"I go to visit an old friend," says Dr. Vitus Werdegast to Peter and Joan Alison, the young newlyweds he meets on the train moving through a rain-swept night. Their destination is the small, picturesque village of Vizhegrad that had been the site of a horrendous battle during the Great War. They board a bus and the driver tells them, "All of this country was one of the greatest battlefields of the war. Tens of thousands of men died here. The ravine down there was piled twelve deep with dead and wounded men. The little river below was swollen red, a raging torrent of blood. And that high hill yonder where Engineer Poelzig now lives was the site of Fort Marmorus. He built his home on its very foundations. Marmorus, the greatest graveyard in the world." Then the bus swerves and crashes in the driving rain, leaving the driver dead and the young wife injured, Dr. Werdegast takes them to Hjalmar Poelzig's home...his "old friend." Just who are Dr. Vitus Werdegast and Hjalmar Poelzig?
Werdegast (Bela Lugosi), says Poelzig, "is one of Hungary's greatest psychiatrists," He was captured in the Great War and thrown into a dank prison to rot for 15 years. He lost his wife, his young daughter and, as we shall see, his sanity. Yet he will be deeply touched by the newlyweds.
Poelzig (Boris Karloff), says Werdegast, is "one of Austria's greatest architects." He designed the great monolith of a home that sits atop what was Fort Marmorus. Poelzig has a muscular body and a slab of a face, with cruel, mocking eyes and a widow's peak that would make Robert Taylor cry with envy. We also will learn that he is a traitor, a murderer, a seducer, a Satanist and a talented embalmer.
The Black Cat has nothing to do with Poe's story. It's about evil, madness, love and obsession. That this all takes place in a terrific art deco setting keeps us smiling...but down in the dungeon, where we meet the wives of Engineer Poelzig and watch how a keen scalpel can slowly flay the skin from a man's face...well, we don't turn away.
What makes this movie one of my favorites is the character of Dr. Werdegast and the performance of Bela Lugosi. Werdegast may go mad, but he's been driven mad by terrible injustice, by the loss of those he loved and by the final knowledge that their fate was worse than he ever believed. "Is she not beautiful?" says Poelzig to Werdegast, deep in the preserved caverns of Fort Marmorus. "I wanted to have her beauty, always. I loved her too, Vitus." Though Werdegast tips over the edge to exact a terrible revenge, he still responds to the love the two newlyweds have for each other. He realizes the evil in Poelzig, and he counters it to protect and finally save the young couple. A game of chess, if lost, may lead to death for Peter Alison and a much worse fate for Joan Alison. Lugosi is quite touching in those moments he shows tenderness to young Peter and Joan Alison and in his determination to save them from the equally mad Poelzig. And Boris Karloff? He was a fine actor, and studying his style is time well spent. All this in just 65 minutes, and with art deco, too.
If I had to choose a few of Hollywood's more-or-less classic old horror movies to take with me to a deserted island, this and The Body Snatchers would be among them. Both have a sympathetic protagonist caught up in horror partly of his own making, with just enough cheese to keep the stories entertaining and not so much "human condition" redemption as to make them tiresome.