Hooptober 8.0 – The Black Cat (1981)

Being Film #4 for Hooptober 2021

I’ve gone on record a few times during Hooptober about my less than ardent love for Lucio Fulci. With the exception of The Beyond, his “Gates of Hell” films felt scattered and gratuitous and his riff on Romero with Zombi was anemic at best. So I’m as shocked as you are that The Black Cat, his very loose re-imagining of the Edgar Allen Poe short story is not only good, but might be my favorite of his films to date. Sacrificing the over-the-top gore for more suspense and creepy visuals better serves the supernatural story, even as it becomes more and more ridiculous. Yes, you’ll see a cat work a lock on a door and laugh out loud, but you’ll also see some of the most effective visuals of Fulci’s career.

THE QUICK SUMMARY: A small English village (where everyone inexplicably speaks Italian) is the setting for a series of mysterious murders. Young, attractive photographer Jill Trevers thinks it might be connected to a vicious black cat who may or may not be in a war of wills with Robert Miles, the old man who listens in on the conversations of the dead and has mild psychic powers. What’s happening? How does the suave Scotland Yard detective Gorley move in so quickly on Maureen? How can two people suffocate in a locked room that a cat can clearly get in and out of? Don’t worry too much about these questions and just revel in the dreamlike visual narrative Fulci weaves around a plot that liberally ignores and steals from a number of Poe stories. Trust me: it’s fun!

As per usual, plot coherence is a secondary (or maybe tertiary) concern for Fulci, so don’t go looking for logic in The Black Cat. Instead focus on his wonderful framing and use of space. Cinematographer Sergio Salvati worked with Fulci 11 times, and you can see how well they put together a scene: sweeping lotg takes, extreme close-ups…nothing is thrown away and every shot is in service to the story being told, far-fetched as it may be.

The same can be said for the performances. Patrick Magee stars as Robert Miles, the old man who is convinced he can record the conversations of the dead and is the reluctant master of the titular black cat. Or is it the other way around? part of what makes the role so good is how Miles himself isn’t sure who is the master and who is the victim. Mimst Farmer as Jill the photographer and eventual damsel in distress does a lot to ensure she’s capable and not simply a plot device for the male leads. And though I never for a moment believed her silly thrown in romantic tangle with the detective, I completely believed her obsession with finding out the truth about the cat, and Miles. Their interplay is the best thing in the movie.

And what of the cat? Whether it’s opening locked doors or causing people to fall onto rebar or crashing their cars, it’s always ominous and never (well except for the unlocking the door thing) silly. Taken together The Black Cat is a surprisingly effective midnight tale of murder, revenge, and magic, and a really great turn by Fulci.

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