“The dead like to be left alone.” – Fulci’s The Black Cat (1981)

Lucio Fulci has many films to his credit that exemplify his talents as one of Italy’s foremost horror directors. Zombie Flesh Eaters, City of the Living Dead and The Beyond to name a few and those were his most celebrated but he had a career spanning three decades. A lot of his projects were deliberate choices, creative endeavours so The Black Cat might seem an odd choice for Fulci but between his directing style and the way the film turned out, I think it’s one of Fulci’s better films.

Based very loosely on Edgar Allan Poe’s short story of the same name, The Black Cat is set in an English town where American photo-tourist Jill (Mimsy Farmer) is busy taking snaps and enjoying herself, things take a turn for the worse when she becomes interested in meeting a local man named Miles (Patrick Magee), who had accidentally left a mic around a crypt in the area. Miles is trying to record the voices of the dead to communicate with them. But in doing so, Miles becomes attached to a vengeful black cat who seems to be an agent of destruction on the human inhabitants of the town. When people start being killed by the homicidally inclined moggy, Scotland Yard sends their best inspector, Gorley, which is David Warbeck (before he gets shipped off to Fulci’s next project, The Beyond) and from there things start to pick up the pace. At first, Gorley doesn’t believe that a cat is responsible for the deaths but as the body count rises, Jill doesn’t so much as convince him as put him in a mind to investigate Miles further and by extension, the cat.

Blending Sergio Salvati’s lenses and writer Biagio Proietti’s often disconnected scenes, Fulci makes the film in two distinct methods: the slow atmospheric gothic horror looks as we see the world from the cat’s view as it goes silently around its victims and the long shots down English lanes and streets, fog rolling in from the sides. The silence, except Pino Donaggio’s wonderful score, as we see where the cat’s going to be next. This is the build up to an attack or a critical moment in the film. The second method is the actual attack itself with the cat using an opportune moment to destroy its target. An oil lamp, someone walking on a plank over a concrete spiked pillar, a speeding car: these are where the cat either attacks someone to great effect or paralyses them with fear with its eyes. Fulci’s use of the attacks is quite violent and have more to do with his zombie horror genre entries. While it doesn’t always work (I found some of the moments where the cat wins simply because the script dicates that it should implausible at best), the cat is always there when people are about to lose their lives and the fact that it sits there, purring and growling, as characters look on knowing they’re next makes it better than a mere madman with a knife. Fulci fills the screen with eyes, lots of eyes, as a means, I imagine, to communicate emotion and intent. The cat’s, Jill’s, Gorley’s and of course, Miles’. It’s like he wants us to see what they are thinking. Ok, the cat is a killer, I get it. But given how Miles is introduced as just another character, his descent into an antagonist is gradual but not unforeseen. Early on, we get a glimpse that he is not a decent man but he’s no better presented with the other locals or worse. It’s just that he gets to survive the cat’s attacks, for the most part. It’s implied by his conversations with Jill that Miles is as trapped by the cat as the people being killed but there is a clear moment with Miles manifests his destiny for himself and this has horrible consequences for him alone. It’s a throwback to Poe; his main characters usually get to see it coming and can do nothing about it.

The film suffers from two real problems which stop it being a totally wicked treat. The first is a problem with the script itself: it often has moments, motivations and lines that go undeveloped. Miles records the voices of the death, he has these enormous reel to reel tape decks in his room playing the audio he records as he tries to pierce the veil of the death. But the cat isn’t connected to these things, it simply walks into the script. Miles had a relationship with the mother of one of the victims years ago, nothing more is said. Hell, Gorley is a good enough detective and even he doesn’t find that one out. Gorley seems to be on the cusp of working out that Miles is connected with these deaths but nothing is made of it. Why is Jill in the town for so long? If she’s friendly with the locals, why don’t they talk about the backstory of Miles with her? Miles has this cavernous house to himself, and makes statements about being in forced isolation but when it’s not used for a plot, Patrick Magee uses his physical body language and eyes to indicate that this is a painful fact for him. The other point of contention in the film is that Jill isn’t a very good lead. She spends the bulk of the film wandering around, looking for clues, being frightened despite going into scary crypts and cellars, and investigating Miles while still meeting with him face to face. I suppose that it could be an Poe element in the film again: a hero with no choice but to be amongst evil, knowing in their heart that the person with the clues is a killer or an agent of doom. But it’s done in such wishy-washy way where Jill isn’t given enough credit for being inquizzitive nor is she smart enough to convince someone other than Gorely that something is going on. Gorley already suspects something was up before he got involved with Jill so it doesn’t count that he listens to her with more than a skeptical ear.

The best performance (other than the cat) goes to Patrick Magee. With his piercing look, he emcompasses a range of emotion from simple hatred to complex forlornness. That horrible moment when he tries to hypnotise Jill for an unknown reason is a bit creepy and we’re never sure why he takes a liking to Jill and tries to help her despite being connected to the cat. The film makes him a villain by his own hand but has the decency to given at least hints as to why a man who just wanted to commune with the dead and to break a manmade barrier became trapped in the eyeline of a feline destroyer.  David Warbeck is also good as the likable and capable (when not being run over) Gorley and the shame of it is that he and Jill could have been teamed together earlier and made the film much better. As for Jill, I agree with the point made in the commentary track

I really believe that The Black Cat is one of the better entries in the literature to film stories. It takes the crust of the Poe short story and makes it its own. By adding in elements like the macabre humour and moralising of Poe with the fact that for most of the film, the people who die can do nothing except perish and the way that the ones with the control come undone by their own hand, Black Cat treads a microscopically fine line between 50’s Hammer Horror chic and 70’s Hammer Horror trash. It has the jumpy tension of a slasher with a British film’s gothic dread.

Not the best horror nor Fulci film, The Black Cat is a film that deserves more praise for getting more right than wrong with Edgar Allan Poe’s material. Recommended.

Arrow’s release of The Black Cat restores the film with some impressive video and audio, with only minor print damage in places and Italian and English language tracks. We get a great hour plus long vintage interview with David Warbeck, some great analysis of the film and another commentary from Chris Alexander of Fangoria magazine plus their usual booklet. This film comprises one of two films based on Poe’s works released by Arrow along with Sergio Martino’s Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key which will be reviewed next week.

Review disc supplied by video label. Please consider supporting Capricorn Theater by purchasing the UK release from Arrow Video.