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The Black Cat (Edgar G. Ulmer, 1934)


    Primarily notable as the first pairing of Universal horror icons Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff, Edgar G. Ulmer’s The Black Cat is a baroque fright classic that more than stands on its own merits. Ulmer was once the assistant to silent film visionary F. W. Murnau, and nowhere is that more obvious than it is in this film’s visuals. The Black Cat is surpassingly expressionistic. The director lets the supremely eerie setting register as strongly as any other element, directing audience attention time and again to the ornate constructs of his mad scientist’s mansion through the use of striking geometric patterns. A modernist masterpiece built on the rubble of a concentration camp, the castle is a physical representation of its creator’s underlying evil. Nowhere is this incredible set used more effectively than in a dramatically staged sequence shot that leaves the actors behind while the camera, and Karloff’s voice, drift upward, out of the dank, crypt-like basement. Karloff’s intonations continue as the familiar, but still disturbing, melody of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 begins to dominate the soundtrack, and the mood builds to an almost unbearable pitch. The shot is unmistakably bravura filmmaking from a director mostly remembered today for his low-budgets.  It’s a heady moment, largely divorced from the plot, and yet utterly tapped into the melancholic atmosphere that dominates The Black Cat.


    Throughout, Ulmer’s handling ensures that the specter of wartime horror hangs in the air, even as the audience is being terrified by various other shocks, such as a man who’s skinned alive a coven of Satan worshippers, and a preserved corpse that’s suspended in the air.  Despite the title, Edgar Allan Poe’s famous short story is not the inspiration for The Black Cat, which frees the film to spin an operatic tale in which Karloff & Lugosi preside, godlike, over the fates of two young lovers, who become literal pawns in a chess game with their lives at stake. Ulmer deploys these audience surrogates sparingly enough that, unlike in many older films in this genre, their presence does little to mitigate the prevailing sense of dread. Even their joke in the final scene feels less like a return to normalcy than an assertion that normalcy is naïve. Such a clear, consistent sense of purpose is rare in any film, especially of the era. Ulmer’s achievement in The Black Cat is ensures that the movie is one of the best in Universal’s storied horror cycle.




Jeremy Heilman