The Black Cat

Boris Karloff, a cat, and an unidentified ex in The Black Cat (dir. Edgar G. Ulmer, 1934)

Where to begin? Maybe with the names of Lugosi's and Karloff's characters: Dr. Vitus Werdegast and Hjalmar Poelzig. They are old friends turned bitter enemies who play out their final confrontation with the lives of a young honeymooning couple as the stakes. Lugosi's Werdegast has spent the last fifteen years of his life in a prison, after being betrayed by Poelzig, who has also taken away the love of Werdegast's life. Poelzig is an architect and war criminal, whose ultramodern mansion is built over the battlefield where men died as a result of his treachery. As if that weren't enough, he is also now a practitioner of the black arts. The mansion is rigged for self-destruction, as though Poelzig knows that his existence cannot sustain itself, that one day his evils must collapse in on him in House-of-Usher fashion. (Of all the Universal Poe films from the '30s starring Lugosi, this is by far the best, and the one that has least to do with Poe, though there are tonal and thematic elements from more than one text in addition to the title story.) The set design, more than any other single feature, accounts for much of the film's alluring strangeness: it was a stroke of genius to make Poelzig's house a futuristic palace rather than a moldy dungeon. The continuous music score by Heinz Roemheld creates the effect of a silent film. Speaking of music, blink and you'll miss John Carradine as the organist in Poelzig's Satanist cult.

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