Although Universal’s biggest money spinner of the year, The Black Cat is probably Hollywood’s most under-rated horror movie. Its story is admittedly trite: two American honeymooners trapped in a Hungarian castle dominated by two adversarial weirdos, Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi in their first pairing. Much of the film concerns the battle of wits between these guys trying to get the better of the other. Incidentally, the production has no connection with Edgar Allan Poe’s short story even though it is acknowledged in the titles.
Yet it is the symbolism which makes the film unique. The director Edgar Ulmer fills each scene in the Hungarian mansion, built on a graveyard, with a palpable feeling of doom, using creative editing and lighting. Composed of geometric shapes and jagged edges, this house makes Dracula’s castle comfortable by comparison. The creepy house syndrome has been the basis of a hundred other films in the past 70 years.
Superficially, never were so many unpleasant themes crowded into 65 minutes. There’s a strong suggestion of necrophilia, a hint of pedophilia, free use of drugs, a flaying of flesh under torture, a Black Mass with human sacrifice and even ailurophobia (a dread of cats). Yet there’s only a fleeting moment devoted to each horror and the fast pace means that the viewer doesn’t really have the time to get disgusted. In fact the public loved it and the number of psychiatry books borrowed from public libraries zoomed up.
Karloff and Lugosi were billed jointly for the first time and went on to make six more movies together. However, The Black Cat is the only one where each actor has equal importance. Later works would see one playing banana to the other. In Black Friday they don’t even share a single scene together.
There have been numerous interpretations of the film. To some commentators, this is the first Psycho or slasher movie which is to misunderstand what the director was trying to do. Others have argued that the script is an attack on organized religion because of the Black Mass climax, which again is a chronic oversimplifaction.
It is actually the game of chess played by Karloff and Lugosi which is central to any understanding of The Black Cat. Even as Karloff, the owner of the dark house, tries to manipulate everyone around him like a chess piece, he is beyond realizing that he too is being played. For both of them are pawns of two greater foes God and Satan forever fighting out matters for control of mankind’s soul. The Black Cat deserves a viewing now if only to remind us what good and evil are all about.