The 13th Floor

Ebony and Villainy: Remembering THE BLACK CAT and THE BLACK SLEEP

Almost any word can be turned into a horror film title simply by adding the word “Black.” Over the years there has been a Friday, a Zoo, a Scorpion, a Mamba, a Sunday, a Sabbath, a Christmas, a Room, a Museum, some Roses, some Sheep, some Water and a Lagoon, to name a few. There are two “Black” films, however, that are required viewing for any self-­respecting horror fanatic.

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“Supernatural perhaps. Baloney… perhaps not…” is one of the more infamous ominous lines uttered by Bela Lugosi in the 1934 Universal horror THE BLACK CAT. Directed by Edgar G. Ulmer and co-­starring Boris Karloff, it is a tale of lost love, revenge, chess and crippling feline fear, with a side order of Satan worship.

Traveling through Hungary by train, American honeymooners Peter and Joan encounter the rather dramatic Dr. Vitus Werdegast (Lugosi). They share a cab through the countryside, which promptly crashes, injuring Joan. Werdegast brings them to the home of his old nemesis, the mysterious Hjalmar Poelzig (Karloff), whom he intends to kill. Apparently Poelzig left Werdegast to die in a torture camp many years before, and then married his wife… and then married his daughter. As if that wasn’t repulsive enough, Poelzig keeps all of his old dead girlfriends embalmed in his secret display room.

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The house has one of those levers that blow everything sky-­high, so we see where this is going from a mile away. But before that, we’re treated to lots of unsavory shenanigans and Karloff saying lines like, “You hear that, Vitus? The phone is dead. Even the phone is dead…”

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Based on nothing Edgar Allan Poe ever wrote, the movie swings like a pendulum between slices of fatty ham and genuine cold creepiness. Lugosi is a bit melodramatic, particularly in the earlier scenes, and Karloff is dripping with unctuous evil throughout. However, when they are onscreen together, they positively crackle with chemistry.

This was the first of eight films in which they would appear together, and arguably the strangest. At times it borders on camp, but is tempered by the decidedly lurid machinations of Karloff’s Poelzig. Personally, I like to say the names “Vitus Werdegast” and “Hjalmar Poelzig” over and over again. It’s fun. Bonus cameo alert! Don’t blink or you’ll miss the back of John Carradine’s head as an organ-playing Satan worshipper!

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Twenty-­two years later, Carradine and Lugosi reunited for another “Black” nightmare, along with several other notable horror stars. Reginald LeBorg’s THE BLACK SLEEP features no less than three Draculas, one Wolf Man, one Ygor, one Vulture, the Beast of Yucca Flats and the Son of Frankenstein!

In London 1872, Dr. Cadman (Basil Rathbone) saves the wrongly accused Dr. Gordon Ramsay from the hangman’s noose by slipping him a mickey known as the “Black Sleep.” The potent potable puts the patient in a state that imitates death. In return for his saving, Ramsay agrees to join Cadman in his brain surgery research. Set up in a suitably spooky old mansion, the grateful young doctor quickly becomes skeptical of the old Doc’s methods, which include open-­skull brain surgery of living subjects.

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When Ramsay discovers a menagerie of previous failed experiments imprisoned in the catacombs below, it’s clear that Cadman has gone way beyond the parameters of ethical scientific behavior. This all leads to the lunatics taking over the asylum, and murder and madness abounds.

On the surface THE BLACK SLEEP looks like just another cheap “that’s sooo 1940’s” horror flick, but it’s really quite surprising. Be prepared for some graphic gore in the brain fluid department, and a few of Dr. Cadman’s mutated inmates are pretty frightening. The story is a step above the standard horror fare of the period, and the actors navigate the well-­drawn dialogue quite skillfully.

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And what a cast! Rathbone brings his usual stuffy authority to Cadman, practically a blueprint for the roles Peter Cushing would soon excel at. Lon Chaney Jr. plays a former professor, reduced to a silent brute who is prone to attacking the film’s ingénue (the adorable Patricia Blair). Akim Tamiroff provides comic relief as a “malodorous” body snatcher, and Carradine exercises his baritone bellows as a hirsute-­headed lunatic, which doesn’t make sense since he supposedly had brain surgery. Big, bald and puffy Tor Johnson does what he does best: playing a big bald and puffy guy, with white eyeballs. As the mute butler, Lugosi is given little more to do than change bed-­warmers and look befuddled. But it sure is fun to see them all together — many for the very last time.

Both CAT and SLEEP are great examples of cherished horror stars showing us how it’s done old school monster style. Want a fun night of classic horror? Well, settle back and get BLACK…

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