The Black Cat
The Bela Lugosi Collection
U.S.A. / 1934
Directed by Edgar G. Ulmer
Starring
Boris Karloff
Bela Lugosi
David Manners

B&W / 65 Minutes / Not Rated
Format: DVD(R1 - NTSC)
Universal Home Video
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Review by
Brian Lindsey
 
9
    8   10 = Highest Rating  
A look at one of the films in The Bela Lugosi Collection
DVD Rating is for entire set
In the Carpathian Mountains, at his futuristic mansion built atop the ruins of a First World War fortress, a satanic cult leader (Boris Karloff) faces the revenge-obsessed doctor (Bela Lugosi) hell-bent on destroying him. These adversaries match wits and willpower in a "Game of Death" a contest which will decide not only their own fates, but those of an innocent American couple...
   
In their first film together legendary stars Karloff and Lugosi give two of their most interesting and memorable performances. As Hjalmar Poelzig, master architect and occultist, Karloff is urbane yet superbly creepy, with a striking appearance that makes me wonder if he wouldn't have been every bit as terrific as Count Dracula as he was playing the Frankenstein Monster. Lugosi essays one of his rare 'Good Guy' roles as Poelzig's archenemy, Dr. Werdegast, although this 'hero' is so psychologically scarred that his actions are often suspect. (Even with his highly theatrical acting style Lugosi conveys moments of genuine emotional resonance.) Yet their stage is not the gothic chateau or crumbling castle one would expect, but rather a high-tech, art deco domicile more appropriate for the residence of a Dr. No or Blofeld imagine Bond designer Ken Adam working on Universal horror pics in the '30s.
    The unusual backstory and setting are quite intriguing. Poelzig, an engineering genius, has constructed his house on the site of what was once Fort Marmorus, scene of one of the Great War's bloodiest battles. A high-ranking officer in the Austro-Hungarian army during the war, Poelzig was fortress commandant when it was surrendered to the besieging Russians. The garrison's survivors including friend and fellow officer Vitus Werdegast were taken prisoner and shipped off to POW camps deep in Siberia. But not Poelzig. He escaped going into the bag, having "scurried away into the night" as the fortress capitulated. Few would survive the ordeal of the camps. Werdegast, kept alive by his burning hatred of the commander who'd betrayed him, was one of the lucky ones. Released from the infamous Kurgaal prison camp after the war, he learned that Polezig had not only stolen his freedom but also his wife and young daughter Poelzig told Mrs. Werdegast that her husband had perished in Siberia and persuaded her to marry him. For the past 15 years the doctor has sought his nemesis, whom he believes eventually murdered his true love and child. Now, having tracked Poelzig to the mansion at Marmorus, Werdegast plans to exact his revenge.
    For his part Poelzig feels confident and secure on his home ground, enough so that he welcomes Werdegast as an honored guest. (Werdegast darkly jests that Poelzig returning to the fortress to build a home is like the proverbial killer revisiting the scene of his crime.) He knows the doctor's weaknesses and has no hesitation in exploiting them. But he, too, has a weakness one which manifests itself in the form of pretty Joan Allison (Jacqueline Wells), a young American bride honeymooning in central Europe. She and her novelist husband Peter (David Manners) find themselves stranded at Poelzig's house after a road accident. Their seemingly gracious host sees Joan as the perfect sacrifice for the satanic ritual he'll soon be presiding over... though perhaps his strange gaze holds the promise of an even more loathsome fate.
    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... Director Edgar G. Ulmer and principal crew make wonderful use of light and shadow, blending the aesthetics of German Expressionism and a Thirties vision of the "World of Tomorrow" to macabre effect. I love the sequence in which Karloff, in voice-over, proposes the Game of Death, his silken but sinister tones accompanied by the mournful 'Allegretto' movement from Beethoven's Symphony No. 7 in A Major. (A piece used extensively in John Boorman's Zardoz.) Giving us the characters' POV, the camera travels upwards from the almost primal darkness of Poelzig's subterrene dungeon to the gleaming ultramodern marvel of the house above... as if to say, the future is here but the Devil is still with us. And for the moment, at least, he's winning.
    Of course no film is perfect, and I'd be remiss not to point out The Black Cat's not-so golden moments. The newlyweds' brief romantic interludes are every bit as sappy as one might expect. A supposedly humorous scene involving two argumentative policemen is dreadfully unfunny, stopping the film dead in its tracks for a few minutes. The titular feline and Werdegast's "all-consuming horror" of it actually has very little to with the plot; in truth it's nothing more than a gimmick to get "suggested by the immortal Edgar Allan Poe classic" into the credits. Most disappointingly, the important chess game between Poelzig and Werdegast is inexplicably handled in an offhand, throwaway manner, forfeiting a marvelous opportunity to ratchet up the tension and suspense. Fortunately (and in the main thanks to Lugosi and Karloff) these missteps never deflate the weird aura of menace and doom the film conjures.
    If your tastes automatically discriminate against "old" black and white genre pics that don't show any gore or skin, well, I can only feel sorry for you. This edgy, pre-Hays Code thriller, with its unusual story, bizarre setting and dynamic clash of Golden Age Horror Titans is a classic that shouldn't be missed.

Universal's attractively packaged Bela Lugosi Collection is a single disc 'flipper' containing five films: Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932), The Black Cat (1934), The Raven (1935), The Invisible Ray (1936) and Black Friday (1940). The films are presented chronologically, with the first three located on Side A and the latter two on Side B. Although all are relatively short movies (averaging only a little more than an hour's running time), it seems like a lot to cram onto a single DVD. The inclusion of extras suffers as a result. Trailers for Rue Morgue, Invisible Ray and Black Friday are all that's offered. Even so, this is an excellent value for classic horror fans, as you get five titles for not much more than the price of the typical single-feature DVD. And they all look and sound great for films made back when FDR was president in Morgue's case, Hoover! (Of the five, The Raven appears to be in the worst condition.)
    The 'Net has been abuzz with controversy and complaints about this DVD, both before and after its September 6 release. The controversy stems from a perceived dissing of Boris Karloff; he stars in four of the five films (and is top-billed in each of them), so why isn't it called the "Karloff-Lugosi Collection"? The complaints come from a significant number of consumers with playback issues. Apparently, instances of discs freezing up and/or skipping are woefully common. Now I can't really speak to the Karloff-Lugosi question since the matter doesn't really concern me very much in truth it's just a tempest in a teapot.* As for playback glitches, happily none of us here at EC experienced any technical problems with the DVD. I tried it out in five different machines (two component models, a portable player, two different DVD-ROM drives) and it played flawlessly each time. Thus my DVD rating of '8' does not reflect any of the problems other folks have experienced. 10/11/05
* Were I in charge of Universal Home Video (hee hee), I would've dropped the worst films from the disc, Rue Morgue and Black Friday, and instead called it The Karloff Versus Lugosi Collection. (Sounds cool, huh? After all, they do play adversaries.) And not only would this have appeased the Karloff boosters, but the consistently reliable DVD-9 format could've been used in its manufacture.
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