I love me some Edgar Allan Poe. That man lived a fantastically harsh, brief life, and I’ll be damned if he didn’t wring some great writing out of it anyway. It might seem strange then that out of decades and decades of Poe film adaptations, my very favorite – 1934’s The Black Cat – is a Poe movie in name only. To be honest, I’m not sure there are any real Poe movies, or at least, scrupulously faithful film adaptations of his work. I wouldn’t go so far as to say his work is unfilmable, but for such a meticulous writer, so laser focused on the effect of his work, that effect is the sole survivor of many a Poe adaptation. Sometimes not even that. I remember seeing 1963’s The Raven for the first time during my initial seventh-grade love affair with Poe, and before long, I knew my very first fannish high dudgeon. It was a freaking comedy! Angela smash! I was not equipped to appreciate what Comics Editor Carol called its “Sixties deconstruction of Gothic Horror” instead of a film version of Poe’s poem, whatever the hell that would even look like.
Because that is the problem with adapting a lot of Poe. Most of the drama is interior and, often, delusional. There is not much, if any, supernatural in Poe, and it can be harder to show an unreliable narrator than to let him speak for himself. There are ways to dramatize madness, of course, but Poe strove for a unity of effect in his short fiction, not always a conventional narrative, so you end up with something that would translate to the screen most readily as an arty vignette or a Night Gallery episode, not a feature film. His stories are edited to the bone. 2015’s glorious Extraordinary Tales tackled the issue by privileging narration in its abridged animated versions of several Poe tales, but the result is more of an illuminated audiobook than a movie. You only have to watch its gorgeous version of “The Fall of the House of Usher,” narrated by Sir Christopher Lee in his final film performance, to notice how the narrator, Roderick Usher’s childhood friend, is simply gaping at Usher’s involuted obsessions for most of his stage time. You can forgive Corman for adding a little Satan worship and a bizarre love triangle to 1964’s The Masque of the Red Death, where the story proper runs more like plague, party, everybody dies. That’s barely enough for a Cure song.
I hate myths that correlate artistic achievement with suffering and substance abuse, luring artists into one form of fatuous self-destruction or another. But with his sad, yearning daguerreotype portraits stamped onto the cover of most volumes of his work, Poe’s suffering has become, in our hideous modern vernacular, his brand. It’s a brand that has become ever more saleable owing to his legend, aesthetic, and personality, even as his reputation — as a writer who trafficked entirely in the cultural gutter, for all his societal pretensions — remains perennially controversial. His most accomplished work obsesses on the theme of the death of a beautiful woman: Ligeia, Berenice, Eleonora, Morella, Ulalume, Madeline Usher, Annabel Lee, Lenore. It’s something he ruminates about clinically in “The Philosophy of Composition,” but the premature death of almost every woman of import to him in his own life furnishes all the reason you would ever need why anyone would be so fixated on losing someone beautiful and irreplaceable.
“I asked myself — ;Of all melancholy topics, what, according to the universal understanding of mankind, is the most melancholy?’ Death — was the obvious reply. ‘And when,’ I said, ‘is this most melancholy of topics most poetical?’ From what I have already explained at some length, the answer, here also, is obvious — ‘When it most closely allies itself to Beauty: the death, then, of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world — and equally is it beyond doubt that the lips best suited for such topic are those of a bereaved lover.’ – Edgar Allan Poe, “The Philosophy of Composition.”
It’s not women in refrigerators for Poe though; there’s no exaltation for the bereaved in these gloomy tableaus. These tragedies are not plot points in the narrator’s story. They are the plot, all of it. The narrator is simply a helpless witness. Again and again and again.
I am always a little shocked when I meet someone who believes Edgar Allan Poe was a wicked man, but that’s his brand, too, thanks to a petty autobiographer who sought revenge on a dead man’s reputation. It is almost like his life was reinterpreted into a folktale with the same fidelity as some of the film versions of his stories*, or Angela Carter’s fabulous fabulist short story “The Cabinet of Edgar Allan Poe.” Yet in the end, essential Poe details survive the calumny. So, too, essential Poe themes and aesthetics can survive a little interpolated Satanism.
Poe’s short story “The Black Cat” actually does feature a fair bit of action, with a once kind-hearted narrator first driven to self-loathing by his alcoholism, then to escalating acts of cruelty and violence by guilt, culminating in his wife’s murder. Like “The Tell-Tale Heart,” it has the kind of shocking smash cut ending that every episode of Tales From the Crypt aspires to, as the narrator’s guilt is outed to police by a yowling cat he accidentally interred with his murdered wife. “I had walled the monster up within the tomb!” Boom. Cue Crypt Keeper.
But Edgar G. Ulmer’s The Black Cat, “suggested by Edgar Allan Poe” credit be damned, features none of that. It’s not even a story that broadly addresses the corrosive guilt and willful self-destruction that Poe’s story took on. Ulmer’s The Black Cat is all about Bela Lugosi versus Boris Karloff in an outre little number that just barely skirts the edge of pre-code censorship with its dead ladies in nightgowns intact. Lugosi plays righteous Hungarian psychiatrist Dr. Vitus Werdegast, while Karloff is the serenely corrupt Satanist/traitor/architect Hjalmar Poelzig. Werdegast, after rotting fifteen years in an infamous Siberian prison, is looking up his old comrade Poelzig, hot to avenge himself on the man who betrayed him to the Russians and stole his wife. Actually, unbeknownst to Werdegast, it’s even ookier: his wife’s dead and Poelzig’s now married to their daughter. So, they have a lot of catching up to do.
On his way to Poelzig’s bizarre art deco palace, Werdegast falls in with a bland honeymooning couple, and sharing a carriage ride with the doctor turns out to be a great way to get roped into not only Werdegast’s revenge plot, but Poelzig’s secret satanic rituals. As for Poe fidelity, Poelzig has a black cat he walks around stroking like so much Blofeld, which just happens to trigger a disabling phobia in Werdegast. Thanks for the suggestion, Mr. Poe.
There’s a lot to love in The Black Cat. This was the first of the Karloff-Lugosi team-ups, and it’s far and away my favorite. Karloff hits a weird blend of austerity and lust that blends perfectly with the art deco of the damned all around him. Maybe I’m influenced too much by Karloff’s later work, but I always think of him as sympathetic and genteel, either Frankenstein’s monster or the host of Thriller, and it’s interesting to see him play a character as decadent as Herr Poelzig. And I love Lugosi in this. Except for some hammy over-reacting to cats – which I’m also prepared to blame on the director or the script — this might be my favorite of his performances. He still reeks of Dracula, but for once, he gets to be sort of heroic. Like many an authentic Poe villain though, he’s driven by tragedy and torture to terrible violence. This may be the only movie you’ll ever see where the good guy skins someone alive.
For their part, the honeymooning couple are basically inert chess pieces between Werdegast and Poelzig, but what else could they be? Karloff and Lugosi are the big time. Jonathan Harker to Bela’s Count in a former life, David Manners plays new husband Peter Alison, a mystery writer who is right up there with Lance in House on Haunted Hill as most ineffective horror movie heroes of all time, and in a movie with so much perfect Karloff and Lugosi, I deeply resent every moment I’m asked to pay attention to his benign wholesomeness. Thankfully, it’s not too much. His wife Joan (Julie Bishop) is only really interesting when under the influence of a narcotic Werdegast administers – rather a lot like vamped out Mina in Dracula (1931). That’s fine though. In its running time at just under an hour, The Black Cat still packs in a satanic ceremony, lots of stylish shots of Karloff looking tormented, some Torgo-grade necrophilia, arguable incest, Bela Lugosi being occasionally relatable, and, oh, yes, the flaying.
There is a true strain of Poe in the film that can’t be argued though, and it has nothing to do with Poelzig’s cat. Poelzig has other pets – a collection of dead women he keeps in glass cases. The best sequence in the film — added when the studio complained, because when you ask Edgar G. Ulmer to tone things down, apparently he adds bodies – shows Karloff touring through the cases of dead women, admiring them and stroking his cat meditatively. Later, he brings Werdegast to this chamber to reveal his wife’s fate.
“Do you see, Vitus?,” he tells Werdegast. “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.” And when Werdegast asks why his wife has been preserved thus, Poelzig answers: “Is she not beautiful? I wanted to have her beauty always.”
Suspended between Werdegast’s horror and Poelzig’s admiration, Poe’s most poetical topic in the world shines in repose. Werdegast’s pain is so visibly acute and Poelzig’s veneration so unwholesome, together they represent key dimensions of the Poe brand – the bereaved, tormented lover and the repulsive aesthete, Poe’s Romantic intention and the popular interpretation that survived him. Nothing else in the movie has anything to do with Poe, but here, at the heart of the film, it is suddenly, brilliantly faithful – not to Poe’s story, of course, but to Poe’s legacy. It’s only for a moment’s effect, a vignette in a much busier work, and I’m certain it wasn’t intentional. But to look at it another way, amid all the fantastic shocks of Karloff v. Lugosi goodness, Poe’s favorite theme is the most powerful piece in a dynamic picture. Ulmer’s The Black Cat might not really be based on Poe’s story, but almost a century after the sad poet’s death, it vindicated his philosophy.
*I am a bit partial to Shimako Sato’s quiet 1992 indie film A Tale of a Vampire, which I also like to think of as Julian Sands’ Lestat audition reel. Kenneth Cranham plays a vampiric Poe orchestrating a very Poe-y revenge on Sands’ more idealized, romantic vamp for cuckolding him some century and a half earlier. I think Poe might have appreciated what Sato did with a dead, idealized woman crossed with her husband’s obsessive revenge. It is languidly paced and ultra-low budget, though beautiful, and most people I have tried to show it to have either fallen asleep or out of interest by the end. If you’re a Poe scholar or a Julian Sands fan though, I do recommend it.
Angela has never lived in Baltimore, but her home team is still the Ravens.