Friday, October 29, 2021

The Black Cat (1934) and The Raven (1935)

The Black Cat

Peter and Joan Alison are newlyweds going via train though Hungary, where they meet the mysterious Dr. Vitus Werdegast. A veteran of World War I, Vitus has only recently been released from a brutal prison camp, and is eager to find what's left of his family. They accompany him on a cab ride into the village, and after a near-lethal crash, the party are taken to the home of the sinister Hjalmar Poelzig. Vitus remembers the man very well, the one who betrayed their battalion to the enemy, and cost him his freedom. The two rivals begin a game of death, where the fate of the newlyweds is at stake, and the loser will face untold torture...

Directed by industry great Edward G. Ulmer, The Black Cat is a fairly loose adaption (i.e. it has literally nothing to do with Poe, besides a cat that probably isn't even black). Despite this annoyance, it manages to live up to the author's spirit in tone and content. Made during the pre-code era, this is regarded as one of the most extreme horror films of the era, with themes of insanity, satanism, torture, incest (sort-of), and necrophilia (some say implied, though I didn't pick up on that).

The story is an engaging one. With a short runtime of just over an hour, we are introduced to the cast in quick succession, and all the dominoes fall into place nice and quickly. The young couple soon realise things at this house are off, and this fear grows when their repeated attempts to eave are conveniently thwarted, either by a malfunctioning car, a dead phone line, and other 'misfortunes'.

The best parts of the movie involve Vitus and Poelzig, whose mutual hatred is barely concealed. Vitus makes a few attempts on his enemy's life, all unsuccessful, leading him to plan a long game, and hope the cunning villain doesn't see it coming.

There are a few twists and turns here, not all of which felt necessary. Vitus knows his wife is long dead, but wants to find his daughter. Poelzig says she died too, but we soon see she's not only alive and well, but married to the creep! This could've worked well for the story, but I felt it was a bit pointless. She seems remarkably well-adjusted for someone romanced and married by her step-father, and her end feels random and unsatisfying. I wonder what it would've been like if Joan was actually Vitus's long lost daughter. It would've been cheesy and contrived, yes, but at least it'd be better than the nothing we get instead.

The climax is a great one, with a few contrivances, but it makes up for this in pure enjoyment. We get a great final battle with the two rivals, leading to a chilling final encounter. It's great stuff!

Where the ending disappointed me most was the role of the young couple. Joan is to be sacrificed to the cult, until an unexplained trick helps free her. But her husband is nowhere in sight! He was imprisoned earlier, and is busy taking his sweet time getting free, while the rest of the movie happens without him.

When he does finally show up he only makes things worse. When Joan needs to get free, Werdegast says "Let me help you", very nobly interrupting his torture of Poelzig to aid this lady in distress, and Peter busts in and immediately shoots the poor doctor in cold blood! Murder! If Peter had've come across Werdegast right in the act of flaying Poelzig and shot him then and there out of shock, that would be more understandable, even if he totally owes the man a bouquet at his funeral. But the hero comes across badly here, especially considering he'd done literally nothing else during the climax, leaving Werdegast to do everything.

Bela Lugosi plays the hero for a change here, and does a great job. He's just unhinged enough, but not so much that you can't accept him as the good guy. But since the 1930s era was probably contractually obligated to star someone handsome, David Manners is technically the lead. But we know who the real stars are! Boris Karloff, meanwhile, is at his best. There's a real sinister edge to his performance, and he plays the role with a calm malevolence, his eyes expressing pure hatred. He's also made-up in a very interesting way, looking the opposite of Frankenstein.

When it comes to effects, The Black Cat is pretty light. The violence is all offscreen, so squeamish people might not be too traumatised. But then again, the suggestion of violence can often hold a greater impact than just seeing it right there.

The set design here is standout. Poelzig's house has strange architecture, and it's a creative location for such a movie. Everything down to the windows, and the altars, is designed with an eye for detail. The direction is equally great, with clever uses of shadows and silhouettes, often heightening the tension, and introducing characters strikingly.

The music here is predominately made up of classical pieces, and thankfully they mesh quite well, never feeling like a cheap excuse to not score a real soundtrack (even though it probably was).

The Black Cat is one of the 1930s' most intense horror films, and well worth a watch! If anyone tries to tell you that old horror movies can't hold a candle to newer stuff, just show 'em this and watch them shiver...

The Raven

Dr. Richard Vollin is a brilliant but eccentric surgeon. Though retired from practice, he is convinced to perform a delicate operation to save the life of young Jean Thatcher, daughter of a noted judge. He becomes infatuated with the girl, and conspires to win her for himself. When her father objects, Vollin intends on using his morbid fascination with Edgar Allan Poe, and a desperate convict, to sweep away all his obstacles...

The Raven is another delightfully spooky turn from horror's greatest pair. Despite its title, this isn't an adaption of The Raven, but then again it never really attempts to be, instead telling an original story drawing inspiration from Poe's work in general. This creates an ooky atmosphere full of shadows and poetry, with a highlight being the ballet dance during a recital of the titular poem.

The story is set up well. Vollin is the first character introduced to us, and seems like a nice enough fellow, until obsession gets the better of him, and either twists his mind, or exposes it for what it really is. 

The escaped convict Bateman is also introduced relatively quickly, busting his way into Vollin's study, insisting at gunpoint that the doctor change his face. Vollin is unfazed by the surprise entrance. It's fantastic how he so effortlessly turns the tables, without Bateman or you realising it's happened until it's too late, and suddenly the man who was being forced into a criminal's demands is now the one giving instructions. 

Vollin does indeed change Bateman's face, but instead of hiding his identity, he cruelly disfigures the man, in order to force him to do his bidding, or else he won't reverse the process. One of the film's big scares is the reveal of Bateman's face after the operation. The music slowly builds up as he realises something terrible is the matter, and we gradually zoom out, 

While Vollin is undoubtedly the villain of the piece, the two do share a great game of wits, like when the man doctor is demonstrating one of his torture devices, and arrogantly lies down right where the shackles can spring up, and Bateman sends a sharp pendulum slowly descending, until an increasingly worried Vollin reminds him he's the only one who can restore the convict's old face. This works, but Bateman soon realises he probably should've let the pendulum just do its work, once he comes to the conclusion that Vollin is hardly a man of his word. This all culminates in a great last battle.

With the villains as the true stars of the film, the actual protagonists don't command our attention nearly as much, but they are decent. Jean and her fiancee Jerry are decent enough. Her father is a reasonable authority figure, who can see what's going on and tries his best to ward Vollin away, earning him a spot on a rack. The family also have a few friends, including [an older couple, and a slightly older couple]. They're primarily for comic relief, and do the job well. I'm glad they don't get killed, because they were fun. Most amusing is how the older couple manages to sleep through the entire events of the climax! Lucky bastards.

The last act is mixed. On one hand it's great, full of cool deathtraps and last-minute rescues. On the other hand it only makes up the last 10 minutes of the film! Granted it's only an hour long anyway, but still. The pacing is never off, but I do wish there was a longer climax, and more time spent on the torture devices (not to mention a juicy victim or two!). Though it is good that we don't get too much, and have the lustre worn off.

The overall tone of The Raven is a good one. It manages to be spooky and funny, in equal measure. There's a good balance, so while the movie always could've been more ghoulish, the atmosphere is never spoiled by the humour. The dialogue can get pretty amusing in places, like the blase "See here Vollin, things like this just can't be done". The 1930s was a time when you could give people a politely worded telling-off for putting others in deadly traps. A much more respectful time.

Onto the acting. Bela Lugosi delivers a standout performance here. He plays calm and well-adjusted, and maniacal, cackling like a true madman. He manages to outshine Boris Karloff, whose role is comparatively more mundane, though he still makes the most of it. He, brings a level of humanity and brutality to his role.

The rest of the cast is fine. Irene Ware is always a welcome treat, and Lester Matthews is satisfactory. Inez Courtney and Ian Wolfe are a hoot, and I enjoyed every scene they're in. Spencer Charters and Maidel Turner are fine too, as is Samuel S. Hinds.

The sets in The Raven are great. The house looks fantastic, and its spooky basement would be a treasure trove for enthusiasts of the macabre (raises my hand). The effects are good too. The make-up Boris gets on his face might not be as memorable or intricate as Frankenstein or the Mummy, but it still looks good, and satisfies.

The Raven is an enjoyable example of classic horror, and gives just enough to treat any fans of the genre...

These two icons of horror worked together many times over the years, always to great effect. Interestingly enough, both The Raven and The Black Cat would each receive two new versions over the years, the former starring Karloff once again, and the other...ahem, 'featuring' Bela. And both films are linked in that neither have the slightest connection with Edgar Allan Poe...

1 comment:

  1. The Black Cat is an awesome film, but yeah, I wasn't keen on the ending. I saw the Lugosi character as more of a tragic anti-hero than a hero - I guessed he was doomed, but the way he was killed was disappointing. The architecture is really fantastic - must have looked even more amazing at the time.