Saturday, July 23, 2011


Hey--It's been a while, but I've been busy writing for my column over at PRESS PLAY.

Anyway, I always come back to needing to write about Ulmer's The Black Cat. Although The Bride of Frankenstein has the rep, Edgar Ulmer's 65 minutes are the true pinnacle of post war morbidity achieved in Universal's 1930s horror cycle. Its tech-deco-necro delirium is by turns hilarious, dated, classic, beautiful, stylistically 40 years ahead of its time, a storehouse of of cinema syntax drenched in true melancholy: this, not Detour, is the film that makes the case for Ulmer’s unjust exclusion from the upper leagues of the pantheon.

In a plot seething with multiple really Old Europe sexual pathologies, Bela Lugosi plays Dr. Vitus Werdegast a psychologist driven nearly mad by the torture he suffered at the hands of sadistic frenemy/architect/Satanist Hjalmar Poelzig (Boris, living dead Karloff) during World War I.

Lugosi and a magnificently naïve American couple (David Manners, Julie Bishop) couple arrive at Karloff's Bauhaus mansion--literally built atop a graveyard--and enact one of cinema's most brilliantly deranged dances to the death.

Dressed in shimmering Mandarin robes, his hair bleached the white of the old dead and cut in scary, unnatural geometries, Karloff creates one of the most glamorously seductive images of unfettered evil ever lensed, while Lugosi commits the performance of his career by actually underplaying his character's bloodlust.

Without showing an inch of flesh or a drop of blood, Ulmer creates a weirdly lyrical nightmare of necrophilia, mad science, implied flaying, classical music appreciation, and, hard to believe, more, as the true depths of the Poelzig’s dementia are revealed.

Without knowing there was an argument, Ulmer’s film shows that Hitchcock actually had style limitations, while actually predating the New Wave in a bravura sequence of elegant, aestheticized, sexual soul sickness that included intended jump-cuts, long single takes, and cross-fade glides from single to third person POV, all while Beethoven’s Seventh, Second Movement, mourns on the soundtrack and Karloff, camp stripped bear, channels the weariness of the first generation to endure the mechanize mass slaughter of modern warfare. “Did we not both die here in Marmorus 15 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?

But horror is always just five inches from black comedy and Ulmer’s team doesn’t just cross the line, they dance on it. Perfect example and scene: poor lost Manners freaking out about being isolated in this Bauhaus house of death, and not being able to place a call. And Karloff, eyes glittering with something between Borscht Belt stand up and deep mittel European madness, "You see? Even the phone is dead."

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