Sound Off | 1934’s The Black Cat Universal’s Forgotten Horror Classic

Sound Off | 1934’s The Black Cat Universal’s Forgotten Horror Classic

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Most remember Universal Studios because of their monster movies. But, one of its best is often one of its most forgotten — The Black Cat.

Admittedly, this is a topic I have visited several times inside MoviesMatrix. Among the fond memories of this franchise are films like Frankenstein, his Bride, and Dracula and The Wolf Man. These classic monster movies and often remade for their expressionistic atmosphere, timeless thrills, and thoughtful storytelling.

But, Universal wasn’t only making horror movies about mummies and werewolves. Between these big monster blockbusters, Universal also quietly pumped out several smaller and more intimate horror films. They may not be as fondly remembered, but are equally deserving of our attention. Some of these films explored topics that even the the bigger brother and sister monster movies wouldn’t dare go.  

The Black Cat Brought Two Titans Together

1934 Poster [Universal Studios]

Directed by Edgar G. Ulmer, The Black Cat opens up with a happy newlywed couple riding a train during their honeymoon. This is where they meet a Hungarian psychiatrist and former World War I solider (played by Bela Lugosi). The film ends after only 62 minutes of darkly suggestive material including satanic rituals, necrophilia, and body skinning. Marriage is our gateway into a tale of revenge and the ghosts of war lingering over modern progress.

The Black Cat was the first time Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi shared the screen together. Three years later, their stars take significant upward turns in James Whale’s Frankenstein and Tod Browning’s Dracula respectively. The Black Cat sets up your expectations for this newly married couple (played by David Manners and Julie Bishop). Instead, they are our gateway into the real conflic,t which is between Bela Lugosi’s Dr. Werdegast and Boris Karloff’s Hjalmar Poelzig.

The couple acts more as a representation of purity and happiness, something that eludes our leads, both shaped and modeled by the horrors of World War I.  They are more analogues for audiences members to see themselves in and voyestically explore the hidden and dark secret home that Hjlmar keeps.

The Horrors of War and Mystery

The Black Cat [Universal Studios]

Dr. Werdegast travels in search of Poelzig for revenge. Werdegast blames Poelzig for betraying their military fort to save his own skin leading to the deaths of thousands of troops and forcing Werdegast into a Siberia work camp and never gets to see his wife and daughter again.

War shapes both these characters, one on a quest for revenge and another seeking to move forward, builds his modern art deco home on the soil where thousands died during a war, which is a visual representation of the way he chooses to ignore the suffering he may have caused.

The movie sets up the central conflict efficiently, establishes the plot’s mysteries, and plants a set-up to be paid off later. We get various hints to what secrets Poelzig might possess but director Edgar G. Ulmer holds off showing us everything up front. Instead, he devotes much of the runtime to Werdegast and Poelzig squaring one another intellectually through both dialogue and a game of chess.

The two actors expertly play off one. These two massive stars near the height of their fames giving it their all (in many ways I actually prefer this Lugosi performance to his Dracula).

Expressionistic Filmmaking

The Black Cat [Universal Studios]

Ulmer’s expressionistic filmmaking (who he claimed to have learned from Fritz Lang) keeps the atmosphere tense and uneasy through these stretches of the film with his emphasis on heavy shadows and a reoccurring motif of a black cat coming out from the darkness keeps us on edge (it should be noted that this story is very loosely based off an Edger Allen Poe story).

The revealed secrets descends the film into a series of disturbing and psychosocially challenging events.  The Black Cat was released just before the enforcement of the Hays-Code. In short, the film industry self-censored itself, restricted graphic violence and provocative material. Films would have been clever to get around those restrictions.

The Black Cat is transgressive, and not just from a graphic violence standpoint. Ulmer’s camera lingers and communicates a character’s possible sexual attraction to the dead, which is more than enough to get under your skin. The movie is perhaps not as overtly terrifying as many of Universal’s monster movies but psychologically the ideas are, if not even more so.

The Black Cat: Darkness But Still Being Overshadowed

The Black Cat [Universal Studios]

Skinning a character alive. In the 1930s. Yes, that happened! True, The Black Cat doesn’t show as much as modern movies like Saw or Hostel, but I would argue it’s far more effective and unnerving.

Unlike many of the Saw sequels, Ulmer spent the limited runtime and engaged the conflict We see trafficking in its grey sense of morality, which makes the violence far more effective. Ulmer gets around raw depiction of violence by showing something quite disturbing, even a modern point of view.

In the end the movie ends after putting its characters through the ringer, deftly exploring the morality between Werdegast’s revenge quest vs the cold ideology of Poelzig, and in the end the question is will innocence survive?

The Black Cat may not seem like much at first glance. It has been greatly overshadowed by Karloff and Lugosi other legendary performances. Yet, this film is as good as some of the best Universal Monster movies. With exceptional direction and acting, The Black Cat is a horror movie that is deeply unnerving with its ideas and deserves far more attention than it gets.   

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I'm a film fan that hailed from the spooky rural area of Vermont before getting my film degree in Chicago. I love reading, watching film, and writing in nearly all capacities. Currently working towards my MFA in Creative Writing. I enjoy discussion so let's have some!
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