I am pretty certain that I have loved Edgar G. Ulmer’s The Black Cat longer than any other film. That means about 50 years. Oh, I’d loved the movies — especially older horror movies — in a broad sense, but The Black Cat was the first film I realized was something special. I had no real idea how it was special — and the idea of a director having something to do with it hadn’t even entered my head at that point. (It would take repeated viewings of the then-available three James Whale horror films to cause that penny to drop in the slot.) There isn’t even any way I could have really understood the story. I just knew it was different — and it looked and sounded terrific. In fact, it was the single greatest factor in striking an interest in classical music. The dividends it has paid over the years are incalculable.
The Black Cat is unquestionably the better film of this duo. In fact, it’s one of those horror movies that completely transcends the genre to simply be a great film on any basis. Everything about the film is beautifully controlled and brilliantly executed. The screenplay is as witty as it is dark, with its tale of a honeymooning mystery novelist (David Manners) and his wife (Jacqueline Wells). The couple become unwitting pawns in a game of death between an embittered and slightly unhinged psychiatrist (Lugosi) and the wholly evil leader (Karloff) of a Satanist cult. The acting is very fine. (This is almost certainly Lugosi’s best performance.) The all-classical musical score put together by director Edgar G. Ulmer and musical director Heinz Roemheld is perfect (and launched a generation of classical music fans). And then there’s the nonstop creativity of the direction itself. It had to be creative, since there was very little money available. (The entire train station opening is lifted from the 1932 British film Rome Express and many of the impressive-looking sets are painted flats.) There really is nothing quite like it.
I’ve spent years dissecting The Black Cat and writing about it—in far more detail than I can possibly undertake here. Let me just say that it’s a film with unusually deep characterizations for both its stars. Lugosi’s betrayed and long-suffering Dr. Vitus Werdegast (returning from 15 years in a Russian prison, thanks to the Karloff character’s traitorous actions during World War I) is particularly fine—even, on occasion, deeply moving. Moreover, it’s a horror film that stands the traditional trappings of the genre on their head, since the bulk of the action takes place in the nightmarishly sleek, Bauhaus-inspired home of the treacherous Hjalmar Poelzig (Karloff), where even the Satanic altar has been given the modernist treatment. (That last probably helped sidestep the censors in terms of an inverted crucifix!)
Louis Friedlander’s The Raven is something else again. Friedlander was promoted to this film from serials — and presumably because Ulmer fell out of favor with the studio for running off with the wife of one the owner’s relatives. Otherwise, Ulmer as director of The Black Cat — supposedly Universal’s biggest moneymaker of 1934 — would have been back. Friedlander’s background shows. Where everything was style on top of style in The Black Cat, here the stylistic flourishes are few and far between, limited to a clever camera angle here and there with a basic stand-‘em-up-and-shoot-‘em mindset more in evidence. As filmmaking, it’s nicely competent—most of the time. (It probably cannot be blamed on Friedlander that the credits mix up the roles being played by Ian Wolfe and Spencer Charters, and it’s unlikely he chose to re-use the music from The Black Cat andWerewolf of London (1935) for most of the film.)
The biggest thing The Raven has going for it is Lugosi. It is pretty much all his film — and the only film ever to afford him that special last-name-only billing they were giving Karloff at the time. (At least that’s true on the credits. The posters still went with “Bela (DRACULA) LUGOSI” — a measure of just how typecast that one role made him.) This is Lugosi at his most lip-smacking evil in a story that not only allows him to go over the top, but demands it. And no one could go over the top as well as Lugosi. Top-billed Karloff didn’t stand a chance — and always derided the film. There’s no denying that it’s silly stuff. This, after all, is a movie where Lugosi just happens to have an operating room with six mirror — with remote controlled curtains — arranged so that Karloff will empty his gun into them when he gets a look at his new face. (Why Lugosi didn’t just take the gun from him while he was operating on him is a separate question.) But it’s divinely silly stuff.