Friday, July 16, 2021

The Black Cat

The Black Cat
Edgar G. Ulmer

A newly wedded couple board a train for their honeymoon. Their car gets doubled booked and they meet Dr. Werdegast (Bela Lugosi). A man who going to visit someone he knew in the military before he became a prisoner of war. Later their shared bus crashes and the trio heads to the home of architect Hjalmar Poelzig (Boris Karloff).  Weredgast blames Poelzig for being thrown in prison and for stealing his wife... whom Poelzig seems to have preserved in his house along with a whole host of other women. Things decay from there as it seems that Poelzig is the head of a satanic cult that seeks to make a ritual sacrifice. 

"You just activated my trap card!"

The Black Cat is a glorious mix of the subtle and the melodramatic. It features Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff at arguably the height of their powers, and they are both electric together. Lugosi is fantastic as a man driven by his grief and rage to acts of monstrousness. Karloff can tell you everything you need to know about his character just through his stance and face. This duo is the main reason to see this film and they deliver.

The look of the film, especially once we get to Hjalmar Poelzig’s house, is beautiful, a mix of art deco, and clinical lab. Even the chambers where the satanic ritual is to take place carries with it a beautiful angular design the evokes art deco design and German expressionism. It is the most non-real space in the liminal universe of Poelzig’s dwellings. This unusual space mirrors the unusual plot which starts with a very simple delineation, victim, and victimizer but with each turn things become less clear. The twisted narrative lands us in the twisted confines of the house.

Straight Edge

The Satanism of the film is understated, nothing is specifically mentioned aside from a single medallion on screen, a book, and quiet cult. The presence of the supernatural is always lingering in the air but existence is never confirmed or denied. The horror of The Black Cat is hidden in shadow and suggestion culminating in the film's most infamous scene where Dr. Werdegast chains up Poelzig and proceeds to skin him alive. Not a drop of blood is spilled on screen and the whole act is told though a shadow on the wall to great effect.

The Black Cat moves a like a perfect nightmare as events connect and drift apart, there is the doubling of names for characters that serves to increase the confusion, and the whole thing becomes more and more dreamlike as the story unfolds. In spite of the its short runtime, the film moves at an even and deliberate pace until it grows more frenzied, mirroring Lugosi’s truly unhinged performance near the climax.

The Black Cat is a masterpiece of mood and horror. Lugosi and Karloff are compelling and have incredible chemistry. Dread lingers over the film until it slowly bleeds into the story. Things unravel like a beautiful nightmare. If you haven’t seen this film run out and do so, if you have seen it, run out and see it again.

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