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Old 14th January 2021, 11:42 AM
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The Black Cat (1934) ★★★★★

Béla Lugosi and Boris Karloff became icons of the horror genre with their performances as Dracula and Frankenstein's monster respectively. In the following years they made dozens of horror films, mostly for Universal, appearing together no fewer than eight times, but never straying far from the roles in which they made their names.

Universal were responsible for some of the most influential and respected horror movies in the 1930s and '40s: 'Dracula', 'Frankenstein' (and 'Bride of...'), 'The Creature from the Black Lagoon', 'The Invisible Man' and 'The Wolf Man' – the list goes on. They also used their contract players Béla Lugosi and Boris Karloff to star in more psychological horrors that didn't use monsters to have the audience squirming in their seats. 'The Black Cat' and 'The Raven' used the gothic terror of Poe – more his whole work than just the stories from which these titles were taken – to create atmospheric and unsettling films.

Newly-weds Peter and Joan Alison are travelling to their hotel whilst on honeymoon in Hungary, when their bus crashes. They had been joined on their journey by Dr Werdegast (Lugosi), who takes them to the home of Hjalmar Poelzig (Karloff) under the guise of giving Joan medical attention, but with an ulterior motive. The rest of the plot for this film is outlined very well above, so I won't elaborate and run the risk of spoilers.

Famed for playing largely mute, lumbering monsters, Boris Karloff actually had a fine speaking voice and one that is used to good effect here, as a well-spoken aristocrat who built his house on the bodies of 4,000 people and is involved in Satanism – Hjalmar Poelzig was apparently based on Aleister Crowley, the author of The Satanic Bible. Dr Werdegast's quest for revenge leads to a fascinating and macabre battle between the two men, with Peter and Joan Alison caught in the crossfire.

Lugosi and Karloff delivered fine performance throughout their careers, but few better than here. Superbly written and directed by Edgar G. Ulmer, the tension slowly increases throughout the film, as the two men play out their deadly game of cat and mouse, before the shocking and unforgettable climax.

Highly recommended for anyone who enjoys early horror films.
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