The sainted Edgar Allan Poe’s legacy in cinema is curious. Whilst his writings have long been hugely influential resulting in numerous screen adaptations, very few Poe movies adhere that closely to the text. This has been never more true (pun intended) than of the various movie versions of The Black Cat. Universal produced two pictures that bore the title in their horror heyday, the earlier proving the most enjoyable collaboration between Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff (who can forget Karloff’s “the phone is dead. Even the phone is dead!”), but neither that nor the later version with Basil Rathbone took much from Poe beyond the title. When Roger Corman tackled it in Tales of Terror he beefed the narrative up with bits liberally lifted from another Poe tale, The Cask of Amontilado; and when Dario Argento took it on in Two Evil Eyes he too incorporated elements of various other Poe stories, notably The Pit and the Pendulum, and brought it into the modern day with Harvey Keitel as a crime scene photographer.
Then we have these two takes on the Poe tale from two of the masters of Italian trash cinema: Lucio Fulci’s The Black Cat (1981), and Sergio Martino’s Your Vice Is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key (1972) – which, just in case that title wasn’t magnificent enough for you, is alternatively known as Eye of the Black Cat, Excite Me!, and the title on the British version, Gently Before She Dies. Neither film bears much more than a passing resemblance to Poe’s story, but both modernise the key themes whilst tarting them up with much of the expected Italian excess.
To start with Fulici’s film (for no better reason than that’s the one I opted to watch first): as noted by Stephen Thrower in the extras, it’s a curious one for the legendary goremeister to have made at the time, coming straight after one of his best-loved films, 1980’s City of the Living Dead, and followed later that same year by another two of his most iconic movies, The Beyond and The House By The Cemetery (with the notorious New York Ripper coming in ’82 – say what you will about Fulci, but a dawdler he was not). By comparison with those notoriously gruesome and outlandish affairs, The Black Cat is relatively sedate and low on bloodshed: it even omits some of the gorier details from Poe’s tale, feline eye-gouging notable by its absence. Still, even with the gore in comparatively short supply, Fulci’s signature weirdness still shines through, as he gives a vaguely supernatural spin on a fairly standard giallo format – only set in rural England. (So would that make it, erm, a yellow…?)
David Warbeck makes his Fulci debut pre-The Beyond as another rough-around-the-edges good guy, this time a Scotland Yard detective called out to a docile country village when a young couple mysteriously vanishes, whilst Mimsy Farmer takes the Catriona MacCall-esque role as a wide-eyed and open-minded woman – in this instance an American photographer – who ventures into mysterious territory. But the film is really dominated by two key characters: Patrick Magee’s eyebrows. Fulci loved his close-ups of eyes, and he really gets his fill of them with Magee, with the actor’s formidable strips of fur above really intensifying these moments. And, this being Fulci, intensity is key. Magee takes the role closest to that of the narrator of Poe’s tale as a crumbling old man whose only companion is – guess what – a black cat, with whom he shares an entirely mutual contempt. However, Magee is also a psychic, and comes to assist the police when their investigations prove fruitless – but then a simple case of disappearance proves to be a mysterious death, and not long thereafter more people meet untimely demises under strange circumstances.
Watching The Black Cat, I did find myself pondering whether Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg might have taken some inspiration from it on their West Country action comedy Hot Fuzz, as in many respects it’s a similar set-up: big city cop comes to sleepy village, people start dying in bizarre and hideous ‘accidents.’ And, as ever with Italian exploitation, there is much of comedy value here, intentional or not: the usual awkward dialogue, often contrived and unconvincing plot developments, and a notable absence of logic and reason (including a poltergeist sequence which – as Thrower also notes – Fulci admitted made no sense whatsoever, apparently shooting the scene at a producer’s behest). And while the gore is unusually minimal for Fulci, we do have a few overly drawn-out grisly moments, notably a harsh burning alive sequence marred only slightly by use of a rather obvious puppet.
But even so, that curious Fulci magic shines through, and it’s interesting to see that sensibility applied to an English setting and a comparatively grounded narrative. It’s very pleasing aesthetically, the lovely locations captured beautifully by Sergio Salvati’s camera, and a really gorgeous score from the great Pino Donaggio. And if you’re a cat person, the titular moggy is really cute too. Though I suspect that isn’t the desired effect. It perhaps undermines the overall effect when that which is intended as a figure of dread instead makes the viewer exclaim “nyaawww, diddums.”
And so, to Sergio Martino’s version of The Black Cat with its extravagantly overlong title. I must admit right away that I’m at a comparative disadvantage coming to Your Vice Is A Locked Room And Only I Have The Key, as I’m considerably less well-versed in Martino’s work – his 1973 movie Torso is the only other one I’ve seen. But taken on its own as a Poe adaptation, I can tell you that Your Vice Is A Locked Room plays every bit as fast and loose with the story as Fulci’s version, but it’s way more 70s and European – first and foremost because it’s filled to the brim with sex.
Luigi Pistilli takes the lead in a role far closer to Poe’s troubled protagonist: a failed author and teacher who has descended into alcoholism, debauchery and cruelty, as we learn early on when he drunkenly humiliates his wife in front of a party of young hippies, and shortly thereafter sexually assaults his maid (who, as the characters never cease to remind us, is a ‘negress’) again in full view of the crowd. Not that his wife, portrayed by Anita Strindberg, is necessarily that much more sympathetic: though she clearly suffers at her husband’s hand, she too appears to have nothing but contempt for him, and even more contempt for his beloved pet, a – wait for it – black cat named – wait for it – Satan (and by contrast with the cat of Fulci’s film, this one really is quite a fearsome little bastard). It would seem the root of the couple’s problem is good old fashioned mummy issues, as Satan was the pet of the husband’s deceased mother, who it’s suggested he had a perhaps unnaturally close relationship with. And, as tends to work best for people with major issues, they deal with it all in the best possible way – by having it off lots and lots. But at the same time, a series of murders occur in which Pistilli would seem the most likely suspect. And all this before Edwige Fenech shows up about 30 minutes in as their long-lost niece all grown up.
Okay, apologies if I’m preaching to the choir here, but this is the first movie I’ve seen Edwige Fenech in (nope, I never even saw Hostel 2), and as I gather is only natural of heterosexual male viewers, my instant reaction to her appearance on screen is to momentarily lose all verbal faculty and damn myself for not having spent my entire life watching her films. I mean, I don’t want to slight the beauty of Anita Strindberg, but when Fenech shows up I pretty much forgot everything else that was going on. Holy guacamole, she is one striking woman, and as such you entirely believe that a drunken old lech would want to get with her despite being her own uncle – and that his wife would feel similarly, for that matter. Apologies if this all comes off a bit crass and sexist, but I don’t think it can really be disputed that a good part of the enduring appeal of the old giallo movies is their voyeuristic treatment of often hypnotically beautiful leading ladies, and Fenech is without doubt one of the most beautiful of them all. The fact that she spends a great deal of her screen time wearing little or nothing obviously doesn’t hurt.
But I digress. I think there was a film I was meant to be talking about, wasn’t there…? So yeah, Your Vice Is A Locked Room largely downplays the Black Cat elements in favour of abundant sex, murder and psychological warfare. Twists and unexpected reveals are plentiful, and as ever for giallo the locations are lovely and very well shot. Naturally this Blu-ray transfer looks tremendous, as of course is also true of the Fulci movie.
Extras are plentiful on both films, if a little on the academic side. On Fulci’s movie, Stephen Thrower offers some interesting insights into The Black Cat in a talking head piece on the film’s history, and a look at the film’s UK locations today; we also have a new interview with actress Dagmar Lassander, and an archive camcorder interview with the late David Warbeck from 1995 (marred by deteriorated sound and picture quality, but watchable nonetheless). There’s also a commentary from Chris Alexander. For Martino’s film the extras are a bit more of a mixed bag; the new interview with the director and a new retrospective featuring Fenech and writer Ernesto Gastaldi (Update: I was mistaken, the latter isn’t new, it’s from 2005) are very agreeable, but the ‘visual essay’ on Martino’s filmography from Michael Mackenzie and a similar Fenech retrospective from Justin Harries may be a more acquired taste. Also, as on Arrow’s recent Blu-ray of Nightmare City, we have another brief interview with Eli Roth discussing his love of the film, which is amiable enough if a little extraneous; I suppose it depends how much you value Eli Roth’s opinion.
All in all this box set may be more for the Italian horror completists than anyone else, but it’s a worthy purchase nonetheless, and an interesting reflection on the length and breadth of Poe’s influence. But if you want a really great telling of Poe’s actual story, the Diamanda Galás rendition from Closed On Account of Rabies is bloody magnificent.
Edgar Allan Poe’s Black Cats: Two Adaptations by Sergio Martino & Lucio Fulci is available now on dual format DVD and Blu-Ray from Arrow Video.