“We are bound together by hatred.”
I have a fondness for Lucio Fulci films, as I may have said before. I know they’re a hodge-podge of poetry and offal – surreal imagery and sliced eyeballs – but I always end up fascinated and entertained. I haven’t seen all of his horror films yet (and I probably will never see his earlier comedies and family films), but that just means in any given October I have a chance of seeing a new (to me) Fulci film.
My favorites are his big four, the films released between 1979 and 1981. Zombie, City of the Living Dead, The Beyond and The House by the Cemetery. Those years see Fulci at what I consider the height of his talent and skill. While I’ve enjoyed films by him from other time frames – particularly Don’t Torture a Duckling and A Cat in the Brain – nothing else quite reaches the quality of the films made during these years.
So I was excited to discover yet another film made by Fulci during this time. I was vaguely aware of The Black Cat, but for some reason thought it had been made much earlier – more around the time of White Fang in 1973. (Yes, Fulci made a fairly successful adaptation of the Jack London novel.) Reading through Stephen Thrower’s excellent Beyond Terror book I saw that it was actually released in 1981! That’s the same year as The Beyond and The House by the Cemetery – how had I not heard more about this?
I thought this year I might watch A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin or finally get round to enduring The New York Ripper – but finding a Fulci film made during what is arguably his greatest creative period? Yeah, The Black Cat became a must-watch.
I watched The Black Cat on Amazon, and the picture was excellent, but I have to urge you to watch it on some other service or medium if you can. The stream on Amazon contains only the Italian dub, though you can manually turn on the English subtitles. I don’t mind dubbing or subtitles generally, but the film was shot in English and the game of telephone between English to Italian and back to English is distracting. I can often see what they’re saying and the Italian (what little I can understand) doesn’t always comport – and the subtitles don’t either. Plus you lose out on Patrick Magee’s awesome, if hammy, performance.
In addition to being available on a number of streaming platforms there’s an Arrow Blu-ray release with a new 2k scan and a handful of extras.
The Black Cat is ostensibly an adaptation of the Poe story of the same name, and there are touchstone moments where the two connect – there IS a black cat, for instance, and its presence inside a wall reveals a heinous crime, but in general this is a Poe-by-association film and not a real attempt at adaptation. Poe’s story is more about the guilt and paranoia of an unstable, violent alcoholic than it is about a supernatural feline. Fulci’s tale (with a screenplay by Biagio Proietti and Fulci) takes a decidedly different approach.
That approach is obvious from the opening scene in which a black cat follows a man heading off to do some fishing. The cat stares the man into fatally crashing his car. There are a lot of scenes of the cat staring at people and them staring back. The cat then returns home to where an older man (Patrick Magee) is listening to strange audio tapes. There is some staring. The cat scratches the shit out of the old man and slinks off. This cat is an asshole, and a murderer to boot.
To be honest, I wasn’t sure at this point if I was going to like this film. It’s very staid and low-key for a Fulci horror film. It’s well shot and paced – and I like the almost pastoral score, which provides a nice change of pace from the usual overwhelming bombast I expect in an Italian horror film – but it’s just… I dunno, almost boring.
Things do start to pick up from there, however. We’re introduced to Jill Trevers (a subdued Mimsey Farmer doing her best Tisa Farrow impression), an American photographer. She finds her way into a local tomb (which are apparently full of old torture victims still hung up in chains). There she finds a broken microphone which eventually leads her to the old man from earlier. His name is Robert Miles and he is a medium who also makes recordings at the graves of the recently deceased. Miles attempts to hypnotize Jill, but the black cat arrives and attacks him again.
Meanwhile, the cat has continued its killing spree – having locked an amorous young couple in an airtight room. Their disappearance causes the local police to bring in helps from Scotland Yard, the dashing Inspector Gorley (David Warbeck). (You know he’s dashing because he rides a motorcycle.)
Miles’ connection with the cat is never clearly explained (it’s a Fulci film after all), but he does mention that they’re tied together by their hatred for each other and that the cat will eventually kill him. I think we’re meant to think that the black cat is something like a familiar, maybe a demon tied to the cat’s form and resentful of its servitude to Miles. Of course it might just be a spiteful feline with supernatural powers sick of everyone’s crap – also a legit reading of the film.
The cat kills again – this time the town drunk attempts to escape the cat by fleeing through a number of evocative warehouses. The cat appears to have one-upped Schrodinger’s feline by potentially being ANYWHERE THE POOR MAN LOOKS. This is actually a decent sequence and really the first time we see a flash of the type of things Fulci is known for. Eventually the man is scratched by the cat and, startled, falls onto a convenient set of upward pointing spikes.
Despite Miles’ unpleasant reputation in the village he helps the police find the missing couple – long since dead from suffocation. (There’s some drama with the girl’s mother and a past relationship with the mystic, but it’s never followed up or expanded on, so don’t worry about it too much). He’s disturbed by evidence that suggests his cat was involved.
I realize I’m going into way more detail about this than I should, but I think that’s because I’m trying to piece together the plot for myself.
Jill also becomes certain that the cat may be a part of things, but she’s also convinced that it’s Miles directing the feline. When she confronts him (alone, because of course) he insists the cat is responsible. That it’s reacting to his unconscious hatred to the villagers because of how they treat him. Unnerved by Jill’s accusations he drugs and then hangs the cat. Which, it turns out, was the worst possible thing he could do.
Untethered from Miles’ will by its death the cat becomes a supernatural force (like it wasn’t already), attacking Jill, the dead girl’s mother (in a scene specifically lifted straight out of The Exorcist) and even hypnotizing Gorley (with that damnable stare) into stumbling into the path of an oncoming car. The cat death scenes and the ones immediately following feel like they come closest to the poetic surreal set pieces of other Fulci films, although there’s a slipshod feeling to some of the details. For instance, there’s an egregious use of a dummy in a burning house sequence that will probably make you laugh out loud.
Jill sneaks into Miles’s house, still assuming he’s responsible. She’s confronted and chased by both Miles AND the cat, who Miles insists is now controlling HIM. Eventually she is knocked out and Miles walls her up in the cellar and we finally get an ending that is recognizably Poe.
Despite this long-winded examination of the plot, the whole story is pretty damn thin. Little is actually explained and characters have only the vaguest reasons for doing what they do. The acting isn’t great, but Warbeck and Magee are fun to watch and Magee in particular gives a fantastic, nearly over-the-top performance as the resident weirdo. He’s really the only one that can match the cat in a staring contest and so Fulci spends a good chunk of running time filling the screen with man’s yellowed orbs.
The Bottom Line
The Black Cat is an odd entry in Fulci’s filmography. It’s not as poetic or gory as his other films of the same time period and there’s not much about it that FEELS like Fulci except the nonsense plot and insistence on too many closeups of people’s eyes. That’s not to say I didn’t end up enjoying it, because I did. It’s a minor Italian chiller that’s well made with some decent tension in a few outstanding set pieces and a fun performance from the lead villain. No, not the cat.
Okay, the cat too.