Mystery writer Peter Alison (David Manners) and his new wife Joan (Jacqueline Wells) are honeymooning in Europe, and on a train journey through Hungary when they find themselves sharing their compartment with Dr Vitus Werdegast (Bela Lugosi), who has been recently released from a Russian prison. Werdegast is travelling to the mansion of his old friend Hjalmar Poelzig (Boris Karloff), a man who turned against him and thousands of their countrymen in the First World War when he sold them out to the Russians. Departing the train and taking the bus to their destination, the party suffer a road accident which leaves Joan dazed and slightly injured, and the nearest house around is Poelzig's, so they decide to spend the night there, with dreadful consequences...
If you're listing films which capitalise on their oppressive atmosphere, then The Black Cat would come close to the top. Written by Peter Ruric, from a story by him and the director Edgar G. Ulmer, it was "suggested by" Edgar Allan Poe's horror tale, i.e. not much to do with it at all. The only aspect that concerns black cats is Werdegast's irrational phobia about them: the second he sees one in Poelzig's house, he wails, cringes and flings a well-aimed knife at it. It's not clear whether he hits it or not, because we see another black cat later on - is it the same one?
Although part of the classic cycle of Universal horror movies, there are no fantastical monsters in this film, all the evil here resides in the souls of men. Satanist Poelzig is an architect who has built his self-designed house on the mass graves of those he sent to their deaths, and the striking set design makes a nice change from the traditional old dark house or draughty castle. Werdegast is searching for his lost wife and daughter, who Poelzig is also attached to; so attached in fact, that in a perverse development he has preserved the corpse of Werdegast's wife in a glass case in his basement, and married the daughter.
In contrast to the flighty, naive Americans, Werdegast and Poelzig have witnessed great evil, and even contributed to it: the weight of war atrocities hangs heavily over both of them, either as victim or perpetrator. But Karloff and Lugosi play their characters with a twinkle in their eyes, and Karloff is especially witty, offering an Aleister Crowley-style villain in a particularly sly manner. The acting honours must go to Lugosi, however, as he conveys a tortured character with deep feeling, and by the end, crazed ferocity as he takes his long-awaited revenge with a handy scalpel.
Although a bit of a muddle plotwise, many scenes stand out, such as Werdegast and Poelzig playing chess for the soul of Joan, a prospective sacrifice, or the explosive finale - it's great to see two icons battle it out for the first time. It's uncertain how seriously The Black Cat is meant to be taken, as at times it's almost self-mocking, but at others all too real horror is employed, the enormity of the huge scale slaughter of the First World War. It's good taste may be questionable, but it's such a strange concoction that in these hands it's irresistable. Musical direction by Heinz Roemheld, who makes some odd choices, adding to the off-kilter air. A short clip from this film was edited into the Monkees movie, Head.