Black Cat, The: Edgar Ulmer’s Horror Film, Starring Boris Karloff and Béla Lugosi

Edgar G. Ulmer directed The Black Cat, a pre-Code horror film, starring Boris Karloff and Béla Lugosi.

This feature was the first of eight movies (six of which produced by Universal) that the two iconic actors had made together.  Lugosi also appeared in the 1941 film with the same title.

Universal’s biggest box office hit of the year, Black Cat was one of the first movies with an almost continuous music score.  It made use of and popularized the psychological horror subgenre, defined by ominous atmosphere, eerie sounds, and dark characters.

Newlyweds Peter (David Manners) and Joan Alison (Julie Bishop), on their honeymoon in Hungary, due to a mix-up, share a train compartment with Dr. Vitus Werdegast (Béla Lugosi), an Hungarian psychiatrist.

Years before, Werdegast went to war, never seeing his wife again. He has spent the last 15 years in a prison camp in Siberia.

On the train, the doctor explains he is traveling to see an old friend, Hjalmar Poelzig (Boris Karloff), an Austrian architect.

Later, the doctor, Peter, and Joan, share a bus, which crashes on a desolate, rain-swept road. Joan is injured, and the doctor and Peter take her to Poelzig’s home, built upon the ruins of Fort Marmorus.

Werdegast treats Joan’s injury with the tranquilizing drug hyoscine, which leads to erratic behavior. While Peter puts her to bed, Werdegast accuses Poelzig of betraying the fort during the war to the Russians, resulting in the death of thousands of Austro-Hungarian soldiers. He also accuses Poelzig of stealing his wife Karen while he was in prison.

Poelzig explains that Werdegast has a strong fear of the animals (he had killed his black Cat). Poelzig carries a second black cat with him while he oversees his “collection” of dead women on display in glass cases. Poelzig plans to sacrifice Joan in a satanic ritual at night.

Poelzig had married Werdegast’s wife, and when she died, he married his daughter, who was told her real father died in prison.

Werdegast, who is unaware of his daughter’s presence, is waiting for the right moment to kill the mad architect. He also tries to persuade his foe to spare Peter and Joan, risking their lives by playing game of chess with Poelzig, which he loses.

Fatally wounded, Werdegast blows up the house, first letting the couple escape but with Poelzig’s “rotten cult” still upstairs. “It has been a good game,” he says before dying.

Cast

Boris Karloff as Hjalmar Poelzig
Béla Lugosi as Dr. Vitus Werdegast
David Manners as Peter Alison
Julie Bishop (billed as Jacqueline Wells) as Joan Alison
Egon Brecher as The Majordomo
Harry Cording as Thamal
Lucille Lund as Karen Werdegast
Henry Armetta as Police Sergeant
Albert Conti as Police Lieutenant
John Carradine as Organist (uncredited)