Based loosely on one of Edgar Allen Poe’s most disquieting tales, 1934’s The Black Cat is one of the neglected jewels in Universal Studios’s horror crown. Edgar Ulmer’s melancholy, twilight film of the confrontation between two disturbed World War I veterans, one warped by an evil faith and the other a shattered ghost of a man driven by revenge, and the young couple that becomes entangled in their twisted game, is a fable of modernity darkened with war, obsession, and madness. Much like the other tone poem of the Universal horror series, Karl Freund’s gorgeously mannered tragedy The Mummy, Ulmer’s deeply elegiac film is a grief stricken work, a spiraling ode to overwhelming loss, both personal and universal.
Decades after betraying his regiment during a savage battle in the war, Hjalamer Poelzig (Boris Karloff), mad architect and satanic priest, erects a nightmarish fortress of a house over the mass grave of the 10,000 men he betrayed. Dr. Vitus Werdegast (Bela Lugosi) calls it a “masterpiece of construction built on the ruins of the masterpiece of destruction.” Werdegast, one of the only survivors of the battle, returns after 15 years in a Russian prison to enact his revenge on Poelzig, who not only proved a traitor but a thief as well, having spirited away Werdegast’s wife and daughter soon after the doctor’s imprisonment. Ulmer’s starkly palatial direction ably realizes the operatic melodrama of the haunting premise, filled as it is with a dream-like collision of layers of meaning.
The Black Cat’s impressionist wasteland is composed of equal parts severe allegory and pulp poetry and has the feel of a sustained epilogue, like the slow process of sifting through ruins after some great cataclysm. “Are we not both the living dead?” Poelzig asks Werdegast at one point as the camera seems to float through the deep space of Poelzig’s house, his voice god-like and dislocated in time. Poelzig is the lord of an underworld of his own making, a fabrication of plastic, steel, glass, and postmodernist design, hell imagined as a collection of strange angles. Yet while Karloff’s leering madman is portrayed as overcome with an almost rapturous, narratively disconnected evil, he too is damaged by history, the end result and embodiment of its own savagery.
While the narrator in Poe’s short story avenges himself on a cat—one that his insanity urges him to believe is tormenting him by bricking the sad creature behind a wall in his basement—Poelzig metaphorically bricks up the past by burying it under his house, attempting, in an act of hideous hubris, to control death itself. If a certain poeticization of the Great War has imagined the conflict as a kind of nexus point for the unraveling of history, a sudden, terrible conflation of calculated modernity and some primeval, almost supernatural, ritual of death, then Poelzig is the figure at the heart of the darkness, staring further on into our century, the devil and the engineer.
This rawly symbolic work is at the same time filled with clichés of the genre, the mysterious, distant “other land,” in this case a wounded, vaguely Eastern Europe, the sullen, withdrawn mad “scientist,” the hulking man-servant, the young couple whose innocence is threatened. What is so compelling about The Black Cat is that the film embraces its own generic contents while incorporating them into something far richer, far deeper than simply adventure or mystery. In the end, the film becomes that rarest of all things, a masterpiece of popular art. Both Karloff and Lugosi deliver two of the finest performances of their careers, as does David Manners, who while pleasant to look at was certainly one of the most banal of the leading men of the genre.
Ulmer, a director who worked in many genres and under quite varied conditions, was given one of his rare opportunities to work with a relatively sizable budget, and the result puts many of the director’s contemporaries, used to working in a well financed Hollywood system, to shame. Filled with startling visuals—perhaps one of the single greatest images to come out of the Universal horror cycle is the breathtaking image of Poelzig’s collection of dead women hovering in glass cases as he walks among them stroking his cat, admiring his “pussy” as it were—and meticulously designed as one of the genuine triumphs of the first period of expressionist cinema, the film has been unfortunately overshadowed by inferior films from the Universal horror period. The Black Cat’s ability to peer around the corners of its own genre notions of master criminals and horror fiends allows for a film that is both luxuriously mysterious and strangely relevant, the shadow of a social critique within the elaborate body of a work of baroque horror.