Professor Robert Miles (Patrick Magee) has a love hate relationship with his pet black cat, a feline predator with an unnatural hold over its owner. However, it’s not until a Scotland Yard detective called Gorley (David Warbeck) arrives to investigate a series of bizarre deaths in the village where the professor lives, that Miles’ true feelings for his cat are revealed with disastrous results.
About a third of the way into The Black Cat (1981), Inspector Gorley refers to a spate of unfortunate incidents which are spooking the inhabitants of a sleepy English village as “an epidemic of accidents, and all of them pretty weird”. Under normal circumstances this throw away comment could be seen as innocuous enough. However, considering that this film is director Lucio Fulci’s big screen re-interpretation of Edgar Allan Poe’s classic short story of the same name, it feels like he’s stating the obvious. The Italian filmmaker Fulci had a reputation for bringing an intense degree of gore to the big screen, hitherto unheard of even in the seen-it-all genre of hardcore horror. His films frequently had a heightened sense of the odd and surreal featuring zombies, disintegrating bodies and all manner of devilish goings-on.
His telling of the story focusing on the furry fiend with a taste for terror however, is actually rather tame by Fulici standards. Now don’t get me wrong. The film has more than its fair share of grisly moments to keep horror hounds happy: death by car accident, impalement and burning, being eaten by rats and copious amounts of bloody scratching and clawing by our feline friend, helps keep the body count ticking along nicely. It also has plenty of recognisable Fulci trademarks including people descending through broken tombstones into subterranean lairs and outside night scenes consistently lost in swathes of swirling mist. But otherwise it is actually pretty mild stuff. Focusing as it does on Magee’s mad professor, his obsession with his pet cat – with whom he claims to have a very ‘special’ bond – and his attempts to make contact with the dead, one feels as though this is Fulci’s attempt to produce a film with a ‘serious’ message and theme. This fails however as the end product is way to ponderous, particularly through its repeated lingering on close-ups of various cast member’s eyes in order to portray a build-up of tension or shock.
In it’s favour the film looks exquisite. Quite why Fulci decided to shoot it in rural England is a bit of a mystery – other than the fact that he seemed to like to make many of his films outside his own home country. However the bucolic countryside and a picture postcard village setting complete with gabled cottages, manor houses and dilapidated hay barns, provides the perfect backdrop for the story’s nefarious plot to play out against. People this with a cast of players who made careers from grimy horror, including Magee, Warbeck and Mimsy Farmer – who plays an American photographer visiting the village, who falls in love with Gorley – and the result captures the viewer’s attention more due to its look than its content.
Neither hit nor miss, The Black Cat is a film which tries to be too deep for its own good. A little less of its attempted superiority and a little more of Fulci’s trademark visceral violence would have made for a more memorable, though perhaps less palatable, result.
The Black Cat forms part of the special edition DVD and Blu-ray boxset Edgar Allan Poe’s Black Cats: Two Adaptations by Sergio Martino & Lucio Fulci, released by Arrow Video on October 19th, 2015.
Words: Cleaver Patterson