Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff starred together in several horror films throughout the ’30s and ’40s. Though there are plenty of great films that come from their collaboration (as well as, if one is to be honest, a few real howlers), notably the Val Lewton-produced Body Snatcher and Son of Frankenstein (the last time Karloff played the monster), none are quite so wonderfully mad as The Black Cat.
The film is based on the Edgar Allan Poe story of the same name but only in the most nominal, “We wanted to put Edgar Allan Poe’s name on the poster” sense.
Taking place, as so many of these Universal horror films do, in an unnamed Eastern European country, The Black Cat finds Karloff as a former general and current Satanist, who has built his stately manor on the grounds of the battlefield where he betrayed his men and sent thousands to their death. In a fantastic twist on the old formula, this house of horrors is not the usual sprawling dilapidated mansion or Gothic castle, but a thoroughly modern Art Deco funhouse.
Lugosi plays one of the betrayed soldiers who has returned for vengeance. Though it’s not as if he doesn’t have reason in addition to the whole being left for dead thing, Karloff’s character married both the wife and daughter of Lugosi’s. Oldboy would be given pause.
The film was directed by Edgar G. Ulmar, the Austrian émigré best known today for his pioneering film noir. This was one of the few studio films that Ulmar managed to make during his long career. Personal scandal soon drove him to poverty, where he secured his place in film history by turning the liability of a complete lack of resources into an asset of creative freedom. But watching him play with the full resources of the studio is fascinating as well. The seeds of noir can be clearly seen. The actions seem just a bit darker (indeed the final fate of Karloff in the film will still make eyebrows rise) and the shadows more carnivorous. The secrets and wounds both run much deeper than usual.
Though the film can’t entirely escape the whiff of camp, most of it thanks to the performances of the ordinary couple who end up caught in the middle of the duel between Karloff and Lugosi, The Black Cat remains dark enough, stylish enough, and aggressively strange enough to stick in the mind. (1934, B&W, 65 min.)