The Black Cat – USA, 1934

‘Things you never saw before or ever dreamed of!’

The Black Cat – aka The Vanishing Body (reissue) and House of Doom (UK title) – is a 1934 American horror film directed by Austrian-born Edgar G. Ulmer from a screenplay by Peter Ruric (better known as pulp writer “Paul Cain”). It stars Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, David Manners and Jacqueline Wells.

The classical music soundtrack, compiled by Heinz Eric Roemheld, includes pieces by Tchaikovsky, Liszt and Schumann, and is unusual for its time, because there is an almost continuous background score throughout the entire film.

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The Black Cat was part of a boom in horror “talkies” following the release of Dracula and Frankenstein in 1931. The film exploited the popularity of Poe and the horror genre, as well as a sudden public interest in psychiatry. It has little to do with Edgar Allan Poe‘s short story ‘The Black Cat‘, though Poe’s name is listed in the credits.

The film – and by extension, the character of Hjalmar Poelzig – draws inspiration from the life of infamous British occultist Aleister Crowley. The name Poelzig was borrowed from architect Hans Poelzig, whom Ulmer claimed to have worked with on the sets for Paul Wegener’s silent film The Golem.

Shot for just $96,000 over 19 days, The Black Cat was Universal Pictures’ biggest box office hit of the year earning a reported profit of $140,000.

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Two young honeymooners, Peter and Joan Alison, are vacationing in Hungary when they learn that due to a mix up in the reservations, they must share a train compartment with Dr. Vitus Werdegast (Bela Lugosi), a psychiatrist. The doctor explains that he is traveling to see an old friend, Hjalmar Poelzig (Boris Karloff), an Austrian architect. Werdegast had left his wife to go to war 18 years ago, and has spent the last 15 years in an infamous prison camp.

Later, when the bus the three share crashes and Joan is injured, they take her to Poelzig’s home, built upon the ruins of Fort Marmorus, which Poelzig commanded during the war.

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After Werdegast treats Joan’s injury, he accuses Poelzig of betraying the fort to the Russians, resulting in the death of thousands of Hungarians. He also accuses Poelzig of stealing his wife while he was in prison. Poelzig plans to sacrifice Joan Alison in a satanic ritual…

Reviews:

The Black Cat features Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff at the peak of their formidable screen powers. That would be enough to recommend the film right there, but it has much more to offer. It is unique among the classic Universal horror titles in both subject matter and presentation. For all their iconic monsters, the better-known UniHorrors certainly don’t feature devil worship, sadistic torture (not at the hands of the villain) and a hint of necrophilia…” Eccentric-Cinema.com

“The flaying scene, done for the most part in shadow-play, was astonishingly sadistic in its time […] The periodic appearances of the black cat are merely token gestures; the real Poe atmosphere is provided by Poelzig’s ghoulish gallery of former mistresses and Ulmer’s spellbinding subjective-tour of the cellars.” Jonathan Rigby, American Gothic, Signum Books, 2017

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Strange, hypnotic, tormented and eliciting the best performances of their careers from Karloff and Lugosi, The Black Cat is one of the masterpieces of the genre.” Phil Hardy (editor), The Aurum Film Encyclopedia: Horror

“A remarkable study of evil, The Black Cat is still one of the most affecting horrors the genre has ever produced. With supreme directorial skill, Ulmer infuses the film with an overwhelming sense of unease, eroticism, and dread that remains powerful to this day. The literate script, magnificent set design, superbly fluid camerawork, and stunning performances by Karloff […] and Lugosi (in one of his finest roles) lend the film a timeless quality.” James J. Mulay (editor), The Horror Film, CineBooks, 1989

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“Filled with startling visuals—perhaps one of the single greatest images to come out of the Universal horror cycle is the breathtaking image of Poelzig’s collection of dead women hovering in glass cases as he walks among them stroking his cat, admiring his “pussy” as it were—and meticulously designed as one of the genuine triumphs of the first period of expressionist cinema, the film has been unfortunately overshadowed by inferior films from the Universal horror period.” Josh Vasquez, Slant magazine

“It nods to Poe but its sensibilities are more closely linked to expatriate European filmmakers who were descending on American shores. Except for the presence of Karloff and Lugosi, the film seems a closer relative to the works of von Sternberg and Lang than James Whale and Tod Browning. It is certainly a contender for the title of the best of the Universal horror classics.” Tom Weaver, Michael Brunas and John Brunas, Universal Horrors: The Studio’s Classic Films, 1931 – 1446, McFarlane, 2007

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“In purely visuals terms, the Bauhaus/art deco sets and costumes make this one of the most striking pictures ever made, regardless of genre. Karloff and Lugosi do some of their best work in quiet roles. It’s quite clear throughout that the horrors being invoked are born in modern warfare. They’re show in architecture, image, and character.” Mike Mayo, Videohound’s Horror Show

” …unfolds like a nightmare that involves necrophilia, ailurophobia (Lugosi collapses at the sight of a cat), drugs, a deadly game of chess, torture, flaying, and a black mass with a human sacrifice. This bizarre, utterly irrational masterpiece, lasting little more than an hour, has images that bury themselves in the mind, and is essentially the creation of the legendary Viennese writer, designer, producer and director Edgar G Ulmer…” Philip French, The Observer, 2007

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Poorly scripted horror malarkey with occasional flashes of style and some interesting sets.” Howard Maxford, The A – Z of Horror Films, Batsford, 1996

“A heady mixture of Satanism, sadism and necrophilia… Ulmer’s direction and Charles Hall’s bizarre art direction create a splendidly macabre atmosphere. It’s very much a triumph of mise-en-scène over a complex and silly plot.” Alan Frank, The Horror Film Handbook

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” …the classic high point is the game of chess for the life of the heroine. Sumptuously subversive … one of the very best horror movies Universal ever made.” Tony Rayns, Time Out (London)

“Karloff’s Latin incantations are impressively delivered, but otherwise the satanic rites, admittedly interrupted before they can get under way, look like being even less diabolical than English Druid junketings, and the guests are clearly not going to allow any orgiastic carryings-on to disarrange their elegant evening dresses and coiffeurs. The black cat of the title (and Lugosi’s abhorrence of it) is completely expendable .” Ivan Butler, The Horror Film, Zwemmer and Barnes, 1967

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” …fashioned into a stylish resplendent silk purse by Edgar G. Ulmer, once an assistant to Murnau, who invested the proceedings with a sweeping visual quality, only here and there tagged by pretension. Mescall’s mobile, subjective camera dashed up and down stairs, in and out of dungeon, now catching a silhouette and a shadow or looking modestly away when things seemed to be getting out of hand.” Carlos Clarens, An Illustrated History of Horror Films, 1967

“The staging is good and the camera devotes a proper amount of attention to shadows and hypnotic eyes. There are also some good workmanlike screams from the various imperilled beauties. But The Black Cat is more foolish than horrible. The story and dialogue pile the agony on too thick to give the audience a reasonable scare.” A.D.S., The New York Times, May 19, 1934

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Cast and characters:

  • Boris Karloff … Hjalmar Poelzig
  • Bela Lugosi … Dr. Vitus Werdegast
  • David Manners … Peter Alison
  • Julie Bishop [as Jacqueline Wells] … Joan Alison
  • Egon Brecher … The Majordomo
  • Harry Cording … Thamal
  • Lucille Lund … Karen Werdegast
  • Henry Armetta … Police Sergeant
  • Albert Conti … Police Lieutenant
  • John Carradine … The Organist [uncredited]

Image credits: Temple of Schlock

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