DVD Review: The Black Cat (1934)

 

Carl Laemmle, the big studio producer responsible for numerous ‘Universal Monster Classics’ presents The Black Cat, a very loose adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s short story out now on DVD from Umbrella Entertainment. Starring both Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, the first of eight movies to pair the two horror icons, the story follows a newly married American couple becomes trapped in the rural Hungarian home of a satanic priest.

Cinemassacre founder James Rolfe has an infectious love for horror films of this era and cites The Black Cat as one of his favourites outside of Universal’s tentpole, Dracula, Frankenstein and Wolf Man series. It’s definitely more on the obscure side, despite being generally well-known by film fans and edges towards darker material in regards to satanic worship and torture. Our honeymooners aren’t really significant to the plot, which is quite flimsy, they’re more of a means for Karloff and Lugosi to face off in what begins as a game of wits, later become something a lot deadlier. Lugosi is Hungarian psychiatrist, Dr. Vitus Werdegast, who seeks the whereabouts of his wife and daughter. He believes they were taken by an old friend, Hjalmar Poelzig (Boris Karloff), an Austrian architect during what was presumably World War 1. It probably won’t come as a surprise that the titular black cat is nothing more than an object of paralysing fear for certain characters. Much of film’s value comes from its visual style and architecture, which has a very striking modern fare. Ink black shows and haunting set design help create a haunting atmosphere whilst hinting at evil the undertones that come more into play towards the film’s climax. Karloff and Lugosi play off each other well, two formidable figures of equal measure and their final scene together takes an unexpectedly graphic turn.

VIDEO AND AUDIO

Surprisingly, the picture on this region 4 disc is very sharp and benefits significantly from HDMI upscaling. While the video’s source appears to be of considerable age, judging by the occasional presence of dirt, scratches and subtle flicker, the worn quality adds to the film’s charm as a classic horror title. Many Universal titles from the 30s and 40 have since been remastered for Blu-ray, which looks impressive, but often suffer from being too polished. I’m glad Umbrella opted for a perfect medium, which comes presented in 1.33:1 (4:3 standard) NTSC format. Sound is a little flat, but that’s to be expected from a 2.0 mono track. However, it’s clear and of reasonable volume so no complaints.

The Black Cat is only sixty-five minutes long, which is very convenient if you’re wanting to squeeze in a couple of movies during an evening. It’s almost over by the time things get going, but I enjoyed mostly for it’s aesthetic and Karloff’s performance as Poelzig, a mysterious villain with a morbid obsession with natural beauty.

THE BLACK CAT
(1934, dir: Edgar G. Ulmer)

★★★½

 

direct dvd screen captures

 

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