Bela Lugosi has been cast as a kind of cinematic cautionary tale over the years, with Martin Landau’s indelible Oscar-winning portrait of him in his decline in Ed Wood forever painting the Dracula star as a drug-addicted has-been stuck in terrible no-budget movies. Hell, even Bauhaus sang mournfully for him in “Bela Lugosi’s Dead.”
While Lugosi certainly had his problems, his career at its peak was fiery, and his presence on screen had a brooding Gothic grandeur that’s been imitated by every Lestat and Twilight sparkle-vampire wanna-be ever since.
The sad thing is that Bela Lugosi very rarely got to play the hero. His iconic performance in Dracula defined him, for better or worse, and the ensuing typecasting meant that he rarely played non-villainous roles. He was also hobbled by the thick Hungarian accent he never quite shed.
But in one of his best roles, 1934’s The Black Cat, he got to play a daring kind of anti-hero, teamed with Boris Karloff for the first time in one twisted piece of pre-Code horror. Lugosi is Dr Vitus Werdegast, a former prisoner of war who returns to exact vengeance upon his traitorous commander, Hjalmar Poelzig (Karloff). Dr Vitus’ mission gets tangled up with two fresh-faced newlyweds who become pawns in a showdown between him and Poelzig.
At a brisk 69 minutes, The Black Cat is Universal Horror near its peak – all razor-sharp shadows and crackling thunder, but with a creepy, real-life edge that foresees the horrors of the Nazi party. The monsters here are all very human. Poelzig, who’s not just a war criminal but a bona fide Satanic cult leader, is one of the more unnerving villains Karloff ever played, all sallow, black-eyed stare and unrepentant malice.
But it’s Lugosi who steals The Black Cat, looking impossibly handsome and dapper as Dr Vitus, vigorous and strong. (It’s interesting to realise that Lugosi was actually a bit taller than Karloff, who played the towering Frankenstein’s Monster.) He’s a haunted man, but one who wants to do the right thing. The tragedy of The Black Cat is that in doing so, he is seen as a villain too.
There is a scene where Dr Vitus discovers the preserved corpse of his wife, kept in a glass case by the madman Polezig (I told you this was a twisted bit of pre-Code horror!). The agony and shock that plays over Lugosi’s face in this moment is a masterpiece of horror acting.
Of course, The Black Cat is hokey – the newlyweds are a plot device, Lugosi’s character’s inexplicable hatred of cats is kind of hilarious today (at one point, he straight up murders a cat!). But there’s a primal fear to it too that movies from Texas Chainsaw Massacre to Saw have mined ever since, about good people ending up in a web of unspeakable random cruelty.
I love the brief image we get of Lugosi as the doomed hero, a good man shattered by wartime cruelties and the sadistic tortures of Poelzig. In the end Dr Vitus gives himself entirely to revenge and cruelty, mutilating Poelzig, and flicking the switch to blow up everything and almost peacefully, intoning, “It has been a good game.”
In another world, maybe Lugosi would’ve played the hero more often. But when he did, he was unforgettable.