Black Cat, The (1934)
A newlywed couple are on their way to a honeymoon when they meet a mysterious man on a train (Lugosi portrays Vitus Werdegast) who regales them with local tales of intrigue and superstition, weaving them in his spell all the while – who, unbeknownst to the honeymooners, is himself on his way to confront his arch-nemesis, whom once upon a time betrayed him, thus resulting in his unjust imprisonment. Eventually, they find themselves accompanying him to a mansion in the Austrian hillside where they meet with the elegant, though strange, Hjalmar Poelzig (Karloff). Poelzig turns out to be the High Priest of a Satanic group, who were just awaiting a suitable “sacrifice” for the night’s rites – and they find her in the betrothed writer’s wife.
The mansion itself is situated above a military fortress, and the Ritual Chamber is designed to gothic-modernist standards with sharp angles and shard-like projections which makes for quite an impressive spectacle. Nefarious situations begin manifesting when Lugosi is horrified by a sleek black cat who slinks into the room, at which he tosses a knife. Ironically, Lugosi plays a rather “VanHelsing”-like character who must battle the sinister minister Poelzig (said to have been partly modeled after Aleister Crowley, and that of German Schauerfilm architect, Hans Poelzig) for the life of the girl; Now, the Lugosi character would have probably included these two as part of his revenge, considering they were basically pawns in the overall scheme, though as demonstrated, he caresses her hair as she slept in remembrance of his deceased wife, which is why he rescinded. Eventually, his own dark side is displayed when he initiates a sadistic plan to skin his opponent while tied, crucifix-style.
The Black Cat featured the first-ever production in which horror giants Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff act together, and their rapport is quite engaging – the stage presence is tangible even through the screen. It was filmed in one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s houses, which according to director Edgar G. Ulmer, contained an asylum’s ambience. This film is more psychological in nature, with an elegant deportment which is most befitting; and according to Dr. LaVey, “The Black Cat and The Seventh Victim are certainly two pre-Church of Satan movies I would consider worthwhile examples of the way true Satanists behave.” I fully concur – for they are indeed exemplary in etiquette and aesthetics.
[- Draconis Blackthorne]