The Soul of The Black Cat

I have a somewhat unhealthy relationship with the 1934 movie The Black Cat. I absolutely love the movie… especially when I’m not in a great place mentally. Namely high school, and working in a call center.

Image result for the black cat 1934

The Black Cat is a complicated movie. There’s a lot to like (the visuals, the politics, the fact that it was Universal’s last hurrah before the Hays Code was strictly enforced)… and plenty to dislike (the thin plot, thin characterizations, and the fact that it was Universal’s last hurrah before the Hays Code was strictly enforced).

I’ve always been drawn to it. My introduction came in the form of a still of the chess scene in a book about Universal. The striking visuals definitely got my attention, and I was further intrigued by the fact that this was the only Universal horror film that I wasn’t allowed to watch when I first asked to. After several years of begging, my dad gave in and let me borrow the VHS tape from my otherwise useless 11th grade English teacher.

For those unfamiliar with the movie… the plot is essentially thus. A ticketing snafu puts Dr. Vitus Verdegast (Bela Lugosi), recently late of a Soviet concentration camp in the same train compartment as two dumb American tourists, Mr. and Mrs. Allison. They wind up on the same bus, too. While the driver describes a massacre which took place in that area during the Great War, the bus goes off the road; the driver dies, and Mrs. Allison is injured. Verdegast, his servant, and the Allisons then seek shelter in the home of Verdegasts’s old friend, Engineer Poelzig, who commanded the Austro-Hungarian side of the battle described by the late driver. Then the real horror starts, because Poelzig was a traitor, who now runs a cult, and Verdegast is out for revenge.

Besides visuals, where the movie really excels is its monologues. Karloff and Lugosi both get good ones. So does the bus driver, although his casual description of the battle of Fort Marmorus is heard while the camera focuses on Lugosi’s face, looking haggard and sad, as his character remembers the horrors of World War I. Poelzig and Werdegast both speak at length about the damage done to their souls by the war. “Are we any the less victims of the War than those whose bodies were torn asunder?” Poelzig asks (a genuinely good question from an icon of evil). And Verdegast mentions several times that Kurgaal, the concentration camp where he has spent the last 15 years, is “where the soul is killed, slowly.” Every word carries the weight of desperation felt by the characters. It is the same desperation seen on the actors’ faces, and not only that of the main characters, but of the nameless cultists seen at the film’s climax.

And this desperation, is, I think, part of where the movie draws me in. Both now and when I was in high school, I was subjected to daily insults, which I just had to smile and take. In high school, it was principal and teachers, constantly berating the student body, telling us we were worthless, spoiled, and that we would never succeed in life. Now, it’s a good work day if a customer doesn’t call me a cunt. It’s a far cry from the massacre of Fort Marmorus, and the forced labor of Kurgaal. But it is soul killing. And, in a way, in these ghoulish characters, I find people who get it. They get it, but they are exaggerated enough for watching the movie to be cathartic.

And an object lesson in what not to do when feeling desperate. I might as well include that.

This complicated, visually gorgeous, thinly plotted movie remains controversial among horror fans. But, even if it wasn’t as important to me personally, I think Universal’s canon, would be much poorer without it. And I could probably do worse in terms of an unhealthy favorite.


My Own Dear Monster, Poor Unhappy Erik

One of the iconic shots of the make-up wizard.

One of the iconic shots of the make-up wizard.

Over the past year, I haven’t kept up with the blog.  This time last year I could blame my thesis.  Since I graduated, I just haven’t been able to create much of anything.  I’ve always been prone to periods of depression, and I’m this summer has probably been the worst batch of it since I was 13.  It’s zapped my energy and spirit, and I haven’t been able to do much of anything but go to work, be nice to the customers, and try to keep my spirits up with fluffy things when I get home.  But things are looking up, and it’s almost Halloween… my favorite non-liturgical holiday.

My depression, and the season, have made me think about one of my favorite monsters… the Phantom of the Opera.  I can’t say for sure, of course, because not even my memory goes back this far, but I think he might have been the first monster I ever “met.”  My dad likes to tell the story about how he took me for a walk in a city that once had storefronts, and we saw a 2-foot figure of the Lon Chaney Phantom in a window.  It made a big impression on me (I was one or two at the time), and Dad told me that the Phantom was very sad.  But not anymore.

It wasn’t quite the beginning of a beautiful friendship, but it was close to it.  For years after that, the Phantom was the monster I was the most afraid of.  I had a stuffed Frankenstein Monster since kindergarten, felt sorry for the Wolfman, had one of my first crushes on Bela Lugosi when I was in 4th grade, and thought the Mummy was really tragic and scary.  But it was always the Phantom who made me feel something like fear.

Then I discovered the musical, which I still love to turn up when I have to work for a long stretch of time.  I read the book, and started seeing what I could of the movies.  Then I started to see some parallels.  I hated the way I looked and sometimes wanted to hide my face and body.  I did receive plenty of flak for my appearance, which only underscored those feelings.  And the only outlets I had were through art– in my case drawing and writing.  I could sing fairly well then, but it was never my big focus.

But the connection was formed.  I’m not entirely sure what the tipping point was.  Hell, it might have been the time I made a gory Phantom costume to myself, got to the Halloween block party, found it to be full of kindergartners, and subsequently I spent the rest of the time there hiding in the shadows, covering my face.   How Phantom can you get?

But beyond the Halloween episode… part of it comes down to a line from the book.  “All I ever needed to be good was to be loved.”  Poor, unhappy Erik!  And that might be at the heart of it.  Besides the Phantom’s appearance, I think he aroused discomfort in me more so than the other monsters because I was afraid of becoming what he was… or being what he was.   For years I hated the way I looked, and while I didn’t think I was a monster, it was hard to believe that anyone could be genuinely attracted to me.  Sometimes it wasn’t hard to believe that some weird underground lair where I could write and paint was the only place for me.

It’s not like that now, but I keenly remember it.  Most of us have probably been there at some point, and it might explain the Phantom’s enduring popularity (an easily identifiable figure despite his many flaws).  He’s passionate.  He’s intelligent.  He’s misunderstood.  He’s creative.  He’s ruthless. He’s sick.  There’s no place for him on the outside.

But he has something beyond that, that keeps him going and going for more than a century.  We’ll see if I have that, too.

So I send Erik my love, and I hope he finds some good wherever fictional characters spend their time.



Top 10 Vampire Destruction Scenes #8 Return of the Vampire (The Blitz)

Dishonorable Mention and the #8 slot... interesting path.

Dishonorable Mention and the #8 slot… interesting path.

Like Scream Blacula Scream, I have written about The Return of the Vampire before.  But like the former title, I was praising the vampire (Armand Tesla) rather than any specific scene.

Released by Columbia, a studio not particularly known for horror, ROTV was intended to be a sequel to Dracula, but due to copyright disputes (this is awfully familiar, isn’t it?), the names were changed and the plot given a quick face-lift.  What results is a much better movie than Universal’s original (even though Lugosi was rather obviously ill throughout the filming), with an ending that packs a real punch, even with some tacked on comedy relief.

Throughout the movie, Andreas the werewolf had been the slave of the vampire, though with a brief reprieve when Dr. Lady Jane Ainsley assisted in staking Tesla, about ten minutes in.  The Blitz returns the vampire to “life” such as it is when the stake is removed from his heart by two well-meaning chaps who put the churchyard back together after it is bombed.  In a horrifying turn of events, Tesla murders and impersonates a Holocaust survivor from the Continent to gain entrance into society, and to get revenge on Ainsley for staking him.

For a while, it looks as if he might be successful because Ainsley is the only one to still believe in vampires.  Tesla and Andreas kidnap her daughter-in-law, Nicki, and take her to Tesla’s new hiding place.  But in the process, the werewolf is seriously wounded– to the point that he knows he will die when he turns back into a human.  He begs the vampire for help, but Tesla, annoyed that he is being delayed in biting Nicki, kicks him and tells Andreas that death is of no concern to him.  The werewolf thinks on his time with Ainsley and attacks Tesla.

But then there’s another air-raid, and the building they fought in is bombed (a nice bookend for Tesla– brought back by the bombs, destroyed by the bombs).  The vampire is trapped under a cross-shaped beam and the werewolf knocked out.  By the time he wakes up the sun has risen, and he’s human again.  With his last strength, he drags Tesla up into the sunlight where the vampire disintegrates (somewhat graphically) in the sun.

But this time, he’s gone for good, and the werewolf had the chance to redeem himself and die a hero’s death.  In a way, this foreshadows the Renfield (Jack Shepherd, who is downright tragic) in the 1977 BBC Count Dracula (my personal favorite adaptation).  Though The Return of the Vampire is not particularly well-known or received, but it seems to be rather influential and forward-looking.  And no one else has really done anything that explicitly modern, even though the World War II setting is/was controversial.

Continuing, this was the first time a vampire dissolved onscreen.  It beat House of Frankenstein by a few months.  The special effects are so good that I’m glad the movie wasn’t in color.  As usual, there’s no video, but my DVD was only about $2 before shipping.  If you’re interested.


Top 10 Vampire Destruction Scenes Honorable Mentions

Surprisingly, I couldn't find a picture of the actual staking.

Surprisingly, I couldn’t find a picture of the actual staking.

As opposed to my pointedly lonely Dishonorable Mention (, I have several Honorable Mentions– too many to fit into the title.

The first one is the Lugosi Dracula’s Latinx cousin, Draculá (1931).  Same script, different cast, different language, different (mostly better) cast, better movie.  Oh, also some racism. That’s not good.  The two films have almost the exact same ending as the English language version, but the Spanish version makes it much more dynamic.  Van Helsing and Harker don’t flounder so much.  And though they’re still saddled with the anti-climactic dismissal of the lovebirds, it is explicitly states that the doctor will drive a stake through the heart of Renfield, to make sure he doesn’t rise the next night as a vampire.

Next… well, we’ll see Horror of Dracula again on the main list, but it had a ton of good destruction scenes, and I didn’t want to double dip on the top 10.  However, on the Honorable Mentions list, I can.  So first up is Dracula’s bride.

We meet her in the first scene of the movie, where she puts herself next to Harker quite boldly.  Later, she tries to bite him, and winds up having a terrific fight with Dracula, who doesn’t want her bitten.  Harker wakes up (Dracula knocked him out) right before sunset and decides to try and destroy the vampires anyway.  He starts with the woman, who, we see, had succeeded in biting him.  He drives a stake through her heart, and she turns into a crone.  Unfortunately, while Harker is transfixed by her transformation, the sun sets, and… let’s say Dracula is none too pleased by the staking of his bride.  It’s a powerful scene, but still pales in comparison to the next instance.

To replace the woman staked by Harker, Dracula turns the unfortunate man’s fiancee, Lucy, into a vampire.  She tries to bite the maid’s daughter, but the child is rescued by van Helsing, who burns her forehead with a cross (this is one of the few movies to not use a crucifix, the other one, interestingly, being Draculá).  He and Arthur Holmwood, Lucy’s older brother, return to the grave at dawn and drive a stake through her heart.  Her staking is a good deal more graphic (she screams a lot) and bloody than the other vampire woman, and we see Arthur’s agonized reactions to what his sister is enduring.  However, when the vampire is destroyed, van Helsing shows Arthur, and the audience the look of peaceful repose on her face.

The final runner-up comes from The Vampire Lovers.  The movie opens with narration from the Baron, who wiped out most of the Karnstein vampire clan– all but the youngest daughter.  He lays a trap for one of the vampires, Carmilla’s mother, I would imagine.  He steals her shroud and makes her approach him in order to get it back (the Karnsteins rest in their shrouds rather than coffins).  He very nearly is seduced by her (clearly he wasn’t expecting his quarry to be a beautiful woman), but she burns herself on the cross he was wearing around his neck.  This gives him the opportunity to reclaim his wits and decapitate her (the special effects are quite good).  It’s a powerful scene and perfectly sets up the tone of the rest of the film.

Now onto the countdown!


Top 10 Vampire Destruction Scenes Dishonorable Mention Dracula (1931)

Norma Desmond would be proud.

A face like that needs to go out on a high note.

Time for another list, and this time I decided to take a leaf out of the book of a favorite YouTube personality– Calvin Dyson (he reviews James Bond media) and start with a “dishonorable mention.”  However, instead of listing the one I absolutely can’t stand, I’ll go with a movie that I otherwise like and was incredibly influential, but at the same time suffers from one of the worst endings ever.

Of course I’m talking about the original Universal Dracula, starring Bela Lugosi.

Given its origins… it’s amazing that the movie has the iconic status it enjoys to this day.  The movie was adapted from a Broadway play rather than the novel (Broadway adaptations are always watered-down and disappointing compared to the actual play).  The director was drunk most of the time and the cameraman did a lot of directing (luckily Karl Freund was a capable director, even if he never found his niche).  Aside from three standout performers (Bela Lugosi, Dwight Frye, and Edward van Sloan) the cast is wooden and forgettable, or worse annoying.  Luckily the aforementioned men keep the audience er, well… hypnotized, until the very ending.  And then the truly unforgiveable sin comes in.

Dracula strangles Renfield.  It’s a very well-shot scene, with great acting from both Lugosi and especially Frye.  But then the sun rises and Dracula retreats to his coffin.  Now we’re down two-thirds of the capable cast, and are left with just van Helsing (van Sloan) and Harker onscreen.

The two men look for Dracula and Mina, to drive a stake through their hearts.  They realize Mina is not yet a vampire, and the camera focuses on her (inexplicably clutching her breast) while van Helsing drives a stake through Dracula’s heart offscreen.  All we hear is a sort of gasp when the Count is truly dead.  Van Helsing sends the lovebirds away (why is never explicitly said), and the movie ends.

The movie opened so powerfully in Transylvania, and the scenes with Renfield sparkled with intensity.  Bela Lugosi could always speak volumes with one look, so it really was a shame the film didn’t show the Count seeing that he would be destroyed after centuries of immortality.  That would have been powerful.  And the next year Freund would direct The Mummy, which featured a man being completely run through with a spear.  They could have shown more here.

But for some reason, director Tod Browning was compelled to end his horror films with an old man saying goodbye to a young woman.  Even when it was horribly inappropriate to the story.

But without this dishonorable mention, the rest of the list probably would never have been made.  I think that probably makes Browning’s gaffe worth it in the long run.


An Act of Vampiric Penance Part III

I think I’m starting to get the hang of this whole penance thing.  It’s hard work, as much as I want to carry it out.

In Part II I explained why Bram Stoker’s Dracula upset me so much.  Now I will rhapsodize about the people I had the urge to light candles for during the movie– Bela Lugosi and Peter Cushing.

Norma Desmond would be proud.

Norma Desmond would be proud.

There is no doubt that Bela Lugsoi is the iconic vampire– even the iconic Dracula.  The accent, the elegance, the slicked-back hair and intent eyes… he didn’t need buckets of stage-blood; he had his face!  And voice– that was a quintessential part of his characterization, but it would have worked had the movie been silent.  Lugosi had a wonderfully expressive face, and when he looks at a character, the audience always knows whether he wants to simply drink their blood, kill them in a particularly messy way, or make them Bride #4.

He also managed to simultaneously be menacing and appealing.  One can see why Lucy would be drawn to him (especially compared to the English men around her), but also why Mina would be nervous from him from the start.  Even if we hadn’t already seen what he had done to Renfield in Transylvania.

Moreover, he was consistent in that characterization.

And that was the end of the Count.

And that was the end of the Count.

Now to Cushing.  As van Helsing, he brought a new level of energy to the part that many try to emulate, but few could match.  He was also very serious, even harsh, but was just as capable of calming the little girl that vampirized Lucy had taken– giving her his coat and telling her it made her look like a teddy bear.   Like any good doctor, he knew how to use the bedside manner. This version of Dracula’s nemesis could even make a joke (telling the hotel valet that the voice on the dictophone was just him talking to himself), though one got the impression that van Helsing had little time for such things and preferred to be slaying vampires.

Admittedly, the physicality Cushing brought to the part proved problematic for the series, as the studio felt it had to “outdo” each installment, and the results quickly became preposterous.  However, that is not his fault, nor does it take away the power of his performances in Horror of Dracula and Brides of Dracula.  Both reveal a man of great intellect, strength of character and body, willpower, yet still some fallibility (see Top 10 Vampires #9 A Baroness Meinster).  He wasn’t a cloud cuckoolander, nor was he a nightmare-fuel attendant.  He juggled the very difficult task of ridding the world of monsters while still being able to function in polite society.

His presence is still quite large.  It’s the pictures that have gotten small.

And that’s that.  Now for that Coppola wine.


An Act of Vampiric Penance Part I

Bram_Stoker's_DraculaContinuing with my Dracula study, I steeled myself and streamed Bram Stoker’s Dracula on Netflix.

Considering when I happily checked it out from the library for the first time five years ago, I shut it off before the opening scene had finished… it went about as well as expected.  And by “well,” I mean very painfully.

Really, I like Francis Ford Coppola most of the time– but after sitting through just a half hour of Dracula I felt like either I was being punished for my sins, or that I owed the spirits of Bela Lugosi and Peter Cushing acts of penance.  And pretty serious ones at that– not that I’m all that familiar with the subject.  Just that it might be a sacrament and could involve eating only dry Cheerios and a glass of water for breakfast (actually, my dad just has very little imagination when it comes to food) or saying The Prayer for Peace.  Neither of those particularly applies to this current situation, so I’ll assign myself a couple of acts.

Think about and report in a calm manner exactly why I dislike the movie so much.  Justify the reaction.  Then honor the memories of the aforementioned figures in a way that will not upset the landlord or the roommate (which eliminates candles).

Therefore, for the next two posts I will carry this out.  Part II details why Bram Stoker’s Dracula makes me weep for the days of yore (1977 and back), and Part III will rhapsodize about those days of yore.  Lastly, I will drink some Coppola Rosso wine to show there are no lasting hard feelings.  And my roommate can just deal with that.