January 19th, 2013: The Black Cat (1934)

The Black Cat

Cast and Crew:  Carl Laemmle Jr. (Producer); Jack P. Pierce (Make-up); John Carradine

What It’s About: Our designated heroic couple Peter (David Manners) and Joan Alison (Julie Bishop) are surprised during their travels through Europe when Dr. Vitus Werdegast (Bela Lugosi) is housed in their train compartment due to an error. Werdegast is off to meet an old friend, fellow war veteran and famous architect Hjalmar Poelzig (Boris Karloff, back in the days when he was still billed solely as Karloff).  Poelzig now lives in the fort that he once commanded-and which he delivered to the enemy, betraying his soldiers. Werdegast went to prison, however, and the love of his life was left in Poelzig’s care-but her fate is unknown to Werdegast. Thanks to a shared bus ride and an accident of said bus, the designated heroes make it to Poelzig’s house along with Werdegast….

Why Watch it Today?: Author Edgar Allan Poe, whose story The Black Cat gives today’s film a title and little else, was born on this date in 1809.  Although Poe’s story is given short shrift, The Black Cat is an excellent horror film and quite unusual for the 1930s.  First, without giving too much away, Lugosi and Karloff both play against type, although neither could exactly be considered the “hero” of the film.  Secondly, the sets for Poelzig’s mansion is an Art Deco triumph, and the film is heavily influenced by the German Expressionist horror films of the 1920s-which is hardly surprising considering that director/co-writer/costume and set designer Edgar G. Ulmer was a Czech ex-pat whose early film credits include art director on films like The Golem.  Third, the film contains content that is simply shocking for 1934:  Satanism, war crimes, flaying seen in silhouette, implied necrophilia, and a man married to his mistress’s daughter.  While it’s true that Manners and Bishop are some of the blandest leads in film history, the surrounding package is worth a look.  Hell, I’m pretty sure it even influenced the classic tragic take on Dr. Freeze from Batman:  the Animated Series.

No trailer, but a clip.

Other Choices:  We’ve featured many films based on Poe’s work in the past, including Premature Burial, Masque of the Red Death, Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Fall of the House of Usher, The Raven, and Castle of the Walking Dead

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