The Black Cat - Movie Reviews - Rotten Tomatoes

The Black Cat Reviews

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August 17, 2013
"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)
August 7, 2013
The Black Cat is a chilling experience that no horror movie fan should miss out on. What makes The Black Cat so scary is the fact that the villain, Hjalmar Poelzig is not a fictional creature, but a human being. There is nothing special about him, he is just a mortal, twisted, human. While Karloff steals the show as Poelzig, Lugosi turns in a well done performance as Vitus Verdegast. The side characters however, are bland and over-acted. I honestly didn't care weather they escaped Poelzig or not. The cinematography on the other hand, is what made this movie. Ulmer uses darkness to his advantage in this movie. You can tell he focused very heavily on shadows and light contrast when he directed this movie. The greatest example of this is the infamous scene at the end. You'll know it when you see it. I highly recommend this movie to horror movie fans and movie buffs in general. If you are a casual movie fan, i would stay away from this one, as you might find it weird and unsettling.
June 11, 2013
The Black Cat has its weaknesses, (how could the initial king of the B movie, Mr. Edgar G. Ulmer, not have them?) namely the arbitrary presence of the American characters, but there's no denying the fact that several elements brought together in this film create an unusually (for the time period) terrifying miasma of unease and brutal revenge. Most surprising to me was that Bela Legosi's iconically fierce, gleaming eyes could be utilized empathetically, as they were here. There's a bitter hopelessness hidden by gleeful insanity in his every facial expression, and what results is a classic and dynamic performance worth the utmost praise. Also electrifying was the expressionistic set design which painted Karloff's house as an abysmally gray and unadorned house where only horrors are possible.
½ January 11, 2013
Lugosi gives one of his most soulful and tormented performances and that he's stuck in a battle of wills with Boris Karloff makes it that much better. Fantastic final act.
½ January 6, 2013
Campy low budget oddity with delightfully (or excruciatingly) mannered performances.
November 12, 2012
What does the cat have to do with anything?
November 10, 2012
Pits Bela Lugosi against Boris Karloff and has a few chills to offer.
½ November 7, 2012
Boris Karloff vs. Bela Lugosi when both were still big timers in Hollywood horror royalty. A bit heavy on the hammy humor but overall package is slick and entertaining. Well worth a watch.
½ October 24, 2012
pretty damn good old horror with boris karloff and bela lugosi together.
½ September 30, 2012
Hey, Karloff and Lugosi all at the same time, can't complain. Well, maybe a little. The cable provider I watched it on was breaking up so I missed some stuff, and Lugosi's accent was difficult to understand now and then, and I had no subtitles to bail me out.
½ September 9, 2012
some spooky imagery, neat to see lugosi and karloff together, but not that scary. also didnt know boris karloff was that short!
September 2, 2012
Two of the greatest classic horror actors together....AMAZING!! Needless to say... I loved it.
½ August 28, 2012
2 years after the success of 'murders at the rue morge' comes another poe creeper
½ August 16, 2012
A very good movie. Much suspense, gradually developed to have a big reveal part way through, had characters you cared about. I guess the only reason I did not rate it higher was because it just seemed lacking. It did not really "wow me." But it is still a good film and worth watching.
August 1, 2012
Someone really needs to explain to me why it's considered a classic. It was good'ish, but hardly great.
July 3, 2012
Amusing, haunting yarn in which a couple who are traveling in Eastern Europe, along with a chauffeur (Bela Lugosi) and driver, and end up in a serious car accident. The wife (Julie Bishop) is rendered unconscious and they decide to travel to the house of individual (Boris Karloff) owns and is friends with Lugosi. It is a disturbing house and Karloff ends up taking control of the wife and husband (David Manners) through potions and threats. In addition, a black cat wonders the mansion and threatens anyone who visits if they look at it. Campy and silly, but entertaining and has some haunting sequences.
June 19, 2012
"The Black Cat", most recognized as the first screen pairing of horror legends Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi doesn't hold a candle to any of their individual Universal classics. Even by the dated standards of "Frankenstein" and "Dracula", "The Black Cat" is perverse and silly. Edgar Ulmer's direction, strongly informed by German Expressionism, doesn't do much to effectively spook us, save for the tortuous climactic showdown between Lugosi and Karloff. The only truly inspired aspect of the film is Charles D. Hall's stylish art deco sets, designed with a sleek, modernized Gothic look that would influence both its contemporaries and future films like Tim Burton's "Batman".
May 16, 2012
"The Black Cat" was the first film to pair the legendary stars Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, and at just 65 minutes in length, it packs quite a bit of oddness into it's short running time. A young couple (David Manners and Julie Bishop) are honeymooning in Hungary (of all places). Traveling by train, they share a compartment with Dr. Vitus Werdegast (Lugosi), a psychiatrist on his way to visit an old friend. This old friend, Hjalmar Poelzig (Karloff) is an architect who has built a futuristic mansion on top of an old battlefield/graveyard. Poelzig betrayed Dr. Werdegast during WWI, and Werdegast spent several years in a prison there (he was betrayed possibly so Poelzig could steal his wife away), and now returning, Werdegast swears revenge. Throw some satanism into the works and there you have it. Karloff's Hjalmar Poelzig is quite a unique and sinister character, and Lugosi's doctor, with his bizarre cat phobia (whenever he sees a cat, he must either try to murder it or throw his hands over his eyes in terror) is equally odd. While the credits might acknowledge Edgar Allen Poe's original story, there is little here to resemble it. What we have is a strange and well, unique contribution to the horror genre of the 1930s.
Mr Awesome
Super Reviewer
½ May 16, 2012
"The Black Cat" was the first film to pair the legendary stars Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, and at just 65 minutes in length, it packs quite a bit of oddness into it's short running time. A young couple (David Manners and Julie Bishop) are honeymooning in Hungary (of all places). Traveling by train, they share a compartment with Dr. Vitus Werdegast (Lugosi), a psychiatrist on his way to visit an old friend. This old friend, Hjalmar Poelzig (Karloff) is an architect who has built a futuristic mansion on top of an old battlefield/graveyard. Poelzig betrayed Dr. Werdegast during WWI, and Werdegast spent several years in a prison there (he was betrayed possibly so Poelzig could steal his wife away), and now returning, Werdegast swears revenge. Throw some satanism into the works and there you have it. Karloff's Hjalmar Poelzig is quite a unique and sinister character, and Lugosi's doctor, with his bizarre cat phobia (whenever he sees a cat, he must either try to murder it or throw his hands over his eyes in terror) is equally odd. While the credits might acknowledge Edgar Allen Poe's original story, there is little here to resemble it. What we have is a strange and well, unique contribution to the horror genre of the 1930s.
Super Reviewer
½ May 9, 2012
A nice, atmospheric picture with Bela Lugosi actually playing the good guy! A landmark in perverse cinema. Influenced many films after it, but beyond that, it manages to entertain. A must see for fans of Karloff and Lugosi.
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