There are no bigger names in classic horror than Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. Most famous for their portrayals of Frankenstein’s Monster and Dracula, respectively, they also made a slew of movies together at the height of their star-power. The first one of these collaborations was Edgar G. Ulmer’s The Black Cat, a stodgy black and white horror film revolving around a Satanist architect who traps a couple of vacationing honeymooners in his stylishly modern castle. The art deco set design on the interiors of the castle are actually quite impressive and provide an interesting dichotomy between the classic exterior of the castle and the old fashioned story that unfurls through the film and the modernity that lies within.
What makes the film work as well as it does is the pitch perfect casting of Karloff and Lugosi in their respective roles. Karloff plays the murderous architect Hjalmar Poelzig, a disturbingly daunting, imposing figure that continually threatens our protagonists merely through his presence alone. Lugosi plays Dr. Vitus Verdegast, a man with a tortured past doing the bidding of Poelzig for his own tragic reasons. Lugosi plays the haunted quality of Verdegast with that great seductive accent with these verbose line readings that only Lugosi could pull off so well within this realm. The duo’s scenes together are when the film truly comes alive, two master actors working well within their wheelhouse, playing their parts so well that the rest of the film melts off into the background.
The rest of the film suffers in comparison to these masters at work. The story is trite and forgettable and involves a cult of Satanists and human sacrifices but the story is unexceptional and fairly dull. The honeymooning couple, played by David Manners and Julie Bishop, is merely paper cut-outs designed to be terrified and to flee at the last second. The script offers little in the way of surprise or dramatic weight but the performances and chemistry between Lugosi and Karloff make the film more chilling and interesting than the rest of the affair probably deserves.