The Black Cat (1934 film)  

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The Black Cat is a 1934 horror film that became Universal Pictures' biggest box office hit of the year. It was the first of six movies to pair actors Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff. Edgar G. Ulmer both wrote the screenplay and directed the film. Although Edgar Allan Poe is credited, the film has little to do with Poe’s 1843 story. The extreme art deco sets, women's corpses on display, and depiction of devil worship rites remain striking today. The classical music soundtrack, composed by Heinz Eric Roemheld, is unusual for its time, because there is an almost continuous background score throughout the entire film.


Newlyweds Peter (David Manners) and Joan Alison (Julie Bishop), on their honeymoon in Hungary, learn that due to a mixup, they must share a train compartment with Dr. Vitus Werdegast (Béla Lugosi), a Hungarian psychiatrist. Eighteen years before, Werdegast went to war, never seeing his wife again. He has spent the last 15 years in an infamous prison camp in Siberia. On the train, the doctor explains that he is traveling to see an old friend, Hjalmar Poelzig (Boris Karloff), an Austrian architect.

Later, the doctor, Peter, and Joan, share a bus, which crashes on a desolate, rain-swept road. Joan is injured, and the doctor and Peter take her to Poelzig's home, built upon the ruins of Fort Marmorus, which Poelzig commanded during the war. Werdegast treats Joan's injury, administering the tranquilizing drug hyoscine, causing her to behave erratically. While Peter puts her to bed, Werdegast accuses Poelzig of betraying the fort during the war to the Russians, resulting in the death of thousands of Austro-Hungarian soldiers. He also accuses Poelzig of stealing his wife Karen while he was in prison. Early on in the movie, Werdegast kills Poelzig's black cat, and Poelzig explains that Werdegast has a strong fear of the animals. Poelzig carries a second black cat around the house with him while he oversees his "collection" of dead women on display in glass cases – including Karen.

Poelzig plans to sacrifice Joan in a satanic ritual during the dark of the moon. He is seen reading a book called The Rites of Lucifer, while a beautiful blonde woman sleeps next to him. The blonde is Werdegast's daughter – thus, Poelzig's stepdaughter – also named Karen (Lucille Lund). Werdegast bides his time, waiting for the right moment to strike down the mad architect. He also tries to persuade his foe to spare Peter and Joan, at one point literally gambling with their lives by playing a game of chess with Poelzig – which he loses.

That moment comes during the beginning of the satanists' service, when a female acolyte sees something which causes her to scream and faint. Werdegast and his servant Thamal (Harry Cording) snatch Joan from the sacrificial altar and carry her into the catacombs beneath the house, where Peter is rendered unconscious by Poelzig's majordomo. Werdegast discovers that Poelzig has killed Karen and shackles him to an embalming rack, where he proceeds to literally skin Poelzig alive. As Joan tries to tear a key from the dead Poelzig's hand, Peter, just regaining consciousness, mistakes Werdegast's attempt to help her as an attack on her and shoots Werdegast. Fatally wounded, Werdegast blows up the house, first letting the couple escape but with Poelzig's "rotten cult" still upstairs. "It has been a good game," he says before he dies.

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