The Black Cat

Released:  1934

Cast:  Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, David Manners, Julie Bishop

SUMMARY:  Peter (David Manners) and Joan (Julie Bishop) Alison have just gotten married, and are taking a train to their honeymoon destination in Hungary.  Partway through the journey, they are told that their compartment had been sold twice; the other man is a Hungarian psychiatrist named Dr. Vitus Werdegast (Bela Lugosi).  Peter and Joan decide to share the compartment with the man.  During the trip, they learn that Werdegast had left home and joined the war effort 18 years before, leaving behind his wife, Karen, and young daughter (also named Karen).  Three years later he was captured and sent to a prison in Siberia, where he remained for the past fifteen years.  He is returning to Hungary to visit a former acquaintaince, Hjalmar Poelzig (Boris Karloff).  After their train trip ends, the three end up sharing the same bus from the station.  The bus crashes int he rain, killing the driver and injuring Joan.  Werdegast decides to take both Alisons to the nearby Poelzig house.  The house has a strange history:  it is built on (and incorporating) the ruins of a fort which Poelzig commanded during the war; it is also built on the mass grave of the thousands of soldiers who died there.  At the house, Werdegast treats Joan’s injuries and gives her a powerful sedative.  Peter settles her into bed, and Werdegast takes the opportunity to confront Poelzig.  He demands to know where his wife is, noting that Poelzig had also been in love with her.  He also claims that during the war, Poelzig had betrayed the fort to the Russians, causing the deaths of the soldiers.  Peter later rejoins the pair, and observes that Werdegast has a crippling fear of black cats.  He is so terrified of them that he kills Poelzig’s pet cat.

Unbeknownst to Werdegast or Peter, Poelzig has a number of dead women preserved and displayed in a secret part of the house.  He periodically tours these displays — carrying another black cat.  When Werdegast continues to demand to know what happened to his wife, Poelzig shows him her body, displayed in a case.  He explains that she died while he was in prison, and that their young daughter also died.  Again, Poelzig is keeping a secret:  the younger Karen is not dead.  In fact, she is Poelzig’s wife, and is hidden away in the house.  Poelzig warns her to stay in the bedroom, then begins reading a book detailing satanic worship.  After being questioned by Werdegast, it becomes clear that Poelzig intends to perform a ritual that includes using Joan Alison as a sacrifice.  Werdegast is determined to save her, and Peter, but decides to wait for the right moment to do so.  Peter has decided that he and Joan must leave immediately, but is stopped by a servant who knocks him cold and then locks him in a dark room.  The same servant than takes Joan to another room and locks her in; she remains there until the ritual begins.  When Werdegast visits her, she tells him that his daughter is alive, and married to Poelzig (who had first married her mother).  During the ritual, which is attended by a group of other people, Werdegast waits until Poelzig is distracted, then grabs Joan and takes off.  He is pursued by Poelzig, who attacks Werdegast.  Werdegast ultimately overpowers Poelzig, and straps him into hanging handcuffs, announcing his intention to skin the man alive.  He begins to do this as a horrified Joan periodically screams.  Meanwhile, Peter has awakened and managed to escape; he follows Joan’s screams and finds her locked in the room with Poelzig and Werdegast.  Joan tries to retrieve the key to unlock the door; when Werdegast sees her struggling, he tries to help her.  Unfortunately, Peter thinks that Werdegast is attacking Joan, and fatally shoots him.  As the Alisons escape, Werdegast triggers a giant explosion which destroys the house.

MY TAKE:  Bela Lugosi is instantly recognizable as Count Dracula from the famed 1931 movie, so I don’t think it was that abnormal for me to instantly assume he was a bad guy.  For a good portion of the film, it seemed like I was right:  he seems to have sinister intentions against Poelzig and is oddly affected by black cats, which made me think he had some sort of weird curse on him, like how Dracula can’t be in sunlight.  Much to my surprise, I began to realize that he’s actually a good guy in this film, and pretty much ends up being the hero (Peter’s pretty useless).  He’s the one who figures out what’s going on, rescues Joan, and kills Poelzig.  The skinning-alive thing was creepy, but the man had lost his wife and daughter and spent fifteen years in a Siberian prison.  And he’s Bela Lugosi.  Thankfully we don’t have to see the actually skinning.  It’s a pretty short movie, but that probably helped to keep the plot moving.  It’s not so short that things are rushed — you get the background details about Poelzig’s war activities, and the awful history of the house, and the tension goes up very nicely.  I think that in some cases, horror movies milk the tension a little too long, which tends to make me tune out.  This movie didn’t do that — it kept things hopping.

RATING:  Short, sweet and creepy.  Great classic horror movie.

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