In ‘The Black Cat,’ the Titans of Terror, Karloff and Lugosi, Face Off

Posted October 25, 2018 7:01 p.m. EDT

Now considered a classic, “The Black Cat” (1934) was the first movie to feature Universal’s two prized assets, Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, and the studio’s excitement was palpable. It’s “the monster of ‘Frankenstein’ plus the monster of ‘Dracula,’ plus the ‘monstrousness’ of Edgar Allan Poe,” the ads said, “all combined by the master makers of screen mysteries to give you the absolute apex in super-shivery.”

Largely dismissed when it was released (the New York Times critic Andre Sennwald called it “more foolish than horrible”), “The Black Cat” has very little to do with Poe and, thanks to its Austrian-born director, Edgar Ulmer, has much that reflects the ominous political situation in his homeland. Not just super-shivery, the film was an allegorical warning that something evil was budding in the blood-soaked soil of post-World War I Europe.

Ulmer spent almost his entire career working in B movies. “The Black Cat” was his only major studio production and it is nothing if not excessive — wildly expressionistic and saturated with 19th-century Romantic music. The movie is distinguished by its fluid camera, an abundance of wordless passages and the long meaningful looks its characters exchange. Ulmer was clearly experimenting with a new sort of melodrama; Heinz Roemheld’s score — mashed-up themes from Liszt, Chopin, Brahms and Schumann — is said to be present in 55 out of the movie’s 69 minutes.

Horror in the Hollywood movies of 1920s, ‘30s, and ‘40s generally came from abroad. Lugosi, a native Hungarian, and Karloff, born in London despite his Slavic-sounding stage name, had distinctive foreign accents. So it is with “The Black Cat,” which strands a pair of naïve American newlyweds (Julie Bishop and David Manners) in an Art Deco mansion somewhere in deepest Hungary. Caught up by a storm, the honeymooners become pawns in a chess game — at once ludicrous and unrelenting — between Lugosi’s hysteria-prone Hungarian psychiatrist and Karloff’s lisping Austrian architect.

The acting is also a competition between the two stars, each trying to top the other’s hammy turn. Lugosi’s character is ailurophobic — his morbid fear of cats justifying the movie’s title — and more than a bit sadistic. Karloff, however, gets to play the real monster, a war criminal who built his steel-and-glass castle on the site of unspeakable carnage. Suggesting more than it can show, “The Black Cat” somehow eluded the moral enforcers of the Production Code despite its allusions to incest, necrophilia and human sacrifice, not to mention a black Mass staged beneath a stylized crooked cross.

By some accounts, “The Black Cat” (which was released in the United States a little more than a year after Hitler took power in Germany and was banned in Austria, ostensibly for disrespecting the local armed forces) was Universal’s biggest hit of 1934. True or not, the studio looked to repeat its success the following year, again pairing Karloff and Lugosi in another movie supposedly inspired by Poe: “The Raven.”

Lugosi (whose screen time was twice that of Karloff but whose paycheck was reportedly half as much) portrays a megalomaniacal surgeon so obsessed with Poe that he keeps a stuffed raven in his study and has reconstructed the torture machine from “The Pit and the Pendulum” in his basement. Karloff appears as an escaped convict foolish enough to allow Lugosi’s character to surgically rearrange his features.

Less eccentric and obviously more artistic than “The Black Cat,” “The Raven” is nearly as nutty. The prolific B-movie director Louis Friedlander (later known as Lew Landers) keeps the action crisp. Still, the movie allows time for the camp enchantment that is Irene Ware’s dance interpretation of “The Raven” or the scene in which Karloff, confronted with his new face, staggers around a mirrored room reprising the growl and herky-jerky gestures he developed to play the Frankenstein monster.

Lugosi has a field day proclaiming himself “the sanest man who ever lived!” The top-billed Karloff, however, was the bigger star and demonstrated greater range over the course of his acting career. But as tongue-in-cheek interviews suggest, Lugosi just couldn’t escape his famed role as Dracula. The men made three more movies together at Universal, notably “Son of Frankenstein” (1939).

While “Son of Frankenstein” would be the last movie in which Karloff played the monster, it gave Lugosi, as supporting actor, his greatest role. Almost unrecognizable behind a scraggly beard, croaking his lines through a mouth full of sharpened teeth, he exudes a gleeful Charles Manson-like malevolence as Ygor — a grave robber who survived his hanging, albeit with a broken neck. A commercial success, “Son of Frankenstein” jump-started a new, mediocre cycle of Universal horror films. Karloff left the studio after one, the sci-fi gangster movie “Black Friday” (1940); Lugosi, who had a minor role in it, stuck around to reprise Ygor in “The Ghost of Frankenstein” (1942).

Karloff and Lugosi made their last joint appearance for RKO in “The Body Snatcher” (1945), a typically literate Val Lewton production, adapted from a Robert Louis Stevenson short story and directed by Robert Wise. An atmospheric period piece, full of suggestive details, the movie is set in Edinburgh around 1830. This time Karloff played the grave robber, giving a sensationally creepy performance — at once vicious and obsequious — as a cabby who moonlights with the illicit sale of fresh corpses for dissection by medical students.

Lugosi, who received second billing on the movie’s posters, most likely for his diminished marquee value, has a far smaller part, appearing as the none-too-bright, lank-haired servant of Karloff’s best customer. Still, their major scene together is rich with subtext. Rival creatures to the end, the pair enact a flashback to the more cosmic death struggle of “The Black Cat.”

“The Black Cat” is available via Amazon Prime, Google Play, iTunes and YouTube; “The Body Snatcher” from Amazon Prime, Google Play, Vudu and YouTube; and “The Raven” on Vimeo.