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6. The Black Cat (1934), dir. Edgar Ulmer

People who don't have much time should probably learn how to write short film reviews. Let's see how I get on with that...

This was a recent purchase of ms_siobhan's, which has also been in the 'high priority' section of my Lovefilm list for a while, and which we watched together. It is a Universal picture starring both Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff, and is based very, very loosely indeed on Edgar Allan Poe's short story of the same name. When I say loosely, I mean that it contains a black cat, and involves a dead wife, but otherwise it has pretty much nothing to do with the original whatsoever.

Stylistically, it is a Gothic horror, involving such motifs as a dark and stormy night, an innocent young couple finding themselves trapped in a dangerous situation, a hill-top house, an apparently-charming host with malevolent intentions, a decades-old personal feud, the supernaturally-preserved corpses of beautiful women, the afore-mentioned black cat, and some Satanic rituals. Yet at the same time it is more profoundly concerned with the issues of its present day than any other Universal film I have seen. It's often forgotten that Universal tended to translate their Gothic stories to a present-day setting, and it's forgotten for the perfectly good reason that apart from putting the leading ladies in 1930s frocks, this makes almost no difference whatsoever to the setting, action or dialogue. But this film is basically all about the hangover horror of the First World War, and the impact it had on the lives of those who survived it.

Thankfully, this aspect of the film is discussed in detail in this excellent blog post, saving me the trouble! But the executive summary is that Lugosi's character had suffered terrible wrongs at the hands of Karloff's during the war, they are both still psychologically trapped reliving their old feud and the horrors of the war, and the main setting for the film is a luxurious modernist house built directly over a concrete First World War fortress and only thinly veiling the horrors concealed below. It is also one of the first horror films to do any of this so clearly and directly, a full 20 years after the war had broken out, which says quite a lot about how difficult it is for any society to process and assimilate true horror on that sort of scale enough to weave it into its stories. Once it had happened, though, it was very powerful - or so we felt. Had the exact same story of personal feuds, dead wives and Satanic rituals been told in a more traditionally Gothic setting, it probably would have seemed fairly run-of-the-mill and unoriginal, but the engagement with recent history gave it an urgent emotive power which we were really struck by.

Other than that, the film's main stand-out features include some very beautiful frocks, absolute flying sparks in the confrontations between Lugosi and Karloff (an epic pairing which would make the film worth watching on its own, regardless of anything else), and some completely mad cod-Latin from Karloff in the climactic Satanic ritual, which is basically not a Satanic ritual at all, but a load of proverbs cobbled together with no concern whatsoever for what they might actually mean. This is of course an interesting insight into Universal's estimation of their audiences in the 1930s, who were clearly not expected to notice this. In fact, it reminded me of the All Purpose Latin After-Dinner Speech from Henry Beard's book Latin for Even More Occasions - and as such made the film a lot more fun than it would have been if someone had sat down and written a SRS BSNS ritual for the scene.

Only down side - our sympathies are clearly meant to lie with Lugosi's character rather than Karloff's, since Lugosi has spent 15 years in a Hungarian prison camp during which time Karloff has stolen both his wife and his daughter and built himself the luxury house where the action takes place. But this was scotched for me very early on by a scene set in a train carriage, which sees Lugosi reaching out to stroke the hair of a sleeping woman who is a stranger to him. This transpires to be because she reminds him of his lost wife, and seems to have been intended to convey the tragic suffering of his character - but for me it just set off Extreme Creep Alarms which meant I could never really fall into the role of cheering for and sympathising with him which the rest of the film seemed to expect of me.

Other than that, though, top notch stuff, and very definitely a must-see for anyone interested in the direction which horror films were taking in the mid-1930s.

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( 7 comments — Leave a comment )
Mar. 23rd, 2015 10:00 pm (UTC)
Shorter than I usually manage! (Karloff's Satanic garb and indeed the ritual is surely in a direct ancestral line from that worn by Roger Delgado in Doctor Who's The Daemons, but that's also stating the obvious.)
Mar. 23rd, 2015 10:09 pm (UTC)
Just Googled pictures of both, and yes, definitely! I haven't 'officially' watched The Daemons yet as part of my Classic Who watch-and-blog operation, though I have definitely seen it at some stage - quite possibly with DocSoc, in fact. I do really want to get back to that project at some stage, but I find you have to run with your fandoms as they take you - and right now it is still all Dracula, Dracula, Dracula with me.
Mar. 24th, 2015 12:54 am (UTC)
The last time I blogged about Doctor Who was on 1 March, which is a very, very long time for me...
Mar. 24th, 2015 07:28 am (UTC)
It is a good film which I saw probably 18 months ago now.
Mar. 24th, 2015 11:33 am (UTC)
Bela's character does appear creepy but I can forgive him that as he is still deeply grieving for his wife.

Plus Karloff when he is about to be flayed alive looks really gorgeous and the dead floating brides in glass coffins look stunning. The whole film looked stunning actually - might have to give it a rewatch soon.
Mar. 24th, 2015 11:41 am (UTC)
Yeah, Karloff was secretly quite buff, wasn't he? Some of the pictures of him having his special effects make-up done for The Mummy or Frankenstein make that quite clear, e.g.:

Mar. 24th, 2015 11:46 am (UTC)
Indeed - he's not quite up there with man mountain of gorgeousness levels muscle wise with my other big love Dolph Lungren but I wouldn't kick him out of bed for eating biscuits.
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