Synopsis: Mystery writer Peter Allison (David Manners) and his newly-minted wife Joan (Julie Bishop) are honeymooning in eastern Europe. On a train trip east, they are unexpectedly asked to share their compartment with a stranger, Dr. Vitus Werdergast (Bela Lugosi). Werdegast tells them that he had been in a Russian prison camp until recently, but now he is on his way to visit an old friend. The man seems haunted by Joan’s beauty, telling her that she reminds him of his own late wife.
At their destination, Werdegast and the Allisons agree to share a taxi. The driver entertains the newlyweds by telling them that the area they are driving past was the site of an old fortress, where 10,000 men died in a fierce battle with the Russians during the Great War. To the couple this is mildly interesting history, but Werdegast stares out the window darkly, and it is clear that for him this story is all too personal.
Suddenly part of the rain-washed road gives way and the taxi plunges down an embankment. The driver is killed in the crash, and Joan is knocked unconscious. Werdegast, his manservant and Peter take her to the futuristic house built on the ruins of the old fortress.
This is the house built by Hjalmar Poelzig (Boris Karloff), one of the world’s greatest architects and the man whom Werdegast has traveled so far to visit. Poelzig had once commanded the fortress the house was built upon, and it quickly becomes clear that Werdegast’s visit is not entirely a social call. During the war, Poelzig had allowed his men to be taken captive by the Russians in exchange for his own safe passage. And Poelzig had taken Werdegast’s wife Karin with him. He had told her that Werdegast had been killed so that he could marry her and raise Werdegast’s daughter as his own.
Wedegast treats Joan’s injuries, telling Peter that she will be all right after a good night’s sleep. He gives her a sedative. Peter and Werdegast are talking to Poelzig when Wedegast sees a black cat. Werdegast becomes hysterical and kills it. Poelzig explains to Peter that Werdegast has always suffered from a debilitating fear of cats.
Joan comes downstairs. She seems different than before — more somber and sharp-eyed. When Peter takes her back upstairs she kisses him hungrily. Wedegast explains that the narcotic he has given Joan is known to cause incidents of expanded perception, even second sight.
Later that night, Poelzig tells Werdegast he will take him to Karin. The two go into the lower levels of the house, which are built upon the old fortress ruins. Poelzig leads him to a glass case, where Karin is kept. Poelzig tells him that she died of pneumonia shortly after the war. But he has kept her body perfectly preserved so that he may always look upon her beauty. The child, he tells Werdegast, died about the same time.
Enraged, Werdegast draws a pistol, but Poelzig mocks him for his “childish” and “melodramatic” impulses. Realizing that this isn’t yet the proper time to exact revenge, Werdegast stands down.
Returning to his bedroom, Poelzig tells the woman lying next to him that he wants her to remain hidden from the visitors in the house. It is only then that we see the woman looks exactly like Karin — she is, in fact, Werdegast’s long-lost daughter….
Comments: Well, here we are, five weeks into the Horror Incorporated Project, and we haven’t yet made it off the Universal lot. Matter of fact, every film we’ve seen but one (last week’s Son of Dracula) has featured either Boris Karloff or Bela Lugosi, or both.
But don’t think we’ve fallen into a rut.
This week’s movie, The Black Cat, has just about everything –young lovers on holiday, train travel, revenge, Satanic rituals, mute servants, incestuous relationships, torture, ailurophobia, chess and ultra-modernist architecture. And it’s all packed into a 65-minite running time.
It was directed by Edward G. Ulmer, a Hungarian-born director who was kind of an Ed Wood in reverse — Ulmer could take a Z-budget project and make it seem like an art film. Thus a throwaway cheapie like The Man From Planet X became an atmospheric little thriller and a minor classic of the genre. And working with a bigger budget and a couple of name actors, Ulmer manages to imbue The Black Cat with a genuine atmosphere of suspense and foreboding.
The loving attention paid to Poelzig’s amazing art-deco house is remarkable; the house almost becomes a character itself, speaking volumes about the man’s inwardly-directed ambition, his mania for creating order out of chaos.
In spite of the lavishly created set-pieces, in spite of its many moving parts, surprisingly little actually seems to happen in this movie. Seemingly significant plot points are left unresolved: Joan’s strange reaction to the sedative is never revisited, and Werdegast’s terror of cats has no bearing on later scenes. Karin’s body has been perfectly preserved for some fifteen years, by a method that is never explained — and while there are several other women similarly preserved, their presence is never alluded to.
Nor is it explained why Karin’s daughter is also named Karin, if Poelzig married the woman who is ostensibly his daughter and if so, why no one in the nearby town seems to have noticed. So many of these inconsistencies crop up that when Poelzig is revealed as the leader of a Satanic cult, it increases our suspicion that the screenwriters literally made it up as they went along
This is an unusual film for many reasons, not the least of which is the casting of Bela Lugosi as a sympathetic character, and it made me wish that he’d found his way into more roles like this. I have always thought of Lugosi as a vain, unbearably hammy actor, but in his portrayal of Werdegast he projects a genuine warmth and charm. Had he not been typecast in mad scientist roles, he might have made a decent living playing congenial character parts.
But that was not to be. Unfortunately, the best days of Lugosi’s career were already over. The long, agonizing slide to the bottom was yet to come.