A Game of Death

After fifteen years, I have returned.

– Vitus Verdegast

The first time I saw the 1934 Universal feature, The Black Cat, was in a college course on horror films. I had mixed feelings on it at the time; heretofore, my main exposure to Universal’s horror output was the expected fare – Frankenstein, the Wolf Man, et al. so Edgar Ulmer’s expressionistic Grand Guignol came as something of a shock.

Watching it again today, I’m struck by the sheer weirdness of it. It’s a nasty fairy-tale, eloquent but grisly. There’s incest, murder, torture, devil-worship and necrophilia aplenty as Bela Lugosi’s soul-sick psychiatrist, Verdegast, confronts a literal demon from his past – Boris Karloff at his most sinister, as the Satanic architect, Hjalmar Poelzig.

The conflict between these two characters is the heart of the film. It drives the plot, insomuch as there is one, and is the axis around which all the other characters spin. Any two other actors and it might not have worked, but Lugosi and Karloff are firing on all cylinders. Lugosi’s Verdegast is a tortured hero – mad, certainly, but on the side of the angels nonetheless. Karloff’s Poelzig is his antithesis – a predatory force with no redeeming qualities whatsoever, biding his time until his enemy is caught fast in his trap. They test one another like duellists, feint and riposte – back and forth.

The only real flaw in the film is its duration. It’s barely an hour long, and while that ensures that the film doesn’t outstay its welcome, its still a bit light on the story. But perhaps that’s for the best – as it stands, The Black Cat is a work of dark artistry and one of the better Universal horror films.