Dr. Vitus Verdegast: Did you ever hear of Satanism? The worship of the devil, of evil? Herr Poelzig is a great modern priest of that ancient cult. And tonight, in dark of the moon, the rites of Lucifer are celebrated. And if I'm not mistaken, he intends you to play a part in that ritual...a very important part.
-The Black Cat, 1934

 




          During the 1930s, Universal Studios single-handily reinvented the horror film, thus creating the “creature feature” and planting the seeds for a plethora of sub-genres. Universal’s short-lived but unparalleled monopoly on horror produced some of the most iconic and influential films of all time, creating stars out of actors like Bela Lugosi (Dracula (1931), The Raven (1935), The Black Cat (1934), Boris Karloff (Frankenstein (1931), The Mummy (1932), and Lou Cheney Jr. ( The Wolf Man (1941), The Ghost Of Frankenstein (1942), Son Of Dracula (1943).

          The Universal films from this period are now referred to as “The Monster’s Golden Era,” and they’re essential to the evolution of the Hollywood studio horror film. Although Universal cannot take full credit for the first steps in providing cinematic sophistication to the genre (“The Monster’s Golden Era” borrows heavily from silent era German expressionism and early poverty row horror), it can be credited to commercializing it; creating box-office successes out of macabre and sinister tales. Throughout the 1930s, no other studio had the same knack for producing consistently marketable horror.



          Today, these films are considered classics. They serve as both the blueprint for cinematic horror as well as the building blocks in the formation of one of the great mega-corporations of the entertainment industry. Within the span of fifteen years, Universal was able to transform literary properties such as Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein into prosperous franchises. Much of this success can be attributed to Universal Studios founder, Carl Laemmle and his son, Junior.

          During “The Monster’s Golden Era,” Junior had control over final cut. What he chose to cut was not nearly as contentious as what he chose to leave in, leaving many shocked - as well as craving more. An example of this is a famous scene from Frankenstein (1931) where The Monster kills a young girl. The scene left many questioning the credibility of Junior and Universal. On November 14th, 1931, the recently incorporated trade paper, The Motion Picture Herald, gave a scathing review of Frankenstein largely due to the untimely death of the young girl: “I won’t forgive Junior Laemmle or James Whale of Universal for permitting the monster to drown a little girl before my very eyes. That sequence should come out before the picture is released. It is too dreadfully brutal, no matter what the story calls for.” (Later releases of Frankenstein, including the DVD version, have re-edited this scene. The scene is now cut in a way to establish The Monster as a sympathetic and ultimately confused character, rather than a mindless killer. By today’s standards, it plays more comedically than horrifying).

 


   


 

          While some found these scenes far too disturbing and nauseating for American audiences, their inherent shock value created a buzz around the picture that only enticed the public’s interest more. Universal’s recognition of the importance of shock value would resonate in many successful horror films to follow: Janet Leigh’s shower scene in Psycho (1960), Linda Blair masturbating with a crucifix in The Exorcist (1973), Johnny Depp’s grotesquely exaggerated death sequence in A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), the rape sequence in The Last House On The Left (1972), the torture sequences in Hostel (2005), the back-half of A Serbian Film (2010), or the entirety of The Human Centipede franchise.

          With the release of Murders in The Rue Morgue (1931), Universal was once again confronted with pushing the cinematic envelope too far - even by the Hayes Code standards. SRC’s Jason Joy wrote a prophetic response to Universal regarding one of the film’s strongest sequences: “Because the victim is a woman in this instance, which has not heretofore been the case in other horror pictures recently produced, censor boards are very likely to think that this scene is overdone in gruesomeness.” Although Junior was scorned by the press for making the victim a woman circa 1931, this choice would eventually become a ubiquitous genre trope. The dichotomy between the hunted female and the killer male would cinematically evolve in the coming decades. Eventually, Junior’s decision to have females play the victim in horror films would become so influential it would produce a whole sub-genre known as “slasher films.” This genre’s origins is most often traced back to the release of Bob Clark’s Black Christmas (1974), which in turn lead to a cycle of “slasher films” which peaked in the late seventies and early eighties with the release of John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), Sean S. Cunningham’s Friday the 13th (1980) and Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984). But the nucleus for the “slasher film” dates back to “The Monster's Golden Era,” established by genre trailblazers like Murders in The Rue Morgue.

 

 



  

          The Black Cat (1934) is arguably one of the most significant horror film from this time. Although it doesn’t share the same cinematic clout as The Mummy (1932) or The Invisible Man (1933), it’s an illustrious example of the power and influence of “The Monster’s Golden Era.” It proved that horror was as bankable as musicals and westerns, which were the prevailing genres of the time. Despite censors in Italy, Finland, and Austria banning the film outright, The Black Cat was Universal’s biggest box office hit of the year (grossing $236,000 dollars on a budget of $95,743). It features two of the most famous actors of “The Monster’s Golden Era:” Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff, appearing on screen together for the first time (they would go on to star opposite each other in seven other films, six of which were produced by Universal). Both Lugosi and Karloff found fame at Universal by embodying gothic monsters such as Dracula and Frankenstein, inciting nightmares in the minds of audiences throughout the 1930s. The Black Cat showcases them at the height of their star-power, underneath the eccentric direction of Edgar G. Ulmer. Rather than playing defined characters, Lugosi and Karloff approach their roles as broad archetypes, creating a bizarre level of artifice amongst the already strange, unnatural art-deco sets and stark, high-contrast lighting. The Black Cat is also one of the first films to feature an almost continuous music score, composed by Heinz Eric Roemheld (who would go uncredited for scoring select scenes in 1939’s Gone with The Wind).

          But the enduring significance of The Black Cat is its influence on horror films to come. The concept of billing genre actors together such as Lugosi and Karloff was mimicked later on with Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing with films such as Horror Express (1972) and The Skull (1965). Lee and Cushing (along with other notable character actors such as Vincent Price) owed their fame and success to becoming ghosts, goblins, and ghouls. Like Karloff and Lugosi before them, this generation of actors further proved that star power wasn’t limited to dashing good looks, a suave demeanor, and a benevolent moral compass. With blood-stained fangs and satanic agendas, these actors became stars by following in the footsteps of their Universal “foremonsters.”

          Many consider The Black Cat to be the first American psychological horror film. This was in part a response to the public’s growing interest in the field of psychiatry, which saw major advancements during the thirties. It was also a reaction to sensational news stories involving a cryptic occultist named Aleister Crowley, who was denounced by the press for being “the wickedest man in the world” due to his black-magic rituals and satanic practices. The Black Cat explores many dark themes associated with both psychiatry and satanism: sexual repression, mental illness, black mass orgies, necrophilia, pedophilia, and incest to name a few. Prior to The Black Cat, such subject matter had rarely been explored in film. Today, they have became standard motifs in all horror, interwoven into the fabric of the genre. Examples of this include the murder and incest in films such as Spider Baby (1968), the sexual repression depicted in Sleepaway Camp (1983), the necrophilia in Deranged (1974), and the sadistic and twisted relationships amongst family members in films such as Motel Hell (1980) and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974). These motifs could not be portrayed as ostensibly as they were had it not been for films such as The Black Cat paving the way. And while The Black Cat teases or hints at many of these themes as opposed to showing them, their presence is undoubtedly there. In a way, these subtleties make The Black Cat that much more disturbing. The mind is left to wonder what has happened in-between cuts, and what may be happening right out of frame. Horror aficionado and guitarist for The Cramps, Poison Ivy, once noted that the truly terrifying moments of The Black Cat are almost all off-camera: “Karloff gets skinned alive at the end, but they only show the shadow of it. Somehow, that’s much more gruesome.”


 


   

          Throughout the 1930s, Universal supplied the public’s craving for horror while creating the demand for it. In the process, the deprived and underprivileged American audiences of the Great Depression managed to transform Universal from a struggling studio to one of the most powerful forces in the film industry. Junior developed shock value in horror films, set the foundation for the original horror archetypes, and in the process created A-list stars out of unorthodox character actors. The Black Cat displays the power that Universal had with horror at this point in cinematic history, billing two leading men who were leading men because they played immortal beings: they killed and sucked blood out of victims, drowned little girls, slept in coffins and kept their dead wives around the house. “The Monster’s Golden Era” is embedded into film history due to studio heavyweights like Laemmle Senior, producers like Laemmle Junior, directors like Edgar Ulmer, and actors like Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff. The Black Cat showcases all of them at the peak of their powers. 

                                                                                                                                                                                                              

                                                                                                                                                      -Eric Hehr, 2019

 

 

 

Dr. Vitus Verdegast: Did you ever hear of Satanism? The worship of the devil, of evil? Herr Poelzig is a great modern priest of that ancient cult. And tonight, in dark of the moon, the rites of Lucifer are celebrated. And if I'm not mistaken, he intends you to play a part in that ritual...a very important part.
-The Black Cat, 1934

 




          During the 1930s, Universal Studios single-handily reinvented the horror film, thus creating the “creature feature” and planting the seeds for a plethora of sub-genres. Universal’s short-lived but unparalleled monopoly on horror produced some of the most iconic and influential films of all time, creating stars out of actors like Bela Lugosi (Dracula (1931), The Raven (1935), The Black Cat (1934), Boris Karloff (Frankenstein (1931), The Mummy (1932), and Lou Cheney Jr. ( The Wolf Man (1941), The Ghost Of Frankenstein (1942), Son Of Dracula (1943).

          The Universal films from this period are now referred to as “The Monster’s Golden Era,” and they’re essential to the evolution of the Hollywood studio horror film. Although Universal cannot take full credit for the first steps in providing cinematic sophistication to the genre (“The Monster’s Golden Era” borrows heavily from silent era German expressionism and early poverty row horror), it can be credited to commercializing it; creating box-office successes out of macabre and sinister tales. Throughout the 1930s, no other studio had the same knack for producing consistently marketable horror.



          Today, these films are considered classics. They serve as both the blueprint for cinematic horror as well as the building blocks in the formation of one of the great mega-corporations of the entertainment industry. Within the span of fifteen years, Universal was able to transform literary properties such as Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein into prosperous franchises. Much of this success can be attributed to Universal Studios founder, Carl Laemmle and his son, Junior.

          During “The Monster’s Golden Era,” Junior had control over final cut. What he chose to cut was not nearly as contentious as what he chose to leave in, leaving many shocked - as well as craving more. An example of this is a famous scene from Frankenstein (1931) where The Monster kills a young girl. The scene left many questioning the credibility of Junior and Universal. On November 14th, 1931, the recently incorporated trade paper, The Motion Picture Herald, gave a scathing review of Frankenstein largely due to the untimely death of the young girl: “I won’t forgive Junior Laemmle or James Whale of Universal for permitting the monster to drown a little girl before my very eyes. That sequence should come out before the picture is released. It is too dreadfully brutal, no matter what the story calls for.” (Later releases of Frankenstein, including the DVD version, have re-edited this scene. The scene is now cut in a way to establish The Monster as a sympathetic and ultimately confused character, rather than a mindless killer. By today’s standards, it plays more comedically than horrifying).

 


   


 

          While some found these scenes far too disturbing and nauseating for American audiences, their inherent shock value created a buzz around the picture that only enticed the public’s interest more. Universal’s recognition of the importance of shock value would resonate in many successful horror films to follow: Janet Leigh’s shower scene in Psycho (1960), Linda Blair masturbating with a crucifix in The Exorcist (1973), Johnny Depp’s grotesquely exaggerated death sequence in A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), the rape sequence in The Last House On The Left (1972), the torture sequences in Hostel (2005), the back-half of A Serbian Film (2010), or the entirety of The Human Centipede franchise.

          With the release of Murders in The Rue Morgue (1931), Universal was once again confronted with pushing the cinematic envelope too far - even by the Hayes Code standards. SRC’s Jason Joy wrote a prophetic response to Universal regarding one of the film’s strongest sequences: “Because the victim is a woman in this instance, which has not heretofore been the case in other horror pictures recently produced, censor boards are very likely to think that this scene is overdone in gruesomeness.” Although Junior was scorned by the press for making the victim a woman circa 1931, this choice would eventually become a ubiquitous genre trope. The dichotomy between the hunted female and the killer male would cinematically evolve in the coming decades. Eventually, Junior’s decision to have females play the victim in horror films would become so influential it would produce a whole sub-genre known as “slasher films.” This genre’s origins is most often traced back to the release of Bob Clark’s Black Christmas (1974), which in turn lead to a cycle of “slasher films” which peaked in the late seventies and early eighties with the release of John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), Sean S. Cunningham’s Friday the 13th (1980) and Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984). But the nucleus for the “slasher film” dates back to “The Monster's Golden Era,” established by genre trailblazers like Murders in The Rue Morgue.

 

 



  

          The Black Cat (1934) is arguably one of the most significant horror film from this time. Although it doesn’t share the same cinematic clout as The Mummy (1932) or The Invisible Man (1933), it’s an illustrious example of the power and influence of “The Monster’s Golden Era.” It proved that horror was as bankable as musicals and westerns, which were the prevailing genres of the time. Despite censors in Italy, Finland, and Austria banning the film outright, The Black Cat was Universal’s biggest box office hit of the year (grossing $236,000 dollars on a budget of $95,743). It features two of the most famous actors of “The Monster’s Golden Era:” Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff, appearing on screen together for the first time (they would go on to star opposite each other in seven other films, six of which were produced by Universal). Both Lugosi and Karloff found fame at Universal by embodying gothic monsters such as Dracula and Frankenstein, inciting nightmares in the minds of audiences throughout the 1930s. The Black Cat showcases them at the height of their star-power, underneath the eccentric direction of Edgar G. Ulmer. Rather than playing defined characters, Lugosi and Karloff approach their roles as broad archetypes, creating a bizarre level of artifice amongst the already strange, unnatural art-deco sets and stark, high-contrast lighting. The Black Cat is also one of the first films to feature an almost continuous music score, composed by Heinz Eric Roemheld (who would go uncredited for scoring select scenes in 1939’s Gone with The Wind).

          But the enduring significance of The Black Cat is its influence on horror films to come. The concept of billing genre actors together such as Lugosi and Karloff was mimicked later on with Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing with films such as Horror Express (1972) and The Skull (1965). Lee and Cushing (along with other notable character actors such as Vincent Price) owed their fame and success to becoming ghosts, goblins, and ghouls. Like Karloff and Lugosi before them, this generation of actors further proved that star power wasn’t limited to dashing good looks, a suave demeanor, and a benevolent moral compass. With blood-stained fangs and satanic agendas, these actors became stars by following in the footsteps of their Universal “foremonsters.”

          Many consider The Black Cat to be the first American psychological horror film. This was in part a response to the public’s growing interest in the field of psychiatry, which saw major advancements during the thirties. It was also a reaction to sensational news stories involving a cryptic occultist named Aleister Crowley, who was denounced by the press for being “the wickedest man in the world” due to his black-magic rituals and satanic practices. The Black Cat explores many dark themes associated with both psychiatry and satanism: sexual repression, mental illness, black mass orgies, necrophilia, pedophilia, and incest to name a few. Prior to The Black Cat, such subject matter had rarely been explored in film. Today, they have became standard motifs in all horror, interwoven into the fabric of the genre. Examples of this include the murder and incest in films such as Spider Baby (1968), the sexual repression depicted in Sleepaway Camp (1983), the necrophilia in Deranged (1974), and the sadistic and twisted relationships amongst family members in films such as Motel Hell (1980) and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974). These motifs could not be portrayed as ostensibly as they were had it not been for films such as The Black Cat paving the way. And while The Black Cat teases or hints at many of these themes as opposed to showing them, their presence is undoubtedly there. In a way, these subtleties make The Black Cat that much more disturbing. The mind is left to wonder what has happened in-between cuts, and what may be happening right out of frame. Horror aficionado and guitarist for The Cramps, Poison Ivy, once noted that the truly terrifying moments of The Black Cat are almost all off-camera: “Karloff gets skinned alive at the end, but they only show the shadow of it. Somehow, that’s much more gruesome.”


 


   

          Throughout the 1930s, Universal supplied the public’s craving for horror while creating the demand for it. In the process, the deprived and underprivileged American audiences of the Great Depression managed to transform Universal from a struggling studio to one of the most powerful forces in the film industry. Junior developed shock value in horror films, set the foundation for the original horror archetypes, and in the process created A-list stars out of unorthodox character actors. The Black Cat displays the power that Universal had with horror at this point in cinematic history, billing two leading men who were leading men because they played immortal beings: they killed and sucked blood out of victims, drowned little girls, slept in coffins and kept their dead wives around the house. “The Monster’s Golden Era” is embedded into film history due to studio heavyweights like Laemmle Senior, producers like Laemmle Junior, directors like Edgar Ulmer, and actors like Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff. The Black Cat showcases all of them at the peak of their powers. 

                                                                                                                                                                                                              

                                                                                                                                                      -Eric Hehr, 2019