The Black Cat (1934)

Apparently this was Universal’s biggest money-spinner in 1934, and yet I don’t know that it’s really entered the “canon”; maybe it’s just me (and my perception could well be wrong), but it doesn’t seem to have remained a generally well-known classic in the way the other Universal horrors of the 30s have… it seems to be beloved by genre fans and classics fans, but how far does its reputation otherwise extend? I don’t know. Maybe the fact that there’s no conventional monster hasn’t helped it, but then again, you’ve got Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi teaming up for the first time in a weird and perverse revenge tragedy with Satanism, necrophilia, and a generally unhealthy atmosphere. Any further actual monster might’ve been overkill. The story bears even less relation to the Poe tale it allegedly comes from than some of Corman’s; Lugosi leaves prison after 15 years to take revenge on Karloff, who sold him out during the war and built himself an art deco castle on the ruins of the wartime fort whose destruction he caused. However, he finds himself stuck with a nice young American couple after a car accident en route, and he must take them with him. David Manners is even more useless than he was in Dracula at being the hero, and really he’s not the good guy in this, Lugosi is. Which is kind of fucked up, as others have noted. I’ve always liked this film; apart from some short-lived comic relief policemen, it sustains an ominous mood throughout with Lugosi and Karloff—blessed here with one of film history’s great hairstyles—just looming throughout. The film acknowledges the war in an interesting way, and the startling modernity of Karloff’s residence is a neat twist on the standard gothic castle. There’s something “off” about the whole film, so unlike the other Universal horrors, so that despite some undeniable problems (e.g. the castle’s self-destruct thing being even more inexplicable than Bride of Frankenstein‘s) it’s impossible to dismiss it too easily as a “mere” B film.

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