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The Black Cat

Original 1934 theatrical poster
Directed by Edgar G. Ulmer
Written by Edgar G. Ulmer
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  United States
Language English

The Black Cat is a 1934 horror film that became Universal Pictures' biggest box office hit of the year. It was the first of six movies to pair actors Béla Lugosi and Boris Karloff. Edgar G. Ulmer both wrote the screenplay and directed the film. 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.


Plot summary

Two young honeymooners, Peter and Joan Alison, are vacationing in Hungary when they learn that due to a mix up in the reservations, they must share a train compartment with Dr. Vitus Werdegast (Béla Lugosi), a psychiatrist. The doctor explains that he is traveling to see an old friend, Hjalmar Poelzig (Boris Karloff), an Austrian architect. Werdegast had left his wife to go to war 18 years ago, and has spent the last 15 years in an infamous prison camp. Later, when the car the three share crashes and Joan is injured, they take her to Poelzig's home, built upon the ruins of Fort Marmorus, which Poelzig commanded during the war. After Werdegast treats Joan's injury, he accuses Poelzig of betraying the fort to the Russians, resulting in the death of thousands of Hungarians. He also accuses Poelzig of stealing his wife while he was in prison. Poelzig plans to sacrifice Joan Alison in a satanic ritual.



The Black Cat 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.[2]

The opening titles and the closing credits do not mention Boris Karloff's first name. Also the advertisements (for example, the poster in this article's info box) referred to him only as "Karloff". At the time, Karloff was the bigger star (a fact that rankled Lugosi, who had burst into stardom earlier with Dracula), hence the special billing. Even though Lugosi had the lead role, Karloff received top billing. Karloff's role is the adversary, and main source of fright of the story, while Lugosi is the tragic hero.

The film has little to do with Edgar Allan Poe's famous story of the same name, though Poe's name is listed in the credits.

The film – and by extension, the character of Hjalmar Poelzig – draws inspiration from the life of occultist Aleister Crowley.[3] 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 impact

The film was well received by critics and the public. On the movie review aggregation site Rotten Tomatoes, the movie received an average rating from critics of 85%. On the Internet Movie Database, the movie received an average user rating of 7.3. The film was also ranked #68 on Bravo's 100 Scariest Movie Moments for its "skinning" scene.

See also


  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 0-02-86042906.   In New York, the film opened at the Roxy Theatre, the location of numerous Universal film premieres.
  2. ^ 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 0521797276 pp. 216-7
  3. ^ Everson, William K. (1974). Classics of the Horror Film. Citadel Press. pp. 121–124. ISBN 0-8065-0595-8.  

External links



Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikiquote

The Black Cat is a 1934 film about American honeymooners in Hungary who are trapped in the home of a Satan-worshiping priest when the bride is taken there for medical help following a road accident.

Written and directed by Edgar G. Ulmer.
Things you never saw before or even dreamed of! tagline


Hjalmar Poelzig

  • You must be indulgent with Dr. Werdegast's weakness. He is the unfortunate victim of one of the commoner phobias, but in an extreme form. He has an intense and all-consuming horror of cats.
  • Come, Vitus, are we men or are we children? Of what use are all these melodramatic gestures? You say your soul was killed and that you have been dead all these years. And what of me? Did we not both die here in Marmorus fifteen 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 thirsty for my blood. We understand each other too well. We know too much of life. We shall play a little game, Vitus. A game of death, if you like. But under any circumstances, we shall have to wait until these people have gone, until we are alone.
  • [to Karen] Oh, it's nothing. Only an accident in the road below. I want you to stay in this room all day tomorrow Karen. You are the very core and meaning of my life. No one shall take you from me. Not even Vitus, not even your father.
  • Did you hear that, Vitus? The phone is dead. Even the phone is dead.

Dr. Vitus Werdegast

  • After all, better to be frightened than to be crushed.
  • [to Peter, about his stroking Joan's hair while she sleeps] I beg your indulgence my friend. Eighteen years ago, I left a girl so like your lovely wife to go to war...She was my wife. Have you ever heard of Kurgaal? It is a prison below Amsk...Many men have gone there. Few have returned. I have returned. After fifteen years, I have returned.
  • It has been a long time Hjalmar. The years have been kind to you.
  • [to Poelzig] You sold Marmorus to the Russians. You scurried away in the night and left us to die. Is it to be wondered that you should choose this place to build your house? A masterpiece of construction built upon the ruins of the masterpiece of destruction — a masterpiece of murder. [laughs hideously] The murderer of 10,000 men returns to the place of his crime. Those who died were fortunate. I was taken prisoner at Kurgaal. Kurgaal, where the soul is killed, slowly. Fifteen years I've rotted in the darkness. But not to kill you, but to kill your soul — slowly. Where is my wife, Karen, and my daughter?
  • [to Peter, about Poelzig's house] It is indeed hard to describe. It's hard to describe his life — or death. It may well be an atmosphere of death. This place was built upon the ruins of the same Ft. Marmorus that our unfortunate friend, the driver, described so vividly. Herr Poelzig commanded Marmorus during the last years of the war. He is perhaps sentimental about this spot.
  • Supernatural, perhaps... Baloney, perhaps not. There are many things under the sun.
  • [to Thamal] We must bide our time until others aren't involved. This place is so undermined with dynamite that the slightest mistake by one of us would cause the destruction of all. Until I tell you different, you are his servant, not mine.
  • [to Poelzig] Do you know what I am going to do to you now? No? Did you ever see an animal skinned, Hjalmar? Ha, ha, ha. That's what I'm going to do to you now — flay the skin from your body...slowly...bit by bit!
  • [to Poelzig] How does it feel to hang on your own embalming rack, Hjalmar?
  • It's the red switch, isn't it Hjalmar? The red switch ignites the dynamite. (He activates one of the large switches.) Five minutes and Marmaros, you and I, and your rotten cult will be no more...
  • It has been a good game.


  • Bus Driver: All of this country was one of the greatest battlefields of the war. Tens of thousands of men died here. The ravine down there was piled twelve deep with dead and wounded men. The little river below was swollen red, a raging torrent of blood. And that high hill yonder where Engineer Poelzig now lives, was the site of Fort Marmorus. He built his home on its very foundations. Marmorus, the greatest graveyard in the world.
  • Peter Allison: [to Werdegast, about Poelzig] Well, I suppose we've got to have architects too. If I wanted to build a nice, cozy, unpretentious insane asylum, he'd be the man for it.
  • Newspaper review: In Triple Murder, Mr. Alison's latest mystery thriller, he fulfills the promise shown...We feel, however, that Mr. Alison has, in a sense, overstepped the bounds of the matter of credibility. These things would never, but with a further stretch of the imagination, actually happen. We could wish that Mr. Alison would confine himself to the possible instead of letting his melodramatic imagination run away with him.


Werdegast: You told Karen I had been killed...I mean you always wanted her. In the days at Salzburg before the war, always from the first time you saw her...You wanted Karen and induced her to go to America with you. I traced the two of you there, and to Spain, and to South America and finally here. Where is she?
Poelzig: Vitus, you are mad!

Werdegast: [about Joan's unusual cat-like behavior] It is perhaps the narcotic. I have seen it affect certain people very oddly. One cannot be sure. Sometimes, these cases take strange forms. The victim becomes in a sense, 'mediumistic,' a vehicle for all the intangible forces in operation around her.
Peter: Sounds like a lot of supernatural baloney to me.
Werdegast: Supernatural, perhaps - baloney, perhaps not! There are many things under the sun.
Poelzig: I shall show you your rooms.
Peter: It's strange about the cat. Joan seemed so curiously affected when you killed it.
Werdegast: That was coincidence, I think. However, certain ancient books say that the Black Cat is the living embodiment of Evil. And if that Evil enters into the nearest living thing, it is...
Poelzig: [interrupting] The Black Cat does not die. Those same books, if I'm not mistaken, teach that the Black Cat is deathless. Deathless as Evil. It is the origin of the common superstition. You know, the cat with nine lives.

Poelzig: And this was the entrance to the gun turrets. Don't you recognize it?
Werdegast: I can still sense death in the air.
Poelzig: There is still death in the air. It is just as much undermined [with dynamite] today as ever. And this is the old chart room for the long-range guns. The guns are gone, but the charts are still here.

Poelzig: [motioning to Werdegast's wife, in a glass sarcophagus] Now you see, Vitus, I have cared for her tenderly and well. You will find her almost as beautiful as when you last saw her. She died two years after the war.
Werdegast: How?
Poelzig: Of pneumonia. She was never very strong, you know.
Werdegast: And, and the child, our daughter?
Poelzig: Dead.
Werdegast: And why is she...Why is she like this?
Poelzig: Is she not beautiful? I wanted to have her beauty - always. I loved her too, Vitus.
Werdegast: Lies. All lies Hjalmar. You killed her. You killed her as I'm about to kill you!
[A black cat enters, paralyzing Werdegast with fear]

Poelzig: [about Joan] You're interested?
Werdegast: Maybe.
Poelzig: I thought so. Well I'm not. Only spiritually.
Werdegast: Spiritually?
Poelzig: Tonight, it is the dark of the moon. We shall gather and...You had better come Vitus. The ceremony will interest you.
Werdegast: Don't pretend Hjalmar. There was nothing spiritual in your eyes when you looked at that girl. You plan to keep her here.
Poelzig: Perhaps.
Werdegast: I intend to let her go.
Poelzig: Is that a challenge Vitus?
Werdegast: Yes, if you dare to fight it out alone.
Poelzig: Do you dare play chess with me for her?
Werdegast: Yes. I will even play you chess for her - provided if I win, they are free to go.
Poelzig: You won't win, Vitus.

Werdegast: We are all in danger. Poelzig is a mad beast, I know. I know, I've seen the proof. He took Karen my wife and murdered her. And murdered my child.
Joan: And you let him live?
Werdegast: I wait my time. It shall be soon, very soon. Until then, I must do his bidding. That is why even my servant obeys him. Did you ever hear of Satanism, the worship of the devil, of evil? Poelzig is the great modern priest of this ancient cult, and tonight, the dark of the moon, the rites of Lucifer are celebrated. If I am not mistaken, he intends you to play a part in that ritual! A very important part. There child. Be brave, no matter how hopeless it all seems. Be brave.

Joan: Karen! Not Karen Werdegast?
Karen: Yes, yes, how did you know my name?
Joan: Well I, I know your father.
Karen: Oh no, you are mistaken. My father died in prison. Herr Poelzig married my mother. She died when I was very young.
Joan: And he married you? You're his wife?
Karen: Yes.
Joan: Karen, do you understand me? Your father has come for you.

Werdegast: Karen is dead.
Joan: No! I mean Karen, your daughter. Madame Poelzig.
Werdegast: What do you mean?
Joan: She's alive, here in this house! She's Poelzig's wife!

The "Black Mass" recited by Boris Karloff

Latin Phrases:

  • Cum grano salis. Fortis cadere cedere non potest. Humanum est errare. Lupis pilum mutat, non mentem. Magna est veritas et praevalebit. Acta exteriora indicant interiora secreta. Aequam memento rebus in arduis servare mentem. Amissum quod nescitur non amittitur. Brutum fulmen. Cum grano salis. Fortis cadere cedere non potest. Fructu, non foliis arborem aestima. Insanus omnes furere credit ceteros. Quem paenitet peccasse paene est innocens.

English translation:

  • With a grain of salt. A brave man may fall, but he cannot yield. To err is human. The wolf may change his skin, but not his nature. Truth is mighty, and will prevail. External actions show internal secrets. Remember when life's path is steep to keep your mind even. The loss that is not known is no loss at all. Heavy thunder. With a grain of salt. A brave man may fall, but he cannot yield. By fruit, not by leaves, judge a tree. Every madman thinks everybody mad. Who repents from sinning is almost innocent.


  • Things you never saw before or even dreamed of!


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