Film Chris Brown, the host of the History of Horror Podcast has been kind enough to write this guest post about my favourite film of 1934.
The Black Cat.
I don’t have a proper memory of the first time I watched The Black Cat. It’s likely to have been some point in my teenage years on a black and white, or possibly colour (depending on when it was), portable TV when I was rushing through as many horror films as I could, especially ones that were considered, to a point, controversial.
It was probably before I snuck a look at George A Romero’s Night Of The Living Dead, one night on Channel 4 and it changed how I saw the genre, less out and out atmosphere and more brutal confrontation.
It was certainly before I saw Night’s follow-up Dawn Of The Dead, which put me on course of a life writing and enjoying the genre generally, appreciating it’s vivid broad comic book palette and satirical undertones and, like a lot of horror fans, wishing that more horror films were just, generally, better.
Rewatching 1934’s The Black Cat recently it shuffled a little memory out of my mind though, a general feeling of unease. Sitting in my West Derby home and feeling that there was something off about the film. It was, perhaps unsurprisingly, the scene that stuck with me was near the end when somebody grabs a knife and begins to skin a character alive. These days, it’s all down to a game of chess.
The film sits at a strange time, being more deeply horrible than the majority of Universal’s horror output at the time. The special effects heavy The Invisible Man from the year before was more an adventure film and a year after James Whale directed the iconic Bride Of Frankenstein, with all its gay subtext, incredible set-design and barmy use of humour.
The Black Cat is less melodrama, more hysterical psychodrama, with Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff, stalking each other around a modernist mansion desperately waiting to off each other. Their hate is total and filled with menace. It’s so much more aggressive and troubling in tone than other films from the time.
As a story it’s very simple, a castle where an evil satanist (played by Karloff) is visited by a witless couple and a man after revenge (Lugosi).
Despite some serious missteps (a yellow-face goon is used as muscle) it’s really a game of chess which is truly the most horrible element. Dr. Vitus Werdegast (Lugosi) insists on a game with Hjalmar Poelzig (Karloff) all for the body and soul of an innocent woman, Joan, who is captive in the building.
The idea in the film is to create tension but the incredible arrogance and audacity of the two men is staggering. They play a game over the life of another like it’s property. Joan, the woman is question, isn’t privy to the reasons behind the match and even interrupts them.
Both men, by the end, are distinctively portrayed as monsters, driven by their own selfish goals. Joan is just another female victim in all this, buffered by powers beyond her control and knowledge.
In Kier-La Janisse’s book House Of Psychotic Women, she explains that domestic abuse can be pulled through as a theme in horror generally. In Paranormal Activity (2007), for example, Katie is tormented, not just by the demon in a physical sense, but also by her boyfriend Micah. Micah is so keen to play his own game of “chess” with the monster, despite Katie’s repeated requests to stop, he angers the demon and makes things a lot worse. His abuse is to disregard his girlfriend in favour of his own selfish goals.
In The Black Cat women are trophies, literally kept in cabinets around the building (part of Karloff’s character’s religious cult. The film’s monsters are blind to their misogyny and the audience are dragged into wondering who we are really meant to root for, if anybody.
Its nihilism is its power and, even when order is returned, as it must with Universal monster movies, the audience is left wondering at what cost. More than 30 years before the bleakness of Night Of The Living Dead bluntly leaves its audience in the horror, The Black Cat played heavily with similar levels of darkness.