Cinema Sunday: The Black Cat (1934)

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Title: The Black Cat

Distributor: Universal Pictures

Writers: Edgar G. Ulmer, Peter Ruric

Director: Edgar G. Ulmer

Producer: E. M. Asher

Starring: Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, David Manners, Julie Bishop (Jacqueline Wells), Lucille Lund

Released: May, 1934

MPAA: Approved

 

Welcome, fiends! Here we are on the cusp of Halloween, and I’ve selected another film starring the great Boris Karloff! Not only that, but we also get none other than Bela Lugosi as well! Without giving too much away, this film has both men as former friends, but those days are over (at least for one of them). Universal paired these two giants together for a few films over the years, and this one is right there at the top for me! Alright, let’s travel back in time to 1934!

 

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The film begins at a busy train station, where Peter and Joan Allison (David Manners and Julie Bishop) are getting cozy after getting aboard their train and into its compartment. These two honeymooners are settled in when a baggage man tells them that there’s been a mistake, and the compartment was double booked. After some deep sighs, they agree to let the man share with them for the ride. Enter Dr. Vitus Werdegast (Bela Lugosi). He tells the couple that he’s going to Hungary as well, to visit this old friend. He also tells them that he spent fifteen years in a Siberian prison after being captured during the war.

 

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After arriving at the train station, they all get on a bus to reach their destination. The bus driver tells the occupants about the atrocities that went on in this area during the war, and of someone who built a house nearby…suddenly, the bus veers off the road, and plummets down an embankment. The driver is dead, and Joan is unconscious, with a bad wound. They walk on foot to a nearby home, and the doorman answers and lets them in, with slight reluctance. After the doorman calls on a radio, we see a figure rise out of bed (with a beautiful blonde woman next to him sleeping). Dr. Werdegast then administers first aid to Joan, and as he’s finishing up, the door swings open, and  Hjalmar Poelzig (Boris Karloff) walks into the room.

 

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Later, Werdegast accuses Poelzig of betraying the Hungarians to the Russians. Poelzig sits silently and listens to Werdegast talk about his theories on what went down years ago. Eventually he brings up his wife, and how he knows that Poelzig told her that he was dead, in order to steal her away. As the two seem to be ready to come to blows, Peter walks in and they calm down. As they’re all having a drink together, a black cat walks into the room and frightens Werdegast. He picks up a letter opener, and hurls it like a dagger, killing the cat. At that moment, Joan walks into the room in a zombie-like state. She talks briefly, but then Peter takes her back to her room.

 

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In the middle of the night, we see Poelzig, as he’s creeping around the house. He then stops at a glass case, and its contents are not china or crystal, but the corpse of a woman, then proceeds to look at a few more he has standing around. We also see that he has another black cat to keep him company. He then enters the room where Werdegast is sleeping, but quickly finds out that he’s switched rooms with Peter so he could be in the adjoining room with his wife. The two then go to the other room and Poelzig agrees to show Werdegast his wife. He takes him to the basement where he shows him his wife, as she’s been preserved. Werdegast blames him for her death (he also tells him that their daughter is dead too), and pulls a gun out and tells Poelzig he’s going to kill him now. Suddenly, the black cat creeps in, and scares the crap out of Werdegast. He drops the gun, and falls into a glass case. Poelzig tells him that they’ll have time to settle things after the other guests have left.

 

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As Poelzig returns to his room, we see a beautiful blond woman again, and he calls her Karen (the daughter of Werdegast, Lucille Lund). He tells her to stay in her room all day tomorrow, so as not to arouse Werdegast. We also see him reading a book on satanic cults and such. The following morning, Werdegast is getting ready to check on Joan, and Poelzig comes in, and stares at her eerily. Werdegast knows that his look has something sinister behind it, and wants to stop him, whatever the cost.

 

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I’ll stop here, because going any further would ruin the film’s ending and grandiose show!

 

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OK, here are my thoughts:

This film is the culmination of the non-monster horror/thrillers of this decade. You cannot find a film with more atmosphere, or better performances from these two giants. Karloff is simply evil in this film, but Lugosi is as well, although he’s driven by revenge, not from a devilish perspective. There is also a ton of great music in this film, and not just at parts but from beginning to end.

The content of this film is more than edgy for its time. How many movies in 1934 were showing (in shadow) someone being skinned alive? There were other elements too, like the satanic cult angle, the dead woman being kept “fresh.” Other elements as well, but I’ll leave it at that.

This film is a “must see” for any horror fan, or the team of Lugosi and Karloff. Both men shaped this genre and forever left a stamp on the industry with very few other actors in their company. Get this film on DVD or BluRay immediately.

 

Click here for the trailer!

 

 

 

Cinema Sunday: The Devil Bat (1940)

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Title: The Devil Bat

Distributor: Producers Releasing Corporation

Writers: John T. Neville, George Bricker

Director: Jean Yarbrough

Producer: Jack Gallagher

Starring: Bela Lugosi, Suzanne Kaaren, Dave O’Brien, Guy Usher, Yolande Donlan

Released: December 1940

MPAA: Approved

 

 

Sunday is here, and so is another movie review! After thinking about it, I came to the realization that I hadn’t reviewed a movie with Bela Lugosi yet! Rather than just hit Dracula, I thought it would be way better to showcase one of his other films. This is one that isn’t nearly as famous, but definitely should be on your radar if you’re a classic horror fan.

The little upstart company known as PRC, had Lugosi under contract, and used him to make some noise in the industry. Think of them as the Hammer Studios of their time. They had very limited budgets, but delivered above expectations the majority of the time. Whether it was Westerns, Horror, or Crime, the studio did the best it could with its budgets, and the finished product usually surprised most viewers. Alright, let’s get to the story!

 

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The film begins with a foreword telling the viewer that a “kindly village doctor,” named Paul Carruthers (Bela Lugosi), was loved by all, but harbored a secret taste for wild, and crazy experiments at his home on the property of his employer, Martin Heath (Edward Mortimer). You see, Heath’s family owns a huge company known for its fragrances, and the chief scientist behind these, was Carruthers. We then get to peek in on Carruthers engaging in one such experiment. He has a vile and beakers full of unknown substances, that he mixes, then he proceeds to a secret chamber. Once there, he enters a room that houses a bat. He talks to the creature as if it understands him, and assures the animal that things are progressing nicely.

 

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We next get a wide shot of the room, and see that there are many bats there, but this one specifically, is enormous in stature. Carruthers takes it from the room, and heads to the lab. He then puts the bat into a chamber that houses a device that appears to use radioactivity to give the beast even more physical prowess. A ringing telephone interrupts Carruthers, and he finds out his boss invites him to a party tonight at his home. Carruthers initially tells him he can’t make it, but Heath persuades him. Heath and his partner, Henry Morton (Guy Usher) then talk about how surprised Carruthers will be when they give him a $5,00 bonus check at the party.

 

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Carruthers then lets the viewers know that his intentions are to kill his employers and their family members as retribution for not compensating him appropriately for his making them rich by his work. We see that his plan is to let his pet giant bat get a sniff of his new fragrance, and then hand it out to unsuspecting victims of his choice (kind of like a bloodhound with the scent from a piece of clothing).

Meanwhile, over at the Heath mansion, Morton tells Roy Heath (John Ellis) not to tell Carruthers about the money until he says it’s time. Morton also tells Mary Heath (Suzanne Kaaren) and the others the same. Martin then informs the group that Carruthers wont be able to make it, as he’s been caught up longer than expected with his “experiments.” Roy gets volunteered to take it to him, and becomes the first to get a sample of the new fragrance. Carruthers gets aroused when Roy puts it on his neck, and we realize Roy is not long for this world. On his way home, Roy gets attacked by Carruthers pet bat, and dies on the street.

 

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Once the story hits the news wire, a reporter from the city, Johnny Layden (Dave O’Brien) and his photographer sidekick, “One-shot” McGuire (Donald Kerr) come to town and help investigate the strange killing. Mary and her fiance hear the attack, but by the time they get there, he’s dead.

One by one, the family and it’ heirs get bumped off by Carruthers and his pets. Will the bumbling police and amateur sleuths be able to figure out the mystery or will they die in the process as well!

 

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OK, here are my thoughts:

With very little special effects, this little film does a great job creating some good atmosphere. Lugosi, of course, is a big reason for the film’s success, and rightly so. He was a giant in the genre, and literally helped build the foundation for everything to come in said genre. He sets the tone from the first minute of the film, especially the scene where we hear his thoughts urging him to kill the ungrateful employers, and his subsequent actions. The rest of the cast is moderate in their performances. No one stands out much, but then again, none of them bring the film down either.

The bats in the film aren’t very menacing, and the low-budget has a lot to do with that. There a re a few shots where the camera does a close-up, to make them look bigger and scary, and I’m sure in 1940, it probably worked just fine. The sets were your standard fare for the times, but the night-time shots looked above average. The music score was pretty good for the low-budget, and helped set an ominous tone throughout the movie.

The film fell into public domain a very long time ago, so it’s easy to find and watch. The usual spots online have it, and of course a myriad of companies have released it on DVD, so if you feel the compulsion to own it, there’s that route as well.

 

Click here for a clip!