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Due to a car accident, honeymooners Peter & Joan Allison (David
Manners, Jacqueline Wells) & Vitus Werdegast (Bela Lugosi) are forced
to spend the night in Hjalmar Poelzig's (Boris Karloff) mansion somewhere
in the Carpathian mountans ...
& even though the art deco mansion seems spooky enough all by
itself, Poelzig at first seems the perfect host ... but soon things take a
darker turn. Poelzig it turns out has actually built his mansion on hte
grounds of a Russian POW camp from World War One, a camp that he commanded
& where Werdegast was one of his prisoners. But not only that, Poelzig
has also stolen Werdegast's wife & daughter.
Now, Werdegast wants revenge, but not simply by killing him, but by
destroying his soul ... but at first, Werdegast doesn't seem to be too
good at that, instead he has his own heart broken when he hears that his
wife & his daugher are dead - a pain that is only intensified when
Poelzig shows him the dead but perfectly preserved body of his wife ...
The next day, when Peter & Joan want to leave, Poelzig shows his
true colours when he not simply prevents them from going but has Peter
thrown into the dungeon while he locks Joan into her room ... & plans
to make her a sacrifice in a black mass he, a head satanist besides
everything else, pans to hold this night. Werdegast, always a gentleman,
suggests to play a ganme of chess for Joan's soul - but loses.
In her room, Joan meets Karen (Lucille Lund), Werdegast's daughter who
is not dead after all but is now Poelzig's wife, but Poelzig catches Karen
talking to Joan & drags her off ...
At night, everything is prepared for Joan's sacrifice when Werdegast
& his servant (Harry Cording), who pretended to be in Poelzig's
services, manage to interrupt the proceedings, which ultimately leads to
Poelzig dragging Joan off to his dungeon with Werdegast in hot pursuit ...
& in the dungeon, Werdegast finds the body of his now dead daughter
(the killihg happened off-screen), & somehow a fuse blows & he
soon manages to chain up Poelzig & slowly skin him alive.
In the meantime, Peter ahs freed himself & made it to the part of
the dungeon where Joan is held, but he shoots Werdegast under the (wrong)
assumption that he is going to hurt his wife. With his dieing breath,
Werdegast grants Peter & Joan barely enough tiem to save themselves,
then he blows the place up using the dungeon's in-built self-destruct
Black Cat is probably the single most imaginative horror film of
the 1930's (& hasn't lost any of its originality to this very day).
Director Ulmer makes perfect use of the architecture of his sets (which he
allegedly designed himself), which contrary to the traditional gothic
horrors of its time are done in art deco-style & are fascinating &
disquieting at the same time & contribute greatly to the film's
atmosphere, as do the many macabre details Ulmer ahs worked into the plot.
Of course, Karloff & Lugosi, in their first on-screen appearance
together, are both great, & it has to be credited to Ulmer that
neither of them tries to upstage the other.
With all that going for the film, it really doesn't matter all that
much that the plot is a bit thin & not always logical, & has
nothing to do whatsoever with the Poe-story it is supposed to be based on
(true, a black cat has a few on-screen appearances, but nobody, least of
all the cat, is walled up in this film), The Black Cat is simply a
masterpiece in its own right.
... & wuite aside from that, bot Vitus Werdegast & Hjalmar
Poelzig rang among my all-time favourite character-names.