Friday, July 2, 2010

Film #31: The Black Cat (1934)

PUTTY-TATS are EVIL?! Maybe? Let's look at the evidence.
It’s a well known fact cats have the ability to slurp up your soul while you saw-Zzzzs.
Need more proof, just look at those deep eyes… green-fire portals to hell if we’ve even seen ‘em.
And we are not even going to mention all that sinful licking they enjoy so much!

Geez. Putty-tats are at least on evil-suspicion. No wonder Dr. Vitus Werdegust has a royal freak-out every time he sees a noir feline in this week’s spook-tale, “The Black Cat.” We meet Dr. Werdegust on a Hungarian speed train, which has overbooked the cabins and plunked Werdegust into a car full of two lovey-dovey American honeymooners. Newlyweds Peter and Joan Alison don’t mind the intrusion too much at first… until they fall asleep and Peter catches Werdegust trying to cop a feel on his new bride.

“Oh, excuse my indulgences!” Werdegust blares. You can’t blame him for his wandering hands, he explains, because Werdegust has just been released from 15 years in prison and beautiful Joan looks just like his beloved wife.

Werdegust tells the couple a long sob story about how he was involved in a Hungarian war of some type in a city just up the train tracks 15 years ago. During the battle he was captured by the villainous, devil-worshiping Hjalmar Poelzig, who banished Werdegust to prison and stole then murdered his wife and child.
Seems that whole incident really put a bug in Werdegust’s butt, and he tells them he is on his way to go back to the battlefield to pay respects/get revenge/cry/etc.

Coincidentally, the honeymooners are also getting off at Werdegust’s death city, and they decide to share a bus into town. But along the way a powerful storm beats against the vehicle, and it crashes down the side of a hill.
Joan is hurt, so Peter and Werdegust carry her to the first house they see… which just so happens to be the Gothic mansion of Hjalmar Poelzig! Seems the torturer/devil kisser/famed architect built his mansion on the exact site of the evil battle where he and Werdegust last met.

The picture comes into focus: Werdegust has arrived to seek his revenge and murder Poelzig. But alas, Poelzig says he is already dead, haunted by his evil deeds of long ago - which incidentally doesn't stop him from creeper deeds like storing a bevy of deceased beauties in the basement. In between Werdegust going buck-wild every time he sees a dark kitty (he claims they are harbingers of evil) the two broken men broker a deal. A game of chess will decide the fates of the innocent American guests. If Werdegust wins, the Americans earn their freedom and Werdegust gets a shot at killing Poelzig. If Poelzig wins, hot-pants Joan will become another one of his freeze-dried Satan brides. Who will win this thrilling, high stakes game of boring chess?
Find out, in this week’s 1934 thriller “The Black Cat.”

RDHP Ratings and Reviews

C-Rating: 3.2
Chris Dimick meows:
“I hate cats. I really do. So, I can sympathize with Werdegust (played by Bela Lugosi) and his overwhelming repulsion by the feline. Nick owns two cats, and that is totally fine. I have nothing against those who enjoy kitties.

But to me, there is no worse animal on the face of the earth. Alas, I wasn’t always this way.
When I was 6-years-old or so, I owned a beautiful cat named Ernie. He was gray and white, and had perfect nose whiskers that would tickle your face when you went in for a nuzzle. Ernie had the meow of a show-cat, and when he’d purr he really made a little Chris feel like all was right with the world.

Then one day, out of the blue, Ernie up and bolted out the front door of our house. I wasn’t around during this escape, but was filled in later. My parents and I searched for him near and far, but we never even found a gray/white scrap of tail fur.
“Don’t worry, I’m sure he will come back,” my Mom and Dad said, assuring me the best they could. But that asshole Ernie never came back. He had made his escape, and left us high and dry.

I was devastated… for a few months at least. I remember coming home each day from school, and thinking maybe I would find olde Ernie curled up in the sun on our front porch steps. Other times I’d imagine that Ernie was living a better life somewhere, roaming from town to town drifter style, getting into awesome cat adventures. He was happier now, I'd tell myself, so I shouldn’t feel sad.

Years later, I asked my mom a question that had been burning in the back of my mind for years. Did Ernie really run away when I wasn’t home, or did a distracted parent accidentally run the car over the cat and invented that "Ernie Escaped" story to shield a young boy from emotions.
Really, my mom told me, Ernie did run away. And you know what, that hurt even more than if he had been squished under our mini-van. Ernie betrayed us. He left us, and I’ll never forgive him.

A few other reasons I hate cats:
1. They don’t care about you. Cats have no feelings toward their human caretakers. And any “emotion” whatsoever they exhibit is tied merely to the fact that you are the one keeping their food bowl full. You are their pet. Cats don’t give loyalty or even respect to their owners like a dog. They’ll piss on all your furniture, screw up all your clothes, and claw your petting hand. Some might say this is “independence.” I say it is down right rude.

2. They are dirty and smell. Okay, maybe the actual cat doesn’t smell. But the damn things excrete their waste right inside your house… in an open box! There is nothing grosser than going into someone’s bathroom and smelling a full litter box. Second to that horror is walking in bare feet near the litter box and getting those gross litter-sand pellets between your toes.
Then there was the incident in college when a roommate’s cat brought home a killer-brand of fleas that decided to invade not just the cat, but every corner and person in the house. You would go into the basement in shorts, and actually feel the fleas jumping up onto your legs. I’ll never be the same… and it is all because of a cat.

3. I’m allergic. Life is so much more fun when your nose is stuffed, your eyes are on fire and your face itches all because Mr. Bojangles decided to secretly cuddle up on your wool coat while you were visiting a cat-harboring friend.

4. They will break your heart. No matter how much love you give them, they will never return it. Ernie… if you are still out there, go f#%k yourself.

Though I hate cats, I did enjoy our trip to the 1930s in The Black Cat! This is one of several movies where the audience is treated to the amazing interplay between Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff. Seeing these two monsters of the horror genre, in their prime and in the same movie, never gets old. Yeah, the plot was a little simplistic and shaky at times, but who can focus in on details like this when Dracula and Frankenstein are duking it out on the screen.

I’m all about the “feel” of a movie… and this one had a good tense feeling about it. There was a great deal of comic relief, more than we’ve seen in most early horror talkies. It was quite refreshing, but sometimes a little over done and broke that delicate “feeling” of terror build slowly by this noir. Dialog is the focus in this movie, and much of the feeling of this is spoken, not shown. So if you decide to watch, make sure you wear your ears.

The plot is actually quite random, and the action somewhat trite. But this is still a great flick to pop in on a night when you have nothing to do, nowhere to go, and a desire to kill a quick hour.
Cat lovers, beware. Bela, like me, REALLY doesn’t like cats in this picture.

And just by chance, if you happen to see a white and gray, 25-year-old cat with perfect whiskers hitchhiking down the highway; tell him I hope he’s having fun seeing the country… and that he is never welcome back home."

N-Rating: 3.1
Nick Rich meows:
"I don't hate cats. In fact, I love and enjoy them immensely! No offense to those who have been hurt in the past (Chris, as you may have read above, had his heart crushed by a feline), but with a cat you can experience a deeper and more fulfilling relationship than with a dog.

A few reasons why cats are awesome:
1. They don't automatically care about you. Much like people, you need to earn a cats love, they don't give it out willy-nilly! Also, like people, there are only a few (if only one) with which you can have a true connection with. A dog will love anyone who crosses their path... but a cat naturally doesn't care about you, so if you win their love it tastes all the sweeter!

2. Cats are low maintenance! They clean themselves in amusing ways that make us envious of their flexibility and never have to be walked in the middle of the night during a storm!

3. They cause allergies. Little known facts: just like dogs can detect infected persons in end-of-the-world scenarios, cats cause people who hate them (whether they realize it or not) to swell up, cry and generally excrete fluids!

4. They will break your heart. If your heart cannot be broken, they you've not truly loved (typed as my official RDHP lap-warmer happily purrs on my arm).

(Martuuf, the other love* of Nick's life)
*We think his wife is the primary love

As older flicks go, The Black Cat was definitely enjoyable, with a enough style and quality acting to carry it to a level of entertainment that the story - on its own steam - could not.

Not having the vast viewing experience of classic horror films that Chris does (confession: I haven't seen the original Dracula or Frankenstein in their entirety), I don't think I could truly appreciate this 'meeting of the greats' situation (for you comic geeks out there, this would be the equivalent of the Spider-man vs. Superman crossover).
By no means however, did that take away from the awesomeness of watching these two actors duke it out on screen - in fact I think it was a great way to introduce them to me. I had seen Boris in a few films previously and enjoyed him immensely; add the porridge-thick accent and oddly commanding presence of Bella and this film really sizzled! Sure the plot was familiar, but seeing these two actors play around in it made it worth the view.

I was also pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed the newlyweds' interactions! In the few scenes where we get to see them together, you genuinely get the sense that they are freshly married and very much in love. The actors took what could have been an incredibly cheesy situation and made it into a light, yet touching performance that lent weight to the random, nonsensical peril their characters find themselves in as the film progresses.

Speaking of peril... now, I like a good super villain as much as the next guy, but Boris's character seemed a little out of place in this film. He had all of the trappings of a great super villain: the resources to make his evil whims a reality (i.e. suspended animation of his deceased beauties), super-fly threads (on more than one occasion I exclaimed to Chris, "that outfit is awesome!"), and a killer pad (he had a back-lit light in his bedroom - craziest night-lite ever!).

Now, there is no doubt that all of these things were crazy cool... but in the scope of the story it felt a bit over the top. The film starts with some heavy themes (war, imprisonment and lost love) and as we discover how over-the-top Boris's villain is, it takes away from the seriousness of the ideas the film started out with (which very well may have been intentional - this was 1934 after all!).
Add to the mix that he is the ring leader of a Satanic cult and the film goes into pure absurdity, robbing the story of any emotional resonance it may have had. Does it make for a fun romp? Sure, but with such good actors I really would have liked to see them try to walk the fine line of a fun-filled romp with heart.

The Skinny: Check this flick out if you want to watch the equivalent of 'dueling banjos' with horror legends who can truly command the screen... or if you need some ideas on how to spruce up your wardrobe and/or home decor.

Quote of the Viewing:
[As Werdegust and Poelzig plot out the fate of their newlywed guests, Peter and Joan snuggle and laugh unaware in the upstairs bedroom.]
Chris: “They are just really unaware of what they have gotten into here.”
Nick: “Are you talking about marriage?”

Things We Learned from The Black Cat
-There are many things under the sun.
-Even married people can’t sleep in the same room in the 1930s.
-Always rig your house with dynamite… just in case.
-Novels are unimportant.
-Dracula is way taller than Frankenstein.
-It is better to be frightened than be crushed.
-Don’t rub a sleeping newlywed woman’s hair in front of her husband. He’ll get mad.
-If you do touch a sleeping woman in front of her husband, you can defuse the situation by saying “please, forgive my indulgences, I just got out of prison.”
-Woody Allen was not the first person to marry his step-daughter:

Bela versus Boris

Two of the greatest horror actors of all time appear in The Black Cat – Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff. The Black Cat was the first of seven movies the two mega-stars would appear together, and one of the most successful. Classic cinema fans don’t like to admit it, but you are either a Bela fan or a Boris fan.
Sure, you can love and appreciate both, but each actor brings with him a particular taste and sensibility that are like apples and oranges. People are either Elvis fans or Beatles fans. Similarly, people are either Bela or Boris devotes.

Where do you lie? Write in the comments below your Team Bela or Team Boris status! To help you decide, observe some photographic highlights from the two great actors’ careers.

RDHP Presents:
Things that Make Us Freeze in Terror
All it took was one glimpse of a frisky feline for Bela Lugosi to shrivel up in terror. Below, a few things in the world that make the RDHP stop dead in our tracks with fright.

Hidden Highway Patrol
One minute you are blaring your tunes, gunning it past 90 on the open freeway, and then you see the radar gun. DAMN! DID HE GET ME?! You scream as every muscle in your body tightens and you slam on the brakes. Then comes the longest look in the rear view mirror of your lifetime.

They are just so nasty! We can feel them on us right now! AHHH! GET THEM OFF GET THEM OFF!

The Boss at 4:49 p.m.
You’re making an early escape from work, only one corner left to go, and then, BAM! You see your boss step out of the bathroom and into the hall. What do you do? WHAT DO YOU DO!

Your Mother’s “Look”
Sure, we are grown men here. But one stink-eyed look from Mom is still all it takes to make us revert to scared 10-year-olds.

Being Locked Out of the House
Oh the horror of realizing that you've left your well-furnished domicile without that debilitating lump in your pocket! Fear of leaving home without our keys is the most common reason we slap ourselves - to make sure the keys are there!

Student Loan Bill
Nothing better to send fear down your spine than when you accidentally look at the balance of your student loans. Drinking beer and goofing off for four years cost how much?!?

RDHP Hall of Fame:
Greatest Villain Outfits of All Time
Boris Karloff’s character in The Black Cat had quite the funky bad-guy outfit for the climatic Satan-worship scene. Below, we honor others who know how to work it on the evil runway.

The Riddler

Ming The Merciless

Dr. Evil

Darth Vader & Boba Fett

Lord Humongous in The Road Warrior

Jareth The Goblin King

Mugatu in Zoolander


  1. I guess I fall on Team is why. Both had awesome careers so the only way to compare them is by their greatest roles. I really think Dracula as a thing is scarier/better/cooler than Frankenstien, but really have nothing to back that up other than a gut feeling. Tough choice though.

    Where does the RDHP fall, and why?

  2. Choosing between Bela and Boris is a tough call, much like choosing your favorite child.
    But, with a gun to my head, I'd have to fall on Team Boris.
    I feel Boris had a more diverse acting range, while Bela kind of pulled a Bruce Willis in his career -- playing the same type of person in every role. Boris changed it up quite a bit, and always brought something unique in his performance.
    ON the other hand, Bela was a master at playing the strange creeper, and I think as an actor he was much SCARIER than Boris.
    So it is close with me... but I gots to go with Boris in the end.
    And, for the record, I'm on Team Beatles over Team Elvis.