Sunday, October 19, 2014

Obsidian Lines: "The Black Cat"

"Suggested by the immortal Edgar Allan Poe." Before Roger Corman's brilliant Poe adaptations in the 1960s, this was as close as things got to the original. Another example, 1932's Murders in the Rue Morgue, which also stars Bela Lugosi, strays even farther from the source material. Instead of a detective story about a monkey murderer, Universal's Murders in Rue Morgue makes "Dracula himself" a mad scientist intent on injecting ape blood into virgin Parisian women for the purposes of creating a partner for his gorilla Erik.

Murders in the Rue Morgue, which is now considered a cult classic, helped to establish an interesting framework. By turning a macabre detective tale into a grotesque horror story about interspecies procreation, murder, and rape, Murders in the Rue Morgue did what should be the unthinkable - it made itself more horrifying and more spiritually revolting than Poe.

Two years later, Edgar G. Ulmer's The Black Cat did the same thing. While the original tale is about torture and an insane man's hatred for a seemingly deathless black cat, the film takes these few elements an amplifies them in one of Hollywood's most obscene revenge tales. Everything about The Black Cat, which was written by pulp maestro Paul Cain (writing under the name "Peter Ruric"), is perverted. While most horror stories and films still used the old gimmick of the ruined, haunted castle, The Black Cat's house of death is an ultra modern, streamlined edifice done in the Bauhaus style. The reason for this is that its occupant, Hjalmar Poelzig (played by Boris Karloff), is one of the most celebrated architects in Austria. As such, Poelzig's castle is a new age fortress with electricity, clean walls, and plenty of windows.

The castle is also built upon a former Austro-Hungarian fortress that was succeeded to the Russians during the war's waning days. At the time, Poelzig was the officer in charge, and his surrender cost thousands of lives. According to one doomed taxi driver (played by the experienced Austrian actor Egon Brecher), the bodies filled a trench to the brim, with blood and the stench of death ruling over the fields like an eternal miasma. 

Another survivor of the fortress, Dr. Vitus Werdegast (played by Lugosi), has come back in order to extract a healthy revenge. After suffering through a Russian prison camp near Lake Baikal in Siberia, Dr. Werdegast came home to find his wife and daughter gone, while his former commander was still alive and doing quite well for himself. For over a decade, Werdegast, who became one of Hungary's greatest psychiatrists, plotted his vengeance. When he finally puts his plan in motion, a cog is thrown into the wheel. The newly married couple of American mystery writer Peter Alison (played by David Manners) and Joan Alison (played by Julie Bishop, who is listed under her real name of Jacqueline Wells) experience the same car wreck and are likewise forced to seek refuge in Poelzig's palace. 

Inside, Werdegast and Poelzig play a murderous game of tit-for-tat, with the most memorable moment being their game of chess (which comes years before the more famous chess match between Death and Antonius Block in Bergman's The Seventh Seal), which is done in order to decide Joan's fate. While Werdegast wants her spared, Poelzig wants her for his full-moon ceremony. Besides being a coward who left his men to die, Poelzig is also a Satanist who wants Joan to die for his god. 

Karloff's Poelzig is easily one of cinema's most vile characters. Along with being a High Priest in a Satanic cult that desires human sacrifice, Poelzig is also a necrophiliac who keeps Werdegast's wife entombed in a clear capsule for his viewing pleasure, while he has turned his dead daughter into a beautiful zombie that he can control. Worse still, Poelzig has made Karen (played by Lucille Lund), Werdegast's daughter, into his wife, and early on in the film, we see the two sharing a bed. As if these things weren't awful enough, Werdegast points out that in all probability Poelzig killed both women for the very purposes of his morbid lust. 

The monstrosity of Poelzig is important, for if he were any less of an abhorrence, then Werdegast's shocking revenge who turn the audience's sympathy into hatred. At the end of the film, while Peter and Joan try to escape the castle, Werdegast finds his daughter lying in un-life on a mortuary table. In a rage, he and his dying servant (played by Harry Cording) secure Poelzig's entire body and then Werdegast finds one of Poelzig's scalpels. He threatens to flay Poelzig alive, and for a brief glimpse done in shadow, Ulmer has Lugosi dancing with his hands across Poelzig's face. Years ago, the TV channel Bravo named this moment #68 on their 100 Scariest Movie Moments countdown. 

It's hard to find a more original horror film than The Black Cat. From A to Z, this film deals solely with unhealthy obsessions, abnormalities, and even torturing the expectations of its audience. Although the film has a happy ending, the bloodlust that Werdegast has instilled in every viewer is undermined by Peter's accidental shooting of Werdegast. This aborts some catharsis, even though Werdegast pulls the switch that triggers all the old war ordnance that runs underneath the entire house. The film ends in an oddly unfulfilling holocaust of explosion and fire.

While the structure is still standing, the horror is played up through shadow play and the curiously distorted images that dot Poelzig's home. From Poelzig's beautiful cadavers to the long-necked and phallic black cat statues, The Black Cat does just as much with innuendo as it does with blunt and graphic terror. 

A large part of these suggestions comes from the mind. Specifically, Werdegast the psychiatrist is ailurophoic, or deathly afraid of cats. Poelzig knows this, and his house is either sprinkled with black cats or serviced by one in particular - a cat who survives Werdegast's bullets like the very undead creature his legend makes him out to be. The Black Cat was made during a time of popular interest in psychiatry as well as horror, and as such the film can be labeled an early example of psychological horror on the screen. The idea too that Poelzig represents an Aleister Crowley type also plays on the then current interest in sensationalism and the dark side of the earlier Decadent movement. 

A special film, The Black Cat, which was one of the first movies to have its score running throughout the reels, is an example of many great elements coming together and making an outstanding piece of art. The film was popular too, and was Universal's biggest seller of 1934. Unbeknownst to many, the oncoming Hays Code was about to kill horror's momentum, so it's tragically fitting that the first great era of horror cinema would come to a close with one of its greatest achievements.

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