“Try to be sane.”
“You say your soul was killed, that you have been dead all these years. And what of me? Did we not both die here in Marmorus 15 years ago? Are we any the less victims of the war than those whose bodies were torn asunder? Are we not both the living dead? And now you come to me, playing at being an avenging angel, childishly thirsting for my blood. We understand each other too well. We know too much of life.” ~ Karloff in THE BLACK CAT.
You couldn’t get a more obvious Fever Dream Double Feature than the pairing of Edgar Ulmer’s THE BLACK CAT and Lew Landers’ THE RAVEN. But nor could you get a more feverish or dreamy one.
The films are a matching pair, each using Karloff and Lugosi and each “suggested” by an “immortal classic” by Edgar Allan Poe. So immortal and so classic that the filmmakers have thrown away all but the title, as was customary in Olde Hollywood (oh, to read Preston Sturges’ treatment for THE INVISIBLE MAN, set in Revolutionary Russia “The director said it was a piece of cheese.”)
THE BLACK CAT is clearly the superior film, mainly because it came first and set the pattern, and THE RAVEN is a blatant attempt to follow that pattern exactly: a mixture of the horrible, the downright bizarre and the seriously silly. The mix of humour and horror in these Universal horrors is if anything more disturbing and strange than that in James Whales’ more famous classics: when Ernest Thesiger or Una O’Connor go into their thing, it’s pretty clear there’s intentional humour afoot and we the dazzling sophisticates in the audience are invited to share in it (while turning up our noses at those louts who see only ham and grue), but Ulmer’s film repeatedly hits us with moments pitched at some unknown region between serious and hilarious. Plus there’s the discomfort of Lugosi. Laugh with Lugosi! But somehow we cannot, without the fear that maybe he really means it. Karloff used to laugh at himself and say “Here comes the heavy,” as he entered a scene, so that Ulmer’s biggest job with the actor was to keep him in character. “Not the Hungarian, of course. You had to cut away from Lugosi continuously, to cut him down.” Lugosi’s horrified reaction to the titular pussy is pure Spike Milligan, a kind of melodramatic spasm so far over the top it punches a hole in the sky.
And by the way, who is John Belton? His little book in the Hollywood Professionals series, Howard Hawks Frank Borzage Edgar Ulmer, is very good. Shoehorning three major filmmakers into one slender volume prevents a serious in-depth analysis, but Belton’s good at the snappy summary (he’d make a fine blogger). Here he is on Ulmer:
‘The world around Ulmer’s characters has no fixity and is incomprehensible. Ulmer’s world, like Poelzig’s (Karloff’s) house in THE BLACK CAT, stands upon a battlefield, is surrounded by a graveyard of the soldiers who died there and is undermined with dynamite. As one character, remarking on the presence of the dynamite, points out, “the slightest mistake by one of us could cause the destruction of all.” Ulmer’s characters, living on the brink of insanity, constantly run the risk of making that one mistake and of unleashing fantastically chaotic forces that will hound them to their own destruction.’
Beautiful — that one paragraph serves as a key to Ulmer’s best films, unlocking the meaning of their nightmarish scenarios and settings, as well as binding them together thematically into a coherent body of work (sort of like a key with a length of twine attached, or something).
That instability is only emphasised by the fact that many of Ulmer’s landscapes are tabletop miniatures, tiny and vulnerable. I particularly like the Scottish scenery of THE MAN FROM PLANET X — an arrangement of soil and twigs reminiscent of the “sculpture” Henry Spencer keeps in his bedroom in ERASERHEAD.
THE BLACK CAT throws a disparate throng of characters together in the Bauhaus castle of of Karloff (influenced by Ulmer’s conversations with author Gustav Meyrink, whose work loosely “inspired” an earlier horror classic, Paul Wegener’s DER GOLEM), leading to a black mass in cod Latin (“In vino veritas”, Karloff intones solemnly) and a flaying alive.
Ulmer’s masterstroke is the modernist design of the “castle”, a neo-brutalist affair with a concrete bunker down below (floating female corpses provide a feminine touch) and a sort of Ginger-and-Fred elegance in the living quarters. Ulmer’s background in German cinema appears to have had to do with production design, although it’s hard to work out exactly what his uncredited contributions to films like METROPOLIS and SUNRISE may have consisted of. The inspired futuristic approach here makes THE BLACK CAT look quite different from every other horror film of the period, and is responsible for much of the uncanny, oneiric ambience. Ulmer’s camera abandons the cast to drift unmoored through haunted, near-abstract spaces that retain some of the specificity of nightmare.
Further weirdness is induced by the haphazard but endlessly creative plotting. The film is great at presenting freaky ideas, weaker on follow-through, but that actually helps. Just when you expect the idea of a chess game with human lives at stake to be developed, it’s abandoned and a new wrinkle is introduced. The film jolts along like an dodgem car powered by defibrillator pads.
The goofy names (Hjalmar Poelzig and Vitus Werdegast), incongruous classical score, lumbering comedy relief and genuine eeriness — impossible to enumerate or explain the many plot turns and tonal shifts, which leave one disorientated — add up to an impossible crime of the cinema, the kind of thing no film-maker can expect to get away with. Means, motive and opportunity simply do not present themselves for a movie like this. Stumbling across it is like finding a vicar decapitated at close range in a snowy field with no footprints.
And, incredibly, Universal attempted to do it again, shamelessly, with THE RAVEN. With a peculiar approach to adaptation, this film starts by nodding its head in a friendly-but-distant manner to Poe’s poem, then proceeds to make off with most of The Pit and the Pendulum instead. Lugosi, a more-or-less sympathetic species of lunatic in THE BLACK CAT, here plays a Poe-obsessed, lovelorn neurologist with a torture chamber in his cellar. A curious hobby, someone says. “Much more than a hobby,” replies Lugosi, with sinister emphasis, and then, brightly, “Goodbye!”
“Much more than a hobby.”
A casual, cheery line-reading is always lurking around the corner with Lugosi, ready to knock us all sideways. He gives it the sepulchral creep for three lines, then flattens you with a chirpy aside. My favourite example is heard in THE INVISIBLE GHOST (directed by Joseph H. Lewis, this is a stone-cold masterpiece assembled from stray bits of crap) — describing to his family over breakfast how a murder victim came back to life in the morgue, only to die of shock upon seeing his killer, Lugosi shrugs, “It was horrible!” with the tone of one describing a bad omelet.
Karloff shows up as a wanted man desperate for a new face. Lugosi is intrigued by the notorious maniac’s history of iniquity — blasting a bank teller in the eyes with an oxy-acetylene torch, for instance. “Well, sometimes you can’t help…things like that,” grumbles Karloff, rather weakly. Turns out the fugitive loon wants not only a new mug, but a total change of identity — Karloff theorises that a more handsome kisser might make him a better guy all round. Lugosi, accepting this logic with surprising ease, decides to instead wantonly disfigure Karloff and use the resulting depraved freak to revenge himself on those who have blighted his putative love-life.
It’s not one of the better ’30s horror makeups. Reminds me a little of the unintentionally comic lopsided look Karloff sported in GRIP OF THE STRANGLER, decades later. But the mutant Karloff actually proves nicer than the original version, and Lugosi’s bestial plans gang aft aglae. The ending involves a room with walls that close in, supposedly recreating a Poe story, though the script acts shifty around the question of which story exactly…
My fave bit in Landers’ film (he made many many B-movies and TV episodes — the IMDb lists 163), asides from the line “Try to be sane!”, spoken to Lugosi in a fit of wild optimism by the chap above, is a moment when Lugosi is surprised, then indignant, at being caught emerging from his secret bookcase passageway by his manservant, who in turn also looks surprised, then indignant. The effect is hilarious in a curiously abstract way. Was it intended to be funny? There is no way to be sure. But it feels as if something genuinely unexpected has just happened and nobody knows what to do.
Both films are short (THE BLACK CAT was much hacked about by censors, due to its Satanism and sadism), around an hour apiece, making them ideal double feature material. Ulmer’s film is the real deal, a demented journey into warped inner space, while the follow-up is a too-obvious attempt to follow up with the same elements, differently configured, but both are hugely idiosyncratic entertainments from an era when the job of the horror film was not to recycle genre elements but to deliver the new and freakish and unfathomable, logic and taste be damned.
“Supernatural, perhaps. Baloney, perhaps not.”