You must be indulgent with Dr. Werdegast’s weakness. He is the unfortunate victim of one of the commoner phobias, but in an extreme form. He has an intense and all-consuming horror of cats.
Gulliver’s Travels, I Robot, Troy-these movies were all “inspired” by classic literary works, and by “inspired” I mean they used the title in a lame attempt to attract a ready-made audience. Turns out such shenanigans are nothing new. The Black Cat, which debuted in 1934, has even less in common with the Edgar Allen Poe story that supposedly “inspired” it. In fact, it doesn’t have much of a plot at all. What it does have is Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. Karloff plays Hjalmar Poelzig, an architect, Satanist, and former comrade of Karloff’s in the Austro-Hungarian army. And Lugosi plays Dr. Vitus Werdegast (I know, right?), a psychologist and prison survivor hell-bent on revenge against Poelzig. The pitch must have went something like this: “Look, we get Lugosi and Karloff in a death match. Frankenstein versus Dracula, see? They’re not actually going to be the monsters again, but that won’t matter. Then we slap Edgar Allen Poe’s name on it and–bada-bing, bada-boom, we’re laughing all the way to the bank!” And they did too. The Black Cat was the highest grossing film of 1934.
The pitch is convincing enough, but, unfortunately, they can’t exactly duke it out right at the beginning as that would make an already short movie, even shorter, so they had to come up with reasons Werdegrast’s initial attempts either fail or have to be put off. As for the first, turns out Werdegrast has an extreme case of ailurophobia–fear of cats–in this case a black cat, which shows up just in the nick of time. And for the second, well, that’s where the other two characters in the film come in, two honeymooning Americans who following an accident have accompanied Werdegast to Poelzig’s mansion. Werdegrast cares about then to the extent that it furthers the plot for him to do so, and therefore he agrees first to play a game of chess for their lives and then to wait to strike until “the moment is right.”
If that all sounds tedious, it’s because it is. However, the film is saved to a remarkable extent through its sheer bizarreness and the artistry, not only of Karloff and Lugosi, but of the director, Edgar G. Ulmer as well. Ulmer had done an apprenticeship under F.W. Murnau, of Nosferatu fame, and it shows in the film’s style, which is more satisfyingly entertaining than any number of jump scares. And as for the bizarre part, for starters, it’s set in a beautiful, elaborately-detailed Art Deco style mansion–because of course that’s where you’d expect a death match between these two to go down, right? Additionally, amongst other interesting details, it features, without explanation or apparent purpose (other than perhaps to show the extent of Poelzig’s depravity), dead women somehow preserved and suspended in glass boxes like dolls.
For me, all of these pluses, enjoyable as they are in their excellence and/or weirdness, aren’t quite enough to make up for the fact that the film lacks a sympathetic hero. Werdegrast is more sympathetic than Poelzig in that he does at least appear to care what happen to the honeymooners, but it’s a thin line, hardly enough to overshadow his overall creepiness, let alone the glee with which he goes about exacting his horrific revenge on Poelzig.