Colin Timothy Gagnon (sacredspud) wrote,
Colin Timothy Gagnon

31 Days of Halloween: The Black Cat

For most people, the phrase "classic horror movies" calls to mind images of the Universal Monsters: Lugosi's Dracula, Karloff's Frankenstein (actually, Karloff's monster, but whatever), Lon Chaney Jr.'s Wolf Man, Claude Raine's voice as The Invisible Man, and the Creature from the Black Lagoon played by some guy in a suit. We tend to remember only their major franchises, but Universal built quite a library of horror films in their early days, most of which are forgotten by all but the few film buffs who have the patience to seek them out.

I am not one of these. I have tried to get into the classic Universal horror movies, but I should probably give up. The fact is that my favorite horror movies were made between about 1955 and 1972. There are a lot of great films that fall outside of that particular span, but the ones made more recently lean a little more toward the graphic violence and psychological horror than I prefer, and those made earlier just aren't quite sophisticated enough. No, I like the period just on this side of the middle of the 20th century, when special effects were getting more interesting, and writers were just starting to write for more specialized horror and sci-fi audiences.

1934's The Black Cat is of an earlier vintage, and doesn't quite meet my requirements for horror. I'm not sure what the problem is, exactly. The atmosphere is pitch-perfect and the performances are glorious, but I see it more as a suspenseful drama than actual horror.

The story: Peter and Joan are honeymooning in Hungary, and meet the mysterious and creepy Dr. Werdegast (Bela Lugosi) on a train. Werdegast is on his way to visit an old friend, Hjalmar Poelzig (Boris Karloff). Joan is injured, and the three end up staying at Poelzig's elaborate and newly-built mansion. Things are tense between Werdegast and Poelzig, and we learn that they are bitter enemies. Poelzig has been living well after selling out to the Russians, which resulted in the deaths of thousands of Hungarians during World War I, including Werdegast's wife and young daughter. Werdegast, on the other hand, has spent the last fifteen years rotting in an internment camp.

Eventually, we get to the real meat of the horror: Poelzig is the leader of a Satanic cult which plans to sacrifice Joan the next night. I'll pause here to point out that I've just rewritten the beginning of this paragraph. I'd originally made a list of the weird stuff that is revealed once Peter and Joan go to bed, but I just realized that Wikipedia has a wonderfully misleading quote from the critic Philip French: "The movie unfolds like a nightmare that involves necrophilia, ailurophobia, drugs, a deadly game of chess, torture, flaying, and a black mass with a human sacrifice. This bizarre, utterly irrational masterpiece, lasting little more than an hour, has images that bury themselves in the mind."

I can only disagree with Mr. French. All of those elements are present, but they mostly get name checked or alluded-to. Nothing in The Black Cat reaches a satisfying fruition for me. It makes me feel like a little kid whose uncle is very proud to show off all his Kenner Star Wars Action Figures, but who won't take them out of their bubble packs. Why show me all these toys, if we're not even gonna play with 'em?

I don't know. It is tempting to blame the Hays Code, but other -- often crappier -- movies managed to skirt those rules and deliver the goods. The fact is that I just need a little more horror in my horror. The Universal Monsters are all well and good, and most of those movies are very watchable, but there's a lot of chaff in the lesser-known Universal movies, and I'm just not interested in sifting through it.
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