Seeing as the cat has one expression, it’s amazing how many expressions the cat has.
The black cat is the star of one of the great tales of horror fiction: Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Black Cat’, a short story first published in 1843. The account, one of the author’s most famous works, details in the first person the drunken protagonist’s torment of his title pet and ends with the cat giving away the location of a concealed corpse, as the protagonist has ‘walled the monster up within the tomb!’
There have been many attempts to bring Poe’s tale to the big screen. There’s the Karloff-Lugosi version, directed in 1934 by another Edgar – Edgar G. Ulmer – which though called The Black Cat bears no resemblance to the tale. Perhaps the most famous version is the second episode of Roger Corman’s three-part Tales of Terror (1962). Peter Lorre portrayed Montresor Herringbone, an alcoholic, whose wife Annabel (Joyce Jameson) begins an affair with pompous wine taster Fortunato Luchresi (Vincent Price). When he discovers their betrayal, Montresor walls up his adulterous wife and her lover in the cellar – alive. When the police investigate, the cat’s yowl again gives the game away. Tales of Terror, the fourth of Corman’s eight Poe adaptations, aimed for macabre laughs, with the likes of Price and Lorre at their hammiest. This style was fully realised in Corman’s next Poe film, The Raven (1963), with its broad comedy, duelling magicians and the unholy trinity of Price, Lorre and Karloff.
Among many other adaptations, Harold Hoffman’s The Black Cat (1966) was explicit in its gore and blunt in its intent, Mario Bava used elements of the story for his Shock (1977) and even Dario Argento had a crack at the tale, with his contribution to the two-parter Two Evil Eyes (1989). George A. Romero directed an adaptation of ‘The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar’, starring Adrienne Barbeau, while Argento’s ‘The Black Cat’ reworked the central protagonist as Rod Usher (Harvey Keitel), a photographer whose portfolio of murder images reference other Poe tales, including ‘The Pit and the Pendulum’ and ‘’Berenice’.
I’ve recently seen another Italian director’s reworking of the tale: Lucio Fulci’s The Black Cat (1981 – Il gatto nero). This Italian-financed, shot-in-England production starred Patrick Magee as Professor Robert Miles, a medium who makes ‘tape recordings’ of the moaning, wailing dead. Mysterious disappearances in the small English village where Miles lives are investigated by American tourist Jill Travers and Inspector Gorley of Scotland Yard, played by Italian exploitation movie favourites Mimsy Farmer and David Warbeck. There’s excellent, prowling, low-level Technovision cinematography by Sergio Salvati, an effective Euro-score by Pino Donaggio and a supporting cast that includes Dagmar Lassander, Bruno Corazzari and ‘Al Cliver’ (Pier Luigi Conti). This is a solid, suspenseful horror from Fulci, a director who often overbalanced the tension and effectiveness of his films, when he wallowed in bloody, over-the-top special effects at the expense of all else, as for example in his tour-de-gore The Beyond (1981).
My enjoyment of Fulci’s Black Cat was probably enhanced by a combination of the lateness of the night, a bottle of Perroni and the fact that my jet black cat was prowling around the lounge throughout, becoming, in a strange way and rather disconcertingly, part of the action. This was like watching the film in 3-D and reminded me of the horrific moment in Hideo Nakata’s Ringu (1998 – Ring), the celebrated J-Hôra ghost story from Toho Studios, when lank-haired, fractured video killer Sadako (Rei Ino’o) emerges from the well towards the TV screen, out through the television and into the room, to scare her victims to death.
Not realising his contribution to my three-dimensional experience of Fulci’s movie, my black cat’s expression was one of mild bemusement – or was it menace? I couldn’t quite tell.
To read Poe’s original tale of terror, it’s included in this classic Tales of Mystery and Imagination collection.