Alien Terror (1971) (AKA) Sinister Invasion is one of the oddest of Boris Karloffs final six movies, but it is hardly the most exciting. It begins with typical Sixties screen credit font and pseudo jazz that sounds like it was composed for period porn.
Boris is Professor Mayer, and he and his scarred (Ygor-like) assistant Isabel (Maura Monti) are playing around with some power ray thingamajig. It shoots through the roof and hits a spaceship which just happens to be flying by and looks like one of those rocket invader ships from the old Atari arcade games. One half expects a lost Adventures of Superman episode and that at any moment some green Martian is going to show up. Alas, all that shows up is Laura (Christa Linder), the professor’s niece; she is having a fit because her uncle has just blown another hole in the roof.
Snake People (AKA Isle Of The Snake People) feels like pure Jack Hill; that is, Jack Hill the exploitation guru to whom Quentin Tarantino has built an altar.
The opening narration is a duller variant of Criswell’s repetitive but puerile Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959) monologue: “During Many centuries in Various parts of the world, Various diabolical rites and ceremonies have been practiced in homage to Various sinister gods who are believed to have Many supernatural powers. These rites are generally known as voodoo!”
Santos Alcocer’s Cauldron of Blood (1970) (AKA Blind Man’s Bluff) was filmed in 1967, but languished on the shelf until its release three years later (to little fanfare, despite its potential marketing as one of horror icon Boris Karloff`s last films). Where Curse of the Crimson Altar (1968) was a low-rent knock off of Black Sunday (1960), Cauldron is an equally low-rent rip of Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933) and House of Wax (1953).
Karloff co-stars with veteran Viveca Lindfors (who is possibly best know as the queen who aroused Errol Flynn in 1948’s The Adventures of Don Juan). Cauldron was shot almost entirely in Spain, and is remembered only as an accidental idiosyncrasy from late in Karloff’s career.
Cauldron of Blood is not a good film, but it is a queer film, quite unlike anything else in the Karloff cannon, which may be explained by the fact that Karloff was not even the preferred choice for the role of the blind sculptor Badulescu. Producer Robert D. Weinbach had wanted Claude Rains, but Karloff was brought into the project after Rains was found to be terminally ill (Rains died during the pre-production stage of the film). Karloff is not even top-billed, which was an extreme and curious rarity.
A lot of people have expressed the wish that horror icon Boris Karloff could have ended his career with Peter Bogdanovich’s Targets (1968). But Karloff, on his last leg, pushed himself through six more movies, four of which were the Mexican films for producer Jack Hill and director Juan Ibinez. This last six pack of films is, by consensus, godawful. Why did Karloff do it? According to his biographers, the actor said that he wanted to “die with his boots on.” And he nearly did just that.
Karloff’s final and bizarre six pack are indisputably awful within the accepted meaning of the word. Several of them, however, are downright bizarre products of their time, which now might be looked at as examples of naive surrealism. The films are: House of Evil (1968), Fear Chamber (1968), Curse of the Crimson Altar (1968), Cauldron of Blood (1970), Isle of the Snake People (1971), and Alien Terror (1971). Continue reading “FEAR CHAMBER (1968): FROM KARLOFF’S BIZARRE AND FINAL SIX PACK”
The posthumous classification of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello erroneously places them on a level with Laurel & Hardy or The Marx Brothers. However, few, if any, of the Abbott and Costello films withstand the test of time. Their initial rendezvous with a trio of Universal monsters retains some dated charm, but little of it comes from the comedy team. Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948) is essentially a vehicle for Bela Lugosi`s Dracula parody and Lenore Aubert’s vamp. The Monster (Glenn Strange) has little to do, and Lon Chaney Jr. seems mightily uncomfortable with the surrounding juvenile antics. Even worse is Bud Westmore’s unimaginative assembly line makeup, which reduces Lugosi’s Count to baby powder and black lipstick and Lon Chaney Jr’s Larry Talbot to a rubbery lycanthrope.
La casa del terror (1960) is a south of the border imitation of Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, along with about a half dozen other films, including King Kong (1933). German Valdes (aka Tin Tan) is Casimiro and, just like in A & C Meet Frankie, he is doing some work in a house of wax horrors, which currently has a real mummy display. Below the exhibit, the Professor (Yerye Beirut) is deep in mad scientist experiments (just like Boris Karloff in his Columbia movies or Lugosi at Monogram). None too surprising, the Professor has an assistant who helps his boss steal bodies and blood. When bodies are not to be found, the two extract fluids from Casimiro, which renders our hero lethargic (at least Lou Costello kept his energy level up). Narratively, having your protagonist sleep through half of the film does not seem like a sound idea. Casimiro’s gal Paquita (Yolanda Varela) doesn’t think so either. After all, she is working a full time job and beau here is one lazy sot! Perhaps the all too repeated shots of Casimiro counting sheep are not necessarily a bad device after all because when he does wake up, he breaks into comedic patter which actually makes Lou Costello look funny again. Valdes elicits more groans than laughs and he even engages in a song and dance number with Valera. YES, IT’S A MUSICAL TOO! Valera does not have to work hard at making Valdes’ musical talents look pedestrian. Continue reading “LA CASA DEL TERROR (1960) AND FACE OF THE SCREAMING WEREWOLF (1964)”
Brain De Palma, David Lynch, David Cronenberg, and John Waters were among the directors whose films we passionately watched and discussed in that now extinct haven once known as art school. It was De Palma who topped our list, enough that we ranked him as high as, if not higher than, Alfred Hitchcock. There is justification in the criticism that Hitchcock’s films are often cold, mechanical exercises. De Palma was more experimental, and emotionally incinerating in ways that Hitchcock could not be. De Palma is decidedly unbiased when it comes to provocation: Scarface (1983) unintentionally inspired the current trash thug culture, and Casualties of War (1989) still manages to boil the blood of extremist patriots. He has been accused of being a misogynist and a feminist, an innovative bohemian and a plagiarist, a shrewdly manipulative avant-gardist and the quintessential sell-out. Any director this divisive deserves attention.
Unfortunately, one must briefly address the De Palma/Hitchcock comparison primarily because lazy, hack critics have long held De Palma to Hitchcock’s standards. De Palma was too much his own man to simply imitate Hitchcock. Rather, Hitchcock was one of several influences filtered through De Palma’s preexisting sensibilities. Jean-Luc Godard was another, and it is no accident that De Palma has been referred to as an example of American Nouvelle Vague. Continue reading “PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE (1974)”
You do not need to consult your doctor: the sound of your jaw hitting the floor while watching Ray Dennis Steckler’s Rat Pfink A Boo Boo (1966) is perfectly natural. Even the title’s origin is enough to numb you, from head to toe, in disbelief. The original title was supposed to be Rat Fink and Boo Boo, but in the editing Fink was misspelled Pfink and somehow the ND from AND was left out. With a threadbare budget the producers could not afford to change it, and the misspelled title stuck.
Director Ray Dennis Steckler claimed that the film was shot on a $20.00 budget and that he made it because of his love for the (dreadful) serial, Batman and Robin (1949). I believe him. Remarkably, this was Steckler’s sixth film. His first was Wild Guitar (1964), which became something of a cult hit despite starring would-be teen idol Arch Hall Jr. (who was cast because daddy produced). For years, The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies (1964) was thought to be more legend than actual film. Sinister Cinema dug up a print and released it, I think, before anyone else did. There went the legend. Unfortunately, it’s a dull unimaginative affair about a psycho, with nary a zombie in sight. The Thrill Killers (1964) starred Steckler himself under his pseudonym Cash Flagg (chosen because he made his checks out to cash!) Again, Steckler seemed to put more effort into a name than he did he actual plot. Steckler was Cash again, this time doing a second-rate imitation of the second-rate Bowery Boy Huntz Hall in The Lemon Grove Kids Meet the Monsters (1965). Steckler claimed that he made the film as a kind of fan’s valentine to Hall. One must give him some kind of credit for authentic obsession and affection, even if the finished product was nothing more than a series of loosely assembled shorts, with Cash pitted against the Green Grasshopper and The Vampire Lady From Outer Space. Continue reading “RAT PFINK A BOO BOO (1966)”
In 1980 , two years after Ed Wood`s alcohol related death at 54, film critic Michael Medved and his brother published “The Golden Turkey Awards” and gave Wood the award of being “The Worst Director of All Time” and naming his film Plan 9 From Outer Space “The Worst Film of All Time.” The forever constipated Mr. Medved must have had the biggest bowel movement of his life when he discovered that he and his brother unintentionally put the wheels in motion for the cult celebrity status of Wood who, to Medved, was little more than an object of derision.
Quite simply, Ed Wood was an outsider artist, whose medium was film. He managed to create two highly personalized “masterpieces” of naive surrealism; Glen or Glenda (1953) and Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959) with “star” Bela Lugosi, who was clearly at the end of his tether.
Reviewing Edgar G Ulmer‘s Detour (1945), critic Dennis Schwartz wrote: “For some, being outside the system is as natural as walking in the fog.” That about sums up Ulmer. It also sums his Detour star, Tom Neal. Ulmer was an aesthetic outsider who made poor choices in his personal life but tried, sometimes in vain, to bring an artistic sensibility to everything he worked on. Neal was an outsider of a different sort. Despite having received a law degree from Havard, Neal turned to amateur boxing, which only partly satisfied his extremely violent temper. In 1951, that temper and jealousy got the better of him with in a tussle with actor Franchot Tone over the affections of actress Barbara Payton. Tone received a brain concussion, and Neal was permanently blacklisted by Hollywood. The actor was reduced to restaurant work and eventual bankruptcy. In 1965, Neal took a gun to the back of his wife’s head and shot her to death. Incredibly, he received a mere six-year sentence, but he died within a few months of his release from prison in 1971. His son, Tom Neal, Jr. attempted to follow in his father’s thespian footsteps, appearing in a remake of Detour (1991) that no one seems to have seen. Continue reading “EDGAR G. ULMER’S DETOUR (1945)”
Edgar G. Ulmer began his career at Max Reinhardt’s theater, became an apprentice to F.W. Murnau on the director’s masterpiece Sunrise (1927), and received a commission to direct Universal’s two new horror icons, Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi in their first co-starring film. With The Black Cat(1934), Ulmer secured an enviable budget and practically carte blanche. The Black Cat may not have had much to do with Edgar Allan Poe, but the legendary 19th century writer would have loved Ulmer’s deliciously black deco homage. 1934 critics and audiences most certainly did, making it a bona fide hit. Ulmer’s idiosyncratic cult film remains the two stars’ best film together. The director was at the top of his game and looked to have a long and successful career ahead. By all rights, Edgar G. Ulmer should have had a career and body of work that could be placed alongside the films of James Whale and Tod Browning. Then, Ulmer screwed up.
Curtis Harrington was an authentic cineaste whose early work was entirely experimental. Among the films he worked on before branching out on his own (as an actor and a cinematographer) were Kenneth Anger`s Puce Moment (1949) and Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (1954). Reportedly, he was involved with Maya Deren, and certainly sang her praises throughout his life. Rather than continuing in the avant-garde vein, Harrington’s first feature film was the nightmarish cult oddity Night Tide (1961). It’s been dubbed a horror film, but the label isn’t entirely adequate. Elements of James Whale, Jean Cocteau, Val Lewton, andEdgar Allan Poe are like layered slivers in this ethereal mermaid opus.
Head (1968) is the quintessential cinematic oxymoron: a “G” rated LSD trip, starring The Monkees, with cameos by Victor Mature, Anette Funicello, Teri Garr, and Frank Zappa! Written by Jack Nicholson and directed by Bob Rafelson, Head has a reputation for having killed the career of The Monkees. Actually, their short-lived television series had already been cancelled after the end of its second season. A manufactured-for-prime-time pop band, The Monkees were, of course, the first prefab phenomenon; a second-rate ripe off of the Beatles, sponsored by Kelloggs.
The brevity of their career was utterly predictable. Despite that, and despite being clearly modeled after Richard Lester`s A Hard Day’s Night (1964), “The Monkees” TV series (Rafelson was part of the creative team) had fleeting moments of innovative satire and surrealism.
The script for Head was reportedly conceived one night when Rafelson, Nicholson and the Monkees were tripping on acid. With the Monkees fad already in its death throes, the creative team plunged into producing the group’s first and only feature as an experimental opus depicting the suicide of Peter, Michael, Davy, and Micky. The result was an epic bomb. Most critics hated it, as did its potential audience. Fans of the boy band were outraged at the sacrilegious nature of the film, while the hippie culture avoided anything with the Monkees name attached. Yet despite all odds, Head became a cult favorite in many circles. Evidence of that may be found in Rhino Records decision to release the film on DVD. With Rhino’s reputation as the Criterion Collection of bizarre and obscure cinema, television and music, that amounts to something approaching canonization. Continue reading “HEAD (1968): MONKEES DECONSTRUCTING MONKEES”
Tyrone Power was 20th Century Fox’s answer to Warner Brothers’ Errol Flynn. However, as dated as Flynn’s style of acting is, he does generate a kind of cartoon excitement. Watching the bulk of Power’s swashbucklers is more of a burden. Power is typically bland. He died at 44 from a heart attack during an on-screen duel with actor George Sanders in the filming of Solomon and Sheeba (1959). Flynn died less than a year later. Both are known for iconic roles: Flynn in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) and Power in The Mark of Zorro (1940). They acted together only once: in Henry King’s version of The Sun Also Rises (1957), which (as per most cinematic Hemingway adaptations) is best avoided. Rumors in Hollywood have long claimed that Flynn and Power engaged in a brief affair. If so, then, yes, there was more to Zorro and Robin Hood than tights and mask. Of course, the seedier aspects of Flynn’s “wicked, wicked ways” are well known. Yet, behind that boyish persona, Power too had a darker personality. This began to surface later in his career with chosen roles, such as Witness for the Prosecution (1957) and in the earlier Nightmare Alley (1947).
Power came from a long line of actors, and although he desired meatier roles, he settled on the stability of his studio contract, rarely venturing outside of assignments. Nightmare Alley was a notable exception. After reading William Greshen’s novel Power purchased the rights and begged Darryl Zanuck to allow him to play the part of the seedy Stanton Carlisle. Reluctantly, Zanuck agreed, although he did little to promote the film.
Edmund Goulding was given the directorial reigns after he and Power had worked together in the drama The Razor’s Edge (1946). Although that film received mixed reviews, it was a commercially successful departure for the actor and commercial success was, of course, Zanuck’s primary concern. Goulding’s reputation had been cemented with the high class soaper Grand Hotel (1932) starring John Barrymore, Greta Garbo, and Joan Crawford. A string of glossy, star-powered melodramas followed: Riptide (1934) with Norma Shearer and Dark Victory (1939), The Old Maid (1939), and The Great Lie (1941), all with Bette Davis. Zanuck’s choice of Goulding was strange but purposeful (for Zanuck). Nightmare Alley lacks the visceral quality of the novel (whose author, not surprisingly, committed suicide). With such a potent literary source, the film might have emerged as something deliriously akin to Tod Browning‘s Freaks (1932), but it lacks an obsessive director at the helm. Where Nightmare Alley does succeed is in Goulding’s direction of the superb Joan Blondell as the affable clairvoyant Zeena, Colleen Grey as the dainty circus girl Molly, and Helen Walker as the icy Dr. Lilith. (Goulding, a woman’s director, had gifted Academy Award winning performances to Gloria Swanson, Bette Davis, Mary Astor, Joan Fontaine, and Anne Baxter).
“Everything needs an opposite. We have a White House, so now we need a Black House.”
“The problem with Harlem is too much sex, drugs and violence. If we took all the children of Harlem and made them memorize the names of the 99 Pharaohs then there wouldn’t be sex, drugs and violence in Harlem anymore.”
“The Saturnians told me to play the music of the black prophet, Duke Ellington, but the black man paid no attention so now I am playing the music of the white prophet, Walt Disney, and spreading the shield of his beauty over the face of the Earth so the Saturnians will not destroy us” (followed by a half hour jam of `Pink Elephants on parade’ which occasionally sounds like its source material).
Such is the wisdom and personality of the late free jazz artist Sun Ra (paraphrased quotes there, pulled from memory) who apparently (and delightfully) really believed in his own voluptuous excess and gibberish (enough to establish a Space Age monastic communal order among his followers; the Intergalactic Arkestra, and, posthumously, a church named after him). Claiming to be a Saturnian, Sun Ra would appear on stage, dressed in goodwill Pharaoh garb, with the planets of the solar system revolving around his head. Continue reading “SPACE IS THE PLACE (1974)”
Bill Condon’s Gods and Monsters is one of the most beautiful, elegiac films of the last fifteen years. It is a fictionalized, speculative film about the last days of the great golden-age Hollywood director, James Whale, who is best remembered for directing several Universal horror classics, such as The Old Dark House (1932), The Invisible Man (1933), and The Bride of Frankenstein (1935). When Gods and Monsters was released it received very good reviews, but several critics, obviously uncomfortable with the film’s depiction of Whale’s open homosexuality, managed to slip in comments regarding the director’s “hedonism.” One wonders whether, if the film’s subject had been the hetero charm of a Gary Cooper or Errol Flynn, would those same critics have written a praising pat on the back for the celluloid studs? Regardless, Gods and Monsters, while simplistic, is brave in its depiction of Whale’s sexual preference; yet the film also strangely holds back from damning Hollywood’s blatant hypocrisy regarding Whale’s fall from grace.
Ian McKellen, Brendan Fraser, and especially Lynn Redgrave give superlative performances. Fraser’s Clay Boone is Whale’s Frankenstein/Adonis of a gardener. Boone is slow on the uptake when it comes to realizing that his retired celebrity employer (McKellen) is more than just an odd artist. When Hannah, Whale’s maid (Redgrave), lets the cat out of the bag, Boone’s initial reaction is one of subdued violence. However, Boone soon finds himself missing Whale’s anecdotes and returns to his employer’s studio, securing a promise from Whale to “go easy on the fag stuff.” Continue reading “GODS AND MONSTERS (1998)”
Everyone knows the story of how the 1959 sci-fi flop was rediscovered: two smarmy fundamentalist brothers, who managed to become full time film critics and fancied themselves patron saints of the bourgeoisie, crowned Eddie’s opus as “the worst film of all time.” Only it backfired on the Medveds, and their “Golden Turkey” award gifted the recently departed director with something he could not achieve in this mortal coil: infamy. The Medveds will be rightfully forgotten, cast into their suburban purgatory of banality–and if there is justice amongst the lesser gods, then little Mikey and Harry will be personally tended to by Mr. Heat Miser and Mr. Snow Miser in a tailor-made torture pit. In the moral cosmos, Yukon “even among misfits you’re a misfit” Cornelius has knighted the societal outcasts to dole out celestial justice. Rounding out the bacchanal of a Medved hell, little Eddie Wood, Jr., reunites with Bela, Vampira, Criswell, Tor, and Valda Hansen, administering an eternal enema to such constipated dolts.
The Medveds evolved into Mystery Science Theater 3000. Rather than giving Hollywood, with its plethora of big budget, generic excrement, what it deserved, the MST3K production team, erroneously imagining themselves hip, picked easy targets in low budget indie films. Naturally, Ed Wood was a frequent focus. The do-nothing couch potato geeks made the show a hit. It was their sole shot at superiority. Continue reading “ED WOOD’S PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE (1959)”
When I was halfway through writing this article, actor Peter O’Toole passed away. He serves as yet another example of just how pointless, asinine, vapid, and meaningless the Academy Awards are. Rightfully nominated a zillion times, O’Toole is in the fine company of such Academy Award losers as Charlie Chaplin, Orson Welles, Montgomery Clift, Judy Garland, Richard Burton, Alfred Hitchcock, and Stanley Kubrick. The Academy did eventually give O’Toole its condescending honorary Oscar, as it did to Chaplin, but that’s a mere smokescreen to mask their own artlessness.
O’Toole’s performances ranged from great to quirky and interesting in films like Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Beckett (1964), Lord Jim (1965), Night of the Generals (1967), The Lion in Winter (1967), Goodbye Mr. Chips (1969), Murphy’s War (1971), The Ruling Class (1972), Man Friday (1975), Zulu Dawn (1979), The Stunt Man (1980), Masada (1981), My Favorite Year (1982), The Last Emperor (1987), and Venus (2006). Naturally, as prolific as he was, he had his share of embarrassing bombs: Caligula (1979), Supergirl (1984), and, most of all, Thomas Kinkade’s Christmas Cottage (2008). His last film is the soon to be released Katherine of Alexandria (2014).
The Ruling Class was, almost immediately, a cult hit. It earned O’Toole yet another Oscar nomination, but he lost out to Marlon Brando in The Godfather (1972). Although The Godfather is a better film and Brando’s performance was superb, I would stand with a tiny minority in arguing that O’Toole should have won. Continue reading “RULING CLASS (1972): CRITERION COLLECTION”
Mahler (1974) is probably Ken Russell`s most personal film. As expected this filmmaker admirably refuses to treat his subject with phony reverence. Rather than a plaster saint here, Mahler is a neurotic, obsessive Jewish composer, hen-pecked husband and an artist whose drive stems from flesh.
Unknown to him at the time, actor Robert Powell’s role as the composer was his audition to play one Jesus of Nazareth for Franco Zeffirelli three years later. Powell’s Mahler is not the Mahler of a Mahler cult. Mahler’s writing is clearly an immense struggle, as is his relationship with his wife, family, colleagues and admirers.
Russell pays Mahler authentic homage in not succumbing to the type of pedestrian biopic cultists tend to favor. That type of bio treatment can be seen in Richard Attenborough’s Chaplin (1992), the kind of well-intentioned but hopelessly unimaginative film one expects from a fan. Julie Taymor`s Across the Universe (2007) takes the opposite approach in her stubborn insistence that the Beatles are not sacred and, thus, aptly produced a film as experimental as were the Beatles themselves (she did Stravinsky and Shakespeare the same honors with Oedipus Rex in 1993 and Titus in 1999).
Ever the renegade spirit, Russell, like Taymor, digs into an idiosyncratic interpretation of the artist’s core. Mahler (1974) opens to the first movement of the existential Third Symphony (conducted by Bernard Haitink) juxtaposed against the composer’s hut on a lake, bursting into Promethean flames. Mahler’s mummified wife, Alma (the resplendent Georgina Hale) emerges from a cocoon on the beach and crawls on jagged rocks, struggling to free herself of her bindings. Atop a rock is a bust of her husband, which she embraces and kisses. This dream imagery is explained by a terminally ill Mahler to Alma, who is not amused and misinterprets the dream as a symbolic marital power struggle. Mahler himself fatalistically interprets the dream as one signifying her birth, made possible by his inevitable, impending death. The entire film takes place on Mahler’s final train ride and is interwoven with dreams and flashbacks, piling one existential layer upon another.
Once upon a time there was a breed known as independent filmmakers. Usually with shoestring budgets, the indies, taking no prisoners, discarded business plans, forgot to look at marketing strategies, and the image of a proposed target audience was as abstract and surreal to them as their films often were to audiences. The indies were decidedly reactionary to the Hollywood institution. Maya Deren once said “I make films for what Hollywood spends on lipstick.” It was the indies who were progressively harking back to the dawn of cinema, before the rules of filmmaking had been established and canonized.
Stanley Kubrick was the closest Hollywood would get to the indie spirit, but Kubrick, for all his aesthetic brilliance, was, essentially, an academic. Whatever Kubrick’s genre, be it sci-fi, porn, horror, war, swashbuckler, his approach stemmed from a safe classroom distance. Kubrick lacked the fevered intensity and aesthetic struggle of the indies, and subjects such as horror and sex were rendered as studies and, therefore, matters on somewhat safe critical ground for the mainstream.
Newly minted and authorized film critics, such as Roger Ebert, would lavish heaps of praise on Dr. Kubrick, but Ebert was clearly out of his ivory towered ball park when trying to grasp the likes of Larry Cohen`s God Told Me To or Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate, which is unfortunate considering Ebert once scripted for Hollywood outsider Russ Meyer.
Edgar G. Ulmer has a cult reputation, particularly in France. The late British film critic, Leslie Halliwell, believed that reputation to be wholly undeserved, since most of Ulmer’s films ranged from B to Z status. Ulmer did not begin that way when, in 1934, he was handed “complete freedom” in an A (A-) production, teaming, for the first time, Universal Studio’s reigning horror stars Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff in the Poe inspired The Black Cat. The resulting film, and Ulmer’s affair with his employer’s wife, quickly ended a promising top-notch studio career almost as quickly as it began.
This first Karloff/Lugosi teaming was also their best. That is because of their eight collaborations this was their only joint-starring project directed by a visionary auteur. In The Black Cat Lugosi was cast as protagonist Dr. Vitus Werdegast, and Karloff as antagonist Hjalmer Poelzig. In the original, uncut film, Lugosi’s hero does some less than heroic things. Enough of Vitus’ sinister quality remains that Lugosi gives us a hero we are never quite comfortable with. Under Ulmer’s direction, Lugosi’s performance is superb, an extreme rarity for this actor. As good as Lugosi is, Karloff is even better and, as unpopular as it may be to say now, Karloff was always a far better actor than his co-star.
Ulmer’s “complete freedom” came to a screeching halt when universal execs saw the filmed footage and script. Lugosi’s hero rapes the heroine, the heroine occasionally turns into a black cat, and Karloff’s Poelzig is skinned alive and last seen crawling on the floor with his skin hanging from his body as Lugosi’s mad hero laughs hysterically. All of these scenes were cut from the film and, par the course at that time, were destroyed. There are conflicting accounts as to whether the scenes were shot and then burned, or merely scripted and axed.