Arrow Video: Black Cats (1972-1981) - Reviewed

Has there been one short horror story adapted more times over with varying degrees of artistic license than Edgar Allen Poe’s seminal 1843 short story The Black Cat?  A simple yet timelessly chilling tale, it told the story of a murderous alcoholic who tries to cover up the crime of murdering his wife by hiding her between the walls of his cellar only to have his dead black cat mysteriously expose his crime.  A fable of sorts about guilt with elements of the supernatural, psychological and visceral horror, it’s a classic and pure Edgar Allen Poe slice of macabre which arguably instilled the black furry feline as a staple of Halloween and witchery lore. 

The story has hit the silver screen in numerous iterations over the decades, most notably in the midsection of the Vincent Price anthology thriller Tales of Terror with Peter Lorre in the role of the drunk.  It has been adapted to film by renowned Italian filmmakers at least three times, one of whom was Dario Argento of Suspiria and Phenomena phantasmagorical infamy.  The two others of which and debatably lesser known than Argento’s take in the film Two Evil Eyes have been curated by Arrow Video for the two-film boxed set Black Cats, bringing together two of Italian horror’s finest jack-of-all-trades, Lucio Fulci and Sergio Martino.  With this, the Movie Sleuth takes a closer look at two indelible entries in the Italian spin on Edgar Allen Poe: Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key and The Black Cat!

Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key (1972)

Opening on a scantily clad note much like Sergio Martino’s sleazy giallo masterpiece Torso, Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key, Martino’s film follows a piggish entrepreneur Oliviero (Luigi Pistilli) hosting tawdry hippie parties while ogling the female attendees when he isn’t ruthlessly domineering over his meek and frightened wife Irena (Anita Strindberg).  However, an illicit affair engulfs the couple upon the arrival of Oliviero’s sex-kitten niece Floriana (Edwige Fenech) and soon characters in their circle mysteriously begin dropping dead.

Closer to the original source material with one of the black cat’s eyes being gouged out and the efforts to conceal the criminal activities within the basement cellar walls naturally being revealed by the cat, Martino’s giallo take on Poe’s short story differs in the gender roles being swapped as well as the cat itself taking something of a backseat to the central narrative.  Closer to the director’s previous film The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh than to Poe with Martino’s trademark blend of carnality and suspense filled giallo thrills, Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key offers a unique spin on The Black Cat by transposing it into the giallo formula.  Notably the drunken abusive husband remains similar but the denouement with who gets encased within the cellar walls differs greatly from the source. 

Having found its footing within the giallo subgenre, Your Vice benefits greatly from Martino’s visual panache and signature framing thanks to Giancarlo Ferrando.  One of the film’s strengths is how grounded in reality the world of the film seems hinting at the supernatural without coming out and declaring the existence of such narrative elements.  Martino also amps up the suspense with frequent musical collaborator Bruno Nicolai whose score ranges wildly between the romantically lovely and nail biting intensity.  Performances from his cast of regulars are strong and Martino can’t help but cram in the nudity where he can with his youthful cast, echoing the sleazy hippie antics of his giallo masterpiece Torso. 

As one of many varying spins on Edgar Allen Poe’s tale, Your Vice as a film uses Poe’s story as a skeleton framework for Martino’s own recurring giallo interests rather than telling it straightforwardly.  Compared to some of Martino’s other pictures, it’s a strong giallo entry but the suspense pales a great deal in comparison to Torso.  That said it is otherwise a wild and sexy take on The Black Cat that could only have come out of 1970s Italy from one of giallo’s finest craftsmen. 


The Black Cat (1981)

Contrary to Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key which regarded Edgar Allen Poe’s The Black Cat with a degree of reservation with respect to potential supernatural elements, Lucio Fulci’s take on Poe offers something a little bit more outlandish even for Italy’s very own ‘Godfather of Gore’.  With an opening montage of snippets of a black cat walking along the rooftops set to regular Brian De Palma composer Pino Donaggio’s elegant orchestral score, The Black Cat stands outright as something of an outlier in Fulci’s canon. 

Sporting the ever classily maniacal Patrick Magee as the “villain” of the piece, The Black Cat tosses any and all plausibility out the window in favor of the special effects crew serving everything but the kitchen sink including but not limited to a teleporting immortal feline, demonic possession, poltergeist activity including a levitating bed and an arson rivaling Final Destination’s kitchen conflagration in sheer ridiculousness.  If you’ve ever wondered what a Universal horror movie spoken of the same breath as Dracula or Frankenstein from the director of Zombie might look like, The Black Cat offers such a glimpse to curious Fulci fans.

Visually the film is mixture of wide-angled 2.35:1 panoramic vistas, extreme close-ups of human and feline eyes and numerous point-of-view shots from the perspective of the murderous Black Cat, thanks to frequent Fulci cinematographer Sergio Salvati.  Though Fulci himself didn’t think much of his own wacky spin on Poe, it did manage to bring aboard the overqualified Pino Donaggio and the truly great character actor Patrick Magee who is expectedly and wonderfully unhinged here.  Magee, having played the Marquis De Sade in Marat/Sade as well as the infamous writer in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, steals every scene he’s in and conveys so much claustrophobic menace without even trying.

Where the film suffers is in our suspension of disbelief which is saying a lot considering the variety of bloodshed and death served up by this director time and time again.  In one moment you’re caught up in the air of suspense while a supernatural event or shark jump in logic springs out of nowhere inviting more unintentional snickers than screams.  That said, Fulci is able to create a gothic atmosphere in modern Italy while giving Mr. Magee ample breathing room to go as crazy as he wants.  I’m also hard pressed to think of any horror movie where one feline manages to brutally murder one human being after another than this strange yet entertaining blip on the Italian provocateur’s radar.

- Andrew Kotwicki