Universal Horror Collection: Volume 1 - The Black Cat Blu-ray Review
Written by Robert Gold
Blu-ray released by Scream Factory
Directed by Edgar G. Ulmer
Written by Peter Ruric (suggested by a story by Edgar Allan Poe)
1934, 65 minutes, Not Rated
Released on June 18th, 2019
Boris Karloff as Hjalmar Poelzig (credited as Karloff)
Bela Lugosi as Dr. Vitus Werdegast
David Manners as Peter Alison
Jacqueline Wells as Joan Alison
Lucille Lund as Karen
Egon Brecher as The Majordomo
Newlyweds Peter and Joan Alison are honeymooning through Hungary on the Orient Express. Their trip finds them in the company of Dr. Vitus Werdegast, who is travelling to the same city in search of an old acquaintance. Werdegast tells of his past struggles leaving his family to fight in World War I and of being held prisoner for fifteen years. Upon arrival they share a cab only to suffer a tragic accident that leaves them stranded at the home of the eccentric architect Hjalmar Poelzig, the man Werdegast was going to see. The two men share a troubled history but agree to keep up appearances until the Alisons can be sent on their way.
Poelzig has no intention of letting the Americans leave and challenges Werdegast to a game of chess for their freedom. Their host is a Satanist preparing for a Black Mass with hopes of sacrificing Joan. He also took possession of Werdegast’s wife and daughter during the war and they are believed to be held captive somewhere in the giant house. Poelzig is the embodiment of evil and he enjoys playing with his victims before doing them in. Can the good doctor succeed in stopping the sinister plan and reclaim his family or is he doomed to a horrible fate at the hands of a cruel master?
In the early 1930s, Universal Pictures was enjoying a recent wave of success from their line of horror pictures, including Dracula and Frankenstein (both 1931). The films made stars of leading men Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff respectively, and the studio was eager to pair the two in a series of upcoming movies. The first title was The Black Cat (1934), a sinister tale involving Satanism, torture, incest and necrophilia. Somehow the title passed the recently created Motion Picture Production Code (aka the Hays Code), an early version of the MPAA, and was a large hit with audiences. The Black Cat was “suggested by a story by Edgar Allan Poe”, but aside from the presence of a cat in both tales, the similarities end with the title alone.
Karloff, who was frequently billed by last name only, was becoming something of a superstar and the studio was grooming him for greatness. Bela Lugosi was not treated as kindly and did not receive the same opportunities, something which led to a complicated relationship between the two actors. There were additional factors in the much publicized feud, many of which were exaggerated as Karloff reportedly genuinely enjoyed working with Lugosi. Regardless of how legitimate the rivalry was, the two went on to appear in eight pictures together over the next decade. Karloff was always the star and Bela was gradually reduced to supporting roles and even extended cameos in later efforts. Both men are really good here, giving solid performances and carrying the movie with ease. The Black Cat pushed the envelope of what was possible in a mainstream studio picture and influenced many films that followed.