Fear of a Black Cat

The Black Cat, written by Peter Ruric and Edgar Ulmer, ‘inspired’ by the short story by Edgar Allan Poe; directed by Edgar G. Ulmer; starring Bela Lugosi (Dr. Werdegast) and Boris Karloff (Poelzig) (1934): Karloff and Lugosi made seven movies together for Universal in the 1930’s. This is the best of them, thanks in large part to B-movie auteur Edgar Ulmer’s direction and set design. Lugosi’s Werdegast was a Hungarian soldier imprisoned by the Russians for 18 years after World War One; Poelzig was his nemesis, a Russian military officer.

Lugosi’s unusually heroic (for him) character tries to save an American couple from the Satanic Poelzig, now living in a Hungarian military fort turned into a manion, while also trying to discover the fate of his wife and child at the hands of the former enemy military commander.

The set design, lighting, and costuming all present a sort of Art Deco Gothic look that suits the material. Poelzig really is the leader of a Satanic cult. He also married Werdegast’s wife after his imprisonment. And where is the daughter?

As with every one of the Karloff/Lugosi collaborations I’ve seen, the romantic leads are bland and forgettable, and the comic-relief bits are excruciating. Thankfully, Karloff and Lugosi aren’t. Lugosi is uncharacteristically subdued here, possibly because he finally gets to play the hero. The movie looks great and has some nice, snappy dialogue (“Even the phone is dead” being my favourite one-liner). And there are dead women preserved in giant glass bottles and a high-stakes chess game! No killer apes, though.

The Poe elements are almost non-existent, limited pretty much to hints of heterosexual necrophilia and a black cat that wanders through at points to scare Werdegast, who suffers from fear of cats. Highly recommended.

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