Surprise! This won’t be about Dracula. Or maybe that’s not a surprise… you tell me.
But time for a history lesson… in 1934, the Hays Office (censorship board) came under new, hard-assed management in the form of Joseph Breene. This is where the “pre-Code” divide comes in, and a lot of female directors were demoted back to screenwriter, cinematographer, and other, less forefront positions. And horror movies began to get more… shall we say, “silly.” The Black Cat, released right before this changing of the guard was Unviersal’s attempt to get in everything distasteful while they still could, and brother did director Edgar G. Ulmer, and actors Karloff and Lugosi deliver!
The movie begins with a dippy American couple on their honeymoon, who end up having to share their train compartment with Lugosi’s character– Dr. Werdegast. On the way to their hotel, the bus crashes, and they have to stay with Engineer Poelzig (Karloff)– Werdegast’s “old friend.” However, it is soon made clear that the two men are not really friends– Poelzig betrayed his fort to the Russians, and after Werdegast was captured, told Mrs. Werdegast that her husband had been killed, married her, and later on, after her death, her daughter. Werdegast has come to settle accounts, but prefers to wait until the Americans are gone. Unfortunately, Poelzig, the leader of a Satanist cult, has designs on the wife as his next sacrifice.
It is unusual to see Lugosi as an anti-hero, but he is superb as the tormented Werdegast. Karloff is an icon of horror as Poelzig, but Werdegast is dynamic, one minute grimly reliving the siege of Fort Marmaros, putting on a friendly bedside manner for the injured American woman, grieving intently for hid deceased wife… and finally he snaps. When he realizes that his daughter, too, was murdered, he dispenses all decorum, attacks Poelzig ferociously, and skins him alive.
The Hungarian actor aptly rises to each task. A veteran of WWI, it’s probable that some of his own memories of fighting the Russians helped bring his expressions of weariness and pain to the reminiscences of the war early on in the movie. His grief is believable when Poelzig unveils the body of the dead wife, Karen, and when Werdegast has finally had enough, Lugosi drenches his dialogue, movement, and expressions with rage, hatred, and sadism, resulting in a truly frightening deliverance of the villain’s comeuppance.
And don’t take my word for it– these fiendish characters agree with me, too! (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fuX3YFmqmSw.)