(director/writer: Edgar G. Ulmer; screenwriters: from an Edgar Allan Poe story/Peter Ruric; cinematographer: John Mescall; editor: Ray Curtiss; cast: Boris Karloff (Hjalmar Poelzig), Bela Lugosi (Dr. Vitus Werdegast), David Manners (Peter Alison), Henry Armetta (Sergeant), Jacqueline Wells [later known as Julie Bishop] (Joan Allison), Lucille Lund (Karen Werdegast Poelzig), Albert Conti (Lieutenant), Egon Brecher (Majordomo), Harry Cording (Thamal), John Carradine (Cult Organist), George Davis (Bus Driver), Andre Cheron (Train Conductor); Runtime: 65; Universal; 1934)
“It scans the gamut in the field of the bizarre — from necromancy to devil-worship. This is Ulmer’s defining work.“
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Edgar G. Ulmer (Detour/Strange Illusion/The Naked Dawn), the German émigré to America, reportedly said that he directed 128 films in various countries such as the U.S., Italy, Mexico, Spain, and Germany. Coming to the States with the great German director FW Murnau, Ulmer worked on Sunrise (1927) and Tabu (1929), before directing his first talkie, Damaged Lives, which told about the early treatments for venereal disease. The 30-year-old director became friends with Carl Laemmle, Jr., the Universal producer who thought of him as an intellectual. He was the producer of the Black Cat and liked Ulmer’s idea of teaming up Karloff and Lugosi for the first time in a film, and therefore encouraged him to make the film. Those two great legends in the horror field went on from here to make a total of seven films together but none as co-stars with equal parts, or in a feature that was as good as this one was. In most of their films together Lugosi, who was the poorer actor of the two because of his limited English, was always cast in the lesser role.
Even though this film was supposed to be based on an Edgar Allen Poe story, the Poe story was replaced by the work Ulmer collaborated on with George Sims. He wrote books as Paul Cain and film scripts as Peter Ruric. Sim’s fame rests on his articles for Black Mask magazine writing as Paul Cain. His novel “Fast One” is considered by many as the best hard-boiled novel ever. The script for this film was altered so much that the only thing remaining from Poe’s story, is the brief appearance of the black cat in the film. Though the film does evoke the mood of a Poe story, it even has the estrangement of a Kafka novel.
The film’s inspiration for the character of Hjalmar Poelzig is taken from the life of occultist Aleister Crowley, a British Satanist who thought of himself as a personification of evil, who took artist Nina Hammett to court because she ratted him out about his devil-cult worship seances in her autobiography. The Crowley characterization was by Boris Karloff, who played the role of Hjalmar Poelzig.
The film begins with a journey for a young innocent American couple, Peter Allison (David Manners) and his bride Joan (Jacqueline Wells), just having left their wedding reception on a honeymoon to Hungary on the Orient Express, wishing to go to a honeymoon resort in Gombos to consumate their marriage. The conductor tells them there has been a slight mix-up regarding tickets and that this strange, aristocratic fellow standing near them, is Dr. Vitus Werdegast (Bela Lugosi). He has been given the same train compartment as they have and politely asks if they could accommodate him. He is a noted Hungarian psychiatrist recently released from serving fifteen years in a Russian prison, who tells them he has come from a horrible place called Kurgaal where one’s soul is slowly being robbed and few men return from there alive. He hasn’t been home for eighteen years, ever since he joined the army.
When a traveling bag from the rack above almost falls on Joan, Vitus muses philosophically in his heavy Hungarian accent “It is better to be scared than to be crushed,”as he catches the bag before it hits the startled girl.
When the trio’s bus from the train station goes over an area the bus driver tells them was one of the greatest battlefields of the war and is now “the greatest graveyard in the world,” Vitus winces at the memories. It is also pointed out that there were ten thousand deaths here and on that hill where the architect Hjalmar Poelzig now lives, which was the site of Fort Marmaros and then made into a concentration camp. We learn from the bus driver about how he built the ultra-modern Bauhaus styled mansion on the very spot that was the bloodiest one in the battle, which only adds to the dark mood of the murky night. Vitus will later on mention that Hjalmar was the commander of that fort and sold out his own men to the Russians so that he could spare his life. He has since become the leader of a satanic cult. And, that he has been tracking him down ever since he learned that he took his wife to America and other places in Europe, before coming back.
Due to the heavy rain the bus looses control and goes over the side of the road and Joan gets knocked slightly unconscious, so Vitus takes them to Poelzig’s mansion where he bandages her superficial shoulder wound and he also gives her a narcotic injection so she can sleep. Poelzig is asleep with his wife when his servant, the mute Majordomo (Egon Brecher), awakens him and he arises in a stiff-manner with his silhouette on the wall panel and he walks trance-like in his pajamas to greet his guests, not saying anything. The relationship between the two so-called friends is cordial but strained. While greeting his guests Poelzig seems to look at Joan in a lustful way, as the innocent Peter has no idea of what he got himself into. Peter will mention that he is a writer of mystery books and he quickly adds books that are unimportant, and that if he had any sense he would be honeymooning in Niagara Falls. He is a characterization of the screenwriter, Peter Ruric.
The theme of good versus evil unfolds, as the men of science are locked in a life-and-death conflict. Vitus and his loyal mute servant Thamal (Harry Cording) have come here for only one purpose, to kill their evil Austrian host. Poelzig married Vitus’s wife Karen (Lucille Lund) after he went to prison, lying to her by saying her husband was dead. When Vitus confronts him about where she is and where his 18-year-old daughter is, he is told that his wife is dead that she died of pneumonia two years after the war and that his daughter is also dead.
A very bizarre scene takes place when the black cat of the host appears and Vitus becomes terribly agitated and throws a knife which instantly kills the cat with the glowing eyes. But Poelzig is not upset as he says the cat is deathless, “Deathless as Evil.” He goes on to say, “It is the origin of the common superstition. You know, the cat with nine lives.” He then offers an excuse for Vitus’s action, saying he has a common phobia but in an extreme form — an intense horror of cats. Vitus, visibly shaken, states that the black cat is a symbol of evil. Also present in the room are Peter and his wife; she had entered the room in a sleepwalking state, moving as gracefully as a feline.
Vitus confronts Poelzig when the host visits his bedroom later on at night by asking, “Where is my wife?” Poelzig then takes him to her as they both descend a staircase to arrive at the iron door of the dank cellar and then go down a second flight of spiraling stairs into the former old Ft. Marmaros, now a tomb-like mausoleum that houses the underground vaults. They come upon a glass encasement with Vitus’s beautiful wife preserved in it. It is very eerie to watch this strange scene.
Vitus can’t take looking at this room filled with the embalmed former lovers of Poelzig and calls out to Poelzig that he is a liar, that he killed his wife. He gets ready to shoot the man, who took everything from him that he loved, when a black cat appears and the gun falls out of his hands and Poelzig takes it all calmly, saying let’s not be so melodramatic and play such childish games. He proposes, instead, that they play a little game of death. But he says, we shall have to wait until these people have gone and we are alone.
Poelzig returns to his room and tells his young bride not to leave her room while the guests are here, and he reads in bed a book describing the Rites of Lucifer: it demands that a virgin be sacrificed in its satanic ritual. This ceremony is to take place tomorrow night, and Poelzig has his eye on Joan to be his human sacrifice.
The next day Joan is fully recovered and the couple is ready to leave this hideous place, while Vitus and Poelzig play a game of chess to see if she is to be the sacrifice in the Black Mass ritual. Poelzig wins the game, as he knew he would. But they are interrupted by two comical policemen on bicycles, who question the guests about the accident last night. When the American couple asks the policemen to give them a ride to the train station, the police say it is not possible on their bikes. Poelzig pretends to have his servant give them a ride in his car, but the servant comes back to say the car is broken. The couple also find that all the telephones are dead.
While trying to get out of the house with his wife, even to walk to town if necessary, Peter gets knocked out by Thamal (he has been ordered by Vitus to follow Poelzig’s instructions); and, he is locked in a room downstairs, while she returns to the bedroom.
When Joan goes back to her room Poelzig’s wife Karen (also played by Lunt) accidentally comes into the room and as they start talking, it is determined that her name is Karen Werdegast. It is revealed to her that her father is alive; and, to Joan, it becomes clear that Vitus’s daughter is not dead, but has married Poelzig. Angrily Poelzig comes into the room, and ushers his wife out. He will kill her immediately in a furious rage.
Vitus then comes into the room to calm Joan down and tell her he is on her side, that he will kill Poelzig.
In the evening, the satanic cult ceremony takes place, with Vitus as one of the invited guests. The men are in black tuxedos and the women are dressed in white. Poelzig leads the devil-worshiping cult into the main hall of his house and starts chanting in Latin. Joan is tied up on a crucifix as Poelzig chants a litany over her body, offering her soul and body to Satan.
When a cult worshiper faints, Vitus takes advantage of the confusion and has his servant help him free Joan. Peter has also freed himself from the locked room but gets knocked out by the Majordomo. When the escapees meet the Majordome there is a shoot-out and the Majordomo is killed and Thamal is severely wounded.
Joan blurts out to Vitus the news about his daughter being alive and married to Poelzig. In a crazed frenzy Vitus goes searching the house for her, he eventually finds her dead on the table of the embalming room.
Peter having regained consciousness hears Joan’s screams and asks her to get the key to the room from the dead Thamal’s hands that are clutching it. But she isn’t strong enough to so Vitus takes time out from his flailing and tries to help her. Peter misunderstands Vitus’s gesture, thinking he is an enemy, and severely wounds him with a gun shot.
Vitus tells the couple to get out of there fast, as he finds the switch for the house to be dynamited. He thereby blows up all the cultists, as well as himself and Poelzig.
The last shot is of the relieved couple on a train to Budapest and Peter laughing about the mixed review his mystery novel about a triple murder received from a critic, as the critic says that he overstepped the bounds of credibility. Peter just stares incredulously at his wife and they both chuckle.
The film is very strong on atmosphere, shot in the style of German expressionism. It is not as strong on plot development or of the story making complete sense. There are a number of things that are left unexplained, such as how did Vitus know about the dynamite switch in the house. But as a film which was originally only a programmer for Universal to turn out to be a work of true art, and one that is still considered by most film critics to be a great horror film… is quite an achievement. It is a film of subtle and subversive gestures and one that sets a disquieting mood. It scans the gamut in the field of the bizarre — from necromancy to devil-worship. This is Ulmer’s defining work.
REVIEWED ON 1/4/99 GRADE: A