Universal’s The Black Cat (1934) is a strange creature. The film bears zero resemblance with the Edgar Allen Poe story from which it takes its name. Instead it’s one of the most disturbing, bizarre, and unique horror films of the classic horror era. The superstition tinged animal of the title plays a very small, but thematically significant role in the film. But the uncanny, haunted atmosphere of The Black Cat still makes it a perfect film to revisit for the upcoming occasion of Friday the 13th.
The Black Cat, while less famous than Universal Studio’s other horror films, was a fundamental release for the studio. It was their highest grossing film of 1934, and the first to unite their two biggest stars, Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. The combination of these horror icons was so successful, they went on to star in seven more films together. But in the opinion of many horror fans, the original film to join Karloff and Lugosi would stand out among them all as the best.
The film received mixed reviews upon its release. Like today, critics of the 1930’s didn’t put much stock in horror. But modern reevaluations hold The Black Cat in much higher esteem. It is considered a horror classic and currently holds an 87% Fresh score on Rotten Tomatoes.
Honeymoon Gone Wrong
The Black Cat opens with American newlyweds on honeymoon in Hungary. Peter (David Manners) and Joan Allison (Julie Bishop) are a good humored but average couple, making their alternative honeymoon destination a somewhat baffling choice. The film, which is often snarkily self-aware, later has Peter crack “Next time, I’m going to Niagara Falls.” But Peter is an author of thrillers by trade, so perhaps he’s looking for inspiration? If so, he gets more than he’s bargained for.
A mixup on their train forces the Allisons to share a compartment with Dr. Vitus Werdegast (Bela Lugosi), a Hungarian psychiatrist. Over the course of their travels together, Werdegast reveals he is a veteran of WWI and survivor of an infamous Siberian prison camp, where he spent 15 years. He tells them he is travelling to visit an old friend
The three share a car from the train station. During the rainy ride, the driver entertains his passengers with gory tales of the WWI battle wherein Russia took nearby Fort Marmorus. The driver describes the carnage cheerfully, more like a tour guide pointing out pretty sites than describing a tragedy that would’ve been relatively recent history in the 30’s.
The storm proves too much for driving, and the car crashes, killing the driver and injuring Joan. Werdegast takes the couple to the home of Hjalmar Poelzig (Boris Karloff), Austrian architect and the “old friend” that Werdegast was going to visit. Beneath the modern Art Deco home are the bowels of the fallen fort.
Ghosts of the Past
Werdegast treats Joan’s injuries and drugs her to help her sleep. Soon after, he sees a black cat approach and panics, throwing a knife that kills the animal (offscreen). As a cat lover, this moment never fails to shock me, but Poelzig and Peter seem only mildly perturbed. Poelzig explains that Werdegast suffers from an extreme case of Ailurophobia. The doctor refers to the superstitions surrounding the animal as the embodiment of evil as partly responsible for his fear.
When Werdegast finally finds himself alone with Poelzig, he confronts his former comrade, accusing him of betraying the fort to the Russians during the war — dooming him to prison and thousands more to death. Werdegast further accuses Poelzig of stealing his wife from him during his imprisonment. He tells Poelzig that his revenge on him will not be immediate.
Later, Poelzig explores the passages beneath his house, which houses the preserved corpses of women displayed in glass cases, including Werdegast’s wife. Before long, Poelzig’s true nature — a murderous Satanist — is revealed. He plans to keep the Allisons prisoner and offer Joan as a sacrifice in a black mass.
Werdegast attempts to save the Allisons, all the while waiting for the perfect moment to exact his grisly revenge.
The Living Dead
The Black Cat is an unsettling and unique film among its fellow 30s era Universal horror releases. It’s not a monster movie, and it’s plot doesn’t resemble its literary source material in the slightest. The terrors of the story are entirely human. Supernatural elements are merely suggested and never confirmed to be authentic factors in the events.
As a result, The Black Cat is an eerie, disorienting film with surprisingly deep psychological themes. It examines the nature of evil in a way that continues to feel relevant today.
The most immediate source of evil in The Black Cat is war. The two WWI veterans at the center of the plot are made monsters only by the real life horrors they witnessed and were forced to partake in. The specter of WWI haunts the entire film. Poelzig’s house, which becomes a terrifying trap, is not the typical crumbling manor of gothic horror. Rather, it is a starkly modern, art deco mansion. Much more Frank Lloyd Wright than Castle Dracula. It’s unexpectedly bright, clean appearance adds to the uneasiness of the horror that takes place there.
Modern and very much of the 30s, the house is built on top of the remains of the fort that witnessed the horrors of WWI. It prompts the viewer to consider how the decades immediately following the war attempted to bury its scars in style and modernity. The metaphor is subtle but clear, and effective.
As characters, Poelzig and Werdegast serve to further explore themes of the effects of war. Both do horrifying things. Poelzig is entirely detestable, Werdegast is depicted much more sympathetically. But while he tries to help the Allisons and cares deeply about his daughter and late wife, he is by no means a redeemed character. He tries to protect the Allisons while still using them as tools in his “game of death” with Poelzig. And when he does exact his revenge on Poelzig, it is famously sadistic and disturbing.
Poelzig himself alludes to this when he confronts Werdegast for his hypocrisy in attacking him in seeking revenge;
“You say your soul was killed and that you have been dead all these years. And what of me? Did we not both die here in Marmorus fifteen years ago? Are we any the less victims of the war than those whose bodies were torn asunder? Are we not both the living dead?”
Indeed, the film forces us to face ghosts of our own making. Not supernatural, but people who have become broken, shells of humanity as a result of violence and war. This is a theme that feels just as relevant today as it did in the 1930s.
Another theme at play the The Black Cat is unending cycles of evil. When Werdegast kills the cat in the beginning of the film, he cites ancient tomes that describe a black cat as the embodiment of evil. Poelzig reminds him;
“The Black Cat does not die. Those same books, if I’m not mistaken, teach that the Black Cat is deathless. Deathless as Evil.”
For cat lovers such as myself, anything describing a black cat as evil is laughable and honestly offensive. But if you consider it as a representation of the undying nature of human evil, rather than an animal, it’s very effective. Sure enough, the titular cat appears again, very much alive, throughout the film.
Like the evils of the world at the center of the film, the cat will never die. It will always return to create more living ghosts like Poelzig and Werdegast.
The themes of the The Black Cat are unexpectedly deep and timely. But aside from this, the plot is still incredibly strange. So how does this unusual outing for Universal Horror hold up today?
Horror of the Bizarre
There’s no doubt the story of The Black Cat is far from airtight. It has plot holes, developments that come out of nowhere, and bizarre character motivations. But it’s not too ridiculous to be interesting, enjoyable, compelling — and very creepy. In fact, the bizarre nature of the film is what makes its horror stand out and continue to work today.
The film is full of creepy imagery. The preserved corpses that appear to levitate in glass are haunting, as is the notorious climatic scene in which a character is skinned alive. That scene is done with the gore off-screen, shown in shadow rather than full on. But the suggestion is horrifying enough.
The set design, lighting and cinematography of the film is masterful and surprising. It evokes a uniquely chilling atmosphere that manages to keep you interested — and creeped out — even in the films quieter moments.
The other major draw of the film is to see Karloff and Lugosi face off in their first onscreen collaboration. The horror greats are in top form, and it’s fascinating to see them play characters that aren’t supernatural creatures, but merely twisted, broken men.
I wouldn’t say the film is particularly scary. Truly scary horror was being made during the 30s and 40s, but in my opinion at least, it wasn’t coming from Universal. Universal Horror always dealt more with mood and theme than scares.
But in the realm of mood and theme, The Black Cat delivers. It is genuinely creepy, disorienting in its strangeness, and shockingly disturbing. This, along with it’s brilliant cinematography, creative design, and noteworthy turns from two horror greats, make The Black Cat a must see horror classic and the perfect choice for a Friday the 13th movie night.