Film Reviews

31 Days of Halloween: The Black Cat (1981)

Take an Edgar Allan Poe story. Give it to two different Italian directors who came up in the 1960s and truly made their mark in the 70s. Tell them they have to use the same basic ending and motifs but can otherwise do whatever they want with it. What do you get?

Well, in Sergio Martino’s hands you got 1972’s Your Vice Is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key, a part-giallo/part-sexploitation thriller which entertains through its own willingness to constantly reinvent itself. Offer the same challenge to the far more iconic Lucio Fulci and the result is something far moodier and literal. Unlike Your Vice…, this film really is just a series of deaths brought about by a cat backed up by confusing mythology over who exactly is responsible for it all.

What’s It About?

In a small English village, a visiting American photographer (Missy Farmer), local police constable (Al Cliver), Scotland Yard inspector (David Warbeck), and former college professor/medium named Robert Miles (Patrick Magee) converge to make sense of a series of mysterious deaths. A cute, young couple suffocated to death in a locked boathouse. A completely sober man crashed his car into a lampost on a perfectly clear evening. Another man walking home from the pub fell off a high beam and onto spikes. It..did not end well for him.

So, ya know, WTF.

Oh, nothing big, really. There’s just a supernatural black cat going around the village manipulating people to their doom.

Or is there?

No, there totally is an actual cat, but is it actually a malevolent, supernatural presence? Or is it somehow acting on someone’s orders?

Why I Watched It

It was right next to Your Vice Is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key on the Night Flight app, and the prospect of watching two different Italian interpretations of Edgar Allan Poe’s “Black Cat” was too fascinating an experiment to pass up.

Did I Like It?

Not as much as Your Vice. Between this and Your Vice…, The Black Cat is certainly the more faithful adaptation. Before I get into that, maybe it would be helpful to briefly summarize what happens in the original short story:

An alcoholic author takes out his rage on his own black cat, committing an act of animal cruelty which first fills him with guilt but then fascination with how much further down the amoral hole he might go. The poor cat ends up dead, of course, and eventually replaced with a lookalike cat found in a nearby tavern. Sure enough, having a new, largely identical cat around mostly reminds the author of what he’d done, and after almost tripping to his death over the new cat he swings an axe at it, the blade missing the feline and hitting his wife instead. When the cops come calling with questions, they have no idea the dead wife’s body is stowed away inside the walls in the cellar, but the cat sure does. Meow-meow, motherfucker.

That last part is an exact quote from Poe. (No, it’s not.)

Originally published in 1843, “The Black Cat”’s tale of a despairing narrator haunted by a black animal and symbol of his guilt reads like a Poe greatest hits mash-up of “The Raven” (a poem it predated by two years) and “The Tell-Tale Heart” (which was published 8 months earlier). Universal eventually adapted it into two different movies, each of them entitled The Black Cat and each starring Bela Lugosi. (Boris Karloff co-starred in the 1934 version, Basil Rathbone in the 1941 entry.) Neither film, however, has much to do with the actual short story.

Lucio Fulci’s version – which in addition to directing he co-wrote with Biagio Proietti – at least maintains the story’s ending (so does Your Vice…) and includes the memorable shot of a cat with a noose around its neck (yeah, Your Vice doesn’t do that). As Poe did in his story, Fulci presents that particular image as a shadowy silhouette on the side of a house. However, like Your Vice…, Black Cat is mostly an original story that just happens to feature a black cat which somehow reflects an old man’s lingering guilt over something.

It’s not the movie you’re expecting if you know the short story, but it’s also not the movie you’re expecting if you know Fulci for his zombie movies like Zombi 2 and City of the Living Dead. Like so many other Italian directors of his era, he was a workaday helmer who’d been working for years, long enough to have dabbled in all sorts of genres – slapstick comedy/science-fiction (002 operazione Luna), Spaghetti Western (The Brute and the Beast), historic epic (Beatrice Cenci), literary adaptation (White Fang), softcore gialli (One on Top of the Other), and horror (Dracula in Brianza). He even contributed the well-remembered giallo, 1972’s Don’t Torture a Duckling.

He didn’t, however, become the Fulci most people recognize until 1979’s Zombi 2, a remarkably bloody take on the zombie genre which he followed up with several repetitions on his new, gory formula. In 1980’s City of the Living Dead, for example, the zombies pull the back of people’s heads off, and one girl is forced to throw up her own intestines.

Yeah, nothing remotely like that happens in The Black Cat. This is Fulci, at nearly the height of his zombie movie fame, taking a breather to show what else he can do. The result is a moody journey through foggy graveyards, a sleepy village, eerie streets, and foreboding tombs with a black cat at the ready to jump at you from the shadows. The story, as Kim Newman argued in Nightmare Movies, is “played almost entirely in facial close-ups of the evil cat and its demented master for maximum claustrophobia.” Thankfully, the heavy possibility of a Toonces-like “well those cat paws are clearly fake” goes mostly unrealized, as the cat usually looks real or at least like a convincing puppet.

If you come for the usual Fulci gore, you’ll leave disappointed. However, if you dig old-school atmosphere and sleepy village murder mysteries, The Black Cat is not without its charm.

Did It Scare Me?

No.

Random Parting Trivia

After The Black Cat, Fulci directed 17 more movies and wrote/produced several others before his death in 1996. The same year he made The Black Cat he also made The House By the Cemetary, another film which ends in with a big reveal in a tomb. A year later, Fulci directed The New York Ripper, a nasty – insulting, even – bit of business which is usually baked into the larger story of Fulci as being on the more extreme end of the giallo craze. However, his career really isn’t that simple. You’d never guess the guy who made Zombi 2 also made The Black Cat.

Where to Stream

Amazon Prime, Night Flight

31 Days of Halloween So Far:

Next Up: Heading into the tall grass with Stephen King.

Vampires on horses! Well, technically, one ex-vampire on a single horse, but, still, how often do you see that?

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.