"You sold Marmorus to the Russians. You scurried away in the night and left us to die. Is it to be wondered that you should choose this place to build your house? A masterpiece of construction built upon the ruins of the masterpiece of destruction - a masterpiece of murder. The murderer of 10,000 men returns to the place of his crime. Those who died were fortunate. I was taken prisoner at Kurgaal. Kurgaal, where the soul is killed, slowly. Fifteen years I've rotted in the darkness. But not to kill you, but to kill your soul - slowly." Vitus Werdegast (Bela Lugosi)
What a truly perverse beast this is. The phrase 'grand guignol' doesn't even begin to do justice to 'The Black Cat', the first of eight collaborations between Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, and Edgar Ulmer's sole contribution to the burgeoning horror craze of the 1930s (which was spearheaded, of course, by Universal Pictures, the studio behind this film). As a movie it is equal parts compelling and frustrating, but just hours after viewing it it's numerous limitations had already begun to dwindle in importance; what remained more strongly was an after-image reminiscent of a half-remembered nightmare, a gloomy haze punctuated by swathes of grotesque imagery - both florid and morbid - and a bloody finale that still packs a wallop.
Much of the imagery is conveyed not just through visuals, but also through the lurid dialogue - which practically fetishises death and decay - and the ideas that drive the macabre screenplay. The story is, after all, set in a house that has been built atop a mass grave housing 10,000 murdered prisoners-of-war, a house built by the man (Karloff's Hjalmar Poelzig) who helped facilitate each and every one of those deaths ("Herr Poelzig... is perhaps sentimental about this spot..."). And what a house it is - a brightly lit, Bauhaus-futurist playhouse, as far from the cobwebbed festooned Castle Dracula as it is possible to get. Until, perhaps, we are taken to the basement where the spectre of the German expressionist filmmakers loom large, and unspeakable deeds are performed by the villain and hero alike. (Hero? Hardly. Anti-villain?)
Okay, here's where I have to call a spade a spade. 'The Black Cat' is notorious for the post-production tinkering that went on when Universal realised that Ulmer had delivered (in their opinion) an unreleasable film. The tinkering shows through loud and clear. Some major on-screen action is rendered incoherent by choppy editing (Werdegast's killing of the cat is not only over-the-top, but also incomprehensible without a later verbal confirmation of what actually transpired) and certain plot points are obfuscated to the point of being impenetrable. Not all of the film's mis-steps can't be laid at the feet of hackwork editing (the unwelcome intrusion of two comic-relief constables is a particularly egregious error, especially as neither are remotely funny and contribute exactly nothing to the story) but the damage is obvious and hugely unfortunate.
But for every fumble, 'The Black Cat' gives us a reason to forgive it and give it another chance. Bela Lugosi encapsulates this dynamic perfectly, giving a full-blooded performance as only he can - hammy, preposterous and seemingly more interested in delivering 'dramatic pauses' than actual dialogue. But he is also compulsively watchable and charismatic in that peculiarly idiosyncratic way of his - with emphasis on the peculiar - dominating the film and even radiating a substantial measure of leading-man x-factor (his looks are occasionally reminiscent of Timothy Dalton as James Bond no less!). His performance becomes a microcosm of the film as a whole - fascinating, compelling, odd and weirdly disjointed. Boris Karloff, on the other hand, is content to underplay his role and not seek our attention so overtly; perhaps since his character is an architectural genius / satanic cultist / human taxidermist he might have figured there was no need to lay it on too thickly. He is, as usual, a tremendously likeable screen presence; interestingly this contributes to our relationship with the characters becoming hopelessly confused. The script tells us that Poelzig is completely evil, but because it's Karloff it's very hard to root against him fully. I mean, is Lugosi's Werdegast supposed to be the good guy in this or not? There is certainly every reason for us to feel sympathetic towards his goals, yet Ulmer gives him a number of bizarre and off-putting traits, including a borderline ridiculous - certainly camp - aversion to cats, alluded to in one nutso scene in which he skewers one with a letter opener; this phobia has no bearing on any aspect of the plot and thus ends up being a bizarrely hysterical red herring. And this flighty weirdo's climactic act is to string up Poelzig and skin him alive. So if he's not the bad guy, who is? David Manner's wet noodle of a tourist? Pffft. On the one hand it feels free-wheeling and energetic, and on the other more than a little scattershot.
But still. But still. The film, ramshackle as it can be, is chock-a-block with haunting, beautiful, moments - the 'glide' through Poelzig's basement and his accompanying voiceover is a particular highlight. And it's unwillingness to play by the rules, while sometimes counter-intuitive and off-putting, is also refreshing and lends the film a vibrance that is lacking in many of its contemporaries. I recently watched James Whale's 'The Old Dark House', released two years previously, just as Karloff's star was beginning to shine for the first time. That film has a far greater sense of fluidity, a far greater sense of a director being in control of his material, a far greater confidence that it can wrest the weirdness into a coherent shape. 'The Black Cat' lacks that confidence and polish, but Ulmer makes up for the relative lack of craft with guts, vision and intensity. This is dark, bewitching stuff that contains a genuine sense of human depravity and many unsettling suggestions of even greater horrors taking place off-screen. Hunt it down and give it a chance - it might just be able to work it's old-fashioned black magic on you.
"Come, Vitus, are we men or are we children? Of what use are all these melodramatic gestures? You say your soul was killed and that you have been dead all these years. And what of me? Did we not both die here in Marmorus fifteen years ago? Are we any the less victims of the war than those whose bodies were torn asunder? Are we not both the living dead? And now you come to me, playing at being an avenging angel - childishly thirsty for my blood. We understand each other too well. We know too much of life. We shall play a little game, Vitus. A game of death, if you like." Hjalmar Poelzig (Boris Karloff)