Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Feline Groovy

The Black Cat
1981 Italy
Directed by
Lucio Fulci
Shameless Screen Entertainment
DVD Region 0

I always have mixed feelings about Lucio Fulci. Sure Zombie Flesh Eaters (aka Zombi aka Zombi 2 depending on which country’s print you happen to be viewing at the time) was an okay movie in that some of the shot compositions are nice (visually it’s like the spiritual cousin of Breakfast At Tiffanys) and in that it never really takes you out of your comfort zone so it’s one of those films you can just relax to. But he also did what I consider to be the truly dullest and most unwatchable spaghetti western ever (and I’ve seen a fair few), Four of the Apocalypse.

On the other hand, he also directed Lizard In A Woman’s Skin which is easily one of the finest giallo movies ever committed to the screen.

So I’m never really sure whether a new Fulci movie is going to bring me something really great, something totally dreadful or something in between the two. But I picked up a DVD copy of his Poe “adaptation” The Black Cat and decided to settle down and watch it because I’ve not seen a great deal of his work.

Now Poe is a hard deal when it comes to adaptation because, frankly, he wrote mostly short stories which, if they were done faithfully on screen, would leave you with movies which are only ten minutes long at most... so most movies which “say” they are adapted from his work use that term very loosely. Most of the plot lines to Poe movies are created from air by scriptwriters in an anemic attempt to give a narrative structure to whatever key moments happen in the original short (if you’re lucky and they bother to even read the original Poe before embarking on the script... for example Roger Corman’s movie Edgar Allan Poe’s The Haunted Palace is actually an uncredited adaptation of H. P. Lovecraft’s The Case of Charles Dexter Ward).

I’ve now seen at least five different adaptations of Poe’s The Black Cat and I have to say that this version is no exception to the above rule. Fulci’s version certainly goes off on it’s own tangents throughout the course of the movie but I also have to say, in all fairness to him, that he manages to hit more of those elements which were part and parcel of the original story than most versions I’ve watched.

This is basically how the Poe version goes...

The story is about a man who hates a cat so much he gouges out its eye. After a while he kills it by hanging it but after a fire in his house the shape of the hanging cat is etched on the wall in the soot. After being haunted by the presence of an identical, one eyed cat which one is to presume is the original cat reincarnated, he goes to kill it with an axe but accidentally kills his wife instead. He walls her body up in the cellar and nearly gets away with his crime when the police investigate but just as they are about to leave a wailing from behind the wall is heard. The police knock down the wall and find the corpse of the wife with the wailing cat on it. To quote Poe, “I had walled the monster up within the tomb!”

Most of these elements from Poe are in place in the Fulci movie (I was impressed by the inclusion of the spectre of the hanged cat on the wall after a fire) although a lot of other stuff is thrown in to the mix to make it a full length feature. Like the fact that the cat in this one seems to be a killer cat of death and is going around causing the murders with it’s slinky feline antics. And the fact that it somehow seems to be able to control the minds of others, including that of a spiritualist who “owns “the cat, played by Patrick Magee (The Final Programme, A Clockwork Orange) a year before his death, in his own unique manner as always.

The cast is rounded out by some familiar names to people who like to watch gialli and horror films. Such luminaries as Mimsy Farmer (Four Flies on Grey Velvet, Autopsy), David Warbeck (Twins of Evil, Razor Blade Smile) and Dagmer Lassander (Femina Ridens, Werewolf Woman, Forbidden Photos of a Woman Above Suspicion) grace the movie with their presence and their collective presence is one of the main factors in helping to lift the movie above the expectations of a jaded audience.

Another factor is the absolutely superb lighting and framing which one would normally expect to find in a giallo more than a horror movie. There’s some really nice things going on here and, from what I’ve seen of the Shameless label so far, they seem to have a bit of a knack when it comes to picking out films which have a very strong and memorable visual flair. People tend not to think of Fulci in this light but in some of his films he certainly does some groovy things with shape and colour and this is one of the better examples.

The way the whole film is leisurely shot and paced gives a certain sense of atmosphere which is not always easy to credibly create in these kinds of movies but it’s certainly the case here that you get a definite feeling of unease and foreboding from the way certain scenes are handled. The DVD case itself makes a comparison to Hammer in terms of the mood conveyed in this picture but I think, in this particular case (or even on this particular case ;-) they are doing the Fulci movie a disservice since it gives off way more dread than the average Hammer movie (with one notable fumble which I will highlight in a minute).

Also thrown into this artistic stew of a movie is a vibrant and jaunty score by Pino Donnagio which is at times reminiscent of some of his earlier work, notably the score he provided for Nicholas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now. I say jaunty because there is, perhaps, a certain sense of some scenes being either notably overscored or, perhaps, inappropriately scored. The point of view shots taken from the cat’s perspective are maybe a little bit “over jolly” and are feintly reminiscent of some of his later works, most notably the theme associated with the little boy in Dario Argento’s Trauma. But mostly it’s pretty good Donnagio and he’s always worth a listen and can always be relied upon to bring a Hermmannesque sensibility to proceedings when it is called for.

The only real major fumble in the whole movie (apart from an unexpected “oh-he-wasn’t-killed-after-all” moment with one of the characters) is when the tension is building as Mimsy Farmer explores Patrick Magee’s house and is transfixed by the gaze of the cat... the cat unexpectedly teleports to another place in the room with a Donnagio musical flourish, reminiscent of the way Mr. Benn used to change clothes in the fancy dress shop on children’s TV. This may well kill the atmosphere for you and leave you to erupt in fits of laughter... you’ve been warned on that one!

The transfer and print quality is everything you’ve come to expect form a Shameless release (with the usual choice of a reversible sleeve). It’s worth checking out this and other releases because there are some real gems in their black cat-alogue (err... sorry, I meant back catalogue... getting carried away again).

This is probably not the most enthralling adaptation of Poe’s work that you’ll see but it is unique in some of the elements of the original story it gets up onto the screen and it’s a more atmospheric side of Fulci that you might not have glimpsed before. Definitely one to add to the pile for late night, alcohol fuelled viewing this Halloween. Give it a shot!


  1. You've convinced me to see this one, against my sober judgment. Might be due to the whiskey on hand, or it might be your scintillating prose. This reminds me of a TV movie, Devil Dog: Hound of Hell. Nice-looking mutt who teleports, and is, oh yeah, Beelzebub. Nicely done! Thorough and funny and maybe more than that film deserves? Or am I being harsh?

  2. Hi there bucko. Thanks for reading and adding your comments. Now I feel guilty about you taking time away from your novel reading this!

    I'd have to say... go with your sober judgement on this one. Knowing you as I do (as much as I can from your posts, tweets and writing style) I wouldn't neccessarily recommend this one to yourself unless you're really into this kind of cinema. I think, if I were to reccomend a version of The Black Cat to you specifically as the individual I glean you to be, then I would go for the 1934 Edgar G. Ulmer version starring Karloff and Lugosi... it's honestly worth plonking your money down for just for Karloff's amazing widow's peak hairstyle in this one which looks like he ripped it off the head of Edard Van Sloan's version of Van Helsing. It has absolutely nothing to do with it's alleged Poe source though.

    If you're looking to get into Fulci and want to see something showy which isn't neccessarily going to put you off then I'd recommend the camp but amazing giallo Lizard in a Woman's Skin (although watch out for the horrible dog vivisection sequence if you're a four legged friend lover like me).

    Again, thanks for taking time out of your busy schedule to write. Get thee back to thy novel, dude!

  3. Novel. Sigh. Thanks for the good thoughts. And Karloff! Who can go wrong with Karloff. I'll try both. Why not? Live a little!