The Black Cat (1934 film)

The Black Cat is a 1934 American pre-Code horror film directed by Edgar G. Ulmer and starring Boris Karloff and Béla Lugosi. The picture was the first of eight movies (six of which were produced by Universal) to pair the two iconic actors. It became Universal Pictures' biggest box office hit of the year, and was among the earlier movies with an almost continuous music score. Lugosi also appeared in the 1941 film with the same title.

The Black Cat
Theatrical release poster
Directed byEdgar G. Ulmer
Produced by
Screenplay byPeter Ruric
Story by
  • Edgar G. Ulmer
  • Peter Ruric
Based onThe Black Cat
by Edgar Allan Poe
Music byHeinz Eric Roemheld
CinematographyJohn J. Mescall[1]
Edited byRay Curtiss[1]
Distributed byUniversal Pictures
Release date
  • May 7, 1934 (1934-05-07) (US)
  • May 18, 1934 (1934-05-18) (NYC)
  • [1][2] ([1][2])
Running time
69 minutes[1]
CountryUnited States
Box office$236,000[4]

The Black Cat helped to create and popularize the psychological horror subgenre, emphasizing on atmosphere, eerie sounds, the darker side of the human psyche, and emotions like fear and guilt to deliver its scares, something that was not used in the horror genre.


Newlyweds Peter (David Manners) and Joan Alison (Julie Bishop), on their honeymoon in Hungary, learn that due to a mixup, they must share a train compartment with Dr. Vitus Werdegast (Béla Lugosi), a Hungarian psychiatrist. Eighteen years before, Werdegast went to World War I, never seeing his wife again. He has spent the last 15 years in an infamous prison camp in Siberia. On the train, the doctor explains that he is traveling to see an old friend, Hjalmar Poelzig (Boris Karloff), an Austrian architect.

Later, the doctor, Peter, and Joan, share a bus, which crashes on a desolate, rain-swept road. Joan is injured, and the doctor and Peter take her to Poelzig's home, built upon the ruins of Fort Marmorus, which Poelzig commanded during the war. Werdegast treats Joan's injury, administering the tranquilizing drug hyoscine, causing her to behave erratically. While Peter puts her to bed, Werdegast accuses Poelzig of betraying the fort during the war to the Russians, resulting in the death of thousands of Austro-Hungarian soldiers. He also accuses Poelzig of stealing his wife Karen while he was in prison. Previously, Werdegast killed Poelzig's black cat, and Poelzig explains that Werdegast has a strong fear of the animals. Poelzig carries a second black cat around the house with him while he oversees his "collection" of dead women on display in glass cases, including Karen.

Poelzig plans to sacrifice Joan in a satanic ritual during the dark of the moon. Poelzig had married Werdegast's wife, and when she died, he married his daughter (who was told her real father died in prison). He is seen reading a book called The Rites of Lucifer while a beautiful blonde woman (Lucille Lund) sleeps next to him. The blonde is Werdegast's daughter – thus, Poelzig's stepdaughter – also named Karen. Werdegast, who is unaware of his daughter's presence, bides his time, waiting for the right moment to strike the mad architect. He also tries to persuade his foe to spare Peter and Joan, at one point literally gambling with their lives by playing a game of chess with Poelzig, which he loses.

This moment comes during the beginning of the satanists' service, when a female acolyte sees something which causes her to scream and faint. Werdegast and his servant Thamal (Harry Cording) snatch Joan from the sacrificial altar and carry her into the catacombs beneath the house, where Peter is rendered unconscious by Poelzig's servant. Joan tells Werdegast his daughter is alive in the building somewhere. He discovers that Poelzig has killed his daughter, and in an insane rage, shackles him to an embalming rack, where he proceeds to literally skin Poelzig alive. Joan tries to tear a key from the dead hand of Poelzig's servant, and Peter, regaining consciousness, mistakes Werdegast's attempt to help her as an attack and shoots him. Fatally wounded, Werdegast blows up the house, first letting the couple escape but with Poelzig's "rotten cult" still upstairs. "It has been a good game," he says before he dies.


Cast notes

  • Lund also plays the elder Karen Werdegast.


The Black Cat was the biggest box-office hit of the year for Universal[4] and was the first of eight movies (six of which were produced by Universal) to pair actors Béla Lugosi and Boris Karloff. Director Edgar G. Ulmer's film was part of a boom in horror sound films following the release of Dracula and Frankenstein in 1931.

The film has little to do with Edgar Allan Poe's short story "The Black Cat", though Poe's name is listed in the credits. The film exploited a sudden public interest in psychiatry.[6] Peter Ruric (better known as pulp writer "Paul Cain") wrote the screenplay.[7]

The classical music soundtrack, compiled by Heinz Eric Roemheld (composed of pieces from Liszt,[8], Tchaikovsky,[9], Chopin[10] and others) occupies nearly 80% of the film.[11]

The movie bears no relation to the 1941 The Black Cat, starring Basil Rathbone except for the presence of Lugosi in both pictures.

The film was released in UK cinemas under the title House of Doom.

The film – and by extension, the character of Hjalmar Poelzig – draws inspiration from the life of occultist Aleister Crowley.[12] The name Poelzig was borrowed from architect Hans Poelzig,[13] whom Ulmer claimed to have worked with on the sets for Paul Wegener's silent film The Golem.[14]

Critical reception

Upon the film's original 1934 release, The New York Times reviewer wrote: "The Black Cat is more foolish than horrible. The story and dialogue pile the agony on too thick to give the audience a reasonable scare."[15]

On Rotten Tomatoes, the film received has a rating from critics of 87%. It was also ranked #68 on Bravo's 100 Scariest Movie Moments for its "skinning" scene.[16] ("Karloff gets skinned alive at the end," noted Cramps guitarist and horror aficionado Poison Ivy, "but they show the shadow of it and somehow that's more gruesome."[17])

The critic Philip French called it "the first (and best) of seven Karloff/Lugosi joint appearances. The movie unfolds like a nightmare that involves necrophilia, ailurophobia, drugs, a deadly game of chess, torture, flaying, and a black mass with a human sacrifice. This bizarre, utterly irrational masterpiece, lasting little more than an hour, has images that bury themselves in the mind."[18]

In the 2010s, Time Out polled authors, directors, actors and critics who had worked in the horror genre to vote for their top horror films.[19] Time Out placed The Black Cat at number 89 on the top 100.[19]

See also


  1. The Black Cat at the American Film Institute Catalog
  2. Brown, Gene (1995). Movie Time: A Chronology of Hollywood and the Movie Industry from Its Beginnings to the Present. New York: Macmillan. p. 119. ISBN 0-02-860429-6. In New York, the film opened at the Roxy Theatre, the location of numerous Universal film premieres.
  3. Brunas,Michael; Brunas, John; and Weaver, Tom (1990) Universal Horrors: The Studios Classic Films, 1931-46, McFarland. p.83
  4. Jacobs, Stephen (2011) Boris Karloff: More Than a Monster, Tomohawk Press. p. 155
  5. Rovin, Jeff (1977), The Supernatural Movie Quizbook, Drake Publishers, ISBN 0847315037, 9780847315031
  6. Neimeyer, Mark. "Poe and popular culture" as collected in The Cambridge Companion to Edgar Allan Poe, Kevin J. Hayes, editor. Cambridge University Press, 2002. ISBN 0-521-79727-6 pp. 216-7
  7. Mank 2009, p. 162-163.
  8. Mank 2009, p. 164.
  9. Mank 2009, p. 167.
  10. Mank 2009, p. 168.
  11. Slowik, Michael (2014). After the silents : Hollywood film music in the early sound era, 1926-1934. New York: Columbia University Press. p. 255. ISBN 9780231535502. OCLC 892244206.
  12. Everson, William K. (1974). Classics of the Horror Film. Citadel Press. pp. 121–124. ISBN 0-8065-0595-8.
  13. Mank 2009, p. 159.
  14. Mank 2009, p. 156.
  15. A.D.S. (May 19, 1934). "The Black Cat (1934) Not Related to Poe". The New York Times.
  16. "Bravo's "100 Scariest Movie Moments"". Archived from the original on 2013-11-04.
  17. Mörat (20 September 1997). "Splattermania!". Kerrang!. p. 54.
  18. Philip French's DVD club, No 92, The Observer 4 November 2007
  19. Clarke, Cath; Calhoun, Dave; Huddleston, Tom (August 19, 2015). "The 100 best horror films: the list". Time Out. Retrieved October 30, 2015.
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