The Black Cat (1981): Lucio Fulci Gets Some Pussy

black-cat-posterEdgar Allan Poe’s The Black Cat first came to life in 1843 when it was published in the Saturday Evening Post. Since then it has spun quite the long cinematic history beginning with a 1934 version starring Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. Like tonight’s adaptation, it bears little resemblance to Poe’s original tale of psychological terror. (Lugosi would return to the story again in 1941 with another unfaithful version co-starring Basil Rathbone) Then in 1962 Roger Corman included the tale in his anthology film Trilogy of Terror starring Vincent Price and Peter Lorre, and it is widely regarded as a faithful rendition of the story. We’re not here to talk about films made in the States. This is “Once Upon A Time in Italy”, and when it comes to versions of The Black Cat, Italy has its share.

The first Italian riff on The Black Cat made it debut in 1972 with Sergio Martino’s lengthily titled Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key which occasionally was shown under the alternate title Eyes of the Black Cat. The film only has a passing connection to Poe’s story, but it still bears mentioning. The story was adapted by another big name Italian director, Dario Argento, in his 1990 film Two Evil Eyes with actor Harvey Keitel in the lead role. In between those two variations came tonight’s film, 1981’s The Black Cat (Italian: Il Gatto Nero) from director Lucio Fulci. Like most of the other films made from Poe’s short story, Fulci’s film has little to do with the original tale, but it does find the director pulling back on the gore, ramping up the tension, and using some of his trademark shots to great effect.

blackcatProfessor Robert Miles (Patrick Magee) is a medium experimenting with electronic voice phenomena as a way to contact the dead and discover what lies on the other side. Apart from being creepy and having wild eyebrows, he also is the owner of an ill tempered black cat. The car is a bit more than grouchy. It has a murderous streak, and in the opening portion of the film we see it cause the death of both a driver and a pair of teens, but is it the car or the owner that is really at fault? That’s the question that haunts American photographer Jill Trevers (Mimsy Farmer), and when Scotland Yard’s Inspector Gorley (David Warbeck) comes to investigate the disappearance of the teens, the evidence begins to mount that Miles and his cat have something to do with the string of deaths plaguing the town. The real question becomes is it more dangerous for a black cat to cross your path or for your to cross its master?

blackcat-1Lucio Fulci stated many times that he directed this atypical film as a favor to producer Giulio Sbarigia, but I’m not sure why he would have wanted to distance himself from such a good looking and entertaining flick. While it lacks the gore of his other works, it retains an atmospheric quality that definitely felt like a Fulci film, and it also retains another hallmark of Fulci’s films, tons and tons of shots of eyes. In one particular scene, the camera moves from Macgee’s eyes to Farmer’s peepers to the cat’s for a span of almost 30 seconds. Eye shots pop up a couple more times in the film, but that sequence is so extensive that, as a Fulci fan boy, it made me chuckle a bit. The whole film is exquisitely directed and shot thanks to both Fulci and cinematographer Sergio Salvati who had worked with the director off and on since 1975’s Four of the Apocalypse. The entire film had a great look to it, and many of the shots were among the best I’ve seen in all the Fulci films I’ve viewed.

blackcat-2Stylistically the film is very strong, but it comes up quite short in the acting department. Veteran actor Patrick Magee, who is probably most recognized from Clockwork Orange, is the best of the bunch. From his wild eyebrows to his performance which balances on the edge but never goes over the top, I enjoyed every moment he had on screen. He exuded insanity and menace in equal doses, and both were well executed. The same cannot be said of Mimsy Farmer. She seems like a cut rate version of Tisa Farrow who had appeared in Fulci‘s previous film Zombi 2. Farmer does little other than gape at the goings on around her, and other than being a pretty face (and in my opinion more attractive than Miss Farrow), she has little to do. David Warbeck, who would work with Fulci again on The Beyond, acquits himself somewhat better, and I did enjoy some of the moments in his portrayal of the brash Scotland Yard Inspector. The only other notable performance comes from Fulci regular Al Cliver. As the head of the local police, he shares many scenes with Warbeck that elevate both of their performances, but unfortunately, his role is far smaller than I would have liked.

blackcat-3I really feel more conflicted about this film than I have any other Fulci film. On one hand it is a well shot film with an interesting premise and a killer score by Pino Donaggio, but on the other, it has several lackluster performances and a narrative that falls apart under the faintest inspection. In the end, The Black Cat has almost exactly as many plusses and minuses, and my grade will reflect that. However, if you’re a fan of Fulci’s work, this is definitely one you have to check out. It is a different kind of horror film than you would expect, and it almost feels like a Hammer Picture. It surely lacks the blood and guts one would expect, but Fulci had plenty of guts to direct this film in his style but without so many of the touches that his fans might expect. A black cat crossing your path is supposed to be bad luck, but in this case, it’s only a minor disappointment in a film that I really wanted to like better.