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.


Top 10 Vampire Destruction Scenes #7B Son of Dracula (Fire)

He sets the coffin on fire... take my word for it.

He sets the coffin on fire… take my word for it.

Directed by Robert Siodmak in 1943, released by Universal Studios, Son of Dracula is a very strange movie.  It is equal parts head-shaker and brilliant.  Lon Chaney Jr. (most famous as the Wolf Man) is badly miscast as a Transylvanian vampire, but the scene where he floats across the swamp, standing atop his coffin is breathtaking.  The hero is repulsive to the point that one wonders what the heroine/villain protagonist saw in him, but it can be argued quite strongly that she is just leading him on, which makes them both more interesting and complex.  And so on.  And I should mention that this film is very misogynistic, despite the director going on to make the arguably feminist film The Spiral Staircase, followed by sexist film noir in the late 1940s and 1950s.

Anyway, Son of Dracula takes place on a plantation in the south… I want to say Florida because of the swamps, but that is never really established.  Kay, the daughter of an old Colonel, has invited Count Alucard to be a guest at their plantation, the Dark Oaks, much against the wishes of her fiance Frank.  Count Alucard arrives, and as a bat, kills the Colonel.  Kay inherits the plantation, and goes out to meet Alucard who floats across the swamp towards her on his coffin.  They marry and return to Dark Oaks.  Their “honeymoon” is interrupted by Frank, who tries to kidnap Kay, insisting that she will have the marriage annulled first thing in the morning.  He tries to shoot the Count, but the bullets pass through him and mortally wound Kay instead.  Frank flees and turns himself into the police, except when the town doctor comes to investigate, Kay is up and walking around (a vampire).

Nevertheless, Frank is arrested and put in jail.  Kay comes to him, and lets him out on the condition that he destroy Alucard by burning the coffin.  Then they can be together, just as she had always planned.  She promises to turn him into a vampire, too.  However, he burns both coffins, rather than just Alucard’s.  By the time the doctor and police catch up to him, he looks ready for the institution (see the picture for details).

It’s a very desolate ending.  The scene with Alucard isn’t great, but the scene with Kay really packs an emotional punch, even as much as I dislike Frank.  In fact, it’s completely silent.  He sits and watches the flames engulf the old nursery, and would probably have stayed there, had the doctor not led him out.  The vampirism here is entirely without romance– just a spiral of death and betrayal.  The devastating noir ending tacked onto horror: the menace is taken care of, but no happy ever after.  And it’s entirely satisfying.


Top 10 Vampire Destruction Scenes #7A House of Frankenstein (Betrayal)

Not to be outdone, Universal had Dracula reintegrate and disintegrate!

Not to be outdone, Universal had Dracula reintegrate and disintegrate!

House of Frankenstein doesn’t sound like a movie that would have vampires in it, but John Carradine turns in a lovely performance as Count Dracula (one that he would reprise in House of Dracula)– the sixth film in the Frankenstein series.

The count is a relatively unimportant character in the plot of this movie, although his scenes are very powerful thanks to Carradine’s acting and director Erle C. Kenton’s handling of the action.  There’s also a couple of hints that this Dracula wants a bit more than blood from his female victim, if you get my drift, but let’s leave that to the imagination.

The movie opens with Dr. Niemann (Boris Karloff) and Daniel the hunchback in an insane asylum, from which they escape and subsequently hijack Professor Lampini’s House of Horrors travelling show.  One of his exhibits was the skeleton of Count Dracula and the stake through its heart, keeping him dead.  Niemann removes the stake, returning the Count to life.  In a nice montage, we see his veins, flesh and so on regenerate before the audience gets a nice glimpse of John Carradine as vampire.  Niemann, stake levelled at Dracula’s heart, offers a bargain– kill the burgomeister who sent him to the asylum, and he (Niemann) will look after Dracula’s coffin for the rest of his life.  The Count accepts.

He drains the old burgomeister of blood, and, as a bonus for himself, hypnotizes the old man’s daughter-in-law, and takes her with him.  This, and the death of the old man, do not sit well with her husband, and who calls the police.  Soon he, and a handful of officers are chasing the stolen carriage containing vampire and victim, some of them are riding horses– and there’s another wagon.  Dracula is desperately trying to reach Niemann, who is trying his damndest to get out of town.  All the while, the sky is getting lighter and lighter.  Finally, the mad scientist gives up and simply throws the coffin out of the back of his wagon.  Dracula leaps out of the driver’s seat of his carriage and sprints to the box.

Too late.  The sun is up, and as the rays hit him, he turns into a skeleton, his arm falling over the lid.

Some people grump that Dracula was only active for about twelve movie hours, and maybe only fifteen minutes of actual running time, and therefore unnecessary to the plot.  This is incorrect.  It drives home the fact that Niemann will betray all he encounters: Daniel, Lampini, Dracula, Lawrence Talbot…. And the scenes with Dracula are great.  Carradine is suitably intense, but one also gets a sense that he’s having fun with the part.  And the carriage chase is superb.  Everyone is chasing someone else, and the sudden ending is very rattling.  But not unsatisfying.  It really shows how far Universal had come since the stagebound Browning Dracula.  But, even better, House of Frankenstein is not yet over.  This most excellent scene does not outshine the rest of the movie.


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.