Too many moviegoers prefer the new, modern, shiny and faster films over the older, slower ones, because they get bored too easily, or the special effects are obviously out of date, or they don’t have the right amount of intensity that the new ones lay out in gallons. Classic movies are indeed everything these bored spectators claim to be, but that is quickly forgotten when someone understands how to look at these old-timer masterpieces. One of these underrated masterpieces is THE BLACK CAT from EDGAR G. ULMER (director, Detour). Made in just 15 days, with a shoestring budget, for a very nervous crowd, it became a box office sensation in 1934, only a year apart from the rise of the Hays code. Yes, the one that forbids everything fun inside the movies. Although it seems unnecessary to analyse this kind of old flick, because what is there to say that analysts haven’t already said in the last 100 years about it, it still has to be done. On the first viewing the film is pretty straight forward, everything happens for a reason and the ending is followed by a happy end, but don’t be deceived, there are many mysteries still hidden inside. Most viewers didn’t consider questioning what was laid out in the movie, because the film studios didn’t tolerate ambiguity in that era at all. This movie however, has a lot of it. The themes are just on the verge of the acceptable and because the film got knifed too many times, it lost some of the juicy scenes the audience yearned for, but will never have the chance to see them. A new married couple, Peter and Joan, are on the way to enjoy their honeymoon in Hungary. Of course, there is some intruder that turns their life upside down, because this is a horror film and thus the newlyweds have to encounter a series of unfortunate events involving necrophilia, Satanism, ailurophobia, incest, ptsd, a game of deception, a game of chess and sudden death. Sounds like a movie that’s rated PG 21, doesn’t it?
WERDEGAST: ‘The years have been kind to you. You have not changed a great deal.’
HJALMAR POELZIG (Boris Karloff) is an extraordinary architect with a unique vision, a man who keeps to himself, someone who has no temper and likes to keep the beautiful cadavers of his wives in glass coffins in the cellar. In his free time, he practices Satanism for the hell of it and he prefers not to lose a challenge. He was in charge of a squadron 15 years ago with Vitus Werdegast as a soldier by his side. Something happened and the squadron got erased by the Russians. Only Werdegast survived. Hjalmar went on to marry Werdegast’s wife and took care of her daughter. Later on, his wife died.
HJALMAR: ‘She died two years after the war.
HJALMAR: Of pneumonia.’
After Werdegast’s wife died, Hjalmar drugged her daughter and made her the new Mrs. Hjalmar Poelzig. Hjalmar has a twisted and perverted mind, but that is not all, because in the cellar he keeps four other women’s bodies in glass coffins, which suggest that he had multiple partners before marrying Werdegast’s daughter. Only through drugs he made her willing to marry him and in this drugged state she lived out her existence, until she met Joan.
Joan told her the truth about her father being alive and a guest in the house, but Hjalmar took her to the other room and punished her by taking her life.
DR VITUS WERDEGAST (Bela Lugosi) was a soldier in the old war under the command of Poelzig. He was loyal and eager to fight. After the war, he miraculously survived, but got transported to a prison in Kurgaal for a sentence of 15 years. Damn. Once he was outside prison he got information about Poelzig, who apparently took Vitus’ wife Karen under his wing. Now, he wanted Poelzig’s blood, not only because Poelzig ratted out the whole squadron to the Russians. No, he even took the only thing which kept Vitus going through the war and which gave him hope. He wants to catapult Hjalmar’s sorry ass to the next galaxy and bring his beloved wife home.
VITUS:‘I was taken prisoner to Kurgaal. Kurgaal, where the soul is killed slowly. Fifteen years I’ve rotted in the darkness waited. Not to kill you, to kill your soul, slowly.’
During his time in prison he developed an irrational and unusual fear of cats. Poelzig explains:
POELZIG: ‘You must be indulgent to Dr. Werdegasts weakness. He is the unfortunate victim of one of the commoner phobias but in an extreme form. He has an intense and all-consuming horror of cats.’
Well, what would he know? He isn’t a doctor, he’s just an architect. Werdegast on the other hand doesn’t even react to his outing; he doesn’t even mention it afterwards. He treats his phobia like it’s the fourth instalment of Indiana Jones.
PETER AND JOAN ALISON
PETER (David Manner) AND JOAN (Julie Bishop) ALISON are the American goodie-too-shoes couple of this frightmare. Just like in a slasher film these days, the ‘bad guy’ wants to get rid of them for no apparent reason, but what can you expect when they want to celebrate their honeymoon in a godforsaken town like Gombos. On the way to Gombos they get a surprise visit from Dr. Werdegast who persuades them to come with him to Poelzig’s mansion. The rest of the movie they try to survive and get the hell out of the mansion.
PETER: ‘Next time I go to Niagara Falls.’
The couple is very well mannered, but naive, and although they are swimming in the deep sea of love, Peter somehow rarely says Joan’s name; he only introduces her as his ‘wife‘ or ‘Mrs. Alison’. Peter doesn’t even believe in the supernatural. He tells Vitus it’s ‘all supernatural baloney’.
VITUS: ‘Supernatural perhaps. Baloney, perhaps not. There are many things under the sun!’
Joan is the Angel of the movie; she has to remain intact and protected throughout the whole movie. Her wellbeing is the most important thing to everyone, albeit for different reasons. Her character still needs some shaping, because she doesn’t react to anything, just like a damsel in distress. She can be surprised, or even angry, but she keeps her mouth shut and she lets Peter do the hard work.
THE MYSTERY OF THE BLACK CAT
It is clear from the first frame of the movie that this BLACK CAT (1934) is in no shape or form similar to the BLACK CAT (1843), the classic masterpiece of EDGAR ALLAN POE. Or is it? What if Ulmer took the basic idea from the short story and transformed it into a completely different motion picture? Here are the similarities:
- FRIENDSHIP – in Poe’s story there is a great friendship between the narrator and the cat, who later on become enemies, just like Hjalmar and Vitus were once best friends and became mortal enemies
- STABBING WITH A KNIFE – In Poe’s work the narrator gouges out the eye of the cat with a penknife, and in Ulmer’s movie, Vitus kills the black cat with a pen knife
- SURVIVING – The cats in both short story and the movie survive
- FIRE – The house of the narrator catches fire and everyone has to flee the premises, just like at the end of Ulmer’s movie, where the whole house goes down in flames
- FEAR OF CATS – After the narrator finds a similar cat to the one he killed, he develops an anxiety regarding the cat, he begins to fear it, just like Vitus in the movie has an all-consuming horor of cats
- KILLING THE WIFE – In the short story, the narrator kills his wife out of rage for the cat, and in the movie Hjalmar kills his second wife, Karen’s daughter, out of rage because she made contact with Joan
- ARCHITECT – After killing the wife, the narrator took the body and built a wall around her, in the movie however, Hjalmar built an entire mansion on top of the place where his squadron was killed
- THE CELLAR – In the story as well as in the movie there is a cellar where things go down, the narrator’s wife is walled in the cellar and Hjalmar preserves his wife’s corpse in a glass cage down in the cellar
Ulmer went on and explored the theme about resurrection a little further than the audiences expected in the time the movie came out. It is safe to assume that nobody understood where Ulmer’s movie is heading, because he skilfully managed to hide the forbidden things in plain sight and it didn’t arouse suspicion even in the guys who paid the bills.
THE ROLE OF SATANISM
Although the book of Lucifer is a great goodnight read, Hjalmar uses it for different reasons. During the day he is a well respected architect, but during the night he organizes satanic rites for the incredibly rich stiff upper lips, so they can worship the devil. He is a bad boy indeed. Vitus explains:
VITUS: ‘Did you ever hear about Satanism, the worship of the devil? Herr Poelzig is the great modern priest of that ancient cult and tonight, dark of the moon, the rites of Lucifer are celebrated. And if I am not mistaken, he intends you to play a part in the ritual. A very important part.’
Wait, what?! How the hell does Vitus know about it? He was imprisoned for 15 years and there is no informant in the world that might have picked up such information on his way to the cleaners. Vitus knew this before he went to prison, that is obvious. He knew this because he himself was involved in the depths of the dark side.
Hjalmar and Vitus were both active in the ‘forbidden realms of existence’ and they both managed to die and resurrect themselves during the war.
HJALMAR: ‘You say your soul was killed and that you have been dead all these years. And what of me? Did we not both die here in Marmorus fifteen years ago? Are we any the less victims of the war than those bodies were torn asunder? Are we not both the living dead? And now you come to me, playing at being an avenging angel—childishly thirsty for my blood. We understand each other too well. We know too much of life.’
How did they do it? That will be a mystery for ages to come, but it involves the black cat.
VITUS: ‘However, certain ancient books say that the Black Cat is the living embodiment of Evil. And if that Evil enters into the nearest living thing, it is…’
HJALMAR: ‘The Black Cat does not die. Those same books, if I’m not mistaken, teach that the Black Cat is deathless, deathless as Evil. It is the origin of the common superstition. You know, the cat with nine lives.’
Vitus reacts with very unusual horror towards the black cat. The way Hjalmar explains the illness being ‘one of the commoner phobias’ is disturbing. It is not as common as the fear of spiders or fear of ghosts or a phobia people have from seeing Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ. In fact, Ailurophobia is so rare, that only a small percentage of people suffer from it. Why is it so important, then? It is a great connection to Poe’s short story and it explains how the satanic ritual performed on Vitus went wrong. Vitus expected for the ritual to have one outcome, but Hjalmar used this opportunity to get rid of Vitus, so he could reclaim Karen. Hjalamar didn’t expect Vitus to return.
VITUS: ‘I mean you told Karen I had been killed. I found out that much in Budapest. I mean you always wanted her. In the days at Salzburg, before the war, always, from the first time you saw her. I mean after you saved your own hide and left us all to die in Marmorus you went to Karen and induced her to go to America with you.’
VITUS: ‘Mrs. Alison is slightly injured.’
Another instance that confirms Werdegast’s involvement in suspicious rituals is the moment when he gives Joan his ‘special’ sedative.
VITUS: ‘Forgive my presumption but I must emphasize the extreme importance of Mrs. Alison having complete quiet sleep. I gave her a very powerful narcotic I’m sure it will be effective soon. Her condition is not sufficiently serious to be cause for alarm but it is decidedly delicate. Rest is the important thing.’
PETER: ‘What curious changes it made in her. You must have noticed it?’
VITUS: ‘It is perhaps the narcotic. Hyoscine affects people very oddly. One cannot be sure. Sometimes these cases take strange forms. The victim becomes, in a sense, mediumistic a vehicle for all the intangible forces in operation around her.’
According to patient.info: ‘Hyoscine butylbromide is an antispasmodic medicine which is taken to relieve cramps in the stomach, intestines or bladder. In particular, it helps to ease bloating and the spasm-type pain that can be associated with irritable bowel syndrome and diverticular disease.’
Vitus gave Alison a medicine connected to stomach and bladder, but her injury is on the clavicle that is clearly visible. The truth is, he gave her some unfamiliar sedative, that made her aware of dangerous possibilities and prevented her from moving around the house, because he knew she will be in danger.
HJALMAR THE HUMANOID
Boris Karloff portrayed the architect Hjalmar more like a humanoid than a real person. His body posture is always straight and his face has a stone cold expression. His skin is bleak and he doesn’t share any emotions, even in the most dangerous situation he doesn’t react like he should. On the other hand, Vitus shows a range of emotions, he is very controlled, but when he gets the opportunity his revenge dish is served very cold. The reason that Hjalmar is just a shell of his own existence can be found in the rituals he’s been doing over the years. Every ritual takes a piece of his persona. By the looks of the glass cage coffins in the cellar, he had multiple companions that ended up dead, or were scarified in the name of Satan. These too, are all heavy emotional traumas, rendering his life nonexistent. His fashion designer is death itself just like his architectural skills.
PETER: ‘It is hard to describe as life, or death. It may well be an atmosphere of death.’
He wears black to make the obvious connection to the black cat, ‘which can’t die and which is deathless‘.
SYMBOLS AND METAPHORS
In the beginning of the movie the Alison’s had their coupe for themselves, but the conductor had to spoil their intimacy by saying:
CONDUCTOR: ‘A terrible mistake has occurred.’
Although this ‘TERRIBLE’ mistake relates to the newlyweds losing their precious intimate moments on the way to their Honeymoon, it also is an indicator for something else in the story. Some other terrible mistake has occurred. The mistake is that Vitus is still alive.
A little bit later the bag over Joan’s head got somehow loose and it was about to fall on her. Both men jumped to the rescue, suggesting these two men will help her out in the rest of the movie whenever she finds herself in danger.
This movie has some EXPRESSIONISTIC TENDENCIES. The weather is really terrible on the way to Poelzig’s mansion. Of course, it is a foreshadowing that something will happen (like the car accident), but it is also a mirror into Werdegast’s soul. He is just a blurred image of a man he once was. He is traumatised, hurt and sad that he lost his wife and had to endure 15 years of prison and it is reflected in the outside world. The same goes for Poelzig. His internal on goings are reflected in the structure of his mansion. Everything is bizarre and has a strange, deadly atmosphere and the mansion is built on the mountain above the graveyard, completely isolated from the rest of the world.
After Joan is brought to her room, Vitus is preparing himself to treat her injury. The maid brings fresh water so that Vitus can WASH HIS HANDS. The way the scene is shot suggests something different. The shot lingers a bit too much on the washing part, which indicates that it is highly symbolic. Vitus is washing his guilt of his hands. He sinned in the past, but now he wants to redeem himself.
The Alison’s are merely TOYS for Hjalmar, evident in the way he touches the statues and chess pieces indicating he’s talking about his guests. He uses them to amuse himself and to utilize them for his Satanic ceremony. He hovers especially above the girl for she is to become his next victim. The statue of the naked women suggests he wants to have some sort of sexual relationship with her and afterward use her as a crucial piece inside his twisted game.
Hjalmar preserves the corpses of his former wives in GLASS COFFINS. Obviously, he has some nifty tricks up his sleeve if he can manage that. The glass coffins look like frameworks for a museum piece, but his masterworks are the remains of innocent people. Just like the coffins, which are transparent, so is Hjalmar’s soul evidently empty. He preserves them for two selfish reasons: to maintain their beauty for his necrophiliac needs, and as a reminder that he is in charge, the most powerful priest on earth.
The GAME OF CHESS reveals a bit about Vitus’ and Hjalmar’s personality. Vitus’ figures are white, because he supports the good side; Hjalmar’s figures are black, dark as his soul and his intentions. They play a game that is intellectual and both have high stakes involved in the game. Nonetheless, they play a game, which puts them in the position of being childish.
HJALMAR: ‘Are we men or are we children?’
In the end of the movie, Vitus tells Hjalmar how ‘it has been a good game’, not referring to the chess game they played earlier on, but their game that lasted over 15 years and completely destroyed their lives.
HJALMAR: ‘Did you hear that, Vitus? The phone is dead. Even the phone is dead.’
This famous and often cited line reveals that both, Vitus and Hjalmar, are aware of their status as LIVING DEAD. The way Hjalmar tells it, it is clear he jokes about it. He knows that everything in his mansion is dead, even the phone.
Hjalmar has a ROPE around his waist when he’s dressed to perform the ceremony at midnight. This rope is a hint to the short story of Edgar Allan Poe, because in the story the narrator hangs the black cat by the neck in his garden. This is a hint for two things; for one, Hjalmar represents the black cat which cannot die, and second, he already died before.
As soon as the ceremony begins, a shot is showing who’s in the AUDIENCE to hear Hjalmar perform his miracles. Basically rich people are interested in this kind of stuff, but Vitus is also in the audience. He is looking for a way out, or a way to help Joan, but somehow the directing style of the shots and the editing make it clear it is not the first time Vitus is witnessing Hjalmar perform his show. Vitus is filmed in such a way to explain he is one member of the audience; drown in the sea of followers.
Near the end of the movie, Vitus and Hjalmar begin to fight, fully aware neither one can be killed, but they are full of rage so they take it out on each other. However, Vitus is smarter, he puts Hjalmar on the cross so he can perform torture that will slowly kill Hjalmar’s soul, as he described before.
VITUS: ‘Do you know what I am going to do to you know? No? Did you ever see an animal skinned, Hjalmar? That’s what I’m going to do to you now. Tear the skin from your body, slowly, bit by bit.’
Vitus means business, because that way he wouldn’t kill him, but he would be as good as dead. Without skin, he can’t go on living. The whole spectacle ends in a fire that eventually kills them both.
- MARMAROS – greek for flash, to shine, sparkle, because the graveyard is very famous and it deserves to be noticed
- HJALMAR – helmet, warrior, because he was a soldier and he is still a soldier when Vitus returns
- POELZIG – divine God, free will, and in Numerology his number is 9 a.k.a. 9 lives of a cat, a black cat
- VITUS – latin for lively, life, because he is alive, to Hjalmar’s shock
- WERDEGAST – german for ‘he becomes a guest’, because he joined the newlywed couple as a guest in their train coupe, and he is a guest in Polezig’s house
- PETER – greek for stone, because he doesn’t catch the drift
- JOAN – God is gracious, because however you turn it, she needs to be protected and she is not to be harmed. Why? Well, who knows…
- ALISON – is a suffix and means something like ‘little’, because the Alison’s are not aware about the game Hjalmar and Vitus are playing and they seem lesser people than the architect and the doctor
First off, the police officers that came to investigate the death of the driver are completely useless and a redundant comic relief inside a serious picture.
Hjalamar’s servant opens the door for Vitus and his gang to enter Hjalmar’s mansion, but he forgets to close the door.
The name of Vitus’ wife is Karen. Her daughter’s name is Karen. Poelzig was married to Karen. Poelzig’s wife Karen died. Poelzig married a girl named Karen. Both are blond, both are dead. Do you see the problem?
The death of the driver isn’t useless, but the reactions regarding his death are completely unnatural and he is forgotten about just seconds later. What a shame.
Most moviegoers would disregard this picture as a pretty straightforward horror movie from the 30’s. Nothing unusual in it besides the clash of the Titans between Lugosi and Karloff, but that is just what’s lingering on the surface and, actually, it looks like ‘the owls are not what they seem’. If the audience pays more attention to detail, it becomes fairly visible that it entails many hidden layers. These hidden layers contain all sorts of nasty stuff. It should be noted that Ulmer had a pair of courageous balls, tuned with a very fine set of skills, which enabled him to create this fantastic work of filmmaking.
ADVERTISE in 1934: ‘The monster of Frankenstein plus the monster of Dracula, plus the ‘monstrousness’ of Edgar Allan Poe – all combined by the master makers of screen mysteries to give you the absolute apex in super-shivery.’