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). When the train crashes and Joan is injured, however, the couple find themselves subject to the dubious hospitality of Poelzig, and discover that Wendergast seeks not friendship, but vengeance against Poelzig. 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.
- Being Good Sucks: Poor Vitus.
- 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 Allisons on the carriage 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 Allisons are Americans. It's actually a real treat to hear Béla in his native tongue, if only for a sentence.
- Battle Butler: Poelzigs majordomo actively helps his masters nefarious deeds, including knocking out Peter and shooting Thamal.
- The Blue Beard: Poelzig, though some of those women were probably his sacrifices.
- Cool vs. Awesome / Ultimate Showdown of Ultimate Destiny: Basically, the film is Bela Lugosi vs. Boris Karloff.
- Cruel and Unusual Death: "That's what I'm going to do! Tear the skin from your body! Slowly! Bit - by - bit! ALIVE!"
- Downer Ending: For some at least, and for Werdegast's sake.
- 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".
- Follow the Leader
- Flaying Alive: How Werdegast avenges himself against Poelzig.
- Gratuitous Latin: The incantations during the ritual are Latin for "Beware of Dog" & "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 Verdegast) and his armed majordomo.
- Hellhole Prison: The gulag where Vitus was locked away after the battle of Fort Marmorus.
- Hollywood Satanism: Poelzig's cult is a very early example.
- Hostile Weather: During the car crash.
- 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
- 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.
- Ominous Latin Chanting: The words of Poelzig's Satanic rite.
- 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.
- 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.
- The Speechless: Verdegasts mute Mongolian servant Thamal.
- Sinister Minister: Poelzig is a Satanic high priest.
- Toccata and Fugue in D minor: Well, what else is a Satanist going to play on his pipe organ?
- Torture Technician: Again, Poelzig. What more can one say about a dude that likes keeping the bodies of women on display in glass cases?
- 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.
- Wife Husbandry: Since Karen said her mother died when she was very young, this may have been what Poelzig did to his eventual wife.