Today I’m joining Tiffany from pure entertainment preservation society (PEPS) in her first and awesome blogathon centered around October 14, which is TODAY, and also the 129th birthday of Joseph I. Breen, the head of the Production Code Administration. My film choice is from an era before the Breen Production Code was actually carried out and I explained, as required, what I think makes The Black Cat a pre-code film.
If you wish to know more about the Production Code during the Breen era, head over to PEPS’s blog.
Also… Tiffany just sent me the link to day 2 of the Breenathon, which includes myself and other wonderful participants’ contributions and tributes, so you can check them out on there as well.
Welcome to my entry for The Great Breening Blogathon!
The enigmatic Horror The Black Cat (1934) stars two iconic actors Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi pairing up for the time. It is 65 minutes long and released two months before the Production Code was enforced. The film is an obvious pre-code simply because it’s undoubtedly a boundary crosser, according to the code’s guidelines, and includes unpleasant themes such as Pedophilia, Necrophilia, human sacrifice, torture, drug abuse, and Ailurophobia (dread of cats).
** The code required all films released on or after July 1, 1934 to obtain a certificate of approval before being released (according to Wikipedia).
Just as I like ’em, the plot is slightly based on a short story written by Edgar Allan Poe. It entails American honeymooners, Joan and Peter Alison, travelling in Hungary by train and encountering a mysterious man named Dr. Vitus Werdegast (Béla Lugosi), which seems oddly taken by the two lovebirds. Following a road accident in which the bride is injured, Dr. Vitus takes the Alisons to the eerie home of an old friend, one Hjalmar Poelzig, a villainous occultist, to recuperate. Trapped and kept from leaving, the lovers end up caught in a strife of good and evil.
Why I Think The Black Cat is a pre-code film?
** Beware! Spoilers Ahead**
- Dr. Werdegast seems a bit fixated on his fellow travelers kissing and cuddling and even allows himself to gently stroke the woman’s hair while she’s sleeping. If anything, his behaviour is odd and unsettling.
- The good Dr. is a practiced psychiatrist, and yet he gives Joan medical treatment and injects her a sedative to calm her down and ease her sleep, which later on causes Joan to act erratically.
- Hjalmar Poelzig is an Austrian architect by day and a satanic priest by night, waiting to execute his human sacrifice ritual during the dark of the moon.
- Poelzig nurtures a glorified gallery of dead women kept in glass coffins, suggesting they were former sacrifices and he’s still quite infatuated with their beauty and youth.
- Poelzig is seen reading The Rites of Lucifer in his bed with a young blonde woman sleeping next to him. The woman is later on revealed to be Werdegast’s daughter, whom was lost for decades when she was a child. Hints of Pedophilia suggest that Poelzig must have had his eye on the girl since she was young, and when her mother “passed” she became her replacement.
- To salvage the Alisons from Poelzig’s monstrosity, the two rivals play a game of chess, gambling on the couple’s lives. An implication of a battle between good and evil, perhaps… and gambling.
8. From the moment he met her, Poelzig desires to covets Joan and make her his next human sacrifice. “Don’t pretend, Hjalmar. There was nothing spiritual in your eyes when you looked at that girl.”
9. Discovering his daughter was kept alive and away for all these years, the maddened and vengeful Dr. Werdegast strikes down his devilish friend and hangs him by his arms only to skin him alive. “Ultra violence”. ⏰🍊
- Karloff’s character, Hjalmar Poelzig, draws inspiration from Aleister Crowley’s life, infamous for being “the most notorious occultist magician of the twentieth century” and the most wicked man the world has ever witnessed.
- The Black Cat is notable in pairing Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi for the first time.
- The film’s original title was House of Doom, as director Edgar G. Ulmer tried to create an arresting feeling of doom on each Poelzig house scene.
The Black Cat wasn’t critically acclaimed in Hollywood back then and is considered an underdog, despite of his legendary cast. It was quite abnormal for its cinematic era. It’s not a scary film per se, but it has so many rough edges and does leave you pondering upon its jagged plot overall. I mean, satanism, dark rituals, human sacrifices, and perverted suggestions cannot be that easily brushed off, after all.
By the way…
I ran into Danny’s blog, pre-code.com, on which he completely dissects The Black Cat and explains why it is a pre-code film and does it so remarkably well. If you want to delve more into this wonderful film, check it out!