Poelzig's Satanic rite.
  • Überwald: The Alisons leave the real world at Viségrad station and enter Überwald on the bus ride to their fictitious destination Gömbös, when the bus crash strands them at equally fictitious Máramaros. While not as famous as Dracula or Frankenstein, The Black Cat is among the Universal horror films that codified the Überwald trope in the 1930s and 40s.
  • The Ultimate Showdown of Ultimate Destiny: Basically, the film is Bela Lugosi vs. Boris Karloff. Lugosi wins in brutal fashion, though his character is left with little else but that satisfaction.
  • Villainous Incest: Poelzig doesn't just get Werdegast sent to a prison camp, steal his wife from him, and then kill her—he goes the extra mile and marries the man's daughter (after having been with her mother, technically making him her stepfather). While exceptionally vile, consider how much worse it is when you realize that Vitus had been locked away for eighteen years, and that means that Poelzig was more than likely with Mrs. Werdegast for some time before killing her, which itself means that he was basically the only thing close to a father figure in Karen's life (especially since she was too young to even remember her real father), bringing the creepy factor full circle. What's also horrifying is that Karen seems generally okay (for lack of a better word) with it all.
  • Villainous Widow's Peak: On Poelzig.
  • Why Did It Have to Be Snakes?: Werdegast is an ailurophobe, and at one point reflexively flings a knife at and kills a cat that startled him.
  • Wife Husbandry: Since Karen said her mother died when she was very young, this may have been what Poelzig did to his eventual wife.