Karloff and Lugosi: you get them both in 1934's The Black Cat. But what's even better, what makes this match-up of two of horror's most iconic performers truly noteworthy is that, with it's tale of lost love and revenge, The Black Cat ultimately delivers Karloff vs. Lugosi!
Lugosi is Dr. Vitus Werdegast, a former soldier who just spent 15 years in prison following his capture in World War I, and Karloff is Hjalmar Poelzig, an architect who was not only directly responsible for Werdegast's incarceration, but who also seduced the good doctor's wife and daughter. The two square off in Poelzig's strange mansion, which was built on the site of one of the war's bloodiest battles. The story is an engaging one, and provides the two legendary stars with everything they require to make The Black Cat a memorable horror film.
Lugosi has always been an actor with a flair for the spectacular, and I absolutely love watching him perform. In The Black Cat, he's his usual hypnotic self, delivering his lines as if every single one of them were of the gravest importance (When relating the story of his time in Kurgaal prison, he says, ever so dramatically, “Many men have died there” (dramatic pause) “Few have returned” (slightly longer dramatic pause) “I have returned”). His theatrical approach to the role extends well beyond the delivery of his lines; in one scene, Lugosi shrinks in horror at the sight of a black cat, falling backwards and covering his face, as if the sight of this animal had wounded him to his very soul.
Karloff is more subdued in his performance, yet is, at the same time, much more diabolical than his equally famous counterpart. In fact, I'd categorize his Hjalmar Poelzig is evil personified. Along with his penchant for black cats, there's the fact that he collects the bodies of deceased women, which he preserves and then displays in glass cabinets, so that he might forever admire their beauty. And if that's not enough to chill your blood, Poelzig is also the high priest of a devil-worshiping cult. Whereas Lugosi is the more flamboyant of the two, it's Karloff who brings the true terror of this story to the surface.
There are a few other characters who pop up from time to time throughout The Black Cat, including a pair of newlyweds (played by David Manners and Jacqueline Wells) who are along for the ride, but they remain neatly in the background. The Black Cat is a movie that belongs to two legends, and it's story, which twists in all the right ways, provides them both with ample opportunity to shine.
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