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.
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.