I had been doing some research on the horror genre for youngest niece’s birthday gift. I introduced her to the genre via The Ring and American Horror Story a year ago and she liked. I thought it would be fun to give her a ‘horror through the decades’ gift so I drilled back to the old school Bella Lugosi and Boris Karloff era to find this film, The Black Cat.
Black Cat was made in 1934, so the film industry had sound but not many people were using sound tracks yet. This was one of the first films to have a continuous sound track behind the dialogue. Also interesting to note, this film features the first collaboration between Lugosi and Karloff, a collaboration which would continue for many years following.
The plot was interesting; a newly married couple on a train to Hungary agree to share their cabin with a pleasant but odd traveler (Lugosi) returning home after being held as a POW for 15 years. While sharing a cab to the city from the train there’s an accident and the wife is injured. Conveniently, since its his home town, the traveler knows a long-time friend (Karloff) nearby who can assist. ‘Friend’ might be a strong word since its been 15 years. Turns out the friend harbored some secrets about the fate of the traveler’s wife and daughter in his absence and he was also dabbling in some dark arts. The last half of the film was a very creepy game of chess between Lugosi and Karloff as Lugosi tried to keep Karloff from doing some unspeakable things to the newly married couple.
This was a moody and dark film. That it was, by time-bound obligation, filmed in black and white made it all the better. The house where the majority of film took place was not the typical Gothic style, rather it was modern; its wide expanses and harsh linearity creating stark, almost anachronistic contrast to the surroundings. I found the contrast almost as disturbing as Karloff’s weird hairdo.
While the restoration is good, scenes are still grainy and suffer from alternating over and under exposure. Flawed but it works very well for setting the tone of any horror film and in fact some late-model horror films have been purposely produced this way. What made this story very compelling were the facial expressions and cadence of dialogue between Lugosi and Karloff. These two were the personification of sinister. While Karloff was top billed, make no mistake, this was Lugosi’s film and he was (arguably) more convincing here than in his most noted role, the original Count Dracula. I think this was also the only time Lugosi played the good guy.
As for the title, I don’t know. Lugosi’s character was deathly afraid of cats and had a couple of encounters in hallways which caused him to become paralyzed in fear rather than reacting quickly. However, this didn’t prevent his final checkmate move against Karloff.
Horror fan? See this one, you can call it research for your niece like I did. 65 minutes well spent.