A couple Peter and Joan Allison are joined by Dr. Vitus Verdegast (Bela Lugosi) who are on their way to a hotel, but suddenly their bus crashes during a storm. Dr Verdegast suggests they seek refuge in Hjalmar Poelzig's (Boris Karloff) house, who is an old acquaintance of his and he's secretly seeking revenge against him for the death of his wife and betraying his country by slaughtering his entire army when it was sacrificed to Satan during WW1. Dr Verdegast discovers that Poelzig has the same idea for Joan, which saw him kill his wife. So to help them escape Dr. Verdegast challenges Poelzig to a game of chess and if he wins they are free and if he doesn't their doom.
Incredibly complex and odd assortments of novelties ranging from Sadism, Superstition to Satan worship fill this stylish yet confusing film. I wasn't particularly gob smacked or incredibly impressed by the film after reading a lot good things about it, but it's the performances and the look of the film that kept me glued and amazed. The plot had an engrossing set up, but the story just didn't compliment it, as it could have been far more interesting than it was. It jumps here to there without real cohesion and becomes rather thin in detail, but there are some surprising revelations along the way. The dialogue on the other hand was rather fine, if too much of it. There was a lot of conversations than actual action or lively scenes. The distinction between Dr Verdegast and Poelzig is pretty even in power and determination to rid each other. With them tossing back and forth sharp and intense dialogue to get the upper hand. All of this mayhem between them leads to a greatly energetic tussle between the two stars.
The set-up is a slow-grinder to begin with, though there are interesting ideas that pop up throughout the film. The reasonably slow dramatic 45-minutes suddenly picks up the pace and energy levels for the last thrilling and involving 15-minutes, which alone is good reason to watch it. This is when Satanists and sacrificial ceremonies fill the story. There is a brilliant climax involving a skinning that is implied to great effect and a big explosion to end it all. The ironic ending was fairly convincing and enjoyable in tying up the film.
It's definitely Lugosi's best performance that I've seen( I wasn't a fan of his version of "Dracula") It was a good change to see him playing a good guy and a much more controlled and subtle character than his eccentric roles. Boris Karloff comes across rather menacing and quite callous in appearance. His body language is impressively noticeable and imposing in creating terror. From his dead looking facials and soft spoken voice really added to the unease. Julie Bishop and David Manners as the couple were fine in their performances.
This is impressively atmospheric and holds such a great awe to it all. The modernistic cold domain of Poelzig's castle truly stands out, with the spiral staircase, sliding doors, the dark dungeon and curvy interior. There is such great composition with lighting and solid camera-work captures the elegance and style of the scenery beautifully. The soaring score takes hold and sometimes it got rather distracting for me. As I kept trying to figure out where I heard the score from before.
Overall, "The Black Cat" is a very good mood piece and holds such great performances, it's a weird and wonderful film that is highly entertaining.