Even today, Karloff and Lugosi’s first joint movie venture is seldom shown. It was filmed before the advent of the Hays censorship code and contains elements of Satanism, black mass orgies, pedophilia, necrophilia, sadism, murder and incest. Not bad going for a production a little over an hour long and also featuring ailurophobia or dread of cats.
It’s supposedly based on a short story by Edgar Allan Poe – suggested would be a better term – but nobody can film that horror writer in any case. Poe was concerned with psychological horror and not developing a story line. Years later, producer and director Roger Corman had the same problem with manufacturing a story out of the two-page short story by Poe called The Pit and the Pendulum. Impossible, and the script had to be totally invented.
The 1934 Black Cat was the top grossing movie in the USA and had classical music themes running almost throughout. Audiences couldn’t resist going to see it but the film bore no relationship to the early 1930s Dracula, Frankenstein and The Mummy. Those three all contained some element of humour, even if small, and involved the supernatural. But there is nothing remotely funny or supernatural about the main characters played by Karloff (a Satanist and a collector of dead bodies in a glass case) and by Lugosi (who ends up torturing Karloff to death before being blown up by dynamite).
Of course, none of the above kept to the original story in novels and, in the case of The Black Cat, there is no role for felines of any colour except for a brief scene where Lugosi is struck with panic at seeing one and throws a knife which kills the creature. Edgar Allan Poe shares with Mary Shelley and Bram Stoker the distinction of being mostly ignored in movie follow-ups. What’s important is that Universal Studios held the rights to Poe’s title and name which limited the opportunities for other studios to copy.
Mostly, The Black Cat is about genocide. Lugosi plays Dr Vitus Werdegast, the sole survivor of a Hungarian prison camp where some 10,000 men had been slaughtered. Seeking revenge 15 years later, he returns to the site where Hjalmar Poelzig (Karloff), the architect who ran the camp, has built a mansion atop the mass graves. There is also a honeymooning couple who get stranded on a stormy night, but they are little more than a distraction.
The movie is so unnerving partly because Karloff’s mansion – the primary set – is a masterpiece. A haunted house of sorts but brightly lit, the rooms are art deco in the expressionist tradition and not what the audience expected. This wasn’t Dracula’s castle or Frankenstein’s windmill, but modernist. There are no vampires, witches or ghosts. All the monsters here are definitely human. Not even any rattling chains or cobwebs. Horror without precedent. There is no way Abbott and Costello could have met Poelzig and Werdegast and come out alive.