THE BLACK CAT
THE HOUSE OF DOOM; THE VANISHING BODY
The films director, Hungarian-born Edgar G. Ulmer, had begun in silent German cinema, emigrated to the USA where he seemed a rising name until he was caught having an affair with the wife of a Universal Studios executive. Essentialy blackballed from the industry, he worked steadily for the B studios throughout the 1930s, 40s and 50s. In the 1960s, Ulmer was suddenly rediscovered and championed as an auteur by French critics where The Black Cat and his film noir thriller Detour (1944) were held up as the two chief exhibits. Edgar G. Ulmers appeal one feels was overrated as the majority of his output was mostly hackwork like The Man from Planet X (1951), Babes in Bagdad (1952), Daughter of Dr Jekyll (1957), The Amazing Transparent Man (1960), Beyond the Time Barrier (1960) and The Lost Kingdom/Journey Beneath the Desert (1961). Certainly, The Black Cat is the best of Edgar G. Ulmers films, even if it is not a great one.
The films plot, which manages to pack in twisted revenge schemes, war crimes, Satanism and human sacrifice, necrophile obsession, the slightly distasteful concept of Boris Karloff marrying both his enemys wife and daughter, chess games for human souls and an ending where Bela Lugosi plans to flay Karloff alive, certainly makes The Black Cat a fascinating curiosity piece. The film gains a substantial frisson from the pairing of Lugosi and Karloff (the first of eight such screen pairings). In a reversal of what would later become typecasting for either actor, Lugosi plays the hero and Karloff the villain, and the reversal of the expectation that either actors carries adds an undeniable element of tension. With Karloff skulking about in Mephistophelean haircut, dressing gown and looking his most gaunt and hollow, and Lugosi perpetually overdramatizing every syllable, the film seems charged every time the two appear on the screen.
Where The Black Cat does fall down is in that most of its depravities are all only suggested and take place off-screen. The most we ever see is Boris Karloff tied up and stripped to the waist getting ready to be flayed and the Satanists turning up in robes for the ceremony. It is a surprisingly talky film in fact, it would be relatively easy to resurrect it as a stage play. Furthermore, where one feels his reputation is overrated, Edgar G. Ulmer directs in a workmanlike manner. The look of the film is akin to a serial where directors would shoot everything in master shots because closeups involved more camera set-ups thus took longer to shoot. Ulmer rarely ever moves in to break scenes up the chess game deciding the fate of Jacqueline Wells, for example, is notably lacking in suspense and takes place in a single wide angle shot. Another director might have drawn the tension out unbearably the scene almost sits up and demands it. Ulmer uses some interestingly modernist sets influenced by the German bauhaus movement rather than the Gothic setting that was de rigeur for the day, but again fails to make any use of these in a visual way.
Edgar G. Ulmers other films of genre interest are: Bluebeard (1944); Strange Illusion (1945) about a mans precognitive dream; the alien invader film The Man from Planet X (1951); Daughter of Dr Jekyll (1957); the invisible man film The Amazing Transparent Man (1960); Beyond the Time Barrier (1960), a variant on the astronaut ending up in a mutant-ruled future; and The Lost Kingdom/Journey Beneath the Desert (1961), a cheap remake of the oft-filmed LAtlantide.
Other versions of Edgar Allan Poes The Black Cat are: The Black Cat (1941), The Black Cat (1966), Lucio Fulcis The Black Cat (1981) and Luigi Cozzis The Black Cat (1990). The story is also adapted in the Poe anthologies Tales of Terror (1962) and Two Evil Eyes (1990).