Saturday, January 19, 2013

The Black Cat (1934) and other tales The New York Jewish Film Festival 2013

Thursday night I joined Mr C and Chocko for the New York Jewish Film Festival screening of The Black Cat with Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. The evening was supposed to include a talk by legendary critic and writer J Hoberman about Jewish horror films, however Hoberman was ill so Ms Avia Weintraub from the Jewish Museum read Hoberman’s notes and gave the talk in his absence

The talk, which began with the Golem and Nosferatu, and continued on with clips from Son of Dracula (the Lon Chaney version), Cobra Woman, The Spiral Staircase, an Edgar Ulmer Yiddish film and Fearless Vampire Killers was too brief to amount to much. Much of time was given over to random clips which kind of illustrated the points which were kind of made. The problem was that the 40 minute talk really required more explanation and a longer running time than we were treated to. It wasn’t bad but in all honesty connections were not really made and other than the filmmakers being Jewish you can’t say they were Jewish horror films. It was a disappointment.

I do have to say that Ms Weintraub was a trooper and handled the presentation duties extremely well.

Seeing the Black Cat larger than life was a trip. The film tells the story of a newlywed couple who meet Bela Lugosi on a train. He’s traveling to the home of an old “friend” Satanist Boris Karloff. When the couple is in a bus accident they end up at Karloff’s home. They also end up in the middle of a battle between the two horror superstars.

This film is a one of my favorite horror films simply because it creates such wicked tension in the final half. However seeing it larger than life and twice as ugly I realize that a good chunk of the film is very silly. Karloff and Lugosi make lots of declarative statements that imply a back story we don’t know. We don’t know why things happen, like why the couple is traveling beyond Lugosi’s stop they get off the train and get on to a bus with Lugosi. There are these odd moments and pregnant pauses that play differently on the big screen than they do on TV. There is one point where Karloff and Lugosi talk and Karloff speaks but his lips don’t move. It’s very surreal.

Seeing the film this way I was very aware for the first time that if you look at the film in pieces the film is not very good. On the other hand how the film comes together in a dream like fashion, especially in the final third, is deeply disturbing. There is something about how we fill in the gaps between the declarative statements and the plot points that is deeply troubling, certainly more troubling than most modern horror films.

New found silliness aside the film really is one of the best of the classic Universal horror films of the period and if you’ve never seen it you should make the effort to do so.

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