The Black Cat: Universal Horror’s First (and Unexpected) Bomb

Edgar Ulmer’s addition to the growing Universal Monsters pantheon, The Black Cat, may have been a bit too horrifying.

In 1934, after the mind-bending quadruple-whammy of Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, and The Invisible Man, Universal Pictures knew they were on to something with this “horror movies” business. Not only had horror movies proven to be terrifyingly profitable, the studio now had four new franchise operations up and running, which only meant more money down the line. The question was where to go next now that they’d already tapped Bram Stoker, Mary Shelley, and H.G. Wells?

The answer seemed obvious: No author was more singularly identified with creepy tales of mystery and the macabre than Edgar Allan Poe. It was a natural fit, wasn’t it? In fact, just two years earlier, they’d had a minor hit with Lugosi in Murders in the Rue Morgue, so why not try it on a bigger scale? Hence, the studio execs grabbed one particularly creepy story with a simple but effective title—“The Black Cat”—and handed it to director Edgar G. Ulmer.

Now, from the outset, Ulmer seemed like an odd choice. But James Whale also seemed an odd choice for Frankenstein too, and look what happened there.

Up to that point, Ulmer had only made four films in Hollywood, including a Western, a musical comedy, and Damaged Lives, a cautionary shocker about syphilis. He’d also had a moderate success with the drama People on Sunday. But back in Germany in the 1920s, Ulmer had worked with some of the greats of the German Expressionist movement, which may help explain things in terms of his allure. German Expressionism was the overarching aesthetic they were going for in those things, so why not sign someone who knows what he’s doing?

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This Poe film was the chance of a lifetime for Ulmer. Not only was he getting a big push from a major studio, a great story to work with, and a ready-made audience anxious to see what would come next from the Universal Horror stables—he had an unbelievable coup on his hands. The Black Cat would be the first film in which the two reigning icons of horror, Karloff and Lugosi, would be paired onscreen. The film was a guaranteed blockbuster before the first frame had been shot. It was up to Ulmer to blow it.

The only problem, and perhaps the geniuses in the board room hadn’t considered this, was that “The Black Cat,” while an undeniably great story with chills and atmospherics up the yin-yang was, like most of Poe’s stories, a tale of psychological horror, and utterly unfilmable. Well, maybe that wasn’t a problem. Neither Frankenstein nor Dracula really stuck that close to the original source material either. They had the rights to Poe’s title and name, and that’s what mattered. Ulmer could run with the rest.

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Undaunted by the seemingly impossible material, Ulmer and screenwriter Peter Rurig (who only had two films under his belt at this point) sat down and, leaving the Poe story in another room somewhere, concocted a surefire crowd-pleaser about, um… genocide.

Of course, there was some betrayal, revenge, and Satanism in there too, but it was mostly about genocide. Over a decade before the world became aware of Auschwitz and Dachau, Bela Lugosi plays Dr.  Vitus Werdegast, sole survivor of a WWI Hungarian prison camp where some 10,000 men had been slaughtered. Seeking vengeance 15 years later, he returns to the scene of the crime where Hjalmar Poelzig (Boris Karloff), the architect who ran the camp, has built a mansion atop the mass graves. There’s also a honeymooning American couple who get stranded at Poelzig’s place on the proverbial dark and stormy night, but they’re little more than a distraction. Two black cats also make brief appearances for no real reason beyond justifying the use of the phrase “Suggested by Edgar Allan Poe’s story” on the title card.

We get the standard “the bridge is out, you’ll have to spend the night” ploy, some hijinks with the honeymooners, a subplot concerning the unexpected fates of Werdegast’s wife and daughter, a Black Mass, and a planned human sacrifice. But no, again it’s mostly about genocide.

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The back story remains murky, but very sinister (and decidedly human). It was certainly much darker than anything that had appeared in any of the Universal horror films up to that point. It’s a strange, off-kilter movie that ends on a particularly unexpected and savage note with Lugosi flaying the flesh from Karloff’s bones.

Even before that, it’s an extremely unnerving film for its time. Karloff’s mansion—the film’s primary set—is a masterpiece, a haunted house of sorts, but brightly lit. Part art deco, part Frank Lloyd Wright, and certainly not what audiences had come to expect. This wasn’t Dracula’s castle or Frankenstein’s windmill, and the fact that it was so Modernist and so bright added an even more disturbing quality to all the talk of genocide. It was a contemporary story about contemporary events. There are no vampires, no witches, no mad scientists, and no ghosts. All the monsters here are most definitely human.

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Very little about the film, in fact, is quite what audiences had come to expect. Nor studio executives. When they asked for a Poe film, they were expecting, I dunno’, some gothic haunted house stuff maybe, with cobwebs and rattling chains, and period costumes, not a postwar meditation on memory and death with a bummer ending. They didn’t ask for a damned Swedish film, for godsakes!

Not only were neither of the stars in monster makeup—both of them are killed off at the end! How the hell were they supposed to build a franchise out of any of this crap?

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The acting (especially from Karloff, whose first appearance in the film still haunts me to this day) was superlative. Poelzig is smooth and charming, and even a little fey, as Karloff plays up his natural lisp even more. He’s so damn cool and reserved when challenging Werdegast to a game of chess for very high stakes; he’s far more terrifying than any of his more traditional monster roles. Along with several other familiar faces in small supporting roles (though no Dwight Frye for some reason), careful viewers might also spot a young John Carradine playing the organ at a Satanic ritual.

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In the end, Ulmer’s film was too smart, too subtle, and far too real and discomforting for audiences in search of simple escapism. Ticket-buyers were horrified all right, but not in the good way, and they weren’t nearly as mortified as the Universal brass.

From an artistic perspective, The Black Cat is certainly the most interesting film to come out under the banner of Universal Horror. But it was such a critical and financial disaster that after its initial run, the studio kept it locked in the vaults for decades, and Ulmer’s career was ruined. Well, that plus the whole “having an affair with an executive’s wife right around the same time” thing didn’t help his standing much either.

When he was asked to make Dracula, Tod Browning agreed only reluctantly, but at least he had the common sense to push most of his obsessions and dark impulses to the background. He gave them the film they wanted, and Dracula’s outrageous success gave him the carte blanche to go on ahead and make the film he really wanted to make. Only then did he turn around and shoot himself in the foot commercially with Freaks (another film that would vanish into the Universal vaults for several decades).

Ulmer took his big break as a chance to go right ahead and make the film he wanted to make, and thank God he did. Not only did we end up with a horror film quite unlike anything else, but landing on Poverty Row immediately afterward allowed him, with no budget and an insane shooting schedule, to make Detour 11 years later—a film widely held to be one of the greatest film noirs ever made. Neither movie could have been made to the same effect any other way.

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A year after The Black Cat, Lugosi and Karloff re-teamed for another Poe-inspired picture, The Raven. It hung about as close to the original source material as The Black Cat did, but was directed by Louis Friedlander, a man with absolutely no aesthetic pretensions. Better still, this time Karloff wore heavy makeup. It was a much more successful film. Then in 1941, Lugosi co-starred in yet another adaptation of “The Black Cat,” this one with Basil Rathbone and Broderick Crawford. If possible, the ’41 version had even less to do with Poe’s original story, but was still a much more successful film. For better and worse.