I would like to take a moment to introduce myself. I am Mother of the Void and have loved movies, especially horror movies my whole life. Raising my children on a diet of all kinds of films, from black and white classics to B movie gems that we quote regularly, I was so proud that my daughter would be passing along her insight and unique take on all things horror. I asked her if she would be interested my contribution, offering some takes on classic films that might be overlooked as time marches on. She readily agreed, so let’s just hope that I don’t screw this up. When I asked The Void what she wanted me to screen, she almost gleefully replied with The Black Cat.
This was a film that I had not seen, or really heard much about. However, with Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, what could say ‘classic horror’ more that this dynamic duo. I started doing research on the film and before too long, I was sending The Void a message which stated, “What the hell are you having me watch? Necrophilia, satanic cults, World War One PTSD, and a set filled with sadism and abuse.” Her response was, “Yeah, I thought you would enjoy it!” She is her mother’s daughter.
Summary of The Black Cat (SPOILERS AHEAD)
Made in 1934, The Black Cat tells the story of newly wed American couple, Peter and Joan Alison. Leaving France for Hungary, they board a train on their way to their honeymoon. While playfully flirting about dinner plans, an employee interrupts and informs them that they will unfortunately have to share their room with another gentleman. Since they are departing relatively early on the route, it shouldn’t be too much of an inconvenience. Joining them is Dr. Vitus Werdegast (Lugosi), a psychiatrist that states he is going to see a friend.
The couple falls asleep and Dr. Werdegast reaches out and gently strokes Joan’s hair. Caught in the act, Peter shoots him a dirty look, causing Dr. Werdegast to pull his hand back and share the story of how much Joan reminds him of his wife. He has not seen her since he left to fight in World War One, over fifteen years earlier. He shares with the couple that Kurgaal Prison in Russia imprisoned him. It was a place where the lucky ones died.
When the train arrives in Hungary, Peter, Joan, Dr. Werdegast and his servant board a bus taking them to their hotel. Dr. Werdegast pulls the driver aside and asked if he could drop him off at the house of Engineer Hjalmar Poelzig (Karloff) on his way to the hotel. The driver agrees and the bus heads off in the pouring rain. The driver tells his passengers about how the roads were built by the Austrian army and the trenches were filled with bodies twelve deep during the war. He loses control of the car and goes into one of those trenches, killing him and injuring Joan Thamal, Werdegast’s servant, carries Joan while the other men follow to Poelzig’s house.
When the foursome arrives, the seeming inspiration of Eddie Munster greets them. He informs them that Heir Poelzig is already in bed, but he takes them to a room upstairs where Dr. Werdegast can examine Joan. Art deco inspired the house rather than the stereotypical “haunted house” of this era. An intercom wakes up Poelzig, stating that “Werdegast has arrived”. Laying next to him is a young, blonde woman. She does not stir and he slowly sits up and exits the room.
Werdegast dresses a wound on Joan’s chest and assures Peter she will be alright before giving her an injection, of what he later reveals is a strong narcotic. The door to the room slowly opens, with Poelzig standing there, in a very dashing robe. He slams the door behind him as Werdegast greets him. It is painfully obvious that Poelzig is not happy to see the fine Doctor. The two of them leave Peter and Joan and continue their conversation in Poelzig’s office. It is here that Werdegast confronts Poelzig about selling their fort to the Russians during the war and running away. Now this beautiful house that Poelzig has built is on the remains of that same fort. “A masterpiece of construction built on a masterpiece of destruction. A masterpiece of murder.”
The art of the cockblock
Dr. Werdegast confronts Poelzig about the location of his wife and daughter. Peter interrupts the conversation, and it is here that Dr. Werdegast exposes his fear of black cats when a dark feline surprises them. He picks up a knife, throwing it at the cat and killing it. Clearly suffering the affects of the injection, Joan appears again. Poelzig takes great delight in explaining Werdegast’s phobia to Joan. When Joan and Peter discuss him taking her up to bed, they begin to embrace and the focus pulls from them to an art deco statue of a woman, with Poelzig firmly grasping its arm.
Peter carries Joan up to bed, then joins the other two gentlemen in the hall. It was at this point when I was watching that I realized, and please pardon the following expression, but Dr. Werdegast has to be one of the first cockblockers in film history. This poor couple, who were interrupted in their private train car by this man, then he gives her a heavy sedative and insists that she be left to sleep alone, undisturbed, and later, when they are given their rooms, he insists on leaving the adjoining door between his and Peter’s room open. Peter, while looking at the empty space next to him in bed even says, “Next time I am going to Niagara Falls.” But I digress.
Peter and Werdegast are taken to their rooms, as assigned by Poelzig. After the two are left alone in their rooms, the adjoining door is opened and Werdegast ask if Peter would like to switch rooms so he could be in the room adjoining Joan’s. As Peter climbs into bed, Poelzig is seen in the house’s underground where it is revealed that he has multiple women, perfectly preserved, hanging in glass cabinets. He walks from woman to woman, carrying the now very much alive black cat.
Not knowing that Peter and Werdegast have switched rooms, Poelzig, enters what he believes is the Doctor’s room to settle their conversation from earlier. The two of them retreat into Werdegast’s room where Poelzig agrees to take him to see his wife. They descend the stairs to the remains of the fort under the house. It is here that Werdegast’s wife is hanging, perfectly preserved.
Poelzig tells the Doctor that his child died as well. Just as Werdegast is prepared to avenge his family’s deaths, the cat finds its way back into the room, causing him to lose his grip on is composure for an instant. Poelzig agrees to give him more information, but only after Peter and Joan have left. They both return to their rooms, where it is revealed that the blonde woman in Poelzig’s bed is actually Karen, Werdegast’s daughter. Also, it is where the fact that Poelzig is a Satanist is introduced.
The next morning, Joan is awakened by a knock on her door. Hoping it is her husband, she is instead greeted first by Werdegast and then by Poelzig. Joan is visibly uncomfortable by the presence of both men, but particularly Poelzig. He sends for her husband and the two men leave, going downstairs and starting a chess match, where the winner with determine if the Alison’s will be able to leave or not.
At this point, we are provided some comic relief when the authorities show up to investigate the accident from the night before. When Peter asks if they can give the couple a ride to town, the authorizes tell him that they ride bicycles and it “would be very inconvenient for madame.” Peter and Joan are thwarted in every attempt they make to try and leave. As Peter and Joan resign themselves to the fact that the only way they will be able to leave is to walk, Poelzig beats Werdegast at the very important chess game they had been playing. Peter is rendered unconscienced and taken to a cell under the house, while Joan faints and is once again carried upstairs and locked in her room.
Poelzig begins to play Bach’s Toccata & Fugue in D minor, which will forever be associated with horror and haunted houses. While this plays in the background, Werdegast steals the key to Joan’s room and tried to convince her that he had nothing to do with keeping them there and he is trying to help them. He explains that even though Poelzig has killed his wife and daughter, he is biding his time to exact his revenge, and until the time come, he needs to cooperate. When the Doctor leaves, Joan is visited by the pesky black cat and Karen. Poelzig enters the room and Karen retreats into her room. You then hear a struggle and scream, as Karen’s husband and captor kills her.
The guests then arrive for the Satanic Ceremony, in which they offer up Joan as a sacrifice. The participates go through the motions, while Joan fights and struggles, fainting once again on the altar. The quick cuts add to the tension and very noticeably inspired the editing on many films since.
Peter wakes up in his cell, which was one of the gun turrets from the old fort. A very inventive set piece. Pay close attention when Peter tries to open the first door. He almost gives himself whiplash. He finally escapes and gets into an altercation with Eddie Munster the first. Peter passes out…again.
Werdegast and his servant are trying to help Joan escape, but once again, she misunderstands their intentions. Mr. Munster shoots the servent, but he still has enough life in him to take care of Eddie once and for all. Joan informs Werdegast that his daughter is Poelzig’s wife, and they run into an adjoining room to find Karen dead on a slab, covered with a sheet. Joan runs to a corner of the room while Poelzig attacks the Doctor. The two of them struggle, and with the last ounce of strength he has left, the Doctor’s mortally injured servant comes in, locking the cell door behind him, and helps to overpower Poelzig, assisting placing him in his own embalming apparatus before finally succumbing to his injury.
Werdegast gleefully rips the jacket and shirt of Poelzig and then explains how he is going to skin him alive. The camera cuts to a shadow of the act being performed, and Joan screams…again. Peter wakes up, follows Joan’s screams and directs her to get he key and unlock the door. Werdegast goes to help her remove the key from his servant’s hand, and Peter sees this as an attack on Joan, shooting Werdegast. Joan explains he was trying to help. The Doctor instructs the Alisons to leave immediately. Mentioned in passing earlier, there is dynamite under the house. Poelzig–only shown in shadow–listens while Werdegast monologues how the cult, the two of them, and the sins of the war will be no more.
The Alison’s leave as the explosions go off, and they are able to flag down a passing car. The film ends with the happy couple on a train. There just so happens to be a review of Peter’s latest book in the paper on their seat. The reviewer makes a so-called joke, saying Peter should stick to the plausible when it comes to his writing.
The Black Cat would be the first of 8 collaborations between Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, with it largely regarded as the best of their films together. Karloff was a bigger star at the time and this showed in the difference in the two stars’ pay scales. Karloff made $7500 and Lugosi made $3000. David Manners, who had starred with Lugosi in Dracula, also made more that his regular costar, $3125. This figure is misleading however. With him on loan by another studio, the fees paid to the studio was factored into his salary. Rumor has it, Manners made considerably less than reported. As for the female costars, they paid Julie Bishop (Joan) $900 and Lucille Lund (Karen) made $150. To add insult to injury to Ms. Lund, the production company paid the cat itself $200. The total budget for the film was $91,125 and it grossed $236,000.
In today’s world of film, it can take years to get a film from the first day of shooting to its release date. The Black Cat began filming on February 28, 1937 and it wrapped on March 17, 1937. They released the film on May 7, 1937. Considering when the film was screened for studio executives, they demanded reshoots in hopes of toning down the violence, the release date is highly impressive. The director, Edgar Ulmer, did the exact opposite. He instead added the scenes of Karen’s body discovery and the skinning of Poelzig.
Working with Edgar Ulmer
Speaking of Edgar Ulmer, his actors referred to him as a total sadist. He became obsessed with Lucille Lund (Karen). He asked her repeatedly to be his girlfriend and she denied his advances. Co-star Harry Cording (Thamal) saved Lund’s life, actually. He found her bleeding from the mouth, strapped to the slab on the set, after Ulmer attacked her. Ulmer also left Lund hanging for over an hour in one of the glass cabinets while everyone else on set went to lunch. Ulmer went on to direct multiple films every year for 1934 to 1960.
None of them predicted the success of The Black Cat. They advertise an ‘Edgar Allen Poe’s’ story on the poster. However, Ulmer admitted that Poe’s story has nothing to do with the film. He used the story’s name as a publicity stunt.
Italy, Finland and Austria banned the film. Other countries demanded to cut some of the gruesome scenes prior to release. England released it under the name “House of Doom” because in their culture, they consider good luck.
There is a list of first for The Black Cat: It was the first film to show a Satanic cult. It was the first film to feature a soundtrack throughout the whole movie. At that time, the opening and closing credits were the only places to feature music.
Bauhaus designs inspired the art deco design of the set, which was popular in Germany from 1919 to 1933. It was unlike any horror setting before. The sets and costumes were a 180 from the gothic feel in Lugosi and Karloff’s pervious films.
My Opinion on the Film
I have to say, my reaction to The Black Cat surprised me. I enjoyed it more than I thought it would–enjoying it more, however, when the Alisons were not on screen. Karloff layered his performance very well. I loved when he would mock Werdergast about his phobia and when he felt he had the upper hand. In those moments,he nuanced a flatline performance with a slightly upturned smile and a gleam in his eye. My heart went out to Lugosi’s character. He was always trying to do what was right, and misunderstood for his actions. When he finally does enact his revenge, he stops to help Joan escape and is again, injured and misunderstood in the process.
The women in the cabinets deeply disturbed me. Visually, it was beautiful. I saw similarities between those visuals and one of my favorite scenes in the often-overlooked film, “Night of the Hunter.” With less subtlety, we know what Poelzig does with his cabinets of curiosities. The way he leers at Joan in her nightgown and him laying next to Karen, her hair fanned around her head on her pillow, just as her mother’s does in her suspended animation, sends some bile into my throat.
I felt they threw in the Satanic cult factor just for shock. It really had no reason for being there. We knew Poelzig was evil. Whether it be by his actions during the war and what he has done with playthings in the basement. I feel like Ulmer threw it in there just because he could. The editing in that scene was very impressive though. Knowing the quick turnaround from filming to distribution, makes it even more so.
You wouldn’t be reading this if you weren’t a horror fan, so there is no excuse for you to not hop on Amazon Prime, pay your $4, sit back and marvel at Karloff and Lugosi’s performances. Oh, and you can also turn it into a drinking game…For example, .take a shot for every knocked-out Peter, when Joan passes out, when Joan screams and doesn’t run away. Take two shots when Werdergast cockblocks the poor sexually frustrated newlyweds. With a 65-minute running time, The Black Cat will have you feeling no pain by the time the final credits roll.