Nine Lives of “The Black Cat”
It has been awhile since I last posted on this blog. Not that I’ve been research inactive or anything like that. It’s just the work I’ve been doing has been for publication rather than the blog-verse. So I thought I’d upload a couple of the essays I’ve written in the past few years that were published in the booklets included in Blu-ray packages. Of course, I’ll always give credit to where these essays first appeared.
This essay was produced for Arrow’s special package, Edgar Allan Poe’s Black Cats: Two Adaptations by Sergio Martino & Lucio Fulci; this special edition appears to no longer be available via the Arrow webpage, but at the time of writing it is available via Amazon here. Where ever possible, I will link to the producing company’s webpage, but reference to any other films will link to Amazon. Here’s the essay…
Lucio Fulci’s The Black Cat (Il gatto nero, 1981) has been unfairly maligned, even by Fulci fans, as “a minor work” (whatever that means). The film emerges in a period of tremendous success for Il Maestro: Zombie Flesh Eaters (Zombi 2, 1979), City of the Living Dead (Paura nella città dei morti viventi, 1980), The House by the Cemetery (Quella villa accanto cimitero, 1981), and The Beyond (L’aldilà … E tu vivrai nel terrore!, 1981) all appear in the same period as The Black Cat. Actually The Black Cat was the first of Fulci’s films to receive Italian release in 1981 [the order of Italian release in 1981 goes Cat, The Beyond, and then House]. What may have hindered The Black Cat’s reception by fans is that, even in this period of the director’s most loved films, Fulci holds back on the excessive gore, in favour of suspense and comedy. With a little gore.
But here, in this essay, I want to explore how Fulci’s The Black Cat is situated among other film (and one television) adaptations of Poe’s original story; from mainstream Hollywood to the American underground, from the Cartesian logic of the giallo to superstitions about the supernatural, and finally to American cable television.
Edgar Allan Poe first published his short story, “The Black Cat” in The Saturday Evening Post magazine in 1843. In the story, recounted in the first person, the narrator tells the tale of his torture and murder of his wife’s beloved cat. And, over the next few paragraphs, I want to explore how this particular story has inspired filmmakers, and in the variety of ways that inspiration has been shown cinematographically.
There are several key motifs – story points – in “The Black Cat,” which filmmakers have drawn upon, modified or ignored outright over the years. These include, the cat (obviously), who is sometimes named (and sometimes not); Poe names him Pluto (after the Roman god of the Underworld), evoking a hellish association for the kitty. The unnamed alcoholic narrator of the story mutilates Pluto by carving out one of his eyes with a penknife, and then hangs the cat by his neck. A fire usually breaks out which destroys the protagonist’s home, and in the charred remains, a scorch-mark remains which looks like the lynched cat. The cat comes back the very next day with a white mark on his neck; Poe likens it to an image of the gallows. Pluto continues to terrorize the now-delirious narrator until he can take it no longer and in attempting to murder the cat accidentally buries an axe in his wife’s head. In order to cover up his crime, he inters his wife’s corpse behind a newly fashioned wall in his cellar and congratulates himself on the perfect crime. When the police come to investigate, they are drawn down to the cellar by the sound of a cat’s meows; and behind the still-fresh wall, the wife’s body is discovered along with the cat which was accidentally trapped inside. The narrator is then usually dragged out by the police raving like the mad-thing he has become.
When The Black Cat (Edgar G. Ulmer, 1934) was released, Universal Pictures was on a bit of a winning streak after Dracula (Tod Browning, 1931), Frankenstein (James Whale, 1931) and The Bride of Frankenstein (James Whale, 1933). In their search to expand their monster movie cache, producers turned to American-born Poe as a potential source for horror movie entertainment. The first of these was also the first on-screen teaming up of Dracula star Bela Lugosi with Frankenstein star Boris Karloff. The opening credits of The Black Cat (1934) note that the film is “suggested by the immortal Edgar Allan Poe classic” (emphasis added), and with the exception of the film’s title, Ulmer’s film avails itself to none of the story motifs from the Poe original. The vaguest connection to justify the use of the title is that Dr. Vitus Werdegast (Lugosi) suffers from ailurophobia, the fear of cats, and his nemesis, Hjalmar Poelzig (Karloff), keeps a black one. Universal pictures revived the title again in 1941 with even less of a connection to Poe (although Lugosi appears in a small role, thereby connecting the film to the 1934 Black Cat instead). What these two Universal Pictures productions demonstrates is an awareness of “Edgar Allan Poe” as a reference to dark, ghoulish and frightening (and American) tales, even if it was unlikely that audiences knew enough about Poe’s original story to balk at the liberties the film takes. “Poe” exists as an idea, an association with horror literature, well beyond the actual writer’s fame.
Strangely enough, the year Ulmer’s The Black Cat was released, so was Dwain Esper’s way-over-the-top Maniac (1934), which according to the Internet Movie Database (imdb.com) cost about $5000 to produce. Maniac uses much more of the Poe story than some of the films which cite “The Black Cat” as its source. In Maniac, washed up impersonator Don Maxwell (Bill Woods) works for the insane Dr. Meirschultz (Horace B. Carpenter) on his experiments for bringing the dead back to life. Maxwell kills Meirschultz and takes over the doctor’s experiments, passing himself off as his now-dead employer. Back in the day, most homes had a cat to catch mice (hence any Tom & Jerry cartoon), and Meirschultz has a black cat named Satan. For reasons that aren’t entirely clear, the now-insane Maxwell (still posing as Meirschultz) pops out one of Satan’s eyes and eats the eyeball, in what is the first on-screen depiction of that particular motif from Poe’s original story. And true to form, Maxwell walls Meirschultz up in the cellar, accidently traps the cat, and the cat’s meows alert the police to the location of the body, as one would expect. Maniac is surprisingly faithful to the Poe original. Elsewhere in the film, one of Meirschultz’s patients, Mrs. Buckley (Phyllis Diller – but not that Phyllis Diller, the American comic), compares her husband’s mania with the orangutan in Poe’s “Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841). It is an incidental moment in the film, but it name-drops Poe explicitly, and demonstrates that Esper and his screenwriter-wife Hildegarde Stadie have actually read Poe, unlike anyone at Universal Pictures.
Continuing his Poe-inspired series of films, Roger Corman’s Tales of Terror (1962) features a screenplay from acclaimed writer Richard Matheson. Tales of Terror adapts three(ish) Poe tales – “Morella” (1835), “The Black Cat” and “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” (1845) – and it is the middle section which concerns us here. Matheson fuses “Black Cat” with another Poe story, “The Cask of Amontillado” (1846). In the Tales of Terror version, Montresor Herringbone (Peter Lorre) is the drunk and abusive husband of the lovely Annabel (Joyce Jameson); and she has a cat which Montresor loathes. While out on the tear one evening, Herringbone comes across a wine-tasting event and there meets Fortunato Luchresi (Vincent Price). Herringbone brings Luchresi home with him and introduces his new friend to Annabel. Luchresi and Annabel begin an affair behind Herringbone’s back. By the time the drunkard figures out why Luchresi is so happy to send Herringbone out for his drunken escapades, fully paid for by Luchresi, it is too late to save his marriage. Herringbone kills Annabel, and walls Luchresi up with her body in the cellar. Again, cat is accidentally trapped and leads police to discovery of the bodies. While Matheson’s adaptation of “The Black Cat” certainly holds more fidelity to Poe’s original, although with much sanitized along the way, he draws comparisons between this story and “Amontillado”. In “Amontillado”, the narrator of the story is Montresor, while Fortunato and Luchresi are two different characters – rival wine experts. Matheson also blends Fortunato’s character into Montresor by making the narrator a drunken fool, “a motley” as Poe calls him. And like the unnamed wife in “The Black Cat”, Fortunato is also walled up in the wine cellar. Matheson also borrows from Poe a name for the wife, Annabel, taken from Poe’s 1849 poem “Annabel Lee”. Herringbone, as a name, is Matheson’s own invention.
The exceptionally low-budget The Black Cat (Harold Hoffman, 1966), like Esper’s Maniac, is surprisingly faithful to the Poe story, unlike the grander Tales of Terror or Ulmer’s Black Cat. Firstly, Pluto, the name of the titular cat, not only keeps fidelity to the original, but the cat is listed in the opening credits. Celebrating their first anniversary, writer Lou (Robert Frost) is given Pluto as a present from his doting wife, Diana (Robyn Baker). In Poe’s original, the unnamed narrator claims to be a devoted animal lover (thereby creating juxtaposition with the alcoholic monster he becomes): “I was especially fond of animals, and was indulged by my parents with a great variety of pets” (Poe “The Black Cat”). Lou also is a devoted animal lover with his own menagerie, and Pluto fits right in. Hoffman keeps Poe’s transformative juxtaposition, from animal lover to animal torturer, including the nasty motif of cutting out one of Pluto’s eyes. Returning home drunk one night, Lou hangs Pluto with a frayed electrical cord which sets the house on fire. It turns out that Lou’s deceased father, who never had the family home insured, may have returned as Pluto the cat in order to drive Lou crazy. Lou is admitted to an asylum for several months where he is given electroshock therapy that clears away his delusions and returns him to mental health. When he is released from the hospital, Diane is there to pick him up and they drive off to their new beginning as the music crescendos lulling the audience into a false sense of closure. Once he is back home, Lou begins drinking again and returns to his paranoid and violent ways. An identical cat, complete with missing eye, begins hanging around his house, tormenting the man. True to form, Lou murders Diane accidentally with an axe and walls up the body in the cellar, with the cat. Hoffman has one last surprise for us; while the meowing cat draws the attention of the police who then discover the body, Lou escapes and drives away. As he is zooming away from the police, he sees one-eyed Pluto on the road and swerves to avoid it, only to fatally crash his car, losing his own right eye in the process. It’s a lovely ironic touch. While “The Black Cat” has always been a gruesome story, it appears that only the lowest budgeted shlock filmmakers – like Esper or Hoffman – are able to do justice to Poe’s story. By sanitizing the story, as Universal and American International Pictures (who produced Corman’s Poe films), that vitality is lost.
Your Vice is a Locked Door and Only I Have the Key (Il tuo vizio è una stanza chiusa e solo io ne ho la chiave, Sergio Martino, 1972) is “loosely based on the short story” by Edgar Allan Poe (in Italian, “liberamente tratto dal racconto “Il gatto nero” di E. A. Poe” – “liberally” adapted). Oliviero (Luigi Pistilli) is a drunk brutish writer with “mama issues” living on his family’s estate. He frequently holds bacchanals with the local young hippies at his home, which enables his philandering, while also humiliating his long-suffering wife, Irini (Anita Strindberg). Mostly the Vice is a standard giallo, or Italian murder mystery film; several young women are found carved up by a sex maniac and suspicion falls on Olivieri as the prime suspect. Enter Olivieri’s niece, Floriana (Edwige Fenech), who has grown in to a gorgeous woman since he last saw her, and who functions as a distraction for both Olivieri and Irini. Irini and Floriana are plotting to get their hands on Aunt Esther’s jewels; Irini plotting with her lover, Walter (Ivan Rassimov), to murder the young women and try and pin the crimes on Olivieri by hiding the bodies in the cellar of the villa.
In this version, the cat, here called Satan (echoing more the associations Poe intended with calling his cat Pluto than any suggestion of a connection with Esper’s Maniac), was Olivieri’s mother’s cat, and he dotes on it. Irini hates the cat and tries, repeatedly to get rid of it (the cat also has certain psychological interpretations as a replacement for Olivieri’s mother, whom Irini is trying to replace). Continuing the parallel, Olivieri plays with Irini much like a cat plays with a mouse or bird before he kills it. Irini therefore takes her anger out on the cat as a surrogate, instead of lashing out at Olivier or his dead mother. In one particularly brutal sequence, the neighbour, Mrs. Molinar (Nerina Montagnani) catches Irini trying to stab Satan with a pair of scissors.
By the end of the film, Irini murders Olivieri in a delirium mistaking drafts of his latest novel as an actual plot to kill her. She stashes his body, along with the other victims behind a make-shift wall she quickly plasters over. And poor Satan also gets trapped. The police are alerted by Mrs. Molinar on animal cruelty charges and when they come to investigate they discover where the bodies are stashed by Satan meowing. Vice, while a “liberal” adaptation, manages to play with the narrative destabilizing the genre expectations of both the Poe story and the giallo by reversing the gender of victim and killer.
Lucio Fulci’s The Black Cat (Gatto nero, 1981) is not considered one of the maestro’s best films, but it is still a solid film worthy of note. Again, the opening credits note that this is “freely adapted”, and bears little in common with Poe’s story. In an unnamed English village, a black cat seems to be stalking the villagers, murdering them with its powers of mesmerism. Professor Robert Miles (Patrick Magee), who seemingly “owns” the cat (one can never truly own a cat), is investigating the possibility of audio recording voices from beyond the grave. An American photographer, Jill Travers (Mimsy Farmer), visiting the village becomes interested in Magee’s studies, while also seconded over to the local police as a crime photographer investigating a series of strange murders. From Poe’s story, Fulci includes the cat (here unnamed), the attempt by Miles to hang the cat, the fire which burns down one house and nearly destroys another, and the film’s dénouement with Jill standing in for the wife to be bricked up behind the wall and the tell-tale cat’s meows alerting the authorities. Beyond these few motifs, Fulci’s The Black Cat is much closer to a classic giallo with the cat as the chief suspect; even his paws are black, echoing the classic black gloved giallo killer. Fulci includes audacious “cat-cam” shots, subjective camera angles from the perspective of the cat itself, suggesting the killer point of view shots in so many gialli.
The connection between Professor Miles and the cat is made explicit in the film; somehow they are connected. They both share the powers of mesmerism, the ability to control other people’s minds. Fulci’s frequent editor, Vincenzo Tomassi, intercuts between close-ups of Miles’ eyes with an almost identical shot of the cat’s eyes; this editing pattern established (for us) the connection between the two. Miles describes them as “bound by hate;” certainly the cat seems to resent the link as he attacks Miles every chance he gets. The central question of the film is who is controlling the cat? Is it witchcraft, suggesting the belief that cats are witches’ familiars? Is the cat controlled by the spirits of the dead who resent Professor Miles disruption of their eternal rest? (Sgt Wilson (Al Cliver) suggests to Jill at the beginning of the film that the dead don’t like people interfering with them.) Is the cat just an embodiment of evil? Miles notes that “cats take orders from no one,” as if thereby explaining the kitty’s malevolence. As in any good giallo, the mystery must not only reveal the solution, but also demonstrate that we’d been staring at it from the beginning, unable to realize its importance. In The Black Cat, we’ve been led to believe Professor Miles is a victim of the cat, but it is Miles’ powers of mesmerism that is controlling the cat. The cat’s vicious attacks on Miles occur when the link is broken and the cat can express its resentment at being controlled by Miles. The answer to the mystery had been staring us in the face from the beginning.
I’ve always had a soft-spot for Dario Argento’s contribution to Two Evil Eyes (Due occhi diabolici, 1990), the portmanteau film that he and George Romero created based on two of Poe’s tales. Argento made a “Black Cat” as bonkers and over the top as he is; not the least of which are the numerous references made to other Poe stories. Rod Usher (Harvey Keitel) is a crime photographer who we first meet photographing the body of a naked woman cut apart by a pendulum-like device. Annabel (Madeleine Potter), Usher’s common-law girlfriend, finds and adopts a stray black cat. From the beginning, Usher and the cat do not get along, and their animosity towards each other is quite mutual. This version of the story is relatively conservative and (you’ll pardon the pun) by the book: Usher gets jealous of the cat, his drinking becomes out of control, he strangles the cat, he sees the image of a gallows in the white fur on the otherwise black cat’s neck and finally murders Annabel with a meat cleaver (instead of an axe) and hides the body behind a bookcase along with the cat. Argento adds (perhaps unnecessarily) that the cat was pregnant and the kittens have been feasting on Annabel’s dead body.
But when we take a closer look at Argento’s “The Black Cat” it becomes increasingly derivative. Any literary adaptation is going feature commonalities from one adaptation to another due to the shared source material; that’s logical enough. The remit of Two Evil Eyes is to adapt (and appropriately modernize) two Poe stories, and so we would expect to see strong narrative similarities. But it is the close resemblance of stylistic and textural aspects of the adaptations which concerns me, not their narrative correspondences. Most of the “cool stuff” in Argento’s version has been plagiarized from other filmmakers, specifically Fulci’s The Black Cat. Both Usher and Jill Travers are crime photographers (and therefore give them logical – or at least plausible – access to the gory set pieces), and the use of cat-perspective subjective shots (“cat-cam”) is right out of Fulci’s film. Giving the girlfriend the name Annabel is likely lifted from Tales of Terror, for in Poe’s story, you’ll recall, she, like the protagonist narrator, are unnamed. The case could also be made that, by refusing to give the cat a name in either Corman’s or Fulci’s film, Argento and co-screenwriter Franco Ferrini, don’t know what to call the beast and therefore construct a strange bit of business whereby Annabel says the cat whispers its name to her so Usher (and us) are left in ignorance. This suggests that, despite his publicly expressed adoration of Edgar Allan Poe, Dario Argento hasn’t actually read the stories themselves, and instead swotted up by watching Tales of Terror and Fulci’s Black Cat.
Perhaps the most inventive adaptation of “The Black Cat” was by Stuart Gordon for the Masters of Horror television series (ep 2.11, 2007). In this version, Edgar Allan Poe (Jeffrey Combs) is struggling with making money from his writings while his young wife, Virginia (Elyse Levesque), slowly dies from tuberculosis. The episode suggests that “The Black Cat” is based on Poe’s own experiences with his wife’s cat, Pluto. We see the key motifs of the story included: Poe’s alcoholism, the cutting out of Pluto’s eye, the strangulation and lynching of the (black) cat, the burning down of the house, the accidental murder of Virginia with an axe, interment behind a wall, and the cat’s cries bringing the authorities. Even having these events happen to Poe reflects the first person narration of the story; the story’s “I” is Poe himself.
Beyond the narrative conceit of having Poe himself be the episode’s protagonist, Gordon’s “The Black Cat” is remarkably faithful to the historical accounts of Poe himself. He was married to his younger cousin Virginia who was diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1842, the year before “The Black Cat” was written. She died a few years later, and Poe was dead by the end of the decade. He was an alcoholic who raged and fought against the popularity of his “tales of mystery and imagination” and really wanted to be paid for his poetry. Publisher George Graham, who did what he could for Poe’s self-destructive tendencies, also appears in the episode; as does Poe’s chief rival Rufus Griswold. The historically accurate grounding of the episode creates a “perfect storm” of chaos in Poe’s life which then matched the delirium of “The Black Cat’s” first person narrator; this enables us to slip into the story itself. It is a very clever episode.
So, what have we learned from this whistle stop tour of the various film adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe’s 1843 short story “The Black Cat”? Poe’s works were sufficiently known (if unread) that “Poe” became shorthand for the macabre and horrific. Due to the horror and violence in the original story, exploitation cinema, which could “get away with” more graphicness in their films, was better situated for faithful adaptations than (more) mainstream companies like Universal or AIP. The Italian filmmakers, not beholden to the same censorship regulations as American cinema, were able to take some of Poe’s ideas and play with them; exploring connections between different cultural understandings of the “cat” as symbol. Finally, I think, what all of these adaptations suggest is that the original source material (any original source material) is but a template for filmmakers; and these adaptations of “The Black Cat” demonstrate the different ways that template can be imagined.
Returning once again to Lucio Fulci’s version, The Black Cat stands as not the worst adaptation of Poe. Actually, Fulci keeps to the spirit of the short story more so than either Universal Pictures or AIP do. And, as a “minor work”, the film featured sufficient innovation that Argento felt it was worth cribbing from for his own version. To give Fulci his due, his Black Cat may be “minor”, but its effectiveness sneaks up on you, like Carl Sandberg’s Fog, “on little cat feet”.