The Black Cat Review
Unfairly maligned for far too long
Sandwiched in-between the offal-flinging excesses of City of the Living Dead and The Beyond, cult Italian auteur Lucio Fulci delivered an effective little spin on Edgar Allan Poe’s classic tale of feline-fuelled comeuppance in 1981’s The Black Cat.Much to the chagrin of his newfound disciples, who had become a ghoulish legion in the wake of his all-time gory juggernaut of Zombie Flesh Eaters , this was to be emphatically toned-down in terms of the excessive ultra-violence that he had become synonymous with, and to be constructed in a more linear fashion and less flamboyantly helter-skelter than his other supernatural outings. This tactic proved severely detrimental to those who now expected gut-slinging and eyeball-skewering every ten minutes or so.But this approach actually suits a small-time tale of vengeful bedevilment in an idyllic English country hamlet, and allows Fulci to deliver his typically clammy atmosphere of pure dread and unorthodox unease with the same visual panache and eye for set-piece mayhem that marked his style out as being consistently far more inventive and arresting than his many detractors were keen to proclaim.
A string of bizarre and fatal accidents are turning this quaint rural enclave into a mini-Midsomer. Fulci-regular Al Civer’s local copper can’t fathom them out, so hotshot Scotland Yard detective Gorely (David Warbeck) bombs it up from the big city on his motorbike, somewhat recalling Ray Lovelock’s hippy hero riding into town to do-battle with “The corpses!” in Jorge Grau’s excellent The Living Dead At Manchester Morgue (1974). Aiding and hampering the investigation are Mimsy Farmer’s American photographer, Jill, and Patrick Magee’s bug-eyed psychic, Dr. Miles.
The Poe connection comes in the sinuously sly form of a sinister black cat that appears as harbinger and instigator in the series of zany killings. A fabulously gifted performer in its own right, this moggy is clearly Special Forces trained, and scenes of it stalking, tormenting and trapping its victims are as outlandishly amusing and inspired as they are viciously cunning. That it may not be acting alone is the dementedly delightful thrust of the occasionally wayward story. Then again, nobody is going to be surprised at the eventual unveiling of the culprit.
Although the bloodletting is restrained, and one death scene in particular is severely compromised by the use of an obvious dummy (then again, there was an obvious dummy stand-in for Daniella Doria in City’s grim intestinal-vomiting sequence), Fulci’s mastery of mood and eye for cinematic flourish is incontestable. Never before, or since, has such a beautiful and quiet English setting appeared so eerily engrossing and visually captivating. Much like Jorge Grau did with his Derbyshire locations for Manchester Morgue, the European eye for turning the cosy into the carnage-rife is in abundance. Graveyard scenes are lent magisterial mystery with ethereal crane shots and fog machines. The village streets take on fabulously wide dimensions as mist muddies up the frame and embraces the soon-to-die. Architectural follies take on distinctly feline appearance and the original gentlemen’s Hellfire Club is transformed into a subterranean warren of skeleton-draped catacombs. It is all very redolent and steeped with ghostly ambience. Pure Fulci, in other words. Working with his master cinematographer, Sergio Salvati, the cantankerous director utilises much that is really there, enhancing things such as barns, boathouses and even brick walls with acute angles, amped-up framing and without resorting to sets or psychedelic lighting.
Whilst the acting is as perfunctory as ever for a Fulci picture, the film benefits enormously from the inclusion of genre-vet Magee, whose eccentric oddball can communicate with the dead. Magee mugs shamelessly for the camera, his electrified hair, spiky eyebrow tufts and stern-set countenance bestowing a very definitely spectral Karloffian aura. His sinister persona and leering intensity are matched only by that unique voice. He sounds like a bullfrog in human form, his brittle and throaty belch-rattle of a voice so powerful and rich that nobody else in the world could ever attempt to dub over it. Thus, that gravel-gargling cadence remains in a film that, besides Warbeck, is furiously populated with the requisite dialogue imposters for an Italian genre flick.
I have written about a great many of Lucio Fulci’s movies over the years, and I am equally guilty of dismissing The Black Cat to the sidelines of his filmography with some flippant critical barb as many others have been.
Reappraising it has been something of a revelation for me. I found so much of visual and atmospheric delight within that I watched it a couple of times back to back, and could very happily sit through it all over again. It is no masterpiece, that’s for sure. It clearly falls short when held up against Fulci’s other horror pictures in terms of gusto, momentum and raw physicality, and yet this is solidly entertaining and downright menacing at times. It is always great to see the Fulci family – in front of and behind the camera – coming together, to hear those dubbed voices and to witness that bizarrely hypnotic photography, and to marvel at such preposterous plotting and narrative dead-ends.
We all know that The Black Cat does not reach the stomach-churning depths of the sick-bag classics that surround it, but nor does it intend to. This is a different animal altogether, and it remains a stylish exercise in offbeat chills and suspense, and is certainly worth a fanboy revisit, or even a newfound discovery by those with a taste for the Euro sensibility towards horror. Emotion rather than intelligence is the name of the game and, in this respect, Little Lucio never stumbles.
The Black Cat has been unfairly maligned for far too long. So ... get your claws into Fulci’s feline foray and savour some Italian catnip.
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