Black Cat (1934)

 

black-cat1

Origins 

Initial release                                                       May 3rd 1934 
Director                                                                  Edgar G Ulmer 
 Screenplay by                                                      Peter Ruric 
Music by                                                                  Heinz Eric Roemheld       
Released by                                                            Universal Pictures 
Run Time                                                                 65 minutes 
Budget                                                                      $95,000

 

Cast

Boris Karloff                                                        Hjalmar Poelzig
Béla Lugosi                                                            Dr. Vitus Werdegast
David Manners                                                     Peter Alison
Julie Bishop                                                           Joan Alison (as Jacqueline Wells)
Egon Brecher                                                        Majordomo
Harry Cording                                                      Thamal
Lucille Lund                                                           Karen Werdegast
Henry Armetta                                                    Police Sergeant
Albert Conti                                                          Police Lieutenant

 

Synopsis

The Black Cat opens with the arrival of the train, the Orient Express, into a Budapest train depot. We see bakers loading bread into the dining car. On board, ,when the train departs to continue on through Eastern Europe, are two newlyweds Joan Alison (Jacqueline Wells) and young mystery writer Peter Alison (David Manners). They are on their way to Gombos, a honeymoon resort near Vizhegrad. Due to a mix up in their reservations, they are asked if they are willing to share their compartment with a Dr. Vitus Werdegast (Bela Lugosi). He arrives and does not want to make a fuss, but Peter says he has no objections to sharing. Almost immediately, Werdegast eerily stares at Joan and then catches his suitcase as, jolted by the movement of the train, it starts to fall down on top of her.

Werdegast tells the couple that he is going to Vizhegrad and then on by bus, like them. He tells them he is going to visit an old friend and then, once again, gives Joan that sinister stare. Whilst our newlyweds both sleep, with their heads  bowed, he gently touches Joan’s hair.  Peter wakes  and seeing he is annoyed, Vitus begs his indulgence. He tells him that eighteen years ago he left a girl, so like Joan, to go to war. It was his wife. Werdegast is returning home. 3 years at war and 15 years in the Kurgaal prison. As he explains his return from the Russian prison camp, he sits forward, his eyes glare, and we see his tortured face grow taut.

We next see their arrival at Vizhegrad and the passengers leave the train. As we have come to expect in these movies, it is once again a foul rainy night. Anything less would add nothing to the slow building atmosphere. Werdegast with his enormous mute servant Thamal (Harry Cording) and the Alison’s board a rickety bus. Werdegast gives instructions to the driver, ‘Take me to engineer Poelzig’s house’.

As they drive ahead into the darkness of the countryside, the driver tells them that the area witnessed action during the Great War and that all of this country was one of the greatest battlefields of the war. Tens of thousands of men died here. The ravine, as he points it out, was piled twelve deep with dead and wounded men. The river below was swollen red, a raging torrent of blood. He also points out that the 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.

We now see the tension moved up another level as 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, whilst Joan is pulled unconscious from the wreckage and carried by Werdegast’s servant. The four travellers make their way on foot through the storm to the intended destination of the doctor, the cliff-top fortress-like home of Hjalmar Poelzig (Boris Karloff).

Next the doorbell comes into play and its ring 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. We see them ascend a curved staircase and Werdegast’s arrival is announced by the use of a futuristic looking speaker in Poelzig’s bedroom. We see Poelzig light the entire wall panel behind him as he rises. Thankfully, Joan’s injuries turn out to be only superficial and are treated by Dr. Werdegast, who then administers her  a sedative.

Poelzig now makes his entrance wearing a dark priestly robe and has a distinctive, jagged widow’s peak on his forehead . He is greeted by his friend who says it has been a long time and remarks that the years have been kind to him. He also tells him about their unfortunate accident on the road. The two old friends  then leave the room and when they  are alone together, we see that Werdegast is outwardly cordial.

This is however,  short lived. The past cannot be forgotten and he soon accuses Poelzig of betrayal. The reasons now become evident. Fifteen years earlier, Poelzig had been commander of Ft. Marmorus during its last terrible battle in World War I.  He was 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 to save his own life. Werdegast spent fifteen years at Kurgaal, a military prison. He is now seeking revenge, not to kill bodily as such, but to kill his betrayer’s soul. He also needs to know what has become of his wife (Karen) and his baby daughter. Following his release after serving many years in the prison, he had learnt Poelzig had married Karen under the pretext that he, Werdegast had been killed in action. Poelzig says ‘Vitus, you are mad’

Peter then enters and interrupts this intense conversation. He says he is lost for a word to describe the mansion’s atmosphere, other than it is interesting. It is indeed hard to describe, but Werdegast remarks stating it may well be an atmosphere of death. What else ?

We see Poelzig turn the dial on an art deco radio, from which Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony emanates. During the small talk, background on the characters is revealed and we learn that Werdegast is one of Hungary’s greatest psychiatrists. Peter, we learn, is an author of mysteries and one of America’s greatest writers of unimportant books. The plot thickens ?

We see Werdegast offer a toast to Peter’s charming wife and then see a black cat’s shadow cross the doorway. Werdegast shrinks back, drops his glass, and throws a knife at the animal with glowing eyes, killing it. Then he convulsively buries his face in his hands. We see Joan materialise into the room and she glides toward her husband, exuding feline gracefulness, asking  Werdegast ‘You are frightened, doctor?’  Not surprised and emotionally unaffected by the black cat’s murder, Poelzig appears to be forgiving toward Werdegast and even offers an explanation. Werdegast we are led to believe 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.

Peter now  carries his bride back to the bedroom and puts her on the bed. Peter believes that Joan’s strange behaviour at the moment of the black cat’s death was unusual, but Werdegast writes off what has happened as a result of the strong narcotic he had given her. Poelzig describes the age-old myth of the Black Cat which Werdegast believes is “the living embodiment of Evil”. Peter is unconvinced and thinks it sounds like a lot of supernatural baloney?

Poelzig  then shows his guests their rooms  and bids Werdegast  and then Peter  goodnight. We see the rooms are adjoining and  Werdegaste invites Peter to change rooms with him, so that he can be near Joan. Peter looks into Joan’s room to see she is alright.

Later that night in what can only be described as bizarre, we see Poelzig descending 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 inside. 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.

Moving on, we see him enter the dark room where he believes Werdegast is sleeping and he utters, ‘‘Vitus, we have something to settle, we two!” To his surprise Peter sits up in bed and from the adjoining room, Vitus appears. The two then leave Peter and go into the adjoining room. Vitus then demands to know where his wife is. The reply, ‘very well Vitus, I shall take you to her’

Poelzig motions to his adversary to follow him down the staircase. He tells Vitas he must come alone and he has to leave his servant behind. They begin another long descent down a second flight of spiralling iron stairs into the former old Ft. Marmorus, now a tomb-like mausoleum that houses the underground vaults. There, in the chart room, which housed the 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). Poelzig explains that she had died of pneumonia two years after the war and he had embalmed her so as to preserve her beauty. He remarks that she is as beautiful as the last time Vitus saw her. When asked about the fate of their daughter, Poelzig remarks ‘ also dead’.

Werdegast refuses to believe that they both died of natural causes, and draws a revolver. A black cat enters and interrupts the attempt on Poelzig’s life, paralysing Werdegast with fear a second time. He jumps back, crashing and collapsing into the glass of the chart backdrop.

Poelzig gently talks to the broken doctor in a memorable, world-weary monologue, comparing them both to living ghosts of the war. Poelzig claims that they have no soul and both really died all those years ago. He claims they are both the living dead. ‘We understand each other too well’ he claims, and suggests when the guests have gone they play a little game of death. More of this later.

Poelzig retires to his bedroom, and tells the blonde woman lying next to him in bed, who turns out to be Karen Werdegast, the daughter, that the disturbance is due only to an accident on the road below. He tells her she must stay in the room all day tomorrow. Vitus vows that nobody, not even her father, will take her from him.

Werdegast is still not aware that his daughter Karen has succeeded her late mother as Poelzig’s wife. In Werdegast’s bedroom, the doctor’s servant draws a knife, but Werdegast instructs him to put it away until he is told otherwise. Because the house is dangerously rigged with dynamite, they must be patient and discreet. In the meantime, Thamal must pretend to be Poelzig’s servant. In bed, we see  Poelzig reading  a book describing the Rites of Lucifer.

As day breaks Werdegast knocks on Joan’s door. She remembers very little of the accident and enquires after her husband. At this point Poelzig also arrives and after asking after Joan’s health tells her that her husband is at breakfast. His eyes linger a long time on Joan and she senses his interest in her and in modesty covers herself.

Poelzig  has shown an interest in Joan and Werdegast’s view is that Poelzig has no intention of letting her go. Werdegast tells him he wants her released.  He invites him to a Black Mass ritual that evening, but also challenges him to play a game of chess to determine her fate. What Poelzig had earlier called “a game of death.” Over an ornate chess game on a table, we see the pair sit down and the games commences. The outcome of the game will determine whether Joan will be sacrificed as part of the Black Mass ritual.

Joan is now feeling better and wants to leave as she does not feel comfortable in the house. Peter senses that they should go. After a few minutes of romance, the couple poke fun at Poelzig’s name and make plans to leave. She states that ‘she would be well enough to leave, even if she didn’t feel well enough to leave’.

We now see two gendarmes enter the house and ask for a report on the accident, interrupting Poelzig and Werdegast’s game. They add a brief moment of humour as they bicker over the merits of the local area. Eventually the accident is put down to the rain.

Peter informs Poelzig of the couple’s intentions to leave, but it turns out there is no train until that evening. Peter is insistent and talks about hiring a car. Obviously unhappy Poelzig relents and asks the servant to take the couple down to Vizhegrad. We now learn that the car has broken down and Peter wants to ring the local hotel to see if they can send a car. He is led to the telephone to make the  call, but discovers that it is dead. Sensing some danger and realising that they are trapped, Peter is determined to leave and warns Joan, ‘Come along Joan. We’re getting out of here fast…We’re leaving even if we have to walk to Vizhegrad’. On searching his suitcase, he also discovers someone has taken his  gun. They descend the staircase leaving their baggage behind to be collected later. At the same time we see that Werdegast has been check-mated in his game of fate, a struggle between life and death. Poelzig has won the game and Joan.

As Peter and Joan attempt to leave, Peter is struck unconscious by Werdegast’s servant, Thamal and Joan reacts by screaming and fainting. She is locked in the upstairs bedroom. Werdegast is concerned, but helpless, as he looks on passively. Peter is deposited in the old gun turret room down in the cellar.

Triumphant over his chess victory and the successful kidnapping, Poelzig plays a Bach toccata on the great organ in the main room on the terrace, venting his emotions and waiting for darkness to fall.

With the key to Joan’s bedroom, Werdegast lets himself in and tries to assure her that he is on her side and he warns what Poelzig’s intentions are. He tells her that Poelzig is a mad beast and that he took his wife, Karen, and murdered her and his daughter. Joan urges him on to take his revenge, but he tells her he must wait for the right time. Until then he will continue to do his bidding.He tells her about Satanism, the worship of the devil, and that Poelzig is the great modern priest of this ancient cult. When told that tonight, by the dark of the moon, the rites of Lucifer are celebrated and that she is to be part of the ritual.  She is terrified.

After leaving her room, Werdegast finds Poelzig waiting for him at the bottom of the stairs and he hands over the key to Joan’s room. We now move back to Joan’s room and after a black cat scurries by, Poelzig’s beautiful blonde wife Karen (Werdegast’s grown daughter) enters Joan’s room through a connecting door. She introduces herself as Karen or Madame Poelzig. Joan explains that she knows her father, but Karen counters by explaining she must be mistaken as her father died in prison. ‘Herr Poelzig married my mother. She died when I was very young’.

Joan explains that Karen’s father, Vitus Werdegast, did not perish in the destruction of Marmaros when she was a young girl. Joan tells her that her father is indeed alive and is attempting to rescue her. ‘Karen, do you understand me? Your father has come for you’.

Poelzig who had been listening outside the room now enters. He picks the black cat up in his arms, and gives Karen a murderous stare. She leaves the room without saying a word. In the adjoining room we hear Karen protesting and screaming.  Muffled, terrified screams. Poelzig hastily and cold-bloodedly murders his wife, his own step-daughter, for disobeying him.

On his balcony in a fierce menacing wind, as dark clouds race across the sky in front of the moon, Poelzig stares up into the heavens. One of the servants tells him that they must hurry to prepare things for the ceremony before the satanic cult guests arrive. Our villain is quite clearly mad.

That night, the guests begin to arrive at the fortress and Poelzig presides in a high priest’s black robe with white collar and descends the staircase to greet them. The cultist participants are in evening dress, but then change into their robes. Poelzig leads the devil-worshipping cult into the main hall of his house, including Werdegast .

During the Black Mass ceremony, Poelzig stands on a simple altar behind a sideways double cross. In fragmented Latin, he speaks the words of the Mass to the assembled devotees, as the organist plays. Joan is carried in, struggling and protesting. She faints upon the two beams of the cross on the altar as Poelzig chants a litany over her body, offering her soul and body to Satan. She is to be a human sacrifice to the Devil.

We now reach the climatic finale. Peter has regained consciousness and is trying to get into the chamber. One of the female cultists screams and collapses in a faint from all the excitement, interrupting the solemn ceremony. Realising his opportunity during the distraction, Werdegast, with the help of his servant Thamal, manages to rescue Joan from the cross. They sneak away and escape down the twisting metal staircase into the underground tunnels. Meanwhile, Peter is again knocked out. Thamal kills Poelzig’s housekeeper, but is shot and mortally wounded himself in the scuffle. Joan meanwhile manages to tell Werdegast that Karen is still alive and married to Poelzig!

In Fort Marmorus’ control chamber in the underground laboratory, Werdegast frantically searches for his daughter, but his joy is short-lived. In the embalming room, he removes a sheet from a slab and sees her body. He lets out an agonizing cry as he realises it is the corpse of his daughter on the operating table.

Poelzig, who by this time has left the cult ceremony and tracked them down into the catacombs, comes upon Werdegast and attacks him. During their life-and-death struggle, Thamal, still barely alive and with blood dripping out of his mouth, overpowers Poelzig, but then drops dead.

In revenge for his atrocities, Poelzig is suspended upon and shackled to an embalming, torture rack where he is stripped of his robes and prepared for being skinned alive! With a mad, delirious gleam in his eyes, Werdegast rants and raves about what he is planning to do to the Satanist, using his own embalming rack.

From a surgical table, Werdegast selects a scalpel for the operation. Joan screams when she realises she will be witnessing a live skinning. Slowly and bit by bit, the doctor slices skin with a scalpel from his face (the skinning is filmed as a dark shadow play in black images of manacled hands on the wall). Asked  sadistically, “How does it feel to hang on your own embalming rack, Hjalmar?”

Meanwhile, Peter who has again regained consciousness, bursts onto the scene after hearing Joan’s screams. Through the chamber’s locked gate, he shouts for Joan to get the key to the door from the hand of Thamal, the now-dead servant. Pausing for a moment, Werdegast leaves the gruesome skinning and helps to pry open Thamal’s tightly-closed hand to help the Alison’s escape.

Misunderstanding and mistaking the doctor’s actions and intentions as menacing toward Joan, Peter shoots Werdegast with a revolver through the door’s grillwork. Joan tells her confused husband that Werdegast was on their side. ‘He wanted to help us’.

Wounded and dying, Werdegast speaks to the couple, sinks to the floor, and then begs them to go, calling Peter a fool for shooting him. ‘You poor fool. I was only trying to help. Now go! Please go!’ As they dash out, Werdegast approaches a large bank of instruments and switches on the wall. He prepares to grab one of the hidden switches in the wall  to detonate the explosives left over from the war.

As the couple escape, Werdegast throws the switch. Providing an epitaph for the two dying men, Werdegast’s final words are ‘It has been a good game’.

Peter and Joan make their way through the fortress to the road. Behind them, the dynamite ignites and explodes, reducing the house to rubble. They flag down an oncoming car and the final scene shows our couple back in a railway carriage continuing their journey. Peter picks up a newspaper where he sees a review of his latest book. The critic is condemning of our author for  letting his imagination run away with him!  A fitting end.

Reflections

This film is a classic. Based loosely on one of Edgar Allen Poe’s most disquieting tales, 1934’s The Black Cat.  It is one of the neglected jewels in Universal  Studios’ horror crown and it was the studio’s top-grossing film in 1934, rightly so. It has all the trimmings we have come to expect.  We have the scene setter where our travellers are introduced to a sinister Bela Lugosi on a mission to seek revenge on another horror icon, Boris Karloff. He  has not only stolen his wife, but his daughter too. Our young travellers become entangled in this twisted game of revenge. On this occasion Bela Lugosi is the good guy.

As for the setting, the weather is foul, the bus they are riding on crashes, the result being to leave them marooned in a sinister house. Do we need more? Well… we have it. The area they have the misfortune to be in was also the scene of a terrible battle in WW1 where the countryside was running with the blood of thousands of dead.

What about the highlights of the film itself? It was one of the only times the director, Ulmer, had a reasonable budget to work with and it gives us a true idea of how much talent he really had. We are left with lasting memories of examples of startling visuals. The breathtaking image of Karloff’s collection of dead women hovering in glass cases as he walks among them stroking his cat is just one. 

Final word

With two of the film industry’s best loved horror stars in a grudge match in a magical classic horror setting, this one could hardly fail. Add to this the WW1 bloody backdrop and the rest is history.  It marked the first of their seven joint appearances on the silver screen and when you add the oldest theme of them all, namely the age-old struggle between good and evil science, you have a film that everybody should see at least once in their lifetime. Forget all the modern special effects this one is the business.

In my opinion, both Karloff and Lugosi deliver two of the finest performances of their careers.

Stills

black-cat2
Our newly-weds agree to share a compartment with Dr Vitus Werdegast

black-cat3
It has been a long time Hjarmar. The years have been kind to you.

black-cat4

The lucky black cat ?

black-cat5
I wanted to have her beauty for always. I loved her too

black-cat6
I want you to take Mr & Mrs Alison down to Vizhegrad

black-cat7
Joan is prepared for the sacrifice

black-cat8
Karen Werdegast, the daughter has been murdered by our Villain

black-cat9
It’s been a good game

black-cat10
At last a good book review. Only criticism, too much imagination !