Today I watched Edgar G. Ulmer’s The Black Cat (1934)
Peter Alison and his new wife Joan are taking their honeymoon in Hungary but due to a mix up they must share their room on the train with a psychiatrist, Dr. Vitus Werdegast played by horror legend Bela Lugosi, is going in the same direction they are as it turns out. After getting to know each other on the train, all three catch a rickety old bus to town but because of inclement weather they are washed off the old road and Joan is knocked unconscious. They walk to a nearby house for shelter through the night; this house is owned by one Hjalmar Poelzig, an architect portrayed by the equally iconic Boris Karloff. Turns out Werdegast and Poelzig have a long standing hatred for one another since the Great War. Poelzig’s house is actually built on an old fortress from the time and houses shrines for all sorts of dark occult activity. Before the Alisons can make their exit they are caught up in the dark power game unfolding between the two men.
This film reminded me a lot of William Castle’s House on Haunted Hill in it’s use of modernist aesthetics instead of a more common gothic one. But this film goes a few steps further than that one in doubling down on these visuals and gets a lot more out of them. It draws parallels between the satanic and the futuristic while also drawing on the brutalism of military bunkers and poured concrete. It is all a subtle visualization of the satanic motif of man’s will made manifest. This gives the film a very unique tone and works hand in hand with the subtlety of the horror on display, which mines the monstrosity of man for it’s scares. This monstrosity being represented by both futuristic and militaristic aesthetics because that is the architecture of ambition.
Unfortunately the story doesn’t go quite as far as the design work as it seems to imply a darker story than is actually told. Apparently there was some studio interference here that forced Lugosi’s Werdegast to be more heroic, while originally he was intended to be equally as villainous as Poelzig, that idea is only present in a vestigial sense. His character has a total lack of focus, during some scenes he is a creep verging on a sexual predator, the next he is a wonderful guy who just wants the best for the Alisons. If they had gone with the original portrayal of him as an actual obsessive rapist, then the idea that the Alisons were trapped between these two villains would be really interesting and disturbing.
While the story may drop the ball, Lugosi and Karloff pick it back up with their intense performances. Supposedly they developed quite a rivalry while on set and if that is true it certainly comes across in their performances as it really does seem like they could explode and go for each other’s throats at any minute. These two egos battle in a modernist maze that seems to get more warped the more consumed they become. For this, I think the movie is pretty great and very much so worth seeking out, it was the first meeting of two major horror icons and it does not disappoint in that regard as they constantly try to one up the other’s performance. And it is just such a cool looking film, full of memorable imagery that is sure to stick around in your mind for quite some time. 4/5