Monday, October 5, 2009

October Horror-thon #5: "The Black Cat" (1941)

Rich old crone Henrietta Winslow (Cecilia Loftus) is on her deathbed, which means her nearest (and not so dearest) relatives have come out of the woodwork in search of a handout. But while Henrietta already has one foot in the grave, someone wants to ensure she completes the journey. After stipulating that no one will see a cent until she and her many cats have passed on, Henrietta dies in what her money-grubbing kin are glad to accept as an accident. But family friend Gil Smith (Broderick Crawford) deduces foul play, that greed got the best of someone who just couldn't wait. The trouble is that he's the only one who thinks a murderer is among them, forcing him to confront various spooky goings-on to prove his suspicions.

Long before Roger Corman made a mint with The Pit and the Pendulum, Universal Studios padded its own horror library with the works of Edgar Allan Poe. The Black Cat came as the trend was winding down, with more focus set on developing monster properties, and it has even less to do with the Poe story than Universal's other film of the same name from seven years prior. In fact, The Black Cat has a great deal in common with The Cat and the Canary, which the studio itself adapted in the '20s. It's a comedic mystery more than a straight-out chiller, a clever idea until you consider Universal's track record with blending humor and horror. More often than not, you got something like The Invisible Woman, a painfully campy blemish on an almost sterling genre catalogue. The Black Cat never gets that silly, but its jokes aren't always on the ball. Most of the film feels like an aborted Abbott and Costello routine, especially where Hugh Herbert's bumbling antique dealer is concerned. The story also gets lost in the shuffle; by the time the mystery is finally revealed, you're still trying to figure out how the movie made it there.

Still, The Black Cat had its share of endearing charms. Crawford did great work as the scaredy cat hero, there were some choice moments of dark humor, and, as with the best Universal thrillers, the production design was really top-notch. You're more liable to have a freaky good time with the studio's other Black Cat, but this one's worth a glance should it work its way onto Turner Classic Movies.

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