This is part of Scream Factory’s Universal Horror Collection Volume 1 Blu-ray. When all films have been reviewed, we’ll post a recap review encompassing all discs.
One of the first films starring the tag-team of Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff, The Black Cat seeks to adapt Edgar Allan Poe’s short story to film… except Edgar Ulmer and Peter Runic’s screenplay is completely different from Poe’s story in every way except featuring a black cat. The film steps away from Poe’s psychological horror short about a man with so much love for animals (and the drink) that he decides to murder his cats and his wife and instead goes in a different psychological direction: focusing on the rivalry between two World War I fighters, with two honeymooners caught in the middle. Lugosi stars in an empathetic role as Dr. Vitus Werdegast, a successful psychiatrist who lost both his wife and daughter after he went away to war. Karloff plays the antagonist Hjalmar Poelzig, a Satanic cultist who keeps embalmed young women in his basement and performs evil rituals on beautiful ladies. The two butt heads over chess and the life of Joan Alison (Julie Bishop), who has been staying at Poelzig’s modern manse after a car accident.
The Black Cat is a slow film with a lot of plot, much of it underexplored. While director Edgar Ulmer showcases brief elements of each primary character’s backstory, a lot of it is left to the viewer’s imagination. What we do know is that both Werdegast and Poelzig suffered trauma in the Great War and ultimately Poelzig’s the cause of Werdegast’s wife’s death. What even he doesn’t know until the end of the film is that Poelzig has kept Werdegast’s daughter alive – as his bride! Even the honeymooners Joan and Peter (David Manners) are sort of left without much characterization; all we know is that they were heading to a Hungarian locale but after the accident, they’re forced to take it easy while Joan recuperates.
The Black Cat makes no mention of the censorious word incest, but that element is certainly at play in the film; expressing it any clearer probably wouldn’t have gotten past the censors. As it stands, the movie is still quite wild with what it gets away with – Satanism runs rampant, with Karloff sporting a particularly devilish look, and the final implication of skinning Poelzig alive is brutal without being explicitly shown. There’s an off-screen murder of a cat that returns throughout the film and the final cult meeting is pretty blasphemous with its crooked crosses and Latin chanting.
Lugosi and Karloff are both on the mark, too, with Lugosi playing a sinister but sympathetic character that differs from his past evilness as Dracula. Karloff’s darkness shines as well – and when the two are on-screen, sparks fly. With the two sharing many back-and-forth scenes together and a literal chess match, fans of both actors will most likely love The Black Cat‘s emphasis on the good vs. evil interplay it evokes.
With that said, The Black Cat is a hard sell for those who find older, ’30s horror a chore. At 66 minutes, the film is truncated enough to not overstay its welcome but it’s still on the slower, more dramatic side than viscerally horrifying. Its terror and dread is more in the metaphor of its traumatized characters. If the viewer enjoys that type of psychological suspense – in part like Poe though the story doesn’t pull from his short – then The Black Cat will be quite effective.
Each of the films is presented on their own Blu-ray disc which limits compression issues. A booklet detailing information about each film and full-color photos is also included in this set, though it seems like a wasted chance at providing essays for each of the films.
For The Black Cat, Scream Factory does not give any information about the transfer like it lists with the others. This is an HD scan that looks fairly good despite some obvious flaws with the source like occasional damage and debris and a few lines throughout. There is some chunky grain that has not been eliminated with DNR, and this does tend to give some of the close-up scenes a softer presence. However, the transfer manages the film’s very dark chiaroscuro fairly well – while blacks are often deep, they aren’t crushed. Occasional flickering does pop up in a couple of scenes, but it’s a pretty rare event. Overall, The Black Cat looks pretty good despite its age and I think fans will be happy with this upgrade.
Audio for The Black Cat is a DTS-HD MA mono track, and the score sounds quite good here. Dialogue tends to be a bit muffled, but otherwise there are no huge flaws with the audio. English subtitles are included in yellow text.
Extras on The Black Cat are the most robust of the release. There are two audio commentaries, one with Gregory William Mank and another with Steve Haberman. Both touch on some similar subjects but Mank tends to talk more about the facts and context of the film itself, while Haberman focuses on the differences between the original screenplay and re-shoots done to make the film a bit more dramatic. However, both are excellent insight into The Black Cat.
Also included is the first part of the running “A Good Game” featurette on this release. Both Gary D. Rhodes and Gregory William Mank offer two sides of The Black Cat, one from Lugosi and one from Karloff as they discuss their participation in the film and how each felt about its release. At about 23 minutes, this is an enlightening look at the two main actors. A lengthy 56-minute feature on the films of Edgar Allan Poe is also included with narration by Doug Bradley – this runs down just about every iteration of Poe’s work on film, and it’s extremely entertaining as well. Also included is vintage footage of a Black Cat Contest (so cute!) as well as still gallery.
A solid picture and quite a few interesting extra features makes this a nice first disc in the Universal Horror Collection Volume 1, and The Black Cat is probably one of the most important parts of the Lugosi/Karloff team-ups. Definitely give this film a look.
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