The Black Cat (1941)

Last week, I promised that this week would feature a Sherlock Holmes tie-in. Unfortunately, the intended film, Sherlock, Jr. (1924) starring Buster Keaton, turned out to be of much poorer technical quality than I remembered, so I have decided to give it a pass.

Instead, I will recommend a film that I discovered recently quite by accident. I was looking for the film The Black Cat from 1934, but by mistake I downloaded The Black Cat from 1941 instead. An easy mistake to make, considering that Bela Lugosi acts in both films. That mistaken download turned out to be a stroke of luck, since the 1941 film is really nice. It is also an example of a pretty unusual genre crossing, being perhaps best classified as a mansion mystery horror comedy.

Gail Sondergaard and Basil Rathbone in The Black Cat (1941)

Finding the right pictures to go with these blog reviews can sometimes be a lot of trouble. In this case, the problem is the opposite one: How can one choose between so many good options? Each scene is so well composed that there is almost always a frame that can be used for a good illustration. These exquisite compositions contribute to the many good qualities of the film.

Nominally, the protagonists of this tale are Gilmore Smith (Broderick Crawford), a real estate broker who tries to solve the mystery of a murdered old lady, and his comic relief Mr. Penny (Hugh Herbert). But the real stars are Basil Rathbone and Bela Lugosi. Now, I cannot say that either of them makes his best on-screen performance. Rathbone, in fact, looks distinctly uncomfortable and appears to not want to be in this picture at all. He may have already got stuck in the Sherlock Holmes typecasting and perhaps thought he deserved better than this. (In a sense, he did.) Bela Lugosi, on the other hand, is excellent as the Hispanic gardener, but he is given far too little screen time.

This film is best enjoyed when you need some light entertainment and do not want to think too much. The mystery story is pretty thin and will not stand for any deeper analysis, and it must be admitted that some of the humour has not really stood the test of time. But the dark mood, the attention to detail in the imaging, and the many crazy characters (several of them really well played) combine to make this film well worth a watch.

The Black Cat (1941)

The Black Cat
Download link
Year: 1941
Running time: 1 h 10 min
Directors: Albert S. Rogell
Stars: Basil Rathbone, Bela Lugosi
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (640×490)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: MPEG4 (418 M)

The Ape Man (1943)

It is a shame that Bela Lugosi never got to act in a serious drama for a top director. I think he would have made a glorious performance. Instead, he was typecast as the monster or mad scientist in cheap B movies. Sometimes he was both, as in The Ape Man.

Bela Lugosi as the mad scientist in The Ape Man (1943)

The story of The Ape Man is absolutely ludicrous. Dr. Brewster’s experiments on a caged gorilla that he keeps in a secret room in his basement have gone all wrong. As a result he is turning into a gorilla himself, and the only way he can save himself is to tap people’s spinal fluid. The problem is that the procedure tends to kill the victims. Two newspaper reporters have a hunch that something is wrong and try to get a scoop, and at the same time the police are investigating the killings, as well as the disappearance of the Doctor.

This would seem to be a certain recipe for a disastrous movie, and it is if you try to take it seriously. Well, don’t. Let loose a bit and I think you will find this to be a little gem of a movie. The actors are actually quite good, not least Lugosi who is not so much threatening as he is tragic; hence my comment about serious drama in the beginning. Louise Curry and Wallace Ford (otherwise unknown names to me) also perform nicely as the two reporters.

The movie has several other qualities as well. The dialogue is good, not as stilted as it sometimes tends to be in similar movies, and the film’s duration of only slightly above an hour makes sure that you do not have time to become bored. The only major problem is sound quality, which is terrible on the copy I found. So bad, in fact, that it was sometimes hard to make out the dialogue, even though the actors spoke clearly enough.

Now, if you thoroughly enjoyed this film and want more of the same, try The Ape (1940) with Boris Karloff as the mad scientist who goes ape. Not quite as enjoyable as The Ape Man, but clearly a child of the same spirit. There is also The Gorilla (1939), which I have not seen, but wherein you will find both Bela Lugosi and yet another gorilla suit.

This film is best enjoyed all the way through to the end. There is a marvellous meta twist that puts everything on end and shows exactly how serious the producer and writer were about the story.

Ralph Littlefield as Zippo in The Ape Man (1943)

The Ape Man
Download link
Year: 1943
Running time: 1 h 4 min
Director: William Beaudine
Stars: Bela Lugosi
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (720×480)
Sound quality: Poor
Best file format: DivX (694 M)

White Zombie (1932)

I just had a look at the trailer for the latest zombie movie, World War Z. And you know what? It did not awaken even the slightest wish to actually see the film.

For decades, all zombie movies have been basically the same: Help! They are taking over the world! They are coming! Cut off their heads! Ow, it bit my leg! Help! The end.

The main development in the genre is that the old movie zombies, like those in The Last Man on Earth (1964), are very slow and not terribly scary, whereas the modern variety, in accordance with the movie audience’s demand for ever higher adrenaline kicks, are fast, furious and very dangerous. But the stories remain basically the same.

The very first zombie film, White Zombie starring Bela Lugosi, is something entirely different. Here we find zombies that are rooted in the Caribbean voodoo tradition, zombies that are not necessarily dead; only completely without wills and minds of their own.

Victor Halperin's White Zombie (1932)

White Zombie was made at a time when sound film was still a new medium. Sound quality was not very good, and neither actors nor directors had yet become used to the new dimension offered them. As a result, actors performed as though they were still in a silent, with overly theatrical gestures and poses. Some find this disturbing. I think it is charming.

Bela Lugosi is the only one in the film who manages to be theatrical and still seem at ease. He gives a magnificent performance, and in my opinion, he is even better here than in his iconic portrayal in Dracula (1931).

Compared with the modern zombie movie, White Zombie is very slowly paced, but its pacing is also very deliberate, and together with effective lighting and scenography creates a tension that is maintaned almost through to the end. In many ways, in fact, White Zombie is very much less clichéd than modern zombie movies. Being the first of its kind, it was not yet stuck in the conventions of the genre.

This film is best enjoyed just before a thunder storm, while the air is moist, warm and heavy.

Bela Lugosi in White Zombie (1932)

White Zombie
Download link
Year: 1932
Running time: 1 h 37 min
Director: Victor Halperin
Stars: Bela Lugosi
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (640×480; not counting black border)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: MPEG2 (1.6 G)