Halloween Havoc!: THE BLACK CAT (Universal 1934)

THE BLACK CAT has nothing to do with Edgar Allan Poe , but don’t let that stop you from enjoying this thoroughly dark, twisted film. Not only is it the first teaming of horror icons Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi , it’s their only movie together that plants the two stars on equal ground. It’s also the best film ever made by cult director Edagr G. Ulmer , who’d never again get the opportunity to work at a major studio, or the chance to work with a pair of legends like Boris and Bela in one film.

Bela is Dr. Vitus Verdegast, eminent Hungarian psychiatrist, returning after 15 long years in a Russian prison camp to “visit an old friend” at Marmaros, “the greatest graveyard in the world”, where tens of thousands died during WWI. Vitus is forced by chance to spend the train ride with American honeymooners Peter and Joan Allison, he a “writer of unimportant novels”. They share a cab through rocky terrain during a blinding thunderstorm that causes the car to crash, injuring Joan. Vitus and the couple, along with Wedegast’s manservant Thamal, are forced to seek refuge at the fortress home of Vitus’s “friend”, Engineer Hjalmar Poelzig.

Boris is Poelzig, looking like the devil himself, whip thin and moving as slow as the living dead. The Austrian architect sold out his countrymen during the war, and has returned to the scene of his crimes. Vitus believes Poelzig has his wife and daughter, both named Karen, and has come for revenge, but his deathly fear of black cats paralyzes him. Poelzig is also the High Priest of a Satanic cult, and soon has designs on Joan, leading to a deadly game of chess for her immortal soul…

The Twin Titans of Terror play off each other well, with Bela the Avenging Angel to Boris’s Demonic Deacon. The censors had a fit when they read the script by Peter Ruric, demanding many changes, though Ulmer does gets away with a lot here. Poelzig’s home is a bizarre, Art Deco shrine to decadence, featuring a hall of dead women suspended in glass cases (including Vitus’s wife), a masterpiece of the macabre by Art Director Charles D. Hall and an uncredited Ulmer. The penultimate scene where Vitus, having tied Poelzig to his embalming rack, begins to skin the engineer alive, “slowly, bit by bit”, with a gleefully mad bug-eyed Bela, is shown in shadow, punctuated by Boris’s agonized screams, and is without a doubt one of the most gruesome of the 1930’s horror cycle.

David Manners of DRACULA and THE MUMMY plays Peter, and though many deride him in this I thought he did a fine job. Jacqueline Wells as Joan was a stalwart of Universal ‘B’ films; she did much better when she moved to Warners in 1941 and changed her name to Julie Bishop. Others in the cast are Harry Cording (Thamal), Lucille Lund, Henry Armetta , and Egon Brecher. Familiar Faces in the devil’s cult include King Baggot, Symona Boniface, Lois January, and Michael Mark , as well as a familiar back of the head… that’s Ulmer’s future BLUEBEARD star John Carradine playing the organ!

THE BLACK CAT is the first horror film to feature a continuous music score, as Heinz Roemheld incorporates pieces from Bach, Chopin, Liszt, Schubert, Tchaikovsky, and that old Universal stand-by “Swan Lake”. The music adds to the film’s atmosphere, and though Carl Laemmle hated it, Ulmer insisted upon it, and would utilize classical music throughout his career. But it wasn’t the director’s stubbornness that caused him to be banned from the major studios, nor was it THE BLACK CAT’s graphic for their time scenes of horror, or the perverse nature of the material… it was love. Ulmer met and had an affair with Shirley Kessler Alexander, wife of Laemmle’s nephew Max, and the scandal landed Ulmer on Poverty Row for the rest of his life. Edgar and Shirley married in 1936, and together they collaborated  on all of Ulmer’s films until the end of his days. THE BLACK CAT is a masterpiece of the macabre, and a must for this Halloween season!

 

 

Halloween Havoc!: Bela Lugosi in DRACULA (Universal 1931)

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DRACULA is the film that ushered in The Golden Age of Horror. Sure, there were silent films with elements of the macabre, especially those starring Lon Chaney Sr, and the German expressionist films of Ufa Studios. But this tale of a bloodthirsty vampire on the loose in London struck a collective nerve among filmgoers for two reasons. First was it talked…sound films were barely out of their diapers, and the chilling voice of star Bela Lugosi mesmerized the masses. Second, the country was in the midst of The Great  Depression, and audiences were hungry for escapist fare to take their minds off their troubles. DRACULA took them to another world, a world populated by undead creatures of the night, fiends who were ultimately stopped by the forces of good.

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No need to rehash the plot of DRACULA…if you don’t know the story by now, you’re reading the wrong blog! Instead, I’ll take a look at what works in the film and what doesn’t. Though the movie has lost much of its power in the 84 years since its release, the performance of Bela Lugosi certainly hasn’t. The Hungarian actor originated the role on Broadway, and perfected it to the point where he’s still imitated today. While not as ferocious as Christopher Lee’s interpretation of the Vampire King, Lugosi is in full command here. His slow manner of speaking and impeccable wardrobe make Bela the suavest of ghouls, while those burning eyes let the audience know this isn’t someone to mess with. And those long, splayed fingers reaching to clutch his victim’s throats became a Lugosi trademark, often imitated but never duplicated.

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Tod Browning’s direction is somewhat static, saved by the marvelous camerawork of the great Karl Freund. The eerie sets of Castle Dracula and Carfax Abbey are filled with shadows, cobwebs in every corner, and a variety of vermin. Dwight Frye adds to the atmosphere as Renfield, driven to madness by the Count’s power. Edward Van Sloan as Van Helsing isn’t as athletic as Peter Cushing, but is convicing as the occult expert (as he was in The Mummy). But David Manners and Helen Chandler as the young lovers just don’t cut it for me. Their blandness drags the scenes they’re in down, their acting stiff and wooden. The film is slow paced as it is, and the pair doesn’t help matters. Manners, in his jodhpurs, is particularly annoying, while Chandler just isn’t appealing. Sorry, but I’d rather have Frances Dade (who plays Lucy, one of Drac’s victims).

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Historically important, DRACULA today pales compared to other horror pics of the era. But it was the first, and without it we wouldn’t have those other movies to savor. I usually watch DRACULA every year around Halloween, just to see Bela Lugosi in his most famous (and arguably greatest) role. And despite some of its faults, you should, too. DRACULA has been remade and reworked hundreds of times, but let’s be honest…nobody plays the Count better than Bela. Nobody.

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