It was the horror smackdown that shook the world as Bela (DRACULA) Lugosi battled Boris (FRANKENSTEIN) Karloff to the death in a Bauhaus-inspired madhouse that had nothing to do with Edgar Allan Poe’s THE BLACK CAT other than the title!
The first of the death-dealing duels betwixt Bela & Boris gave birth decades later to cross franchise horror show grudge matches like FREDDY VS. JASON or ALIEN VS. PREDATOR, but in 1934 horror films were as fresh a concept as a newborn babe — albeit one with electrodes protruding from its stitched-together neck.
Following the breakout successes of DRACULA and FRANKENSTEIN, both in 1931, Universal Pictures were keen to capitalize on the films’ box office grosses. While Lugosi had famously turned down the part of the Frankenstein monster, that flick had launched a sullen, sunken-cheeked Boris Karloff to horror superstardom. While the monster had yet to meet his mate, and Lugosi had gone indie with WHITE ZOMBIE, Universal execs under Carl Laemmle, Jr. were eager to team the monster thesps. They commissioned several scripts based on Edgar Allan Poe’s creepy tale of comeuppance, “The Black Cat,” but none of them gelled.
Enter freshly-minted director Edgar G. Ulmer, who had previously worked at famed UFA films in Germany, working as production designer on iconic films like Fritz Lang’s sci-fi epic METROPOLIS and Paul Wegener’s DER GOLEM.
Ulmer came in with a fresh script by Peter Ruric (based on his story) that jettisoned all the Poe elements, save the title, and pitched it. He called the teaming of Lugosi and Karloff as the protagonists “a no-brainer”, guaranteeing it would turn big bucks.
Hampered with a low budget in comparison to the lavish productions of the previous horror hits, Ulmer unleashed a psychosexual world of necrophilia, devil worship and sadism that turned cinema on its collective ear. Production designer Charles “Danny” Hall makes the most out of the small budget, using stylized sets and lighting to create a sleek work of Bauhaus-inspired malevolence.
The actual plot often makes little sense, turning and twisting on a very thin dime — existing as a nightmarish tone poem of revenge that digs deep into the psychological nature of true horror.
Lugosi, as psychiatrist Dr. Vitus Werdegast, finds himself in the company of two American tourists, Peter and Joan Allison, after their car crashes on his way to visit his “old pal” — the renowned architect Hjalmar Poelzig (Karloff). But Poelzig harbors a dark secret: he built his Bauhaus manse on the ruins of a WWI fortress of death where thousands perished, a citadel of pain where Bela once served.
“A masterpiece of construction built upon the ruins of the masterpiece of destruction — a masterpiece of murder,” Bela hisses to Boris in a torrent of exposition. “Fifteen years I’ve rotted in the darkness. But not to kill you, but to kill your soul — slowly. Where is my wife, Karen, and my daughter?”
Karloff is first revealed to the audience rising from his bedchamber as if rising from a coffin. His makeup, with a highly arched brow and stiff, mechanized gestures, seems more demon than human — and for good reason. Boris is not only the living embodiment of stylized German Expressionistic evil a la NOSFERATU, but his appearance was based on that of real-life occultist and Satanist-at-large Aleister Crowley.
Playing a virtual game of cat and mouse in front of the American couple, Boris and Bela soon drop their façade and play chess for the soul of the woman in the house of death.
Boris tells Lugosi his wife is dead, and shows her corpse perfectly preserved behind glass, on display in his museum of dead wives. In an incestuous twist, Karloff has now mated with Lugosi’s daughter, who seems oblivious to all the bizarre goings-on.
Bela, who has a deadly fear of cats, shrieks in terror when seeing one and promptly kills “the living embodiment of evil.”
But Bela has lost the chess match, and Our Hero seems powerless as Joan Allison is soon offered up on an inverted cross to be sacrificed to Boris’s satanic followers. But Lugosi has an ace up his twisted sleeve…
THE BLACK CAT unreels a feverish miasma of lust, terror and vengeance in barely an hour of running time. Underscoring the malevolence is a nearly wall-to-wall score, lifted from classical music by such masters as Liszt, Tchaikovsky, Schumann and even Beethoven. Naturally, at the ritualistic black mass, Boris wails a tune on the organ that will become a horror movie cliché: Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor. I guess Walt Disney hadn’t seen this when he selected that piece for FANTASIA.
Freeing Joan from sacrifice and discovering his daughter was alive and bedding Boris — only to suddenly be murdered — Bela goes berserk. Overpowering Boris, he cuffs him to an embalming rack and begins to flay him alive!
“Do you know what I am going to do to you now? No? Did you ever see an animal skinned, Hjalmar? Heh-heh-heh- That’s what I’m going to do to you now — bare the skin from your body… slowly… bit by bit!”
Attempting to help Joan, Bela gets plugged by her befuddled hubby (David Manners). As he dies from the gunshot wound, Bela yanks the soon-to-be cliché deus ex machina lever, which blows everything up. The innocents abroad naturally escape.
Ulmer screened the rough cut for Universal execs, who were horrified by THE BLACK CAT’s grim finale. They ordered cuts and gave Ulmer additional funds for re-shoots. But he didn’t re-do the gruesome climax, which played in shadows anyway. Instead, he used the reshoot to create a brand new scene where Bela and Boris don’t even appear: in a virtuoso tour-de-force, Ulmer creates a moving shot that descends into the depths of the manse to the old armaments, then to a secret passage. Boris prefers to keep his beautiful, all blonde “dead wives society” embalmed — and under glass.
Seeming happy with the results, Universal released THE BLACK CAT to Depression-era audiences who lapped it up, making it the biggest moneymaker of the year for the studio. But critics, outraged by the suggestions of necrophilia and perversion, were horrified — and soon the Hays Office was created to police and censor such sexual and horror elements in the film industry.
As for Ulmer, it wasn’t the film that destroyed his career at universal — it was his own sexual hubris. While lensing the torrid terror tome, he became involved with the script girl, who was married to a studio exec at the time. When their affair became known, Ulmer was banished to the backlot of poverty-row studios. He later achieved cult notoriety with the noir classic DETOUR (1947).
Buoyed by THE BLACK CAT’s success, Universal promptly teamed Karloff & Lugosi again in THE RAVEN (1935). This time Bela was a Poe-obsessed plastic surgeon, and Boris a murderer on the lam who wants his face changed. Bela deliberately botches Boris’ surgery, turning him into a disfigured monster. As Bela exacts Poe-inspired torture on other cast members, Boris gets his revenge. But without a visionary like Ulmer at the helm, THE RAVEN is mere B-movie blarney.
As the horror movie craze waned — especially after Boris met both Bride and Son — he soon followed Bela into schlocky low-budgeters, both playing a succession of various boogeymen and seemingly supernatural menaces (SPOOKS RUN WILD!) only to be foiled by the likes of Leo Gorcey & Huntz Hall’s East Side Kids.
While Karloff & Lugosi later teamed in other films, including producer Val Lewton’s THE BODY SNATCHER, none matched the ferocity and psychosexual intensity of THE BLACK CAT… which remains the pinnacle to which all over-the-top monster mashups aspire.