Thursday, June 27, 2013

"Classics": A review of "The Black Cat" (1934)

Confessions of a Film Junkie: “Classics” A review of “The Black Cat”

By: Brian Cotnoir & Lauren Ennis

The Black Cat is certainly one of the most interesting horror films in Universal’s famed horror cannon. Part revenge tale, part house haunting, and part supernatural thriller, the film skims the surface of several genres without ever becoming fully immersed in any of them. The film chronicles the efforts of young newlyweds Joan and Peter Alison to escape from the house of a war criminal turned satanic cult leader after being stranded by a car accident. The couple is joined by the mysterious Dr. Werdegast (Bela Lugosi) who has come to the house seeking revenge on its owner, Hjalmar Poelzig (Boris Karloff). Werdegast was imprisoned and tortured in a prisoner of war camp run by former friend Poelzig, and finally escaped only to find that his wife and daughter had disappeared. While Werdegast executes an elaborate plan to have his revenge, the Alison’s quickly realize that they are in for far more than local hospitality when they are held as prisoners and Joan is selected as a sacrifice for Poelzig’s satanic ritual.                                                                       
Hollywood Legends Karloff (L) & Lugosi (R)
    The film has many strong points.  Probably its best asset is its acting.  Lugosi and Karloff, were two of the biggest Horror icon’s of their time, and appeared in many of the same films together throughout their careers.  Now, I downside to their careers is they pretty much played the same character in practically every film they appeared in (Lugosi as Dracula and Karloff as Frankenstein).  However, there are some distinct differences—and dare I say improvements—to their characters in “The Black Cat”.  Lugosi doesn’t really come off as being too much like Dracula in the film, and he actually demonstrates he is capable of playing more than just a vampire in films.  Karloff’s character is very Frankenstein like, but he has more human-like characteristics.  His character is almost like if Frankenstein lived and said to himself; “The humans wanted to play God with me, well now I’m going to play God with the humans”.  His character is very possessive and there is no doubt that throughout most of the film it is his character, Poelzig, who is in charge.  Poelizig is the person pulling the strings and Dr. Werdegast and the Alison’s are his play things.   
The Alison's are tired of being terrorized by Poelzig
Although the film has many notable aspects, including the teaming of Universal horror legends Karloff and Lugosi, it never comes together to form a coherent narrative. Throughout the film, the plot moves along without clear explanation, leaving the audience as baffled as the stranded Alison's. Similarly, Werdegast is shown to have a crippling fear of cats that result in a temporary psychological break each time one appears. These incidents closely resemble the stress induced flashbacks of a man suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, but are instead explained to be the effects of the inherent spiritual evil in cats. The Alison’s constant ‘golly gee’ optimism contrasts with the story’s sinister proceedings to the point that they seem to belong in another movie entirely. Much of these confusing aspects of the plot could be explained by the film’s particularly short running time of sixty-five minutes. Had the film been made a half hour longer, the characters’ actions and motivations could have been more extensively explored, which would have made the story more coherent and easier for audiences to engage in. 
"I am going to skin you alive!"
    The film also has a lot of great mystery and build up.  It’s actually surprising how edgy it is for a 1930’s horror film.  Karloff’s character keeps dozens of women perfectly preserved in glass coffins in his basement.  Why would he be doing that unless he was having sex with them?  They don’t come out and say it in the film, but is definitely implied in the film that Poelzig practices necrophilia.  Not to mention the most famous scene in the film that happens towards the end of the film where Dr. Werdegast ties up Poelzig and skins him alive.  It’s not graphic by today’s standards, but this was still pretty shocking for a 1930’s Horror film audience.  Stuff like this wouldn’t become more widely used until 30-40 years later, so if you think about it “The Black Cat” is actually a groundbreaking Horror film. 
Heeeeeerreee Kitty, Kitty Kitty!
Despite the film’s shortcomings, it does have several strong points. The acting of Lugosi and Karloff creates a believable subplot hinging on Lugosi’s quest for revenge, as well as an appropriately sinister atmosphere. The teaming of these two stars carries the film and allows the audience to remain interested despite its other, more outrageous, aspects. Similarly, the sets and musical score evoke an ethereal sense of the supernatural and highlight the danger that the characters face around every corner. The film’s inclusion of such taboo subjects as devil-worship and sexual slavery is particularly surprising given the fact that the Hollywood Production Code was finally being enforced by 1934. These elements not only move the plot along, but also add an extra layer of foreboding to the already ominous tale. As a result, while the film may not be frightening by today’s standards, it does maintain an eeriness that makes the plot all the more unsettling. Thus, while The Black Cat may not be the best written or most frightening horror film, it rightfully holds a place of distinction as an example of where American horror came from and where it would soon be going.

A Special Treat for y'all!  The Full Film (Courtesy of Youtube) 

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