The Black Cat (1934)

Edward G. Ulmer | 1hr 5min

Atop the ruins of Fort Marmorus in Hungary, where thousands of World War I soldiers died, an imposing manor has been built by Austrian architect, Hjalmar Poelzig. Within its basement, an evil Satanic cult gathers, preserving the bodies of dead women for its own nefarious purposes. It is also upon these dark grounds where Edgar G. Ulmer stages a showdown between two of Universal Pictures’ greatest stars, Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, both chewing scenery with exaggerated accents and mannerisms that are wild by even their own standards. An “atmosphere of death” hangs over their decades-old rivalry, cast in stark shadows across lavish halls and secret dungeons, and Ulmer savours every demented moment of it, painting over The Black Cat’s uneven pacing with a pulpy, macabre expressionism.

Honeymooners and audience conduits Peter and Joan are the least interesting thing about this film of treachery, conspiracies, and mind games. Their encounter with Lugosi’s psychiatrist Dr. Vitus Werdegast is simply our introduction into a far more fascinating underworld run by Poelzig, Karloff’s enigmatic occultist. Rain pours down in the film’s exteriors, dousing the night in a pervasive gloom, while Ulmer’s interior architecture becomes a Gothic extension of Poelzig’s madness. Against bright backlights, silhouettes cut striking shapes out of his characters, while a pair of spiral staircases become central set pieces – one stretching wide across a gridded backdrop, and the other sharply dropping into the basement like a steep, rickety tower.

Like Dracula’s castle or Frankenstein’s laboratory, Poelzig’s manor stands in a lineage within Universal monster movies of creepy buildings standing atop lonely mountains.
Excellent use of chiaroscuro lighting for the introduction of Karloff’s creepy occultist, rising from his bed.
Ulmer returns to this set piece multiple times, each time finding new angles and shadows around it.

Most powerful of all Ulmer’s visual motifs though are the elongated shadows cast by Poelzig’s black cat, striking a fear deep into Dr. Vitus’ heart with its legs stretched out like fingers, and representing a “living embodiment of evil.” Karloff himself takes on characteristics of his feline companion too, prowling around the manor in long robes and scowling at his guests from beneath a heavy brow. When he invites Dr. Vitus to play a game of death, Ulmer even cuts away to an eerie montage of tracking shots down the building’s opulent hallways, hauntingly disembodying his voice like a lingering spectre. He is a force of malevolence on every level, certainly in the underworld of occultism, but also in his betrayal of his own nation to the Russians in World War I.

A commitment to the visual motif of the black cat, tying its shadows into the occult symbolism.
Ulmer using these angular beams to obstruct the shots of Poelzig’s Satanic cult.

The Satan worshippers who gather in Poelzig’s tabernacle are an unassuming lot, dressing in formalwear and looking more like wealthy aristocrats than social outcasts. Still, there is something unsettling about their glowering faces as we cut between them in close-ups, while Ulmer’s wide shots are obstructed by the obelisks and cross-like altar at the centre of the room. So too do the shadows and torture instruments of Poelzig’s dungeon construct some particularly oppressive frames around his final confrontation with Dr. Vitus, which gruesomely comes to an end with the Satanist’s execution on his own embalming rack. The Black Cat does not possess the same narrative strength as either Dracula or Frankenstein, and yet the morbid delight of seeing the stars of both clash across Ulmer’s expressionistic interiors makes for a darkly mesmerising occult horror.

A well-cut montage jumping around the faces of the cult members.
A huge influence from German expressionism in these shadows, angles, and designs – the foundation of this film’s profuse visual style.

The Black Cat is not currently streaming in Australia.

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