Frankenstein’s Monster and Dracula, toe to toe playing chess, what more could anyone ask for?
Screenplay By: Peter Ruric
Directed By: Edgar G. Ulmer
Calling The Black Cat insane is an understatement. Context is needed to understand the insanity of The Black Cat. This is a horror film from 1934, and it’s a Universal Studios film. A major studio Hollywood release in 1934 that featured hints of incest, mutilation, and satanism. That’s pretty insane if you ask me, and since it’s my blog I’m going to assume that you asked me. The film doesn’t completely rely on its craziness, but it makes the most of its more far fetched elements and by running with them it makes for one electric movie going experience.
The stars of The Black Cat are Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff. I was tempted to consider their performances hammy and over the top, but I changed my mind about that the more I thought about said performances. They hold back most of the time, and they let the tension in their bodies and the cold/fire in their eyes do most of the heavy lifting. Every second spent with Mr. Karloff and Legosi Úr is pleasurable. They do go toe to toe with one another and each man delivers a fantastic performance. The pure joy that comes from watching the two of them square off, and yes even sit down and play a game of chess, is representative of why I love the movies.
Edgar G. Ulmer also deserves a lot of credit for The Black Cat being a great motion picture. He makes tremendous use of shadow and darkness. I was especially struck by the way he handled silhouettes and communicated through his visuals. Ulmer Úr did a fine job on The Black Cat in the role of director, especially given the ridiculous nature of the story. It’s an over the top film, but the solid direction manages to hold the film together beyond the acting prowess of the two leads.
The plain Jane acting of David Manners and Julie Bishop is about all that holds the film back. They are the definition of milquetoast, and they do their best to be as bland as possible in every scene. The characters they play work within the overall story, but I did feel a twinge of regret when I realized that they were going to be the focal points of the ending. Watching them move towards center stage wasn’t a pleasant moment for me. The real ending is what takes place between Mr. Karloff and Legosi Úr, and that leaves the standardized romanticism of the atypical lovers as an inadequate send off for the film.
I wasn’t sure what to expect from The Black Cat. I had heard some positive word of mouth, but on the whole the film was a mystery to me. I was looking forward to seeing Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi on the same screen, and they didn’t disappoint. The rest of the film managed to hang with the two legendary actors, delivering a near mental experience. It may have come out in 1934, but by any day’s standards The Black Cat is a deranged, and pleasurable, romp of a film.