There is an owl hooting outside my window right now, which is fitting with my mood after watching the horror classic The Black Cat (and pretty creepy.)
The Black Cat (1934) has nothing to do with owls, rather an actual cat that causes episodes for Dr. Vitus Werdegast (Bela Lugosi) while staying at the house of his nemesis Hjalmar Poelzig (Boris Karloff.) The film’s plot is based on the concept from a story by Edgar Allen Poe.
Of course there is more to fear at Poelzig’s house than cats lurking in the shadows.
As fate would have it, Dr. Werdegast ends up there after a bus accident on the road just below the house along with a young couple who just got married.
Thinking they will all just be there for one night, it becomes clear for Dr. Werdegast and the couple, Peter and Joan Allison, that Poelzig has other plans in mind.
For one, he needs to settle a feud with Dr. Werdegast, or the other way around, going back at least 15 years when the doctor was in jail for a crime he didn’t commit and meanwhile Poelzig was after his wife and daughter.
I won’t reveal their fate, but from the beginning it’s clear Dr. Werdegast is the good guy here and Poelzig is pure evil.
Lugosi, having played Dracula, and Karloff, known for his performance as Frankenstein, kept those personas in this film through their mannerisms and dialogue, even if it wasn’t intentional.
As far as horror films go, The Black Cat clearly paved the way for styles and plot points used in the genre today yet I don’t think anything like it has been made since then — at least that I’ve seen.
It could be inspiration on some level for any horror film starting with the premise that its characters are stranded in a remote cabin and forced to contend with evil spirits, a serial killer or one of their own. More often than not recent films have the characters willingly traveling to a locale that breeds bad things, The Cabin in the Woods, The Strangers, Creep; whereas The Black Cat truly places unsuspecting characters, at least at first, in a dangerous situation they don’t know is unfolding.
The film builds to be about the feud between Dr. Werdegast and Poelzig and then translates their issues with each other to the fate of the Allisons, who do slowly start to see something is amiss.
Stylistically, the film uses music in almost every scene that borders between light-hearted and a tone more fitting for a horror plot. It also captures the odd architecture and secret passageways in Poelzig’s home to show there is more than meets the eye throughout the whole story.
I will watch for characteristics of The Black Cat in horror films that I see from now on, but for now it’s clear the film set a precedent in the genre while keeping its own unique reputation after all these years.