Not to be confused with the 1941 version also featuring Bela Lugosi.

The Black Cat
Black cat poster.jpeg
Original 1934 theatrical poster
Directed by Edgar G. Ulmer
Written by Peter Ruric, screenplay, based on Ulmer's scenario
Starring Boris Karloff
Béla Lugosi
David Manners
Music by Heinz Eric Roemheld
Distributed by Universal Pictures
Release date(s) May 18, 1934 (NY)[1]
Running time 65 minutes
Country USA
Language English
Budget $95,745.31[2]

The Black Cat is a 1934 horror film that became Universal Pictures' biggest box office hit of the year. The picture was the first of eight movies (six of which were produced by Universal) to pair actors Béla Lugosi and Boris Karloff. Edgar G. Ulmer directed the film, which was also notable for being one of the first movies with an almost continuous music score. Lugosi also appears in a 1941 film with the same title.


Newlyweds Peter and Joan Alison, on their honeymoon in Hungary, learn that due to a mixup, they must share a train compartment with Dr. Vitus Werdegast (Béla Lugosi), a psychiatrist. Eighteen years before, Werdegast went to war, never seeing his wife again. He has spent the last 15 years in an infamous prison camp. On the train, the doctor explains that he is traveling to see an old friend, Hjalmar Poelzig (Boris Karloff), an Austrian architect. Later, the doctor, Peter, and Joan, share a bus, which crashes on a desolate, rain-swept road. Joan is injured, and the doctor and Peter take her to Poelzig's home, built upon the ruins of Fort Marmorus, which Poelzig commanded during the war. Werdegast treats Joan's injury, administering the hallucinogen hyoscine, causing the woman to behave erratically. Later, Werdegast accuses Poelzig of betraying the fort during the war to the Russians, resulting in the death of thousands of Hungarians. He also accuses Poelzig of stealing his wife while he was in prison. Early on in the movie, Werdegast kills Poelzig's black cat, but Poelzig, who keeps dead women on display in glass cases, carries a black cat around the house with him while he oversees the women's apparently sleeping forms (this use of the black cat an allusion to the story the movie is suggested by, Edgar Allan Poe's "The Black Cat"). Poelzig plans to sacrifice Joan Alison in a satanic ritual during the dark of the moon. He is seen reading a book called The Rites of Lucifer, while a beautiful blonde woman sleeps next to him. The blonde is Werdegast's daughter; one of the women in the glass cases is Werdegast's wife. Werdegast bides his time, waiting for the right moment to strike down the mad architect who used to be his friend.



The Black Cat was the biggest box office hit of the year for Universal and was the first of eight movies (six of which were produced by Universal) to pair actors Béla Lugosi and Boris Karloff. Director Edgar G. Ulmer's film was part of a boom in horror "talkies" following the release of Dracula and Frankenstein in 1931. The film exploited the popularity of Poe and the horror genre, as well as a sudden public interest in psychiatry.[4]

The film has little to do with Edgar Allan Poe's short story "The Black Cat", though Poe's name is listed in the credits. Peter Ruric (better known as pulp writer "Paul Cain") wrote the screenplay.

The classical music soundtrack, compiled by Heinz Eric Roemheld, is unusual for its time, because there is an almost continuous background score throughout the entire film.

The movie bears no relation to the 1941 film of the same name starring Basil Rathbone except for the presence of Lugosi in both pictures.

The film – and by extension, the character of Hjalmar Poelzig – draws inspiration from the life of occultist Aleister Crowley.[5] The name Poelzig was borrowed from architect Hans Poelzig, whom Ulmer claimed to have worked with on the sets for Paul Wegener's silent film The Golem.

Critical reception and impactEdit

The film was well received by critics and the public. On the movie review aggregation site Rotten Tomatoes, the film received an average rating from critics of 85%. The film was also ranked #68 on Bravo's 100 Scariest Movie Moments for its "skinning" scene.[6] The critic Philip French has called it "the first (and best) of seven Karloff/Lugosi joint appearances. The movie unfolds like a nightmare that involves necrophilia, ailurophobia, drugs, a deadly game of chess, torture, flaying, and a black mass with a human sacrifice. This bizarre, utterly irrational masterpiece, lasting little more than an hour, has images that bury themselves in the mind." [7]

Clips from The Black Cat appear in the 1968 film Head, starring musical group The Monkees. The soundtrack album includes a clip called "Superstitious", consisting of the following lines:

David Manners: "Sounds like a lot of supernatural baloney to me."
Bela Lugosi: "Supernatural, perhaps; baloney, perhaps not."

See alsoEdit


  1. Brown, Gene (1995). Movie Time: A Chronology of Hollywood and the Movie Industry from Its Beginnings to the Present. New York: Macmillan. p. 119. ISBN 0-02-860429-6.  In New York, the film opened at the Roxy Theatre, the location of numerous Universal film premieres.
  2. Michael Brunas, John Brunas & Tom Weaver, Universal Horrors: The Studios Classic Films, 1931-46, McFarland, 1990 p83
  3. Rovin, Jeff (1977), The Supernatural Movie Quizbook, Drake Publishers, ISBN 0847315037, 9780847315031
  4. Neimeyer, Mark. "Poe and popular culture" as collected in The Cambridge Companion to Edgar Allan Poe, Kevin J. Hayes, editor. Cambridge University Press, 2002. ISBN 0-521-79727-6 pp. 216-7
  5. Everson, William K. (1974). Classics of the Horror Film. Citadel Press. pp. 121–124. ISBN 0-8065-0595-8. 
  6. "Bravo's "100 Scariest Movie Moments"". 
  7. Philip French's DVD club, No 92, The Observer 4 November 2007

External links Edit


Template:Edgar G. Ulmer

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