Monday, June 13, 2016
THE BLACK CAT (1934)
I'm not a big fan of horror movies--old or new--which is not to say that I don't like them. My interests have simply always leaned more toward crime and noir. I'm tempted to say that this preference has something to do with an inclination toward realism ("realism" being distinct, of course, from reality), but I don't know. Maybe a better explanation is that horror movies, especially of an older vintage, are baroque and mythological in a way that crime narratives (usually) are not. To use a musical analogy: if horror movies are dark operas, then noirs are cocktail lounge torch songs. I'm more of a torch song kind of guy.
To return to my original point, though, I do appreciate horror films. The very baroque nature that ultimately pushes me away from them also interests me, particularity the more Expressionist works of the 20s and 30s.
One of my favorite of these films (maybe even my favorite, period) is Edgar G. Ulmer's THE BLACK CAT. The movie is famous for a few reasons. For one thing, it pairs the two great movie ghouls of the classic era, Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, which was the 1934 version of Jason vs. Freddy. Secondly, THE BLACK CAT is the only A-film ever directed by Ulmer, the great hero of Poverty Row artists. Lastly, it is a masterpiece of its kind. If it's not scary by 2016 standards--or, for that matter, by 1960 standards--it has elements that are still pretty weird and creepy. Let's briefly look at these things one by one.
1. Boris vs. Bela- The popularity of the Universal horror monsters is fascinating for the many ways it presaged geek culture today. Karloff was so famous he is billed here simply by his last name. When we think of Golden Age Hollywood we tend to marginalize the horror stars in favor of matinee idols like Gable or Cooper, but it's worth remembering that Boris and Bela were gigantic stars, icons of a geek culture that didn't officially exist yet. It's also worth noting that the culture they helped to spawn and popularize has had a longer life than the mainstream Americanism and cowboy ethos represented by All-Americans like Gable and Cooper.
Of the two, Karloff is by far the more fascinating screen presence. There's something innately goofy about Lugosi, an instinct toward ham that is entertaining without being particularly compelling. In this story he is positioned as the creepy sorta-good guy, which seems fitting. Karloff, on the other hand, is an incredible screen presence. Part of it is that, frankly, he was just a freaky looking dude. With a lanky muscular frame, jutting forehead and mouth, deep-set eyes and low rumble of a voice, he's just interesting to look at. The other part, however, is that he was a fine actor, restrained to a remarkable degree (especially when set against Lugosi).This is how you underplay your way to greatness.
2. Edgar G. Ulmer is best remembered as the Poverty Row artist who made the noir masterpiece DETOUR, as well as notable films like STRANGE ILLUSION, RUTHLESS, and THE NAKED DAWN. Here, for once in his career, he was working with a real budget and an established cast and all the power of a major studio behind him. (He was driven out of the big studios after this movie because he "stole" the wife of a studio boss's nephew.) Everything here is incredible from the gorgeously evocative art design of Charles D. Hall and crisp camera work of John Mescall to the sharply escalating editing of Ray Curtiss. All of it is brilliantly orchestrated by Ulmer into one of the best movies Universal made during the Golden Era. I love much of his Poverty Row work, but it is unmistakably sad to watch this film and wonder what kind of movies Ulmer would have made in the majors. Poverty Row's great gain was the majors' great loss.
3. Of course, all this horror movie hokum is pretty dated now but there's an important point to be made about old movies and the way we watch them. Old movies are, in a sense, time capsules before they are anything else. In other words, they are valuable because they are dated rather than in spite of it. You might as well say that cave drawings are dated. Old horror movies like THE BLACK CAT aren't scary, but they are instructive about what kinds of things used to scare people--which in turns helps to to make connections to the present. If this movie is no longer scary the way it was for people in 1934, it's still creepy in ways that are interesting. Karloff has an underground lair in the film where he keeps the carefully preserved bodies of dead women suspended in clear glass cases, a gallery of sex and death that is still jarring to behold. Later in the film he presides over a Satanic ritual that, although it lacks the kind of graphic nature that would mark such a scene today, is still surprising to see. The climax of the film is also shocking: Lugosi straps Karloff to a torture rack, strips him to the waist and proceeds to skin him alive in front of the screaming heroine. Again, these scenes are shot in such a way to avoid nudity and blood and gore, but the intent of the scenes is intact. This is some evil sick shit, proof that even in the more reserved and conservative era that gave birth to it, human beings were fascinated by the dark forces of human nature and the unseen.