While pieces of cinema are often seen as the vision of either the film’s director or writer, horror films, monster pictures in particular, are seen as the collected work of a handful of entities. Be it the makeup artist who crafts the iconic visual effects, or the composer who, with his compositions, sets the mood and tone for the thrills to come. However, very few names are as synonymous with the horror genre than the pair of Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi.
Best known for their work apart from one another, particularly their Universal work as the studio’s chief monsters, Frankenstein and Dracula, respectively, the pair teamed up a few times during their long standing careers. However, no mash-up was ever as chilling, or has since become as beloved, as their underrated masterpiece, The Black Cat.
Helmed by the incomparable Edgar G. Ulmer, who began his career as a set designer on films like M and Metropolis, only to delve into the world of genre pictures with fantastically pulpy thrillers and noir like the underrated Detour, The Black Cat is arguably the director’s crowning achievement. The first teaming (of eight total films) of Lugosi and Karloff, the film follows the story of a young, recently wedded couple who meet a mysterious psychiatrist. Played by Lugosi, Dr. Vitus Werdegast is on his way to meet up with an old companion, only to be involved in a wreck during he and the couple’s trip. He brings the couple to the house he is meeting at, the home of an architect named Hjalmar Poelzig, to aid in the injuries sustained by Joan, the new wife of Peter. When the viewer becomes privy to just what type of relationship the Poelzig and Werdegast share, the film is thrust into a world of Satanism, brutality and revenge, unlike any chiller seen during its era.
While the film itself lists Edgar Allan Poe as a reference (the film share’s a title with Poe’s iconic short story), the feature doesn’t share much with the work of the author, outside of the tone with which Ulmer is the chief architect of. Steeped in a stark Gothic aesthetic, the film features an almost consistent score and set design seemingly inspired by German expressionism. No monsters to be found, at least in the way one would expect given the genre’s earliest trappings, particularly fueled by the films that would make its two stars icons, the film instead survives almost solely on the mood and atmosphere which is never anything remotely hopeful. Playing in the world of doom and gloom, The Black Cat is a macabre revenge thriller that plays heavily on its post-war allegory-turned-feature-film-premise.
A proto-character study, almost a concept study looking at the idea of what is truly evil and how there is something evil deep within any human being, if one is driven to dig deeply enough, the film’s two headliners are its greatest attribute. Admittedly given a terse and hamfisted screenplay, Karloff and Lugosi are an absolute thrill to watch on screen together. One of the aforementioned eight films they would team up for, this is far and away the pair’s strongest outing. Culminating with one of the most frightening and deeply upsetting sequences in the early talkie horror film era, the film’s two leads have an eerie chemistry that they share, often toeing a line between genuinely scary and oddly comedic. This final set piece, one of the most iconic in horror film history, is still as mesmerizingly brutal as ever, all thanks to the pair of Lugosi and Karloff, who give the sequence, and the film, their absolute most.
One of film’s most underrated filmmakers, Edgar G. Ulmer may have gone on to create a handful of other fantastic feature films (again, if you haven’t seen it, Detour is every bit a worthy Criterion entry as any film you can think of), his impressionistic masterpiece is one of the horror genre’s most ‘C’ worthy entrants. Clocking in at roughly 60 minutes, it’s a quick watch, and would play perfectly into an entirely different Universal box set similar to their recently released Monsters collection. A breathtakingly atmospheric mood piece on the idea of true evil and its relationship to man, The Black Cat is both one of the most underrated horror films of its day, and is to this day one of the most haunting and chilling thrillers that you’ll find. Oh, and did I mention it was featured in Head? See, I’m not the only crazy one who’s a fan of the film.