“Suggested by the immortal Edgar Allan Poe classic” (to borrow the title card’s language) that inspired later adaptations by none other than Roger Corman in the Tales of Terror anthology film & Dario Argento in his segment of Two Evil Eyes, 1934’s The Black Cat is about as loose as a literary adaptation can get. The only element the film shares in common with Poe’s short story is the appearance of a black cat that is murdered in a fearful rage, then reappears unharmed. If you’re looking for a (slightly) more faithful cinematic adaptation of the story, I’d suggest looking to Corman’s Tales of Terror (which also features versions of Poe’s “Morella” & “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar”). 1934’s Unversial Pictures production of The Black Cat is fascinating not because it’s a loose, full-length adaptation of a Poe short story, but because it features the first of many onscreen collaborations between horror movie legends & professional rivals Bela Lugosi & Boris Karloff. Lugosi & Karloff are a match made in horror nerd heaven, especially in this gorgeous, alarmingly violent film that allows them to stray from their usual typecast roles as Count Dracula & the Frankenstein monster. Although there are eight Lugosi/Karloff collaborations in total, it’s difficult to imagine that any of them could possibly match the delicious old school horror aesthetic achieved in The Black Cat. It’s an incredible work.
The Black Cat begins with a young, couple meeting a recently imprisoned psychiatrist, Dr. Vitus Verdegast (Lugosi), while honeymooning in Hungary, In a scene typical to the film’s unnerving violence, the trio suddenly find their plans derailed in a gruesome bus crash. Lugosi’s Verdergast lays on the creep factor early, gently stroking the hair of the sleeping female passenger because she reminds him of his deceased wife. After the bus crash, he leads the unsuspecting couple to recover at the spooky mansion of his bitter rival, the mentally unhinged architect Hjalmar Poelzig (Karloff). As the situation gradually sours, it becomes apparent that Poelzig is, in fact, the true villain of the story. He traps Vendergast & the newlyweds in his (gorgeous Art Deco) home, planning to include them in an elaborate Satanic ceremony at an celestial event dubbed “The Dark of the Moon”. Karloff’s Poelzig is an intense dude. Among other strange traits, he’s known to brood in a darkened dungeon stocked with the bodies of deceased women he keeps pristinely preserved in glass cases, all the while stroking his titular black cat (who curiously appears alive in the film even after Lugosi’s Verdergast kills it in a frightened rage). When Poelzig’s plans of a Satanic ritual finally come to fruition (after being thoroughly researched in a book helpfully titled The Rites of Lucifer), he brings to a head a decades old rivalry he’s enjoyed with Verdergast, ending it once & for all in an alarmingly dark, violent display that threatens the lives of all four parties involved.
Although, as I said, Lugosi & Karloff are allowed to stray from their infamous roles as Dracula & the Frankenstein monster here, there are of course slight nods to those hallmarks of their careers in the film. Lugosi’s psychiatrist is for the most part a sympathetic, broken man, but before this gentleness is revealed his early actions towards his wife’s young dead ringer recall Dracula’s modes of hypnosis & seduction. Karloff’s architect also shows shades of the Frankenstein monster in his earliest scenes, especially when he’s introduced as a gigantic, lumbering silhouette. Otherwise, they’re spooky in a way that’s divorced almost entirely from the “famous monsters” they were asked to play time & time again. One of the best aspects of the film is watching Karloff & Lugosi trade ominous spooky phrasings back & forth, like “Death is in the air,” “We shall play a little game, a little game of death,” and – in response to the accusation “Sounds like a lot of supernatural baloney to me” – “Supernatural, perhaps. Baloney, perhaps not.” Both their onscreen & offscreen rivalries are intensely palpable throughout the film, even represented in the heavily-acknowledged metaphor of a longterm game of chess, a rare meta treat for fans.
Perhaps what’s so surprisingly enjoyable about The Black Cat is that it has a lot more to offer beyond the obvious pleasures of Lugosi & Karloff spookiness & rivalry. The Art Deco set design is not quite Metropolis-sized in its opulence, but it is still a sight to behold. The way the camera glides throughout its crisp, cramped corridors reminded me of the simple visual effectiveness of this year’s Ex Machina. This is not a half-assed horror film Universal Pictures slapped together on a quick shooting schedule. It’s an elaborate production that proved to be the studio’s biggest box office hit of 1934, one that was boldly violent & sacrilegious for its time. The Black Cat is a short, simple film with only a few moving parts to work with, but it still makes room for stabbings, car crashes, torture, shootings, a murdered pet, a robed Satanic ceremony, a gigantic special effects explosion, and one of the two main players being skinned alive (!!!!!). All of this mayhem is set to a constant old school horror soundtrack that gets deeply satisfying once it devolves into relentless onslaught of heavy organs. To wrap it up at The Black Cat‘s conclusion, a character reads a movie review in the newspaper about how a (fictional) director should stay away from horror as a genre & stick to things that could actually happen, perhaps allowing the film to preemptively scoff at potential critics. It’s hard to imagine critics either now or 80 years ago brushing The Black Cat off so easily, anyway. Considering the time of its release as well as the strength & rarity of its Lugosi & Karloff performances, the film is near perfect,. faithfulness to Poe be damned.