The Black Cat (1934) saw the first team up of Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff onscreen. Unfortunately it is a pretty tired affair, for me never managing to scale the heights of some of the two’s more iconic efforts. For much of its running time, the film seems pretty content to coast by, hoping the audience will be wowed by the fact that the world’s two greatest horror stars of the time were finally onscreen together.
Lugosi stars as the creepy, suspicious engineer Dr Vitus Werdegast, whilst Karloff is a Satanist or something. There are plenty of references to the war littered through what is a pretty poor script, however if it was aiming to be some sort of comment on post-war life or the effects that such a transformative historical event could have on two people, it did not work for me. Into the sphere of these two comes newlyweds Peter and Joan Alison. Before too long Karloff has his sights set on incorporating Joan into one of his freaky Satanist ceremonies. This naturally leads to a chess game to see who has rights to the couple… That is the kind of plot that is at play here. Unfortunately there is no real strong narrative core to the film whatsoever or even proper attempts at character creation. The placing of iconic stars into the roles is what passes for character development here. Aspects of the film are decidedly unnerving, though not as in the way a horror film can successfully unnerve the audience. Necrophilia overtones are just plain unsettling in any context. The quality of the film does swing up in the last half hour. However because what has preceded it is so dire, the audience is totally uninvested in caring about what happens to the characters onscreen. It is a shame then that the atmospheric satanic ritual scene toward the end, nicely shot with a bunch of close-ups, is essentially wasted because you won’t care what happens. Ditto an extremely dark scene involving a character being skinned.
As for the all star cast (if two people can constitute ‘all star’), Karloff fares a fair bit better than Lugosi. The former is introduced in a clever but perhaps too self-referential manner. He awakens from sleep and the audience sees his very Frankenstein’s Monster esque profile sit up in a very Frankenstein’s Monster esque way. The makeup that Karloff is forced to wear is totally distracting too, which is saying a lot given this is a man whose makeup in The Mummy (1932) and Frankenstein (1931) did not detract from his performance (if anything it boosted his work in both films). Despite the material and his performance, Karloff does show his acting talent in this film. Lugosi it must be said, does not fair so well. In comparison to his rightfully iconic performance in Dracula (1931), he is pretty weak here. Coming from the Universal stable, The Black Cat unsurprisingly showcases some pretty incredible set design. The mansion at the centre of a majority of the plot must be one of the studio’s greatest achievements in that regard. Massive, labyrinthine and simultaneously gothic and ultra modern, the house manages to bring an atmosphere to proceedings that is decidedly lacking elsewhere in the film.
Unfortunately The Black Cat lacks the snap and panache that make the best Universal horror films classics that remain essential viewing today. It just totally failed to hold my interest whatsoever. Outside of a pretty incredible set and a decent last half hour, the first superstar team up from Lugosi and Karloff is a pretty inconspicuous one.
Verdict: Schooner of Carlton Draught
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Amongst the bevy of awesome presents I was lucky enough to receive for Christmas, was the Universal Monsters blu-ray boxset. I always buy (or rent) films. I have neither the technical know how or desire to download films illegally. I know not everyone else feels the same way, but the incredible presentation of this boxset is a reminder why buying is always the best option (or maybe I’m just a 26 year old dinosaur whose house is full of vinyl, CDs and rows upon rows of DVDs, blu-ray and still some VHS). The boxset includes 8 films, an awesome booklet, killer postcards and a whole bunch of extras that accompany all of the movies. In addition to that, the transfer of the films to blu-ray looks absolutely stunning, the money has obviously been spent to do the hard work on this and the images really pop as a result. Best blu-ray transfer I have seen I think. In short, if you are at all interested in these films, then I would highly recommend forking out the coin to get your hands on one of these boxsets.
So I thought I should start working my way through reviewing the set, and thought I would kick it off with The Mummy (1932) which I had never seen before. I am sure that far smarter film analysts have discussed what separates these films from other monster films and why they are thought of so highly. For me, amongst other things, they are just so well shot. The camerawork is assured and interesting whereas other B movies (or B movies trying to be A movies) are clunky, boring and ineptly filmed, which makes enjoying them a lot tougher.
Narratively, The Mummy is pretty stock standard stuff. Poms in Egypt on an archaeological dig. In the interests of academic knowledge, they ignore the curse that is on a casket that they find. Such a bad move. Doing so releases Boris Karloff in all his bandage wrapped glory. Actually he is only in the bandages in the first scene, following that, he spends the rest of the film in some incredible makeup design. The opening of the casket is one of my favourite scenes in the film, toying with audience expectations that must have existed even when the film was first released. When it is opened, it is obviously tense, with the audience waiting for the inevitable terror to take place. But there is nothing but silence, as the archaeologist silently goes about his work. Director Karl Freund continually teases the mummy coming to life, but doesn’t give it to us. Just continues the silence. Then, when the big moment finally comes, it is not a big ‘jump’ scare as you might reason would be coming, rather the mummy slowly and naturalistically opens his eyes, extends his limbs like he is trying to shake a couple of thousand years of stiffness and then makes his move. The realism continues as the impetuous young archaeologist who had opened the casket goes mad in an instant when he realises what has been released.
Flash forward 10 years and there is another archaeological team (with the son of one of the original party member’s involved) in the area. The mummy is still around, sans bandages, and searching for the reincarnation of the love of his life from a few millennia earlier (these monsters, just like us, are always on the lookout for love). And you can basically figure the rest out for yourself (especially if you have seen the Brendan Fraser starring remake). The film stars the most famous of Universal’s monster stars (just beats out Bela Lugosi due to the number of films he made) Boris Karloff. He plays it beautifully, but pretty Frankensteiny. That’s not to say his performance is wooden at all, he really is a very good actor especially in the occasional close-ups which are chillingly creepy. Perhaps that is another thing that sets these monster flicks apart from others, especially contemporary ones, a much higher standard of actor. Karloff’s makeup looks amazing though, and makes you yearn for the days where the default response to anything difficult was not just ‘we’ll do it in post-production with CGI’. The other really excellent performance in the film, perhaps even better than Karloff’s is from Zita Johann who plays his love interest Helen Grosvenor. It is a strange role because she plays someone in a trance for much of the film, which is definitely not easy to do, but she does it very well.
Showcasing the almost lost art of film makeup and a vintage Boris Karloff performance, The Mummy is a lot of fun. If you have an interest in classic filmmaking or monster films then definitely check this one out. Or if you are keen to see what all the fuss is about with Universal’s iconic monster films, then this is as good a place as any to start.
Verdict: Pint of Kilkenny
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