Wednesday, February 29, 2012
Saturday, February 11, 2012
I’ll see if I can get it all straight. Lugosi is Dr. Vitus Werdegast, who has just been released from a World War I prison camp, and is on his way to the home of Hjalmar Poelzig (Karloff), whose actions during the war resulted in the deaths of many men as well as Werdegast’s imprisonment. The purpose of Werdegast’s visit is revenge, and to learn the fate of the wife and daughter he left behind. During his journey, Dr. Werdegast encounters a pair of honeymooning Americans played by David Manners and Jacqueline Wells. The three end up on an ill-fated bus trip that results in them all staying in Poelzig’s imposing mansion, so that the young bride can recover from injuries sustained when the bus crashed. Werdegast learns that his wife has died (possibly murdered by Poelzig) and that his daughter has subsequently become Poelzig’s bride. Oh, and apparently Poelzig is also the leader of a satanic cult, and Werdegast is afraid of cats.
Yes, it’s all a bit convoluted, but somehow none of that matters, because at the center of it all Karloff and Lugosi make wonderful adversaries. The way they toy with each other’s emotions and psyche becomes a waltz of intimidation. Manners and Wells seem to only be there to get into danger as the battle escalates. In fact Wells’ soul purpose is apparently to scream and be rescued. In another era this film could have been just the two men and a chessboard. The two leads are all it really needs.
Of course there are a few other elements that make The Black Cat stand out. There’s a gruesome, though mostly left to the imagination, torture scene at the end, and there’s Poelzig’s rather perverse inclination for collecting the corpses of beautiful women (including Werdegast’s wife) in glass cases. Nice components, but they’re hastily assembled. Like The Mummy, the movie’s greatest assets are its stars.
And if you’ve never read the Edgar Allan Poe story that lends its name to the film, don’t worry about spoilers. Of the three Poe adaptations I’ve viewed so far, this one bears the least resemblance to its source material. In fact, I think the only reason Lugosi’s character has a fear of cats is to justify the title.
This week’s supporting features:
Tom and Jerry in The Midnight Snack (1941)
The Our Gang short The Pooch (1932)
She-Wolf of London (1946) starring June Lockhart, Don Porter, Sara Haden, and Jan Wiley
Dracula’s Daughter is a strange attempt at continuing the story from 1931’s Dracula. Universal was obviously desperate to cash-in on the first movie’s success. At it’s heart it’s a worthy story, and might have done better if it were allowed to stand on its own rather than use the Browning / Lugosi film as a crutch.
The core story is intriguing. The title character, Countess Marya Zaleska, played by Gloria Holden, is actually trying to free herself of the curse that consumed her father. When Dracula’s death fails to rid her of her hunger for human blood, she turns to a psychiatrist, Otto Kruger as Dr. Jeffrey Garth, for help. I found the idea of vampirism as addiction a refreshing take on the genre, even if Dr. Garth’s methods of surrounding an addict with that which tempts him or her are absurd in today’s world. The Countess’ desire to rehabilitate herself makes her a much more sympathetic character than her father. She comes off, not as evil, but as a soul tortured by her own needs.
I really enjoyed Gloria Holden’s performance. It might easily be mistaken as lifeless, but I think it’s just right. The sadness in her eyes and mysteriousness in her voice are just what the character requires. I even wonder if her portrayal had any influence on Carolyn Jones years later in The Addams Family. If only the rest of the film had been more tightly constructed.
The first problem the film has is its attempt to begin exactly where Dracula left off. This movie opens just moments after the last one’s climax as two policeman discover the body of Renfield, and Professor Van Helsing (again played by Edward Van Sloan) emerges from the next room having just staked the Count. He is immediately arrested under suspicion of double murder. I suspect with no television or home video market, the filmmakers assumed audiences would simply forget that John Harker and Mina were also on the scene, or that Doctor Seward could corroborate Van Helsing’s story. Van Helsing seems to have forgotten as well because he can only think to defend his case by bringing his colleague, Dr. Garth in to vouch for his character. Somehow, even in the 1930s, I doubt audiences were that forgetful.
Another problem is the film’s use of humor. In other horror classics like Bride of Frankenstein, The Invisible Man, and Werewolf of London humor balances out the more serious aspects of the stories rather well. Here it seems odd and fairly forced. I’ve read in the early stages of developing a Dracula sequel that James Whale was the first choice to direct. As Whale directed two of the films I just mentioned, I wonder if the awkward use of humor here was an attempt to imitate Whale’s style.
Finally, in need of a climax, the last act of the film abandons the psychological plot threads to fall back on the old rescuing-the-damsel cliché. The Countess abruptly give up on her decades-old quest for inner peace and decides to embrace her curse, although in a bit of a twist, Dr. Garth was willing to share her curse in order to save the damsel.
With a better script, the Countess could have stood shoulder-to-shoulder with her more iconic counterpart from Bride of Frankenstein; instead she’s relegated to mere cult status. Still the film is worth watching, and maybe occasionally revisiting thanks to an enjoyable performance by its lead actress.
This week’s supporting features:
Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and Goofy in Orphan’s Benefit (1934)
The Our Gang short Spanky (1932)
The Black Cat (1934) starring Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, David Manners, and Julie Bishop