Friday, October 31, 2014
The Black Cat
Ineffably silly and serenely surreal, Edgar Ulmer's The Black Cat (1934) is one of my favorite horror films, a film so strange and densely packed that it can not be reliably deciphered.. The movie is dream apparition that seems to carry a powerful, even, profound message -- the problem is that when the dream evaporates, in the clear light of day, the message is no longer legible. The film's premise is similar to The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)or that movie's precursor, James Whale's witty and perverse The Old Dark House (1932). A naive young couple on their honeymoon finds themselves trapped in a scary, haunted mansion. The inhabitants of the mansion are sexually perverse and probably criminally insane: the question posed by these films is whether the young couple will survive their stay at this bread-and-breakfast from Hell -- or, at least, make it through the night with their virtue intact. Intrinsic to this genre is the implication that either the bride or groom (or both) may well desire rape, or, at least, seduction by the denizens of the haunted mansion. In The Black Cat, the young couple embarks on an ill-fated honeymoon to a spa in Mitteleuropa, a place a few hundred kilometers from Vienna where they have been married. They are merrily chatting about eating, an obvious double entendre for the delayed consummation of their marriage and, indeed, about to embrace when who should enter their railroad compartment but Bela Lugosi himself. Lugosi exudes perverse, world-weary Angst and, of course, his demeanor is that of a vastly fatigued, but still lethal, continental seducer. Lugosi has just been released from some kind of horrific prisoner of war camp, a place "where the soul is murdered day by day" as he says in his heavily accented, but velvety voice. The trio, now threatening to become some sort of menage a trois, depart from a railway station with a comically talkative Ruritanian taxi-driver, an incompetent fellow who chats with the couple while looking away from the muddy, narrow road winding through the sinister Carpathian mountains. Of course, he manages to crash the taxi, kill himself (a death that is ludicrously ignored by everyone), and strand the newly weds at the very threshold of the insane Herr Poelzig's mansion. Poelzig has erected a starkly modernist chateau atop a bunker left over from the Great War and we are told that the site overlooks a cemetery and a ravine where the war-dead were stacked twelve deep while the "river overflowed with blood." Poelzig is played by an emaciated Boris Karloff, a sort of walking corpse all the more alarming because he is not made-up and plays the part with no special effects other than the ferocious growl in his voice and his deep-set glaring eyes. It turns out that Poelzig is a necrophiliac Satan worshiper, a version of the Great Beast, Aleistair Crowley at his most lurid and melodramatic and, in the bunker cellars of his house, he has dead maidens embalmed and displayed on the walls, white columns of luminous gown and alabaster skin wreathed in cascades of platinum hair -- the girls are undeniably beautiful, undeniably dead, some of them suspended by the locks of their hair, and they are like Greek kore figures, mythic presences who enlarge the scope of the film to another dimension: is Karloff's Herr Poelzig, the embodiment of war, a kind of amalgam of Ares and Hades, the ruler of a dark and sinister underworld to which virgins must be sacrificed in sadistic rites? It turns out that Lugosi's character, a psychiatrist named Dr. Vitus Wendegast, was betrayed by his commanding officer Poelzig in the Great War, given up to the enemy, so that the devil-worshiper could snatch (and murder) his wife: she's one of the luminous trophies displayed in the World War One bunker. The women in the film are either inanimate or comatose, sleeping beauties: we see Karloff in bed with a young woman who may well be a corpse -- she never moves for most of the film, a blonde, lush beauty, we learn that she is Lugosi's daughter by his dead wife, now Poelzig's slave and concubine. The film's heroine, the newly wed bride is knocked unconscious in the car crash and spends half the film in a swoon. When she briefly emerges from unconsciousness, medicated by Wendegast, the young woman is overtly lustful, pawing at her husband with unambiguous intent in front of Lugosi and Karloff, a display that only inflames the mad Poelzig's desires. (The film is pre-code and filled with intensely erotic imagery -- the bride has a wound on her upper breast from the car crash, an injury inspected with great intensity by Lugosi as her physician and, then, groped by the woman's feckless husband.) Although named after Poe's morbid short story, the movie has nothing to do with that tale and, indeed, very little connection with black cats in general -- at one point, Lugosi, who has a fear of the beasts, hurls a scalpel at a black cat and, apparently kills it (the beast yowls off-camera);Karloff, whose pet has been slaughtered, responds with nothing more than a feline grin. The film is bizarre and surprising on all levels: Poelzig's mansion seems built in the best Vienna secessionist style: it is austere, angular, and appears to be a machine for living something like the famous house designed by Wittgenstein in Vienna, more an icy philosophical theorem than a home. The bunker contains a towering spiral stairway and a movable turret that forms a kind of nightmare labyrinth -- as it rotates it's door exposes either openings in the massive concrete wall or impenetrable wall depending on the degree to which the metal chamber is turned. Although the film clocks in at a brisk 65 minutes, people are continuously marching in slow sepulchral processions across the huge sets and there is a bizarre comic interlude with a couple of local gendarmes, one of them a grotesque stage Italian, a vaudeville comedian. Ulmer was one of the directors of a remarkable German silent film, Menschen am Sonntag (1930), a quasi-documentary about the lives of a cross-section of Berlin young people on an enchanted, summery Sunday. The Black Cat has much of same tangible, documentary-like emphasis on light and space and people's relationship to their environment: curiously enough, the photography has an improvised aspect in some sequences, an element that contrasts powerfully with the Expressionist angles and lighting in the horror scenes, particularly the Fritz Lang-style diagonals and shadows in the Black Mass: the imagery looks like the scene in which Maria preaches to the workers in a catacomb chapel in Metropolis (1927). But much of the film seems casually realistic -- indeed, a scene in which a bedraggled Bela Lugosi stands among deadly machinery, including the fateful "red lever" that will blow the whole place to smithereens, is curiously understated and prosaic: briefly, Lugosi looks like the father of the bride at a Serbian wedding, half-drunk, smiling mysteriously, even a little bit cheerful. The clash between these two camera styles, something notable even in the stylized Black Mass scenes in which the virgin victim is filmed out-of-focus, gives the movie some of its nightmarish dream quality. At the climax of the movie, Lugosi takes a paring knife and begins to skin the fettered Boris Karloff alive: Karloff's stripped torso is shot as if it has already been flayed: his skin is a death-like alabaster white that reveals in the clinical lighting the precise contours of his muscles and bones. The image has all sorts of visual overtones and echoes: it's like the flaying of Marsyas and, even today, the scene packs a powerful, horrific force. At the end of the film, of course, the honeymoon couple are saved. The bunker and mansion explode in a quick shot of explosions that looks exactly like night footage of a World War One (or prophetically WWII) barrage. European culture, it seems, rests on a substrate of massacre, perversion, and evil that can not be repressed -- the nightmare battle between Lugosi and Karloff seems to presage the eruption of ancient hatreds that must inevitably convulse the world again and again. (The bridegroom is comically unequal to the horrors that he must face: it's like Andy Hardy thrown into the middle of a Greek tragedy or Hugh Grant forced into a cage-match with Richard III and Macbeth.) On the train departing the scene of these horrors, the newlyweds comment on the utter absurdity and implausibility of the adventure that they have just survived. For an instant, we glimpse the bride's weird, crooked and asymmetric smile -- evidence of something hidden in her that may have triggered this whole strange vision.