By the end of 1931, it was clear that there was a mainstream market for Horror films. Universal had a very good year thanks to DRACULA and FRANKENSTEIN. By the start of 1932, Universal had on its hands two brand new, marquee level names in Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff. A slew of gothic movies went into production, and the studio wanted very badly to pair Lugosi and Karloff. The question was the film, and after some searching, the studio found the perfect vehicle for their two stars with THE BLACK CAT.
After such a seismic year adapting Stoker and Shelly, Universal Studios began looking for other gothic literary properties to exploit. They felt natural choice would be the works of the great Edgar Allen Poe, but since his stories are so internal in narrative, it proved difficult to adapt them to the screen. No matter, they thought, simply write a Horror screenplay, tag the title of a beloved Poe short story on the film, then put Poe’s name above the title on the poster. Bingo, bango! You’ve got yourself a marketing template that will put butts in seats! It was a template that would be followed for several films to varying effect. Fortunately, THE BLACK CAT is the rarity among such films in that it is an excellent movie despite the cynicism of its marketing.
THE BLACK CAT has nothing in common with the great Poe short story. It’s ok, though, because the film has a compelling story of its own. Lugosi plays former prisoner of war Vitus Werdegast, who travels to Hungary to visit Hjalmar Poelzig, played by Karloff. He meets Peter and Joan (David Manners and Jacqueline Wells), a honeymooning couple on the train. After an accident, all three end up at Poelzig’s home. There, Vitus learns what happened to his lost wife and must save Joan from the same fate. During all of this, THE BLACK CAT offers heady ruminations on war and its atrocities - which are particularly interesting when one considers that World War II was only a few years away when this film was made. In fact, there is so much philosophizing and internal conflict in this film that THE BLACK CAT is credited by some film historians as cinema’s first psychological thriller.
In the end, however, this is a Horror movie starring the biggest in the business at the time, and Lugosi and Karloff are spectacular playing off each other. Lugosi shines as the reserved, gentlemanly, and ultimately antiheroic Dr. Wendergast. Karloff plays quiet, confident menace to perfection and makes Poelzig a truly loathsome antagonist. These were two titans of the Horror genre at the very top of their game here, and it is a delight to behold.
Unfortunately, despite being Universal’s biggest box-office hit in 1934, THE BLACK CAT has been dwarfed by the other great Universal Horror films of that era - enjoying popularity primarily among Horror aficionados. This is a shame, since this film has much to offer the casual Horror fan or general movie buff. One can only hope that some day, THE BLACK CAT will enjoy the place in the hearts of the general movie-loving public that it deserves.
THE BLACK CAT fun facts - This was one of the rare films at this time to utilize a background music soundtrack. At the time, movie music was usually limited to the titles, credits, and source music (music performed or listened to by characters on screen). Composer/arranger Heinz Roemheld went uncredited.
Writer/director Edgar G. Ulmer loosely based the villain Hjalmar Poelzig on celebrated German director Fritz Lang. Ulmer knew Lang and regarded him as a bit of a sadist as a director.
Dr. Vitus Wendergast: “Don't pretend, Hjalmar. There was nothing spiritual in your eyes when you looked at that girl.”
Hjalmar Poelzig: “The phone is dead. Do you hear that, Vitus? Even the phone is dead.”
Dr. Vitus Wendergast: “Have you ever heard of Kurgaal? It is a prison below Amsk. Many men have gone there. Few have returned. I have returned. After fifteen years, I have returned.”