It is the evening and a family have assembled to be at the bedside of their matriarch, who lives in a large mansion in the middle of nowhere surrounded by her legions of pet cats. In fact, she thinks more of her cats than she does of her relatives, who currently are perched around the living room like vultures, expecting her to die at any moment and anticipating the reading of the will. But she simply refuses to pass away, and when she wheels herself into their presence she announces she is going to tell them what inheritance they are getting anyway. Meanwhile, an estate agent, Gil Smith (Broderick Crawford) is approaching the house with the antique dealer Mr Penny (Hugh Herbert) - but they don't know what they're getting into...
The Black Cat, how do they think of these titles? This isn't the Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi cult favourite of the thirties, it's not even the Lucio Fulci non-favourite from the eighties, it's the more obscure comedy horror which may have featured Lugosi as well, but did not offer him the opportunities the former film had. This was another of those films where he was relegated to the sinister manservant role, or the red herring as they are commonly known, as the plot thickens, but to be honest not even top-billed Basil Rathbone gets much to do as the apparently scheming husband of one of the matriarch's daughters. You'll note the cast were eminently qualified for this type of thing, but it's the script which lets them down and never hits the proper heights that could have shown them all to their best advantage.
That script has the cheek to claim to have been suggested by the Edgar Allan Poe story The Black Cat, and it patently has as they both share a black cat, the same title, and a man who goes around ruining antiques and calling "Woo-hoo!". Apart from that last one. Yes, Hugh Herbert is that man, and has caused a minor degree of controversy over the years, even being accused of spoiling the film altogether in the role of the comic relief. His main gag is that he believes antiques are only valuable if they're damaged in some way, something he goes around doing utterly oblivious to the danger that there may be a madman (or woman) on the loose. Well, there's no "may be" about it, as the matriarch is killed off early on and it's up to Gil to work out which of this rogues gallery is responsible.
If nothing else, this film proves that Broderick Crawford was indeed young once, and even almost thin, as he takes the part of the hero who gets to fling himself around quite a bit - watch him jump off a balcony at one point (unless that was his stunt double). He is only one of two, maybe three, characters who we do not suspect, as they all have their reservations about each other being of dubious, moneygrabbing motives (although it turns out the actual motive of the killer has more to do with insanity). That familiar mansion from a bunch of chllers and thrillers from Universal of this era is present and correct, and there are the expected secret passages and the odd clap of thunder overhead for atmosphere. Anne Gwynne is the heiress who is our leading lady, but the most entertainment from the actresses stems from Gale Sondergaard as the housekeeper, no less an unpromising role than Lugosi gets but she makes far more of it. This might have made a decent enough movie without Mr Herbert, as it is, most will likely be turned off by it.