Tuesday, February 11, 2020

The 1934 Take on The Black Cat Makes Solid Use of its Two Iconic Horror Performers

One of the mos widely-hyped parts about Once Upon a Time in...Hollywood was the pairing of Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt. In interviews for the project, creative participants of Quentin Tarantino's latest movie would talk about how impressive it was to see two big movie stars like this one be in the same movie together. Even Sony Pictures head Tom Rothman echoed such sentiments. DiCaprio and Pitt working together in the same movie is undeniably impressive, whenever you can get two movie stars to work together in a single project, it's a cause for celebration. See also: Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, two Universal monsters legends, uniting for the 1934 movie The Black Cat.

This Edgar George Ulmner directorial effort is all kinds of wackadoodle, a hodgepodge of disparate elements like a satanic cult, women held in gigantic glass canisters and a titular feline that only exists in the project so that they can tie in the movie's title to a well-known Edgar Allan Poe story. Normally, this sentence would be the lead-up to a critique of The Black Cat being an overstuffed mess. On the contrary, though, it's actually quite the macabre delight, one that begins with couple Peter (David Manners) and Joan (Julie Bishop) traveling to their honeymoon by train. They're joined on the train by Dr. Vitus Werdegast (Bela Lugosi), who is enamored with how much Joan reminds him of his deceased wife.

The trio continues to stay together once they get off the train and into a wagon. Here, a storm derails their wagon and they're forced to seek nearby shelter. Turns out, the only place they can find salvation is through Hjalmar Poelzig (Boris Karloff), an old acquaintance of Werdegast. Though Poelzig and Werdegast put on the show of being just chummy old friends in front of Peter and Joan, the two have a bitter rivalry stemming from how Werdegast blames Poelzig for the death of his wife. An intricate revenge scheme begins to unwind that could result in Poelzig being defeated for good...so long as Werdesgast's intense fear of black cats doesn't get the best of him.

As said earlier, The Black Cat throws a whole bunch of different creepy elements at the wall and hopes something sticks. Usually, such an approach results in a messy movie, but in this case, it manages to result in a fun time. Part of this is due to The Black Cat being one of the very last American movies to get made before the Production Code was instituted. Because of this, the movie could play things a little more loosey-goosey when it came to what could and couldn't be depicted on-screen. Just one year after The Black Cat's 1934 release, you couldn't even imply that a character would peel the skin off another character, an event that explicitly transpires (albeit in the form of shadows) here.

Pre-Production Code creative freedoms allow The Black Cat to go hog-wild with whatever grisly ideas come into its head. A detour into Satanic cults in the third act? Sure, why not! How can you not enjoy a movie where Boris Karloff has a seemingly endless basement full of all kinds of nooks and crannies and suspended bodies? Similarly, how can one not find entertainment in Karloss and Lugosi going toe-to-toe in their extremely pronounced performances? Both iconic performers emanate a polished aura in their on-screen presence, particularly Karloff who gets to utilize his smooth as silk voice to establish an intellectual quality to his menacing role.

Watching Lugosi and Karloff utilize these screen presences at the hands of such twisty-turny horror funhouse mayhem is utterly delightful, especially since The Black Cat offers them both chances to show off genuine acting chops. Werdesgast's final lines about which switches will blow up Poelzig's whole estate see's line deliveries from Lugosi that truly convey the immense gravity of this situation. It's always fun to see big-name performers interacting with one another, but you've gotta make sure you give them some good material to work with so that all that talent doesn't go to waste. Luckily, The Black Cat is a good example of how to make proper use of the actors at your disposal.

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