From the Vaults: ‘The Black Cat’ (1934)

 Lucy Van Pelt: How about cats? If you’re afraid of cats, you have ailurophasia.

Charlie Brown: Well, sort of, but I’m not sure.

Actually, the word is “ailurophobia,” and Bela Lugosi’s character suffers it intensely in “The Black Cat” — providing a tenuous justification for the title. Supposedly inspired by Edgar Allan Poe’s short story, the movie bears no resemblance to it whatsoever, but is still notable for its dark tone, a fascinatingly idiosyncratic atmosphere, and the first on-screen pairing between Lugosi and Boris Karloff. Plus it’s only about an hour long, so there’s really no reason not to check it out.

Lugosi plays one Dr. Vitus Werdegast, a creepy person who meets a pair of honeymooners on a train and interrupts their private snogging. Through a series of travel mishaps, the three end up at a mansion owned by the even creepier Hjalmar Poelzig (Boris Karloff — or, as the opening credits have it, “KARLOFF”). Apparently Werdegast and Poelzig have a nasty history! Their mutual vendetta ultimately involves chess, cats, frozen corpses, stolen wives, modernist architecture, Satanic rituals, nationalistic revenge, crazy outfits and the hapless honeymooners. “The Black Cat” crams a lot into its 65-minute run time!

(NB: Lugosi is also featured in a 1941 film called “The Black Cat.” That one stars Basil Rathbone and also has nothing to do with the Poe story, or with this film either. So don’t get confused.)

Clearly intended to capitalize on the success of “Dracula” and “Frankenstein,” both released in 1931, this Catduo film makes much of the Lugosi-Karloff pairing. Their characters have a beef going back to the war, and the two are constantly squaring off — whether over a chessboard or in an insane underground laboratory/Satanic sanctuary. Karloff’s first shown sitting bolt upright in silhouette, in manner of Frankenstein. Lugosi menaces ladies in their rooms, in manner of Dracula. (And honeymooner/hero David Alison is played by David Manners, also the hero of “Dracula.”)

But “The Black Cat” is definitely its own beast. It’s got a bizarrely loopy tone that’s pretty irresistible coupled with the convoluted plot. Werdegast turns out to be upset with Poelzig for engaging in war crimes and also for stealing Werdegast’s wife, whose remains prove to be preserved in the cellar. Poelzig fends off Werdegast by hurling cats at him. Upstairs, David and his bride Joan (Jacqueline Wells, later known as Julie Bishop) make fun of Poelzig’s name. It’s terrifically charming.

Catkarloff And instead of a gothic castle, the setting is Poelzig’s sleek, modern home; it’s interesting to see all the action unfold in such a clean setting. The windows are huge. The chess pieces are glass. The staircases are stark spirals, utterly bereft of spider webs. Director Edgar G. Ulmer takes every one of the many great opportunities for casting dramatic silhouettes. This is a fab-looking film. (Trivia note: Apparently Poelzig is named after Hans Poelzig, who was a production designer on “Anna Boleyn” and an art director on “The Golem.”

As they often do, though, things get serious when the Satanists come out. Poelzig attempts to conduct a high Mass of sort, at which poor Joan is forced to don a white dress with puffed sleeves. Werdegast attempts to skin Poelzig alive. The congregation amasses in long, Dracula-style capes with high collars. Will the honeymooners survive? Is this movie for real?

Don’t miss this lovable little horror gem. It’s available on a shared DVD with “The Raven” (1935) and “Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1932), also starring Lugosi. String up your disbelief Karloff-style and have a marathon. Remember, all cats are black in the dark!

— Anne Elisabeth Dillon

About lmharnisch

I am retired from the Los Angeles Times
This entry was posted in Film, From the Vaults, Hollywood. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to From the Vaults: ‘The Black Cat’ (1934)

  1. Arye (Leslie) Michael Bender says:

    If memory serves, this dark gem features a giant self-destruct lever installed in the basement for no purpose other than to provide a climactic ending. Note to self: When designing an ultra modern Bauhaus castle, always add a self-destruct lever with timer.


  2. AED says:

    So true! I also recently watched “Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man” and was wondering if these villain-on-villain showdowns can ever end any way other than in a massive explosion.


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