With The Mummy generally serving no one’s interests and possibly nailing down the coffin on Universal’s Dark Universe project, let us look back at one of the best – and most underrated, non-canonical – Universal Horror films, and the first to feature their two biggest stars.
Director Edgar Ulmer’s most famous film was the sour-day, soggy-bottom 1945 noir Detour, but that film is also an apt description of Ulmer’s entire career. His films can all be found at the inflection point where a detour along the established path – a spontaneous search for a new route to the same American narrative of success – curdles into an endless circle of constant motion, a sense of incessant delay. His best films suggest that any and all detours to get us out of national, personal, and social crisis as nothing more than roads leading to nowhere.
This trance where life and death collide is the fate of Ulmer’s gloriously solemn 1934 Universal Horror film The Black Cat, most famous as a Poe adaptation and for housing the first on-screen commingling of Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. In the film, Hjalamer Poelzig (Boris Karloff) is a satanic priest who perpetrates a crime of gross mania and egotism when he not only betrays 10,000 soldiers but erects a monolithic, nightmarish manse over them as a totem to his own unflappable self-image. One of the few survivors of that massacre was Dr. Vitus Werdegast (Bela Lugosi), who served a 15 year prison sentence after in lieu of dying. Recently released only to find that Poelzig, in one final coup of evil, has stolen Werdegast’s family from him in the interim, the good doctor is infested with rage and a need for retribution.
Lensed by John Mescall as a pile-up of expressionistic angles, Poelzig’s castle is a gigantic fortress that ultimately embodies his dominion over nothing but his own ego and Werdegast’s desire for vengeance. An emanation of his own ecstatic self-imprisonment, this hellish location boasts lines of geometry that seem estranged from one another and common sense alike, each a manifestation of Poelzig’s dislocated, sorrowful soul. He has fashioned a metallic mausoleum for himself without realizing it, entombing himself in his own fell misdeeds. He is the architect of a calamity that hovers over the film, a movie that accrues the feel of a pulpy fable of extended dolorousness.
Rather than being swept along by powerful gusts of emotion to follow the characters, Mescall and Ulmer’s camera skulks around with curiosity as if searching for a new angle to perceive the two somnambulists, or from which to haunt them. The setting is caked in emptiness and stinks of disarray, every unfitting angle the unfinished sketch-work of a mind trapped in a perpetual, perennial downward motion.
A motion shared not only by Werdegast but by all of Europe, a continent that Ulmer’s film serves as wake to. An implacably melancholy film about two men wracked with memories of the past, the house at its center also recollects the mechanical infrastructure of industrial Europe and America as well as the closeted alienation and concealed existential angst of the people cast astray within them. In this sense, The Black Cat stitches the local and the universal as it produces a menacing sense of dread and an unquenchable desire to fix the past through repeating the horrible acts of yesteryear. It’s contemplative even by the Universal Horror standard, bridging the way to the lasting mournfulness of Val Lewton’s horror films of the ‘40s, several of which are among the unheralded masterworks of American horror. Poelzig sees himself as having mastery over the dead – literally building his house on their desecrated corpses – and Werdegast’s only respite is to perpetuate incalculable destruction inexhaustibly.
The European setting and sense of personal banishment from the world – faced by both of the two leads in different ways – undeniably reverberated with Ulmer’s personal life. A European expatriate himself, he lived in America in a kind of exile from the horrors of WWII, part of a wave of German and Austrian artists who fled the rise of the Nazis and said goodbye to their homeland. Tellingly, The Black Cat also includes an American man (named Peter Allison, played by David Manners) in Europe away from his own country. This feel for expulsion and all its manifestations looms large over the film. Although exuberantly, extravagantly Art Deco, the exultancy of the craft is counterpointed by the ruination of the soul and the desolation of the world – a sense of impermanence that these surface-level ornaments of beauty and style only tentatively conceal.
All construction inevitably leads back to the ashes for Ulmer, a director for whom the world was defined by chronic failures to arrive at catharsis, a legion of alternate routes that ultimately return to continued stasis. And the people walking these crestfallen trails came face to face only with the immortal fact that we are all eternally in search of a past that exists outside us. The Black Cat stirringly provokes us to note that Universal Horror cinema was a string of bent worldviews fashioned out of the wiry, malnourished corpse of one war and inevitably leading with fatalistic mystique to the next.