Edgar Ulmer’s The Black Cat (1934) is one of the most relentlessly perverse films I have ever seen, though it barely shows a thing on screen by contemporary standards. It’s a film I never expected to leave me harrowed and shook, but it has. There is incest, rape, torture, a Black Mass, pedophilia, necrophilia and at the end the scene that shook me: one man skinning another alive.
Boris Karloff plays Hjalmar Poelzig, a former officer in the Austro-Hungarian army, a Modernist architect and Satanic serial killer. Hjalmar had served with and betrayed Dr. Vitus Werdegast (Lugosi) at Fort Marmorus in the Carpathian Mountains during World War I. After the war, Poelzig built a Bauhaus home of his own design on the site of the fort. It is also the site of a betrayal by Poelzig that led to thousands of deaths. While Karloff’s Poelzig is consistently sinister, Lugosi’s Werdegast is initially more genial as he joins an American newlywed couple, Peter Allison (David Manners) and Joan Allison (Julie Bishop), in their car on the Orient Express. Though the couple is on their honeymoon and Werdegast plans to torture and kill Poelzig, they disembark at the same station and share a bus together on a rainy night. There is an accident, Joan is knocked unconscious and the closest shelter just happens to be Poelzig’s house.
We discover, in an atmosphere of perfect hosting and dread, that Poelzig had surrendered the fort to the Russian army. Werdegast survived but spent 15 years in a prison camp, leaving his wife Karen (Lucille Lund) and daughter behind. Poelzig married Werdegast’s wife and likely murdered her. He raised and groomed Werdegast’s daughter, Karen (also Lucille Lund), married her and now keeps her locked in his bedroom. And fairly soon, Poelzig will kill her, too, and keep her body preserved in a case with all his other “wives” in a vault in the old fort below his house. Poelzig knows why Werdegast is there and is very open about what he does. We see the women he has killed and his attraction to their dead bodies. He even shows Werdegast Karen’s body, demonstrating how well he has “cared” for her. Poelzig openly tells Werdegast that they are playing a game of life and death not only between themselves, but with the young couple who have blundered into their oh-so mannered and refined confrontation. We see the ritual Poelzig presides over as he plans to sacrifice Joan. But Lugosi’s Werdegast keeps his wrath contained behind the mask of a perfect European gentleman. There are slips here and there, but they are mostly in Werdegast’s attraction to Joan. After rescuing Joan from ritual sacrifice, Werdegast is freed from his last sense of obligation to other people and his all-consuming wrath is revealed. We reach the scene that shook me as Werdegast flays Poelzig alive.
Lugosi’s transformation is as stunning and complete as any werewolf. His face contorts with savage glee as Wedergast’s civilized veneer gives way to bloodthirsty rage. Werdegast’s wrath is no longer contained or concealed by his fine manners, carefully tailored three-piece suit and perfectly coifed hair. As Poelzig had pretended earlier in the film when they stood before Karen’s corpse, Werdegast now no longer cares about pretence. And stripped and tied to an embalming rack–the very rack Poelzig had used on the women he keeps in glass cases–Poelzig’s emaciated vulnerability is no longer hidden behind Modernist ritual robes and exquisite Russian tunics. We watch as Werdegast explains what he is going to do. And then we see the flaying in shadows and hear Poelzig’s agonized and terrified screams.
The fact that the flaying itself isn’t shown beyond shadows and screams is part of the power of the scene. I can’t escape by focusing on the special effects or gaming out what the smart thing to do would be. I can’t think about better ways to depict a flaying. I don’t feel vindicated seeing Poelzig punished. I can only realize the horror of what is happening–that one man is skinning another man alive and taking pleasure in it. It would be easy to label what Werdegast does as “animalistic” or “monstrous,” but it is not. Werdegast is both utterly inhumane and entirely human in this scene. Revealed and stripped of his “civilization,” Werdegast strips away the skin and viscerally reveals the fragile, mortal humanity beneath Poelzig’s carefully constructed facade of control, power and evil. Werdegast reveals that the evil in this place, whether rape, murder, torture, war, or even revenge–no matter how righteous–is a human evil.
Carol Borden is an editor at and evil overlord of The Cultural Gutter, a website dedicated to thoughtful writing about disreputable art. She was a writer for and editor of the Toronto International Film Festival’s official Midnight Madness and Vanguard program blogs. She’s written a bunch of short stories including Godzilla detective fiction, femme fatale mermaids, an adventurous translator/poet, and an x-ray tech having a bad day. You can find them here.
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