The Black Cat Blu-ray Review (originally published 2015)
Scotland Yard Inspector Gorley (David Warbeck) finds himself summoned to a sleepy English village to investigate the recent murder of a young couple. With no obvious signs of entry at the murder scene, Gorley is forced to start considering the possibility that his suspect may not be human… (From Arrow’s official synopsis)
In the early 1980s, Lucio Fulci was riding the highest high of his entire career. Following a successful run of spaghetti westerns, gialli, farcical comedies, and a particularly violent period melodrama (Beatrice Cenci, aka: The Conspiracy of Torture, 1969), he had his first international mega-hit in 1979 with Zombie (Italian: Zombi 2; aka: Zombie Flesh Eaters). Zombie’s graphic violence became the one thing a new legion of viewers expected from his work. This offered him an unusual chance to cut loose with increasingly surrealistic horror movies, culminating in a trio of fan-favourites – City of the Living Dead (Italian: Paura nella città dei morti viventi; aka: The Gates of Hell, 1980), The Beyond (Italian: ...E tu vivrai nel terrore! L'aldilà; aka: Seven Doors of Death, 1981), and House by the Cemetery (Italian: Quella villa accanto al cimitero; aka Zombie Hell House and Freudstein, 1981). But Fulci did make two other movies during this three year period and they tend to be overshadowed by these more elaborate masterpieces. The first, Contraband (Italian: Luca il Contrabbandiere; aka: The Smuggler and The Naples Connection, 1980) is understandably neglected, because it’s not a horror movie – though it is an exceptionally violent poliziotteschi – while the other, The Black Cat (Italian: Gatto Nero, 1981), is slighted because it’s the least gory of his gothic horror movies.
In my review of Ted Geoghegan’s Fulci tribute We Are Still Here (2015), I maintained that Fulci’s horror movies were not just about gore. Surely, gore played its part, but Fulci’s work endures because of the particular atmosphere it evokes. The Black Cat is every bit as baroque as any of its hyper-violent counterparts, brimming with outstandingly gorgeous images, thanks to Fulci uncharacteristic patience, cinematographer Sergio Salvati’s dynamic photography (though this film may represent the apex of his overindulgent crash-zoom/slow wracked-focus style), and Massimo Antonello Geleng & Franco Calabrese’s elaborate production/art design. The technical crew all adopts a more measured and traditionally gothic approach to the material, proving that Fulci really could compete with the likes of Mario Bava and Riccardo Freda. Beauty aside, the detractors do have a point. The Black Cat does eventually devolve into a bit of a formulaic slog and moves at a glacially deliberate pace. There are excitingly gory moments – one victim has his head shoved through a windshield, another is impaled on exposed rebar, yet another has her face burned off, and David Warbeck has the living hell scratched out of his face by the title critter – but these comparatively dry moments mostly end up remind the viewer that impaled eyeballs and exposed intestines can go a long way when paired with an underwhelming storyline (Fulci’s obsession with eyes still crops up in the form of incessant closeups on frightened peepers).
Much of Fulci and Biagio Proietti’s screenplay only really adheres to the obvious touchstones of Poe’s story – an evil black cat that is thought to be dead, but ends up cluing in the cops to a dead body rotting in the wall. Beyond this, there are actually more changes made to the source material than Sergio Martino’s already patently un-Poe-like Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key (Italian: Il Tuo Vizio è Una Stanza Chiusa e Solo Io ne ho la Chiave, 1972, originally sold alongside this film by Arrow Video). Yet, like Dario Argento’s Black Cat section of Two Evil Eyes (Italian: Due occhi diabolici; co-directed with George Romero, 1990), most of the changes to the story feel consistent with Poe’s typical milieu or at least consistent with other existential ghost stories of the author’s era. For example, one of the central characters, a medium named Robert Miles (portrayed by the always intense Patrick Magee), is a tortured soul in the tradition of most of Poe’s (first-person) unnamed narrators and his attempts to record his conversations with the dead (a plot point that is woefully underdeveloped) is a sort of modern extension of The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar. The screenplay’s attempts at a murder mystery structure are likely in reference to Murders in the Rue Morgue (as mentioned by author Stephen Thrower in this Blu-ray’s extras). Even Miles’ lonely, cobweb and portrait-infested estate recalls the imagery of the more famous Roger Corman Poe Cycle films.
The biggest breaks from the author’s 19th century storytelling aesthetics come when Fulci and Proietti reframe the narrative as a giallo-like, post-slasher bodycount picture, especially when tertiary characters wandering off alone to be slaughtered and gliding killer kitty P.O.V. shots. The titular creature is transformed from an open-ended metaphor for emotional burdens (guilt, rage, and mourning, though Poe refers to it as the “spirit of perverseness”) into a genuine spectral cat that kills people. An evil supernatural feline might be frightening on the page, where the idea is expanded by the reader’s imagination, but even a technician of Fulci’s calibre suffers to make it work on film. The more abstractly scary images are as successful spine-tingling as the director’s best, but, anytime the cat literally attacks someone, the results are more silly than shocking. For example, sequences that require the cat to spook and entrance its victims into putting themselves in fatal situations fit the situation (it’s sort of akin to the Final Destination movies, actually), but when wide-eyed star Mimsy Farmer keeps killer kitty at bay with a camera flash during the climax, it’s difficult not to notice how cute and harmless the little fella looks.
As a relatively popular Lucio Fulci film (one that I believe was included in group deals for distribution), The Black Cat was released on DVD a number of times all around the world. The best were anamorphic, 2.35:1 discs from Shameless Screen Entertainment in the UK and Anchor Bay in the US. The AB transfer was recycled for Blue Underground’s DVD. Since the BU disc is still in print, I think a lot of fans assumed they’d be the ones to bring the film to Blu-ray for the first time, but Arrow has beat them to the punch with a brand new 1080p, 2.35:1 transfer. I once heard through the grapevine that the shape of the original materials kept BU from doing a remaster. Against the odds, Arrow seems to have discovered a different original 35mm negative, which was then scanned in 2K via L’Immagine Ritrovata in Italy, then digitally restored in-house. Some of the same basic print damage elements do remain between the BD and DVD. Besides the lack of significant print damage, the Arrow transfer corrects some vertical stretching and replaced compression noise/discoloration with fine grain and specifically film-based artifacts. Details are tight, especially wide-angle textures, and the Blu-ray features much more impressive fidelity. Color quality has improved, including punchier highlights and a better mix of hues (the older generation of Italian genre DVDs always had issues with yellowing). The DVD still has a minor advantage in terms of gamma and contrast levels. There are definitely some details that go missing on Arrows darker and more black crushed image.
The original mono English and Italian soundtracks were scanned from the same 35mm materials and are presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0. Once again, Arrow has given the viewer a choice between Italian or English titles without forcing them to also choose the corresponding audio tracks. And, considering that this is another Italian genre movie from the era, viewers should continue to understand that both tracks are dubbed. This time, the English dub has the minor advantages in terms of volume and fine ambient noises. Ambience is important, too, given the plot points about recording ghostly voices. There are a number of key English language performances here, including Warbeck and Patrick Magee, both of whom dub themselves. Fulci’s horror/thriller output from this era was mostly scored by Fabio Frizzi, but The Black Cat’s music is provided by the legendary Pino Donaggio, who had worked on Brian De Palma’s Blow Out the same year. The score is a strange, but catchy mix of folk rock and more traditional, Herrmann-esque string work (the similarities between these cues and Donaggio’s Blow Out and Carrie cues is striking) that teeters on the brink of distortion at peak volume levels. Thankfully, clarity remains relatively constant, especially on the slightly superior English track.
Commentary with (then) editor and chief of Fangoria Magazine and filmmaker, Chris Alexander – This informative commentary track is a nice contrast to the rest of this collection’s extras, in that Alexander approaches Fulci and his work from a more casual, fan-based point-of-view. Not to say his statements aren’t intellectual in their own respect or that his British counterparts here are stuffy, but there’s definitely a difference in presentation style. There also isn’t a lot of overlap between this track and the disc’s other extras.
Poe into Fulci: The Spirit of Perverseness (25:40, HD) – Stephen Thrower, film historian and author of Beyond Terror: The Films of Lucio Fulci (FAB Press), discusses the history of The Black Cat and where it fits in Fulci’s oeuvre. There’s a lot to learn here, even for those of us that have read Thrower’s already extensive book. My favourite bit is when he ties The Black Cat’s concepts to those of David Cronenberg’s The Brood (1979). This featurette also includes footage from VHS releases to illustrate the fact that so much of the movie becomes a frustrating study of the bridges of noses when displayed in 1.33:1.
In the Paw-Prints of the Black Cat (8:30, HD) – A tour of the film’s locations, hosted by Thrower.
Frightened Dagmar (20:10, HD) – A new interview with actress Dagmar Lassandre, who covers the majority of her career, piece by piece. She misremembers Ercoli’s Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion as a Fulci film, but is otherwise on-the-ball and full of behind-the-scenes snippets.
At Home with David Warbeck (1:10:20, SD) – This extensive interview with the star of The Black Cat and The Beyond was recorded on home video in 1995, two years before cancer took his life at the age of 55. It sounds like Thrower is the man off-camera asking the questions, but I’m not positive. The length is daunting and rough, the unfocused discussion is demanding, but the casual ambience is quite charming and Warbeck’s stories are delightful.
The images on this page are taken from the BD and sized for the page. Larger versions can be seen by clicking the images. Note that there will be some JPG compression.