Premièring 7 May 1934 in the U.S. and going into general release on 18 May, The Black Cat was the first of eight films co-starring horror icons Boris Karloff and Béla Lugosi, and Universal’s biggest hit of the year. Many consider it the granddaddy of psychological horror.
Though the film takes its name from Edgar Allan Poe’s 1843 short story, it has little to do with the purported source material. It also has no relation to the 1941 film (also starring Lugosi) of the same name.
In the U.K., it was titled House of Doom.
Newlyweds Peter and Joan Alison (David Manners and Julie Bishop) experience the ultimate inconvenience on the way to their honeymoon in Budapest—a third passenger joining them in their private cabin. Dr. Vitus Werdegast (Lugosi) says he’s on his way to visit an old friend.
Eighteen years ago, Vitus went to war and experienced every soldier’s ultimate horror when he was captured by the enemy. For the last fifteen years, he was held captive in a brutal Siberian prison camp.
Vitus also joins the newlyweds on the private bus to their hotel, but this continued deprivation of privacy is soon forgotten when Joan is injured in a road accident and they’re all forced to share lodgings in Visograd.
Their host is Hjalmar Poelzig (Karloff), whom Vitus has been longing to get even with since the war. He blames Hjalmar for the murder of 10,000 soldiers and the imprisonment of many others, including himself. After Hjalmar betrayed their country to the enemy and saved his own hide, he stole Vitus’s wife Karen and their daughter.
Now Vitus wants to kill Hjalmar, but very slowly. Immediately killing him wouldn’t be nearly so satisfying.
During the night, Vitus demands again for Hjalmar to take him to his wife. Peter is greatly disturbed when they come into his room by mistake, and after they leave the room, he says next time he’ll go to Niagara Falls.
Hjalmar takes Vitus to Karen’s mummified body standing upright in a glass casket. She died two years after the war, and Hjalmar has kept her beautifully preserved ever since. Hjalmar says their daughter died too.
Vitus is about to shoot Hjlamar in a rage when a black cat wanders by and scares Vitus so much he stumbles against a glass wall which breaks. Earlier, another black cat terrified him so much he killed it, and Hjalmar explained he suffers from one of the more common phobias, ailurophobia.
Hjalmar temporarily talks sense into Vitus, then goes to see Karen, Jr., his stepdaughter turned wife, who’s very much alive and in their bed. He orders her to stay in their room until Vitus is gone, and says no one can take her away from him.
Vitus has no intention of giving up on revenge so easily, and speaks with one of Hjalmar’s servants about a plan to blow up the estate.
At their next meeting, Vitus announces to Hjalmar his desire to let Peter and Joan leave after Joan’s recovery. Towards this end, Vitus agrees to play a game of chess with the newlyweds’ release as winning prize.
They’re interrupted when authorities arrive to get statements about the bus accident, and then again when a servant reports the car is out of commission. Peter is very eager to get out of this creepy estate, but circumstances keep conspiring to keep him and Joan there. Even the phone is dead, so he can’t make arrangements for other transportation.
Peter fetches Joan and says they’re leaving immediately, even if they have to walk and leave their luggage. Another obstacle crops up when Peter discovers someone took his automatic, and then a servant guarding the door knocks him out and carries Joan back to her room.
After Hjalmar locks Joan into the room, Peter is carried away to the cellar and dumped on the floor.
While Hjalmar is playing the organ, Vitus steals a key and creeps off to Joan’s room. He tells her how evil Hjalmar is and that he’ll get his revenge in due time. Vitus also tells Joan to be brave if she wants to get out of there alive.
The horror increases in the wake of a Satanic service Hjalmar hosts.
Will Vitus finally get his well-deserved revenge on the man who ruined his life, and will Peter and Joan ever escape?