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The Black Cat (DVD)

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Genre: Horror / Theatrical Release: 1934 / Suitable for 15 years and over / Director: Edgar G. Ulmer / Actors: Bela Lugosi, Julie Bishop, Boris Karloff, David Manners ... / DVD released 2007-10-29 at Second Sight Films Ltd. / Features of the DVD: Black & White, PAL

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      19.05.2008 08:54
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      One of the stranger Universal horror movies

      A review of the film - there is a DVD available for about £7 on amazon, but it has no extras.

      This is a Universal horror film from 1934 starring Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. It's generally regarded as one of the most interesting of Universal's horrors, and it certainly isn't like their other films. But, although interesting, I wouldn't rate it nearly as highly as any of James Whale's films for the studio. The title was chosen because of the Edgar Allen Poe connection, but it bears no relation whatsoever to his story of the same name. Lugosi's character is afraid of cats, which is mentioned maybe twice and has no bearing on the plot at all, but never mind - it's a film that crams an awful lot of ideas into its 65 minutes; in such a cluttered film a bit of gratuitous ailurophobia can be forgiven.

      A fashionable American couple, Peter and Joan Alison, are involved in a coach accident on their honeymoon. Stranded at the sinister home of crazy architect Hjalmar Poelzig, they get drawn into a sinister battle of wits between Poelzig and Dr Vitus Werdegast. Poelzig had Werdegast imprisoned during the war and ran off with his wife and daughter. Now Werdegast wants revenge.

      Which more or less covers the plot. This is different to most of what Universal had done because there's nothing supernatural involved, and rather than the faux-medieval gothic visual style of their Draculas and Frankensteins, Poelzig's castle is ultra-modern (in fact, Modernist - the decor is Bauhaus with a touch of art deco, so expect sliding, angular doors rather than arched, creaking ones). It also alludes to the war in a direct way that other horrors don't (most of the horror movies of the era, with their emphasis on bodily disfigurement and distrust of both technology and Europe, are heavily influenced by the First World War, but few are this open about it). Poelzig is a war criminal, but more than that, his mansion is built on a mass grave, on the site of a fortress - more than once both he and Werdegast comment that the place is heavy with death, and both men have been driven a little peculiar, to say the least, by their wartime experiences.

      It's a surprisingly kinky film. The audience first realises that Poelzig's not quite right when we see that he keeps the corpses of his dead wives in the cellar, preserved in glass cases (and all scantily clad by 1934 standards). And the ending, as well as being the most gruesome thing in any Universal horror (although obviously we don't see anything nasty), has a real sadistic, bondage element that ought to raise a few eyebrows even now.

      As if that wasn't enough, it also has what I think might be the sound era's first satanic mass sequence (which obviously doesn't go for the naked excesses of later black mass scenes, but was probably scandalous at the time simply because of what it was). Another, less impressive first is that Poelzig gets to demonstrate what an evil fellow he is by playing Bach's toccata and fugue in D minor on an organ. Quite why that piece of music has become shorthand for 'sinister aristocrat' is beyond me.

      The main selling point of this film is the Karloff/Lugosi pairing. It was the first time the two great horror stars appeared together, and the only time they had parts of equal importance - Lugosi's star diminished pretty rapidly. He is a lot better than usual as the vengeful but largely sympathetic Werdegast. His grasp of English is better than in his embarrassing early roles, and although he rolls his eyes a bit more than necessary, he's the perfect foil to Karloff's icy Poelzig. As angular as his mansion, Karloff's all soft-spoken, lisping menace, one of his few straight-down-the-line 'evil' roles, and one of his best performances. The young couple are modern and frivolous and rather bland, drawn into a battle of old-world ogres they really don't understand - it's in some ways reminiscent of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, albeit with higher stakes and considerably less wit.

      The director, Edgar Ulmer, was a German - he shows great visual flair here, with some really nice 'arty' camera angles. It's too short a film for any of the director's flourishes to overbalance the film, so has flair without being pretentious. Sadly he ran off with the wrong man's wife and was relegated to directing poverty row B-movies for the rest of his career.

      It's not a perfect film. The incidental music is almost incessant and really not very good, most of being snippets of well-known classical pieces that rather work against the film's mood. There's a very intrusive humorous policemen scene just when things should be getting suspenseful. And the plot is a bit too silly in some respects - why would you build your house on a huge pile of dynamite, and having done so, why the bloody hell would you then build a switch that would detonate it all?

      But above all, it just isn't quite the classic it could be. All the pieces are there, but they somehow don't quite gel in as satisfying way as they should. I wouldn't expect it to be scary in this day and age, but it sadly lacks the lunatic poetry of Bride of Frankenstein or Freaks.

      It has a slightly surprising 12 rating. There's no serious onscreen violence and no nudity (although you do see Karloff's nipples, if that's of interest). It's perhaps slightly disappointing because of its slightly inflated reputation, but on the whole it's worth a look if you like this kind of thing.

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