The Black Cat / Horror Island (1941)

DECEMBER 16, 2019


Earlier this year, Scream Factory released a volume of old Universal films that happened to star both Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, which I had a lot of fun with. I somehow missed the second volume, but the third one is now here and while it doesn't seem to have any theme as far as actors go, it has so far been just as entertaining, with both The Black Cat and Horror Island being among the better of the non-Monster films from the era that I've seen, with Black Cat in particular being a total winner, one I could see myself throwing on again during the Halloween season when I want something light and fun to doze off to after a grueling day.

Amusingly/confusingly, the first volume had a movie called The Black Cat and it also had Bela Lugosi, so I want to be clear that this one is from 1941 and Lugosi is not one of the primary characters. It's actually a bit of an uncredited remake of their Cat and the Canary update from 1939, which added Bob Hope (read: comedy) to the story as it was a remake itself. Broderick Crawford plays the Bob Hope-y role, though he's actually got a Costello kind of demeanor as he makes his way through the usual story (inheritance, killer, secret passageways, etc.). His flirty material with Anne Gwynne are rather sweet and genuine, and she wasn't just a damsel in distress; if anything she was helping him out just as often, if not more so.

Naturally, it's not particularly scary or anything, though at least they don't try to suggest supernatural forces when we all know it'll just be a person; it's actually closer to a traditional slasher (!) than most other Old Dark House stuff I've seen. Likewise, for once the mystery was actually somewhat engaging for me! It wasn't until a few minutes before the big reveal that I finally pegged the killer, which is rare as I'm usually well ahead of them in these older movies and thus find it harder to enjoy. Not like, "Oh man I need to rewatch this to see what I missed" kind of stuff, but certainly better plotted than I was expecting all the same.

Only bummer is Lugosi being a throwaway character; his career was already in decline so bit parts weren't uncommon, but I figured since of his association with the title he wouldn't have accepted such a thankless role. They give him a good entrance though, with those great eyes staring out through the cast-iron fence that surrounds the property where the entire movie takes place. Basil Rathbone is top billed, but it's really Crawford's movie as he's in nearly every scene and gets all the best laughs (there's a hilarious bit where the phone goes out and he keeps duping one of the less-intelligent family members to try to call for help). Apparently he usually played authoritarian figures and the like - what a waste! He's got great comic chops.

The same year's Horror Island was pretty similar, except not as fun. Dick Foran played the hero, and while he's got a certain charm his comedic stuff fell flat for me (and to think he was originally cast as Larry Talbot!). But the story is fine, it's like an Old Dark House movie on an island, as Foran takes a motley group out on a fake treasure hunt only for a Phantom to show up and start offing people in order to claim the real treasure. The body count is slightly higher than normal for these things, but the pacing is weird - the movie is only 60 minutes long (bless!) and it takes almost half that time just to get to the island. The mystery is kind of amusing though, because the killer keeps reminding everyone how many people are left alive by writing the number in chalk on the wall - I wish Jason or Michael would do that, it'd be funny.

The commentary made me more forgiving of the movie's lapses though - per historian Ted Newsom, the movie was shot, edited, and released in a span of about three weeks, which is less than some television shows are given. They apparently overworked the actors (Foran eventually fell ill) and violated union rules, all to get the movie out for whatever reason. They also used leftover sets from other Universal productions (including Tower of London, also included on this set but I haven't gotten to it yet), so the whole thing is like an early prototype for Corman productions like The Terror and Little Shop of Horrors, but without anyone as fun as Jack Nicholson or Dick Miller to make up for the shoddiness. But again it's breezy enough to be a decent time-killer, and even though it has nothing to do with the movie itself I like Newsom's style of commentary, as he largely avoids rattling off the actors' filmographies and instead focuses on the production itself, while also providing context for where Universal was at at the time. He also mocks a few of its narrative choices, but in a loving way - as with me and Cathy's Curse, he's a genuine fan that just happens to be fully aware of its questionable moments.

Scream Factory will always be known for their 70s and 80s fare, but I am excited that they are continuing to put out solid editions of these older, somewhat forgotten films. Instead of ending up on a Mill Creek set or something, they get nice transfers, a commentary track, and - perhaps best of all - the backing of a label that has earned the trust of horror fans, which means it's more likely that people will be checking them out. Universal itself has always done right by their Dracula, Frankenstein, etc. movies, but it's these "B" entries that really give you a sense of what genre fare was like back then - it'd be like someone now only seeing Scream and Blair Witch Project when they wanted to see what 90s horror was like. No, those were the highlights! You gotta watch Hellraiser: Bloodline and Hideaway to get an idea of what we were usually being offered! Here's hoping they can continue to get access to Hammer films so they can do the same for their unheralded minor gems as well.

What say you?


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