music friday: tom petty
by request: the straight story (david lynch, 1999)

creature feature saturday: the black cat (edgar g. ulmer, 1934)

Once again, as is often the case with these "Creature Features", the trivia behind the film is as interesting as what is on the screen. The difference here is that The Black Cat is actually a good movie.

I saw it when I was a kid, probably on our own local Creature Features show. All I remembered of it was that someone got skinned alive. Since that didn't happen until the last couple of minutes of the movie, I started wondering if I'd misremembered (I hadn't).

This was the first film to co-star Boris Karloff (here billed simply as "Karloff") and Bela Lugosi (they eventually made eight movies together). They are both good, if you like their acting ... Karloff is ominous but restrained, Lugosi is hammy. Lugosi is nominally the good guy here, as a doctor imprisoned during WWI (or something like that ... the movie isn't clear). Karloff did bad things during that war, and Lugosi has come to make him pay. (The actors' characters have names, but why bother with them? It's Karloff and Lugosi.) David Manners and Julie Bishop (billed as Jacqueline Wells) play American newlyweds, and are properly boring. Both lead actors have odd obsessions with Bishop's wife.

The movie is quite bizarre ... Kael accurately described it as a "nutty, nightmarish mélange of Black Masses and chess games, shadows and dungeons, Satanism and necrophilia." Karloff has a bunch of dead women hanging around in some form of suspended post-lifeness. One of them is Karloff's former wife. Meanwhile, Karloff has married Bela's daughter.

Lugosi has a deadly fear of cats ... the first time he sees a black cat, he recoils, pulls a knife, and throws it at the cat, killing it instantly. This is about as close as the movie comes to explaining the title, which was used mostly so Universal could say it was "suggested by a story by Edgar Allan Poe" (the film has nothing to do with Poe's story).

It all sounds silly, and it is, but it gets out of the way in 65 minutes, the two leads are good, and everything is atmospheric in that Edgar G. Ulmer way. Ulmer made a gazillion movies, almost all of them Grade-Z pictures, almost all of them with enough recognizable Ulmer touches that he became a favorite of auteurist film critics. The Black Cat is one of his best, but it was also a curse for Ulmer. During the making of the film, he began an affair with a woman whose husband was the nephew of the studio head at Universal. There was a divorce, and a marriage ... Ulmer and his wife, Shirley, remained married until his death. But he was blackballed, and was resigned to miniscule budgets the rest of his career. His best film was Detour, sometimes called the greatest B-movie of all time. The Black Cat doesn't reach those heights, but it is several notches above the average Creature Feature. And the scene where Karloff gets skinned alive is quite remarkable. 7/10.

 

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