DVDanger: Edgar Allan Poe's Black Cats
Two Italian retellings of the American horror classic
By Richard Whittaker,
10:00AM, Tue. Oct. 27, 2015
Few authors have been so influential on horror as Edgar Allan Poe. And yet few writers have had their works more liberally adapted, translated, and mangled than the father of East Coast Gothic.
Take "The Black Cat", his 1843 short story about the declining relationship between a man and his pet. It's really a tale of the damaging influence of alcoholism on a once-sane man, up there with William Hogarth's famous 1751 etching, Gin Lane, and Charles Bukowski's Factotum. But it's the final image, a walled-up corpse with a screaming cat perched on its head, that has fascinated horror fans and filmmakers.
To date, there have been at least 11 adaptations of this tale, and all have had to go far, far off-book. Well, not surprising, considering that it's only five pages long. Of all of them, arguably the most loyal is also the most meta: the 2007 version for the Masters of Horror series, with Jeffrey Combs as the author himself, both writing and living the tale. It was the kind of self-criticizing interpretation Poe would have loved, since his dramatic posturing and high romantic aspirations often cloaked a sly, wry sense of humor that Mark Twain would appreciate.
Yet the majority of adaptations abandon Poe's subtext and merely steal his imagery for their own ends. Call it Cormanizing, after Roger Corman, whose long run of Poe adaptations often had little-to-zero in common with the author's works bar the name. That never stopped them being good films, but if Poe had watched bumbling sorcery comedy The Raven, he would have been shocked to see his name on the credits.
The new Edgar Allan Poe's Black Cats brings together two very different re-readings of the story, both filtered through the lenses of classic Italian horror directors. As with Corman, they both say more about the director than the writer, starting with Lucio Fulci's 1981 version, simply titled The Black Cat.
The first weird thing to note is that, while this came at the beginning of Fulci's rapid run of shooting in the U.S., he exports the story to a rural English village. What makes this even more bizarre is that same year he travelled to Poe's native Massachusetts to shoot The House by the Cemetery. The relocation doesn't add or detract much, because everything else is so different. While Poe's feline antagonist was simply a reflection of his protagonist's own madness, here it is seemingly a gateway to an unseen world of evil.
In one of his final roles, respected Irish character actor Patrick Magee (A Clockwork Orange, King Lear) plays Professor Robert Miles, a deranged old researcher who has become convinced that he can converse with the dead. And here enters the treachery of translation. Arrow, the company responsible for this glorious restoration, have included both the original Italian and English audio tracks. In the Italian audio, there's little doubt that he really is recording voices from the beyond. In the English-language version, he's a crazy guy talking to a tombstone.
There is, of course, a black cat. Somehow it is tied to the whim and will of the professor: Yet, as is the way with Fulci's dreamlike (read: gappy) storytelling logic, it's not too clear how. All that is for sure is that, when the cat appears, someone will die. It's up to visiting photographer Jill Trevers (former American TV actress turned eurosleaze regular Mimsy Farmer) and visiting detective Inspector Gorley (another imported Italian exploitation icon, The Beyond's David Warbeck) to prove that something more than mere accident is responsible for the growing pile of bodies.
This is a lesser Fulci, to be sure. But it's still Fulci, even if it does lack the overblown and mesmerizing creativity of The Beyond. As per usual, Poe would recognize little about it beyond the themes and the imagery. His plot points become Easter eggs, such as the outline of a hanged cat on a wall, or the final meowing and shrieking from behind a bricked-up cellar. Even Fulci's own themes seem a little submerged, as if the bucolic red brick and thatch roofs of the British countryside didn't inspire him as much as the granite Gothic of New England, or the swampy oppression of the Deep South. Yet his trademarks – eerie close-ups, fog-drenched graveyards, a ghoulish unpredictability – still meld into something memorable. Plus whoever taught that cat to open a barn door deserves an Oscar.
Less well known, even among devotees of Italian cinema, is the second Poe adaptation included in this set: 1972's Your Vice Is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key. The credits announce that the script by Adriano Bolzoni, Ernesto Gastaldi, and Luciano Martino is "freely adapted" from Poe's story. Yeah, no kidding. It begins with a drunken man at a dinner party mournfully singing the praises of his deceased mother, before forcing his wife to swallow the leftover slops of all the other guests' drinks. As the gathering degrades into a hippy love-in, it seems like director Sergio Martino is aiming for a liberal adaptation of The Masque of the Red Death instead.
Of course, enter Satan the black cat, which is less a force of malevolence and more a passive observer. He's also possibly the fuzziest and fluffiest of all the cinematic Black Cats, so that's adorably new.
Fortunately, there's far less for this Satan to do than in most films, because there's nothing Satanic, or at least supernatural, going on. Martino uses the blood spilled to paint a fairly typical giallo: the drunk man is Oliviero (Luigi Pistilli), a washed-up novelist ferally indulging himself in an abusive, loveless marriage to Irene (Anita Strindberg). Tensions mount after a bookseller, and then their servant, die in quick succession. Under suspicion for the first murder, the pair decide to simply bury the maid's body in the cellar (as Poe would have liked). Yet their attempts to throw the cops off the trail seem doomed to derailment when Oliviero's niece (Edwige Fenech, subject of a fascinating, if drooling, documentary included here) arrives for a self-invited stay.
What ensues has little to do with Poe's sense of febrile claustrophobia and doom. Instead, it's a standard, if edgy, giallo. Taboo sex, mistrust, ambiguity, lurking plot holes, and racial and gender politics that really prove the past was a foreign country. Betrayals and red herrings mount with a certain stylishness, even if it's clear that Martino's sole goal is to keep the audience on its toes. Coherence is sacrificed for twists, and he lacks the hypnotic appeal of Fulci. Instead, the final act becomes simply a question of who ends up bricked up behind Poe's cellar wall.
Egar Allan Poe's Black Cats (Arrow Video) is available on four-disc DVD/Blu-ray box set now.
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