Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Halloween Holocaust: The Black Cat (Edgar G. Ulmer, 1934)

This first screen pairing of Karloff and Lugosi is one of the most liberal (i.e. extremely loose) interpretations of a Poe story ever committed to celluloid; a baroque and, for the time, surprisingly shocking film that features a familiar B movie premise (not dissimilar from the one we saw yesterday in The Rocky Horror Picture Show) that plays out as an epic, grand guignol melodrama, thanks to its use of familiar classical music (featuring Bach, Beethoven and Tchaikovsky, among others), striking cinematography and production design that combines expressionistic lighting and art deco sets (you could even call it "Dark Deco", to borrow a term used by the makers of Batman: The Animated Series to describe their show's aesthetic), and a pull-no-punches, wonderfully bonkers revenge narrative, made seemingly plausible thanks to the sheer dramatic fervour lent to the proceedings by both horror legends.

Mystery writer Peter Alison (David Manners) and his new wife Joan (Jacqueline Wells) are honeymooning in Hungary. Aboard the train one night they end up sharing their compartment with psychiatrist Dr Vitus Werdegast (Lugosi), who is on his way to visit his old friend Hjalmar Poelzig (Karloff). Later, the bus that these newly acquainted travelling companions share crashes, injuring Joan and forcing the newlyweds to follow Werdegast to Poelzig's home. It soon turns out that the two old friends are anything but, and that Peter and Joan have stepped, somewhat reluctantly, into the middle of a generation long vendetta involving war crimes, implied necrophilia, Satanism, and a game of chess that is being played for their very lives.

The story is, as both the set-up detailed above suggests, and by the filmmakers' own admittance, only related to the Poe story in the most tenuous sense; a black cat shows up a few times, but that's about it. However, certain themes and tropes familiar to that original Master of the Macabre (e.g. revenge and dead wives) are certainly present. The screenplay, written by Peter Ruric (a pseudonym of pulp author Paul Cain) contains some great dialogue, giving Karloff and Lugosi a few dramatically potent, memorable mini-monologues; and for good measure, there's also a side order of occasional witty banter, such as when Peter Alison, describing Herr Poelzig's architectural prowess, says: "If I wanted to build a nice, cosy, unpretentious insane asylum, he'd be the man for it."  

Aside from being both undeniably entertaining and eye-entrancingly stylish, the film also functions somewhat poignantly on a sub-textual level, due to its scattered allusions to the horrors of the Great War. Also, like many genre films of the period, it has a lean, fat-free running time of a little over an hour; which feels extremely welcome and refreshing to me these days, thanks to the seeming proliferation of baggy, bloated monstrosities that often haunt the modern multiplex. 


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