The Black Cat (aka The House of Doom) is one of the Universal horror movies from the 1930’s, and stars two of the greatest names in horror: Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. Unlike the more classic horror films that Universal made around this time – such as Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy and The Invisible Man – The Black Cat is much less known – even though it was Universal’s biggest hit in 1934.
The film’s opening credits name Edgar Allen Poe’s story as the inspiration, but apart from the title, has no other real connection.
Two honeymooning Americans – Joan and Peter Allison (played by Jacqueline Wells and David Manners) – meet Dr. Vitus Werdegast (Lugosi) on a train in Austria. He is on his way to the home of Hjalmar Poelzig (Karloff) after finally being released from a Russian prison, where he has been incarcerated for 15 years since the First World War (although, of course, this film being released in 1934 it isn’t referred to as such).
[Ed. – Tell me you weren’t waiting for Karloff to break into “You’re a Mean One Mr. Grinch” in the video above…]
The hotel-bound bus they travel in from the rain-soaked railway station crashes and the Allisons are forced to accompany Dr. Werdegast to Poelzig’s art-deco home. His house is built on the ruins of the fort he commanded – and that Werdegast was stationed at – which was destroyed by the Russians in the last years of the war.
It soon becomes clear that Poelzig is an evil man – who quickly has designs on Joan Allison – and Dr. Werdegast has sought him out for revenge – for his betrayal in the war and for the wife and daughter Poelzig has stolen.
When the Allisons try to leave in the morning they find they are trapped. Peter Allison is imprisoned deep in the remains of the fort under the house – where Poelzig keeps display cases containing the preserved bodies of beautiful women – and Joan Allison is prepared to play a central part in a satanic ritual. Dr. Werdegast is forced to play a dangerous game in order that they may all survive.
The ‘Black Cat’ of the title plays little part. There is a black cat in the film and it transpires that Dr. Werdegast has an extreme phobia of cats, but it feels like this was just included to justify the title.
This isn’t, by any stretch of the imagination, a truly great film. It’s full of, what are by now, tired clichés. Of course in the 1930’s I’m sure they were not so well-worn, but they don’t do the film any favors.
Joan Allison is forever screaming and fainting and Peter Allison is her handsome American hero. Dr. Werdegast is our mysterious stranger, one that you can’t be sure you can trust. And Poelzig is the melodramatic villan. Throw in the storm lashed ‘house on a hill’. A house that is the only place to seek refuge – which of course has a feeling of death and foreboding – the odd and almost silent servants, and even the appearance of the comedy relief police officers, and you have a fairly by the numbers horror film that could come from almost any era. Something that the Rocky Horror Picture Show (amongst many others) makes fun of.
But for all its ham acting, melodrama and clichés – it isn’t a terrible film.
Yes, you can see why it isn’t held in the same esteem as the other Universal Horrors of the same period, but it does share the same aesthetics as them.
Horror films back then used light and shadow far more effectively than most horror films today. There are quite a few moments where The Black Cat excels at this; where light plays a far bigger role than the actors. The sets are also quite magnificent. A lot of time, effort and money has clearly been spent on them. I know great sets are not a good reason to see a film, but it’s true.
With all these Vintage films a little slack has to be cut. These might have been cutting edge films in their day, but movies have changed. How will the big blockbusters of today be viewed in the future?
That being said The Black Cat is not quite the classic it could be, so I’m only going to give it a 2.5 out of 5.