The first two-and-a-half decades of feature-length American horror cinema can be crudely divided into two flavors: the movies made by Universal Pictures, and everything else. It was Universal who, in the 1920s, cracked the code of making literary adaptations that were longer on spooky atmosphere than prestige; it was Universal who finally pulled the trigger on presenting paranormal terrors that couldn't be explained away as hoaxes or scientific abnormalities, with its one-two punch of Dracula and Frankenstein in 1931, the movies that largely birthed horror as a genre. And through World War II, it was Universal where the highest-profile, biggest-budget horror was being produced, until, after a while, it simply wasn't. Universal's solitary "horror" movies between 1947 and the dawn of the 1950s were the generically dubious Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein and Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff, and there has never been a period since when the studio regained its allover dominance of the genre.

Here, however, we find the studio's best attempt to do so, after its window of opportunity had closed: The Black Castle of 1952. If the late '40s where a period when horror largely disappeared, the early '50s were a period in which it transformed: almost all of the significant horror movies of that decade and much of the decade that followed where genre hybrids, which could be as easily assigned to science-fiction. In '52, that transition had only just barely started and certainly hadn't established itself (the earliest point that I think we could firmly say that the age of Sci-Fi Horror B-Pictures had begun would be with 1953's The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms), but the public's taste for the Gothic mysteries that largely equalled movie horror in the '30s and '40s had mostly evaporated, and its new taste for Space Age pulp was already clearly in place. And so it was that Universal's attempt to revive its dormant tradition of horror filmmaking in the form of one of those Gothic mysteries couldn't possibly have worked; and while I won't pretend to know the feeling in Universal's offices when The Black Castle premiered, with several decades of hindsight on our side, it's impossible to feign shock that the movie underperformed financially. The studio's return to making A-list horror would have to wait two years, until they concocted a brand new monster that fit in with modern tastes better, the marvelous Creature from the Black Lagoon.

In the meantime, we find ourselves face-to-face with a movie that would have seemed a little musty if it had come out 15 years earlier, though I will say this on behalf of The Black Castle: time has been kind to it. Director Nathan Juran, who'd later handle several of Ray Harryhausen's fantasies, did an absolutely fantastic job of squeezing all possible atmospheric gloom from Bernard Herzrburn and Alfred Sweeney's baroque Old World sets, and while there's no point at which the odd plot provided by writer Jerry Sackheim feels completely elegant and cohesive, Juran and cinematographer Irving Glassberg were able to make a real triumph from one of the script's strangest sidebars, a black panther hunt where the film is most eager to lapse into a Most Dangerous Game riff that it never commits to being. The pleasures of a mid-'30s costume drama mystery as well as the pleasures of an early-'60s Hammer Gothic are very much in abundance here, making the film simultaneously old-fashioned and ahead-of-its-time, to its short-term misfortune, but its long-term charm.

Let us not pretend that this is a classic, though: there's still quite a bit that's lumpy in the film, which suffers from wildly variable performances of wildly variable characters, as well as a story that clomps about gracelessly and, for at least the film's first half, aimlessly. The Black Castle clocks in at just 82 minutes (which, to be sure, is not especially short for this kind of movie at this point in history), but it's amazing how much of it feels like padding, including a sequence where the hero leaves one location, changes his mind, and goes back to it, for no apparent gain to the film itself.

That hero is Sir Ronald Burton (Richard Greene), an Englishman late of Africa, who has headed to the Black Forest in Austria in search of clues about two of his colleagues sometime in what the film never quite commits to depicting as either the 18th or 19th Century. Their disappearance is connected with the Black Castle of Count Karl von Bruno (Stephen McNally), who was an adversary of Burton and his men back in Africa. He never saw the Englishmen, which is why Burton is able to approach him under the name of Beckett, to make his investigation, and if we didn't have good cause to mistrust him in the first place, we would after his first appearance. He makes an immediate impression of robust Continental villainy when we see him with his sarcastic smirk and eyepatch and cackling line deliveries (which McNally forebears from delivering in any kind of Germanic accent). And it must be said that McNally's obvious joy at playing such a broad part, in the midst of a career of small roles in small Westerns, makes the count a far more enjoyable screen presence than the rather staid Burton. The same is true of his wife, Countess Elga (B-movie staple Rita Corday, appearing as she sometimes did under the name Paula Corday), much abused by her cruel husband and thus predisposed to fall desperately in love with the first man who comes along with the potential to save her from her wretched life.

She's not the only member of the Black Castle's unhappy family to see Burton as a potential savior: the castle staff includes a certain Dr. Meissen (Boris Karloff), who's a bit more ambivalent in his villainy than any of the count's other lackeys and hangers-on, and who feeds Burton advice and tries to help him, though that help comes in some rather bleak forms.

If I describe the situation more than the actual story, it's because the story is frankly a bit smothered underneath the rest of the movie: The Black Castle is high on visual atmosphere and narrative intrigue, but it mostly allows the story to crawl by in stiff, "this happened and then this happened" fashion. Burton's generic qualities as B-movie leading man have a lot to do with that, as he's not very capable of grabbing the attention of the camera or anything else, and so it's not very interesting to watch him step through the beats of a plot that's far too easy to anticipate, given how much information it gives us in advance (it opens with a Poe-esque "don't bury the drugged man alive!" prologue that turns much of the rest of the film into a protracted waiting game). It's a bit skittish of committing to actual horror, it's not mysterious enough to function the way it thinks it can as a mystery, and the whole thing is just a bit ad hoc and thrown-together. By the time we find Count von Bruno's pit of crocodiles, the reveal is more "wow, so crocodiles, huh?" than anything that feels like the moment has arisen organically from the movie as a whole; that same sense pervades the whole movie.

What works about the film is exactly what one expects to work: the sets, both exteriors and interiors, and the thick shadows populating them (I have mentioned the count's panther hunt already, but I trust you will not hate me for doing it again: the murky woods in which it occurs and the angular camera positions are the best thing the film ever has going on visually), the florid acting of McNally as the bad guy, and the soft, calculated acting of Karloff as the cunningly neutral doctor. The film's latter day visibility relies to a great deal on Karloff's presence in the cast (as well as Lon Chaney, Jr. as a mute lug; like most of Chaney's non-werewolf performances, he makes less of an impression than it seems like he should), which is patently unfair: he's quite a marginal character, all things considered, not quite so far down the path to obsolescence as Bela Lugosi or Peter Lorre, both of whom were already largely done with studio pictures by 1952, but it wouldn't be until his stock dropped enough that he could be poached by the independent American International Pictures that he'd see starring roles again. Still, even Karloff in decline had the keen screen presence and effortlessly sinuous line readings of a movie star at his peak, and his small, ambiguous part is certainly the most memorable thing The Black Castle can offer.

Not that good Karloff, enjoyably purple McNally, and lots and lots of mist-soaked Gothic sets are anything to sniff at. It is a terribly enjoyable throwback, if you have any affection at all for the heavy artifice of '30s Universal horror, even granting its considerable deficiencies as a story. There are better films on this general aesthetic model, both prior to 1952 and afterwards, but there are also infinitely worse ones. It's a solid second-tier Gothic mystery-horror-thriller, the kind that's worth catching up with only once you've seen all the good ones. But the important part is that it's worth seeing.

Body Count: 4 humans, and one panther.