Two great horror stars crossing paths
The Black Cat is one of just a few occasions when Boris Karloff and Bela Legosi were paired up on screen. Their characters are suitably twisted, and are in fact pitted against each other in an oddly polite little battle. Are they the more twisted for their undercurrents of hate and misdeeds, or for this surface gentlemanly behvior?
The movie uses a typical fish-out-of-water scenario of a couple, Peter and Joan Alison, on their Honeymoon in - of all places - Hungary. He's a detective novel author, and she's a typical damsel-in-distress sort, quite versed in the art of fainting. They are being driven cross country, along with Dr. Vitus Werdegast (Legosi), when the car goes off the road, and they must seek help at the nearby home of Hjalmar Poelzig (Karloff). And it's not just any home, it's a very swank, ultramodern place, built on the ruins of a WWI castle, a scene of much death and destruction.
Naturally, there's something suspicious in Poelzig's demeanor, and Werdegast is similarly off-kilter in the house. Familiar themes crop up - they are far from help, the Alisons' attempts to leave early are politely frowned upon, and sinister information from the past begins to surface. Werdegast has long believed his wife and daughter to be dead. As it turns out, they have been with Poelzig all along - the wife in some kind of suspended animation, and Werdegast's daughter now is Poelzig's secret wife. And who does it really surprise that Poelzig also leads a local devil-worshipping cult?
The premise itself is worthy of these two greats duking it out, but something disappears on the way to the screen. Perhaps their overt politeness dulls the tension between them. Or maybe it's the mechanical escalation of the plot. Definitely a big part is how dated the film is. We are cynical filmgoers, and require a certain cynicism on screen to believe what we see. Things aren't scary anymore because they're scary - we need to believe that we could be fooled as well.
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