The Black Cat
One of the things I like about the list is that it is not an elitarian project, though some might claim that it is. While the movies have been selected by critics and not by popular vote (and thank God for that!) the editors have had an eye for picking out movies that are noteworthy for other reasons than being high quality/highbrow critique favorites. There are a generous dose of quirky, odd films that few would describe as “good”, but still has a lot of entertainment value or may be representative of interesting genres overlooked at the big festivals or award shows. The Black Cat is such a movie.
This is a blockbuster film with popular, but hardly good actors, a suspenseful and for its time action packed plot and a hefty dose of mystical mumbo-jumbo. Sounds familiar, does it not? Sure, Hollywood never stopped producing films of this type and it is curious to see that what works today also worked in 1934.
I could go really harsh on “The Black Cat” for all its inconsistencies, plot holes and odd acting, but the thing is I actually like it. Of course it not a good film, but it is fun and entertaining and it is amazing how much it has influenced later films.
Try listen to this: a newlywed couple on their honeymoon has an accident and seeks shelter in a fabulous mansion inhabited by freaky satanists. Did I hear anybody murmur “The Rocky Horror Picture Show”?. How about settling the fate of the prisoners with a game of chess? Or the bad-ass satanist playing Bach on his organ? Yes, I know Lon Chaney did the organ scene in “Phantom of the Opera” in 1925, but that was a silent movie. The sinister trope of this scene definitely originates from “The Black Cat”.
Universal had some success with Frankenstein and Dracula, so how do you top that? Well, you merge them. Set Bela Lugosi up against Boris Karloff in a showdown of unprecedented gloominess. Yeah, let them fight it out. Alien vs. Predator. King Kong vs. Godzilla. Well, at least they invented some new characters for the two of them in this case, but it is difficult not to see a glimpse of their type cast characters in their appearance. Bela Lugosi is just himself, which actually works here with his half insane character and intent stare. And he is a Hungarian playing a Hungarian, Dr. Vitus Werdegast who occasionally speaks a few lines in Hungarian. I like that. Nothing worse than local place and character names being abused by a very bad accent. Boris Karloff may not have the same authenticity as an Austrian architect gone satanist, but he is an infinitely better actor and positively spooky as Hjalmar Poelzig. Still, there is no two ways about it, that dude looks like Frankensteins monster!
There are lots of veiled and not so veiled threats and danger lurks everywhere in this palace built, not on an ancient Indian graveyard, but on the mass grave of thousands of killed soldiers of the Great War. There are dead women in perfect condition hanging on display in the basement and a maid in captivity. And of course to top it off a juicy satanist ritual complete with human sacrifice and all.
Yes, we got all the classic ingredients, which are classic because they hark back to this very film. The set is fantastic with hyper modern design that look cool even today and a sound track ahead of its time. Unfortunately it all plays out with all the corn and kitsch of a B-movie. If you accept that then this is a lot of fun. If it grates on you this is positively painful. On my second viewing I had resigned to accept the corn and actually enjoyed it.
Three things I cannot help mention. This movie obviously takes place in a country called Europe, populated with Europeans with European names. That it is all messed up is quite funny. Hjalmar is a Nordic name, the train attendant speaks French (in Hungary!), the Russians initially invaded Hungary in WWI, but was soon pushed very far back and what on Earth is an American newly-wedded couple doing here of all places?
Secondly, what on earth is the point with the cat and Werdegast’s fear of them? That has absolutely no impact on the plot and seems to just be an excuse to borrow an E.A.Poe title for the film. The kitty is actually sweet!
Finally, notice the chauffeur from the hotel in the beginning. I think they borrowed him from Hotel Atlantic, “Der Letzte Man”.