AKA GATTO NERO
ON BLU-RAY: NOW, from ARROW VIDEO in the EDGAR ALLAN POE’S BLACK CATS: TWO ADAPTATIONS BY SERGIO MARTINO AND LUCIO FULCI boxset
RUNNING TIME: 92 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Some mysterious killings are occurring in a small English village, and seem to be being carried out by a cat. The cat’s owner is Robert Miles, a former college professor of the supernatural who is reputed to be a medium, and who spends his time making audio tape recordings at the tombs of the recently deceased. Meanwhile, American tourist Jill Travers ventures into an open crypt to take photographs for her scrapbook when she discovers a small microphone on the floor. As her search for its owner takes her to Miles, Inspector Gorley arrives from Scotland Yard to investigate….
Tastes can change. I didn’t used to think much of The Black Cat, considering it a rather lame effort from Lucio Fulci; in fact despite being a fan of this director [a director who is just below Mario Bava and Dario Argento in the Holy Trinity of Italian horror], I never bothered to upgrade my video [any readers remember the awesome Redemption video label?] to a DVD. On the special features included on Arrow’s superb Blu-ray release of the movie, Stephen Thrower [author of the superb book Beyond Terror: The Films Of Lucio Fulci], says that the film improves considerably when viewed years later, and I would agree. It’s quite a low key effort, and doesn’t feel the need to shock with extreme gore [even though it’s gorier than I remembered it, I’m rather surprised that it still carries an ‘18’ certificate considering what ‘15’ rated films like the Final Destination series get away with], while its screenplay is often puzzling in the wrong way with its setting up of aspects that are not followed through and avoidance of most of the themes of Poe’s story, to which this movie really bares very little resemblance to at all. However, there’s still quite a bit of the Poe flavour here and there, and it’s still an enjoyably quirky, even charming, movie that is perhaps closest to the equally overseen Manhattan Baby in that it’s even more of an experiment in style than most of Fulci’s better known films.
It was made in the middle of Fulci’s insanely productive early 80’s period, and it’s easy to see how it almost got lost amidst his gruesome, surreal zombie classics. Fulci claimed that he did the movie as a favour to producer Giulio Sbarigia, though he probably sought out writer Biagio Proietti deliberately as he’d written a series of Poe adaptations for TV. Some sources say that Peter Cushing was asked to play the role of Robert Miles, but turned the part down due to Fulci’s controversial reputation. Donald Pleasance was actually signed to play the part, but production on another film over ran so Fulci asked Patrick Magee to do it instead. The Black Cat was shot in the UK in Hambeldon, Buckinghamshire [also featured in Band Of Brothers], and West Wickham just outside of London. Actress Dagmar Lassander was almost killed when a breakaway wall fell on her. Against Fulci’s wishes, Sbarigia ordered the insertion of a scene inspired by The Exorcist where the heroine is on a bed which is shaking and rising into the air, and left editor Vincenzo Tomassi to pretty much put the film together on his own while he moved on to The Beyond. For some reason, Fulci’s usual cameo appearance was cut out, as was a more detailed shot of an decomposing body which can be seen in the trailer, which leads me to believe that some graphic material may have been cut out elsewhere too. The Black Cat wasn’t released to much interest and didn’t get a UK theatrical release like Fulci’s other chillers of the time, though it appeared in some US cinemas, slightly cut, in 1984.
After a well edited scene of somebody being hypnotised by the cat of the title [!] to crash his car, the titles begin over a quite exhilarating series of shots mostly from the point of view of the cat, prowling along the ground and soaring over rooftops, the icing on the cake being Pino Donaggio’s terrific music theme [which is sadly only heard again during the end credits] which really evokes the feeling of a cat moving about. We see the cat return to its owner, the reclusive Robert Miles, so no mystery there! We then see Miles playing a tape recording of the dead talking [they apparently speak mostly in Latin, for some reason], and soon afterwards going into a graveyard to record some more dead talk and actually seeming to speak to someone who is buried [I wonder if we’re supposed to infer that this is his son?]. There is a terrific sense of Poe in this extremely atmospheric scene which could come from one of Roger Corman’s Poe movies – Fulci just ‘gets’ it – which makes it a disappointment that he never made another, perhaps more faithful adaptation of a Poe tale. However, this most intriguing plot element, which had so much potential, thereafter virtually disappears from the narrative, which is a great shame when one considers that the bulk of the film is instead largely taken up with elaborate set pieces of a cat causing people to die in inventive ways.
He’s pretty amazing this cat, able to lock a teenage couple in an airtight room and carry the key outside through a gap and place it on a boat, and it’s easy to chuckle at times, but Fulci really makes the most of the murder sequences, in particular when one drunken guy is pursued through farm buildings before eventually falling to his death on spiked machinery, in a very elaborate and very tense scene. Despite the film’s reputation as being ‘tame’ Fulci, we still get to see such delights as the face of a woman on fire melting, the two teenagers foaming at the mouth [one of them being Daniela Doria, who got to vomit up intestines and receive a knife though the back of her head and out of her mouth in other Fulci films], and lots of bloody flesh ripping from the malevolent moggy. Unlike the one in Your Vice Is A Locked Room And I Have The Key, this feline does look appropriately unfriendly. The story of The Black Cat isn’t really developed in interesting ways though, aside from the cat seeming to develop increased supernatural powers. Things like this certainly take the film into the weird, dreamlike world of City Of The Living Dead et al, and the Poe-derived climax also recalls Fulci’s earlier The Psychic, but, though I enjoyed The Black Cat this time round far more than I used to, but not enough is really done with its premise and its ideas. This cat isn’t even really a symbol of someone’s guilt or madness, though I don’t think the screenwriter had much of a handle on the relationship between Miles and his cat, and the cat’s role. Proietti’s script does though nicely recall bits and pieces from various other Poe stories throughout without explicitly quoting any of them, while by contrast a bit where Jill is attacked by bats is clearly modelled on the climactic scene from The Birds.
Aside from Magee’s, the characters are extremely thinly sketched, while a kiss between the lead couple just seems to have been put in there at the last moment. One can laugh at things like a reporter being asked by the police to photograph corpses. Despite all this, The Black Cat, while not really building up much in the way of increasing suspense, moves at a solid clip and is usually a pleasure visually, cinematographer Sergio Salvati, whose gliding camerawork is superb throughout, helping Fulci to evoke that certain strange feeling that often ensures when European filmmakers shoot in England. Fulci’s decision to play some scenes, mostly those that feature Miles and the cat, mostly in close-ups of eyes seems to be something that irritates many viewers of this film, though it adds to its strange, claustrophobic atmosphere and Magee certainly has eyes that are extremely expressive. Fulci of course had a fascination with eyes and this film shows this more than any other, though I remain surprised that he didn’t show the cat having its eye gouged out as in Poe, considering the violence shown against eyes he seemed to relish showing in other films.
Magee is fascinating to watch throughout while David Warbeck is cool and charming. He gets a great entrance, riding into the sleepy village on his motorbike and immediately being issued with a speeding ticket. How this actor didn’t become a major star I don’t know. Mimsy Farmer, so good in Four Flies in Grey Velvet, is rather wooden here until the final third, though then again she doesn’t really have a character to play. Donaggio’s busy, insistent score also virtually plays a starring role, perhaps too much so for some but it’s great to listen to anyway and adds to the movie’s odd, almost displaced, appeal. The Black Cat is probably destined to remain in the shadows of the flashier pictures that were made around it, and even by Fulci standards its script needed work, but, despite the great man often saying how he didn’t think much of the film, I think that he was having quite a bit of fun here. It has a weird feel to it that is quite unique but it’s also pretty entertaining….though I will say that I’ve personally grown to like pretty much any horror movie that features cats, animals which can be so loving, friendly, cute and cuddly, yet also so secretive, sinister, scary and aggressive.
The Black Cat looks even better than Your Vice Is A Locked Room And I Have The Key on Blu-ray for the most part, with excellent clarity and depth of field which really shows what a well photographed film it is. I say for the most part, because occasionally a line or lines appear on the right hand side of the screen. A quick amount of research reveals that earlier releases of the film contained the same flaw, so maybe the original negative was damaged. As most of the cast are speaking English, I had the English dub on, which sounds pretty good, though I occasionally switched over to the Italian dub, which is rather more quiet and with subtitled dialogue which seemed better written than the actual English dialogue. Again, the special features [Arrow seem to be producing more and more of these themselves] are very worthwhile, me especially enjoying a trip to the film’s locations which have mostly barely changed at all, and an extremely lengthy but continually interesting interview with Warbeck, There’s even a commentary, a lightweight, appropriately unstructured affair which comes off very well and is very good on the appeal of Fulci’s films to his fans.
BOXSET SPECIAL FEATURES:
*Limited Edition boxed-set (3000 copies) containing Your Vice Is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key and The Black Cat
*Brand new 2K restorations of the films from the original camera negatives
*High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) and Standard Definition DVD presentations
*Original Italian and English soundtracks in mono audio (uncompressed PCM on the Blu-rays)
*Newly translated English subtitles for the Italian soundtracks
*Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing for the English soundtracks
*Limited Edition 80-page booklet containing new articles on the films, Lucio Fulci’s last ever interview and a reprint of Poe’s original story
YOUR VICE IS A LOCKED ROOM AND ONLY I HAVE THE KEY:
*Through the Keyhole – a brand new interview with director Sergio Martino
*Unveiling the Vice – making-of retrospective featuring interviews with Martino, star Edwige Fenech and screenwriter Ernesto Gastaldi
*Dolls of Flesh and Blood: The Gialli of Sergio Martino – a visual essay by Michael Mackenzie exploring the director’s unique contributions to the giallo genre
*The Strange Vices of Ms. Fenech – film historian Justin Harries on the Your Vice actress’ prolific career • Eli Roth on Your Vice and the genius of Martino
*Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Matthew Griffin
THE BLACK CAT:
*Brand new audio commentary by filmmaker and Fangoria editor Chris Alexander
*Poe into Fulci: The Spirit of Perverseness – film historian Stephen Thrower on Fulci’s Poe-tinged classic
*In the Paw-Prints of the Black Cat – a look at the original Black Cat locations
*Frightened Dagmar – a brand new career interview with actress Dagmar Lassander
*At Home with David Warbeck – an archive interview with The Black Cat star
*Original Theatrical Trailer
*Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Matthew Griffin