“Have you ever heard of Kurgaal? It is a prison below Omsk. Many men have gone there. Few have returned. I have returned. After fifteen years... I have returned.” – Dr Vitus Verdegast
Moving swiftly along, here we are in 1934. Universal knew they had two towering titans of terror under contract, and after billing Boris Karloff as “Karloff the Uncanny” in The Mummy’s publicity posters, Universal entered a spate of billing him simply as “Karloff” in the title crawl of his films starting with this one, oddly the only notable horror movie they produced that year.
It was inevitable that they hit upon the idea of uniting both their horror stars in one film, and just as inevitable that the heavily accented Bela Lugosi be given second billing. For this film, Karloff was paid a hefty $7,500 while Lugosi who had more scenes and more dialogue was paid less than half that sun - $3000. (As the years rolled on, Lugosi’s name would sadly descend lower and lower in the credits.)
The Black Cat is not only an important film in the horror genre, it also features one of the most twisted plots that Universal ever committed to celluloid and is undoubtedly one of the most sadistic. Luckily, this was filmed and released before film censorship became a thing. Even Universal were shocked with the content of this film, and ordered director Edgar G. Ulmer to film additional scenes to try and soften it. But what Ulmer, to his credit did, was film a few inserts that actually heightened the horror.
Despite a credit claiming that the story was “suggested by” the Edgar Allan Poe story with which it shares a title, it bears even less of a resemblance to the source material than Murders in the Rue Morgue did. In fact, we might as well fact it. It has NOTHING to do with Poe’s story, other than there is a black cat wandering around. The film still carries with it an impact to this day. I can only imagine what the audiences of 1934 would’ve made of it.
A newly wed couple, Peter Alison (the STILL ineffective sop, David Manners, still playing out of his league) and his wife Joan (Julie Bishop) are on their honeymoon, aboard the Orient Express. In their compartment aboard the carriage, they’re joined by the kindly but troubled Dr Vitus Verdegast (Bela Lugosi) who’s getting off at the same stop. Verdegast is a renowned Hungarian psychiatrist who left his wife and daughter behind to go and fight in the war, presumably WW1, was imprisoned and spent fifteen years in a Siberian prison. Now, he’s back to visit “an old friend” Hjelmar Poelzig (Karloff) a renowned architect.
Leaving the train, the trio catch a bus which will drop Verdegast off at Poelzig’s home, built on the ruins of a Fort he commanded during the war. It’s a stormy night, and the bus crashes, so they make their way to Poelzig’s place where Verdegast can tend to Joan’s wounds. (As usual, Manner’s character is worse than useless in any situation that doesn’t require petulance.)
This is where the story REALLY kicks it into high gear.
Poelzig betrayed the fort and soldiers, Verdegast among them) out to the Russians. Not only that, but he’s also taken Verdegast’s wife while Verdegast was in prison, telling her that Verdegast was dead. Okay – that’s bad enough, right? It gets worse.
Poelzig has a bizarre collection of dead wives, perfectly preserved, suspended in glass cabinets in his basement, Karen Verdegast (Lucille Lund) among them. She apparently died of pneumonia, as he explains to Vitus who has tracked them down to this point.
Think that’s bad enough?
No? Okay – here we go. Brace yourself…
Joan meets the current Mrs Poelzig, who is ALSO named Karen. After her mother. (Getting it yet?)
Poelzing married Verdegast’s wife, named Karen. Then when she died, preserved her body for his collection, then married his own step-daughter. How the heck Universal got away with this, even in pre-censorship is remarkable.
When Joan tells Karen (also played by Lucille Lund) that her father isn’t dead as she’s been led to believe, but is in the house, looking for her, Poelzig hears, escorts Karen away – and murders her!
Poelzig’s plan now is to sacrifice Joan at a satanic black mass that evening, but Verdegast makes the save, his mind now completely snapped – he suffers from post-traumatic stress and has a phobia of cats, but seeing the body of his murdered daughter breaks him completely, and he corners Poelzig, ties him to a post and starts to skin him alive. This is done off-camera in silhouette but we hear the victim’s howls of pain. This makes it somehow a lot worse.
The young marrieds are allowed to get away before Verdegast throws the lever that will activate a five-minute timer that blows the house and its occupants, including the coven to shrapnel.
All this in a stunning 65 mins. A welcome albeit rare role reversal for the two horror leads, with Karloff as the heavy and Lugosi as the sympathetic good guy.
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