In the spring of 1934, just before the Production Code was about to be enforced in earnest, Universal managed to slip in a horror film that included intimations of necrophilia, a Satanic mass, and a scene of a man being flayed alive. To be sure, there's a lot more to Edgar G. Ulmer's The Black Cat
than that, but those things would have surely raised a few red flags if the studio had held the picture up for any reason. As the opening titles indicate, the film was "suggested by the immortal Edgar Allan Poe classic," which of course means that they have absolutely nothing in common other than the presence of a black cat. Rather, the screen story that Ulmer cooked up with screenwriter Peter Ruric concerns the battle of wills between Hungarian psychologist Bela Lugosi and Austrian architect Boris Karloff, who has built his ultra-modern home (a striking design by Ulmer) on the site of a mass graveyard dating back to the Great War.
Lugosi has returned after spending 15 years in a prison camp as a result of Karloff's betrayal and wants to reclaim the wife and daughter that were stolen from him. On his way to their scheduled rendezvous he meets a couple of newlyweds (mystery writer David Manners and Jacqueline Wells) who become unwitting pawns in their game (at one point, they literally play chess for Wells's freedom) and tries his best to shield them from Karloff's machinations. Meanwhile, Lugosi's crippling fear of cats manifests itself at inopportune moments (the first time he spies one he kills it with a dagger), and Manners proves to be supremely unobservant. Everything comes to a head during the Dark of the Moon, when Karloff's cult (which includes an uncredited John Carradine) gathers to take part in the Rites of Lucifer, and Lugosi finally gains the upper hand. If the cat had shown up one last time, though, he would have surely been screwed.