The Black Cat (1934)
The Black Cat (1934) is a classic, enigmatically disturbing horror film from Universal Studios in the 1930s. It became Universal's top-grossing film of the year. The visually intriguing, austere, landmark horror film - a tale of European post-war anguish and death, was expressionistically directed by Edgar G. Ulmer. Its theme of the horrors of war would be echoed in his later films. He was obviously influenced by his previous work with German director F.W. Murnau (and his film Nosferatu (1922)), and by Fritz Lang's film Metropolis (1927). Art-deco sets by art director Charles D. Hall, and stark B/W photography by John Mescall evoke the proper atmosphere.
Some reviewers have considered it the first American psychological horror film, with dark sexual repression, twisted relationships, and aberrant behavior (Satanism (devil worship), black mass orgies, necrophilia, pedophilia, sadistic revenge, murder and incest). Its fantastic architectural settings, expressionistic lighting, interesting geometric patterns and designs, and bizarre sets all add a richness to the strange tale. The film has been criticized as being incomprehensible, due possibly to the studio's pressure to shoot retakes of various scenes to avoid criticism about its sordid subject matter.
It co-stars the two greatest masters of the horror genre. It marked the first of their seven joint appearances in feature films. One of the themes of the film was the age-old struggle between good and evil science, diabolically personified by Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff - the lead stars of Universal's Dracula (1931) and Frankenstein (1931). [They would continue to star together in six more films: The Raven (1935) with Lugosi second-billed to Karloff; Lambert Hillyer's melodramatic sci-fi thriller The Invisible Ray (1936); Universal's third Frankenstein installment Son of Frankenstein (1939) with Basil Rathbone as the title character, Karloff reprising his role as the Monster for the last time, and Lugosi as Ygor; Black Friday (1940) - notable as the fifth and final teaming of Karloff and Lugosi at Universal; an RKO mystery farce You'll Find Out (1940) with Peter Lorre; and finally in RKO producer Val Lewton's The Body Snatcher (1945) with Karloff in a major supporting role and Lugosi in a minor role.]
The two lead roles, Dr. Vitus Werdegast and Poelzig, are characters who experienced bad blood between them due to past betrayals and murder. The original screenplay by Peter Ruric, a semi-autobiographical work, was only loosely "suggested by the immortal Edgar Allan Poe classic" (according to the film's credits). All that remains of Poe in the final release is the film's title and the brief appearances of a black cat. [The script originally combined Poe's The Fall of the House of Usher and The Black Cat, but Ruric's final script was derived from a story by director Edgar G. Ulmer containing allusions to English occultist Aleister Crowley and his devil-worshipping activities that were currently making headlines in the nation's press.]
The soundtrack is composed almost entirely of classical music selections. In fact, the film was billed as: "The Daddy of 'em All! The Monster of Frankenstein plus the monster of Dracula, plus the 'monstrousness' of Edgar Allan Poe - all combined by the master makers of screen mysteries to give you the absolute apex in supershivery!"
After the film's credits, each of the major stars is introduced: Karloff (his first name dropped) with his back to the camera while playing an organ, Bela Lugosi engrossed in a game of chess - the metaphoric plot device, and minor stars David Manners, Jacqueline Wells, and Lucille Lund.The Story
The film opens with the arrival of the train, the Orient Express, into a Budapest train depot. Bakers load bread into the dining car. On board when the train departs to continue on through Eastern Europe are two excited, in-love newlyweds Joan (Jacqueline Wells) and young mystery writer Peter Alison (David Manners). They are on their way to Gombos, a honeymoon resort near Vizhegrad - this information is economically conveyed from their passport read by one of the train's conductors. Due to a mixup and mistake in the reservations, they are asked if they are willing to share their compartment with noted Hungarian Dr. Vitus Werdegast (Bela Lugosi). Svelte, aristocratic and with a strong Hungarian accent, Werdegast makes an impressive entrance. Their honeymoon privacy is cut short. Almost immediately, Werdegast eerily stares at Joan and then prevents his suitcase from falling down on top of her, commenting:
After all, better to be frightened than to be crushed.
Werdegast tells the couple that he is going to Vizhegrad and then on by bus, like them: "I go to visit an old friend." [The old friend is architect/engineer Hjalmar Poelzig who is introduced shortly.] While she sleeps with her head bowed, he gently touches her hair, and then explains to an annoyed Peter that she reminds him of his lost wife:
I beg your indulgence my friend. Eighteen years ago, I left a girl so like your lovely wife to go to war...She was my wife. Have you ever heard of Kurgaal? It is a prison below Amsk...Many men have gone there. Few have returned. I have returned. After fifteen years, I have returned.
Werdegast is returning home after 18 years - 3 years at war, and 15 years in the Kurgaal prison. As Werdegast explains his return from the Russian prison camp, he sits forward, his eyes glare, and his tortured face grows taut.
In the middle of the night, passengers debark the train in the rain at Vizhegrad. Werdegast, his enormous mute servant Thamal (Harry Cording), and the Alisons board a rickety bus. Werdegast instructs the driver: "Take me to Engineer Poelzig's house." As they drive ahead into the darkness (a minimalist film set exterior), the countryside where the Great War was fought is described by the bus driver as a place where Europeans continue to live, with their loved ones buried in mass graves. Poelzig had built his mansion overlooking a great bloody battlefield, directly on the site of Fort Marmorus - "the greatest graveyard in the world":
All of this country was one of the greatest battlefields of the war. Tens of thousands of men died here. The ravine down there was piled twelve deep with dead and wounded men. The little river below was swollen red, a raging torrent of blood. And that high hill yonder where Engineer Poelzig now lives, was the site of Fort Marmorus. He built his home on its very foundations. Marmorus, the greatest graveyard in the world.
The tourist bus skids on the muddy road and goes off into a ravine. The coach overturns and the driver is killed in the accident. Joan is pulled unconscious from the wreckage and carried by Werdegast's servant. The four travelers make their way on foot in the storm to the expected destination of the doctor, the cliff-top fortress-like home of renowned Austrian architect Hjalmar Poelzig (Boris Karloff).
The lights in the interior of the modernistic, Art Deco mansion are turned on in response to the ringing doorbell. The camera pans to the right to glimpse the square panels, brightly lit ceilings, and sliding doors. The door is answered by Poelzig's grouchy-faced, mute housekeeper/Majordomo (Egon Brecher). Werdegast is concerned about the injured woman and requests that Poelzig be awakened. They ascend the curved staircase. Werdegast's arrival is electronically announced on an ultra-modern speaker in Poelzig's bedchamber, viewed through a drawn, wispy, veiled curtain. In silhouette, his upper body stiffly sits up in bed like a somnambulist or vampire rising from a coffin. The enigmatic Poelzig lights the entire wall panel behind him, creating a much darker, more mysterious silhouette. Joan's superficial shoulder wounds are treated by Dr. Werdegast - deeply concerned about his wife, Peter flinches when the doctor injects her with a knock-out sedative.
After being summoned, Poelzig malevolently opens the door and looms in the background in a dramatic entrance. He wears a dark priestly robe and has a distinctive, jagged widow's peak on his forehead. Werdegast greets his old friend - or enemy: "It has been a long time Hjalmar. The years have been kind to you." Poelzig also takes a desirous, but repressed, covert interest in Joan.
When they are alone together, Werdegast is outwardly cordial, but in a tense scene, he confronts and taunts his host Poelzig with raging animosity for betraying him (and thousands of other Hungarians) over fifteen years earlier. He cannot forget their common past. Poelzig had been commander of Ft. Marmorus during its last terrible battle in World War I - and perhaps the man who betrayed the fort to the enemy, the Russians, resulting in the deaths of thousands of countrymen. He allowed the men under him, including Werdegast, to be captured, and then fled for his own life. Werdegast spent fifteen years at Kurgaal, a military prison "where the soul is killed, slowly." Seeking revenge, retribution and justice against his long-time acquaintance, the hate-filled doctor has returned to learn what has become of his wife (Karen) and baby daughter:
You sold Marmorus to the Russians. You scurried away in the night and left us to die. Is it to be wondered that you should choose this place to build your house? A masterpiece of construction built upon the ruins of the masterpiece of destruction - a masterpiece of murder. (Werdegast laughs hideously) The murderer of 10,000 men returns to the place of his crime. Those who died were fortunate. I was taken prisoner at Kurgaal. Kurgaal, where the soul is killed, slowly. Fifteen years I've rotted in the darkness. But not to kill you, but to kill your soul - slowly. Where is my wife, Karen, and my daughter?
Released after many years, he learned that Poelzig had married his wife during his imprisonment (making Karen and her daughter believe that he had been killed in action):
Werdegast: ...You told Karen I had been killed...I mean you always wanted her. In the days at Salzburg before the war, always from the first time you saw her...You wanted Karen and induced her to go to America with you. I traced the two of you there, and to Spain, and to South America and finally here. Where is she?
Poelzig: Vitus, you are mad!
Peter's entrance interrupts their intense conversation. When Peter cannot find words to describe the mansion's atmosphere, Werdegast observes:
It is indeed hard to describe. It's hard to describe his life - or death. It may well be an atmosphere of death. This place was built upon the ruins of the same Ft. Marmorus that our unfortunate friend, the driver, described so vividly. Herr Poelzig commanded Marmorus during the last years of the war. He is perhaps sentimental about this spot.
Poelzig turns the dial on an art deco radio, from which Schubert's Unfinished Symphony emanates. During the small talk, background on the characters is revealed - Dr. Werdegast is "one of Hungary's greatest psychiatrists." Peter characterizes himself as an author of mysteries and "one of America's greatest writers of unimportant books."
As Werdegast offers a toast to Peter's "charming wife and love," a sleek black cat's shadow crosses the doorway. Werdegast shrinks back, drops his glass, and throws a knife at the animal with glowing eyes, killing it (off-screen). Then he convulsively buries his face in his hands. Joan materializes in the room and glides toward her husband, exuding feline gracefulness. Then she asks Werdegast: "You are frightened, doctor?" Not surprised and emotionally unaffected by the black cat's murder, Poelzig is forgiving toward Werdegast and offers an explanation:
You must be indulgent with Dr. Werdegast's weakness. He is the unfortunate victim of one of the commoner phobias, but in an extreme form. He has an intense and all-consuming horror of cats.
Extraordinary camera work adds a sinister element to the next sexually suggestive scene. As Joan gives a passionate kiss to her husband in the background, the focus is adjusted onto the foreground, where Poelzig's hand reaches and grasps tightly onto the arm of a reclining nude figurine. (At the moment of the 'climaxing' crescendo of the Unfinished Symphony on the radio and the passionate kiss, Poelzig reacts spasmodically by gripping the nude statuette.) Peter carries his bride in his arms to the bedroom, places her on the bed, and kisses her again.
Peter believes that Joan's strange behavior at the moment of the black cat's death was unusual, but Werdegast writes off what happened as a result of the strong narcotic he gave her. Poelzig, who is black and feline himself, describes the age-old myth of the Black Cat which Werdegast believes is "the living embodiment of Evil":
Werdegast: It is perhaps the narcotic. I have seen it affect certain people very oddly. One cannot be sure. Sometimes, these cases take strange forms. The victim becomes in a sense, 'mediumistic,' a vehicle for all the intangible forces in operation around her.
Peter: Sounds like a lot of supernatural baloney to me.
Werdegast: Supernatural, perhaps - baloney, perhaps not! There are many things under the sun.
Poelzig: I shall show you your rooms.
Peter: It's strange about the cat. Joan seemed so curiously affected when you killed it.
Werdegast: That was coincidence, I think. However, certain ancient books say that the Black Cat is the living embodiment of Evil. And if that Evil enters into the nearest living thing, it is...
Poelzig: (interrupting) The Black Cat does not die. Those same books, if I'm not mistaken, teach that the Black Cat is deathless. Deathless as Evil. It is the origin of the common superstition. You know, the cat with nine lives.
At his bedroom door, Poelzig bids Vitus (and then Peter) goodnight: "Sleep well." Peter criticizes Poelzig's architectural taste as he speaks to Werdegast through an adjoining bedroom: "Well, I suppose we've got to have architects too. If I wanted to build a nice, cosy, unpretentious insane asylum, he'd be the man for it."
Later that night, Poelzig descends into the lower chambers of his fortress, coming upon a series of transparent glass-encased displays, with the dead bodies of at least six women floating or in suspended animation within. He strokes the fur of a black cat draped in his arms during his solitary walk, pausing in front of each case - his face is reflected in the glass. Moments later, he enters the dark room where he believes Werdegast is sleeping. However, because the two men have switched bedrooms, he also awakens Peter.
Poelzig: Now Vitus. We have something to settle, we two! (Peter sits up in bed. From the adjoining room, Vitus appears.)
Vitus: You were seeking me, Hjalmar?
Poelzig (to Peter): I beg your pardon. (Poelzig enters Werdegast's room and the door is slid shut)
Werdegast: (countering) Where is my wife?
Poelzig: Very well, Vitus. I shall take you to her.
At the start of the most memorable sequence in the film, Poelzig motions to his adversary to take a grand tour and follow him down the staircase inside the house to the cold iron door of the dark cellar. They begin another long descent down a second flight of spiraling iron stairs into the former old Ft. Marmorus, now a tomb-like mausoleum that houses the underground vaults:
Poelzig: And this was the entrance to the gun turrets. Don't you recognize it?
Werdegast: I can still sense death in the air.
Poelzig: There is still death in the air. It is just as much undermined [with dynamite] today as ever. And this is the old chart room for the long-range guns. The guns are gone, but the charts are still here.
There, in the chart room for long-range guns, staged in front of a large illuminated sheet of graph paper, Poelzig flips another light switch. They both view the perfectly preserved, glass-encased, suspended body of Werdegast's wife Karen (Lucille Lund), 'stolen' from the doctor (and married!) while he was imprisoned. Karen is positioned upright in the glass sarcophagus. Poelzig explains that she had died of pneumonia two years after the war and he had embalmed her to preserve her corpse after her death - the daughter had also died. Werdegast temporarily loses control and threatens to attack:
Poelzig: Now you see, Vitus, I have cared for her tenderly and well. You will find her almost as beautiful as when you last saw her. She died two years after the war.
Poelzig: Of pneumonia. She was never very strong, you know.
Werdegast: And, and the child, our daughter?
Werdegast (tremulously fighting back emotional tears, with his mouth gaping open in horror): And why is she...Why is she like this?
Poelzig: Is she not beautiful? I wanted to have her beauty - always. I loved her too, Vitus.
Werdegast: Lies. All lies Hjalmar. You killed her. You killed her as I'm about to kill you!
Werdegast refuses to believe that both Karens (wife and daughter) died of natural causes, and draws a revolver. A black cat enters and interrupts the attempt on Poelzig's life, paralyzing cat-phobic Werdegast with fear a second time. He jumps back, crashing and collapsing into the glass of the chart backdrop.