If You Dare: Five Reasons to Love Edgar Ulmer’s The Black Cat

BLACKCAT-1934

During the Halloweens of the early and middle 1970s, I fell into the habit of imposing my own curfew for trick-or-treating.  I could return home no later than 9 PM.  From house to house, my speech was always the same:  “Yes, thank you for the candy, and I’m glad that you like my costume, but I must get home at 9 PM for Bob Wilkins and Creature Features!”  To this day, I honor Bob Wilkins not only for introducing my generation to the best and worst horror films, but also for acting indirectly as a babysitter when the parents of my neighborhood wanted to drink and play cards.  “Whose turn is it to host cards, and where are we parking the kids for Creature Features?” No worries then.  They could supply us with pop corn and soda, and leave us to sit mesmerized through a double feature, interviews, maybe a serial episode, until finally we drifted off in our sleeping bags.  How’s that for effective babysitting?  Wilkins kept us in line via television.  He didn’t even have to show up, and the folks never had to pay him.

At that time, Wilkins also hosted the annual Creature Features Halloween Special during which he played the Universal classics, Frankenstein and Dracula, and hence my self-imposed curfew.  Nine o’clock and not a minute later!  How rare were the opportunities to view Karloff and Lugosi in their defining roles.  Now I can fire up the DVD player at my whim, but back then the chance to further memorize scenes and dialogue arose only occasionally.  Those cinematic treats satisfied more than even full-sized Nestle Crunch bars.  Still, the Nestle bars went down quite well as I watched my two favorite actors in what were then my two favorite films.

Even in middle-age, I hold these dark wonders in high esteem, but I no longer rank them as my favorites from that period of Universal Horror glory.  Life experiences, education, and maturity slightly have shifted the fascination I held for shambling lab creations, vampires, and other supernatural beings.  I vividly remember more than once moaning with displeasure whenever Wilkins played “non-monster” movies.  For example, the seven-year old Chuck wailed whenever the TV Guide announced that Saturday night’s feature was The Black Cat.  No monsters, no makeup, just Karloff with a creepy hairdo and Lugosi tossing a knife at a cat!  We don’t even get to see Lugosi skin Karloff once he’s got him strapped to that table!  And now forty years later, I am among the greatest supporters of The Black Cat, considering it the finest collaboration between the two actors, and the finest film in the Classic Universal Horror library.  My childhood self possessed no ability whatsoever for appreciating what I now see as five reasons for loving The Black Cat.

Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi

Karloff and Lugosi shared the screen in eight productions, the first, of course, being The Black Cat, released in 1934.  Ostensibly based on Edgar Allan Poe’s short story of the same name, the narrative employs little having to do with it or the other source from Poe, The Fall of the House of Usher.  On Mysterious Universe, a website dedicated to horror films, Michael Rose opined, “The horror-movie industry has perhaps never seen a greater pair of rivals than Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi.”  In an often cited interview, Lugosi himself took credit for discovering Karloff for Frankenstein after deciding he didn’t want the role for himself:

I made up for the role and had tests taken, which were pronounced okay. Then I read the script and didn’t like it, so I asked to be withdrawn from the picture. Carl Laemmle said he’d permit it if I furnish an actor to play the part. I scouted the agencies and came upon Boris Karloff. I recommended him. He took the tests, and that’s how he happened to become a famous star of horror pictures. My rival in fact.

Lugosi’s wife, Lillian, later reiterated this claim, dubbing Karloff “an extra,” but many question this view of events. Toward the end of his life, Karloff admitted that Lugosi had been underappreciated and perhaps hadn’t achieved more success due to his sub-proficient English.  The clearest account of their relationship remains Gregory William Mank’s Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff: The Expanded Story of a Haunting Collaboration.

In The Black Cat, viewers witness virtuoso performances from both actors, regardless of any grudges between the two.  Lugosi plays Vitus Werdegast, a physician bent on revenge against Karloff’s Hjalmar Poelzig, an architect and former prison commandant who had sold out Werdegast and others to the Russians during “the war.”   We’re told that Poelzig somehow caused the death of Werdegast’s wife and daughter as well.  As a child, I failed to appreciate the malice flowing between the two actors on screen.  I failed to marvel at Lugosi’s subtle trembling as he describes the betrayal and war crimes that grossly warped his character, a physical sign emphasizing how an otherwise good man has degenerated to obsession with vengeance and his psychological breaking point.  As for Karloff’s delivery, I now gasp at the soft-spoken lines that highlight the malignant creepiness of his character, a high priest of Satan and serial killer who very possibly has committed at least one instance of pedophilia.

These two cornerstones of horror weren’t best friends, but who cares?  If they did hate each other perhaps that influenced how they developed the animosity between Werdegast and Poelzig. In the end, however, I prefer to credit them for extreme professionalism in delivering such great onscreen chemistry.  Accolades must also go to their director, Edgar G. Ulmer.

Edgar G. Ulmer

             Born in 1904 in what is now the Czech Republic, Edgar G. Ulmer entered the United States along with a wave of Eastern European and German professionals hoping to succeed here when situations in Europe made it difficult for them to practice their art.  These directors, writers, and cinematographers had been steeped in the German Expressionism popular throughout early twentieth-century Europe.  Hitler and Goebbels ended that movement, however, labeling it as degenerate.  So these prodigies came to Hollywood, lending their collective influence to both the horror and noir genres.

That Ulmer studied under F. W. Murnau clearly becomes evident in The Black Cat.  The chiaroscuro, the play of light and shadow that so elevated Nosferatu to legendary status is evident, as is the dreamlike quality, the missing plot details that encourage viewers to fill in the gaps, to create their own horrors in their own minds.  Rather than resorting to concrete narrative and exposition, Expressionism relies on exaggerated symbolism to inspire strong emotions in individuals.  The end product, then, leaves us uneasy, because it suggests more than it dictates.  Both Ulmer and screenwriter Peter Ruric fully understood how to employ this methodology.   As set designer, albeit uncredited, Ulmer also understood the value of physical space in establishing mood.

 

It’s So Very Pretty

 

The enormous mansion that Poelzig designs and builds on the site of the prison camp where he’d tortured Werdegast and others stands as a testament not only to Art Deco, but also to the macabre, disjointed angles and crooked paths prominent in German Expressionism – weird, but so very pretty.  At one point, the female lead, Joan Alison played by Julie Bishop, succumbs to hallucinations due to the sedative Werdegast administers after treating her for wounds received after their transportation crashes in the woods.  We too as the audience are experiencing hallucinations.  Why the women entombed in glass cases along the hallways, grotesque and yet so beautiful?  Poelzig among other things is a serial killer as well?  Then we have the medieval torture chamber and satanic temple directly contrasting the modern appurtenances seen in the rest of the house.  In fact, the temple and the chamber represent Poelzig’s true nature.  It’s as if we’ve traveled through a dreamscape to reach the final nightmare within.  As with character and plot, the setting, that house in the Hungarian woods with all its contradictions and haziness, inspires more unease and horror than the most descript, in-your-face films that hand-feed viewers, leaving them no room to experience the dread of feeling unsure.

 

From the room in which Werdegast and Poelzig play chess to decide the fate of the young honeymooners unexpectedly entangled in their antagonism, to the altar where Poelzig intones in twisted Latin to honor the dark of the moon, to the torture chamber upon which Werdegast straps Poelzig to skin him alive – it’s so very pretty, all of it, and how frighteningly so.  For example, the audience hears the screams when Werdegast, in a state of complete frenzy, cuts into Poelzig for revenge, but it sees only shadows.  Our minds are left to fill in the blanks, and thus we join those newlyweds in becoming unwittingly exposed to a terror we don’t fully comprehend.  And then when Werdegast destroys the house, we, like that couple, wonder what the hell just happened?

The Hays Code

             In 1930, the Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA), later known as the Motion Pictures Association of America (MPAA), put into place the Hays Code, also called the Motion Picture Production Code, a set of rules defining acceptable and unacceptable content for movies.  However, MPPDA didn’t begin enforcing these standards until 1934, meaning The Black Cat slipped on to screens right before the hammer fell.  With its Satanism, implied pedophilia and serial murder, women encased in glass tombs, and violent revenge scenarios, Ulmer’s vision never would have reached theaters, at least not without serious reworking.  I include this section only to thank the Hays people for delaying enforcement of their system until this hallmark of cinema made the can.  The industry abandoned the code in 1968, and I’m thankful for that as well.

 We Are the Monsters

Finally, what young Chuck failed to understand during the 1970s has evolved into my final reason for adoring The Black Cat now.  Everything I’ve discussed above blends together to reveal that humans themselves are the worst monsters.  War, pedophilia, serial killing, betrayal, revenge – these unfortunately occur in the human sphere, not so with corpse reanimation or vampirism, although human minds formulated those concepts as well.   Humans either perpetuate atrocities like Poelzig’s, or we’re the victims, prepared or not.   German Expressionism greatly exploits this existential dread, the inability to control or clearly perceive what’s occurring in our surroundings.  Ulmer, a student of the movement, illustrates this condition much more stridently by eschewing supernatural monsters, because aren’t the real ones exponentially worse?

Most children prefer linear plots, fully explained characters, and blatantly obvious monsters, ones that don’t belong to our species.  They lack the development to appreciate the subtleties presented in avant-garde cinematography and screenwriting.  I see now what I couldn’t see then, and while I still adore the foundational masterworks I used to rush home from trick-or-treating to view, I now seek out The Black Cat to celebrate classic Universal horror.  As an adult, I realize the real monsters in Frankenstein were played by Colin Clive and Dwight Fry, not Boris Karloff.  However, The Black Cat distills our inherent nightmares without vampires and without the direct, fully depicted violence that contemporary slasher movies gratuitously exploit.  It brings us closer to the ultimate terror.  It speaks to us as adults who can visualize what’s implied, who have enough inside to fill in the gaps ourselves, making us the worst victims, ones forced to dredge up and coalesce our own aversions.  Do you dare to love The Black Cat for the reasons I do?  If so, I applaud your courage and your maturity.

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