By Doug Gibson
The 1934 Universal Studios' The Black Cat is a magnificent film, the best pairing of stars Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff. It is masterfully understated, both rivals mad but possessed of grace, dignity and impeccable manners. Lugosi is the good guy, but he's also crazy enough to skin the bad guy (Karloff) alive at the end.
The plot involves an American mystery writer, and his fiance (Julie Bishop) honeymooning in Hungary. They meet a courtly gentleman, Dr. Vitus Werdegast, who is traveling to meet an old nemesis, Hjalmar Poelzig, played by Boris Karloff. It reminds me a bit of the famous Hungarian novel, Embers. The tone of the film has a classic Hungarian fatalism.
While traveling to a city, a coach overturns. The young couple and Lugosi seek shelter at Karloff's forbidding castle. It is built on the site of a prison, where Werdegast was once held. He seeks his wife and daughter, who were in Poelzig's care. Karloff's Poelzig is the soul of courtesy, but that masks a truly terrifying evil. There are dark secrets in Castle Poelzig, and once Werdegast learns them he's driven to righteous madness.
Stuck in the middle of this is the young bride (Bishop) who becomes an object of desire to Poelzig. Naturally, that puts her husband in danger too.
This brisk, 65-minute horror film is well directed by Edgar Ulmer, who later hamstrung his career by winning the heart of a Universal executive's wife. The plot moves at a dignified pace, and what is literally a cinematic chess game grows more sinister until suddenly the horror of Karloff's character bursts out to the audience.
Lugosi excells at his role, that of a decent man with decent gestures who can't suppress his bitterness and longing. His final rage is memorable. There's little of Edgar Allen Poe's tale, just a cat that Lugosi's Werdegast has a phobia of and Karloff sometimes puts to use.
Horror fans, and Universal afficianados will love this black and white classic. Watch it in a single setting, marvel at the skill of horror experts Lugosi and Karloff. They deserve such respect.