The Black Cat (1981) – By Roger Carpenter

 

Cult director Lucio Fulci directed no less than five feature films between August 1980 and August 1981. Including a six-part Italian television miniseries also directed in 1980, this was easily Fulci’s most prolific 12-month period in his entire career. Sandwiched between bonafide horror classics City of the Living Dead (1980) and The Beyond (1981), as well as other popular Fulci films like Contraband (1980) and House by the Cemetery (1981), it is easy to see why the Black Cat might slip under the radar. But Fulci’s loose interpretation of Poe’s classic tale shouldn’t be written off so easily.

The first strength is the cast of genuine Euro-stars, including exploitation icon David Warbeck, Mimsy Farmer—familiar to fans of giallo films—and in smaller roles, Fulci favorite Al Cliver as well as an aging but still quite attractive Dagmar Lassander. The cast also includes an over-the-top yet still wonderfully creepy performance by Patrick Magee as a psychic and pseudo-scientist who creeps around graveyards attempting to record the voices of the dead so he can communicate with them. Add to that a brief scene with the beautiful Daniela Doria (another Fulci fave from this period whose claim to fame is vomiting up her intestines in City of the Living Dead) and what we have here is one of Fulci’s strongest film casts.

The plot, such as it is, centers around Professor Robert Miles (Magee) who uses his psychic ability to off several villagers. The suave Inspector Gorley (Warbeck) is called in to assist small-time co Sergeant Wilson (Cliver) solve the mystery. Jill Trevers (Farmer), a photographer who happens to be in the area, is somewhat hilariously enlisted to become a crime-scene photographer. Though Jill has no police background, she is the first to notice the tell-tale signs of claw marks on each victim, leading her to suspect Professor Miles as the culprit. As Jill closes in on the cat and Professor Miles, the cat begins to control his master’s mind in an effort to escape detection.

The plot is certainly a weakness. Filled with holes and dead ends that go unexplored, the viewer is sometimes called on to make leaps with the story that really defy reality. For example, the fact that a photographer on assignment to photograph the countryside would be pulled in and summarily placed in a position to see some horrible deaths, is more than a little unrealistic. If Inspector Gorley can be called in from the big city, why can’t a police photographer also be called in? It also defies belief that the entire police department, trained in the detection of clues, can miss something as obvious as claw marks on each victim but the photographer—who also is allowed to visit the morgue to view victims—is the first to notice the signs of an animal attack. A potentially fascinating plot line with the potential for real fright—ghostly voices recorded from beyond the grave—goes totally unexplored. But while the writing isn’t terribly strong and the plot is a stretch, the acting helps to carry the viewer through to the end along with an excellent, creepy score by the legendary Pino Donaggio, which helps the film tremendously.

Perhaps another reason the film has been overlooked is its relative lack of gore. Fulci had recently directed the film which allowed him to have an international career, the gore epic Zombie (1979). During this extremely prolific period he directed other gore masterpieces such as City of the Living Dead, The Beyond, and House by the Cemetery. In 1982 he would film the ultraviolent and extremely misogynistic The New York Ripper. By comparison, The Black Cat is quite time. Though there are some close-ups of fairly bloody cat-clawings, these shots are relatively brief and don’t have the impact that scenes from his other films have. There is also an attack that leads to, again, a relatively tame impaling when a character falls from a window onto a sharpened metal fence. Perhaps the most gruesome scene is a shot of the rotting corpse of a woman who was smothered to death. The effects in this scene are genuinely gross, but again, brief. Interestingly, there is a longer shot that lingers on the corpse and travels the length of the body in the trailer to the film. One wonders why a shorter version was used instead of the lengthier shot but no explanation is given in the special features.

So while the cast stands out, acting is generally strong, and the score is a high point, the relative lack of extreme violence and weak scripting may have doomed The Black Cat to relative obscurity in the Fulci filmography. Nevertheless, while the film is generally overlooked, it’s still a fun Euro-mystery and worth viewing, especially for Fulci fans.

Arrow has again outdone themselves by allowing for deluxe treatment of a relatively obscure film. The film includes an audio commentary by Chris Alexander, one-time editor of Fangoria magazine and Fulci super-fan. The commentary is entertaining and provides some insight into Fulci’s filmmaking techniques without being overly dry and is a huge step up over Alexander’s commentary for another Arrow release, Juan Piquer Simon’s Slugs. Film historian Stephen Thrower—always an outstanding commentator on horror films—discusses the advantages and disadvantages to The Black Cat, and there is a short feature on the film locations as they look now. A new career-spanning interview with the wonderful Dagmar Lassander is also a welcome feature, as is an archival interview with the genuinely humble David Warbeck. The Warbeck interview does show its age and was a bit difficult for me to hear, but was nevertheless a fantastic, and very long, interview. Also included in this new restoration of film are newly translated subtitles, the original mono Italian and English soundtracks to the film, and the original trailer to the film.

This is an impressive Blu-Ray package for an often-overlooked, yet entertaining, film by the maestro of eighties Italian horror, Lucio Fulci. If you are interested in purchasing this disc, you can go to: http://www.arrowfilms.co.uk/category/usa